A Modern Brontë Rarity

Photo by the author.

One of the most successful partnerships in publishing began in 1925 when Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer purchased The Modern Library from founder Horace Liveright. Cerf and Klopfer nurtured the series as it had never been, recouping their original $215,000 investment in less than two years. Successful, and beginning to bore with reprints, they decided to publish fine new books whenever they felt like it. The new venture: “Random House.”

Bennett Cerf admired Hamish Hamilton’s work in the UK, and struck a deal in 1936 for Hamilton to distribute the Modern Library, expanding the reach of the series and perhaps to compete directly with the Everyman Series and its imitators. The agreement included 25 titles published by Modern Library Hamilton believed had passed out of copyright in the UK. The titles they planned included the likes of Casanova’s Memoirs, Pepys’ Diary, The Three Musketeers, plenty of Charles Dickens and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

The books were repackaged US Modern Library books, but with new title-pages printed and “tipped in,” pasted onto a stub of the original title-page which had been removed. In observed examples, these Hamish Hamilton title-pages are printed in brown ink, rather than the customary black of the Modern Library, listing Hamish Hamilton as the imprint and a London address. These title pages were printed in the US before shipment.

In 1930, Wurthering Heights was one of the bestsellers of the reprint series. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was also one of the more popular books of the series, in print from 1933 until the original series ended in 1970.

Photo by the author.

For the new reprint books, Hamilton designed and printed uniform art deco inspired dust jackets with space for titles as they became available. Today only three copies are known in dust jacket: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Humphrey Tinker by Smollett, and this copy of Jane Eyre. All three are in private collections. Other titles are known, but because Hamilton ran into copyright issues quickly and had to change titles, a definitive list of Modern Library books actually issued in the UK by Hamilton is unknown.

This copy of Jane Eyre is in well preserved condition. Still present inside is a bookseller’s label from B. H. Blackwell’s, Oxford. Perhaps Hamilton emulated the marketing plan of the Modern Library in the US, pushing these affordable books to the higher education market. The price marked on the front flap of the dust-jacket is also interesting, 3s 6p., which would be about 70 cents at the time. The same books were offered in the US at 95 cents.

Although some records remain of Random House and Hamish Hamilton’s deal, it remains unclear why or how the agreement terminated. In all likelihood the copyright troubles and the outbreak of World War II is to blame. Hamish Hamilton and Donald Klopfer both served in uniform during the war.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Bronte Gazette, No. 56, January 2012.

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