Valentine Cunningham

Literary mafia boss

The editor who nurtured Conrad, Edward Thomas and Jean Rhys also stripped D.H. Lawrence of his fine provincial realism

Edward Garnett, radical, pacifist, freethinker, Russophile man of letters, was from the 1890s onwards for many years the pre-eminent fixer of English literature. D.H. Lawrence’s widow Frieda hailed him as ‘the midwife’ of Lawrence’s ‘genius’. And so he was; while he also nurtured Joseph Conrad, T.E. Lawrence, Edward Thomas, Liam O’Flaherty, H.E. Bates and Henry Green. He presided as ‘reader’ over the shoals of expectant manuscripts piling up daily at the publishers — starting out at Fisher Unwin, doing the business for Heinemann and Duckworth, putting in long stints at Dent and ending up at Cape.

Jonathan Cape headhunted Garnett for his new firm in 1921 as ‘the best reader’ in the land. Garnett was by then famous as the main man with an eye and a nose for literary promise and — even more valuable for publishers — for promise’s opposite. ‘Hurl away, ‘ he’d scribble on duds; ‘Reject… sarcastically.’ But his ‘cubs’, as they came to be known, got the fullest care and attention: copious badgering, cutting, rewriting, and unforgiving rudeness about characters, ideas, irrealisms — and endings.

Above all, endings. He pedgilled away — D.H. Lawrence’s lovely Midlandism for Garnett’s unremitting diligence, his selfless slaving over the heaps of manuscript — and all for rather scanty financial reward (the unremunerative nature of this life as super-hack is a constant theme of Helen Smith’s caring inspections). He laboured day and night for the mere good of the literary cause. It was practical criticism in every sense — literary fostering backed by cash handouts and bed and board, digging out funding for needy writers.

He became, in effect, one writer’s agent, another writer’s manager; went out of his way to secure (his word) paid work for his protégés — short-story outlets, reviewing and so forth.

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