Everyman’s Library & Literae Humaniores : Classics for Entertainment

Oxford and Cambridge Universities were founded in the middle ages as religious institutions of study, and held the duopoly of higher education in England until the 1820s, when University College and King’s College were founded in London. University College London famously championed secular higher education, taking its cue from the London Institution which had opened its doors in 1806 but closed them again rather quickly. In the meantime, Oxford and Cambridge updated their look, adding training in Mathematics to their curriculum in 1802 as well as Literae Humaniores, the study of classical texts not from a theological vantage point, but with the focus on human life contained in them and without reference to divinity.

Thus in the 19th century, the gates were opened to the founding and accreditation of many more higher education institutions. The latter half of the 1800s saw the birth of the redbrick universities dedicated to training scientific and technical workforces in the industrial cities of England. Specializing in the natural sciences, medicine and engineering, these schools owe the appellation “redbrick” to the terracotta bricks used to build them, and had themselves evolved out of various 19th century private research and education institutes.

Running in pair with these changes in the higher education system of the 19th century towards a more open-access model of education, was the introduction of compulsory education for children. Though not as deeply radical and systematically rolled out as the educational reforms in France that followed the French Revolution, with its ideological rooting in the declaration of human rights and the right to education, the 19th century in England doubtlessly saw literacy rates rise significantly amongst the population, allowing the expression of warm enthusiasm for popular education and for facilitating it.

None epitomizes this better than the rise of Everyman’s Library, producing pocket-sized hardback editions of classical texts in modern translation, and selling for the, then, remarkably low price of a shilling a piece. The Everyman’s library was established by London publisher J. M. Dent in 1906 with the collaboration of poet and editor Ernest Rhys and designer William Morris.

J. M Dent had made his name in publishing with his Temple Shakespeare imprint, which specialized in small runs of high-quality editions of classic texts. Already at the Temple Shakespeare venture, Dent had enlisted essayist and writer Charles Lamb, whose 1807 adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays for children, which he produced together with his sister Mary, is a beloved classic of educational reading in its own right until today.

But it was Dent’s passion for bringing books to the people which budged Dent to venture into the new model of producing books industrially on a large scale to make them available at a cheap price. William Morris had established The Kelmscott Press at his Kelmscott house, spearheading his signature design style in its application to bookbinding. As a socialist and keen medievalist, Morris was acquainted with the poet Ernest Rhys and no stranger to the Rhymers’ Club which was Rhys’ and W. B. Yeats’ dining club. Consisting of poets who would meet either in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (the pub still goes on) or for private dinners in their homes, the Rhymers’ Club brought forth two anthologies of poetry featuring the works of some (but not all) of its members in the mid-1890s.

It was Ernest Rhys who, in 1906, spoke with the publisher J. M. Dent, and the pair went on to launching the Everyman’s Library. Ernest Rhys became the imprint’s first editor. Indeed, it was Rhys’ idea to call it Everyman’s Library, paying homage to the medieval play Everyman, of which a quotation appears in the front of every book in the series :

Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.

Publishing ventures like the Everyman’s Library — George Routledge’s Railway Library comes to mind, too — are thought to have played a significant role in the popularization of classical reading and popular education in literature more generally. This kind of reading had previously been accessible only through membership in certain circles and in a higher education context, which made not only the study of classical texts a highly exclusive affair, but also the reading of classics for general entertainment. There used to be no scope for gladiator movies, before… This is what these inspired publishers had set out to rectify, and, judging from their legacy in the arts and education everywhere, they really succeeded.

image: book cover design by William Morris, taken from Wikimedia commons