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Gulliver in wartime

In wartime, everyone had to be satisfied with less and that included the youngest.  While books for adults were in short supply and had to be crammed onto as little paper as possible, books for young children, which were already small, had to be made even smaller.  As Gulliver Books put it, “On all sides there must be economy.  When victory is obtained we shall again have a plentiful supply of famous works in popular editions.  In the meantime …”.

Gulliver Little Books 12 Blue

And in the meantime, they produced books so small they would fit easily into a wallet, perhaps into a credit card slot if such things had then existed, or more likely at the time into a cigarette packet.  They are sometimes referred to as ‘air raid shelter’ books, produced to distract children from the noise and the terror of air raids.  But they are so small that (for an adult) they barely take ten minutes to read, which wouldn’t have provided much distraction during the long hours that were often spent in shelters.

In design terms the Gulliver Little Books look remarkably like miniature Penguins, using the same tripartite layout with a broad horizontal white title panel between two blocks of colour above and below.  The series title in the top block and the logo in the bottom block also follow the Penguin model, with a picture of Gulliver replacing the Penguin, and a shield for the series title rather than Penguin’s odd shaped blob.  The similarity is of course deliberate, with Penguin the leading paperback publisher at the time, and the one that carried an air of prestige and sophistication.

Gulliver Little Books 5 Multiple Colours

Unlike Penguin though (and Albatross before them), the colours have no apparent meaning.  The same book may be found in a range of different coloured covers.   There are so many variations that this looks to me to have been a deliberate policy from the start, rather than a case of books being reprinted later in whatever colour card was to hand.

Gulliver Little Books 19 Yellow

The Gulliver Book company was based in Lower Chelston in Devon, a suburb of Torquay, not normally known as a centre of book publishing.  I know little of the history of the business, but it seems to have specialised in small scale reprints of classic children’s books.  Its paper usage may have been quite low before the war, so that when paper rationing came in, its quota would have been correspondingly low, perhaps leaving it little choice but to opt for miniature books.

It had competitors in the market for miniature books for children at the time.  These included the ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, published by W. Barton, and the ‘Pocket Wonder Library’ published by PM (Productions) Ltd.  I suspect both of these were very small scale publishers as well, so this may have been a bit of a cottage industry in wartime.

The Gulliver Little Books series eventually included a total of 36 books, starting with an abridged version of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ from Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’.  Like many of the books, it is not an easy read for a child.  Charles and Mary Lamb, writing in 1807, wrote in a style that is more convoluted than any children’s author would use today.  The plot of ‘A midsummer night’s dream’ is complicated anyway and abridging makes it even more so.  It would have to be a fairly bright young reader who was reading and making sense of this on his or her own.

Gulliver Little Books 1 Green

The books are very different from the kind of thing that Penguin was publishing for children at the same time in its new Puffin imprint.  They are all classic stories from a previous generation, and written in the style of a previous generation.  This was not a company doing much to support new writers through the payment of royalties.   It looks to me as if all or almost all of their books would have been out of copyright.

How much did they cost?  There is no price on them, and given that typical paperbacks were selling for sixpence before the war (ninepence by the end of it), it’s hard to imagine that these tiny books can have cost more than one or two pence.  Paper costs would have been low and author payments possibly non-existent.   I’ve seen it suggested though that the similar (if slightly more luxurious) ‘Mighty Midgets’ series, sold for threepence a copy.  Could prices of the Gulliver Little Books have reached these dizzy heights?

There is no date on them either, although they were clearly published sometime between 1939 and 1945.  As well as appearing in multiple colours, they also exist in two different formats.  Most copies, particularly the earlier ones, are produced in four ‘gatherings’ of 8 pages each, stapled across the spine.  Later printings are in a single gathering stapled through the spine.  The difference can be seen in the picture above of different printings of the Charles Dickens book, and in the example below of a later printing.

Gulliver Little Books 36 orange

My best guess is that books in the earlier format might be from around 1942 /43 and the later format more like 1945, but this is only a guess.   Presumably the series then came to a natural end at the end of the war.  I doubt they were much mourned.

