My Missus

John Sutherland

  • Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain, 1914-1950 by Joseph McAleer
    Oxford, 284 pp, £35.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 19 820329 2
  • American Star: A Love Story by Jackie Collins
    Heinemann, 568 pp, £14.99, March 1993, ISBN 0 434 14093 7

A hundred and fifty years ago William Thackeray observed – after a trawl through London bookstalls – that middle-class litterateurs like himself knew (and cared) less about working-class literature than about Lapland. In a much quoted essay twenty years later, Wilkie Collins, after a similar expedition, coined the phrase ‘the Unknown Public’. It was something of a misnomer since the public was well enough known. It was their ‘entertaining literature’ that was the mystery. English society put such a moral premium on advanced literacy that it was shameful for a middle-class person to be caught buying a penny dreadful or a mill-girl romance in anything other than a spirit of intrepid anthropological duty. One glimpses the same nervousness today: the eagerness with which left copies of the Sun are seized on in railway carriages by passengers who could never bring themselves to be seen buying a copy; the eyes studiously averted from the top shelf while buying the Spectator or Private Eye.

Collins concluded, hopefully, that the ‘universal law of progress’ would result in a gentrification of working-class literature. In fact, with the 1870 Education Act and the arrival of magnates like Newnes, Pearson and Harmsworth progress took an opposite turn. ‘Reading for the Millions’ became big business. The proprietors got to know their public very well, and the market was profitably carved into a patchwork of target areas with competition driving standards down rather than up. It was George Orwell who went beyond the Cortez pose of intellectual wonder at the vast unknown expanse of popular reading. The content of the small newsagent’s shop, he declared, ‘is the best available indication of what the mass of the English people really feels and thinks’. Methodical exploration was in order – and perhaps some intervention.

Orwell’s proposition has been generally accepted and the essay in which he made it (‘Boys’ Weeklies’) is among his most reprinted. But despite this lead, as Joseph McAleer notes, ‘mass reading habits have not been the subject of much sustained historical enquiry.’ The unknown public (those readers whose purchases today range from the Sunday Sport, through Guns and Ammo, Mills & Boon, to Asian Babes) are still Laplanders as far as their betters are concerned; nor has academic investigation gone much beyond Orwell’s bathysphere approach. McAleer’s book is one of the first of its kind to work from the archives and business records of the main producers of popular literature. He has selected producers with three very different lines of goods: the Dundee firm of D.C. Thomson (for a hundred years the market leader in comics like Hotspur, Wizard, Rover, Dandy and Beano); Mills & Boon (the world’s most voluminous producer of women’s romance); and the Religious Tract Society (publisher for almost a century of the Boy’s Own Paper). McAleer also uses the records of Tom Harrisson’s Mass-Observation project, which monitored (among much else) Londoners’ reading habits over the period 1937-46.

All publishing history tends towards the condition of statistic and anecdote. McAleer’s book is rich in both departments. The text is studded with graphs and tables which make dreary reading, but furnish a post-Orwellian credibility. More enlivening are the anecdotal plums in the academic pudding. In 1917 the novelist Beatrice Harraden (herself the author of a weepily genteel bestseller, Ships that Pass in the Night) surveyed the reading of wounded Tommies and discovered that their favourite authors were Nat Gould, Charles Garvice and E. Phillips Oppenheim. She defended their lowbrow preferences stoutly: ‘Our wounded warriors have surely earned the right to amuse themselves with the books that please them most, and to be free from the kind of officious pedantry that would seek to thrust upon them literature of a class and type for which they have, as they themselves would say, no use.’ And what of those warriors who had not yet shed their blood in defence of King and Country? An equivalent survey of the reading habits of World War Two Tommies discovered an other ranks’ preference for ‘detective novels and sex stories, especially quasi-pornographic magazines from America’. No surprise here. What does raise the eyebrows is the fact that Oppenheim was still going strong and the revelation by a bemused sergeant in Italy that his men were addicted to the ‘soppy love stories’ of Annie S. Swan. ‘I suppose it means the lads out here have their weak moments,’ he concluded. ‘But Annie S. Swan, I ask you!’

The Mass Observation boxes have proved rich in oral testimony. A complacently newly-wed husband in 1943 seemed to confirm the theory that for sex-hungry working-class girls romantic fiction served the same function as the treacle-coated dummy stuck in the baby’s mouth. It kept the buggers quiet till the real thing came along:

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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