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  • To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain
  • Thomas William Heyck
To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain. By Christopher Hilliard ( Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 390 pp. $29.95).

This monograph is a thoroughly researched, well-written study of writing by ordinary middle- and working-class people in Britain between about 1900 and 1960. Christopher Hilliard argues that in twentieth-century Britain, writing became democratized, in the sense that it was taken up by significant numbers of people outside the highly educated cultured elite. Drawing on research in a wide range of archives, Hilliard shows remarkable familiarity with the organizations and writing of hitherto forgotten (and largely unpublished) people. He makes no attempt to analyze the influence of these obscure writers, nor does he [End Page 198] say much about the intellectual influences on them; but his interpretations of their motivations, aspirations, and literary assumptions, as well as his examples of ordinary writers' lives and difficulties, are consistently interesting.

Faced with a huge volume of material, Hilliard wisely choses to focus on three organized movements: 1) the amateur writers' circles associated with the burgeoning number of correspondence schools of writing, writers' advice manuals, and middlebrow magazines and newspapers; 2) working-class writers and writing in the 1930s; and 3) writing by both civilians and soldiers during World War II. His detailed descriptions of these movements, enriched by many fascinating examples, give an impression—it is no more precise than that—of a flowering of interest in writing, especially from the 1920s, as ordinary Britons expressed their "shared sense of entitlement to participate in cultural activities" (p. 6).

After a brief discussion of the rapidly expanding market for writing of all kinds from the 1890s, Hilliard begins with an exploration of the organized "writing circles" populated mainly by middle- and lower-middle-class people. These men and women without higher education sought mutual support for their desire to make extra money, to engage in self-culture, and to win social validation in the form of publication. Their meetings involved discussion of how to improve their manuscripts, find good agents, market their novels, and the like. They devoured advice from the numerous new correspondence schools and how-to-publish manuals. The advice they got was somewhat contradictory: to write sincerely from their own first-hand experience of everyday events, but also to follow plot formulas, take themes from other writers, and include a surprise ending in their short stories. They admired as models for their short fiction Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. Hilliard sees the writing of the writing circles as anti-modernist and in some ways firmly in the romantic tradition, even while the writers embraced the market system for publication.

Unlike the participants in the writers' circles, almost all the working-class writers of the 1930s were men. Some of them wrote to earn extra money and a few simply felt called to write, but most wanted to give an accurate picture of working-class life, often to correct upper-class stereotypes. Like many women in the writers' circles, working-class writers faced serious problems of finding the time, space, peace, and quiet to write. Virginia Woolf apparently did not know how well she had it. The most important patrons of working-class writers were John Lehmann, editor of New Writing, and the popular front's Left Review. Such patrons sought to get working people to write in order to create a socialist culture and establish a literature that, unlike modernism, was in contact with social reality. Like the members of the writers' circles, working-class writers embraced modernity, though not modernism; and they felt that content is more important than form.

In his chapters on popular writing during World War II, Hilliard focuses on the journal Seven: A Magazine of People's Writing (1941-1947). Such publications were self-consciously anti-elitist. Hilliard contends that wartime popular writers, most of whom were never published, wrote about both civilians' and soldiers' ordinary experiences, seeking to validate "littleness and domestic ordinariness" (p. 182). British soldiers wrote about war in terms of "temperate heroism" (p. 197). As in earlier popular writing, wartime...


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pp. 198-200
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