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Penguin’s highbrow reputation

I keep coming back to the launch of Penguin Books in July 1935.  In publishing terms it was an absolutely seminal event, and this blog is after all called Paperback Revolution.

But one of the reasons I keep coming back to it is that I still feel it’s an event that is often misunderstood.  Some people seem to think paperbacks didn’t even exist before Penguin, although they had already existed for centuries.  Others think they were the first to sell at 6d, although lots of paperbacks were sold at 6d before Penguin, and at cheaper prices too. There was even a series of hardback books at 7d, launched shortly before Penguin. Another claim is that Penguin’s key breakthrough was to publish contemporary literature in paperback, within a year or two of first publication.  In practice though, their first ten books were published on average 12 years after first publication, and for the second ten this rose to 17 years.

But one of the most persistent beliefs is that Penguin were the first to sell quality highbrow literature in paperback, whereas most previous paperbacks were downmarket and trashy.  There’s enough truth in this one to encourage its adherents, but it needs to be examined critically.

  seton-merriman-1905 edgar-wallace-1930ish

Pre-Penguin Paperbacks from 1905 and from around 1930

These were the first ten Penguins, published in July 1935:

  1.  Ariel by Andre Maurois
  2. A farewell to arms by Ernest Hemingway
  3. Poet’s Pub by Eric Linklater
  4. Madame Claire by Susan Ertz
  5. The unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers
  6. The mysterious affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
  7. Twenty-five by Beverley Nichols
  8. William by E.H. Young
  9. Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
  10. Carnival by Compton Mackenzie

There can be no doubt about ‘A farewell to arms’.  This is a genuine classic, the reputation of which was already established by 1935 and has only continued to grow since then.  But what about the rest of them?


‘Ariel’, a biography of Shelley translated from the original French, was surely a serious highbrow book?  Well, not really.  It’s an example of a romance biography, which had been a relatively new style in the 1920s (the book was first published in France in 1923, and in Britain in 1924), combining fictionalised elements with a description of Shelley’s life.  Described by one recent reviewer as ‘a featherlite meringue of a book … Shelley’s short life as a Hollywood melodrama … Skin-deep characterisation, shamelessly invented conversations and pulse-pounding dramaturgy put the whole experience closer to Downton Abbey than anything resembling scholarly rigour’.  That doesn’t sound as if it’s a revolution from the paperbacks that were on offer before Penguin arrived.

Number 3, ‘Poet’s Pub’ is a sub-P.G. Wodehouse comic novel, while Number 4, ‘Madame Claire’ is a light romantic story, at best middlebrow.  Neither has laid any claim to literary posterity.  Numbers 5 and 6 are both crime stories, relatively classic ones, but from a genre that was widely available in paperback long before Penguin.  ‘Twenty-five’ by Beverley Nichols, is then an early ‘autobiography’ from someone now best known as a gardening writer.  In reality though it’s more an account of the various celebrities he had met.  In modern terms it’s almost celebrity journalism.

Penguin 008

Number 8, ‘William’ by E.H. Young, is another light romantic novel by an author who was bestselling in her day, but has been forgotten by history, as is Number 9.  Mary Webb, author of ‘Gone to Earth’ wrote what have become known as ‘loam and lovechild’ stories of rural life, aping the style of Thomas Hardy.  Webb’s style had already been parodied by Stella Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, which might have been a more radical choice for Penguin’s ‘first ten’.  It did appear later.

That leaves ‘Carnival’ by Compton Mackenzie, the oldest book in the first batch, having been first published in 1912.  It’s the story of a dancer, her life and loves, which had been very popular in its day and twice made into a film.  Maybe a slightly more serious choice, but certainly not a revolution in terms of the type of book available in paperback.

As an aside, two of those ‘first ten’ authors,  Compton Mackenzie and Eric Linklater, were active in the Scottish National Party, formed only a few years earlier, even though Mackenzie was born in England and Linklater in Wales.  Perhaps their political legacy is greater than their literary legacy?

Overall it seems to me hard to sustain an argument that Penguin’s early success was due to publishing more highbrow literature than had previously been available in paperback.  The story is more complicated than that.  Penguin undoubtedly did go on to publish serious literature and established something of a highbrow reputation through ventures such as Pelican and the Penguin Classics.  But I’d argue their early success was more to do with getting rid of illustrated covers, than with the actual quality of the literature.  Penguin’s real trick was to make you feel you were reading serious literature, rather than another trashy paperback.  But what it actually served up within those iconic covers, was often very similar to what had gone before.

Designed to fail? The Crosby Continental Editions

There were two English-language paperback series launched in Paris in 1932 as competitors to the long-established Tauchnitz Editions.  One of them, Albatross Books, was enormously successful, effectively taking over Tauchnitz within two years and going on to publish around 450 books before the outbreak of war in 1939.  The other, Crosby Continental Editions, was by almost any measure a failure, publishing just 10 books and not even outlasting the year.

