How literary censorship inspired creativity in Victorian writers



Forbidden Books.
Alexander Mark Rossi

Stephanie Meek, University of Reading

In an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine, 152 writers, including JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood, claim that a climate of “censoriousness” is pervading liberal culture, the latest contribution to an ongoing debate about freedom of speech online.

As we grapple with this issue in a society where social media allows us all to share extreme views, the Victorian writers offer a precedent for thinking differently about language and how we use it to get our point across. How limits of acceptability and literary censorship, for the Victorians, inspired creative ways of writing that foregrounded sensitivity and demanded thoughtfulness.

Not causing offence

There are very few cases of books being banned in the Victorian era. But books were censored or refused because of moral prudishness, and publishers often objected to attacks on the upper classes – their book-buying audience. Writer and poet Thomas Hardy’s first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, was never published because the publisher Alexander Macmillan felt that his portrayal of the upper classes was “wholly dark – not a ray of light visible to relieve the darkness”.

Charles Edward Mudie.
Mudie family archive/Ruth Tillyard

However, more common than publishers turning down books was the refusal of circulating libraries to distribute them. These institutions were an integral part of literary consumerism during the Victorian period as the main means of distributing books.

Most influential of these was Charles Mudie’s Select Library, established in 1842. Mudie’s library was select because he would only circulate books that were suitable for middle-class parents to read aloud to their daughters without causing embarrassment.

This shaped how publishers commissioned and what writers could get away with. Victorian literary censorship, while limiting, managed to inspire writers to develop more creative and progressive ways to get their points across.

Censorship as productive

George Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, criticised her work for showing people as they really were rather than giving an idealistic picture. He was particularly uncomfortable when Eliot focused on the difficulties of working-class life.

In Mr Gilfil’s Love Story(1857), Eliot’s description of the orphan girl, Caterina, being subjected to “soap-and-water” raised Blackwood’s censorious hackles:

I do not recollect of any passage that moved my critical censorship unless it might be the allusion to dirt in common with your heroine.

George Eliot.
National Gallery/Wikimedia

As well as dirt, alcohol consumption was also seen as an unwanted reminder of working class problems. Again in Mr Gifil’s Love Story, Eliot describes how the eponymous clergyman enjoys “an occasional sip of gin-and-water”.

However, knowing Blackwood’s views and anticipating she may cause offence galvanised Eliot to state her case directly to the reader within the text itself. She qualifies her unromantic depiction of Mr Gilfil with an address to her “lady” readers:

Here I am aware that I have run the risk of alienating all my refined lady readers, and utterly annihilating any curiosity they may have felt to know the details of Mr Gilfil’s love-story … let me assure you that Mr Gilfil’s potations of gin-and-water were quite moderate. His nose was not rubicund; on the contrary, his white hair hung around a pale and venerable face. He drank it chiefly, I believe, because it was cheap; and here I find myself alighting on another of the Vicar’s weaknesses, which, if I cared to paint a flattering portrait rather than a faithful one, I might have chosen to suppress.

Here, literary censorship enriches Eliot’s writing. Eliot’s refusal to suppress her work becomes part of the story and reinforces her agenda to portray Mr Gilfil as he really is, a vicar who mixes gin with water because he is poor.

Power in not telling

As well as inspiring narrative additions, censorship was also powerful because of what was left out of a text.

One of Hardy’s most loved books, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, highlights the crimes of sexual harassment in the workplace and of rape. Because Hardy had to be careful about the way that he presented the sexual abuse of Tess, his descriptions were very subtle. This is how he portrays the scene where Tess is sexually assaulted by her employer, Alec D’Urberville:

The obscurity was now so great that he could see absolutely nothing but a pale nebulousness at his feet, which represented the white muslin figure he had left upon the dead leaves. Everything else was blackness alike. D’Urberville stooped; and heard a gentle regular breathing. He knelt, and bent lower, till her breath warmed his face, and in a moment his cheek was in contact with hers. She was sleeping soundly, and upon her eyelashes there lingered tears.

