The piles of manuscripts are a clue to what is happening in the photograph below. It shows the board room of the literary publishing house of Faber and Faber in 1944. Sir Geoffrey Faber, the chairman and founder of the firm is in the centre and on the extreme left is T. S. Eliot.
It is well-known that Eliot was a director of Faber from 1925 until his death in 1965; and so too is the fact that so many promising young writers visited him there at Faber’s office in Russell Square. The poetry list that he subsequently created, which forms the core of the firm’s early literary heritage, played a critical role in the development of literary modernism. Yet what his day job as a publisher really involved is quite obscure, and especially so to anyone who has not commissioned or published books.
Although Eliot had worked in banking and also managed and edited a prestigious cultural journal, The Criterion, he had no illusions about what he was letting himself in for. When he was first offered the job Geoffrey Faber warned Eliot that he needed ‘a man who combines literary gifts with business instincts, who has a wide circle of literary friends, and who is quite as much at home on the lower levels as on the lonely peaks’.
The photograph above wonderfully captures one very important slice of what life as publisher at Faber involved: the work of the ‘Book Committee’, which was created by Geoffrey Faber in 1925. It consisted of the firm’s directors who met around an octagonal table every Wednesday morning from eleven until late afternoon (until ‘exhaustion’, as one member recalled). As Picture Post pithily put it in 1944: ‘Faber’s directors meet round a table filled with readers’ reports and bottles of beer. They are deciding what to publish and what not to publish’.
Just so: reports by readers on books, deciding what to publish, and estimating what sales might be, goes to the nub of what the Faber Book committee did, and arguably did better than any other publishing set-up of its day. The calibre of the directors appointed by Geoffrey Faber was high, and they formed a ‘ministry of all the talents’. Richard de la Mare, the son of the writer Walter de la Mare, arrived at about the same time as Eliot, and became responsible for the design and production of Faber books. Another key appointment in 1929 was that of the American Frank Morley, a Rhodes Scholar who had worked for the Century publishing house in New York.
It was Frank Morley who wrote the only extensive memoir of Eliot’s work as a publisher in the 1930s, and his account gives a wonderful flavour of what took place around that octagonal table (which now sits at the heart of the Faber archive). Each member of the Committee had their own area of expertise, and a ‘list’ of books which they guided through a well-oiled publishing programme, from receipt of manuscript to eventual publication. Thus Geoffrey Faber dealt with political or military history, and was also a great reader of detective fiction and murder mysteries (as indeed was Eliot, whom Morley once jokingly refers to as ‘T. Sleuth Eliot’). Richard de la Mare developed an outstanding list of books about the farming and the countryside. As well as being responsible for poetry, T. S. Eliot also was given the somewhat onerous task of monitoring foreign-language publications (with a view to their being translated and published in English).
Frank Morley depicts Eliot at these meetings as self-controlled and sagacious. With regard to book proposals he was ‘Conscientious, scrupulous, careful, attentive’ and rarely in a hurry. According to Morley, ‘He had a theory you were not likely to lose money on the books that you didn’t publish. He was extremely perceptive in detecting the right character in manuscripts which might have been thought beyond his range. He made mistakes, of course, but his mistakes as a rule were not costly, and some of his far shots paid well’.
When a director was confident about the future of a particular author their passage through the Book Committee would be fast-tracked. After a brief discussion, the secretary would be directed to enter ‘Accepted’ or ‘Rejected’ in a large ledger known as the Book Register (one of which survives in the Faber archives for every year since 1925). There was thus only minimal discussion by the Committee of W. H. Auden, one of the earliest and greatest additions to Eliot’s list of new poets; but for manuscripts they were not sure about – by far the majority – a report would be prepared. This might be by the director himself, or by a specialist reader if it was an academic work. Much of the fiction was read by a freelance team that included the wives of members of staff, including Enid Faber and Catherine de la Mare. At least 5,000 such reports survive in the Faber archive, in all shapes and sizes, from pencilled comments on scraps of paper, to full-length typed reports on literary or historical monographs.
