It’s time to take another look at one of the many sixpenny paperback series that flourished before Penguin came along in 1935 to revolutionise the market – by selling paperbacks at sixpence. I come back to this popular misunderstanding of what Penguin’s paperback revolution was all about, because it certainly wasn’t about price.
The last sixpenny series I wrote about was the Hutchinson series of Famous Copyright Novels that ran from around 1925 to 1935. But the concept goes back much further than that. Chatto & Windus were selling sixpenny paperbacks from at least 1893 and the firm itself published a celebration of them in 1985 in a colourful book through their Hogarth Press imprint, called ‘Sixpenny Wonderfuls’. Thanks to a reader of the blog for bringing this to my attention. The title is intended as a reference and a contrast to the ‘penny dreadfuls’ that sold in vast numbers throughout the Victorian era, and reinforces the point that even sixpence was not a particularly cheap price for a paperback in those days. These books were by no means at the bottom of the market.
Perhaps inevitably ‘Sixpenny Wonderfuls’ focuses more on the colourful and dramatic covers than on the contents of the books, and that in a way is the point here. These books sold because of their cover illustrations – forty years later Penguins sold because of their lack of cover illustrations.
I don’t know of any complete list of the Chatto and Windus Sixpennies and I don’t have any collection of them, so the illustrations here come from the Chatto book. It sounds though as if the firm itself may have some quite detailed records, covering not only titles but printing numbers. They note that one of the first titles, ‘The cloister and the hearth’ by Charles Reade, had an initial print run of 50,000 in 1893 and went on to sell 380,000 copies in its sixpenny edition over the next 15 years. And that was a book that was already over 30 years old at the start of the series. You’ll be lucky to find a single copy of it today though. The internet is awash with hardback copies, but those hundreds of thousands of paperbacks have disappeared almost without trace.
There is probably even less chance though of finding a copy of ‘Antonina’ by Wilkie Collins, also published in 1893 in the series, but selling only 1,240 copies according to Chatto’s records. Clearly it was a hit-and-miss business.
Nevertheless the series seems to have prospered and I would guess it covered perhaps a couple of hundred titles over its 30 year history. It survived the First World War, although with few new titles being added, and in the post-war years it found it difficult to generate the levels of sales achieved pre-war. It’s unclear exactly when the series ended. Copies may have continued to be sold even into the early 1930s, but in terms of new titles it probably ended in the early 1920s.
The idea of sixpenny paperbacks certainly didn’t end then. New series from Hutchinson and from Collins were only getting going at that point, and Penguins were not even a gleam in Allen Lane’s eye, but the fashion for Chatto and Windus’ stories and their dramatic cover illustrations had come to an end.
The series was dominated by adventure stories and relatively light romances. Books by Ouida and B.M. Croker sold well, as did those by Walter Besant and Charles Reade. Their names may not be widely recognised today, but many of the other authors would be. The series contained books by Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Emile Zola and Arnold Bennett. For comparison, it’s worth remembering that despite the reputation for quality, most of the authors and titles of the first couple of hundred Penguins are now justly forgotten. Amongst the few still remembered are Conan Doyle and Bennett.
This is the story of a very unusual Penguin from the other side of the world.
At first sight it’s very clearly a Penguin. The broad bands of colour and the Penguin symbol make it instantly recognisable, even though the bands are red rather than the more familiar orange. The more striped effect at the top, and the text-heavy cover, mark it out as a Penguin Special, one of the series of topical books on current affairs that sold millions in the run-up to, and the early years of, the Second World War.
But after that first impression, other things don’t seem quite right. Firstly it’s the wrong size. Basically all Penguins at that time (this was printed in 1940) were of a standard size – the size that Penguin had adopted from the European series of Albatross Books, and which in turn had been copied by almost all other British paperback publishers. This one is larger, roughly 14 cm by 22 cm. It’s also made up of a single gathering, stapled in the middle, so has a rounded spine, unlike the flatter spine of almost all other Penguins.
Then the cover has been printed in three colours – black, blue and red. Almost all other Penguin covers at the time were printed in two colours, typically orange and black. This one has an extra colour to allow the British and Australian flags to appear, and that also seems to account for why it’s red rather than orange. Interestingly it’s not the current Australian flag. The version then in use was the Australian Red Ensign, which changed to blue only in 1954. It’s also noteworthy that the penguin logo is printed in blue rather than black.
