In her much noted book, The Uncommon Reader, Helen Smith traces the career of Edward Garnett (1868-1937), who was a publisher's reader in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Garnett fell into this career more or less by chance. He was not highly educated; nor did he have any qualifications: he went to the City of London School, and left in 1885 at the age of seventeen without any achievement to his credit, and without having shown any special promise. He then idled his time away at home, reading. But he was the son of Dr. Richard Garnett, the erudite Superintendent of the British Museum. Dr. Garnett happened to meet the Black sisters who frequently went to the Museum, where Clementina Black was researching for a historical novel that she was writing, and her sister Grace was looking at the art works. On learning that their sister Constance had come to London from Cambridge where she had recently graduated with a First in Classics, he asked them all to tea at his home in St Edmund's Terrace, Primrose Hill. The eighteen-year-old Edward Garnett joined them, and was struck by the attractive blonde beauty of Constance Black. She was seven years older than he was, but that hardly mattered: he was smitten. Constance was similarly attracted to her host's tall, slender and "roguish" son (14). It was clearly a mismatch, which each of the couple would have to pay for in their own ways. However, despite the expectations raised by her subtitle, Helen Smith is not writing a conventional biography, and in general has less to say about Garnett's emotional life than about his career.

At Unwin (1887-99)

In the later nineteenth century, several publishers like Unwin, Heinemann, and Dent had sprung up in London. Aware of the liaison between his son and Constance, Dr Garnett felt that he should have an occupation. Accordingly, he "arranged for Edward to enter the office of the publisher T. Fisher Unwin as a packer of books" (15). Edward joined the firm on ten shillings per week, proving hopelessly inept at the job, but somehow slipping "into the position of a 'publisher's reader'" (16). This is surprising because, traditionally, publishers' readers (like George Meredith at Chapman & Hall, and John Buchan at John Lane) were already published authors. The younger Garnett also tried to write novels while working as a reader, and indeed Unwin published two for him: The Paradox Club (1888) and Light and Shadow (1889). Five years later, Dent published a third novel, An Imaged World (1894). There would be further publications, too, but they were not particularly successful, and Garnett devoted most of his energies to reading manuscripts for Unwin.

His career was soon developing in an unexpected direction. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, disaffected and revolutionary Russians came to London as they fled from Tsarist tyranny. The Garnetts were drawn into this circle. Among the exiles was Felix Volkhovsky, who persuaded Constance Garnett to read Russian during the enforced leisure of her first pregnancy. She did so with increasing felicity. Soon she met his friend Sergei Stepniak who was also a violent revolutionary, and who also helped her learn Russian. Stepniak was married, but she fell in love with him. She now began to translate Russian novels, and her growing interest inspired her husband to take up Russian literature too. He was greatly impressed, and praised the novelists in his pieces in the Academy periodical, suggesting that English writers had much to learn from them. In 1899, he championed the cause of the novel:

The most serious and significant of all forms the modern world has evolved is the novel; and brought to its highest development, the novel shares with poetry to-day the honour of being the supreme instrument of the great artist's literary skill. [36]

On the domestic front, however, Garnett was hurt by his wife's growing fondness for Stepniak. This threw him into the arms of Ellen Maurice Heath (called Nellie), who had been passionately fond of the artist Walter Sickert under whose guidance she worked. Sickert had not responded to her overtures, and this gave Garnett a chance to pursue her: they fell in love, often living together and going on holidays together. Ellen related later on that "Connie was very much in love with Stepniak and Edward took it too hard" (39). The Garnetts' son David later remarked that Stepniak "was the man for whom my mother felt the greatest love in her life" (37). From this time onwards, the Garnetts maintained their separate loyalties, even though they had a family home together, The Cearne near Edenbridge, Kent.

Joseph Conrad, in a sketch of 1916 by William Rothenstein. [Click on this and the following image to enlarge them.]

Garnett was gradually making his mark on the publishing scene. In 1890, he had persuaded Unwin to publish a series of books, especially by women, under the title of the Pseudonym Library. Along with books in English, the series published works translated from Greek, German, Italian and Danish. He was initially helped by Wilfred H. Chesson, and from 1895 by the young G. K. Chesterton. On 3 July 1984, Chesson received a manuscript from one "Kamudi." He liked it, and sent it to Edward Garnett who read it with equal enthusiasm. The manuscript was, in fact, by Joseph Conrad, and the novel was Almayer's Folly. Philip Unwin was also was impressed, and decided to publish it. Garnett told Conrad he had written one good novel, so "Why not write another?" (62). Conrad had already started work on his second novel, An Outcast of the Islands. Encouraged by Garnett, he would devote himself to novel-writing for the rest of his life. Smith sums up the relationship between Conrad and Garnett thus: "Conrad himself stated on several occasions that it was Edward's finely tuned eloquence that convinced him to take up authorship as a career” (61). Conrad went on to publish several novels and tales. The last of the novels that Garnett saw through to publication for him was The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897).