The influence of censorship meant that Hardy could not describe this scene in graphic detail. Instead, his depiction is more sensitive and thoughtful. Hardy does not dehumanise Tess by depicting her as a sexual object to entertain the reader.

By focusing on Tess’s “gentle regular breathing” and the poignant image of her tear-stained eyelashes, Hardy avoids gratuitous depictions of violence while at the same time making us painfully aware of the injustice she has suffered. This makes his portrayal of Tess more powerful and poignant. It can be argued that this was achieved because of the limits placed on his writing, not in spite of them.

In these instances, we can see how literary censorship influenced writers to tread more carefully upon difficult territory. It made them think about whether including violence or socially controversial depictions were necessary or gratuitous to their narratives.

For Hardy and Eliot, censorship and its limits inspired creativity, sensitivity and thoughtfulness. These examples can provide food for thought in the debate today about free speech and censorship. As Hardy and Eliot wrestled with as they wrote, can things be said differently and, in some cases, do they need to be said at all?The Conversation

Stephanie Meek, PhD Candidate in English Literature, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What black writers think about the UK’s publishing industry – a survey



Monkeybusinessimagery/Shutterstock

Catherine Harris, Sheffield Hallam University and Bernadette Stiell, Sheffield Hallam University

As people seek to educate themselves in response to Black Lives Matter protests, sales of books by black British authors, such as Reni Eddo-Lodge and Bernadine Evaristo, have topped the UK bestseller lists. Several recent prestigious awards have also been won by black writers, including Candice Carty-Williams who won book of the year for Queenie at the British Book Awards. Although proud of her achievement, she was also “sad and confused” on discovering she was the first black author to win this award in its 25-year history.

While these firsts must be celebrated, they also shine a light on publishing’s systemic practices, which have maintained inequalities and under-representation for black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and diverse books. Despite awareness of its shortcomings and years of debates and initiatives (diversity schemes, blind recruiting practices and manuscript submission processes) the industry has generally failed to achieve lasting change. This is because they fail to address the broader systemic inequalities faced by people of colour, which contribute to ongoing under-representation in the industry.

A substantial market

Our research on diversity in children’s publishing included an online survey of 330 responses and 28 in-depth follow-up interviews with people working across the sector. We found that a key barrier has been the engrained perception among industry decision-makers that there is a limited market for diverse books. This is a belief that books written by black and diverse authors or featuring non-white characters just don’t sell.

This perception is seen across the industry, including in children’s literature. This is despite evidence of substantial markets. For instance, a third of English primary pupils are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background. However, a report by the Centre For Literacy in Primary Education revealed that although the number of black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists in children’s books had increased from 1% in 2017 to 4% in 2018, there is still a long way to go to achieve representation that reflects the UK population.

A third of English primary pupils come from Black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds, which represents a substantial market for diverse books.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Similarly, BookTrust reported that only 6% of children’s authors published in the UK in 2017 were from ethnic minority backgrounds, only a minor improvement from 4% in 2007.

What we found was that the lack of role models in the books read by children and young people of colour meant that they were less likely to aspire to careers in the sector. From those we spoke to, this was compounded by the lack of diversity, particularly in senior roles, in publishing. For those who had pursued a publishing career, experiences of everyday racism and microaggressions were widespread. This added to feelings of frustration and a sense that they were not welcome or did not belong in the industry.

Commissioning problems

This all has a knock-on effect on what gets published. Authors of colour that we spoke to expressed frustration about the commissioning process. This included quotas for books by or featuring people of colour, a perceived limited appeal for these books and a feeling that authors of colour could only write about race issues.

Reliance on “traditional routes” to publishing also disadvantages black and working-class authors. Publishers reported receiving high volumes of submissions and heavy workloads led to them relying on established writers rather than seeking out new, diverse talent. This has the impact of narrowing the pool of authors from which books are published.

Our participants – including authors, illustrators, editorial assistants and agents – widely reported that a lack of cultural understanding can also lead to the view that diverse books are a riskier investment. They explained how limited promotion and marketing budgets often resulted in lower sales, reinforcing perceptions of limited demand. From their experience, miscommunication at subsequent points along the supply chain about the demand for and availability of diverse books means that those that are published may not even reach bookshop shelves.

