29 August 2008

Lionel Britton, the Secondhand Book Market, and Fun

Lionel Britton spent some years working in the secondhand book trade, but he'd probably never have guessed that one of his own books would command such a price as this one, advertised by an American seller:

'Britton, Lionel. Spacetime Inn. London/New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 1932. Proof copy. 103 pages. Lionel Britton (1887-1971), wrote the proletarian novel Hunger and Love [1931] which George Orwell called a "failed masterpiece." Bernard Shaw wrote a short introduction to the novel, and referred to Britton as a "wild young man." Herbert Marshall, who met him at Unity, the left-wing theatre which began in the 1930s, insisted that he was a genius to be held in awe. Britton today is regarded as a cult figure of fantastic literature, his play Brain [1930] concerns a giant brain that is formed in the Sahara Desert and untimately controls the world. Spacetime Inn is an apocalyptic play in which two working-class lottery winners are trapped in a pub in spacetime with Eve, the Queen of Sheba, Queen Victoria, Karl Marx and Bernard Shaw. This is a presentation copy to O.G.S. Crawford [Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford, the noted English Archeologist. The presentation note states: "To O.G.S. Crawford, who also edits antiquity." [Note: Crawford founded the "Antiquity Trust" in 1927]. In addition, there is signed letter laid in to Crawford exhibiting Britton's exquisite penmanship and calligraphic signature which states: "Dear Mr. Crawford, I never heard whether you ultimately managed to digest "Hunger and Love"-or whether like some people I've heard about, you perished by the way! I'm sending you my latest venture. This is a bit rough, as it's only in proof and not perfect at that, but it may have some sentimental interest to keep as a curiosity of literary history, as a pre-first edition." Condition: Interior fine, wraps faded and discolored, with front wrap detached but present. Outer spine chipped but binding tight. Britton signed the front wrap at the top, wrote the title and also "proof" on the bottom. Note: I have not been able to locate any other proof copies, and letters from Britton are understandably scarce. Further note: this is such a fun item, that we have gone a little crazy cataloging it. If you've read this far, you'll be amazed the price is only... $200.'

George Orwell and Lionel Britton

In the April 1931 issue of The Adelphi George Orwell (who at the time was writing under his real name Eric Blair) reviewed Lionel Britton’s first (and only published) novel Hunger and Love at some length. He calls the book ‘entirely sound’ as a ‘social document’, but fails to recognize it as a novel as such: it is more of ‘a kind of monologue on poverty’.(1) Although (among other things) Orwell found the repetitions annoying, the novel made a lasting impression on him.(2)

In a Home Service radio broadcast in 1940, Orwell specifically singles out Hunger and Love — with some reservations — as ‘an outstanding book’ of the sub-genre. It is remarkable that he remembers the book so vividly from when he reviewed it almost ten years previously. Unfortunately, Loraine Saunders's new book mentions nothing of this, citing almost entirely negative things that Orwell says about Hunger and Love, (although she at least acknowledges that it's significant that Britton's 'uniquely modernist style' didn't appeal to Orwell).(3)

There is a strong case for arguing that Lionel Britton had an influence of Orwell’s work; Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) has a number of moments which could easily have been inspired by Britton, and the example below from Coming Up for Air (1939) seems to bear the distinct hallmark of Britton’s writing: the enumeration, the conspiracy theory and the sense of urgency all suggest a pastiche of Britton’s Hunger and Love:

‘And all the soul-savers and Nosey Parkers, the people whom you’ve never seen but who rule your destiny all the same, the Home Secretary, Scotland Yard, the Temperance League, the Bank of England, Lord Beaverbrook, Hitler and Stalin on a tandem bicycle, the bench of Bishops, Mussolini, the Pope — they were all of them after me. I could almost hear them shouting:

There’s a chap who thinks he’s going to escape! There’s a chap who says he won’t be streamlined! He’s going back to Lower Binfield! After him! Stop him!’.(4)

(1) The Complete Works of George Orwell, ed. by Peter Davison, 20 vols (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986–1998; rev. and updated 2000), A Patriot After All: 1940–1941, pp. 203–05. (Originally published as ‘Poverty — Plain and Coloured’ by ‘Eric Blair’, Adelphi, April 1931, pp. 80–82.)

(2) Orwell was, of course, soon to publish the non-fictional Down and Out in Paris and London, and would have been particularly interested in Britton‘s account of poverty in the capital.

