Thrown to the Woolfs – John Lehmann

20200512 Thrown to the Woolfs

This book arrived in a box of mixed titles bought on Ebay for about £10 a couple of years ago, all of which were something to do with books or publishing. I must admit that I barely looked at it at the time as I had purchased the collection of fifteen or so books for a couple of autobiographies that I thought sounded interesting so this just sat on the shelf until last week.  I wish now I had picked it up earlier as, for the most part, it was a thoroughly entertaining read. The book concerns Lehmann’s time either working for or later being a partner in The Hogarth Press, a small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf primarily to publish her books exactly as her and her husband wanted them. Now of course even an author of Woolf’s stature couldn’t keep a press going by her own work alone so they also published books by other writers as well and the company was quite successful from its foundation onwards.

John Lehmann knew Virginia’s nephew Julian Bell from their time at university and when he was deciding about working at the press as the manager Julian warned him that managers didn’t last long as Leonard was far too controlling over the tiniest detail, especially money, and he would have a difficult time. The first part of the book, it’s split into four sections, concerns this fairly disastrous first attempt at working at the press in 1931 and 1932.  The descriptions not only of the cramped offices and working conditions in this section but also of Leonard and Virginia set up the tone of the whole book. Lehmann is clearly a great admirer of Virginia, not only of her work but as a person and when he isn’t actually arguing with Leonard he also gets on well with him but Julian was right, Leonard was impossible as a boss and ultimately the only way forward was for him to leave the business immediately at the end of his initial contract. This caused further ructions between him and Leonard and they barely contacted one another for several years.

The second section has Lehmann in Europe in the lead up to WWII, which is where he made a lot of contacts with up and coming writers across the continent which would serve him well in the coming years. He also started, in 1935, a bi-annual book called New Writing, initially published by The Bodley Head this was looking for a new publisher in 1938 and as things had calmed down by then he approached the Woolfs and this time would end up paying £3,000 (£205,000 in today’s money) for Virginia’s share of the business making him joint partner with Leonard in the Hogarth Press.

The third and fourth parts deal with the eight years from 1938 to 1946 whilst this partnership lasted and make up the significant part of the book not only in pages but also in detail regarding the running of the press and the interactions of the three of them. The sections are split at the suicide of Virginia in March 1941 with by far the happier times being whilst she was alive. Not only does Lehmann tell more about the Press but was also get details of Virginia’s working method and home life. Once Virginia was no longer there to provide arbitration between the two men however things started to go downhill and the one part of the book I found more difficult was a long section where Lehmann quotes verbatim letters between them arguing about which books should be printed or not. Apart from that the book was a very quick read I really wanted to know more so just kept going although you know that the final cataclysm cannot be far off.

In the end Lehmann felt he couldn’t continue as the animosity between the two men over the direction the press should take was just too much and he instigated a clause in the original agreement that either partner could ask the other to buy them out at three weeks notice. This was duly done far faster than Lehmann expected and yet another long period of bad blood between them opened up until oddly in the 1960’s they had yet another rapprochement and as this time they didn’t end up working together this seemed to go well until Leonard’s death at the end of that decade.

The book was published by Widenfield and Nicolson in 1978 in the UK and Holt, Rinehart, and Winston in 1979 in America. Neither edition appears to have been reprinted but both are easily available via abebooks and is definitely worth adding to the shelves of anyone interested in books.

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