By Val Hewson
This month our sister project, the Sheffield Hallam Popular Fiction Group, is celebrating its tenth anniversary by publishing a collection of reviews, The Good, the Bad and the Extraordinary: Exploring Popular Fiction 1900-1950.
When the idea of a book was first suggested, we felt that members of the group should choose the books and authors they wanted to review. This was risky, as we might have ended up with 20 Agatha Christie reviews, but the strategy paid off. There are 22 authors and 25 books in The Good, the Bad and the Extraordinary. There is everything from children’s classics to dystopian science fiction, from politically radical to conservative, published between 1908 and 1950, mostly British – but also Russian, Canadian, Austrian and French – some still popular and others long forgotten. No Agatha Christies, but she gets lots of attention elsewhere, so we don’t feel guilty.
Helping to edit the reviews gave me the chance to revisit books I know well, like L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (a friend for 50 years now), but also to get to know books new to me, like Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. The work made me wonder if our Reading Sheffield interviewees said anything about the authors chosen for the anniversary book.
… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book, they were well-thumbed.
My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.
My mum always used to read romances. And my dad’s two favourite authors which you very rarely hear anything about now were Rafael Sabatini, and Jeffery Farnol. And I think, if I remember right, they’re mainly historical novels about French revolution, and you know, that sort of thing.
Warwick Deeping, Ethel M Dell, Mazo de la Roche, Josephine Tey, Compton Mackenzie and others all appear in at least one interviewee’s account of reading. Alan B (b. 1944) told of being asked at school to name a famous author and answering ‘Mazo de la Roche’, who was one of his mother’s favourites: ‘I was laughed at and … I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!’ And here’s James Green again, on Hank Janson, whose ‘not very well written’ books excited many of those charged with upholding public morals:
And Hank Janson was a detective who was a bit Mickey Spillane type. And they were considered very very racy. In fact, the teacher would take it off you if he caught you reading one of those.
Madeleine Doherty (b. 1940) is our only interviewee to mention Charles Williams, a member of the Oxford ‘Inklings’, along with C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, who wrote Christian fantasy thrillers. Madeleine was ‘hooked’ on Williams’ books, but they made her uneasy: ‘they were weird, they were weird. Sometimes I used to frighten myself’.
Some of the authors chosen for review by the Sheffield Hallam reading group do not feature at all in our interviews: Gaston Leroux, Lettice Cooper, Pamela Wynne, Lady Eleanor Smith, Vicki Baum, Valentine Williams, Mary Dunstan, Yevgeny Zamyatin and Ethel Carnie Holdsworth. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t read by our interviewees but simply that they weren’t remembered. My bet is that many, if not all, were read.
In some cases, books were made more popular by being made into films. Vicki Baum’s novel, Grand Hotel, for example, was a huge success and the 1932 film, starring Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and John Barrymore, made it still more popular. The case of Lady Eleanor Smith is similar: her 1941 Regency romance-with-touches-of-horror, The Man in Grey, was the source of the first and very successful Gainsborough film of the same name, with the sterling British cast of Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and James Mason. Ethel Carnie Holdsworth and Gaston Leroux also wrote novels that were adapted for films.
Even where there were no films to help, there were libraries. Tuppenny libraries of the sort found at Fir Vale would certainly have stocked the thrillers of Valentine Williams and the romances of Pamela Wynne, and Lettice Cooper would have featured in the book lists of many subscribers at Boots Booklovers’ Library on Fargate. Sheffield Libraries might also have had copies of some or all of these, as the City Librarian, J P Lamb, took a much more liberal view of fiction than many of his counterparts. Lamb believed that popular books helped establish the reading habit in people, and stocked his branch libraries with Ethel M Dells and Edgar Wallaces, as well as classics.
Whether they are well-known and/or admired today, or lying for now unloved on the shelves of second-hand bookshops, all the authors featured in The Good, the Bad and the Extraordinary are interesting for what they tell us about the times in which they were written.
The Good, the Bad and the Extraordinary (ISBN 978-1-4717-0438-3) is available from Amazon or can be ordered from any good bookshop.