Cover: To Exercise Our Talents in HARDCOVER

Harvard Historical Studies 150

To Exercise Our Talents

The Democratization of Writing in Britain

Product Details


$31.50 • £27.95 • €28.95

ISBN 9780674021778

Publication Date: 04/15/2006


400 pages

5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches

Harvard Historical Studies


Add to Cart

Media Requests:

Related Subjects

In this splendidly researched monograph, Christopher Hilliard sets out to rescue forgotten working and lower-middle-class writers from historical neglect… He excavates a seam in British culture ignored by previous historians; constructs a nuanced argument buttressed by an impressive array of evidence gleaned from archives on two continents; and brings to life individuals whose often failed literary efforts illuminate a frame of mind moving in its dedication to a difficult craft.—D. L. LeMahieu, Twentieth Century British History

Christopher Hilliard—who teaches modern European history at the University of Sydney—has put together a veritable treasure trove of information about amateur and aspiring authors in the 20th century and the ways in which they sought encouragement, solidarity, mutual benefit, money and fame. Opening up the book is like unlocking a trunk—or perhaps a cardboard suitcase—of broken dreams. Hilliard’s extraordinary riches are plundered from numerous sources.—Ian Sansom, The Guardian

Drawing on numerous previously unexamined local archives, Hilliard evocatively captures a popular enthusiasm for writing that will be of great interest to historians of leisure, consumerism, literature, and journalism, as well as class relations and popular culture more generally… Hilliard has written an important and gripping book that substantially revises our understanding of popular intellectual life in twentieth-century Britain.—Mark Hampton, H-net Book Review

[Hilliard’s] analysis is balanced and intelligently complicated… Hilliard’s book represents a triumph of archival research. Unpublished proletarian novelists and ephemeral writers’ schools leave behind few records, but Hilliard has found enough material to reconstruct a subculture most scholars scarcely knew existed… Hilliard excavates unusual sources, such as the magazines produced by British prisoners-of-war, which suggest that German and Japanese camp commandants were either far more tolerant or far less attentive than we have generally assumed. That kind of offbeat research makes To Exercise Our Talents an unexpectedly intriguing tour through the suburbs of literature. Never sneering or glamorizing, Christopher Hilliard respects workaday authors and understands that, by their own lights, they did achieve something worth remembering. Their writing may have been dreadful, but their story is fascinating.—Jonathan Rose, Times Literary Supplement

Christopher Hilliard offers a measured, sober account of attempts to democratize the practice of creative writing in the twentieth century, concentrating on the years between the twenties and the seventies. Meticulously researched, his book discusses countless ordinary novelists, poets, and dramatists from beyond the literary mainstream. These range from the now relatively well-known (such as Sid Chaplin and Jack Common) to the serially unpublished, to obscure and sometime unknown hands such as those that created prison-camp ephemera during the Second World War.—Alf Louvre, Modern Language Review

Anecdotal color and a knack for letting history speak with spirit are the signature graces of Hilliard’s debut work. A lecturer at the University of Sydney, Hilliard has produced a ‘literary history from below’ that focuses on three social categories—the working class, the lower middle class, and those of the middle class without higher education—and their contributions to British letters, the ‘culture industry’ and 20th-century mass society.Publishers Weekly

This strikingly original book is a tour de force. Its appeals are many: the surprising evidence Christopher Hilliard turns up in the most unlikely places; the easy way in which he moves from larger themes to specific examples; a great breadth of knowledge and sensibility. A profoundly democratic work, it shows how ordinary people learned about literature and then, armed with that knowledge, worked out what was on their minds.—Ross McKibbin, author of Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951

Recent News

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. A statement from HUP »

From Our Blog

Jacket: Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples since 1500, by Peter Wilson, from Harvard University Press

A Lesson in German Military History with Peter Wilson

In his landmark book Iron and Blood: A Military History of the German-Speaking Peoples since 1500, acclaimed historian Peter H. Wilson offers a masterful reappraisal of German militarism and warfighting over the last five centuries, leading to the rise of Prussia and the world wars. Below, Wilson answers our questions about this complex history,