Publishing Class: Rediscovering the Lives of the Working Class in Literature

The July instalment of the Raymond Williams Society blog is an article by University of Reading student Jess Brisley who shares recent research conducted in the archives of Chatto & Windus. Intriguingly, Williams had a long relationship with the publishing house, having his novels Border Country (1960), Second Generation (1964), and The Fight for Manod (1979) published by Chatto (alongside other fictional as well as critical work). In Politics and Letters, he discusses both the challenges faced when encountering the ‘economics of commercial publishing’ and the sense in which he was ‘writing right against the grain’. Here, by examining papers from 1890 to 1940, Jess fascinatingly uncovers an earlier generation of working-class writers who faced innumerable difficulties when it came to publishing stories of working-class life in the early twentieth century.

Jess Brisley writes…

Raymond Williams had long-running concerns about the relationship between publishing and class. His work offers a compelling way of analysing the structures of publishing, taking into account the means of communication as part of the means of production as well as the social background of authors and the inherent challenges for working-class writers in adapting to the literary form of the novel. At the University of Reading, we are working in the Archive of British Publishing and Printing to uncover the lost history of working-class writing. Studying the records of publishing house Chatto & Windus – including manuscript entry books, letters, and reader’s reports – and analysing the hefty lists of rejected material between 1890 and 1940, I was able to compile a database of instances where class prejudice seemed to be visible in a rejection.

Of course, the publishing industry is a fiercely competitive one, and Chatto & Windus received hundreds of submissions every year with only a handful ever making it into print. In 1905, Chatto had 778 manuscripts submitted to them, with only 52 (16.7%) accepted for publication. These figures drop after the First World War: in 1920 only 11 out of a total of 625 submissions (1.8%) were accepted. Throughout the period, the overwhelming majority of those accepted were novels, making up an average of 76.6% of accepted submissions.

Raymond Williams has argued that the form of the novel can be inaccessible to working-class writers as a result of “a distancing between the lives of working-class people and the values of literature”.[1] That isn’t to say that there weren’t novels about the working-class – in the period covered by this project, Walter Besant and J.D. Brayshaw published sympathetic novels with Chatto about East London – but often those novels were written by observers. One challenge a working-class writer undoubtedly faced concerned form and structure. I found many instances of novel manuscripts rejected for being too long and, as Williams observed, working-class writers were likely to find cutting down more difficult due to an obligation to accurately represent their communities. Jessie Pope’s notorious editing of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists involved erasing or minimizing parts of the text that carried social significance. So, there are also political implications here. Chatto & Windus were looking for tales of general human experience to sell to their metropolitan middle-class audience; therefore, a manuscript that dealt with working-class topics or was based in a ‘regional’ area was deemed unrelatable and often considered worthless.

Williams has repeatedly questioned what makes a place ‘regional’ or ‘provincial’, describing such terms as “an expression of centralized cultural dominance”,[2] a process which dismisses anything beyond the ‘metropolitan’ middle-class city as at best secondary, at worst insignificant. I unearthed an example of this dismissal of ‘regional’ literature in a submission from 1926 by Jane H. Spettigue. Her short stories were rejected for being “simple-minded, wholesome, pointless stories about Cornish life”. Spettigue’s work was labelled ‘regional’ and the Cornish settings meant they were ‘simple’ and ‘pointless’, according to Chatto & Windus. Such an attitude betrays a casual and inherent bias.

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The East End of London complicates this notion of what is ‘regional’. On the doorstep of the West End, how can East London be considered regional? Williams points out that the East End functions as a province of class, “a social area inhabited by people of a certain kind, living in certain ways”,[3] which puts it in the same self-contained, ‘unrelatable’ category as an area physically distant from London. The note for a submission in 1895 for Sam Spurr’s Legacy is dripping with disdain: “it appears to be the spun out low-comedy business concerning an unexpected legacy left to a Cockney stable attendant. The author has the mistaken idea that it is easy to be humorous by the aid of mis-spelt words”. The Chatto & Windus reader is unimpressed by a story which employs phonetic Cockney spellings and focuses on a working-class protagonist; this is despite the “unexpected legacy” mirroring the conventional plot of the middle-class novel which was often concerned with inheritance and movements of wealth.

In addition to this idea of class-based regionalism, I found that Welsh writers suffered from a kind of double regionality, in which manuscripts were subject to prejudice because of both their geographical and class distance from the desired metropolitan middle-class audience. A submission from Cardiff by Joseph Keating in 1900 for a manuscript entitled A Shadowed Birth was rejected by Chatto & Windus on the grounds that “it is the depressing story of an illegitimate child – the scene of which is laid in the Welsh coal mining district”. The description of the manuscript as “depressing” in connection to the setting of the mining district implies that the stories of the Welsh mining working class are distasteful and undesirable. It also undermines the lives and difficulties of the Welsh mining community. Expressions of experiences, in which “work is pressing and formative, and the most general social relations are directly experienced within the most personal”,[4] are dismissed as meritless and out-of-place amongst the ‘literary’ class. Later, in 1905, Chatto & Windus published Keating’s Maurice but only after assurances that “the mining scenes will be at least equal to the authors’ short stories of pit life which have been so successful”. This shows an inability to see value in the working-class topic of Keating’s 1900 submission; Chatto & Windus only recognise his talent after he has proven successful elsewhere.

