An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor of Literary Genius

An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor of Literary Genius

by Helen Smith


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One of The Sunday Times' (U.K.) Books of the Year

"Garnett's life will not need to be written again." —Andrew Morton, Times Literary Supplement

A penetrating biography of the most important English-language editor of the early twentieth century

During the course of a career spanning half a century, Edward Garnett—editor, critic, and reader for hire—would become one of the most influential men in twentieth-century English literature. Known for his incisive criticism and unwavering conviction in matters of taste, Garnett was responsible for identifying and nurturing the talents of a generation of the greatest writers in the English language, from Joseph Conrad to John Galsworthy, Henry Green to Edward Thomas, T. E. Lawrence to D. H. Lawrence.

In An Uncommon Reader, Helen Smith brings to life Garnett’s intimate and at times stormy relationships with those writers. (“I have always suffered a little from a sense of injustice at your hands,” Galsworthy complained in a letter.) All turned to Garnett for advice and guidance at critical moments in their careers, and their letters and diaries—in which Garnett often features as a feared but deeply admired protagonist—tell us not only about their creative processes, but also about their hopes and fears.

Beyond his connections to some of the greatest minds in literary history, we also come to know Edward as the husband of Constance Garnett—the prolific translator responsible for introducingTolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov to an English language readership—and as the father of David “Bunny” Garnett, who would make a name for himself as a writer and publisher.

“Mr. Edward Garnett occupies a unique position in the literary history of our age,” E. M. Forster wrote. “He has done more than any living writer to discover and encourage the genius of other writers, and he has done it without any desire for personal prestige.” An absorbing and masterfully researched portrait of a man who was a defining influence on the modern literary landscape, An Uncommon Reader asks us to consider the multifaceted meaning of literary genius.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374537999
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 12/11/2018
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 456
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.02(d)

About the Author

Helen Smith is British writer and scholar. She earned her PhD in literature from the University of East Anglia, where she is a lecturer in modern literature and the director of the master’s program in biography and creative nonfiction. She has won the Biographers’ Club Prize and the RSL Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, and lives in South Norfolk with her husband. The Uncommon Reader is her first book.

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A literary family

'For you into whose hands this document may come, I write these words, as a testimony from us who now lie dead & forgotten.' The parchment containing these words (or some very similar) has yet to be read; since 1 September 1895 it has nestled in a carefully hollowed-out hole in a cornerstone of The Cearne, near Edenbridge in Kent, the house built by Edward and Constance Garnett, alongside 'various little articles which might be of antiquarian interest in centuries to come'. Fortunately anyone curious to discover more about the founders of The Cearne will not have to wait for some calamitous event to reduce the house to a pile of rubble; a rough draft of the document in Edward Garnett's hand survives. In it he briefly details the building of The Cearne and the origin of its name ('the original name of the meadow, signifying, in Old French – a circle'), before going on to sketch its inhabitants, beginning with himself: 'in 1895 Edward Garnett was a little known writer & poet, a man of twenty seven, tall in height, of an idle temperament, careless of reputation, witty of speech, a real lover of the open air, literature & art, a scorner of trade [sic] industry.' While there is a touch of light-hearted self-deprecation in the portrait, Garnett revealingly selects the characteristics – and occupation – ('little known' was added as an afterthought) for which he would like to be remembered. At that time he had been 'reader' for the publisher T. Fisher Unwin for eight years and was currently greatly excited by one of Unwin's new authors, Joseph Conrad. Yet despite the lukewarm and in some cases hostile reviews of his own literary efforts, which then comprised two novels and a book of prose poems, in 1895 it was as a writer that Edward Garnett wished to make his name.

Given Garnett's firm belief in heredity ('that's the old Willoughby horse- thief strain coming out in her,' he reputedly announced, 'with all the gravity of Mr Shandy',3 when a female house guest helped herself to a book), perhaps he would not be surprised to learn that, just like his father before him, he is principally remembered as one of literature's great enablers.

