‘The Magazine Short Story and the Real Short Story’: Consuming Fiction in the Feminist Weekly Time and Tide
‘The Magazine Short Story and the Real Short Story’: Consuming Fiction in the Feminist Weekly Time and Tide
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the short fiction content of the feminist weekly Time and Tide alongside readers’ letters printed in the periodical’s correspondence columns. A basic unit of magazine production the short story is also ‘definitional to modernism’ (Armstrong 2005: 52), and during the interwar period its status as commodity or art became the subject of increasing scrutiny and debate. Drawing on examples from amateur writers and well-known figures such as E. M. Delafield, the chapter explores how Time and Tide negotiated readers’ expectations for short fiction amongst its core target audience of women readers. Building on Fionnuala Dillane’s application of affect theory to periodical studies (2016), the chapter uses her concept of ‘discursive disruption’ to consider moments of conflict between Time and Tide and its readers over the short stories it published as moments of opportunity for the periodical to expand its scope, readership and brow, and renegotiate its position in the literary marketplace.
IN RECENT YEARS we have seen an upsurge of critical interest in the short story, a literary genre intimately connected in Britain with the rise of the periodical press at the end of the nineteenth century.1 The appearance in 1891 of the Strand Magazine, an illustrated sixpenny monthly combining fiction and non-fiction content and which inspired a host of successful imitators, is generally regarded as a watershed year for the British short story (Baldwin 2013: 41).2 After the turn of the century these ‘proto-slick’ magazines were joined by a flood of cheaper all-fiction ‘pulp’ magazines commanding even greater readerships (Ashley 2006: 12). In the interwar period the periodical market for short stories continued to flourish (Baldwin: 46), a major sector of this market being the women’s press. Cynthia L. White (1970) identifies as many as fifty-five new women’s magazine titles appearing between the years 1920 and 1939; most of these catered to the middle and lower-middle classes and regularly published fiction in their pages, while the 1920s also saw a boom in story papers for working-class women readers (Melman 1988: 108).3 As a basic unit of magazine production the short story warrants special attention in our discussion – in the present Part of this volume – of how literary and cultural materials circulated in British women’s periodicals between the two world wars. Providing writers with opportunities for aesthetic experimentation, the short story had also become ‘definitional to modernism’ by the time we arrive at the short fictions of Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce (Armstrong 2005: 52), and during the interwar period the short story’s status as commodity or art became the subject of increasing scrutiny and debate.4 Mary Agnes Hamilton, novelist, journalist, and a regular fiction reviewer for the feminist weekly Time and Tide, stated in an early review for this periodical: ‘There is the magazine short story and the real short story, as unlike each other as the best seller and the real novel’ (13 May 1921: 456). Hamilton’s vocabulary echoes that of numerous other authors, critics, and commentators who sought to differentiate between literary and commercial short fiction in the interwar years. John Cournos and Edward J. O’Brien, for example, in their annual best British and American short story collections (dating from 1923), worked to counteract the kind of formulaic writing that came to be labelled as ‘magazine fiction’, selecting stories which in their view evidenced the work of the ‘true artist’ in their unity of ‘organic substance and artistic form’ (Cournos and O’Brien 1923: xix). According to Hamilton, none of the stories assembled in the volumes she has under review conform fully to the ‘magazine story … a recognisable type’ (456), and it is significant that (p.73) she devotes the largest space to the most experimental and modernist of these works – Monday or Tuesday by Virginia Woolf – elevating the ‘real’ short story as that most self-consciously concerned with art.5
Time and Tide, founded in May 1920 by Welsh businesswoman and former suffragette Lady Margaret Rhondda, was itself a paying outlet for short fiction. In September 1923 the Woman Journalist, organ of the Society of Women Journalists, listed Time and Tide at the top of its ‘Home Market’ list with information that the periodical ‘accepts serious and light articles. Short stories, from 400–1,000 words are given special consideration. Payment is from One to Two Guineas a thousand words’ (Sep 1923: 17). As a periodical that paid its contributors, Time and Tide was more commercially oriented than other feminist periodicals examined in this volume which did not offer payment to outside contributors, and relied almost wholly on work contributed by their own staff.6 At the same time, the space Time and Tide gave to fiction was considerably smaller than that afforded by publications in the commercial women’s magazine market, and the periodical was unable to pay authors the kind of rates that could be obtained in magazines with much higher circulations. Good Housekeeping, for example, which during the interwar period was ‘one of the premier fiction-carrying magazines in Britain’ (Ashley: 253), published stories of 4,000 to 7,000 words (usually four or five per issue) and, according to the Authors, Playwrights and Composers Handbook for 1935, offered a minimum rate of fifteen guineas per story. In its early years Time and Tide typically carried one or two short stories per issue, and sometimes published longer short stories in two or more weekly instalments. Occasionally it published serial fiction, but it is Time and Tide’s engagement with the short story as a genre that is my focus here.
