Reading Sheffield research: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

Just posted in our Research section, a slightly edited version of a paper given by Reading Sheffield team member Val Hewson at The Auden Generation and After conference, Sheffield Hallam University, 17 June 2016

‘Even Edgar Wallace may be discovered’: The fiction policy of an English public library in the 1930s

 

Clansmen (1936) – ‘A long new novel by Ethel Boileau’

By Mary Grover

ethel-boileau-text

You will struggle to find out anything much about the author, Ethel Boileau, although the indefatigable Furrowed Middlebrow offers some information about her books.  However, you can now find a signed copy of Boileau’s 1936 tome, Clansmen – the story of a Scottish family struggling to maintain their ancestral estate, from just after the Jacobite rising of 1745 to 1936 – on the shelves of Sheffield Hallam University’s special collection of popular fiction 1900-1950.

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This copy was donated by Norman Adsetts, after whom the Learning Centre at Hallam is named. As Reading Sheffield’s interview with Norman Adsetts revealed, Boileau was an extremely popular novelist in the 1930s.  Norman should know; he grew up in between the shelves of his father’s tuppenny library where his mother would have found her favourite author, whose foreign name the little boy struggled to pronounce.

The cover and contents of Clansmen belie Boileau’s reputation as simply a writer of romance. For a start, it is unusual to find a novel explicitly promoted for its length.  The first words on the cover of Clansmen are ‘Ethel Boileau’s long new novel’. Length must have been a quality her fans sought. The length owes a great deal to the time-span: 1747-1936.

Family sagas were popular in the 1930s (as they still are).  John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, published in the 1920s, was succeeded by Hugh Walpole’s Rogue Herries (1930-1932); Ethel Mannin’s Children of the Earth (1930 and 1937); and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series (1927-1958).  But the form was sneered at by modernists (as it is by today’s literary fiction proponents) who set value on the intense, the transitory and the subjective. The narrators of popular sagas of this period tend to assume an unfashionable omniscience.

However, in many ways Clansmen itself is about the value of the subjective, the transitory and intense and is very clear-sighted about the economic realities threatening the enjoyment of any emotional attachments. The only nineteenth century members of the Stewart clan who remain solvent are bankers. However their money is misspent by their relatives, either dissolute or dim. The focus of the main and later part of the book is Alan Stewart. His father having died in the Boer War, just before his birth, he is cared for by his uncle whose crazed and fraudulent stock market dealings wipe out what remains of the money. The generosity of a Jewish financier, Sir Isidore, and the utter loyalty of a retainer, Hector (who alone knows that he is Alan’s illegitimate half-brother), enable Alan to survive, first as an ungifted financier himself and then as a more committed laird. However, at the end of the book the success of this ancient calling is seen to be compromised by Alan’s new wife,  a beauty with ‘a past’ and hopelessly bored by the Highlands.  Though the dissolute cousin who attempts to seduce this desperate metropolitan beauty is pushed off a cliff by the loyal Hector, the novel ends on a decidedly equivocal note: Hector ‘with his silent stalker’s walk’ turning his back on the image of Alan’s wife in a way that reveals his own desire for her.

Perhaps it is the date when Clansmen came out, 1936, that accounts for its emphasis on the unforeseen and individual helplessness in the context of global war and pervasive economic collapse. The romance is really that of Hector, who loves both master and mistress with no hope of emotional fulfilment himself. The dedication of the novel ‘To All Scots in Exile’ and the prominence of the Stewart heraldic emblem on the cover suggest that this might be a nostalgic novel in which Scottish clans will represent threatened values of loyalty and land. In fact, it is the members of the clan with least connection with the land who make possible the precarious hold the Stewarts have on their shrinking areas of the Highlands. The benefactors of the romantic but rather obtuse Alan are the Jewish financier and a long-dead ancestor who redeemed the family fortunes by running a bank in India. The vast scope of the novel – the Highlands, Edinburgh, Calcutta, the trenches of the First World War, the battlefields of the Boer War, the fleshpots of New York and, very up-to-date, Nazi Germany – conspires to make the Scottish bogs where the action ends up very much on the edge of things, and certainly holding out no hope of stability or sanctuary.

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Returning to the reader who first brought Ethel Boileau’s popularity to our attention, Norman Adsetts’ own favourite was a book by Sir Phillip Gibbs, Cities of Refuge (1937). This novel is about the often harsh and tragic fate of White Russians fleeing the revolution.  This is a strange book for a six year old to read – yet what an appropriate preparation for the wartime apocalypse through which he was to grow up. The tuppenny library served the young Noman well.  Not only did it fire his imagination with romance, comedy and jungle adventures.   It also introduced him to the realities of the world into which he had to learn to be an adult through blockbusters (however much these might be derided by 1930s self-styled ‘realists’ or the heirs of Bloomsbury).  Clansmen together with Cities of Refuge would have given the seven year Norman more knowledge of the history of twentieth century Europe than a modern boy with greater access to fiction now regarded as more appropriate to his age.

The Reading Journey of Norman Adsetts

Norman was born in 1931.

He was interviewed by Mary Grover on the 17th April 2014.

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Though Norman was born in Manchester his father was from Sheffield and returned when Norman was four years old. In 1935 he left his job in London as a highly successful salesman of office equipment to open a sweet shop at the bottom of Derbyshire Lane. Attached to the sweet shop was Abbetts’ Library, the kind of of library of popular fiction, often known as a ‘twopenny library’.