Undoubtedly the most distinctive of these are those by T. S. Eliot, and about 300 of his short prose reports on manuscripts survive in the archive. Impeccably typed, often only on a single A5 page they are immediately recognisable: all carry his initials (TSE), include the date, and also the Saints Day. They range from reports on very minor poets (to most of whom he did indeed firmly say ‘NO’) to his opinion on a very wide range of non-fiction, much of it already published in Europe. Eliot reported on an incredibly diverse range of books, on subjects ranging from Oliver Cromwell to psychiatry. His domain also included theology and church history; and it is noteworthy that a bestselling religious book that he spotted in 1929 was Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone?
In his early years at Faber Eliot’s reports on poetry collections are written to tell his colleagues about the types of verse which he considered that the firm should steer clear of. He was normally very diplomatic, but the feeble verse that a well-known aesthete had submitted received a terse one-line report: ‘I cannot endure this stuff’. One of Eliot’s most perceptive reports is on the manuscript of In Parenthesis, the great work about the First World War by the poet and artist David Jones, dated September 1936. He does not overstate the importance of the work but draws out the Arthurian and Kiplingesque qualities that he knows will appeal to particular colleagues on the Book Committee. Typically self-deprecatory, he admits his views may not be widely shared: ‘I have not the slightest notion whether what I see in the book is really there, or if it is there, whether it will reach more than a few people’.
The Book Committee sometimes went on over-long, and directors were known to quietly sign letters and look through other papers until their own ‘Lists’ came on. So the recollection by a colleague that Eliot did the Times Crossword during committee meetings is undoubtedly true. Yet it is also well-documented that in the 1930s the committee was marked by jokes and nicknames. Eliot was fondly dubbed ‘elephant’ (as one who never forgets); but his preferred nom de plume was ‘Old Possum’. The approach of America’s Independence Day celebrations, moreover, encouraged the three US-born directors to engage in practical jokes against their ever-patient chairman: ‘On the Wednesday nearest the Fourth of July something noisy was sure to be rigged up’, recalled Morley. ‘Eliot was fertile in suggestions, and bland in the accomplishment. It was usually his part to distract Faber’s attention at the crucial moment’.
Such was Eliot’s mastery of the genre of book reports, that the archive possesses a number of ‘spoof’ reports written to amuse Geoffrey Faber. The most intriguing of these is a humorous report on the collected poems of John Betjeman. Faber and Faber was of course never asked to publish Betjeman’s verse, but the joke springs from the fact – well-known to scholars – that Eliot taught the younger poet for a term at Highgate School in 1916.
Another highlight of book committee meetings was when Eliot read out a particularly amusing report on a manuscript. To judge from the finely crafted prose, these were clearly highly entertaining performances, and much looked-forward to by all the committee members. One of the best of these was a report in 1934 by T. S Eliot on a book of Hindu spirituality, The Holy Mountain by Bhagavan Shri Hamsa. This had been pressed on the firm by W. B. Yeats, who also contributed an introduction. Although Eliot recommends the book be accepted, he can’t resist poking fun at Yeats. ‘Uncle William is looney as ever’, he writes. ‘I don’t mind it being mostly nonsense but it does seem a pity that he tells some of the Holy Man’s best stories over in advance in his own fashion but the Holy Man writes much better than Yeats for this sort of thing’.
Whilst T. S. Eliot’s voice was never dominant in the deliberations of the Book Committee, it is evident that it added something unique in terms of literary flair and insight. That it could be heard was due to the excellence of the publishing system set up by Sir Geoffrey Faber, which successfully balanced commercial viability with literary and artistic excellence. ‘The Faber policy demanded faith’, recalled Frank Morley. ‘The Faber faith was that the state of the world was not so bad, but that this policy could pay. It did.’
Robert Brown is Faber’s Archivist. More photographs and visuals from the era can be found on the Faber Books Flickr stream.