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Methuen’s Sixpennies

Methuen were a relative latecomer to the ‘sixpenny’ market established by Penguin in 1935.  Other companies had reacted much more quickly, so by the time Methuen finally launched their new series in 1939, it was a crowded market.  The Collins White Circle series was well established by then, as was the Hutchinson Pocket Library, and many other series too.  All of these new series shared the key elements of the Penguin revolution – same size, same price, standard designed covers without cover illustration, and dustwrappers in the same design as the book cover.

Several of them also shared the idea of using a bird as their logoJackdaw Books, Toucan Books and Wren Books had already joined Penguin and Pelican.  So for Methuen to choose a Kingfisher as their logo, as well as copying all the other elements that had become standard, was hardly breaking the mould.  At least they didn’t call their series Kingfisher Books, settling instead for Methuen’s Sixpennies.

methuen-sixpennies-1

The series launched with the first four books in April 1939, although the list of titles on the back cover of the books already anticipated a roll-out of books up to number 14.  In practice further batches of four books appeared in each of May 1939, June 1939 and July 1939, taking the series up to sixteen books, before it paused.   There was nothing more for a full year, until another batch of four titles appeared, dated August 1940.

By this time of course the war was well under way and paper rationing was starting to bite.   The effects of it are seen in the abandoning of dustwrappers, and the limiting of the length of the books to 192 pages.  Pre-war issues had up to 320 pages and looked generally much bulkier.  The wartime books have smaller type, smaller margins and thinner paper as well, so look meagre in comparison.  The August 1940 batch are also coloured a pale yellow on the cover, although later titles revert to the pre-war white.

Methuen Sixpennies 17

There were twelve more titles to come, published in three batches of four, in January, February and March 1941.  Other than going back to white on the cover, they follow the same format as the 1940 issues and all are limited to 192 pages.  The final eight books resort to advertising for ‘Shadphos’ tonic tablets (‘commonly known as “brain sparklers”‘!) on the back cover, rather than a list of other titles.

Methuen Sixpennies 32 rear cover

The selection of titles published in the series is generally middlebrow – the type of book that could easily have been published by Penguin.  There are titles by Arnold Bennett and A.P. Herbert, Jack London, P.G. Wodehouse and Marjorie Bowen.  Indeed all of these authors did, sooner or later, have books published by Penguin.  There’s a good range of crime titles and thrillers too, if not by the very best known crime writers – they had mostly been snapped up by Collins.  Authors such as Sax Rohmer, George A. Birmingham, Walter S. Masterman and E. Phillips Oppenheim were popular though in their day and still attract some interest today.  And then there’s a single Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Methuen Sixpennies 22

Overall from a selection of only thirty-two books, that’s not a bad list.   It seems unlikely that the series failed because the books weren’t good enough.  In the end it probably failed just because of bad timing – three years earlier and it might have succeeded.   But launching in April 1939 into a crowded market, just before war and paper rationing were about to hit, was about the worst timing possible.

Methuen Sixpennies row of spines cropped

Canadian White Circle books

Many of the books I write about on this blog are so little known, little researched and little collected, that I can be reasonably confident that anything I write adds to the stock of recorded knowledge.  That’s why I do it.  No doubt I occasionally get things wrong, but the risk of being contradicted is fairly low.  The bigger risk is of not being contradicted and errors surviving uncorrected.

Some other books, like Penguins, are so well researched that I can draw on the existing stock of knowledge, while trying to find an angle that adds something new.

The Canadian editions of Collins White Circle fall somewhere inbetween.   As far as I can tell they’re not collected or researched by very many people, but there are certainly a few people who are far more knowledgeable than I am about them.  For a comprehensive listing and identification guide, see the Wollamshram World website, or for various blog posts, see the Canadian fly-by-night blog.  I can’t add much to that wealth of knowledge, but I want to put the Canadian editions into the context of the Collins White Circle editions in the UK and other countries.

CWC Canada 345 not my copy

The White Circle series was launched in the UK in 1936, replacing previous Collins paperback series with a new format much more similar to Penguin Books, whose own launch a few months earlier had so disrupted the UK paperback market.  All the books in the UK featured a large white circle on the cover as the title panel right from the start, and this served as the unifying feature of the designs used for the various sub-series.  However the White Circle name for the series only started to be used in early 1938.

The initiative to move overseas arose from the wartime conditions in Britain and the introduction of paper rationing.  Exporting books from the UK no longer made any sense, so setting up local publishing operations suddenly seemed the way forward.  Penguin started publishing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, Collins in Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon as well as in Canada.  All of these ventures started around 1942.

