Popular literature and reading habits in Britain, 1914-1950
This thesis is an examination of the mass-market publishing industry in Britain after the First World War and of the 'literature' read by the lower-middle and working classes: novels and weekly magazines. We chronicle the development of the industry both generally and through the experiences of three publishers, examine the activity and motivations of the reading public and consider the treatment of contemporary issues and attitudes within popular fiction as a useful barometer for the historian. There are seven chapters. Chapter 1 considers the period before 1914 in order to provide the necessary background for an understanding of the focus of this study, 1914-1950. The origins of the popular publishing industry and Wilkie Collins' 'Unknown Public' are examined and continuities with post-1914 popular literature traced. In Chapter 2 a broad overview of our period is conducted: the development of the industry and of the market, the influence of war and the depression, and the effect on reading of the growth of other leisure activities. Chapters 3 and 5 look at the reading habits of adults and children/adolescents from the lower-middle and working classes. In both cases contemporaries and readers themselves seemed to think 'escapism' was paramount in the selection of 'light' fiction and there was therefore a significant continuity between child and adult reading. Finally, Chapters 4, 6 and 7 focus on the histories and influence of three publishers of popular fiction during this period. These include two of the most successful (Mills and Boon, D.C. Thomson) and in contrast, a prominent but declining firm (The Religious Tract Society). In each case the complex relationship between market forces and editorial policies is discussed. We conclude that a reciprocal relationship existed between publisher and reader, with the latter dictating much of what was published. Popular fiction, moreover, served to reinforce predominant stereotypes and ideological views of society rather than to impose specific doctrine.