In scanning through W. J. West’s The Quest for Graham Greene, I came across a reference to the Century Library, one of Greene’s initiatives while he was an editor with Eyre and Spottiswoode in the late 1940s. West describes it as “a series reprinting neglected literary masterpieces of the none too distant past; even then literary reputation was evanescent.”
A notice in British Book News from early 1946 set expectations high:
The Century Library, a new series announced by Eyre & Spottiswoode, is planned to do for English fiction of the twentieth century what the World’s Classics and the Everyman Library has done for the classics in general. Each volume will appear in an attractive format and will contain a critical appreciation by a well-known critic or novelist and a full bibliography.
The books were to be listed at a bargain price of five shillings each. The item went on to mention over a dozen prospective titles:
- The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James — Introduction by Herbert Read
- The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells — Introduction by V. S. Pritchett
- Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs – Introduction by Henry Reed
- The Unbearable Bassington, by “Saki” — Introduction by Evelyn Waugh
- The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison — Introduction by V. S. Pritchett
- The Green Child, by Herbert Read — Introduction by Graham Greene
- Antigua Penny Puce, by Robert Graves — Introduction by Malcolm Muggeridge
- Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman –Introduction by Hugh Kingsmill
- The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford — Introduction by Walter de la Mare
- The Position of Peggy Harper, by Leonard Merrick — Introduction by George Orwell
- The King’s Mirror, by Anthony Hope — Introduction by Douglas Jerrold
- Frost in May, by Antonia White — Introduction by Elizabeth Bowen
- A Waif’s Progress, by Rhoda Broughton — Introduction by Michael Sadleir
- Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott — Introduction by L. A. G. Strong
- The Case of Bevan Yorke, by W. B. Maxwell — Introduction by Michael Sadleir
West reproduces an ad from the Spectator that lists two further titles: The Nebuly Coat, by J. Meade Falkner, and The Fifth Queen Trilogy, by Ford Madox Ford. From what I can determine, fifteen books were actually published in the series between 1946 and 1950:
- The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells
- The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison
- Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs
- The Green Child, by Herbert Read
- The Unbearable Bassington, by “Saki”
- Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott
- The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
- The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
- Frost in May, by Antonia White
- The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford
- Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman
- The Lost World and The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle
- If there was a #13 in the series, I have been unable to identify it.
- Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung
- The Thief in the Night and Other Stories, by E. W. Hornung
- Saturday Night at the Greyhound, by John Hampson
It appears that the venture ended in 1950 due to a combination of factors: poor sales, problems with the supply of paper, and Greene’s departure from the firm.
While a number of books in the series–The Wings of the Dove and H. G. Wells’–are now solidly fixed in the literary canon, there are a fair number of titles likely to pique the interest of fans of neglected books:
- • Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs
- Jacobs is best known for that mainstay of middle school English, “The Monkey’s Paw,” but his many stories of sailing and London dockside life have long been highly regarded as works of craft, if not art. Luckily, the text of Dialstone Lane is available free online from Project Gutenberg. Henry Reed’s introduction is also available at The Naming of Parts, a website devoted to Reed’s poetry and other writings.
- • Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott
- In his introduction, L. A. G. Strong (himself a writer whose works are now neglected) wrote, “I am delighted to see Widecombe Fair once more reprinted. It is an important book in the history of the English country novel, for it proves that one can be unsentimental and true to sight and sound….”
- • The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford
- Greene cited Beresford as one of his earliest influences and considered this novel, a fantasy about a superman figure, one of the unjustly neglected classics of the Edwardian era. In his survey of science fiction, critic E. F. Bleiler called it, “The first important novel about a superman, and in many respects still the best.”
- • Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman
- This satire is best known as the source for Alec Guinness’ tour de force comedy, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Long out of print, it’s now easily available thank to John Seaton’s terrific Faber Finds series of reprints.
- • Antigua, Penny, Puce, by Robert Graves
- A comic novel of sibling rivalry over a rare stamp referred to in the title. Now back in print, packaged with Graves’ 1957 novel based on the trial of Doctor William Harper, They Hanged My Saintly Billy, thanks to Carcanet Press.
- • The Position of Peggy Harper, by Leonard Merrick
- As far back as 1928, one critic wrote of Merrick, “For twenty-five years, Merrick has continued in the anomalous position of finding himself lauded for every eminent quality that builds the writer’s craft into an art, without attaining popularity. While planning the Century Library series, Greene asked George Orwell to write an introduction to one of Merrick’s works. Orwell reportedly replied, “I’d jump at it,” and suggested The Position of Peggy Harper. Although the book was never published, a victim of the series’ troubles, Orwell’s introduction can be found in In Front of Your Nose, 1945-1950 (Collected Essays Journalism and Letters of George Orwell).
- • A Waif’s Progress, by Rhoda Broughton
- A novelist and short story writer now seen as a pioneering feminist, Broughton’s work still awaits serious rediscovery. As her entry in Wikipedia puts it, “Today most of her works are out of print and even the original ones are very hard to come by. Especially those published after 1900 are very hard to procure.” A Waif’s Progress tells the story of Camilla Tancred, who manages to make the most for herself despite an inheritance of “drink on both sides, immorality on both sides, selfishness on both sides, extravagance and folly on both sides.”
- • The Case of Bevan Yorke, by W. B. Maxwell
- Bevan Yorke is a story about the break-up of an Egyptologist’s marriage over his love for a younger woman. One contemporary wrote when the book was first published in 1927, “Captain Maxwell’s work is extremely well written. He has that happy quality of making his reader feel just what he wants him to feel and he accomplishes this without every becoming loquacious. He does not employ a legion of adjectives to describe an emotion. One well selected word suffices.” Compared to more than a few novels from the period, when the lean prose of Hemingway was just starting to take hold, this is a pretty high compliment. Another contemporary critic, Patrick Braybrooke, said of Maxwell, “It has often been said that simplicity is akin to greatness, not that they are interchangeable. Maxwell is both simple and great and the combinaiton have produced a novelist who is a brilliant artist and a sincere realist. Although he’s managed to earn a mention in Wikipedia, virtually his entire oeuvre is long out of print.