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The Untold Story Of T.S. Eliot And A Legendary Book Publisher


Faber and Faber: Don’t feel bad if the name of the British publishing house is only subliminally familiar. Publisher’s emblems garner less attention in these days of browsing covers on Amazon, instead of spines on bookstore shelves.

But you surely know of them. Although they are a thoroughly British institution, which started publishing directly in America only recently, their authors are known throughout the world: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, William Golding, Philip Larkin, James Joyce, Ted Hughes, P.D. James, Seamus Heaney, Garrison Keillor (hey, nobody’s perfect), and countless others. Their 90-year history is truly worthy of its own book—Faber & Faber: The Untold Story.

Author Toby Faber has a unique perspective, as the grandson of the firm’s founder Geoffrey Faber. Delivered in epistolary format, he introduces the chapters, then provides excerpts from the house archive and other ragtag inside sources: letters, memoirs, and reader reports about books under consideration. Some of those books have since entered the Western cultural record, others have been lost in the dust of time, like the poetry of P.P. Graves or Geoffrey’s own forgotten novel.

One of his earliest and grandest strokes was taking on an expatriate American poet by the name of T.S. Eliot, a partnership that would pay great dividends as Eliot made the firm’s literary reputation with his shrewd literary judgment and brought fame with his influential, innovative poetry. Geoffrey’s verdict on Eliot’s early work? “You are obscure, you know!” Even admiring Eliot readers might agree.

Toby damns his grandfather with faint praise: “It is hard to describe him as a great publisher with a brilliant editorial eye, but he had an instinctive understanding of finance and, even more important, knew how to get the best from his fellow directors.”

Faber and Faber was launched in 1929 and speedily began to transform itself into a literary powerhouse. Toby Faber captures the highs and lows of critical acuity, with the firm embracing young, adventurous poets, including difficult ones (in all respects) such as Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound. Eliot also turned down a George Orwell, not once but twice. Still, Toby Faber’s grand claims that Faber and Faber is “THE Literary Publisher,” and the “midwife of the birth of modernism” are supported by posterity.

The Untold Story reflects a quaint picture of a lost England, complete with an unquestioned class system, as shown in a letter from one A.J.B. Paterson to Geoffrey Faber. Paterson explains he’s reneging on a previous promise to invest, given that in the interim his father had “married a barmaid of questionable standing,” and thus could not provide funds.

The declaration of war by Britain in September 1939 brought an unexpected boost to book sales. With the mandatory blackouts, reading was among the only leisure activities left, although the extra revenue was eaten away by a confiscatory “excess profits” tax.

The war also marked the firm’s “brief foray into espionage,” as a Faber book appeared under the riveting title Swedish Iron Ore—a front to enable a British MI6 agent to penetrate neutral Sweden while posing as a journalist. Other anecdotes demonstrate that the Brits showing a “stiff upper lip” was not a mere cliché: “Mrs Faber rang & left this message—A bomb has fallen in her garden & they cannot get the car out. If you would care to go and help them dig, she can give you lunch.”

But for this reader, the big revelation was that Eliot is a comic genius. Even as he was making a high-brow reputation for himself, the renowned author demonstrated a knack for low-brow humor, even helping to rig up fireworks at one of the firm’s “book committee” meetings. Eliot comes off diligent, surprisingly ego-less, and generous with his time and effort. He was in London during the Blitz and volunteered as an air-raid warden.

Nearing retirement, Eliot began reducing his involvement in the early 50s, making way for, among others, Charles Monteith, a graduate of All Souls College at Oxford University (like Faber himself). Monteith had written out of the blue saying that he fancied working “in a ‘booky’ atmosphere.”

Again, Faber’s instincts were sound. Needing something to read on the train, Monteith plucked from the slush pile a schoolteacher’s manuscript, even though a Faber reader had already condemned it on the cover page as “Absurd & uninteresting fantasy…Rubbish & dull. Pointless. Reject.” Faber and Faber accepted the manuscript Strangers From Within, which was eventually published under a title suggested by editor Alan Pringle: Lord of the Flies, by William Golding.

There are several similar frissons of premonition, like a pre-fame Tom Stoppard telling an editor he was “now waiting for a play to go on, hoping that if it runs at all I can leave journalism…”

The 1970s were wilderness years. There was cost-cutting after a move to a new London headquarters, the 1973 miners’ strike made for three-day work weeks due to power cuts, and inflation meant financial struggles. The firm’s reputation for design suffered after the 1975 retirement of cover artist Berthold Wolpe.

Yet again, good fortune saved the day. Someone had the idea of setting one of Eliot’s poems from his illustrated children’s book, Old Possum’s Guide to Practical Cats, to music. Andrew Lloyd Webber latched on to the project, and Cats the musical became a cash cow for the firm. (It never hurts to have Eliot in your corner.)

Kazuo Ishiguro, who would later to publish Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go at Faber, sent three short stories to the publisher on the last day of the 1970s, heralding an aesthetically and financially successful 1980s decade under editorial director Robert McCrum.

The company ventured into some more low-brow projects, like a book spin-off of the popular BBC spoof show Not the Nine o’Clock News. The project angered someone in-house, who threatened legal action for being mocked in the book. To that, Toby Faber retorts: “many Faber employees never quite understood that the firm could only publish great literature if it also made a profit.”

The story ends on the eve of the 1990s, with a restructuring arrangement that made the company almost impossible to sell. Toby Faber writes, modestly but accurately, “the firm has been frequently lucky.”

There are a few scattered regrets about the house’s lack of sexual diversity, and nothing is said of the antisemitism that dominates some of Eliot’s early poetry. The seemingly de rigueur throat-clearing that accompanies any peek into the past these days is absent here.

Some more significant limitations apply. This is a curated account, not an investigative dive, so we don’t know what embarrassments, if any, were left out, and what spats were skipped. A view from the outside would have been helpful. How many people worked at Faber? How large is Faber, compared with other publishing houses? And American readers may experience confusion with some of the English terminology.

Still, Faber & Faber: The Untold Story is both an inspiring tale and a sobering reminder of how dependent even renowned cultural institutions are on happenstance—and a children’s book about cats getting turned into a hit Broadway musical.