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Boxing clever – the first 6 Albatross books

The launch of Albatross books in 1932 was a key moment in the paperback revolution, even if not fully recognised as such at the time.  It signalled the imminent demise of Tauchnitz, which had dominated English language publishing in Continental Europe for almost a century.  It was to be the inspiration for the launch of Penguin Books three years later.  And it was in some respects the moment that paperbacks came of age in the twentieth century.

A lot of planning and preparation had gone into the launch, which brought together three remarkable men, John Holroyd-Reece, Max Christian Wegner and Kurt Enoch.  Their stories are too long and varied to cover here, but all three played important roles in publishing history, even apart from their time at Albatross.   It was important for them that the first list of Albatross titles made a statement about the ambitions of the new series.

Albatross First six anouncement

It was a mixed list, establishing the principle that the series would cover a range of genres and styles.  A crime story and a romance rubbed shoulders with more literary fiction.   A volume of short stories was published alongside the first volume of an historical family saga.   There was something for everyone, and importantly, with colour coding by genre, the mix of types of book was reflected in a mix of colours for the first six books.

The choice of the first three authors – James Joyce, Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis, seemed to say that the series would be more at the cutting edge of modern literature than Tauchnitz had been in recent years.   It also said something about the ability of Albatross to attract authors away from Tauchnitz.

James Joyce in particular had been neglected by Tauchnitz.  They had eventually published ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’ in 1930, some ten years after being offered it, but had shown little interest in his other works.  So for Albatross, publishing ‘Dubliners’ as volume 1 was an open goal.

Huxley and Lewis had been treated better, with Tauchnitz publishing six volumes of Huxley and three from Lewis, arguably including their most important works.  But that was far from comprehensive coverage and as with Joyce, Albatross was able to target earlier works, overlooked by Tauchnitz, before later publishing new works.  Sinclair Lewis had in 1930 become the first American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, so it was a good time to be revisiting his earlier works.

The next three titles were perhaps a bit lighter, but Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole was a significant prize.  It was the first of the Herries Chronicles, a trilogy of books set in the Lake District, and probably the work for which Walpole is best remembered now.  He too had to be attracted away from Tauchnitz, which had published several of his earlier works, as did Warwick Deeping.   As Tauchnitz had had a near monopoly on publishing English literature in Europe, it was almost inevitable that the authors Albatross wanted to publish would already have had dealings with Tauchnitz.

The launch of the first six titles was also marked by the issue of a boxed set of the six books.  I have little idea how many of these were produced or sold, or indeed the price at which it was offered.  I have only ever seen the one example, illustrated below, and that is in less than perfect condition.  Although the box has no Albatross branding, I am pretty sure that it was produced for Albatross, rather than just being a home-made affair.  It’s possible though that it was produced only for presentation copies, offered to business contacts and colleagues.

Box Set First Six 2

Just one of the books in this box still has its transparent dustwrapper, and that is in poor condition, but all the books would originally have had them.   They were easily damaged and after a year or so, new titles were instead given paper dustwrappers in the same design as the books.

A century of celebrations and the celebration of a centenary

Tauchnitz loved issuing celebratory volumes and had plenty of occasions to do so.  The 500th volume of the series in 1860, the 1000th volume in 1869 and the 2000th in 1881 were all marked by specially commissioned volumes and by specially bound presentation copies to be offered to authors, friends and business contacts.

Then in 1887 it was time to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the business, with a specially published history.  Much of this is taken up with a long list of the works published by the firm, making it a rather luxurious catalogue, but it also includes excerpts from authors’ letters to Tauchnitz, which was to become a feature of subsequent histories.

Title page of the 50th anniversary history

Volume 3000 seemed to slip by largely unnoticed, but volume 4000 in 1909 was marked by a ‘A manual of American literature’.   This gave full recognition for the first time to the huge contribution from American authors to a series that for 70 years had been called ‘The Collection of British Authors’.

Then in 1912 another anniversary history to mark 75 years.  The catalogue of publications has now disappeared, and more prominence is given to letters from authors, with Charles Dickens pre-eminent among them.

A selection of letters from Dickens in the 75 year history

The milestone of the 5000th volume was reached in 1931 and celebrated with an ‘Anthology of Modern English Poetry’, but by then the business was tottering.  It was sold in 1934, and lived on until the outbreak of war effectively as a sub-division of Albatross, the firm which had defeated it commercially.

So when the time came to write its centenary publication in 1937 it must have felt to some in the firm more of an obituary than a celebration.  The task of writing it fell to John Holroyd-Reece, the Managing Director of Albatross, and in the end he did Tauchnitz proud, although an early draft had contained a paragraph seeming to celebrate his own role rather too much.  Again the publication included a selection of letters from famous authors, including Dickens and Disraeli, this time in facsimile form, and also a range of congratulatory letters from well-known people, including the British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin and the Archbishop of York.  Slightly oddly, it was given the title of ‘The Harvest’, perhaps suggesting that the firm was now reaping the benefits of previous efforts, and no longer sowing new seed for the future, a position uncomfortably close to the truth.


