Helen Smith’s An Uncommon Reader offers a deep dive into the life of Edward Garnett, a literary genius who forever changed English literature. As an editor, critic, and reader for hire, Garnett was known for his strong convictions and sharp critiques. Garnett helped nurture the talents of some of the greatest writers in the English language, from Joseph Conrad to Henry Green to Edward Thomas, all while avoiding personal prestige. In this excerpt, we witness Garnett’s process of working with D. H. Lawrence on his book Sons and Lovers, and the powerful result of this joining of minds.
As Edward Garnett read Paul Morel he must have had a sense of déjà vu; many of the faults of The Trespasser were evident in the new manuscript. Once again Edward criticized [D. H.] Lawrence’s recondite tendencies: ‘“one of Circe’s erect swine” no’, ‘too literary’. He was also unconvinced by some of the dialogue: ‘affected conversation rewrite’; ‘all this talk doesn’t ring true,’ he notes. Paul Morel (and Sons and Lovers, the novel it eventually became) is highly autobiographical; the Morel family and the events that take place are closely modelled on Lawrence’s own experiences, and Edward accused him of failing to treat his material with the detachment of the deliberate artist. ‘You are insensibly making Paul too much of a hero,’ he complains, and ‘This seems cheap: you identify your sympathies too much with Paul’s wrath.’ The manuscript was back in Germany with Edward’s notes less than three weeks after Lawrence had sent it. Lawrence responded enthusiastically and promised to ‘slave like a Turk at the novel . . . I begin in earnest tomorrow.’
At the end of July David Garnett, by now studying botany at the Imperial College of Science, was in Munich attending some lectures. At Edward’s suggestion he contacted Lawrence and went to stay with him and Frieda in Icking. ‘He’s awfully like you . . . his walk, his touch of mischief and wickedness . . . But he hasn’t got your appetite for tragedy with the bleeding brow,’ Lawrence reported, before adding that he and Frieda had decided to walk away from their troubles over the Alps into Switzerland. At the end of the letter he casually mentions that he has decided to rewrite Paul Morel and that it will take him three months. As usual, money was a pressing problem and once again Lawrence looked to Edward for assistance in placing sketches and poetry: ‘I must hear from you or of you,’ he frets.
Edward and Nellie had been on holiday in Wales, which explained his recent silence; he was also preoccupied with finding another London flat. Constance, who did most of the hunting, eventually recommended one very close to Grove Place: 4 Downshire Hill was a ‘nice little old house’. It had the advantage of being very quiet and very cheap (£42 10/- a year) and the disadvantage of being ‘a bit grubby and dilapidated’ and having a very small bathroom and kitchen. Constance was won over by the charm of the place and they took possession of it in September.
While Edward was on the move in London, Lawrence and Frieda were finally settling for a while near the shores of Lake Garda. Lawrence was immensely relieved when £50 arrived from Duckworth to ease his financial anxieties: ‘It seems queer, that while I am straying about here, you are working like a fiend, and hampered with my stuff as well,’ Lawrence remarks, before trying to persuade Edward to come out and stay for a while: ‘I should love to talk to you–for hours and hours. I feel as if you were father and brother and all my relations to me–except wife,’ he confessed, promising that now his life was less itinerant he would really ‘get at that novel’.
Only a few preparatory jottings of the notes Edward made survive, and little of what was Lawrence’s third version of Paul Morel does either, but from the scraps of Edward’s comments that remain and from the parts of the manuscript that Lawrence incorporated into what became Sons and Lovers it seems that he revised with Edward’s notes at his elbow and his words ringing in his ears. When Edward came to the following passage, referring to Paul’s assessment of his relationship with Miriam–
Now at last, since she denied that their love had ever been love at all,
‘You are a nun.’
He sat silent in bitterness. At last, the whole affair looked like a cynicism to him.
–he underlined ‘like a cynicism’ and in his notes remarked ‘like a cynicism lurid’. Lawrence revised this to: ‘He sat silent in bitterness. At last, the whole affair appeared in a cynical aspect to him.’ The rewritten phrase is less melodramatic and there is that sense of greater distance between the narrator and his subject that Edward had demanded. His influence may also be detected in the fact that the final manuscript contains several instances of Lawrence replacing authorial exposition with dramatic exchanges. A protracted analysis of the Morels’ mutual irritability in Chapter 1 of the third draft is replaced in the manuscript by the scene in which Mrs Morel struggles with the boiling herb beer as Morel enters, drunk. Edward doubtless preached the same sermon he was to deliver to H. E. Bates ten years later: ‘You’ve got to visualize and express the emotions by sharp individual details.’ The boiling cauldron does this to perfection. Lawrence rewrote rapidly; halfway through October Edward learned that he was three-fifths through the revision and wanted to change the title to Sons and Lovers, thus further diluting the earlier concentration on Paul. The new title also acknowledges William Morel’s increased role in the novel and the incestuous element in Paul’s relationship with his mother.
