University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

Julian Symons Papers

1944 - 1994
(bulk dates 1970-1990 )

Manuscript Collection Number: 204
Accessioned: Purchases, 1990-1999.
Extent: 3 linear ft.
Content: Letters, books, essays, poems, book reviews, short stories, and addresses.
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: July 1999 by Anita A. Wellner.

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Table of Contents

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Biographical Note

British poet, novelist, historian, and critic Julian Symons was born on May 30, 1912, in London, England. Symons's formal education ended in 1927 when he completed study as a shorthand typist at a commercial school. Prior to becoming a full-time writer in 1947, Symons worked as a secretary (1929-1941) and later, as an advertising copywriter (1944-1947).

Julian Symons was recognized for his crime and detective novels and his critical writing about this genre. Many of Symons's ideas about the literary value of crime and detective novels and the changes in this genre during the 20th century were recorded in his book, Bloody Murder: from the detective story to the crime novel (1972).

In Bloody Murder, Symons traced the history of detective and crime novels. He also explained the difference between the formulaic detective story and the more complex crime novel. Symons firmly believed in the value of crime fiction, suggesting that its emphasis on character and motive provides a social commentary.

Symons wrote over twenty-five detective and crime novels, beginning with The Immaterial Murder Case (1945) and continuing through Death's Darkest Face (1990). Symons's own novels document the pattern from detective stories to crime novels.

Although he was most often associated with detective and crime fiction, Julian Symons was also a respected editor, biographer, historian, and poet. He founded and edited the literary magazine Twentieth Century Verse (1937-1939), and was editor of the Penguin Mystery Series from 1974 to 1979.

Symons also edited the selected works of Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Johnson, A. J. A. Symons, Edgar Allan Poe, and Wyndham Lewis. As a biographer, Julian Symons chronicled the lives of Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dashiell Hammett, Horatio Bottomley, and his own brother, noted biographer A. J. A. Symons.

Symons's critical writing encompassed war poetry, historical events in England, the history of crime, and the 1930s. He served as a reviewer for Manchester Evening News (1947-1956), The London Times (1958-1968), and The Sunday Times (1958-). He contributed reviews to The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, as well as other newspapers and magazines. Most of his reviews were of books; however, he also reviewed movies, television and radio programs, and theater productions.

Confusions about X (1939), Symons's first published book, was one of his five books of poetry. Symons's continued to write poetry throughout his life and reviewed the work of other poets in The Sunday Times.

Symons was also the author of several collections of short stories, such as The Tigers of Subtopia and other stories (1982); two radio plays, "Affection Unlimited" (1968) and "Night Rider to Dover" (1969); and several television plays, including "Miranda and a Salesman" (1963), "The Pretenders" (1970), and "Whatever's Peter Playing At?" (1974).

In 1976 Julian Symons became the President of Great Britain's Detection Club, an organization previously presided over by crime literature notables G. K. Chesterton, E. C. Bentley, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie. This symbolic honor recognized Symons's contribution to making crime writing a serious literary genre.

Julian Symons died at the age of 82 on November 19, 1994, at his home in Kent, England.


Benstock, Bernard and Thomas F. Staley (eds.) Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Mystery and Thriller Writers since 1940. Volume 87. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1989. pp. 333-343.

Lesniak, James G. (ed.) Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series, Volume 33. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991. pp. 414-418.

"Obituary Notes." AB Bookman's Weekly. January 30, 1995. p. 378.

Scope and Content Note

The Julian Symons Papers, dating from 1944 to 1994 (bulk dates 1970-1990), consist of more than 400 manuscripts written by Julian Symons and over 200 letters addressed to Symons (3 linear feet). Most of the collection relates to his work in the field of crime literature. Many of the manuscripts are autograph drafts of book reviews; however, also present are reviews of movies, television and radio programs, and theater productions; short stories; essays; poetry; material toward books and lectures; and correspondence. In addition to autograph drafts, the collection includes galley proofs, flyers, magazines, clippings, books, letters, and typescript drafts.

The first series, "Material written by Julian Symons," includes manuscripts for his original work, such as books, essays, short stories, lectures, radio programs, and poetry. The series also encompasses Symons's work as a critic, of books, movies, theater and radio program, through published reviews and publishers' reader reports critiquing prospective books. Symons's introductions for works written by Anthony Trollope and Agatha Christie, an interview for the British Broadcasting Corporation, and Symons's response to a questionnaire complete the series.

