Book review: An Eton schoolboy thrown to the Woolfs

John Lehmann: A Pagan Adventure by Adrian Wright Duckworth pounds 20
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In the decade since his death, the figure of John Lehmann has struggled unsuccessfully against banishment to the footnotes of the literary history of this century. He dips in and out of studies of the Auden-Isherwood circle, and he is present too in books about Bloomsbury, as the rude and bolshie partner of Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press (Lehmann was thrown to the Woolfs almost immediately on coming down from Cambridge at the beginning of the 1930s). His memory is also very much alive on the streets in the literary folklore created by former employees and proteges, though today Lehmann's most enduring memorial, the London Magazine, is more widely associated with Lehmann's successor as editor, Alan Ross, who has been at the helm of that magazine now for almost 40 years.

Lehmann's greatest achievements undoubtedly lie in his career as an editor, and as a fountainhead of advice and support to younger (usually handsome, male) writers: a sort of literary impresario. But Lehmann was also a writer, and in the course of a 60-year writing career published novels and poetry, biography and criticism, as well as several volumes of autobiography which carefully muffled any suggestion of his promiscuous homosexuality.

One of Adrian Wright's problems as biographer has been to find a focus which will unite all the disparate areas, professional and emotional, of Lehmann's life. His book, though admirably concise, sometimes shows signs of muddle in its organisation of material. Major characters such as the novelist Rosamond Lehmann, John's older sister and an important emotional influence, flit irritatingly in and out of the narrative, and fail to become whole in the reader's mind, while Wright's writing sometimes becomes as overwrought as his subject's painfully obsessional love affairs.

Yet where it really matters, in his careful unpicking of the publishing histories of New Writing, Penguin New Writing, and the London Magazine, Wright performs a real service. Perhaps he doesn't quite match the opening challenge he sets himself, to show that Lehmann's editorial achievements make Cyril Connolly's at Horizon appear puny by comparison. But he does argue convincingly for Penguin New Writing, the sales of which reached 75,000 per issue by the end of 1941 (set against Horizon's 8,000 for the same period), as a significant attempt to democratise literature, to rid it, once and for all of the sneering, elitist, ivory-tower attitudes encouraged by the older Bloomsbury generation.

In his sex life, Lehmann was also intent on democratisation, albeit of a more haphazard variety. The son of a Liberal MP who edited Punch and founded Granta, Lehmann had been sent to Eton (which he hated) and then to Trinity, Cambridge, where he had had a passionate romance with Virginia Woolf's nephew, Quentin Bell, followed by a brief, starrier fling with Michael Redgrave. In the early 1930s a short stay in Berlin with Isherwood (who kept Lehmann at a distance, much to his distress), and longer periods spent in Vienna before the war, during which he began an affair with a Viennese shoemaker, helped to politicise Lehmann.

Like so many leftist British intellectuals of the period, he idealised the working-classes, and his casual sexual encounters with young working- class men were an attempt to understand as well as to bond with them. But as Orwell pointed out, only a little unfairly, force those like Lehmann into any real contact with a proletarian - let them get into a fight with a drunken fishporter on Saturday night, for instance - and they are capable of swinging back to the most ordinary middle-class snobbishness.

Lehmann's later life makes dispiriting reading. He may have settled into a relationship with the dancer Alexis Rassine, but with his relinquishing of the editorship of the London Magazine in 1961, his years of literary influence were effectively over. "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," he told one friend. "Wouldn't you say? ... Isn't it perhaps enough for one little life, for one little Eton schoolboy?"