Jean Rhys / B.S. Johnson

The sponsorship histories of Jean Rhys and B.S. Johnson are relatively characteristic of how Cecil Day-Lewis’ idea of state ‘aid’ for writers played out in Arts Council policy in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

In 1967 Sonia Orwell, Francis Wyndham and André Deutsch successfully nominated an elderly and near-destitute Jean Rhys for an award of £1,200. The campaign to channel support to Rhys took off just after the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, which was submitted to the Arts Council Chairman Lord Goodman as evidence of her literary merit. (A bemused Goodman forwarded it to the Literary Advisory Panel for their consideration).

Wyndham was as emphatic about the quality of Rhys’ writing as he was alarmed about her depressed circumstances living off of £3 a week from the Royal Literary Fund. Although one member of the Panel confided to him that Rhys was precisely the kind of writer the Arts Council should be funding, such statements of support were undermined by the distinctly masculinist emphasis of Day-Lewis’s original idea of state ‘aid’. As he put it in 1966, the state was there to provide funds for the writer required to ‘take some months off from his regular job in order to devote himself to his writing’.

Rhys (left) in the 1970s
The cover of the first edition of Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) published by André Deutsch in the UK
The 1973 Quartet edition of House Mother Normal

The writer and filmmaker B.S. Johnson received several thousand pounds in grants from the Literature Department in 1969 and 1973. The applications, which stressed the potentially revolutionary nature of Johnson’s writing, as well as his fairly dire financial situation, successfully appealed to the Arts Council’s desire to sniff out the next generation of James Joyces. Johnson’s notorious book-in-a-box The Unfortunates (1969) and ‘geriatric comedy’ House Mother Normal (1971) were submitted to the Panel as evidence of his achievements.

Like Rhys, Johnson’s success partly rested on his ability to mobilize prestigious sponsors from the literary world. One person ready to vouch for Johnson’s creative promise was the writer and literary agent Peter Buckman, with whom Johnson had collaborated on the group novel London Consequences (1972). Another was Samuel Beckett. For Beckett, Johnson’s commitment as a writer rested not only on his ideas and technical innovations but the pursuit of his craft in difficult circumstances. Arts Council funding, Beckett observed, offered writers like Johnson a lifeline. Peer recognition and institutional belief ultimately acquired him crucial funding for the novel See the Old Lady Decently, published in 1975 after Johnson’s sudden death.

See Chapter 2 for a fuller account of Johnson’s history with the Arts Council.

Archive reference (Rhys): ACGB/60/15; (Johnson): ACGB/60/20 box 2; ACGB/60/66 box 5.