Arnold Bennett? Really? Most popular novelist?

Yes, that’s right.  Arnold Bennett was the most popular ‘classical novelist’ with Sheffield Libraries borrowers in 1931.  His competition included the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and Charles Dickens.

Most popular author - Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

Arnold Bennett – Project_ Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg

Librarians have long been numbered among those who worry about fiction. Are novels worthwhile or a frivolous waste of time?  Do they have anything to teach us or are they doing us harm?

One of the justifications for the free public library movement of the 19th century was self-improvement (of the working class in particular).  Irritatingly, however, many borrowers persisted in preferring books of the imagination over books of information, leading librarians to denounce them.

From the hysterical:

…undoubtedly novels are the most dangerous literature of the age: they dissipate the attention; they appeal to the lazy feelings; sensation and novelty are all that are required from them … better would it be that these lending libraries should cease to exist than that they should disseminate evil influences. (J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, now the University of Manchester, in 1879).

To the patronising:

It may be that the library authorities of the future will maintain that the business of the library is to supply what the public wants to read irrespective of quality in much the same way that cinema proprietors supply films. (William Berwick Sayers, chief librarian, Croydon, in 1931).

But there were always public libraries which welcomed fiction.  They took the view that good novels spoke to the human condition, and that popular fiction could refresh people.  Sheffield was one of them.  In 1931, the following article appeared in Sheffield’s Books and Readers bulletin:

 

Who is the most popular classical novelist?

Public Libraries are often criticised on the score of the amount of fiction issued by them. It is too readily assumed by these critics that fiction is all of one standard, and that a poor one, and to these Jeremiahs we point out the result of a recent test made of the popularity of twelve English novelists whose works may be definitely classed as literature. The Librarians at each of the Lending Libraries in the City were asked to report the number of books by certain authors available for loan and actually on loan to borrowers, with the following results:-

Author Stock On Loan %
Barrie 127 69 54
Bennett 352 314 89
Conrad 261 176 67
Dickens 395 218 55
Galsworthy 288 203 71
Hardy 270 183 68
Kipling 266 132 50
Meredith 146 45 31
Scott 362 105 29
Stevenson 152 89 58
Tennyson* 135 34 25
Wells 532 337 63

An examination of these details reveals that there is no reason to feel ashamed of the quality of the fiction read in Sheffield.  The high percentage for Bennett is perhaps too flattering.  It may be partially explained by the fact that the test was made soon after his death, but allowing for this factor, his popularity is remarkable.

It is fascinating to review this list 85 years on.

  • They are all men. They are all white men.  They are all British (yes, I’m counting Conrad, born in Poland, but naturalised in 1884).  Eight out of the twelve were dead by 1931, and the four still alive were all well over 60 in 1931.
  • Literary reputations change over time. Not all of the twelve authors be considered ‘classical’ today.  Only half of them appear in Robert McCrum’s 2015 list of the best 100 novels written in English (a list which generated criticism, as all such lists do – this one not least because male authors heavily outnumbered female).
  • The very fact of the test and the language used (‘no need to feel ashamed’) perhaps indicate the scale of the debate about fiction.
  • We don’t know much about the context. Which titles were borrowed? Out of the 532 books by H G Wells, say, were some more popular than others?  The article speculates that Arnold Bennett’s popularity was due to his recent death.  There may have been other contributory factors such as the author’s work appearing on the radio.  Wells, for example, took part in three radio talks between 1929 and 1931.  Then there are the borrowers themselves.  Were there more men than women, older than younger people?  Finally, who were the popular novelists (we can speculate that they included the likes of Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell) and how would they compare if included?  We can’t answer any of these questions, although we do know that a survey about five years later showed 40 per cent of the fiction borrowed to be ‘classic and standard’ and the rest ‘semi-standard and popular’.

‘Prose fiction today’, wrote Sheffield’s City Librarian in the 1930s, ‘provides one of the most common means by which social, political, religious and other ideas are given to the people’, while action stories had a ‘definite, if limited, place… They give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library borrowers, they are “introductory readers” to [new borrowers] and … “escape” literature to [the] mentally and physically jaded.’

Jean A’s reading journey

Sometimes we meet a Sheffield reader who has pin-bright memories of particular books, events, people.  Jean A, who was born in 1930, is one of those readers.  As she talks, we see the individual pictures painted with her words.

When she was very small, in the early 1930s, and lived in rural Lincolnshire, Jean went to a ‘dame school’, run by the wonderfully-named Mrs Storm:

My mother got tired of me sort of fidgeting about so she popped me in a pram and took me round to a kind of dame school.  Sat round the table, there were about eight of us, writing, spelling, dancing, arithmetic.

On family visits to Sheffield:

… this was my father’s home town.  Used to come up to Sheffield to see his father and all my aunts, and they read to me.  They were maiden aunts so they had the time to read to me.

Later, when the family moved to Sheffield, Jean’s schooling at Greystones Infants was disrupted by World War II:

… the roof was damaged so we had to have one or two lessons in the secondary modern school next door for a short time, then we did home service when we used to congregate in other people’s houses.  We had some children living in our attic, only a few of them … a family, if they could, they used to provide a room so we didn’t lose out on our teaching.  So my mum offered our attic.  It was a nice room up there, plenty of light. I think we had about four or five. … There would be different children in each house. … I could stay at home but we also had to go to the fishmonger’s up the road; he had a room to spare and I think Peak’s the Butcher’s had. So we didn’t just stay in my house.

There were Arthur Mee’s Children’s Newspaper and magazines every week:

Every Saturday we used to go to Greystones Rd. On [the] right hand side as you go up there are these fairly new houses. Well before they were built there was a little row of cottages. In one of them Mrs Dabbs, she used to sell papers and comics from a little house. I can remember getting Chick’s Own. Rainbow as well. She was a huge lady. She would sit on the table and it was covered with papers and comics and things. You had to pay for them of course. Oh Mrs Dabbs!

As Jean was growing up, she recalls doing ‘more reading because, the dark nights, you couldn’t go out to play.  And no box.  We listened a lot to the radio. It was a family thing.’  A case in point was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, read when she was about 15:

We went to the Children’s Library in the Central. I can remember going there … It was fine, lovely.  I was a great reader.  I can remember reading The Forsyte Saga when I was about 15, late at night.  I was engrossed in it. … Oh I did [enjoy it].  I didn’t enjoy the latter end of it, the 1920s.  I didn’t think it had the same gusto as the Victorian part.

 

When she left school, Jean wanted to do social work.  She worked for a year for Sheffield Council Social Service, visiting families all over the city.  Then she did a two-year social sciences course at the University of Sheffield.  After qualifying, she worked with older people.  In March 1953, Jean joined the Wrens, where she trained as a driver and ‘enjoyed the freedom’.  Later, she married, had two children and returned to Sheffield.

ansdell-portrait-

You can read and listen to Jean’s full interview here.