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
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.
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:
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:
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:
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,
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.