A new book by Lisa Stead uncovers the vital role cinema played in the work of interwar women writers. Entitled Off to the Pictures: Cinemagoing, Women’s Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain, the study explores a range of important but often overlooked figures, from Jean Rhys to Elinor Glyn and C. A. Lejeune. Stead delves into archives and unearths hidden treasures from newspapers and magazines of the time, not to mention a range of literary texts from popular middlebrow fiction to experimental modernism. I caught up with Lisa Stead to discuss her interest in this crucial period for women’s writing, and to ask how cinemagoing still influences the way women construct their own identities.
What led you to write Off to the Pictures?
It all started with magazines. As a postgrad, I got to be fascinated with early film magazines and their address to women. I started looking through hundreds of old issues of 1910s and 1920s fan papers – designed to promote stars and review the latest films and generally keep the cinema alive for their readership by offering gossip and glamour beyond the auditorium. Whilst these papers are crammed full of fascinating period details – fashion tips, advertising etc.— it was the ‘unofficial’ writing inside that hooked me. Fan magazines at this time published letters and poetry from self-professed ‘ordinary’ women, who talk not just about their love for screen stars, but also offer their critical commentary on the cinema, considering its relation to their everyday lives and the distinctly British experience of cinemagoing.
“…it was the ‘unofficial’ writing inside that hooked me”
From there, I started to move outwards to seek other kinds of women’s writings about film between the wars. Part of what the book does is chart a network of print cultures created by and for women that grew up alongside the cinema. Between the wars, cinema proves a significant preoccupation for a diverse network of writing women, from the amateur fan to the professionalised critic.
Women wrote about film in middlebrow novels, modernist texts and short stories, mainstream newspaper journalism, cheap paperbacks and story papers, fan magazines and women’s magazines, as well as developing new identities through film writing in creating new discourses for film criticism, and writing and adapting screen plays. In writing Off to the Pictures my aim was to collate and interrogate this network of texts and writers, and interrogate their significance for understanding the interrelations between women, selfhood and popular culture in the interwar period.
What can the book tell us about women during this period?
I think this approach can offer a new kind of insight into how popular media, modernity, modernism and notions of femininity shaped new ways of being a woman in Britain at this time.
The book focuses on the interaction between women’s acts of writing, acts of self-fashioning, and the dual process of going to and viewing ‘the cinema’ (since ‘cinema’ is of course both a social, public act, and a representational media). Looking at women’s creative and critical writings about cinema reveals the impact the film and cinemagoing had upon British women’s lives in this period: it affected ways of seeing the world around you and of seeing yourself, in relation to questions of class, taste, etiquette, physicality, femininity and national identity.
“Cinema drew women into public spaces and taught them about how to ‘be’ a modern woman”
Cinema drew women into public spaces and taught them about how to ‘be’ a modern woman within these spaces – it was a template for the latest fashions and styles, for models of romance and courtship, and for ideas about what was ‘normal’ and what was not normal, particular given the dominant emphasis on narratives of heterosexual romance and Hollywood-style ‘happy endings’. We see this play out across a range of writings. Middlebrow novelists like Winnifred Holtby and Stella Gibbons, for example, write stories about women going to picture palaces in the 1930s.
In these glamorous yet everyday public spaces, these characters are able to assert their middle-class identity in a period during in which questions of class identity were a cause of considerably uncertainty. They do this not just through their tastes in popular films, but through the way they dress and behave in the theatre space. Modernist writers like Jean Rhys ficitonalise women for whom the cinema space can be equal parts appealingly distracting to threatening – a place where ideals of youth and romance are perpetuated and where anyone who doesn’t fit these ideals is open to mockery or ridicule.
“Modernist writers like Jean Rhys ficitonalise women for whom the cinema space can be equal parts appealingly distracting to threatening”
Other writers, like those penning stories and letters for fan magazines, speak about the fantastical appeal of cinema for women, focusing far more directly upon its glamour and escapism and the ways in which it showed British women possibilities beyond their own daily life and experiences.
These varied examples suggest the complex ways in which cinema and cinemagoing was conceived of in Britain at this time – not just as a cheap pastime, but as an activity that hooked in quite specific ways into gendered experiences and ideas of selfhood.
Do you think the history you explore can still be relevant to us today?
Cinemagoing and the place of film within everyday life has changed massively since the interwar period. The idea of cinemagoing as being a part of the texture of daily life – going to the pictures as a weekly, sometimes daily activity – is really quite alien to us now. But cinema is still a big part of the way we understand our social and cultural identities, and the way we fashion ourselves and reflect upon that process of self-fashioning.
“historical models […] help us see how certain ideals, images and modes of representation become ingrained in culture, and how their resonance extends into the present day.”
Where women between the wars used literary media, fan letters, and criticism to work through the impact of film, today we might use blogs or social media, for example; the desire to ‘speak back’ to the screen is far more easily facilitated in these easily accessible forms. I also think it’s incredibly relevant to look to historical models of popular culture and their impact upon discourses about gender, because they help us see how certain ideals, images and modes of representation become ingrained in culture, and how their resonance extends into the present day.
Did you come across any surprising finds during your research?
I found some wonderful fan materials in archives like the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at Exeter, which include fan letters and scrapbooks dedicated to particular stars. Archives like these also contain a wealth of ephemera – cheap paperbacks, one-off story magazines, Library series selling cinema stories, programmes for specific theatres including stories and poems.
Within this, I’ve found a real treasure chest of bizarre, glamorous and thrilling cinema-themed stories written by and for women. I think most surprising amongst these materials is the way they retain a sense of ‘Englishness’ even when dealing with the glamourous, Hollywood-inflected subject of the movies.
A lot of the cheap short fiction of the interwar years features young girl characters aspiring to be screen stars, and more often than not making it big. But they’re frequently tempered with an acknowledgement of how grimy and sordid the film world could really be behind the scenes, and how their girl heroines have to balance domestic responsibilities and hard graft alongside their desire to be like the American starlets appearing on their local screens.
What’s next for you?
I’m developing some further research around some of the key figures in the book. The novelist-adaptor-screenwriter-director Elinor Glyn, for example, forms one of the central case studies of the book, and I’m currently looking into her work with early sound film in Britain and its relation to debates about accent, nationality and class.
I’m also working on a longer term project around the British film star Vivien Leigh, delving into her dispersed archives. My focus here is on a range of ways in which the archive relates to ideas of star labour and self-fashioning. With Leigh in particular, I’m interested in the relationship between discourses on mental health, stardom and the labour of screen and stage performance, and how we can read this through her self-curated archive collections.
Alongside these projects, I’m moving into quite a new direction looking at histories of location filming in rural British areas, working with communities to gather memories and memorabilia that speaks to the experience of ‘hosting’ film crews. You can find out more about this project, which is a collaboration with Dr Lavinia Brydon at the University of Kent, on the WordPress site: FilmingRuralEngland.wordpress.com.
Off to the Pictures: Cinemagoing, Women’s Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain is published by Edinburgh University Press.
Lisa Stead on Female Audiences and Inter-War Cinema
About the Author
Lisa Stead is a Lecturer in Film Studies in the School of Art, Media and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. She is the co-editor of The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation (2013). Her essays on fandom, archives and women’s cinema have appeared in Women’s History Review and Transformative Works and Cultures, among other publications. She tweets @LisaRoseStead.