This is an Australian printing of course, but that in itself is not particularly unusual. Over 70 UK Penguins were reprinted in Australia during the war years, given the difficulty in exporting copies from the UK. They were published through a local company, Lothian Publishing Company Pty. Ltd., whose name generally appears on the title page, below that of Penguin Books. But this book has no mention of Lothian, crediting only a local printer in Melbourne.
Lothian’s own list of the Penguin books they published in Australia does though include it and shows it as the very first such book in August 1940, almost two years before any others followed. Why did this particular book justify such an unusual step?
The author, Sir Richard Acland, was a British Liberal Party MP (and a 15th generation baronet), who had been stridently against the policy of appeasement being followed by the UK Governments under Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. In 1938 he had engineered a famous by-election in Bridgwater, a Conservative-held constituency neighbouring his own in Barnstaple, and persuaded a journalist, Vernon Bartlett, to stand as an ‘Independent Progressive’ anti-appeasement candidate. Both the Liberal and Labour parties agreed to stand down in favour of Bartlett, leaving him a clear run against a Conservative candidate in the election, which he won by a relatively small majority.
Acland’s book, ‘Unser Kampf’ was written after the outbreak of war and published as a Penguin Special in the UK in February 1940 – volume S54 of the series. It is a plan for a new world order to be established after the war, and almost a manifesto for a new political movement. Acland went on to be one of the main founders of the Common Wealth Party in 1942, with J.B. Priestley and Tom Wintringham amongst others. He stood for the new party in the 1945 election, but it fared badly and he lost his seat, later defecting to Labour and being elected as a Labour MP.
Clearly his book was a significant contribution to the debate at a time of high interest in public affairs. but was it any more than that? It was not one of the Penguin Specials chosen for reprinting in the US (although interestingly one of Tom Wintringham’s books was). Did it then have any special relevance in Australia, more than any of the other Penguin Specials, several of which dealt with similar subjects? I’m not convinced that it did, although the Preface to the Australian Edition suggests that “To enable the demand to be met, it has been found necessary to reprint in Australia”.
It is unclear who wrote this rather evangelical preface. It refers to both the author and the English publishers (Penguin Books) in the third party, and thanks them for agreeing to no royalties or copyright fees. So presumably somebody else wrote it and it reads as if written by a supporter of Acland, rather than by a publisher. I suspect that it was local supporters of Acland, or his ideas, who promoted the idea of reprinting it in Australia, and possibly approached Lothian with the suggestion. Could that in turn have been what sparked later negotiations between Lothian and Penguin about reprinting other titles?
It does seem to have been reasonably successful, with 10,000 copies in the first printing of August 1940, followed by a second printing of a further 10,000 copies in the same month. Enough to interest Lothian in extending the collaboration with Penguin?
There are still other oddities though with this very odd book. The UK edition is titled ‘Unser Kampf’ with ‘Our struggle’ as a sub-title, while the Australian edition reverses this. Were Australians thought to be even more uncomfortable with foreign languages than the British? Or less familiar with the title of Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’, which it echoes? It seems just a little condescending.
And despite the changes to the front cover, the back cover just copies the UK back cover other than to add ‘Printed in Australia’. So it has a list of the ‘Latest Specials’, most if not all of which, would not have been available in Australia.
Acknowledgements: Some of the information about Australian printings in this post, comes from an article written by Chris Barling in the Penguin Collector’s Society newsletter for May 1987. For more about the Bridgwater by-election of 1938, see https://vernonbartlett.co.uk/
The fact that ‘Middlemarch’ never appeared in the Tauchnitz Edition, was a matter of lasting regret to its founder, Bernhard Tauchnitz. His series contained almost every other major work of English literature published in his lifetime and beyond, including all of George Eliot’s other novels, but not Middlemarch. Eliot was instead induced to publish a Continental Edition of this novel in the new ‘Asher’s Collection of English Authors’.
I’ve already written about this in previous posts. The story of George Eliot’s publications in Tauchnitz is covered here (Part 1 and Part 2) and the story of Asher’s Collection in these posts (Part 1 and Part 2). But I’ve recently come across other evidence that shows just how sensitive Tauchnitz was about the loss of Middlemarch.