(3) Loraine Saunders, The Unsung Artistry of George Orwell: The Novels from "Burmese Days" to "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 10–11.

(4) George Orwell, Coming up for Air (London: Gollancz, 1939; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), pp. 173–74.

Jean MacGibbon and Lionel Britton

Jean MacGibbon was the wife of the publisher James MacGibbon of MacGibbon and Kee, and she gives an account of their encounter with Lionel Britton (whom she rather confusingly calls one of the earliest significant working-class writers: there were several significant working-class writers in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries) in her autobiography I Meant to Marry Him1.

Both of them had been invited to a play-reading2 in a flat near Wormwood Scrubs, which Jean describes as being full of mainly elderly women. She remembers the play as being about animals fighting and having sex, punctuated by Britton's grunts and animated by his wild gestures.

Walking home with her husband after the performance, she is haunted by what she has seen, and puts her hand in James's greatcoat to protect her.

1Jean Macgibbon, I Meant to Marry Him: A Personal Memoir (London: Gollancz, 1984).
2Although she doesn't say so, the play was Animal Ideas, which was Britton's last (published) and most unsuccessful assault on the theatre. It was never performed in any theatre and Britton was reduced to performing it on his own and where he could.

26 August 2008

John Britton (1771–1857): Father of John James Britton (1832–1913)?

The image above gives a rough profile sketch of the antiquary John Britton, who may well have been the father of the poet John James Britton and the paternal great-grandfather of the working-class writer Lionel Britton. The link in this sentence is to three rather more substantial sketches of John Britton from the National Portrait Gallery (NPG).

The NPG gives a passing mention to John Britton's apparently prominent role in the 'neo-Gothic revival' (surely a tautology?), and to his collaboration with Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin 'on several books', although the names of them are not given.

As ever, my sincere thanks to the restless Robert Hughes, a great-nephew of Lionel Britton, for this information.

8 August 2008

Robert Hughes on Just a Few Things to Be Done Brittonwise: Is Anyone Out There?

I can't think of any more things to add to Robert Hughes's list here:

'Loose ends that I want to follow up, and where you would have thought the internet would help, include:

Newton Thomas, youngest known child of Samuel and Marie–Antoinette Thomas; b. 1883, and died presumably in New Zealand in his eighties or later, but when and where exactly?

Samuel Thomas, b. 1900, elder child of Frank and Gertrude Thomas (née Morris). Said to have married the daughter of a pig farmer, presumably in Canada. Were there any children?

Samuel Thomas, b. Billancourt, Paris, c. 1872: later known by the family as George, he married Ethel May Morris in 1906 and emigrated to Canada, said to have been Saskatoon. May, as she was known, made several visits to England, but George seems not to have done. They appear to have had no children, but is this correct? When and where did he die?

The Thomas Millions: a huge fortune is said to be tied up in Chancery because someone lost a birth certificate. Great-great-aunt Flossie had her chauffeur drive her around Wales looking at tombstones in the hope that she could unlock the Millions. Any truth in this family legend? (A five-pound Wrapit voucher for anyone who gives us the answer, and we'll add interest from today's date!)

Mary Quarterly, b. Devonport 1808: this family is heavily concentrated in the Devon and Exmoor area, but otherwise it is not a very common name. Does anyone have a Quarterly family tree which would give us a clue about Mary?

Thomas Nimmo, apothecary of Greenock: he was born at some time in the mid-Eighteenth Century, and is almost certainly the father of Elizabeth Nimmo, the [maternal] great-grandmother of Lionel Britton. Is there any way to access records about his medical training, and can he be the link to the Earls of Mar which the family later claimed to have?

Elizabeth Harding, wife to the above: where did this family come from? As no record can be found in Scotland or England for the marriage of Thomas and Elizabeth, there is a strong possibility that they were at some point in the colonies or in Ireland.

When and where did Elizabeth Smith die, and similarly her husband James Smith, for whom I can find no record?

A note about the Britton family tree was found written on the back of a picture by John Britton, in Nova Scotia, who tragically has been incapacited by a stroke for some years and cannot communicate.
This note refers to "Sherry Hales" 1665, and "Chusburne".

While "Chusburne" is totally cryptic, it is reasonable to suppose that 'Sherry Hales' was a corruption of Sheriffhales, a village near Shifnal in Staffordshire. Does the Britton family have an origin there?

