Major Works of Charles Dickens (Boxed Set: Great Expectations, Hard Times, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities), Charles Dickens, Penguin Classics, £100 (hardback, clothbound)

It’s coming. Along with the Diamond Jubilee and London’s Olympics. What am I talking about? The Dickens bicentennial, of course.

Doubtless there will be bunting in Camden’s Bayham Street, still as drab, alas, as when little Charles lived there, narrowly surviving the fatal fevers that carried off five of his siblings. Dickensians will march up and down Gad’s Hill, Duke of York style, and Penguin Books is bringing out a commemorative set of volumes. The first six are on my desk as I write.

A ‘collective’ Dickens’s publishers, Chapman and Hall, would have called it. It was that house, when they were all young men (Dickens alarmingly so), who took a punt on publishing Pickwick in monthly numbers in April 1836. Chapman and Hall pioneered the first cheap (pennies-cheap) collective reissue of Dickens’s works in the 1840s. If Dickens and his partners knew one thing, it was how to ‘work his copyrights’. Never part with one was his advice. And with his friend, Thomas Noon Talfourd, Dickens laboured to get a better copyright deal for himself and what he liked to call his ‘fellow labourers in literature’. He, more than any, was worthy of his hire; and he knew it.

The bicentennial Penguin volumes are handsome things. They have gilt tooled cloth binding and paper with no shadow of see-through. The print is of a quality which would have satisfied even that typographic martinet, Jan Tschichold. They are described as commemorative not merely of the Great Inimitable but of the Penguin English Library, that pioneer paperback classic reprint series. The bicentennial volumes are, if one looks inside,reprints of those PEL reprints. Some of the editorial apparatus is decades old – but scholarship rusts slowly. Cynics would say it starts that way.

The Penguin English Library (since 1980 confusingly merged with its predecessor as ‘Penguin Classics’) was launched in the mid-1960s. It was an imaginatively conceived venture. It caught the eye with tastefully illustrated front covers (what was that noise one heard? Allen Lane spinning in his grave. He despised the American drugstore habit of pictorialising jackets). PEL differed radically in this respect from the pristine Penguin Classics, pioneered by E. V. Rieu after the war, which were chastely unencumbered with apparatus or outside ornament. Just the text, nothing but the text.

PEL volumes had long introductions (10,000 words was permitted) by card-carrying academics, textual notes, and plentiful appended explanatory annotation. The package pleased booksellers and they were in tune with the spirit of the age – academicised as it was by the 1960s Robbins expansion of British universities. The aim was to consolidate the ‘canon’, serving the burgeoning student population while at the same time retaining the loyalty of the ‘well read layperson’ Penguin had traditionally catered for.

PEL volumes also did well in the US where the principal opposition was the Signet series, whose perfect binding (i.e. low-quality glue) meant your book snapped in half if you dealt with it more roughly than you would Dresden china. The type was so badly inked that you could smear it by drawing a dry finger across the page. No contest.

Somewhere engraved on my heart are the initials PEL. Its career is intimately entwined with my own. Our relationship began in 1966 when I and a colleague at Edinburgh University, Stephen Gill, both of us assistant lecturers (a lowly grade that no longer exists), found we shared a passion for the then unfashionable Anthony Trollope.

Ambitiously we wrote to James Cochrane, the director of PEL, and proposed The Way We Live Now. ‘Jimmy’ (as we roguishly nicknamed him) wrote back courteously saying that he had looked at the book we mentioned (he had clearly never read it) and ‘shuddered’ at its length. Perhaps, however, we could come up with something shorter? Oh, and not Barchester – they had plans for that.

Why not The Eustace Diamonds, we suggested. It was acceptable and we did our stuff. Cochrane chose a ‘charming Corotesque picture’ for the front cover (it has since done service on many other PEL volumes) and the jointly written and annotated Gill-Sutherland edition came into the world in 1968. It was an added pleasure that Harmondsworth paid us two hundred and fifty pounds, evenly split.

