Course convenor: Lise Jaillant

Modernist works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or James Joyce’s Ulysses are inseparable from the physical format in which they appeared. The 1922 Shakespeare & Company edition of Ulysses, with its iconic blue cover, is almost as famous as the characters in Joyce’s novel. But we need to look beyond those well-known first editions. By the mid-1920s, difficult modernist texts were no longer restricted to readers of little magazines or luxurious limited editions. They were read by a large audience in cheap reprint editions, and modernist writers became celebrities that often appeared in “slick” magazines such as Vogue and Vanity Fair. To gain greater control over the publication process, Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Nancy Cunard and others created their own presses and engaged closely with the physical materiality of books.

The aim of this course is to study the material format that made the diffusion of modernist literature possible. The course relies on an interdisciplinary framework, drawing from book/ publishing history, archival studies, sociology and digital humanities. Sessions at Senate House Library will allow us to view letters by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, rare editions published by Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press and neglected periodicals and publicity materials. 

The course will also include a tour on Modernist Publishing Houses to explore Bloomsbury, the birthplace of modernism. We will start with Faber – where T. S. Eliot worked as an editor for 40 years, from 1925 to his death in 1965. Through fascinating anecdotes, this tour will recreate the forgotten publishing world that made the new literature available to a wide audience.

This course will be of interest to students of history and literature, librarians, archivists, rare book specialists, museum professionals, booksellers and anyone who enjoys twentieth-century books.

Reading List

Introductory reading list

Bourdieu, Pierre, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, trans. by Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia UP, 1993)

Chambers, Matthew. London and the Modernist Bookshop (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020). 

Cooper, John Xiros, Modernism and the Culture of Market Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004)

Jaillant, Lise, ed., Publishing Modernist Fiction and Poetry (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019)

Nash, Andrew, ‘Sifting Out “Rubbish” in the Literature of the Twenties and Thirties: Chatto & Windus and the Phoenix Library’, ed. by John Spiers, The Culture of the Publisher’s Series. Vol. 1 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 188–201.

Plock, Vike Martina. ‘Virginia Woolf, Penguin Paperbacks, and Mass Publishing in Mid-Century Britain’. Book History, vol. 25, no. 1, 2022, pp. 238–68.

The Modernist Archives Publishing Project (MAPP), 

Wilson, Nicola, ed., The Book World: Selling and Distributing British Literature, 1900-1940 (Leiden Boston: Brill, 2016)


Provisional breakdown of the seminars

1.    Introduction/ Presentation of the scholarly discussion on Modernism and the Book 
2.    Women and Publishing #1
3.    Women and Publishing #2
4.    Women and Publishing #3 – at Senate House Library
5.    Middlebrow and Celebrity #1
6.    Middlebrow and Celebrity #2
7.    Middlebrow and Celebrity #3 – at Senate House Library
8.    Race and Modernism #1
9.    Race and Modernism #2
10.    Race and Modernism #3 – at Senate House Library
11.    Modernist Books and Digital Humanities
12.    Tour on Bloomsbury’s Publishing Houses
13.    Summary of what we have learned/ next steps

Course convenor