Rosemary Goad, the first woman to become a director of Faber & Faber, died in October (obituary here, paywalled).
I originally planned to go to the memorial service on 17 December with one of her long-time friends, a former Faber secretary, but I had to cancel my flight because of the developing Omicron situation.
Fortunately, the church streams its services and I was able to watch and listen. In his eulogy to Rosemary, the author and former Faber director Robert McCrum referred to Rosemary’s talking about the days when she was working in the secretarial pool with Valerie Fletcher, whose secret marriage to T. S. Eliot in 1957 came as such a surprise.
I thought of the day I first met Rosemary, and Valerie Eliot.
The tiny boxed advertisement in The Times had read, “Part-time secretary for a literary estate in Kensington.” I immediately typed a cover letter and mailed it with my CV to the address in the ad.
British postal delivery took only one day, but I was still surprised to get a phone call the very next day asking me to come for an interview. My jaw dropped. Faber and Faber? That literary estate?
I wanted to make a good impression, but my usual wardrobe consisted of jeans and t-shirts. An L. L. Bean corduroy shirtdress was the most suitable thing I found in the closet but I was still breastfeeding and it gaped across my chest. A safety pin helped, but there was still an ominous and embarrassing stretch.
But I had to get the baby to the child-minder and then a bus and a Tube to Faber & Faber. In desperation, I wrapped a flowered Liberty shawl around my shoulders and used the safety pin to anchor the knot where it would cover the gap. It was too colorful, and not the tailored look a top literary publishing house would expect. It certainly wasn’t suitable for the estate of the austere and formal poet—”a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion.”
But Faber & Faber didn’t look right either. It seemed more like a 1960s council estate, with water stains on the concrete walls and ugly double-glazing, not the Dickensian brick and old glass windows of the publishing house where I’d worked till Tom was born. And Mrs. T. S. Eliot wasn’t the ancient, frail lady I expected, but a large middle-aged person in a bright flowered dress. I had seen the marquee for the play Tom and Viv at Sloane Square the year before, but I’d only caught a whiff of the scandals and accusations, and I knew nothing about a second and much younger wife.
The person running the interview was a Faber director, a slim woman in a pale cashmere sweater. She explained that Faber and Mrs. Eliot were jointly hiring an assistant to help with the Eliot letters project. The centenary was less than two years away and, I gathered, they were worried about having a first volume out. She questioned me about my work at Blackwell Scientific while Mrs. Eliot sat silently watching.
“You’re looking for something part-time, dear?” I explained about my baby and mentioned that his name was Tom. She smiled, “Of course that was my husband’s name.” From then on my little boy was always “your Tom.”
My British secretarial qualifications were impeccable, but the deal was sealed when she told me about the unveiling of a blue plaque for T. S. Eliot the week before, on September 26th, Tom’s birthday. “That’s my birthday, too,” I exclaimed.
Rosemary Goad said, “Of course I’ll have to check your references.”
“I’ll expect you on Tuesday,” said Mrs. Eliot.
I worked at the Eliot flat in Kensington and simply sent invoices to Faber & Faber for one day a week, while Mrs. Eliot paid me for the other days. But I talked to Rosemary on two occasions.
When I was offered a book contract by a small London publisher, I asked if she would look it over. In retrospect, this was ridiculous – publishing contracts are never written in the author’s favor, and Faber & Faber is certainly not known for lavish advances. But she assured me that it looked like a perfectly standard contract.
I contacted her again when I had decided that I had to quit my job in order to write the book. But it wasn’t just that. I was frustrated that Mrs. Eliot wouldn’t give me more responsibility or move more quickly. We had completed that first volume and delivered it in time, and I thought that gave the whole project real momentum. We’d move on quickly, working as a team, dividing the responsibilities because now she knew she could trust me.
Instead, she thought we should work all the more closely together, discussing details, examining letters, often with her sitting at my side at the word-processing station. It made me crazy.
But I hated to abandon her, to abandon the work. Rosemary Goad made it easier, saying she could entirely understand and sympathize. There was not a disloyal word, but it was clear that she knew working with Valerie Eliot couldn’t be easy. And she understood that I had other prospects. She sent me this postcard after I left, saying, “One ecological card deserves another!” This illustration came from a Faber & Faber book, The Illustrated Origin of the Species. I wish I had known that Fabers published John Seymour’s books on self-sufficiency as it might have been a fine home for what Mrs Eliot referred to as my “little book” – which turned out to be a smashing success a year later, as one of Britain’s “Top 20 Green Books” in a campaign sponsored by the Observer newspaper. (Seymour wrote a blurb for the next edition, published by Piatkus.)
Rosemary – Rose to her close friends – had unique grace, tolerating the secretarial pool for longer than most while being poised to move up. It’s clear from the things that have been written and said about her since her death that she was a superb editor and publisher and a great friend. I saw her a couple of times in recent years, before she left London for Dorset, where she had long had a cottage and where she eventually died.
We mostly talked about Valerie Eliot, whom I had decided to write more about, picking up from my memoir about her in the Guardian, “Dear Mrs. Eliot.” One day, the subject of cooking came up and she told me about starting the Faber cookery list. I expressed interest, and she said I should talk to her friend Eileen Brooksbank and immediately picked up the phone and called Eileen to say there was an American friend who would like to meet her. Eileen and I became great friends and over the next few years I found that I was getting news of Rose from other women who were part of her circle. I’d somehow been invited into an earlier generation of Faber women, all of whom had their own stories to tell.