Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

A Year in Books: 1920

On this week’s episode of Hannah’s Bookshelf (my weekly literature show on North Manchester FM), I took a look back to 1920. I talked about some of my favourite books that were published that year – all a matter of personal taste, of course! You can listen to the full show on the player at the end of this post, but, as promised, here’s the list of books I included on today’s show…

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The first book on today’s list is Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Innocence. Set in the 1870s, the book tells the story of a well-to-do New York couple, Newland Archer and May Welland, who are looking forward to their upcoming marriage. Things are disrupted by the arrival of May’s attractive (and married) cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska.

While Wharton’s novel is an individual story of a specific couple in the nineteenth century, it also offers some broader social commentary about class, wealth and American identity, though Wharton adopts a gentler tone than in some of her early work. Nevertheless, the dilemma faced by Newland, and the ways in which characters’ lives are impacted by money (be it old or new) and social standing, gesture towards wider ideas. And although the book has an undoubted nostalgia for the period of Wharton’s childhood (an ‘age’ that she imagines as having disappeared), this allows for some subtle comment on the period of its publication, particularly towards the end of the book.

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

Science fiction isn’t always a genre that’s immediately associated with the first decades of the twentieth century, and the next book on my list isn’t one that’s as well-known as perhaps it should be. In fact, it didn’t sell very well on its initial publication, and it’s only really in retrospect that its legacy and influence can be discerned.

Lindsay’s novel is a strange and philosophical tale. Yes – it does involve interstellar travel (the voyage of the title), but this is a book that’s less about advanced technology and more about the effects of interactions in alien lands. The central character is Maskull, who travels to a planet called Tormance in the Arcturus star system following a séance. There, he meets with a number of strange individuals, who talk to him about the nature of their existence and reality. A Voyage to Arcturus was an influence on C.S. Lewis, and it has been held up as a masterpiece by writers such as Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore. It’s a definite must-read for anyone interested in the science fiction genre and its history.

The Cats of Ulthar by H.P. Lovecraft

The next ‘book’ on today’s list was actually a short story. This one may be a little bit unexpected, as I think I have mentioned before on the show that I’m not really a fan of H.P. Lovecraft’s writing. That said, ‘The Cats of Ulthar’ is my personal favourite story of his (and apparently it was one of his personal favourites too).

An example of Lovecraft’s earlier work – his so-called Dunsanian tales – this story is a vengeance narrative about the fate that befalls a couple of set about killing all the cats in Ulthar. When his beloved kitten goes missing, an orphan named Menes sends up a prayer that the couple will get what’s coming to them… and they certainly do. Lovecraft was a cat-lover, and this comes through in this story. It’s not just that the story warns against harming cats, it also captures a little something of the essence of our fascination with the seemingly near-supernatural creatures that have domesticated us. Cats are creatures of horror, but that’s why we love them.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting

This next book only half belongs on the list. It was published in the US in 1920, but didn’t see UK publication until 1924.

I’m not sure The Story of Doctor Dolittle needs much introduction, as most people will be familiar with the premise, if only from one or other of the film adaptations. It’s the story of John Dolittle, a doctor who just loves animals. When his non-human housemates start to first annoy, and then drive away, his patients, Dr Dolittle decides the time has come to turn to veterinary medicine. Interestingly, a key part of the story revolves around a vaccination programme, as Dr Dolittle ends up travelling to Africa to help with a epidemic (or, more accurately, an epizootic) affecting monkeys. However, the part of the story that most people will be familiar with is when Dr Dolittle is taught how to talk with the animals by his parrot Polynesia.

Alf’s Button by William Aubrey Darlington

And now a bit of a cheeky one… I’ve included a book that I haven’t actually read, though I have seen one of the film adaptations (I know! shocking admission!). 1920 saw the publication of a number of collections by WWI poets, as well as the beginnings of cultural and fictional reflections on the Great War. I’m fascinated by Darlington’s story, Alf’s Button, because it stands as almost the antithesis of the WWI poetry I’m more familiar with. Dulce et decorum it ain’t.

Alf’s Button is a farcical, humorous tale about a British soldier fighting in the trenches, who discovers a button that, when rubbed, makes a genie appear to grant the owner’s wishes. And, like a lot of ‘I’ve unleashed a genie who’ll do my bidding’ stories, it has hilarious consequences. The book has been adapted three times – in 1920 (almost immediately on publication), in 1930 (in a version that includes some sequences using a very early colour process, possibly Pathécolor), and as a ‘Crazy Gang’ film called Alf’s Button Afloat in 1938 (the version I’ve seen).

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

And finally… some of you may have expected to see this one here… undoubtedly my favourite book that was published in 1920! (Though, as with The Story of Doctor Dolittle, it was only the US edition that came out in 1920; the UK edition was published in 1921.)

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the first outing for Christie’s legendary sleuth Hercule Poirot. It was also Christie’s first attempt at writing a detective novel – something that makes it all the more remarkable. The Mysterious Affair at Styles sets a template that many (most?) of her Poirot novels would follow, and that other authors would also adopt, but it also draws on earlier templates for detective fiction, particularly the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, in setting up its amateur sleuth and his oh-so-English companion. Regular listeners of the show will know I am a big Christie fan and consider her to be a clever and ingenious writer. But I do also love the sheer arrogance at work in some of her best-known stories: Christie is one of the only writers who can tell you – multiple times, as it happens – who the murderer is within the first couple of chapters of the book, but still manage to baffle you. The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a masterful book, and it’s no wonder the world instantly fell in love with Poirot (though that did mean Christie was stuck with her little Belgian for a looong time to come!).

To find out more about these titles and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to the show again here:

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