Once a teenage revolutionary: David Garnett in the 1920s
David Garnett, the writer who died in 1981 aged 88, provided one of the last links to the high age of Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf greeted Lady into Fox, his first fiction published in 1922, as a nonpareil and it sold in quantities worldwide. The young Garnett was the lover of Duncan Grant, the painter who was also the lover of Virginia's sister Vanessa Bell, and David often stayed at Bell's Charleston farmhouse. Of his later novels, although none stands out like Lady into Fox, Aspects of Love lives on as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. When Garnett wrote his three-volume autobiography, The Golden Echo, in the 1950s, he skated over telling personal detail, leaving his second wife Angelica Bell, Grant's daughter, to write a painful account of his character 30 years later. Yet what he did include, without inhibition, was his brief spell as a would-be terrorist. Bloomsbury is not the obvious source for insight into terrorism, and Garnett's remarkable story seems all the more shocking now that terrorism, rather than sexual misdemeanour, is absolutely unacceptable.
David was the only child of Constance and Edward Garnett, who lived in a large draughty neo-medieval farmhouse, The Cearne, on the High Chart in Kent. He grew up precocious in a peculiar political atmosphere. Edward was a publisher's reader and pioneer literary agent who discovered Joseph Conrad. Constance, a classicist who taught herself Russian, translated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for posterity. Russia fascinated both parents and their home was a refuge for nihilist exiles, with one of whom Constance fell in love.
This man, who went by the nom de guerre Stepniak, had killed a tyrannical figure from the Tsarist military in cold blood on a St Petersburg street and was lucky to get out of the country. In London left-leaning literati adopted him. Bernard Shaw bestowed honorary one-of-us status upon him when he renamed him Steppy. Steppy loved the orderliness of England, so it was a tragedy for him when the Russian government began to spread the word he was a murderer. His death on a West London railway line was probably self-inflicted. He couldn't take being exposed as a thug in a gentle land he held dear. While Steppy and his affiliates talked of assassination in a faraway country the Garnetts had friends who thought it a useful political tool anywhere. David remembered the socialist Cunningham Grahame seeming ridiculous when he parroted the Russians. Still the child marked by early exposure to anti-establishment politics didn't easily find his social place.
When the Garnett parents opposed the Boer War, Edward clashed fiercely with his father Richard, Keeper of Books at the British Museum Reading Room, who supported the Empire. David remembered being taunted at school for adopting his parents' anti-war view. Anti-imperialism coupled with Russian nihilism primed him for misadventure ahead.
His home background made his school career difficult. He was independent-minded and found the canings cruel and some of the teachers mad. Constance pulled him out of prep school and taught him at home; sent him back to school again; then again before the sixth form withdrew him and sent him to a London crammer. There, step by step, hardly intentionally, he got to know the activists who would take the place of his parents' Russian protégés. He met men whose cause was Indian independence. As he recalled, aged 50: "I had been brought up to accept acts of political murder and violence with sympathy bordering on admiration; I had known and respected at least two eminent assassins, and I should have thought it particularly disgraceful to resent the murder of Englishmen by Indians, since I was myself English and to some extent shared the guilt of British imperialism. Of course I took for granted, without investigation, that British rule in India must be bad, exactly as most British boys of my age took for granted that it was good."
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