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Sylvia Pankhurst’s Germinal: Work and Play, Organisation and the Organic

1. Pankhurst as a literary editor

Sylvia Pankhurst is probably best remembered as one of the major socialist and feminist campaigners of the first four decades of the twentieth century. In feminist history until relatively recently she has been seen as a more marginal figure than her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel. Their leadership is seen as having been more effective in helping to deliver the vote for women and not snagged by the different political perspective that Sylvia’s enduring socialism afforded. In labour history, there is probably more variance in the assessment of her achievements, but she is still seen at times as naïve, untheoretical, and too individualistic a figure to be taken entirely seriously in her political work. These are attributes which appear to have a rather sexist aspect to them.

Mary Davis’s recovery of Pankhurst in her biography Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (1999) challenged the way that Pankhurst had fallen through the gaps between labour and feminist history although even in the Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines all “the Pankhursts” continue to be treated as if they held the same views: far from it.[1][2]

However, in all the accounts I have read – feminist or socialist history or a synthesis of the two - very little attention is paid to Pankhurst’s literary activity as an editor of political newspapers which had significant literary content. And only very rarely, and almost always in passing, is it mentioned that Pankhurst was an editor a little magazine devoted to literature (curiously, this hardly occurs in biographical accounts, either, although I’d say a biographical reading of some of the texts would be compelling). This was the magazine Germinal which had two issues, July 1923 and an undated issue in 1924. The beady-eyed among you may recognise that I drew attention to this in a paper on Germinal at the Feminist / Anti-Feminist Workshop at the Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies in 2003. I would also refer you to Morag Shiach’s 2004 discussion of Pankhurst’s work as a campaigning journalist and artist, in which Shiach briefly cites Germinal as a place where Pankhurst’s “interest in the interrelations between political identities and imaginative representations found fuller expression”. [3] It’s a brief citation but Shiach recognises the importance of Germinal as a place where the overlaps between political and artistic work are explored.

In this paper I would like therefore to further signpost the interest of the literary editorial work Sylvia Pankhurst carried out, especially through her little magazine Germinal which appeared in the early 1920s. I’d like to suggest that political, literary and artistic aspects are not very easy to disentangle in her work and probably should be considered in the round.

Pankhurst’s activity in contemporary literature in the first half of the 1920s, while complex political events twisted and unravelled around her, is probably regarded by various political assessors of this period in Pankhurst’s life as a falling away, a diversion or a confusion. [cite] It is seen as a mark of a quiescence before a re-emergence of her political campaigning (against fascism) in the 1930s. This view is a familiar raising of an opposition between politics and artistic engagement, as if they were quite separate things and best kept separate. There is also a suggestion that one was more important than the other – here, that political engagement was the priority rather than the distractions of literature.

If Pankhurst were able to read such accounts I can imagine her uttering a weary sigh, and remembering, years before Germinal, the frightened and confused anxiety of the Vorticists in the face of the Suffragettes’ attacks on paintings. Famously in the first number of Blast (1914) Wyndham Lewis, for all his futurist bravado, has clearly and queasily reached his limits of comfort when he advises Suffragettes to “stick to what you understand,” warning that they might “DESTROY A GOOD PICTURE BY ACCIDENT” (which is to say, as if they didn’t know what they were doing). “IF YOU DESTROY A GREAT WORK OF ART,” he informs them, “you are destroying a greater soul than if you annihilated a whole district of London. LEAVE ART ALONE DEAR COMRADES.”[4]

