Book of the month archive

November 2010

Frostie the Penguin

I Capture the Castle (Peacock, 1963; first published 1948)
Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle is an astonishingly complex and subtle book. Not the least astonishing thing about it is the way that, in the sixty years since its publication, it has succeeded in passing itself off as light fiction. Early reviews, preserved in the correspondence file for PK8 (DM1107/11), agree that it is "escape literature" or "fiction entertainment", "not on the grand scale", "rubbish of an accomplished kind", but nonetheless "agreeable": one reviewer felt that "only the stoniest-hearted highbrow could fail to find interest in this story." I find that last comment remarkable, since one of the main characters in the novel is, precisely, a stony-hearted highbrow: Lord Mortmain, the father of the novel's sixteen-year-old narrator/author, Cassandra.

Mortmain, a writer of some note, is suffering from writer's block and unable to work, to the extent that the castle he inhabits with his family is falling apart around them for lack of money to repair it. When Cassandra takes drastic action (she locks him in the dungeon until he produces some writing), Mortmain finally succeeds in creating a masterpiece of dazzling yet abstruse Modernist prose out of the phrase 'The cat sat on the mat'. His book, an enquiry into reading and the nature and limits of literature and language, is subtly contrasted and paralleled with Cassandra's own journal, which we are reminded to read as a crafted literary artefact, not simply as self-expression. By the end of the book, we come to understand that Cassandra herself is dealing with the same questions as her father, although in another mode of writing. I Capture the Castle finally stands as a powerful argument for the humane value of genre literature and for the pleasures of popular culture, including identification with characters, romantic tension, a well-crafted story with room for speculation. And its deliciously metafictional elements don't take the bloom off these pleasures for its own readers: the correspondence file in the Archive also preserves a letter from Dodie Smith to a young fan who has written to ask which of the two love interests Cassandra eventually marries after the novel's open ending. (Smith's own opinion, for the record, is that she shouldn't marry either of them: she's too young.)

Cover of 'I Capture The Castle'

I Capture the Castle was itself captured for Peacock – with some difficulty – by the famously charming Kaye Webb, as a letter from Dodie Smith in the correspondence file reveals:

"I only agreed [to the novel's being included in the Peacock list], finally, out of a warm liking for yourself… The whole deal was organized between us on a very personal basis and it was only as the result of our lunch-time talk that I persuaded myself to consent to a publication specially for young girls" (Dodie Smith to Kaye Webb, 25 February 1962).

Like many authors at this point, Smith was very reluctant to have her work associated with the youth market: "It is not a 'juvenile' and never has been", she writes, echoing C F Forester's agent in a letter to Kaye Webb dated 9 June 1962 about the proposal to publish one or more of the Hornblower books in the Peacock list:

"We all feel reluctant to release any of the Forester titles you mention for Peacocks. We do not want, to be frank, to get Forester's name associated with the juvenile market, although I know that Peacocks are something special."

Part of that specialness is undoubtedly due to Kaye Webb's success in persuading reluctant authors of brilliant books to have their novels included in the distinctive Peacock list – although in the end, the Peacock failed to fly, in part because of the apparently insuperable difficulty of producing a list of non-juvenile books which were still suitable for, and aimed specifically at, young people. But that's another story – to be told, I hope, in one of the chapters of the book on Puffin to be produced by the Penguin Collectors Society. In the meantime, Frostie and I would like to encourage you all – stony-hearted highbrows and unapologetic romance readers alike – to go back to Cassandra's story and relish it all over again, from its unforgettable opening line: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink…"

October 2010

A selection of Puffins from the archive, to coincide with this month's Puffin Study Day:

Cover of 'Tarka the Otter'
Cover of 'Village and Town'
Cover of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'
Cover of 'A Wizard of Earthsea'
Cover of 'Wuthering Heights'
Cover of 'The Bad-Tempered Ladybird'
Cover of 'Book of Ships'
Cover of 'Worzel Gummidge'
Cover of 'Watership Down'
Cover of 'The Puffin Quiz Book'
Cover of 'Father Christmas Goes On Holiday'
Cover of 'The Borrowers'
Cover of 'This Little Puffin…'
Cover of 'The Hungry Caterpillar'
Cover of 'The Insect Man'
Cover of 'King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table'
Cover of 'The Little Prince'
Cover of 'Puffin Post' 1:1
Cover of 'Fantastic Mr Fox'
Cover of 'The Puffin Puzzle Book'

July 2010

Highlights from the 2009 Readers' Day:
Non-Fiction Workshop

In a lively discussion I opened proceedings by suggesting that it was with its non-fiction books that Penguin showed the colours of its ethics most visibly. From the wartime Special that fitted cosily in the pocket of a soldier’s uniform to the Pelican that was equally at home in a student’s satchel, every title was infused with a desire to educate, inform and inspire.

One reader recalled a book from her schooldays that seemed to embody this Penguin spirit: Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958). In the Penguin story Hoggart is usually known for his pivotal role as a defence witness in the Lady Chatterley trial, but it was with The Uses of Literacy that he made his most enduring contribution to British intellectual life.

Within the book Hoggart argued that the honourable features of British working-class culture were being eroded by new forms of mass-media. Alien values and aspirations were being imposed by tabloid newspapers, Hollywood films and trashy novels. Penguin’s books and the ‘earnest minority’ that digested them were swimming against a tide of mass-culture that was encouraging ‘immature emotional satisfactions’. There was a political strand to this logic. The idea that modern culture was promoting a philosophy of materialism struck a chord with a Labour Party was struggling to reconcile its socialist ideology with the improving material conditions of its working-class voters. It was a dilemma that continued to hold a central place in left-wing debate for many decades.

Cover of 'Uses of Literacy'Not only is the book an insight into post-war social and political change, but the warmth of the author’s relationship with Penguin can clarify the publisher’s own ethics and values. Hoggart argued, in line with Penguin’s aspirations, that popular literature should relate to the life and values of the people for whom it was produced and encourage them to reach for higher cultural tastes. It is little wonder, then, that Allen Lane held a deep affection for the book, writing to Eunice Frost that, ‘[Hoggart] obviously has a feeling for popular education for the best reasons i.e. as a means of attaining an appreciation of the cultural life as opposed to mere job-getting’.* Indeed Hoggart would later remark that his book, ‘typified so much of what Lane had at the back of his head but hadn’t himself made articulate.’** The conscience that Hoggart and Lane shared helps to explain why they both believed that readers should be allowed to make their own minds up about Lady Chatterley and why many Pelican titles remained, as some readers in our workshop recalled, quite difficult to get through.

We ended our workshop by discussing whether an educatory endeavour of Penguin’s magnitude could have any hope of being a success today and it was suggested by some that the oncoming ‘digital age’ of e-books seemed to provide some fertile ground. Hoggart himself has been distinctly pessimistic, declaring in the 1990s that ‘you wouldn’t have Penguin’s starting today’, but he can at least be encouraged by the fact that his most popular book remains in print by Britain’s most prestigious publisher and that, as the most recent blurb states, ‘it has lost none of its pertinence and power today.’

