Graham Greene’s “The Century Library”: Neglected English Fiction Classics

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:

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:

  1. The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells
  2. The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison
  3. Dialstone Lane, by W. W. Jacobs
  4. The Green Child, by Herbert Read
  5. The Unbearable Bassington, by “Saki”
  6. Widecombe Fair, by Eden Phillpott
  7. The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
  8. The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells
  9. Frost in May, by Antonia White
  10. The Hampenshire Wonder, by J. D. Beresford
  11. Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman
  12. The Lost World and The Poison Belt, by Arthur Conan Doyle
  13. If there was a #13 in the series, I have been unable to identify it.
  14. Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, by E. W. Hornung
  15. The Thief in the Night and Other Stories, by E. W. Hornung
  16. 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:

The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs
The Century Library edition of 'Dialstone Lane,' by W. W. Jacobs

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.

7 thoughts on “Graham Greene’s “The Century Library”: Neglected English Fiction Classics

  1. I can add a couple of recommendations from these lists. “The Hole in the Wall,” by Arthur Morrison, is a very fresh and entertaining late-Victorian adventure story; it’s kind of a cross between a Dickensian lowlife novel and a Graham Greene thriller. V.S. Pritchett was a big fan. It was reprinted in paperback by Academy in the 1980s. “The Nebuly Coat” by J. Meade Falkner is a more peculiar and original novel. It’s about an architect restoring a provincial church, and it’s a combination of antiquarianism, small-town satire, nostalgic pastoral, and murder mystery. Thomas Hardy admired it. Oxford World Classics reprinted it and two other Falkner novels: “The Lost Stradivarius,” a highly unconventional Victorian ghost story, and “Moonfleet,” an excellent historical adventure that reads like a lost novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

    Oh, and Ford’s “The Fifth Queen” is terrific, but it’s currently in print and can’t really count as neglected — even though I’ve never met anybody who’s read it.

  2. ‘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.”’

    Despite or because of?

  3. The collected “Works of Leonard Merrick” were issued in a 15 volume set with introductions by some very big names (such as J.M. Barrie). His novel The Worldlings was included in the “Crowned Masterpieces of Modern Fiction” series at the turn of the 20th centuryt; The Position of Peggy Harper was No. 8 in The Doughty Library of neglected fiction issued in hardcover in Great Britain in the 1960s (a relatively easy series to collect).

    Today, Merrick doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry; someone ought to remedy that. He is the very model of The Neglected Novelist.

  4. A small correction: the author of “Widecombe Fair” was Eden Phillpotts, with an s, not Phillpott. Phillpotts (1862-1960) was a prolific Devon-based novelist who is perhaps best remembered now, if at all, for encouraging Agatha Christie to become a writer.

  5. Actually, Eden Phillpotts remains an unjustly neglected English novelist whose best work is comparable to Hardy. Part of his problem was that he was prolific — nearly 300 books and plays in a working career which extended from the late 1880s to his death in 1960 at the age of 98. A further difficulty was his facility in a variety of genres. He was challenging to pigeonhole. However, his finest works are undoubtedly his remarkable Dartmoor cycle.

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