The Faber & Faber catalogue for spring 1930 was clothed in bright yellow and announced both the company’s belle-lettristic inclinations and its commitment to modernist achievement. So it included, on the one hand, Edith Sitwell’s celebratory Alexander Pope and, on the other, Stuart Gilbert’s exposition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a work still banned from entering the country.

Laden with lengthy quotations, this was advertised as ‘the only substitute for the masterpiece itself’. It was indeed a near-official account. On a visit to England, Joyce had stayed near Gilbert in Torquay and helped him finish the book. T. S. Eliot wrote to Joyce in January 1934 to say that Faber ‘were prepared to publish “Ulysses” as soon as publication proved feasible’.

In August that year, Joyce, grumpy at the firm’s tardiness, was dubbing it ‘Feebler and Fumbler’. Negotiations with Joyce were peculiarly difficult because he used his friend and admirer Paul Leon, a Russian-born lawyer, as his mouthpiece. Letters to Eliot at 24 Russell Square might have been composed by Joyce, but they were written by Leon and spoke of Joyce in the third person.

Eliot’s caution about Ulysses, a work that was widely condemned as obscene, conquered his own admiration for it. The firm feared prosecution. In his preface to his 1934 book A Publisher Speaking, Geoffrey Faber wrote with some bitterness of a situation in which a great literary work was widely available in America, but could not be published in Britain.

Eventually, in 1936, John Lane brought out the Bodley Head edition of the novel, the first to be printed in Britain.


A golden period for Faber’s poetry

The 1930s were notable for Faber & Faber’s publication of poetry, overseen not only by Eliot but also by Geoffrey Faber, an enthusiast for new poetry. Perhaps surprisingly given his background and some of his other interests (he had a passion for shooting and fishing), he was a supporter of the modern experiments with which his company became associated.

In 1934 he published his own apologia pro vita suaA Publisher Speaking, declaring that its four essays were ‘united by a common theme — the importance of the book trade as a function of society’. The new writing that he was publishing was part of a social and cultural mission.

In 1930 another challenging writer, W. H. Auden, first became connected with Faber & Faber. In June 1927, when Auden was still an Oxford undergraduate, he had, on the advice of Sacheverell Sitwell, sent some poems to Eliot at Faber and Gwyer. They were rejected, but Eliot wrote, with restrained encouragement, to say ‘I should be interested to follow your work’.

In 1929 Eliot accepted Auden’s charade Paid on Both Sides for The Criterion. In spring 1930, Auden submitted a later volume of poems to Eliot, after rejection by Victor Gollancz, and this time Faber & Faber accepted them. Poems appeared in October 1930. It contained the charade and thirty short, untitled poems.

‘Buy a book in brown paper
From Faber and Faber
To see Annie Liffey trip, tumble and caper.
Sevensinns in her singthings,
Plurabelle on her prose,
Seashell ebb music wayriver she flows.
For the fragment entitled Haveth Childers Everywhere, there was this:
Humptydump Dublin squeks through his norse,
Humptydump Dublin hath a horrible vorse
And with all his kinks English
Plus his irismanx brogues
Humptydump Dublin’s grandada of all rogues.’

James Joyce
First published in The Criterion

Eliot, Joyce and
Finnegans Wake

Yet still Joyce, when he was not railing via Leon against publishers and printers in general, trusted to ‘my friend T. S. Eliot’ to shepherd his writing into print. The two men had met in Paris in August 1920 and Eliot had published a fragment of what was to become Finnegans Wake as early as July 1925, in The Criterion. In July 1931 he contracted with Joyce for Faber & Faber to publish the work.

A further section, Anna Livia Plurabelle, had appeared in 1930 and more fragments were published as Criterion Miscellanies – self-contained booklets – in the next four years. Joyce submitted rhymes designed to advertise some of these.

They were used, with an editorial expression of puzzlement, in a publicity release. The complete Finnegans Wake would not actually appear for another eight years. And even then, last-minute threats by the author to put the work aside just before completion drove Eliot close to his wit’s end.

Ariel Poems and works from Auden, Spender, Eliot and Pound

In 1930 T. S. Eliot himself published Ash-Wednesday. He was also publishing new work of his own (‘A Song for Simeon’, ‘Marina’) in the Faber series of Ariel Poems. Under the direction of Richard de la Mare, these combined unpublished poems with original illustrations by leading artists (including Barnett Freedman, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Albert Rutherston and Graham Sutherland).

