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Remembering Dean & Son: Anthony O'Neill Recommends his Favourite Classics

Posted on 27th September 2017 by Martha Greengrass

The author of our Scottish Book of the Month for September, Anthony O’Neill, grew up in Australia reading abridged Dean & Sons Victorian-era classics. When it came to creating his own novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, a sequel to Stevenson’s gothic favourite, he was inspired by those well-thumbed adventures he remembered so vividly. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, he chooses his favourite classic novels to curl up with in front of the fireside this autumn.

Readers of a certain age might remember Dean’s Classics. These were public domain novels, chiefly from the Victorian era, repackaged (and often slightly abridged) for younger readers by the London publisher Dean & Son (which also published the Enid Blyton books). At my local supermarket in Melbourne they sold for 50 cents each; I adored the vivid cover illustrations, the stately typesetting, the conveniently-sized hardback format and the fibrous pages (now yellowed and parchment-like, of course). They were introduction to book-collecting and book-reading in general.

Curiously enough my two favourite classics, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (to which I’ve now written a sequel) were not included in the Dean’s Classics (and ergo not available in my supermarket). I had to borrow Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde from the school library and later get my mother to purchase a copy (the reason I’ve dedicated Dr Jekyll & Mr Seek to her memory). Both books, however, were part of the rival Bancroft Classics and “Retold by John Kennett” series. 

On the back cover of each Dean’s Classic was an impressive list of the available titles: fifty legendary books by immortal authors. And it became my ambition, as an aspiring author from a very early age, to add my own name to some future list of classics.

Alas, that might never come to pass (though Dean & Son, which dates to the 1790s, continues to exist in nominal form), but readers seeking that same frisson of excitement that I experienced whenever purchasing such books might now consider taking a chance on Dr Jekyll & Mr Seek. It’s my attempt to continue the iconic Robert Louis Stevenson tale with a twist that’s both respectful and subversive. It’s my stab at writing a “Victorian-era classic” of my own. Moreover, it’s purposely designed, right down to the cover, to give you that you that old sitting-by-the-fireplace-and-occasionally-kindling-the-embers sort of feeling (not that there was much of that when I was growing up in Australia). 

Or, if that still doesn’t interest you, you might just settle for the original classics in some new edition and in that spirit I present my list of favourite “Dean’s Classics”:

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Verne’s beautifully paced and plotted race-against-time adventure is the quintessential Victorian kitsch. I’ve owned numerous copies in my time but for some reason the Dean’s Classics edition is the one I most treasure. 

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One night in the reform club, Phileas Fogg bets his companions that he can travel across the globe in just eighty days. He sets off with his valet Passepartout, and passes through exotic lands and dangerous locations, they seize whatever transportation is at hand - whether train or elephant - overcoming set-backs and racing against the clock.
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Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. This wasn’t my introduction to RLS – that was Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde – but this Scotland-set adventure, written immediately after Jekyll, is just as stylishly written and crammed with memorable characters.

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When young David Balfour is orphaned he discovers some surprising truths about his family. However, the voyage is full of incident and after violent conflict and a shipwreck, David finds himself in a daredevil chase across the Scottish Highlands in the company of the irrepressible warrior Alan Breck Stewart...
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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. The author’s years as a steamboat pilot help inform this laconic tale with a peerless sense of time and place – intoxicatingly atmospheric.

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Tells the story of a boy's journey down the Mississippi on a raft that conveys the voice and experience of the American frontier. This is a satirical tale of childhood rebellion against hypocritical adult authority.
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Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. When compelled to read this in high school I refrained from buying a new copy, believing my old Dean’s Classic edition would certainly suffice – only to end up flummoxed when the class discussed a scene in which Gulliver extinguishes a fire by urinating on it. The scene had been “abridged” from my edition! 

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Lemuel Gulliver shipwrecked and adrift, subject to bizarre and unnerving encounters with, among others, quarrelling Lilliputians, philosophizing horses and the brutish Yahoo tribe, that change his view of humanity - and himself - for ever.
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Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

This is probably the most heavily abridged of all the Dean’s Classics titles (not necessarily a bad thing, as Melville’s digressions have tested many a reader’s patience) and frankly beyond my reading level as a child. But, boy, did I love the cover!

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Tells the mad, raging, Shakespearean tale of Captain Ahab's insane quest to kill a giant white whale that has taken his leg, and upon which he has sworn vengeance, at any cost.
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