Drafts, galley proofs, or reviews for volumes of Symons's critical and fictional writing are present. Titles, such as Bloody Murder (1985), Crime and Detection Quiz (1983), Criminal Practices: Symons on crime writing 60s to 90s (1994), The Blackheath poisonings (1978), Great detectives (1981), reflect Symons's expertise in the crime detection genre. Other books, such as The Tell-tale Heart: the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe (1978), Critical Observations (1981), The General Strike (1957), and his notes or story lines for possible future books on "The Agatha Christie Story," "The Angry Thirties," British poetry, and the 1940s suggest some of Symons's other literary interests.

Most of the autograph and typescript drafts of Symons's essays, reader reports, and introductions to the works of others relate to detective and crime fiction, or writers of crime literature. However, other essays consider "Evelyn Waugh," "Cliques, Groups and Movements," "The Nobel Award," current publishing practices, Stephen Spender, the English language, and Christopher Isherwood.

Series I also includes a small sample of poems, short stories, and conference papers. Addresses include one given at the first Crime Writers Association Conference, which he was instrumental in organizing.

Symons's reviews of radio or television programs, movies, and theater productions include a theater production of Orwell's Animal Farm, the movies Reds and The Road to 1984, a radio program titled "Simenon," and television programs titled "We, the Accused" and "Murder Most English."

Comprising the bulk of the collection are the autograph drafts of book reviews which illustrate the extensive revision which Symons applied to his writing. Categories of his book reviews include crime and detective literature, history, poetry, and biography. A significant number of the drafts critique several books in a single review, allowing Symons to compare and contrast books on similar subjects or of the same genre.

The correspondence in the Julian Symons Papers is divided between personal and professional correspondence. The professional correspondence, dating between 1976 and 1986, consists of letters from publishers, universities, and television companies, as well as fan mail and a few drafts of letters written by Symons. Business discussed includes editing of Symons's books, options for a film version of Blackheath Poisonings, responses to book reviews, lectures or teaching engagements at universities or conferences, and radio programs for the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Among the personal correspondence written to Julian Symons are letters from noted poets and crime literature writers, such as Len Deighton, P. D. James, Kingsley Amis, Gavin Ewart, George V. Higgins, Margaret Millar, A. L. Rowse, and George Sims. The content of the letters ranges from personal notes about friends, families, health, and travels, to discussions of recent writings by Symons or the correspondent. The one letter from A. L. Rowse shares his insights on W. H. Auden; while the letters from British poet Gavin Ewart include a number of holograph poems.

The most extensive group of letters is from American professor and writer William H. Pritchard, who arranged for Symons to teach for a year at Amherst College in Massachusetts. The letters suggest the close friendship developed between the two men and their families, as well as their common interest in writing.

The final series of the collection consists of three folders of Symons's personal papers: chiefly, letters from his brother, Stanley; correspondence regarding changes to his will and the will of his wife, Kathleen Symons; and correspondence regarding health care.

Whereas the correspondence provides a sample of Julian Symons's professional activities and personal acquaintances, the number and variety of manuscripts available in this collection provide a substantial overview of Symons's writing during the 1970s and 1980s.

Related collections:

Mss 099 Percy Muir's untitled essay about Symons (F297)

Mss 177 A. J. A. Symons Papers

Arrangement Note

The material is arranged in three series. Series I. Material written by Julian Symons consists of seven subseries: 1. Material toward books, 2. Essays, reader reports, introductions, 3. Poetry, 4. Short stories, 5. Addresses, radio programs, conference papers, interviews, 6. Reviews of movies and television, theater, or radio programs, 7. Book reviews. The material in subseries 1-2 and 4-6 are arranged in alphabetical order by title of material or, when no title is given, the subject. Subseries 3. Poetry is arranged in chronological order. Subseries 7. Book reviews is arranged in alphabetical order by the author of the book reviewed. When more than one author is reviewed in a single manuscript review, cross references are provided. Series II. Correspondence is divided into two subseries: 1. Personal correspondence, which is arranged in alphabetical order by sender, and 2. Professional correspondence, which is arranged in chronological order. Series III. Personal papers consists of three folders of material, each of which is arranged in chronological order.

Series Outline

I.   Material written by Julian Symons, 1944-1994 

     1.   Material toward books, 1978-1994 

     2.   Essays, reader reports, introductions, 1973-1990 

     3.   Poetry, 1987-1988 and [n.d.]  

     4.   Short stories, [n.d.]  

     5.   Addresses, radio programs, conference papers,
               interviews, 1979-1984 

     6.   Reviews of movies and television, theater, or
               radio programs, [n.d.] 

     7.   Book reviews, 1944-1991, A-L, M-Z   

II.  Correspondence, 1955-1987   

     1.   Personal correspondence, 1955-1987 

     2.   Professional correspondence, 1976-1986 

III. Personal Papers, 1982-1985          

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