Critically as well as editorially, Eliot surveyed the state of literature and culture. In autumn 1932 his Selected Essays appeared; a year later his The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism; and in spring 1934, After Strange Gods. He also produced a new translation of Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations.

For those who had been (as the catalogue put it) ‘excited by the unfamiliar metric and the violent imagination’ of Auden’s Poems, there was soon a new volume from him, The Orators. (Auden is pictured above with Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood in 1931.) Stephen Spender’s Poems (explicitly offered as a companion to the work of Auden, further specimens of a ‘poetical renascence’) appeared in 1933, as did the first British edition of Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach. In Autumn 1933 there was Ezra Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos, advertised with testimonies from Hemingway and Joyce. Three more volumes of Pound’s Cantos were published by the company by 1939.


A Modernist canon

In retrospect, the 1930s looks like the decade when Faber & Faber was building a Modernist canon.

In autumn 1934, the catalogue announced Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius and the first volume of his critical essays to be published in Britain, Make it New.

The next couple of years saw Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin (1935) and Selected Poems of Marianne Moore, the first publication of her poetry in Britain apart from a small limited edition produced in 1921 by the Egoist Press. (Faber were to publish her Collected Poems in 1951.)

In 1935 Faber published Louis MacNeice’s Poems, the volume that first made him widely known as a poet. The catalogue announced, in tones that are now unimaginable from a publisher, that this was not poetry for the moment, but sub specie aeternitatis: ‘his work is intelligible but unpopular, and has the pride and modesty of things that endure’.

This is nothing, however, compared with the blurb for Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, announced in autumn 1936. ‘It is concerned with le misérable au centre de sa misère, and has nothing to offer to readers whose temperament attaches them to either an easy or a frightened optimism.’ Readers were clearly expected to have high aspirations.

For Christmas 1931, the company published a guide to its books suitable for Christmas presents, complete with an ‘Index of People and the Books they read’. One of the categories was, fearlessly, ‘People Who Take Literature Seriously’.


The Faber Book of Modern Verse

The company’s near-tutelary role in the publication of modern poetry was confirmed in 1936 by the appearance of The Faber Book of Modern Verse, edited by Michael Roberts. This began as a proposal from Eliot to Roberts, a teacher of physics and maths at Newcastle Royal Grammar School who had already edited small circulation anthologies that included early work by Auden, Spender and Empson, and who had written about T. E. Hulme for the Criterion.

Roberts’s wife Janet Adam Smith, recalling the project forty years later – long after Roberts’s death in 1948 – described how the anthology ‘was to define the modern movement in a way that was not just chronological but a question of sensibility and technique.’ Notable absentees like Edwin Muir, Edmund Blunden and Walter de la Mare (good poets, but not ‘modern’) were privately dubbed ‘the House of Lords’. The note of his plan for the book that Roberts sent to Eliot gives a good idea of its purpose by being headed ‘ANTHOLOGY OF POST-GEORGIAN POETRY’.

It began with Hopkins and Yeats (about whom Roberts had doubts, but whom Eliot thought should be included). Roberts made clear, in his lengthy and sometimes combative introduction, that it was not meant as an inclusive gathering. Designed to represent ‘the most significant poetry of this age’, it took Eliot and Pound as its leading figures and decided in favour of several poets whose reputations were just being established: Auden, MacNeice, Empson, Graves, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens.

As much as any other single book, it made ‘modern’ the description of a special kind of poetry. (A year later there would be a companion volume, The Faber Book of Modern Stories, edited by Elizabeth Bowen.) So influentially tendentious was its selection that, in 1953, the public were offered an alternative, The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Verse, edited by John Heath-Stubbs and David Wright, and conceived to ‘complement’ the Roberts anthology.

The Roberts version was to be updated three times: by Anne Ridler in 1951, Donald Hall in 1965 and Peter Porter in 1982. In its different incarnations it would prove one of the company’s best-selling books.