* Allen Lane to Eunice Frost, 7 March 1957. DM 1843/8    

**Taken from a transcript from an interview with Richard Hoggart: DM1843/17

Cover of 'Dickon Among The Indians'May/June 2010

Highlights from the 2009 Readers' Day:
Puffin Children's Book workshop

There’s a paradoxical quality to remembering your childhood reading – especially, it seems, remembering your childhood Puffins. In the workshop I facilitated at the 2009 Readers’ Day, I listened with great delight to readers’ childhood memories of talking animals, faraway planets, and magic lands, which often seemed more vivid and more real than memories of mundane things like friends and school. For many of us, Young Puffin’s bright colours or Puffin Plus’s torn-paper design (a roughed-up teenage riff on the classic horizontal grid) were ‘This Way Out’ signs, signalling the existence of undreamed-of new worlds and possibilities behind those tempting covers.

Not all of those new worlds and possibilities were fantastical, though. One reader spoke eloquently about Puffin’s educative mission: the novels it published which were firmly rooted in the real lives of real children of many different cultures, classes, and ethnicities. Remembering her experience of school libraries, she talked about how Puffin helped lead the 1960s and 70s movement towards social realism and how the books it published were part of a massive expansion of the possibilities for children’s fiction. Puffin books – both fiction and non-fiction – taught children about things they might not otherwise have encountered in day-to-day life: but the fiction books, in particular, did not just transmit knowledge. Instead, they encouraged an imaginative, empathetic, and deeply felt connection with the characters and cultures depicted.

The same reader, remembering her own childhood reading, had asked us in advance about Puffin’s Dickon Among the Indians (M. R. Hornington, 1949), citing it as a forerunner both of her own interest in anthropology and of Puffin’s continuing mission to educate. Our indefatigable archivist, Rachel, provided a copy of the correspondence file on the book for us to explore on the day.  The book, an abridged version of an American novel originally entitled Dickon Among the Lenape Indians, tells the story of a young English boy shipwrecked on the coast of Virginia in the nineteenth century, and how he became assimilated (and, eventually, initiated) into the culture of the indigenous Lenape nation. The front-page blurb assures us that ‘it is an unusual book, and enthralling from many different angles. The facts it contains are reliable, for much research went to its making.’

As it turned out, the correspondence file tells us much more about the enthralling side of the book than about the reliability of its facts. In one of the few editorial discussions preserved in the file, concerning whether the glossary of Lenape words should be retained in the abridged Puffin edition, we find a copy of a reader’s report from a ‘boy-reader’, who informs us solemnly: ‘Speaking as a small boy, I am against glossaries’. The adult editor is not so sure, however, feeling that ‘the Americans like to dress up such things rather too importantly but many boys would like to have the list of words so that they could more quickly pick out words that particularly amused them to use in games or badinage… [However,] the correct forms and plurals won’t interest and no English child will have ambitions to learn Lenape’.

Of course, in a correspondence file, this silence about the factual side of the book and its broader educative purposes only means that no letters exist detailing educational (or any other) motives for the decision to publish Dickon Among the Indians: perhaps it means, then, that these motives were too obvious, too taken-for-granted – too central – to need to be stated in writing. The correspondence which remains deals mostly with financial and technical matters to do with the royalties, illustrations, and the difficulties of printing in Britain in the late 1940s, not with the educative mission of Puffin. We do, however, gain a number of wonderful insights into the afterlife of a Puffin book in the 1950s and 60s, and the willingness of Penguin editors to engage with their readers: a letter in 1952 to the American publishers, forwarding a letter from a young reader in Abergale, North Wales about the ending of the unabridged version of the book (‘The enclosed desperate appeal has come to us… I am sure that you will put Michael out of his miserable suspense as soon as you can’); a letter in 1961 acknowledging receipt of two copies of the book (now out of print), lent to Faith Jacques for an assessment exercise in her course on illustration: ‘Would you please pass on to the students concerned our thanks for keeping the copies so clean? This certainly proves that Penguins can be of use in schools without falling apart in the first fortnight, as many authorities say!’ So perhaps the file itself was like a Puffin book: instead of giving us further information about what we already (thought we) knew about Dickon Among the Indians, it ended up providing new possibilities and new pleasures – pleasures we couldn’t have known how to want before we opened its pages.

Cover of 'The Aeneid'

April 2010

The Aeneid (1956)
W.F. Jackson Knight, tr.

Reading Professor T.P. Wiseman’s excellent essay ‘Talking To Virgil’, Frostie has learned all sorts of things she would not have expected about one of the most read and thereby most influential translations of Aeneas’ story, the founding of what Rome would become, in what T.S. Eliot called ‘our classic, the classic of all Europe’ (n.b. Frostie, though a deep freeze southerner, is an honorary European).

Long a favourite, the Penguin translation (1956) by W.F. Jackson Knight (1895 – 1964) was more of a collaborative effort than one might expect. For Jackson Knight’s friend in South Africa, T.J. Haarhoff, claimed to be in contact with the spirit of Virgil. Via a clairvoyant, a certain Mrs Vermey, he would seek his advice on certain tricky points of interpretation for the translator. Jackson Knight’s brother, the critic G. Wilson Knight, produced a biography full of interesting anecdotes (intriguing relationship with his mother) and information, not least that the sound of WFJK’s high-pitched voice was compared by the poet, Cecil Day Lewis, to ‘a demented seagull’. Frostie notes that while in her experience seagulls are irritating at the best of times,  WFJK was nevertheless a superlative teacher, and an engaging and personally forthcoming writer – Penguin also published his critical work, Roman Vergil (WFJK preferred ‘e’ to ‘i’ in the author’s name; there are arguments for both sides) under the Peregrine imprint – and a charming correspondent. Go to the University of Bristol Library Special Collections if you want proof of the latter, but take a magnifying glass.

A variety of these scraps of (auto)biography and a penchant for the mystical are fused together in a passage from Roman Vergil, which sums up his singular approach to scholarship: “he [Aeneas] is Vergil’s self, guarded and guided by a voice of God in tones of an ultimate authority, his own mother’s”. Whether this sort of thinking has infiltrated the translation of The Aeneid is for the reader to decide. Frostie doesn’t wish to tire your eyes by explaining the stories the Aeneid tells, but it is crammed with gods and heroes, love and war, truth and fiction. She does, however, wish to take issue with her late friend, W.H. Auden, who ought, she thinks, to have been a little less churlish when he complained to Virgil that it’s hard to learn history in the future tense; that ‘[h]indsight as foresight makes no sense’. Even if that were true, why was making no sense necessarily a bad thing?

In 2007, Frostie sought out Jackson Knight himself (via a medium, naturally) and, though preoccupied with writing a mammoth fly-on-the-wall encyclopaedia of the spirit world, he offered two Sibylline pronouncements: ‘facilis descensus Averni’, which Frostie does not understand, and, more intelligibly, ‘fortune favours the bold’. Though she spent some time learning to read tarot cards in Marrakech, Frostie is no interpreter of oracles, but is willing to venture the following prescription: the arrow of time flies, so though it is old and strange, dare to read The Aeneid, because it is also strange and new.

