Thursday, July 22, 2010


More poking about the homes of the literary great and the good this week with a visit to Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford. Reminiscent of Walpole’s project, here is another attempt to recreate a Medieval atmosphere, this time by a man who fancied himself as a Scottish laird. It’s a lovely house on the banks of the River Tweed, which flows by wide and fast at the bottom of walled gardens. Inside is a harmony of stained glass, carved wood, bosses, finials, marble, ebony, swords and armour. There’s also a display of items Scott – rather gruesomely - picked up on the battlefield of Waterloo including a French eagle, a Polish shako, cuirasses. Tacky souvenir collecting is clearly not a new invention.

When I went to Monk’s House recently I was struck by a reference in the guidebook to Virginia Woolf’s light wearing of the mantle of literary greatness. This kind of hyperbole makes you shudder, but I suppose people do get carried away, especially when talking about their friends. (The remark was made by one of the Woolfs’ guests.) Imagine how much I quaked over the Abbotsford guide. Here I read of Scott’s “literary career without parallel”, learned that he is “the greatest of Scotland’s sons”, that his fiction was not only “to change the world’s fiction” but “transformed the way all subsequent novelists viewed the world”, and was told that he “pioneered both the historical and psychological novel”.

Now, I’m all for recognising genius where I see it but this seems to be doing it strong. Scott’s reading as a young man included Richardson and Burney. Are these novelists who had no grasp of the psychological? He also read the classics, including the Aeneid, which does not strike me as a text entirely devoid in understanding of the wellsprings of human behaviour. Perhaps Scott had not heard of fellow-Scot’s Joanna Baillie’s Plays on the Passions, published in 1798, in which she “attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind, each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy”. It seems strange considering that he wrote the prologue to her play The Family Legend and that they corresponded for years. Baillie was as well-regarded as Scott, to whom she was compared by contemporaries. My guide book suggests that Scott “produced work on a scale far beyond that of...any... Scottish or British writer bar Shakespeare”. Baillie’s name too has been linked with Shakespeare. Harriet Martineau commented that Baillie had been told “every day for years...that she was second only to Shakespeare”. And if Scott invented the historical novel, what did Sophia Lee think she was doing in 1785 with The Recess, set in the reign of Elizabeth I?

I do not doubt that Scott was a great novelist and in fact I admire his work, having read a great deal of it over the years, and The Antiquarian in the last few months. What I object to is the idea of the Original Genius, the innovator who comes from nowhere and achieves wonderful things without any reference to the work of predecessors or contemporaries. Scott did not invent the historical novel, although he may, arguably (and I only say arguably mind; not having investigated the matter I cannot draw any firm conclusion) have extended its boundaries, or he may have pioneered a certain type of historical novel. Nor did he invent the psychological novel, whatever that may be. The term seems to me to be redundant: I have yet to read any novel that lacked any sense of the psychological. Nor (referring back to my guidebook) did he invent pathetic fallacy: since The Epic of Gilgamesh natural phenomena have mirrored and symbolised human crises. Nor was he the first writer in whom romance gave way to realism. Early women’s fiction is littered with romances in which the heroine ends up ruined, dead, or both and we are reminded that, dress it up how you will, love was a dangerous game for women. I’ll mention only Eliza Heywood, who (if we are to play the pioneer game) beat Richardson to it at “writing to the moment”.

I admit that this kind of gush is easy to mock, and of course I don’t expect a literary treatise in a guidebook. An enthusiast must praise his hero. But isn’t being appreciated for what one has achieved rather than what one has not the best form of tribute? Tell me that Scott took the historical novel in new directions, that he brought a particular insight to his delineation of character, that he described the interaction between humanity and landscape with a sensitivity all his own, and his stature as a novelist will make much more sense to me than that he is the greatest this or the pioneering that when I know perfectly well that such statements are either meaningless or not quite accurate.

For information on Abbotsford see

Friday, July 9, 2010

Happy Birthday Penguin

I had a fascinating day and a half last week looking at penguins. I wasn’t at the zoo, but attending as much as I could of the University of Bristol’s three day conference celebrating Penguin’s 75th birthday. Bristol, the birthplace of Allen Lane, is home to the Penguin Archive, which contains editorial files, correspondence, photographs, papers from the Chatterley trial, and a collection of Penguin books from 1935 to date.

It was an Aladdin’s Cave of bookery. I started with the Reading Penguin 1 panel. George Donaldson, of the University of Bristol, talked about the clash of academic and commercial interests between David Daiches, general editor of the Penguin English Library (also known as the Penguin Classics Library), and the company. Penguin wanted introductions that addressed the “general reader” rather than academics and students, whereas Daiches felt that it was important that the introductions were academic and authoritative. Daiches eventually resigned over the issue. An amazing history, which caused me to wonder who was this “general reader”? Penguin must have wondered too, for they soon left this elusive figure to his own devices and aimed the Classics at sixth formers and under graduates.