The book appeared in two different forms, one with cream paper boards, and one with gold wrappers, each with a blind-stamped Tauchnitz Centenary logo on the front.  Neither version is difficult to find today.  More interesting are the presentation copies prepared for authors and other friends of the firm.  These are identical to the gold paperback edition, but the half-title is replaced with an individual printed page with the name of the person to whom it was presented.   The copy illustrated here was presented to Janet Beith, the author of ‘No second spring’, published as volume 5157 in 1934.  Other copies in public collections have the names of W.W. Jacobs, Louis Golding, H.M. Tomlinson and Helen Simpson.


Presumably copies were printed with the names of all Tauchnitz authors still alive in 1937, which would have included, amongst many others, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Daphne du Maurier, Aldous Huxley, P.G. Wodehouse and A.A. Milne.   As Louis Golding, whose copy survives, was published only by Albatross, never by Tauchnitz itself, this suggests copies may also have been presented to all Albatross authors.   In that case, copies may exist with the names of Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh and Ernest Hemingway, amongst others.

An intriguing question arises though from the fact that several of the Tauchnitz authors, including for instance Joyce, Wells and Huxley, had been placed on the list of banned authors, by the Nazi party, then in power in Germany.  Albatross, whose editorial offices were based in Paris, continued to publish works by banned authors, but always in the Albatross series rather than in Tauchnitz, and presumably for sale only outside Germany.  Interestingly the Albatross books were still being printed in Germany, just down the road from where other works by some of the same authors were being burned.  But did Tauchnitz in 1937, a German-owned firm based in Leipzig, print special celebratory volumes for authors at that time banned in Germany?  A copy printed for James Joyce would be an interesting find …

Ulysses in plain covers

James Joyce has a special place in the story of Albatross Books.   The very first Albatross, published in 1932 was ‘Dubliners’ by Joyce, and in some ways the connection goes even further back than that, to the point when Max Wegner became General Manager of Tauchnitz in 1929.   By that point, Tauchnitz was living on past glories and had lost most of its earlier dynamism.  Wegner set about shaking it up.  Amongst other things, a search through the file found correspondence from Joyce 10 years earlier about plans for Tauchnitz to publish ‘A portrait of the artist as a young man’.  It had never appeared.   Wegner arranged for it to be published, and it finally appeared in May 1930 as Tauchnitz volume 4937.

Tauchnitz 4937  Albatross 1 Dubliners

Other Joyce books might well have followed, but Wegner’s changes at Tauchnitz were too much for the Board, which forced him out by mid-1931.   It was a catastrophic decision.  Wegner played a key role in the establishment of Albatross the following year as a rival to Tauchnitz, and by 1934 the new firm had effectively taken over the old one.   It seemed fitting that ‘Dubliners’ became the first Albatross book, rather than the 5000 and somethingth Tauchnitz.

But Wegner and John Holroyd-Reece, the head of Albatross in Paris, had other plans in mind for Joyce as well.  After ‘Dubliners’, it was natural to look next at ‘Ulysses’, which had been published in Paris 10 years earlier and reprinted several times, but was effectively banned in the UK.   For the ‘Albatross’ edition, it was revised by Stuart Gilbert, at Joyce’s request, and carries a note saying it ‘may be regarded as the definitive standard edition’.   That’s a substantial claim for a notoriously complex book that has been plagued by errors and misprints, but I think it’s fair to say that many people still regard this edition at least as an important one in the book’s publishing history, if no longer the definitive one.

Albatross 43 Ulysses 1  Albatross 44 Ulysses 2

The two volume Odyssey Press edition of Ulysses

But is it really an Albatross?  It doesn’t immediately look like one, published in two volumes in almost plain covers, and bearing the imprint of The Odyssey Press.  It does though have the standard size of an Albatross and the layout of the books is almost identical to other Albatross Books.   It has the typical blurb in three languages on the cover, the same style of title page and copyright notice at the front and the characteristic Albatross colophon at the back, showing it uses the same typeface, the same paper supplier and the same printer as other Albatross Books from that period.

In practice The Odyssey Press (as the name might suggest) was an imprint set up specially for this purpose by Albatross, presumably because they were concerned that the book might not be consistent with the brand image they were trying to create for Albatross. They used the same imprint a few months later for publication of ‘Lady Chatterley’s lover’ as well – another book that at the time was banned in Britain. In some ways this feels like an excessively cautious approach to us now, but modern publishers too are concerned about establishing and protecting their brand image, so we shouldn’t judge them too harshly.

Ulysses publicity leaflet front

Marketing leaflet for Ulysses inserted into copies of the Albatross edition of ‘Dubliners’

And in reality it was an Albatross – indeed very specifically it represented volumes 43 and 44 of the Albatross Modern Continental Library. Those volume numbers never appeared on the book and Ulysses didn’t feature much alongside other volumes in Albatross marketing, so the numbers are missing from most Albatross lists of titles, but there’s no doubt that that’s what they were. Lady Chatterley’s Lover similarly appeared in plain covers, but was allocated volume number 56 in the Albatross series.