Cover of 'John Donne'March 2010

John Donne: A Selection of his Poetry
Edited with an Introduction by John Hayward (Penguin 1950)

John Hayward’s John Donne, published by Penguin in 1950, was, for many readers, a first abiding collection of Donne’s work. The text follows the original spelling and punctuation, and there is no apology for the difficulty of some of the poems. However, Hayward is also keen to convince readers that: ‘if Donne has survived the misrepresentation of his imitators, who brought the practice of “metaphysical” verse into disrepute, and the denunciation of Dr Johnson, it is because appreciation of his poems is not a matter so much of understanding as of feeling.’ In this, he is much aided by the actual arrangement of the poems, which, while connected to type and chronology, pays attention to its impression on the new reader – what better way to sway the uninitiated than how Hayward begins the book, with ‘The Good-Morrow’, and then ‘Song’ (‘Goe, and catche a falling starre’)?

In the Introduction, Hayward is light on biographical information, preferring to concentrate on the matter of the poetry. There is, though, a useful chronological table, and the footnotes give relevant matter from the life, details about addressees and so forth. So, while we are steered clear of the moralised soap opera of John Donne’s life that has since become the fashion, the pertinent facts are there to help explain things.

Hayward’s John Donne is a model of how an edition may at once be suitable for study and suited to the general reader. Generations of students have puzzled over it with profit. But, light and cheap (initially, one shilling and sixpence), this book will have been carried into the most important areas of readers' lives. It will have reconciled some to their God in their sickness. It must also have wooed a fair few mistresses going to bed. Indeed, it is pleasant and not unrealistic to think that there will be some who can thank this paperback not just for their introduction to Donne’s poetry, but also for their own conception.

February 2010

Classic Penguin English and American Fiction workshop:
Highlights from the 2009 Penguin Readers' Day

In the Classic English and American Fiction workshop at the Penguin Readers’ Day on 24 October 2009, Penguin readers remembered their reading Penguin fiction. One remembered Christmas in 1960 and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (first published by Penguin Books on 10 November), not wrapped in festive paper, but in a brown paper bag. Another remembered another Christmas and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: in this instance, a mother’s gift to her son that led to the son studying English literature at university; and, years later, to that son’s son taking that same Penguin with him to another university where he, too, studied English literature. Another remembered the great pleasure of reading Raymond Chandler in Penguin editions.

A Penguin reader had read, and read an extract from, William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth, first published by Penguin Books in 1976, and remembered its bleakly comic story of a solitary teenager in a small town on the Dorset coast, and the havoc and heartbreak he threatens to wreak on its inhabitants, in whose lives he has taken a malevolent interest, in pursuit of a fantasy of personal fame and escape from the prospects of life that actually await him. The novel had a Penguin moment when, in the final chapter, on the morning of the Easter Saturday Fête:

People came with books […], tattered green-backed Penguins, Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham, Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh, half of Why Didn’t They ask Evans?, the greater part of Death and the Dancing Footman.

The Children of Dynmouth is being republished this year, the year of Penguin’s 75th Birthday, as one of Penguin’s decade-defining books of the 1970s.

Cover of 'The Rise of Silas Lapham'Another reader had read, and also read from, William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), first published by Penguin Books in the Penguin American Library in 1983 and then reprinted in Penguin Classics in 1986, and remembered its satiric story of Colonel Silas Lapham, a self-made millionaire, who, having made his fortune, moves with his wife and daughters from Vermont to Boston, where he attempts to make his way into the town’s social and intellectual aristocracy. This, too, had a Penguin or, rather, would-be Penguin moment, in the Laphams’ aspiring to prove their superiority over other merely monied people:

The Laphams’ elder daughter, Penelope, ‘had an odd taste of her own for reading, and she took some private lessons, and read books out of the circulating library; the whole family were amazed at the number she read, and rather proud of it’.

Despite the advantage of their daughter’s ‘odd taste’, the Laphams’ lack of culture is evident to the eyes of the Boston elite, and, in particular among them, to the Coreys and to their son Tom, who takes an interest, not altogether intellectual, in the daughters:

And there was everything in the house that money could buy. But money has its limitations.

This was a fact which Mrs. Corey was beginning to realise more and more unpleasantly in her own life; but it seemed to bring her a certain comfort in its application to the Laphams. ‘Yes, there is a point where taste has to begin,’ she said. […] ‘I dare say they NEVER buy a NEW book. I’ve met some of these moneyed people lately, and they lavish on every conceivable luxury, and then borrow books, and get them in the cheap paper editions.’

The Laphams have plans for something that will be evidence of their cultivated taste, as the younger daughter Irene discloses to Tom:

‘We are going to have the back room upstairs for a music-room and library,’ she said abruptly.
‘Yes?’ returned Corey. ‘I should think that would be charming.’
‘We expected to have book-cases, but the architect wants to build the shelves in.’
The fact seemed to be referred to Corey for his comment.
‘It seems to me that would be the best way. They’ll look like part of the room then. You can make them low, and hang your pictures above them.’
‘Yes, that’s what he said.’ The girl looked out of the window in adding, ‘I presume with nice bindings it will look very well.’
‘Oh, nothing furnishes a room like books.’

If the Penguin English and American Library series and Penguin Classics had existed in 1885, the Laphams would have been able to furnish their library with books with nice bindings that would have looked very well, even though they were in a cheap paper edition. And they would have been able to buy NEW books in quantities in Penguin editions.

December 2009/January 2010

Cover of 'What's Wrong with the Unions?'What's Wrong with the Unions? (Penguin Special, 1961)
Eric Wigham

Hugh Pemberton, Project Co-Investigator

Wigham, at the time the labour correspondent of The Times, provided an incisive and insightful analysis of the many postwar problems with British trade unions, but he also outlined a prescription for their modernisation along Swedish lines. My interest in this book derives from my research into the failure of the economic modernisation project in the 1960s. For Wigham provides us with a vision of just how different things might have been if the unions had been less conservative; if they had been willing and able to reform themselves and, as in Sweden, to work closely with government and employers to achieve the radical change that so many thought at the time was necessary.

Cover of 'A Month in the Country'A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern Classics, 2000)
JL Carr

Rachel Hassall, Penguin Archivist

This novel tells the story of Tom Birkin, a young man who has returned to England with mild shellshock following his experiences in the trenches of the First World War. Birkin has been employed for the summer to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. During the course of the story Birkin is gradually healed, partly by the process of uncovering the wall painting and the story behind it, but also by the glorious weather and his acceptance into the village and the lives of its inhabitants.

For me the novel presents a picture of the perfect English summer and provides a welcome escape from these dark winter evenings. There is also the added bonus that a film, starring the very lovely Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, was made of the novel.

Cover of 'Far From the Madding Crowd'Far from the Madding Crowd (Penguin Modern Classics, 1979)
Thomas Hardy

Hannah Lowery, Special Collections Archivist

I first read this, Hardy's love story set in the Wessex countryside, for O level. The Penguin edition introduced me to the delights of Hardy, and explains why I now have a full set of Hardy Penguin editions on my shelves (black spines with nineteenth art work reproductions).

Cover of 'Charmed Life'Charmed Life (Puffin, 1979)
Diana Wynne Jones

Ika Willis, Project Co-Investigator

In a world much like our own, except that magic is commonplace, Cat Chant and his witch sister, Gwendolen, are taken to live in Chrestomanci Castle under the guardianship of the Chrestomanci, a government post held by the most powerful enchanter in all the Related Worlds.

This book - the most elegantly-plotted and the most humane of all Diana Wynne Jones's children's masterpieces - taught me more about childhood and families and how to survive them than any number of realist novels, and probably saved my life.

