The singer Peg Temper, in Sarah Winman’s beautifully crafted novel ‘Still Life’, sang for her life, and for yours too, ‘Because the world never turned out the way you wanted it to. It simply turned. And you hung on.’
Are you hanging on?
I hope so.
This evocative novel may well be just what the doctor ordered for these troubled times. If you’re fortunate enough to be reading it in a safe and secure space, then I hope that you will, like me, appreciate the privilege of being able to lose yourself in Winman’s intimate and, at times, comedic and uplifting tale of friendship and love.
I’m reminded of a 1939 Heffers of Cambridge advertisement featured in my history of the famous Cambridge bookseller, ‘This Book is about Heffers’ (2016).
At the time The Cambridge Review Commentator wrote,
‘Fortunately, most of us still preserve sufficient presence of mind to be able occasionally to leave war-thoughts behind and turn to our bookshelves. At the bookshops War and Peace has been in great demand from those “who have always been meaning to tackle it and have never before found the time.” At such period as this there is comfort in length. One desires a really substantial world into which to escape.’
‘Still Life’ is set mostly in quintessential post-war Florence. There’s art history and an appearance by the young Morgan Forster and his mother, to boot.
A minor insurrection
And now? We find ourselves at perhaps the most dangerous moment in history since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It’s a worrying time.
I may have been born the year before that frightening episode, but my upbringing was strictly non-political, to such an extent that mother and father strongly expressed their concern about me becoming ‘politicised’ when I attended university in 1980.
Having joined Women’s Aid and CND as an undergraduate, I finally found the courage of my convictions and became a full-time volunteer for the Cambridge Women’s Refuge; still unapproved and despite being told I’d be disowned if I became a social worker. Then, as a postgraduate student in Sheffield, I was an active supporter of the Miner’s Strike, which infuriated mother who accused me and my ‘miner friends’ of blowing up Margaret Thatcher and her colleagues at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984.
The need for parental approval remains strong and in 2019, aged 58, when joining an Extinction Rebellion protest at a petrol station near my parents’ home, I was very apprehensive about the possibility of being spotted by father.
Earlier this month, at a Louth U3a book club session, we got onto the topic of protesting, and I was delighted to hear that my new friends had been involved in various protests over the decades, including the movement against the Vietnam War, and against the incarceration of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. We also talked about the 1984/5 Miner’s Strike, swapping stories of the impact of its policing, and the decimation of mining communities.
When I arrived home after that session, I picked up an email from the parents confirming their forthcoming trip to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary. A stay at the Grand Hotel in Brighton.
Comfort in books and things
A more affirming aspect of my childhood was our weekly visit to Heffers Children’s Bookshop, and to the Central Library, then located upstairs at the Guildhall in Cambridge.
The writer Simone de Beauvoir viewed books – all books – as the most precious things in the world and dreamed of shutting herself away in the dusty avenues of her local circulating library. I like to think that de Beauvoir would have appreciated the way in which the Italian writer, Italo Calvino described the massing of written pages that can bind a room like the thickness of foliage in a dense wood, like stratifications of rock, slabs of slate, slivers of schist. When I look at my collection of biographies, I see reassuring layers of wisdom.
It isn’t just books, though. There is comfort to be found in all material things, as Daniel Miller discovered in his 2008 anthropological study of human values, feelings and experiences; a study that explores ways in which material culture helps people to deal with loss and change, and how the humanity of people is revealed by their material possessions. Miller observes in ‘The Comfort of Things’ that material objects are an integral and inseparable aspect of all relationships. He affirms the centrality of relationships to modern life, and the centrality of material culture to relationships.
The fabric of our lives is inter-woven with everyday objects. Miller cites the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s argument that our orientation to everyday objects is one of the main reasons why we accept as natural and unchallenged, the routines and expectations of life.
With her Bruegel-esque narrative, Sarah Winman gives us in ‘Still Life’ what Virginia Woolf would describe as a tale filled with, ‘people going about their daily affairs, toiling, failing, succeeding, eating, hating, loving, until they die’. For Winman, the power of still life lies precisely in triviality, in a world of reliability that is symbolised by objects representing ordinary life,
‘Within these forms something powerful is retained: continuity. Memory. Family.’
Cultural devotion and destruction
Unlike Miller and Bourdieu, I’m not attempting a rigorous science of society. While it was a pleasure to revisit my own copy of Bourdieu’s masterpiece, ‘The Rules of Art’ (1996 translation), I’m simply musing upon what Miller describes as the social cosmology that helps to determine the order of those things that shape my miniscule but holistic world. For example, when helping out this week at the Louth & District Hospice Charity Bookshop in what is now my hometown, I realised what the physical presence of books means to me. How vital they are to my existence. I venerate them.
But what if your bookshops, libraries – and homes – are being blown to pieces?
As he observed the terrible destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russian forces, Nick Poole, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals, wrote a piece on protecting libraries and archives in Ukraine,
‘You disrupt and destabilise a people by disrupting their sense of self – their language, their literature, their culture.’
We know that war can destroy culture.
It’s an appalling tragedy. Hopefully, when the fighting finally stops, the Ukrainian people (those who have survived) can reclaim their homeland. And hopefully, they will, like the Italians in Sarah Winman’s magnificent novel, be able to recover many of those precious antiquities and books that define their humanity. For, as the art historian Evelyn Skinner in ‘Still Life’ declares,
‘Art versus humanity is not the question … One doesn’t exist without the other.’
In ‘The Spinning House Affair’ Taylor tells an atmospheric tale, inspired by the true stories of Daisy Hopkins and Jane Elsdon, imprisoned at the Spinning House, Cambridge University’s infamous house of correction in the late nineteenth century. She also highlights the broader struggle of women at this time, through the plight of her characters Hope Bassett (daughter of a college porter) and Aurelia Travers (daughter of a newspaper proprietor).
While there is pathos, the novel is light on sentiment, to the extent that a friend gave up on it because she was bored and didn’t care about any of the characters, not even Rose Whipple, a housemaid who is erroneously arrested by the proctors and incarcerated in the Spinning House – not once, but twice. Perhaps Taylor set out in her style to reflect the seemingly restrained nature of late Victorian Cambridge. The tone is genteel and not especially demonstrative, although it is often lyrical and pleasing.
I understand my friend’s frustration. To be honest, I like a dash of emotion in my history. The historian, David Olusoga, argues that public historians need to embrace the emotional, human aspects of the subject. In a 2020 interview with De Montfort University, he declared,
“I get lots of messages saying that in a programme like A House Through Time, I am destroying the spirit of history and being over-emotional … But if I don’t make the people in history real to me, how can I get people to care about them on the programme?”
We should bear in mind that Taylor is not a historian and that her account is fictional. Interestingly, her author biography tells us that she has a doctorate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia and that she intends to further explore the blurring of genre boundaries through her fiction.
On the creative side, I really enjoyed Taylor’s tableaux vivants, especially of late nineteenth century Cambridge in winter; the snow that,‘promised to grant a disguise for all rough edges, and must surely offer a brief respite to personal worries, dissolving them in its whiteness just as it promised the illusion of comfort and an untainted tomorrow.’ The snow felt mysterious to young Aurelia Travers in that it augured a most exhilarating, ‘period of difference.’
Various activities of the people serving the town and the university are skilfully staged; the undertaker, the butter seller, the college servants collecting dirty crockery from student lodging houses. And it is nice for those of us who know and love Cambridge to see familiar trade names such as Hawkins’ pastry counter, the Eaden Lilley emporium and the Fountain Inn.
Taylor’s descriptions are eloquent and articulate, but I agree with my friend. The characters are underdeveloped and as a consequence, it is hard to empathise with them. I did finish the book. Not because I cared about Rose, Hope or Aurelia, but because I appreciated the lexicon and I’m interested in this period of Cambridge history, Cambridge being my hometown and the scene of my great-great grandmother’s tragic life, mired by poverty and prostitution.
Whether casual or professional, the town’s prostitutes were viewed as a necessary evil, although many were arrested and detained on a regular basis. Victorian double standards flourished in this university town, where the visiting and resident scholars exploited vulnerable local women and girls for their own ends. According to the nineteenth century author and magistrate, Robert Mackenzie Beverley, Barnwell was ‘set apart and dedicated to sin… prostitutes swarm there’.
