Performance Publishing

The novel that takes Beethoven to America strikes Gold!

We are delighted that Paul Griffiths’ Mr. Beethoven has been included in the shortlist of six books for the Goldsmith Prize 2020, for “fiction at its most novel.”

This Mr. Beethoven most certainly is; oscillating between an almost cinematic account of what it would have been like for the composer to take up a commission in Boston, and the historiography of Griffiths’ search for the composer and C19th Boston Society. The results convey how fragile the historical record is (an important lesson for our Fake News times).

Griffiths has written the libretto for a commission the world will never hear and reviewed its first performance with his peerless critical skills.

Buy Mr. Beethoven paperback from us here or Inpress Books here

The first impression! Buy a second book from our back catalogue to qualify for free postage.

Paul Griffiths reads a short extract from Mr. Beethoven

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The Deluxe Version

Binding of handmade deluxe copies in our studio (£50) is about to begin, a limited edition that was more or less sold out to our subscribers earlier this year. Email us at david [at] to be added to a waiting list and we will see what we can do.

Our first Blog Tour has been a huge success thanks to these wonderful reviewers:

Claire Allen really nails what it’s like to Care for someone… Her descriptions throughout the book are just so perfect.

Years Of Reading Selfishly

Claire Allen also did a short reading, our thanks go to Clare Reynolds for broadcasting this via Instagram here

Jealousy and blame pervade… Layered and nuanced yet never heavy, a good read that I am happy to recommend.


We also did an interview with Jackie Law about the making of the book. From the handmade cement paper covers to the illustrations and typesetting inside.

Any new book from HFP is cause for a celebration. As an object it’s a book of quite outstanding beauty, like all HFP publications… Claire Allen’s prose is both plain and simple (in the very best senses), and very frequently piercing. This is a beautiful novel, generous and humane in range and depth.

David Collard – Salvete!

There’s loss, heart-break, turmoil, grief wrapped in its pages, but it’s also a story of how the past remains within us, construction of the physical and the spiritual, and how relationships form and break. I loved this historical character led novel and would highly recommend it.


The above link also leads to a conversation between Claire Allen and Dr Sophie Oliver, lecturer in English at Liverpool University. Generously hosted by Leigh.

The Blackbird is preoccupied with construction, with building things, but also with things being destroyed.

Dr Sophie Oliver

Claire Allen’s writing is cinematic. I could picture every character, scene and action clearly… The Blackbird is a work of art, filled with top quality print and gorgeous illustrations but also has a strong story to complement the high aesthetics.

The Bobsphere

It’s clear that, in spite of living in the type of housing that various sections of society would turn their nose up at, [Louise] feels safe. I thought the fact that Benny (who poses a palpable threat to her safety) is positioned as a boy who is from both a different area and a privileged background, was really powerful. It serves as a potent reminder that violence, in all its forms, is not restricted to working class males.

Sarah Crewe in conversation with Claire Allen

The poetry collection that most impressed us in 2018 was Floss by Sarah Crewe (Aquifer). Crewe compounds feminism with a psychogeography of Liverpool. At HFP we sometimes describe psychogeography as “going somewhere to see what isn’t there”. By adding female and working class history, Crewe raises the question of why particular things are not there, even in the historical record that W.G Sebald and his fellow travellers rely on. Things unrecorded or suppressed.

Floss is set on the page to mandate a rhythm and contemplation of each phrase that, while not the first poems to do so, still manage by dint of skill and verve to become revolutionary. Something Crewe performs in person extremely well. We were delighted she agreed to talk with Claire Allen about The Blackbird:

Sarah Crewe: There’s loads I wanted to talk about with The Blackbird as I enjoyed it so much. But thought I’d start with this: I’m currently obsessed with the Sisters of Mercy song, Heartland, as it speaks to the psychogeographical backdrop to my own poetics, which is largely the cities of Liverpool and London. The Blackbird did the same for me in cutting across these two locations. In the case of Liverpool, you’ve gone very specifically for the scope of L3, stretching from Hunter Street on the outskirts of Vauxhall, across to Hope Street, where the cathedrals are located. With the London location for Louise decades later, my imagination leapt from the social housing that was based around The Cut to the old Heygate Estate at Elephant & Castle. I was wondering what made you decide to place the characters in the times and locations that you did. Was it the cathedral that drew you in? Or did you want to cover Liverpool in the Blitz as a lesser known epoch of WWII history?

I should declare my interest in L3 here also. I’m originally from that area and the paternal side of my family are all from that area, right up to my great great grandparents living in Vauxhall. Two of my great grandmothers and great grandfathers grew up in the former slum housing off and around Hunter Street, my paternal grandmother was from Hunter Grove no less. So Blackbird starts on the site of the ancestors, which was a major hook for me personally. 

Claire Allen: It’s really interesting that you were imagining the social housing around The Cut as well as the Heygate, which is actually what I based the Blackbird Estate on. I used to go past the Heygate on the bus every morning during the long process of demolition, and, even though I’d never been inside, I grew quite attached to it and was sad when it was eventually reduced to nothing but a pile of rubble. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for the people who’d lived there.

It’s also really interesting that you have a connection to the blocks around Hunter Street. I based Albion Gardens, where Thomas lives, on the Gerard Gardens block which I think was fairly close by! I noticed the references to St Andrews Gardens in your book, so I was wondering whether you had a particular connection to those flats.  

SC: Ah, Gerard Gardens! I always regarded that as the twin set to the Bullring, and have always been curious about the parallel lives and stories that must have occurred between the two locations. 

I’m delighted to have been so on the money with the Blackbird Estate location! Somehow the SE1 structures just fitted what I was conjuring up as a reader. 

The disappearance of the Heygate was just so weird wasn’t it. And yet simultaneously, it seemed to take forever to dismantle it. Almost like it just wouldn’t come down. I don’t blame it. I think what you’ve touched on in terms of how you felt about it finally vanishing is loss. I really felt that at the end of Blackbird when the estate is described as rubble, it’s a really emotional ending. It made me think sadly of all the former tenement blocks and the real lives and families that have taken place and refuge* in them. And I think what the text also touches upon is the pride that people in those communities took in their own homes for all those decades. I was a teenager when the blocks my family grew up in were ripped down, and I don’t think any of us really externalised it as a grieving process until much later. 

* I’ve asterisked this as I think it’s an important word in the context of Louise. It’s clear that, in spite of living in the type of housing that various sections of society would turn their nose up at, she feels safe. I thought the fact that Benny (who poses a palpable threat to her safety) is positioned as a boy who is from both a different area and a privileged background, was really powerful. It serves as a potent reminder that violence, in all its forms, is not restricted to working class males. Which is quite contrary to the narrative served up frequently by various hierarchies. I also thought the way in which Jenner tries to exert control over Hope’s mother, Mary, amplifies the same point. Was this a deliberate strategy to invite the reader to think about the ways in which gender based violence is not as simplistic as it’s often portrayed, on both class and methodical levels?

CA: That point you raise about male violence and privilege is a really important one. I very much wanted to get the reader thinking exactly as you suggest, because male violence is so often seen as a primarily working class problem and it absolutely isn’t. So it was a very deliberate choice to have Benny come from a more privileged background than Louise. Male violence and controlling behaviour seem to be a bit of a recurring theme for me, and I think it’s so important that it be recognised as something that is absolutely not absent where there is privilege.

What you say about loss, in terms of the Heygate’s demolition had me thinking ‘Yes, yes, yes!’  That is exactly it, and when I was researching how the end of the Heygate unfolded, it became clearer and clearer just how attached to their homes the tenants were.  The blocks had been built as large, light, big-windowed flats and, grotty as they seemed, they were good homes to the families who lived there, and for the most part people were sad and reluctant to leave.  And then, when I looked into Gerard Gardens, I found the same thing – a community of tenants who were proud of where they lived and didn’t want the flats to come down at all.  And, with both places, there was that seemingly deliberate decision to allow the place to become run down, to allow negative associations to accrue around the idea of the place, so that the narrative that ends with demolition started to seem inevitable.  It’s really nasty.  And both places lasted only about 40 years.  I really love parallels, so I was really glad to have that echo between the two estates.  

