Fifty years ago, Alan Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, changed the history of English fiction. Richard Bradford explains how.
Alan Sillitoe is 80 this year and his debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published in October 1958, almost exactly half a century ago. The novel evolved from a set of stories written between 1952 and 1958 when he lived in France, Majorca and mainland Spain, but it draws its energy and raw material from his previous experiences in Nottingham: a childhood that would have appalled Orwell and been improved upon by Dickens, followed by semi-skilled work in local factories. It was like nothing written before and it changed the history of the English novel.
Before reaching Jeffrey Simmons, chief commissioning editor of W. H. Allen, the typescript had been rejected by five mainstream publishing houses and some explanation for their displeasure can be found in Sillitoe’s dealings with Tom Maschler of MacGibbon & Kee. Maschler was intrigued but at the same time insisted that large parts of the novel be rewritten to provide a more authentic portrait of working-class life. For Sillitoe, this was comparable to being advised by a clairvoyant on the true nature of his existence, and he refused to change the book. Maschler and others were puzzled, unsettled, because the hero Arthur Seaton accorded with no known precedent. Even such recent reprobates as Kingsley Amis’s Jim Dixon, John Wain’s Charles Lumley, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter and John Braine’s Joe Lampton seemed dependable by comparison. Simmons was enthralled; he knew he had found something exceptional and sent the manuscript to his friend Otto Strawson who, in 1955, had ‘discovered’ Doris Lessing and recommended her to Gollancz. ‘Jeffrey’ Strawson wrote back the next day, ‘this is astonishing: who is he? It is the best first novel I’ve ever come across’.