A book group in 1949? What was it like and how did it work?
Book groups are everywhere today. They take many forms and have many starting points. Some support research projects or study for pleasure, while others are simply a chance to talk (a bit) about the latest bestseller over a drink with friends. They take place in people’s homes, in the upstairs rooms of pubs and cafés, in bookshops and libraries, online and even on country walks.
It’s easy to assume that they are a recent phenomenon. But here is a ‘book discussion circle’, from an earlier time – 1949. The invitation and suggested reading list are preserved in Sheffield Local Studies Library (the list is reproduced below for ease of reading).
The group met at 7.30pm on Monday 21 March 1949 in the Study Room at Firth Park Library, Sheffield. It was apparently cold that night – about 2°C – and must have been dark outside. There was a talk, ‘Down the Yangtze River’, by Mrs D White, who had recently visited China. We don’t know who or how many came along to hear Mrs White, or why they were moved to come. The invitation makes it clear that the circle is a regular event, organised by the librarian and with an established membership.
Sheffield Libraries have always organised story hours, talks, special book events and many other activities, and it seems that discussion groups were a settled part of the mid-20th century library round. For example, there is in the archives another Firth Park reading list from 1936 which advertises talks on ‘Travels in Germany in 1936’, ‘The New Map of Europe’, ‘Finance and War’ and ‘All’s Right with the World’. And the Sheffield Forum here includes happy memories of what must have been a junior reading circle at Firth Park in the 1950s and 1960s: ‘…such a happy and interesting place/thing to be involved with’.
We don’t know how the circle worked. The librarian’s invitation says the discussion was ‘quite informal’, with questions. The evidence we have from 1949 and 1936 suggests it was always based around a talk, and we can guess that this was probably illustrated. How many people attended? Was there ever simply an open discussion about some subject? What part did the librarian play? It is known that groups such as this depended to a large extent on the enthusiasm and time of the library staff.
Then there is the subject and the speaker. In his invitation the librarian talks of forming ‘sound opinions’ based on a first hand account of China, ‘that enigmatical country’. China was probably much in the news in early 1949. The long civil war was coming to an end: on 1 October 1949 Mao Zedong would declare the People’s Republic of China. Just one month after the Firth Park meeting, the ‘Yangtze Incident’ was headlines in Britain, when HMS Amethyst, guarding the British Embassy during the civil war, was trapped on the Yangtze for three months until a daring night-time escape. After their meeting in March, members of the Firth Park group probably felt well-informed enough to comment when this news broke.
We have no idea who Mrs D White was or how she came to do the talk. Was she local or doing a lecture tour? Not even Google can help, based on this slight information. ‘Down the Yangtze River’ sounds today like one of those upmarket cruises, but in 1949, in the middle of a civil war, Mrs White can surely not have been there on holiday. Might there have been a business, Christian mission or diplomatic connection?
That formidable, even worthy, book list repays scrutiny. It includes literature, memoir, politics and history. Surely it was not expected that everyone would have read all the books. But who compiled it and on what basis? Was it drawn up by an academic, Mrs White who gave the talk or the librarian? With a few exceptions, the books date from the 1930s and 1940s, confirming that China was of as much interest then as it is now. Unsurprisingly, Western writers are in the majority but, perhaps surprisingly, not by much. Women writers, however, are rare. The individual authors are a fascinating mix.
- Mildred Cable (1878-1952) and Francesca French (1871- 1960) and Harold Burgoyne Rattenbury (1878-1961) were Western missionaries. They worked in China for many years, before returning home to write and lecture on China.
- Hsiung Shih-I (1902–1991), Tsui Chi (d.1951), Chiang Yee (1903-1977) and Hsiao Ch’ien (1910-1999) all lived for long periods in the UK and were credited with improving Western understanding of China. Hsiung Shih-I was a playwright who translated Shaw and J M Barrie into Chinese and was the first Chinese person to direct a West End play, Lady Precious Stream (1935). Tsui Chi taught English in China and came to Oxford in the 1930s. Chiang Yee (1903-1977) was a poet, author, painter and calligrapher. He wrote a series entitled The Silent Traveller, covering the UK, Ireland, France, the USA and Japan.
- American academic Owen Lattimore (1900-1989) was an adviser to President Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek. In the 1950s he was accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of being ‘the top Russian espionage agent in the United States’ (this was never substantiated). Carl Crow (1884–1945) was an American newspaperman who opened the first Western advertising agency in Shanghai. He apparently worked for American intelligence alongside Owen Lattimore.