When the post brought an envelope addressed in Lawrence’s hand, Edward could be sure that, whatever else, the contents would not be dull. The letter might detail news of the latest ‘bowel-twisting’ missives from Weekley; agonised or amusing accounts of Lawrence’s and Frieda’s evolving relationship; or evocative descriptions of the landscape, people and customs of their latest surroundings. Literary business, of course, featured prominently–instructions and appeals about dealing with publishers, the selling and placement of sketches and the selection and ordering of a volume of poetry, which Duckworth published the following year under the title Love Poems and Others. Towards the end of November another letter bearing an Italian postmark arrived at The Cearne. As he scanned the opening lines, Edward realised that this was in a very different key:
Your letter has just come. I hasten to tell you I sent the MS of the Paul Morel novel to Duckworth, registered, yesterday. And I want to defend it, quick. I wrote it again, pruning it and shaping it and filling it in. I tell you it has got form–form: haven’t I made it patiently, out of sweat as well as blood.
This was not a case of merely alerting Edward when to expect the novel: Lawrence is telling him how to read it. His anxious insistence that the novel had ‘form’ and his subsequent outline of its main theme and development owed much to the berating he had received from Hueffer about ‘formlessness’, which had clearly affected him profoundly. In her memoir, Helen Corke recalls Lawrence bringing her the novels of Flaubert and Maupassant to read: ‘His talk was of literature for art’s sake, of the essential of form in writing–it might have been a resumé of the lectures received from his mentor Ford Madox Hueffer.’ Heinemann’s remarks explaining his rejection of Paul Morel may also have been echoing in Lawrence’s mind. The vocabulary of the letter is calculated to convince Edward that this is a carefully crafted piece of work, shorn of superfluity. Lawrence was also worried that the ‘naked scenes’ in the novel weren’t tame enough and told Edward that he could cut them if he wished. Yet for all his edgy defensiveness, Lawrence was convinced he had written a great book and that he wanted to dedicate it to Edward: ‘To Edward Garnett, in Gratitude,’ he suggested. ‘But you can put it better.’
Yet for all his edgy defensiveness, Lawrence was convinced he had written a great book and that he wanted to dedicate it to Edward: ‘To Edward Garnett, in Gratitude,’ he suggested. ‘But you can put it better.’
Edward was far too independent a reader to be influenced by Lawrence’s manifesto; he read the manuscript as soon as it arrived and it immediately became apparent that at close on 180,000 words the novel was too long for a 7/6- volume, which was usually around 120,000 words in length. After speaking to Gerald Duckworth, Edward wrote to Lawrence, relaying the excellent news that the publisher was prepared to pay a £100 advance, with a 15 per cent royalty on the first 2,500 copies and 17.5 per cent thereafter, and the considerably less welcome tidings that the manuscript would have to be cut and the scalpel would be in Edward’s rather than Lawrence’s hands. Lawrence would see the result of the surgery only when he was sent the proofs for correction. Two questions arise: were the cuts made purely on commercial grounds and did Edward decide he was going to make them without further reference to Lawrence unilaterally, or was he ordered to do so by Gerald Duckworth?
In the absence of Edward’s side of the correspondence, it is impossible to arrive at definitive answers, but it is highly unlikely that he would have reduced the text by approximately a tenth on aesthetic grounds alone. The fact that there is a running word count on the edited manuscript further suggests that Edward was primarily motivated by the necessity to reduce the novel’s length. Lawrence’s peripatetic existence and the consequent risk of the manuscript getting delayed or lost may have persuaded Duckworth that it was far simpler and less time-consuming to get Edward to do the editing. Certainly, Lawrence’s apology–‘I’m sorry I’ve let you in for such a job’–suggests the decision was Duckworth’s. Lawrence’s reaction would have come as no surprise to Edward: ‘I sit in sadness and grief after your letter. I daren’t say anything. All right, take out what you think necessary . . . but don’t scold me too hard, it makes me wither up.’ Evidently Edward’s letter had contained a ‘wigging’, but whether it was because Lawrence had failed to heed his mentor’s aesthetic advice or that an overworked Edward was simply fed up at having to undertake a tricky editorial task it is impossible to say.
Reducing a manuscript by a tenth whilst preserving its fluency and coherence and without having to write bridging sections is not an easy job. Edward removed a total of 80 passages varying in length from 2 to 185 lines; most of the material he cut was from the first 11 chapters of the novel. Chapter 3, which describes the life of William Morel, is the most heavily edited. Edward deleted what he considered to be extraneous and repetitious dialogue, such as a conversation between William and his mother, which essentially repeats a scene in which a disapproving Mrs Morel interviews a girl who has called to see William, and the account of William’s anger at his mother’s action. Some of the material Edward eliminated resulted in situations becoming more implicit–‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’. An example of this occurs towards the end of Chapter 10, when Paul and Clara are discussing her treatment of Baxter Dawes. Edward cut thirteen lines of expository dialogue in which Paul suggests Clara ‘broke [Dawes’s] manliness’ and accuses her of adopting a superior attitude towards Dawes and himself. The edited version is much more subtly suggestive:
‘. . . But weren’t you horrid with him? Didn’t you do something that knocked him to pieces?’