But for some reason, it is the history of the unsuccessful company that seems to be more researched by historians, biographers and bibliographers, and the books of the unsuccessful company that are more highly prized these days, at least by booksellers.   Christian Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the founders of Albatross Books have slid gently into obscurity, with neither meriting an entry in the English-language Wikipedia, although they do creep into the German version.  Most of their books can still be bought for just a few Euros.  In contrast Caresse Crosby’s life is pored over by historians and the books she published are highly prized and highly priced.

Caresse Crosby and her whippet Clytoris

Caresse Crosby with her whippet, Clytoris

Much of the attention she gets is of course nothing to do with the Crosby Continental Editions.   She is remembered for her invention of the modern bra, her highly colourful sex life,  and the circles she moved in as a result of her wealth and her personality.  She had a huge range of contacts and was able to draw on them for her list of publications.  She persuaded Ernest Hemingway to let her publish ‘The torrents of Spring’ as the first book in the series and then ‘In our time’ as volume 6.  She received advice from Ezra Pound, and persuaded T.S. Eliot to write an introduction for volume 4, ‘Bubu of Montparnasse’.  That book had been translated by Laurence Vail, the husband of Kay Boyle, another friend of hers.  Boyle’s own work ‘Year before last’ appeared as volume 8 of the series, and her translation of ‘Devil in the flesh’ by Raymond Radiguet, as volume 2.  Crosby seemed to call in favours from a friend for almost every volume in the series.

Crosby Continental 8

And yet, it was a total failure.  That may partly have been the choice of titles.   Although Hemingway, Faulkner and Saint-Exupery sounds an impressive selection of authors, it was competing with Albatross, whose first ten books included titles by James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, A.A. Milne and Edgar Wallace.  Crosby had been keen to launch her series with a best-seller and was delighted to get Hemingway on board, but ‘The torrents of Spring’ is probably not his finest work.  Albatross, which later published ‘The sun also rises’, may have got the better deal (not to mention Tauchnitz, which had earlier published ‘A farewell to arms’).

Overall the list contains 6 works by American authors and 4 by French writers in translation.  Was it insufficiently cosmopolitan, or even insufficiently British, to appeal to the readers of English language books in continental Europe, many of whom would have been British expatriates or tourists?

Crosby Continental 7

But perhaps even more important is that the books, as physical objects, are poorly designed, if not simply ugly.   It seems a strange thing to say, given that Crosby’s other venture, the Black Sun Press, was known for producing beautiful, high quality, limited editions.   But to my eye these are anything but beautiful, and are not a patch on the elegant Albatross books.  They seem to be modelled on the Tauchnitz Editions, which by then were looking old-fashioned.  They used the same broad shape and the same buff covers.  The CCE symbol on the cover is clunky and unattractive (to modern eyes resembling a Pac-man).  In comparison, the taller and more colourful Albatrosses, with the distinctive albatross silhouette, would have stood out in every bookshop stocking the two series.   It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Crosby editions were designed to fail and deserved to fail.

Crosby Continental 6      Albatross 320 The sun also rises

Which would you rather buy, whether in 1932 or now?

Interestingly they seem to have been issued originally with glassine dustwrappers, as were the early Albatross books, although Albatross soon abandoned these as a bad idea.   Few of them survive from either series, but the photo below shows one recently sold at Sotheby’s.  Judging by this, the dustwrappers did little to improve their appearance.

Crosby Continental 1 in glassine dutswrapper

The fact that they are sold at Sotheby’s at all  is an indication of the veneration in which these strange little books seem to be regarded.  As far as I can tell, they are not rare – probably not as rare as many of the Albatross Books.   As an example, ABE currently has 17 copies of the Crosby volume 1 for sale.  The prices range from £32 to £178 for copies without the dustwrapper, to £1,250 for one copy with a dustwrapper, and £35,000 for an apparently limited edition in a slipcase, signed by Hemingway.  Interestingly, the dedication from Hemingway in this copy is to Sylvia Beech, the owner of the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris and refers with a hint of sarcasm, to the heading on the cover ‘World-wide masterpieces in English’.  Hemingway seems to be well aware that the book he had contributed was less than a masterpiece.

In comparison, ABE has just 5 copies of Albatross volume 1, at least 3 of which seem to be reprints, but you could still buy a first printing for £9.   I know which book I’d prefer to buy.

Despite the short duration of the series, it had a surprising re-birth after the war, with one volume, ‘Devil in the flesh’ reprinted in an American hardback edition with a dustwrapper still in the old design, and one new volume issued in Rome in 1951.   This final volume, a 13 page pamphlet advocating the use of referendums and issued almost 20 years after the others, seems to have little connection with the rest of the series.

1960s-Caresse Crosby with Ezra Pound in Italy

Crosby with Ezra Pound in Italy in the 1960s

This post continues a series on the competitors to Tauchnitz.   There are earlier posts on Nelson’s Continental Library and on the Standard Collection from first Louis Conard and then Collins.