For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world, providing readers with a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. We focus on bringing together the best of the past and the future, using cutting-edge design and production as well as embracing the digital age to create unforgettable editions of treasured literature. Penguin Classics is timeless and trend setting. Whether you love our familiar black-spine series, our Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, or our Penguin Enriched eBook Classics, we bring the writer to the reader in every format available.
Penguin, from its very earliest days, had dabbled on occasion in what were regarded as classics. A batch of ten books published in 1935 had included Samuel Butler's Erewhon. Chekhov and de Maupassant translations also featured in the early lists. And in 1938 a series of ten Illustrated Classics had been published, starting with Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and finishing with Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Published in the year before the outbreak of World War II, these attractive books were considered at the time a rare Penguin failure, and the series was discontinued.
The immediate post-war world was a very different place. The euphoria engendered by the return to peace and the hope for a better, saner world, which found expression in Britain in the election of a Labour administration, were tempered by continued rationing and shortages, and uncertainty as families renewed acquaintance after many years of separation and began slowly adjusting to civilian life.
E.V. Rieu, a distinguished but obscure classicist and publisher, had whiled away odd idle hours of wartime service perfecting his translation of Homer's Odyssey and reading these efforts aloud to his wife Nelly, who encouraged him to complete the task and have it published.
I began on the Odyssey three years before the Second World War started, and completed the first draft as France fell. Home Guard service intervened, and I could not finish the job till 1944. Even so, its revision was undertaken to the sound of v1 and v2 explosions and the crash of shattering glassan accompaniment which would have chimed in better with the more warlike Iliad, and which, I hope, is not reflected in my style. Actually, I went back to Homer, the supreme realist, who puts his magic finger every time on the essential qualities of things, by way of escape from the unrealities that surrounded us thenand still surround us in a world of fantastically distorted values.
Ignoring the doubts of his colleagues, Allen Lane not only instantly agreed to publish the translation, but invited Rieu to edit a new series of Classics. It was a typical Lane decision, an instinctive leap, a certainty that an eager audience existed for new and accessible translations, one that Rieu's achievement had clearly created. It was not so much a gamble as an act of faith against all odds and a body of evidence that would have convinced any rational publisher guided solely by the balance sheet.
Rieu's translation of the Odyssey became an immediate success and went on to sell some three million copies, occupying the position of the best-selling Penguin until rudely usurped fifteen years on by Lady Chatterley's Lover and, ultimately, Animal Farm. Why should this be? The answer lies partly in the qualities and ambitions of Rieu's translation and his objectives for the series:
The first volume of our new Classics series, the editor's translation of the Odyssey, appeared in January. The series is to be composed of original translations from Greek, Latin and later European classics, and it is the editor's intention to commission translators who can emulate his own example and present the general reader with readable and attractive versions of the great writers' books in modern English, shorn of the unnecessary difficulties and erudition, the archaic flavour and the foreign idiom that renders so many existing translations repellent to modern taste. Each volume will be issued at Penguin prices and the series will include, besides the Odyssey...many other volumes covering a wide variety of literature ranging from...Ancient Egypt to the closing years of the nineteenth century.
Rieu had told one of his sons, himself the translator of The Acts of the Apostles for the series, that he began by inviting dons to submit their work, but he found that very few of them could write decent English, and most were enslaved by the idiom of the original language. He turned to professional writersRobert Graves, Rex Warner, Dorothy L Sayersauthors who ranged from the scholarly to the idiosyncratic.
The Penguin Classics also provided a unique combination: the verve of Rieu's translation combined with the Penguin name and aura. And it was this latter quality, just as much as the translation itself, that attracted the public. Penguin books were liked and trusted; they had been among the closest companions of many thousands throughout the war, guiding and helping them, assumingalways rightlya deep interest and thirst for knowledge. What this new Penguin edition of the Odyssey proclaimed was that this was a book that anyoneeveryonecould, and should, read. The classics were no longer the exclusive province of the privileged few.
As the Penguin Classics grew in number, taking in works translated from Russian, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, German and a growing number of Middle and Far Eastern languages, so the authority of the series grew, and its readership subtly changed and developed. What the world knew for many years, Penguin would sometimes only acknowledge slowly and seemingly reluctantly. The imprint had been a major force in education, and especially adult education, since 1937, yet it would be thirty years before a new Penguin Education list finally acknowledged that fact. It was the same with the Classics. Betty Radice, Rieu's assistant and ultimate successor, was in no doubt:
When Allen Lane and E.V. Rieu started the Penguin Classics their aim was to offer world literature to their readers in a form faithful to the original and one they could enjoy. With his impeccable classical background Rieu had no thought of the translations from Greek and Latin becoming valuable teaching material; indeed he told me that he had had critics amongst his academic contemporaries at the Athenaeum who imagined he was setting out to provide cribs to be consulted furtively under the desk by weaklings unable to construe. I came from a different world, and in my tutoring had always used the best English versions available of a complete work before starting pupils on a set text. How can anyone appreciate Aeneid VI before something is known of the pattern of the whole great Aeneid? Classical teaching was changing, and I saw that there was a great opportunity for the classics to meet new demands if new titles were provided with line references, notes, indexes, bibliographies and fuller introductions, designed for use in teaching courses.
