David Garnett Essay - Critical Essays

Garnett, David

Garnett, David 1892–

Garnett is a British novelist, best known for Lady into Fox.

Bloomsbury's last surviving writer is the novelist David Garnett. He commanded public attention in 1922 with his first novel, Lady into Fox, which brought him two literary awards, popular acclaim, and serious critical attention. This first book was a fantasy; accordingly, critics and reviewers categorized him as a writer of fantasies, but the label persisted long after he ceased to work in this vein. More deserving of critical attention, because it is a permanent feature of Garnett's novels, is the clarity of his prose style. Yet his reputation as stylist and fantasy writer has blinded readers to the social implications of his work…. Garnett's work is more substantial than this narrow appreciation assumes. For in his third novel, The Sailor's Return (1925), he has brought his verbal craftsmanship into the service of exposing an intolerable system of racial and sexual caste.

The features which have made the book attractive are deceiving. The rich detail flows so continuously from sequence to sequence that the reader is likely to believe all has been invented by the author. It is not apparent that the particulars are drawn from a two-volume anthropological study of the Victorian era; nor would one ever guess that Garnett labored to make his scholarly investigations support the structure of his novel. Yet the organic unity of the book came with difficulty, and he owes a debt to two men for the pleasing results: George Moore, the novelist, and Sir Richard Burton, a nineteenth-century adventurer-diplomat and author of a book about Dahomey….

Garnett had been a data-gatherer from the time of his first novel. There is a delightful scrap of paper folded between the leaves of the Lady into Fox holograph … which lists the habits of foxes. Written in his wife's hand, it appears to be notes taken from something like an encyclopedia article, a reminder perhaps of the naturalistic details he would draw upon. Similarly, a floor plan of London's Zoological Gardens is attached to the manuscript of A Man in the Zoo. But Garnett's third novel shows scholarly preparation.

The factual references to Africa come from Sir Richard F. Burton's A Mission to Gelele, King of Dahome…. [It] becomes apparent that Garnett has borrowed, and often altered, particulars which illuminate the general view of Englishmen toward non-Europeans, especially toward non-European women. And finally, it is possible to see how Garnett sometimes uses the exact words of the Dahomean chronicles to support a conclusion quite different from Burton's….

One can find much to admire in Garnett's literary debts because he knew when to be independent from even the most useful influence. He gained from Moore the ability to interconnect word, line, and incident so that all of the tragic action possesses a sense of inevitability; from Burton he experienced the clash of two ways of life. The strength of The Sailor's Return is two-fold: the reader is convinced not only of the villagers' unavoidable assault but also of the worthlessness of the cause they defend. Garnett has accomplished this by depicting two cultures at once….

Garnett is not unique in treating this general topic, for opposition to cultural imperialism has been widely recognized in Forster's A Passage to India and, by those who have read it, in Leonard Woolf's The Village in the Jungle. Like every member of Bloomsbury, Garnett had rejected the values of Victorian colonialism, but only he sought new standards on the Dark Continent. This aspect has not been detected by the literary taxonomists who place David Garnett's novels on a shelf labeled "Fantasy" (or perhaps in an attic trunk marked "Whimsical Fantasy Popular After World War I"). The falseness of these tags is apparent when we examine The Sailor's Return. There Garnett has undertaken weighty research, shaped his material into an artful plot, and questioned the racial and sexual caste systems of Western Europe, many years before it was fashionable to do so.

Ann S. Johnson, "Garnett's Amazon from Dahomey: Literary Debts in The Sailor's Return," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1973, pp. 169-85.

David Garnett's most famous and successful novel, Lady into Fox, is a classic mixture of fantasy and realism. The fourteen short stories collected in Purl and Plain and Other Stories can best be seen, by way of contrast, as either fantastic or realistic but never both at the same time or in one compass….

[The purl stories] are fey, overwritten, and inconsequential, a bit private, a bit giggly. The reader is made to feel as if he has opened the wrong door in a strange house and stumbled upon some very queer family game of charades. All the same, these fantastic stories—also notable for their brevity—suggest the element in Mr. Garnett's imagination which makes him worth reading, the element revived at novel-length last year in his extraordinary gallop of a novel, The Sons of the Falcon. I don't find Mr. Garnett convincing or sympathetic as a realist. Stories such as Letting Down the Side and First Hippy Revolution, with their creaky manipulation of plot and superstitious lip-service to a 'real' world which the author doesn't seem to believe in (and in which he certainly finds nothing after his own heart), remind me of not dissimilar efforts by Robert Graves. There is a degree of forcing in them, they inflate their material, which is essentially anecdotage…. Mr. Garnett's gifts seem to me more at home with the novella than the story as such….

Robert Nye, in Books and Bookmen, June, 1973, p. 92.