Andrew Sanders of the University of Durham, who edited a Penguin Classics Romola, characterised the Penguin English Library as a “golden age”, which he took to be aimed at the “intelligent educated reader”. The list shaped what he read, and covered a range of literature ranging from classics, gospels, histories, novels, and from the 80s more modern novels. He praised Penguin for bringing out texts such as Clarissa and Scot’s Waverley. In a later talk someone commented that the Penguin Clarissa was not a comfortable read because it was so big! I read the Penguin edition for my MA and remember getting looks of amazement in cafes and waiting rooms when I hauled it out of my bag – but it was a marvellous read and I’m grateful to Penguin for making this and other wonderful texts easily available to this particular reader.

The highlight of the day for me was Simon Eliot of the University of London who took us back to the time when the general reader might be an Amenhotep or Tutankhamun with their noses buried in a “parchment back”. For all book history, said Eliot, begins with a reader – “a real reader”. He went on to set Penguin in a long history of flimsy, cheap texts ranging from pro-forma style Books of the Dead, an attempt to mass produce Martial’s work, chapbooks, ballads, serial publishing, and lurid thrillers on cheap paper with floppy covers.

Eliot may have been my highlight – I’m fascinated by the history of the book – but Christopher Ricks wasn’t far behind in the beaming stakes. He gave a witty, learned talk touching on the theme of patronage, and described his time as an editor of some of the Penguin Classics. Add to this talks on poetry, and a Q and A panel of Penguin people and you can imagine what a day I had!

I was back in the morning for the Penguin Marketing Panel. John Hitchin, Penguin’s first Marketing Director, told us abut Penguin in the 60s, when they launched Laurie Lee, Edna O’Brien’s second novel, Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, the Penguin Poets series, and a host of other great works.

Dr Samantha Rayner, Senior Lecturer in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, gave an absorbing talk False Colours: Pan, Penguin and the Challenges of Marketing Historical Fiction. False Colours is the title of a Georgette Heyer novel, as if you didn’t know. (Actually, I didn’t.) Heyer, who was originally published by Pan, had strong views about her book covers. In the 50s the covers reflected the film genre, which was popular at the time. Covers in the 70s and 80s were more restrained with images in medallions, but incorporated contemporary hairstyles and makeup. Heyer herself liked the covers designed by Artur Barbosa – you can see examples of his work at several fan websites
( has quite a few images). When in 1966 Penguin took on False Colours Heyer was not impressed; she thought their first design was cheap and nasty. An abstract effort failed to win her approval; she objected that it gave no idea of what the book was about. (You can see more Heyer covers including Penguin’s 1966 effort at, which is a prĂ©cis of an earlier talk by Dr Rayner.) Eventually Heyer went back to Pan.

Dr Rayner’s talk was followed by Shanyn Altman on The Hayseed Chronicles, a book which was the doubtful beneficiary of what seems to me the weirdest marketing campaign any publisher has ever launched. It included spoof newspaper items and a website full of fake information, which apparently fooled even a BBC presenter. Unfortunately the campaign flopped and the book has not sold well. I can’t think of a publicity stunt more likely to put me off a book than this one. Did Penguin really think that making a fool of its readers was the best way to make them feel well-disposed towards the book? However, mine is not a view shared by Shanyn Altman, who thought the campaign was “brilliant”.

The morning ended with the Reading Penguin 2 panel, which ranged across issues around paratext, censorship, and a look at the first ten Penguin titles, known as the First Batch. Then off for a tour of the Penguin Archive at the University, and into the heart of Aladdin’s Cave. I’ve been told that lists are an absolute no-no in prose. It’s a view with which I happen to disagree, and in the case of the Penguin Archive I don’t think anything I could say could convey the wonder of the collection. There’s only one way to share the magic and that is simply to list some of the things I saw.

Signed copies of the First Batch including books by Dorothy L Sayers and Agatha Christie.

Grumpy letters from George Bernard Shaw.

A letter from Enid Blyton refusing to appear at the trial in defence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover because she didn’t think it appropriate for a children’s author – and her husband wouldn’t allow it.

A photograph of newly-weds Allen and Lettice Lane coming out of the church onto a path lined with Penguins.

A poem by Teddy Robinson in a book celebrating a Puffin anniversary.

Early copies of Worzel Gummidge and Barbara Euphan Todd’s editorial file.

John Lennon’s signature on a book of poetry.

For information on the Penguin Archive and the Penguin Archive Project see

For information on Artur Barbosa -

For information on Teddy Robinson (because - shamefully - none of the people I mentioned him to had heard of him!)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Votes for Women

The play is clever and witty, and it kept the audiences brimming with excitement and in roars of laughter.

