Down From London? Looking for Literary Trouble at the British Seaside

Down from London by Carolyn W. de la L. Oulton explores ‘seaside reading’ in the 1840s-1930s, from early sensation novels to crime and romance fiction. In this blog post Oulton considers the origins of the British seaside holiday and literary tourism.

The seaside summer holiday, as frustrated globetrotters have been regularly reminded in the last three years, is a longstanding British tradition. It’s a time when families can relax, young people can deem themselves ‘free’ from the pressure to conform, and everyone can get disproportionately worked up about the appropriateness of (almost) naked bathing. 

What is less well known is that these unspoken rules were more or less invented in the nineteenth century. It is largely thanks to the Victorians that we have ‘What happens in… stays in…’ jokes about seaside resorts. They also bequeathed us the ubiquitous deck chair and the bucket and spade, although for some reason the ‘guess your weight’ machine didn’t catch on. Nor would they be surprised by our penchant for sitting up to our ankles in sharp sand, reading paperbacks about murder and romance (the latter quite possibly involving someone else’s spouse).

Seaside cures had been fashionable since Dr Richard Russell’s promotion of the health-giving properties of Brighton air in the eighteenth century. But it was the Victorians who first used the term ‘seaside reading’ to signal both a recognisable type of novel, and a relaxed – even dilatory – approach to reading it. As the railway network gradually superseded the much slower river steam packet, making the coast increasingly accessible, so greater numbers of middle and lower-class town dwellers headed to the seaside resorts for a summer getaway. In the process they helped to galvanise new kinds of fiction.

It is no coincidence that the terms ‘sensation novel’ and ‘railway novel’ were used almost interchangeably from the 1860s onwards. The scandalous sensation novel, with its menu of murder and adultery, was notorious for its attack on the nerves of readers; meanwhile the train was seen with some justification as an uncomfortable and even dangerous way to travel. Pacey fiction with daring subject matter was felt to mimic the rhythms of rail travel, and might even distract the traveller’s mind from the jolts being inflicted on his or her body. Popular authors were happy to oblige, with deviant heroines escaping – or being pursued round the country – by train.

As direct lines from London proliferated along the coast, the seaside holiday helped writers such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon to tap into this new market with titillating plots designed for ‘light’ reading. At the same time the less prescriptive rules of the holiday offered a chance to make informal friendships, encouraging a greater degree of class-crossing for the young and unmarried. Novels with a resort setting allowed visitors to indulge in a pleasurable sense of unease, encouraging them to imagine that every attractive stranger had something to hide.

The question of what to read, and where to get these books, preoccupied publishers and press critics alike. Resort libraries were often satirised for their paucity of fashionable titles, making advance purchase or borrowing an advisable option. The Victorian holiday maker could make themselves really popular, by packing up to 12 or 20 volumes in a wooden library-box and stashing it under a seat. For the less well-organised, there were the famous W. H. Smith railway bookstalls, where popular authors sold in huge numbers as long as they didn’t include too much obvious sex. Only at the end of the century were visitors able to borrow books from the public libraries, which were funded – sometimes jealously guarded – by the local rate payer.

But in any case, the dangers of this type of reading were advertised almost as energetically as its delights. The nineteenth century resorts oversaw a gradual shift in visitor culture, as health cures first co-existed with and ultimately became subordinate to holiday leisure. This mixed history is still visible in the famous piers, where invalids could promenade and holiday clothing could be effectively shown off without the wearer getting covered in sand. For some observers, the reading habit undermined the whole point of the seaside trip, with its regimen of alternate rest and exposure to the rigours of salt water. Others were less concerned about the intellectual strain involved – seaside reading to their way of thinking was more like ingesting drugs or over-indulging in sugar plums. For some anxious critics the real problem was that young women on the spree were not reading at all, but conducting literary flirtations, with the book as a convenient prop.

Notwithstanding this ambivalence, the seaside novel continued to thrive. In the twentieth century the sensational mode began to fracture, creating the new sub-genres of seaside crime and romance that we recognise today. Boots (satirised by Elizabeth Bowen as ‘Smoots’) subscription library and publishers such as Mills & Boon successfully purveyed romantic fiction to a predominantly female clientele, with seaside resorts accounting for much of the demand. Gabrielle Wodnil’s 1912 novel Maggie of Margate includes metafictional jokes about the marketing of seaside settings – her own Brineta at Brighton appeared the following year. The titles of Burford Dellanoy’s The Margate Murder Mystery (1902), J. S. Fletcher’s The Great Brighton Mystery (1925) and John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder (1935) offer none too subtle clues about where they might best be enjoyed. My book Down From London: Seaside Reading in the Railway Age explores around 130 novels with a seaside setting, published between 1840 and 1939, to ask why holiday reading was so controversial. Where we read turns out to matter as much as what we read – because as our forebears tried to tell us, anything can happen by the sea. What these authors promise their (sometimes) respectable readers is that what happens in Margate won’t stay in Margate for long.

Down from London is available to order on our website.


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