Cover of 'Les Racines du Ciel'Les Racines du Ciel (Penguin, 1960)
Romain Gary

George Donaldson, Project Co-Investigator

This novel - first published in the UK as The Roots of Heaven by Michael Joseph in 1958, in an English translation by Jonathan Griffin - tells the story of Morel, who embarks on a campaign with a collection of variously motivated followers and fellow-travellers to protect the elephants of French Equatorial Africa from the predation of poachers and big-game hunters. As Morel says, 'I began thinking about the elephants during the war, when I was a prisoner in Germany [...]: they were the very image of immense liberty'; and the novel is resonant with issues of conservation, colonial and post-colonial power, as well as the survival, not only of the elephants of Africa, but of a humane libertarianism in the changed world-order consequent on the Second World War.

I first read the novel in 1958 and afterwards re-read it several times in what was the first Penguin book that I remember buying; but I haven't read it again for more than forty years. It was perfect adolescent reading, in being a novel about the then modern world, high ideals and compromised and betrayed, but enduring, idealism.  I hope it might be good adult reading, too. The novel was made into a film in 1958, scripted by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, directed by John Huston, with music by Malcolm Arnold, and starring Trevor Howard, Juliette Greco, Errol Flynn, and Orson Welles.

Cover of 'The Ambassadors'The Ambassadors (Penguin Modern Classics, 1973)
Henry James

John Lyon, Project Principal Investigator

I apologise to Frostie since my recommendation is a difficult one to read, but it is my favourite novel. It's Henry James's The Ambassadors, first published in 1903 and first published by Penguin in 1973 It tells at great length the story of Lambert Strether sent as an ambassador from the United States to locate a young American, Chad Newsome, who seems to have gone astray in Europe, and to take Chad back home. Strether does not make a very good job of his mission. However, the novel is really about Strether himself and his discovery of the joys of living, most especially in Paris. The Ambassadors is a great celebration of the human mind's capacity to render life, however difficult and ugly, momentarily and intermittently wonderful.

Cover of 'The Rise of Meritocracy'The Rise of Meritocracy (Pelican, 1962)
Michael Young

Dean Blackburn, Project PhD student

My recommendation is Michael Young’s The Rise of Meritocracy (1962), a provocative work of political satire that invented a term now deeply-established in Britain’s political vocabulary.

Projecting himself into 2033, Young constructed an image of an unfair world where merit was the basis of Britain’s economic and social life, a principle that entrenched severe inequalities of wealth and power and also disarmed the labour movement that had contested such disparities in the previous century. As we stand only a few decades from Young’s prophetic vision in a political climate that often chooses to regard meritocracy as a positive concept, it is a book that continues to ask important questions of British society almost half a century after its publication.

November 2009

Tiger! Tiger! (aka The Stars My Destination)
Alfred Bester

First published as a serial in Galaxy magazine under the title “The Stars My Destination” in 1956/57, Bester’s beloved science fiction story was published in novel form in the UK by Penguin in 1968, with the new title, Tiger! Tiger!.

Essentially a loose retelling of Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, Tiger! Tiger! transplants the plot to a future where people have the ability to teleport themselves anywhere except through outer space. The novel focuses on Gully Foyle, a lazy, directionless regular Joe who finds himself stranded on his spacecraft after an accident kills the rest of the crew. Abandoned by a nearby ship that passes close enough to investigate the wreck but instead continues on, Foyle (eventually rescued) is consumed by a desire for vengeance against the people responsible for the ship that left him to die. The remainder of the novel sees him in hot pursuit, uncovering layers of political corruption and capitalist greed in his quest for revenge.  This quest is made all the more difficult after his eventual saviours (a tribe of lost scientists living on a nearby asteroid) tattoo his face with tiger-like patterns while he's asleep, effectively removing the anonymity he needs to continue his pursuit. 

Cover of 'Tiger! Tiger!'Along with Bester’s first novel, The Demolished Man, Tiger! Tiger! held an indelible influence over future SF authors, particularly those connected to the ‘cyberpunk’ movement that came to prominence during the eighties and nineties with books like Neuromancer by William Gibson and Schismatrix by Bruce Sterling. The noir-ish, hyper-urban landscapes of flashing lights and super technologies that defined the cyberpunk movement are all present, as is the page-turner action plotline and loner-against-the-world antihero at its centre. The novel’s inventive style and fast pace show parallels with the adventure comics that were so popular in the forties and fifties, at a time where the comic writers themselves were growing more interested in experimenting with, and attempting to improve the literary quality of, their art form. It is no coincidence that Bester himself spent several years writing for DC comics in the early fifties, with the experience he gained there evident throughout the novel.

After the original serialisation of Tiger! Tiger! in 1957, Bester turned his attention towards travel journalism and television scriptwriting, publishing barely any science fiction during this time. In fact, by the time Penguin published the novel, Bester was senior editor of Holiday magazine, a mainstream travel title in the USA, and had published only a handful of short stories in various science fiction magazines over the previous decade. It wasn’t until 1971, when Holiday folded, that Bester returned his focus to science fiction, publishing a number of short stories over the decade and two novels at the start of the eighties. However, neither of these novels was published by Penguin, possibly due to the drop in science fiction titles published by Penguin around this time following the departure of Science Fiction Editor, Paul Sidey. However, Tiger! Tiger!’s popularity commanded a number of reprints over the coming years, with its last edition for Penguin printed in 1987, the year of Bester’s death. Despite not being published by Penguin since this time, the editorial file (DM1107) held in the Penguin Archive echoes a feeling prevalent among many science fiction readers even today, in a letter written by Sidey following the original publication of the book, saying simply that Tiger! Tiger! is “arguably one of the best SF novels ever written.”

October 2009

Blue Angels and Whales
Robert Gibbings

Robert Gibbings’s Blue Angels and Whales, first published by Penguin in November 1938, bears the title of Penguin’s first commissioned book.  Although George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism, published in May 1937, is sometimes credited with this title, it did in fact include only two new chapters written by Shaw for the Pelican edition.

The story goes that Allen Lane commissioned Gibbings to write Blue Angels and Whales for Penguin’s new series of Pelican Specials.  At the time, Gibbings, a well-known wood engraver and former owner of the Golden Cockerel Press, was lecturing in Book Production at the University of Reading, but was already known to the Lane family having, in 1936, designed and engraved both a new publisher’s device for The Bodley Head and a Christmas card the Lane brothers.

Cover of 'Blue Angels and Whales'Blue Angels and Whales tells the story of Gibbings’s visits to Tahiti, Bermuda and the Red Sea, where he went with the intention of sketching the marine life.  But the book is as much about the journey and the people Gibbings met along the way as it is about the marine life.  The title appears to be a tongue-in-cheek play by Gibbings on not only the Blue Angel fish he saw in Bermuda but also on his fellow travellers.  In the book, Gibbings tells of meeting a buxom blonde on board the ship to Bermuda who generally wore blue and was known by fellow passengers as ‘Blue Angel’.  If this is the case then perhaps Gibbings, a larger than-life-character in all respects, may have been referring to himself as the whale.