After Eliot’s death in December 1880, her husband John Cross edited ‘George Eliot’s Life as related in her letters and journals’, published in the UK in 1885 and more or less simultaneously in the Tauchnitz Edition. Comparison of the texts of the two editions shows several small differences in the sections relating to the continental publication of Middlemarch.
I have noted before that Tauchnitz adds a footnote at one point. On 8th May 1872, in reference to Middlemarch, Eliot writes in her journal ‘Cohn is publishing an English edition in Germany’ (Albert Cohn was the publisher of Asher’s Collection). In the Tauchnitz version only, there is a footnote saying ‘ The author was subsequently induced to publish”Daniel Deronda” and her succeeding works again in the Tauchnitz Edition. Baron Tauchnitz paid £250 for “Daniel Deronda”.
Then on 25th February 1873, Eliot writes ‘Cohn of Berlin, has written to ask us to allow him to reprint “The Spanish Gypsy” for £50, and we have consented’ (The poem appeared in Asher’s Collection in 1874, under the title ‘The legend of Jubal and other poems’). Again Tauchnitz cannot resist adding the note ‘See foot-note on page 71’.
Tauchnitz it seems is prepared to allow reference to Cohn (spelled Kohn in the UK edition) provided a footnote is added, but direct references to Asher’s Collection posed more of a problem. On 24th March 1872, Eliot writes (in a letter to her UK publisher, John Blackwood) ‘I fancy we have done a good turn to English authors generally by setting off Asher’s series, for we have heard that Tauchnitz has raised his offers. There is another way in which benefit might come that would be still more desirable—namely, to make him more careful in his selections of books for reprint. But I fear that this effect is not so certain. You see Franz Duncker, who publishes the German translation of “Middlemarch,” has also begun an English series. This is really worth while, for the Germans are excellent readers of our books.’ The only bit of this whole section that survives in the Tauchnitz Edition is the phrase ‘The Germans are excellent readers of our books’.
On 4th October 1872, she writes again to Blackwood, ‘Asher’s cheap editions are visible everywhere by the side of Tauchnitz, but the outside is not, I think, quite equally recommendable and recommending.’ This might be thought more complimentary to Tauchnitz, but again the sentence just disappears in the Tauchnitz Edition. References to Asher in the Summary of Chapter 16 and in the index are also censored. The name of Asher was it seems not to be mentioned in polite society. Were these changes approved by John Cross, or was Tauchnitz censoring the books without the editor’s approval?
It is worth noting that by this point in 1885, Asher’s Collection was not in any sense a serious competitor to Tauchnitz. Just two volumes were added to the series in 1885 and only a handful more in the next few years, before it disappeared completely. Tauchnitz had recovered for his series, not only George Eliot, but almost all of the authors who had been seduced away. George Eliot had died and Asher’s Collection had been vanquished, but clearly the loss of Middlemarch 13 years earlier, still rankled with him. Perhaps even more, it was the fact that he had had to pay so highly to bring Eliot back. He was still feeling hard done by about his £250. Although as ‘Daniel Deronda’ and Eliot’s other works in Tauchnitz continued to sell well for many years to come, it seems likely that he more than recovered his investment.
Part 1 of this topic looked at the early one-off publications by Tauchnitz for school use and for home students of English. They were not really a serious attempt to access what was potentially a substantial market. From 1886 though, Tauchnitz got serious. The Students’ Series for School, College and Home took classic English texts, mostly already published in the main Tauchnitz series and gave them to a German academic. Their job was to take an excerpt or abridge a novel, add footnotes for German students and write an introduction in German.
Fifteen volumes of the new series were issued in 1886, starting with ‘The Lady of Lyons’ by Edward Bulwer Lytton, who had already had the honour of opening the Tauchnitz Collection of British Authors 44 years earlier. He was quickly followed in this new series by works from George Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, W.M. Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle and Sir Walter Scott – something of a parade of the great and the good from the first 40 years of Tauchnitz history, although Dickens had to wait until volumes 9 and 10.
The books were issued in two formats, as paperbacks and in a hard binding with plain paper boards and a red fabric spine. Few people would pay to have the paperbacks privately bound, and few of them have survived in the original wrappers, so almost all surviving copies are in the standard hard binding. It generally cost only 10 pfennigs more than the paperback edition anyway (for instance 0.80 Marks rather than 0.70 Marks), so it seems likely that this was how most of them were sold.