David Daiches, who kicked off the PEL series in 1965 with Wuthering Heights, canny Scot that he was, demanded a royalty for his inaugural volume. The edition sold like hot cakes for years (Kate Bush gave it a new lease of bestselling life in 1978 with her screaming hit record). Half- yearly payments must have cushioned the eminent Daiches’s retirement very handsomely.

The Eustace Diamonds was my first publication. But any chuff factor was extinguished by the Penguin designers accidentally dropping my name off the cover – leaving Stephen as the sole editor. My offer to go to the factory and insert the necessary correction slip was politely declined.

The Eustace Diamonds, less me, remained in print until Penguin, four years ago, asked Stephen and me to update it (perhaps those references to ration books had not lasted well). He had more important things to do. I put a lot of work into a supplement to the introduction and a vastly expanded set of notes. Penguin paid me three hundred pounds. My rate had improved it would seem.

While the iron was hot in the late 1960s I proposed another title to Jimmy. Trollope’s Phineas Finn – the most effervescent of the Palliser sequence. It was accepted, with the standard two hundred and fifty pound remuneration. I blew most of that travelling to New Haven, to look at the manuscript of the novel in Yale’s Beinecke library. It was my first trip to the US and formative – I would spend the next ten years rooting among literary remains for books of my own.

The bit between my teeth I proposed Thackeray’s Henry Esmond – accepted on the same terms. That manuscript, thankfully, was accessibly lodged at Trinity College Cambridge, where Leslie Stephen had donated it. (Her not being allowed in to look at it supplies the opening scene in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.)

By 1971 I had turned out no less than three PEL editions and I was immensely proud of the fact. I was also proud of the company I was keeping – Barbara Hardy and W. J. Harvey on George Eliot, Tony Tanner on Jane Austen, Hillis Miller on Dickens. Not only that, these PEL volumes stayed in print, and on prominent display, reminding the academic world, whenever they browsed their bookshop, of one’s existence. It was a particular bonus when one came across one’s own views, faithfully reiterated in exam papers.

Already, however, some downsides were evident. As with the rest of the British publishing industry if Penguin had money to spare it went on the covers. That, they sensibly believed, was what got books onto the display shelf and off that shelf towards the till. The early printers they selected were abysmal – doing the proofs was a nightmare, even for young eyes. ‘I’ll never do another one’, Barbara Hardy told me, after her PEL Daniel Deronda came into the world with blemishes she had laboured to eradicate but the printers stubbornly stuck to.

The other liability was the disinclination of the opinion forming press, or learned journals, to notice PEL volumes. The only place you could hope for a review (of some three hundred words), and that only if you were lucky, was the British Council’s British Book News (now defunct, of course – a casualty of the withering cuts mindlessly imposed on the BC). The invisibility of the volumes critically was odd given their ubiquity and popularity (and, one might add, high critical quality). One was told that unless a PEL title sold two thousand five hundred or more annually it was dropped from the catalogue. My primal trio has never, I think, been out of print, which means that cumulative sales of (I hazard) a quarter of a million must have been reached. The credit goes, of course, to Thackeray and the lesser Thackeray (as he was called), Trollope. But I’m tacked on.

After my breakthrough (as I saw it) with the PEL volumes I put myself to acquire the hard currency of academic careers in my field, critical monographs. They sold in their measly hundreds and were reviewed all over the place. At the end of the 1970s, four monographs dangling from my belt, I returned to the classic reprint field.

By this point OUP had decided to take the plunge, relaunching their elegant little hardback ‘World’s Classics’ volumes as sexy paperbacks, under the direction of Will Sulkin. It was a shrewd move. I was once told that, at its heyday, the series was pulling in ten percent of OUP profits. (I have no way of ascertaining that fact – but it gave me a warm feeling, since I was doing my bit for the list.)

I would, over the next few years, do more than a bit for OUP World’s Classics (‘Oxford World’s Classics’ as it now is). There was some downside. Early volumes in the series were ‘reprographic’. If it was a Victorian edition which was reproduced it did not always please the eye (the series’ bad habit of disbinding Bodleian volumes got them into hot water, one was told). OUP paid less (they still offer, me at least, only half of what Penguin offers). The given excuse was that they had to pay so much for the use of the Oxford University handle and the Dominus Illuminatio Mea insignia they could not afford any more. ‘So I’m subsidising the Balliol wine cellar,’ I would retort.

