Elaine wrote a post about Capuchin Classics a week or so ago (if you follow that link, you’ll discover one back to me and the interview Emma Howard, the head of Capuchin, did for Stuck-in-a-Book a while back) – in that post she happened to mention that Charles Morgan’s The Voyage, which Capuchin reprint, won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 1940. The only Charles Morgan book I’ve read is A Breeze of Morning, which I remember enjoying quite a lot – and reading in the beautiful grounds of Wilderhope Manor Youth Hostel in Shropshire – but it reminded me that I wanted to blog about the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Perhaps it was just a blind spot in my literary knowledge, but the prize is still being awarded, and doesn’t seem to get anything like the press and public attention that the Booker Prize does every year. But, for my money, looking through their respective awards over the years, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize has been rather wiser than the Booker Prize. Certainly a more interesting selection, to my mind. And it’s older than the Booker Prize too – by 50 years, since it started in 1919. (Just realised I mean Man Booker for all the times I’ve written Booker…) What’s more, they have separate prizes for novel and for biography – I’ve focused on the novels, but there’s lots there for those with more non-fiction-orientated minds.
As usual, Wikipedia offers valuable information – follow this link for a list of JTBMP winners since 1919. Too many to talk about them all, but Stuck-in-a-Book favourites Lady Into Fox (David Garnett) and Mother and Son (Ivy Compton-Burnett) both crop up, not to mention EH Young’s Miss Mole, in my tbr pile, alongside LP Hartley, Emma Smith, DH Lawrence, Rose Macaulay, Muriel Spark, Walter de la Mare, Kate O’Brien, EM Forster, Winifred Holtby, Evelyn Waugh, Margaret Kennedy, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch… well, go and have a look yourself.
So why has it been given less attention? Perhaps because it has no official sponsor – the winner is decided by the Professor of English at Edinburgh University, assisted by his/her PhD students (how they have time to read so many modern novels, I have no idea). But while the Booker has produced many creditable winners, JTBMP’s historical and intellectual credentials put it head of the field for me, and I’ll be keeping an eye on it in the future.