Collecting Women’s Literary Lives

Guest blog article by Eleanor Clark, winner of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book-Collecting 2023.

I first encountered Winifred Holtby’s South Riding in Exeter’s Oxfam shop, in a worn Virago reprint. I was twelve and didn’t yet know to hold out for the darker green originals. The novel is nearly 600 pages long, including maps and character lists. Exactly the kind of tome that a bookish twelve-year-old can devour in a week, moving only to dodge footballs in the playground. I think if I came across it now, I’d find it harder to commit to. There’s a voraciousness to being twelve which I doubt I’ll ever see again. It’s fortuitous, then, that books, like people, sometimes come along at precisely the right moment in our lives.

Winifred Holtby, South Riding, first edition 1936. London and Glasgow: Collins Clear-Type Press, first printing 1936. Purchased with the support of the Colin Franklin Prize for Book Collecting, 2023.

On dust jacket of the first edition of South Riding, Jonathan Cape describes it as ‘unquestionably the greatest novel we have been privileged to publish’. Not even Virago would write that about Holtby today. Until I held this copy of South Riding in my hands – the first edition I’ve been privileged to be able to buy for the Library as part of the Colin Franklin Prize – I had no idea that Cape had written this endorsement. The ‘middlebrow’ label has not only completely swamped many interwar women writers’ works, but swallowed what they once meant to readers. I think the familiar generic forms of these fictions veil a quiet radicalism that allows readers, especially women, to envisage a life beyond social prescription, a life on the fringes of the possible. And in many cases, the radicalism isn’t even particularly quiet.

My collection began with a dust jacket-less first edition of Vera Brittain’s Humiliation with Honour, for £2.50. The Prologue is an epistle to Brittain’s son, with whom she had a complex relationship. The letter might read as a mother who prioritised political and literary life belatedly acknowledging her child. But my copy denies that reading. A child’s heavy scribbles cover the title page and prologue, over a scrawled inscription from 1943. I like to imagine it plucked from a busy mother’s handbag and defaced before she notices. A male dominated market desires purity, but real life is more truly captured when high textual ideas and messy material reality incorporate each other.

My copy of Thrice a Stranger extends this principle from feminism to socialism. This is a scarce title and, as a Gollancz publication, scarcer still with dust jacket. My copy is signed but bears three Manchester Public Library stamps. The co-existence of value-augmenting signature and value-diminishing stamps fascinates me. It’s possible that Brittain, a committed socialist, chose to sign a library copy to which working people had access.

This is why I collect books: the physical object is where we see readers interacting with texts. Rare book markets stigmatise marks left by readers, unless they are the ‘right’ kind of reader: the illustrious kind. I find this completely nonsensical. How can evidence that a book has been read, listened to, and loved, by the audience for whom it was written possibly diminish its value? Only if our notions of the value of stories are themselves warped.

I am proud that my collection includes damaged books. I can’t pretend I intended it to be so: I began collecting both cluelessly and pennilessly. But now I find that collecting books whose market value is derided is part of the work of revalorising texts whose critical fortunes have also fallen. I value the ‘middlebrow’, and I value its readers.

When I survey my collection, I feel the tenacity of these writers. Women like Holtby, Brittain, Spark and Bowen were not always brave and bold, but they wrote women who are. They write us all how we would like ourselves to be – a little bit more self-confident. Copies of their books that embody that self-confidence, that defiance of odds and social standards; copies that make testaments to the youth that grew up with them – those are the copies I want on my bookshelf.