The History of Faber: 1970s

In 1971 the cover of the Faber & Faber Spring and Summer catalogue proudly displayed an artist’s impression of the company’s brave new building at 3 Queen Square. The old premises at 24 Russell Square were being repossessed by London University (much modified, they are now part of the School of Oriental and African Studies). As if to suggest that old Faber authors or staff might find the move a bit of a wrench, the back cover of the catalogue displayed a map of how to get to the new premises from the old (a distance of some 200 yards).

To outside observers, the appearance was of rude health. Expansion had been steady over three decades. At the beginning of the 70s, Faber was publishing some 280 different titles, still across an extraordinary, occasionally eccentric, range of topics. It had its traditional place in British literary culture, yet also new ambitions symbolised by its new premises.

Yet 1971 was also the year of the greatest financial danger in Faber & Faber’s history, made the sharper by the costs of the move. The company’s bank insisted on further investment by the shareholders and put Peter Dubuisson, an accountant, on the Board. The Faber family made a substantial new commitment of capital to the company. Some of Faber’s holdings were sold and there was a change of personnel at the head of the company. Richard de la Mare retired, Peter du Sautoy became Chairman, and Matthew Evans became Managing Director (having previously been assistant to Peter du Sautoy).

A boom time for Faber Drama

Yet the company’s literary reputation remained strong. In retrospect, the 1970s looks like a boom time for new drama in particular. As the decade opened, established Faber playwrights John Osborne and Brian Friel published new work and Tom Stoppard produced After Magritte. All three continued to be associated with the company through the 70s, Stoppard so much so that, in 1972, his new play Jumpers was announced in the Faber catalogue, hardback and paperback, before it had even been staged. He followed it with Travesties in 1974 and Night and Day in 1979.

Samuel Beckett, whose Waiting for Godot had originally helped initiate a successful drama list, published Not I (1973), That Time (1976) and Footfalls (1977). But the drama list also began to reflect the energies of a new generation of new British dramatists. There was David Hare, whose Slag, first performed in 1969, was published in 1970, Christopher Hampton, whose The Philanthropist also appeared in 1970, and Trevor Griffiths, whose play The Party was published in 1974. These three went on publishing new plays with Faber through the decade: Hare’s Knuckle, Teeth’n’ Smiles and Plenty, and his TV play Licking Hitler; Hampton’s Savages; Griffiths’s Comedians and a volume of his TV plays.

Everywoman: A major bestseller

This might have been where the company seemed to be tapping new literary inventiveness, yet, unobserved by the reviewers, the medical books continued to be a significant part of the business. In the 70s Faber & Faber came upon its first medical bestseller for a general audience, Derek Llewellyn-Jones’s Everywoman: A Gynaecological Guide for Life.

In the mid-sixties Sales Director Peter Crawley had met Llewellyn-Jones in Malaysia and suggested that he write a gynaecology textbook, for which he saw a gap in the market. The company had always published books on obstetrics and gynaecology amongst its many medical works. Llewellyn-Jones duly composed Fundamentals of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (two volumes), which became an established medical textbook. He then offered Faber a typescript of a book he called Woman. Retitled by Peter Crawley, this became Everywoman. It sold more copies in the first year of publication than any other Faber book hitherto, and, when paperbacked, went on to sell over a million copies.

The growth of literary criticism

More in accord with Faber & Faber’s traditional image was the growth of the Literature and Criticism section. Some of the notable work by literary critics published by Faber in the 1970s seemed a natural accompaniment to its modernist backlist: Richard Ellmann’s Ulysses on the Liffey, Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, Frank Kermode’s edition of Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot and his own The Classic. John Carey published studies of Dickens and then of Thackeray and Christopher Hill his magnum opus Milton and the English Revolution (1977). There was more criticism by George Steiner and there were collections of essays by Ian Hamilton and the American critic Randall Jarrell, who had died in 1965. In 1979 Faber & Faber published Frederick Karl’s biography of Conrad and James Atlas on Delmore Schwartz.

The headline-grabbing contribution to literary biography involved Faber publishing material that had previously only been available to a few academic specialists.

To general surprise, Peter du Sautoy persuaded the Joyce estate to allow the inclusion of unpublished (yet notorious) Joyce-Nora Barnacle letters in the Richard Ellmann edition of Selected Letters of James Joyce (1975). Ellmann had excluded the writer’s sexually explicit missives to his lover from his collection of Joyce’s letters published by Faber & Faber in 1966. Even in that supposedly permissive decade, they were too much. Now they were publishable. ‘This correspondence commands respect for its intensity and candour’ wrote Ellmann, with a hint of trepidation, in his preface to the new Faber edition. It made widely known what have since become amongst the most famous erotic (or pornographic) letters in the language.

Crow takes flight – and Faber loses a generation of poetry greats

T.S. Eliot, to whom Faber largely owed its association with Joyce, had always predicted that the company would not make money from some of its most important books. This was particularly true of poetry: ‘with most categories of books you are aiming to make as much money as possible, with poetry you are aiming to lose as little as possible.’ Yet the last major poet whom Eliot had brought to the Faber list showed that this need not be so.

Ted Hughes’s Crow was published in 1970 and soon became, by the standards of poetry books, a bestseller. Over the next three decades it would sell well over half a million copies.

Hughes was a powerful presence in the Faber list, as editor as well as author. He collected and published through Faber more volumes of Sylvia Plath’s poems: Crossing the Water and Winter Trees both came out in 1972. In 1976, as the public fascination with her life and work grew unabated, her Letters Home appeared. In 1981 Hughes would produce an edition of The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath.

