In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Moving inPatricia Beer

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
A Poor Man’s House 
by Stephen Reynolds.
London Magazine Editions, 320 pp., £5.50, August 1980, 0 904388 35 2
Show More
Show More

Stephen Reynolds is coming back. There have been at least two indications of this recently. The prophet is no longer without honour in his own, adopted country, for a plaque has just been unveiled to him in Sidmouth, with the blessing of the town council and a photograph of the proceedings on the front page of the local paper. And London Magazine Editions have republished his best-known book, A Poor Man’s House, which first appeared in 1908. Both events are thoroughly justifiable.

Not, however, that Stephen Reynolds has been wholly unhonoured in these 72 years. The critical acclaim, led by Bennett, Galsworthy, Buchan and Conrad, which greeted the original appearance of A Poor Man’s House was succeeded by decades when the book was out of print, but it has been consistently praised and recommended by Professor W.G. Hoskins in the successive editions of his classic work on Devon as ‘a faithful picture of the life of ancient native Sidmouth persisting beneath the veneer that has been imposed on it during the past 150 years’. This is true, yet the book is not exactly a social history. It is not exactly an autobiography either.

Many writers have declared themselves proud to learn from those whom they regarded as their social inferiors, but not every writer has actually moved in with them. Reynolds did. It is as though Wordsworth had set up house with Alice Fell, Simon Lee and the old Leech-Gatherer. In 1906, after several visits to the East Devon coast, Reynolds at the age of 25 left his home town, Devizes, to become a more or less permanent lodger in the house of Bob Woolley and his family in Sidmouth. Woolley was a fisherman and lived with the fishing community well away from the fashionable parts of the elegant Regency town. In A Poor Man’s House Reynolds describes his own life and work during these years.

If he came to Sidmouth looking for copy, he did not act cynically. He took pains to disguise the Woolley family, calling them Widger, and referring to the town as Seacombe and placing it near the Eddystone Lighthouse. To change the location was a considerate but rather silly move, for his scrupulous and sensitive rendering of the East Devon dialect (so superior to, for example, Thackeray’s mummersettings in Pendennis) is one of the strengths of the book and would lose verisimilitude against a West Devon background. It is sad, though no doubt realistic of him, that he assumed the readers would neither know nor care.

A Poor Man’s House is an extremely interesting book, though not quite in the way that it must originally have been. The passage of time, which has made the title itself sound like a tactless phrase from a Victorian hymn, has added mysteries and complications and must evoke a different kind of applause. The first mystery is why Reynolds chose to settle in a cramped smelly house, where the whole family shouted like newspaper-boys and the food was rough and not always ready, and why he became an amateur participant in the deadly lifework of poor fishermen.

He was what used to be called a gentleman, though as his father had been in trade (bacon), his standing may have been precarious. But he was educated. Oh dear, yes, he was educated. He says himself that when living as a fisherman he simply dropped his accomplishments, yet when he is writing – and not about literary matters but about fishing – he cannot keep away long from what he has read, almost like a self-taught man. In A Poor Man’s House, having explained, quite adequately, the ambiguity of the relationship between man and the sea, he cannot resist garnishing and endorsing his remarks by quoting Baudelaire’s ‘Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer,’ which kills the atmosphere of the beach at Sidmouth pebble-dead. In Alongshore (1910), a kind of sequel to A Poor Man’s House, he sets up quite a seminar in practical criticism. The poem being considered is William Watson’s ‘Last night the sea-wind was to me/A metaphor of liberty,’ and it is shown to a longshoreman who, once the word ‘metaphor’ has been explained to him, is asked for his opinion. Being of a Johnsonian cast of mind, he replies: ‘I wonder do this fellow wake up at night every time the wind changes?’ Reynolds has a good point but a creaky way of making it.

So why should this gentleman desert his class and go where his learning was not appreciated? (His gentility, by which he himself always set great store, was appreciated, it seems, from the very first shout by Woolley’s daughter: ‘’Tis a gen’lman.’) As the book is not really an autobiography, we have to guess. His own romantic assertion is pleasing but not very convincing: ‘I want to go west, towards the sunset; over Dartmoor, towards Land’s End, where the departing ships go down into the sea.’ Even less convincing is his statement ‘that it is good to live among those who, on the whole, are one’s superiors.’ There are other possible explanations. In the introduction to A Poor Man’s House, J.D. Osborne hints at an estrangement between Reynolds and his father, and indeed there are intimations of this in the book: when Widger/Woolley weeps at the departure of his son to join the Navy, Reynolds comments: ‘Lucky George, to be so much missed.’ Osborne also suggests that the apparent failure of Reynolds’s novel The Holy Mountain played a significant part in the disruption of his life. But the novel is rather good; certainly not bad enough for the author, even on cold-blooded rereading, to lose faith in it so dramatically. If individual love entered into the situation, the book does not say so. But love and loyalty are openly declared for a group, the Woolley family. And there is love for the concept of men working together in conditions of hardship and mutual trust, a vision that Rupert Brooke might have enjoyed: the rough male kiss of tarpaulins.