You asked about time period and location, and wondered why I’d chosen Liverpool in 1941 and London in 2014, and not the other way around.  I think it was to do with the cathedral – because for a while I’d had an idea that I wanted to write a novel about the building of the cathedral, and gradually that sharpened into something that focused on the building of the tower and the fact that it happened at a time when the city was being bombed.  I liked the opposites of a tower going up when everything around it was coming down.  And the ever-present threat that the tower itself could come down, which led me to William Golding’s The Spire, which has the same looming possibility hanging over the whole novel.

Thinking about your book now, one of the poems that has really stuck with me is emporium, which conjured, for me, the fabric shops that there used to be round the back of T J Hughes. I can really remember going there as a child with my mum.  That poem really seemed to encapsulate one aspect of your writing, in the sense that it gives a vivid and immediate sense of place, whilst also being a kind of explosion or simultaneity of images and impressions. I wondered how you had arrived at that particular style – whether the fragmentation of form and images in many of your poems came about because it felt closest to the truth of things.    

SC: Thanks so much for your kind words on emporium from floss, I’m really happy to hear you enjoyed that poem so much! You’ve located this poem to a tee, Stafford Street, the fabric shops! Fabrics and colours are at the bare bones of my poetics, I’m seemingly obsessed with them. My Mum had red velvet curtains in our flat on Gill Street during the 80s, and when she was done with them, gave them to me to use for making Barbie clothes. I’m really pleased that you were able to locate just how important the aspect of fabric, materials and working with what’s available on a sensory level is to my work. But it really does stem from that, which to me is my girlhood. The excitement I found in colours and textures has been transferred to words and subsequent poems. It’s a massive case of unravelling and still learning. Trying to expand on a piss poor vocabulary (!) by using a range of different sources: walking notes, photographs, archives, books, films, paintings. And in terms of stylistics, using words as fragments and threads seems to suit the themes of what I write about much better. A lot of people don’t think in linear statements, there’s a myriad of ways in which impressions are made. Fragments and a mosaic approach are often much closer to the truth of a thing than a full sentence, so poetry works as a perfect medium of expression for this. There’s a brilliant Audre Lorde quote: 

There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives. 

I feel this strongly applies to poetics. It doesn’t need to take one straight path or one sole master narrative, because that’s not a truthful reflection on our lives or our thoughts, our imaginations. So many aspects, so many stories, are intertwined, which is what I’m hoping to convey through a poetics of working class feminist psychogeography. And I feel the entire concept of interwoven women’s stories is one that runs straight through Blackbird, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed it so much!

There’s a line about halfway through the book: 

invisible wires, each exerting a pull until they are brought within range of each other

This really spoke to me in terms of how people are drawn together through shared experiences, and I felt it was especially relevant to working class lives. What you’ve saying about the Heygate really confirms that, and I love the way those details have imprinted themselves so hard into your memory. The large, light, big windowed flats. That’s exactly what the windows were like for Gerard Gardens and St. Andrews Gardens too. I was only reading a piece just yesterday on how the Government have just extended Permitted Development Rights. Meaning they can bypass minimum space standards for housing and windows within new build apartments.  Not only does this sound like a disaster waiting to happen, but also such a far cry from both the aforementioned housing schemes. The windows were such a centre of pride, and some flats (say about two or three per landing) were even lucky enough to have verandas. They were very well kept. It was only when the flats began to be boarded up, and demolition plans became visible, that they started to look dilapidated. 

Back to the text, I love the way you’ve named Albion Gardens as such, as in its poetic sense, like William Blake’s New Jerusalem. Even though you can detect Mary’s reticence when she goes to visit Thomas, the reader knows full well that there’s something of “the stranger in the field” to her impression as opposed to what the truth might be. You’re absolutely right about the deliberate nature of the “dangerous place” narrative that was allowed to fester about Gerard Gardens. It was the absolute manifestation of the Thatcherite managed decline policy of the 1980s. But this continued with the Heygate. Back on the parallels, have you ever watched Violent Playground, that was filmed around Gerard? I haven’t, but can’t help but consider how the Heygate has also been used for films and music videos (including Madonna’s Hung Up ) also. It feels so bitterly sad that two sites that were appropriated for film weren’t deemed worthy of saving for people’s actual lives.

I did feel the choice of demographic for Benny had to be a conscious decision, and think it’s a really striking aspect of the narrative. What I enjoyed about that juxtaposition is the contrast of Carl. Because in him, the boy she grew up with on the estate, we see a decent man, with strong values, who clearly loves Louise. There was, unfortunately, a narrative of “for God’s sake, don’t marry anyone from round here!” from parents who wanted better for their kids from these estates. Yet in Carl, the twist is provided of “actually, Carl from the estate isn’t a threat. University educated, Mummy’s boy Benny, he’s the one who needs to stay away from you.” The scene where Louise recalls mentioning Jake to Benny’s mother on the phone, and she goes silent, is brilliant by the way. Obviously, Benny has failed to mention Jake’s existence. It feels like the usual positioning of nice middle class boy who provides for his family vs lad from council housing who gets girl pregnant and runs away has been utterly turned on its head. There’s other such details that provide tiny glimpses into Benny’s character too – like when Louise remembers him claiming to have skinned a rabbit once, and it’s just left in the air hanging for the reader to construct their own possibility from. For me, it was all the more terrifying – it takes a certain amount of detachment to be able to skin an animal, not least a rabbit. But then I also recognise that’s an urban privilege talking. I’ve never had to. But then there’s no way Benny had to either. It’s like information he’s dropped into the conversation to let Louise know that he’s capable of some form of violence. I think these methods you’ve used to provide small insights into his level of thinking are way more effective than straight up presentation of “here’s a thug.” And yet, he so clearly is. Even when Louise laughs off his statement along the lines of “if you want things to go well for you, you’ll do as I say”. As a reader, I was scared for her at that point. But she continues to be steadfast and stoic. Again, I think that’s so compelling. The victim mentality trope of girl afraid (not least, in film that is presented as horror) is so overused when presented with violence in text or on screen. But the reality is that violence can happen to anyone at all. No amount of courage can prevent it. While that is such a depressing prospect, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge, and I think Louise’s story highlights both the falsehood of fixed narrative, and the intricacy of survivors’ lives.

I haven’t read the William Golding book, but would like to now! I know the cathedrals are a powerful pull for writing material though so I totally get why you’ve positioned the time frames and locations for Blackbird in that way. Historically it’s also interesting, as I genuinely didn’t know about the “bouncing bomb” and the Anglican until reading Blackbird and looking it up! The book really highlighted for me that I’m still learning about Liverpool during this period, and I suspect it’s the same for many people. When describing the bombings, you mention a church, St.Michaels, on Upper Pitt Street. I had no idea that church had even existed. This crosses over a lot with my own work at the minute, as I’ve just referenced St.Mary Highfield in a poem, another Liverpool church that was lost in the Blitz. I did enjoy the level of detail you’ve gone for in this particular part of the book as well, you reference the SS Malakand, which again, I’ve also mentioned in a poem about the actress Mary Lawson, who also died during the Liverpool Blitz (and as I type this I’m wondering if she was behind your choice of name for Hope’s mother?)

CA: Mary Lawson – no, I don’t know about her, so you’ve given me someone to do a bit of research about!  I love this more than anything about writing – the fact that you end up finding out about all kinds of people and stuff you never knew you needed to know!

