May I introduce you to the Handheld Press?

hp-vert smallLast week I became a company director, of the Handheld Press, because I’m going to publish books. I’ve been working flat out for several months, doing two jobs at once. Setting up a publishing company takes a lot of administration, as well as starting work, right away! on the first books. I’ve done pretty much every other job in publishing apart from actually BE a publisher, so the editing and the planning now feels entirely natural and normal. ‘Twas not always so.

On a Friday in March, a friend with whom I am editing an academic book, with me in the scary tough editor role, told me (possibly as an affectionate gibe) that I should set up my own publishing company. I spent the weekend muttering ‘nah …..’, ‘well ……’, ‘maybe ……’, ‘but what if ……..’, ‘and I could do …….’, ‘that’d’be a way to do …….’ and ‘what do you think about …..’. The consensus was clear: move ahead cautiously and see what was involved. I knew immediately what I wanted to publish (reprints with proper introductions, scholarly research passions, and science fiction), so I started talking to friends in the business, and friends in business. But the first thing to do was to work out, and then buy, the domain name.

The name Handheld Press took a few days to decide, while I was furiously busy doing other tasks. I’d write down names as they occurred to me, cross them out, take out bits and make new names, cross them all out and start again. Everyone I’ve told the name to has liked it instantly, so I hope it will work for everyone. I wanted the name to suggest tactility, because my books will be books you can hold in your hand, as well as in a handheld e-reader. It also suggests being led by the hand to new and wondrous things, and the pleasing sensation of an object big enough and the right shape for the hand, but not too big, unwieldy or ill-formed. Handheld Press was also a second choice: I really wanted Handheld Books dot co uk, but that domain name had gone, and the only trace of it online was something a little dubious. Handheld Press dot com is a small engineering business in the USA selling metal stamping gadgets. I doubt we’ll interfere with each other’s business. Handheld Press has the advantage of being a press, that can make more things than books. I began to talk to printers.

hp-horizBy the end of March I had added translations from Dutch to my now pleasingly eclectic set of Handheld lists, because I know a translator from Dutch who immediately sent me pages of reprint suggestions to consider, and I have a lot of Dutch and Flemish friends with their own ideas. A month later I was briefing a relation by marriage who just happens to be a typographer and brand identity specialist, because I needed a visual identity and some kind of typographical design to set up a website. Without a website I wouldn’t be able to register at Companies House, and no-one would take me seriously without one. One month and several conversations later Andrew delivered a beautiful brand identity, and I was in business. Website, Twitter, Facebook.

By May I had signed up with the Real Jobs scheme at my university’s design department, and I now have an earnest and impressively focused student designing me a book series. It’ll take time, because this commission is part of his degree portfolio, but I need the time: I have four books and their introductions to edit and proof before I can drop them into layout. (It was around this time that I began recalling everything I ever learned from the designers in English Heritage’s publications department, where I spent some very formative years.) I also have a Handheld Research title ready to publish, but for that I need a proper contract, and a letter of agreement for the reprint introductions. Time to talk to lawyers.

I’m looking for freelance designers (I have a lovely collection of beautifully designed business cards). I also need authors, and they are remarkably easy to encounter. Every conversation I have seems to yield suggestions for books, many of them definitely pursuable. I’ve set up proposal forms for Handheld Classics, Handheld Research and Handheld Translations on the website already, such has been the demand. I’m reading a novel right now by an author I met at a conference, that might be the first title in Handheld Modern.

hp-only smallI’m pleased with the suggestions I’ve had so far for adding to the Handheld Classics. I haven’t pushed the Translations very much yet, or the Handheld Research, because these will take more time and careful planning, though some ideas have been coming through spontaneously. But now I want to read proposals for Handheld Modern, on the modern world and the future. I want to be told about stories by and about the peoples and identities who get told ‘we’ve already got one of those’. I want to hear about feminist science fiction, memoirs of suburban love that dared not speak its name, and stories from countries I’ve never been to, that might not even exist.

Handheld Press is going to be about stories. You can Follow me on the website blog, and I hope you’ll stay with the journey.