First printings of the early editions are rare. Todd & Bowden, the Tauchnitz bibliographers, found an 1886 copy of only three of the first 15 titles. They were unable to find any copy at all of four of these books and of the overall series there were 21 of the 41 volumes for which they could not locate a single copy. This probably exaggerates the rarity though, as most libraries have limited interest in schoolbooks and tend not to collect them. My own collection now includes copies of 33 of the 41 titles, including many of those previously unlocated.
But early printings are still difficult to find. I now have what I believe to be first printings of six of the first 15 titles. The key is that they are dated 1886 on the back cover and have no volume number on the front. As more generally with Tauchnitz, even reprints from many years later still have the original publication date on the title page and the front cover, so we have to look for clues elsewhere. Early issues have the printing date on the back cover. For later issues, the approximate date can be established by checking what other titles are advertised, or often by checking the edition number of the English-German dictionary regularly advertised on the back cover. New editions of the dictionary were regularly issued, so for instance an advert for the 39th edition of the dictionary dates the book to roughly 1904 to 1907, when the 40th edition was published.
A first printing of volume 4
The example of volume 4 above is typical. It is dated March 1886 on the rear and unnumbered on the front. It lists only the first eight volumes as already available and a further six titles as in course of preparation. Two of these six volumes did appear in due course substantially as promised, although ‘Sketches’ by Dickens split into two volumes. Of the other four, one never appeared, and three were published under other titles and/or with different academics supplying the footnotes.
After the initial rush, production of new titles started to slow down. There were six volumes added in 1887, another five in 1888 and a total of 11 between 1889 and 1893. After that it was only occasional titles, one in 1896, one in 1900, one in 1902 and bizarrely a final title during the First World War in 1917. Reprints from around the turn of the century seem to be relatively plentiful though, so the existing titles must have been selling well enough. Perhaps there was simply no need for lots of different titles. After all few people remain a student for long enough to get through more than 41 books, before either giving up, or graduating to full novels.
From volume 38 onwards in 1896 there was a bit of a change of direction. Instead of adding footnotes under the relevant text, comments were provided in a separate booklet along with an English-German dictionary of the most difficult words. The ‘Anmerkungen und Worterbuch’ were sold separately, generally at a price of around 40 pfennigs. Dictionaries were also compiled for many of the earlier titles that were still on sale and again sold separately from the books at prices ranging from 20 pfennigs to 1 Mark.
The series continued to sell into the early 1920s, but eventually, after 40 years, Tauchnitz seems to have come to the conclusion that it needed a refresh. A new series, the Tauchnitz Students’ Series Neue Folge, launched in 1926. That may some time be the subject of Part 3, and if I ever get round to it, there’s a Part 4 waiting in the wings as well.
As a German publisher selling books in English, Bernhard Tauchnitz had to find a market wherever he could. Of course he wanted to sell to German nationals, but there were only a limited number of those who could read a whole novel in English. He could not sell in Britain or the British Empire for copyright reasons, but he spread out to sell across the whole of the European Continent and beyond. By selling his books in railway station bookstalls and specialist expatriate bookshops, he was able to target British and American expatriates and travellers as well. That made a large enough market for a successful business.
But there was still another sizeable potential market, if he could reach it. Those who were learning English in schools, in universities or as individual students at home. Producing basic school text-books was a specialist market, but there were lots of students who had got past the basics, but would still find it difficult to read a full length novel in English. Given the access Tauchnitz had to novels in English and to British authors, could he help to bridge the gap?
The first attempt was an anthology issued in 1844 called ‘Selections from British Authors in Prose and Poetry. A class-book for the use of schools.’ by Edward Moriarty. That’s according to the English language title page, although oddly the second title page, in German, refers to the book being for both school and personal use. The book contains a series of prose extracts, following directly on from each other as chapters, with author names at the end of each chapter and then followed by 76 poems.
Most of the authors were safely dead and out of copyright, but there were a small number still alive in 1844, which raises the question of whether the use of their work was authorised. There was no international copyright convention in 1844, but by that time Tauchnitz was obtaining authorisation and making payment for all works in the main series. There is no indication here that the book is authorised, even though it contains extracts from the works of Marryat, Bulwer and Dickens among others, writers who had given Tauchnitz early authorisation to publish editions of their novels.
