What’s Happening in the Engine-Room

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • John Lehmann: A Pagan Adventure by Adrian Wright
    Duckworth, 308 pp, £20.00, November 1998, ISBN 0 7156 2871 2

The first volume of John Lehmann’s autobiography, published in 1955, starts:

When I try to remember where my education in poetry began, the first image that comes to mind is that of my father’s library at the old family home of Fieldhead on the Thames. It is an autumn or winter evening after tea, for James the butler has been in to draw the blinds and close the curtains, and my father is reading under a green-shaded lamp.

He has said a good deal already – the little boy who wants to be like his father, the sheltered child who doesn’t need to know the time or even the season because James, the always reliable butler, deals with that, the illusion of a dedication to poetry. Adrian Wright, in this new biography, refers several times to Lehmann’s half-commitment (in spite of his energy) to the professional life he chose. Fieldhead was the magic enclosure to which, as an adult, he looked back, wishing that it might have been possible to sit there, watching and listening, all his life.

He came of a German-Jewish family, musical, hospitable, successful in business. His grandfather ended up in Scotland, by way of Huddersfield. His father, who built Field-head, was called to the Bar, edited the Daily News, and was returned as Liberal MP for Market Harborough. He was a dedicated rowing coach, and wrote quantities of light verse, often about rowing, for Punch. He married Alice Davis, a strong-minded New Englander, twenty years younger than himself. Their family consisted of three girls – Helen, the indulged Rosamond, Beatrix – and, at long last, the boy John. Their children’s talents must have been partly, at least, inherited, but no trace of their father Rude’s jolly German Kameradschaft seems to have been passed on.

Adrian Wright has been faced with a problem of organisation. He has come into all the material collected by John Lehmann’s commissioned biographer, Martin Taylor, who died before he could write a word of it. He has seen photocopies of the extensive diaries, and he has interviewed the survivors and their descendants. Lehmann himself wrote three volumes of dignified autobiography about his work, his beliefs, his travels, his dogs, and one, in the unconvincing form of a novel (In the Purely Pagan Sense, 1976), on his strenuous life as a homosexual. Wright has the job of combining the two stories, although he gives us fair warning that ‘when there has had, through reasons of space, to be a choice between discussing the plight of writers in Czechoslovakia or detailing an affair of the heart that made Lehmann’s life a misery, the heart has invariably won.’ There might be a voice of protest from the shades. But Wright is gallant, ‘attempting’ – as he tells us – ‘to rescue Lehmann from the margins of the literature of which he was once at the heart’. Can this truly be done?

John was sent to Summer Fields, and left in 1921 with an Eton scholarship and a report that he was ‘never likely to do anything dishonourable or mean’, a golden lad, as Wright calls him. About Eton he was at best lukewarm. He had wished not to disappoint his father, but he was a rowing failure. The Master in College judged that he had set his ambitions too high, and allowed himself to get depressed. On Cambridge, too, although he went up with the expected scholarship, he came to look back as wasted time.

What next? To a great extent he was conditioned already, having moved effortlessly since birth from one favourable literary atmosphere to another. His father had heard Charles Dickens read when he was six, had helped to found Granta and furiously defended the Liberal cause at the Punch table. John himself had been at Eton with Alan Pryce-Jones, Anthony Powell, Eric Blair and Cyril Connolly, who, we are told, stood at the door of his room in the Sixth Form Passage asking, ‘Well, Johnny Lehmann, how are you this afternoon?’ While he was at Trinity his sister Rosamond published her first novel, Dusty Answer, which shed a little of its ambiguous glamour over him, and at the same time he became a friend of Julian Bell, who invited him to Charleston. In 1931 the Woolfs, who had printed his first tentative book of poems, took him on as a dogsbody and part-time commercial traveller at the Hogarth Press. They had already run through two assistants, but, all the same, Wright is perhaps rather too hard on them. In her biography of Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee describes Lehmann as one of the ‘ambitious, thwarted, talented young men’ who ‘rubbed up against Leonard’s adamantine proprietariness and perfectionism ... It was a well-known joke among their friends that working at the Hogarth Press drove you mad.’