The University proctors and their constables (known as bulldogs) would patrol the town precincts for women they ‘suspected of evil’. For a few years after opening his first shop in Fitzroy Street, Barnwell, William Heffer, founder of the great Cambridge bookshop that is Heffers, worked in his ‘spare’ time as a proctor’s bulldog. (In the 1890s William took pity on my great-grandfather, described by the Heffer family as a ‘bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home’. He undertook to educate this son of a ‘Barnwell lady’, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. The boy thrived by this strange tuition, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.)
The proctors had the power to arrest and would escort their arrestees to the infamous Spinning House, where they were tried and sentenced by the University Vice-Chancellor. Women who had been plucked off the streets were charged with a range of misdemeanours such as, ‘consorting with a student’ and, ‘walking with a young man in the street suspected to be an undergraduate.’ Critically, although ‘suspected of evil’, not all those imprisoned were street walkers, and in the 1890s, the Vice-Chancellor’s unpopular authority on this matter was abolished by Act of Parliament, the much-hated Spinning House being finally demolished in 1901.
I scoured the Spinning House Committal Books at Cambridge University Library for any mention of my great-great grandmother and learned that she had never been detained there, although several of her neighbours in Wellington Street, Barnwell, had. She had instead been detained in the town goal, several times. The Borough Police would patrol the streets of Barnwell, known locally as ‘a place of leisure’. Women arrested by the police were usually older than those arrested in the town by the university proctors. They were brought before the Cambridge Borough Magistrates and upon conviction, incarcerated in the Cambridge town goal on Castle Hill.
Taylor eloquently describes Barnwell as a ‘suburb of open cesspits, feral cats and dogs and baleful vapours of decay curling through an extended warren of shabby tenements, cramped passageways and overcrowded dens.’ Joined to Cambridge town by the smart houses along Jesus Lane and Maid’s Causeway, the area was notorious for its brothels and private receiving houses. The social reformer and founder of the Save the Children charity, Eglantine Jebb, in her 1906 social study of Cambridge, described the people of Barnwell as pitiful caricatures of men and women, ‘creatures of stunted facilities, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.’ My ancestors’ neighbours in late nineteenth century Barnwell included carpenters, painters, gardeners, compositors, bricklayers, plumbers, shoeblacks, shirtbinders, brewers, bedmakers, lamplighters, coprilite diggers and organ grinders.
Jebb asked why we still see about our streets, ‘men and women whose very faces tell us how low we have allowed them to sink?’ Her study highlighted concerns about the very large number of hotels, inns and public houses in the town; 279 establishments, or one to every 138 persons. She was citing a 1903 deputation to the Cambridge Borough Magistrates on the need for a reduction in the number of licensed houses in the town. The ‘memorial’ for this plea mentioned a stretch of 796 yards, from the east side of Wellington Street to the south side of Newmarket Road, which contained a total of 22 public houses. By this time, Cambridge had had its first temperance mayor, Alfred Isaac Tillyard, and the temperance movement was growing. Tillyard was the editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Independent Press.
Taylor appears to emulate Tillyard in her fictional portrait of William Travers, founding proprietor of The Mercury, a daily Cambridge newspaper. Initially restrained by a keen interest in the ‘mundane of everyday existence in Cambridge’ and an aversion to sensationalism, in response to the outcry over Rose Whipple’s case, Travers eventually decides to challenge the University’s disdain for ‘his Cambridge’, and the abuse of its power to ‘shamefully insult our womenfolk.’ In doing so, he demonstrates his desire to enter into a ‘new intimacy’ with his readers.
Like Travers, I sense that his creator needed to engender greater zeal in her final execution. The novel reads like an extended exercise in creative fusion that is somehow missing an essential ingredient. Perhaps Taylor was trying to do too much. Her rendering of this ‘wave of terror’ and ‘historic struggle’ may be cleverly written in parts, but overall it lacks feeling and as a consequence is underwhelming.
While appreciating the ever-constant need for proof reading in my own writing, and while I could, with a stretch, overlook the date apostrophe (‘1890’s’) in the back cover (and Amazon) blurb, it is astonishing to see that Hope Bassett and Rose Whipple’s names are spelled incorrectly. I suspect the author did not sign this off.
A year ago, in February 2020 I had a meeting with archivist Dr David Jones at The Perse Upper School in Cambridge. Dr Jones had kindly agreed to give a talk on the charities of Stephen Perse, at a forthcoming Cambridgeshire Association for Local History conference that, in the end, was cancelled because of COVID.
The theme of the conference was going to be, ‘The Charities that Began at Home: Historical Perspectives on Local Philanthropy.’ (thank you Antony Carpen for suggesting the excellent title). The other speakers we had lined up were Susan Woodall on the Cambridge Female Refuge; Tricia McBride on the Addenbrookes Charitable Trust; and Dr Evelyn Lord on Cambridge alms houses. Perhaps one day in the future we will be permitted to assemble for this fascinating programme.
Upon greeting me at The Perse, Dr Jones was most gracious about the history of Heffers that I’d written in 2016 (This Book is About Heffers). He was especially pleased to see a photograph in the book of John Doggett, a Cambridge gentleman who for decades, held court in the Trinity Street bookshop as a regular and loyal customer.
Several booksellers had spoken fondly about Mr Doggett when I interviewed them for my research. Suzanne Jones recalled his love of David Lean films and books by Charles Dickens. Kate Turner (née Hastings) always heard him from across the shop floor and remembered him eating her colleagues’ sandwiches (he was also spotted eating raw sausages on the gallery). Jean Clarke (known to her bookselling colleagues as Jean the Bean) remembered Mr Doggett answering the phone at Trinity Street if no-one was at the desk on the shop floor, shouting,
“There’s no-one here at the moment!”
He regularly enquired if there were any jobs going at Heffers, would talk about the ‘Beard Law’, and would stand at the front of the shop, yelling out the cast names from the 1947 film version of Oliver Twist.
In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Heffers Manager David Robinson, named Mr Doggett as their favourite regular customer,
“He has been coming into the shop forever. It used to be Thursdays and Saturdays but is now just Saturday mornings. He has his own chair and always wants the same questions answering—have we got any books on pigs, traction engines or the First World War? He wishes everybody who comes near him a Happy New Year, regardless of the date, and then happily shuffles out of the shop for another week. He can be a distraction, but Saturdays wouldn’t be the same without him.”
Aged 90, Mr Doggett sadly passed over to the eternal bookshop in 2018.
‘Nowt so queer as folk’
Not meaning to be rude, the phrase ‘nowt so queer as folk’ seems appropriate when it comes to depicting people at Heffers. I don’t mind saying that, mainly because members of my own family served over one hundred and twenty years with the firm. The shops were a haven for many characters and eccentrics – staff and customers. According to bookseller Richard Reynolds, the Trinity Street staff were all, in their way, eccentric. Perhaps this can be said about the book trade in general.
The bookselling side of the business at Heffers is remembered as being more ‘edgy’, although the stationery side at the shop in Sidney Street, Cambridge, had its fair share of eccentrics, as noted by retired Manager, Mr Norman Biggs who said,
“We had our moments. It makes life interesting, characters in the firm and in the customers.”
Staff shared many anecdotes about their colleagues, many long gone, such as a Sidney Street manager known as, ‘Barmy’ Clarke, who ran the Maps and Guidebooks department in the 1950s. Mr Clarke had perfected a way of avoiding having serve customers. From his counter, he could see the front door and when he saw someone approaching the shop he didn’t wish to serve, he would niftily step out the side door and re-enter from the front. Now, behind the customer, he was able to go up to them and say,
“Are you being served? Oh, I see you’re being taken care of.”
The different Heffers shops had their own distinctive cultures, very much separate worlds. There were moments when colleagues seemed to forget that they were there to provide a service, but then you might say that this was no different to any other organisation. Perhaps at Heffers, it was question of the extent to which idiosyncrasies were accommodated, as indeed many were, over many years.
Just like their customers, some booksellers would take a dislike to a particular book or author. Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and actively discouraged customers from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s.
“You don’t want to buy that old rogue”, he would say.
Considered ‘old school’ by then, colleagues would often observe Mr Littlechild ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.
Littlechild began his fifty-four-year career at the firm as an apprentice in 1903. During the First World War he had a spell as a prisoner of war. After the war ended, he returned to Heffers. Perhaps a more incongruous memory is that of Mr Littlechild in regular conversation with a favourite customer of his, English comedian and actor, Cyril Fletcher, who appeared as the Pantomime Dame in the Arts Theatre from 1949 to 1972, in shows written by his wife, Betty Astell.