This growing realization meant that difficult decisions eventually had to be faced. Along with the perceived irrelevance of detailed scholarly apparatus (unlike the stance taken today in which the approach to critical apparatus is rigorous) was an early reluctance to translate verse into verse. Certain translations fared less well than others, and came under increasing scrutiny as the series moved steadily towards meeting the demands of scholars and teachers. Betty Radice led by example. In her own 1963 translation of The Letters of the Younger Pliny she demonstrated to her mentor that it was possible to present solid and authoritative scholarship in an appealing wayand this is what she aimed for in the books she edited. Her joint editor, who oversaw modern language translations and provided a number of them himself, was Robert Baldick, a prodigious scholar, who, until his untimely death at the age of forty-four, made sure that translators were paid a proper fee for what is a specialist job, and that readers were introduced to the best of literature in translation that respected and did not betray the intentions of the author.
The importance of the academic market, particularly in the United States, was fully recognized during the 1960s, and a new generation of translators, many admittedly nurtured on the early Penguin Classics, joined those core contributorssuch as NJ Dawood, Michael Grant, Philip Vellacott and JM Cohenwhose translations were already beginning to achieve a classic status of their own.
In 1966 the Penguin English Library was inaugurated as a sister series to the Classics. Apart from aiming to provide a lively critical and historical introduction and such notes as are needed to clarify the text, the editors main concern was to provide an authoritative text:
The text of many English classics, particularly nineteenth-century novels, is in a scandalous condition, since publishers have often been content to reprint earlier editions, thus accumulating misprints and errors. The first duty of the editor of a volume in the Penguin English Library will be to decide which is the best text to print from and if necessary to establish a text. In cases where the text has already been established by a modern scholar, permission to use that text will be sought by the publishers.
The total intention is to arouse, not to assume a reader's interest, to place the book firmly within its historical, biographical and social context and, where possible. to point out its relevance to the present day. The general reader, the sixth form student, and the first year university student should all feel that this is the edition they must have.
In 1968 a further new series of non-fictioninfluential books in philosophy, religion, science, history, politics and economics in new editions for a modern audiencePelican Classics, joined the by now unmistakable black covers of the Penguin Classics.
These were joined later by a fourth series, the Penguin American Library, in the early 1980s (introduced at a time when many British publishers were cutting back their lists of American classics), with a commitment to maintain a representative range of American writing in an inexpensive but attractive form. Not only were titles such as Walden, Last of the Mohicans, Call of the Wild and Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery safeguarded for an international audience, but this close transatlantic co-operation brought the added bonus of the scholarship of Robert Fagles and Mark Musa to British readers in their translations of Homer and Dante, which continue on the list alongside those of Rieu and Sayers. These four separate series all eventually merged to become the Penguin Classics in 1986, the most comprehensive library of world literature available from any paperback publisher: a position maintained and consolidated throughout the past decade, further supplemented with the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, embracing some former Classics titles and Penguin's holdings of modern literature, a growing number of Audiobooks, drawn from the Classics list, and the Penguin Popular Classics.
In recent years there has been an expansion of Spanish, German and Italian translations, and a broadening of the publishing of non-fiction. The series is now as committed to philosophy, theology, travel, politics, history and autobiography as it is to fiction and poetry. There has been an increase in the representation of women's writing, particularly in the English language. The original Penguin English Library editions of the major nineteenth-century English novelistsDickens, Austen, Hardy, the Brontës, Gaskellhave been replaced by new versions with up-to-date critical apparatus and freshly and accurately edited texts. There will continue to be a large growth in the representation of vernacular English texts within the Classics, both of fiction and poetry, in response to a much broader sense of literary tradition.
Now sixty years old, the series has little left to prove but much still to accomplish. Whilst reasonably comprehensive on European literature, the vast non-Western canon remains a challenge that can only be met gradually. Gaps cannot be filled overnight. A new edition requires the right person with both the skills and resources for this detailed, painstaking and demanding task.
When asked during the 1960s which of his many publishing achievements he was most proud of, Allen Lane had no hesitation in nominating the Penguin Classics. Through half a century the series has grown and developed far beyond Rieu's original conception, without changing beyond recognition, or compromising the ideals of the early translators and editors. For over thirty years, wrote Betty Radice in 1978,
editors have worked to provide translations which shall be alive and enjoyable as well as accurate. They know that translation is both a creative art and a scholarly exercise, a demanding task which must be enjoyed if it is to succeed, and are fortunate in the scholars and authors who are happy to work on a Penguin Classic. At the same time there is a continuous revision, particularly of the Greek and Latin titles, to meet the growing demand for them as teaching material: fuller notes, updated bibliographies, additional expert introductions. It is this combination of forward looking and reappraisal which ensures a healthy future for the Penguin Classics.
At a time when classical education is rare, the core of the Penguin Classics has an ever more important role to play in providing access to the greatest works in editions that are both up to date and authoritative.
The world has not changed so much that the best literature of several thousand years and countless cultures has lost its relevance. If these texts help us in any way to appreciate and understand the essential differences that divide us, as much as the universal truths that bind us together, then their value is incalculable, and their loss or destruction would diminish us all. Today just as much as in 1946, in a world still of fantastically distorted values, there are many states and nations embarking on an uneasy and difficult peace, or yet at war. The Odyssey continues.
The Penguin Classics, though I designed them to give pleasure even more than instruction, have been hailed as the greatest educative force of the twentieth century. And far be it for me to quarrel with that encomium, for there is no one whom they have educated more than myself.
E.V. Rieu, on his retirement in 1964