Edited by Elke D’hoker and Chris Mourant

Edinburgh University Press. 337 pages. £24.99. ISBN 978-1-4744-6109-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

As Elke D’hoker and Chris Mourant point out in their introduction to this fascinating book, the period 1880 to 1950 was “the heyday of magazine short fiction in Britain”. There were dozens, probably hundreds of magazines, many of them short lived, published during the years referred to. And it’s essential to understand that they were not just small-circulation literary magazines, aimed at a limited readership with a challenging programme in mind. Publications of that nature existed, of course, but stories were also printed in a wide range of other places, including newspapers and weekly and monthly journals catering for specific interests. A magazine for railway enthusiasts might use a short story with a steam train background. Or a fashion magazine might focus on a story set among, designers, models, and the well-to-do likely to buy the publication.

It was “the age of the storytellers” with an emphasis on ”unity, compression, closure, and plot”. This could lead to the formulaic, and “highbrow and avant-garde” writers and editors reacted against what they saw as restrictions on their work. Mourant and D’hoker say that The Yellow Book, edited by Henry Harland, who thought that “ ‘impression’, rather than plot, should be the kernel of every short story”, provided a home for the more-adventurous. It’s probably true that the kind of bleak stories Hubert Crackanthorpe wrote would not likely find a home in the popular magazines of the day.  A story such as “The  Haseltons”, published in The Yellow Book in April 1895, with an unhappy wife, unfaithful husband, and the wife’s admirer hovering hopelessly in the wings, would only be accepted for The Yellow Book and appreciated by the suspect people who read it. As the editors make clear when discussing Crackanthorpe’s and other’s work, “sordid lower-class urban life” was “part of avant-garde writing in the 1880s and 1890s”, as were “disturbing and controversial accounts of disastrous male-female relationships”.  Several journalists in the popular press almost gloated when Crackanthorpe died in somewhat mysterious circumstances in Paris. The French influence on his writing was considered a sign of his decadence. He got what he deserved.

Still, the fact is that most people preferred to read the stories in The Strand, Tit-Bits, Pearson’s, The Pall Mall Magazine, and the rest of their kind. These magazines often had a wide circulation and because there were so many it was possible for a productive writer to earn a living of sorts writing stories for them. It is obvious that the standards among writers of popular fiction varied widely. Detective stories were among the favourites with readers, the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series setting the pace and most of the others following closely if not always as successfully. Arthur Morrison and Austin Freeman might be mentioned as two of the better “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes”. It’s a sign of their continued appeal that anthologies featuring minor Victorian and Edwardian short story writers are published fairly frequently. Hugh Greene edited four in the 1970s, and more recently Nick Rennison has compiled several. I happily admit to enjoying these stories, even those with less than perfectly realised plots and characters. They can be imaginative, and are certainly often entertaining.

The “enormous expansion of the periodical press in the course of the nineteenth century”, and the 1870 Education Act leading to “a significantly expanded readership”, can be seen as key factors in the rise in popularity of short stories. And in the response of writers to the demand for them from editors and publishers.  Mourant and D’hoker are of the opinion that too much attention has been paid to so-called avant-garde publications and what they printed, and not enough to their popular counterparts. Some writers, including Virginia Woolf and Aldous Huxley, managed to publish in both, though there were suggestions (accusations?) that they had to lower their high intellectual intentions  in order to fit into contexts not normally seen as acceptable by the more-particular. It wasn’t necessarily true. Woolf was surely almost certain to be interesting no matter where she published. She was featured several times in Good Housekeeping, a magazine which “juxtaposed highbrow articles with advertisements for consumer goods”. And as a writer needing to earn money to live on she could be paid more than she would have been for something in an intellectual publication.    