  CC Christie Sad Cypress  Collins Indian F1

White Circle editions from Australia and India

In all these cases, the British publishers started off with what had become the market norm in the UK since the Penguin launch – standard designed covers with a strong series identity and no cover illustration.  In Australia, New Zealand, India and Ceylon they were more or less able to impose this format, but neither Penguin in the US, nor Collins in Canada could make it work.  The North American tradition of garishly illustrated covers was too strong and both companies eventually had to fall into line.

The first 50 titles for Collins White Circle in Canada, issued up until the end of 1942, were in a UK style format with standard designed covers.  Oddly the design didn’t feature a white circle, other than a very small circle for the Crime Club logo.  If anything it was more like the design used by Penguin in the UK, with large horizontal blocks of colour, although not I think as well designed.

CWC Canada S

The vast majority of the early books were either Crime or Mystery novels, all with the main cover panel in green and no real distinction between the two other than the small logo.   A handful of western titles were distinguished by a lighter green and blue cover, and general fiction / non-fiction titles had covers in orange.

By the beginning of 1943 though, Collins had concluded that standard designed covers could not work in the Canadian market in competition with the brightly illustrated covers of local and American paperbacks.  Like Penguin in the US at much the same time, they switched to illustrated covers, at first dipping their toe in, with restrained, stylised cover illustrations.  By the end of the war though, the covers were becoming noticeably brighter, usually featuring pictures of girls, often in various states of undress or submission.  And any evidence of white circles on the cover seemed to become even less prominent.

  CWC Canada 40  CWC Canada 224 not my copy

Editions from 1942 and 1946

The type of book was changing too.  The proportion of crime and mystery books was falling and in the post-war period there were more westerns and more romances.  There was a sprinkling of American authors, particularly of course for the westerns, and the occasional Canadian author, like Roderick Haig-Brown, but still most books were by British authors.  It looks as if books were almost entirely chosen from what the British parent had available, rather than being sourced locally.   Two books by Canadian broadcaster Kate Aitken – a cook book and a book on beauty for women, were a rare exception.

  CWC Canada 528 not my copy  CWC Canada 498 not my copy

The series continued through to 1952 before Collins called it a day.  Canada could no longer be treated as a market that would naturally take what British publishers had to offer.  Over a period of just over 10 years though, from 1942 to 1952, the series ran to well over 500 titles.  By my count that’s about the same as the number of titles published in the main UK series up to that point (excluding Services Editions).  In the end there were more UK editions, but only because the UK series continued for another 7 years, through to 1959.

It also seems to me that today there are more second-hand Canadian editions for sale than British editions, raising the possibility that print runs may actually have been higher in Canada than in the UK.   Far from being the junior partner in the arrangement, the Canadian business may actually have been stronger than the UK.

Those wartime crime Penguins

Anybody who collects early Penguins knows two things:

  • the crime titles (in green covers) are rarer than the standard novels (in orange covers).
  • The wartime editions, particularly those published from 1942 onwards, up to the end of the war, are much rarer than both earlier and later editions

Put those two things together and a third thing becomes obvious – wartime crime titles are very rare.

Rarity alone doesn’t make books valuable, but the combination of rarity and high demand does.  And since there are a surprising number of people interested in early Penguins, often trying to collect the first 1000 in first printings, demand for the wartime crime titles is high, and so are prices.

Change was gradual at the start of the war, for paperbacks as for many other things, and early wartime Penguins from late 1939 and much of 1940 are not too difficult to find.  But with the Battle of Britain in mid-1940 and the introduction of paper rationing around the same time, wartime conditions were really starting to bite by the end of the year.  From about Penguin volume 300 onwards, the books start to get thinner and start to become much rarer.  Volumes 301 to 304, all crime titles published at the end of 1940, are really the first of the rarities.

For some reason that I can’t explain, the next three or four crime titles seem to be a little easier to find, but from then on there’s no let up.  The twenty-seven crime Penguins numbered between 350 and 500 and roughly published between mid-1942 and mid-1945, are unremittingly difficult to find, often expensive to buy and often in very poor condition.