As Alex Houen argues in Terrorism and Modern Literature, Lewis saw the Suffragettes as a threat not just literally to works of art but, more fundamentally, to the male prerogative to make and judge art. Although Sylvia Pankhurst was privately opposed to the physical attacks on paintings and to the Suffragette arsonist campaign (and in ideal circumstances, who wouldn’t be), it’s interesting to note in passing that the fight for authority in both politics and aesthetics is played out at the symbolic level of title between Pankhurst’s publication of the day and Lewis’s. In this very specific sense Pankhurst’s The Women’s Dreadnought (first appearing in March 1914) and BLAST (tardily appearing in June 1914) are competitors. Of course I don’t mean in market terms by size or by nature – BLAST wouldn’t have stood a chance on those terms. The Dreadnought had a readership of tens of thousands, especially working class women, and was a genuine disseminator of news that other newspapers were not able to cover, while BLAST was a high art and literary object with little topicality and a fraction of the audience. In fact if Dora Marsden’s The Freewoman, which began in late 1911 to collapse in October 1912, hadn’t already been called a “unique forum for suffragists, feminists, anarchists, and socialists”[5] The Women’s Dreadnought could be described in that way. Rather, as Lewis’s quoted reproval suggests, BLAST and Dreadnought were in a sense fighting in news-conscious aesthetic space where one version of English futurism, the explosion of BLAST, was pitched against another version of English futurism, the warship of the Dreadnought (the title refers to the class of warship, initiated in 1906, whose array of large guns and turbine propulsion gave the British navy a leading edge and the return of a fearful reputation).[6]

Women’s Dreadnought became The Worker’s Dreadnought Pankhurst showed in its first issue, of 1917, that mixing politics with the arts rather than trying to police aesthetics could have direct political results: The Dreadnought was the first to publish officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon’s “Statement” asserting that British were now pursuing a “war of aggression and conquest.”[7] There was real risk involved in such action and, although, Sassoon was classed as mentally ill by the military authorities to isolate and undermine him, the offices of The Dreadnought suffered a police raid on the back of it.[8]

There is much more to be said about the intersection of literature and politics in the decade-long history of The Dreadnought but suffice to say here that literary elements to this newspaper shouldn’t be written off as something incidental to Pankhurst’s editorial practice nor her political perspective and on that basis Germinal shouldn’t really come as a surprise. In the early 1920s it might be fairer to say that if Pankhurst was confused – if she was confused - so was the world around her. After all in 1920 she had found herself imprisoned for five months for sedition under the Defence of the Realm Act because of work she had published in The Workers Dreadnought. Soon after leaving prison, in 1921, the new Communist Party of Great Britain (formed in part from a grouping she had helped bring about) censured her for not allowing the Party to take over the Dreadnought and then banned all their members from reading it. Who’s confused now?

2. Germinal in brief

So what was Germinal? It was a slender literary magazine that, although describing itself as a monthly, appeared once in July 1923 and once on an unnamed date in 1924. It was edited anonymously but in fact by Pankhurst, with initialled editorials by her. The advert that appeared in at least five issues of the Dreadnought emphasised its working class audience, its literary nature, and that it was for leisure: “Just the right magazine for all workers. Good Stories [,] Pictures [,] Poetry and Reviews[.] Take a copy on your Holiday! 32 pages – Sixpence.”  Because of the advertising in this way it is likely that it was seen, or intended to be seen, as a kind of literary supplement to the Dreadnought.

Albeit from a small base, contents-wise it was an extremely international magazine, probably one of the most international literary magazines there have been in the UK (I can think only of Janko Lavrin and Edwin Muir’s The European Quarterly (1934-1935), Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse (1962-67) and Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort’s Modern Poetry in Translation (1966-) as having that sort of density of foreign literature). I’m quite interested in there being empirical measures for assessing the character of magazines (as well as qualitative, prosey, ones, of course). One empirical measure might be a “ratio of internationalism”.

This would actually be a family of ratios, depending on whether you took, for example, page extent of an identified author’s work, the number of individual works, or, say, the number of individual authors. You might then divide the non-UK element by the UK element (of course you could do this with a finer granularity so you could look at, say, non-England content and so on, helping you gauge the different ‘home nations’ content etc, for example). Clearly there are all kinds of theoretical and practical problems with such a measure which I am sure you’ll see straight away, but I’m determined all the same to persevere. In Germinal’s case I tried this out, looking at the individual authors count (c.8 different foreign authors, c.13 different UK authors, so an authors internationality ratio of 0.6) and a page extent ratio of text contributions (c.35 pages given over to non-UK texts and about 16 pages given over to UK texts, so a page internationality ratio of 2.2).