Yes, I read something recently about those changes to permitted development and how manky old office buildings can now be converted into homes, and there was an example of a building that was essentially in an industrial estate, with no infrastructure anywhere nearby, no shops, doctors’ surgeries, nothing.  And there were diagrams of the proposed flats and they were tiny, with no windows.  Utterly criminal.  As you say, a disaster waiting to happen – and you’d think the government would learn about housing and disasters given recent history – and so very far away from the ideals that went into town planning in the not-very-distant past.

I feel I’m becoming more and more interested in housing.  The book I’m in the middle of writing is very much concerned with poor housing and the gated developments which are the other side of the coin.  

I have seen Violent Playground.  That point you make about how places can be appropriated for film, but not deemed worthy of maintaining for people’s actual lives is spot on.  Completely upside-down priorities!  And of course the films themselves help feed the ‘dangerous’ narrative…  There was a documentary called Gardens of Stone which I found out about but never actually saw – made by former residents of Gerard Gardens, which looked really interesting – giving a sense of the community that was lost when the flats came down.  

I’m really interested by what you say about Benny and the rabbit skinning. I’d originally had in my mind that he was a bit of a fantasist, and didn’t necessarily always tell the truth. And so the danger Louise is in isn’t as apparent to her as it might otherwise have been because Benny is someone who talks the talk but doesn’t always fit the action to the words. But I like the added sense that skinning a rabbit could very well be something he has done, and it’s his detachment and streak of violence that has enabled him to do it. I’m glad that you got a real sense of Louise being in danger at that point where he says ‘If you want things to turn out OK, do as I say’, because I really wanted the danger of that kind of controlled manipulation to come across.  Coercive control might now be recognised as a form of domestic violence, but control can be so gradual, so subtle, so clever, that I guess it’s not necessarily easy to know when it’s happening.  

I’ve been rereading floss and it’s interesting reading it in the light of what you said about the excitement of colours and textures being transferred to words. I keep getting a real sense of your playfulness with language – with the sounds of words and how the sounds of one word link to another word ‘&so on / & sewn on’ cropped up in what I was reading last night – but so did so many other word and sound references and, kind of, ‘riffs’ ( I hate using that word – it’s such a jazz buff sort of word – but it sort of fits with what I’m saying!)   What you say about your approach to poetry – the fragments and threads – the combination of walking notes with images, research etc – really made sense in terms of truthfulness to how lived experience is.  As you say, we don’t think or experience things linearly or narratively and so poetry, being more kindly disposed to ‘snapshot’ representation from all kinds of sensory directions all at once, can be truer than the sometimes plonkiness of novels.   I really like how you’re weaving together women (and women across time in the three poems about Ann Fowler’s), locations, loss, absence, language.  It’s great that you feel The Blackbird links into similar themes in terms of interlinked women’s lives.  What I found really fascinating in my own writing was the echoes and parallels that emerged as I went along.  I wonder whether you also found echoes starting to resound, once you’d started…

SC: I’m really taken with the theme of echoes, capillary waves and reverb (My turn for the muso terminology there!) throughout both our writing projects. As a reader I loved the realisation that Robert had designed the children’s statues for the estate that Louise and Carl had grown up on. It was so subtle, and completely believable. It also spoke to me on how lives can intersect on a cross-class level. I think the arts have great potential in this area particularly, and to see jobs and funding being currently decimated as they are puts the chance and opportunity for people to learn, consider and cross pollinate into each other’s lives less and less. It’s the same with housing. The industrial estate model that you describe in London is quite frightening. It reads like the only lesson the Government is taking away from previous housing disasters is “don’t get caught”. What concerns me even more is that, post Grenfell, there seems to be an attitude of “if we use the right cladding, then what can they possibly complain about? As long as there’s no tragedy, then we’re good to go.” When actually the issues around quality of life in housing structures run so much deeper than no fire hazard and ticking all the H&S boxes. 

I’m actually delighted that you used the term “riff” for floss (minus the jazz, which I have a comical aversion to). Musicality is very important to me and I also like the idea of words dancing round the page and coming off it into the reader’s head. I’m into assonance and resonance, not just in language but also between people’s lives, across time frames, scales and threads. When I was researching the ancestors for floss, I couldn’t quite believe the parallels between both sets of paternal great grandparents, to the point whereby I refuse to believe they hadn’t met beforehand. I think what also interests me is aftershocks. Like, is the Cathedral in Blackbird the main explosion, and all the subsequent lives that come from it the later tremors? Or is it the broader global event of WWII? What struck me when writing floss was how the lives of the 21st century are still so impacted by those of the 19th. I’m really happy that you liked the reverb of the Ann Fowler poems. Again, the stigma and sociological backdrop to women seeking refuge from domestic violence really echoed through into more modern times. I’m also wondering on this point how we go about breaking destructive echoes, and how to move forward from them? It seems for Hope, towards the end of the novel especially, knowledge of how her mother dies isn’t power. Instead, the affirmation is in her right to decline, to say, “enough, the past stops here.” And I love the way her relationship with Robert unfolds as a whole new life. Which, in spite of his downturn in health, has been a happy one, a real love story.

For me, psychogeography works as the imprint geography leaves on the psyche. It’s a very active, fluid form of poetics that combines the historical, the socio-economic and the personal, as no two people will have the exact same response to geographical surroundings on a dérive. There’s a book edited by Dr.Tina Richardson, Walking Inside Out, which is an excellent and varied collection of essays on how psychogeography means many different things to various demographics, I think you’d really enjoy it. When I was reading Blackbird I was thinking how much fun it would be to do a walk based on the Liverpool setting, starting from Hunter Street and moving across through the Georgian Quarter, but via Erskine Street in tribute to Louise, obviously! Did you go on any such walk when you were gathering notes for the book, or is it all from memory and/or footage?

That’s such a pertinent point about Louise perhaps not realising the danger she’s in, in spite of various flags being raised for the reader. Foolishly, it hadn’t occurred to me that Benny could be full of shit about the rabbit, but it’s obviously a factor for her. It’s a set up with so many layers to it. To people on the outside of any coercive control situation, it’s so seemingly easy to see the flags and be screaming START THE CAR, but to the person on the end of the harm, nothing is that clear cut in any way at all. Again, it’s an example of perceptions of survivors vs the reality, which is complex and variable. Louise’s story really does demonstrate that nothing in an abusive relationship fits the exact same narrative as another.

I’m actually really pleased to hear that your next writing project is about housing, as from both Blackbird and these conversations I can see this is something you’re both knowledgeable and passionate about. 

CA: Yes, resonance, that’s a good word, and at the root of a lot of what we’ve been talking about – the echoes and parallels, and, as you say, the reverberations that sound for so long afterwards.  I like your idea of one thing being an explosion with a series of aftershocks, and the need to break free from destructive echoes.  But I’m also thinking of one of the poems at the end of floss – anfield fleet maintenance – and the need for the invisible, the many who have slipped through the net in whatever way – through being women, through being poor, etc, to have a history.  So I guess it’s a balancing act: on the one hand maintaining links with the past but on the other breaking the harmful repeating patterns. That poem, as well as explaining the two personas of floss and flick, is very clear about the kind of palimpsest (oh, I love that word!) nature of places, how cities, in particular, are made of layer upon layer of history and the pavements have layer upon layer of stories to tell, the streets teeming with their own past lives. 

I’m glad you see that break with the destructive echoes coming through in Hope’s decision not to find out what happened to her mother.  As you say, it’s an affirmative decision she makes to lay it all to rest.  And then, at the end of the novel, she kind of makes her peace with that earlier decision, as she realises that, sometimes, letting things stay lost (like the sculptures in the pub garden) is the best option.

