What is the point of institutional history? For whom is it written? Here I declare my interest: I once wrote a short history of a merchant bank and I am at present working on a history of the Economist, which will be 150 years old in 1993. The former, which had to be circumspect and avoid upsetting the natives, was wholly written for gain; the latter, on which I have a free rein, will be written also for enjoyment.

I am often asked to justify my present job, for there is a strong school of thought that any form of institutional history is no more than corporate self-aggrandisement. Of course, in many cases it is. We have all seen the glossy volumes dreamed up by the public relations (or, as they tend to be known nowadays, ‘corporate affairs’) people. Lots of pictures and a text which hypes the company while failing to mention, for instance, its policy of expansion through selling to the Third World products which do actual harm. Its purpose? A cost-effective way of improving one’s image. Although I find this debasement of truth and history offensive, I feel that such productions are better than nothing. At the very least, they indicate some general acceptance that the past is not wholly irrelevant.

At the other end of the spectrum is a project like the history of the Times – or, indeed, the Economist – where the author is commissioned to research exhaustively and tell the whole truth (although even here common decency will require some omissions in the more recent period). There are few enough opportunities of this kind: not many institutions feel moved to pay good money in order to have their dirty linen washed in public. Notable exceptions are journalistic and publishing enterprises.

Most serious newspapers and periodicals of significance have their histories written. Perhaps this is because the ephemeral nature of newsprint creates a desire to have some lasting record between hard covers; put another way, many journalists have a sense of owing something to posterity. Even the never-particularly-prosperous New Statesman felt it necessary to produce a history of its first fifty years. Equally obviously, any self-respecting journal will have to accept a truthful history or be a laughing-stock – and there will always be plenty of former colleagues around to point out mis-statements or lacunae. Mind you, this convention may be changing: one can imagine the kind of history of the Times of the 1980s Rupert Murdoch would be likely to commission, or pass. It is hard to see him frightened by the prospect of hostile reviews: ‘Murdoch Loses Sleep over Bias Jibe’ – well, hardly.

With publishers it is often more a matter of noblesse oblige: if you peddle books for a living you can hardly celebrate your centenary by simply sending your staff for a day at the seaside. You need to be seen to finance and publish a thorough history, written honestly (if tactfully). Few publishers – however reputable – have a burning desire for unnecessary frankness except about long, long ago. It is one thing to have your history* record that the firm’s founder – like Bodley Head’s John Lane – tried to avoid paying his authors. It would be quite another to have it alleged that the present management had inherited those proclivities.

The distinguished journalist J.W. Lambert was certainly thorough and honest, but for the later period, together with Michael Ratcliffe, who finished the book after Lambert’s death, tactful to a fault. The joint product is a useful piece of publishing history that is often rather hard going, for the story of the Bodley Head is only intermittently interesting. It opens grippingly enough with John Lane, a Devonian of bookish leanings and a clubbable disposition, seeking to escape from his clerkship in the London Railway Clearing House by dealing in books on the side. So successful was he that in time he was able to pay colleagues to do his clerking and in 1887, with a partner whom he treated shabbily and later split from, he set up a bookshop and publishing-house in Vigo Street.

Named after that extremely respectable figure Sir Thomas Bodley – scholar, diplomat and founder of the Bodleian – the firm quickly and almost accidentally became synonymous with beautifully-produced, often wickedly illustrated, rather decadent publications. Lane, described by a colleague as being one who published ‘for the fun of the thing’, was brilliant at producing and marketing books and, although in some ways rather proper, had a taste for the risqué: his literary adviser in the early days, Richard Le Gallienne, poetaster, philanderer and drinker, had an instinct for the mood of the times. The Bodley Head rapidly became a succès de scandale as well as modestly profitable for some years. Aubrey Beardsley and Charles Ricketts were among the illustrators who often delighted and sometimes shocked public opinion; the young Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde among the best-known of the writers. And with the often splendid Yellow Book, first published in 1894, the firm achieved real notoriety and inspired innumerable parodies, comic verses and quips. Norman Gale, a long since forgotten poet, produced one of the better ones:

One more unfortunate
Volume ungodly
Rashly importunate
Gone to the Bodley.

Punch’s ‘Uncleanliness is next to Bodliness’ particularly pleased Lane, one of whose more agreeable characteristics was his enjoyment of jokes at his and his firm’s expense: he was a man without rancour. Kenneth Grahame, who wrote for the Yellow Book, protested that there was ‘not enough impropriety to cover a sixpence’, and indeed what there was (mostly provided by Beardsley and Ricketts) was more than outweighed by highly respectable contributions from the likes of Edmund Gosse, Henry James and even John Buchan. Yet many of the illustrations did shock and even revolt, and Lane was to sack Beardsley when the backwash from the Wilde scandal hit the Bodley Head.

