Poets and Paddington: how Faber & Faber changed modern literature
Through the vision of its founders, the firm, which has turned 90, became the accidental heroes of publishing
Faber & Faber celebrates its 90th anniversary in 2019. It feels like an appropriate moment to ask: what’s the most interesting book in the publisher’s backlist? Something by one of its 13 Nobel laureates – TS Eliot or Samuel Beckett, perhaps? Finnegans Wake? Sylvia Plath’s Ariel? The most recent Booker Prize winner, Anna Burns’s Milkman?
No. Faber’s most interesting and unusual book, I would argue, was also its dullest: Swedish Iron Ore by AF Rickman. It was the only book Faber & Faber published on orders from MI6. “Rickman called in the afternoon, with £150 in notes,” wrote Geoffrey Faber, its founder, in his diary in May 1939. “This is an elaborate Secret Service business – an intelligent fellow, and an amusing game.”
Swedish Iron Ore was advertised in that autumn’s Faber catalogue, along with an apologetic notice for the long-awaited Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; TS Eliot had handed in his book of children’s poems three years later than promised. It was not the beginning of a glowing literary career for Rickman. A few months later, the spy, who was planning to blow up cranes in Oxelösund harbour, where iron ore was loaded for Germany, was arrested when Swedish police found his cellar packed with powerful explosives.
Apparently, Swedish Iron Ore gave Rickman an excuse to stay in the country, and helped to keep his cover intact for long enough to make a real difference. At a party years later, a British general let slip to Faber & Faber director Richard de la Mare that the book had “achieved its purpose quite beyond hopes and expectations”.
This extraordinary anecdote is revealed in Faber & Faber: The Untold Story, a new history of the publishers, edited by the founder’s grandson, Toby Faber. Bringing together previously unseen letters, diaries and documents, it captures the ups and downs of a company created almost by accident, that would change the course of modern literature.
Nurses and rhymes
In 1924, Geoffrey Faber hardly seemed set to run a revolutionary publishing house. He had just been fired from a directorship at the brewers Strong & Co, and was struggling to support his wife and daughter on a small salary for his part-time post as estates bursar of All Souls College, Oxford.
Help came from an All Souls Fellow, Maurice Gwyer, whose wife Alsina had inherited an interest in a company called The Scientific Press. It mainly existed to publish a newspaper for nurses, The Nursing Mirror. When the chairman stepped down, the Gwyers gave his job to Faber, asking him to diversify the company beyond medical publishing.
Faber suggested starting a new literary press – which became Faber & Gwyer – and running a literary magazine. A mutual friend introduced Faber to TS Eliot, who helped on both fronts; the firm bought the magazine Eliot edited, The Criterion, and in 1925 the poet was appointed a director of the board. As part of the deal, they agreed to publish Eliot’s poetry – which had previously appeared in small-run editions from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.For the Gwyers, this was not appealing. In December 1925, Gwyer wrote to Faber: “[Alsina] asks me to tell you that she dislikes Elliott’s [sic] poems very much.” Faber wrote back: “I don’t like them myself, and I don’t think Eliot does either.”
Luckily, a package sent that same month proved the poet had at least one admirer. A young American author sent Eliot his latest book with an inscription dedicating it to “TS Elliot [sic] Greatest of our living poets”. It was The Great Gatsby. Recognising its brilliance, Eliot offered to be F Scott Fitzgerald’s British publisher. But the company was losing money, and financial troubles led to Faber and the Gwyers falling out. In 1929, Faber left the Gwyers and nurses behind, to launch a new company.
Although there was only ever one Faber, the poet Walter de la Mare (Richard’s father) suggested calling it Faber & Faber, as “you can’t have too much of a good thing”. They were initially dismissed by Alfred Harcourt (“A bunch of Oxford amateurs, won’t last”), and Donald Brace (“Faber is a gambler!”) of the US publishing behemoth Harcourt Brace. But, thanks in large part to Eliot’s discerning eye, Faber & Faber was soon home to WH Auden, Louis MacNeice, James Joyce (who called it “Feebler and Fumbler”), Philip Larkin and Ezra Pound.
An injection of fresh talent came in 1953, when the firm hired a young man called Charles Monteith, who had written a rather rambling letter to Faber about “something which has been worrying me, on and off, for a considerable time. It is, in brief, the perennial problem of what to do – (I dislike that pompous word ‘career’).”
Despite being warned that Monteith was “coarse” and had “flair rather than taste”, Eliot pushed for him to be hired. He was proved right: in just four years, Monteith talent-spotted Jan Morris, John Berryman, Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, and also made Faber a leading publisher of modern theatre with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger.
The editors’ judgement wasn’t always so reliable. Some of the rejections were absolute howlers. “I think the author has missed his mark,” begins one report. “Unless I mistake him he means it to be funny but the jokes are all on the bear ... No – frankly the best of the book lies in its title.” That title? A Bear Called Paddington, by Michael Bond. Or how about this: “It is decidedly too short, and for a book of such length it seems to me too loosely constructed, as the French and English episodes fall into two parts with very little to connect them.” That’s TS Eliot turning down a young Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, by complaining that the problem with Down and Out in Paris and London is that half of it is in Paris, and the other half is in London. Eliot rejected Orwell again for Animal Farm, which he didn’t feel expressed “the right point of view” for “the present time” (in other words, criticising the Soviet Union in 1944).
A rejection wasn’t always the end. While still working through his “probationary” year in 1953, Monteith pulled a dog-eared manuscript called Strangers from Within from the slushpile. A previous reader had scribbled on it: “Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the colonies. A group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish & dull. Pointless. Reject.” Monteith disagreed, and sent the author a few helpful suggestions for edits. A year later, Faber and Faber published it as Lord of the Flies.
Despite the prestige of its authors, the company was still struggling to turn a profit. Its financial salvation came in 1981, through a share of the profits of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, based on the poems Eliot had originally written to amuse Geoffrey Faber’s three-year-old son.Eliot would surely have been surprised at the firm’s longevity. Most of its early rivals have collapsed or been swallowed by larger publishers; Harcourt and Brace are no more, but “Feebler and Fumbler” remain independent to this day.– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)