George Eliot with the gloves off: Patricia Duncker’s Sophie and the Sibyl

sophie-bookcoverExpect energetic storytelling in this excellent novel about the manipulative life and marital sufferings of George Eliot. It’s also a gently funny love story between Max Duncker, a vain and very young dilettante publisher and the thunderingly hearty Sophie, a German countess who never glides gracefully when she can pound across a ballroom. Other pleasing details in the beautifully managed plot include seamless slides into and out of literary and archaeological history, retrofitting the plot of Daniel Deronda, dipping into the hopeless passion of a thwarted female Eliot fan, and the looming importance of Lucian and Darwin in nineteenth-century thought.

Max Duncker (no relation to the author, based on several real people) is introduced by his older brother Wolfgang to Mrs Lewes, at present visiting Berlin with her Goethe biographer husband. Max is also told to court Sophie, Countess van Hahn, as her father is a client of the Duncker family publishing house, and he wants Sophie settled before she gets too out of hand. Max is equivocal about Sophie, and uncertain about what Mrs Lewes is doing to his mind. She rapidly becomes ‘the Sibyl’ in the novel, for her majestic intellectual authority and the deference paid her by everyone she encounters. In Homburg Max accidentally witnesses the teenage Sophie pawning her mother’s jewels to be able to gamble at the Kursaal, and he drags her away with her winnings before she brings scandal on the family and herself. The Sibyl buys back the necklace, and proceeds to play curious mind games with Max, and literary games with Sophie’s life. ‘George Eliot needed to be adored, but, even more deeply, she longed to be worshipped, revered.

not the novel's Max Duncker, but another publisher called Max Duncker of the same period, so he's a might-have-been
not the novel’s Max Duncker, but another publisher called Max Duncker of the same period, so he’s a might-have-been

The Sibyl is a manipulative egotist sheltering under the protection of her ebullient ‘husband’ Lewes. She has pains and sufferings, she is sensitive, she attracts adoring young men and ignores worshipping girls. The adjectives and verbs used for her character are gentle, patient, majestic, sighed, massive, trembling. She dominates every gathering by being fragile, enormously eminent, intellectually intimidating, submissive. ‘The lady is old. The lady is ugly. The lady has wonderful eyes.’ Towards the end of the novel, helped by the furious reactions of Sophie to how the Sibyl has been toying with the pliable Max, we begin to think that perhaps she is a monster rather than a monument.

Could Patricia Duncker have written this novel if she weren’t also a professor of English? Teaching the life and novels of authors gives you extraordinary exposure, year after year, to how and why the novels work. Talking to students about them tests your ideas and makes you dig deep to be sure of your assumptions, because when you teach you have got to know what you’re talking about. Duncker’s experience as an Eliot scholar gives her the background to make every detail of nineteenth-century publishing in Sophie and the Sibyl convincing: I could almost see the journal articles she’s been reading, and the original editions she’s been reading. She deftly fillets of the last years of Marian Evans’ relationship with her ‘husband’ of twenty years, George Lewes, and how and why she married John Cross.

photograph of Eliot looking gracious
photograph of Eliot looking gracious

I have never been a convinced reader of George Eliot. I can’t get past the first few chapters of Middlemarch, because I cannot abide the characters. I liked Scenes from Clerical Life, and tolerated Silas Marner, but I haven’t got any further than that, despite the efforts of my friends to bring me back from literary apostasy. After reading Sophie and the Sibyl I’m newly intrigued by the Eliot legend, the events of her life (the age difference in the Cross marriage is a long-standing puzzle). Duncker’s evident, erudite ambivalence about Marian Evans’ motivations as a woman novelist writing against her own experience encourages me to have another try.

Here are some remarks from the novel about George Eliot the person and author that made me sit up bolt upright, reaching for a sticky note marker: her ‘heroines are young women with everything to learn and everything to lose.’

The older women in the Sibyl’s books are startling creations: unfettered, unleashed, seeking their prey and hungry for vengeance.

Some say the Sibyl was fragile, insecure, lacking in confidence and self-esteem. But do frail and timid women decide to be atheists, challenge their fathers, refuse to go to church, educate themselves to an astonishingly high degree, run off to London, live abroad on their own, fling themselves at married men, beguile women too, and clearly enjoy doing so, edit distinguished literary journals, learn Hebrew, write fiction that will live forever as long as we remember how to read, become rich and famous, and think for themselves?

