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Victor Gollancz

Victor Gollancz, the son of Alexander Gollancz, a prosperous wholesale jeweller, was born in London in 1893. After his education at St. Paul’s School and New College, Oxford, he became a schoolmaster at Repton College.

In 1917 Seebohm Rowntree recruited Gollancz as a member of his Reconstruction Committee, an organisation he hoped would help plan the reconstruction of Britain after the war. Gollancz became a strong supporter of William Wedgwood Benn, the Liberal MP for Leith. Gollancz worked closely with Benn as secretary of the Radical Research Group. In 1921 Benn introduced Gollancz to his brother, Ernest Benn, the managing director of the publishers, Benn Brothers.

On the recommendation of William Wedgwood Benn, Gollancz was employed by Benn Brothers to develop the list of magazines the company published. Within six months Gollancz had convinced Ernest Benn to let him publish a series of art books. The books were a great success and during a seven year period turnover increased from £2,000 to £250,000 a year. Benn wrote in his diary that the increased company profits ‘reflects the greatest credit to the genius of Victor Gollancz’.

Gollancz also recruited novelists such as Edith Nesbit and H. G. Wells. He also employed Gerald Gould, fiction editor of the Observer, as chief manuscript reader. Gollancz realised that if he published works selected by Gould, the books would be guaranteed at least one good newspaper review. Gollancz believed that good reviews was a major factor in the selling of books. In critics liked a book published by the company, Gollancz purchased full-page adverts in national newspapers such as The Times and the Daily Herald to tell the public about the good reviews.

Although Ernest Benn believed Gollancz was a ‘publishing genius’ he was unwilling to give him full control over the company. There were also political differences between the two men. Whereas Benn had moved to the right during the 1920s, Gollancz had moved sharply to the left and was now a strong supporter of the Labour Party. Gollancz had disapproved of the publication of Ernest Benn’s own book, Confessions of a Capitalist, where he extolled the merits of laissez-faire capitalism.

In 1927 Gollancz left Ernest Benn and formed his own publishing company. Victor Gollancz was an immediate success. Using methods developed at Benn Brothers, he recruited writers such as A. J. Cronin, GEORGE ORWELL, Ford Madox Ford, Fenner Brockway, H. Brailsford and G. D. H. Cole.

In 1936 Gollancz joined with John Strachey, the Labour MP and Harold Laski, the Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, to form the Left Book Club. The main aim was to spread socialist ideas and to resist the rise of Fascism in Britain. Beginning with a membership of 10,000, numbers rose to 50,000 by 1939. The most important book published by the Left Book Club, was The Road to Wigan Pier by GEORGE ORWELL in 1937.

The success of the Left Book Club encouraged socialists to believe there was a market for a left-wing weekly. Gollancz was approached by a group of Labour MPs that included Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss and Ellen Wilkinson and it was agreed to start publishing Tribune. Gollancz joined the editorial board and William Mellor was recruited as editor. GEORGE ORWELL, now recognised as Britain’s leading left-wing writer, agreed to contribute articles and later became the literary editor of the paper.

During the late 1930s and early 1940s Victor Gollancz was heavily involved in trying to get Jewish refugees out of Germany. After the war Gollancz worked hard to relieve starvation in Germany. He founded the Jewish Society for Human Service and its first objective was to help Arab relief.

After the Second World War political differences with GEORGE ORWELL resulted in Gollancz not publishing two great novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, he had several important successes including Kingley Amis’s Lucky Jim, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider.

In the 1950s played an active role in the formation of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (NCACP). In 1958 Gollancz joined with Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, J. B. Priestley, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Victor Gollancz died in 1967.

Ernest Benn, diary entry (4th December, 1923)
‘On Friday we had a board meeting of Ernest Benn Ltd which is really doing great things. The first year fully justified our highest hopes, the profit appears to be between 4,000 and 5,000 and reflects the greatest credit to the genius of Victor Gollancz, who is alone responsible. Gollancz is a Jew and a rare combination of education, artistic knowledge and business ability.’
Ernest Benn, diary entry (January, 1927)
‘Victor Gollancz. I spend alternate periods of 3 months each, hating him and loving him. His business ability is tremendous, his energy abnormal and he has made a great thing of Ernest Benn Ltd. The combination of my finance and his flair has produced the biggest thing in publishing history.’
Ernest Benn, diary entry (5th September, 1927)
‘Gollancz goes. His agreement expires next April and ever since last Christmas he has been discussing new terms. These have included the alteration of the name of the firm to Benn & Gollancz. The more we discussed the wider became our differences and the end of it all is that we agree to part. The partnership is an unnatural one. First is the fact that Gollancz must be ‘boss’, he is a natural leader and in his own interest he should set up for himself.’
Victor Gollancz, advertisement for the Left Book Club (February 1936)
‘The aim of the Club is a simple one: it is to help in the struggle for World Peace and a better social and economic order and against Fascism, by (a) increasing the knowledge of those who already see the importance of this struggle, and (b) adding to their number the very many who, being fundamentally well disposed, hold aloof from the fight by reason of ignorance or apathy.’

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