How did Reading Sheffield readers choose books? Was it largely by chance? (City Librarian J P Lamb once said that people generally just wanted ‘a book, preferably an attractive one’.) Or by favourite author? The next book in a series? Influenced by a film? (Gone with the Wind was often mentioned.) Or a recommendation by someone in the book trade? We have no definitive answer. Our readers were probably swayed, at different times, by all of the above.
But here, for what they are worth, are the views of a literary insider – Christina Foyle of Foyle’s Bookshop. She was speaking, with characteristic firmness, in Belfast in 1950, right in the middle of the Reading Sheffield period, and her remarks were reported in a local paper.
Publishers’ rejects that became best-sellers (Northern Whig – Friday 21 April 1950)
What makes publisher after publisher reject a book which later becomes a best-seller?
This was one of the questions posed yesterday by Miss Christina Foyle when she addressed the Belfast Alpha Club on “Writers of To-day and Yesterday.”
Some of the people whose books were turned down by publishers were Bernard Shaw, Jeffrey Farnol, Richard Llewellyn – Foyle’s were among the publishers who rejected his “How Green Was My Valley” because they did not think that readers liked dialect – Baroness Orczy – every publisher in London turned down “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” though it has now been translated into every language – and Edgar Wallace. Edgar Wallace had at first to publish his own books and find his own travellers to sell them.
Another book which was very nearly not published was “Little Women.” The publisher kept the manuscript in his home; he thought very little of it and intended returning it. Then one day he found his small niece sitting up reading the manuscript; he told her it was late and she must go to bed, but the child pleaded with him saying she simply must finish the story. So the publisher had second thoughts!
Books which had surprised the book trade by their popularity were Louis Golding’s “Magnolia Sweet”, “Fanny by Gaslight” and “The Egg and I”.
Although Miss Foyle is a young woman, she does not think present-day writers are as good as their forbears. Some who had been most promising and had written brilliantly, had turned to religion or politics, and thought that might have been a good thing for religion or politics it was not good for literature.
“Dorothy Sayers used to bring out wonderful detective stories, but is now more interested in religion; A. P. Herbert has turned from novel writing to politics; and Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Ethel Mannin have got themselves involved in mysticism,” she stated, and added:
“There is no writer today who can compare in wit to Philip Guedella or Humbert Wolfe. Peter Cheyney is the most popular thriller writer, but I don’t think he can compare to Edgar Wallace or Conan Doyle.”
Modern poets, Miss Foyle thinks, have committed suicide. They are difficult to read, and if the public reads poetry at all, it is the poetry of Wordsworth or Tennyson.
“The most popular cookery book is still Mrs Beeton,” she said.
Miss Foyle considers that income tax has had a terrible effect on writers. An author might take four years to write a book but is taxed as though he spent only one year on it. The sales of Trevelyan’s “Social History” amounted to £15,000 but he received only £3,000.
Yet Miss Foyle feels that the present is a good time for writers , and she told the meeting that there is a great demand for books in every field and: “If you can write yourself or you know anyone who can write you should tell them of the opportunities.”
By any reckoning, Christina Foyle was a Personality. Born in 1911, she started in the family bookshop on Charing Cross Road when she was 17, and took it over in the 1960s. The way she operated was notoriously odd (shelving books, for example, by publisher) but Miss Foyle did know everyone who mattered. The literary lunches she started in 1930 alone ensured that.
For the record, many of the writers mentioned by Christina Foyle were quoted by Reading Sheffield readers. So how much influence did someone like her have on readers?