Those interviewed expressed frustration about miscommunication about demands for diverse books leading to many not ending bookshops.
Gary L Hider/Shutterstock

These interconnected factors (among others) create a negative cycle which perpetuates the lack of representation of minorities across all parts of the sector, including the lack of authors of colour being nominated for prizes and awards. Recommendations from our research include ensuring diversity on selection panels for events and awards and some good work is already taking place. However, more systematic collaboration and commitment from the sector will be required to produce lasting and meaningful changes and achieve equality and representation.

Our research participants pointed out that social media was allowing individuals to more effectively come together and raise their voices in support of diversity and representation. They expressed hope that this may help to drive forward meaningful and lasting change in the sector. There are signs that this may be the case with recent campaigns emerging in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The #publishingpaidme campaign highlighted racial disparities in publishing advances. The publisher Amistad, an imprint of Harper Collins dedicated to multicultural voices, ran the campaign #BlackoutBestsellerList and #BlackPublishingPower to draw attention to black authors and book professionals and demonstrate the market for these books. The newly formed Black Writers’ Guild, including many of Britain’s best-known authors and poets, wrote an open letter airing concerns and demanding immediate action from publishers. The hope is that these campaigns can focus the industry on bringing about meaningful change.The Conversation

Catherine Harris, Research Associate, Sheffield Hallam University and Bernadette Stiell, Senior research fellow in the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plans for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum in Bath Approved


The link below is to an article reporting on the approval for a museum to be built in Bath, England, for a Mary Shelley/Frankenstein Museum.

For more visit:
https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-somerset-52923492

How George Orwell justified killing German civilians in the second world war



Eric Blair (better known as George Orwell) in characteristic pose.

Tim Luckhurst, Durham University

During the second world war, Britain’s national daily newspapers usually supported the government’s portrayal of the national war effort as flawlessly heroic. This was a just war – and supported as such even by many Britons who, until 1940, had supported pacifist organisations such as the Peace Pledge Union.

But Tribune, the weekly newspaper founded by wealthy Labour MPs Sir Stafford Cripps and George Strauss and edited by Aneurin Bevan, was bolder. Promoting itself as “Fresh and Fearless” Tribune relished controversy. In September 1943, it celebrated the recruitment of an expert controversialist as its literary editor: George Orwell.

Orwell soon seized upon a topic the wartime coalition had worked assiduously to conceal: the deliberate killing of German civilians in colossal RAF raids on German cities. His pretext was the publication by Vera Brittain, the feminist and pre-war pacifist, of Seed of Chaos, her pungent denunciation of obliteration bombing. Supporting her case with eyewitness accounts by neutral Swiss and Swedish newspaper correspondents, Brittain recounted tales of corpses “all over streets and even in the tree-tops” and women “demented after the raids, crying continuously for their lost children”.

Influential voice for Pacifism: Vera Brittain.

Detecting sanctimony, Orwell attacked head on with a piece entitled “As I Please”. There was, he wrote, “something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features”.

Talk of “limiting or humanising” total war was “sheer humbug”, Orwell insisted. Warming to his theme, he condemned Brittain’s “parrot cry” against “killing women and children” and insisted: “It is probably better to kill a cross section of the population than to kill only the young men.” If allied raids had killed 1.2 million German civilians, “that loss of life has probably harmed the German race somewhat less than a corresponding loss on the Russian front”.

Tribune’s readers were not unanimous in their support for Orwell. A flow of critical letters arrived but the literary editor did not budge. He “did not feel that mere killing is all important”. There was, he suggested, a moral case for killing German civilians. It brought home the nature of modern war and might make such conflict less likely.

Hard truths

Orwell’s stance was in stark opposition to government policy. This was to pretend that civilian deaths were rare collateral damage in raids meticulously targeted at German industrial and military infrastructure. In fact, Orwell’s defence challenged the Air Ministry as directly as Brittain’s moral outrage. Orwell recognised that area bombing was intended to cause mass civilian casualties and routinely did so.