The book is illustrated with thirty of Gibbings’s original wood engravings and reproductions of his drawings and photographs.  Gibbings states in the book that his aim was “to get on closer terms with the fish, and to meet them on their own level”, which he achieved with the aid of a helmet, a hosepipe and an air pump, making his drawings underwater on sheets of xylonite with a stick of graphite fitted into rubber tubing.

Penguin issued 50,000 copies of Blue Angels and Whales in November 1938.  The book led to Gibbings’s appointment as art director of a new series of Penguin Illustrated Classics.  This ill-fated series, launched in May 1938, was intended to display the work of Gibbings and his fellow wood engravers, with Gibbings illustrating Herman Melville’s Typee.  However, the series was not a success and was discontinued after the issue of the first ten titles.  Penguin did go on to publish in 1945 Gibbings’s Coconut Island as a Puffin Story Book, but his joking suggestion for a book about the Great Barrier reef, entitled Blue Sharks and Shrimps, was never taken up.

For further information

The Penguin Archive held in Bristol University Library Special Collections includes correspondence between Robert Gibbings and Penguin Books concerning the Penguin Illustrated Classics series with mention of Blue Angels and Whales, 8 January-31 December 1938 (ref. DM1819/1/3); and a copy of the 1936 Christmas card designed by Robert Gibbings for the Lane brothers (ref. DM1819/23/4).

The Gibbings Collection held in Reading University Library Special Collections includes a number of Gibbings’s original drawings and photographs used in Blue Angels and Whales.

Martin J. Andrews The Life and Work of Robert Gibbings (Bicester, Primrose Hill Press, 2003).

August/September 2009

The New Poetry
A. Alvarez (ed)

Anthologies of contemporary poetry tend to do one of two things: they give a more or less fair-minded summary of the poetry around or they campaign for the sort of poetry the editor happens to rate.A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry did both.

Serious-minded and hugely successful, the book was a bestseller when it first appeared in 1962, and its two editions went on to sell more than 150,000 copies.Moreover, this popularity was achieved without cheerleading, simplifying or condescension: Penguin and Alvarez assumed that the public would be interested in the best of new verse and they were proved right.

Cover of 'The New Poetry'The New Poetry continued to be bought and trusted, chiefly because it did its primary job well: it was a good survey of British (or, as A. Alvarez was describing it, English) poetry of the time. There was, admittedly, a bias towards particular favourites, but there is in The New Poetry a fair cross-section of the younger British poets of making a name for themselves in the fifties and early sixties. Here you will find the striking earlier verse of Christopher Middleton, R.S. Thomas, Charles Tomlinson, Iain Crichton Smith, Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Hill. The dominant new literary school of the time, The Movement, is also represented, with Kingsley Amis, Donald Davie, D. J. Enright and Philip Larkin all included along with Thom Gunn.There are too some choices which now look inevitable but at the time show some good talent-spotting: John Fuller is there, still in his mid-twenties, as is the still young and not much-known Peter Redgrove.The anthology, it is true, makes a couple of questionable omissions, and even more questionable inclusions (Arthur Boyars anyone?), but, on the whole, the poets chosen have been more or less vindicated by time.

If that gives the impression that The New Poetry is largely balanced and non-partisan, the impression is not corroborated by the first part of the book.Placed before the British poets are, in the first edition, two American poets: Robert Lowell and John Berryman.That they are given pride of place in what is nominally an English anthology is no whim.As far as Alvarez was concerned, English poets simply hadn’t matched up to these American counterparts in ambition, intensity or in facing up to the great problems of the day. This is explained in the anthology’s introductory essay ‘Beyond the Gentility Principle’, where English poets, and particularly the poets of The Movement, stand accused of a failure of nerve.

The Movement was, according to Alvarez, the latest in a series of ‘negative feedbacks’ from modernism.Its prizing of common sense may have been partly a useful corrective to the excesses of the poetry of the forties, but it has produced an unambitious, academic-administrative verse, conservative in its tone, form and technique. With the Movement’s dull uniformity of writing style, its post war repression and stifling gentility came an unambitiousness of subject matter in verse. These poets did not probe the Freudian psyche, nor did they address the trauma of the age.Where were the poems on the Atomic Bomb or the horrors of the Second War, which, in 1962, would have been in the adolescent, if not the adult, lifetime of the poets? Contrast these poets with Robert Lowell and with his breakthrough volume Life Studies and it is clear that the English poets are not rising to the challenges of their art or the age.

There are, however, English poets whom A. Alvarez rates.Despite his early association with the Movement, Thom Gunn has the verve and lack of gentility to get a very generous selection. The number of poems accorded Peter Redgrove, Geoffrey Hill and R.S. Thomas also suggests that they possess some of the requisite vigour, vision, dark matter and seriousness of purpose required. Most of all, though, there is the anthology’s wunderkind, Ted Hughes. At a time when D.H. Lawrence was still very much in favour – this was just after the Lady Chatterley Trial – Hughes was the poet with the Lawrentian credentials. When Alvarez compares his work to that of Philip Larkin, Larkin’s talent and polish may be acknowledged, but the reader is urged to find Hughes’s more sensual and emotional, less restrained, qualities of a considerably higher worth.

In 1966, The New Poetry was expanded and given a new cover, the geometric design of Stephen Russ’s first edition being replaced by a photograph of a painting by Jackson Pollock. This new edition comes across as a vindication of the old one. The American poets have been added to: Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who expressed her admiration of The New Poetry when it first came out, are now included. According to Alvarez, it is their verse ‘more than anyone else’s made sense of my introduction.’ There are other poets who were omitted before, such as Peter Porter and David Wevill, and there is an early sighting of the poetry of Ian Hamilton. It seemed that Alvarez had predicted and summed up the spirit of the age in poetry.

Had he? Well, in some ways he had. The New Poetry remains a frequently-cited landmark in the history of post-war British poetry, and continues to be invoked by those who wish to renew the attack upon the Movement – it is, for example a key text in Randall Stevenson’s 12th volume of the Oxford History of English Literature.

Moreover, the American poets Alvarez admired did become hugely influential on English poetry.The last few decades have seen much more personal material, less stuffiness and gentility in English verse. Indeed, at times, it has seemed to be less the absence of the influence of Lowell, Berryman, Sexton and Plath than its pervasiveness that has become the problem.

On the other hand, it didn’t take long for The New Poetry to become old poetry. The argument for American influence and Modernism in English poetry may have continued, but the names and terms soon changed. From the mid-sixties on, when British poets extolled the virtues of American modernism and postmodernism, they were, likely as not, endorsing poets and poetry antithetical to Lowell, Berryman, Plath and Sexton. The influence of the Movement lingered long, but it is not the dominant force it was. Despite that, and despite many more criticisms, Philip Larkin’s poetry and influence remain fairly buoyant. So, with Robert Lowell’s star on the wane for some time now, Alavrez’s confidence in Lowell’s superiority over Larkin, is, on this side of the Atlantic at least, not receiving the endorsement Alvarez might have expected. Alvarez’s faith in Ted Hughes at the beginning of Hughes's career has been largely repaid by his subsequent reputation, but the Hughes vs. Larkin argument seems far less worth having than it did.

Despite the inevitable weathering its arguments have undergone, the example of The New Poetry has remained potent. Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion’s Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1982) was a self-proclaimed successor to The New Poetry as was (unsurprisingly, given the title) Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry, edited by Michael Hulse David Kennedy and David Morely, which in 1993 gave the world the New Generation Poets. Both were influential anthologies, but none managed quite to combine combativeness with utility and an air of authority in the way that Alvarez had.

