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Clare Morpurgo on Penguin Paperbacks

Penguin paperbacks were a publishing revolution: lightweight, affordable editions that brought high-quality fiction and non-fiction to all. Clare Morpurgo, daughter of the Penguin Books founder Allen Lane, discusses the five Penguins that she loved most as a young reader—and why it's down to her that her father never published The Hobbit.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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On a train journey home from visiting Agatha Christie in 1934, your father ended up on a station with nothing to read, so the story goes. He came up with the idea of a paperback edition: something lightweight and inexpensive that could be sold in vending machines. Could you tell us more about the origins of the Penguin paperback?

This was all before I was born. Penguin was up and going by the time I arrived! My father’s revolution was to make paperbacks available to everybody, regardless of educational background and finance. Anyone could afford them because they were only sixpence each. It really was a revolution. People forget that now; we’re all so used to them that we don’t think twice about it.

“My father’s revolution was to make paperbacks available to everybody, regardless of educational background and finance.”

Sometimes, he couldn’t get the publishing rights for books he wanted because they were doing quite well in hardback. People didn’t want to let him have them until they had stopped selling so well. This is what happened with two books that I have chosen here, Ariel and Gone to Earth. He bought them from other publishers, published them as paperbacks, and sold them to a wider market. Back in those days, libraries had hardbacks and the public read hardbacks. It’s difficult to imagine now.

Could you tell me a little bit about your life at that time?

I had an extremely happy childhood—a really, happy childhood. I was the eldest daughter of three. I had a lot of attention and I was given books. We had books all around us all the time.

My father was always asking me to read things he thought he might publish later, which didn’t always work out very well, but I did read them. Literature was very much a part of my life, really—which is lovely, because, through my marriage to Michael Morpurgo, it still is. I’ve been very lucky in that way.

When I was growing up, we lived very close to the Penguin office, which was located where London’s Heathrow airport is now. We used to ride our bikes all over the place. I had to ride my bike from home to the office down the Old Bath Road, which now goes through Colnbrook. That part of London—which is now mostly under the airport or reservoirs—was where I grew up. I’ve been back, and it’s a bit sad to see what’s happened to it. In truth, it hasn’t changed enormously. The little streets and names are still there in amongst all the other things. It’s quite weird.

You said your father invited you to read books that he might publish. What age were you when that started, and how did it work?

I don’t think I was aware of the importance of any of it. I just grew up with the situation. We had office staff parties at home. I was very much part of the factory, so I didn’t really consider it amazing. My father would simply produce a book and say, ‘Would you like to read this and see what you think of it?’ He never said, ‘It’s very important you read this; you must tell me exactly what you think.’ He asked me whether I would like to read it.

So I did. The worst mistake I ever made was he gave me The Hobbit to read when I was about eight. I didn’t like it at all, and said so. So he didn’t publish it. That probably was a big mistake!

That’s so funny.

Especially because many of the books he did give me are things I loved, like Kate Seredy, a Hungarian-American writer. She wrote books about her childhood in Hungary. I absolutely loved those (my father did publish them). I don’t think they did as well as The Hobbit might have done. I’m not even sure whether they’re still in print or not now.

“He gave me The Hobbit to read when I was about eight. I didn’t like it at all, and said so. So he didn’t publish it.”

What’s been interesting re-reading these books again is remembering what I thought about them when I first read them as a young woman, what I think about them now, and why I still like them.

This seems like a great moment to look at your choices. Where would you like to start?

The one I particularly loved as a child was Seashore Life and Pattern, by T A Stephenson. It’s a King Penguin.

The book is largely made up of the most beautiful illustrations of sea urchins and sea anemones. The one I loved was the cowrie shell. I’m not sure whether they’re lithographs—they probably are. During the war, we’d slip past the submarines to the Scilly Isles, collecting cowrie shells on the beach.

I’m looking here at an illustration of a kelp fruit, with an ascidian and a cowrie. It’s just a beautiful picture for me; it speaks of the seaside and shells and seaweed. You can almost smell it off the page. The next one is periwinkles on seaweed, with gorgeous colours.

Would you call it an illustrated guide to seashore life?

It’s not even a guide. I think the author just loved seaweed and sea urchins—all of sea life—and did pictures of them. It’s not even an information book; it’s about a passion. The author was more of a designer than a biologist. It’s an arty book, really. It was published in 1944; I must’ve had it around all my life.

My father had all the Penguins in a library at home. I could just go and take them off the shelf. I was always taking this one out to peruse, and I still love it. It’s beautiful.

Your second Penguin paperback is Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. This one is great for teens or anyone interested in cooking.

My edition has a lovely frontispiece with people toasting each other with a glass of wine. There’s a château behind them, and a great haunch of ham and artichoke. This seemed so attractive to me because this was just after the War, when we had really quite miserable food. People didn’t really know about cooking. This book really gave me a kind of an idea about how cooking could be. And I think most of the cooking that I do now has come from reading these kind of books. Elizabeth David is rather a good writer, so, as well as being good cook books, they are readable.

Also, she didn’t make us scared. Lots of cookery books, I find, are concerned with all manner of measurements, making sauces very carefully in double saucepans and all that kind of stuff. Elizabeth David never talks about that; she just talks about the basic things that you need to make things delicious. And she suggests the things you might serve with it, which are not to do with sort of rows and rows of different ingredients, but just the basic things that you really need to make delicious food. The one recipe of hers that inspired me to begin with was her cassoulet.

And is cassoulet a dish that you still cook at home?

Absolutely, and loads of other things too. Because, just looking through it—I’m skipping through it now—it makes your mouth water, doesn’t it? And it’s just so funny and charming.

