The History of Faber: 1960s

It is extraordinary that, as the 1960s began, three of those original Faber and Gwyer directors – T.S. Eliot, Richard de la Mare and Sir Geoffrey Faber (he had been knighted in 1954) – were still directors of Faber & Faber. Eliot, however, was suffering ill health and becoming less involved in the company.

Sir Geoffrey Faber meanwhile gave way to Richard de la Mare as Chairman in 1960, taking up the newly created post of President. Faber died the next year. There has always been a Faber family member – and representative of the family company Faber Holdings – on the board of Faber & Faber. Geoffrey Faber’s widow, Enid Faber, became a director of the company in 1961, after her husband’s death. She left in 1969 and her son, Tom Faber, took over. A couple of years after Geoffrey Faber’s death the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize was established, to be given in alternate years for a volume of verse and a volume of prose fiction.

Some of the commercial changes during de la Mare’s time as Chairman (he left the post in 1971) were as significant as the publication of the decade’s famous titles.

In 1960 the warehouse moved out to Harlow. Soon after, the company entered really seriously into paperback production, establishing a new direction for its own publications and setting an example for other publishing houses.

However, a genteel atmosphere still prevailed. The air of politeness was perhaps epitomised by the reception accorded to a would-be thief on the Russell Square premises. Wages, still in cash, were counted out in the basement. An opportunistic larcenist, spotting this, let himself in to steal the money. He was met, however, by the lady who patrolled the building to offer staff mid-afternoon refreshment. Finding a strange man in the building she dealt with him in the proper Faber manner of those days. She offered him a cup of tea.

Faber’s first paperbacks

The first Faber paperbacks had appeared in 1958. The twelve works chosen included Eliot’s Collected Poems and Golding’s Lord of the Flies, but also works of Biblical speculation: Frank Morison’s Who Moved the Stone? And The Riddle of the New Testament by Sir Edwyn Hoskyns and F. Noel Davey.

At this stage this form of publication was presented as a special concession to some readers. The catalogue gave ‘a word of warning’: there would be no reprinting ‘in paper-covered form’ once the first printing was exhausted. It took a while before the real potential of paperback production became clear.

The first item in the 1961 catalogue was an announcement that the four volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s already successful Alexandria Quartet were being added to Faber Paper Covered Editions. Soon the Quartet became a single paperback volume. Another early paperback success was Lord of the Flies, the rights to which had been regained from Penguin. In the Faber & Faber catalogue, after the traditional opening Fiction section, there was now a list of Faber Paper Covered Editions, most of them retailing for 5s or 6s.

Faber’s music books and the origins of Faber Music Ltd.

It was in the early 1960s, under the editorship of Donald Mitchell, the distinguished writer and musicologist, that Faber & Faber became firmly established as a publisher of books on music. From this period emerged such classics as The Works of Arnold Schoenberg by Josef Rufer, the Craft/Stravinsky Conversations series, Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style and an extraordinary series of books by Schoenberg, including Style and Idea, Fundamentals of Musical Composition and The Theory of Harmony. Donald Mitchell himself wrote the seminal Language of Modern Music, used by generations of students.

At around the time that Benjamin Britten decided to part company with Boosey and Hawkes, who had published his music for nearly 30 years, he wrote in a PS to a letter to Donald Mitchell, ‘I occasionally dream of Faber & Faber – music publishers!’ Mitchell approached Richard de la Mare, who consulted T. S. Eliot and responded, ‘I have no idea how this can be done, but clearly we have to do it.’

Thus, in 1965, began Faber Music Ltd, specialising in the publication of sheet music, which grew as a separate entity from Faber & Faber. (It remains separate, wholly owned by a holding company which is controlled by the Faber family.) Britten became one of Faber Music’s board members and Donald Mitchell its Managing Director.

Remarkable additions to Faber’s poetry list

T.S. Eliot died in 1965. Yet even without Eliot presiding, the company remained the country’s leading publisher of poetry. Its presiding role was famously represented by the photograph at a Faber party in 1960 of Eliot, Spender, Auden, MacNeice and Hughes, clutching wine glasses. Sylvia Plath, of course, was also there, out of frame, as yet unknown as a writer.

Auspiciously the decade had begun with Auden’s first volume of poems since 1955, Homage to Clio and Ezra Pound’s Cantos 96-109. Also in 1960 there was Ted Hughes’s Lupercal and an edition of e.e. cummings’s Selected Poems.