Some booksellers took a liking not just to particular books, but to reading in general (and who can blame them?). Marion and Dudley Davenport, who both worked at the Petty Cury bookshop, remembered a colleague in the 1950s and ’60s who sat in a corner of his section reading for most of the time. Another would occasionally lose his temper at a particular book and flail around with it, knocking other books off the shelves.
The author, Julian Sedgwick, who worked at the main Trinity Street bookshop from 1991 to 2003, fondly recalled the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird customers”, who continually fascinated him. His most memorable included a beaten Chris Patten, fresh from losing his seat in the 1992 election, asking for advice on books about China. He was about to head to Hong Kong and left with a stack of books; and the President of Armenia with his hefty bodyguards bearing down on the Oriental Department, asking to see the Caucasus section. They dutifully examined the twenty or so titles but made no purchase. Julian also remembers surreptitiously watching Terry Waite while he quietly browsed the shelves in the basement following his release from captivity. His dignity and sense of calm fascinated him.
I can’t wait to get back into bookshops when the lockdown is over.
In a review earlier this year of Sue Slack’s ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’ (2018), I extolled the benefits of publications that are free from academic jargon. There are times, however, when authors can come across as too chatty, perhaps in an attempt to connect with a wider audience. Fenn’s overly casual tone and lack of comprehensive citations in, ‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’, is a case in point. At least she has an index, which Slack does not.
This is not to say that Fenn’s book is uninteresting but is does have significant drawbacks. An early red flag can be found in the Preface where she states, ‘The nineteenth century was just so sexy.’ (Fenn’s emphasis), signifying a certain lack of discernment in her approach to this complex topic. The chapter headings are:
Hustle and Bustle: The Unwritten Rules of Fashion and Courtship Beddings, Weddings and Bastards: Virginity, Pre-Marital Sex and the Curse of Illegitimacy Liberty, Fraternity, Fidelity: Marriage, Divorce and Adultery, Nineteenth-Century Style Lifting the Lid on Lust: Libido, Kinks and Sex Toys Gentleman’s Relish: The Rise of Commercial Pornography One Night with Venus, A Lifetime with Mercury: Sexual Health and Contraception Dark Desires: Prostitution, Philanthropy and Murder A Walk on the Wilde Side: Homosexuality in Victorian Britain Hidden in Plain Sight: Sexual Subtexts in Art and Literature Postscript: What Have The Victorians Ever Done For Us?
The headings are borne out by the main text, which suggests that Fenn is aiming at providing a more general perspective by giving her readers a broad scan of the subject matter in her short book. If so, she must have been standing well back, for she fails to account for a number of critical issues, including those relating to consent and to race.
From the outset, Fenn declares, ‘We must be careful to view previous eras through a contemporary lens, rather than with the judgement of modern insight’, but then does exactly that in several instances, albeit inconsistently as she appears to pick and choose which issues to remark upon, with ‘remark’ being the operative word. This is problematic. Whilst the contemporary context is important, critical analysis from today’s perspective is surely needed, especially on a topic such as this, as we attempt to get to grips with the way in which the abuses of past have, and continue, to shape the abuses of the present. It is certainly preferable to simply reproducing the contemporary perspective with little or no analysis, or worse still, glib comments that serve to reinforce the exploitation.
I would say that the book reads like a sixth-form essay but that would be doing sixth-formers a disservice, as no doubt, they would treat the evidence and its sources more critically. Take the issue of erotic photography. Fenn writes, ‘A brief internet search for ‘Victorian erotic photography’ will bring the happy viewer endless vintage images of explicit poses not much different in presentation to those one might see on the most hardcore of modern porn websites… Rather amusingly, the models have the bored half-smile so often seen on people in early photographs.’ This is inappropriate – on many levels.
Whilst ‘Sex and Sexuality in Victorian Britain’ is essentially light reading, I do wonder what Pen and Sword were doing in publishing it, and can only surmise that they were attracted by Fenn’s social media following; 4.2k Twitter followers, 1.2k followers on Instagram and a combined following of 3.9k on Facebook (as at 19 August 2020).
I appreciate how much effort goes into writing and producing a publication and understand that Fenn is now working on a history of the vampire in popular culture. Hopefully, she will take a more thoughtful and thorough approach next time.
Thoughts on Sue Slack’s book, ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’, interspersed with brief reflections on academic jargon, school history lessons, and imposter syndrome.
Slack’s highly illustrated and informative introduction to the Cambridge suffragist movement, presented in the style of an in-depth gazetteer, plugs an important gap in the narrative on the British votes for women campaign. Chapter One, entitled, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’, provides a useful overture, confirming the pivotal role of Cambridge in the campaign, and introducing some of the significant players, societies and events.
The book covers the topics of rural societies in Cambridgeshire towns such as Ely and March; the role of key Cambridge colleges (specifically Girton, Newnham, Hughes Hall and Homerton); suffragettes and militancy in Cambridge; the story of the Women’s Freedom League; ‘Suffering Gents’ who supported women’s suffrage; ‘Fighting Harridans’, women who opposed women’s suffrage; the impact of the First World War on the campaign; what happened after some women were given the vote in 1918, bringing the chronicle up to date by noting the issues of equal pay and opportunity in the context of The Fawcett Society’s continuing campaign for equal rights; and celebrating Cambridge women, including the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square on 24thApril 2018, one hundred years on from the Representation of the People Act.
This is not an ‘academic’ book, and is all the better for it. Slack herself says that she approached the subject from a local and family history perspective. In doing so, she tells the story through a series of portraits, cameos and reflections that are, thankfully, free from academic jargon
In 2019, Professor John R. McNeill, President of the American Historical Association, observed that obscure language is undemocratic; it reaches only a few initiates and excludes the great majority of readers (see his blog post, ‘Jargon in history writing shuts out the public’). He says that history is one of the few disciplines that allows efficient communication among specialists in ordinary language. The same cannot be said for my own discipline, sociology.
On completing my doctorate and a couple of research contracts at the University of East Anglia, I decided to quit academia in 2015 and focus on researching and writing social history, starting with the history of Heffers of Cambridge.
I now describe myself as a ‘social historian and author’, and whilst having worked incredibly hard to earn the title of ‘Dr’, I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud at gatherings when surrounded by proper historians who, unlike me, have higher degrees in History. At least the responses to my publications and illustrated talks have been favourable, and I particularly enjoy meeting fellow history enthusiasts.
From the beginning, Slack disabuses readers of the common myth that votes for women were won by the suffragettes led by the Pankhurst family, and explains the critical distinction between suffragette and suffragist. I could have done with this book as a teenage scholar in the 1970s. Whilst my secondary school history teacher, the memorable Mr Maxwell-Stuart of Chesterton, Cambridge, went beyond the confines of an unwritten national curriculum dictated by the emulation of grammar school convention, I do not recall any specific lessons on the movement for women’s suffrage. I do recall watching the television series, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ (written by a team of men) in 1974, and hero-worshipping Sylvia Pankhurst. Had I been better informed about Millicent Fawcett, I would perhaps have admired her more.
I did admire Mr Maxwell-Stuart, a colourful educator (despite turning up to school every day in a dark suit) with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. It was many years, however, before I pursued history in any meaningful way, apart from becoming an inveterate reader of biographies in my spare time. As Miss Haywood, the Principal of Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, wrote in 1978, ‘Julie seems to lack the confidence in her own ability that will in fact enable her to make the most of her gifts.’ My ‘A’ Level History grade was poor, and any plans to pursue a career in librarianship and archivism were shelved.
The confidence eventually began to bloom in late 1980, over two-hundred miles from home, at university in Bangor, North Wales, where I gained a respectable upper-second in ‘Social Administration’. Looking back at the study modules, I’m struck by their relevance to the multifarious and (conceivably) successful career I did eventually pursue, in the fields of public sector housing, equality and social policy, homelessness, victim support, higher education and social history. The modules included political sociology, crime, deviance and social control, the welfare state and the citizen, theories of social policy and income maintenance, health and personal social services, legal and political institutions, the development of the welfare state, and nineteenth century origins of social policy.
