In the years following the Second World War my father’s allegiance to the Dent Everyman series began to shift to the emerging series of Penguin books.
Allen Lane seems to have thought that in founding Penguin books he was reaching a public not in the habit of purchasing books, and claimed that his new series was a “means of converting book-borrowers into book buyers.” But many Penguin customers were probably, like my father, already owners of shelves of Everyman books, for whom the low-priced Penguins were irresistible. He had begun buying Penguins as soon as they began to appear in the mid 1930s. Survivals from this time are the two volume collection of essays on “The Great Victorians” edited by H.J. Massingham (1937) and sixpenny edition of Browning’s Selected Poems and Thoreau’s Walden (1938) in the short-lived orange-covered Penguin Illustrated Classics series. He bought numerous blue-covered Pelicans of belles lettres and history as well as many of the purple and white covered Penguin Classics series once they began to emerge under E.V. Rieu’s editorship in the mid 1940s. Much more rarely he bought an occasional orange-covered Penguin edition in the fiction series, but never one of the numerous green-covered crime novels.
Penguin and other major paperback publishers so effectively changed the landscape of the book world in the post-war years that it’s difficult to re-imagine Allen Lane’s
project as the gamble it once appeared. Not surprisingly, the massive tectonic shift in the publishing scene has given rise to numerous origin legends. The most frequently repeated is the tale that the notion of mass market quality paperbacks came to Allen Lane suddenly as he stood on the platform of Exeter Station in 1934 faced with a bookstand offering nothing but penny dreadfuls and shoddy Victorian reprints. But significant upheavals in publishing were already in process across the channel with wealthy Americans like Caresse Crosby and Nancy Cunard publishing fine editions of Modernist writers.
In the 1970s I came to know Wyn Henderson who had worked as a typographer in Paris at Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press for part of her remarkable life. She told me that when she returned to London in the 1930s Allen Lane invited her to become one of the partners in his plan to introduce quality paperbound books to a mass market in Britain.
Thinking perhaps of the ubiquitous paperbound books that were the norm in France, Wyn confidently rebuffed his scheme: “The British public will never want paperbound books. I’m starting a fine art publishing house –Aquila Press.” Predictably, Aquila foundered into bankruptcy after producing a handful of books. At the end of her life Wyn was fond of recalling this decades-old example of catastrophically bad financial judgement. Interestingly though, she didn’t particularly regret missing becoming part of one of the most lucrative publishing ventures of the time. Instead, she mourned that she herself no longer owned even one of the fine editions published by her Aquila Press.
A sourer mourning note was sounded by Ezra Pound whose Cavalcanti translation Wyn had agreed to publish. In 1950 in a letter from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital he complains to Wyndham Lewis he complains about his “text wot the fat lady [Wyn] with her AQUILA press left hung in mid air” fifteen years earlier.