What Most People Read: popular literature either side of the Second World War

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The paperback book was a specific product of the railways, and one in Britain associated above all else with WH Smith’s station bookstores and newsagents. Through the likes of Smith’s and Boots ‘circulating libraries’, mass produced popular fiction became a staple of British life.

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What did they read? There was romantic fiction. Mills and Boon published formulaic romantic novels aimed at the lending libraries. From 1916 on, Ruby M Ayres published over 150 best selling novels. First published in 1922, Barbara Cartland wrote 723 books. EM Hull wrote a series of formulaic novels, most famously The Sheik, which formed the basis of the Rudolph Valentino smash hit movie. What is remarkable is quite how violently erotic it is. The heroine is raped, repeatedly, and thus falls in love with her rapist, finally winning him over when she threatens to kill herself rather than be cast out from the sheik’s presence: and this was popular women’s fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey is hardly unique, or new.

One of the primary formats for popular fiction, aside from the popular men’s equivalents (detective fiction and westerns, in the main) was the magazine: women’s ‘erotic bloods’ such as Oracle, Glamour or Red Letter, or men’s ‘Yank mags’.

The British read a lot of newspapers. By 1934, the read 95 daily and 130 Sunday papers per 100 households; the biggest seller was the News of the World (17m), biggest daily was the Daily Express (12m), in 1950 the Daily Mirror caught up with the Express. My grandmother read the News of the World avidly every Sunday, and it’s staple diet of sex and scandal (especially any naughty vicars they could turn up) proved enduringly popular. Local papers were almost ubiquitous, especially evening ones: in 1950, seven out of ten Newcastle households took the Evening Chronicle.

The papers were, of course, politically biased, mostly to the right, and could intermittently be heavily involved in politics. In the ‘thirties Beaverbrook’s Express and Rothermere’s Daily Mail fulminated against Baldwin, Geoffrey Dawson (editor of The Times) was something close to the voice of Baldwin, then Chamberlain. In the late ‘thirties, Cecil King moved the Daily Mirror to the left, a sound commercial judgement if nothing else. However, popular journalism could be pretty heavyweight too: from 1957, AJP Taylor wrote for the Express. My Labour voting father took the Daily and Sunday Express, claiming it was for the sport. What this era saw was the rise of sports reporting and more widely a greater informality, the creation of modern tabloid journalism.

Magazines were mass circulation too. The biggest was the Radio Times with a circulation of 20m by 1934), the symbiotic relationship of press and broadcasting was born. Just like the express, Reader’s Digest catered to a mass middlebrow market. So did women’s magazines: Woman’s Weekly sold over a million by 1932, by 1950 one in four of all women read Woman’s Own or Woman; the very middle class Good Housekeeping was the seventh most popular in 1950.

Children’s comics became massive sellers: Wizzard, Hotspur and Boy’s Own for, obviously, boys, or Schoolgirl’s Own and Crystal. Children’s fiction such as Biggles or the Famous Five became big business, and were much borrowed from the nation’s libraries too.

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The British did read literature too. We began with paperbacks. In 1935, Penguin Books were born. The first ten Penguin books a give a decent snapshot of the literary reader. There is ten staple of English fiction, the detective novel. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels are enduring popular, Penguin published both Christie and Dorothy L Sayers. On the same list was Hemmingway and a biography of Shelley.

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Those first ten are now among the Treasures of the Bodelian. Read about them here.

Not everyone loved Biggles et Al. On the boys’ fiction of the ‘thirties, George Orwell wrote this swingeing attack, Boys Weeklies: read it here.

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