14 July 1921 – 2 June 1996
A twentieth-century children’s author with a nineteenth-century prose style who was at his best, perhaps, with narratives set in the eighteenth century? Yet who could also accommodate Greek myths, television scripts, Shakespeare for animated cartoons and the final chapters of The Mystery of Edwin Drood which Dickens left unfinished? Leon Garfield was a writer’s writer, completely himself but a warm and discerning admirer of his literary predecessors.
He was a late starter so far as publication was concerned – his debut, at the age of 43, being Jack Holborn (1964) which Grace Hogarth at Constable spotted was a children’s book, not the adult adventure story its author intended. After this, the years of rejection-slips, while working as a laboratory technician in a London hospital, paid off steadily and handsomely: The Guardian Award for Devil in the Fog (1969), the Carnegie Medal (with Edward Blishen) for The God Beneath the Sea (1971) and the Whitbread Award for John Diamond (1980).
As a stylist, he was spectacular – his lush, vigorous approach to language, reinforced by a startling use of simile and metaphor. He combined narrative pace, often linking the comic and the macabre, with a glorious ability to stop readers in their tracks at a carefully deployed phrase or sentence. Probably everyone who knows his work has a favourite Garfield passage – from The Pleasure Garden (1976) or The Apprentices (1978) or The Wedding Ghost (1987) or Revolution! (1989) -but my own favourite opens Smith (1967):
‘He was called Smith and was twelve years old. Which, in itself, was a marvel: for it seemed as if the smallpox, the consumption, brain fever, gaol-fever and even the hangman’s rope had given him a wide berth for fear of catching something. Or else they weren’t quick enough …’
In his BfK Authorgraph (March 1982) he told us ‘I’m creating a place in which my stories happen, not a time. I’ve looked back rather than forward because my imagination needs hard fact to shape and confine it. The historical novel does allow you to look at things which you might take for granted around you in a new perspective, and then you see how monstrous they are.’
Dip into the work of Leon Garfield almost anywhere and you’ll see how magnificent he was.CP