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Ronald Batty’s superb guide, How to Run a Twopenny Library, was to come out three years later, in 1938, but Norman’s father would have endorsed Batty’s advice that a twopenny library seldom paid its way except as a ‘sideline to another business’.  And shrewd salesman that he was, Mr Adsetts had found a perfect pitch for the library attached to his sweetshop. The terraced houses of Meersbook, with their modest gardens, were the other end of town from the mammoth steel works which had created the industrial city of Sheffield. The families that lived in Meersbrook probably had a little more income to spare than those who lived in the more densely packed and smokier areas on the east and north of Sheffield. Enough to cover a weekly payment of 2d (53p in today’s money) to ensure a constant supply of the kind of popular fiction insufficiently improving to pass muster on the shelves of the municipal libraries. W. H. Smith filled the shelves of Mr Adsetts’ library changing the stock regularly.

It was in this library, surrounded by delectably long runs of Nat Gould, Zane Grey and Ethel Boileau (a favourite of his mother’s), that the four year old Norman learned to read and to acquire his life-long passion for reading of every kind. He cannot remember reading any children’s books or indeed being taught to read.

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We lived over the shop and so I would be able to go down to the shop and the shelves were in the corner of the shop and I would simply take whatever was available. I read everything. I had a completely untutored and uncritical choice of reading and I have still got a few books which have the frontispiece of the library. The ones that I have, the ones I remember reading first were by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These were the Martian series by Burroughs, science fiction that would have been written for the young. But Norman read indiscriminately amongst much more serious authors as well. Norman is unique amongst our readers in having sought out early editions of the novels he read as a child recreating the shelves which towered above him as a child. Norman’s study is today lined with 1930s editions of Sexton Blake, Edgar Rice Burroughs and other treasures. He holds out one with particular care.

The book that had the most impact on me was this one; it is called Cities of Refuge. I notice from this copy which I bought later that it first came out in 1937 so it must have been one of the first books to be put into the library; Cities of Refuge is by a man called Sir Phillip Gibbs who had been a famous war correspondent and a pretty prolific writer of romance and adventure stories built around the conditions of the time. And I didn’t know from Adam what it was all about but I read it with fascination. It was all about the lives of a group of aristocrats from Russia who were displaced by the revolution and then wandered across the world living in various ‘cities of refuge’ where they were welcomed or thrown out, found work or starved.

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Though the book was in many ways ‘beyond’ the little seven year old who read it, it shaped him and brought home the fragility of the world which was, in 1938, about to be plunged into another apocalyptic struggle.

That was a grown up book. It was grown up in all kinds of ways. There was sex in it, there was murder and killing in it. There was everything in it, most of which I didn’t understand but I read it and shared in the sadness of it all.

But there were yards of less harrowing tales. Though Norman’s father had had to leave school at eleven and had not had as much schooling as his mother, he obviously had an infectious delight in narrative and the power of the word which served him well as a salesman of every sort. He put these gifts to work in entertaining his two children, making up stories at bedtime which derived probably from the films of westerns that he had seen rather than the volumes of Zane Grey that his son was discovering on his shelves. However, Norman’s passion for reading was a solitary one.

My father had some understanding but he didn’t share my obsession. He was not a big reader at all.  He had difficulty in reading a book because he hadn’t had either the training or the opportunity.

Because of the solitary nature of his reading adventures, Norman often heard in his head words that were quite different from those the author intended.

I would read words that I didn’t know how to pronounce but I would gradually work out what they meant.  There was a word ‘avalanche’ which I never, not till five or six years later, knew how to pronounce. In my mind I used to call it ‘avahlahis’

By the time Norman had won his scholarship place at King Edward VII School, he had already galloped through most of the English novels that the school introduced him to. However, the Latin and Greek classics were a revelation.

When he left school in 1949, having gained a place to study biochemistry at Oxford, Norman had a ten week stretch of time in which he thought he would extend his reading further and revisit old favourites. He read out the list of the twenty five books he had read in those ten weeks.

The first was The Red Prussian, which was a remaindered biography of Karl Marx which I picked up from Boots: wonderful book, I have still got it; then Pattern of Soviet Domination, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, whatever. Introduction to Comparative Biochemistry; The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell; for a school trip to Denmark I read a guidebook; Half a Million Tramps by W.A. Gape; The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck; The Man who was Thursday by Chesterton; The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh; Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester;  Chad Hannah by Edmunds; The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald; Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim; Prester John by John Buchan; Happy Return  by C. S. Forester; They Found Atlantis  by Dennis Wheatley; The Commodore  by C. S. Forester; Prince of the Captivity  by John Buchan; The Saint in Miami  by Leslie Charteris; Good Companions by J. B. Priestley; Jenny Villiers  by J. B. Priestley; Let the People Sing by J. B. Priestley; All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque; The Story of St. Michel by Axel Munthe and Behind the Curtain by Phillip Gibbs.

sir norman adsetts library shelf 2015

Perhaps it is unsurprising that once the boy arrived in Oxford he decided to change from bio-chemistry to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Nor is it surprising that he became one of the city’s leading business men, endowing the university library in the centre of Sheffield that now bears his name.

 

The Adsetts Centre at Sheffield Hallam University

by Mary Grover

Access Sir Norman Adsetts’ transcript and audio here