These brief sketches are in no sense introductions to the personalities they highlight. They are instead personal glimpses that add a further human dimension to names well known in English literature of the early twentieth century. The reader who is familiar with these writers, and with their world, will find Great Friends rewarding; the reader who is not will gain little from it. This is supplementary material, humanizing material, and is not a starting place.
This is not to say that the reader who is on familiar ground will not be startled occasionally; David Garnett is always disarming. Ford Madox Ford is discussed as Hueffer, which was his original name; T. E. Lawrence appears as T. E. Shaw. As Garnett points out, however, he never knew Ford as anyone but Hueffer and he never knew Lawrence of Arabia at all—his acquaintance with this complex individual occurred after the latter had become Aircraftsman Shaw. This directness and lack of pretension is characteristic of all the essays and contributes much to their candid and refreshing quality. Garnett is writing about real people as he knew them, and it is clear that famous names have never impaired his powers of observation. His subjects are viewed with a rare honesty: they are seen very much as they must have been. Garnett convinces us, without apparent effort, that what he tells us is the plain unvarnished truth. His ability to carry absolute conviction is similar to that of Daniel Defoe, with whom he has been compared.
Great Friends is a somewhat uneven collection, and much of the material has been published before. This is not due to laziness, Garnett assures us; he simply does not feel that he could improve upon his earlier efforts. Any added material is unobtrusive and in but one example is there an obvious inclusion from elsewhere, and Garnett announces it accordingly. The inclusion is an appropriate and perceptive comparison of two dissimilar personalities, E. M. Forster and John Galsworthy, who were both propagandists for the same kinds of social reform. In this context, Garnett notes that both were successful because they were insiders and could therefore speak with authority, whereas the efforts of a satirical outsider are always shallow by comparison. He makes his point by holding up the example of George Orwell, whose inside knowledge of communism made him one of the most devastating propagandists of our time.
David Garnett is the last surviving member of the Bloomsbury Circle—a name, he assures us, that was not imposed upon the group by those included within it—and many of the people in these essays were connected with Bloomsbury. Others are writers he knew in later years, one of whom is an American. Two represent memories of childhood. Thus, readers meet Joseph Conrad and W. H. Hudson not primarily as writers but as adults who befriended a small boy.
Garnett’s background and childhood prepared him admirably for the literary world, and he possessed from the beginning a faculty for keen observation. Memory, it would seem, does not play tricks with him. In his introductory material he gives a brief account of his parents and of the environment they provided for him. His father, Edward, was a publisher’s reader and his mother, Constance, a translator of the nineteenth century Russian novelists; thus, young Garnett was exposed to literary influences from birth. His parents counted many writers among their friends. Of these, Garnett found the mariner and the naturalist most congenial. He concludes the two essays concerning them with brief assessments of their lives and work, as he does with the other persons in Great Friends, but it is evident in all cases that the person and not the work has first priority.
A writer of precision and clarity, Garnett has long been praised as an outstanding stylist. His first novel, published in 1923, was a fantasy entitled Lady into Fox. It won him two prizes and widespread acclaim, and many still consider it his best work. He has therefore been categorized as a writer of fantasies, although he has explored other genres as well, and his autobiography has been termed a magnificent re-creation of another time. His prose is pellucid and flows quietly. In this collection, as in his other writing, a sense of fairness, of just perceptions, is notable. He conveys a certain innocence as well, together with broad humanity and quiet good humor. Much is understated, sometimes irritatingly so: then every word becomes a clue to acts or events whose precise nature is withheld. Now and then...
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