The shock of the new

The achievements of consciously ‘modern’ writers continued to be represented in Faber & Faber’s list. In 1936 Faber also published Auden’s second book of poems. Failing to hear from the poet, who was in Iceland, about what he wished the title to be, the directors decided on Look Stranger!, the striking opening phrase of one of the poems. ‘It sounds like the work of a vegetarian lady novelist’, Auden commented, requiring the American edition to be called On this Island.

‘I love my publishers and they love me,
At least they paid a very handsome fee
To send me here. I’ve never heard a grouse
Either from Russell Square or Random House.’

W. H. Auden

Still in print from 1937 is Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (as is another work from that year, David Jones’s In Parenthesis). The former included Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, a long poem in which he paid his publisher the wry compliment of a mention.

The poet goes on to pretend to worry that he will ‘put their patience out of joint’ with his digressive and eccentric travel book. Ironical as it is, it now reads like a testimony to Auden’s confidence in his publishers’ tolerance.

In 1938 the company published Auden’s Selected Poems, confirmation of his status, as well as MacNeice’s Autumn Journal and Eliot’s The Family Reunion, building on the surprising commercial success of Murder in the Cathedral on the stage.

The Faber catalogue for spring 1939 was finally able to announce Finnegans Wake, by ‘one of the very greatest of modern authors’. The shock of the new was echoed by the company’s growing number of art books, including Engravings by Eric Gill (1933) and Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933) and Art in Industry.

In 1936 there was Walter Gropius’s The New Architecture and André Breton’s What is Surrealism? (‘Surrealism may amuse you, it may shock you, it may scandalise you, but one thing is certain: you will not be able to ignore it.’) In the wake of the first International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in the same year, there was a copiously illustrated volume, Surrealism, edited by Herbert Read.


Medical books to The Last Medici: Faber’s general list

Literary historians notice Faber & Faber’s extraordinary involvement in the poetry and modernist prose of this period, but these constituted only a fraction of the company’s output. Commercially speaking, the company’s many medical books were more important to its health than anything by Pound or Joyce (though, over the decades, some of Eliot’s volumes – Murder in the Cathedral, Selected Poems – would sell in their hundreds of thousands).

Alongside the modern literary experiments a milder and more English vein of literate quirkiness was still represented. The spring 1932 catalogue, for instance, announced Bath by Edith Sitwell (to be followed by her The English Eccentrics the next year), Chaucer by G. K. Chesterton, and The Last Medici by Harold Acton. In the late 1930s Faber had also taken over the publication of the Shell Guides, with John Betjeman as General Editor.

By the end of the decade the company had achieved an unusually broadly-based list. It included children’s books, which had been published from the early days of Faber & Faber. The children’s book list was run by W. J. Crawley, who came from Methuen as Sales Manager in 1933 and later became a Director. (His son Peter would arrive in 1947, and succeed his father as Sales Manager and, eventually, Sales Director.)

The best known children’s author discovered by Faber in this period was probably Alison Uttley, who published her first children’s book, The Country Child, in 1931. She would publish her last Faber book, Foxglove Tales, in 1984 and her Sam Pig Storybook is still in print as a Faber Children’s Classic.


The end of the decade and the beginning of a publishing phenomenon

The end of the decade saw a rather special publication for the younger reader, one whose unexpected afterlife would shape the company’s fortunes.

T. S. Eliot had, over the years, written a good deal of light verse (more than 30 years after his death, much of it would be collected for Faber & Faber by Christopher Ricks in T. S. Eliot Inventions of the March Hare). His doodles included ‘Possum’ poems for his five godchildren.

The eldest of these, who received the most, was Geoffrey Faber’s son Tom – himself much later a director of Faber & Faber. (Eliot regularly visited the Faber family home in Hampstead to take baths, at a time when his own lodgings had no bathtub. He also stayed with the family at Ty Glyn near Abaeron in Wales: his name features 26 times in the visitors’ book over less than a decade.)

Out of these pieces Eliot developed plans for a collection of children’s verses, originally called Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats. The autumn 1939 catalogue announced the book under its new title: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Eliot’s blurb conceded that it had been three years since it had been announced as ‘forthcoming’. Members of the public ‘who have complained that this book was not obtainable’ had apparently accused the company ‘of having invented it’. Not so. The poems had been in private circulation and some had been ‘successfully broadcast from Langham Place’. Now this volume ‘devoted to cats’ was finally available to all.

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