Ida, Countess Von Hahn-Hahn, who might have been Sophie, or perhaps not
Ida, Countess Von Hahn-Hahn, who might have been Sophie, or perhaps not

The succubus-like allure of the Sibyl, who is not at all a sympathetic figure despite her impressive accomplishments, is one of several reasons to enjoy this novel. Sophie is a bouncing, confident modern young bride and mother, whom no-one will overcome and nothing will dismay. Her son is ferociously healthy; she and he do not succumb to the normal threat to nineteenth-century characters or die of consumption or a fever, and that is a pleasant relief. This is, as Patricia Duncker tells us, a ‘Victorian romance’ and a Neo-Victorian novel following the method of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by which history can be tweaked to serve the purposes of critical art. Sophie’s energy and vigour explode onto the pages she inhabits, and bring life to her world. She sings risqué songs to a family audience, she learns to ride a bicycle, she insists on contraception (and a good thing, too, since we have been witnessing Max’s enjoyment of prostitutes), and she gambles at the Kursaal to buy her own horses with her own money. She is a marvellously boisterous creation, and cannot do anything in quiet or muted tones. Max is enjoyable for his decisiveness and his weaknesses, and their nineteenth-century environment is as appealing and convincing as a really well-written travelogue. This novel is great fun and curiously thought-provoking. It’s persuaded me to try reading Daniel Deronda, I’ll take that cautious step towards a proper appreciation of George Eliot, but I reserve the right to continue to resist Middlemarch.

Patricia Duncker, Sophie and the Sibyl (4 April 2015, Bloomsbury), 978-1-4088-6052-6 

Postscript: the afternoon after I posted the above, I went to the city library and took out Daniel Deronda AND Middlemarch. I finished Daniel Deronda 2 days later, helped by a Sunday afternoon and evening of absolute liberty to read. I won’t burden you with my reflections on DD, but would like to point out that reading Sophie and the Sibyl can bring results.

Rose Macaulay’s Potterism

PotterismI wrote this podcast for Why I Really Like This Book for a miniseries called Fictions about Newspapers. Journalism is something I’ve dabbled in enough to know that I’m no good at it. I can write reviews, but I have no nous when it comes to news, and I am not hard-boiled. But I do like reading about journalists who know how to ask hard questions and can anticipate the value of information received. British journalism changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century, with a population growing in literacy demanding more and more newspapers to read. The number of newspapers on the British market doubled during the First World War, and new technology made them easier and faster to read. The practices of gathering news, and what you did with it also changed. This is why I find this novel by Rose Macaulay so enjoyable.

Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919
Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919

Potterism, from 1920, is about arrogance, snobbery and egotism. It’s a perfect exposure of a world where writing for the newspapers was simply normal for a certain class of society who expected to have the right to express their views for the benefit of the paying public. This class was, of course, made up of people from the upper classes who went to university (for which read Oxford or Cambridge: no other university, for Macaulay’s class, existed), and who emerged with ideals and expectations quite different to those held by those who bought the papers they deigned to write for. You can tell I don’t like them very much: it’s difficult to like many of the characters in this novel since nearly all of them are satirical portraits created by Macaulay to vent some spleen. She herself was an upper-class, well-educated and well-connected member of the literati, but she never took herself as seriously as the monsters she created in this novel. She wrote hundreds of articles and book reviews, as well as poetry and novels, and had earned her living by writing since before the war, yet, or, perhaps because of this, her writing never betrays the pompousness or greed or self-deluding emotionalism in which the characters in this novel are drenched.

Forget me NotMr Potter is a newspaper proprietor, and is the nicest and most admirable character in the novel: hard-working, honest, reliable, and principled. He is married to Mrs Potter, also known as Leila Yorke, for she is a novelist, though she calls herself an artist, and everyone else would call her a hack writer. She churns out the same stuff year after year for a cheerful public who just want to read the same thing book after book. She began her career writing romantic novelettes for late Victorian fiction magazines like Forget-Me-Not, and this is one of the reasons I like this novel so much: Macaulay wraps her invention up in real-life publishing history, since Forget-Me-Not really existed. Mrs Potter is in the ranks of the second-rate and the trashy, whether she likes it or not. She is a crashing snob, and a casual, careless anti-Semite. This unpleasantness emerges quite easily and naturally in her chatter whenever she has anything to do with the Jewish hero of the novel: Arthur Gideon. He is so opposed to what the Potter newspaper empire is doing to the minds of the masses that he sets up the Anti-Potterism League in an idealistic effort to combat what he thinks are their wrong values. Gideon stands for the first-rate and the hard-won-by truths that he thinks the public need to know, whereas Mr Potter is happy to publish the second-rate and the products of sloppy thinking because that is what the public want and will pay for. Gideon follows his dream by setting up his own newspaper, a rival to the products of the Potter empire, called the Weekly Fact, which is just that: facts, and no opinions. Mr Potter knows that it won’t last, because the egos of those who write for it will be lured by more money for writing trash, and will never be able to withstand the temptation to strut about in public.

Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton
Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer who published her novels exclusively in the Daily Mail, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton

Two of the Anti-Potterism League’s keenest supporters are two of Mr Potter’s own children, the twins Jane and Johnny Potter. This says quite a lot about their characters, for it is a brave thing to publicly deny, and also sneer at and criticise, the works of the business that paid for your education and give you a private income while you’re still thinking about taking a job. These twins are simple and straightforward; they want what they can get, and their lives are constructed about seeing that they get what they want. When Jane doesn’t want to see someone who also visits her friend Katherine, she simply tells Katherine to ask that someone not to visit her any more, so Jane can carry on visiting. So simple, when you have no scruples. After the war ends, Johnny finds work easily, while Jane has to make do with a secretarial job at her father’s office, where she meets the assistant editor Oliver Hobart, with whom her elder sister Clare is in love. Jane hardly notices what Clare might be thinking: she sees Oliver as an opportunity for rising in the world, and decides to marry the important young assistant editor when he asks her. Macaulay is careful to let us know, several times, that Oliver was exempted from serving in the war due to his nationally important work on the Potter press. In the work of most novelists writing at this time, this would be character assassination, but with Macaulay, her satire being both so delicate and blunt, we are not quite sure what we are to think of him. It is indicative enough that he is a disposable character.

another tabloid lead story, 1926
another tabloid lead story, 1926

Arthur Gideon is the hero, since he has most honesty and sticks most firmly to his principles. He is also the most interesting character, since he has most to struggle against. His own family, though pleasant, are a mixed blessing, since his father is a Russian Jewish refugee with terrible memories that he won’t tell his son about, and his mother, like Mrs Potter, is a casual blonde English anti-Semite who blithely calls her children Yids, and lazily objects to her daughter marrying another Russian Jew. Outside the family circle, Gideon struggles against lazy thinking and lazy-mindedness, and endures being accused of pushing Oliver Hobart down the stairs because he is shielding someone else. He doesn’t realise that he is loved by yet a third person, because his eyes are dazzled by his own love for someone unworthy. Oh, it’s a tangled mess that he makes of his life, but he is most admirable in his stoicism and qualities of endurance, and in his conduct towards another family of Russian Jews. His missing foot, lost in the war, is barely mentioned, but this is as strongly symbolic of his character – in this period of fiction, any man with a war wound was automatically a hero – as Oliver’s lack of a war record is of his.

The Anti-Potterism League fails, in the end, because Gideon learns to like Mr Potter while despising his works, and then events overtake his plans of reforming the newspaper world. But we have not been much interested in the posturing of this self-appointed league of university graduates with more attitude than sense. We are far more interested in the ghastly attitudes and manipulative deviousness of Mrs Potter, who Macaulay satirises by using her diary as a means of telling part of the story. Every half-truth is revealed. Every evasion and self-delusion is set out neatly, and Mrs Potter stands revealed as a loathsome egotist. She talks to a medium about a murder, comes away with a vision of the man she had first wanted to be suspected as the killer, and promptly sets about slandering him up and down the town, based on no evidence at all. She recalls all she has heard of this man in her diary, and interjects slurs and suppositions in between the facts: she really is a writer of fiction, and does not notice or care that her fiction is intruding in real life.

MacaulayThroughout all this, Mr Potter’s papers sell to the public what the public want to read, and do very well out of it, as does he. Gideon’s paper sells facts, and nobody, in the end, really wants to read facts. They just want to read about a bride’s suicide or the death of a baronet. There’s no accounting for taste, only human nature.

If you fancy trying a related Rose Macaulay novel after this one, have a go at the savage and bitter Crewe Train. Where Potterism is about newspapers, Crewe Train is about celebrity culture and the gossip that ruins people lives being used for a little momentary gain at a party. People feed off other people in Crewe Train, all for the sake of personal gratification, and to make sure no-one breaks free of this goldfish bowl way of life. Not much has really changed in the London literary world.