David Garnett (GAHR-nuht) was born into a highly gifted literary family, whose members were on familiar terms with the most prominent men of letters of the nineteenth century. His grandfather was Richard Garnett, the superintendent of the British Museum reading room, and his father was the essayist and playwright Edward Garnett (1868-1937), who as a publisher’s reader discovered Joseph Conrad, among others. His mother was Constance Garnett, the well-known translator of Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Ivan Turgenev. In the first volume of his autobiography, The Golden Echo, Garnett describes a marvelous boyhood. When he was five, for example, Conrad taught him seamanship in a laundry basket rigged with sails made of sheets. W. H. Hudson took him birdwatching, Hilaire Belloc made adult jokes with him, George Bernard Shaw watched him at play and dubbed him “a born actor,” Ford Madox Ford took him to tea with Henry James at Rye, and H. G. Wells argued socialism with him. His mother, deeply sympathetic with the Russian revolutionary movement, constantly had as house guests political exiles from Russia.
At the age of twelve Garnett accompanied his mother (who was serving as a secret courier) to wartime Russia, where he rode horses across the steppes, played the balalaika, and in general had a magnificently adventurous time. Such experiences contributed to his being a restless and undisciplined student. To prepare for college entrance exams he crammed at London Tutorial College, where he became involved in a futile cloak-and-dagger plot to free an Indian friend, Vinayak Savarkar, from British imprisonment for treason. Then for five years he studied botany at the Royal College of Science and made frequent pleasure trips to France, Germany, and Russia; one of the most delightful excursions was a walking trip through the Tyrol with D. H. and Frieda Lawrence in 1912. During those years he also became an intimate of members of the so-called Bloomsbury Group, among them Geoffrey and John Maynard Keynes, Adrian and Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf), Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell, and Roger Fry.
In the second volume of his autobiography, The Flowers of the Forest, Garnett describes how as a pacifist he suffered a great struggle of conscience; refusing to serve in World War I, he instead helped the Quakers who were rebuilding villages in France and later worked as an agricultural laborer in Surrey. After the war he became interested in writing and published a novel, Dope Darling, under the pseudonym of Leda Burke. Then with Lady into Fox, in 1922, he “officially” joined the Bloomsbury Group with which in every other way he already had identified himself. Lady into Fox, a fantasy about the strange married life of a man whose wife turns into a fox, won both the Hawthornden and the James Tait Black prizes, and it was the first of a series of pleasant, witty books, among them A Man in the Zoo, about a man who offered himself as an exhibit in the London Zoo; The Sailor’s Return, about a sailor who brings an exotic, dark-skinned woman to live in a drab little English village; and The Grasshoppers Come, about a grounded plane caught in a plague of locusts. His first wife, Rachel Marshall, illustrated a number of these early works.
During the 1920’s Garnett also tried his hand at bookselling; his failure is recounted in Never Be a Bookseller. He was more successful as a publisher after founding the Nonesuch Press with Francis Birrell and Francis Meynell. Later he became a director of Rupert Hart-Davis, Ltd.
After many years as a discreet bohemian and intellectual radical, Garnett served as an intelligence officer in World War II and wrote the stirring account War in the Air. In 1942 he married Angelica Bell, the daughter of Vanessa and Clive Bell, but as his later writing shows, the responsibilities of military, marital, and business life never significantly modified his Bloomsbury vision of the world. He continued to write well into his eighties.