Penguins from this period were printed to the ‘War Economy Standard’ on very poor quality paper.  They are usually very thin, with small type and small margins to cram as much as possible onto the minimum amount of paper.  They fall apart very easily and would not last long with repeated use.   The popularity of crime titles at the time, and the shortage of books, meant that many of them were passed around, read and re-read and would naturally have disintegrated.   Those that survived at all, usually survived in poor condition.  Even reprints from this period are scarce.

Many of the books are of dubious quality.   Penguin was not the leading UK publisher of crime novels at the time, and Collins probably had the pick of the best writers.   Writers such as Eric Bennett, Stuart Martin, Lewis Robinson and Richard Keverne didn’t leave much of a collective mark on the history of crime writing.  But there was still room in this group for two titles by Margery Allingham, three by Ngaio Marsh, and one from Mignon Eberhart, amongst writers whose reputations have stood the test of time.

There are of course differences of opinion about which are the rarest books.  Some say ‘Panic Party’ by Anthony Berkeley (volume 402), but there’s a good case to be made also for the two Georgette Heyer titles – ‘The unfinished clue’ (volume 428) and ‘Why shoot a butler?’ (volume 429).  Two earlier titles, ‘The general goes too far’ by Lewis Robinson and ‘William Cook – Antique dealer’ by Richard Keverne (volume 383 and 384) are certainly very rare as well, as are others from the same period.

Wartime Crime Penguins 1

But then others say that the rarest of all is not even a crime Penguin, but is the one Biggles book to be published by Penguin – volume 348, ‘Biggles flies again’ by W.E. Johns.   There’s competition for that one from collectors of Biggles stories as well as Penguin collectors.  Good luck if you’re searching for it – but you may need deep pockets as well as luck.

Penguin 348

 

Jarrold and the Jackdaws

It’s usually only people from Norwich who recognise the name Jarrold.   In that area it’s well known as the name of a big department store, and was for a time the name of a stand at Norwich City’s football ground.  The Jarrold Group that run the store was also for many years involved both in printing and in publishing.  The John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich is a lasting reminder of their connection with printing.

The name is less well remembered in publishing, but it has a history stretching back almost 200 years.  According to the history on the company’s website, John Jarrold had established a printing press in 1815 and was moving into publishing by 1823.  Jarrold & Sons, as the business became known, was never a major publisher, but it had some striking successes, notably publishing the first edition of ‘Black Beauty’ in 1877.

black-beauty

The first printing of ‘Black Beauty’, published by Jarrold and Sons

After that the company history becomes a bit vague about what happened to the publishing business.  Wikipedia says Jarrold Publishing was sold to Sutton Publishing in 2007, but the story must be more complicated than this.   It seems clear that at least by the end of the 1930s, the publisher Jarrold & Sons was part of the Hutchinson Group, the group of companies put together by Walter Hutchinson.     The group included John Long, Hurst & Blackett, Stanley Paul, Rich & Cowan, Skeffington and others, as well as Jarrold and Hutchinson itself.  I’m not clear how separate all these companies were.  Each continued to publish books under its own imprint, but particularly in paperback, the books increasingly resembled each other, and sometimes books from different publishers appeared in the same series.

By October 1936, when Jarrold launched a new paperback series, the Jarrolds’ ‘Jackdaw’ Library, the whole paperback  publishing industry in Britain was in turmoil.  Penguin’s launch a year earlier had completely changed the basis of competition in the industry.  Illustrated covers suddenly looked either old-fashioned or down-market or possibly both.

jackdaw-4-dw

The Hutchinson Group had already reacted by launching a new Penguin-style series, the Hutchinson Pocket Library, just three months after Penguin.  Alongside this, it had started the companion ‘Crime Book Society’ series, and also a more down-market series of mostly romances, the Hutchinson Popular Pocket Library.

So quite why it needed another paperback series competing in the same market, is far from obvious.  Perhaps Jarrold was at this point operating independently from the Hutchinson Group?  Perhaps there was some perceived distinction between the type of stories in the Hutchinson Pocket Library and the sort published by Jarrold?  In retrospect it seems surprising that they didn’t just combine the series, but at the time they no doubt had their reasons.