My primary objects of study in the discussion that follows are readers’ reactions, as demonstrated in private and published correspondence, to three short stories which appeared in Time and Tide in 1920, 1928, and 1935. Drawing on recent applications of affect theory in periodical studies, I am particularly interested in how attention to the ‘affective dimensions of periodical interactions’ (Dillane 2016: 6) reveals Time and Tide’s shifting relationship with its audience as it managed its own transitions in a complex and segmented literary marketplace. Dean Baldwin usefully notes that ‘[w]hat was once described simplistically as a two-part market (popular versus Modernist) is now seen as a fractured market of many audiences and an equally fractured literary psyche attempting to negotiate and survive the uncertainties of multiple audiences and aesthetics’ (156). But if we have now disrupted a simple, gendered opposition between ‘high’ and ‘low’ (as per Andreas Huyssen’s influential thesis regarding the ‘great divide’), the question of how gender figures in this more fractured market remains as important as ever.7 As a periodical that both harnessed the energy of interwar feminism, and sought to operate on far broader lines than such surviving former suffrage organs as the Woman’s Leader and the Vote (Clay 2016), Time and Tide occupies an ambiguous position in relation to the other women’s print media examined in this volume. It played a leading role in interwar feminist debates (as explored by Laurel Forster in this volume), used tactics deployed at the commercial end of women’s periodical publishing (for example, reader competitions offering cash prizes) to attract a far wider group of middle-class women readers, and developed important relationships with Bloomsbury modernism in its new orientation, at the end of the 1920s, towards the literary highbrow sphere.8 Readers’ expectations for fiction published in Time and Tide (p.74) were thus informed by a variety of literary and reading communities shaped by different periodical contexts, from those associated with a growing commercial women’s magazine market, to New Woman fiction, suffrage fiction, and avant-garde fiction published in literary magazines.
It is the affective encounter, I argue, that proves highly revealing of the process of negotiation involved between the periodical and its readers as Time and Tide worked to establish its identity and audience in the interwar years. Building on Fionnula Dillane’s insight that ‘attention to the affective constitutes attention to genre, network, audience, and the politics of aesthetics’ (11), I apply her concept of ‘discursive disruption’ to consider moments of conflict between Time and Tide and its readers over the fiction it published, and to recognise such ruptures as moments of opportunity for the periodical to articulate its own position and manage audience expectations. Dillane uses the term ‘discursive disruption’ to describe those moments when the stabilising patterns of repetition in periodical texts are ‘destabilized, however temporarily’, and argues that ‘[i]t is the contrast between anticipated repetition and actual swerve from the expected that creates affective intensity’ (12). While individual periodical environments provide generic security for readers (for example, that the short stories they encounter there will be of a particular kind) ‘there is always … the potential for shock’ (18): new writers are admitted to the periodical’s pages, editorial agendas change, readers from different kinds of reading communities come with different kinds of expectations. Attention to feeling in Time and Tide’s discussions of short fiction, therefore, yields important insights into audience expectations for the magazine, and its editorial agenda. As I argue below, moments of apparent crisis were in fact moments of construction through which Time and Tide renegotiated its readership, and its political and aesthetic affiliations.
‘A Little Happiness’
Time and Tide’s first fiction contribution was a children’s serial, ‘Prudence and Peter’, written by Elizabeth Robins (actress, playwright, novelist, and leading figure in the women’s suffrage movement) in collaboration with her lifelong companion, Dr Octavia Wilberforce. One of Time and Tide’s founding directors, Robins offered valuable contacts and advice on the literary side of the paper during its first thirty-six months, and several other early contributors of serial and short fiction were drawn from suffrage networks, including male writers who had supported the cause such as Laurence Housman and William Pett Ridge (Clay 2009: 21). Time and Tide’s feminism set the tone for much of this early creative content, continuing the political tradition of suffrage fiction in short stories which frequently take up questions relating to women’s freedom and opportunity, while fostering a sense of feminist community and what Barbara Green has described as ‘the feel of the feminist network’ (2016). At the same time, the appearance of short fiction by Henry Kitchell-Webster, one of the most popular authors of magazine serials in America, and Barry Pain, an enormously popular fiction writer in Britain’s magazine market, show that the periodical was simultaneously reaching beyond a feminist community of readers towards a wider popular audience. Another household name to appear in Time and Tide in the early 1920s was Richmal Crompton, author of the enduringly popular ‘William’ stories which were (p.75) first published in Home Magazine, a women’s magazine for family reading. Crompton was a supporter of women’s suffrage, but the first story she contributed to Time and Tide (‘The Back Garden’, which explores a wife’s suspicion of infidelity in her husband which proves unfounded) has more to do with the feelings attached to women’s experiences of modernity than to political causes (6 Apr 1923: 377).