In her chapter on rural suffrage societies, Slack points out that their members were mainly made up of women with private means including ladies of the manor; members in Cambridge itself were often don’s wives or ladies associated with the University. In the villages, support was also given by shopkeepers, teachers, lawyers and doctors. Virtually no town or country working-class women signed-up.
In her foreword to Slack’s book, Emeritus Professor Mary Joannou notes that the history of the suffrage campaigns is not merely that of the socially privileged women, and refers to the ‘forgotten’ and ‘unknown’ women such as the college bedders, shop assistants, seamstresses and homeworkers. The women featured in Slack’s book were, however, mainly privileged, which may reflect just how difficult it is to research the hidden lives of those who were not. I am reminded of the invisibility of my nanna, Ethel Driver, who gave many years of loyal service as a college bedder in Cambridge, and who, according to college records, never existed. Nanna lived in a small terraced house in Christchurch Street, worked doggedly, and was devoted to her ‘boys’ on her staircase.
Watching the 2015 film, ‘Suffragette’, I was struck by the different trajectories of the mistresses and their servants who fought for the same cause. A review of the film by Dr Laura Schwartz in History Today rightly observes that it fails to address the tension between mistress and maid, ‘between the woman who didn’t wish to waste her life on domestic drudgery, and the woman she paid to ‘drudge’ in her place’. At least Slack and Joannou acknowledge the issue.
The inclusion of contemporary photographs in Slack’s book to illustrate locations, alongside a wide range of images from the archives, enhances the narrative and is especially useful to readers who are familiar with Cambridge today.
Many times in recent years, I have walked past my old primary school, St Luke’s in Victoria Road Cambridge, the location of a Women’s Suffrage Public Meeting during the campaign. Slack reproduces the poster for this meeting in her book.
Many archives are more accessible to the general public than people realise. That is, when we’re not in a pandemic lockdown doing our bit to protect those more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19, and the wonderful NHS teams who treat them. All facilities at 24th March 2020 are closed, and rightly so.
The lack of an index in Slack’s book is a significant shortcoming and, unless I am missing something, the author biography is irritating, as it refers to the author’s book soon to be published, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’.
Note to Amberley Publishing: pay more attention when checking the final proof.
The December 2019 publication in The Cambridge Independent, of my feature on Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’, was a timely reminder that I should be promoting my new illustrated talk on this intriguing episode from the twentieth century. Below is the title and some blurb. If you would like to book a talk for your group or society, please drop me an email – [email protected]
The strange tale of Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’
Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, Norah James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929. The novel was swiftly ruled obscene, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place neglected in favour of more esteemed names including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, which led to the establishment of the Obelisk Press, banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience. Her first novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation after World War One, and the story of its suppression, seen as a conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action, is fascinating. James went on to write over 75 publications including romantic novels, radio plays, short stories and articles. During the 1930s, she had a weekend cottage near Cambridge and people still talk about her. She died in 1979.
Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.
Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.
Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.
There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’. Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.
There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.
The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton
Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.
The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.
Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,
“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”
Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.
As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn. Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.
The first modern ghost story?
Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.
Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.
Haunted places or people?
The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’
Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.
On a visit to the market town of Arundel in the South Downs last year, I did what I always do and looked for second-hand books. At Kim’s Bookshop I found a 1972 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenistyn by David Burg and George Feifer, with around twenty press clippings tucked among the pages. I had great pleasure in giving this treasure to my son George, who had taken an interest in the author after borrowing my edition of Cancer Ward.
For me, I found a 1908 edition of the Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.
The book provides nearly two hundred example letters, covering social invitations, letters from parents to and about their children, letters relating to betrothal and marriage, letters of condolence, and letters relating to employment and business.
The general advice on how to write any letter warns the writer against ‘badinage’ which should never be attempted unless the parties are on very friendly terms. And even if they are on very friendly terms, certain conventions apply. The book devotes a not insignificant proportion of the section on ‘Practical Letter Writing’ to the topic of love letters, with strong encouragement to express one’s feelings in loving phrases that are ‘gentleman-like’ and ‘lady-like’,
‘With reference to “love-letters” no rule can be laid down; but even here the less “high-falutin” writing and bombast the better. Affection is very well, but extravagance is not unlikely to provoke ridicule, and that is fatal to a lover’s correspondence.’
This example letter in the romantic category caught my eye.
No. 150. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Affirmatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Our friendship, if I may use the word, has not had a long existence, but short though it has been, I have learned to appreciate it more than you can imagine. Indeed, were it not so, I should shrink from replying frankly to the question you ask. You ask me if I will accompany you to Africa, and share the trials of a missionary’s life there, and I answer that I will, believing it to be my duty to join in so noble an undertaking as the wife of one whom I esteem. I cannot, as your wife, aid you as I would like, and to the work I cannot bring more than a willing heart, but perhaps the Almighty will strengthen both my heart and my hands, and enable me to be useful as your helpmeet in your distant home. The day of your departure is, you say, drawing nigh, but, however near it may be, I can be ready. The sorest part of the preparation will be saying good-bye to those I love, and they are many. I am sure, however, that they will not tax my strength too far when they know in whose care I shall go. You will tell me what to do. And believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON
My immediate thought on reading this earnest epistle was that the template would be of no use to Jane Eyre.
I turned to my Blackie & Son edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and looked up the episode where St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane. He wants, nay demands, that Jane accompanies him to India,
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must––shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you––not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
“… do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”
The next example letter in the handbook affords a refusal.
No. 151. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Negatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Were I free to consult my own wishes, my answer to your kind and generous letter would be “Yes.” I have seen much in your character to admire since you first became a visitor at my father’s house. But my parents, to whom I showed your letter, consider that I am constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as that of Africa, and wish me to remain with them. They are, with myself, grateful for all that you say; and, were it not that you go abroad, their consent would have been willingly given. I feel myself, too, that I would be only an encumbrance even were I spared; and at a missionary station there should be no encumbrances. You will allow me to call myself your sincere well-wisher, if nothing more, and I hope that your efforts in Africa will be crowned with success. Believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON.
Alas, this template would also have been of no use to Jane, whose refusal of St. John is necessarily more forthright,
“God did not give me my life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”
Helpmeet – what does it mean?
In the example letter No150 (the acceptance letter), and in Jane Eyre, we find the term, ‘helpmeet’. St. John wants Jane to accompany him as his ‘helpmeet and fellow-labourer’.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, helpmeet is an ‘absurdly formed’ compound of the two words, ‘help’ and ‘meet’. With its biblical roots in The Book of Genesis, the later conjoined version came into prominent use during the nineteenth century. It was unknown to lexicographers Dr Samuel Johnson (d1784) and Noah Webster (d1843). The OED gives this definition of the term,
‘A fitting or suitable helper; a helpmate: usually applied to a wife or husband.’
We know that by ‘helpmeet’ St. John means wife, as he finds Jane’s offer of her companionship to India as his ‘sister’ unacceptable. He wants a wife and nothing less, “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death”.
The OED cites a usage of the term by Samuel Smiles in his 1873 book, Huguenots in France, which would aptly describe St. John’s impression of Jane Eyre as a, ‘true helpmeet for him, young, beautiful, rich, and withal virtuous.’ By the time of his marriage proposal, Jane’s inheritance had been divulged.
Whilst helpmeet is a term I don’t use myself, I did recognise it when reading the example letter No150. I was surprised therefore when several of my friends and associates had never heard of it.
The Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, writes an interesting post on, Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper? He concludes that the term is the product of ignorance, and acknowledges that our language constantly delivers such ‘freaks’, which through usage may even for a short while look like ‘well-formed creatures.’ Liberman tells us that in usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.
Here are a few examples of the term’s usage from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from the British Press.
‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’
In 1880, a Miss Farningham delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’ to a small gathering of the Huddersfield Young Men’s Christian Association. Her paper, especially prepared for women, set out the differences between helpmeets who ‘chiefly gave their hearts to the keeping of others’ and a hinderer, who, ‘was a dreamy thinker, whose thoughts led to nothing but thinking, no working’.
‘A Great Man’s Helpmeet’
A press feature in 1897 on Mrs Thomas A. Edison, the wife of the inventor, is headed, ‘A GREAT MAN’S HELPMEET’. It is stated that Mrs Edison is, ‘in the highest sense of the term, a helpmeet to her famous husband, and the great inventive genius esteems his wife’s advice of greater value than that of the shrewdest lawyer or most intimate friend.’ She is an ‘almost perfect wife and mother’.
