Teaching the Unprintable: British Fiction Between the Wars

British literature, Creative Writing, Interdisciplinarity


Professor Chris Hopkins
English Studies
Sheffield Hallam University


This case study is about how it is possible by simple teaching methods, and with some modest library facilities, to find ways of using single copies of relatively hard-to-get-texts in ways which open them up to whole seminar groups. Groups of students can then gain at least some access to a wider view of a period or genre than that provided by what is considered printable.

Background / Context

Though the academic canon of literature may have been challenged, expanded and its boundaries thoroughly blurred, there are still some highly canonical forces which play a large part in what texts and what kinds of texts we can teach. To take the area covered by my own third year option at Sheffield Hallam, British Fiction Between the Wars, it is more than acceptable in academic terms to teach working class fiction, women’s writing and novels once influential, now less well-remembered – except that, in fact, many of these kinds of books were never reprinted, are out of print or only very sporadically in print. In short, the canon of what is readable is governed not only by academic notions of canonicity / the evils of the canonical, but equally fundamentally by publishers’ conceptions of the publishable.

Thus, though you can teach Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933) on an undergraduate option, it is not easy to find any of the comparable / quite different working class fictions of the time which are reliably in print in the year you are teaching. For example, John Sommerfield’s May Day (1936) has been reprinted by Lawrence and Wishart, but has not been available since the 1980s. Novels by Phyllis Bentley and Phyllis Bottome, to take another kind of example, are completely unavailable in modern editions. Even Storm Jameson, some of whose major thirties novels were reprinted by Virago in the 1980s, is not now in print. This is not a major problem for thirties scholars, who can use the single library copy or if necessary inter-library-loan a copy of such a text, but it does mean that you cannot set these books for a whole seminar to read. There is thus a danger that the teachable canon is quite different from what university teachers know to have been the real reading experience of a period and genre.

We have become so used to relatively cheap, relatively easily obtainable books as the fundamental technology of English, that we have forgotten that books were once much rarer commodities available only in single copies, not whole battalions. Indeed, the genre of the Lecture stems from a medieval practice which enabled a large number of people to share a single copy of a book as it was read out at the lectern (not a teaching practice I would now wholly recommend, you understand, but one which still offers certain possibilities, as we shall see).

Activities / Practice

This case study is about how it is possible by simple teaching methods, and with some modest library facilities, to find ways of using single copies of relatively hard-to-get-texts in ways which open them up to whole seminar groups. Groups of students can then gain at least some access to a wider view of a period than that provided by what is considered printable. This case study draws on my experience of using single library copies of thirties texts with my third year option students in ways which meant that final assignments did not regard Walter Greenwood as the only working class writers of the thirties or think that no women writers ever wrote directly about political issues in the public sphere. The case study suggests that similar techniques can be used for other periods/ genres to diversify the literary histories undergraduates meet, to step away from an exclusively set-book-set–up, to help students work more like real researchers and critics, and to make essay writing and marking a more individual, autonomous, enjoyable experience.

The story begins very much in the library. Like all institutions, Sheffield Hallam has a history, and some of that history is reflected in what is in its library collections. Thus, at some stage, perhaps when what is now the Collegiate campus was a teacher training college, the library bought quite a few novels by the Yorkshire novelist, Phyllis Bentley, as well as some works by Mulk Raj Anand and some thirties Penguins. Later, reprints of some thirties novels were added, I think by colleagues in Communication Studies, some of whom were particularly interested in politics and writing of the period. Then, I arrived and have tried to add reprints or original copies of thirties novels to the collection wherever possible. So, in an unsystematic way, a certain number of moderately unusual thirties texts have accumulated. However, at some point in the 1990s, this story of accumulation begins to be affected by another story – one of efficiency and digitalisation. With the new technologies available to it, as well as a new sense that ‘information’ rather than books per se are the future of libraries, it became possible to scan through and see whether books have been borrowed in recent times. There is pressure on shelf space (as student numbers expand, there need to be more workspaces in the library, and more PCs) and soon books which are not taken out are thrown out, or at any rate, sold. Thus I acquire two volumes of the journal Wales, and the autobiographies of Mulk Raj Anand and Phyllis Bentley. Though this gives me pleasure, it also means they have passed from public to private ownership, and cannot any longer easily be used by students. This happened, of course, because they had not been taken out by anyone (even me) for at least three years. It was at this point, about three years ago, that I formulated a way of trying to preserve and expand what was readable.