They were far from the only company to choose another bird’s name for a series competing with Penguin, and the choice of Jackdaw probably owed something to alliteration.  In most other respects they followed the Penguin model directly – same size, same price, same standard designed cover with a strong series branding, same variety of bold colours, same use of dustwrappers in the same design as the covers.

jackdaw-5-dw

In some of the details though they were a bit quirkier.   Their title panel, a white circle on the cover, was copied directly from Collins rather than Penguin, and the choice of colours on the books seems initially to be fairly random, rather than representing genre.  Later on they came into line with almost everybody else by mostly allocating green covers to crime books.  Another quirk was the picture of the jackdaw, which varied slightly from book to book.  There were at least five different drawings, all perched on a post and creating much the same visual impact, but adopting different positions.

jackdaw-drawings

The type of book published was very similar to Penguin.  One of Jarrold’s leading authors at the time was Ethel Mannin, and they had already sold paperback rights for two of her novels to Penguin before starting their own series.  Now another five appeared in the Jackdaw Library, alongside three others by Margery Allingham, later acquired by Penguin.  The highlight of the short series though was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Scots Quair’ trilogy.  All three volumes appeared in the series, although slightly oddly, not in the ‘right’ order.  Also included was ‘Spartacus’ written under the same author’s real name, as J. Leslie Mitchell.

jackdaw-16-dw

The first eight Jackdaw books appeared together in October 1936 and were followed by another eight in the first three months of 1937, bringing the series up to volume 16.  Volumes 17 to 20 were published in June 1937 before they seemed to run out of steam.   Perhaps they weren’t selling well, or perhaps it was just that as a small publisher they didn’t have enough titles to maintain such a fast pace.

A further two titles appeared a year later in June 1938, both crime titles, and after another year’s gap the series re-launched as the Jackdaw Crime Series, with the numbering starting again from one.  Presumably the crime titles were selling better than the general fiction.

  jackdaw-crime-3-dw  jackdaw-crime-12

An early Jackdaw Crime Series title and a later one, unusually in yellow

But by this time war was on the horizon.  Eight Jackdaw Crime Series titles were published in 1939 and another eight by about the end of 1940.  But the books became thinner and lost their dustwrappers as wartime conditions and paper rationing started to bite.  The numbered series ended at volume 16, with a few more unnumbered books appearing later, with the price increased to ninepence.

jackdaw-crime-wartime-9d-the-cairo-garter-murders

A wartime unnumbered title at ninepence

The Hutchinson Services Editions later included a small number of Jarrolds Jackdaw titles and there were even a few more Jackdaws published after the war, but that’s another story.   As a branded series of paperbacks, the Jarrolds Jackdaw Library really lasted only about four years, between 1936 and 1940.  I don’t imagine many people collect them today, or even remember them.  They were though an important part of the great flourishing of paperback series that occurred between the launch of Penguin and the Second World War.

How an albatross gave birth to an entire aviary

When Albatross Books was launched in 1932 to compete with Tauchnitz selling English language books in continental Europe, the name was said to have been chosen because it was almost the same word in all European languages.  The elegant silhouette of an Albatross was a nice design touch, but it seems unlikely that they started off with the idea of having a bird as a motif and then settled on an Albatross as the most suitable bird.

But that seems to be precisely what many other publishing companies did in the years that followed.  The first imitator was Penguin Books, who launched their paperback series in the UK just 3 years later.  Before the launch Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, had explored the possibility of a joint venture with Albatross.  When that didn’t work, he decided to go it alone, but copied all the principal design features of Albatross, including the use of a seabird as the logo and name of the series.

  Web-Albatross-1   Penguin 003

Penguin’s launch in the UK was such a success that a large part of the UK publishing industry felt it had to respond by launching similar series, copying many of the design features that Penguin in turn had copied from Albatross.  Perhaps most importantly this meant scrapping cover art and using instead a standard cover design, mostly typographical, and designed to provide a strong identity for the series rather than the individual book.

But for several publishers, copying Penguin’s design features also meant copying their use of a bird as a logo.   The Hutchinson Group even had two goes at it, with the series of Toucan novels, and the Jarrolds Jackdaw series. When the Lutterworth Press launched a series of children’s books, it looked for a correspondingly small bird and came up with Wren Books.  Another publisher of children’s books, Juvenile Productions Ltd., started the Martyn Library, featuring a bird that is presumably meant to be a martin, although I can’t explain the slightly odd spelling.

 toucan-1  jackdaw-2-dw

 martyn-5-dw  wren-5-dw

One publisher, Methuen, settled on the kingfisher as a logo, but resisted the temptation to call their series Kingfisher books, choosing instead the more prosaic ‘Methuen’s Sixpennies’.  Penguin meanwhile, perhaps concerned that it was losing its distinctiveness, decided to lay claim to all the other birds it could think of that began with a P.  So its non-fiction series was called Pelican Books, its children’s series was called Puffin and there was even a short-lived series of miscellaneous titles at the end of the war called Ptarmigan Books.

