British Women’s Writing: Elizabeth Maslen Donation

Written by Leila Kassir |

Elizabeth Maslen, who has a long career within English literature academia, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies (School of Advanced Studies) and has written widely on women’s writing. She has recently donated over 150 books by British women writers of the early 20th century to Senate House Library, many of which are hardback first editions. This post provides some context to the donation and highlights a small selection of the titles.

Undervalued Women Writers

In addition to collections of classic English literature, Senate House Library has a history of purchasing works that extend beyond the limits of the academic canon, to the extent that works that have (rather dismissively) been described as ‘middlebrow’ feature as one of the Library’s collection strengths. Many of these works have been written by women, and their omission from a predominantly male canon has undergone an academic reappraisal.

Academics such as Elizabeth Maslen and Mary Joannou have championed these women writers in their research, and conferences such as Undervalued British Women Writers, the Bronte to Bloomsbury project, and scholarly works such as Terri Mullholland’s 2017 British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women’s Literature (which last year was one of the most frequently borrowed titles in the Library’s English collection) are just some recent examples of work in the field. It is in this context that we are delighted to welcome the Maslen donation, of which the following texts are just a few highlights.

Sleeveless Errand by Norah C. James (1929)

Sleeveless Errand by Norah C. James (1929)

Norah C. James’ tale of love affairs gone wrong, night club culture, and suicide in late 1920s Britain proved a controversial one. The book was banned in the UK upon publication primarily due to the occurrence of swearing, particularly as written and uttered by women (Arnold Bennett stated it “contains more profanity to the page than any other book I ever read”) and the perceived immorality of the protagonists. Despite being “banished from Albion’s virtuous shore” as Edward Garnett described it in his sympathetic introduction, the book was published in Paris by Henry Babou and Jack Kahane (the latter would later found the Obelisk Press). It is this ban-eluding edition that we have in the collection.

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson (1929)

Clash by Ellen Wilkinson (1929)

This book, published in the same year as Sleeveless Errand but entirely different in content, was Ellen Wilkinson’s fictional rendering of the 1926 General Strike. The novel highlights the personal and political struggles of its main character, trades union activist Joan Craig. 

Ellen Wilkinson was herself more renowned for her political activism than her fiction writing. Known as Red Ellen, for her hair colour but primarily for her Marxist politics, she was a trades union and women’s suffrage organiser and, as an MP, led the Jarrow March of 1936. The book was pubished with red boards and black type, politically suggestive colours of the period.

Woman Alive by Susan Ertz (1935)

Set in the year following George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel (and published well in advance of it) Susan Ertz’s own futuristic work Woman Alive describes a post-plague 1985 London in which only one woman has survived - and the men are in despair. When Time reviewed the book they stated it was “recommended particularly for women pacifists, this sketch…is a bitter indictment of male stupidity”. The book is illustrated by Bip Pares and has a striking cover, again in black and red.

Swastika Night by Murray Constantine (1937)

In 1937 Katharine Burdekin, under the (male?) pseudonym Murray Constantine, wrote Swastika Night which was published by Gollancz. Written before the Second World War this anti-fascist novel imagines the world as it might be if Hitler’s will were imposed upon it. The edition we have is from 1940 when it was reissued by Gollancz as a Left Book Club title, available only to members, and with its uniform cover style of (again) red boards and black type. In 1940 the Second World War was underway and a publisher’s note at the start of this edition adds a hopeful statement, that the author “feels Nazism is too bad to be permanent”.

Storm Jameson

Elizabeth Maslen was the author of 2014’s Life in the Writings of Storm Jameson: a Biography and approximately a third of her donation consists of works by Storm Jameson.

In addition to her novels and journalism, Jameson was a co-founder of the Peace Pledge Union and also a president of the British branch of the International P.E.N. network of writers. Combining her interests, The End of This War (1941) is an example of her non-fiction work, in this case published by Allen & Unwin in a series of P.E.N. titles.

The Hidden River (1955) on the other hand is an example of Jameson’s fiction output, here published by Macmillan. As with many of the books in the Maslen donation, the dust jacket remains. These ephemeral covers, not usually retained by libraries, can provide important clues to the contemporary reception and marketing of these works. In this instance, the novel was a ‘Book Society Choice’ and internal stamps show it was part of Macmillan’s Overseas Library.

About the author

Leila Kassir
Research Librarian: British, USA & Commonwealth Literature

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