House History

John Sutherland

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

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:

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