The next few years saw a steady flow of remarkable collections: Thom Gunn’s My Sad Captains, Lowell’s Imitations and For the Union Dead, John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, Auden’s About the House and, two years after her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. Faber’s discovery of two of the most compelling poets of the period was emphasised by the slim 1962 volume, Selected Poems by Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes. It was a book that, in the classroom, became many an adolescent’s introduction to contemporary poetry.

Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings was published in 1964, after years of enquiries from Charles Monteith about the likelihood of another collection of poems. It was followed by a new Faber edition of his 1945 volume The North Ship. Membership of the society of Faber poets prompted Larkin to a limerick when he passed through a village in North Yorkshire called Kaber, a long-sought rhyme name. It was sent to Monteith with a photo of the poet by the name board:

There was an old fellow of Kaber,
Who published a volume with Faber:
When they said ‘Join the club?’
He ran off to the pub—
But Charles called, ‘You must love your neighbour.’

Questioned about the unclear third and fourth lines, Larkin explained that they were mere fillers, designed to be replaced by specific names as occasion required. He offered a couple of examples:

When they said ‘Meet Ted Hughes’,
He replied, ‘I refuse’,

And

When they said, Meet Thom Gunn’,
He cried, ‘God, I must run’.

More could be coined as need arose.

Books for children, schools, colleges and… nurses

The increasing market for modern poetry, fiction and drama that was to be studied is indicated by the development in the early 60s of a specialist catalogue of Books for Schools and Colleges. There were listed the plays of Eliot and Osborne, for the attention of sixth formers. But there were also books like those in the ‘Men and Events’ series: biographies for ‘young readers’ of Churchill or Wilberforce or Marconi.

Another substantial specialist catalogue remained Books for the Young. In 1961 these included Ted Hughes’s first book for children, Meet My Folks. Hughes’s best-selling work, The Iron Man, followed in 1968.

When W.J. Crawley retired and became an advisor to the children’s list it was managed editorially by Phyllis Hunt, who edited the Carnegie Medal winners Lucy M. Boston and Pauline Clarke, amongst others. From the early 60s Russell Hoban published stories for children with Faber.

The company published Quentin Blake’s first illustrations for children’s books, and early work by Shirley Hughes, who illustrated the Mary Kate stories of Dorothy Edwards for Faber in the 1960s. Perhaps the most important development of the decade in children’s publishing came in 1967. In this year Faber & Faber published the first ever children’s picture books in paper covers.

Throughout the 1960s, Faber still ran a catalogue ‘on Nursing, Hospital and Medical Subjects’. This aspect of the company’s activity, invisible to the historian of literary publishing, remained commercially important. When a measure was taken of Faber cumulative bestsellers at the beginning of the 1970s, the top three titles were famous ones: Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (the latter two boosted by having become texts studied in school English lessons). The fourth title, with sales of over half a million copies, would be less well known to connoisseurs of modern literature: Anatomy and Physiology for Nurses.

Posthumous Plath and the arrival of Heaney

There seemed to be no ebbing, though, of the works from the modern poets associated with Faber. Posthumously, more of Sylvia Plath’s writing was published: her early collection The Colossus was reissued, as was The Bell Jar, originally published under a pseudonym in 1963.

1967 saw Robert Lowell’s Near the Ocean, Ted Hughes’s Wodwo, his first book for adults since 1960 and Thom Gunn’s Touch.

The previous year had seen the arrival of Seamus Heaney at Faber & Faber. Heaney, whose published work up to then had been confined to small pamphlets and Irish magazines and newspapers was later to describe Monteith’s request for his work. ‘I hardly thought of 24 Russell Square as an earthly address and so, as I have said elsewhere, getting a letter from the chief poetry editor of the place was like getting mail from the Almighty God.’ His 1966 collection Death of a Naturalist was his first substantial publication and a great succès d’estime. The poet arrived at 24 Russell Square to deposit the typescript on the first day of his honeymoon.

The custodian of modern verse and drama

Faber & Faber marked its role as a custodian of modern verse with a series of collected editions: Theodore Roethke, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Lawrence Durrell. There were new selections first of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, then other pre-20th century poets. As the decade drew to its end, the final part of Berryman’s Dream Songs appeared, as well as Heaney’s Door into the Dark and the first volume of poems by Douglas Dunn.

