Mr Jonathan Cape

Illustrated London News 20th February 1960[2]
Herbert Jonathan Cape, 53, (1879-1960), the founder of the eponymous publishers, (now part of Penguin/Random House), was the only book publisher (apart from Harold Macmillan) at the dinner. With little formal education he worked his way to the top. The description of him by his business colleague Rupert Hart-Davis included “a tall, handsome man of commanding stature … hard … shrewd … humorous … with a sentimental side”.[1] Jonathan had controversially published Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness in 1928. After losing a clash with the censors (with copies smuggled in from Paris) he passed up further opportunities to publish controversial works, including Nabokov’s Lolita. By the time of the dinner his firm was flying high, publishing the works of T.E. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, Ernest Hemingway, and many more, alongside successful children’s books, including Hugh Lofting and Arthur Ransome. His company’s biggest financial success was to be with James Bond, though he was not particularly enthused. From the dinner party’s point of view however, perhaps one of his more important books may have been Winifred Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger.


One obvious dinner companion might have been Sylvia Lynd, writer and active networker of the literati. Perhaps another book contract for someone came closer by the end of the evening – or even the reverse. Eva Moore, actress, perhaps was his other companion, sharing ideas on London’s artistic scene.

What’s On His Mind?

In reality he may be thinking about books just released, books he is about to release, or books others may be releasing or authors looking for a publisher. But from the books recently coming out under his imprint, and if he wanted to stir up a conversation, perhaps he might have chosen one book very recently reviewed entitled The Imported Wife by Beryl Clarke. The review on 7th March in the Aberdeen Press and Journal says it all:

The Aberdeen Press and Journal 7th March 1933

THE ENGLISH WIFE. THE IMPORTED WIFE. By Beryl Clarke. Jonathan Cape: 7s 6d.

A novel compounded of the everyday incidents in the life of a woman who does all her own housework is scarcely the sort thing we would choose to read, but once we got going with this story we were bound to admit its fascination. It tells very simply and refreshingly the story of an English girl, brought up in the best county traditions, who marries a poor American, and sets up house in Detroit. Previously she has had no experience of cooking or cleaning, and for the first few months of their married life the running of their little apartment is a task calling for the greatest courage and patience. Apart from the housework, she finds it hard to readjust herself to American middle-class social life, and she is continually war with her English prejudices. When her baby is born, life becomes almost unbearably difficult; but her husband is an admirable fellow, and his Middle-West mother has a genius for coming to the rescue- when nerves reach breaking-point. Apart from its interest as a study in the character development of the heroine, this book offers comment on life in England and America as seen in turn by one who has lived in both countries. But, whatever its merits in this respect, it has little to offer the masculine reader. It is essentially a woman’s book.[3]

It has little to offer the masculine reader. It is essentially a woman’s book”. Great punchline. Perhaps Jonathan would ask the “imported American wife” Lady Butterfield to read it and pass it on to her open-minded husband.

Or perhaps Jonathan was hoping this would be one dinner where no-one would make an approach to him to publish their or a good friend’s upcoming masterpiece. However publishing was still recovering from the Depression in the early 30s so it may still have been, the more the merrier.

Jonathan’s Story So Far

Herbert Jonathan Cape, “Bertie” to some, was born in London on 15th November 1879, the youngest of the seven children of Caroline Page and Jonathan Cape, a builder’s clerk of Cumbrian origin. Jonathan enjoyed little formal education, and worked his way into the publishing business, first with Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly,  at sixteen starting on the literally well-trodden path of errand-boy.   After more experience as a travelling salesman for the American publishers Harper & Brothers, he joined the English publisher Gerald Duckworth where he became manager.

On 13th June 1907 he married the Holloway-born Edith Louisa Creak (1881–1919), the daughter of Clementina Sydney Eastwood, a butcher’s daughter, and ironmonger Francis Creak.  Jonathan and Edith had two daughters.

When the Great War broke out Jonathan took on the management of the firm while Duckworth was on war duties.  When Duckworth returned in 1915, Jonathan joined the army. Whilst he survived the conflict (a captain in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps) his wife Edith died in 1919. Jonathan returned to Duckworth, but then 1920 became manager at the Medici Society, mainly publishing coloured reproductions of paintings, with books on the side.