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That isn’t to say that Chatto & Windus completely refused to recognise talented working-class writers throughout the twentieth century – after the 1926 General Strike stories of the working class became more popular and marketable – but the language used in the Manuscript Entry books seems to betray a persistent underlying prejudice against working-class texts. In an effort to find novels exploring general (or non-regional) human experience, I’ve found that Chatto & Windus failed to recognize that for a large community – including areas of Cardiff, East London, Leeds, Liverpool, and many more – the general human experience is inescapably linked with labour. To reject manuscripts on the basis of regionality is to marginalize masses of working-class people and perpetuate the perceived ‘otherness’ of ‘regional’ areas.

I touched on the distaste towards the use of phonetic Cockney spellings when discussing Sam Spurr’s Legacy earlier, and this is another area of rejection based on prejudice against working class writers. I uncovered countless rejections based on a writer’s use of dialect, with no consideration given to the value that the deployment of working-class language might have for the quality of the story. Henry J. Barker submitted Little Squire Kit in 1919, “a dull story about a little boy who says ‘wonful’ and ‘nuffin’ and ‘lubly’ […] all in such an appallingly fusty style as to make the book really repellent”, according to the publisher’s reader. The issue here is with the use of dialect by a working-class Londoner, with the reader specifically picking up on these deliberately misspelled words to front the rejection, despite claiming that the overall problem with the manuscript is the “appallingly fusty style”. It appears that the subconscious reason for disliking the manuscript is based on a prejudice against the use of a typically working-class style of language, not ‘polished’ enough for the readers but nevertheless justified, I suggest, in its use as a fair representation of a working-class character and his environment. Chatto’s readers see the use of dialect and colloquialisms in a manuscript as a flaw, failing to recognise the significance of such a vernacular in generating a sense of realism and representation.

Evidence of this snap judgement against the use of dialect comes through in a 1926 entry for Virginia Woodward Cloud’s “negro dialect poems. A hopeless proposition”. Clearly the readers at Chatto & Windus were close-minded to allowing members of under-represented communities, such as the black working class, to speak of their experiences in their own voices, dialect and all, instead viewing any attempt to market this work as “hopeless”. This exclusion extends to Scottish, Irish, or Welsh writing, northern English slang, and language considered ‘regional’ by the London-based readers of Chatto & Windus. Looking through these rejections, it is a wonder that any non-‘Standard English’ writers ever made it into print!

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Authors were also subject to scrutiny and judgement based on their professionalism and self-presentation. If they used dialect, included poor grammar, or bad handwriting or typing practices in their submissions, the chances of success with Chatto & Windus were severely harmed. A submission in 1897 by Alice Dudeney for Hagar of Homerton is rejected as a “very badly typewritten copy which the author has not thought it worthwhile to correct. It shows no sign of literary aptitude”. As the manuscript is presented poorly and the subject matter concerns the slums of the East End, the readers at Chatto & Windus assumed there was no “literary aptitude” to the submission. The rejection doesn’t detail a plotline and focuses only on presentation; in fact, it is unclear if this manuscript was even considered (during my research I found multiple instances of misspelled letters killing any chance of the accompanying manuscripts even being opened, so this is not unlikely).

However, Hagar of Homerton was published by C. Arthur Pearson the following year, and the review from The Bookman in 1898 offered praise: “Hagar, too, is not the ordinary novelist’s girl from the East End. Mrs. Dudeney evidently knows the byways of London as well as the other tellers of tales from mean streets, and her picture does not suffer in truthfulness because it is not painted in all drabs and greys”. It appears that the novel had an authenticity which attracted a considerable readership and made for a successful book, something which Chatto & Windus failed to see due to assumptions made about Dudeney and her background based on a poorly formatted manuscript. I found that this was a constant issue for working-class writers, individuals who were likely to have spent less time in education and more time working, and therefore perhaps prone to making more errors when it came to typing, formatting, or handwriting.

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My project is part of an ongoing effort to uncover the history of a working-class writing community lost by rejection and denied opportunity. Although the scope of this project over the six weeks I worked on it ends in 1940, the issues I have discussed do not. Today, working-class writers still struggle to get their voices and experiences represented in the literary industry, subconscious judgements are still passed upon those with dialects and accents belonging to typically working-class areas – as an East Londoner myself, I know this directly – and it is still less viable for a working-class individual to have access to the economic resources needed to be a successful writer.

Raymond Williams writes that “given the generations of neglect, there is more than enough room for hundreds of working-class novels”,[5] and today steps are being taken to address that neglect and open up a discussion about working-class experiences and working-class writing. Projects such as The Good Literary Agency work to increase publishing opportunities for under-represented groups, working-class collections such as Nathan Connolly’s edited book Know Your Place features “essays on the working class, by the working class”, and the upcoming anthology of working-class writers, Common People edited by Kit de Waal, all mean that the contemporary working class are being given the opportunity to tell their own stories; it’s about time!

Jess Brisley is a second-year undergraduate at the University of Reading, originally from Hackney in East London, studying English Literature and Theatre. She has conducted primary archival research at the University of Reading’s Special Collections using the Archive of British Publishing. Her work is part of a larger project led by Nicola Wilson which examines the relationship between working-class writers and publishers over the long twentieth century.

With thanks to University of Reading Special Collections and Penguin Random House UK Archive and Library for supporting this project and granting permission to access these archives.

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[1] Raymond Williams, ‘The Welsh Industrial Novel’, Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 1980), p. 216

[2] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1985), p. 230.

[3] Williams, Writing in Society, p. 234.

[4] Williams, Culture and Materialism, p. 222.

[5] Williams, Writing in Society, p. 237.