As mentioned a few days ago Persephone Books are reissuing their founder's critical work A Very Great Profession: The Women's Novel 1914-1939. It begins with the image that stays with you throughout the book and is typical of the fiction Nicola Beauman later goes on to publish. The image is quiet, everyday and detailed: Laura Jesson the (ultimately) faithful wife from the 1945 film Brief Encounter going up to Milford Junction once a week to change her library books.
The basket of books is like Laura's life: routine and mundane. We know her books will be the predictable choices of her age, class and education. It is Beauman's serious but delicate handling of the study of the possible contents of this basket that makes A Very Great Profession both unusual and delightful. It is light-fiction handled lightly but not foolishly. Beauman notes her working title for the progenitor to A Very Great Profession was "Silly Lady Novelists" but far from treating them as silly, her tender touch sees what is good in these works both as literature and as entertainment. She can see both where popular novelists fail to become great and where great novelists fail to be entertaining: "Virginia Woolf sacrificed a great deal to technique".
Throughout the book the traditional dichotomy of literary or popular fiction is handled sensitively. There are no impossible claims made for minor authors but instead a more graduated approach shows the shades of quality within the fiction of the period. Yet sadly inescapable is the slightly resigned note, "Some academics chose to ignore A Very Great Profession's ' incorrect' accessibility, others what they saw as its class bias", when, as Beauman realistically points out, "to attack them for this is to eliminate much of women's literature" and argues for the "fluidity of modern cultural values" where a genuine cultural democracy would not ignore swathes of literary output simply because it does not fit.
Beauman's egalitarian approach to literature is none more evident in the chapter on romance fiction. The most popular writers in this genre, such as Ethel M. Dell, have come in over the years for especial critical derision, the 'true Tosh-horse'. In fact my own first encounter with Dell is from reading Orwell (when Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistras Flying is damning of the ladies who borrow Dell's books from the shop in which he works). Whilst recognising that Dell was merely an entertainer Beauman can generously recognise, "there is also something undeniably cheering in reading and enjoying a novel that has given pleasure to so many for so long". And of her fellow critics Beauman notes, "It has mystified me that someone can have political, often socialist feelings, without wanting to share the herd experience". In essence she pins down the academies' reactions as bizarrely and contradictorily both anti-elitist in principle and anti-democratic in application. The traditional literary critic wants to recognise the common man (or woman) but has no time for what was read in quantity.
Of course the main argument for a continuing interest in popular fiction of this period, after uncomplicated enjoyment, is sociological. Beauman quotes historian Theodore Zeldin's belief that 'if you want too know what people are like you read novels, not history' and this is amply illustrated throughout the book. How popular and literary novelists handled, sex, censorship, the rising popularity of psychoanalysis, the problem of surplus women, or the vagaries of servants, all give windows onto not just the social mores of our grandmothers' time but how our grandmothers felt about the social mores of their time, the possible pace of change, the class and generational difficulties and differences, and more.
There are two great joys in this work for a reader. Firstly the opening up of vistas; it is like a travel book for a mind, if as Hartley says, 'the past is another country'. I may actually try Ethel M. Dell for example, just to see what I can see. If people can climb mountains because they are 'there', then perhaps now and again we should do the same with books. Just because. And lastly because it is a Persephone Book beautifully put together with the grey dust wrapper, it also comes with a bookmark. It is easy to be sniffy about Brief Encounter but the image of a woman here, a first I think for a Persephone Bookmark which usually show the endpaper fabric, is Celia Johnson in a still from the film. It is part of the image used on the 1995 Virago (the earlier edition used a drawing room scene from the film) where Laura stands caught in the half light from the street lamp. She wears her slim suit, her pearls, her hat, all the trappings of her class but she looks bewildered and really rather fragile. Her face is fully lit as she feels the full glow of society's expectations on her, but also catching the light are the contents of her basket. The basket with her library books. I wonder what she thought of them.