I love the idea of a ‘Blackbird walk’ round Liverpool!  I didn’t do that as part of the planning process, though it would’ve helped me get my bearings a bit! I find that I’m really hazy these days about what is where in Liverpool! I relied on memory for the area around the cathedral, and finally managed to make a trip up the tower after the book was finished, and then afterwards had to rewrite a few bits, when I realised I’d got stuff wrong. Like the fact that you can’t actually see the Runcorn Bridge from the top, as I’d thought!  But for Gerard Gardens I relied on photos, mainly.  

SC: Haha, I was actually wondering which one of us would be first to use the word palimpsest. It’s a word I love too! I think that’s such a crucial point you make about maintaining equilibrium between the past and the present, and trying to see what kind of future we can carve from both. I read Lola Olufemi’s Feminism, Interrupted earlier in the year, and she makes such a potent case for feminism being a forward looking, progressive politic in which we need to imagine a more positive, better world for everyone. But I feel that in order to understand what is needed for the future, we need to be cognisant of both the past and the present, and what it entailed for those who went before us. In that poem, anfield fleet maintenance, the spotlight is especially on Anfield, because as an area, its Victorian past is essentially staring us in the face at the end of every street. An area that relied so heavily on 19th century benefactors, continues to require food banks and charitable intervention in the 21st. That galls me. The lesson is that it is going to take more than the benevolent intervention of the rich to truly make a change to the harmful cycles of poverty and hardship that continue to exist throughout the history of specific postcodes.

CA: Well I’m glad we managed to shoehorn ‘palimpsest’ into our conversation!  I’ve really enjoyed unpicking and talking through all the threads that run through both our projects, particularly those resonances between past and present. What you say about the need to understand the history of the places we live in and the people who came before us is so true.  It has a particularly sharp resonance now, I think, in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the cultural reassessment that is starting to take place as we look collectively at the history of the sites, institutions and monuments that surround us and that we are part of.  

Pre-order Claire Allen’s novel by 15th June and add your name to the back of the book!

Last night we launched the pre-sale for our next Historiographic Fiction on David Collard’s Leap in the Dark programme. Claire did a wonderful reading, then we got to ask her some questions about the characters, Alzheimer’s, the themes of creation and destruction, and the influence of William Golding. “If you read two novels about the raising of a cathedral…”

Leap to Unbound here to read an extract from the novel, and lend your support, and name, to a dazzling book.

G.F Smith

HFP have teamed up with G.F Smith, paper merchant to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, to celebrate small presses. All editions of the book will be covered with Gmund Urban, which uses “genuine pulverized cement” to recreate concrete’s subtle texture and sparkle. The Römerturm paper mill has created “tradition and dynamic modernism in one material.” Especially apt for a book that is set in a post-war housing estate: The Blackbird. It is a sculptural material, perfect for HFP’s hand-bindery.

Mr. Beethoven arrives today.

It takes irreverence to pay tribute to an iconoclast. Paul Griffiths’ invention, wit and skill have created the Beethoven 250 tribute. We could not be more proud of this book.

Travel to the United States in their infancy. Watch Boston society boil with anticipation as it produces Beethoven’s biblical oratorio. Feel the potential energy Griffiths weaves around this performance both the composer and the world would never hear.

Buy now:

Harpreet Kalsi captures our Cinema Museum launch in glorious color!

Harp (thatthingyoupluck.comgeddit?) flicked through Herxheimer’s brand new artists’ book, 24 pages per second, coming away with the idea to collage the night’s patrons of the arts with the curious artefacts of the silver screen that surrounded us. So look closely.

Herxheimer herself becomes tacked onto the cinema screen as she reads, like an escaped movie star, resplendent in a dress she screenprinted with collages for the occasion.

The audience used the index to call out page numbers for poems they wanted to hear and laugh along with. Like Hannah Höch, Herxheimer used cut and paste to throw beauty in the face of our ugly times. Fascism is ugly. Division is ugly. At the Cinema Museum we had love!

Delve into the book here, and please respect our neighbours on your way out.

With Dedalus still circumnavigating the literary world on the Republic of Consciousness longlist, we launch Chris McCabe’s second novel, Mud!

Mud is a re-imagining of Orpheus and Eurydice set beneath Hampstead Heath, tracing Borak and Karissa’s subterranean quest to split up.

Mud is fucked up. It’s unlike anything else. It’s amazing. – Sam Jordison, Galley Beggar Press

Exquisite Objects

An invitation from Gemma Seltzer at Kickstarter to take part in their month of Exquisite Objects has encouraged us to ditch our lo-fi pre-sale and run a Kickstarter campaign instead.

Kickstarter makes it easier to give subscribers a range of choices and to celebrate your support at the back of the book. It also means we can open up the creative process more, which is much more fun for everyone.

Digital Fanfare

Friday 22nd and Saturday 23rd are really important. If we can reach 30% of our target in the first 48hrs it will boost the algorithms so even more people get to hear about what we are doing.

So click the link! Watch us channel our inner-Ayoade with our video, and see the treasures on offer: 

Mud: a story re-imagining Orpheus & Eurydice in London today

We are delighted to announce we will be exhibiting at FREE VERSE, London’s pre-eminent Poetry Book Fair.

If you are a poetry reader you will probably already have this event in your diary, but we would urge anyone at all interested in Independent Publishing and Literature to come. It brings together some of the most vibrant and innovative small publishers and is a peerless introduction to contemporary poetry in all its forms. More than a hundred half-tables putting big publishers to shame.

Ten Years of Concertinas with Henningham Family Press and Sophie Herxheimer (12 noon)

Join us at 12 noon in the Brockway Room when we present a survey of our best concertina books from the last ten years, including a British Council commission printed live in Moscow. Renowned artist-poet Sophie Herxheimer will read from our 30 metre long The Listening Forest collaboration, and her dazzling new homage to Emily Dickinson: Your Candle Accompanies The Sun. Find out how this simple binding could help you disseminate your poetry and prose.

All Day Book Launch

Free Verse will also be your first chance to handle and buy our latest publication:
Your Candle Accompanies The Sun, My Homage To Emily Dickinson
by Sophie Herxheimer
Come find us at our table.

30th September, 11am-6pm
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL

FREE entry




We are proud to announce a dazzling forthcoming book.

Artist and poet Sophie Herxheimer re-imagines Emily Dickinson’s self-imposed seclusion as an act of empowerment. In a series of collage poems, Sophie’s words and images re-present a paradoxical poet, fixed in space, yet ranging freely in imagination and innovation.

This is a homage to the human spirit, which can shine light into the world and in its complexity accompany the simple power of the Sun. Sophie’s collages are preceded by a selection of Emily’s poems. This unique binding interweaves two pamphlets, and talents, into one volume of dazzling poetry.

Your Candle Accompanies The Sun,
My Homage to Emily Dickinson
by Sophie Herxheimer

40pp full colour
HP Indigo
hand-stitched with a unique duo-pamphlet binding
11″ x  8″
ISBN 978-1-9997974-0-9

Pre-order notice £20 (+p&p)


31331368961_92e02dfa47_oOwning the means of production is one of those luxuries which can change your trajectory in life so much, it is a gamechanger. This especially applies if you’re an artist or writer at those fragile early stages where you are full of skills and promise and energy, but have nothing much to your name (yet). The Hogarth Press was exactly this kind of instrumental luxury in Virginia Woolf’s life. The effect its existence had on her creative and political output is still, I feel, rather underrated in current Woolf scholarship. The absolute freedom of speech the Hogarth Press allowed Woolf had an enormous impact on her ability to think and experiment. Not only was the mental space it provided essential, but, since there are so many handbound Hogarth Press books by Woolf in existence, as artefacts they also have an important story to tell. And of course, in addition to to Woolf’s own writings, there was the tremendous intellectual legacy of the Hogarth Press publications, for example, the first English translation of Sigmund Freud’s Complete Works, or the first UK edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, lynchpin of the Modernist Canon. Could the Woolfs have known that by putting down their £19 5s 6d on 23rd March 1917, and becoming proud owners of a small hand press, they would so profoundly sculpt the terrain of literary and intellectual modernism for years to come?

