Allen Lane: King Penguin 
by J.E. Morpurgo.
Hutchinson, 405 pp., £9.95, November 1980, 0 09 139690 5
Show More
Show More

The terms on which this book is set up are prefigured in the split title – Allen Lane: King Penguin. In Elizabethan drama the king’s two bodies might well be a theme for tragedy, and a latterday Lytton Strachey might have made much of the hypocritical discrepancies between public eminence and private person. J.E. Morpurgo has settled for ‘paradox’. His biography-cum-house-history evokes a constant sense of how odd it was that such a man should have produced such a thing.

According to this account, Allen Lane was a monstrously paradoxical man: not over-cultivated, often uncouth, frequently dictatorial in business and bohemian in private life, he nevertheless created that cosy temple of English middle and highbrow culture, Penguin Books. Penguin books themselves had their paradoxical aspect. In form, they are what Germans (who have never really gone in for the mass-market paperback) call Wegwer-fliteratur – throwaway books. Yet in the thirty years of their triumph Penguins were valued and preserved, almost as reverently as those six-guinea volumes which Lane asserted – in a much-quoted trade proverb – were the only rational alternative to his 6d. items. Penguins were rarely thrown away. For all their paper backs and origins in the 3d. and 6d. store, they are books to last, and they age well, like other British ‘institutions’. It is not just a question of externals: the Tschichold designs, sober covers and superior typography (hangovers, as Morpurgo demonstrates, from John Lane’s Bodley Head). The Penguin aura was of solid, durable literature and (as Pelicans) sensible discussion. To work the paradox to death, one might claim that Penguins were paperbacks which, for most of their history, successfully passed themselves off as hardbacks. Significantly, in the Fifties, when their stock was highest, a kit was brought onto the market which enabled the keen owner to harden the soft covers of his Penguin library. It was a dismal and frustrating task, which left one with sticky fingers and lumpily disfigured books. But the urge was symptomatic: would one have done the same for one’s Four Squares or Corgis?

The most poignant paradox which emerges from Morpurgo’s narrative is that Lane, although obsessed with succession, left his house without a titular head, to be swallowed up in conglomerate ownership. ‘The king is dead, long live the Pearson-Longman board’ is the theme of Morpurgo’s postlude, which traces the progression from charismatic to bureaucratic leadership and the consequent dilution of Penguin house style and dignity in the Seventies. Hence one has to talk of Penguins in two tenses: the Penguins that are and the Penguins that were.

J.E. Morpurgo is, of all men, uniquely if not automatically qualified to write a biography of Allen Lane. He was recruited into the firm after the war, first on the public relations side. He rose to be General Editor of the history series. On two occasions he found himself first in line as heir apparent to the Penguin kingdom. But even the biographer’s privileged intimacy has its paradoxical complication. Morpurgo’s son married Lane’s daughter. Lane sent his ‘emissaries’ with an ‘ultimatum’ that Morpurgo should allow the young couple an equivalent sum to what he, as a millionaire, could afford. Morpurgo, who was no millionaire, took offence. The in-laws never exchanged so much as another word for the rest of Lane’s life.

At its best, when it is dealing with Lane’s ‘mercurial’ personality, Morpurgo’s portraiture has the quality of witness rather than reconstruction. Take this typical montage of parental moods and shifts in the description of the publisher and his daughters:

in his treatment of them he was never pompous. But when they were small he paid them little attention except when showing them off to strangers or alternatively posturing before strangers as an uncaring, even as a brutal father; as they grew to adolescence and came to make demands upon his time, his valiant efforts to give them what he knew they needed – and what he himself truly wished to give – were too often inhibited by his inability to close his mind to publishing or farming. Battered by a 12-year-old’s insistent and insignificant conversation, he would pretend interest for a while, then his eyes would glaze over so that even the child knew his mind was elsewhere.

This inwardness with his subject, and access to family and colleagues’ memories, has notably aided Morpurgo in the putting-together of Penguin Books’ origins and early-days. From the publishing-history angle, this will, I suspect, be the book’s enduring achievement.

But Morpurgo has claims other than publishing know-how and personal relationship for writing this work. He is, in two of his many parts, an experienced biographer and a professor of American literature. Allen Lane: King Penguin is informative and compulsively readable, but given Morpurgo’s qualifications, it is odd that he should have offered us, against the conventions of modern scholarship, an anecdotal biography. It is as bare of apparatus as any Victorian whitewash job. There are no footnotes, no citations, no specific attribution of sources. ‘Archives’ or ‘the Penguin records’ are mentioned a couple of times, and very occasionally letters are quoted (usually without dates). The stripped-down nature of the book makes for a pleasantly uninterrupted read. But it means that one can never be sure to what extent Morpurgo is merely retailing, and to what extent he has properly sifted, hearsay, insider’s gossip, lore, legend and the embroidered accounts which flourish in the book trade around characters like Lane and firms like Penguin. This is a book which presents itself to us as authoritative and authorised, but we have to take its authority on trust.