After seven months at the Press Lehmann made his first appearance as an editor when he commissioned Michael Roberts’s New Signatures (February 1932), which included contributions from Julian Bell, Richard Eberhart, William Empson, Cecil Day Lewis, Stephen Spender, William Plomer and Lehmann himself. Through Spender he met Christopher Isherwood. The friendship with Spender from the very first seemed edgy, uncertain and uneasy, but durable for all that. Isherwood he loved, but he was tolerated, rather than loved, in return.

Spender and Isherwood were spending much of their time in Berlin. Germany was evidently the place to be, the country to be young in, uninhibited, uncorrupted by the past, electric with political hope for the future.

We can tell you a secret, offer a tonic; only
Submit to the visiting angel, the strange new healer.

In August 1932, without giving notice, Lehmann threw up his job with the Woolfs and departed for Vienna.

Though his mother suspected that he was leading a wild revolutionary life, Lehmann, renting a succession of flats, finally in the Invalidenstrasse, was attempting something much more complex. He wanted the release of his sexuality with the adaptable boys he picked up – Rico, Gustav, Willi, Tiddlywinks (introduced by Isherwood at the Cosy Corner bar) and countless others – to identify with his new Marxist beliefs, felt as freedom and defiance rather than as escape, a mystical as well as a political union with the working class (working, but for the moment unemployed). Lehmann kept them more or less happy with money, clothes, cigarette-lighters and fountain-pens.

It was, as he wrote himself, ‘a contact with earthiness that I needed very badly’. He desired wholeness, and believed that destiny offered him the choice of being a poet or an editor. Although he produced eight collections in his lifetime, there was never any evidence that he was able to write good poetry, yet he was convinced that his poetry too gave a dynamic to his existence.

There have been moments when I have seen the whole of it irradiated by my passion for boys and young men ... as if I were climbing an Alpine slope, always hoping for and always with blessed luck discovering some rare and hitherto unculled flower that seemed to glow on me with its own internal light; a climb that is not yet over, nor will perhaps be until I reach the highest snows.

This is from In the Purely Pagan Sense, which for the most part plods along sedately enough. ‘Eye signals followed for some minutes, and as the messages seemed of favourable import, I finally ventured on a discreetly beckoning gesture.’

The blessed luck was that he settled for editing and publishing, for which he had the gift. He wasn’t an intellectual, wasn’t original, but he breathed literature’s changing air, sensed the trend and created his own style. He worked extremely hard, and although he seems to have been stingy in his daily life – German champagne was served at his parties in small glasses – he had a generous appreciation of his authors and designers.

The first edition of the periodical New Writing came out in spring 1936, but by 1938 the new series was appearing under the Hogarth imprint, Lehmann having more or less made up his dispute with the Woolfs and invested some money in the Press. He had thought of calling his magazine the Bridge – the bridge, that is, between writers and workers, but also between England and Europe. In The Whispering Gallery, the first volume of his autobiography, he describes the planning stages: ‘I may even have toyed with the idea of starting a new international literature.’ Taking an ‘optimistic and Marxist view’, he found contributions from France, Spain, Russia and Poland, and New Writing seemed, in its beginnings, the authentic voice of violence and resistance. The voice was to change and grow considerably more mellow with changing times, with Lehmann, as Wright very aptly says, ‘bringing himself forward bearing his statement on the health of the literary world, like the captain of a ship reporting to his passengers about what is happening in the engine-room’. But readers could trust him to find for them what was unforgettable. He was the first to print George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, Isherwood’s Berlin diaries, Rosamond Lehmann’s ‘A Dream of Winter’, Auden’s ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’. In 1939 he courageously met the challenge of Horizon, edited by Cyril Connolly with what seemed the treacherous help of Stephen Spender. (Connolly, Wright has to admit, ‘has been perceived as being more fun’ than Lehmann.) In 1940, at the suggestion of Allen Lane, who unlike most publishers at that time had a large paper allocation, New Writing became Penguin New Writing. Wright sympathetically conjures up the blacked-out, hemmed-in Britain where the magazine found an immediate welcome and settled down to sell 75,000 copies a month. He quotes a footnote in issue No. 5: ‘Leave this book at a Post Office when you have read it, so that men and women in the services may enjoy it too.’

