The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith - review by Henrietta Garnett

Henrietta Garnett

An Eye for Greatness

The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett


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I never knew my grandfather Edward Garnett, since he died years before I was born, but as a result of tales my father told me and the reminiscences of my brothers and family friends I have always felt a close affinity to him. Although I knew of his distinguished reputation, I was disconcerted when, as a young girl rummaging about in an old trunk in my father’s house, I came across the manuscript of a play, The Trial of Jeanne d’Arc. It was by Edward and even then I could see it would be hopeless in performance. The characters were so unwieldy they could only have been performed by wooden spoons. I took it to my father, who told me that although it was one of the tragedies of Edward’s life that he couldn’t write anything worth reading, he could inspire other writers to create the finest literature. This generosity endeared him to me further.

Over fifty years, Edward became the éminence grise behind the various publishers he read for. He discovered, among a host of others, D H Lawrence, T E Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Edward Thomas, Liam O’Flaherty, Sean O’Faolain and Henry Green. He also admired The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit ‘for its originality’ and the works of the American Sarah Orne Jewett (although he didn’t think they would go down well in England). It was Edward who brought us Tarka the Otter. His methods were unorthodox. Generous to a fault, he would invite his authors down to the Garnett house in Surrey and talk through the night with them – talk their books into being – over quantities of claret. He also cherished them, helping them out of money difficulties, even though he lived on a financial tightrope himself. After Edward Thomas was killed by a ‘pip-squeak’ (a flying shell) during the First World War, Edward’s
first thought was for Thomas’s widow, Helen, who was living in penury. Edward secured her a significant sum from the Royal Literary Fund.

Born in 1868, Edward was the scion of a remarkable literary family and an Anglo-Irish mother. His grandfather and father both spent their lives working day and night in the Department of Printed Books in the British Museum, dedicating themselves to helping authors and scholars. Edward was a

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