In 1893 the young John Galsworthy booked passage on the clipper Torrens, then sailing from the South Seas to England. During this voyage the future author of “The Forsyte Saga” happened to become friendly with the ship’s first mate. In a letter home he described this “capital chap”— of Polish origin — as “a man of travel and experience in many parts of the world,” with “a fund of yarns.” Seven years after their shipboard conversations, Joseph Conrad — who else could it have been? — would dedicate his most famous novel, “Lord Jim,” to Galsworthy. In 1932 Galsworthy would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; Conrad, of course, is now universally regarded as one of the greatest novelists of all time.
Both these writers counted themselves proteges of Edward Garnett (1868-1937), the subject of Helen Smith’s prizeworthy literary biography, “An Uncommon Reader.” No ordinary acquisitions editor or publisher’s reader, Garnett devoted his life to fostering, with tough love, the work of many young, and now famous, authors. Besides Galsworthy and Conrad, who became his close friends, he championed Stephen Crane, helped D.H. Lawrence reconfigure “Sons and Lovers,” urged T.E. Lawrence to publish “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” lent moral and financial support to Edward Thomas — “the finest poet of his generation” — and produced the first major essay on Thomas’s American friend Robert Frost. Like Scribner’s Max Perkins, Garnett was, in all senses of the phrase, an editor of genius.
But that name, Garnett, doesn’t it ring a bell? Possibly more than one. Edward’s wife, Constance, is still rightly honored as the pioneering translator of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov. His father, Richard, was not just the Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, but also the author of that minor masterpiece “The Twilight of the Gods,” a collection of learnedly witty fantasies in the style of Voltaire or Anatole France. (It’s one of my favorite books.) Smith also regularly quotes from “The Golden Echo” and “The Flowers of the Forest,” two exceptional memoirs by Edward and Constance’s son, David, best known for that amusing, yet unsettling 1922 jeu d’esprit “Lady Into Fox,” in which the protagonist’s wife literally becomes a vixen, with all the impulses of a wild animal.
Oddly enough, given the fantastic imaginations of his father and his son, Edward Garnett was staunchly, even narrowly, realistic in his approach to fiction: Literature, he felt, should focus on and reveal life as it is. Consequently, he turned down the chance to publish H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” and would doubtless be surprised that his author May Sinclair is now mainly remembered for her uncanny stories, such as the harrowing “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched.”
Halfway through “An Uncommon Reader,” Smith sums up what Garnett looked for in serious literary fiction: “The ability to suggest the intangible from the palpable, a willingness to shake the reader out of his or her settled perceptions, and the facility to make a small, apparently insignificant detail reveal the depths of a situation.” She adds that he especially valued “ ‘veracity,’ originality and an unflinching readiness to show people what they are.” In particular, Garnett thoroughly scorned “commercialism, the insularity of the English, their demand that literature should merely endorse prevailing social norms and conformities, the expectation of ‘healthy optimism’ and a happy ending.” A true artist, Garnett proclaimed, should “never give the public what it wants.” Needless to say, his authors seldom earned out their advances.
In structure, “An Uncommon Reader” might be likened to a portrait gallery. As the book progresses, Smith — who teaches literature at Britain’s University of East Anglia — introduces us to Garnett’s various “discoveries” and literary confidants. Alas, too few readers these days will be able to identify W.H. Hudson (“Green Mansions”), R.B. Cunninghame Graham (“Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco”), or Liam O’Flaherty (“The Informer”). In general, Garnett worked closely with his writers on their early books, but would gradually lose interest once their careers were successfully launched. Or might it be that his disciples felt that they needed to escape his somewhat restrictive view of what and how they should write? When breaking with her “literary godfather,” the Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison declared, “I must finally go my own way.” Nonetheless, Garnett’s stable of authors could always count on his unfailing moral support and would deeply revere his memory, even if most of them produced their greatest works without his help.
As Smith writes, Garnett’s general advice to aspiring novelists was always to be wary of anything flowery: “Don’t overwrite, avoid laboured metaphors and too many adjectives, make sure dialogue sounds ordinary and natural, condense and cut.” Good advice, yet some radically innovative works, such as James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and Henry Green’s “Living,” ignored it: As a result, Garnett turned down both these books, disliking their stylistic peculiarities (Green’s sentences, for instance, avoid using the word “the”). Instead he regularly urged learning from the great Russians that Constance was busily translating, especially the more polished and Europeanized Turgenev.
While periodically strapped for cash, Edward Garnett never seems to have lacked for anything. He traveled widely in England and Europe, set up — without any fuss from Constance — a separate household with his mistress Nellie Heath and resolutely refused all honors from universities and the government. He also wrote some lackluster plays, but mainly supplemented his income through literary journalism, being properly enthusiastic about Arnold Bennett and the young E.M. Forster.
Though “An Uncommon Reader” is Helen Smith’s first book, one would never know it: She delivers uncommonly good reading, and anyone interested in Edwardian fiction, the history of publishing or literary biography will find it a treat.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Helen Smith
Farrar Straus Giroux. 440 pp. $35