Magazines like The Strand and The Royal managed to survive until the 1920s, whereas the more-select The Savoy and The Albermarle (largely financed by Crackanthorpe’s family) folded after a few issues. I’m skipping around a little and essentially just making the point that avant-garde publications, and those generally aimed at an intellectual audience, tended not to last very long. Their circulations were never wide enough for them to sustain on sales alone and they often needed subsidies from affluent patrons to carry on.  It’s noted that “The distinctly proletarian and colloquial-sounding Tit-Bits lasted from 1881 to 1984”. The rise of publications like Tit-Bits is satirised in George Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, where a magazine called Chit-Chat attracts the attention of the opportunistic Jasper Milvain. I doubt that there have been any academic studies of what Tit-Bits published, or for that matter of Lilliput (1937- 1960), which was more ambitious and printed Sylvia Townsend Warner, V.S. Pritchett, Peter Quennell, Robert Graves, Simenon, and many more, along with cartoons, photographs, a few tasteful nude studies, and a variety of articles.  

Looking at The English Review, edited by Ford Madox Ford, Annalise Grice notes that it had an open policy as regards what constituted a short story. Ford was an advocate for following examples set by French and Russian practitioners of the form. And he was happy to publish fiction ranging from “short sketches to short stories”, with writers thus not bound to prescribed lengths which they may have been when writing for other publications. Grice says that Ford’s view was that “well-crafted short fiction is better suited to the condition of modernity, with features such as the epiphany or moment of revelation, the event, the use of symbolism, slice of life and irresolution offering the reader a glimpse of lives rarely encountered”.  I think I ought to also mention that, bearing in mind Ford’s comment that “It is astonishing how little literature has to show of the life of the poor”, Grice pays some attention to the stories that D.H. Lawrence published in The English Review.

There may be several reasons why short stories were so popular. The conditions of life in an increasingly urban and work-oriented setting limited the time for reading, and the advent of the self-contained story, as opposed to the serialised novel, possibly appealed more to a busy readership. When the Second World War broke out in 1939 it soon became obvious that it would involve not only those in the armed forces but almost the whole civilian population as men and women were directed into war work. With limited time for reading the short story became a favourite vehicle for recording life both in the services and on the home front. Two close studies of magazines published in the 1940s provide excellent examples of how circumstances shaped the direction that short stories took during this period.

Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly, has been the subject of more than one book-length examination in recent years, a fact which I would attribute to it being seen as a kind of standard bearer for high culture during a time of destruction and barbarism. As such it has attracted the attention of academics and others impressed by the kind of material it published. It was, perhaps, almost eccentric  of the editor himself to publish Enid Starkie’s delightful two-part essay on “Eccentrics of 1830”  in the May and June 1944 issues  of Horizon. But perhaps it drew attention to Paris and the fact that the invasion of France was about to take place? I’m guessing when I say this, and it’s possible that there were other, more-prosaic reasons relating to what was available for publication that determined the inclusion of the Starkie essay? And Connolly may just have liked it.

I’ve deviated by talking about a non-fictional item from Horizon. Ann-Marie Einhaus’s investigation of the magazine is built around “The Wartime Short Story, 1940-1945”, with writers like Elizabeth Bowen, William Sansom, Anna Kavan, Fred Urquhart, and Julian Maclaren-Ross being considered. Some are referred to by Einhaus as “late modernist notables”, though Urquhart and Maclaren-Ross are excluded from this description. But does labelling matter? As she says, “Connolly’s inconsistent criteria for selecting short fiction contributions did not necessarily result in the emergence of a particular type of Horizon short story”. Given the pressures on resources, the range of material arriving for consideration, the need to get issues to press to maintain a regular appearance schedule, and other factors like paper rationing relating to a wartime setting, it’s difficult to see how a definite pattern in the fiction contributions could emerge. And establishing such a pattern may not have been high among Connolly’s concerns.  In his introduction to Horizon Stories (Faber, 1943) he referred to “the bias of the editor, which is towards the story with a beginning and an end, and away from the impressionistic sketch or the reportage disguised as narrative”. He additionally mentioned approvingly “a revival of the picaresque form…..which depends for its effect on a mixture of wit with a certain poetry of motion, and a take-me-or-leave-me carelessness”.