In her time, Elizabeth David inspired people. She inspired people to cook for fun, and not take it too seriously. This book appeared when I was growing up in the 1940s. Things were tough—in the 1950s, it was all a bit grey. She brought a spark of sunlight into people’s houses and into people’s homes. I think she was very essential to our recovery after the War.

Third on your list is one of my all-time favourite books, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is great for children at any age, really, but perhaps especially during pre-teen years, from 8 to 12 years old.

I didn’t need to re-read this book, as I remember so much about it. I must have read it countless times in my life. It had an enormous effect on me growing up. It made me realize how important to have the natural world is for every child.

In fact, now we have an autistic grandson and he responds so positively to being in the countryside with us. In the city, he finds everything difficult to cope with, and it makes him unhappy. When he comes to Devon, he can go out and just wander round, and not be stopped going through gateways and such. He just calms down completely. It is a very, very healing place for him.

I’m not doing it justice, but in brief—The Secret Garden is about a girl coming to live in England from India. She is a sickly child who had a pretty awful early childhood. In England, living with a distant relative, she discovers a secret garden. Tending to this garden, along with the friendships she makes, allows her to recover and heal.

I must have recognised something in the book that I really responded to—something about the healing quality of nature, the changing seasons, growth, and constant renewal. These are huge symbols of life for everybody, which is probably why so many people love gardening. I grew up with a garden that my mother absolutely adored tending, so I could really relate to the book and subject of the book.

It’s an optimistic story with a sweet ending. I think it’s a lot of people’s favourite book. Certainly, it is mine. This and Black Beauty, which I haven’t chosen here, but is also a book I could talk forever about.

Fourth, you’ve chosen Ariel by Andre Maurois—a great book for kids around 15 years of age, I’d say. What is it about this book that means so much to you?

Ariel was the very first Penguin paperback book. On the cover, it says ‘The Bodley Head’: the first Penguins were published under the aegis of The Bodley Head because my father still worked for them at the time.

It’s a fascinating book because it’s by a Frenchman—who obviously was a great Anglophile, but he was still a Frenchman—writing about a very English poet: Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley had this ghastly education that began with him going to Eton. It was the terrible kind of education schoolboys had in 1800.

It is also about the rather sad love life that he had. He had a desire always to see the good in everything, and to make good things happen. He was always running out of money trying to improve the world his way. Shelley didn’t believe in any of the kind of things that society at that time believed in. For instance, he didn’t believe in marriage. And although he did get married—I think three times—two of them ended disastrously.

“I imagine Shelley was a lovely man but at the same time really quite impossible.”

Shelley had an idea that he could make people good, not by religion—he was very much against religion—but just by making them purer and less constrained by society. He struggled all his life to achieve this. I imagine Shelley was a lovely man but at the same time really quite impossible. It is also a novel that explores what England was like at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It’s an extraordinary book, very accessible. And still a good read today.

Tell me about your fifth choice, Gone to Earth by Mary Webb, which is also great for teenagers.

This book is about England as it was just before the First World War, and how it has changed. It is especially revealing about how our conception of the countryside has changed. In this way, it is like The Secret Garden.

I love another one by Mary Webb called Precious Bane. Mary Webb was incredibly popular at the time that my father published her. I think she was first published in 1917, and my father published her in 1935—so her books were among the first ten Penguin titles.

Mary Webb is a bit like Thomas Hardy. There are elements about the wildness of the countryside, rather like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or The Woodlanders, both of which I absolutely adored.

Yet it’s a very strange, unique book. It’s the story of an uneducated wild girl, growing up with her father – he makes coffins, and she makes the wreaths for funerals. And they both sing. They’re great singers. She’s incredibly beautiful but completely unaware of her beauty. And she loves everything wild. She has a wild fox that she takes with her everywhere. She doesn’t really want to be tamed. She wants to be a free person.

“Mary Webb is a bit like Thomas Hardy”

At the point the book opens, two men fall in love with her: the vicar and the local squire. He’s a randy old squire—as they should be!—and the vicar’s pure as driven snow. It’s really, really good, by which I mean it’s very readable. I won’t tell you the ending, because that would give it all away.

It’s very evocative of that particular time; there are lovely descriptions of wild animals and countryside. I think it’s set in Shropshire. You read on just to find out what she’s going to say next. It also has a very funny foreword to it by John Buchan. I’m not sure if he liked it too much, but in the final line, he does say, “If this is not true magic, I don’t know where to look for it.”

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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Clare Morpurgo

Lady Murpurgo MBE, née Lane, is a philanthropist. She is the wife of British author Michael Morpurgo and the eldest daughter of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books.

Educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, Exeter University, and a qualified Montessori teacher. She is a mother of three.

In 1976 with her husband Michael, and with money left to her by her father, they began the educational charity Farms for City Children with the intention of enriching the lives of disadvantaged urban children with an intense and rewarding experience of the countryside. Forty years later there are now three farms, welcoming over a thousand children a year,  from towns and cities all over the UK.

In 1999 Clare and Michael were awarded MBEs for services to youth.

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Clare Morpurgo

Lady Murpurgo MBE, née Lane, is a philanthropist. She is the wife of British author Michael Morpurgo and the eldest daughter of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books.

Educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, Exeter University, and a qualified Montessori teacher. She is a mother of three.

In 1976 with her husband Michael, and with money left to her by her father, they began the educational charity Farms for City Children with the intention of enriching the lives of disadvantaged urban children with an intense and rewarding experience of the countryside. Forty years later there are now three farms, welcoming over a thousand children a year,  from towns and cities all over the UK.

In 1999 Clare and Michael were awarded MBEs for services to youth.