It was from here that he set up his first enterprise.  He and a younger colleague, George Wren Howard, good at design and business, started to publish (under a separate imprint, Page & Co., named after Jonathan’s mother) cheap editions of the firm’s most profitable author, leasing the so-called “shilling rights” from Duckworth.  Profits from this, and with Howard borrowing from his father, the firm of Jonathan Cape began trading on New Year’s Day 1921 at 11, Gower Street, Bloomsbury, their first publication being a risky reissue of Travels in Arabia Deserta by C.M Doughty, first out in 1888.  Perhaps Gordon West, the travel writer on Table 20 was inspired by this? It paid off.  They had also brought on board Edward Garnett as literary adviser, known to Jonathan from his days at Duckworths.

From 1925, at their 30 Bedford Square offices, Jonathan Cape the publishers built up a rich stable of authors, including historians such as C.V. Wedgwood and J.E. Neale, and the children authors Hugh Lofting and Arthur Ransome.

They showed further ingenuity by being one of the first British firms to trawl the US market for authors, starting in 1929, but that business was killed off in the Crash. Nonetheless by the time of the dinner they had published Hemingway, T.E. Lawrence (the Arabian desert link helped there), Eugene O’Neill, Sinclair Lewis, and many others. [4]

In 1927 Jonathan remarried.  His recently divorced Indian born wife Olyve Vida James, née Blackmon, had been an employee in the firm.  They had a son and a daughter, but Olyve died in 1931. In the same year he published Winifred Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger but in the spring  a “financially advantageous” offer took Winifred away from “her friend and admirer Jonathan Cape” to Collins.[5]

What Jonathan Did Next

jonathan-hemingwayjonathan-casino-transparentIn August 1933 he would be publishing Beverley Nichols’s pacifist book Cry Havoc, a book that doubtless many at the dinner would read or debate. In 1933 he took on Rupert Hart-Davis as a Director and in 1935 the posthumous re-publication of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom helped boost profits. Despite the death of Edward Garnett in 1937, business continued to grow but took a dip during WW2. He and other publishers looked for ways to sell off stock in case they were bombed, a strategy which increased sales but did cut stock.

Things picked up in the 50’s thanks to the best-selling A Many Splendoured Thing, by Han Suyin, and Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

In 1953 came the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale.  While not particularly favoured by Jonathan at the time, the Cold War spy helped ensure the prosperity of the business after his death, at one point generating most of the firm’s profits.

The 52 year old Jonathan worked right until his death in 1960. Rupert Hart Davis wrote:

He was an extremely hard worker, always keeping the same hours as the most junior member of his staff. By some he was considered a hard man, and he was certainly a shrewd one, but he had a humorous as well as a sentimental side and could sometimes be prevailed upon. He seldom became close personal friends with his authors, but they respected his integrity and admired his thorough knowledge of publishing, realizing also that he undoubtedly possessed that mysterious ‘flair’ which is worth more to a publisher than an expensive education”.[6]

In 1941 Jonathan married his third wife, a widow, Kathleen Mary Webb née Wilson, daughter of a former British Museum librarian.  They had one son. Kathleen died on 27th November 1953.  Jonathan suffered two strokes in the following year but regained his health and continued working for the remainder of his days.  Publishing was his life.  Thrice married, thrice widowed, Jonathan died at his home, 128 Bedford Court Mansions, London, on 10th February 1960, at the age of 80.[7] [8]

Jonathan Cape’s grandson, Jonathan Hallam, has written in with affection: “My last and vivid memory was sitting opposite him at the luncheon celebration of his 80th birthday. I was only 6 years old, but remember every detail of that November day, 1959. My greatest regret was not knowing him as he passed shortly after, but nevertheless he has always been my inspiration.”


[1] Jonathan Cape by Rupert Hart-Davis revised by Jonathan Rose, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 23rd September 2004

[2] Illustrated London News 20.2.1920 ©Illustrated London News Group/Mary Evans

[3] The Aberdeen Press and Journal 7.3.1933 p2

[4] Archives of Jonathan Cape Ltd, JISC accessed online 23.1.2019

[5] Vera Brittain, Testament of Friendship, The Story of Winifred Holtby, Macmillan 1940, Virago edition 2012 p353

[6] Hart-Davis, Rupert, Jonathan Cape, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, archive edition, well-informed by Hart-Davis’s personal knowledge, accessed online 23.1.2019

[7] Jonathan Cape, Wikipedia, accessed online 23.1.2019

[8] The Times 11.2.1960 p15

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