So said the Pall Mall Gazette in 1909 of Cicely Hamilton’s and Chris St John’s How the Vote Was Won performed at the Royalty Theatre in London, and so say I of the same play given in a performed reading at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond in June 2010. The one act play is funny on the page, even funnier on the stage. I read it years ago in a collection of suffragette plays edited by Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, and I never thought I’d see it acted.

How the Vote Was Won is a very funny piece and, with Hamilton’s Pageant of Great Women, one of the most successful suffragette plays. Amongst the many feeble arguments put up against enfranchising women was the proposition that women did not need the vote because they had men to look after them. In the play women take men at their word, giving up their jobs and homes and turning to their nearest male relatives for support. Poor old Horace Cole, a clerk on £3 a week, finds himself with a houseful of female dependents – and they are funnier, smarter, and richer than him!

The play was put on in association with an exhibition at the Museum of Richmond, in collaboration with Aurora Metro Arts and Media. How the Vote Was Won, curated by Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft, focuses on the role of the theatre in the suffrage campaign. The exhibition is on until 4 September 2010, and Aurora Metro will shortly be publishing the curators’ linked book Art, Theatre and Women’s Suffrage. (See

After a sparkling reading/performance Irene Cockcroft and Susan Croft spoke about the background to the play and answered questions and comments from the audience. It was a rare pleasure to engage in a discussion conducted in such a good natured and cooperative manner. The afternoon was pretty much crowned when the first person in the audience to speak told us that the Pankhursts and others had been frequent visitors to her childhood home: her mother was a suffragette. It was a salutary reminder of how recent our franchise is, and lest anyone is under any misapprehension about this we should remember that it was not until 1928 that the suffragette demand for votes for women on the same terms as it is or will be granted to men was actually achieved. (Personally I think the limited 1918 franchise was an insult: but that’s another story.)

One thing does puzzle me though. On a leaflet advertising the How the Vote Was Won reading we are told that it has been put on “to celebrate the original performance at Twickenham Town Hall in 1910”. According to Hamilton’s biographer, Lis Whitelaw, the play was first performed by the Actresses’ Franchise League in a matinee at the Royalty Theatre, London on 13 April 1909. Susan Croft repeats this date in a 2009 collection of suffragette plays published by Aurora Metro. A brief trawl of the internet suggests that there were two Royalty Theatres in London, one of which may have been called the New Royalty Theatre in 1909. So, I wonder, when and where was the play’s “original performance”? Or does the reference to its “original performance” here mean the first performance of many which took place at Twickenham in 1910? If that is the case, the wording is rather misleading.

This confusion didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the play, of course. If I were to write my own Pageant of Great Women Cicely Hamilton, actress, writer, suffragette, would be one of its leading characters. Sadly, Hamilton’s novels are not easily available, except for William: An Englishman, published by Persephone Books, who specialise in reprinting neglected classics, mostly by women, in beautifully designed paperbacks. It is an astonishing book about a young couple caught up in the outbreak of the First World War; their situation seems humorous at first but becomes increasingly nightmarish. I’ve only managed to read a reference library copy of Life Errant, Cicely Hamilton’s autobiography, but what a story was hers! She served with the Scottish women’s ambulance unit during the First World War, and after the war worked on The Englishwoman and Time and Tide. As well as novels, plays, and the feminist classic Marriage as a Trade, she co-wrote, with Lilian Baylis, a history of the Old Vic, edited the press bulletin of the British League for European Freedom, and never stopped campaigning for women’s rights. I wish more of her work was available.

It’s certainly time that the theatre woke up to the fact that George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde (wonderful as their plays are) are not the only playwrights whose dated plays are still worthy of performance and have resonance for us today. The Orange Tree Theatre deserves the highest praise for its support of a play that is only the tip of the iceberg of women’s theatrical legacy (and for many other reasons too – it’s a fantastic theatre). I only wish I’d seen their 2007 production of Hamilton’s Diana of Dobson’s; I hope it will one day make another appearance on their stage. There’s a chance that in autumn Orange Tree will put on a reading of another Hamilton one-acter, The Pot and the Kettle, which pokes fun at the “antis”. I shan’t miss it if they do.

You can read Hamilton’s and St John’s play How the Vote was Won in
How the Vote was Won and Other Suffragette Plays, ed Dale Spender and Carole Hayman, Methuen 1985
Votes for Women and Other Plays, ed Susan Croft, Aurora Metro 2009

Diana of Dobson’s is in New Woman Plays, ed Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner, Methuen 1991

Lis Whitelaw’s biography is The Life and Rebellious Times of Cicely Hamilton, Virago 1990

The Orange Tree Theatre -
Aurora Metro -
Persephone Books -
Museum of Richmond -