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Review: Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber. This review is a guest post by London Historians member Sally-Anne Thomas. 

ffThis is a wonderful book for anyone interested in history, literature, poetry or publishing. It’s also the result of meticulous record keeping, and told in a series of letters, minutes, memoirs and memos, with the occasional explanatory intervention by the author.

It begins in London with an account of the early life of the firm’s founder, Sir Geoffrey Faber, the writer’s grandfather. He made an uncertain start in terms of a career. Born in 1889, he spent the First World War on the Western Front, wrote some critically acclaimed poetry, was elected as a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and eventually became a director of Strong and Co., a beer manufacturing company in Hampshire. But he had little talent for brewing, and soon lost his job.

By this time he was living in London, married, and with a growing family. He was writing unsuccessful plays and a novel, but was rescued by another fellow of All Souls, Maurice Dwyer who, with his wife Alaina, had an interest in a publishing company called ‘The Scientific Press’, whose primary title was The Nursing Mirror.
In 1924, Geoffrey was installed as Chairman and Managing Director of the firm. The Nursing Mirror was sold.

The early part of the book marks Geoffrey’s battles to move the firm towards a literary path. One of his first appointments was that of the poet, T. S. Eliot, as a literary adviser. Eliot, as you might expect, was good on poetry, but has the distinction of rejecting an early version of George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris and Animal Farm.

There are constant battles within the firm, involving Geoffrey and later his son Tom, an academic and physicist who rescued the company from severe financial problems in the 1970s.

A series of irate letters cover rows between members of the family and with the directors, disagreements with authors, and a series of other problems.

However, this small firm managed to survive the Great Depression, paper shortages in the Second World War, and numerous financial crises subsequently. It remains one of the best-known and respected publishing houses in the world.

If I were to list all the authors who have been published by Faber, I would far exceed the word allowance for this review. But to name just a few, we have Eliot, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, Ezra Pound,. William Golding, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Harold Pinter, Lawrence Durrell, P. D. James, Seamus Heaney, Samuel Beckett, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey and Orhan Pamuk. The Faber Finds imprint, established in 2008, makes copyrighted out-of-print books re-available, using print-on-demand technology and includes works by John Betjeman, Angus Wilson, A. J. P. Taylor, H. G Wells, Joyce Cary, Nina Bawden, Jean Genet, Lousis MacNeice, F. R. Leavis, Jacob Bronowski, Jan Morris and Brian Aldiss.

The detailed story ends in 1989. But Toby Faber – who no longer has a hands-on responsibility for the company – makes it clear that much is still to come.

The structure of the book is interesting. Since it involves very little narrative, just the use of historical letters and memos, it can seem a little staccato. But because it’s been expertly collated, the volume flows. It is raw history, fascinating and hugely entertaining. And running through the book is a sense of fun, of how exhilarating and challenging the company was and is.

Faber and Faber marches on. I’m sure there will be another volume soon, followed by one on the two-hundredth anniversary in 2129.


Faber & Faber, The Untold Story (426pp) by Toby Faber was published in May 2019 by Faber & Faber with a cover price of £20.

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