Monday, 7 January 2019

#35: Malachi Whitaker

Valerie Waterhouse presenting Whitaker's 'The Journey Home and Other Stories' for Persephone Books at Ilkley Literature Festival in October 2017. Photo: Isabel Negri.

Ever heard of the writer Malachi Whitaker? No, I hadn’t either until I spoke to writer and journalist Valerie Waterhouse, who is writing a biography of this neglected author (actually a woman), as part of an ongoing rediscovery of working-class writers from the North of England. Valerie will be presenting Malachi and her work at London’s Persephone Books on 6 February, and tells us a bit more here.

Please tell us a bit about Malachi Whitaker.

Born 'Marjorie Olive Taylor' in 1895 in Bradford, West Yorkshire, Malachi Whitaker was the eighth of eleven children of a bookbinder. She attended Belle Vue Girls,  a local board school, which she left at the age of 13 to work for her father. She was largely self-taught and published her first story in 1927 at the age of 31. Between 1929 and 1939 she went on to publish four collections of short stories, a co-written spoof comic novel and a memoir, mostly with Jonathan Cape. There was a sputtering of new stories and two 'best of' selections in the 1940s -- and then: no more. She died in Skipton, West Yorkshire, in 1976, pretty much forgotten by the literary world.

You’re writing a biography of Malachi Whitaker. Why do you think her life story matters?

In October 2017, Persephone Books brought out The Journey Home and Other Stories, the first collection of  Malachi Whitaker's work for over 30 years, with a foreword by Philip Hensher and an afterword by myself.

Malachi matters because she is one of few literary authors writing about working class northern English people from eye level in the 1920s-40s, which makes her of immense social relevance. She is also a very fine writer, whose work, like that of many working class and émigré artists and writers, has been overlooked in favour of the dominant literary narrative of the time, centring around London's Bloomsbury. Working on this project, I have come to realise how dominant narratives of our literary and historic past so often prop up power structures: surely it is no coincidence that the Bloomsbury personalities were mostly upper middle class or aristocratic with their own personal sources of wealth and connections with power?

There is now a groundswell of research into alternative literary narratives -- from people of different social, ethnic, gender and sexual backgrounds -- which will hopefully provide both a foundation and historical perspective for diverse voices writing in our own age. I am not the only person researching Malachi: Susie Panesar, at Bristol University, is well into her Malachi-related PhD, and other contemporary figures are also being looked at seriously for the first time.

Can you say a bit about Northern British writers? Do you think they are relatively unknown? How might coming from Northern Britain influence their work?

Like other non-dominant groups, northern English (and Welsh and Scottish) writers do tend to get neglected, because they are not necessarily writing about subjects that fit the dominant  narrative, and because the publishing power base  is, and has always been, centred on London within the UK.

Despite this, Yorkshire, where both Malachi and I are from, has a strong literary, artistic and musical tradition producing internationally-known names during the 1920s and 1930s, including Frederick Delius, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and JB Priestley, all born in the Leeds and Bradford areas. Without exception all moved away from Yorkshire to establish their reputations -- whereas Malachi lived in Yorkshire for most of her life.

In general, Northern literary work tends to display great attachment to place, mixing a challenging, sometimes hostile and occasionally beautiful industrial landscape with wild and untamed countryside. Dry, northern humour is often used to leaven seriousness, or simply to reflect the way people in the north interact -- and this is very true both of Malachi and her Hull-born contemporary, Winifred Holtby. The literary shadows of the three Bronte sisters, born in and around Bradford, hover over all northern writers, including Malachi, adding tropes such as remote moorland farmsteads and after-death haunting, to some of the work. Finally, like many northerners, Malachi has a tendency to call a spade a spade.  This directness, or bluntness, may be one reason why she couldn’t do with extraneous words, leading to her unaffected simplicity of style.

What will you be talking about at the event at Persephone Books on February 6?

After a quick whizz though Malachi’s life, I’ll be talking about connections with some of Persephone’s other northern writers: Winifred Holtby, Lettice Cooper and Marghanita Laski (born in Manchester). Malachi may not have known all of them personally, but they often wrote for the same magazines, including John O’ London’s Weekly, or reviewed each other’s work. I’ll also talk about Malachi’s London life:  she had a bolt hole opposite the British Museum and hung out with a crowd of working class-origin provincial, regional and émigré writers and artists at Charles Lahr’s Progressive Bookshop, a few minutes’ walk from Persephone Books. This provided a radical alternative to Bloomsbury.

I look forward to bringing Malachi back to her London stamping ground after an absence of seventy or eighty years!

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