Like many a 20th-century publishing house, the fine old firm of Faber & Faber came about almost by accident. The inaugurating Faber — Geoffrey — was an All Souls don in search of a livelihood, who began his career in the post-Great War book trade by investing in the Scientific Press, publishers of the Nursing Mirror. There was trouble with the Gwyer family, owners of the original concern, who resisted the move into general books and disliked the poems of Faber’s brisk young protégé Mr Eliot, but by 1929 the sale of the Mirror for an eye-watering £190,000 (about £5 million at current values), allowed Geoffrey to buy them out and set up on his own.
None of this was accomplished without a struggle, and Toby Faber, the founder’s grandson, quotes some particularly gloomy diary entries from the Gwyer days (‘I feel life is not worth living: the business seems to present insuperable obstacles’.) There were also nervous elders to placate. An exasperated letter from Geoffrey to his mother in February 1929 runs:
Here are you and Dorothy getting back your original investment thricefold, myself paying off the whole of my loan, becoming master of my own business, with some £20,000 over into the bargain; & all you can do is to write a letter which anyone would suppose to refer to a terrible financial calamity.
Was there ever a good time to start a publishing firm? Most publishers’ memoirs from the pre-conglomerate days are framed in an atmosphere of well-nigh Dickensian gloom, where whey-faced clerks fret over the profit-and-loss account while creditors’ boots trample on each unguarded stair. Happily, Fabers had a trump card in the shape of Geoffrey’s co-director, T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s reputation as a poet, his prestige as a critic and his editorship of the small-circulation but stratospherically highbrow (and Faber-sponsored) Criterion gave the firm a mystique that lasted for several decades; and as late as the 1960s Seamus Heaney could remark that a summons to attend the office at Russell Square was ‘like getting a letter from God the Father’.