If I could not set books like Walter Brierley’s Means Test Man, Phyllis Bentley’s Inheritance, Edward Upward’s Journey to the Border, or Rex Warner’s the Aerodrome for the whole seminar, I thought we could perhaps at least share a minimal reading experience of such texts. I therefore wrote into the module description that each student would give an informal presentation of about 10 minutes on one out or print author or text from the period during the semester. The presentations were deliberately left un-assessed and relatively informal. With the module reading lists, there was a list of out of print but important thirties authors and texts of which Sheffield Hallam Library has holdings, and instructions for the presentations which asked presenters simply to:

  1. Put together a side of A4 on the writing career of their chosen author
  2. Bring in a photocopy of the first page of their chosen text
  3. Read said text
  4. Say something about what they thought of the text
  5. Say something about how they thought it differed from / related to the set seminar texts.

I did not want to assess the presentation partly because I liked the existing free choice of topic at the end of this third year option, and partly because I wanted it to be as far as possible a liberating, voluntary activity rather than another chore. What I did do was to write in an assessment criterion for the assessed essay which said that ‘credit will be given for the use of material studied independently’. Student responses have, of course, differed from year to year, but on the whole I have been very pleased with what my students have done with this task. Though I make clear in a mild sort of way that I expect everyone to do a presentation, I have made no attempt to chase refuseniks and beyond setting up the presentation at the beginning of the option, I have simply left it to them to bring something to the seminar in the sixth week of the module. In the main, students have not only done what the presentation instruction asked but often much more. More importantly, the presentations have been relaxed, yet actually regarded as important by students – because, I think, these ten minutes introduction were, initially, the only way they were going to get any sense of this group of authors. Most importantly of all, the presentations have lead to genuine sharing of this scarce information, so that after the presentations many students did go and choose to read the single library editions from this group of texts. Often in the presentations, students did express a curiosity which is I think to be encouraged: ‘I would like to I know how that novel ends . . .’ and which often focussed on the reading experience itself.


So, I have now read essays where, for example, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Rex Warner’s The Aerodrome were compared, or where working fiction at least included Means Test Man and Sandwich Man as well as Love on the Dole. Equally importantly, I felt that as a result of the presentations and the uses they made of it, students had a kind of lived experience of the consequences of the canonical / non-canonical to add to their theoretical sense of the issue. They could see that our sense of literary histories depends on what stays easily readable, and that adding a new (old) text to that story can alter our perceptions. An example of this, which we discussed one year after the presentations, arose from Storm Jameson’s writing, which often addresses politics in the public sphere more directly than the set books by Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamond Lehmann (differently rather than necessarily more effectively, of course). Generally, the exercise has a realist air about it: why does the module have a presentation? Maybe not just to make us jump through a hoop, but because actually without this kind of improvisation we couldn’t read these texts? I feel that the exercise does something to dispel any misconception that the tutor has a ready made answer and to promote the idea that the group as a whole is helping to make meanings of the period from its (relatively) raw ingredients.

It does feel slightly odd in the digital age to be basing part of a module on what we might call ‘poor resources’ (though the model of ‘poor theatre’ might make that a more positive statement), but there are, at least for the present, pedagogic advantages to students having an individual sense of hunting and handling a (relatively) rare book and reporting back. I would, of course be delighted if there were a thirties or twentieth century equivalent of EEBO (Early English Books Online), but given copyright rules, as I understand them, it seems unlikely that such a thing will happen in the near future. None of the above is rocket science (and, indeed, almost the opposite of ‘information science’), but in a modest way I think it has made for more active learning about Fiction between the Wars. It now feels worth while buying some real thirties books in the knowledge they will be borrowed, read and that literary bio-diversity will be, to an extent, preserved. What I will do next year is investigate what holdings Sheffield public libraries have which might expand the number of texts we can draw on. I think other periods and genres could perhaps do similar things to expand what is readable and useable and to (re?)introduce the more personalised kind of learning and reading which ought to be at the centre of English studies.

July 2005