In 1937 the South African-born novelist and poet William Plomer became publisher’s reader at Jonathan Cape, at the urging of Rupert Hart-Davis, then one of the firm’s directors. Being a publisher’s reader is a responsible job and in the long term should also be a rewarding one, not financially, but because of the satisfactions to be got from literary midwifery. The unavoidable downside is that nearly all the typescripts that have to be appraised are not of publishable quality. As Plomer says in his Autobiography, the reader ‘cannot help addressing himself to every single new typescript at least with mild curiosity – which is only a very distant connection of hope’. However, he was lucky, because in September 1937 Cape received ‘from a man in Dorset a couple of old notebooks which he said were specimens of his uncle’s diary’.
Rupert Hart-Davis recalled Plomer’s immediate response: ‘Oh Lord, I’ll take this away and have a look at it.’ But when he came in the following week his one aim was to persuade Cape that it must publish the Reverend Francis Kilvert’s diary and that he should make the selection from the twenty-two manuscript notebooks which covered the years 1870 to 1879. In this he was successful and Cape’s faith in his judgement was rewarded when it found itself with a great success on its hands after the first volume appeared in 1938. Two more followed in 1939 and 1940, and then a one-volume selection from the three in 1944. It is interesting to recall some of Plomer’s other recommendations to Cape: Alan Paton, Stevie Smith, John Fowles, John Betjeman and Vladimir Nabokov (these last two, instances where his advice was not taken). He also gave the thumbs down to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (the firm overruled him on both these) and Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment, even though Cape had published her previous novels. But from the
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