Posted by jojoal
Pelican Books, the non-fiction imprint of Penguin, launched in 1937 and brought books on a huge range of serious topics within the range of ordinary people, publishing them at the standard Penguin price of sixpence. They sold in their hundreds of thousands, bringing education to the masses. It was conceived as an educational series. It was no accident that one of the key editors behind Pelican was W.E. Williams, also closely involved in the Workers Educational Association.
But that’s also a clue to another aspect of Pelican Books that was perhaps less evident. Despite the blue covers of the books, this for at least the first couple of years was very definitely a left wing publisher. Take a look at the first few volumes. Volumes 1 and 2 are ‘The intelligent woman’s guide to Socialism, Capitalism, Sovietism and Fascism’ by Bernard Shaw. The title manages in just a few words to be both patronising and sexist, but also essentially misleading. This is no even-handed review of political philosophies. Shaw was a Fabian socialist and this is a rationalisation of his political beliefs.
Volume 3 is a very odd book to be included in the first few volumes of what is ostensibly a non-fiction series. ‘Last and First Men’ by Olaf Stapledon is a science fiction novel, described as ‘a story of the near and far future’. It is certainly fiction and would have been more appropriately published in the main Penguin series rather than Pelican. For what it’s worth though, the author was undoubtedly left wing in his political beliefs, and during the war a supporter of the socialist Common Wealth party.
Volume 4 was a book on archaeology by Sir Leonard Woolley and probably outside the left / right spectrum, but volume 5 (‘A short history of the world’ by H.G. Wells) and volume 6 (‘Practical Economics’ by G.D.H. Cole) were both the work of prominent socialists. Volume 7 (‘Essays in Popular Science’ by Julian Huxley) is again hard to categorise as left or right wing, but there is no doubt about volume 8. ‘The floating republic’ by Bonamy Dobrée & G.E. Manwaring is the story of a naval mutiny and effectively an early example of trade union activism. It may be presented as the non-political work of academic historians, but it is also a revising of history from a socialist perspective.
Volume 9 is the first of several volumes of a ‘History of the English people’ by Élie Halévy, surprisingly the work of a Frenchman. Halévy was probably better described as a Liberal than as a Socialist, but he had left wing sympathies and he lectured and wrote on the history of socialism. Volume 10 is then a book on astrophysics by Sir James Jeans.
This general pattern of mixing non-political volumes with volumes on a range of subjects by left wing authors, continued for a considerable time. Over the next year or two the series included works by a long list of prominent socialists including J.B.S. Haldane, Harold Laski, R.H. Tawney, Beatrice Webb and G.D.H. Cole, and communists such as J.G. Crowther and Petr Kropotkin. There were also several works by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including both Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, all generally left / liberal if not socialist in their politics. There are also plenty of non-political authors, but I struggle to find a single author in the first 50 volumes who could be clearly described as right wing. What is striking to me is that these are not necessarily books about politics, economics or history – even for books about science or art, the series seems to have searched out left-wing authors.
There were of course other left wing publishers and left wing series. The Left Book Club published by Gollancz springs to mind and was a successful series at much the same time as Pelican. The difference though is that buyers of the Left Book Club were in no doubt about what they were buying. Pelican’s position was much less explicit. In buying a Pelican you were buying into a certain culture of popular education, but I’m not sure it was clear that you were buying into a left wing philosophy.
The key person behind the political positioning of Pelican Books was probably not Allen Lane, the owner of Penguin, but V.K. Krishna Menon, whom Lane appointed as overall Editor of the series. In appointing him though, Lane must have known what he was getting. Krishna Menon had worked as an editor at Bodley Head, the Lane family firm, and he had been a Labour councillor in St Pancras since 1934. He was being considered as a Labour parliamentary candidate, but this fell through because of suspicions that he was actually a Communist. He was a close friend of Nehru, a passionate advocate of Indian independence and a fierce opponent of the British Empire, to the extent that there were doubts about his loyalty to Britain during the war years.
He did not of course have total freedom to develop the Pelican list as he chose. He was supported by three Advisory Editors, although it seems doubtful that they were much of a check on his left wing tendencies. W.E. Williams, mentioned at the start of this post, was one of them. He was primarily an educationalist, but certainly also a socialist. As well as his role with the Workers Educational Association, he went on to head up the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which was later accused of being so effective at spreading left wing opinion in the armed forces that it influenced the result of the 1945 election.
Then there was H.L. Beales, a historian and another socialist. In this context it is interesting to note a comment in the introduction by J.M. Winter to a much later collection of essays by R.H. Tawney: ‘That … working-class culture is a central part of European historical writing today is in part because of Tawney’s work and example, and that of a group of his contemporaries among whom G.D.H. Cole, H.L. Beales, the Webbs and the Hammonds are the most prominent.’ Every one of those mentioned was involved with Pelican in those early days. It seems fair to assume that Beales was influential on the inclusion of Tawney, Cole and Beatrice Webb as well as J.L. (John) and Barbara Hammond in the series.
The third advisory editor at the start of Pelican was Lancelot Hogben, a biologist, who later had a rather odd book of his own published by Pelican. ‘Interglossa’, published in 1943, was a plan for a new world language to be part of a new world order after the war. He was also a socialist. So the overall editor of the series was a socialist, seen at the time as perhaps a bit of a firebrand, and all three of the advisory editors were known socialists. Is it surprising that they kept the red flag flying in its Pelican blue camouflage?
It didn’t last of course. The relationship between Krishna Menon and Lane deteriorated and ended with Krishna Menon leaving at the end of 1938. The last volume to carry his name as editor was volume 33, although it’s probably fair to see his influence in terms of the choice of titles and authors at least across the first 50 volumes.