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

Smith, Helen. An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor of Literary Genius. New York: Farrar, Straus, 2017. Pp. viii + 440. 28 B & W Illustrations. $35 (cloth).

As publisher's reader for several publishing houses during his long career (from 1887 to 1937), Edward Garnett was an influential behind-the-scenes figure identifying and nurturing the talents of promising English (and a few American and Irish) writers. His relationships with the writers he encouraged regularly became personal as well as professional. Garnett wrote a good deal of now forgotten literary journalism, partly because he needed to supplement his income. (He wrote an early appreciation of Stephen Crane and the first major essay on Robert Frost.) He was frustrated by his own lack of success as a writer (primarily as a playwright). E. M. Forster once commented that Edward Garnett "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." Helen Smith's biography of Garnett makes a substantial case for the justice of Forster's remark.

An Uncommon Reader draws on an extensive array of archival Garnett materials. Northwestern University, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library have the largest Garnett holdings. The Northwestern University collection includes many Garnett family letters and an unpublished memoir by Garnett's wife Constance, the prolific pioneer translator of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. Reader's reports that Garnett produced for T. Fisher Unwin and Duckworth are located at the Berg Collection and elsewhere. Smith had access to the partly unpublished diary of Garnett's sister Olive and notes and a notebook written by his mistress, Nellie Heath. The many libraries in Great Britain and the United States thanked by Smith in her Acknowledgments demonstrate the author's scholarly diligence.

Edward Garnett is of course well known to readers of the D.H. Lawrence Review as the crucial early mentor of Lawrence (at a time he still needed mentoring)--and especially as the literary professional who cut Sons and Lovers by ten percent in order to make the novel publishable. Garnett is equally familiar to scholars of Joseph Conrad and (if such things be) John Galsworthy, because he counseled those two novelists early in their careers. He published an edition of Letters from Conrad in 1928 and an edition of Letters from John Galsworthy six years later. Conrad, Galsworthy, and Lawrence were the biggest success stories in Garnett's career. Intriguingly, all three writers dedicated important early novels to Garnett--The Nigger of the 'Narcissus, 'The Man of Property, Sons and Lovers-before going their own way.

An Uncommon Reader mostly tells the story of the lengthy parade of (primarily fiction) writers whom Garnett discovered and to some extent nurtured. Smith introduces each writer with a concise biographical sketch. In one way or another Somerset Maugham, R. B. Cunninghame Graham, W. H. Hudson, Sarah Ome Jewett, the poet Edward Thomas, May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson, Jean Rhys, Liam O'Flaherty, H. E. Bates, Henry Green, and even T. E. Lawrence are part of the parade. Garnett's relationship with the depressive Thomas is especially compelling: Garnett encouraged Thomas' decision to write poetry rather than prose, he helped him financially--and Thomas was killed in the Battle of Arras in April 1917. Smith's narrative of Garnett's last years thins out and becomes a little tiresome as Garnett's discoveries become less memorable. Harold Alfred Manhood? Geraint Goodwin?

In 1910 Garnett wrote Galsworthy that he sometimes got "very low" "as to the secondhand existence that is implied in the game." But he was always passionate about the new writers whose work excited him; he also found sustenance in his friendship with the writers he was helping. (Lawrence would later recall that Garnett was "a good friend and a fine editor, but he ate his heart out trying to be a writer.") As for Garnett's personal life, he and Constance became emotionally estranged early in their marriage. In October 1911 Lawrence explained to Louie Burrows that Garnett "and his wife consent to live together or apart as it pleases them." As Smith reports, Constance's feelings toward her husband became "more maternal than conjugal," and she "positively encouraged" his relationship with his mistress, Nellie Heath. 1 wish that Constance Garnett and Nellie Heath figured more prominently in An Uncommon Life. When Heath goes to live with Garnett in 1914, we learn for the first time on page 246 that "she and Edward had been lovers for seventeen years."

Smith's version of Garnett's relationship with Lawrence will be very familiar to readers of this journal. Nevertheless, it's always enjoyable to encounter the breathless letter Lawrence wrote Garnett on 17 April 1912 exclaiming that Frieda von Richthofen Weekley was "ripping--she's the finest woman I've ever met." Mrs. Weekley was "perfectly unconventional"; so in many ways was Edward Garnett, whom Lawrence described as being "so beautifully free of the world's conventions." Lawrence and Frieda spent the last weekend of 1912 at the Cearne, the Garnetts' William Morris-inspired house in the Kent countryside. That visit is commemorated in Lawrence's lovely uncollected poem "At the Cearne." Lawrence left the manuscript of Paul Morel with Garnett at the Cearne. He and Frieda departed for the continent a week later. In February 1913 as they were contemplating their return to England, Lawrence wrote Garnett from Gargnano that the Cearne was "the only place in England open to the pair of us." Indeed they stayed at the Cearne for ten weeks in late June and early July 1913.