‘Wilde!’ wrote Lambert, in one of his few stylistic lapses. ‘The very name is like a knell, and well before the events which were to follow in 1895.’ Certainly Wilde did little to endear himself to John Lane. He complained vociferously about Lane’s reluctance to pay him his dues, criticised his marketing and book production, and caused great trouble in the shop by making enthusiastic advances to an unstable young dogsbody, Edward Shelley. More than a year before Shelley was to give evidence at Wilde’s trial, his co-workers were addressing him as ‘Miss Oscar’ or ‘Mrs Wilde’.

A report of Wilde’s arrest had had the headline ‘Yellow Book Under His Arm’, and although the book was a French novel, the connection was made in the public eye – which was particularly unfair, since Beardsley had prevented Wilde from ever being asked to contribute. When, in 1895, Shelley testified against Wilde, one of the great English public’s periodic attacks of morality took a mob to Vigo Street to hurl bricks through the shop-window. Lane was lucky to pull through the hard times that followed: ‘It killed the Yellow Book,’ he said, ‘and it almost killed me.’ One’s sympathy for him is lessened by the knowledge that he had for a long time used the wretched Shelley to spy in the office on his partner.

Although the firm survived, its change of personality was so drastic as to be in itself a kind of death. Never again, even under Max Reinhardt, did the Bodley Head have as strong a public persona as it had during the Naughty Nineties. Henceforward Lane, with the help of his new wife and her money, concentrated on building up a solid, rather dull, rather middlebrow list. Anthologies, cheap editions of well-known poets, the New Pocket Library and impermanent novels dominated. Lane also enjoyed publishing books on such special interests of his own as art and furniture. He lost many authors as a result of his near-dishonesty over money, but won many others. He could be immensely charming and often showed great generosity of spirit. It was hard to resist a man whose reaction to having one of his tables broken by an enraged poet was to gather up the pieces and say: ‘This is one of the sacrifices that mediocrity must needs make to genius.’

It is not Lambert’s fault that his book hits a longish dull patch with the declining years of Lane’s life and the period after his death in 1925: an honourable chronicler cannot leave out large chunks of history just because they are boring. The story perks up with the account of how Allen lane set about taking over his late uncle’s firm in his customary brutal manner. It is rather a blow to the reader when Lane departs the Bodley Head in 1936 with Penguin, leaving his uncle’s firm in voluntary liquidation.

Having persuaded Cape and Dent to take a one-sixth stake each, Stanley Unwin – head of Allen and Unwin and author of that memorable piece of advice: ‘If you must meet an author, always wear your oldest suit’ – bought the controlling interest. Over the next ten years he bullied and cheese-pared the firm into marginal profitability, thereupon installing as manager the charming C.J. Greenwood. A good publisher and an appalling businessman, poor Greenwood lived in terror of Unwin and concealed bad news from him. By the time of his death in 1957 the Bodley Head was in a bad state. By a great stroke of luck along came a new buyer, Max Reinhardt, ‘a benign enabler’. Gifted, cosmopolitan, imaginative, and as clubbable as John Lane, he ushered in a new era of glory and profitability. Like Lane, he, too, published ‘for the fun of the thing’ – a trait of most great publishers.

The story from 1957 is told by Michael Radcliffe, who took over the job after the death of Lambert – his old mentor at the Sunday Times. It is hard to imagine that Radcliffe took this on other than dutifully, for finishing off someone else’s book must rank high among thankless tasks – especially if you get lumbered with the dullest part. That the years of that excellent publisher Max Reinhardt come across as dull is purely because of the convention which ruins the last chapters of most company histories. It is bad enough that you can say nothing critical of anyone still alive, but you have to find kind words for everyone down to the office cat (‘Mouser, whose contribution to the greater efficiency of the paper department was a byword in the Seventies’). The combination of catalogues of meaningless names and blandness is dispiriting to hack through, especially when, as in this case, one knows that there is an excellent story underneath the surface.

Why, for instance, did things go so badly wrong financially during the early Seventies? Not everything can be blamed on the economic climate. How did the Bodley Head people get on when they joined up with Chatto and Cape as a form of rationalisation? What about the power struggles we have read about in the literary press? Why did Virago pull out? What was behind the Random House takeover? How irritating that what we want to know most about – the falling-out between Graham Greene and his nephew Graham C. Greene, which has resulted in Max Reinhardt’s launching a new list just to publish Greene oncle – came too late to be treated at all. Not that one could have expected such literary-gossip-column stuff to be dwelt on in a book like this. One can be pretty sure that had time allowed, Radcliffe would have been forced to glide over it with gentle mutterings about ‘differences of opinion honestly held’.

A word of praise is due to the publishers, who chose an honest journalist and gave him more scope than most companies would think reasonable. The book has been lavishly provided with illustrations: there has been no penny-pinching. It is bad luck for them that the centenary should have coincided with a takeover and a series of public rows. It is bad luck for us that the full story will probably not be told until 2037.

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