Kings and Queens
In his 1936 Declaration to the Privy Council on his succession to the throne, King George VI stated, ‘With my wife as helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy task which lies before me.’ Twenty-five years earlier his father, King George V had used the same term in his own Declaration when referring to Queen Mary.
In 1947, the Fifeshire Advertiser featured advice for mothers on the topic of giving vitamins to infants, under the heading of ‘Mother’s Helpmeet’.
I was not aware of the term’s biblical origins which others have expanded upon, prompting different interpretations of the Bible and much debate on its true Christian meaning. Heather Farrell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, writes a blog, ‘Women in the Scriptures’ (with a sub-heading, ‘The greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus Christ’). Her post on, The real meeting of the term “Help Meet”, concludes that Eve was Adam’s complete spiritual equal and that women ‘have been given a stewardship that is uniquely theirs and which is every bit as important as men’s stewardship’.
I often find comments on a post just as interesting as the post itself. Amongst the comments on Farrell’s post is a declaration that the equality of women we see today, ‘is a direct result of the firearm, particularly the small, concealable revolver.’ Another comment declares that women are never equal to men, that the relationship is complementary and, ‘One leads the other follows, one is dominant the other is submissive, one penetrates the other is penetrated, one is the authority the other is the subordinate.’
Perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word in this instance. Even if I were Christian (which I’m not), I’d still find these views abhorrent and disturbing.
From a brief investigation it does appear that the modern use of the term ‘helpmeet’ has been commandeered by the Christian creed. Farrell’s take on equality between men and women is certainly rooted in her Christianity as she asserts that, ‘Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a saviour to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.’
This association is further extended by Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be his Help Meet, in which she writes about God’s design for a woman, as a ‘properly-fitted helper’ (in 2012 her husband, Michael wrote, Created to Need a Help Meet). A Christian fundamentalist, Debi Pearl declares, ‘There is no loss of dignity in subordination when it serves a higher purpose. God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him’, and, ‘God stands with you when you stand by your man, but you will stand alone if you insist on standing by your rights.’
The book, which contains case studies, advice giving responses to letters, and biblical reflections, is not necessarily representative of the diverse Christian communities across the U.S. and beyond. With nearly 1,000 reviews on Amazon.com (at 28 June 2019), it is described as toxic, dangerous, confusing, a holy grail, tough, raw, truthful and challenging.
A review by the Christian blogger Tim Challies (a pastor at the Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario) describes Pearl’s book as, ‘one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.’
I was unaware until now that the term ‘helpmeet’ is today being used to castigate women in the name of patriarchy and the Christian God. As Liberman might say, the use of this novelty is this case is not beautiful.
Although one of Pearl’s line did make me smile. In writing about Eve as God’s birthday gift to Adam, she says, ‘My husband, who is a learned student of the Word, assures me that Eve was indeed a birthday present, as seen by the fact that they were both wearing their birthday suits.’ (cue emoji).
Pearl then encourages her reader to greet their husband when he wakes up in the morning with an ‘inviting smile and a welcoming body’. A wife, according to Pearl, is created by God as a helper to suit the needs of her man, to make him complete and not to seek personal fulfilment parallel to him. A failing marriage in Pearl’s book is almost always put down to the wife, whatever the circumstances, and it is the wife who must change her game . For example, if the reader suspects that her husband is having an affair, she must use her feminine wiles to win him back,
‘Write love notes he will find when he gets to the office. Don’t ride him with suspicion. Don’t play detective and follow him around. But do call his work with a giggle in your voice, and give him fair warning that you expect “some loving” when he gets home, then giggle and ask him if he is blushing … Make sure you are looking radiant and delightfully in love.’
As I read on my smile disappears.
I reach for Jane Eyre, thinking if that’s what being a helpmeet means, I’d much rather, like Jane, resist the iron shroud of marriage with a man who, ‘regarded one but as a useful tool.’
Jane may in the end marry Mr Rochester with a love that is strengthened now she can really be useful to him (now he is blind), but in their partnership they are, ‘ever together … as free in solitude, as gay in company.’
If you have never heard of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah Margaret Ruth Cordner James, or of James herself, it is not surprising. Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929.
The novel was swiftly ruled obscene at the Bow Street Police Court in March 1929, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place that is neglected in favour of more esteemed names and better writers including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence (see my post on ‘Mr Reuben, Penguin Books & Lady Chatterley’) and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for James and ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, many banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience.
James lived from 1896 to 1979, and had numerous occupations. She was an art student at the Slade, a civil servant and trade union organiser at the Ministry of Pensions, a publicist for the English publisher Jonathan Cape, literary talent scout for American publisher William Morrow, a journalist, private secretary to parliamentary candidate Barbara Ayrton-Gould (mother of the sculptor, filmmaker and author, Michael Ayrton), and the Author’s Society representative on the National Book Council. In 1939 James joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and then the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was appointed Staff Captain in the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office and invalided out in 1943. She later became a borough councillor in Finsbury.
The oeuvre of a minor author
James wrote over 75 publications including novels, radio plays and a great many short stories and articles such as a 1938 feature for the Aberdeen Press and Journal entitled, ‘Are you a cheat in the marriage game?’
A 1936 review of a James novel, ‘The Lion Beat the Unicorn’, describes her works as a ‘gallery of very human men and women–people like you and your neighbour and the rest of the world.’ The review declares that family life is a theme with which James is very much at home. From the titles I’ve read thus far, this assessment captures the essence of James’ approach to her writing and points to her popular appeal amongst a certain demographic.
I wonder if any of James’ readers were aware that she was gay (or as one would say in her day, lesbian). Not many, I suspect. For the second half of her life James lived with her partner, and occasional co-author, Barbara Beauchamp. In her 1939 autobiography (dedicated to Beauchamp), James chose to avoid writing about her ‘emotional life’.
So far, I’ve read the following:
Sleeveless Errand (1929)
Hail! All Hail! (1929)
I Lived in a Democracy (1939) (autobiography)
Jake the Dog: An Animal Story (1933) (illustrated by Ruth Vale)
Mrs Piffy: A Child’s-Eye View of Life (1934) (illustrated with photographs by C.C. Gaddum)
Cottage Angles (1935) (illustrated by Gwen Raverat)
The Hunted Heart (1941)
Green Fingers and the Gourmet (1949), with Barbara Beauchamp (illustrated by Bruce Roberts)
Hospital Angles (1966) (not ‘Angels’ as listed by the bookseller)
In another 1936 review of another novel, ‘By a Side Wind’, described as ‘curiously mixed’, James’ story is said to be told with,
‘a wearying of sincere simplicity. To the simple-minded who are not afraid of writing that does not call a spade a garden implement, this queer mixture might be palatable.’
The romances are not really my cup of tea but I felt I should read a few to get an overall sense of James’ style. When my copy of ‘Hospital Angles’ arrived and I noticed that it was published by Hurst and Blackett, I must confess I couldn’t get Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket and their hilarious double entendres out of my mind. I can just hear them singing this line from ‘The Hunted Heart’,
‘His mind sped out the room, tossed forth from the high, bright column of his longing.’
Research and rumours
On reading James’ autobiography, it is not difficult to see that much of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is autobiographical, though I’m pleased to acknowledge that James’ real life took a very different turn to that of her protagonist, Paula Cranford. James’ life is not terribly well documented and I’m still piecing together a chronology and narrative with a mind to publishing a concise biography at some time in the future. I do have enough material for an illustrated talk and will add the topic to my current list of available topics for groups and societies (see page on this website).
I do know that for a number of years during the 1930s, James had a weekend cottage in Great Gransden, the village where I currently reside. I have our friend Val Davison, organiser of the Gransdens Society, to thank for introducing me to the life and work of James. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement of Dr Charles Turner, friend and village resident, whose aunt’s dog, Brandy, appears in ‘Jake the Dog.’
People do still talk about James’ weekend life in Great Gransden. There is rumour of a ménage à trois, but that is all it is, rumour. We know she jointly purchased the Old Cottage in West Street with Margaret and Frederick Voigt in the early 1930s and she mainly lived with Margaret in London whilst Frederick worked in Berlin for the Manchester Guardian. In 1929, James had travelled to America with Margaret (an American journalist and biographer, Margaret – formerly Margaret Goldsmith – had had a short affair in Berlin with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and went on to divorce Voigt in 1935).