‘Make him feel as if he were nothing–I know,’ Paul declared.
Lawrence soon recovered his spirits: by the end of December he was writing gratefully to Edward: ‘I’m glad to hear you like the novel better. I don’t much mind what you squash out . . . I’m glad you’ll let it be dedicated to you. I feel always so deep in your debt.’ Edward certainly was proud to have his name associated with Sons and Lovers: the day before it was published he wrote to de la Mare, perhaps a shade triumphantly, telling him: ‘Lawrence rewrote his novel almost from beginning to end–and I think it is now quite as good as many of Hardy’s.’
Sons and Lovers, edited by Edward, was published on 29 May 1913 and for seventy-nine years this was the version available to readers. In 1992 Cambridge University Press published a text that restored the cuts made to the book, along with an introductory essay by Helen and Carl Baron in which they argue that Edward damaged Lawrence’s novel. In another essay, Helen Baron goes so far as to describe the 1913 version as ‘botched, censored, and butchered’. The judgement seems harsh: an argument can be made that in fact Edward forced Lawrence to hone his narrative craft. For example, the passage when Miriam bends ‘short-sightedly over [Paul’s rose-design] drawings’, which Baron presents as an example of Edward’s deleterious effect on the novel, is rather an excellent illustration of the positive effect his editing had on Lawrence’s writing. Edward cut twenty lines of authorial exposition concerning the theory of gravitation, Miriam’s compulsion to know what it is in the drawing that fascinates Paul, and the latter’s feeling that he has to justify himself. When correcting the proofs Lawrence substituted the following line for the deleted passage: ‘It irritated him that she peered so into everything that was his, searching him out.’ Those few words encapsulate Paul’s resentment of what he perceives as Miriam’s desire to possess him, the characteristic she shares with Mrs Morel. The juxtaposition of ‘peering’ with the reference to Miriam’s short sight in the previous sentence also creates a richly suggestive allusion. As for censorship, predictably Edward exercised a very light hand; one passage he allowed to stand, in which Paul dons a pair of Clara’s stockings, was later removed by somebody else at the publisher’s, possibly Gerald Duckworth himself.
On 12 January 1913 Lawrence sent Edward a letter that sums up his attitude to Edward’s editing and suggests that it actually liberated Lawrence creatively:
The thought of you pedgilling away at the novel frets me. Why can’t I do those things?–I can’t. I could do hack work, to a certain amount. But apply my creative self where it doesn’t want to be applied, makes me feel I should bust or go cracked. I couldn’t have done any more at that novel–at least for six months. I must go on producing, producing, and the stuff must come more and more to shape each year. But trim and garnish my stuff I cannot–it must go.
By assuming the responsibility of editing Sons and Lovers (and it is worth remembering that there is a real possibility the unedited novel might not have been published at all) Edward freed Lawrence and allowed him to follow that compulsive urge to ‘go on producing’. As Lawrence put it in a letter to his friend Ernest Collings: ‘I am a great admirer of my own stuff while it’s new, but after a while I’m not so gone on it–like the true maternal instinct, that kicks off an offspring as soon as it can go on its own legs.’ There is a great sense that despite his initial dismay, in the end Lawrence was happy to move on and leave Sons and Lovers to ‘go on its own legs’ with Edward. Having corrected the first batch of proofs, Lawrence expressed his general satisfaction: ‘It goes well, in print, don’t you think? . . . You did the pruning jolly well, and I am grateful. I hope you’ll live a long time, to barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’ Years later, when recalling his relationship with Edward, Lawrence declared, ‘Garnett did a great deal for me . . . He was a good friend and a fine editor.’ Words that hardly suggest he considered Edward had butchered his novel.
I hope you’ll live a long time, to barber up my novels for me before they’re published.’
Lawrence reiterated his gratitude when he inscribed Edward’s copy of Sons and Lovers, warmly acknowledging the support he had received during one of the most turbulent and momentous periods of his life: ‘To my friend and protector in love and literature Edward Garnett from the Author.’
Helen Smith is British writer and scholar. She earned her PhD in literature from the University of East Anglia, where she is a lecturer in modern literature and the director of the master’s program in biography and creative nonfiction. She has won the Biographers’ Club Prize and the RSL Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction, and lives in South Norfolk with her husband. An Uncommon Reader is her first book.