When Scars Upon My Heart, an anthology of First World War women's poetry, was published by Virago in 1981, a new vista of reading was opened up for both academics and the general reader. Its editor, Catherine Reilly, an unknown Manchester librarian, had compiled the anthology after her work on the bibliography English Poetry of the First World War (1978) revealed that, of 2,225 published war poets, a quarter were women.
Laurence Cotterell, then Vice-President of the Poetry Society, wrote that he had "never come across a bibliography which could be picked up and read from page to page as if it were a narrative". For the thesis that preceded this, the result of five years intensive part-time study alongside her daily library duties, Reilly was granted the Fellowship of the Library Association in 1973.
Catherine Winifred Reilly was born in Stretford, Lancashire in 1925, the eldest of four children. Her maternal grandmother had come from Cork to start the family home near Manchester and was an important influence in her granddaughter's education, teaching her to read by the age of three. The family moved to Fallowfield, but her father's death only two years later meant hardship for Catherine's mother, as she raised the family alone. All four children passed the coveted scholarship and Catherine attended the Hollies FCJ Convent, which in September 1939 was evacuated to Clitheroe.
There Catherine and her sister Eileen were billeted in a large country house by the River Ribble, the home of a retired Army major and his wife. Although only there during the phoney war, the imaginative school-girl absorbed the comforts of a middle-class home with cook-housekeeper, housemaid and two gardeners.
After working as a temporary clerk in the Civil Service Catherine Reilly became a student librarian in Manchester Public Libraries, progressing through departments and branches, becoming variously Senior Cataloguer, Reference Librarian, then Borough Librarian of Sale. Finally, when Sale and Trafford merged, she was appointed Assistant Borough Librarian, with responsibility for children's services.
I met Catherine Reilly in 1981 when I devised a dramatised programme of Scars Upon My Heart for stage and radio. She was enthusiastic about her work moving into new media and at the National Portrait Gallery, at Stratford-upon-Avon, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and elsewhere, she beamed at the approval of audiences thrilled to hear Eileen Atkins, Annette Crosbie, Charlotte Harvey, Estelle Kohler and Maureen O'Brien performing the poems she had brought to light.
By the time of the anthology's publication, she was already fulfilling an early ambition. Planning to embark on a bibliography of Second World War poets, she found that a degree was required to enable her to apply for funding to cover travel and library visits, and in 1980 she was awarded a major state studentship to study for an MLitt at Merton College, Oxford.
Merton College had only just begun to accept women students and, at 55, Reilly was the oldest of the 11 women there. Never daunted, she announced: "I'll be known for the dryness of my sherry and my wit." Her friends agreed that this was not a surprising remark for a woman who had been dashing and party-loving in her youth, with many admirers, fond of good wine, food and clothes, and once sporting a long cigarette holder. Something of this panache came to the fore with Reilly's growing recognition and success.
For her bibliography English Poetry of the Second World War (1986), Reilly was awarded the Besterman Medal for Bibliography, an honour she considered a highlight of her life's work. Two more bibliographies were Late Victorian Poetry, 1880-1899 (l994) and Mid-Victorian Poetry, 1860-1879 (2000), and throughout treatment for the cancer that was diagnosed in 2001 she was preparing a third volume, "Early Victorian Poetry". This was not completed by the time of her death.
Perhaps it is for her discovery of women war poets that she will be best remembered. Scars Upon My Heart has sold over 40,000 copies to date, is a set text for two A-Level boards, cited and acknowledged throughout the field of war poetry. A companion volume Chaos of the Night (1984) showed that women's poetry of the Second World War had also been under-represented.
In both collections, Reilly insisted, against some opposition (but at times a stubborn streak emerged, which could be endearing) that "verse" as well as poetry must be included. Poems first published in magazines or in amateurish collections, by less educated women, might seem sentimental, colloquial and raw beside professionals like Rose Macaulay, Edith Sitwell and Frances Cornford, but they spoke from the heart and were part of the scene. Her range was wide, colourful, intriguingly unexpected and the attention to biographical details meticulous. She wanted her work to make a difference.
I remember her immense pleasure and pride when, following a reading that Eleanor Bron and I gave at the Imperial War Museum for the launch of Chaos of the Night, the poet Roy Fuller dedicated a poem to Reilly, which began
The 9th November 1984
Amazing little poetry-reading at
The Imperial War Museum - women poets
Of World War II - with plonk served afterwards . . .
She enjoyed that occasion and was the centre of attention, in a new outfit (as all such occasions merited) and was only peeved that, having told a friend, "Don't interrupt me, I'm talking", she later discovered she had missed being introduced to Mary Wilson.
Her third anthology, Winged Words (1994), was dedicated "To the memory of my beloved grandmother, Helena Macaulay, born a Victorian", and took its title from a poem by Mary Coleridge. I feel that this poem expresses her own feelings on the contribution and recognition of women in literature:
As darting swallows skim across a pool,
Whose tranquil depths reflect a tranquil sky,
So, o'er the depths of silence, dark and cool,
Our winged words dart playfully,
And seldom break
The quiet surface of the lake,
As they flit by.
Anne HarveyReuse content