Military historian and author Martin Middlebrook describes the British government’s statements about area bombing between 1942 and 1945 as “a three-year period of deceit on the British public and world opinion”. The areas attacked were “nearly always city centres or densely populated residential areas”. Britain had invested vast resources to build a fleet of heavy, four-engine bombers among which the Avro Lancaster was king. Mass raids against cities including Cologne, Essen and Hamburg soon demonstrated that the Lancaster’s brave, vulnerable crews could not hit targets with any precision.

Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris pleaded with the prime minister to admit that raids involved the deliberate murder of civilians. In October 1943, he wrote to Churchill’s friend, the air minister Archibald Sinclair, demanding bombing tactics be “unambiguously and publicly stated”, writing:

That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany.

Harris wanted ministers to tell the public that the deaths of women and children were not a “byproduct of attempts to hit factories”. Such slaughter was one of the “accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy”.

Even when the Associated Press described Allied raids on Dresden as deliberate “terror bombing”, the government continued to deploy bland euphemisms. By recognising that RAF Bomber Command killed civilians as a conscious act of policy, Orwell and Tribune were playing with fire. They were not censored or condemned because it suited ministers to tolerate dissent in small circulation weekly titles. Such robust debate burnished Britain’s democratic credentials and reassured her American allies.

The last word

Brittain was not reassured. Writer Richard Westwood has shown that she resented Orwell’s attacks so intensely that she would revisit their dispute years after his death in order to “win her argument with Orwell in retrospect and when he could not respond”. This she attempted in Testament of Experience by quoting selectively from a report Orwell sent from Germany for The Observer in April 1945.

Brittain suggests he retracted his support for obliteration bombing. In fact, Orwell described damage done by allied bombs and argued that the Allies should not impose harsh reparations. A punitive approach would leave Germans dependent on international aid. He did not apologise for the RAF’s work. Instead, he repeated his defence that “a bomb kills a cross-section of the population whereas the men killed in battle are exactly the ones the community can least afford to lose”.

Orwell’s candour about area bombing was a robust example of dissenting wartime journalism. It demonstrated Tribune’s editorial courage and that the wartime coalition understood it could not reconcile defence of democracy with suppression of free speech.

Brittain was wrong to misrepresent him. His work illustrates how intelligent publications with thoughtful readers upheld Britain’s democratic tradition in wartime. Such journalism was not restricted to the left. The Spectator and The Economist played comparable roles on this and other subjects.


Tim Luckhurst will deliver his online lecture to the Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures via Zoom between 4pm and 5 pm on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. To attend please register here.The Conversation

Tim Luckhurst, Principal of South College, Durham University. He is a newspaper historian and an academic member of the University’s Centre for Modern Conflicts and Cultures., Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction Shortlist


The link below are to articles reporting on the shortlist for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2020/04/21/2020-womens-prize-for-fiction-shortlist-announced/
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/21/womens-prize-for-fiction-shortlist-hilary-mantel-bernardine-evaristo-maggie-o-farrell
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/04/22/149500/womens-prize-for-fiction-shortlist-announced-2/
https://lithub.com/heres-the-shortlist-for-the-womens-prize-for-fiction/
https://publishingperspectives.com/2020/04/womens-prize-for-fiction-shortlist-all-so-proud-of-these-books-covid19/

Diary of Samuel Pepys shows how life under the bubonic plague mirrored today’s pandemic



There were eerie similarities between Pepys’ time and our own.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ute Lotz-Heumann, University of Arizona

In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.

“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”

During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.

There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.

A creeping sense of crisis

For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.

The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”

Portrait of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (1666).
National Portrait Gallery

Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.

He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.

By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”

Tracking mortality counts

In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.

Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.

‘Bills of mortality’ were regularly posted.
Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Image

At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”

By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.

He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”

Desperate for remedies

There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.

Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.

Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”

A 1666 engraving by John Dunstall depicts deaths and burials in London during the bubonic plague.
Museum of London

During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.

Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”

Balancing paranoia and risk

Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?

During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.

“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”

Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.

In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.

And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”

Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.

Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Ute Lotz-Heumann, Heiko A. Oberman Professor of Late Medieval and Reformation History, University of Arizona

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How Independent Booksellers are Surviving the Coronavirus Pandemic in the UK


The link below is to an article that looks at how independent bookshops are surviving the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom – including book deliveries by skateboard.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/mar/16/coronavirus-indie-booksellers-inventive-sales

United Kingdom: VAT to Be Removed From Ebooks, but not Audiobooks


The link below is to an article that reports on the removal of the Value Added Tax from ebooks in the UK.

For more visit:
https://the-digital-reader.com/2020/03/12/uk-to-end-vat-on-ebooks-but-not-audiobooks/

Book clubs and the Blitz: how WWII Britons kept calm and got reading



Pilots and air crew passing the time with books and newspapers.
S.A. Devon, RAF official photographer/Imperial War Museum

Nicola Wilson, University of Reading

These are unprecedented times – but, even so, comparisons are being made to the second world war in terms of the magnitude of the crisis that coronavirus represents. Some of this rhetoric is unhelpful but, as we bunker down into our homes and the government gets on a war footing, there is little doubt that the challenge to our liberty, leisure time and sense of wellbeing is real.

With early reports that book sales are soaring while bookshops and warehouses close down and publishers reassess their lists, what can the reading patterns of an earlier generation tell us about getting through a crisis and staying at home?

The restrictions at the beginning of the second world war affected all aspects of day-to-day life. But it was the blackout that topped most people’s list of grievances – above shortages of food and fuel, the evacuation, and lack of news and public services. Households were reprimanded and fined for showing chinks of light through windows, car lights were dimmed, and walking around, even along familiar streets, late at night became treacherous.

With the widespread limitations to free movement, the book trade was quick off the mark. Books were promoted by libraries and book clubs as the very thing to fight boredom and fill blacked-out evenings at home or in shelters with pleasure and forgetfulness. “Books may become more necessary than gas-masks,” the Book Society, Britain’s first celebrity book club, advised.

Selling tales

I’ve been researching the choices and recommendations of the Book Society for the past few years. The club was set up in 1929 and ran until the 1960s, shipping “carefully” selected books out to thousands of readers each month. It was modelled on the success of the American Book-of-the-Month club (which launched in 1926) and aimed to boost book sales at a time when buying books wasn’t common. It irritated some critics and booksellers who accused it of “dumbing down” and giving an unfair advantage to some books over others – but was hugely popular with readers.

Boots Book-lovers’ Library flyer, c. 1939.
Boots Company archives, Nottingham

The Book Society was run by a selection committee of literary celebrities – the likes of JB Priestley, Sylvia Lynd, George Gordon, Edmund Blunden and Cecil Day-Lewis – chaired by bestselling novelist Hugh Walpole. Selections were not meant to be the “best” of anything, but had to be worthwhile and deserving of people’s time and hard-earned cash.

Guaranteeing tens of thousands of extra sales, the club had a huge impact on the mid-20th-century book trade, with publishers desperate to get the increased sales and global reach of what publisher Harold Raymond called “the Book Society bun”.

Books will go on

The Book Society guided readers through the confusion of appeasement and the run-up to the second world war with a marked increase in recommendations of political non-fiction examining contemporary geo-politics. The classic novel of appeasement was Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (Book Society Choice in October 1938) in which a sense of malaise and inevitability of future war haunts the characters’ desperate actions.

When Britain finally declared war against Germany in September 1939, the Book Society judges were divided. Some were relieved that, as George Gordon put it, “an intolerable situation has at last acquired the awful explicitness of war”. But others were devastated, especially Edmund Blunden who was still traumatised from fighting in the first world war.