James on the book trade
James’ autobiography is one of her more interesting tomes, not least because she had a spell working for the publisher, Jonathan Cape from 1926, and makes insightful observations of the book trade which are still relevant today. She observed the prosaic aspects of the business which involved, ‘sitting at a desk and calculating the price of paper per pound’, and acknowledged also, the excitement of the unknown whereby,
‘the whole thing was a gamble. Probably only one book out of five makes money for the publisher. Although you think that you can generally guess which of the five is a winner, you’re not always right.’
Her specific role at Cape was in the ‘queer game’ of publicity and she astutely recognised that a book sells if people talk about it. For James, a book has to be ‘talk-worthy’,
‘One can suggest, in various ways, to people, the book they should be speaking about, but if they haven’t the urge to talk, they won’t. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important things in selling a book.’
And on authors, she writes, ‘Then there were the authors, quite important people–although not so important as they often imagined.’
The plot is uncomplicated and takes place over two days in the early 1920s. Paula Cranford, jilted by her lover, resolves to commit suicide. She meets Bill Cleland and together they wander around London night clubs meeting Paula’s bohemian associates, ‘The Crowd’. Paula and Bill talk all night at her place about their respective families and circumstances, and form a suicide pact, planning to drive a hire car over a cliff on the coast. They drive towards Hove, break down in Brighton and spend the night in a hotel where they meet with a travelling revue company. Bill has second thoughts about suicide and Paula persuades him to return to his wife. She then ends her own life as she had planned before meeting Bill.
Alexander Lockwood, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, observes that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ fails to support post-war efforts to renew British identity through a ‘conservative modernity’ of fixed social relations, marriage and women’s domesticity. During the 1920s the tide was certainly turning, as Patricia Fara, in her 2018 examination of science and suffrage in the First World War (‘A Lab of One’s Own’), concludes, when she declares that however much traditionalists argued for a return to the old conventions, the upheavals of wartime had proved that social change was possible,
‘gender boundaries were more severely challenged and there was no going back to exactly the same situation.’
The feminist cause does not appear, however, to be a primary concern in James’ perceived rejection of the old conventions in this novel. One wonders if her protagonist, Paula, is wedded to any cause at all, as she rejects life itself and all that it entails. The clue is in the title, as given in this definition from The Oxford Dictionary which James herself cites at the beginning;
‘Sleeveless Errand :– Ending in, or leading to nothing’
(Meaning a fool’s errand, this now obsolete phrase is found in Act Five of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.)
We know from early on in the novel that Paula is planning to commit suicide. We even know how she will do it. But why?
Various suggestions have been put forward, including the post-war malaise, an augmentation of the disappointment that characterised ‘feminine middlebrow’ fiction and the failure of hope, a profound boredom, and a rejection of the internal reflection that was afforded by the flowering of psychoanalysis in contemporary popular culture.
The literary critic, Edward Garnett, who wrote the Preface for the First Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), had called the novel, ‘a real diagnosis of the War generation’s neurotics’. He had also concluded, in his Preface, that the novel’s censorship was a case of, ‘moral righteousness and official Pecksniffery’.
In the Preface, Garnett cites Arnold Bennett’s assessment of the novel as,
“an absolutely merciless exposure of neurotics and decadents, and I should say that the effect of it on the young reader would have been to destroy in him all immoral and unconventional impulses for ever and ever.”
James declared her novel was indeed about neurotics but was not of itself, neurotic. The post-war malaise is certainly not ignored, and Paula Cranford has her own distinctive take on happiness, the moral code, pacifism, the Church, democracy, sexual control and corruption, and marriage. Whilst declaring that her generation seems not to have any moral values at all, Paula says,
“as a whole, my generation of women is rotten to the core… We sneer at goodness and decency whenever we come across it. We’re bored with people who aren’t bawdy. We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner. We despise people who don’t swill booze down as we do,”
She does at least pose a determinant,
“Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all… it’s in the next generation of children that the chance of a better future lies. The only thing my sort can do is to contaminate them as little as possible.”
Lockwood acknowledges that boredom was a common experience in the interwar period. Paula’s boredom is manifested in her refusal to wallow in self-analysis. In her conversations with Bill, Paula refers to her own ‘handicap of bad heredity’ and calls herself a ‘hopeless egoist’ and a ‘neurotic emotionalist’. But having done so, she then rejects the modern way of introspection (a way that could possibly lead to a reason for living) and, ultimately, any perceived notion of a noble obligation to society, as she tells Bill,
“I’m not going from any quixotic idea that because I’m part of the plague spot I ought to; no, it’s simply that I’m unutterably bored.”
Bill thinks to himself,
“She’s right to die; she at any rate is damned.”
The publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’
In 1928, Eric Honeywood Partridge of Scholartis Press accepted the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ for publication. He paid James a £25 advance and received pre-orders from booksellers for around 1,500 copies (the cover price was 7s6d). (Partridge went on to become a renowned lexicographer. I recently bought a 1937 edition of his ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which I could not find an entry for the phrase, ‘sleeveless errand’, or indeed, ‘fool’s errand’.)
James had previously offered the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to her employer, Jonathan Cape, who, whilst appreciating a ‘glowing’ 1928 assessment by Garnett (‘A very interesting novel very well written’), was concerned about upsetting his authors who might have thought she had neglected the promotion of their books for her own writing. In 1939 James writes,
‘I had to agree with him that it might lead to difficulties with some of our authors. I knew how touchy they could be.’
She had also offered the manuscript to the Hogarth Press, meeting with Leonard and Virginia Woolf who turned it down (later on, following the book’s suppression, Virginia described it as ‘vulgar’ but not offensive).
An obscene book
The British Establishment condemned ‘Sleeveless Errand’ with incredible speed, effectively obliterating the very act of publication. Although according to Neil Pearson in his 2007 history of Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press (see below), a few collectors and copyright libraries retained a copy from that first print run, technically retaining it as the first edition. Copies had also been sent to reviewers and to Partridge’s contacts in America.
It was reported that on the evening of 20 February 1929, the Police seized 517 copies. They called upon Eric Partridge at home, escorted him to his office in Museum Street, and confiscated all 289 copies therein including 39 that bore James’ signature. They listed the names of all who had received copies; ten booksellers, the distributor Simpkin Marshall (250 copies) and the exporter William Jackson and Company (100 copies). According to one report, Scotland Yard posted a police constable outside the premises of a bookseller who had placed the book on display in his shop window whilst taking a short holiday. They also visited a reviewer and seized her advance copy, and 1,000 unbound sheets from the The Garden City Press Ltd in Letchworth.
James was oblivious to these events and in 1939 recalls,
‘On the day of publication I walked to the office in Bedford Square, and, on my way, passed a news placard saying: “Woman’s Novel Seized.” So far was I from connecting SE with that news item, that I never even stopped to buy a copy of the paper.’
Just three months earlier James had attended the trial of another banned book, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. It was the first time she had ever been inside a courtroom. James had got to know Hall through Jonathan Cape who had asked her to read Hall’s manuscript when he was considering publication. Hall and James both frequented the Cave of Harmony, a club owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), a popular meeting place for London intellectuals. James writes in her autobiography,
‘I found her [Hall] an extremely highly-strung woman, with one of the kindest hearts in the world… The Well of Loneliness was a fine and sincere piece of work, and I think it did a great deal of good in enlightening people on a subject that had been too long hidden under a veil of dirty innuendo or shamed self-conscious silence.’
Ostensibly banned because of its obscene language (see below), although in the American edition only three words were cut from the original text, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ tends to be coupled with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by academics and historians. The challenge that these two books represented to the patriarchal status quo has been observed as a factor in their censorship. Angela Ingram, for example, declares that both novels, in their different ways, show how ‘utterly unalluring’ heterosexual life often was.
The two novels have, however, fared very differently. Initially republished in 1949, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ has over the years gained what Harrison calls, a ‘cultural legitimacy’ that is denied to ‘Sleeveless Errand’. But then ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was a landmark in the history of queer literature.
In 1929, the writer and publisher Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, penned a lampoon entitled, ‘The Well of Sleevelessness’, also published by Scholartis Press.
The British Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (a public morality campaigner who had been instrumental in the prosecution of ‘The Well of Loneliness’), sent a copy of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He had received his copy from the editor of the Morning Post with a covering note declaring the book obscene. A Home Office briefing prepared by a senior civil servant declares,
‘It is astonishing that such a book could be written by a woman, but the authoress must be a woman whose command of foul, obscene, indecent and profane language is, I should hope, unique amongst women who can write.’