The heterogeneity of Time and Tide’s early short fiction content suggests that from the outset the periodical was seeking to appeal to a variety of readers, and to straddle both political and commercial magazine markets. But while there was no one ‘type’ of short story favoured by the periodical, it was still possible for fiction it published to produce the feeling that it was out of place. In December 1920 a story called ‘A Little Happiness’ (about an impoverished man whose brief moment of happiness purchased by a win on the bookies is stolen from him when he is robbed on the street while he sleeps) drew an indignant response from Octavia Wilberforce in a private letter to Elizabeth Robins:
I thought Time and Tide was to have a note of optimism – that story merely makes you loathe the paper. Quote me as ‘a story reader among hard-working professional women who look for relaxation and a note of cheering in a weekly paper.’ I defy anybody to be bucked up by that Time and Tide.
A p[atien]t told me she liked the cinemas which made me laugh. It’s the duty of those who cater for hard-working people to give ’em cheerful stuff. For example, ‘The Grafter’ the Webster short story. Or the Barry Pain. Remember?9
This rare example of a reader’s private response to Time and Tide’s short fiction content reminds us that the ‘reading public tended to regard the short story as a form of entertainment’ (Baldwin: 132). According to Baldwin, the two qualities that dominated the commercial short story were ‘brightness’ and ‘love’ (90), and it is the story’s lack of ‘optimism’ and ‘cheer’, its failure to provide ‘A Little Happiness’ apropos its title, that disappoints. As a doctor Wilberforce represented the expanding class of ‘hard-working professional women’ who were Time and Tide’s core target audience. However, while she looks to Time and Tide’s short story content ‘for relaxation and a note of cheering’, the periodical’s founder had other ambitions. In early correspondence about the magazine Rhondda explicitly discussed her aims for Time and Tide as a ‘High Class Woman’s Weekly’, distinguishing it from the kind of commercial publications read by Wilberforce’s cinema-going patient – the ‘female fiction consumer’ who was, as Lisa Stead argues in this volume, ‘a signifier at this time for the intellectually damaging qualities of mass entertainment media’.10 Time and Tide actively differentiated itself from such popular, feminised media forms, and from its earliest issues was working to secure a position among the leading general-audience intellectual weeklies of the day, papers like the Nation and Athenaeum and the New Statesman.
Time and Tide’s early orientation towards this class of periodical is indicated in a small item, in its issue of 18 November 1921, which castigates the Nation and Athenaeum for its ‘sweeping generality’ in a recent book review ‘that no woman can write short stories’ (1118). Time and Tide’s response to this blatant sexism echoes that of Virginia Woolf who, in October 1920, famously responded in the pages of the New Statesman to Desmond MacCarthy’s declaration in that paper that women (p.76) were intellectually and creatively inferior to men. As Bashir Abu-Manneh has documented, women’s fiction was severely under-represented in the New Statesman, and especially under MacCarthy’s literary editorship during the years 1920 to 1928. ‘The New Statesman’, writes Abu-Manneh, ‘was very much a male journal, which mostly published male writers and was never really interested in promoting either fiction or poetry by women’ (2011: 121–2). In stark contrast with both the New Statesman and the Nation and Athenaeum, Time and Tide regularly counted women among its contributors of short stories, and in 1924 (the year following its listing in the Woman Journalist, noted above) published an unusually large crop of short fiction by such writers as E. M. Delafield, Susan Ertz, Ethel Mannin, Hilda Reid, Sylvia Thompson, and E. H. Young. In January 1927 Time and Tide’s introduction of a new ‘Miscellany’ section created an enlarged space for the publication of short fiction, and the purchase of second serial rights for a short story by the late Katherine Mansfield is an indication of the periodical’s ambition for publishing high calibre work by the best writers, both in terms of authors recognised and anthologised at the time, and those we still recognise today.11 Over the next few years Time and Tide’s ‘Miscellany’ would showcase short stories by many of Britain’s leading interwar women writers, including (in addition to the aforementioned) Stella Benson, Elizabeth Bowen, Winifred Holtby, Naomi Mitchison, Kate O’Brien, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Dorothy Whipple. This roll call of names testifies to the significance of Time and Tide as a platform for the modern woman writer; it also points to the periodical’s renegotiation of its readership and aesthetic affiliations as it moved towards the end of its first decade.
In early 1928, Time and Tide’s publication of a short story by E. M. Delafield produced another reader’s ‘protest’ which was this time registered not in private, but in what Green has theorised as the ‘intimate public sphere’ of the correspondence page (2012: 466). Less than a thousand words long, ‘Decision’ (27 Jan 1928: 78–9) is a story about a young married woman who is persuaded to elope, but on the appointed day decides to resist temptation and stay at home. Writing a letter of renunciation to her lover she is startled by the telephone ringing, and upon hearing his voice her mind is remade in a flash and she exits the house with the intention of meeting him after all. The story shares with Delafield’s novel published the previous year, The Way Things Are (1927), an interest in the married state and the unsatisfied romantic yearnings of women. However, unlike the novel, in which the heroine, Laura, ultimately decides that she cannot leave her husband, this story’s open ending allows for this possibility. The sexual licence afforded to the story’s protagonist echoes some of the more radical discourses on sexuality that circulated in this period. British sexual culture in the inter-war period remained broadly conservative, and as we shall see in the letter discussed below it is the story’s flouting of conventional morality that caused offence.
