Our new Writers and Their Work: The Digital Collection is not only a wonderful resource for students and researchers interested in the more than 400 authors featured in the series, it also provides a unique insight into the history of British literary criticism over the past seventy years.
The history of the series
The first Writers and Their Work titles appeared from 1950 onwards as supplements to the monthly magazine British Book News, published for the British Council and the National Book League by Longmans, Green & Co. The series remained at Longmans for another thirty-two years, under a succession of General Editors: the short-story writer Thomas Owen Beachcroft; Bonamy Dobrée, Professor of English Literature at the University of Leeds; Geoffrey Bullough, a well-known early modern scholar; and Ian Scott-Kilvert, an editor and translator who worked for the British Council.
In 1982, the series was taken over by Profile Publications, but this new incarnation was short-lived, resulting in only six volumes. In 1994, Northcote House successfully relaunched the series, putting it back on the literary map with a focus on new critical approaches and a much broader coverage. Guiding the series as its General Editor during this period was Isobel Armstrong, a specialist in Victorian literature. In 2018, Liverpool University Press took over publication of the series, through a strategic partnership with Northcote House, and two senior academics from the University of Liverpool, Janet Beer and Dinah Birch, became the General Editors.
Cover design over the decades
The visual appearance of the series tracks changing fashions – and developing technologies – within book design. Early volumes have plain yellowish covers:
They seem very austere, but interestingly we may be seeing a resurgence of the simple typographical design in recent years (the plain blue covers of Fitzcarraldo Editions can be found all over Instagram!).
Another early cover design emphasized the ‘Britishness’ of the series, incorporating thistle, rose, shamrock and leek motifs, bordered by acorns and oak leaves:
This style had been dropped by the following decade, when the series gradually started to include more authors from Commonwealth countries. The new cover had a typically 1960s bold graphic layout and was retained for more than thirty years:
When Northcote House took over the series in the 1990s, they re-designed the cover to include a small image of the writer:
A few years later the design was altered again, with the image now taking over most of the cover:
These portraits had sometimes appeared in earlier volumes as frontispieces; perhaps the new design reflected changes in commercial publishing throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the rise of the celebrity author.
Big names from the past
Writers and Their Work has always attracted contributions from prominent literary critics of the day. Delving into the earlier decades of the series (now digitized as part of our online collection and made available to readers for the first time in many years), we find a lot of familiar names from the mid- to late twentieth century: examples include E.M.W. Tillyard writing on Milton, Nevill Coghill writing on Chaucer and Langland, L.C. Knights, Kenneth Muir, Frank Kermode and Stanley Wells writing on Shakespeare, M.C. Bradbrook writing on George Chapman and Thomas Malory, David Daiches writing on Robert Burns, and Norman Jeffares writing on Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith and George Moore.
Writers writing about writers…
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the series from its earliest days is that many of the contributing authors were also writers themselves – some very famous, others whose work is now somewhat neglected (for example, the two Yorkshire novelists Phyllis Bentley and Lettice Cooper, who wrote volumes on the Brontës and George Eliot respectively). A number of writers have even appeared as both contributors and subjects in the series. T.S. Eliot wrote a study of George Herbert in 1962, and was himself the subject of two volumes, one by M.C. Bradbrook in 1951 and another by Colin MacCabe in 2006.
The poet Edmund Blunden was a regular contributor to the series in the early years, writing volumes on both Keats and Charles Lamb in 1954, and on the First World War poets in 1958. He had served in the war himself, suffering lifelong trauma from the experience, and he was a close friend of Siegfried Sassoon whose work features heavily in the book. In the same year that the First World War study came out, a volume also appeared about Blunden himself, written by Alec M. Hardie, his former student at Merton College, Oxford.
A.S. Byatt wrote about Iris Murdoch in 1976, when she was still at a relatively early stage in her own career, having published only two novels. Twenty-one years later, she was an established figure and a Booker Prize winner, and Richard Todd at the University of Leiden contributed a volume about her to the series.
A resource to be explored
Writers and Their Work volumes have been read by generations of literature students and enthusiasts, and some have even provoked controversy. F.R. Leavis took great exception to Kenneth Young’s 1952 study of D.H. Lawrence, railing against ‘the disgraceful way in which the influence, prestige and resources (derived from public funds) of the British Council are employed to the injury of the real interests of English literature’. We can only speculate about whether he would have enjoyed this volume in the series, which appeared the year after his death, in 1979:
With the digitization of the backlist titles, it’s now possible to explore the detailed history of Writers and Their Work for the first time. Researchers with an interest in twentieth-century literary culture, the history of the book and the history of publishing will find a lot to explore here. We look forward to hearing about what you discover!
 Quoted in Dandan Zhang, Literary Criticism, Culture and the Subject of ‘English’: F.R. Leavis and T.S. Eliot (Abingdon: Routledge, 2021).
— Christabel Scaife, Senior Commissioning Editor for Literary Studies
* Some of the information in this blog post was taken from an article by Michael Lister in Textualities, available here: http://textualities.net/michael-lister/writers-and-their-work.