Richard Garnett was born on 27 February 1835 at Lichfield; his father, also named Richard, was a minor canon in the cathedral. The senior Richard Garnett (1789–1850) originally hailed from West Yorkshire, where his father William (1760–1832) managed the family paper mill on the river Wharfe near Otley. William's eleven offspring appear to have been a talented lot, and it soon became apparent that his eldest son Richard had a particular linguistic flair. After eight years in the paper mill, during which he studied languages in his spare time, Richard senior trained for the Church. His brother Jeremiah (1793–1870) was apprenticed to a printer in Barnsley and then worked on Wheeler's Manchester Chronicle before becoming the first printer, publisher and reporter on the fledgling Manchester Guardian. Initially his skills as a printer were much in evidence – he helped devise a machine that increased the rate of printing from 300 to 1,500 copies of the paper an hour – but in later years his interest became literary and editorial. In 1844 Jeremiah assumed the editorship of the paper for which his great-nephew Edward would eventually write.

In 1836 Richard senior moved with his second wife Jane (his first wife Margaret died in 1828) and their young son Richard to the living at Chebsey, a village near Stafford. A second son, William John, was born on 28 July that year. By this time Richard senior had established a reputation in the new field of philology and was keen to exercise his erudition in more promising intellectual pastures than Chebsey could offer. When in 1838 he was offered the post of Assistant Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum he accepted with alacrity and resigned from the Church. The family moved to Burton Crescent just off the Euston Road in London and in 1840 Richard's final child Ellen Rayne was born. Ellen, who was referred to as 'Auntie Cuckoo' by her nephews and nieces, became a governess for a time. Her pupils included Osbert Sitwell's father Sir George and his sister Florence. Poor Ellen was remarkably plain: according to Osbert, her ugliness 'triumphed over the term and became raised to the level of a Chinese grotesque'. Nevertheless she inspired affection in her charges and was invited to Christmas dinner with the elder Sitwells in Scarborough every year after her retirement. Ellen's brother William John, who was a lifelong practical joker and like his nephew Edward a great tease, drifted from job to job and country to country. Whether working as a consular agent in Egypt, a miner in Colorado or a music critic in Australia he was usually in pecuniary straits and a source of minor concern to his family. It was Richard who inherited his father's linguistic abilities and scholarly aptitude and it was he who would elevate the Garnett name in literary circles.

By 1850 Richard senior's health had deteriorated to the extent that he was granted leave of absence from the British Museum and returned to Otley with his family, enrolling young Richard and William John in Whalley Grammar School just months before he died in September. His family was left with £750, a reasonable sum, but it was clear that extra income would be required and so a university education was out of the question for either of the boys. Exactly who approached the Italian political exile Antonio Panizzi, Keeper of Printed Books at the Museum, about a possible post for the young Richard is unclear, but Richard senior had been aware of the gravity of his illness and may well have set the wheels in motion. Panizzi, who had a great regard for Richard senior, directed all his considerable powers of persuasion towards the Museum's trustees and just weeks after his sixteenth birthday young Richard joined the staff as an assistant in the department of Printed Books.

Richard Garnett junior never forgot Panizzi's act of kindness. 'One of my father's marked characteristics was lively gratitude,' his daughter Olive recalled years later. 'As an Italian exile, Antonio Panizzi, had befriended him, so, henceforth, he would likewise endeavour to assist political exiles.' Richard stayed true to his resolution and a string of European political refugees, including Karl Marx, were to benefit from his assistance and generosity. In the years following his appointment to the British Museum, Richard read voraciously, contributed numerous articles to various journals and newspapers, continued to study languages, produced several translations and wrote poems, whilst at the same time working assiduously in the library. For the first ten years of his career he was a 'placer', allocating newly acquired books to the correct division of the library (which then had no complete subject catalogue). At the very least this required a swift perusal of each new volume, and Richard's memory was such that it was said he never forgot the contents or location of any book he had 'placed'. Richard's interest in Shelley scholarship led to his becoming a friend of Lady Shelley, the poet's daughter-in-law; unfortunately he also fell in with her attempts to sanitise Shelley in order to make him fit for Victorian consumption. This error of judgement apart, Richard became known among generations of library readers for his benevolence, helpfulness, prodigious memory and unrivalled knowledge of books.