The Home Office file for the prosecution itself is missing but there is a transcript of the trial and The Times reported the court proceedings on 5 March 1929. The case against the book, as put by Mr Percival Clarke, supporting the summons on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, is reported accordingly,
‘The book itself was a novel of 239 pages. The story concerned a period of two days, and was told in the form of a conversation by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book. He (counsel) did not pretend to be a literary critic, but it seemed to him to be degrading that such a collection of obscene matter should be published by any respectable firm. It was the aim of some writers to pass off as literature matter which could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and which tended to excite unhealthy persons; and to command a market by writing daring and corrupt stories. One thing noticeable about this book was that the name of God or Christ was taken in vain more than 60 times in a way which shocked. Mr. Clarke quoted from the book the saying of one character, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink”, and said that profanity could not possibly be justified, even by the characters in the book.’
The Crown Prosecutor’s file highlighted certain lines from the novel, such as, ‘We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner.’
Mr Clarke is reported in The Times as stating, “There are decent-minded people who read books and appreciate some of the beauties in English literature, and they look to the strong arm of the law to check and prevent the broadcasting of such foul stuff as this.”
And for the defence, The Times reports Mr Sandlands as stating, “There were a lot of horrible things in it, but the object of the book was to hold up to horror the mode of life and the language and habits of a certain section of the community… far from tending to deprave and demoralise, this book tended entirely the other way. Shakespeare’s works and the Old Testament mentioned horrible things in order to condemn them or to exhort against their use… It called attention to the despair and hopelessness and waste of the life alluded to by contrasting it with a normal life.”
Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was certain that the book would, “suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure character.” He made an order for the destruction of the seized copies; 785 of the 799 were destroyed (there are questions over exactly how many copies Scholartis Press had in the first print run).
Later, in 1939, James writes,
‘I could not understand why. The book had been read by a number of well-known literary people in manuscript, and no one had suggested that I should make any cuts in it. But, apparently, it was called an obscene book–simply because of the words used in it. I would have cut them out willingly if I’d been told it was necessary. But I’d never been told that. It never occurred to me that it would be considered obscene to let the characters in it use the language they used in real life… I don’t believe the book was obscene. I do know that it was a kind of sermon against the stupidity and futility of the life a section of the post-war generation was leading.’
Harrison acknowledges that the official reason for the novel’s suppression cannot help but be attributed to James’s own supposed naïve or superficial–but ultimately heretical–attempt at “being frank”. Its vocabulary was crude, but according to James and her publisher, not intentionally obscene. In a contemporary interview with The Times, James described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as “an extremely moral book and a condemnation of the people and the life it portrays.” Eric Partridge was of the opinion that the novel had been suppressed for political reasons, with obscenity being a ‘mere pretext’.
Paris and United States editions
An English writer in Paris, Jack Kahane, was also quick off the mark. Having followed the ‘Sleeveless Errand’ case, he decided to publish an English-language edition in France and secured the rights accordingly. James stipulated that half of her royalties from the Kahane deal be paid to Eric Partridge by way of recompense for the loss of income brought about by the trial. She also agreed to place her next novel, ‘Hail! All Hail!’ with Scholartis, which came out in 1929 with this introduction,
‘Miss James’s first novel, Sleeveless Errandwas suppressed. Her new story deals most attractively with life in the English countryside and with a poor district in West Central London. Hail! All Hail! shows an undoubted advance on Sleeveless Errand, which Mr. Arnold Bennett declared to be well constructed and well written, and to disclose a new talent for fiction. Here the pattern of a certain family’s life is worked out with skill and a rare sympathy.’
Kahane’s first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published in April 1929 (copies appeared in French bookshops as early as the end of March 1929). Kahane paid Edward Garnett five hundred francs for the preface and set the cover price at one hundred francs. The resulting profit of four hundred thousand francs effectively kickstarted Kahane’s publishing career. He went on to establish the Obelisk Press and re-printed several banned books including Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Radclyffe Hall.
An American edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published by William Morrow and sold well (around 20,000 copies), enabling James to buy a second-hand car and a typewriter (Morrow also gave James the job of representing his firm in Britain as a literary scout). ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was translated into at least six other languages but has never be republished in Britain.
Following the publication in America, Basil Dean, the English film director and theatrical producer, told James that he was quite taken with the book and thought it would make a good play. James, who had high hopes, wrote a script which Dean showed to Noel Coward, who found it to be ‘too defeatist’. The American actress, Talullah Bankhead, told James she thought Paula was not a nice character, and declared, “actresses don’t like being thought not nice–on the stage or off it!”
Wren Sidhe in her 2001 doctoral thesis, considers ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to be ‘an indictment of the generation responsible for the prosecution of the war’ and observes as a matter of interest, the fact that court reports neglect this aspect of the text in favour of one which accuses the writer and publisher of immorality. The novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation. This perspective points to the novel’s suppression as a case of conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action; a conclusion reached by Harrison who calls ‘Sleeveless Errand’ a ‘marginalized and possibly marginal novel’.
‘Sleeveless Errand’ certainly has a place in censorship and publishing history and, as Lockwood points out, it contributed to the establishment of the Obelisk Press and was ‘the first link in the chain’ of their publication of other banned yet more enduring books.
Opinion on the quality of James’ writing in ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is divided. In 1934, T. S. Matthews, literary editor of Time Magazine, described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as, ‘A story of post-war London; one of the few convincing suicide stories I remember.’ In contrast, Neil Pearson describes it as ‘a deeply terrible book, maudlin, melodramatic and fatally upstaged by its obvious and unabsorbed influences.’ A review recently published on Sheffield Hallam University’s blog on popular fiction 1900-1950, concludes the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper.
Whilst the subject matter of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ holds much interest, I personally find James’ writing at times clunky and guileless. I’m not offended by the novel’s content, though I suspect there are those today who would find certain terms unacceptable, including the ‘n’ word and, like me, would disagree with Bill’s private thoughts on women and rape.
The story of the book and its censorship would make an excellent drama, especially if placed in the capable hands of British playwright and director, Stephen Poliakoff, who has so successfully tackled a number of intriguing episodes in twentieth century history.
Durability is something that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ lacks, as it is still ‘quarantined from literary expression’.
Perhaps it is time for a new British edition, with or without expurgation.
Brief bibliography, in addition to James’ works cited above:
In a previous post on ‘Mazes, opium and publishing deals’, I noted that anyone who wanted Heffers of Cambridge to publish their book had to be interviewed by ‘Mr Heffer’ – most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or his son, ‘Mr Reuben’. By the early twentieth century, Heffers of Cambridge, the bookseller, stationer, printer and publisher was, ‘known all over the world’.
The author and self-proclaimed mystic, Aelfrida Tillyard, described by her biographer Sheila Mann as a ‘forgotten 20th Century writer’, appeared to have had a good working relationship with Mr Ernest (son of the firm’s founder, William Heffer). Heffers published seven of her titles between 1910 and 1926.
Cambridge born, Aelfrida (1883-1959) was the daughter of nonconformists, Alfred and Catharine Tillyard. Alfred was editor of the Cambridge Independent Press and Catharine, a staunch advocate for women’s higher education (Antony Carpen writes about Catharine in his ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog).
The relevant volume of the Heffer publishing diaries is unfortunately missing and I cannot ascertain the exact contractual terms between the firm and Tillyard. I can, however, piece together a cameo that reveals yet another aspect to the fascinating history of Heffers.
The Tillyard titles published by Heffers are:
To Malise and other poems (1910) 2s 6d Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard (1913) 5s Bammie’s Book (1915) The Garden and the Fire (1916) 2s 6d The Making of a Mystic (1917) 2s 6d Verses for Alethea (1920) Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) 7s 6d and 3s 6d
To Malise and other poems
To Malise was published by subscription and, as Mann reports, we do not know if Tillyard covered her costs. The poems contained in the volume are intensely personal, detailing her husband Constantine’s courtship of her and the early years of their marriage. Mann describes Tillyard’s dedication, ‘À toi’, and inscription, ‘to my perfectly beloved husband’ as simultaneously fulsome, truthful and duplicitous. The poems revealed Tillyard’s misery and desperation for freedom from the marriage, in contrast to her professed happiness at the time; ‘I wonder if I shall ever be quite as happy again’. Anyone with the slightest inclination of Tillyard’s true feelings about her marriage would have understood, as Constantine must have done, the significance of this humiliating publication. Was Ernest Heffer aware of the situation? It is unlikely. Whilst we cannot know what Tillyard said in the ‘interview’ with her prospective publisher, we can surmise that her case for publication would have focussed upon the higher themes and her potential sales appeal as an author – she did once describe herself as, ‘better than Christina Rossetti’.
