The History of Faber: 1940s

The Second World War affected Faber & Faber, and the books it published, in many ways.

There were simple problems unknown before, like the search for sufficient paper to maintain its output. Yet there was also an increased appetite for books, as a result of which the company was able to sell out almost every title published, achieving financial stability for the first time. In 1940 the company was publishing some 180 titles, three times as many as a decade earlier.

As President of the Publishers’ Association, Geoffrey Faber was influential in campaigning to have books exempted from the wartime purchase tax, which would have severely hampered the publishing industry in general and his company in particular.

The war also influenced the type of book published and the appetites of readers. The company published many wartime works on political and on military topics that were of the pressing moment. It opened new subject areas where a need was born of events. So, for instance, there were books in Polish, and books in English about Poland and the Poles (these were indeed two discrete sections in the company’s catalogue).

Muck and Mystery: Faber broadens its list of specialisms

Perhaps too the war influenced some of the specialist catalogues that began appearing in the 1940s. One characteristic section was ‘Farming, Gardening and the Open Air’, a list that was begun by Richard de la Mare (known by insiders as the ‘muck and mystery’ list). De la Mare was a dedicated gardener at his house at Much Hadham, in Hertfordshire (he commuted to Russell Square in his 1930s Lagonda sports car). He was also a pioneer of the organic movement and the Soil Association. The Faber list appropriately included the once renowned Harnessing the Earthworm.

There were also books on bee-keeping, fishing and ornithology. And there were – in the spirit of the times – a significant number of practical guides to what we might call ‘self-sufficiency’: A Fruitgrower’s Diary and Commonsense Compost Making, Early Potatoes and the impressively detailed Pig Curing and Cooking.

There were over 300 such title over the next thirty years. Faber could claim to be prescient in its interest in what we have come to call ‘organic farming’. This would benefit the company: in the 1970s one of its most successful publications was John Seymour’s The Complete Guide to Self-Sufficiency. Richard de la Mare would have been pleased that, at the end of the 1990s, the company was still able to publish a book called Small-Scale Sheep-keeping.

Under Eliot the poetry list grows

During the Blitz, the premises at 24 Russell Square were sometimes in the very heart of the storm. Fire watches were kept from the roof by members of the company, including T.S. Eliot (his name to be found in the company’s firewatching directory). Yet, when it came to poetry at least, the same sense of a timeless high purpose was preserved.

When the company published The Gathering Storm, the second volume of poems from William Empson, in 1941 the catalogue blurb referred to him, with a brazen oxymoron, as ‘the most brilliantly obscure of modern poets’. In 1940 there had been Auden’s Another Time: Poems (his New Year Letter appeared a year later) and T.S. Eliot’s own East Coker (Burnt Norton appeared in his Collected Poems 1909-1935, The Dry Salvages was published in 1941).

This year also saw the publication of C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers, the first volume of his roman fleuve of the same title. The next volume, The Light and the Dark, would appear in 1947.

Still promoting, as both editor and publisher, what we would now call literary modernism, Eliot edited and introduced a selection of Joyce’s prose, Introducing James Joyce, published in 1942. In Autumn of that same year, the Faber & Faber catalogue announced Little Gidding, the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

In 1948 Eliot would become the first Faber author to be given the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Faber cover design develops under Wolpe

Before the War the design of Faber books had been superintended by Richard de la Mare, who had employed some outstanding artists – Rex Whistler, Barnett Freedman and Paul Nash amongst others – as designers of Faber book jackets. In 1941 the designer Berthold Wolpe arrived at Faber after working for Gollancz and would quickly become a formative influence on the design of Faber books.

Born in Germany in 1905, he had come to England in 1935 to escape Nazism. From the 1940s to the 1970s he would create a distinctive house style for Faber book covers, based on lettering and plain colours. His covers used individual and expressive lettering, often employing the typeface, Albertus, that he had himself created for Monotype. This would grace utilitarian books about horticulture or first-aid as readily as works of poetry or fiction, though the general reader is likeliest to have come across his work in such simple yet memorable covers as those of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet or Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. These, like others, exhibit Wolpe’s love of calligraphy, in which he had trained as a young man. His visual language became widely known and immediately recognizable. By his retirement in 1975 he had designed thousands of Faber covers.

New arrivals create a dedicated Faber team

Wolpe formed a close partnership with David Bland, who returned to run the production department after being a prisoner of war. As well as supervising book production (he became a director in 1954), Bland wrote a standard work, The Illustration of Books, published by Faber in 1951, and in 1958 produced his magnum opus, The History of Book Illustration. He remained with Faber until his sudden death in 1969.

Faber’s serious approach to book design and production was also expressed in the publication of Jan Tschichold’s Asymmetric Typography and Oliver Simon’s Introduction to Typography.

Another who arrived just after the War was Peter du Sautoy, who had worked in the department of printed books at the British Museum and in the manning department of the RAF during the War. He joined in 1946 and became a director later in the same year.

In 1947 John Bodley arrived as a 17-year-old sales clerk; with a short break for his national service he would be with the company for 57 years, becoming a director in 1986. Bodley, who was still working for Faber past retirement age, and not long before his death in 2004, would come to personify the connection to its traditions for which the company has been renowned. He would look after the literary estates of some of the great Faber writers – Auden, Joyce, Pound and Eliot – and would also take charge of the company’s archive of correspondence.

Eliot the editor

T.S. Eliot meanwhile, ever a lover of weekly routines, attended at Russell Square most days through the 1940s (though in later years he would not leave for the office until noon, after writing during the morning). He invariably came to the Wednesday meetings of the book committee, which decided future titles. (These lasted ‘from lunch to exhaustion’ recalled fellow member Frank Morley, though they were supposed to begin at 11.30.)

