Bloomsbury’s Outsider: a life of David Garnett by Sarah Knights

Reviewed by Simon

garnett biogSarah Knights claims that she wrote her biography of David Garnett partly to restore his reputation – not as a writer, but as a person. His wife’s memoir Deceived With Kindness had painted him as a libertine who took advantage of her youth – perhaps one of the reasons that it is so seldom quoted in Bloomsbury’s Outsider – and Knights felt that was an injustice. Well, her book is exhaustive, fascinating, and… does nothing whatever to dispel Garnett’s libertine reputation.

As she quotes, Bunny (for such David was known by everybody, since he wore a rabbit-skin cap in his youth in imitation of Randolph Caldecott’s illustration of Baby Bunting) ‘maintained “the rule should be roughly that physical details be omitted” and that biographers “should not go into other people’s love affairs”.’ I got to the end of this enormous biography feeling exhausted at how many love affairs Garnett had, and filled with sympathy for his long-suffering first wife. This was my chief response, but I should set the scene first, for those not au fait with Garnett’s work and life. I should add that Garnett was a significant figure in my doctoral thesis; it’s an interesting experience, to read the biography of a writer whose work one knows well.

Garnett sprung to fame in 1922 as the author of Lady Into Fox, an extremely popular novella about a lady who (yes) turns into a fox. He was already connected with notoriety, being the son of the noted editor Edward Garnett, and hanging out with the Bloomsbury Group – albeit, as the title suggests, lingering on the outskirts of it. He did more than linger with Duncan Grant, having a lengthy affair with him (before, years later, marrying his daughter… who eventually left him for another man who’d had an affair with her father. Oh, Bloomsbury.) As always with biographies of any member of this crowd, much is learned about all the other figures – for, of course, their lives and careers intermingled.

Knights writes of Lady Into Fox that ‘it was only after the book was published that Bunny realised it was a metaphor for what he believed to be the absurdity of fidelity in marriage.’ (Later in the biography, she correctly quotes that the ‘subject was a reductio ad absurdum of marital fidelity’, which places the emphasis rather differently.) His own marriage was one where fidelity never seemed to trouble him particularly – certainly not his own fidelity, anyway. He married outside of the Bloomsbury Group, Rachel ‘Ray’ Marshall, despite discouragement from friends. And then he treated her appallingly, constantly having affairs and living away from her, even while she was dying of cancer. When she dared to have an affair herself, he was filled with rage, and wrote such things as:

For you to be jealous of my loves is as if you were jealous of my reading books & bursting into tears over their pages. For me to [be] jealous of you is selfish but the wisdom of preservation.

Perhaps one should read a biography impartially, but it is difficult not to rail against Garnett’s hypocrisy and cruelty while reading this section of the book. And the biography seems more less equally divided between Garnett’s dalliances with women (and, earlier, men) and his writing career – which were the two main forces in his life, of course. It is done very engagingly, and I don’t intend this as any criticism of the biography – but Knights herself must have rolled her eyes a touch at yet another conquest to write about, however much Garnett considered them not to be conquests. Unsurprisingly, I found those sections about Garnett’s writing far more interesting, and this book does a very good job at gathering reviews, noting the evolution of Garnett’s fiction, and generally setting his books in the literary and cultural landscape. Some of the novels get only brief mentions, but he wrote so many that it is to be expected.

While Knights is a very able writer, and tells the tale of Garnett winningly, there is an inevitable question attached to a 632 page biography: could it have been a 300 page biography? And I think it not only could have been, but perhaps should have been. There is a fashion for extremely long biographies, and there is a researcher’s temptation to put in everything discovered. Knights may have judiciously left out some of the things she learned, but there were many incidents and references that could have been left out. ‘One evening, at the Cave of the Golden Calf, Bunny lost three pounds at poker, a sum which he could ill afford.’ It’s a sentence picked at random, and obviously, alone, would make no noticeable difference to the length of the book – but it’s the sort of detail that appears a few times on every page and could have been left out. It’s also not entirely clear which reader of a biography of David Garnett would need to be given such introductions as ‘The Bloomsbury Group rejected conventional authority or conventional morality’, or told that conscientious objectors weren’t cowards, but such moments of superfluous elucidation are perhaps legacies of the PhD thesis Bloomsbury’s Outsider originally was, as are occasional returns to the theme of ‘outsider’.

These are minor quibbles. I think the book might have made more sense with a cull that left more focus on his writing than his affairs, but it certainly doesn’t affect the fact that this is an engrossing and very capable biography. David Garnett might be judged by some not to be worthy of a biography at all, but I consider him a hitherto too overlooked a member of the Bloomsbury Group, and one whose impact on the reading public of the interwar years was far greater than many of those whose names are now better known.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and wishes this biography had been published while he was still building the bibliography to his doctorate.

Sarah Knights, Bloomsbury’s Outsider (Bloomsbury: London, 2015), 978-1448215454, 632pp., paperback.

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7 Comments

  1. Jean Morris

    I’d really like to read this, having recently reread Frances Partridge’s wonderful diaries, in which he appears throughout – her brother-in-law and lifelong friend, with final glimpses of him old and still writing at his house in the French countryside. And I’d like to read Lady Into Fox, and Angelica Garnett’s book Deceived with Kindness. Also, i think his mother was the famous translator of the Russian classics, Constance Garnett?

    1. Simon

      He writes really touchingly about that house – more in letters with Sylvia Townsend Warner than quoted in this biog, I think. And Constance Garnett was indeed his mother; what a talented and bizarre family they were!

  2. For someone who has insisted for years that I have no interest in anything related to the Bloomsbury Group, I find the various members pop up in my reading with alarming frequency (part of this can be blamed on you, Simon, for your many excellent recommendations). Right now, I’m reading a collection of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s letters and she has so many interesting things to say about David Garnett – and he about her – that I know it won’t be long before I pick up Sylvia and David, a collection of their letters. From there I suspect it will be a slippery slope to his books and perhaps even this biography – though it sounds a bit ambitious for my current level of interest!

    1. Simon

      Haha! Give innnnn! Sylvia is a good gateway author for the Bloomsbury group… I couldn’t quite believe it when I found out they were friends; like STW and Maxwell, it seemed almost too good to be true.

  3. I’m interested in Garnett because of his mentoring of T H White. That was a very odd relationship, so I wonder if Garnett met an immovable force in White, who was as needy and demanding as Garnet seems to have been himself.

    1. Simon

      It feels an odder relationship when reading the letters of Sylvia and David, who mention him so much, but yes – what a curious trio they were!

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