Obituary: Leon Garfield
Tuesday 04 June 1996
He was best known for a dozen or so novels of adventure set in an 18th- century London of his own idiosyncratic devising. He was the first winner of the Guardian Award for Children's Fiction with Devil-in-the-Fog (1966), won the Carnegie Medal with Edward Blishen for a retelling of the Greek myths, The God Beneath the Sea, in 1970, a Whitbread award in 1980 for John Diamond, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1985.
Garfield was born in Brighton and went to Brighton Grammar School. He was briefly an art student before joining the Army and serving for five years of the Second World War. His army career, he wrote, was "distinguished by a steady adherence to the rank of private in the Medical Corps", and after the war he became a technician in a hospital biochemistry department. His first published book, Jack Holborn, in 1964, was intended to be an adult novel, but a gifted editor, Grace Hogarth of Constable, saw its possibilities as a children's book and persuaded him to revise it.
Jack Holborn was an exotic story of murder, treachery, shipwreck and ultimate fortune in the best Stevensonian tradition, and it projected Garfield straight into the front rank of children's writers. His next few novels were mostly set in 18th-century London and included, notably, Smith (1967), whose eponymous hero was a 12-year-old pickpocket, "a sooty spirit of the violent and ramshackle town [who] inhabited the tumbledown mazes about fat St Paul's . . . The most his thousand victims ever got of him was the powerful whiff of his passing and a cold draught in their dextrously emptied pockets."
Garfield's London is a world in which quickness of hand, foot, eye and wit are more to be relied on than the rule of law; in which great and small rogues are forever busy and the Devil is there to take the hindmost. It is in part the London of Hogarth and Fielding, and in part looks forward to that of Dickens, but in the main it is a construct of his own exuberant imagination: Garfield country.
While he is essentially a Londoner of letters, however, the novel which best displays a gift for comic writing is The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris (1971), set in his home town of Brighton and featuring Dr Bunnion's Academy for the Sons of Gentlefolk and Merchants. Stylistically, his writing in these novels is as exhilarating as his plots; his images are extravagant but apt, his vocabulary is strongly coloured and he scatters similes like brilliant litter.
Later Garfield novels, from the mid-1970s onward, developed greater depth and increasingly became general rather than specifically "children's" fiction, though still appearing on the children's lists. The Pleasure Garden (1976), the cycle of stories called The Apprentices (1976-78) and The Confidence Man (1978) were concerned with religious issues and were much influenced by the Bible, which he declared to be a far richer source of inspiration than the Norse and Celtic mythologies then in vogue. The Pleasure Garden is set in a seedy commercial Eden into which murder intrudes: a kind of Paradise Lost. In The Confidence Man, a rogue and charlatan leads a band of persecuted people to their promised land; he is an unlikely saviour created by faith.
From the 1980s onward, Garfield moved away from his previous range: he completed Dickens's unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1980), wrote an adult novel of his own, The House of Cards (1982), compiled two volumes of retold Shakespeare plays, and scripted condensed cartoon versions of Shakespeare plays which were produced by a Russian animation studio. His fiction for the children's list, however, remains his chief achievement.
Garfield's personal aspect was of warm, welcoming and brilliantly talkative friendliness, and it was mystifying that as a writer he showed an understanding of worldly duplicity far removed from his own character. He had some traces of the dandy, with a liking for bow ties and velvet jackets, and he owned a succession of large and overwhelmingly affectionate dogs. His wife, Vivien Alcock, is an established writer of books for children.
John Rowe Townsend
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