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
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. London
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?
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 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. Victoria
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 . 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) London
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
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.