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Thursday, 25 August 2011

“…Just Simple Accounts of her Family, Experiences, and Observations of Life” Or: The Work of M.V. Hughes: Could it Save Our Illiterate Youth?:

As a mild collector of old and antique books, I was pleased to recently get hold of a first edition of M.V Hughes ‘A London Home in the Nineties’ (1937) – my first antique M.V Hughes, having a couple of her books in 1980’s re-print – when a thought struck me.
I enjoyed reading ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’ a great deal, and find that M.V Hughes – or Mary – has a very innocent and plain style of writing. She is neither superfluous nor overbearing in her writing, but concise and simple, and as a reader, that is quite a joy.

Reading her books is almost like listening to your favourite Granny talk about her childhood. The funny, witty Granny who makes you laugh and promises not to tell your parents if you do something wrong, or stands behind your shouting mother winking at you to make you feel better about being told off.
It is difficult, when reading about the life of such a person, not to be drawn in and feel the emotions with them, and the thing that occurred to me was, wouldn’t it be great if M.V Hughes was taught in schools?
M.V Hughes

I know a great many people reading this will know who she is, but the average person on the street will have no idea, which, I think, is a bit of a shame. When I was at school, in English classes we read Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, and, of course Shakespeare, and looking about the class it was clear that the prose on the page was not designed for 20th century thirteen-year-old minds, who struggled with the weighty ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’ ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘The Merchant of Venice’ especially when tapped on the shoulder and asked to read aloud – a study in perfect monotony.

I understand that the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens are hugely important figures in our culture as a whole, not just in literary terms, but would it not be more interesting to learn about the men, rather than read their work at that age? What fourteen year old boy would not be interested in reading about Dickens’ grim childhood?

If any actual text should be read, surely it would be easier for teachers if that text was in a language that their students may recognize as English? And thus, my mind turned to the breezy, humorous and flowing writing of M.V Hughes, who documents in her autobiographical work the everyday life of her family from the 1870’s to the late 1930’s.

In these books, she – perhaps unwittingly – depicts the gradual change in middle-class life in England over the course of sixty years, as the reign of Victoria ends through to the time of George VI. She trained to be a teacher, and at the age of twenty-six, in 1892, she was head of the training department at Bedford College, the first college for women in the UK, and Mary played an important role in setting out the teacher training curriculum.

In her books she describes her job at the college – the very foundation of equal educational rights for women in Britain. I use the word unwittingly to describe Mary’s account of all these social changes that occurred around her because, from reading her work, it certainly seems that she documented only her life, and the life of her family – paying no heed to what was happening in society. Her work contains no political opinion or social commentary. But, of course, her environment played a part in her family life, and so, such changes in general life and society are recorded.

This is probably best explained by Jack Gray, who lived next door to Mary in his childhood, or as she referred to him; ‘the little boy next door’. He said Mary’s writing was:

“…just simple accounts of her family, experiences, and observations of life, which, because they are so well written, are timeless, fascinating and will be enjoyed for all time. They just keep you reading. She was an outstanding person.”

She was born Mary Thomas in 1866, and had four older brothers. Her father was a stockbroker in the city of London and the family lived on a quiet street in Canonbury, north London. At the end of the first of her four books of memoirs, ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’, Mary describes the tragic death of her father, saying that he had been hit by a carriage and died, however, it seems that he actually committed suicide, though, nobody can be sure why. (Some sources say that he was involved in a financial scandal at work)

In 1897, she left her job at Bedford College and married her long term partner, Arthur Hughes. They had four children – a daughter and three sons. Arthur died in 1918, and Mary went back to working at Bedford College in her old role, and began to write.

In 1927 her first book was published. ‘About England’ in which she states in the preface that: "England is not well known to the English people". She goes on to address the chapters to the people of England, who may be unaware of the wonders around them and the depth of their surroundings, and asks them to look at them with fresh eyes. In the chapters, Mary highlights the wonders of the English weather, scenery, towns and even ‘how to spend a wet afternoon in London

She wrote other books in the thirties about England and London, but, Mary is best known for her four books that make up her memoirs: ‘A London Child of the 1870’s’ (1934) ‘A London Girl of the 1880’s’ (1936) ‘A London home in the 1890’s’ (1937) and ‘A London Family Between the Wars’ (1940) Which give the reader a tremendous idea of what everyday life was like for a family living through these changing times.

Mary died in Johannesburg in South Africa in 1956 at the age of ninety.

Large portions of the news this week have been filled with the exam grades achieved by our nation's youth, who, for the twenty-ninth year in a row have achieved better results than the previous year's crop of young folk. Predictably, the seasonal perennial hardy of "Exams aren't what they used to be" is being trotted out in the papers, television and radio, as the country's commentators lament the fact that education has, in their eyes, become a political football.