Book Society flyer, c. 1939.
John Johnson Collection of Printed Ephemera, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The judges advised members that when they became weary of news, people “will turn to books as the best comfort”, as had happened in the first world war with the increase in reading and library membership. Publishers and booksellers faced huge challenges during the second world war, including paper shortages, problems in distribution, a vanishing workforce, and bomb damage to offices and warehouses. But there were more readers – and from a wider social class – at the end of it. Demand consistently outstripped supply as consumer expenditure on books more than doubled between 1938 and 1945.

What people were reading

Throughout the second world war, the Book Society varied its lists between books that offered some insight on the strangeness of contemporary life and works of fiction – especially historical fiction – that took readers’ minds off it.

Titles in the first group include comic novels by the likes of E M Delafield and Evelyn Waugh, as well as forgotten bestsellers like Ethel Vance’s Escape (1939) (an unlikely thriller set in a concentration camp) and Reaching for the Stars (1939), American journalist Nora Waln’s inside account of life in Nazi Germany.

Settling down with something to read underneath the arches during an air raid.
Imperial War Museum, CC BY

More topical non-fiction became a priority as the devastation of the Blitz kicked in. Winged Words: Our Airmen Speak for Themselves (1941) and Into Battle: Winston Churchill’s War Speeches (1941) were especially popular.

Historical fiction was consistently in demand. Half the club’s choices in 1941 were long novels with historical settings. As today’s readers prepare to batten down the hatches with Hilary Mantel’s 900-page latest book, it is sobering to reflect on how an imaginative connection with the past has long helped readers find relief from the madness of the present.




Read more:
The Mirror and the Light: Hilary Mantel gets as close to the real Thomas Cromwell as any historian


The other fail-safes in the second world war were the classics. As books already in print became scarce, the Book Society reissued new editions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina. These were books that Walpole said he believed he could sit down with even through an air raid.

Indeed, Neilsen BookScan has reported a rise in sales of classic fiction as the coronavirus crisis deepens – including War and Peace – as readers use this unfamiliar time to knuckle down to the heavyweights.

You can also join a War and Peace reading group online if you want a bit of company. After the homeschooling, working from home, and everything else. Here goes.The Conversation

Nicola Wilson, Associate Professor in Book and Publishing Studies, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Brexit Britain: was Jane Austen an original little Englander?



Jane Austen based on a portrait by her sister Cassandra.
Wikimedia Commons

Thomas McLean, University of Otago

In revealing the charms and follies of genteel English society, Jane Austen has few competitors. Yet as Britain limps towards Brexit, I can’t help wondering why there are no foreigners in her major fiction. Many thousands of continental Europeans settled in Britain after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars. Couldn’t just one of the Bennet sisters have fallen in love with a charming Belgian or a wealthy German? Wouldn’t the well-travelled Frederick Wentworth of Persuasion have a dear friend from Spain or Italy?

Such questions may seem trivial, but they gain significance at a time when we expect a lot from Austen. In the past few decades, scholars have regularly turned to her novels for insights into the larger issues of her era (women’s education, slavery, war) and our own (climate change). Some even want to see her as a radical.

I’m not so convinced by this progressive – or even subversive – Austen. She was unquestionably sensitive to the epoch-defining events taking place around her. Two of her brothers were officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars; another was a banker who was ruined in the post-war financial crisis. Certainly, there are moments in the novels when these larger events make an appearance. How could they not?




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But are such moments enough to make Austen’s works a source of great insight into the social issues of her era? In matters of love, friendship and the societal expectations of the landed gentry, Austen is always astute and entertaining. But consider all the elements of her society that Austen left out.

Are there, for instance, any Catholics in Austen’s novels? Any Jews? Mark Twain wrote that Austen’s novels made him feel like a “barkeeper” surrounded by “ultra-good Presbyterians” – but are there any actual Presbyterians in her novels? So far as I can tell, all of her principal characters are Anglican.

Are there any foreigners – a Frenchman, say, or a visiting Spaniard? Nope. Northanger Abbey mocks the English affection for gothic novels set on the continent, but no one from the continent appears in the novel. In a scene from Emma that Priti Patel might applaud, Frank Churchill rescues Harriet Smith from a group of “loud and insolent” Romany children.

