Norah Fearon Knight (1910-2000): Reading & Writing

Reading is a particularly prominent theme in Norah Fearon Knight’s unpublished memoir ‘Nostalgia’ and books and poetry are both things she speaks of fondly. She explains that her family were all avid readers and talks of how they often spent their evenings together reading: ‘we were all readers, & the house was full of books, & quite often, four or five of us would be reading for an hour or so’ (28).

Portrait of Harold Fearon, Norah’s brother. Harold was a keen reader and Norah regarded him as highly intelligent. Harold lived from 1907-1966

David Vincent explains that during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century ‘literacy (was) inextricably linked to notions of progress’ and this is reflected in Norah’s writing when she relates the admirable intelligence of her siblings to them being great readers (2003, 405). For example, she tells how ‘Harold, always “in a book” reached the seventh standard at school, when he was twelve plus’ (7), before stating ‘I think he is very clever’ (8). The ‘seventh standard’ was an extra level added to the previously six standard elementary education system in 1882 by Anthony Mundella, a Liberal Party MP and, at that time, Education Secretary. Known as the “Mundella Code”, the addition of a seventh standard meant there was now ‘a syllabus that made possible separation into a school of higher grade’, so Harold achieving this at the age of twelve suggests he was very academically able and his appetite for reading likely contributed to his excellent progress (AJ Mundella, W.H.G, Armytage, 1951, 212). 

In The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose discusses how many working class people could recite poetry extensively due to rote learning being so commonly used in elementary schools and in ‘Nostalgia’, Norah talks of how her parents too actively encouraged all of the Fearon children to recite poetry. She tells how ‘we all had to take our turn’ of ‘saying our pieces!’, showing how for Norah and her family, reading was a sociable activity for everyone to get involved in and literature was something to be shared (25). She explains how each of her siblings had a favourite poem that they would often recite:

Portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the writer of ‘Lady Clare’, which Norah cites as her favourite childhood poem to recite. Retrieved from The Guardian’s website.

“Amy used to recite a poem about a little girl who was sent to the grocers for a pound of tea at one & three a pot of raspberry jam also a dozen pegs & [26] some new laid eggs! The girl goes off to the shop & sees Lily while on her way & starts to dream about what she would do if she had a kite & by the time she gets to the shop, she has the items all mixed up!! Kathleen’s favourite was Lord Ullen’s Daughter, & my own, Lady Clare, Harold’s The Revenge & Terry Yacub Strouse, all about a Dutch boy.” pp.25-26

‘Lady Clare’, which Norah cites as being her own personal favourite as a child, is by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It is a narrative poem and tells a story of true, selfless love that did not care about social class, status or economic positioning. Perhaps the reason why Norah held this poem so close to her heart as a child was because she too understood and felt that same sort of true, selfless love, but instead for her family, suggested through how she talks of them with such warmth in ‘Nostalgia’. Her liking of the poem could also be due to her experiencing a working-class upbringing herself, she did not judge others off their social standing. 

Autodidactism was popular during the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, Rose explaining how ‘the British working-class enjoyed a reputation for self-education’ (2010, 187) and this was certainly true of  Norah’s mother, Amy Fearon. Norah tells how her ‘mother was a great reader in spite of her lack of schooling’ and would regularly spend ‘some of her spare moments of leisure reading’ (2). This demonstrates how Norah, and many other working class people, were not entirely reliant on state schooling to learn and gain an education, and were willing to take matters into their own hands to better themselves and their situations.


The first edition of ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott, one of the many books Norah remembers being won as a prize at school and then reading again and again. Perhaps this is what the Fearon family’s copy of the book looked like?