The Hogarth Press’ informal beginnings as a hobby-turned-business makes this seem unlikely. In fact, in many ways, the cheerfully enterprising spirit with which they plonked their money down for the first press was central to its future success. It is well known that the Woolfs first decided to print books by hand partly because they needed to find a therapeutic activity to absorb Virginia outside of her writing. The fact that the couple’s first flawed but charming hand-pressed publication, Two Stories (1918) quickly broke even, and then was followed by the unexpected success of Kew Gardens (1919) encouraged them to carry on in an ad hoc way. The expansion of their original vision meant they tackled more ambitious projects which gradually led to many Hogarth Press books being outsourced to commercial printers and binders. However, despite the increased production and greater distribution that outsourced production made possible, as well as the fact that the professionally made books were generally better printed, bound, and designed, the Woolfs continued to hand make books for sixteen years; producing at least one handset (if not also hand bound) book a year alongside many more outsourced titles.

There is no easy explanation as to why the hand made books abruptly stop in 1932. It is likely that it was not merely because, despite being as Leonard Woolf writes, ‘a mongrel in the business world’ (p.242) the Hogarth Press now had enough stability and notoriety to survive without the attention-grabbing and money-saving device of hand made editions, but also perhaps because that year marked a significant turning point in the Woolfs’ lives. 1932 was a difficult year for the Woolfs in many ways. Firstly their good friend Lytton Strachey died a slow courageous death from stomach cancer and, as Hermione Lee observed, it was a death that for Virginia ‘left the greatest silence.. a closing down of the past; it made her feel (as she always in anycase tended to feel) older, more mortal, part of an age that was past.’ (p.630) It also affected Leonard acutely as he felt that, coinciding with the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, ‘Lytton’s death marked a point of no return.’ (Lee, p. 630) Their grief was augmented in March when Dora Carrington, Strachey’s companion, shot herself in response to his death. Next, John Lehmann, the last of many bright young things whom the Woolfs had engaged as a manager/potential partner of the Press, walked out and they were left to struggle without a proper manager for several years. Lastly, in October of that year, Virginia’s many preoccupations suddenly came together into one new project. Thus she embarked wholeheartedly on what was to become The Years, a book which so consumed her energies it had an ill effect on her mental health. Perhaps this stressful series of events sapped some of the original energy and enthusiasm needed for a literal ‘hands-on’ approach. When John Lehmann returned in 1938, Virginia sold her half of the Press to him. Since Virginia was the stronger typesetter and binder out of the Woolfs, perhaps her lesser involvement also contributed to the discontinuation of handmade titles.

Whatever the reasons for in-house handmade production ceasing at the Hogarth Press, by this point the cultural space they had hoped the Press would provide had clearly become a stable reality. However, the same dynamic and independent spirit behind the handmade books was still very much at the heart of the Hogarth Press. What this paper deals with is the rubric of the handmade books themselves, since as objects they are neither fine enough to be included in the fine printing tradition nor conventional or numerous enough to fit in the publishing world proper. This inbetweeness characterises the cultural niche that the Hogarth Press opened up and occupied as was conceived and grown under the Woolfs’ direction. By understanding where the handmade books stood or stumbled in terms of being art objects, part of the book trade and as ideological statements, we will see how they are physical manifestations of the process by which the Woolfs freed themselves to write as they pleased. The handmade books, as objects made not by accomplished book artists but rather by prolific writers, were a curiously unusual form of luxury. Yet it was exactly this unconventional approach that made possible the necessary luxuries of the Hogarth Press.

Virginia Woolf described in detail the environment of luxury necessary for a creative writer. In both the seductively entertaining A Room of One’s Own and the polemical Three Guineas, Woolf makes a strong case for the material means that women need at their disposal if they are to write with uninhibited creative freedom. Throughout the texts she highlights luxuries which generations of men have taken for granted and purposely barred women from obtaining. These necessary luxuries start from material consumption but lead to intellectual space and nurture. As Woolf concludes after a depressingly plain dinner at a women’s college in Cambridge,

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes. We are all probably going to heaven, and Vandyck is, we hope, to meet us round the next corner – that is the dubious and qualifying state of mind that beef and prunes at the end of the day’s work breed between them.” (p.17)

This contrasts sharply with the deliciously opulent dinner Woolf describes a few pages earlier, given at a men’s college. It is significant that the glorious flight of her prose produced by that dinner, in which rapturous thoughts spiral closer and closer to more weighty considerations of the consequences of war, are cut off by a ‘plain gravy soup’. Likewise, the failed visit to the college library also shows how intellectual restrictions are embodied by physical disadvantage. The parable of Shakespeare’s sister demonstrates this, as an attempt to follow in her brother’s footsteps leads instead to scorn, indifference, the imposition of chastity and the denial of material wealth. Her rapid descent, ending in suicide and obscurity, paints a tragic picture of ‘a woman at strife against herself.’ Thus Woolf concludes, a woman ‘born with a gift of poetry in the sixteenth century, was an unhappy woman’. This was because, ‘[a]ll the conditions of her life, all her own instincts, were hostile to the state of mind which is needed to set free whatever is in the brain.’ (p. 46) By this it is clear that Woolf thinks nurturing the whole of life – that is, material comfort, spiritual freedom and as well as familial and societal support – is absolutely necessary for true creative endeavour.

The epitome of these examples is the actual room itself where a writer can set his or her own cultural agenda, a physical and psychic space where the only mental state which Woolf thinks is conducive to creating masterpieces can be cultivated. At this point perhaps it is interesting to remember how Woolf not only found the Stephens’ family home in Hyde Park Gate oppressive due to the heavy darkness of the Victorian décor, but also because, psychologically, she fell trapped and vulnerable within it. As Gill Lowe writes in her introduction to Woolf’s Hyde Park Gate News, ‘Remembering the house in 1897, Virginia calls it a “cage”. She likens herself, at fifteen, to “a nervous, gibbering monkey” sharing a perilous territory with her father, a “pacing dangerous, morose lion” who was “sulky and angry and injured” after the devastating deaths of Julia and Stella.’ Later, when rationing throughout the winter of 1941 means the Woolfs can only maintain a fire in the sitting room, Virginia notes in her diary that she is now unable to write, because Leonard is always present and she has no room of her own to work in (Lee p.752). Thus Virginia’s own life was a testimony to her belief that creative endeavour can only truly happen when supported by physical and financial security, expressed by the luxury of a personal workspace, where the privacy and freedom to work can be protected. As Woolf observes through her analysis of past female novelists, the minimum of material conditions –that five hundred a year stands for the power to contemplate, that a lock on the door means the power to think for oneself’ – are relative luxuries, inaccessible to most women of and before her time (Room p. 96). The ability to determine their own finances, and to escape to a workplace where the endless demands of the domestic realm (such as children or servants) could be locked out was usually available only to men. For most women, such autonomy and peace to follow their own interests was a luxury beyond reach. But only with these luxuries will women, like men, be in a position to follow Woolf’s formula for true expression;

There must be freedom and there must be peace… [The writer] must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the petals from a rose or watch the swans flat calmly down the river. (Room p. 94)

The luxurious languidity of this image is paradoxical. Woolf is showing that idleness is a necessary buffer that the mental space needed for creativity and free thought requires. She repeats this point in exhortations to her female audience; ‘By hook or by crook, I hope that you will possess yourselves of money enough to travel and to idle, to contemplate the future or the past of the world, to dream over books and loiter at street corners and let the line of thought dip deep into the stream.’ (p.98)

What that statement describes is an alternative economy that overturns a spendthrift morality which expounds thriftiness as a virtue and luxuries as unnecessary evils. This capitalist reversal is explored extensively in Mrs Dalloway. As Jennifer Wicke suggests in her analysis of Modernism and consumption,