How about representatives from other parts of the UK? In Austen’s novels, Scotland is mainly a place to which giddy young women elope. As for Wales, well, there’s a “Welch cow” in Emma. Ireland does a little better: in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet annoys her sister by playing Irish songs on the piano; and in Emma, an honest to goodness Irishman, one Mr Dixon, plays a minor role – though, like so many other male characters in Austen’s novels, he isn’t important enough to earn a first name.

Home and away

Austen is deservedly recognised for bringing greater realism to the Anglophone novel and for presenting a new psychological depth in her characters. Yet this position should not be confused with the idea that Austen somehow tells us more about Regency England than any of her contemporaries – or that her works contain all the complexities of her era if only we look closely enough. They tell us very little about the way the English looked on their British and European neighbours.

Jane Austen could hardly be more English.
Ben Sutherland via Flickr, CC BY-SA

I hear you ask, well come now, you don’t really expect a Regency-era author to include foreigners, revolutionaries and exiles in her novel, do you? Well, yes, actually I do. Many of Austen’s forgotten contemporaries – writers like Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth – did just that. Another more famous contemporary, Mary Shelley, created the era’s greatest study of an outsider ostracised by society, Frankenstein. If we imagine that Austen provides a complete picture of Regency life, these authors prove us wrong with their more international and political perspectives.

This is not to say that they are better writers than Austen. Reading Austen’s contemporaries illuminates what makes Austen a great (in many ways superior) writer. Austen is utterly in command of the order and organisation of her best narratives – every character, every encounter, every character foible is there for a well-planned purpose.

Similarly, Austen’s protagonists are true to themselves. It is rare indeed for a reader to feel that her characters act in ways that were not foreseeable from the start. Her narrators keep a respectable distance from the action of the story: they provide enough information to leave readers feeling secure, but they rarely call attention to themselves or comment at length on the unfolding action. In all of these aspects, Austen has no Regency-era peer.

Doing the continental

Nevertheless, some of these forgotten works illustrate the storytelling pathways that Austen never attempted. If I were to choose one work from Austen’s time that speaks most clearly to our own moment and showcases all that Jane left out, it would be Jane Porter’s novel from 1803, Thaddeus of Warsaw. Porter’s novel was a great success when it first appeared, and it remained in print for most of the 19th century.

Thaddeus of Warsaw, by Austen’s contemporary, Jane Porter.
Worthopedia

Thaddeus – an early 19th-century forerunner to Walter Scott’s Waverley and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – tells the story of Count Thaddeus Sobieski, who escapes to Britain after his homeland falls to Russian invaders. Penniless, he hides his identity and makes his way among the rich and poor of London, finding work where he can, and coming to the aid of those less fortunate than he. He is befriended by a group of women, who assist or punish him, according to their impulses.

Imagine a Jane Austen novel with a Polish protagonist. Imagine an Austen novel where British women welcome an immigrant into their lives. Imagine an Austen novel where a character goes looking for work.

The passages in Thaddeus that resonate the most today, however, are the commentaries by British characters who are troubled by the presence of Polish exiles, like Thaddeus, among them. One character announces, “it is our duty to befriend the unfortunate; but charity begins at home … and, you know, the people of Poland have no claims upon us”. Another declares, “Would any man be mad enough to take the meat from his children’s mouths, and throw it to a swarm of wolves just landed on the coast?” No question that these characters would have voted “Leave”.

Today there are almost one million people living in the UK who were born in Poland. No matter what happens with regard to Brexit, these people have already changed their adopted homeland. While writers like Agnieszka Dale and Wioletta Greg create a new body of Anglo-Polish literature, Thaddeus of Warsaw reminds readers of the long links between the two countries.

It also reminds us that a satisfying romance, whether it concerns Emma Woodhouse or Thaddeus Sobieski, needs to please its readers. It won’t be giving too much away to note that, at the conclusion of Thaddeus of Warsaw, the meeting of wealth and love allows for a happy ending. That was one lesson that Jane Austen taught us a long time ago.The Conversation

Thomas McLean, Associate Professor, English and Linguistics, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.