During the first week of Matilda’s visits, Mrs Phelps had said to her, ‘Does your mother walk you down here every day and then take you home?’
‘My mother goes to Aylesbury every afternoon to play bingo,’ Matilda had said. ‘She doesn’t know I come here.’
‘But that’s surely not right,’ Mrs Phelps said. ‘I think you’d better ask her.’
‘I’d rather not,’ Matilda said. ‘She doesn’t encourage reading books. Nor does my father.’
‘But what do they expect you to do every afternoon in an empty house?’
‘Just mooch around and watch the telly.’
‘She doesn’t really care what I do,’ Matilda said a little sadly.
Mrs Phelps was concerned about the child’s safety on the walk through the fairly busy village High Street and the crossing of the road, but she decided not to interfere.
Within a week, Matilda had finished Great Expectations which in that edition contained four hundred and eleven pages. ‘I loved it,’ she said to Mrs Phelps. ‘Has Mr Dickens written any others?’
‘A great number,’ said the astounded Mrs Phelps. ‘Shall I choose you another?’
Over the next six months, under Mrs Phelps’s watchful and compassionate eye, Matilda read the following books:
- Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
- Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
- Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
- Kim by Rudyard Kipling
- The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- The Good Companions by J. B. Priestley
- Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
It was a formidable list and by now Mrs Phelps was filled with wonder and excitement, but it was probably a good thing that she did not allow herself to be completely carried away by it all. Almost anyone else witnessing the achievements of this small child would have been tempted to make a great fuss and shout the news all over the village and beyond, but not so Mrs Phelps. She was someone who minded her own business and had long since discovered it was seldom worth while to interfere with other people’s children.
‘Mr Hemingway says a lot of things I don’t understand,’ Matilda said to her. ‘Especially about men and women. But I loved it all the same. The way he tells it I feel I am right there on the spot watching it all happen.’
‘A fine writer will always make you feel that,’ Mrs Phelps said. ‘And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.’
‘I will, I will.’
‘Did you know,’ Mrs Phelps said, ‘that public libraries like this allow you to borrow books and take them home?’
‘I didn’t know that,’ Matilda said. ‘Could I do it?’
‘Of course,’ Mrs Phelps said. ‘When you have chosen the book you want, bring it to me so I can make a note of it and it’s yours for two weeks. You can take more than one if you wish.’
In the text it says "Mrs Phelps was concerned about the child’s safety on the walk through the fairly busy village High Street and the crossing of the road, but she decided not to interfere."
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