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I make that at least eight series of paperback books in the UK given bird logos just between 1935 and 1939, with one later on in 1945.  Not bad for the brood of a single Albatross.

albatross-and-progeny

How Crime became green

The launch of Penguin in July 1935 changed many things in British paperbacks.  Most of their design innovations were copied from the continental publisher Albatross, but other publishers quickly copied them from Penguin and in just a few years they became the standard market practice.

One of these changes was the use of colour to signify the genre of the book.  For Penguin, orange meant  fiction and crime was green.  These two became the dominant colours in the Penguin series, although there was also blue for biography, cerise for travel, red for drama and so on.

For Albatross though, green had meant travel, and they had used red for crime, both in the main series and in the Albatross Crime Club series, which had distinctive red and black covers.  Was red a more appropriate colour for crime?  On the other hand Collins had already issued Crime Club paperbacks in the UK, predominantly in green, so perhaps it was the more natural choice in the UK.

 collins-paperbacks-1930s-no-196-the-golden-hands  crime-club-1933-murder-at-vicarage-3  edgar-wallace-1930ish

Pre-Penguin crime paperbacks in the UK were often green

But for Albatross in continental Europe, crime was always red

When it became clear that Penguin’s experiment was a success, others rushed to follow, including of course Collins, who relaunched their Crime Club paperbacks in 1936 in a Penguin style format, with no cover art.  They naturally chose green, using a stylised illustration of two figures with knife and gun, later adding westerns in yellow and mysteries in purple.

Hutchinson had launched its rival Penguin-style series in October 1935, using a variety of colours, but no clear indication of genre.  In June 1936 it added an associated crime series under the ‘Crime Book Society’ brand, and again used a range of colours.

Early Crime Book Society titles used all sorts of colours

But their distinctiveness didn’t last for long.  Within a year or so they too had accepted that crime meant green.  From about September 1937 onwards, all Crime Book Society paperbacks appeared in green covers. They were soon followed by two other imprints, both related to the Hutchinson Group, the Jackdaw Crime series and the Crime Novel Library.  Both series used only green covers and the convention now seemed to be well established – green means crime.

 jackdaw-crime-3-dw  crime-novel-library-1

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?

penguin-001

‘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.

A New Zealand White Circle

New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful and successful country with much to celebrate in its own right, but seen from much of the rest of the world its fate is often to be considered as an add-on to Australia, a mere 1000 miles away.  Travellers plan a trip to Australia, and think about whether they can visit New Zealand on the way home.  Politicians talk to the Australian Prime Minister and wonder if they should contact the guy from New Zealand as well – if only they could remember his, or her, name.  Businesses set up in Australia and then think about whether to add on a New Zealand branch.  Publishers issue Australian Editions – and wonder if they should think about New Zealand.

It’s far from alone in this.  Scotland has long suffered from being seen as an afterthought to England, and the Australia / New Zealand relationship parallels the England / Scotland one in very human terms as well.  There are still a lot of New Zealanders of Scottish descent, and a lot of Australians with English heritage.  So the Scottish publisher Collins had good reason to remember New Zealand, when it started to issue Australian editions during the Second World War.

CC Cheyney Dangerous Curves War Savings

Advertisement in a Collins White Circle New Zealand edition

The move by British publishers to print local editions in their former export markets was driven by the introduction of paper rationing in Britain.   It no longer made any sense to print books in Britain and send them on a long and hazardous journey around the world.  So Collins started to print its White Circle paperbacks locally in Canada, in India, in Ceylon (India’s New Zealand?), in Australia … and of course in New Zealand.  Canada, India and Australia got long series and a wide choice of titles.  Ceylon and New Zealand had to settle for just a handful of different titles.