For a short time, from 1946 to November 1952, Lehmann reached a near-independence at the head of what was almost his own publishing house. Purnell found the paper for him and retained 51 per cent control of the new John Lehmann Ltd. It operated from the basement of his house in Egerton Crescent, and though he began by discreetly poaching some of his old authors from the Hogarth Press, he soon found his own. Probably his favourite enterprise was the Modern European Library. He bought for it Sartre’s Diary of Antoine Roquentin, Kazantzakis’s Alexis Zorba (to which he gave the title Zorba the Greek), Malraux’s The Walnut Trees of Altenburg. Among his preferred Neo-Romantic illustrators, Keith Vaughan and John Minton excelled. Minton decorated Elizabeth David’s first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food with tipsy Breton sailors, market girls, lobster pots, fruits de mer, as a kind of delicious ballet in and out of the dedicated text. As Wright says, when you take up a book published by Lehmann you get the sense of a precious thing, obviously cared for in its creation.

In 1952 Purnell grew tired of losing money, and in spite of a letter to the Times signed by the familiar distinguished names, John Lehmann Ltd was obliged to shut up shop. The BBC offered him a magazine ‘of the air’ and he accepted, and was understandably wounded when he was replaced in the following year by John Wain. His last editorship was the London Magazine, financed by Cecil King. Lehmann’s heart was perhaps no longer in it when he handed over, in 1961, to Alan Ross.

This distinguished career he described in a letter to David Hughes. ‘David, my dear, having been betrayed by Leonard Woolf – abandoned by Allen Lane – kicked out, ruined by Purnell, stabbed in the back and thrown out by Cecil King – I think I’ve had enough.’ Lehmann seems to have needed an atmosphere of crisis, conflict, parting and enormous grievances to give him strength for his daily round. This was true of his professional career, even more so of his sex life. In his relationships with his numerous boys there was a schoolmasterish element. He wanted to teach them, to better them, as well as to be cruelly disappointed and to disappoint. With Rosamond, who gave him some of her best short stories for New Writing, he showed the same tendency, on the grand scale. So, indeed, did she.

There were two people who remained, through all the storms, ready to serve. One was the immigrant Russian ballet dancer, Alexis Rassine, who became Lehmann’s lover at the beginning of the war. As his career faded, the ‘beloved Alyosha’ survived as a neglected but tenacious lodger at the lakeside cottage which Lehmann had bought at Three Bridges in West Sussex. He had contributed something to the purchase, but he was not allowed into the drawing-room, and did not go into it even after Lehmann’s death. The other most faithful follower, who could have been a novelist in her own right, was Barbara Cooper. Arriving in London from the North of England in 1939, she became Lehmann’s secretary and the only person apart from him who was allowed to read the contributions and even reject them. She was also ‘allowed’ to do the postage and packing, to pay the office milkman, and to be laughed at by a series of young men for twenty years. ‘You have been very good to me, dear John,’ she wrote to him after he resigned from the London Magazine.

He ended up, as he said himself, as a ‘minor cultural monument’, a lecturer at American universities, a recipient of the CBE and many European honours. In January 1947 there had been a lunch – to the end of his days he called it a ‘luncheon’ – held in his honour at the Trocadero. T.S. Eliot proposed the toast, but Wright says ‘the guests seem to have reacted ... in the way those who knew Lehmann tended to react: with respect, but a feeling, too, of slight absurdity.’ It had always been so. John Heath-Stubbs, in his Hindsights, describes a visit by some young Oxford poets when Lehmann was staying in Cambridge. ‘At the end of the evening it appeared that an error had been made in booking the guest rooms at King’s, and that there was one too few.’ Lehmann offered his window-seat. ‘In view of [his] reputation, none of the Oxford party was particularly anxious to avail himself of this kind offer.’ Dadie Rylands, who had known him since he was an undergraduate, called him ‘a romantic old ninny’. Isherwood, after a lifetime’s friendship, thought of him ‘basically as a silly old fart’.

‘Ultimately ... this is a triumphant life,’ says Wright, but, as he tells it, it seems (in the noble sense of the word) pathetic, meaning ‘the moving of the passions in the mournful way, the engaging of them in behalf of merit or worth’ – merit, that is, for which recognition falls short. But when have editors, however successful, however perceptive, ever received much recognition?