Among the other writers whom Garnett met and encouraged were John Galsworthy and W. H. Hudson. Most of them went on to publish their (still better-known) works by well-known publishers. In fact, this was Garnett's role throughout his life. The young Irish writer, Sean O'Faolin, who went with him to various restaurants along with other aspiring writers, noted that Garnett "always had somebody interesting to meet us at these places, but never a lion, always a cub, somebody young like myself, at the beginning of his career, like H. E. Bates or Malachi Whitaker or H. A. Manhood" (336). This fits the pattern of Garnett's career as a whole, explains Smith: "as soon as one of his cubs began to resemble a literary lion he withdrew, partly from the knowledge that the young lion regards himself as king of all he surveys and has neither need nor desire for guidance, and partly also because he always found the cub a much more interesting and exciting animal in any case" (336). He spotted promising authors, encouraged them, and then they went on to publish better works, by more famous publishers. In other words, he enabled writers to get recognition and respect.

This fact conditioned Garnett's life as a publisher's reader. From the start, his life had been rather chequered, and he found it hard to hold down a permanent job. Philip Unwin soon felt that many of the novels published on his recommendation were not making money, so he ruefully remarked that he had decided to dispense "with [his] services as literary adviser at the end of 1899" (116). In order to make a little money and to keep himself occupied, Garnett wrote articles and reviews for journals like the Speaker and the Academy. Then came another short foray into the publishing world: Sydney Pawling, a well-known cricketer and a partner of Heinemann, who had published Constance's translations of Russian novels, introduced him to Heinemann, which took him on as a reader. However, when he approached Heinemann for better terms for his "exacting and continuous" work (125), he was told that it would be better if he could "dispose of [his] work elsewhere" (125). Fortunately, he was able to land a similar job with Duckworth. The salary remained the same but his job seemed more permanent. Here, though, it was made clear to him that "the final decision on whether to publish remained with Duckworth" (135).

At Duckworth (1901-15)

Jospeh Simpson's portrait of D. H. Lawrence, "the last recorded published portrait of D.H. Lawrence, who died in 1929 at the age of 45." Courtesy of Liss Llewellyn Fine Arts (please see the online catalogue at their site).

Newer authors who came into Garnett's orbit at this stage included May Sinclair, Arnold Bennett and Edward Thomas. Outstanding among them was the young D. H. Lawrence. Garnett had been asked in 1911 to become the English representative of the American magazine Century, the successor of the famous Scribner's Monthly, to which Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway had contributed. Garnett, on the lookout for suitable short stories, was aware that Lawrence had published some, and invited the young schoolmaster to visit him at The Cearne. The two clearly hit it off very well, drinking and chatting convivially. Lawrence wrote picturesquely to Louie Burrows, his fiancée at that time, that Garnett "thinks my work is quite extra" (208). By now, he had already published The White Peacock (1911). On reading it, Ford Madox Hueffer had told him, "it has every fault that the English novel can have.... but 'you've got GENIUS'" (209). This had been followed by The Trespasser (1912). After marrying Frieda Weekley, Lawrence had started work on what he first called his "colliery novel" — the future Sons and Lovers. Just as he received Heinemann's letter of rejection for it, which filled him with fury, Garnett asked for it. Lawrence sent the manuscript immediately, with a note declaring: "anything that wants altering I will do" (226). Garnett was greatly impressed, but saw that it did indeed need editing. Recognising that the novel was autobiographical in many ways, he asked Lawrence to approach his work with more detachment, and suggested various improvements. Since he liked the novel, Duckworth sent Lawrence a cheque for fifty pounds. The Lawrences were living in straightened circumstances in Lake Garda at that time, and Lawrence was elated, telling Garnett that he would "slave like a Turk" over the revision (227). Garnett had made some drastic cuts — Smith believes that the novel was reduced to "a tenth on aesthetic grounds alone" (230) — and wanted parts of the remaining narrative rewritten. The novel was finally published, with Garnett's emendations, on 29 May 1913. Seventy-nine years later, in 1992, Cambridge University Press restored the parts that Garnett had cut, but many scholars criticised the decision, and the novel is still generally read in the version that Lawrence had seen and approved.

Although Lawrence was always grateful to Garnett as his "first backer" (qtd. p. 329), their relationship went the same way as Garnett's earlier relationships with his protégés. By this time, Lawrence was already at work on The Rainbow, telling Garnett that Sons and Lovers marked the end of his youthful period, and the new novel would be quite different from his previous writings. When Garnett returned the plays that he had written earlier, saying that they would be difficult to stage, Lawrence expressed his youthful zeal: "your sympathies are with your own generation ... I don't want to write like Galsworthy nor Ibsen, nor Strinberg nor any of them, not even if I could. We have to hate our immediate predecessors, to get free from their authority" (240). In the novel as well, Lawrence was moving on. Garnett disliked the portions that he was sent. This of course had much to do with their different ages: Garnett was seventeen years older than Lawrence, and quite unable to share the revolutionary outlook expressed in modernistic novels like The Rainbow and Women in Love, in which Lawrence had been inspired to represent what he called "the physic — non-human in humanity." He claimed, "You mustn't look in my novel for the old stable ego of the character" (243). Such writing was beyond Garnett's literary depth and skills. Consequently, "by the autumn of 1914 Lawrence and Edward practically ceased corresponding" (245).