It’s a personal opinion, but the truly representative magazine of the 1940s seems to me Penguin New Writing, edited by John Lehman from 1940 to 1950 and running to forty issues. Its range of stories, poems, articles on art, music, theatre, and literary criticism, was probably unparalleled in a magazine of its kind, its circulation being around 100,000 copies per issue. Its readership was sure to be far more than that as copies were passed from hand-to-hand in factories and barrack-rooms and, as was suggested in the magazine, left in Post Offices so others could pick them up. Leaving aside Horizon, its nearest rival was probably Reginald Moore’s Modern Reading, which had a similarly democratic and open spirit evident in its choice of contributors, though it lacked the kind of financial and distribution backing that Lehman’s magazine fortunately had.

Writers who had appeared in Horizon – Pritchett. Sansom, Maclaren-Ross, to name three – were also published by Penguin New Writing, as were some working-class authors like Sid Chaplin, B.L. Coombes, George Garrett, and Jim Phelan. And it’s a sign of Lehman’s interest in new approaches to writing that the Spring (number 27) and Summer (number 28) 1946 issues printed John Hampson’s “Movements in the Underground” in which he surveyed a wide range of writers who might be said to have explored the seamy and less-respectable side of life. I doubt that many of them are read or talked about now – Robert Goodyear, A.J. La Bern, Axel Bracey, James Spenser, James Curtis; who remembers them? And how about Sarah Salt and E.H.W.Meyerstein?  Hampson’s two-part essay is still invaluable for anyone researching the lesser-known and the forgotten writers of the 1930s and 1940s. Tessa Thorniley’s essay doesn’t mention it, though to be fair she is more involved with the stories that Penguin New Writing published.

There’s no doubt that John Lehman made a major contribution to the literature of the 1940s, a period when, certainly in the first half of the decade, the pressures of service life and war work meant that most people only had time available for a limited amount of reading. Short stories filled a need for something that could be read quickly and in most cases without too many demands on the reader’s patience or tolerance for the unusual. Experimentation was not a factor in the stories written during the war. Realism was. Likewise after it, if the truth be told. An appreciation of the experimental in literature is usually limited to readers with specialist tastes and interests. Storytelling is what most readers look for. Ann Marie-Einhaus, in her introduction to a book of Second World War stories she edited (Night in the Front Line, The British Library, 2017), suggests that people wrote “despite the dangers and distractions, perhaps because there was a deep psychological need for storytelling”.  She also rightly drew attention to Short Stories from the Second World War, edited by Dan Davin (Oxford University Press, 1984), a particularly strong selection with an informative introduction by Davin.    

The circulations of both Horizon and Penguin New Writing began to decline after 1946 or so and neither publication lasted beyond 1950. Austerity, adjusting to civilian life, the necessity to find jobs and housing. They were all factors that pulled attention away from writing and reading for those who had found it stimulating during the war. Many of the people Lehman published were not would-be professional writers. The impulse to write subsided as their circumstances changed. And even if they did continue to write it was often difficult to locate outlets for what they had produced. The last of Denys Val Baker’s Little Reviews Anthologies, in which he collected stories, poems, essays, and reviews from many of the magazines still in existence, was published in 1949. In his introduction he makes a point of referring to the number of magazines that had ceased publication, and he particularly emphasised the effect on both the writing and publication of short stories. His prediction of further decline turned out to be true and, with only a few exceptions, the 1950s were not good years for magazines printing short stories in the United Kingdom.

The Modern Short Story and Magazine Culture, 1880-1950 is a stimulating and essential book for anyone interested in short stories and where they were published. There are numerous useful notes and an extensive bibliography.  I’ve only managed to refer to a few of the essays, and there are others which look at magazines such as Women at Home, Eve, Lagan, Rhythm, The London Mercury, and some of the writers who contributed to them. One of the pleasures of examining old publications, of both the commercial and little magazine variety, is discovering the forgotten or lesser-known writers who, nonetheless, may have produced something worthwhile. Penguin New Writing is full of people like that. So is Modern Reading, I’m intrigued when I see a name like Penistan Chapman. She was published in The London Mercury and John O’ London’s Weekly and her stories were reprinted in Edward J. O’Brien’s The Best Short Stories: English and American 1937 and 1938, two collections which placed her alongside Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Frank O’Connor, and others.  But she doesn’t appear to have had any books published, and I’ve not been able to find out anything else about her.