When Chris Hopkins began amassing a collection of the bestsellers of yesteryear he had a few strict rules. Books which had notes scribbled in the corner were a must, first editions were out and serious highbrow fiction was an absolute no-no.
The result is an archive which would no doubt have the editors of literary reviews turning in their grave. DH Lawrence, Virgina Woolf, Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh are all conspicuous by their absence and instead there is row upon row of books by forgotten authors like Compton Mackenzie, Florence Barclay and EM Delafield.
The project was launched in an attempt to preserve the popular fiction of the first half of the 20th-century and Prof Hopkins admits most of the books which now sit on shelves in a small corner of Sheffield Hallam University’s library were at the time considered the kind that would rot the brain.
“Snobbery in the literary world is nothing new,” says Prof Hopkins, professor of English studies at the university. “These were books which in their day sold thousands if not hundreds of thousands of copies, but books which are popular with the mainstream are not always held in high regard. Over the years tastes change and the majority of these titles fell out of print.
“Universities don’t collect books like this and when people stopped borrowing them, public libraries stopped stocking them. However, while they might not have won any literary prizes or found their way onto the academic syllabus they are hugely significant. Before television, reading was what people did for entertainment and for those who left school early it was also a way of educating themselves.
“Books which have been scribbled in tend to be frowned upon in normal circles, but we love them. One of the reasons why we wanted books that had either had a dedication inscribed on the inside cover or that had notes written in the edges was because it gives a book a human side, it tells you a little about who was reading what and crucially in some cases what they thought of it.”
It turns out that while the phrase chick-lit was some decades from being coined and publishing houses had yet to discover the airport novel, popular tastes were not so far removed from today. A quick glance through the shelves, home now to books with titles like Mad Barbara by Warwick Deeping and Gilbert Frankau’s Winter of Discontent, run the gamut from florid romances to crime thrillers.
“There’s a tendency to think that back then all people read were cowboy stories, but that’s simply not true,” adds Prof Hopkins. “We do have a few Westerns, but the subject matter is incredibly wide. Some take their inspiration from the World Wars, some are unashamed love stories and tales of high society, which were very popular with servants, while others are good old fashioned whodunits and there is one by Peter Jackson called the Cigar Merchant, which is about, well, a cigar merchant.
“However, what they all share in common is that they were classed as being middle-brow and back then that was like being damned with faint praise. They were neither brilliant nor awful, but they also give varying perspectives on the social, historical and cultural issues of the day from class, politics, gender and race.”
For the university, the collection is also a chance to put authors like Deeping, Zane Grey, William Pett Ridge and Ruby M Ayres the recognition they deserve.
“These authors were the celebrities of their day,” says Prof Hopkins. “There were features about them in newspapers and many of them became very wealthy on the back of fiction writing. Warwick Deeping, for example, gave up being a doctor to write full-time. George Orwell was one of his biggest critics, but Deeping was one of the best-selling authors of the 1920s and 30s. So much so, he even had a mine trawler named after him, although unfortunately it sank just before the start of the Second World War.”
The initial 650 books in the collection came from private donations and while Prof Hopkins has so far read about 100 of them, the university is now appealing for members of the public to leaf through the rest. With space for up to 1,500 editions they are also looking for out-of-print works by the likes of Ethel Mannin, Frances Brett Young and EM Hull.
“Some of these novels might not seem to have literary merit for the modern reader and it might be a puzzle to us as to how they kept the attention of their large and incredibly loyal readership, but that’s part of the fun,” says Prof Hopkins.
“It’s about stimulating a debate about the tastes of the ordinary reader in an age before television became the dominant mass entertainment.”
Comment: Page 14.