Politicians say that exam's are not getting easier, but that children and young people are 'working harder.' This view, however, is tempered somewhat by the opinion of employers, who claim that increasing numbers of school leavers cannot spell and have terrible grammar and English skills, deeming them "unemployable."

I'm certainly not hinting that reading M.V Hughes in English lessons, rather than Shakespeare would put an end to all this, but surely if the subject holds the pupil's attention better, then they will pay more attention and take more in? I'm certain that learning to read and write in a way that does not resemble a badly constructed text message need not begin with a foundation of 'Little Dorrit' and 'Romeo and Juliet', but can begin with anything?

Perhaps such opinions are incorrect.

That said, Mary's work, like that of Dickens, is not merely classroom material, and anyone with a keen interest in the life of normal people in London at the end of the Victorian era should certainly look out for Mary’s books, and from reading them, her gentle style confirms the words of ‘the little boy next door’ when he said she was an outstanding person, and what an outstanding little time-capsule the work she left behind is, and will be, to us and future generations – as long as she is not forgotten.


  1. I found the 80's book in a charity shop the other week, and thought it sounded just my cup of tea, when I realised she had written a 70's one before it, I decided to get the full set from amazon, so I have only just got round to start reading them, but I already agree with your idea about this being more useful in schools, I hated Shakespeare at school, everyone hated him !

  2. I understand the cultural importance of Shakespeare, but even now I can't read it, its too much like hard work! That may sound ignorant but I'm sure if everyone reading it in schools was asked, a high percentage would share our opinion...

  3. The problem is that pupils read Shakespeare. His plays were written to be watched. As a teenager I was lucky enough to able to take advantage of the RSC's annual visit to Newcastle upon Tyne which gave me a love of Shakespeare that I have to this day. But I never read the plays.

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  4. That's an excellent point, and one of the reasons I struggle to read much of Oscar Wilde's work, with the majority being plays.

    Dickens and Hardy, who were on the curriculum when I was at school, wrote novels, and they seemingly held the attention just as poorly as Shakespeare. I just think Victorian novels, which were written to fill the hours of people who read as a form of entertainment, simply don't compute with the majority of the young minds in schools today. As great as they are, why must today's pupils read texts which are so not of their time?

  5. Please don't be cross, but I have nominated you for a meme. The details are here, I really hope you give it a whirl.

  6. You are so right about her agree with everything you have said, Had heard about Molly but thought I would wait until i got all 3 books before I started reading them last winter, and reading this I just might read them all again this winter, such a great read,like a big long letter from a relation, and you seem to finish each one before you know it, I must look out for 'Family between the Wars' haven't read that yet,Nor any of her England books. I didn't know that her Fathers death was suicide, that makes it even sadder. Lynn

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  7. Lynn,

    I was also a little saddened to learn that it was suicide, especially after reading in her own book, 'A London Child of the 1870's' that her father had been killed by a cab.
    Perhaps a sense of shame was still attached to suicide in the early and mid twentieth century, or perhaps she just didn't want to believe that he had killed himself, so changed his method of death.

    You're right about finishing the books quickly, too, and I think they make great little winter reads.

  8. Dear Amateur Casual, Thank you for relieving me of my long held shame for not appreciating the works of Shakespeare, and for directing me towards the authoress, M.V. Hughes, who sounds like a delight. I have recently published my first novel, and to foster your burgeoning interest in Victorian times in America, I would love to eventually send you a copy, and if you are so inclined, for you to give me your review.

  9. Rosa,
    Congratulations on publishing your first novel - a dream to which many of us aspire!

    I'd be honoured to receive a copy of your book, I'm sure I'd enjoy it, and would enjoy reviewing it also. I recently purchased 'The Devil in the White City' to broaden my horizon of 19th century America a little, and anything that can add to that is appreciated.

    Congratulations once again, and you're certainly not the only one who is left cold by Shakespeare.
    What is your novel entitled and about?

  10. My novel is "The Herbalist's Apprentice", you can find out about it at

    Based in Houston and Galveston Texas, in 1850, it's a tale of love and mystery, but also a peek into a young woman's life in that time period we love so much. By the way, Texans drop the 'h' in the word herbalist, so we would sound very unsophisticated to the Brit's ear.

  11. 'erbalist. I understand.
    I hope it's a success for you, if you don't mind, I'll spread the link you gave me on Twitter as I expect other people may find it of interest too.

  12. I recently discovered Molly's writing and I haven't been able to put her books down. I wasn't aware of her writings between the wars so i'm off to buy a copy now. :)

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