It is notable that, despite other attempts, there is no comparable book dominating the market now, nor indeed has there been for some time. Whether the state of current poetry with its more disparate poetic practices and reading public combine to make such a successful anthology possible again is a moot point; that another such book would be a good thing is less arguable. The New Poetry remains not just an interesting document of recent literary history but an example and a reproach.

June 2009

Lady Chatterley's Lover
D.H. Lawrence

What does Lady Chatterley’s Lover mean for readers now? And what did it mean for readers of past generations? Famously, according to the poet Philip Larkin:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

So, in the early sixties, the unexpurgated Lady Chatterley’s Lover heralded sexual liberation. If we think, for a moment of what the novel meant for Penguin, rather than its long-dead author or its future readers, we find that the novel was of very considerable importance for this publisher. Penguin Books prompted the Obscenity Trial of 1960. Penguin – perhaps Allen Lane personally – was intent on testing and challenging the new Obscene Publications Act of 1959.

Nor are the Beatles irrelevant to this moment in Penguin’s history. Alan Aldridge, who designed many album covers including those of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elton John and The Beatles themselves in the 1960s, might be seen as the designer of the psychedelic decade. Aldridge, moreover, was, for part of that time, the Art Director at Penguin. So, to a degree, Penguin designed the sixties. And one of the larger questions about which The Penguin Archive Project continues to puzzle is the question of how much Penguin itself embraced this new ‘liberated’ decade, and how much Penguin resisted the new in defence of the more austere and more ‘serious’ values of Post- – and indeed Pre- War Britain.

However, Lady Chatterley’s Lover has meant altogether other things for other readers at other points in history. In the 1970s, for example, feminism challenged the so-called ‘sexual liberation’ of the preceding decade as merely yet another male power myth, serving to oppress women. Lawrence’s novel was a much cited example in that argument, and, unfairly perhaps, a casualty of it, to the extent that even today, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lawrence more generally, are not held in the high esteem that they once enjoyed. Yet gradually amongst critics of diverse approaches, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is now regaining critical attention and a new readership.

For its author himself, D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover meant something other again. The novel ends looking tentatively to a future for Constance Chatterley, her lover, the gamekeeper Mellors, and their as yet unborn child. Yet what form such a future might take remains extraordinarily yet understandably vague. The larger part of the novel is, for Lawrence, a retrospective work, looking back at what he saw as the tragedy of the modern, mechanistic age, a tragedy embodied most forcibly in the waste that was the First World War. When Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he had abandoned any notion that this novel might even be published except privately, and he was in the later stages of tuberculosis. His writing partakes of some of the extremity and feverishness that are symptomatic of that illness. Yet such a biographical ‘explanation’ of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is reductive and inadequate. Here Lawrence’s negative account of the modern world remains a powerful one, and one which mocks the very form of the novel, the form, which above all other literary forms, offers to explain ordinary human life. For Lawrence the madness of modernity remains beyond explanation and his book verges on impatient parody. So the large number of parodies which Lady Chatterley’s Lover has occasioned – including a parody by Spike Milligan (also published by Penguin) compliment and complement Lawrence’s writing rather than condemn it. The positive that Lawrence has to offer – the relationship between one man and one woman, described in considerable physical detail and extending to those famous four-letter words – is more fragile. Is Lawrence offering this relationship as a sexual ideal? Or does he have the sense of humour which many deny him, describing Connie’s and Mellors’s relationship as inept, a comic touching and a touching comedy? Whatever the case, hindsight has shown Lawrence’s confidence that his representation of tenderness between one man and one woman might escape our modern political world to have been misplaced.   

At times, Lawrence thought of himself as a prophet, a propounder of theories and doctrines, but his writing, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover, can seem at its most alive when it is asking questions rather than giving answers, when it is at play amidst a disconcerting array of tones and registers and vocabularies rather than when it is making solemn pronouncements. To ask, ‘what do readers make of Lady Chatterley’s Lover now?’ is to raise questions not just about Lawrence’s novel but about readers nowadays. Is present-day taste determined by what pleases us, by what we find personally and politically agreeable, by writings which mirror our own concerns, beliefs and prejudices? Or are we able to give attention to writing that is apart from ourselves, disagreeable, but which, in its remote and idiosyncratic brilliance, commands our admiration?

Some of these questions will be explored at the Penguin Archive Project’s first conference, entitled 'Lady Chatterley and Her Consequences,' on Thursday 2 July. For more information on this conference, and to register a place, visit the conference webpage.

May 2009

Swallows and Amazons
Arthur Ransome

I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read to a young friend of mine aged eight recently; and we took down Swallows and Amazons, by Arthur Ransome (in the Penguin Archive, PS171, originally published by Puffin in July 1962, and by Jonathan Cape in 1932). I knew little about such things, but my friend assured me that his mother has all the Puffin editions at home, and that she was, as a child, a bit of a fan.

Anyway I was a bit disappointed to learn that there were no penguins in the books, but certainly some swallows (of the wingless two legged variety), namely John, Susan, Titty, and Roger Walker; or as they would rather be known Captain, Mate, Able-seaman, and Ship’s Boy. It turns out that these children were lucky enough to spend a summer in the Lake District, in Northern England, at a farm called Holly Howe, bordering Lake Coniston. Their mother (an outdoors girl herself, bought up sailing on Sydney Harbour), and their absent father (overseas in the navy) agreed that if the children were not duffers, that they could sail their ship Swallow, and camp on an island on the nearby lake.

The book chronicles the delights of their adventure, including messing about on their sailing dinghy Swallow, fishing for shark (pike), visiting the charcoal makers (and encountering their snake), keeping camp, watching birds (cormorants and dippers), and meeting friendly natives. Their biggest adventure is when they come in contact with a couple of female pirates, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, and their dinghy Amazon. This results in three members of the Swallow crew sailing at night down the Amazon River (which is virtually forbidden) and one member thwarting their enemies. Later they come into contact with the Pirate, Captain Flint, who lives on a neighbouring houseboat.

Cover of 'Swallows and Amazons'In some ways the book has dated, with its talk of knickerbockers, and smothering food in salt. It was written in the 1920s and at that time the author was recalling his own childhood; and as my young friend said, he didn’t think it would happen now, as every one has mobile phones. Yet it remained a wonderful read which we both enjoyed. The text was complemented by Arthur Ransome’s own simple line drawings and map, and we are already looking forward to starting the next in the series.

Do you think we might be allowed to have pilchard sandwiches rather than pemmican sandwiches, when Mate Susan packs up the next picnic, and will the banana tree be in full crop?

The University of Bristol’s Penguin Archive edition is signed by Arthur Ransome, but the Archive does not have the editorial file for the volume.

April 2009

The Odyssey
Homer, translation by E.V. Rieu

This is one of Frostie’s absolute favourites, not just because it is a pivotal title in the history of Penguin Books, and a huge commercial success –well over 3 million copies sold to date– but also because it’s all around and about the sea.

