By the end of the 1950s, novelist Graham Greene, whose private collection is housed at the Burns Library, was already an established, respected author. His interests extended beyond writing, however, as he sought to enter the publishing world. He did so through his acquaintance Max Reinhardt, who had just become the chairman of The Bodley Head. Greene published his novel In Search of a Character with the company, joining a long list of distinguished authors published by The Bodley Head in its already impressive seventy-four year history, during which the company established itself as a premier publisher both in London and around the world.
To appreciate the history of this publishing company, one has to go
back to the year 1887, when John Lane began The Bodley Head with partner Elkin Matthews in London. It was understood between the partners that Matthews would handle the financial side of the business; Lane was more interested in the endeavor because it would be fun. The company began as a seller of rare and first edition books and began publishing eighteen months after opening the Vigo Street office. Their first publication was a series of books bought from Reverend C.H.O. Daniel and resold by The Bodley Head. This first foray into publishing would inspire Lane to seek other works for publication, leading to the publication of ninety books in the company’s first five years of existence. Lane wanted to publish authors who deviated from society, who had a distinct voice and appreciated the beauty of art. Lane wanted these books to be beautiful inside and out, seeking to present editions that had an unique look. This vision was successful, as Bodley Head editions received praise both at home and overseas.
The company certainly saw great successes in its early days, but it was not without its setbacks. Lane, in his pursuit of finding unique voices to publish, neglected the financial side of the business, much to his partner’s chagrin. When Matthews and Lane parted ways in 1894, Lane keeping the company’s name, the company struggled to
turn a profit to the point they neglected to pay some of their authors. These financial troubles were not helped by the fact that one of their authors, Oscar Wilde, was arrested in 1895 on suspicion of being a homosexual while reportedly carrying the company’s already controversial periodical The Yellow Book. Despite these setbacks, Lane was resilient in his effort to expand The Bodley Head. He opened The John Lane Company in New York in 1896, publishing at home and abroad a wide variety of books: musical books, biographies, memoirs, periodicals. The company did well enough, but was still struggling financially. After World War I, Lane was forced to sell his American company and refinance The Bodley Head, creating the public company John Lane The Bodley Head Limited.
At this point, Lane sought to find an heir to his publishing company. He saw a suitable heir in his nephew, Allen Lane, who would join the company in 1919 and quickly gain shares and a board position. Lane would die in January of 1925, with his wife following a few years later, leaving their remaining shares to Allen. The board at this point was not happy with Allen after a few missteps, the most serious being a very public scandal concerning one of its authors Hesketh Pearson, and sought to get rid of him. However, Allen was determined to carry on his beloved uncle’s legacy, and, with his brothers Richard and John, successfully forced out the dissenting directors and gained control of the company.
During Allen’s time in control of the company, employee H.A.W. Arnold comes to Allen with an idea: the company can print and sell cheap paperbacks of out-of-copyright works. Allen, having tried this idea with The Bodley Head and failing, rejects the idea at first. However, he is so intrigued by the idea that he develops it into a company, Penguin Books Limited. The first ten Penguin Books were published jointly with The Bodley Head. Allen and his brothers would soon after leave The Bodley Head, selling it to Sir Stanley Unwin in 1936. Penguin’s professional relationship would continue with The Bodley Head, the former publishing Ulysses and Graham Greene’s books in association with the latter in the seventies and eighties.
Sir Stanley Unwin would place several chairman in charge of The Bodley Head in his time of ownership of the company, but none were able to alleviate the company’s financial troubles. At this point, Unwin seeks out Max Reinhardt to see if he is interested in buying and running the company. Reinhardt had already proven himself in the publishing industry, opening Max Reinhardt Limited in 1948 and publishing respected authors such as S.J. Perelman and George Bernard Shaw. Reinhardt had a great deal of respect for The Bodley Head, and took control of the company in 1956.
It was shortly after buying the company that Reinhardt became acquainted with Graham Greene. Greene was publishing his works through Heinemann at the time, but switched to The Bodley Head as he disapproved of their business tactics. At this point, Greene would become a director of the company for several years and publish several of his books with the company. After he moved and was forced to give up his board position, he convinced his brother, Sir Hugh Greene, fresh from the position of Director-General of the BBC, to take his place. Hugh Greene did so, becoming Chairman of The Bodley Head in 1969 and holding the title of Honorary President from 1981 until his death. Hugh Greene was reportedly delighted with his new position, using it as a platform to publish his biography as well as several detective story collections.
In the 1960s, the company experienced a great deal of growth through their success with printing children’s books, including the first UK edition of Where the Wild Things Are, as well as the popular works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, this growth was halted in the 1970s as the growing television industry chipped away at the publishing industry. To combat this decline, The Bodley Head joined with two other publishing companies, Chatto and Jonathan Cape, in 1973, with Reinhardt acting as co-chair with Graham C. Greene, Graham Greene’s nephew. The company continued to enjoy success in this time, publishing, amongst others, several of Graham
Greene’s works: The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor, Doctor Fischer of Geneva, Monsignor Quixote. The company, however, could not completely recover with the decline of the publishing industry continuing. Graham C. Greene would be forced to sell the company in 1987 to Random House, one hundred years after Lane first founded the company.
Since opening its doors in 1887 to its sale in 1987, The Bodley Head published several distinguished authors, including James Joyce, H.G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Agatha Christie, Henry James, A.E. Housman, Ezra Pound, W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, C.S. Lewis, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. To see the variety of books the company published, one only has to look at Graham Greene’s personal library, which contains several Bodley Head books ranging from travel books to memoirs to children’s books, with subjects German, Russian, French, American, and, of course, British. John Lane wrote in the Publisher’s Note of Songs and Sonnets of England in Wartime that he sought to create collection of works which captured the unique emotions of the public at that moment in time. As evidenced by the company’s great contributions to the publishing industry, Lane and his successors did this and more.
- Olivia Bono, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Student in Morrissey College, Arts and Sciences, Class of 2018
- Lambert, J.W., and Michael Ratcliffe. The Bodley Head, 1887-1987. London: The Bodley Head, 1987. Print.
- Songs and Sonnets for England in Wartime: Being a Collection of Lyrics by Various Authors Inspired by the Great War. London: John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1915. Print.