From its earliest days, the company had published Eliot’s essays, arguably the most important body of literary criticism of the mid-twentieth century. Even in 1963 there was a further collection of essays by Eliot, as well as one by W.H. Auden. But during the sixties there was a new development, a steady sequence of works of literary criticism by critics who would become distinguished, partly through the work that they published with Faber.

There was Richard Ellman, Helen Gardner, Anthony Burgess, G. Wilson Knight, Denis Donoghue, Harold Bloom and George Steiner. Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy appeared in 1961; the latest of a sequence of his books published with Faber over four decades was Grammars of Creation in 2001.

In the early 60s the most notable Faber dramatists were those published with such éclat in late 50s: Osborne and Beckett. In 1961 there was John Osborne’s Luther and his television play A Subject of Scandal and Concern. In 1964 there was his film script for Tom Jones. New Osborne plays went on being published by Faber. From Samuel Beckett there was Happy Days in 1962 and Play in 1964. (Beckett would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969.)

Charles Monteith was dedicated enough to the expansion of the drama list to dine at playwright Joe Orton’s Islington bedsit on one of the least appetising meals in publishing history: boiled rice with sardines, followed by boiled rice with golden syrup. (Orton went to Methuen.)

From the mid-60s there were new names and an expansion of the drama list, influenced by editor Frank Pike, who had joined the firm in 1959 and would remain with it for the next 41 years. Pike approached the features editor of a Bristol daily paper, who had been a university contemporary, asking if he knew of any promising young writers. He suggested Tom Stoppard, one of the paper’s journalists. It was assumed that a young writer would produce prose fiction and Stoppard did contribute to the Introduction series of new fiction. Subsequently Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a hit at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival and was lauded by Kenneth Tynan. It was clear that Stoppard was a dramatist, not a closet novelist, and his first play was soon published by Faber.

Peter Nichols’s A Day in the Death of Joe Egg was first performed in the same year and also became a Faber book.

Yet the assumption in favour of fiction was persistent enough for Frank Pike, having seen a review of a student production of a Christopher Hampton play, to ask the author to contribute stories to Introduction 3. By the time he had written some stories, the play, When Did You Last See My Mother?, had transferred to the Royal Court to great acclaim. Faber & Faber saw the light and published the play.

In the next three years there were new plays by Simon Gray, Brian Friel, Sam Shepard, and Alan Bennett, as well as more from Stoppard. Now drama had its own niche.

Major new novels and the first Booker Prize winner

Given Faber & Faber’s later fame as a publisher of fiction, it is surprising that fiction did not contribute more to the firm’s profile in the 1960s. There were exceptions. In amongst the forgotten novels listed in the opening section of the Autumn and Winter catalogue of 1962 is P.D. James’s Cover Her Face, her first book.

James, who was working full-time as a hospital administrator and writing in the evenings, was looking for a publisher. Her agent Elaine Greene happened to sit next to Charles Monteith at a dinner at All Souls, rightly regarded by many as Monteith’s ‘other office’. A fan himself of detective fiction, he was bemoaning the absence of new examples of the genre from the Faber list. Greene offered him her fresh manuscript and a relationship was born that lasted over fifty years. P.D. James’s second novel, A Mind to Murder, appeared a year after her first.

Amongst other new fiction in 1963 was John McGahern’s first novel, The Barracks. His second novel, The Dark, was published by Faber two years later. This was the first-person narration of a boy from rural West Ireland who hopes to be a priest but is dogged by adolescent lust. It was banned by the Irish State Censorship Board as ‘indecent or obscene’ and his teaching job at a Church-controlled primary school came to an abrupt end. Seven years later the ban was lifted. There was a Faber board meeting to approve the appearance of the f-word on the opening page of the novel. It was a brave step, perhaps helped by the fact that McGahern’s angry patriarch spells out the letters rather than saying the word. “F-U-C-K is what you said, isn’t it? That profane and ugly word.”

More novels by McGahern came in the later 60s, as well as fiction by Simon Gray, Golding’s fifth novel, The Spire, and a posthumous collection of stories by Flannery O’Connor. And in 1969, scarcely noticed by critics or reported by journalists, there was an event that, in retrospect, would have peculiar significance for the publishing of fiction in Britain: P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For became the first novel – and the first Faber novel – to win the Booker Prize.

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

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