Photographs of Richard Garnett reveal a square-faced young man with a high forehead, short nose and dark hair, cut in the rather unbecoming fashion of the day. He was tall and early developed a stoop. Later on he grew a beard and adopted round, gold-rimmed glasses. Careless of dress, he 'stuffed his pockets with books; badly folded newspapers, wholepackets of letters: & remains of sandwich lunches'. His hands were slim-fingered and as shapely as a woman's, an attribute he passed on to his son Edward. Richard's speech betrayed slight signs of his Yorkshire origins; 'he is the only man I ever knew,' wrote his obituarist, 'who really talked like a book. His sentences flowed on, unhesitatingly, in lengthy periods, all the commas and semi-colons almost visible to the eye.' Garnett had an ironic and sarcastic turn of wit, but it was never directed against individuals; by midlife his mellowness had reached the point where it was reputed that the hardest thing he said of anybody was 'she doesn't like cats' – a more serious indictment than first appears given Richard's passion for felines. His other great enthusiasm (perhaps not remarkable considering the late Victorians' interest in the occult and spiritualism, although it surprised many of his contemporaries in such an otherwise learned man) was astrology. Richard cast numerous horoscopes of the great and the good and penned astrological articles under the anagrammatic pseudonym A. G. Trent.

The British Museum offered many opportunities to gain an entrée into new social circles and Richard's network of friends rapidly expanded. By the time his career became fully established there were few people in literary London he did not know. The young men working at the Museum were seen as a useful fund of potential dancing partners when the ladies of the neighbourhood were organising dances for their daughters. It was in this capacity that Richard attended a dance in a house near Camden Square in 1859 where he became captivated by the daughter of his hostess's next-door neighbour, a young lady of seventeen whom he sat beside 'and talked [to] very fast, and in such low tones that I could hardly hear about poetry'.

Olivia Narney Singleton was born in 1842 in County Waterford of an Anglo-Irish family. Her grandson David rather romantically describes Narney (as she was always known) as coming from a line of 'warm-hearted, passionate, lavish, open-handed libertines and duellists'. Her father had suffered a mental breakdown and as a result her mother brought Narney and her younger brother Edward to England to continue their education. Like many Anglo-Irish boys, Edward was destined for the army, where he eventually attained the rank of major. Mrs Singleton, the two children and their nurse Christina Chapple set up house near Camden Square. Narney was a girl of considerable wit and vivaciousness, and she clearly charmed the twenty-four-year-old Richard Garnett, who, on the occasion of their engagement three years later, wrote to his brother William John extolling her virtues:

She is rather tall and slender, with a corresponding contour of face, delicate complexion, brown eyes and hair, prominent forehead and an elegant profile approaching the retroussé ... Though not regularly handsome, she would, I think, be generally considered graceful and pleasing, but of course you will allow for a lover's partiality. Her manners are in general quiet and somewhat reserved, but she can summon up a good deal of Irish vivacity on occasion ... She is clever and well-educated, fond of reading and music; ... she speaks and writes French very well, and has more or less acquaintance with several other languages.

After that first dance Richard escorted Narney home. The front door was opened by Chapple, who, on closing it, turned to her young charge and exclaimed delightedly, 'And is that himself, Miss Narney?' The relationship blossomed and on 11 April 1860 Richard proposed to Narney as they sat by the fire with her cat between them. 'Puss, does your mistress love me?' enquired the nervous suitor, to which the reply came, 'Puss, she does.' Mrs Singleton, however, considered her daughter too young for any serious commitment and removed Narney to Geneva, where her brother was studying French and German. Eighteen months later mother and daughter returned to London to find Richard, undaunted, on the doorstep of some close friends enquiring as to their whereabouts. A second proposal this time met with maternal approval and the couple were married on 13 June 1863 at St Mark's Church, Regent's Park.

Richard and Narney rented a recently built four-storey brick house in St Edmund's Terrace on the north-west corner of Regent's Park, just across from London Zoo. Number 4 (it was later renumbered 3) faced fields and the West Middlesex waterworks. The Primrose Hill area in which it stood was popular with artists and literary figures, attracted by its relative tranquillity and the feeling that it was out of town. Ford Madox Brown, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, moved into 1 St Edmund's Terrace in 1887. Mrs Singleton lived at St Edmund's Terrace with Richard and Narney until her death in 1876, as did Chapple, who became Narney's maid and nurse to her six surviving children. May, the eldest, was named after the month of her birth in 1864; Robert followed in March 1866 and just under two years later, on 5 January 1868, came Edward William. Olivia Rayne, always known as Olive, was born in 1871 and another daughter, Lucy, arrived in 1875. In 1877 Narney gave birth to her third son, Richard Copley. He rapidly developed tuberculosis and died at the age of eight months in February 1878. Arthur, the much loved baby of the family, was born in 1881. At the age of six he developed a severe speech impediment, which he never lost, but inspired deep and lasting affection in all who knew him. 'All the Garnetts had a talent for friendship,' his niece later wrote. 'In Arthur it amounted to genius. He made and kept friends in every corner of the globe.'

