Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is not a biography. It is exactly what it says in the subtitle on the cover ‘The working life of Herbert Allingham’. I read it because I’m a fan of his daughter, the crime writer Margery Allingham, and I was fascinated to learn about her family background. I hadn’t known that her father (in fact her whole family) worked in the popular literature industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Allingham was born into it.
Julia Jones (no relation!) inherited the Allingham family archive when Herbert’s youngest daughter, Joyce, died, and Julia has also written a biography of Margery - soon to be released as an e-book. The archive has proved to be a wonderful resource - a unique collection of documents giving us a window onto the world of ephemeral popular literature - the soap operas of our great grandparents’ generations.
Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is a fascinating account of the growth, flowering and diminishing of mass-market literary culture - the penny and half-penny illustrated weekly papers that my grandmother used to refer to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but read all the same. Most of the titles have now vanished, but Tit-Bits was still around when I was a child and my mother was still reading Women’s Weekly and My Weekly (in their modern transformations) when she died a few years ago.
This book tells a big part of the social history of Britain - how the weekly papers with their serials and stories both reflected and influenced a sector of society. They often had titles such as ‘A Woman Scorned’, or ‘A Mother Cast Out’, and plots that resemble silent movie classics like ‘The Perils of Pauline’. Like modern day soap operas, they were unashamedly formulaic with every episode ending on a cliff-hanger. Rags to Riches stories were very popular. Uneducated boys from homes of unimaginable poverty, with dead-end jobs in factories, women who spent their lives in household drudgery, read them or had them read to them. The periodicals were even sent to the front during the first world war to brighten the lives of the ‘Tommys’.
Julia Jones clearly describes how changing social conditions - divorce, feminism, education etc, changed the content that Herbert Allingham scribbled every week for 50 years until he died. He was as much a factory or industrial worker as any of those who bought the papers. There are no holidays when you have three children to feed and educate and you’re paid by the yard. There was no welfare state.
Although Herbert’s work was published in almost all the periodicals throughout this time, his name rarely appeared - the authors of serial fiction were usually anonymous. This seems rather cruel. Cruel too that Allingham, unlike his daughter, never had the chance to see his fiction between the covers of a book.
His personal life seems to have been sometimes quite bleak - his wife Em is described as a ‘cough drop’ - a bit of an acquired taste. She appears neurotic and wilful and her daughter Margery obviously had a difficult relationship with her. But Em too, was often part of the Fiction Factory - helping Allingham write some of his serials, writing stories of her own. A strange, possibly unrequited, love affair with a doctor resulted in a complete breakdown. Allingham wrote through it all, producing his 10,000 words a week whatever calamity was taking place at home.
So, at least I now know the context that framed Margery Allingham’s development as a writer. She described herself once as her ‘father’s apprentice’. He helped her all he could, though he didn’t always understand her different gifts.
This is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated with frames from the ‘penny papers’ and it will please those with an academic interest in the history of popular culture as well as the casual reader interested in social history and biography.