OBITUARY:Charles Monteith

Giles de La Mare
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:17

Charles Monteith was a literary man par excellence. He helped set the scene for important developments in different literary spheres over 25 years, up to the time of his retirement as Chairman of Faber and Faber because of ill-health in 1980, above all in poetry, fiction and drama.

Monteith became a director of Fabers in 1954, and was thus a colleague of T.S. Eliot for a decade. He played a central role in consolidating Fabers' reputation for literary distinction in post-Eliot times. He soon made his mark and established his own list, taking on a galaxy of distinguished writers: William Golding in 1954 with Lord of the Flies, whose potential he was the first among a score of publishers to spot; Samuel Beckett in 1956 with Waiting for Godot; John Osborne in 1957 with Look Back in Anger, and Ted Hughes the same year - in collaboration with Eliot - with Hawk in the Rain, to list some of the earliest ones. Only a few weeks ago, Seamus Heaney described how he had been transfixed when he received a letter from Monteith saying that Fabers wanted to publish his first volume of poems (Death of a Naturalist, 1966).

For many years, Monteith continued to attract young writers on to the Faber list who were later to become well-known: P.D. James and Philip Larkin, Heaney, Douglas Dunn, Tom Paulin and Paul Muldoon, all poets from his native Northern Ireland, John McGahern and Richard Murphy from Ireland, Wilson Harris and John Hearne from the Caribbean, Thom Gunn, Jean Genet, Alan Bennett and countless others. If he had had his way, he would have published Derek Walcott in the 1960s; as it turned out, it was another 20 years before Walcott came to Fabers.

Charles Monteith was born in 1921 in Lisburn, Co Antrim, to Protestant parents. He was awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he got a double First in English and Law; and he was later elected a Fellow of All Souls, which he remained until 1988. His war experiences in India and Burma in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were traumatic; he received a wound to his legs from a mortar explosion which was to affect him for the rest of his life. Although he qualified as a barrister at Gray's Inn in 1949, he did not practise for long. Geoffrey Faber was also a Fellow of All Souls and had known Monteith since before he became a Fellow. In 1954 he asked Monteith to join the board of Fabers.

Monteith was as impressive in his presence and personality as in his intellectual powers. He was a large man, well over six foot, with a slightly shambling gait, prone to polishing his glasses when about to launch into one of his celebrated anecdotes, or to sum up incisively the points for and against a borderline manuscript. Even if you disagreed with him on such an occasion, you would feel that the case had been fairly heard. He had a wide circle of friends and contacts, and enjoyed entertaining. I remember him cooking a delicious meal himself at his house in St John's Wood, for a lively dinner party. His rooms at All Souls were also a favourite venue for literary gatherings.

Since 1954, the book world has changed out of all recognition. However, Monteith had many qualities that are still wholly relevant in the 1990s; not least his remarkable ability to bridge the gap between dedication to literature and commercial success. His good judgement and sharpness of perception were also much in demand outside Fabers. He became a director of the Poetry Book Society in 1966, and a member of the Literature Panel of the Arts Council in 1974, of the Library Advisory Council for England in 1979 and also of the Publishers' Association Law Panel.

The extent of his influence was brought home to me at a Faber party to celebrate Philip Larkin's 60th birthday in 1982. Larkin said to me how sad he was that Monteith was no longer there at the helm and extolled his achievements in what I now realise were unusually eulogistic terms. William Golding remained loyal to Charles Monteith to the end. When the galleys of his posthumous novel The Double Tongue, which will be published shortly, came in, Lady Golding added a dedication. It concludes, "Above all, this book is for Charles."

Charles Montgomery Monteith, publisher: born Lisburn, Co Antrim 9 February 1921; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1948-88 (Emeritus), Sub-Warden 1967-69; called to the Bar, Gray's Inn 1949; Director, Faber and Faber 1954-74, Vice-Chairman 1974-76, Chairman 1977-80, Senior Editorial Consultant 1981-95; Director, Poetry Book Society 1966-81; Member, Literature Panel, Arts Council of Great Britain 1974-78; Member, Library Advisory Council for England 1979-81; died 9 May 1995.

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