Should we? Those few occasions when we can test Morpurgo’s account against printed sources provide grounds for scepticism. Take the discussion of the Chatterley trial, an event to which Morpurgo assigns less in the way of cultural significance than it has been common to do. In the prosecution’s eyes, Morpurgo asserts,

Penguin’s most heinous offence was that they had priced the book not at 30 guineas but at 3s. 6d. When the case came finally to the Old Bailey the leader for the Crown made the implication explicit by a suggestion that was precise if also notably inept even in a prosecution that was conducted with remarkable ineffectiveness. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he proposed, was not a book that any upright citizen would wish his maidservant to read. Almost certainly there was not one member of the jury whose morning tea was brought in by ‘a maidservant’ and probably not one person in court, except perhaps Mr. Griffith-Jones QC himself and Mr. Justice Byrne, would have used such a word at any time unless he was writing 18th or 19th-century social history.

The story is, in its various forms, famous. But what Griffith-Jones said in his opening address for the prosecution (I take the text from C.H. Rolph’s transcript in The Trial of Lady Chatterley) was this: ‘Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’ Where then does Morpurgo get his ‘maidservant’ – a word which was not, apparently, uttered in court, even by the stuffed shirts opposed to Penguin? Why the misleading quotation-marks? One supposes that ‘maidservant’ is an embellishment that somewhere – wherever Morpurgo picked it up – made the story even more delicious.

Such misreportings can’t bear the weight of any real censure. But the slackness extends to areas where its consequences are more disturbing. The Chatterley episode inspires the author to a spiteful digression on the Leavises. As is well known, F.R. Leavis, for his own good reasons, declined to appear in Lane’s parade of defence ‘experts’. Morpurgo tries to pinpoint the motive for Leavis’s decision by quoting selectively from a letter of Q.D. Leavis’s to the Times (18 January 1978 – Morpurgo does not give the date) shortly before her husband’s death. The occasion for Mrs Leavis’s letter was an earlier letter (14 January 1978) from Michael Rubinstein in which, according to Morpurgo, the lawyer ‘complained that the critic had been unique in refusing to stand as a witness in support of Allen at the Old Bailey and that he had “not disclosed” his reasons.’ (This misrepresents what Rubinstein in fact wrote: ‘Dr Leavis, like several other eminent persons, had his reasons at the time for preferring not to give evidence. He might care to disclose them now. But I would not respect him the less if he does not.’ In other words, Leavis was not unique.) Morpurgo continues his tendentious account:

Mrs Leavis would have none of it. As ever quick to champion her husband, and with her habitual loyalty strengthened because Leavis was too ill to defend himself, she rushed to combat Rubinstein’s slander … Leavis had ‘refused to countenance the case that Lady Chatterley is great literature and a good novel … and deplored, above all, that the trial … could only harm Lawrence since the novelist would become identified with this most unrepresentative work.’ Leavis had explained himself in private to Rubinstein and in print in a review of The Trial of Lady Chatterley published originally in the Spectator and reprinted as ‘The New Orthodoxy’ in a collection of his essays. Thus far her advocacy was respectable if not entirely consequential; not one witness had claimed greatness for Lady Chatterley’s Lover and few had called it a good book; their case rested on other considerations.

The tone is disconcertingly bad-mannered. Why should Mrs Leavis’s denial of a palpable untruth about her dying husband be described facetiously as rushing into battle? One may also note as significant the misnaming of the article in question, which was actually reprinted as ‘The Orthodoxy of Enlightenment’ (the ‘collection’ was Anna Karenina and other Essays). Most dubious, however, is Morpurgo’s handling of F.R. Leavis’s main objection. What the critic and unwilling witness maintained was: ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover, then – it is important that this obvious enough truth should be recognised – is a bad novel.’