The letter of protest was signed by a Miss Lillias Mitchell, who writes:
I was sorry to see the story called ‘Decision’ in TIME AND TIDE … the contemplated act of adultery is so treated that no glimpse is given of the moral and physical uncleanness involved.
(p.77) It is not our business to judge those who regard adultery as something entirely one’s ‘own business’ and not as something quite anti-social, but it is surely the business of those of us keen on a better state of things to see to it that adultery is represented to be what it is – selfish and unclean; so unclean that it is a source of disease in every nation in the world and the cause of blighting with suffering the lives of many many children. My purpose in writing this letter is to urge that TIME AND TIDE, a pioneer paper, should seek to maintain a true standard of values even in short stories.
(10 Feb 1928: 133)
The force of this affective encounter lies in the moral outrage that accumulates in the language of vice and ‘disease’, and especially in Miss Mitchell’s repeated use of the word ‘unclean’ to denote the act of adultery. As Dillane theorises, such discursive disruptions tell us ‘something of the periodical as a dynamic, affecting object and something of the cultural political positioning of the subjects that encounter it’ (10). Here, Miss Mitchell’s response registers the conservative values and conventional morality that would have undoubtedly been shared by some of Time and Tide’s women readers. In the interwar popular press ‘married readers of advice columns were warned about the disastrous repercussions of extra-marital affairs’ (Bingham 2011: 55), and according to Baldwin ‘[a]ll classes of magazines except the avant-garde in this period were incredibly sensitive on matters of public morality’ (91). For Miss Mitchell, by publishing Delafield’s story Time and Tide lowered the standards expected of a ‘pioneer paper’, but what was meant by this could have a very different meaning for readers familiar with the literary and feminist avant-garde for whom Time and Tide’s editorial decision could well have been understood as an indication of the periodical’s advanced attitudes. One week after the publication of Delafield’s story Time and Tide’s Miscellany section contained a piece by Virginia Woolf, ‘The Sun and the Fish’ (3 Feb 1928: 99–100), evidence of the periodical’s new orientation, in the late 1920s, towards Bloomsbury modernism. The criticism registered by Miss Mitchell’s letter exposes a fault line between a more permissive culture associated with highbrow bohemianism and the traditional values held by some of Time and Tide’s core female readership, and appears to represent a moment of conflict in the periodical’s relationship with its audience. However, it in fact became a moment of opportunity to massage readers’ expectations as the periodical managed its own transitions in the literary marketplace.
The following week Time and Tide published a reply from Delafield, who had recently joined the periodical’s board of directors (which also included Rebecca West, former literary editor of the pre-war feminist avant-garde periodical the Freewoman).12 Delafield begins by correcting what she describes as a ‘confusion of terms’ in Miss Mitchell’s letter, pointing out that ‘[a]n act of adultery … is not to be classed with the practice of promiscuous fornication’ (17 Feb 1928: 157). Even more significant, however, is the correction she makes to Miss Mitchell’s limited understanding of the short story. She continues:
[I]n the short story called ‘Decision’ there is no question of ‘treating the subject’ of adultery at all. The interest of the sketch, which is purely a psychological one, lies in the exposure of the capacity for self-deception that enables a woman to think her mind irrevocably made up – whereas a sudden deviation of circumstances instantly causes her to change it again.
(p.78) By all means let us, as Miss Mitchell says, ‘maintain a true standard of values even in short stories.’ (But why ‘even?’) But pray let it be maintained by the reader, as well as by the writer. (157)
Delafield’s letter makes two important moves. The first, in her final admonishment, is to reject the insinuation in Miss Mitchell’s use of the word ‘even’ which might suggest that Time and Tide’s fiction is less important than its editorial content. The short story, Delafield implies, is a serious form with an important place in the periodical, and a ‘standard of values’ applies here as much as anywhere else. Second, by foregrounding the ‘psychological’ interest of ‘Decision’, which she categorises as a ‘sketch’, she makes a subtle argument for the story’s artistic merit, thus distinguishing it from the ‘magazine short story’ produced for the commercial market. Indeed, with its psychological interest, and unconventional attitude towards sex, ‘Decision’ has more in common with the modern short stories produced by women writers in the era of the New Woman, than it does with the formulaic and heavily plotted short fiction favoured by the majority of interwar magazine editors and their publics.13 As such, Delafield’s story recalls the work of such proto-modernist predecessors as Sarah Grand and George Egerton, and is an indication of the periodical’s reorientation towards the literary avant-garde and ‘highbrow’ artistic sphere in this period.14
Over the next two weeks Time and Tide continued to manage the discursive disruption occasioned by the publication of Delafield’s short story through its editorial treatment of the correspondence it received. Two letters printed in its next issue under the heading ‘A “Protest”’ foreground a division in the periodical’s readership between conservative moralists like Miss Mitchell and more advanced, modern women readers. One reader joins Miss Mitchell in protest against the ‘tendency … towards promiscuity of the sexes in modern drama and fiction’ (24 Feb 1928: 179); the other criticises ‘the narrow-minded intelligence’ shown by Miss Mitchell, and congratulates Time and Tide on publishing the story which in her view ‘creates an artistic joy which your correspondent does not seem to be capable of appreciating’ (179). A third letter published the following week from another female reader, Blanche L. Leigh, further illustrates how valuable readers themselves could be in reshaping audience expectations for the magazine. I quote it at length before discussing it below.