In ‘Nostalgia’, Norah presents books as being something highly valued and cherished by not just herself but her family and those she knew. In fact, aside from her family, friends and home, there is nothing she speaks more highly of than literature. She explains how books were earnt as rewards and prizes by herself and her siblings:

‘Harold & Amy were the prizewinners & amongst the books they won at school were – Things to Come, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Little Women, a book of poems by Tennyson, Westward Ho, and many others. All were read and reread time and time again.’ (28) 

And how later down the line, as they grew older and had the financial means to, the Fearon siblings bought books for each other as gifts:

‘Kathleen had her share of them (too) & one particular prize which she won was a beautiful leather backed book of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, a story which we all read so often that we could repeat some of the scenes in it word for word. I think Peter Pan was another of Kathleens too & even I had a couple, one called Helen’s Babies & another A Trip to the Zoo, and so if we didn’t have enough books in the house, as we grew older we would buy each other books for presents.’ (66)

Kathleen Fearon, Norah’s sister, who she recalls winning many books as prizes during their childhood. Retrieved from Ancestry.com

Jonathan Rose describes how many working class autobiographers talk of a ‘sanctity to literature’ and this is certainly true in Norah’s case, her memory of so many specific titles and decision to discuss them in her memoir, anchoring just how much of an impact they made on her and how big a part of her childhood reading and literature was (2010, 98).

However, reading books and reciting poetry are not the only pastimes Norah discusses in ‘Nostalgia’. A newer form of media at the time is also spoken of: the cinema. Norah explains how ‘the pictures were very popular when we were young… We used to go to the cinema on Saturday afternoons’ (45). Interestingly, the Irving Theatre, which was at the top of Norah’s road on the main road, began showing films in 1904 and became a full time cinema called La Scala in 1912. It is highly likely then, that it was here that Norah went on Saturdays.

A photograph of the Irving Theatre, which became a cinema and Norah likely frequented as a child, in its early years.

However, there is no denying that the focus is on books & reading much more so in Norah’s writing and it was clearly something she loved. Her love for literature and reading likely contributed to her talent for writing, this talent reflected in her memoir, which is written so eloquently and fluidly. Helen Rogers and Emily Cuming point out that of a sample of working class autobiographers from the Burnett Archive, 38 ‘undertook writing activities beside their memoir’ and this is true of Norah, her son Gordon kindly sending me copies of other writing she had done (2018, np).

To read ‘Nostalgia’ in full, here is my transcription of it and to learn more about Norah, why not check out my previous posts about her, all of which can be found here. And for future posts, be sure to follow me on Twitter: @AnnieTaylorLJMU

Also, if you enjoyed this post, why not have a read of Natalia Williams’ post about Pauline Wiltshire’s experiences of reading and writing as a migrant from Jamaica?

Bibliography: 

Primary reading:

Fearon, Norah. Nostalgia. (1964) Unpublished Memoir: Brunel University Special Collection.2:457 KNIGHT,

Norah Fearon, ‘Nostalgia’, MS, pp.73 (c. 10,000 words). BruneI University Library.

Secondary reading:

Armytage, Walter Harry Green. (1951) AJ Mundella 1825-1897. London: Ernest Benn Ltd.

Rogers, Helen., & Cuming, Emily. (2018). Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography. Family & Community History, 21(3), 180-201.

Rose, Jonathan. (2010) The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. Online access.

Vincent, David. (2003). ‘The progress of literacy’. Victorian Studies, 45(3), 405-431.

Images:

Image 1 – Portrait of Harold Fearon. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk

Image 2 – Portrait of Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Retrieved from The Guardian’s website:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/oct/07/death-of-lord-tennyson

Image 3 – A first edition copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Retrieved from Raptis Rare Books’ website:
https://www.raptisrarebooks.com/product/little-women-and-little-women-louisa-may-alcott-first-edition-rare/

Image 4 – Portrait of Kathleen Fearon. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk

Image 5 – The Irving Theatre, Seacombe, Wirral. Retrieved from:
https://www.28dayslater.co.uk/threads/the-embassy-bingo-hall-former-irving-theatre-wirral-july13.82550/

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