Victor Gollancz

Practically all of the notable interwar people covered by this blog to date have been artists, performers and people whose professions otherwise put them firmly in the limelight. This post covers someone whose job was by definition more ‘back office’, although he was quite adept at publicity: publisher and activist Victor Gollancz.

Anyone with only a passing interest in British interwar literature is sure to come across Gollancz name sooner rather than later. Born in London to Jewish parents in 1893, Oxford-educated Gollancz initially worked as a schoolteacher. After the First World War he worked for a publishing house before setting up his own company, which carried his name, in 1927.

Gollancz connections in the publishing world and his explicit left-wing political stance quickly ensured that he signed a number of high-profile authors, including George Orwell (until around 1937); Daphne du Maurier, Vera Brittain, and Ford Madox Ford. He was also very active in the publishing of crime fiction. Dorothy L. Sayers had initially been signed by the publishing house for which Gollancz worked until 1927. From Strong Poison (1930) onwards, she published all her Wimsey novels with Gollancz.

Anthony Berkeley, who generally published his works with Collins, went to Gollancz for the first two books he wrote under the pseudonym Francis Iles, Malice Aforethought (1931) and Before the Fact (1932). It made sense for Berkeley to pick a different publisher for his Francis Iles venture, as he intended to keep his real identity firmly hidden. Under his real name, Berkeley was not associated with Gollancz. According to crime fiction historian Martin Edwards the venture was also beneficial for Gollancz, who was able to use his marketing nous to increase sales when Before the Fact was published: ‘Gollancz seized his chance with gusto. ‘Who is Iles?’ demanded the dust jacket, which listed twenty candidates put forward in ‘the public prints.’’[1]

Victor Gollancz did not just publish crime fiction: he also drew inspiration from the Collins Crime Club, a book club set up in 1930, to co-found the Left Book Club in 1936.[2] Subscribers to the club were sent one book a month, mostly on political topics. At this point, and until 1939, Gollancz was closely aligned with the Communist Party, which influenced the monthly book choices: many were written by members of the Communist Party and the Party vetted the book choices in the early days of the club.

The Club was successful and influential, gaining 40,000 members within its first year. There was also overlap between the club and Gollancz activities in crime fiction publishing: in 1937 the club picked two books written by G.D.H. Cole (one of which co-authored by his wife M.I. Cole). The Coles had been members of the Detection Club of crime fiction writers since its foundation in 1930 and co-wrote detective fiction as well as works of political non-fiction.

Victor Gollancz was also politically active outside of the Left Book Club. In 1934, after the controversial British Union of Fascists rally at Kensington Olympia, during which many members of the public were attacked and beaten up by BUF members, Gollancz published the pamphlet Fascists at Olympia: A record of eye-witnesses and victims. As the title implies, this was a collection of statements of people who had been present in the Hall, which explicitly accused the BUF of unfounded and severe violence. This pamphlet, which was distributed free of charge to raise awareness of the BUFs tactics, was sufficiently influential to spur the BUF to publish their own pamphlet in return, contracting the claims of violence.

During the Second World War, Gollancz was a prominent voice drawing attention to the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. After the war, he campaigned for humanitarian treatment for German citizens, insisting that they were not responsible for Nazi atrocities. In the 1950s, Gollancz became a prominent campaigner for the abolition of capital punishment in Britain after the controversial execution of Ruth Ellis, a woman who had killed her abusive partner and the last woman to be hanged in Britain. [3] Gollancz lived to see the death penalty suspended in 1965, a legal move which effectively ended capital punishment in Britain although it was not officially abolished until 1969, two years after Gollancz’ death.

Victor Gollancz was an influential figure in interwar Britain, both through his political activities and as a publisher of some of the most successful and popular crime fiction authors of the period. The publishing house bearing his name lives on as an imprint of Orion Publishing Group.

[1] Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (London: Collins Crime Club, 2015), p. 136

[2] Ibid., p. 310

[3] Lizzie Seal, Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, Justice, Memory (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 24