It is not surprising that the relationship between Tillyard and Constantine Cleanthes Graham continued to deteriorate. Later, in November 1917, she writes in her diary:
‘I tried not to be hurt that he was so completely indifferent to my interests & pursuits, and, incidentally, extremely rude to me over my opinions… but it is difficult not to feel chilled when one’s husband says “I do not think thy opinion is worth having.”’
‘This morning he asked me whether I expected to make any money out of my books. I answered no, not a penny. And then he suggested my doing some war work & hinted that he thought I was wasting my time.’
They divorced in 1921.
Cambridge Poets 1900-1913
Mann describes the excitement stirred up by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1913 lectures, especially his call for Cambridge to ‘take the lead in English poetry once more’ (having recently edited the 1912 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse). Tillyard was prompted to call on Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’) by appointment at Jesus College, armed with a proposal for a ‘scheme of Cambridge poets’. He approved her proposal and even agreed to pen an introduction. Tillyard reported in her diary that upon leaving ‘Q’, she ‘raced to Heffers and told [her] victory’. She also reported that she and ‘Young Heffer’ began to make plans. Presumably, she is distinguishing between Heffer senior (Ernest’s father, William) and Heffer junior (Ernest himself), seeing that Ernest was eight years older than Tillyard.
In writing about the production of the resulting publication, Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard, Mann acknowledges Ernest Heffer’s greater knowledge of the world of publishing. He would have been aware of a forthcoming title, Oxford Poetry 1910-13, and he suggested that Tillyard include poetry written by Cambridge poets between 1900 and 1913. I wonder what Ernest would have made of the Birmingham Daily Post review in which the paper, ‘contemplated with considerable astonishment, but little admiration’, the inclusion of twenty pages of poetry written by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Mann sees this as an early indication of Crowley’s influence on Tillyard, partly because his poems had most likely been written before 1900 (he was at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1895-1898) and therefore did not fit her stated selection criteria. Those who are intrigued by the story of Tillyard’s relationship with ‘Crowley and Crowleyism’, and his Ceremonial Magic, will find a comprehensive account in Mann’s biography.
For details about negotiations between the author and publisher for the publication of this anthology, we just have Tillyard’s personal diary to go on and she was clearly excited about the book. She must have felt it to be a positive omen when Heffers agreed to bear all the expenses and divide the profits with her. Ernest also sought an independent opinion on the book from Maynard Keynes prior to drawing up a contract, but this was not forthcoming and he settled instead for ‘Q’s blessing’.
By 1913, Ernest Heffer (1871-1948) was a respected publisher and bookseller. The fourth son of the firm’s founder, he had been a sickly child of a studious disposition. Ernest learned his trade at the Heffers Fitzroy Street shop which had a thriving Children’s Book Department. During the 1880s, the firm’s connection with the Cambridge Sunday School Association provided a business breakthrough when they began to supply Sunday School prizes. Ernest tells a tale of the time when he recommended Marryat’s Japhet in Search of a Father, the story of a foundling in search of his father, as a Sunday School prize. Evidently, his selection was not well received, as the vicar he recommended it to threw it back at him after having read it.
Despite such early hiccups, Ernest went on to play a significant role in building up the bookselling side of the business, overseeing the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896. He seemed equally at ease in commercial and literary circles. Ernest attended the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce in January 1917 and also served as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As his son, Reuben declared, Ernest, ‘blew the stuff of books into the firm’. His obituary in The Times described Ernest as:
‘a bookseller in charge who knew something about the insides of books. If he found you dipping into a newly published book he might strongly recommend it, having read it himself the night before, or on the other hand, he might urge you not to buy such rubbish … Both Cambridge and the book trade have lost a “character”.’
The Making of a Mystic
On 22 July 1917, Tillyard took her manuscript of The Making of a Mystic to Heffers for a meeting. Ernest quoted a cost of £40 for a 120-page publication and quickly agreed to act as the publisher. Tillyard writes on 24 July, ‘Quite an exciting day. Heffer says he thinks they will “love to publish” my book’. The contract was not signed until 13 September, shortly after the final manuscript had been submitted for printing. On 11 November, Tillyard writes:
‘I went to the works to see about some labels for Constantine, & asked about my book. “Oh!” cried Mr Frank Heffer “Fate & the Gods are against us! The machine broke down and –“ a long tale of woes. I was prepared to learn that the book would not be out before Christmas, when he added “But you can have an advance copy today”. It quite took my breath away! What is more, I got five copies. I learn too, that 130 copies have already been ordered!! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.’
Frank Heffer (1876-1933) was the second youngest son of William and Mary Heffer. He had had to have a leg amputated as a child. Ernest wrote of his brother, ‘what he lost in the leg, he made up in animal spirits’, and described him as ‘having the face of a saint; but mischief was always in his vicinity’. Frank studied Medicine at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but was brought into the business in 1900. He became managing director of the firm’s printing works, after Heffers obtained the Black Bear Press (Dixon’s Printing Works Ltd) in 1911.
Tillyard’s literary prescience
Tillyard had a number of publishers over the years. It is interesting to note her title published in 1930, not by Heffers, but by Hutchinson. Concrete: a Story of Two Hundred Years Hence, is a novel that depicts a dystopian world following the collapse of civilization in the twentieth century via various events including a revolution of the proletariat in the Western world, a plague that wipes out three-quarters of the human race, and a repetition of the Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. It is now 2126, the ‘Age of Reason’, an international civilization. Religion is banned and performance of any religious ceremony is punishable by death. Britain is governed locally by the Eugenist Party, with absolute power over human reproduction. The population is divided into eugenic groups, the lower of which are forbidden to propagate. Males are not allowed to marry before thirty. Biologically unfit individuals are euthanatized.
The president of the British Empire oversees a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Reason, headed by an official called ‘Big Brother’. There is also a Ministry of Aesthetics, responsible for propaganda. Described by American editor and scholar of science fiction, Everett F. Bleiler, as a ‘drab dictatorship’, the state in Tillyard’s future Britain is characterized by ubiquitous spying, ruthless thought control and a ready death penalty. The Western Morning News & Mercury declares that Concrete strikes a topical note as Tillyard pictures a world in which Sovietism is triumphant, religion abolished, and the reign of reason inaugurated. This new world is comfortable enough materially, but its inhabitants are thoroughly bored with life. The paper asks, will religion return and help them find a meaning in existence? As Concrete was published in 1930, it is difficult not to assume that her writing influenced both Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Tillyard’s protagonist, Alaric, works at the Ministry of Aesthetics and Orwell’s Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. Both are subversives but only one finds redemption.
Originally submitted for a religious novel competition run by Hodder and Stoughton, Mann describes Tillyard’s novel as an attempt to bring the world to light that ended in darkness – sales did not go well. Tillyard put this down to her publisher, Hutchinson, noting they were not being taken seriously and they were ‘known to be circulating library trash’. It is interesting that Mann writes about Concrete in her chapter on ‘Rubbish that will sell’. Tillyard’s indifference to domestic affairs and her failure to economise meant she needed to make money from her writing. I wonder how the novel might have fared had it been published by Heffers.
I came across Tillyard’s connection with Heffers quite by chance, when reading her 1917 diary at the Girton College Archive for another project. Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Mann’s 2013 ‘novel biography’ of Tillyard, Hints of a Perfect Splendour. It is a tour de force and a joy to read.
I continue to discover more about the history of Heffers and regularly give illustrated talks on the topic to groups and societies in and around Cambridge, and beyond. If you would like to book a talk, do get in touch – [email protected]
I will soon visit Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, to look at the Tillyard family monuments. The cemetery is located close to where I grew up.
And finally, I have ordered a copy of Tillyard’s biography of her aunt, Agnes E. Slack (1926), as I am interested in the history of Methodism and the Temperance Movement.
It seems the older I get, the more ‘joined-up’ my research and writing becomes.