Ideally you’d want to compare this with other magazines of the day but I thought I’d use Germinal as a prophet for our own times. To put this in contemporary perspective for us internationalist sophisticates here today, a relatively recent issue of Poetry Review (the Dreams of Elsewhere issue of Autumn 2007, designed specifically to be an internationalist issue) has an individual authors ratio lower than Germinal’s two-issue run (about 11 non-UK authors to 23 UK authors, c.0.5 by my reckoning) and a much much lower page extent ratio (about 30 non-UK pages to about 49 Uk pages so a ratio 0.6) so UK work again dominant. For both cases I’ve stripped out the reviewing pages – if I’d included them Poetry Review would have come out I think even worse.[9] Pankhurst’s magazine, although its UK poetry is dated even for the time (a subject I’ll come back to), was publishing relatively recent foreign literature in translation. Aha you say, but Poetry Review issued a separate contemporary Dutch poets supplement with that issue, with nine Dutch poets in it. Yes, you’re right – that does tip the balance for the author ratio, bringing it up to c.0.9 for the special occasion compared to Germinal’s 0.5, but on page internationality this still only brings up to c.2.0, failing to match Germinal’s 2.2. 

Well, I don’t want to labour this too much – if you were to adopt such apparently empirical measures you’d need to be careful about thresholds, for example – Germinal actually didn’t have that many pages in its entirety and you might want to look at categories of size and genre classifications when you do comparative work. That said, Germinal, by the way, made no editorial claims to be international yet here are translations of Maxim Gorky, Alexander Blok, Anna Akmatova (one of the earliest translations), Nicholas Scumilev and  Ernst Toller (a sixteen page play), stories in English from New York, India and South Africa (a short story by L. A. Motler about a friendship between a white boy and a black boy). There are also striking wood-cut portraits of Rabindranath Tagore and of George Bernard Shaw by L-R Pisarro who also supplies the cover art. Pisarro was the French émigré  Ludovic-Rodo Pisarro (b.1878), son of the more famous Camille. He had been a very young contributor to the 1894 anarchist journal Le Pere Peinard, as well as to the first Fauve exhibition in 1905.

3. Some meanings of Germinal

I now want to dwell a bit on the name and look of Germinal because I think together they capture something of the overlap between literary, artistic, and political concerns that Morag Shiach hinted at in her reference to the magazine’s interplay “between political identities and imaginative representations”. I also think there is something to be said about Germinal as very self-consciously in a tradition of the little magazine. Although I’ve just said internationalism isn’t explicit editorially, there is a utopian element to the magazine which I see as one idealistic view of internationalism.

Firstly, that name. Germinal is suffused with artistic, literary and political meaning. Artistic because it echoes the name of that which is famously regarded as the first classic little magazine, The Germ, the magazine of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Pankhurst’s artistic education and family background meant that she had been brought up in a household and education system which regarded the Pre-Raphaelites and its Arts and Crafts legacy with admiration. [cite] There’s a literary meaning within Germinal, because it is of course the name of Zola’s novel of industrial unrest in the French mines, a novel which Pankhurst  was fully aware of since she had serialised it in translation in the Workers’ Dreadnought [10]. Incidentally this appears to have been a significant popularising act: until it was taken up by Dent’s Everyman’s Library in 1933, only a privately published limited edition of the translation, published in 1895, had been available.  As you can imagine, Germinal the novel is not merely a literary document but a political one. In France the title has an added political echo because it was the name, under the French Revolution, of one of the newly organised months, roughly corresponding to March.

