Mary Denison (1906 – 1997): Reading and Writing. – Writing Lives

Mary Denison (1906 – 1997): Reading and Writing.

You were carried into new worlds, your own mind and imagination were beginning to work’ (30).

In the purpose and audience blog post, I wrote about how Mary Denison’s purpose for writing her memoir was most likely due to her own fascination with literature. Mary comments on how the realm of books opened up a new life to her, allowing her to experience new worlds. Mary indicates that it was her education that opened up this door as it allowed her to improve her reading and writing. For example, Mary says that ‘you could now read with ease, and with this came your first taste of the power of stories’ (30). Mary reflects on how the ability to read enabled her to appreciate the power of stories and inspired her to create her own.

Throughout the course of this memoir Mary reflects on education as being the main contributor to her love for literature. However, Jonathan Rose says that even ‘uneducated readers were often capable of discovering the “great books” on their own, without following the lead of educated opinion’ (49).  Rose states that we ‘assume that whatever the author put into a text – or whatever the critic chooses to read into that text – is the message that the common reader receives’ (49). This quote is useful as it forces me as a reader to look critically over my own interpretation of Mary’s memoir. I have assumed that Mary’s reading ability came from her education due to the fact that she mentions the literature within her school. However, Mary comments on literature earlier in the memoir and how she enjoyed reading with her mother. Rose’s work therefore helped me to look deeper into Mary’s memoir and showed me how reading and writing went beyond education for Mary.

When looking specifically at the types of literature that Mary engages with, I noticed that Mary doesn’t distinguish between the good and the bad. Mary viewed reading as offering her a new experience and a new world regardless of her own personal enjoyment. One example of this is when she reflects back to a time when she would listen in on the older girls’ literature lessons. Mary says how that she listened to ‘stories from Shakespeare – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even King Lear and his unspeakable daughters’ (30). This not only highlights the love that Mary had for reading but also how advanced her academic ability was. This makes Mary stand out from other authors on this site such as Bettie Wallis. Wallis’ educational experience was limited due to the fact she was sent at 13 into domestic service. This highlights that Mary’s class also played a part in her reading experience as it gave her the time and the environment to read.

Taken from Mary Denison’s memoir – ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars. A Vicarage Childhood.’

Reading was not just an entertaining hobby for Mary, it was the stepping stone towards her own writing. Through reading novels and plays Mary was encouraged to create her own memoir. She says that ‘Books could fill your mind with people and places and things far beyond your reach of experience’ (30). This is one potential reason for Mary writing her memoir as she wanted to create a story that transported readers beyond their reach of experience. Mary writes her memoir in the second person narrative voice which creates an engaging tone to her memoir. This is a technique that Mary would have witnessed in her own reading experiences and it is clear from her memoir that she adapted this into her own writing.

In addition to this, Mary’s love for stories went beyond the printed text. When walking to and from school Mary passed the Empire theatre, a place that became symbolic of her childhood. Mary reflects on how, as Christmas drew closer, she would anticipate the announcement of this year’s pantomime. Mary says that her love for the theatre came with seeing her ‘story book heroes and heroines displayed even larger than life before your eyes’ (28). The theatre enabled Mary to see the stories that she enjoyed as a child such as ‘Cinderella’ (28) brought to life. This makes Mary’s perception on reading and writing unique as she talks about both her fascination with books and how this began to advance into a love for the theatre.

Overall, I believe that Mary had a passion and a love for both reading and writing. This is evident not only in the fact that she produced a memoir but also in the fact that she dedicated a significant amount of time talking about her love for reading. After reading Mary’s memoir I have concluded that she wanted to create a story that transported the reader to a different time, similar to the stories that she loved as a child. As mentioned in last week’s blog post, Mary remembers a time that her mother and her sibling Michael was still alive. By having the ability to write, Mary was able to transport not only the reader but herself back to a time of happiness – a technique that she admired so much as a child.

Works cited:

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

 ‘Mary Denison’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:250

Rose, Jonathan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1922.

Images cited:

Image taken from:

Image taken from Mary Denison’s memoir: ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars. A Vicarage Childhood’. eU5

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