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Penguin started publishing Woolf’s non-fiction just before her death

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

Careful deals negotiated by Virginia Woolf’s husband with Penguin Books helped her work reach a mass market, a new study shows.

Penguin editions of Woolf’s essays, and then novels, helped to publicise her talent and ensure mass ownership of her writings.

In return being able to publish Woolf’s work gave Penguin cultural capital and raised the profile of the new company that had started to publish mass-produced, cheap paperbacks in the mid-1930s. Woolf’s husband Leonard planned deals with Penguin which allowed him to curate her cultural afterlife after her death.

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

Penguin started publishing Woolf’s non-fiction just before her death, and Leonard negotiated deals with the company for releasing her fiction during the 1950s and 1960s.

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

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

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

Professor Vike Plock, from the University of Exeter, who analysed the correspondence between Leonard and Penguin, found Leonard was frequently exasperated by the lack of editorial care given by Penguin Books to the presentation of Woolf’s titles. When prompted to comment on a draft of a biographical note 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’ and not ‘A Life of One’s Own”. He also marked up mistakes in the biographical note for The Waves when the book was published by Penguin in 1951.

Lane first contacted the Hogarth Press to ask for one of Woolf’s fiction titles – Orlando - very soon after he launched the first Penguin series but was refused. The Penguin enterprise might have looked too much like a reckless endeavour at that time, but three years later Penguin Books had established itself as a presence in Britain’s interwar publishing scene.

By 1938 both 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 the Hogarth Press in 1925, appeared as a Pelican paperback. Penguin Books printed 50,000 copies, sold them for 6d, and paid the Hogarth Press an advance of £150 for the paperback rights.

Surviving correspondence between Leonard Woolf and Penguin Books editors show that, in the 1940s and 1950s, the two publishing firms came to mutually beneficial arrangements. Leonard wanted to make Woolf’s work available to a mainstream audience. With the exception of Orlando, however, he retained exclusive rights for her most popular novels. In 1949, he agreed to have The Waves (1931) reprinted as a Penguin—a paperback issue of Between the Acts (1941) was to follow in 1953—but he did not give his consent to a paperback version of To the Lighthouse in 1949, which, he explained in his autobiography, was among those of Woolf’s titles that “went on selling year after year and had to be continually re-printed.”

A paperback publication of Between the Acts appeared two years later but it took more than another 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 the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial had changed the public’s perception of Penguin Books. The companymight have begun to look like a suitable publisher for Woolf’s novels—a publisher with newfound cultural prestige that could safeguard her bestseller status without eroding her standing as a highbrow writer of distinction.”

The research is published in the journal Book History.

Date: 6 September 2022