The reduced fee was offset by the fact that the series was good to work with (that preposition is more appropriate than ‘for’) and – most importantly – the editorial management was not subject to the convulsive changes usual with more commercial imprints. You could build up relationships and mutual loyalties.

The first volumes I did for OUP/WC were Vanity Fair and The Way We Live Now. (With his centenary Trollope’s reputation was now on the up.) They have been around now for almost forty years. Over those years I would go on to do a lot more business with Judith Luna, who took over from Sulkin as directing manager of the list.

As I tot them up I eventually put my name to no less than eighteen volumes of classic reprints for the series. I also became a World’s Classic myself (thanks to some gallant advocacy by Luna with the Delegates) with the puzzle book Is Heathcliff a Murderer? which came out under the imprint. It is the only book of mine which has ever made the Sunday Times bestseller list. I sold it outright for twelve hundred pounds (an ex gratia payment followed, and four more WC puzzle books – WC in every sense, sniffy colleagues would sourly jest. Where else would one read them?).

There were, by the early 1990s, five classic reprints in the shops or available by subscription: Everyman, hardback and paperback, and the Folio Society (with their handsome illustrations) competed with each other. There was enough demand to keep all of them in good health. I did titles for all of them – but most for Penguin and OUP.

The net was spread ever wider. Penguin, for example, brought out, as a collective, every one of Trollope’s forty-seven works of fiction, at a quid apiece. For the first time the reading public had easy, across the counter, access to the numerous works of Wilkie Collins (I did The Woman in White and The Moonstone for OWC, Armadale for PC). Victorian fiction studies bloomed, boosted in another quarter by Andrew Davies’s television adaptations. In 1984, amazingly, Middlemarch topped the paperback bestseller list.

High Street bookshops, in the 1990s, had mouth-wateringly well stocked ‘Classics’ sections. It did a lot of good culturally but it was too good to last. Three things destabilised this happy state of affairs. The first was the launch of Wordsworth’s Classics. Exploiting new economies in printing process they offered virtually the same set of classics as their competitors at under a pound a volume. The covers were less colourful and the pages slightly harder to read and there was sparse apparatus, but the cost was irresistible. The new ‘book warehouses’ (i.e. the book equivalent of the pound shop) were flooded with ‘Wordsworths’. Given the choice students (who would think nothing of parting with a tenner for the latest CD) invariably went for them. To keep in competitive play the established reprint lines slashed their cover price and throttled their profitability.

The second blow to the foundation on which series like OWC, PC and Everyman rested came through the internet and widespread domestic connectivity in the mid 1990s. Enterprising firms such as ABE put back into circulation ‘pre-owned’ classic reprints for pennies+postage. Last time I looked every one of my twenty-nine editions (I say ‘my’ with the necessary reservations) was available, used but in good condition, for under a pound.

The internet has also delivered huge free libraries of texts for which one used to pay. offers everything the Penguin Classics and Oxford World Classics offer – in ‘epub’ format very readably. Why pay? And if you want the apparatus it is probably available for sixty pence on ABE or Amazon pre-owned.

There remains life in the classic reprints. Penguin are supplementing their standard wares with deluxe items, like the Dickens volumes on my desk, and electronic editions. Probably that is the next growth area – although one doubts the product will ever be as triumphantly expansive as it was in the 1980s.

I still do them, when the opportunity arises. I like the fact that annotating a text makes you read it carefully, more than once. The texts I know best are, in general, those I have edited just as the texts school-leavers know best are those they have studied for examination. April 2012 will see no less than four volumes with my name attached: The Purple Cloud, in Penguin Classics; The Siege of Krishnapur in Everyman (David Campbell’s hardback series – the paperback Everyman has gone under, taking a couple of my titles with it); Treasure Island from Broadview Press and Lucky Jim with Folio. Nothing Dickensian, alas. But Trollope’s bicentenary will be with us in three years. Perhaps Penguin will let me have a third go at The Eustace Diamonds.

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