Willie Riley (1866-1961) and Windyridge (1912)

Willie Riley is another of those authors who were extremely popular in their day and are almost entirely forgotten now that we specialise in at the Sheffield Hallam collection.

Riley, a businessman from Bradford, published his first novel, Windyridge, in 1912 when he was in his forties. It was written, not for publication, but to cheer up some friends who had recently been bereaved. When his story was completed his wife and friends thought it so good they persuaded Riley to submit it to a publisher.

Windyridge is the story of Grace, a 35-year-old woman who tires of the noise of London, and takes a cottage for a year in the Yorkshire Dales. It is a gentle, romantic story about the ‘call of the heather’, with a strong Christian sensibility. Riley was a committed Methodist, and his Christian values, along with his feeling for the landscape of Yorkshire, is a theme in all his novels.

The publisher Riley picked out of hat was Herbert Jenkins, a newly formed firm. Jenkins took a risk on this unknown author – who he assumed to a be a ‘Miss’ Riley – and Windyridge became a best-seller. Jenkins would eventually describe the novel as ‘one of the most popular first-novels ever published’.

Jenkins was a canny marketer. He identified three key markets for the book: ‘Yorkshire’, ‘Methodism’, and ‘The Idyllic’. Copies of Windyridge were sent to Yorkshire booksellers with a special cover band stating ‘The Great Yorkshire Novel’. Those sent to strongly Methodist towns had a cover band stating ‘The Great Methodist Novel’. When a reviewer compared Windyridge to Cranford, Jenkins began marketing the book in literary circles as ‘The New Cranford‘. In 1912 this approach was extremely modern!

Jenkins also saw the appealing romance of the story of Riley writing the novel for his distressed friends, and put this account on the dust jacket, to Riley’s annoyance:

A new novel. A new writer. ‘Windyridge’ is one of those rare books written without thought either of public or of publisher. Some friends of his being in great trouble, the author conceived the idea of writing a story that would amuse them and divert their thoughts. Chapter by chapter as it was written ‘Windyridge’ was read aloud by its author, and when it had served its charitable purpose the manuscript was put aside. The friends clamoured for publication, but Mr. Riley refused. At length he decided to gratify at once his friends’ insistence and his own inclination for a joke at their expense; for he never doubted that the manuscript would be declined. Only when he received a definite offer for, not only ‘Windyridge,’ but other books from his pen, was Mr Riley convinced of his own refreshing mistake.

As a writer, Riley never looked back. He published a novel or sometimes two every year for the next 30 years.

A mark of how obscure Riley has been become is that not one of the very knowledgeable people in our reading group had heard of him. I am very grateful to David Copeland for bringing him to our attention and generously donating a set of Riley’s novels to the collection. To find out more about Riley see David’s website. The material in this post has been drawn from David’s introduction to a new edition of Windyridge.

The University of Bradford library have an archive of Riley material in their Special Collection, including manuscripts, correspondence, press cuttings, notebooks and photographs and albums.

Next, some reviews of Riley’s novels. As usual, the response from the reading group was mixed!

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12 thoughts on “Willie Riley (1866-1961) and Windyridge (1912)

  1. Fascinating! I love hearing about neglected writers – it’s so strange that some can be so popular and then completely disappear. Looking forward to the reviews!

  2. Thanks Erica, really pleased you’re reading Riley’s books! Fascinating story of a lost best-seller and inspiration for older writers. He’s not entirely forgotten in these parts because of the Hawksworth connection and David Copeland has done great work in reviving interest. Riley is an effective storyteller and I think his books are really heartwarming, though the religious element is not everyone’s thing now. I’ll be intrigued to see what your readers make of him.

    I’d like to mention that we have his archive and set of the books at University of Bradford Special Collections and also writing by his father, Joseph, who also had an amazing life. His books have beautiful dustjackets too. My favourite is in this blog post: http://100objectsbradford.wordpress.com/2011/05/11/14-the-call-of-the-heather-windyridge-by-w-riley/

    • Thanks very much Alison – I’ll put something in the post about your archive. That is indeed a lovely dust jacket! A member of the reading group bought a copy of Silver Dale with a dust jacket – that had a very nice design too.

      Yes, I agree that Riley’s novels are heart-warming, feel-good stories. They are also terribly wholesome and improving, and I think it is this that is not always to the modern taste.

  3. Indeed, I think his relevance now is as a source of information about Bradford and the Dales and what he tells us about publishing and popular taste. His pioneering magic lantern work also of interest. He rather loses out because he wrote for adults – similar heartwarmingness in children’s lit still very popular. HIs work has always reminded me of LM Montgomery’s stories (esp the ones which don’t feaure her heroines), but I think hers have a deeper sense of tragedy and peril which make them compelling even when absurdly comfy endings. As I said, looking forward to the thoughts of others …

    • That’s a good point – heart-warming is more acceptable in children’s books. I have only read the Anne of Green Gables series by Montgomery, but even there I can see the resemblance.

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  6. Aha, an author to try for my century of books reading challenge. How astonishing that I’ve never heard of him despite spending hours looking for Pre-WWI authors over the last couple of months. I don’t even think I’ve ever seen his books for sale before though I’ll be sure to look out for them now. I love what you and your readers do for neglected authors Erica!

    • Thanks Alex! It’s not often we find an author that not a single member of our reading group has heard of, but Riley defeated them! I’ve never seen him for sale either, which is very surprising considering how well he sold. It’s possible we’ve seen his books but failed to really notice because we had no recognition of his name…?

      • If you are prepared to look for them, they are still around in second-hand bookshops. If you want to cheat, then go on-line. They are not expensive. They are most often found in northern bookshops; unfortunately such bookshops are in decline everywhere; the Barbican Bookshop in York, an outstanding second-hand one, is the latest to declare closure.
        Once you have got to recognise the distinctive Herbert Jenkins spine and colour, they are easier to spot!

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