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.
Bookdealer Jeremy Parrott hit the headlines last year when he discovered a remarkable set of bound volumes of ‘All the Year Round’, the periodical founded and owned by Charles Dickens. The volumes had been annotated by Dickens himself to show the names of the authors of each contribution.
All articles, stories and poems had originally been published anonymously, with only Dickens’ own name appearing as editor. The authors of many had remained unknown for well over 100 years. It had become one of the great literary puzzles that scholars debated endlessly, and at one stroke Jeremy Parrott seems to have solved it. It’s hard to imagine the excitement that he must have felt when he realised what he had discovered.
But a small dent had been made in this puzzle much earlier. One of the many firsts that the German publisher Tauchnitz achieved, was to be the first to identify who had written what in some of the Christmas numbers of ‘All the Year Round’. Here’s how it happened.
It had become a tradition for Dickens each Christmas to publish a special Christmas number of ‘All the Year Round’ (and before that ‘Household Words’), which contained a series of short stories by different authors linked into a single overall framework. Dickens himself would write at least one story, as well as forming the framework, and other contributors would write the other stories, or chapters. As usual, contributors other than Dickens were mostly anonymous.
In 1862 Tauchnitz reprinted the stories from ‘All the Year Round’ of 1859, 1860 and 1861 as volume 609 of the Collection of British Authors, under the title ‘Christmas Stories’. The paperback wrapper described the stories as being by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins etc., but the title page, listed all the separate authors for each story. Dickens and Collins are given precedence in each case, followed by the other names, so it is not made clear exactly which parts were written by which author. But at least the names are there, and according to research by Neville Davies in 1978, this is believed to be the first time that they had been identified.
Tauchnitz had been caught out before by reprinting works from ‘Household Words’ and seeming to attribute them just to Dickens. In 1856 he had started a series of ‘Novels and Tales reprinted from Household Words, conducted by Charles Dickens’, where most of the writing was by other authors. This was in the tradition of ‘Household Words’, but it became a bit much when all of volume 4 of the series and most of volume 5 were devoted to a single novel, ‘The dead secret’, written by Wilkie Collins. Although Collins was credited on the contents page, the only author’s name on the title page and the wrappers of the first printing was that of Dickens, and this really did seem unfair. On later printings, Collins was properly credited. Once bitten, Tauchnitz may have been twice shy. When it came to reprinting the Christmas stories, he wanted all authors credited.
Five years later in 1867, he brought the series up to date by publishing the Christmas stories from 1862, 1863 and 1864 as volume 888 in the series, and those from 1865 and 1866 as volume 894. Perhaps surprisingly, this time the title page shows only the name of Dickens, although it does add ‘and the authors named at the head of the stories’. Although this is in some ways a step backwards, the real difference here is that at the start of the stories, each chapter has the name of the author against it, so that we can now see exactly who wrote what. Again this is believed to be the first time that this information had been revealed. Presumably it was done with the approval of Dickens, and the same information appeared in Britain the following year, after the final Christmas story of 1867, when a Collected Edition of all the 9 stories from 1859 to 1867 was published.
That final 1867 story – ‘No thoroughfare’, which was written by Dickens and Collins only, was published in a Tauchnitz Edition in June 1868, as volume 961, and both authors are fully credited. But the story was not long enough to fill a volume on its own and so another story that had been published in ‘All the year round’ was included with it. ‘The late Miss Hollingford’ had been written by Rosa Mulholland, but was published anonymously, leaving the rather unfortunate impression that it too had been written by Dickens and Collins.