As it so happened, the temperamental traits of the Garnett children seemed to divide along lines of seniority. In a letter to John Galsworthy in which he sketches his family history, Edward dismisses his elder siblings, May and Robert, as 'sensible, practical, ordinary', but groups Olive, Lucy and Arthur altogether more approvingly under the headings 'independent' and 'critical'. 'I look on Robert as a very good fellow, honest & not unintelligent, but lacking in all those finer subtler shades of perception – which in my view constitute "good judgment",' Edward later elaborated to Galsworthy. 'Robert looks on me as a most dangerous individual! Not to be relied on for one instant; well-meaning, but weak – with ability of a sort, but likely to plunge himself or others, any moment into hot water!' Edward was closest to Olive as a child and retained that affection into adulthood, even though, despite her brother's urgings to the contrary, Olive became increasingly disinclined to challenge the conventionality that was so marked in pretty, pious May: 'Why I feel so passionate about Olive in rare moments is that I understand she has eaten fate, and has not had the colour of life, and has not arrived at the many things that have come to me,' Edward once bemoaned. That impulse to challenge authority and custom may have been derived from his father's fierce (if the word can be used in association with such an essentially benign character) unworldliness and his positive discouragement of what society might term 'success'.

In some respects the Garnetts were quite a traditional Victorian family. Servants ensured domestic orderliness, and although Olive remembered there being 'no discipline in the ordinary sense'18 a word from Richard at times of youthful over-exuberance produced 'instant and continuous silence'. Most of the time, however, 4 St Edmund's Terrace reverberated to the sound of heated arguments amongst the various siblings, with each disputant convinced he or she was in the right. Edward never lost that implacable confidence in his own opinion where literary matters were concerned – to the discomfort and occasional fury of many of his authors.

Every summer Narney would depart with her brood to seaside resorts such as Swanage or Southsea, where Richard would sometimes join them for the latter part of the holiday. Excursions to the nearby London Zoo were a regular feature of life at St Edmund's Terrace and fondly recalled by Olive, although she would have been too young to remember one autumn night of destruction in the city.

At five o'clock on the morning of Friday 2 October 1874 a barge carrying five tons of gunpowder exploded under the bridge by the North Gate of Regent's Park. The three barge crew and their horses were killed instantly and extensive damage was caused to property within the radius of a mile, including the animal houses at the zoo. Every window in 3 St Edmund's Terrace was blown in, with the exception of those in Narney's bedroom, but luckily none of the family was injured. The next morning the Garnett children were taken out by Chapple into the nut-strewn streets (a large quantity of Brazil nuts and almonds had been stored over the explosives) to view the devastation. The young Garnetts pocketed the spoils, oblivious to Chapple's repeated warnings about shards of glass. All over the weekend crowds of sightseers flocked to the park: 'the publicans and tobacconists would not be sorry to lose their windows on such terms every week,' The Times remarked wryly. So momentous was the event that in the evening the children were allowed to come down after Richard's return from the Museum to listen as he read out accounts of the explosion from assorted newspapers.


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Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Chapter 1 A literary family,
Chapter 2 Joining Unwin,
Chapter 3 'Quite a little Russian world',
Chapter 4 'Why not write another?',
Chapter 5 Rescuing Conrad,
Chapter 6 Sympathy, criticism and counsel,
Chapter 7 'Write it, my dear Amigo',
Chapter 8 'I'm not such a fool as I seem',
Chapter 9 Joining Duckworth,
Chapter 10 'You have too good an eye',
Chapter 11 Turbulent times,
Chapter 12 'Please make allowance for my point of view',
Chapter 13 'I'm tired of books and MSS',
Chapter 14 Fishing out Lawrence,
Chapter 15 'You are so russianised my dear',
Chapter 16 'My friend and protector in love and literature',
Chapter 17 European conflict,
Chapter 18 'I want to tell you how much you have taught me',
Chapter 19 Joining Cape,
Chapter 20 'A tremendous, a staggering book',
Chapter 21 'The dear friend of all my writing life',
Chapter 22 Threats and tensions,
Chapter 23 Courting controversy,
Chapter 24 Shadows lengthen,
Chapter 25 'For Edward Garnett, Best of Friends',
Chapter 26 'Mentor, pater in literis, et al',
Picture Credits,
A Note About the Author,
Permission Acknowledgements,

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