In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Virginia Woolf, Penguin Paperbacks, and Mass Publishing in Mid-Century Britain
  • Vike Martina Plock (bio)

“I am anxious to obtain the author’s signature to enclose with my copies of ORLANDO and A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. Could you possibly help me in my quest?”1 In July 1946, Allen Lane, director of Penguin Books, approached Leonard Woolf with an unusual, some might say inappropriate, request. Four years earlier, Penguin Books had published a cheap paperback edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) and Lane’s company had also been given permission to republish A Room of One’s Own (1929) as a paperback in 1945. Since setting up his business in 1935, Lane had developed the habit of asking authors to sign one copy of a first Penguin edition of their books for him to keep. In Woolf’s case such autograph hunting was more complicated because the author had died in 1941. Unperturbed, Lane continued to request Woolf’s autographs from her widower, who sent Lane “old cheques” which contained her signature (D 1107/2159). Whenever a Woolf title appeared for the first time as a Penguin, Lane would paste Woolf’s signature into a book that would then be added to his rapidly expanding private collection (Figures 1 and 2).2

This article explores the financial, logistic, and ideological transactions that resulted in the re-packaging of Virginia Woolf as a mass-produced Penguin author, a process that began toward the end of her career and had been mostly seen through by the time of Leonard’s death in 1969. By turning to the so-far unexplored archival resources held at the University of Bristol, the article takes note of the different stages, key actors, and main considerations that contributed to Woolf’s gradual assimilation into Britain’s paperback industry. While Leonard would continue to publish her books under the Hogarth imprint, Lane’s company negotiated deals that allowed Penguin Books to gradually lease the rights to most of Woolf’s major works. As the archive reveals, financial considerations regularly determined decision-making processes on both sides, proffering uncomfortable suggestions that [End Page 238] Woolf’s cultural legacy was controlled by two men who had different, at times coordinated, views on how to package and circulate her authorial signatures for maximum profit. The un-authorized autographs in Lane’s first editions already evoke the image of called-off economic transactions: Woolf never sent the cheques she had signed and her own negotiations with Penguin Books were cut short in 1941. After her death, others stepped in to settle accounts for her. Anyone encountering them in the archive today would be aware of the act of cutting and pasting that had transposed her signatures into their new locations. The process of transposing them from husband to editor, from discarded check to posthumously published paperback, strongly evokes the idea of misappropriated cultural capital and unintended ownership. The materials in the Penguin archive work in support of critical narratives arguing that Woolf’s works were posthumously seized by a patriarchal, institutional culture she had repeatedly and vociferously criticized.

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Figure 1.

Woolf’s cut-out signature pasted into Lane’s first Penguin edition of Orlando (1942), Penguin Archive, Special Collections, University of Bristol, DM1107/481.

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Figure 2.

Woolf’s cut-out signature pasted into Lane’s first Penguin edition of A Room of One’s Own (1951), Penguin Archive, Special Collections, University of Bristol, DM1107/481.

While it acknowledges the logic and the importance of this feminist-inflected argument previously made by Woolf scholars, this article also hopes to bring it into conversation with a slightly different critical narrative about the construction of Woolf’s cultural afterlife in twentieth-century Britain. By examining Penguin-related archival materials through the lens of Woolf’s comments about book-reading and publishing and by reading them alongside existing records about her own professional encounters with Allen Lane and his company, I will suggest that Woolf’s step-by-step re-branding as a [End Page 239] Penguin author was a process broadly in line with her suggestions about the...


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pp. 238-268
Launched on MUSE
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