E(mile) V(ictor) Rieu, a classicist by training and a publisher by trade, had begun his translation in 1936 and ‘completed a first draft as France fell. Home Guard service intervened, and I could not finish the job till 1944. Even so, its revision was undertaken to the sound of V1 and V2 explosions and the crash of shattered glass’. His method of composition was both unusual and suggestive of his impeccable classical training: of an evening, he would take the Greek text and translate on the fly, reading aloud to his wife who would help assess the effect of his rendering.

Sir Allen Lane had asked Rieu to put together a ‘Translation Series’ and with The Odyssey entering post-production, it seemed the ideal title with which to kick off the new list. On its publication in January 1946, ‘L1’, as it is fondly known to collector-experts, sounded the keynote for the Penguin Classics project. The series was designed to bring the best of world literature to readers in an inexpensive form a) faithful to the original – aptly echoing the motto of Rieu’s alma mater, St Paul’s: ‘Fide et Literis’ – and b) which they could enjoy, in contrast to the dreary or literose versions then commonly available.

Frostie can’t read Greek herself, but is reliably informed by more academic birds that E.V. Rieu’s Homer is ‘not very Homeric’, and reads at times more like the patter of garrulous dons than the high-flown, grandiose epic it ought to be, especially in the dialogue. One notorious criticism was that ‘Rieu was the first to demonstrate beyond a doubt that Homer was really Antony Trollope’. But Frostie doesn’t mind, because the story’s great fun and whizzes along. Rieu aimed to achieve a fresher style in translation, unconstrained by writing with an academic readership in mind. For the student struggling to construe Homer’s verse, a Loeb edition or one of the archaically accurate translations like Butcher and Lang’s would have to do. But Rieu wanted to hit the general reader with good quality, readable English prose, the latter being a striking choice, since the original is in 12,100 dactylic hexameters. He believed that ‘Too faithful a rendering defeats its own purpose; and if we put Homer straight into English words, neither meaning nor manner survives.’Another part of the reason for his decision to abandon poetry can be found in the introduction: “In form they are epic poems; but it will perhaps make their content clearer to the modern reader if I describe The Iliad as a tragedy and The Odyssey as a novel. It is in The Iliad that we hear for the first time the authentic voice of the Tragic Muse, while The Odyssey, with its well-knit plot, its psychological interest, and its interplay of character, is the true ancestor of the long line of novels that have followed it. And though it is the first, I am not sure that it is not still the best. Let the new reader decide for himself”. While many might query the details of Rieu’s analysis, few would disagree with Malcolm Bradbury’s judgment that The Odyssey ‘is one of the world’s most vital tales’ and ‘remains central to literature’.

While other ageing Penguin Classics were being revised and replaced, Rieu’s Odyssey persisted untouched by editors for 45 years, until his son, D.C.H. Rieu, improved the translation in 1991. Further revision followed in 2003 and in that altered form it is still in print, testament to the enduring appeal of the prose and to the way in which it has become part of literary and educational canons.

March 2009

Cover of 'May Day Manifesto'May Day Manifesto
Raymond Williams, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1968, S262)

May Day Manifestowas a highly significant entry into the Specials list, published at a time when the series was revealing the sort of cohesive identity that had been evident in its commercial heyday of the 1930s but had been distinctly absent since. A product of discussions among like-minded socialists, it was written in 1967 as an attack upon the perceived failings of the Labour government led by Harold Wilson.

May Day Manifesto was an expression of a rather abrupt change in the tone of the Specials’ post-war output; in many respects a shift informed by wider developments on the progressive-wing of British politics. Out of the sparse output of the 1950s two works on domestic politics relating directly to the Labour Party had appeared in the Specials list: Twentieth Century Socialism (1956) and Must Labour Lose (1959). The former expounded the need for a revision of socialist doctrine to accommodate the emergence of a reformed, less volatile capitalism, while the latter questioned the electoral viability of the Labour Party in the midst of working-class affluence. While the conclusions of these two books articulated the thinking that fuelled the ideological triumph of the revisionist Labour right over the party’s policy making instruments – expressed in the contents of Harold Wilson’s 1964 Special, The New Britain: Labour’s Plan - their ethos proved vulnerable in the turbulent life of the 1964-1970 government. The apparent failure of planning as the government vainly struggled to defend the value of the pound opened up new grounds for debate of a distinctly philosophical nature.

The May Day Manifesto ardently criticised what the authors regarded as the surrendering of socialist principles to the goal of maximum economic growth, disputing the Labour Party’s apparent lack of a robust approach to planning. It was the first forceful expression of what would come to be termed, the ‘New Left’, an intellectual force within the Labour Party that would find its zenith in the late 1970s in the form of a radical, protectionist socialism.

The Manifesto was more than a political rallying cry, however, for its attack had a cultural slant that gave it a rather unique resonance. It was an expression of deeper reservations regarding British culture in the 1960s that were occasioning a convergence in cultural and political life that had not been witnessed for thirty years. The Manifesto’s editor – Raymond Williams – was not a politician but a novelist and co-founder of the discipline of cultural studies with Marxist sympathies. His faith in the virtues of Britain’s diverse literary culture – shared fiercely by Allen Lane - leaked into the manifesto’s worries about the commodification of the nation’s cultural life to create a curious mix of socialist romanticism with a demand for a leftward shift in the Labour Party’s policy aims. For instance, the abhorrence of the ‘selling of Carrots from Texas in the middle of an English horticultural region’ raised concerns with what would come to be termed ‘globalisation’; apprehensions that would echo through many other titles in the Specials list. Indeed, published at a time when Allen Lane himself was attempting to resist what he perceived as the ‘Americanisation’ of his books’ cover designs to meet the demands of a new book-buying market, the Manifesto is as telling of Penguin’s own turbulent experience in the 1960s as it is of a Labour Party grappling with calls for ‘more socialism’.

For further information on the Penguin Specials series, see the project research webpages.

February 2009

André Maurois
Translation by Ella D'Arcy* (London: Penguin Books, 1935)

Ariel by André Maurois was the first published paperback book in Allen Lane’s new publication venture, Penguin Books, in 1935. As its cover shows, Penguin Books was initially under the imprimatur of The Bodley Head. Ariel had been first published in 1924 by John Lane and The Bodley Head, and, in hardback, had been reprinted in Illustrated, Popular and Week-End Library editions. John Lane was Allen’s ‘Uncle’, although actually more remotely related to Allen than that title suggests, and the man who provided Allen Williams as he originally was with a new surname and a route into publishing.

The cover of the Penguin paperback shows by its blue banding that Ariel is a biography. Penguin’s distinctive colour-coding of the different categories of their paperbacks was both eye-catching and customer-convenient. Although Ariel is published as a biography, its subtitle ‘A Shelley Romance’ indicates the fact that it is a biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley written with the narrative immediacy and intimacy of imaginative fiction. As an account of Shelley’s life, it is perhaps unrivalled in its charm, although that charm, as well as an inducement to the reader to read on, is something of a limitation in its not treating its subject with the seriousness of interest, either in Shelley’s poetry or his experience and ideas that earlier and, of course, later biographers have done. The Shelley of the book is the Shelley of the name he adopted for himself, as in his poem ‘With a Guitar. To Jane’ and, like Shakespeare’s Ariel, a creature of air and light and speedy flights of feeling, mood, thought and action. It is a biography of Shelley, as Robert Graves, in reviewing it, states ‘which can be read as easily and amusedly as a novel’. Arnold Bennett found it ‘a most diverting and instructive work’ that ‘handled the subject with gleeful, cruel and tender irony’.