Disappointingly, Smith briefly genuflects toward the excellence of the Garnett reduction of Sons and Lovers: "Reducing a manuscript by a tenth whilst preserving its fluency and coherence and without having to write bridging sections is not an easy job." Any serious student of Lawrence will disagree vehemently with her argument that "Edward forced Lawrence to hone his narrative craft." Smith says nothing about the damage Garnett's cuts does to the substantial material involving William, that other son and lover.

Smith's most illuminating observation concerning Lawrence appears in her discussion of the "old stable ego of the character" letter of 5 June 1914. In defending what he was attempting in The Rainbow Lawrence explains that he objects to "the certain moral scheme into which all the characters fit" as exemplified by the fiction of "Turguenev, and in Tolstoi, and in Dostoevski." Lawrence did not randomly select these purveyors of the "certain moral scheme"--a point I have never seen in print. Edward Garnett (the husband of Constance Garnett, the translator of Russian literature) considered the nineteenth-century Russians (especially Turgenev) to be the greatest fiction writers of all time. Lawrence's Russian trio is Garnett-specific. Note that when Lawrence was convalescing in Bournemouth in January 1912, Garnett sent him several carefully chosen books to read, including Turgenev's Torrents of Spring. D.H. Lawrence would never become the English Turgenev of Edward Garnett's imagination.

Although Garnett had a reputation for liking controversial fiction, radically innovative fiction was outside his range. His difficulty with The Rainbow ended his professional relationship with Lawrence (although as a parting gift he recommended The Prussian Officer and Other Stories to Duckworth). He also advised against the publication of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Smith does not quote the reader's report held in the Slocum Collection at Yale in which Garnett writes that the novel is "too discursive, formless, unrestrained, and ugly things, ugly words, are too prominent; indeed at times they seem to be shoved in one's face, on purpose, unnecessarily." Joyce's "pen and his thoughts seem to have run away with him sometimes" in a novel that is "too 'unconventional.'" Oddly, in another surviving reader's report for Portrait Garnett praises the novel, even comparing it favorably to the work of "the Russian writers." Nevertheless, for a publisher's reader to have argued against both The Rainbow and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is obviously no badge of honor.

Lawrence had had almost no contact with Garnett for years when he sent him a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover, inscribed "To Edward Garnett who sowed the first seed of this book, years ago, at the Cearne--and may not like the full fruit." After Lawrence's death Garnett was asked to edit the posthumous collection of Lawrence's writings that became Phoenix. When the project proved too large and difficult, he passed it on to Lawrence's American bibliographer, Edward D. McDonald. Garnett agreed to write an introduction to the book, but his overly critical introduction was rejected. Is the Study of Thomas Hardy "magnificent rant, most of it"?

Let me point out three errors and make one pained observation. William Michael Rossetti was not a "Pre-Raphaelite artist." The brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Christina Rossetti, he was the unofficial organizer of Pre-Raphaelitism as well as a critic and biographer. Howards End has no apostrophe. A real howler: Lawrence's second novel was (of course) never called Nethermere. The extensive index of An Uncommon Reader is printed in such microscopic type that anyone who consults it will risk permanent eye damage.

Edward Garnett never earned a lot of money, but he received a good deal of praise and appreciation from the writers whom he had helped. In a letter to Garnett dated 14 October 1897 a grateful Joseph Conrad wrote: "I know you've made me." On 2 February 1925 John Galsworthy told Garnett that he had "been a tremendous asset to English letters--more so than you will ever know or believe." On 26 November 1934 T. E. Lawrence suggested that '"School of Edward Garnett' might be the classification of English literature across a quarter of a century--or indeed for more than thirty years." An Uncommon Reader, a labor of love and a work of scrupulous scholarship, presents an appealing portrait of a complicated man and a valuable perspective on modern English literature.

Keith Cushman

University of North Carolina at Greensboro
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Author:Cushman, Keith
Publication:D.H. Lawrence Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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