The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett

Helen Smith

Jonathan Cape £30

Review by Hugh MacDonald

THERE is an immediate question that demands to be answered as one flinches slightly at the direct stare of Edward Gannet emanating from the cover of this unusual, regularly gripping biography.

It is this: who was he? The simple answer is that he was a publisher’s reader and critic in the first third of the 20th century. The more awkward question is why he deserves a biography. Helen Smith, in her first book, answers this with some conviction with a work that delves below the surface to mine a seam of literary history.

The basic line of Garnett’s life is interesting, if no more. He was a middle-class Englishman, the writer of two mediocre novels, an unfaithful husband, an unfaithful lover to his mistress, and a detached, distant brother.

He made his money in small amounts in the shadows of mounting manuscripts. His primary function in terms of salary was to apprise novels submitted for publication. His significance far exceeded this role of occasional literary drudgery. Garnett mentored, badgered and argued with such as Conrad, DH Lawrence, TE Lawrence, Edward Thomas and Sean O’Faolain over their manuscripts.

Influenced and, indeed, awed by the Russians – most conspicuously Turgenev – Garnett viewed art, specifically literature, as a powerful, necessary tool in the understanding of life. He embraced the belief that the artist must observe and then share. This is the most simplistic explanation of the most complex man but it is what drove Garnett with a fury that was mostly repressed but exploded in conversations with and missives to those who sought his opinion.

He never evaded confrontation, indeed marched towards it with flags unfurled and language deeply undiplomatic. It is this what sustains both his life and this biography.

Garnett was not always right but he believed he was, certainly in terms of what literature should do and how that could be achieved. One gasps at his presumption. Then one smiles at his impertinence. His dismissive tone to John Galsworthy, now a largely unread author but a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, begs the question, clichéd but persistent: “Who do you think you are?”

The critic was never a successful or indeed convincing novelist. So how did he acquire the power he wielded with such impunity? Again, there is a simple answer. Garnett was regularly right on the big questions with the big authors.

His employers at a series of publishing houses noted that money was lost on taking a punt on the mass of Garnett recommendations. But he was not a commercial tipster, more a spotter of genius and how it could be developed. Even in the latter case, he could be fallible. He described HG Wells’ Time Machine as “a poor performance” and later rejected such as Samuel Beckett.

But Conrad and TE Lawrence allowed him to shape masterpieces such as Almayer’s Folly and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom because his observations were acute and his suggestions persuasive. He told authors what he thought which is sometimes not an attractive trait but is regularly a valuable one, even if some writers, most gloriously Naomi Mitchison, considered but then rejected advice.

There was both sincerity and passion in Garnett when it came to appraising manuscripts but it was complemented by a desire, perhaps even a need, to both bolster the canon of literature and refine it.

He succeeded. He resurrected DH Lawrence from a creative torpor, brought TE Lawrence from anonymity into worldwide acclaim and, most wondrously in this critic’s eye, guided Edward Thomas from prose to poetry.

Smith relates all this with a precision and eye for detail that constantly delights. WB Yeats wanders in to London with “nothing but a toothbrush and a bit of soap”, Conrad is “masculinely lean femininely sensitive”, Stephen Crane shivers with nerves in a strange land.

This is all so beguiling and, at times, compelling that one forgives her for her inability to answer a question that constantly chirrups in the ear of the reader.

Why did Garnett believe he was always right? His certainty was unwavering and unattractive. Yet it was what made him useful to authors and crucial to the development of ground-breaking novels.

He was an uncommon man as well as the uncommon reader. He would, one suspects, be pleased to leave readers with a question unresolved, a story still to be fully developed.