Three great names from the Faber & Faber poetry list died in the 1970s: John Berryman in 1972, W.H. Auden in 1973 and Robert Lowell in 1977.

There had been a new volume of Auden’s poetry, Epistle to a Grandson, in 1972 and there was a posthumous volume, Delusions, etc, from Berryman. Auden’s Collected Poems came out in 1976 and a collection of his extraordinary early work, The English Auden, in 1977. In 1978 Berryman’s unpublished or uncollected Dream Songs were published.

The 1970s saw a prolific output from Lowell. In 1970 there was his Notebook, first published in the USA in 1969, though in a very different version. In 1973 came three Lowell volumes: History (a much revised version of Notebook), For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin. Finally and posthumously, in 1978, there was his last collection Day by Day. Lowell’s habits of revision and of revisiting work already published made him a particular challenge to editors. He tinkered so busily that at one time there were three different Faber editions of Notebook in print at simultaneously. Unsurprisingly, it would not be until 2003 that the Faber and Faber edition of his Collected Poems finally emerged.

A young generation of Faber poets

The younger generation of Faber poets were now the established figures. The 1970s saw Thom Gunn’s Moly and Jack Straw’s Castle, Heaney’s Wintering Out, Field Work and North; the latter, appearing in 1975, was one of the most widely read (and praised) poetry books of the decade.

It was well known that names were added only rarely to what had become the most distinguished poetry list in publishing. Editorial fastidiousness was always supposed to have descended from T.S. Eliot, who posthumously acquired the reputation of choosing only poets who would go on to become canonical. (Most have forgotten his publication of Lynette Roberts and Donagh MacDonagh as Faber poets).

A new name that did appear in the 70s was Paul Muldoon. Some of his poems had been published in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 2 in 1972. The next year came his first collection, New Weather, to be followed by Mule in 1977.

But the most heralded book of poems of the decade came from a longtime Faber author. Philip Larkin’s last volume of poems High Windows appeared, amidst high expectations, in 1974. Characteristically, Larkin declined to perform a reading on publication day, telling Charles Monteith, ‘unless one is extremely impressive in the flesh (like Bernard Shaw or Rupert Brooke), one gets more dividends from keeping out of sight, as people’s imaginary picture of you is always so much more flattering than the reality.’ Nevertheless, the first printing sold out in three weeks.

Larkin had also produced a selection of his pieces on Jazz, All What Jazz, for Faber in 1970, calling it ‘a freak publication’. He urged Monteith not to promote the book as any serious study of music or its history. ‘Treat it like a book by T.S. Eliot on all-in-wrestling.’

Hallowed traditions and new commercial possibilities

The image generally persisted of Faber & Faber as a company with hallowed traditions, to which both staff and authors felt a peculiar loyalty.

Even important changes seemed to confirm this. Matthew Evans had joined the Faber & Faber in 1964 as Assistant to the Managing Director. The company had published the oral history books of his father, George Ewart Evans from the 1950s. This despite the fact that the reader who took the manuscript of his Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay from the slush pile was to report that it was ‘revoltingly pompous and pedantic’. Luckily Morley Kennerly also read the manuscript, deciding that the book was in fact ‘a joy, most readable … It will have a market over the years’. It was duly published, and the connection between its author and Faber & Faber had its unforeseeable consequence when Matthew Evans became Managing Director.

Other long-serving editors rose to the head of the company. In the late 1970s, after a couple of decades at Faber, Rosemary Goad became the first woman working within the company to join the Board of Directors. And in 1977 Charles Monteith succeeded Peter du Sautoy as Chairman.

There were just signs of new commercial possibilities and changes to come. In the Faber catalogue, new titles in paperback were now announced eye-catchingly on different coloured paper. In the 1974 catalogue, acknowledging the changing habits of book buyers, Autobiography and Biography, rather than Fiction, was the opening section. In 1976 there was the first catalogue illustrated with photographs.

One of the works of fiction to stir critical debate in the decade was actually a children’s book: Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler, which in 1977 became the first notable work of fiction to be set in a comprehensive school. A winner of the Carnegie Medal, it was controversial (as well as successful) by featuring a protagonist notable for bad behaviour. (And for having a final sentence with one of fiction’s great reversals of expectation.)

Most notable Faber novels of this decade were, however, by long established authors: William Golding’s Darkness Visible and John McGahern’s The Pornographer were outstanding works of the period. P.D. James, who published novels like An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and Death of an Expert Witness in the 1970s and Innocent Blood in 1980, was alone in the fiction list as a writer of popular classics.

Her relationship with Faber & Faber should have been celebrated in a special way. W.H. Auden was an addict of detective fiction, and Charles Monteith proposed that he might (unacknowledged) write some verse on behalf of James’s sleuth, and published poet, Adam Dalgliesh. When it was included in a future novel, critics would have every chance to regret James’s attempts at poetry writing. Sadly, Auden died before the scheme could be put into operation.

Cats: the decade ends on a high note

As the decade ended, the company’s happiest commercial accident came unpredictably. Old Possum had one more gift to Faber and Faber, soon to be a great resource in difficult times and a cause of envy amongst other publishers.

Andrew Lloyd Webber approached Matthew Evans with his idea for a musical based on Eliot’s jeu d’esprit Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Evans talked to Valerie Eliot, who visited Lloyd Webber’s country home to hear his ideas for the musical based. She returned won over. The subsequent agreement also assured that Faber Music would be the musical’s publishers.

In 1981 the Cats opened in London, where it played 8940 consecutive performances. In 1982 it was on Broadway, where it played for 18 years. It is still being staged somewhere in the world. The royalties from Cats would be providential, protecting the company at a time when other independent publishers were folding or being taken over.

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

Related