Penguin publishing deal helped Virginia Woolf’s work reach mass market, study finds

Cautious deals brokered by Virginia Woolf’s husband with Penguin Books helped her work reach a mass market, according to a new study.

Penguin editions of Woolf’s essays and later novels helped publicize his talent and ensure mass appropriation of his writings.

In return, the ability to publish Woolf’s work gave Penguin cultural capital and raised the profile of the new company which had begun publishing inexpensive, mass-produced paperbacks in the mid-1930s. Woolf, Leonard, arranged deals with Penguin, which allowed him to manage his cultural life after his death.

Penguin was becoming a market force and a tastemaker. His editions of Woolf’s work made it possible for less affluent readers to purchase it.

Penguin began publishing Woolf’s nonfiction just before his death, and Leonard brokered deals with the company for the release of his fiction in the 1950s and 1960s.

Penguin records, held at the University of Bristol, show that financial considerations regularly determined the decision-making processes on both sides.

Leonard continued to publish Virginia’s books under their Hogarth imprint, while Alan Lane’s company brokered deals that allowed Penguin Books to gradually lease the rights to most of Woolf’s major works.

Correspondence shows that Leonard’s priority was the financial health of Hogarth Press and the sales figures for Woolf’s works were his primary concern when dealing with Penguin. He would not lease the rights to Lane’s title company which still sold well like the Hogarth Press editions. This meant at first that only Woolf’s lesser-known titles, her essays and non-fiction, were initially given to Penguin Books.

Professor Vike Plock of the University of Exeter, who analyzed Leonard’s correspondence with Penguin, found that Leonard was frequently exasperated by Penguin Books’ lack of editorial care in presenting Woolf’s titles. When asked to comment on the draft of a biographical sketch that was to appear in the paperback version of “The Waves”, Leonard had to remind Penguin Books in September 1950 that the Woolf book they were publishing “in The Penguin was ‘A Room of One’s Own’ not ‘A Life of One’s Own’.” He also noted errors in the biographical note for “The Waves” when the book was published by Penguin in 1951.

Lane first contacted Hogarth Press to request one of Woolf’s fictional titles – “Orlando” – very soon after launching the first Penguin series, but was turned down. The Penguin business may have looked too much like a reckless venture at the time, but three years later Penguin Books had established itself as a presence on the British interwar publishing scene.

By 1938, Leonard and Virginia Woolf had become Penguin authors. Leonard’s study of political history, After the Deluge, was published as a Pelican in 1937 with an advance of £25. In October 1938, Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays, The Common Reader, first published by Hogarth Press in 1925, appeared as a Pelican paperback. Penguin Books printed 50,000 copies, sold them for 6 days and paid Hogarth Press an advance of £150 for paperback rights.

Surviving correspondence between Leonard Woolf and the publishers of Penguin Books shows that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the two publishing houses came to mutually beneficial arrangements. Leonard wanted to make Woolf’s work accessible to a mainstream audience. With the exception of “Orlando”, however, he retained exclusive rights to his most popular novels. In 1949 he agreed to have “The Waves” (1931) reprinted as Penguin – a paperback issue of Between the Acts (1941) was to follow in 1953 – but he did not consent to a paperback version of To the Lighthouse in 1949, which, he explained in his autobiography, was among those of Woolf’s titles which “sold out year after year and had to be continually reprinted”.

A paperback publication of Between the Acts appeared two years later, but it took more than a decade for Woolf’s most popular novels to be published by Lane’s company. By the end of 1965, six Woolf novels were already available as Penguins.

Professor Plock said: “It is likely that the outcome of Lady Chatterley’s obscenity trial changed public perception of Penguin Books. The company might have come to look like a suitable publisher for Woolf’s novels – a publisher of newfound cultural prestige who could safeguard her best-selling status without eroding her reputation as an intellectual writer of distinction.”

The to research is published in the journal History of the book.

More information:
Vike Martina Plock, Virginia Woolf, Penguin Paperbacks and Mass Publishing in Mid-Century Britain, History of the book (2022). DOI: 10.1353/bh.2022.0000

Provided by the University of Exeter

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Maria D. Ervin