The anthology remained in print for many years, but it was another three years before there was any follow-up and then it was in a rather different direction. A special Schools Edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens appeared in 1847, three to four years after the first publication of the story in December 1843. Again the question of authorisation is not entirely clear. Dickens had certainly given his authorisation for the initial publication by Tauchnitz of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and it appeared with the wording ‘Edition sanctioned by the Author’ on the title page. In 1846 the first copyright agreements were put in place between Britain, Prussia and Saxony and later editions appeared with the wording ‘Copyright Edition’. But the Schools Edition has no mention of either authorisation or copyright. Was this an oversight, or did Tauchnitz just assume there was no need for any further payment to Dickens, given his existing rights?
I’ve written a longer post on the Schools Edition of ‘A Christmas Carol’, which can be found here, so I won’t repeat it all, but the key change was to add at the end an English-German dictionary containing the more difficult words used in the book. The story itself takes up only 78 pages, while the dictionary takes up 91, so it’s fairly comprehensive. As it translates only into German, the book was presumably for sale only in German-speaking countries, a pattern that was to be followed for the next 90 years. Tauchnitz never seems to have made any attempt to sell to schools or students in France, Italy or other countries.
After ‘A Christmas Carol’, it was another 6 years before the next edition specifically for students followed, and it was again to Charles Dickens that Tauchnitz turned. ‘A Child’s History of England’ by Dickens was published in a standard edition by Tauchnitz in 1853, although outside the main series. At more or less the same time it appeared in a special annotated edition, with a substantial dictionary attached to the second volume, but this time also with footnotes, explaining points of English grammar or style.
This was now more or less the format that would eventually be developed into the Tauchnitz Students’ Editions, although they were still more than 30 years away. Oddly there is again no mention of authorisation or copyright, this time on either the annotated edition or the standard edition, although it’s almost impossible to believe that Tauchnitz had not obtained and paid for the European copyright.
So far then, we have a first attempt at a Schools Edition in 1844, another one three years later in 1847, then a gap of 6 years to 1853. So it seems about right that it was then 10 years before Tauchnitz tried again. A Schools Edition of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ appeared in 1863, this time with an introduction and glossary, although I have not seen a copy. And the gaps continued to get larger. The next attempt did not come for another 23 years. And finally this time it was a more serious attempt to develop the market. The first volume of the Tauchnitz Students’ Series for School, College and Home appeared in 1886. I’ll leave the story of those volumes for Part 2.
Although it was based in Germany, sold books only outside Britain and the British Empire, and continued right through to the Second World War, the Tauchnitz Edition was in many ways a Victorian series. Bernhard Tauchnitz was just three years older than Victoria and founded his firm in 1837, the year she came to the throne. By the time Queen Victoria died in 1901, the Tauchnitz ‘Collection of British Authors’ had reached almost 3500 volumes. Although it was to continue for another 40 years, the high point of the series came in Victoria’s reign and it was essentially on Victorian literature that it built its reputation.
Tauchnitz was undoubtedly an admirer of Victoria and of Victorian Britain and he cultivated links with the Royal Family as assiduously as he cultivated links with all his British Authors. Perhaps surprisingly, both Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were part of that select group, his British Authors. It’s true that neither of them had much of a reputation for literary prowess, but then that was probably not the criterion for their inclusion in the series.
It helped that Albert was German (and Victoria, his cousin, was at least half-German). Indeed arguably Prince Albert and Bernhard Tauchnitz were the two most prominent Anglophile Germans of the Victorian era, building their respective businesses on the closeness of their links with Britain. It is said that the hereditary Baronage granted to Tauchnitz in 1860, was arranged indirectly by Prince Albert, who would surely have been well aware of the impact made by Tauchnitz in continental Europe. The Baronage was granted by Ernst, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who was Prince Albert’s brother.
Albert died though in 1861, leaving Victoria to 40 years of widowhood and leaving as a literary legacy only 20 years of formal speeches. ‘The principal speeches and addresses of His Royal Highness the Prince Consort’ were published in the UK in 1862 by John Murray, along with an exceptionally fawning introduction. The Tauchnitz Edition followed in 1866 as volume 850 of the series, with the same introduction and frontispiece and with a further preface written by Tauchnitz himself. This refers to the necessity of including in the series a volume, which ‘contains the results of an essential portion of the intellectual life of a Prince whose memory is honoured not only in England, but in every civilised country of the Globe, and above all in Germany, the land of his birth’. The wrappers of the original paperback edition were marked with the royal insignia.