John James Britton went to live at Vire in Normandy, shortly after Catherine his first wife died in 1879. He may have been there for less than two years, but we know that his younger son by Catherine was enrolled in a college there.

When he remarried in April 1882, one of the witnesses was Thomas Perkins, (1842–1907), who wrote numerous books about church architecture, especially that of Normandy. Did the acquaintanceship with Thomas arise from the sojourn in Normandy or predate it?

Thomas Perkins married John James's eldest daughter Ethel Alice in 1891, and the officiating minister was J. Townroe Coward, "Vicar of St Leonards", of whom I can find no trace on census or any other records. There is much mystery surrounding the Coward family, but it would be useful to discover more about them in order to shed light on how John James came to marry Maud May Coward, (c. 1857–1946), a girl young enough to be his daughter.

The remarkable John Britton, (1771–1857), was not only a notable writer about church architecture in Normandy and elsewhere, but also about a variety of other topics, including many works of topography (illustrated by himself), and commentary on the political and philosophical scene of the day.

John Britton of Nova Scotia thought it highly likely that the grandfather of John James was called John. Is it possible that this was John Britton the writer himself?'


5 August 2008

Herbert Eyres Britton and Diane

Herbert Eyres Britton's Diane [1920] was his third collection of poems after The Visions of a Dreamer (1912) and War Poems – date and publisher unknown (1). He dedicated it to his mother Maud May Britton, and a six-sonnet sequence in the collection concerns his recently deceased wife Elsie.

Also of note is 'In Memoriam', a poem written on the death of the working-class poet Noah Cooke, a weaver from Kidderminster who appears to have been a friend of Herbert's. The following link is to Sonya O. Rose's criticism of Cooke (2).

(1) Herbert E. Britton, Diane: And Other Poems (London: Arthur H. Stockwell, [1922]).

(2) Sonya O. Rose, Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth Century England (London: Routledge, 1992).

Now What's John James Britton Doing with That Baby's Head?

The splendid photo below contains a great deal of detail, the most remarkable of course being a stern John James Britton's futile attempts to hold the baby's head in the long exposure. It's very unlikely that a professional photographer would have allowed this error to see the light of day, so we can only speculate about the identity of the person behind the camera.

More certain, though, are the names of the characters in the photo, and I leave Robert Hughes – who, along with Sandie Coomber, I thank for making possible the publication of this picture – to give the details:

'The house was almost certainly 2 Drayton Terrace, Melton Rd, Belgrave, [Leicester]; or alternatively 12 Melton Rd (according to the 1891 census).

I have found that street numbering sometimes followed small groups of properties such as terraces, and sometimes followed a larger scheme such as a whole street, but there is no reason to suppose that these addresses were anything other than one and the same.

On the left is Herbert Eyres Britton (1883–1940), later a published writer and poet.

Seated is Maud May Britton, formerly Coward (c.1858–1946), said to be the daughter of James Eyres Coward, ship's surgeon. She was John James Britton's second wife.

On her lap is Elizabeth Hilda Dorothy Britton (1889–1966), later Dorothy Viner or Dension-Viner or some variation of this spelling.

The child with the spinning head has to be Reginald Ernest James Britton (1887–1981), later to be a canon in Canada after service in the Navy.

Below right is Ruth Elise May Britton (1885–1925), who became a health visitor in Birmingham.

Right is Ethel Alice Britton (1860–1936), the elder daughter from John James Britton's first marriage (to Catherine Erskine Smith). She married Thomas Perkins (1893–1907), vicar of Turnworth, Dorset, and friend of Thomas Hardy.

To the rear, of course, is the man himself: John James Britton (c. 1832–1913), Solicitor of the Supreme Court and self-proclaimed "literary man" (1891 census).

John James was the father of Richard Britton, who died tragically young, and the (paternal) grandfather of Lionel Britton the playwright and novelist, whom family tradition held to have spoken 22 languages.

The date of this photograph is almost undoubtedly 1890.'

The photo below was taken in July 2009, showing the facade of 12 Melton Road, Leicester.

4 August 2008

Reginald Ernest James Britton, Maud May Britton and Herbert Eyres Britton

The photo below, from left to right, shows Maud May Britton – the second wife of solicitor and poet John James Britton – between her sons Reginald Ernest James Britton and Herbert Eyres Britton.

Many thanks to Sandie Coomber and Robert Hughes for making possible the publication of this image.