Clarissa tentatively and tenuously reverses the disenchantment of the world characteristic of modernity by the generosity of her gendered acts of consumption, where consumption is reformulated as the nature of the gift. (p. 126)

This aura of generosity is expressed in Clarissa’s intense love of life, people and her gift in bringing all these elements together as ‘An offering for the sake of offering’ (Mrs Dalloway p. 123). The beautiful humanity of Clarissa’s many pleasures and gestural ‘sacrifice through spending’ (Wicke p. 129) contrasts with Miss Kilman’s material poverty which leads to a meanness of spirit that spoils her ability to enjoy anything at all;

It was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next them; then, when a lady and child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes, Miss Kilman did mind it, she had wanted that cake – the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that! (p. 131)

Financial poverty being equated to social barrenness in Mrs Dalloway is again highlighted by Ellie Henderson when ‘her panic fear, which arose from three hundred pounds income and her weaponless state (she could not earn a penny) [..] made her timid’ (p. 171). By showing these women suffering in situations where they should be enjoying themselves, Woolf puts forward the paradox that one must have enough of a financial reserve so that the act of consumption itself do not consume the consumer. Thus, Woolf’s alternative economic morality also denotes that material goods have their uses, but in order to enjoy them properly (i.e. as they are meant to be enjoyed) accumulation of them must reach a certain standard, that is, beyond what is absolutely necessary to possess them. In short, to live a full life, one must have both social and financial status which is beyond simple necessity – the very definition of luxury. Furthermore, although necessity dictates that life must start from materiality, ideally this will be a means to a nobler end, and not the end itself.

For Virginia Woolf, the luxury of independent intellectual freedom was created by the Hogarth Press. Its insulating effect gave her the courage to write experimentally. For example, it was not until the Woolfs had purchased their first hand press, issued notices of their first publication (Two Stories) and already started printing Leonard’s contribution, that Virginia started to write in a way that really broke away from conventional realism. Although she had already published two novels to some success through Gerald Duckworth’s publishing house, Duckworth & Co. were not really avant-garde publishers, and Virginia still harboured some ill-feeling against her half-brother. (She would later accuse him and his brother George of sexually abusing her as a child.) When we factor in, as Leonard Woolf observed in his autobiography, Virginia’s ‘hypersensitiveness to criticism’ (II, p. 223) – which paralysed her with horror at the completion of each novel until she had received a favourable reception from trusted critics – it is not difficult to see how the prospect of having to submit another work to her half-brother would not have been conducive to bold experimentation on her part.. Just as her Bloomsbury circle afforded freedom from the conventions of chastity, the dynamics of self-publishing as the Woolfs conceived them meant that the ‘inestimable price of editorial freedom’ was theirs. As J. H. Willis Jr. noted, though a fearful and anxious writer, the Hogarth Press was instrumental in freeing Woolf to become ‘what she wished as a writer without the real or imagined criticism of a publishers’ reader’, plus it also meant that ‘[she] need never feel an unsympathetic or repressive male editor looking over her shoulder’ (p. 400). Woolf herself wrote in her diary that she was, ‘the only woman in England free to write what I like.’ (Willis p.401) Furthermore, from 1929 to 1939 the Press contributed at least £1000 year to their existing income and since their expenditure had remained much the same in this period, they were able to use the money to make major lifestyle changes. Thus they were able to afford the luxury of being able to discard the model of Victorian domesticity by replacing the cook and other live-in servants with ‘things which make it easy “to do for yourself”’ and staff in off-site accommodation. Profits from the Press also contributed directly the purchase of their first car – a second-hand Singer in 1927, which added welcome speed to their pace of life (Leonard Woolf, Journey, p.99). It is interesting to note how the intellectual autonomy of the Woolfs’ was paralleled by an increased sense of freedom within their lifestyle in general.

It seems that the space that these necessary extras provide is essentially a springboard to better things beyond the present; a means to a nobler end, and not the end itself. But an actual Hogarth handmade is not luxurious. At least, not in the material sense. An examination of the British Library copy of The Waste Land reveals inadequate inking (i.e. too light to be comfortably legible in places), a badly cut cover label and the absolute minimum of stitching unevenly spaced – features evident in nearly all the handmade Hogarth books I examined. The Senate House copy has similar problems, plus ink blots throughout, with botched gluing sticking the title page to the leaf before it. Furthermore, page twenty-five is cut short at a diagonal and they appear to have run out of the marbled cover paper, which comes just short of the endpaper. As James Beechy observed, they are noticeably absent from most private press histories, perhaps due to the marked difference in production values, ‘Unlike many private presses founded in the slipstream of the pervasive Arts and Craft movement, The Hogarth Press was not concerned with editions de luxe’ (p. 15). This summary of Hogarth Press production is a polite understatement. The books themselves are almost precocious in their material inadequacy. If there is anything deluxe to be found in the press publications at all, it is that they were made by highly skilled writers, and it is this auratic intellectual association which give them their market value, not the quality or durability of the material product.

It seems that for the Hogarth books to be classed as deluxe, a different definition of luxury must be found. In The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land, Lawrence Rainey gives very interesting and detail-oriented revision of The Waste Land’s process of canonization, and in order to do so he depends upon an established avant-garde ‘tripartite publishing program’ of elite, deluxe and mass dissemination (pp. 77-106). This method of tiered publishing is so established today, we hardly notice it – for example everyone expects a paperback to follow a hardback, with a fine-bound limited edition sometimes commissioned for the discerning elite. Even indie record labels have adopted this form of publishing, with CDs and digital releases being followed by special edition vinyls and the suchlike. Rainey’s assumption that deluxe in book publishing means a limited edition made from valuable materials is well-founded considering the output of other contemporary presses. The examples he gives for the deluxe level of modernist tripartite publishing, such as William Morris’s Kelmscott Press or Yeats’ sisters’ Dun Emer (later Cuala) Press produced exquisite work. An examination of the Dun Emer Press’ Broadsides: A Collection of New Irish and English Songs (1937), a collection of ballads written by Yeats and printed by his sisters1, reveal rich, even inking, with the illustrations coloured by hand and musical notation on every ballad sheet adding to the sense of luxurious printing. Looking at a Kelmscott Press book, A Dream of John Ball (1892), a political treatise written by Morris himself, it is clear from the quality of the design work and execution why they were the benchmark that most later presses aspired to. The printing is, of course, impeccable, which is no mean feat when one considers the intricate woodblock illustrations and illuminated text, and that Morris’ bespoke inks caused much frustration to his printers due to their viscosity. The binding is similarly exquisite; the specially commissioned white vellum cover creating an almost translucent effect. Morris was second only to the Vatican in his demand for unleaded, flawless vellum. Needless to say, the materials used in both these projects are of the highest quality and both these specimens, kept in the same collection as most of the Hogarth Press books I examined2, do not appear to have aged at all. This is generally the norm among fine hand-crafted books. High quality paper and glues coupled with skilful application of tried and tested binding techniques usually ensures this. Thus these books are a marked contrast to the Hogarth handmade books whose naïve enthusiasm and unselfconscious experimentation in binding (often with disastrous results) share more with the energetic scribbles (and frequent ink blots) of the Stephen children’s Hyde Park Gate News than with the accomplished history of fine print and bookmakers.