I’m sure that today book-buyers in New Zealand have just as wide a choice as those in Australia.  But back in the 1940s their choice may have been severely restricted.  Presumably the logic for issuing only a few titles was that they needed a long print run to keep the price down and the only way to sell a long print run in a small market was to restrict the choice.  Penguin did much the same, publishing a long series of books in Australia during the war and a much shorter series of titles in New Zealand.

So from Collins, New Zealand got a selection of titles that may have been as few as 6.  There’s no record of what they published and there’s no advertising for other titles within the books themselves, so the only way of knowing what exists is to find them.  John Loder’s pamphlet on the White Circle books in Australia lists 6 titles known to exist and I only have a copy of one of those.

CC Cheyney Dangerous Curves

It’s a Peter Cheyney novel, in an unusual Crime Club cover.  Unusual because in the UK, Cheyney’s novels were not published in the Crime Club.  They were considered Mystery novels, published in a separate Mystery series with its own cover style.  That distinction, which seems to have been important in the UK, for reasons that I don’t understand, rather broke down outside the UK, and there are several examples in Australia too of books appearing in the ‘wrong’ cover style.

CC Cheyney Dangerous Curves Colophon

Otherwise the books look very like UK, or Australian, or Indian White Circle editions.  Appropriately they were printed in Dunedin, a city named after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, in another reminder of the historic links between Scotland and New Zealand.

Collins White Circle in Australia

I’ve recently come across a small pamphlet by John Loder on the Collins White Circle editions published in Australia.   The books themselves I’ve seen from time to time and without trying to collect them systematically, I’ve put together a small group of them over the years.   I’ve never known much about them though and certainly never had any knowledge of what titles existed, or how many.   So it’s great to find that somebody else has had enough interest to produce a checklist and a short history.

White Circles in Australia

As I’ve found before with series that are little researched, there are more books than you might think.  They’re not numbered, so there’s no easy indication of how many there might be, and most are also undated, so I wasn’t even sure when they were published.  It’s no surprise that they come from the 1940s, starting around 1942, possibly even a bit earlier.  But I am a bit surprised to find that there are over 100 different titles.  That includes several I have copies of that are not in John Loder’s checklist, so there are probably still other unrecorded ones as well.

The stimulus for the creation of the series was probably  the introduction of paper rationing in the UK and the increasing difficulty of shipping books out to Australia.  At much the same time, and for the same reason, Collins started local printing of paperbacks in Canada, in India and in Ceylon, Penguin started local printing in the US, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt, and Guild Books also started an Australian series.  The Australian market must have been getting quite crowded.

All three of the UK publishers starting to print locally in Australia stuck with their basic UK format.  Penguin’s launch in 1935 had transformed the UK market, with standard designed covers almost universally adopted, so that was what Australia got too.   Over the years the design of White Circle covers in Australia gradually diverged from the UK original, but they never seem to have followed Canada or India in rejecting the UK orthodoxy and adopting fully illustrated covers.

The basic UK design with some unusual colour combinations

 As in the UK, Australian White Circles come in different sub-series – Crime Club novels in green, Westerns in yellow, Mysteries in purple / magenta and ‘Famous Novels’ in mauve / lilac.   There were about 30 to 35 titles in each of the first three sub series, but only around 13 titles in the Famous Novels series, which seems to have been principally aimed at women, combining the general fiction and romance categories in the UK.  I think it’s fair to say that few of the titles could be described as famous today.

I’ve never quite understood the distinction between Crime novels and Mystery novels that applied in the 1930s and 1940s, although I imagine it was something to do with the rules of fair play between author and reader in classic stories of detection.  In Australia though the rules seem to have been slightly different, with more than one title switching to a different category from the one applying in the UK.

The books sold at 1s 3d, equivalent at the fixed exchange rate of the time to 1 shilling in British currency. This was more or less in line with post-war prices for paperbacks in the UK, although double the standard pre-war price.  Only around half of the titles published in Australia were also in the UK White Circle series, but the others are mostly books published by Collins in hardback in the UK and quite a few also appeared in the Canadian White Circle paperbacks.  There are though a few by local Australian authors, which were not all published elsewhere by Collins.  In particular, two ‘Jeffery Blackburn’ thrillers by Max Afford and two novels by Eleanor Dark.

I’m sure there’s much more to discover about the Australian editions, so I’ll come back to this another time.  Some day there are also a few New Zealand editions to investigate.