There is neither time nor space for a short story to give the delineation of character, dialogue, arguments, opinions or description that make a good book a study and a delight; so the writer who can develop in a few paragraphs an entertaining refreshment and a stimulus, not only to thought but to imagination and reasoning power, is valuable and useful – especially to the busy woman (I am writing to women) who has not always time to spare for an hour or two’s reading, but who can read a short story, and, at leisure, thinks and weighs over the situation or problem, and the result. ‘Decision’, as I read it (I speak from memory as I passed my copy of TIME AND TIDE on to a friend) was a story for the reader to interpret, and the reader, according to the speed and ability of mental perception, might read it more than once before coming to a conclusion (even then her view might not be the same as the writer’s). This is a kind of food, a mental exercise, and I hope TIME AND TIDE will never resort to improvement of other people’s morals after the manner of the old-fashioned tract.
(2 Mar 1928: 204)
(p.79) This letter offers Time and Tide’s readers an instruction in reading by another member of their own reading community. In contrast with Miss Mitchell, this correspondent firmly repudiates an ‘old-fashioned’, Victorian view of literature as the occasion for moral instruction and self-improvement, providing instead a view of reading that is distinctly modern and suited to the habits of modern life. Entering the discussion with a keen aesthetic sense of the economy of the short story reified in modernist discussions of the form, Miss Leigh’s depiction of the ‘busy woman’ who may not have time in her day to read more than a short story provides a valuable glimpse of the material ways in which Time and Tide’s short fiction was consumed by its women readers (the correspondent notes that ‘I am writing to women’) and how it circulated beyond its subscriber list (Miss Leigh further notes that she has passed on her own copy of the issue containing Delafield’s story to a friend). But it also inscribes a resounding rebuttal to the idea of the profligate, leisured woman reader around whom social anxieties about reading circulated in the interwar period.15 Indeed, by describing ‘Decision’ as ‘a story for the reader to interpret’ (and the reader as someone who might read the story ‘more than once’), Miss Leigh untethers the woman reader from her image as a mindless and passive consumer of ephemeral texts, underscoring her discrimination and intellect. At the same time, unlike modernist critical practitioners who introduced a bias towards reading as a ‘predominantly mentalist activity’ (Littau 2006: 11), Miss Leigh does not abandon earlier theories of reading which were also concerned with readers’ feelings and sensations. In its summary of the qualities that make a good book ‘a study and a delight’, and its appreciation of the writer who can, in a short space, develop ‘an entertaining refreshment and a stimulus’, her letter presents reading as an occasion for pleasure, relaxation, and intellectual activity, thus collapsing a set of body/mind oppositions that were reactivated in contemporary discussions of reading in this period. As such this letter turns the affective encounter with Delafield’s story into an opportunity for defending ‘a tradition of “affective criticism”’ that was gradually displaced by academic, professional reading practices associated with the rise of modernism (Littau: 86). Describing ‘Decision’ as ‘a kind of food, a mental exercise’, Miss Leigh negotiates a position for the modern woman reader who is able to partake in fiction’s traditional pleasures, and exercise discrimination and intelligence in her appreciation of the short story as an art form.
Both in the risk of moral impropriety posed by its subject matter, and in its ‘plotless’ form, Delafield’s story ‘Decision’ is atypical of the short fiction published in women’s magazines of the time. As Baldwin discusses, not only were commercial magazine editors very sensitive on matters of public morality, they were also insistent on the requirement for plot, as illustrated by Delafield’s reception in Home Magazine: ‘We admire her work tremendously, and where there is sufficient story in it … it is excellent for The Home, but too often in these short things they are more character sketches than short stories, and these I am afraid have not got such a general appeal to the magazine public of our type’ (92). A reminder that interwar magazines represent a fractured market of multiple publics and aesthetics, Delafield’s reception in Home also highlights the distinctiveness of Time and Tide which, unlike the more commercially oriented women’s magazines, did publish her ‘character sketches’ which are distinguished by their psychological rather than narrative interest.16 As Baldwin documents, Delafield successfully placed short stories in a number of popular women’s and general-audience magazines, but arguably it was Time and Tide’s (p.80) commitment to the so-called ‘real’ short story that enabled her to transcend what Baldwin describes as ‘magazines’ restraints on art’ (87).17 In October 1928 Time and Tide expanded, increasing in size (from twenty-four to thirty-two pages) and price (from 4d to 6d), and the years 1928 to 1935 mark a high point in Time and Tide’s showcasing of contemporary women writers, both modernist and middlebrow. In 1932 Hamish Hamilton published The Time and Tide Album, a volume of short stories first published in Time and Tide, and edited by E. M. Delafield. Of the thirty-seven stories anthologised, twenty-eight were by women writers, and most date from the inauguration of Time and Tide’s Miscellany section in 1927. At once promoting the authors whose stories were collected here in book form (among them Stella Benson, Eleanor Farjeon, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, Sylvia Lynd, Naomi Mitchison, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and E. M. Delafield herself) the Album also promotes Time and Tide as a publisher of quality short fiction. In the mid-1930s Time and Tide changed direction once again, and it is to this reorientation that readers’ reactions to my third example speak.
