‘My notions of life outside Lysia Street were almost entirely derived from books’ (55)
Kathleen Betterton was a devoted reader, throughout her memoir she refers to authors and literature that she had read. From a young age Betterton was encouraged to read by her parents, they provided her and her brother Stan with books, ‘I should think we had more books than anyone else in the street’ (5). More than any other piece of furniture in their flat her ‘source of pride’ (5) was a ‘glass-fronted bookcase with its four shelves of books’ (5).
Her working-class parents owned what she called a ‘motley collection’ (5). Novels ranging from that of the children’s novel Lord Fauntleroy written by Englishman Frances Hodgson Burnett to A Short History of the Trade Union Movement. It is these texts that Betterton refers to her family as of having ‘a rare respect for things of the mind’ (5). The tale of Lord Fauntleroy follows the story of a poor American child who discovers he is heir to a wealthy British family, as the tale unravels there are a lot of underlying moral messages, compassion regardless of one’s wealth. This tale was an early influence on her life long support for her strong passion for the Labour Party; she was a firm believer in equal rights.
As a youngster Betterton displayed a colourful imagination, developed through her constant reading: ‘ I preened myself on having ‘an ancestor’ on the wall just like a heroine in a book’ (7). For Betterton reading was not just ‘homework’ it was a pleasurable past time and hobby. By the age of nine Kathleen was ‘reading everything’, from Robert Louis Stevenson, G.A Henty and Herbert Strang to W.W. Jacobs’ although she was not overly fond of Shakespeare she thought him ‘a very dull chap’ (34). Kathleen uses the literature she had read to relate to a lot of everyday situations, she brings the characters from stories to life. Even when being taught to play the piano she would ‘read a story-book propped up in front’ (53) of her music sheets.
Betterton took great delight in reading about strong woman and heroines. From The Girl Crusoe a juvenile novel which impressed her, to that of Scarlet Pimpernel, and the school girl tales written by Angela Brazil. It was the Brazil novels that she built up this ‘glamour of romance’ about boarding school. She shows a great appreciation to literature and reflects on how if she had left school at ‘fourteen her natural taste would have been for Edgar Wallace and Ethel M.Dell’ (34). Both writers wrote with a colonialism theme, she read these pieces of text prior to her boarding school days in retrospect these exotic texts may have prompted her desire to live in a ‘new’ world. M.Dell’s work was often negatively reviewed by critics but as a strong willed woman she never let this bother her, this reflects upon her latter involvement in feminism.
Whilst her mother was at work dress making Kathleen would sit close by repetitively reading poetry, her next step was the writing of it. She was happy at this progression although she does state that ‘in an orthodox middle-class school my self-conceit would have been snubbed’ (38).
extract of the sixteenth century anon Scots poem
Along with reading she enjoyed to write, this was exhibited when she and several others started a magazine. Her contribution was a tale of a highway man in which she used phrases that she had watched from the film Dick Turpin. During her time at Oxford Kathleen entered and won the English prize in her year for an essay she had wrote on Shakespeare ‘I have never been so proud in my life’ (173).
It was during this time that she also became member of the Labour club. She and her fellow study group as a social activity would prepare papers, read essays and debate topics. It was also through her writing that she kept in touch with her future husband. They corresponded via mail and she took the time to write with affection, creativity and emotion, a way in which she had read in the novels and poetry that she had enjoyed. It is not surprising that later on in life she became the author of two books for the Hodders series, ‘Teach Yourself to Write’ (1958) and the other ‘Bringing up Children’.
Betterton. K. (1975). ‘White Pinnies, Black Aprons….’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University Of Brunel Library: Special Collection. 2:71.
Rose, Jonathon. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53:1 (1992).