Eliot did have to deal with general submissions too. Brigid O’Donovan, his secretary from 1934-6, recalled that, at this time, everyone in the office did so, secretaries included. But then a secretary at Faber was not quite like a secretary elsewhere. Eliot’s secretary in the late 1930s was Ann Ridler, who would become well known as a poet and a translator of opera libretti (and would edit the second edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse). Another secretary, Rosemary Goad, would eventually become a director of the company.

In 1943 Eliot himself joked that most of his literary criticism was buried in letters to aspiring authors and in marginal comments on their manuscripts. His presence is often nearly explicit in the company’s promotional material. In the Spring 1938 catalogue, Ezra Pound’s Guide to Kulchur had been announced as a kind of house publication. ‘We take the liberty of boasting that it was our idea that Mr. Pound should write this book—knowing perfectly well that it is impossible to say what kind of book Mr. Pound is going to write until he has written it.’

Eliot composed ‘thousands’ of blurbs, wrote Frank Morley – ‘so many blurbs as to make it quite impossible that he should have had time or energy left over to write anything else’. He was clearly proud enough of this form of composition to keep his own copies of Faber catalogues in which he marked blurbs that he had composed.

Naturally Eliot wrote most of the blurbs for books of poetry, but much of the catalogue copy was written by Morley Kennerley, who had joined the Board in the 1930s.

Kennerley was another American, dapper, and, by Faber standards, distinctly flamboyant. Those who worked with him invariably talk of him dressing like a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He drove a Bentley given him by Barbara Hutton as a wedding present and liked to shoot with aristocratic friends at the weekends. He naturally superintended the company’s books on field sports, as well as the bridge list. This had been commercially important since the 30s, when Faber published the world-famous bridge expert Ely Culbertson.

Faber Gallery

There had always been important art books, but as the war drew to an end there was a new venture in this field: the Faber Gallery, begun in 1944 and expanded to some 60 titles over the next decade. Perhaps it was given its impetus by the wartime appetite for high culture made popularly accessible.

Kurt Maschler had bought a large stock of four-colour half tone blocks used by the art magazine Apollo in the 1930s. These were put to profitable new use. A notable critic would introduce a famous artist or school of artists, providing brief, elegant commentaries on a selection of about a dozen paintings, handsomely reproduced. Each volume cost only 7s 6d.

Amongst early works in the series was Sir Kenneth Clark on Florentine Paintings, Geoffrey Keynes on Blake, Stephen Spender on Botticelli. They sold in large numbers. By the late 1940s, a substantial section of the Faber catalogue was labelled Books about Art. It was not just painting. In 1940 Faber & Faber had published Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book and the company would go on to publish important works on pottery and ceramics. This was largely through the influence of Richard de la Mare who was an expert on, and collector of, oriental ceramics.

Pound, Graves, Durrell, Auden and Larkin: Important publications of the late 40s

For literary historians, the most important Faber publication of the 1940s, one of the decade’s most important publications per se, came in 1949, with Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos.

There were other books whose significance seemed evident even at the time: in 1948 The White Goddess by Robert Graves, ‘a true follower of Aeneas into the nether world’ (as the catalogue put it) and W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety. Later that year there was Eliot’s Notes towards the Definition of Culture, whose forbidding blurb declared that its author’s aim was ‘to persuade his readers to endeavour to decide upon a meaning for the word ‘culture’ (and equally for the word ‘civilization’) before they use it.’ There were also authors who came to Faber & Faber almost unnoticed. In 1945 Lawrence Durrell published Prospero’s Cell, his book about living on Corfu.

Alongside the now forgotten new novels of 1947 is Philip Larkin’s A Girl in Winter: ‘much is to be expected of this young writer,’ opines the catalogue. Larkin told his editor Alan Pringle that he had ‘made an infinitely tentative start on another book’, but despite much coaxing nothing emerged.

Larkin later confessed to poetry editor and future Chairman Charles Monteith that he had a ‘conception of Faber’s as a reproachful father-figure’. In 1948 he had unsuccessfully submitted a collection of poems to the company and would publish his 1955 volume The Less Deceived with the tiny Marvell Press of Hull. Charles Monteith, who had joined Faber & Faber in 1953 and become a director the next year, was a subscriber and showed the volume to Eliot, who wrote in a note, ‘Yes—he often makes words do what he wants. Certainly worth encouraging.’ Monteith suggested that Faber might publish his next collection and Larkin replied that he would remember this ‘very exciting suggestion’ when he next had enough material for a collection — ‘about 1965 I expect!’ He would turn out to be a year too pessimistic.

Making the money: Faber’s children’s and medical books

In any commercial history of the company, the Pisan Cantos would not play an important role. More important was the output of children’s books, significant enough to warrant an occasional catalogue specifically of Faber ‘Books for the Young’.

Still in print from this is Peacock Pie, the verse anthology by Richard de la Mare’s father, Walter de la Mare. First compiled in 1913, this came to Faber in 1941, and appeared in an edition illustrated with brilliant line drawings by Edward Ardizzone in 1946. Ardizzone would go on to illustrate other Faber children’s books, notably de la Mare’s various volumes of Bible stories.

Above all, commercially speaking, there were still the medical books, relic of the company’s origins. In 1947, the list of Faber books on Nursing and Medical Subjects still filled a 60-page catalogue of its own. Star Faber nursing author Evelyn Pearce, sister-tutor at the Middlesex Hospital, comfortably earned more money from her books than T.S. Eliot.

This is an extract from the essay, ‘The History of Faber’ by Professor John Mullan.