Perhaps it was the Woolfs’ eagerness to utilise the work of friends that led to them printing things which should have been beyond their ability. Examples that spring to mind are not only The Waste Land, but also Hope Mirrlees’ Paris, both of which employ several languages, both roman and italic type, and enough specialised spacing to give even an expert typesetter trouble. The resultant texts (including these last two examples) often had to be hand corrected by Virginia after printing. Another good example is the first edition of 12 Original Woodcuts (1921) by Roger Fry which again is only secured with the minimum of stitching – only three holes. This is especially inadequate for this particular book because of the thickness of the paper used. Much thicker than usual Hogarth Press stock (perhaps in honour of it being ‘fine print’ book), they end up forming a ‘V’ shape at the spine because there are too many sheets to comfortably fit in just one fold and choir. This ‘V’ shape is also echoed by the page ends, which have not been trimmed after binding – a characteristic which is again apparent in most Hogarth handmades. With fewer sheets, five holes and a trimmed edge this would have been an acceptable method, but the best and most orthodox way to bind pages like these would have been to stitch them in smaller numbers, then sewn the subsequent three or four choirs together. This appears to have been too labour intensive for the Woolfs, who, as far as I know, never employed this practice. The result is a ‘fine art book’ which neither opens nor shuts properly. The inner pages are also folded against the grain direction of the paper, which decreases the lifespan of the book; as every professional bookbinder knows, the grain should run parallel to the spine. These technical errors are exacerbated by an amateurish appearance; the ‘marbled’ paper that Fry himself made by throwing paint in random splashes at ‘recycled’ wall paper was far too heavy and poor in quality for this purpose. As Donna Rhein points out, the traditional method of marbling is to suspend colour on water in order to float the design onto the paper. (p. 27). Fry’s unorthodox approach means that the cover, now brittle, is prone to cracking and breaking off in parts. One might give Fry and the Woolfs the benefit of the doubt, perhaps as amateur binders they simply did not possess the depth of experience to have foreseen what problems using inappropriate materials might create, but mere inexperience does not explain the lack of care in execution – for example the front label is not even cut squarely. These recurring technical imperfections, as well as many others too numerous to list here, are all regular features throughout Hogarth handmades and mean that they are quite justifiably left out of fine press histories.

The fact that Rainey neglects to physically describe a Hogarth Press edition of The Waste Land, is perhaps because of the frustrating incongruity between its aspirations and humble appearance. Simply put, the handmade Hogarth Press books, the category which is usually deemed ‘deluxe’, were so badly made that, even their mass produced counterparts tend to wear better than they. In the Lilly Library (Indiana University) copy that Rhein describes in The Handprinted Books of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press there is even an advertisement for past titles from the Hogarth Press printed in the back of the book (Rhein pp.23-24). Far from treating the production of this book as a limited deluxe English edition, the Woolfs appeared to have decided they would make the most of the publicity from what they thought would be a good seller. Rainey’s suggestion that Eliot’s commission of The Waste Land was an afterthought of Eliot’s to complete the tripartite system also seems less convincing if one considers that it was not necessarily limited, since the Woolfs were not averse to making more copies to cater for demand – even when the original materials had run out. In the case of The Waste Land, the suggestion that the Woolfs ran out of the original marbled paper is supported by the fact the British Library copy is covered in a completely different, textured, black paper.3 In fact, for a handmade book by amateur book-binders, the 460 copies of The Waste Land could be considered a large print run. The lateness of the publication may also be due to the fact it always took the Woolfs a long time to typeset anything, especially because in this case Virginia took extra care to ensure the poem was spaced well, which it was. Indeed, Eliot himself said that he preferred the appearance of this edition to its American counterpart. Having examined both editions, it is evident that the unconventional proportions of the Hogarth Press edition caters much better for the spacing of the lines than the Boni and Liveright edition which is not wide enough and breaks up the vast majority of its long lines. Thus the personal care and high priority with which the text is treated by the Woolfs is clear, despite the dubious quality of its total execution as a ‘deluxe’ book.

Perhaps what the Woolfs considered to be luxury can be illuminated by the suggestion ‘The Woolfs’ intentions were more cerebral.’ (Beechy, p.15) The ‘luxury’ was not in the materials but in being able to bring together individuals they hoped would have an affect on the existing consciousness. As Leonard Woolf noted, ‘We were interested primarily in the immaterial inside of a book, what the author had to say and how he said it; we had drifted into the business with the idea of publishing things which the commercial publisher could not or would not publish.’ (Lee p 234) In the light of this, one can see the marketing behind The Waste Land as part of a long-term project to centralize a certain culture of intellect. Rainey presents The Waste Land as well branded product successfully sold within an already established system of publishing. This may be true but, at least from the Hogarth Press side, the eagerness to publish was also due to intellectual ideals the Woolfs shared with Eliot, which tended towards a more amorphous kind of subjectivity. Just as T.S. Eliot was aware of mass consciousness being greater than the individual’s thoughts and advocated the ‘continual extinction of personality’ so that ‘the mind of Europe’ may surface (Eliot,’Tradition and the Individual Talent’, pp. 39-40), so did Virginia Woolf have a similar sense of social responsibility;

‘[T]he public and the private worlds are inseparably connected, the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other [..] we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that fire. A common interest unites us, it is one world, one life.

(Three Guineas, pp. 270-271)

Thus one can see that, as a group of already famous individuals, the material commodities were simply vessels used to distribute awareness of a fragmented yet interconnected world. Their belief in the power of private consciousness to affect mass culture shows how, ideologically, this was the most important result that the luxury of independent intellect could bring forth. As friends of Eliot at the time, and critics whom he trusted, it was the Woolfs’ pleasure to extend to him this same luxury of unadulterated exposure made possible by the Hogarth Press.

It seems strange, then, that scholars who have written insightful histories of the Hogarth Press tend to end with a rather rigid view of how the Woolfs achieved what they did. As J. H. Willis Jr. puts it, ‘[T]he twenty-four year journey of the Hogarth Press, complete and seen in its entirety, seems one that may never be repeated.’ (p.402) Similarly, S. P Rosenbaum’s reasoning that the Hogarth Press existed due to a combination of luck and the Woolfs’ realisation that the publishing conditions of their time created the need for an alternative press’ also leads him to the conclusion that ‘[t]he historical moment of the Hogarth Press is passed; even if one could find another Virginia Woolf, it would not be possible for many reasons to do anything similar now to what they did nearly eighty years ago.’ (p. 24) These departing words with which he sums up the enterprise seem to belie the inherent values of the press. It is precisely this kind of whimsical attempt to ossify history which is antithetical to the dynamic vision of the Hogarth Press. At this point, the image of Virginia Woolf berating the outdated ‘Edwardians’ for wilfully overlooking Mrs Brown as a person in herself springs to mind. By reducing her to a trope through which they can convey their premeditated patriarchal judgements, they have failed to appreciate Mrs Brown’s own agency as a conscious human being. In the same way, by sealing the Hogarth Press up as an unrepeatable one-off, these well-meaning historians smother its inspiring effect under a blanket of mystique. Ironically, it is the fact that the works of the Woolfs now command so much stature in cultural history which makes them vulnerable to this kind of treatment. Yet just as Mrs Brown’s presence being negated renders her voiceless, so does Willis and Rosenbaum’s final judgement on the Hogarth Press, as a bounded historical entity, ultimately silence Leonard Woolf’s own convictions. As he writes in his autobiography,

I am not so foolish as to believe that our advantages could not occur again. There is no reason to believe that it is impossible that tomorrow.. there may not be a circle of young, unknown, brilliant writers whom someone might begin to publish on a small scale as we did in 1917. And there is no reason why he should not succeed as we did… (Journey p.126)

A niche as culturally significant as the one that the Hogarth Press occupied is not simply spotted but made. The fact these historians do not realise this is perhaps due to a misplaced ‘sense of perspective.’ One might suggest that it is this inflexible kind of ‘sense of perspective’ that drives Septimus Smith out the window in Mrs Dalloway because it does not give enough credence to the possibility of consciousness being ‘a seeing that literally makes and re-makes life moment by moment’ (Wicke p. 120). That an anomaly like a market for badly made ‘deluxe’ books persisted reinforces the idea that the Hogarth Press’s self-published and self-made ethos permeated the consciousness of the people around them. Although the material success of the press was founded upon factors like good artistic choices, sensible accounting, and good timing, above all, it was holding steadfast to the self-knowledge that the only way they could guarantee the longevity of their enterprise on the terms they wanted it (i.e. complete artistic control despite being a part-time occupation) was to limit their operations, and not be self-conscious about the fact they would remain ‘a mongrel in the business world.’ The physical fruits of their labour, exemplified by the handmade books, express this hybridity in every hurried misplaced stitch on the edge of beautifully spaced text, every enthusiastically chosen avant-garde cover-paper which was as personally loved as it was impractical.

