Book and publishing history example class, focussed on Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians (1930)


Course level: Undergraduate, English Literature

Course title: EN3PC Publishing Cultures: Writers, Publics, Archives

Course leader: Dr Nicola Wilson, Department of English Literature, University of Reading

Class brief: This class uses publishers’ archives to ask students to consider literary production in the round. Focussing on Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians (1930) - a Hogarth Press ‘bestseller’ -  we consider the role of the literary marketplace in author and publishers’ conceptions of the text, especially here the impact of subscription book clubs like The Book Society. Through the archival materials, we branch out into discussions and further reading on the literary middlebrow, foreign rights, the transatlantic book world, and the rise of new reading publics and material book forms in the 1930s.


Lesson plan:

Author/publisher correspondence Leonard Woolf/Vita Sackville-West:

Look at letters: 26 and 30 April 1929; 9 March 1930

Q How would you describe the relationship between author and publisher here? What else do you want to know to make sense of this correspondence? What is the impact of the Book Society and its readership in Leonard’s assessment of the book?


The book in production: 9th April 1930 (LW to VSW); 9th April 1930 (Book Society to HP); 31 May 1930 (LW to R & R Clark, printers

Q What is the impact of the Book Society’s book-of-the-month selection on the publication process?


Distribution/Readers: Book Society News, May 1930

Q What do you notice about the Book Society’s review – what qualities of the book are celebrated here? How does this relate to your own reading? What do you want to know about Hugh Walpole, the Book Society, or readers in the ’30s to contextualise this essay?


Foreign rights debate: Letters May 1929, 2 September 1930, 26 August 1930; 16 Sept 1930 HP to Irwin & Gordon, Canada; 17 Sept 1930 LW to Vita

Q What do you notice about this debate? What does this correspondence add to your understanding of Leonard and Virginia Woolf as publishers? What is the place of the Hogarth Press in the Anglophone book trade?


Q How should we read the cover of the first British edition of The Edwardians by the Hogarth Press? What do you notice about the photograph on the dust jacket? And the type chosen for the title and author’s name?

How do the cover and blurb relate to genre and marketing?

Consider the blurb in relation to Hugh Walpole’s Book Society review - what values are in evidence here, and are they picked up by the critics?

How might this cover have been read in the context of The Great Depression? What might be the attraction for readers here? How would you redesign this cover today?


Other resources:

Shakespeare and Company Project data on Edwardians readers:

Q How would you use this data alongside the MAPP data?


Further reading:

Stephen Barkway, ‘Oh Lord what it is to publish a bestseller’: The Woolfs’ Professional Relationship with Vita Sackville-West’ in Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press and the networks of modernism, ed. Helen Southworth (EUP, 2010)

Erica Brown and Mary Grover, eds, Middlebrow Literary Cultures: The Battle of the Brows, 1920-60 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)

Gerard Genette, ‘Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation’, in Print Cultures: A Reader in Theory and Practice, ed Caroline Davis (Macmillan, 2019)

Leslie Howsam, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the History of the Book (CUP, 2015)

Louise A. De Salvo, ‘Lighting the Cave: The Relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’, Signs, 8.2 (1982)

Suzanne Raitt, Vita and Virginia: the work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf (Clarendon, 1993)

Love Letters ed. Alison Bechdel.

Nicola Wilson, ‘Virginia Woolf, Hugh Walpole, the Hogarth Press, and the Book Society’, ELH, 79.1 (2012)

Virginia Woolf, Orlando (HP, 1928)