Peeking into book biographies with Blackie publishing contracts

Guest blog post by Lucy Janes, Master’s Student in Information Management & Preservation at the University of Glasgow.

Books have their own biographies and the traces of their ‘lives’ can be found in records such as those of Blackie & Son Ltd, a Glasgow publishing company founded in 1809. 

I was lucky enough to get an insight when I went on a student placement to the University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections to work on just a few of the papers from the Blackie archive

GB 248 UGD 061/6/3/6/1

I catalogued a bundle of around 80 contracts between authors and the company from 1925 to the early 1950s, so through the period of the Second World War. 

This is an early stage in a book’s life; a few are cancelled and get no further, but most make it through the development process to be published. Though, on checking in the British Library catalogue, they sometimes end up appearing with a different title. 

Mostly the folders contain the sort of administrative information you’d expect: agreements on the date of delivery of a manuscript, the content of the book, how many copies were to be printed, the sale rights, the percentage of royalties that the author would receive and so on. But there are also some letters and memos that add a little more colour to each book’s biography. 

So what stood out from my small bundle? 

War satires and adventures 

The very first agreement I looked at dated from January 1940, for an author called Richard Farrar Patterson to write a book, published with the title Mein Rant. A quick look at the British Library catalogue revealed this was a comic version of Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf in light verse with illustrations by W Heath Robinson. 

Another war satire was acquired in 1948 when Blackie secured the rights from Norwegian publisher John Griegs Forlag to publish a children’s book called Snorre Sel. Written by Frithjof Sælen, it was originally published in 1941, and was subtitled ‘A fable for adults and children’. Apparently the story of a silly and vain little seal, the book was actually an anti-Nazi satire that was soon banned by the Quisling government in Norway. The English edition was called Snorri the Seal

A less complex children’s book which also took inspiration from the war was Sea Scouts at Dunkirk, published by Blackie in 1941. It was part of already long-running Sea Scouts series started in the 1920s by Percy Francis Westerman, the author of bestselling adventure stories. 

Traces of loss and memorialisation 

A more personal note was struck with the 1940 book Ruthless Neighbour. A Czech looks at Germany by Mrs J Vojacek. The name on the contract was a pseudonym for J M J Miroslav, who had taken refuge in Britain following the annexation by the Nazis. The book had a foreword by Jan Masaryk, Foreign Minister for the Czechoslovakian Government-in-exile, and was reviewed in October 1940 as a “slight and unpretentious but generally honest sketch of Czech-German relations”1

A couple of post-War letters in the files referenced recent losses. 

In 1948 one of the authors of Précis Pie, a book of advice and exercises to teach you how to write good summaries, wrote to Blackie & Son requesting that all his royalties be paid to a home for orphaned boys, saying “I do this in memory of my wife and son.”  

GB 248 UGD 061/6/6/27 

Sadly, I think his hopeful prediction that the book will sell “in hundreds of thousands” is unlikely to have come true. 

In 1949, Enrico Persico, the editor of a classic book on differential calculus first published by Blackie in 1925, instructed that all the royalties from the book, including his own, should be sent to the wife of the author Professor Tullio Levi-Civita, an Italian Jew who was excluded from his profession by the Fascist government and died of ill health in Rome in 1941.  

A new world for education 

Blackie was well known as a publisher of educational books: Several of the titles from these contracts are in the Glasgow University Library’s collection of Blackie textbooks. But I was surprised to see that the company continued to publish school text books during the Second World War. Here’s just a few titles: 

Just one contract – for Latin Verse Through The Ages – mentioned that publication might be deferred due to the War but in the end it was published in 1943.  

After the War, there was a rash of titles specifically aimed at the new schools that resulted from the 1944 re-organisation of school education: 

‘Guardians of the future’ 

Eunice Guthrie Murray was not a name I’d come across before, but a little research revealed that she was a prominent Scottish suffragist and social campaigner who, in 1918, became the first woman to stand in a parliamentary election in Scotland. 

In the 1930s she wrote two history books about women’s lives. In Scottish Women of Bygone Days (1930) she had chapters on clothes, sports and pastimes, education and witchcraft. A Gallery of Scottish Women (1935) contained biographies of individuals.  

In 1947 Eunice G Murray employed Blackie to publish her book Scottish Homespun (available in the University of Glasgow Library) which was a product of her interest in Scottish heritage and folk traditions.  

It describes a variety of traditional costumes from Scotland with insights into the industries and jobs with which they are associated. It’s illustrated with photographs of dolls wearing the clothes, many of which were made by Murray. 

Photo credit: Scottish Homespun, University of Glasgow Library 

Dedicated to the members of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes, it calls for the establishment of a folk museum for Scotland and describes how safeguarding the everyday objects of the past can help people construct a better future.  

She concludes “Women have a two-fold calling, for not only are we as wives and mothers the guardians of the future, but we are also the custodians of the past.”2  

Lucy tweets at @ELucyJanes

1 International Affairs Review Supplement Vol. 19, No. 2 (Oct., 1940), p. 135 [accessed 7 Nov 2019] 

2 Scottish Homespun by Murray, Eunice G. London; Edinburgh: Blackie, 1947, pg 105 

Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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