The little magazine’s title, which I think bears all these meanings and holds them in play, also has a face-value or ‘pure’ meaning: it refers to the capacity of a seed to grow. L-R Pisarro’s striking cover for the first issue is of an androgynous figure sowing seeds in a ploughed field. The style is medievalesque, as it were, a woodcut carrying a further pre-Raphaelite (and Arts & Crafts) echo. Pankhurst continues this pastoral focus within the magazine, too:  an advert within the magazine for the magazine itself refers punningly to “a new field being opened up”. The editorial in the first issue repeatedly uses the pastoral imagery of flowering, fruiting and harvest to assert mutual support across humanity and the development of the individual within such a commonwealth. With an anachronistic backglance today’s reader might almost see it as an early hippy text: “All things we have are but ours for the using; we use them without stint; but we waste them not; for these fruits of the harvest, these treasures of earth and sea, are wrought and gathered and grown by the service of comrades, who render their service with love, the love that we also bear them; countless unknown comrades; numberless, skilful, industrious brains and hands that toil with us.” [unnumbered page; inside cover of Voll. 1 no. 1]

The editorial in the second issue also uses imagery of sensual new growth, adopting a Whitmanesque prosody to do so: “I sing thee, I sing thee, O peace of the peoples; O peace of co-workers; O peace that is fruitful; that blossoms and grows, with a growth ever changing, a growth ever new in its births and its matings; ascending triumphantly; in knowledge ascending.” [unnumbered page, inside cover]

There are indications, I believe, that this use of natural imagery is not just the use of a much-used and almost worn out poetic trope – though it is certainly that – but marks a political-aesthetic change in Pankhurst which has perhaps not been understood. It seems to me that Pankhurst is moving towards a kind of universalisation of humanity, dependent on a pastoral trope, which also emphases the public celebrations of workers through holidays, art and other aesthetic devices.

“Others have sung of the States; but I sing of the peoples,” Pankhurst begins her editorial in the second issue, and in that I think there is a move away from state-ism to something more utopian: pastoral but futuristic, sexually liberated but also focussed on fertility. In the first page a full-page ‘advertorial’ for James Leakey’s Introduction to Esperanto, published by Pankhurst’s Dreadnought Press, adds further to this universalising subtext. Pankhurst has been criticised as “confused”  for changing the sub-title of the Workers’ Dreadnought at this time from “International Socialism” to “Going to the Root”[11] but, whatever one may think of it, this isn’t so much a confusion as a determined shift, and it’ in line with the imagery Pankhurst adopts in her editorials in Germinal.

It is also there in much of the poetry that she self-publishes in the magazine and it’s there especially in her libertarian sci-fi allegories. These are “Utopian Conversations”, in the first issue, which could be summarised as exploring some of the problems of free love within a countryside commune; and “The Pageant” in the second issue[12].  Both of these stories end in the prospect of birth, and both take place in a rural but futuristic idyll. I should say that I don’t rate this work: it is curiously sentimental as well as progressive and it’s neither fluent nor other-wise well-made – I’m only interested here in thematic undercurrents and the fact that Germinal’s themes bubble up across its pages in a surprisingly single-minded way. Various pieces that are not by Pankhurst – the Gorky short story about an incident in a Russian village, the South African story – also use rural or village life as a way of exploring class, race and work concerns – so Pankhurst is clearly directing the pastoral for both political and aesthetic benefits. To this end the medieval exterior of the magazine is continued inside the pages with woodcuts and faux-primitive line drawings by a dozen or so other artists.[13]

4. Art and Play

Finally I want to say just a few words about Germinal as a magazine of leisure. When it was advertised in The Workers’ Dreadnought potential readers, identified in the advert and of course by the newspaper as “Workers”, were specifically encouraged to “Take a Copy on Holiday.” Looking at Germinal with other literary magazines of the day, on the face of it, it is most like those magazines, as I’ve suggested, with a residual Arts & Crafts-like ruralist iconography. Perhaps these would particularly be The Apple (of Beauty and Discord) which closed in 1922; and The Owl, which closed in 1923.[14] Rebecca Beazley has shown that magazines of this kind - The Apple and Arts and Letters are Beazley’s focus - were designed to widen the audience for contemporary art, in part to sell artworks.

