Bibliomania: Oxford English Novels

From the 1964 to 1976, Oxford University Press printed a series of classic English-language novels. The Oxford English Novels series comprised many well-known and lesser known classics spanning nearly two centuries. For those familiar with the current and long-running Oxford World’s Classics series, the Oxford English Novels is very similar. They are scholarly texts, including informative introductions, extensive notes, and bibliographies. The texts themselves are excellently put together, as one would expect of the Oxford University Press, but what really interests about this series is the format. Unlike the soft-cover World’s Classics, the Oxford English Novels series are all hardcover and feature colorful dustjackets.

The Oxford English Novels series first came to my attention while I was searching the internet for a hardcover edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a few dispointing purchases, I finally stumbled across the website for a small used book store in Oakland, which had a number of book from the series on sale. Plus, unlike most sellers on Amazon, they provided photos of each book. I bought their copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho with little hesitation and in a few weeks times, I also bough their copies of Pompey the Little, The Old English Baron, The Italian, Emmeline, Vathek, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 


Later on, I collected other editions from Amazon and other online booksellers, including: A Journal of the Plague Year, The Old Manor House, The Castle of Otranto, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Man of Feeling, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, and The Female Quixote.


Many of the books from this series can be found easily online and for good prices but more popular works tend to be rarer and go for high prices when they are. (I was very lucky to find Melmoth the Wanderer for $25 and I’m very glad I got it when I did.) They are worth getting when the price is right and if you, like me, love beautiful hardcover editions.


Pompey the Little (Book Review)

A handsome hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1974 as part of their English novels series.

A handsome hardcover edition printed by the Oxford University Press in 1974 as part of their English novels series.

There are many authors whose literary work, having at one time or another attained some amount of popularity or commendation, have almost entirely been forgotten over time. Such has become the case for Francis Coventry and his only novel Pompey the Little. There is only one edition that I know of currently in print. The one from which I read is an edition printed by Oxford University Press in the year 1974 for their English Novels series and has not been printed by them since.

It first came to my attention because it is a part of a series of hardcover classics Oxford University Press printed in the 1960’s and 1970’s (so long as they are books I have the interest to read) but my curiosity was encouraged by the hero being a spaniel (I have a spaniel named Spunky I love very much). It is a short book and took me around ten days to finish my reading but the narrative is quickly paced and filled with many amusing incidents. The story focuses on the life of a spaniel lapdog as it moves from own owner to the next, by various strokes of luck and misfortune. It’s narrative structure is in imitation of the fictional and non-fictional memoirs, concerning persons of either respectable or not so respectable reputations, that were popular at the time. It is also a relentless satire of 18th century society, ridiculing it many pretensions and hypocrisies..

In the first chapter he explains the prodigious history of dogs and the many respectable accomplishment they have made. Appropriately, he includes a reference to King Charles II, who was known to have a great fondness for a breed of spaniel, which now bears his name, and his many amorous affairs.

King Charles the second, of pious and immortal memory, came always to the Council-board accompanied with a favorite Spaniel; who propagated his breed, and scattered his Image through the Land, almost as extensively as his Royal Master.

Each chapter is headed with both a numerical and descriptive title. Many of these titles, of the later variety, are very straightforward but several others are clearly intended to poke fun at literary conventions.

Book I, Chap. IX
What the reader will know if he reads it.

Book II, Chap. II
A long chapter of characters.

Book II, Chap. IV
Another long chapter of characters.

Coventry also offers some biting political commentary through his characters. In one scene, occurring in a coffee house among a small gathering of men, one of them reproaches another for making strong claims without evidence or sound reasoning.

Bold affirmations against the government are believed merely from the dint of assurance with which they are spoken, and the idlest jargon often passes for the soundest reasoning.

Coventry himself remarks upon this character as being a “miniature tyrant,” who will deprive anyone of their freedom and hypocritically claim them all for himself.

Nothing can be more common than examples in this way, of people who preside over their families with the most arbitrary brutal severity, and yet are ready on all occasions to abuse the government for the smallest exertion of its power. To say the truth, I scarce know a man, who is not a tyrant in miniature, over the circle of his own dependants ; and I have observed those in particular to exercise the greatest lordship over their inferiors, who are most forward to complain of oppression from their superiors.

The language may be difficult for some to enjoy but if you are like me, and appreciate the rhythmic prose of the 18th century, then you will likely take great delight in Coventry’s prose. The humor, though it regards many historical and cultural details that would have been more well known at the time, remains in many ways relevant and amusing. It’s a gem of 18th satire and certainly deserves to be read.