‘A Letter of Thanks’
In June 1935 a short story by a new voice in Time and Tide’s Miscellany pages, Winifred Williams, produced another eruption in the periodical’s correspondence columns. This story, entitled ‘A Letter of Thanks’, is told from the point of view of a young female nurse, trapped in the routine demands of her work in a small nursing home and longing for marriage which seems to present the only possibility of escape. The narrative is unflinching in its portrayal of the nurse’s unattractive thoughts and emotions: bitterness towards a former patient who, instead of sending her ‘something useful such as gloves or silk stockings’, has sent her an inferior box of chocolates; jealousy of an attractive colleague going out on her half day to meet a lover; fury and resentment when a male patient (who represents the possibility of love) is admitted and put under the charge of another colleague rather than herself. The nurse’s resentment reaches a crescendo when she is required to attend to a woman in labour:
This was what their love-making ended in; this was where the unmarried women had the laugh! She hurried along the spotless corridor and down the wide stairs. Let her suffer, she thought, hurrying soundlessly along the carpeted hall; let her suffer! She deserves it, after being loved for so long! She deserves it! I don’t care if the child kills her!
(8 June 1935: 865)
The ignoble feelings of the nurse in this story aroused what one of Time and Tide’s reviewers would later describe as ‘a storm of controversy’ in the periodical’s correspondence columns (26 Sep 1936: 1320). Several readers wrote to the periodical in protest, describing the story as ‘ugly’, ‘revolting’, ‘nauseating’, ‘unsavoury’, and, according to one, ‘in such vile bad taste’ that if anything of the like should appear again they would ask to be removed from the periodical’s circulation list (22 June 1935: 934). Particularly striking about the accumulation of feeling in these visceral responses is the way that they ‘stick to’ and threaten the reader’s relationship with the whole periodical.18 Another reader, identifying herself as a mother and a trained nurse, ‘deeply regret[ted]’ the publication of the story which was, she claimed, ‘an insult to womanhood’ and (p.81) informed Time and Tide that she had already given the newsagent orders to discontinue delivery of the paper (22 June 1935: 934).
These responses to ‘A Letter of Thanks’ reveal the very real risks Time and Tide ran in alienating its audience by publishing the ‘wrong’ kind of fiction. As Baldwin discusses, fiction published in women’s magazines required ‘not only love and brightness but “sympathetic treatment” of women as well’ (91), and at the heart of the letters received by Time and Tide lies a sense that Williams’s story represented a betrayal of the female sex. This becomes particularly apparent in a letter from Isobel Hutton, who identified herself as a member of the Royal British Nurses’ Association (RBNA). Stating that she and her colleagues ‘feel that it is unjust to publish in a paper of good reputation and wide circulation an article such as that of Mrs Winifred Williams’, she writes:
We consider that it is calculated to bring our profession into disrepute. If the authoress has based her character study on a nurse of her acquaintance she has had a singular experience and I am sorry she has been unfortunate. If this is not so, we must assume that she has relied upon a misguided popular interest in our affairs to obtain publicity or a study in feminine psychology which is discreditable to the whole sex and which is not more than a projection of her own mind.
(22 June 1935: 935)
As the first professional organisation of nurses, founded in 1887, the RBNA represented a sizeable number of working women, and thus a significant constituency in Time and Tide’s target audience. Defending its decision to publish the story, in a leading article on ‘The Nursing Profession’ printed in the same issue, Time and Tide stated that it was precisely because the nursing profession had such a ‘lofty reputation’ that it was ‘important to expose, and, if possible, to remedy its defects’ (22 June 1935: 926). However, Time and Tide’s attempt to placate this section of its readership was unsuccessful. In its correspondence columns the following week the periodical printed a communication received from the RBNA stating that its president wished to remove Time and Tide from the exchange list with The British Journal of Nursing, beneath which a letter signed by the secretary of the association stated that its members were ‘unanimously of the opinion’ that Time and Tide’s editorial article on ‘The Nursing Profession’ was a ‘poor attempt … to set right what they quite frankly regard as an insult’ (29 June 1935: 980).