- Lin Yutang (1895-1976) was a best-selling Chinese writer and translator, who nevertheless was criticised for attacking Western racism and imperialism. He also invented the first Chinese typewriter (challenging with a character-based language).
- Sir John Pratt (1876-1970) and Peter Fleming (1907-1971) may be remembered better today for being brothers than for themselves. Pratt, the brother of film star Boris Karloff, was a British government adviser. Described by Owen Lattimore as an ‘inspired amateur’, Fleming was a well-known journalist who travelled in Asia for the Times. His ultimately more famous brother was Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond (and his wife was Celia Johnson, star of Brief Encounter).
- Robin Hyde (1906-1939) was a New Zealand poet, novelist and journalist. In 1938, during the Japanese invasion, she travelled through China. The resulting book, Dragon Rampant, was published in 1939, around the time she committed suicide. Here are lines from Ku Li, her poem about Chinese peasants: ‘…Too poor for marriage-bed / He looks for dreaming in the big dim shed, / Rolled in the quilt where other warmth has dossed…’
It is interesting to consider who and what is not on the list. There is no sign, for example, of Pearl S Buck (1892-1973), the daughter of missionaries who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Her best-known work, The Good Earth, became a popular film in 1937. Nor is Han Suyin (1917-2012) included. Of Chinese and European parentage, she studied medicine in London between 1944 and 1949, joining a ‘circle of progressive Asia-minded intellectuals’ according to her obituary, and Bertrand Russell said that her novel Destination Chungking (1942) ‘told him more about China in an hour than he had learned there in a year’.
These omissions are clearly not because fiction was frowned upon. Plays, poetry and short stories are included. Given the Firth Park librarian’s earnest hopes for the evening, perhaps Western fiction was considered of little value in this context. Gender may have been a factor too, as there are so few women on the list. Or they may have been too uncomfortable a choice. Han was known to have Communist sympathies at one time, and Buck once famously criticised missionaries for their arrogance and ignorance.
Libraries in Sheffield still host and support book groups. In the case of Firth Park in 1949, given those serious titles, there are strong hints of adult education and self-improvement, which libraries have always encouraged. Without reading all the books, it is hard to be sure but, given the period, the books seem pro-Nationalist rather than pro-Communist. No matter the birthplace of their authors, the books seem to meet the librarian’s stated goal of learning about ‘the other fellow’. As Cable and French said in China: Her Life and Her People: ‘[this book]…is written for those who desire a better understanding of China.’
Of the books that did make it to the list, it is somehow deeply pleasing that Sheffield Libraries still own copies of four. Sitting unregarded in the reference and reserve collections, they are: China: her life and people, by Mildred Cable and Francesca French; News from Tartary, by Peter Fleming; My country and my people, by Lin Yutang; and Lady Precious Stream, by Hsiung Shih-I. Turning their pages now gives an odd sense of that book discussion circle in Firth Park in March 1949.
Do you have any memories of book discussion circles in Sheffield libraries?
By Val Hewson
SELECTED READING LIST: Down the Yangtze River
|Cable, Mildred, and Francesca French||China: her life and people (1946)|
|Chiang Yee||A Chinese childhood (1944)|
|Crow, Carl||Foreign devils in the flowery kingdom (1941)|
|Dobson, R P||China cycle (1946)|
|Fleming, Peter||News from Tartary (1945)|
|Hughes, E R (ed)||China, body and soul (1938)|
|Lin Yutang||My country and my people (1936)|
|Rattenbury, H B||China – Burma vagabond (1946)|
|Rattenbury, H B||Face to face with China (1945)|
|Farmer, Rhodes||Shanghai harvest: 3 years in the China war (1945)|
|Hsiao Ch’ien||China but not Cathay (1942)|
|Hyde, Robin||Dragon rampant (1939)|
|I Feng||Give back my rivers and hills (1945)|
|Lattimore, Owen||The making of modern China (1945)|
|Lin Yutang||The vigil of a nation (1946)|
|Pratt, Sir J T||China and Britain (1944)|
|Sun Fo||China looks forward (1944)|
|Sutton, A S E||The Chinese people (1934)|
|Tsui Chi||A short history of Chinese civilisation (1942)|
|Confucius||Book of odes (1909)|
|Hsiung, S I||The professor from Peking: a play (1939)|
|Hsiung, S I||Lady Precious Stream: old Chinese play (1937)|
|Snow, Edgar (ed)||Living China: modern Chinese short stories (1937)|
|Lin Yutang||With love and irony: essays (1941)|