‘Your New Hospital for the Intellectuals’: The Literary Salon as an Alternative Space for War

When we think of a literary salon, we might imagine the aristocratic drawing rooms of seventeenth-century France, or decadent dinner parties in bohemian London, where writers could show off the latest artistic tastes. However, during the period before and during the Second World War there was a more serious aspect to literary salons. Salons across Europe became places where writers in exile could attempt to preserve national culture, and to challenge Fascist oppression. It was here that ideas about Europeanism, which continue to shape our identity today, were formed and debated. Katherine Cooper (Newcastle University) takes us inside the drawing and dining rooms of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. [MP3 version]

This lecture looks at how the long-standing tradition of the literary salon took on a new guise in the inter-war period as a branch of Europe’s cultural armoury. The French poet Paul Valéry wrote in 1919 that ‘thousands of young writers and artists have died; the illusion of a European culture has been lost, and knowledge has been proved impotent to save anything whatsoever’ (22), voicing for the first time the increasingly popular opinion that culture, particularly literary culture, in Europe was being destroyed by a growing wave of inhumanity or anti-intellectualism. I discuss how in the 1920s and 1930s, as this point of view grew in popularity, the living rooms and drawing rooms of London and other cities were mobilised by British writers as meeting spaces and spaces of cultural resistance and renewal. These evening drinks receptions and literary dining clubs became spaces where writers-in-exile could celebrate their country’s culture or criticise fascist regimes in ways in which they could not at home. I look at how these salons are depicted in both fiction and autobiographical writing of the time and discuss how British writers such as H.G. Wells, Graham Greene, Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bottome used these spaces to meet with and encourage other writers exiled to Britain from across Europe during the interwar years. I argue that important networks were forged in these domestic spaces which functioned to aid the escape of writers facing persecution across Europe and to give practical support with producing and publishing work in the UK.

This lecture formed part of our Late Summer Lecture series, featuring the best postgraduate research into narrative and literature. Check out other podcasts from the series here, including talks on Old English riddles, bumbling Victorian explorers of Iceland, and the depiction of knights on film.

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