What attracted Allen Lane to Ariel as the first Penguin is a matter of conjecture. Its publication history was testament to its previous and persisting and prospective success. Allen Lane might also have enjoyed the irony of hatching as the first publication of a flightless bird, a book whose title identifies a being for whom flying was certainly not a problem. As described by Jeremy Lewis, the young Allen Lane’s ‘humour, and his sense of mischief, would be evident in his career as a publisher, always more happy to tease and deride those who seemed to embody the established order’; and humour and mischief-making were perhaps evident even in his choice of the first Penguin.[i] Others of his attributes as a person - ‘a loyalty to old friends that sometimes sat uneasily with volatility, fickleness and an alarming tendency to suddenly turning cold on those who had seemed, until recently, to be the favourites of the moment’ - would have led him to read with interest a biography which, lightly and warmly ironic in tone, is sympathetic towards Shelley’s changeability and also towards his loyalty to individuals and to ideas.[ii] Although Shelley may be sentimentalised in Maurois’s depiction, the worlds he confronted are not. For example, here, in the account of Shelley’s schooling:

His love of books, his contempt for games, his long hair floating in the wind, his collar opened on a girlish throat, everything about him scandalized those self-charged to maintain in the little world of Eton the brutal spirit of which it was so proud.[iii]

and, a little later, in sentiments close to the author’s if not the publisher’s heart:

He returned to his books, to Diderot, to Voltaire, to the system of M. d’Holbach. To love these Frenchmen, so hated by his masters, seemed an act of defiance worthy of his courage.[iv]

Ariel celebrates Shelley’s tenacious adherence to democratic radicalism, libertarianism and heterodoxy, and cocks a snook at the enemies of liberty, equality and fraternity.

An unforeseeable irony of Penguin’s publishing Ariel in 1935 is that this was the year before the publication of F. R. Leavis’s Revaluation, in which the reputation of Shelley as a poet was brought into a particular disrepute which it took almost half a century to dissipate. In a letter of 10 February 1947, after many years’ of publishing him and of friendship between them, Allen Lane wrote to André Maurois:

I have just come across a fairly good copy of the Penguin ARIEL, and I thought perhaps you might like to have this for your Library, as after all it was the first Penguin ever, and I don’t think that either of us realized when we made the arrangement to what a healthy bird the fledgling might grow.[v]

* Update: Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Delaware Library, has helpfully contacted the Penguin Archive Project about the translator of Ariel, Ella D’Arcy, as follows:

Ella D’Arcy was not only an extraordinarily talented translator, she was an important short storywriter, and, more consequentially perhaps, a link between Allen Lane and the early career of John Lane, the founder of the Bodley Head.

From 1894 through 1897, D’Arcy served as the principal subeditor of the Bodley Head’s famous Yellow Book (she was also one of the more regular contributors of stories and her portrait appeared in the magazine as well). Without D’Arcy there would have been no Ariel. The principal biographical source for D’Arcy (who was so mysterious that she was known as ‘goblin Ella’) is the introduction to Ella D’Arcy, Some Letters to John Lane, ed. Alan Anderson (Edinburgh: Tragara Press, 1990). My The Yellow Book: A Checklist and Index (London: Eighteen Nineties Society, 1998) identifies her role and contributions to the 1890s magazine.

  • [i]Jeremy Lewis, Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 15.
  • [ii]Lewis, p. 15.
  • [iii]André Maurois, Ariel (London: Penguin Books, 1935), pp. 13-14.
  • [iv]Maurois, p. 15.
  • [v]ARIEL: ANDRE MAUROIS, File 00.001.1, Box DM1107, The Penguin Archive, Special Collections, University of Bristol Arts and Social Sciences Library.

January 2009

Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane
Jeremy Lewis (London: Penguin Viking, 2005)

Jeremy Lewis’s acclaimed biography of Allen Lane, Penguin’s founder has an extraordinary story to tell. Born Allen Williams in Cotham Vale in Bristol, Allen Lane was no intellectual but he was to prove the most distinctively intelligent publisher in the twentieth century, with an instinct for both books and people and, as Lewis has it, ‘an ability to read the spirit of the age’. A distant relative, himself childless, John Lane persuaded Allen Williams – and his two brothers John and Dick – to change their name to Lane. In return, Allen Williams, now Allen Lane, found himself, at the age of sixteen, a part of John Lane’s publishing house, The Bodley Head. In contrast to the Penguins that were to come, The Bodley Head specialised initially in limited editions, and subsequently in middlebrow writing for the middle–classes. However, it did give Allen Lane an education in the world of publishing, an enduring interest in the visual power of excellent book design, experience of buying book rights from other publishers, awareness of the value of publishing on current affairs, and exposure to the joys and perils of courting publishing controversy. The Bodley Head years coincided with the wildest of social lives: Allen Lane always knew how to party. Then came that weekend of parties at the Devon home of Agatha Christie and her husband, Max Mallowan.

The defining moment when Penguin Books was conceived remains, as Jeremy Lewis shows, more a matter of myth than of fact. The most common version has Lane, at Exeter Station returning to London after that weekend in Devon, at a loss to find something good to read. From thence came the idea of paperback books of good writing at the cost of sixpence – the price of a packet of cigarettes. Whatever the truth of the moment of conception, underlying the creation of Penguin Books was an extraordinary combination of brilliant business acumen and humane politics. Books were for the first time to be recognised, not by author nor by subject matter, but by publisher – in particular by way of stunning uniform cover designs which remain part of Penguin Books’ achievement to this day. Books, more importantly, were to be affordable to nearly all, and so, as Peter Conrad puts it in his review of Lewis’s biography, Penguins, Pelicans, Peregrines and Puffins ‘educated half the world for half a century.’

What follows merely becomes more remarkable. This is the history of Penguin, a history about which everyone knows some part, but Lewis’s masterly and comprehensive treatment has much that is new to tell any reader. The sheer range of kinds of book which Penguin published and continues to publish is astonishing. Penguin’s benign role in the Second World War and in the shaping of post-war Britain is uncharacteristic evidence of the power of books in the face of more familiar, more coercive socio-economic forces. Allen Lane was an extraordinary figure but his enterprise extended to people just as extraordinary: W. E. Williams, Eunice Frost, E.V. Rieu, Nikolaus Pevsner, Edward Young, Richard Hoggart, Hans and Tanya Schmoller, Kaye Webb, Tom Maschler, Tony Godwin, Betty Radice, Jan Tschichold… Indeed, as readers of Lewis’s biography will discover, Allen Lane’s is a democratic story in which all readers have some part.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Lewis’s study has a fine antecedent in J.E Morpurgo’s Allen Lane: King Penguin (London, Hutchinson, 1980). Moreover, Lewis’s biography continues the pioneering writings on Penguin by members of the Penguin Collectors Society, most notably Steve Hare whose Penguin Portrait: Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors 1935-1970 (also published by Penguin in 1995) remains the best introduction to the richness and diversity of the Penguin Archive. The success of all such publications is testimony to the enduring interest in Penguin’s founder, Penguin’s editors and Penguin’s achievements, in an age when there was more scope for individual vision in publishing.