13 comments on “Eric Partridge, word lover and dictionary master.

  1. Hi Metan,
    I was interested to see your post re Eric Partridge, as Norah C James was my grandfather’s cousin. There is a certain amount of pride and amusement in our family at having an ancestor whose book was banned under the Obscene Publications Act!
    I’ve read ‘Sleeveless Errand’ and have to say that from a literary point of view it’s a pretty dreadful work. The main protagonist, Paula, has just been dumped by her lover, and decides to kill herself. She meets a man called Bill, whose wife has been having an affair, and they spend the next 24 hours together, roaming the drinking dens of London and meeting all sorts of low-life characters and becoming more and more depressed. Bill decides to kill himself with Paula, and they hire a car with which they intend to drive off a cliff-edge. However, right at the end Paula persuades Bill to make it up with his wife, and commits suicide on her own.
    These days, with ’50 Shades of Grey’ on display in mainstream bookshops, it’s hard to understand what was so offensive about this novel. Although the word ‘bloody’ crops up frequently, there is actually nothing at all explicit in it. What I think upset the censors was more the author’s liberal attitude towards promiscuity, prostitution and homosexuality – the characters behave as though there was nothing untoward or abnormal about any of these.
    The writing, as I said, is poor by anyone’s standards. Norah ignores the precept of ‘show, don’t tell’: she tells you, tells you, then tells you again – what the characters are thinking as they talk to each other, exactly why they are behaving as they do, etc. There is a great deal of uneccesary detail – the book would have been half its length if we weren’t given descriptions of everything the characters eat and drink. As for the dialogue, it’s dire! Whole pages of conversation are given to people introducing each other, and ordering more food and drink in restaurants.
    However, I find the book fascinating on a personal level, as many of Norah’s biographical details are echoed in Paula’s: studying at the Slade School of Art, joining the Suffragette movement, losing a fiance in the First world War, working as a Land Girl. And the writing really comes alive when she abandons the narrative to comment on philosophy and the sexual politics of the time.
    Yes, a depressing, badly-written book, but still worth reading. It was probably way ahead of its time. I never met Norah, who died in London in 1979 (when I was 21 and totally uninterested in family history and nutty old bats who wrote hospital romances) although I believe she came to my grandfather’s funeral.
    I could tell you loads more, but I’d better finish now as loads of stuff to do….
    Kind regards,

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to reply Miranda. 🙂
      I never thought I would hear from someone who not only had read the book but was related to the author!

      That story sounds like life back then was pretty much like life in a book or movie now, love troubles, a big night on the town to forget those troubles, wallowing in depression, then a big finale. (Add a few vampires and it could be a hit.)

      With your comment on the acceptance of prostitution, homosexuality and promiscuity in the book I am even less surprised that it was banned. I expect that the upper classes couldn’t possibly believe those kinds of things went on in their perfect world. Either that or it reinforced their prejudices against the lower classes, who they really wished would just go away. I guess a book with themes like that would still be controversial in many places if it was released today.

      It sounds like the book could be considerably improved with a bit of slash and burn editing although those boring bits are probably historically interesting on their own, I expect that the food they were ordering in restaurants the 20’s was very different from what is on the menu today.

      A pity you never got to meet Norah but at 21 I can imagine that would have not been an entertaining visit. If only we could travel back and look at those kind of things with the eyes we have today, eh?

      Thanks again for commenting, it is really good to hear about what the book is really like 🙂

      • Another detail that might interest you, Metan:

        After ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was banned in Britain, Norah James signed a contract with Jack Kahane, owner of the Paris-based Obelisk Press, and the book was published in France where they were a little more open-minded. Because of all the publicity it was quite a success, and Norah arranged for half of all she earned from it to be sent to Eric Partridge to compensate him for the loss he had sustained as a result of the court case. Nice, eh?

        The book I would dearly love to get my hands on is Norah’s autobiography, ‘I Lived in A Democracy’, but it is simply unavailable, not listed on Amazon or anywhere else I can find. One of my cousins in Canada has a copy, and I have read photocopied extracts, which are absolutely fascinating. Norah had an amazing life, and I would love to have met her but as you say, if only…..

        Maybe it’s time she had a revival! I might set up a Facebook page for her – with one thing and another she is the sort of figure who could develop a small but dedicated cult following.

        • These days some authors would love the publicity of being banned, I am not sure any of them would be kind enough to compensate the publishing house if they ever made money though. That was a really nice thing to do.

          I didn’t know she wrote anything else, I will have to keep my eye out for her autobiography in second hand shops. Unlikely I know, but they have to end up somewhere…

          Maybe you should start up a blog about historically banned writers!

    • Dear Miranda/Metan,

      I found this page by chance while looking for web references to Eric Partridge.

      I am in the process of writing a book on his Scholartis Press which published Sleeveless Errand.

      I have done quite of bit of research on the banning of the novel and have given a paper at a book history conference on its banning. Happy to send it to you as an attachment if you send me your email address


      john arnold


  2. From 1929 – 1975 Norah published about 70 books, mostly novels (several ‘hospital romances’, I’m afraid!) but also a couple of cookery books and some childrens’ stories. Nothing controversial.

    In the event that you ever come across ‘I Lived in a Democracy’, please, please buy it regardless of cost – or at least let me know that it’s available and how much the seller wants!

  3. Metan expressed interest in what the characters were eating and drinking. Here’s an extract (p175) to give you a flavour (ha, ha):

    The head waiter came at once when Bill beckoned to him. He gave them a table by the wall.

    “We’ve hardly got any time for a meal, so will you get us served quickly,” Bill asked.

    “Yes, sir, certainly, sir,” and he called another waiter to take their order.

    Bill read out the menu: “There’s only the table d’hote dinner. It is grapefruit and hors d’oeuvre, tomato soup, St Julienne, fried sole, lobster, roast duck, beef, apple pie, trifle, and rice pudding. I expect it’ll be quicker to order the whole thing now. What are you going to have, Paula?”

    “I’m not hungry. I suppose I’d better have something, though. Oh! I don’t know, grapefruit, and lobster, that’s all, thanks.”

    “Have some duck and green peas as well.”

    “No, thanks. Perhaps I’ll have some cheese or something later on. I’ll see how I feel after the lobster.”

    “How about you?” he asked Percival.

    “‘Fraid I’m hungry. I’d like tomato soup, and lobster, with duck and vegetable to follow, and a bit of apple pie, please.”

    “I’ll have grapefruit and sole and roast beef,” Bill decided.

    The waiter turned away.

    “What d’you want to drink, Paula?”

    “Stick to brandy, please.”

    Percival chose whisky and so did Bill.

    This episode occurs in the Royal Hotel in Hove, Sussex, on the south coast of England, near where Paula and Bill are planning to drive off the cliff.

    • “I’m not hungry. I suppose I’d better have something, though. Oh! I don’t know, grapefruit, and lobster, that’s all, thanks.” Clearly lobster was not as expensive it is today!

      That is a much less pretentious menu than one we would get today isn’t it? 🙂

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