It seems unlikely that the book was a bestseller in continental Europe. A relatively small number of copies are found in the main library collections, in comparison to other volumes from the same period. They do though include a copy in Cornell University with wrappers dated August 1884, so it was clearly still selling some copies at that time.
In 1868, Victoria too became a published author in the UK when extracts from her journal were published by Smith, Elder & Co. under the title ‘Leaves from the Journal of our life in the Highlands’. This covered her visits to Scotland with Prince Albert from 1848 to 1860. ‘Our life’ here seems to mean both Victoria and Albert, rather than the royal we. Publication in a Tauchnitz Edition did not immediately follow, although it’s hard to say whether this was because Tauchnitz could not obtain the rights, or because he did not want them.
But then in 1884, when Smith Elder brought out a second selection called ‘More leaves from the journal of a life in the Highlands …’, Tauchnitz was able to secure rights to both this and the earlier book. In the second book, the extracts cover the period after Albert’s death, from 1862 to 1882 and the title refers to ‘a life’ rather than ‘our life’. This later book is volume number 2228 in the Tauchnitz series and in paperback copies the rear wrapper is dated February 1884. The earlier book is volume 2227, but was published by Tauchnitz about two weeks later and the rear wrapper is dated March 1884. For both volumes, the first printing is distinguished in bound copies by having nothing on the back of the half-title at the front of the book. Later reprints of each have a reference to the other book on the half-title verso.
Oddly neither book shows Queen Victoria’s name as the author. No-one can have been in any doubt as to whose journal this was, so this must have been some obscure point of royal protocol, rather than an attempt to disguise the true author. The first volume is dedicated to Albert, again without mentioning him by name, while the second is dedicated to ‘my devoted personal attendant and faithful friend John Brown’ and is signed by Victoria.
To complete the picture, it should be noted that two of Victoria and Albert’s daughters were also honoured as Tauchnitz authors. ‘Letters to her Majesty the Queen’ by Alice, Grand Duchess of Hesse, appeared in 1885 as volumes 2348 and 2349 of the series. Alice was Victoria’s second daughter, who had married a German prince and gone to live in Darmstadt. Her marriage and departure came just after her father’s death and she wrote home regularly to her widowed mother, careful not to appear too happy. In 1877, her husband became the Grand Duke of Hesse, but Alice died the following year. As well as Alice’s letters, the book contains a 75 page memoir written by her sister Helena, who had married another German prince.
Large publishing groups like HarperCollins, Penguin Random House or Hachette today use lots of different imprints for the books they publish. I’m not very sure why, because most readers would have little idea of the publisher’s name even after reading a book, never mind before buying it.
It wasn’t always so. Paperback series used to cultivate brand loyalty and the brand was very clearly signalled on the covers. If you bought a Penguin Book in the 1930s, 1940s or even later, you certainly knew it was a Penguin, both before you bought it and after you had read it. And given Penguin’s success, almost all other paperback publishers adopted clear and prominent brand identities as well. Which left Hutchinson, the HarperCollins of its day, with a problem. The Hutchinson Group contained a long list of publishing companies and it’s not clear to me how much cooperation there was between them. So they ended up with not one paperback series competing with Penguin, but several.
The Hutchinson Pocket Library was perhaps their flagship series in response to Penguin, but from different parts of the group also came Jarrolds Jackdaw books, Toucan books, John Long Four Square Thrillers and the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.
For several years in the late 1930s, the Leisure Library Company, another part of Hutchinson, resisted the trend to Penguinisation. They continued to publish paperbacks that were a throwback to pre-Penguin days – larger format, brightly illustrated covers, and selling for just 3d or 4d, substantially undercutting Penguin on price, but unashamedly down-market. Although Penguin mythology lauds the company for selling books at the low price of 6d, in reality Penguins were more at the top end of the paperback price range and only just below the 7d price of cheap hardbacks at the time.
Typical Leisure Library paperbacks from the late 1930s
But in 1940 the Leisure Library capitulated and joined the rush to establish Penguin-style paperback series, adding another to Hutchinson’s long list. Although in this case, it might be more accurate to describe them as Collins White Circle style.
