Monthly Archives: October 2018

A most English writer

The recent news of the death of Charles Aznavour reminded me, like many others, that this most French of singers, was born as Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, the son of Armenian immigrants.  To the British at least, he had an impeccably French accent, sang quintessentially French songs about French passions and in an unmistakably French way.

Which reminds me in turn of Michael Arlen, that most English of early twentieth century writers, who was though born as Dikran Kouyoumdjian, the son of Armenian immigrants to Britain.  He himself was born in Bulgaria, but came to England with his parents in 1901 at the age of 5.  He was sent to Malvern College, which no doubt turned him into the perfect English gentleman, as it no doubt still does for his modern equivalents.  He remained a Bulgarian citizen though throughout the First World War (in which Bulgaria was aligned with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) becoming a British Citizen only in 1922 and changing his name at this point to Michael Arlen.

Michael-Arlen

Michael Arlen, from the National Portrait Gallery

My interest in him is focused on the books he had published in Continental Europe by Tauchnitz and Albatross and in the UK by Penguin and Hutchinson.  He first appeared as a Tauchnitz author in 1930, one of the new authors introduced by Max Christian Wegner, who had been appointed as General Manager of the company in 1929.   The first of his books to appear was ‘Lily Christine’ as volume 4926.  As usual Tauchnitz preferred to start by publishing his latest work, rather than going back to the earlier works that had made his name.

‘Lily Christine’, a tangled romance chronicling the lives of upper class society in the 1920s ‘Jazz Age’, had been published in the UK in 1928.   It is probably fairly typical of the novels that led to Arlen being described as the English F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The first printing in Tauchnitz is dated March 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper, and like all first printings from this era, has a two column list of latest volumes on the back and inside wrappers.   Later printings have a single column listing on the back only.

It was followed shortly after by ‘Babes in the Wood’, a collection of short stories that begins with an apparently autobiographical story called ‘Confessions of a naturalised Englishman’ (although a note adds that all characters are fictitious, including the author).  It appeared as volume 4943 and the first printing is dated June 1930 at the top of the rear wrapper.  In the three months between publication of the two books, Tauchnitz had introduced a modernised design for the front wrappers, so that they look rather different at first.

A final Tauchnitz volume, ‘Men dislike women’ appeared the following year, as volume 5001, dated July 1931 on the rear wrapper.  By this time Christian Wegner had been fired by Tauchnitz and was shortly to re-appear as one of the founders of the rival Albatross series.  Albatross was hugely successful in persuading leading British and American authors to publish with them rather than Tauchnitz, and Arlen quickly switched allegiance to the new firm, no doubt partly because of his earlier relationship with Wegner.

Albatross 40 Young men in love

‘Young men in love’, an earlier novel by Arlen, first published in 1927, appeared as volume 40 of the Albatross series in late 1932, in the blue covers used to identify love stories.  Then in 1934, ‘Man’s mortality’, a rather different type of novel from his usual romances, was published as volume 211.  This is more like science fiction, set 50 years in the future and often compared (almost always unfavourably) with Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, published the previous year.  Albatross gave it the yellow covers representing ‘psychological novels, essays etc.’, although perhaps slightly oddly ‘Brave New World’ had been given the orange covers of ‘tales and short stories, humorous and satirical works’.

Albatross 211 Man's mortality

Arlen’s third and final book in Albatross, was a book of short stories though, and so was given orange covers, making him one of only a handful of writers to have books published in Albatross in three different categories / colours (Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Katherine Mansfield were others, and D.H. Lawrence managed four).  ‘The Crooked Coronet’ was published in March 1938 as volume 362.

Albatross 362 The crooked coronet

This was long after Albatross had taken over editorial control of Tauchnitz in 1934, with the two series being managed jointly from then on.  Arlen could presumably have been published in either series, and the criteria for determining  which series was used, are not entirely clear.  Most authors stayed with the series they were published in before the two came together, generally with more of the edgier modern authors in Albatross and more of the longer established or more conservative authors in Tauchnitz.  That fitted the harsh reality that authors banned by the Nazis could not be published by the German-based Tauchnitz.   I don’t think that Michael Arlen was ever banned (or could ever be described as edgy and modern), so presumably he stayed in Albatross just because that was where he was at the time of the coming together.

Meanwhile in the UK, Penguin had been launched in 1935 and was buying up paperback rights where it could, mostly for books published several years earlier, rather than the latest novels.  They obtained the rights to Michael Arlen’s ‘These charming people’, another collection of short stories that had been first published by Collins in 1923, and this appeared as volume 86 of the Penguin series in 1937.  It includes a story called ‘When the nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’, a title that was later appropriated for a song that became one of the most popular songs of the second world war.

