Classic Faber Titles
By Tom Ayling, 1 March 2023
Tom Ayling selects classic Faber titles to accompany BookTok recommendations he is making on TikTok all this week.
As an antiquarian bookseller, there are few prospects more exciting than being allowed to explore a publisher’s archive. There’s the thrill of comparing the file copy to the one I last handled, the hunt for bibliographic issue points, and the joy of discovering a forgotten classic on a shelf on famous volumes.
Some archives have a monastic solemnity to them, while others mix labyrinthine complexity with Fort Knox inaccessibility. But as I walk into the room that houses Faber’s archive, to my surprise, I am put in mind of Camelot. On my right is a wooden table of Arthurian proportion, although born out of modernism it is hexagonal and not round.
This is the table where T. S. Eliot would conduct editorial meetings. As I lower myself into a chair and consider my unworthiness to even take a seat at this table, my eyes are met by the presiding gaze of Jacob Epstein’s bronze bust of Eliot on a mantel opposite, still keeping watch. A further reminder, not that I needed it, of some of the greatness lying on these darkened shelves.
Siegfried Sassoon – Memoirs Of A Fox-Hunting Man (1928)
One of Faber’s first great successes was to publish an anonymous book called Memoirs Of A Fox-Hunting Man. Two copies of it sit before me on T. S. Eliot’s hexagonal table. The first appeared under the imprint of Faber & Gwyer in 1928; a plain book in an unadorned dustwrapper that gave no indication it was written by the famous war poet Siegfried Sassoon. But the following year, with the founding of Faber & Faber and some help from William Nicholson, it was transformed into a riot of pinks and greys and received top billing in Faber’s debut catalogue. Examining these unidentical twins in the archive is to see a publishing sensation appear in your very hands, as a modest and undecorated volume becomes a luxurious and rare limited edition in a matter of months.
Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (1936)
I can feel Eliot’s bronze stare more intensely as I reach for the next volume, and he is rightly protective of it. Djuna Barnes struggled to get Nightwood published, and it reached Eliot’s desk at Faber after a slew of rejections on the other side of the Atlantic. And even Eliot wouldn’t have published Barnes’s great novel were it not for the advocacy of the brilliant Emily Holmes Coleman (author of The Shutter Of Snow). Eliot wrote an introduction to the book, announcing its arrival in Britain and predicting its impact. But this copy goes further still, feeling the need to warn on its dustwrapper blurb that ‘it has nothing to offer to readers whose temperament attaches them to either an easy or a frightened optimism’.
Ted Hughes – The Hawk In The Rain (1957)
Last year my firm produced a catalogue offering for sale love letters that Sylvia Plath wrote to Ted Hughes in the autumn of 1956. One letter has always struck me as particularly remarkable, where Plath recounts the evening that a chance invitation led to her discovery of the poetry competition that (after she convinced Hughes to enter and typed up his poems) would result in the publication of The Hawk In The Rain. Whenever I hold a copy of this book, as I am now, I think of that letter and of Plath’s excitement for Hughes’s imminent fame, an excitement that became so overpowering that she stopped typing and wrote the letter’s final paragraph by hand.
Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar (1966)
The Bell Jar was first published three years before the copy I’m now holding in my hands. So why would I, a first-edition-fetishist if ever there was one, be so intrigued by a reprint? You might think it is Shirley Tucker’s captivating design for the dustwrapper. But, hypnotic as that is, this edition has a rather different power to it. The Bell Jar was originally published by Heinemann under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in January 1963, and their sole reprint the following year was issued similarly. And so it is Faber’s edition, this very one, that is the first to bear Sylvia Plath’s name as its author.
Sally Rooney – Conversations with Friends (2017)
One of the things first editions can do is mark the arrival of an author in the known world, so the final book I’m reaching for in the archives is Sally Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends. But rather than the hardcover first printing, I’ve opened a rare advance proof copy. The first thing I read is a remarkable and prescient commendation of the book by her editor Mitzi Angel, introducing the reader to Rooney, just as T. S. Eliot did when Faber published Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.