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 It was written, not for publication, but to cheer up some friends who had recently been bereaved.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!