Garnett's more traditional approach to literature was shown when Ford Madox Ford (formerly Hueffer) took Garnett to meet Henry James, showing James some of Garnett's reviews, including that of The Awkward Age. Amused, James told Garnett that he had been unable to understand or appreciate the Jamesian concept of "the figure in the carpet" (147) in the novel. Similarly, in the war years, when Garnett received a few manuscripts — including James Joyce's Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — he noted their literary significance, but declined to recommend their publication (248). As for Samuel Beckett, when he sent in the manuscript of Dream of Fair to Middling Women, Garnett would advise Cape at his next post "not to touch it with a barge pole" (341). It so happened that no other publisher would touch it either. The novel was published only in 1992, three years after Beckett's death.

As for Edward Thomas, when Garnett came to know around this time, he was a book-reviewer and journalist whose work had appeared in various periodicals, but who had recently become friends with the young American poet, Robert Frost, on his visit to England. The aspirations that Frost encouraged in him had not yet borne tangible fruit, but he contacted Garnett in November 1914, and Garnett tried unsuccessfully to persuade the journal Nation to take some of his poetry. Thomas then privately printed some of it under the name of Edward Eastaway. Before enlisting, Thomas collected all his poems under the title Poems. These remained unpublished in his lifetime, but before going to the Front, he wrote to Garnett that he had enjoyed meeting him, and thanked him for all his help. He died soon afterwards, in Arras.

At Cape (1921-37)

In November 1917, Edward got a "job reading for John Lane at the Bodley Head" (268). The pay of two and a half guineas was considerably less than the £180 a year that he was getting at Duckworth before the war, and he took the earliest opportunity to move on. His last position was with the new company started by his old colleague Jonathan Cape. After "accepting Cape's offer, Edward quickly fell into a regular way of working" (271). This would be by far his longest stint: he worked as editor and reader for Cape from 1921 until his death in 1937. Not long after joining the firm, he made a staggering discovery. It was a long manuscript by an amazing man. The author was T. E. Lawrence, and the book was Seven Pillars of Wisdom. When Lawrence asked Garnett to edit it, he was delighted. The draft of the work had a very complex history: it was lost once at a train station, and Lawrence had made at least two more drafts of it. He once told Garnett that he wrote it not for publication, but just to please himself. Garnett found it an extraordinary work, but felt that before publication it should be abridged from 140 chapters to forty — a task he set about himself. He "made the abridgment in five weeks, completing it 'in ten days' active work' while laid up with phlebitis" (280). Unfortunately, all this was in vain: in 1923, Lawrence decided not to publish the book with Garnett's amendments. His own version would finally be published, initially for subscribers, a few years later.

In 1923 too, Sir Edmund Gosse, reviewing Garnett's collection of letters by W. H. Hudson, unkindly but quite astutely remarked that he had "a strange passion for third-rate novels by nobodies" (287). It had not always been so; but in the later part of his life, the people and writers whom Garnett had once helped in one way or another were leaving the literary scene. Conrad became seriously ill. Realising that his end was near, he expressed his gratitude to Garnett in 1923, speaking "from the heart" of his belief in the "absolute honesty" of his judgment. He added that Garnett had been "one of the mainstays" (286) of his literary life. He died soon afterwards.

Garnett himself died over eighty years ago. His life and career had been fairly low-key: he had not reached the prominence of, say, American contemporaries like the journalist and reviewer Walter Lippmann, or the editor Max Perkins. It has to be said, too, that it was not unusual for the writers he recommended to be published by a different publishing house from the one for which he was then working. Examples here are Naomi Mitchison, who thanked him for his criticism and suggestions about We Have Been Warned, but later had it published by Constable (331-32), and Henry Green, whose novel, Living, was eventually published by Dent. Helen Smith's book on Garnett has the look of a dutiful thesis, and has all the paraphernalia of such an endeavour. One might perhaps wonder whether her subject is sufficiently important to merit so much attention, especially as Garnett himself was unfailingly modest about his achievements, even turning down a Companionship of Honour, and an honorary doctorate at Manchester University, on the grounds that he had always been an "outsider" (349). Yet it was not for nothing that he was offered those honours. For some important writers, notably Conrad and Lawrence, his help had been invaluable; he had also at some stage or another befriended and helped to groom many others, including, besides those already mentioned, Jean Rhys and Liam O'Flaherty. Moreover, his career does provide fascinating glimpses into the literary world of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century. This informative book is beautifully produced, except for its index, which (no doubt to save space) is printed in a tiny font.


Smith, Helen. The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett. London: Jonathan Cape, 2017. Hardback. 440pp. ISBN 978-0-22408-1812-8. £30.00.

Created 22 May 2018