This is clearly the case for Germinaltoo: there is an advert for the sale of “A Small Collection of pictures either together or separately” in the first issue and a note in the second issue that “Prints and originals of the drawings appearing in GERMINAL may in some cases be obtained from the artists.” [back cover] It is difficult to assess the intended audience however: there is also a curious note, for example, encouraging “English holiday-makers who happen to stay in les Andelys this year” to “enjoy the beautiful Art Exhibition of the Foyer des Artistes” where works by Monet, Camille Pisarro and others are represented. [unnumbered page, [p.27], in first issue]. At first the luxuriousness of this sits oddly with the magazine’s role as a kind of supplement to the Workers’ Dreadnought but a statement on the same page announcing the setting up of “The Germinal Circle” may help re-calibrate this. The Germinal Circle it says is “intended to assist in the artistic expression of current thought, in order to bring art into contact with daily life and to use it as a means of expressing modern ideas and aspirations,” perhaps offers some way into this.

For Pankhurst it wasn’t just that established artistic expression should be made available to the working classes, but that artistic expression itself should be changed by class theory and all manner of other ideas. Germinal was trying to demonstrate this by striving for coherent pastoral utopianism in its literary content, in its look and its editorial cues. In this way Germinal becomes a modest and of course very flawed step towards a high ambition: the placing of artistic expression, defined as field of rest, creativity and play, as part of working life. As Pankhurst  said in her Dreadnought pamphlet, Education of the Masses,  “Communism is a classless order of society in which all shall have leisure and culture […].”

[1] A discursive summary of Pankhurst’s achievements is also given in Mary Davis, “Class, Race and Gender”, Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Lecture 2003, http://sylviapankhurst.gn.apc.org/SPML%202003.pdf, [accessed 3/7/09]

[2] See Jean-Michel Rabaté, “Gender and Modernism”, in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (eds.), The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. 1: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955 (OUP, 2009), pp269-289. This work’s index also appears to regard Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst as “sisters”: they were of course mother and daughter.

[3] See, however, Morag Shiach’s discussion of Pankhurst’s campaigning journalism and her work as an artist, in “Sylvia Pankhurst: labour and representation”, in Morag Shiach, Modernism, Labour and Selfhood in British Literature and Culture, 1890-1930, (CUP, 2004), pp.100-148. 

[4] See also the discussion of this power struggle in Alex Houen, “Wyndham Lewis:  Literary ‘Strikes’ and Allegorical Assaults”, the second chapter in Alex Houen, Terrorism and modern literature from Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp.93-137

[5] Jean-Michel Rabaté, op. cit., p270.

[6] See also, Andrzej Gasiorek, “The ‘Little Magazine’ as weapon: BLAST (1914-15)’, in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (eds.), The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. 1: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955, (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp290-313

[7] Siegfried Sassoon quoted from John Stuart Roberts, Siegfried Sassoon, Metro, 2005, p.104

[8] Mary Davis, Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics (1999), p.56

[9] Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison – Germinal was publishing short stories and drama, but then Poetry Review was publishing longer articles and interviews with foreign poets and its ratio had the help of translations of Sophocles and Euripides.

[10] Zola’s novel had been available in English but for private circulation, in the translation by Havelock Ellis for the Lutetian Society (1895; British Library shelfmark:  1094.k.1)

[11] Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst: Sexual Politics and Political Activism UCL, 1996, p184; see also www.ibrp.org/en/articles/2000-01-01/sylvia-pankhurst-the-meaning-of-the-revolutionary-years

[12] Pankhurst adopted the name “Richard Marsden” for both stories, a reference to her father’s first and middle name.

[13] Finally, a contemporary tract, one of the last publications issued by as publisher of Germinal and The Workers’ Dreadnought imagines a Labour Prime minister invoking the ancient fertility festival of May Day for a national holiday: May Day: The Vision of a Labour Prime Minister [1925] by Asit Mightbee (surely Panhkurst herself)

[14] See Rebecca Beasley’s discussion of the Arts and Crafts legacy in early 1920s magazines in Rebecca Beasley, “Literature and the Visual Arts: Arts and Letters (1917-20) and The Apple (1920-2)”, in Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker (eds.), The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, Vol. 1: Britain and Ireland 1880-1955 (OUP, 2009),pp485-504

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