Westerns from the Leisure Library and from Collins White Circle
Like Collins, the Leisure Library started separate sub-series for crime, westerns and romantic novels. Each sub-series had its own colour, with both companies using green for crime and yellow for westerns, and each added a stylised picture as part of the cover design.
Crime Novels from the Leisure Library and from Collins White Circle
To some extent also like Collins, the connection between the sub-series was not particularly emphasised, and the books were primarily branded as coming from ‘The Wild West Library’, ‘Crime Novel Library’ or ‘Romantic Novel Library’. The crime and romance novels are still shown as published by the Leisure Library Co. on the title page and the spine, but the westerns refer only to the Wild West Library. The westerns are though clearly linked to the crime novels by the square white title panel with perforated edges. These two series could almost have been called the Hutchinson White Square books, but oddly the Romance sub-series went for a white circle instead, making it easily confused with the Collins series.
The series was not very long-lived, although that was probably as much to do with the effect of the war on publishing, as with the commercial success or failure of the books. They were all published in 1940, in a relatively short period between about May and July, and few paperback series were able to maintain much of a publishing programme after that until the end of the war. There were a total of 32 books – fourteen crime, twelve westerns and six romances. I don’t think any of them have achieved much of a mark on literary history, even amongst fans of the relevant genres, but they added another layer to the story of the paperback revolution unleashed by Penguin.
Allen Lane’s decision to abandon cover art when he launched Penguin Books in July 1935, was a revolutionary move that was followed by almost all of his competitors. Previously lurid cover designs gave way to much more restrained design. So what is happening just two years later, when Lane seems to abandon all restraint with the Penguin Specials series?
It is not yet the return of multi-coloured cover art. It would be many more years before Lane could reconcile himself to such a step. But the screaming headlines, the long prose blurbs and the occasional cartoons and maps on the covers of the Penguin Specials are a long way away from the simple tripartite model of the main Penguin series.
The series of topical political tracts on world affairs, launched in late 1937 was a huge success. The turbulent state of European politics had created an appetite for information on international affairs that Lane was happy to satisfy. The initial print run of 50,000 for the first volume sold out within four days and had to be almost immediately reprinted. Other books sold in their hundreds of thousands and their success gave Penguin a platform for later domination. When paper rationing was introduced later in the war, the allocations were based on paper use in these pre-war years and Penguin were using paper in vast quantities.
But why the lack of restraint in design? Penguin seem to have decided that in the political situation of the time, with the threat of war looming, restraint was simply not appropriate. Every new book in the series, and every new topic, was a matter of screaming urgency and the covers should reflect this.
And the books were after all, despite their lack of restraint, still recognisably Penguins. Enough of the basic Penguin design was retained for that to be clear. They carried the Penguin brand and the values associated with it – a certain vague notion of seriousness, quality and intellectual aspiration. Despite the shoutiness of the covers, these were not to be seen as populist or downmarket. The basic colour was still orange, the colour most associated with Penguin (or Pelican blue for those volumes branded as Pelican specials), the design was still based on horizontal bands, the Penguin logo was still in much the same place at the bottom of the front cover, and the price of course was still 6d.
The style of cover was not really new. The covers remind me particularly of the dustwrapper designs on many hardback books from Gollancz in the 1930s, and no doubt other publishers too. But I don’t think they were normal on paperbacks at this time, and if anybody was going to introduce them, the last person you’d have in mind would be Allen Lane. For the second time in three years, he was revolutionising paperback cover design.
But in the end this one wasn’t really a revolution. Other companies didn’t copy it, although Hutchinson moved some way in the same direction for a while. Perhaps even more significantly, Penguin themselves didn’t persist for too long with the policy. When war was declared in September 1939, the series had reached almost 40 titles, but gradually screaming headlines started to give way to the more sober realities of war. By 1942, as the series passed 100 volumes, a new design was emerging that had no room for long quotations or cartoons and was much more like the classic Penguin design. This looks to me to be a recognition that the technique of shouting can be very effective in the short term, particularly if unexpected, but almost inevitably loses its effectiveness and shows diminishing returns if persisted with. Restraint was back in fashion.
A Penguin special from 1943
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.
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.
‘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’.
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.
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.
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.