Review of Penguin Books

An essay by George Orwell
Published in New English Weekly, 5 March 1936.

George Orwell’s works are in the public domain in Australia, but they may still be under copyright in other countries.

Esther Waters by George Moore, Our Mr Wrenn by Sinclair Lewis, Dr Serocold by Helen Ashton, The Owls’ House by Crosbie Garstin, Hangman’s House by Donn Byrne, Odd Craft by W.W. Jacobs, Naval Occasions by Bartimeus, My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse, Autobiography (Vol. I) by Margot Asquith, Autobiography (Vol. II) by Margot Asquith. All published by John Lane, The Bodley Head in the Penguin Library, Third Series, at sixpence.

The Penguin Books are splendid value for sixpence, so splendid that if the other publishers had any sense they would combine against them and suppress them. It is, of course, a great mistake to imagine that cheap books are good for the book trade. Actually it is just the other way around. If you have, for instance, five shillings to spend and the normal price of a book is half-a-crown, you are quite likely to spend your whole five shillings on two books. But if books are sixpence each you are not going to buy ten of them, because you don’t want as many as ten; your saturation-point will have been reached long before that. Probably you will buy three sixpenny books and spend the rest of your five shillings on seats at the ‘movies’. Hence the cheaper the books become, the less money is spent on books. This is an advantage from the reader’s point of view and doesn’t hurt trade as a whole, but for the publisher, the compositor, the author and the bookseller it is a disaster.

As for the present batch of Penguin Books – the third batch of ten – far and away the best of them, of course, is Esther Waters. I do not know Moore’s work very well, but I cannot believe that he ever did anything better than this. It was written by a man whose fingers were all thumbs and who had not learned some of the most elementary tricks of the novelist, for instance, how to introduce a new character, but the book's fundamental sincerity makes its surface faults almost negligible. Moore’s great advantage as a novelist lay in not having an overdeveloped sense of pity; hence he could resist the temptation to make his characters more sensitive than they would be in real life. Esther Waters is in the same class as Of Human Bondage – both of them books which are stuffed full of literary faults but which are not likely to drop out of favour.

Sinclair Lewis’s Our Mr Wrenn is a weak early work which hardly seems worth reprinting. Presumably it was chosen because the copyright of Babbitt or Elmer Gantry would have been too expensive. Dr Serocold is good of its kind – it describes a day in the life of a country doctor – and must not be judged by its appalling last sentence. According to Miss E.M. Delafield, the only cases that doctors in fiction ever attend are confinements. Miss Ashton, who is a doctor herself, has evidently noticed this tendency and avoided it. Crosbie Garstin I cannot do with, nor with Donn Bryne – the latter, I think, still has a biggish reputation, but he was too like a professional Irishman for my taste. It would be interesting to know whether W.W. Jacobs keeps his popularity. On his low level he is as good a short story writer as we have had. His stories look as though they grew together. But their range is tiny, and they depend upon the Punch-like notion that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun and possesses no sense of humour. I should expect a Communist to describe Odd Craft as ideologically poisonous, which indeed it is.

I suppose I ought not to be rude to Naval Occasions, which I greatly enjoyed when I was a little boy just before the war. Those were the great days of the Navy’s popularity. Small boys wore sailor suits, and everyone belonged to something called the Navy League and had a bronze medal which cost a shilling, and the popular slogan was ‘We want eight (dreadnoughts) and we won’t wait!’ Bartimeus, I fancy, aspired to be the Kipling of the Navy and merely succeeded in being a rather more naïve and likeable Ian Hay. It was a pity not to choose a better Wodehouse book than My Man Jeeves, which was the first of its series and which contains at least one story which has since been reissued in better form. Still, it was a great day for Mr Wodehouse when he created Jeeves, and thus escaped from the realm of comedy, which in England always stinks of virtue, into the realm of pure farce. The great charm of Jeeves is that (although he did pronounce Nietzsche to be ‘fundamentally unsound’) he is beyond good and evil.

Finally, there are the two volumes of Lady Asquith’s autobiography. This, I admit, I have never been able to read in toto, either now or when it first appeared. If you are born into one of our governing families and spend your life in political circles, you are bound to meet interesting people, but you don’t, it seems, necessarily learn to write decent English. I remember that some French novelist, describing a letter he had received from a lady of title, said: ‘Her style was that of a concierge.’

In my capacity as reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinson are now bringing out a very similar edition, though only of their own books, and if the other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries (the novelist’s foster-mother) and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money well, finish it for yourself.