Penguin 086 dw

I think ‘These charming people’ was the only one of Michael Arlen’s works to appear in Penguin, but at least two others appeared in Hutchinson’s Pocket Library.  Hutchinson was the original UK publisher for several of Arlen’s books, so they were in a stronger position to publish paperback editions in their series competing against Penguin.  ‘Young men in love’ appeared as volume 50 of the series in May 1938 and ‘Lily Christine as volume 59 in October of the same year.

There may have been other paperback editions in other series, but by this time Arlen’s style was going out of fashion.  He wrote mainly about an era and a society that had vanished, at least from public sympathy, with the depression of the 1930s and that was totally out of tune with the conditions of the second world war.  For a few short years though he had been one of the most popular writers in Britain.   His most successful novel, ‘The green hat’, first published in 1924, doesn’t seem to have ever appeared in paperback.

Arlen himself had left Britain in 1927, first joining D.H. Lawrence in Florence and then moving to Cannes, where he married a Greek Countess, Atalanta Mercati.  He returned to Britain during the war, but then moved to the US for the last years of his life.  His son, Michael J. Arlen, an American with Armenian / British / Greek / French / Bulgarian heritage, has written ‘Exiles’, a memoir of his parents and his childhood, itself published many years later in Penguin.

Exiles 2

 

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Hutchinson’s Famous Copyright Novels

Believe it or not, there were paperbacks in the UK before Penguin.  There were even sixpenny paperbacks.  There had been for a very long time and they were particularly plentiful in the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century, before Allen Lane came along to transform the market.  Lane’s paperback revolution changed many things, perhaps most notably in getting rid of cover art, but also in changing the size of paperbacks.  Before 1935, the standard size for a paperback was roughly 15 cm by 22 cm, or 6 inches by about 8.5 inches, considerably larger than the standard size ushered in by Penguin.  What Penguin didn’t change was the price.

Typical large format 6d novels from the early 20th century

There were several long running series of these ‘large format’ paperbacks from publishers such as Hodder & Stoughton, George Newnes and Collins, as well as the series I want to look at here, from Hutchinson.   They all looked fairly similar, all of course with cover art, mostly with advertising on the back and on other pages at the front and back as well, all on fairly cheap paper, usually priced at sixpence and often with the text arranged in two columns.  That was probably a hangover from the story magazines that came before them that had a long history going back to Charles Dickens and ‘Household Words’ among others.

Famous Copyright Novels sample page

A sample page with two column format

Frustratingly, another thing most of these books had in common was that they carried no printing dates and as a result there is a lot of confusion about when they were published.   In some cases I have seen the same book described by dealers as being from ‘around 1900’ or from ‘the 1930s’, while having little idea which of them is more nearly correct.

Most of the series and most of the books have pretty much disappeared without trace.  So far as I know almost nobody collects them or studies them and no libraries have significant holdings of them.   There is far more interest in the Penguins and other similar books that replaced them.  I can’t complain.  That’s where most of my interest has been too.

Famous Copyright Novels 40

The replacement happened incredibly quickly.  The Hutchinson series of ‘Famous Copyright Novels’ had been running for many years and had reached over 300 titles when Penguin burst onto the scene in July 1935.  By October of the same year, the series was dead and Hutchinson had launched a new series that copied Penguin in almost all material respects.

It’s hard to be sure when the Famous Copyright Novels series started, but my best guess is possibly 1924 or 1925.  Volume number 2 in the series is ‘Life – and Erica’ by Gilbert Frankau, a book first published in 1924, so the series can’t be earlier than that.  Most of the other titles were first published much earlier than this, as might be expected in a paperback reprint series, but I can’t identify any other early titles with a first printing date later than 1924.

Famous Copyright Novels 5

If that’s the case, the series ran for around 10 years, from say 1925 to 1935.  It had, for most of its life, a quite distinctive and striking appearance with primarily red covers, the title in yellow script and a cut-out style cover illustration with a white margin.  Towards the end of the series that seems to have been altered, first to introduce a blue upper panel and then to move to fully illustrated covers with a much weaker series identity.

In other words, just as Penguin were about to launch one of the strongest and most successful attempts at series branding in paperback publishing history, Hutchinson were moving in the opposite direction.  That didn’t go too well, then.

Famous Copyright Novels 149

A high proportion of the books in the series are romantic novels, mixed in with adventure stories and thrillers.  There are not many crime novels or westerns (Collins was the dominant publisher in these genres) and few books with any serious literary pretensions.   The author most represented is Charles Garvice, an enormously popular writer of light romances, who on his own accounted for around 50 of the 300 plus titles in the series.   Other popular authors included Charlotte M. Brame, Rafael Sabatini, Kathlyn Rhodes, William Le Queux, E.W. Savi and Rider Haggard.

Hutchinson was a sprawling group of associated publishing companies, which each retained some separate identity, and at least one of these, Hurst & Blackett, published a very similar series.    Hurst & Blackett’s Famous Copyright Library at 6d a volume seems to have included titles from almost exactly the same authors, although I have not seen a copy of any of them.