If, for whatever reason, Reynolds needed to move down his own self-appointed social ladder, he had already slipped a few rungs, for The Holy Mountain is not, as I had assumed before reading it, about the gentry or possibly the aristocracy, but about the inhabitants of Mr Polly’s world: the dyspeptic grocers’ sons and their flat-footed lady friends who work in drapery establishments. But that was not low enough.

For Reynolds was no leveller. Low is how he really thought of it; at one point he uses the expression ‘pigging it’ of his life chez Woolley. In his books it is de haut en bas from cover to cover. He can, according to modern notions, perhaps any notions, be dreadfully patronising. In the letter to Sam Woolley which serves as introduction to Alongshore he mentions all the professions that Uncle Sam (I nearly wrote Uncle Tom) might have graced had he not been a longshoreman, but then – and how sad – he would not have had his uses as dear old Uncle Sam. ‘I’d rather bathe a poisoned finger in your elderflower water than have you knife it as a surgeon.’ In one point of behaviour Reynolds really should have known better, for Dickens had given it a blistering glance: the middle-class habit of addressing one’s inferiors by nicknames of one’s own invention – e.g. Tattycoram. Unable, Reynolds says, to remember the names of two little Woolley girls, he calls them Straighty and Curly.

Yet simultaneously – and the inner strain must have been intense – Reynolds attempted a total identification with the working classes, scorning the efforts of every educated man except himself to understand their point of view or enter into their lives. In 1911, he published Seems So which is subtitled ‘A Working-class View of Politics’ and is presented as the joint work of Reynolds and Bob and Tom Woolley. Reynolds claims that it is a genuine and thorough collaboration, and every time he says ‘we’ he means the workers.

There really is extensive agreement in the opinions of the gentleman and the fishermen, and it is not too surprising. His views are reactionary and theirs have never been sharpened by contact with large-scale industrial organisations. On the subject of education, for example, they think alike. The fishermen feel it is a waste of time for working people: ‘If you got to live your life wi’ your nose to the grindstone the sooner you learns to put it there the better.’ Reynolds entirely agrees, deploring both the fact and the nature of education for the workers. He describes Bessie Woolley as ‘fresh from the twaddle that they put into her head at school’, an item of which twaddle is an aspiration that seems to infuriate them all: a wish to play the piano. On the subject of the suffragettes they agree for another reason: they are all men. ‘I tell thee what, ’tis sweethearts they wants. There’s nort like it for a girl as is kicking up a buzz.’

Whether or not Reynolds was as firmly integrated with working-class society as he imagined is speculative, but I should suppose not. Like a British Communist of the Thirties dropping his aitches at the dock gates, he has the habit of breaking into dialect when conversing with the workers: ‘That we’ll do together, when ’tis fitty and we’m up for it.’ It rouses both one’s hackles and one’s suspicions.

It may well be that the undeniable strength of A Poor Man’s House lies partly in this social tension. The sympathy which contemporary critics picked out and praised as total seems to modern readers to shine only intermittently, but when it does it is luminous. We have become so used nowadays to portrayals, especially on TV, of the bustle and solidarity of the Edwardian servants’ hall that it is novel and moving to contemplate, as Reynolds invites us to do, the plight of the solitary girl in service, deeply and perhaps permanently confused in speech and manners by living and working according to a code which is alien to her, without any support from the one by which she has been brought up. Reynolds does not like her very much; he goes out of his way to say that he does not fancy her; but he does, I think, understand her. He certainly should. He may not realise it, but it is, in reverse, his own story.

Contemporary critics also raved about Stephen Reynolds’s prose, a reaction which might suggest the existence of purple passages, but, in fact, there are none, or very few. As might be expected, there is an abundance of natural description; he portrays the sea at every time of day and in every kind of weather, but only occasionally does he use a self-indulgent adjective or a contrived simile. It is a precise honest record and not a meretricious attempt at loveliness. In his approach he recalls Dorothy Wordsworth with her day-to-day factual commentary on the lakes near her home: ‘A fine solemn evening. The wind blew very free from the island and at Rydale. We went on the other side of Rydale, and sat a long time looking at the mountains, which were all black at Grasmere and very bright in Rydale – Grasmere exceedingly dark and Rydale of a light yellow green’. Here is Reynolds’s description of setting out fishing one evening:

The November sun went down while we rowed, an almost imperceptible fading of daylight into delicate thin colours and finally into a shiny grey half-light. More and more the cliffs lowered above us. They lost their redness except where a glint of the sun burned splendidly upon them; coloured shadows, as it were, came to life in the high earthen flanks, lifted themselves off, and floated away into the sunset, until the land stood against and above the sea, black and naked, crowned with distorted thorn bushes. Very serene was the sky, but a little hard.

Stephen Reynolds died at the age of 38 in the flu epidemic of 1919, at Sidmouth.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.