The Familiar Faces
The Familiar Faces is the third volume of David Garnett’s autobiography, the first of which, The Golden Echo, appeard in 1953, and The Flowers of the Forest in 1955. The present volume begins in 1923 and carries Mr. Garnett down to the death of his wife Ray Garnett in the midst of the Second World War. Presumably the autobiography will be completed by the fourth volume.
The period of time covered by The Familiar Faces should have made it the most interesting of the volumes so far. It is the period when Mr. Garnett’s literary life was most active, beginning roughly with his award of the Hawthornden Prize for Lady into Fox in 1923, and continuing through the years of his principal novels and his seven years as Literary Editor for The New Statesman and Nation in the Thirties. But in fact this is the least interesting of the three books, and the thinnest in its reportage on literary events and figures. Great figures are present, of course—most notably George Moore and T.E. Lawrence. But apart from a delightful and monstrous vignette of Montagu Summers (the authority on vampires, Restoration playwrights, and pornography celebrating some esoteric ritual at an altar with the help of a small altar boy, while trying to prevent its owner from recovering a rare first edition of Congreve he had either borrowed or filched), the writing has little of the vividness or value found in his earlier account of the Bloomsbury group and D.H. Lawrence.
Garnett’s personal relation with T.E. Lawrence, while friendly enough, was clearly conventional, and we are given only a conventional portrait of him, and a few stock judgments that anyone who had never known him but had read a book or two about him might made as easily.
On the other hand, with D.H. Lawrence in the two earlier volumes it is a different matter. Despite mutual protestations of friendship, it seems doubtful if Garnett and Lawrence ever really liked each other much, and the tensions between them were of a kind that revealed a good deal about both that might not otherwise have come out. In The Flowers of the Forest Garnett quoted from a letter Lawrence sent him in 1915 about his “set”:
I feel I should go mad when I think of your set, Duncan Grant and Keynes and Birrell. It makes me dream of beetles. In Cambridge I had a similar dream. I had felt it slightly before in the Stracheys.
It is an offensive letter and shows less of the moral and intellectual astringency Lawrence doubtlessly thought he was exhibiting than of downright meanness and malice. Garnett was right to be angry. But at the same time it does help to establish a perspective for that “set” with which the second volume of the memoirs is largely concerned. In recent years the Bloomsbury “set” has come in for about equal shares of admiration and contempt, according to what one’s critical bias happens to be. Mr. Garnett earlier defined the group when he wrote that Clive Bell “saved Bloomsbury from being another Clapham Sect, devoted, in the same cold unworldly way, to aesthetics and the pursuit of abstract truth instead of evangelical religion….Clive’s wide reading, quick wit, and common sense was an essential ingredient in the brilliant talk to be heard in Bloomsbury. The other most important elements in it were the talk of Lytton [Strachey], Virginia [Woolf], Maynard [Keynes], Desmond MacCarthy and Harry Norton.”
I suppose that nowadays everybody would agree that genius was not quite so common among the members of the set as they themselves supposed, and Mr. Garnett made it quite clear in The Flowers of the Forest, without quite intending to, that their “brilliance” was often merely silliness. Nevertheless, the silliness could be amusing enough, and he succeeded in suggesting a pervasive ambience that is absent from The Familiar Faces. The Bloomsbury set as cut-ups are not irritating, but a certain silliness is found in some of the judgments of the new volume that is rather so. Lytton Strachey was a prominent figure in The Flowers of the Forest. His picture was built up by many little touches like this: “There was a little volume of miniature photographs of him at Fernshurst so arranged that, if one flipped through it, one saw a moving photograph of him registering the emotions of surprise, horror, despair, and then accepting a cup of tea.” This is amiable enough, but it is surprising to find Garnett writing in the new volume, under the impact of the Second World War:
Lytton was maturing and developing. The rise of Hitler, the abominations carried out in Germany before the war and in almost all countries of Europe and Asia during it, the legacy of evil that the Germans have left behind them in France, would have been to him what the Calas affair was to Voltaire.
Lytton, if he had lived, would have spoken for mankind on Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the nuclear bomb and torture in France with a clarity and force with which the political leaders of the world would have had to reckon.
It is good to be loyal to one’s friends, but having made Mr. Garnett’s remark the occasion for looking again into several of Strachey’s books and essays one can only say that he goes really rather far.
I have already suggested that the most disappointing thing about The Familiar Faces is the absence of any comment or offered insight on the leading writers of the thirties. Eliot, Auden, Muir are not even mentioned, although I believe Isherwood’s name is mentioned once. Garnett’s friendships were specifically with Bloomsbury, and one doesn’t expect revelations about writers he didn’t see. Nevertheless, this volume covers the seven years when he was literary editor of The New Statesman, and the impression one receives of the English literary scene during that period is unjustifiably bleak:
I enjoyed being a literary editor. It gave me a chance to employ young and untried talents. Looking back I am pleased with myself for having picked out Anthony West to do novel reviewing, Graham Bell to do art criticism, Maurice Bowra to review T.E. Lawrence’s translation of the Odyssey, Ralph Partridge to review detective stories.
And that is about all we have concerning the trials of the editor of one of England’s important serious weeklies during a significant literary decade.
If Mr. Garnett seems reticent about throwing light on his editorial years, he does, to balance that diffidence perhaps, give us a photograph of himself nude (opposite page 32) climbing into a second floor window. Although I find no explanation of the episode in the text, the picture has more style and wit than most of the prose, which seems to have grown tired and indifferent since the first two volumes of the autobiography appeared. Certainly, there is nothing in the last two volumes so charming as what his mother, Constance Garnett, saw one day during her trip to Russia in 1894, which he recounts in The Golden Echo:
Constance also visited a gypsy encampment where she saw a tame bear outside one of the huts with one of the gypsy babies in its arms. The baby was fast asleep and the bear swaying rhythmically.