Waugh and Albatross

Naomi Milthorpe, the editor of the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh volume of Black Mischief, has posted a report of her research at the Harry Ransom Center (University of Texas). This is on the University of Leicester staffblog and relates to the publication of a paperback edition of Waugh’s novel for sales and distribution in Continental Europe shortly after the UK first edition was published in October 1932. Here’s an excerpt. (Detailed references to sources have been omitted):

Black Mischief was Waugh’s first novel to be sold to the European firm The Albatross Press for publication on the Continent. While individual novels of Waugh’s had been published in Europe, it wasn’t until Black Mischief that Waugh enjoyed an enduring reprint relationship with a Continental publishing house. The origins of this relationship are revealed in the HRC’s collection, […]

The Albatross Press was established in 1932 by John Holroyd-Reece and M.C. Wegner, and set about to rival Tauchnitz, then the major European reprint publisher. […] While for today’s readers the firm’s bird emblem and cheap but high-quality product recalls Penguin, Albatross is the older firm (Jaillant 109). […]

Albatross swooped on Waugh early in January 1932 – many months before Black Mischief was completed. Wegner wrote to Waugh’s agents offering to option Waugh’s next novel. […] Letters and postcards went back and forth between the agents and Albatross throughout 1932. Sometime in early October, [Waugh’s agent] sent Albatross an advance copy, and on October 25 Wegner wrote back to negotiate for the novel’s publication by Albatross in April 1933, saying he found the novel “delicious”.

The article goes on to discuss similarities between Albatross editions and those of Penguin Books which started up in the UK in 1935. There was also at least one feature of the Albatross business plan which differed from Penguin:

At the same time as Albatross published their books in affordable paperback, they also produced handsome presentation copies. This appealed to Waugh. In a letter to Wegner dated 19 June 1933, and written on Savile Club letterhead, Waugh wrote that he had returned from South America “to find waiting for me the charmingly bound copy of BLACK MISCHIEF. It is a great delight to me to be published by your firm, particularly when I see how admirably the edition is produced.” He surely would have been describing not the paperback, but their limited presentation edition on handmade paper, bound in green half-leather and cloth and limited to 12 copies. One copy Waugh made out to Nancy Mitford and inscribed as the “Waugh Emulation Prize” (a joke about Mitford’s Highland Fling, which had been compared by reviewers to Vile Bodies), is now housed in the Huntington Library’s Evelyn Waugh collection.

Dr Milthorpe also notes the existence of other Albatross editions in the HRC archive. According to the Bibliography of Evelyn Waugh, the arrangement continued in the 1930s with Albatross reprints of A Handful of Dust (1935) and Mr Loveday’s Little Outing (1937) but was apparently interrupted by the war.  No Albatross edition of Put Out More Flags or Scoop is recorded in the Bibliography. There was, however, an Albatross reprint of Brideshead Revisited in 1947.

Although well beyond the scope of Dr Milthorpe’s research, one can at least imagine that a Cambridge University student in the 1960s might well have picked up one of these or other Albatross editions on an outing to the Continent. Suppose that student was one of the several that later formed into the Monty Python group.  His handsome little book may then have contributed some inspiration to the group’s well-known 1970 TV skit, known as “Intermission”. This is where John Cleese, dressed as a cinema theatre ice-cream girl, is offering “Albatross! Albatross!” from his/her tray, on which a large dead bird is evident.

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