According to Morpurgo, this opinion is inconsequential, and he spurns it with the knowing put-down that ‘not one witness had claimed greatness for Lady Chatterley’s Lover.’ How, then, is one to take Richard Hoggart’s opening assertion to the Defense Counsel: ‘I think it is a book of quite exceptional literary merit, probably one of the best twenty novels we have had written in Britain in the last thirty years’? It is universally acknowledged that Hoggart was the most effective of the experts on the stand. The suggestion that this key witness did not base his evidence on a forthright claim for the novel’s greatness is surely disingenuous. How can one blame Leavis, holding the views that he did, for not lining up with Hoggart, or with Walter Allen, for whom the novel was ‘a work of genius’? The allegation that Leavis in his pigheadedness missed the subtlety of the defence’s tactics is, when one checks the evidence, wrong. And the fact that Morpurgo offers no evidence to support his allegation makes one wonder about the greater part of the book whose evidence one cannot check.

These doubts apply forcefully to that section which deals with the Allen Lane-Tony Godwin relationship. Godwin was the young editor taken up by Lane in his frantic search for a ‘Prince of Wales’ in the Sixties. Morpurgo paints a lively picture of Lane as a kind of Saturn devouring his young and Godwin as a publishing Oedipus, determined to occupy the patriarch’s throne. The clash between them moved to a climax when Lane, outvoted by his opponent’s faction at a board meeting, coolly smuggled out of Harmondsworth and burnt a whole edition of Siné cartoons in order to spite Godwin. The infuriated editor – according to Morpurgo – then organised a ‘cabal’ to carry out a ‘putsch’ which would remove Lane. But he opened the conspiracy to the wrong man: there was exposure, disgrace and it was Godwin’s head that rolled.

This most readable part of Morpurgo’s book has a strong narrative interest, with lots of nicely malicious observations on both men (since Godwin, too, is dead, no prudence as to libel was required of the biographer). But in the correspondence columns of the Guardian on 8 November, Fay Godwin questioned Morpurgo’s account from the vantage-point of her insider’s knowledge as an ex-wife:

It is full of innuendo and facts which I do not recognise. So far as I can ascertain Mr Morpurgo has hardly consulted any of the middle or junior editors while writing this section of the book … The most astonishing claim is that Tony Godwin intended to get rid of Allen Lane in a ‘putsch’ or ‘palace revolution’. At home Tony talked freely and exhaustively and exhaustingly about the problem at Penguin, but at no time did I ever hear the remotest suggestion of getting rid of Allen Lane.

The effect of Fay Godwin’s letter is not absolutely to refute Morpurgo’s version, but one finds oneself wondering, again, what Morpurgo’s sources were, how carefully he sifted them and whether he sacrificed anything of truth to point a nice story.

Godwin was, like Lane, a charismatic figure in the British book trade whose ideas Morpurgo might perhaps have enlarged on. He was a heretic as regards the British mystique of ‘house style’ and ‘imprint’: in this respect his eventual gravitation to America was logical. Personal friction apart, his philosophy of publishing materially differed from Lane’s on the crucial question of display. Lane’s dislike of press advertising is well brought out by Morpurgo; so, too, is his dislike of pictorial covers, discussion of which he would customarily dismiss with the abrupt exclamation ‘bosoms and bottoms’. He seems to have held the civilised view that books should sell books – hence the Penguin ‘series’ which led one to buy a volume on the strength of its known predecessors. Godwin’s career began as a flamboyant bookseller; his philosophy embraced ‘hype’ and modern methods that would sell books faster. His tenure at Harmondsworth coincided with bigger spending, more advertisement and the pictorial cover – an innovation for which Morpurgo gives him personal credit.

Despite its exorcism in the late Sixties, Godwin’s spirit would appear to have returned to Penguins in the form of the firm’s new chief executive, Pater Mayer. Mayer inaugurated his rule by declaring that he at least was nor awed by ‘institutions’. His personal style of management was promptly indicated by the sales campaign for The Far Pavilions, outlined in a four-page pull-out supplement in the Spring 1979 Bookseller. On the first page stood a simple, immodest message: ‘On 17 May, there will appear a Penguin that will be backed by the most ambitious promotion ever. It will be a unique event in Penguin publishing, in paperback publishing and, quite conceivably, in the history of publishing.’ A £40,000 advertising budget was allowed and a cover was commissioned which, if not all bosoms and bottoms, might fairly be thought to stress bosoms and belly-buttons. The campaign for this ‘Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier’ seems to have repaid the cash and the surrender of traditional Penguin reserve that went into it. Recent full-page advertisements in the trade press announce a triumph. Presumably we can now expect Penguin to bring us a ‘unique publishing event’ every month or so.

On the face of things, nothing would seem more alien to the Lane protocol than the way The Far Pavilions was marketed. Mayer, however, thinks otherwise. In an interesting interview with Paperback Buyer, given shortly after his appointment, he asserted that he was taking Penguins back to the popular, the ‘mainstream’, style with which it began in 1935.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences