Richard Altick states, in The English Common Reader that ‘everywhere in the memoirs of lower class readers are laments that in their youth good reading matter was hard to come by’ (Altich, p.251). Eva Shilton is no exception: throughout her memoir she displays great aptitude towards reading and writing, though had never read a book of her own choice. Instead, she was confined to her father’s Daily Chronicle, various fictional novels such as The Wide Wide World found at the school for maladjusted children, and Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, which was in all likelihood the most appropriate book she read as a child. At a formidable 952 pages, though, it comes as no surprise that her teacher said ‘it was a very tiring book to read on its own’ (Shilton, p.11). However, a multitude of other working-class children had only basic reading skills in the early 1900s, and those who could read often had even less reading material than was afforded to Eva. Jonathan Rose writes that ‘a promiscuous mix of high and low [-brow literature] was a common pattern among working-class readers’ (Rose, p.371), though such a mix would have allowed Eva to develop a sophisticated yet understandable writing style.
Eva’s later career as a typist is testament to the profound impact that literature had upon her as a child, and her later decision to write a memoir was no doubt a manifestation of her early passion for literature. So adept was she, that as a child ‘[she] honestly couldn’t understand why the others couldn’t [read], it was so easy.’ (Shilton, p.2). Eva, however, was given parental guidance. Indeed, her father was ‘from a very respectable family’ (Shilton, p.23) and this early influence is likely to have shown him the importance of literacy in later life as well as from childhood. His long-term unemployment, though, would have greatly limited the reading material he could provide.
Articles similar to the one above, with professional opinion stating that married women should remain in the house, for example, would have been commonplace. Jonathan Rose states, however, that ‘there was no room for selectivity’, and that ‘one inevitably read much that was not age-appropriate’ (Rose, p.372-3). The setback of inappropriate material was not enough to hinder Eva’s enthusiasm though, and on the contrary she embraced what little she could read. In a class party following the end of WWI, for example, the class were told to perform for each other: ‘one girl played the tin whistle, [Eva] recited Abu Ben Adam‘ (Shilton, p.10)
Despite a bout of diphtheria hindering her education for four months, enrollment in a school for the maladjusted, and being financially unable to follow up on her letter of recommendation, Eva was steadfast in her determination to be educated. By the end of her memoir she was ‘taking private shorthand lessons once a week, paid for by [her] Auntie’ (Shilton, p.16) and was to soon become a typist.
Even in her old age, Eva was determined to dictate her autobiography to her daughter. Indeed, her passion for writing and education was unfailing, and her daughter Margaret Collier stated that ‘when she had the grandchildren round she would always have them doing their spellings’ (Bannister).
Altick, R.D., 1998. The English common reader: A social history of the mass reading public, 1800-1900. Ohio State University Press
Bannister, A., (2015) Coventry’s oldest woman has died aged 107 [online]
Available at: http://www.coventrytelegraph.net/news/coventry-news/coventrys-oldest-woman-died-aged-8727071
Date Accessed: 10th April, 2017
Rose, J., 2002. The intellectual life of the British working classes. Yale University Press.