The affective affront produced by Time and Tide’s publication of ‘A Letter of Thanks’ marks another key moment in the periodical’s relationship with its audience. However, as in the earlier case of Delafield’s story ‘Decision’, this discursive rupture was a moment of opportunity. Placing the communication from the RBNA at the top of the correspondence relating to ‘A Letter of Thanks’ in order to give it ‘the publicity it deserves’ (29 June 1935: 980), in the same editorial note Time and Tide stated that the majority of the many letters it had received actually approved of its decision to publish the story. A selection of these were printed below the letter from the RBNA, with responses ranging from respect for the periodical for taking a stand on what it believed to be the truth, to alarm over the realisation ‘that intelligent and thoughtful people could be so obviously out of sympathy’ with those as ‘unhappy and unfortunate’ as the fictional portrait of an afflicted member of the nursing profession (29 June 1935: 980). Leading the defence was a lengthy letter from an important (p.82) figure in Time and Tide’s periodical community in the 1930s, the radical left-wing activist and Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson.19 Responding to the ‘blasts of rage’ articulated in Time and Tide’s previous issue, Wilkinson referred readers to evidence presented at a parliamentary Select Committee on Maternity and Nursing Homes, in light of which the home described in Williams’s story ‘seems paradisal’: ‘What was wrong with this, except the stream of ideas in the mind of the nurse … which do not seem to have caused her to neglect her patients?’ She continues:
I should feel more sympathetic to the ‘ministering angel’ theory of nursing if it were not used so callously to keep the wages and conditions of nursing below the standards that any good general servant would accept nowadays. … The value of Mrs. Williams’ story was that it showed the mental reactions which the sort of treatment to which nurses are subject really produces. … Probably to most nurses, the private ‘let-outs’ of their own minds are what keeps them as cheerful and kindly as most of them are. But fully developed adults with well-stocked minds such discipline cannot produce, despite the exceptions of those women indomitable enough not to be warped by its callous absurdities. (980)
Distinguishing between reportage and fiction, Wilkinson interprets Williams’s story as a damning indictment of the deplorable ‘wages and conditions in nursing’ which became the subject of several government enquiries in the interwar period (Baly 1995: 157–67), and attributes its ‘value’ in particular to its imaginative rendering of how individual subjectivity is profoundly shaped by class and socio-economic status. Indeed, by redirecting readers’ attention from the nursing profession in general to ‘the stream of ideas in the mind of the nurse’, Wilkinson invokes modernist experiments in representing human consciousness which are used here to explore the psychological life of a lower-middle-class working woman rather than the bourgeois individuals of high modernist texts.
Two other letters published in the same issue show that not all readers were unappreciative of the story’s status as fiction and its aesthetic qualities. One reader pointed out that ‘Nurse Thompson is not speaking for the nursing profession when she says all the “nasty” things about childbirth and men patients; she is reflecting her own personality’ (29 June 1935: 981); another stated that those who regard ‘A Letter of Thanks’ as an affront to the nursing profession are ‘miss[ing] the point’, for ‘[t]he object of the story is what the object of good fiction should be, the development of character’. Commending the author for her ‘high degree of literary craftsmanship’, the writer of this letter concludes: ‘the story is a discerning presentment of feminine psychology, and I predict that for every reader who, because of it, puts down your fearless periodical, you will gain others whom that quality attracts’ (981). The signature identifies this correspondent as one of Time and Tide’s male readers, and it is significant that the controversy over ‘A Letter of Thanks’ took place at a moment when the periodical was once again renegotiating its audience, and its political and aesthetic affiliations.20 Changes in Time and Tide’s advertising content in the mid-1930s indicate that from this point the periodical was more actively addressing a professional male as well as female readership (Clay 2011: 74–5), and it was in the second half of this decade that Time and Tide completed its rebranding as a less woman-focused, more general-audience weekly review. At the end of September 1935, less than four months after the (p.83) publication of ‘A Letter of Thanks’, Rhondda wrote in the periodical’s columns: ‘We have found the courage during the past thirty years to look sex in the face. … What about dropping sex for a year or two and picking up class instead?’ (28 Sep 1935: 1360). Time and Tide’s increased class-consciousness invites comparison with its closest rival among the intellectual weeklies, the New Statesman and Nation. The New Statesman (which amalgamated with the Nation and Athenaeum in 1931) came into its own in the 1930s, and became the most widely read and respected magazine on the left (Abu-Manneh: 181). As Abu-Manneh’s excavation of the New Statesman literary archive reveals, during the years 1913–39 the periodical published hundreds of short stories, most of them realist and showing ‘a propensity for lower-middle-class and working-class characters and themes’ (xii). This fiction provides an important context for reading Time and Tide’s publication and defence of ‘A Letter of Thanks’, and the new reading communities the periodical was seeking to engage in this period.