Other presses which followed in the footsteps of the Hogarth Press and had similar aims, such as Laura Riding’s Seizin Press, or Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press (both authors of Hogarth handmade books) simply lacked the ability to grow and become stable, sustainable cultural challengers, as the Hogarth Press did. At least part of the Hogarth Press’ longevity must also be due to the way they pursued this ‘leisure’ activity of a hobby-turned-business with the same all-consuming intensity with which they tackled the ‘proper’ work which occupied their mornings – that is, writing. The way the Woolfs kept the Press physically close to them, (literally living under the same roof until bombing during Second World War forced them to relocate), intertwining the functions of the Press with their daily lives and resisting opportunities to expand so they could maintain total control over all aspects of the business showed that their personal investment in it was much more than just money or time – although Leonard’s shrewd business sense played as much part in their success as Virginia’s talent. Thus although both the Seizin Press and the Hours Press produced beautiful books of some cultural weight, they folded in less than ten years, in contrast to the Hogarth Press which, even after Virginia’s death in 1941, had been in production for over two decades and was still a strong presence on the publishing scene.

The slow and humble beginnings of the Hogarth Press was an advantage when it came to cultivating a nursery for new talent because the support network was mature and the community real. By preferring to limit editorial meddling to the bare essentials the Woolfs also, to some degree, extended the luxurious freedom of uncensored creativity to others. In this way, the Hogarth Press increased the status of the Woolfs amongst their peers. And unlike other private press owners who mainly published their own work, these acts of generosity – like Clarissa Dalloway’s reversal of the spendthrift economy – stood them in good stead as it also extended their cultural potency far beyond their immediate circle.

Although the cultural worth of the Hogarth Press could easily be measured by the impressive number of Noble prizewinners they produced, perhaps the most remarkable consequence was how it allowed Virginia Woolf, as a woman, to create without restraint, be published and read. Thus she influenced society’s values on her own terms – that is, with independent intellectual thought, without having to compromise any of her ideals. That the press could not have succeeded as it did without her, nor could she have written as she did without it, shows that Woolf fulfilled her own prophecies on what a woman needs to create. Here, we return to the territory of Shakespeare’s sister. As a woman wanting to have a real voice in society, financial independence coupled with real cultural influence was not actually a luxury but a necessity only available to the very few. The fact the Virginia Woolf achieved this and now attracts ever increasing scholarship is a testament to the successful in-roads she made by writing a better status for women into being. As Peter Alexander writes,

[S]he gave women a voice at a time when too few good writers spoke for them. To compare her with the other outstanding women writing in English of her period – among them the Modernists Gertrude Stein, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, H. D. Bryher, Djuna Barnes, Harriet Monroe, and such non-Modernists as Violet Hunt and May Sinclair – is to recognise that she was and remains a centrally important figure.” (p. 211)

That just under thirty years ago, Hermione Lee (who has since become the go-to academic on Woolf) classed her only ‘in the second rank of twentieth-century novelists’ (Lee, 1977, p.14) shows how the dynamic force of Woolf’s writing has continued to affect our consciousness. In the many decades following her death, the feminist legacy which Woolf worked on under the shelter of the Hogarth Press continues to grow, albeit not always in a fashion she would have approved of. However, despite having to deflect no small amount of scorn along the way, her stature now as a central figure within the modernist canon shows how well she used the uniquely privileged position she made for herself.

The significant move Virginia Woolf makes from a feminised object, vulnerable to the whims of a male-dominated publishing culture, to a potent cultural subject in her own right, was due to the empowerment and influence afforded her by press. As Willis puts it,

From the initial frustrations and delights of hand printing [..] to the more complex and time-consuming activities of publishing [..] the Hogarth Press provided Virginia Woolf with physical, emotional, and mental stimulation that must have been as valuable to her as a writer as it was sometimes exhausting to her physically. In the same way that involvement in the activities of the Abbey Theatre did for W. B. Yeats, or Faber and Faber for T.S. Eliot, the press objectified Virginia Woolf’s world, allowing her to keep one hand on the vigorous pulse of daily life in the basement rooms of Tavistock Square. (p.400)

Having created the intellectual space to write and be taken seriously, surrounded by peers and aspiring writers in a place she had real cultural clout, dealing with ideas such as reconfiguring consumption or rewriting women through work like Mrs Dalloway or ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ – it appears that, with the community of writers, artists, staff and customers they gathered around them, the ‘society of outsiders’ which Woolf called for in Three Guineas was already assembled within her lifetime. The associated luxuries of the press were entirely necessary in creating this, at least in Virginia Woolf’s eyes. As she wrote in her diary (27 October 1930) when considering the possibility of selling the press,

‘What’s money if you sell freedom?’


Ping Henningham is Co-Director of Henningham Family Press with her husband, David Henningham. She studied BA Art History at UCL and MA Modernist English Literature at Queen Mary University of London. This essay was originally written as part of her MA, and has been published as a blog in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Leonard and Virginia Woolf starting the Hogarth Press.


To see photos of some of the books I examined for this essay, you can now just click onto the British Library blog.

1 Issued as single ‘ballad’ sheets but later collated and bound for collectors.

2 This is the Sterling Collection which is now kept by Senate House Library, University of London.

3 As Rhein notes(p.23), it was quite typical of the Woolfs to underestimate the amount of materials needed and have to buy in more, often completely different papers to complete the run. As with many Hogarth Press handmades, there are also several variations on the front cover label for The Waste Land, some with underlinings, some with asterisks and some with no other embellishments.

Alexander, Peter, Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership, (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992)
Anscombe, Isabelle, Omega and After: Bloomsbury and the Decorative Arts, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1981)
Beechy, James, The Bloomsbury Artists: Prints and Bookdesign, Cat. by Tony Bradshaw, (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1999)
Collin, Judith, The Omega Workshops, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1983)
Eliot, T.S., ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. by Frank Kermode (London: Faber, 1975)
Lee, Hermione, Virginia Woolf, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996)
– The Novels of Virginia Woolf, (London: Methuen, 1977)
Rainey, Lawrence, ‘The Price of Modernism: Publishing The Waste Land ‘, Institutions of Modernism, (London: Yale University Press, 1998)
Rhein, Donna, The Handprinted Books of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press 1917-1932, Studies in Modern Literature No. 52 (Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985)
Rosenbaum, S.P., Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, (Austin, Texas: The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 1995)
Wicke, Jennifer, ‘Coterie Consumption: Bloomsbury, Keynes and Modernism as Marketing’, Marketing Modernisms: Self Promotion, Canonization, Re-reading, ed. By Kevin Dittmer & Stephen Watt, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1999)
Willis Jr., J. H., Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers: The Hogarth Press 1917-1941, (Charlottesville, Virginia: University Press of Virginia, 1992)
Woolf, Leonard, An Autobiography, II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980)
– The Journey not the Arrival Matters: An Autobiography of the years 1939-1969, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1973)
Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own/Three Guineas, (London: Penguin, 1993)
– Mrs Dalloway, (London: Penguin, 1996)
Woolf, Virginia, Vanessa Bell with Thoby Stephen, Hyde Park Gate News: The Stephen Family Newspaper, ed. by Gill Lowe, (London: Hesperus Press Ltd, 2005)
Woolmer, J. Howard, A Checklist of the Hogarth Press 1917-1946, (London: The Hogarth Press, 1976)