In October 1935 Time and Tide announced ‘A New Departure’ in its columns, and this particularly in its book section which was to adopt, for the time being, ‘a sociological outlook’ (12 Oct 1935: 1422). In the same issue Time and Tide published a second short story by Winifred Williams, one of nine stories in total that Williams contributed to the periodical between 1935 and 1939.21 Apparently Williams represented a new kind of writer Time and Tide was eager to accommodate in its columns. In its ‘Notes on Some Contributors’, again in the same issue, the periodical identified her as ‘“A Discovery” of Time and Tide’ (1436), echoing the stance of other editors and intellectuals on the left who sought in the 1930s to discover and support ‘worker-writers’ or working-class authors (Hilliard 2006: 130). In the same feature Time and Tide listed V. S. Pritchett, one of the New Statesman’s fiction writers and now widely regarded as one of the great masters of the British short story form (Pritchett contributed book reviews to Time and Tide during May to October 1935). According to Abu-Manneh, Pritchett’s aesthetic strategy ‘is to justify his character’s individuality and particularity’, and his literary project epitomises the thirties cultural politics of the New Statesman and Nation: ‘a commitment to representing ordinary humanity’ (182; 181). ‘A Letter of Thanks’, which like Pritchett’s short stories ‘describes and justifies the lower middle class from within’ (Abu-Manneh: 191), points to a shared political aesthetic between the two writers. By enlisting Winifred Williams to its columns, Time and Tide used its short fiction, along with its editorial content, to steer the periodical in a more class-oriented direction, while at the same time foregrounding the ordinary female subject, and sustaining its commitment to the publication of women writers.
While critical discussions of the British short story in the interwar period have tended to be dominated by literary experiments associated with modernist ‘little magazines’, this chapter has shown what a significant and under-recognised resource women’s periodicals like Time and Tide are as repositories of short fiction. More than fifty short stories which saw their original publication in Time and Tide were singled out for inclusion in the ‘Roll of Honour’ and ‘Best British, Irish, and Colonial Short Stories’ lists printed in the Best Short Stories anthologies edited by Cournos and O’Brien, which also selected stories from such publications as Eve, Good Housekeeping, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Queen. In addition, Time and Tide’s commitment to engaging (p.84) with its readers offers a rare opportunity to witness readers’ reactions to these literary contributions. That debates about the short story as a form were taking place in Time and Tide’s correspondence columns further challenges the persistent linkage of consumption with feminine passivity; here Time and Tide’s readers were actively engaged with hot literary topics that exercised modernist critics and other professional experts in the field of interwar literary criticism.
This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. I am grateful to Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries for permission to use unpublished materials in their collections.
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(2.) Kate Krueger dates its rise slightly earlier, in the explosion of periodical publishing beginning in the 1850s (2014: 1).
(5.) The other short story collections reviewed were: Pleasure by Alec Waugh; The Greengrass Widow by Jane H. Findlater; Stories of the East by Leonard Woolf.
(6.) For example, an entry for the Woman’s Leader in The Writers’ and Artists’ Year-Book for 1925 invites submissions from outside contributors, but states that there is ‘No payment’ for articles submitted (86).
(7.) In After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture and Post-Modernism (1987) Andreas Huyssen posited that high modernism defined itself against mass culture which was aligned with the female, a position since complicated in more recent modernist scholarship.
(8.) Time and Tide’s complex positioning and repositioning within the interwar periodical landscape is explored at length in my monograph forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, Time and Tide: the Feminist and Cultural Politics of a Modern Magazine.
(9.) Elizabeth Robins Papers, Fales Library Series VI, A/1/2. ‘A Little Happiness’, by George Woden, was published in Time and Tide’s issue of 10 December 1920.
(10.) Letter from Rhondda to Elizabeth Robins, 13 August 1920; Elizabeth Robins Papers.
(11.) First published in 1915 under the title ‘Autumns I’ in the anti-war little magazine Signature the story appeared in Time and Tide as ‘The Apple Tree’ in its issue of 20 May 1927. The same story was reprinted in Woman’s Home Magazine, an American monthly, in the same year.
(12.) Delafield joined Time and Tide’s board of directors in December 1927.
(14.) Sarah Grand’s short stories in Emotional Moments (1880) contain daring discussions of marital problems and women’s sexual desires, while the stories in George Egerton’s Keynotes (1893) and Discords (1894) often focus on psychological moments and adopt a female point of view (Liggins et al. 2011: 68–73).
(16.) Another example is ‘Retrospect’ (2 Mar 1928: 196) which uses first-person narration to construct psychological intensity around an ageing woman’s memory of a female friend from her childhood.
(p.85) (17.) Among the publications Baldwin lists are Cornhill, Eve, Home, Nash’s Pall Mall, Pearson’s, and Windsor Magazine (75).
(18.) See Sara Ahmed for a discussion of how ‘feelings may stick to some objects’ and how ‘such objects become sticky, or saturated with affect, as sites of personal and social tension’ (2014: 8; 11).
(19.) Wilkinson was a regular contributor to Time and Tide in the 1930s and a close advisor to Lady Rhondda, particularly after the death of the periodical’s youngest director, Winifred Holtby, in 1935.
(20.) The correspondent identifies himself as Mr John Davies.
(21.) A number of these were collected in Fellow-Mortals, published by Constable in 1936 and dedicated to Lady Rhondda. This volume appears to be one of just two books authored by Williams; the second, a novel called The Bee Hive, was published by Faber & Faber in 1941.