University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 3PA
Earls Terrace, Kensington, London W8 6LP, UK
City Park Cemetery Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya
Charles Harold (or Harris) Curtis Prentice (November 4, 1891 - June 30, 1949) was an influential British publisher who worked for Chatto and Windus from 1914-1935, where he replaced Percy Spalding as a senior partner from 1926. During his years with the firm, he had a major impact on the careers of several historically important writers, including Wyndham Lewis, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Samuel Beckett, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, and David Garnett. Called ‘one of the most brilliant publishers of his day’ by Derek Patmore, and singled out by typographer Rauri McLean as responsible for some of the most well-designed books of the Twenties, Prentice was a shrewd and knowledgeable businessman whose lifelong interest in promoting what he considered to be quality literature led to him becoming a key figure in the inter-war book trade.
Prentice was born on 4th November 1891 to Ada Norrish and Alexander Reid Prentice, the latter a wealthy solicitor based in Greenock, Scotland. He had two brothers and one sister. In September 1910, aged 18, he was admitted to Oriel College, Oxford, to study Classics (‘Greats’). While it was rumoured that he bickered with the College Provost, he finished with a second-class degree, graduating in 1914. Shortly afterwards, he volunteered to fight in the first World War I. Prentice obtained an officer’s commission, likely through his father’s contacts, and joined the 3rd Highland Howitzer Brigade as a 2nd Lieutenant. While he served until the end of the war, his elder brother Alexander was killed at Arras in 1917.
In October 1913 Prentice was still a student when his father wrote to Chatto and Windus about the possibility of his son becoming a partner. Fortunately, an opening was available, since Andrew Chatto had died earlier in the year and his widow, now a sleeping partner, was in the process of withdrawing her shares in the company. After a lengthy interrogation of the company’s finances, Alexander Prentice eventually purchased a position for young Charles by signing the Deed of Partnership on 30th December. Pleased to acquire a new young talent, as well as his father’s considerable capital, Spalding wrote to Alexander that Chatto would do their best to make Charles ‘happy and comfortable’, and ‘teach him the business through all its departments’. Charles began working on reader’s reports almost immediately, but only took up his place in the office fully after being demobilised in 1919.
The publishing house Prentice joined in 1919 was a mid-sized firm that had begun its life as a bookshop owned by the entrepreneurial John Camden Hotton in 1855. Prior to his arrival, it had a long association with the promotion of up-and-coming writers, largely responsible for establishing the careers of Algernon Charles Swinburne and R. L. Stevenson. While Chatto’s was never strongly associated with what Q. D. Leavis would call the ‘absolute best-seller’, throughout the interwar period it published between three and four new books a month, predominately sold at the price of 7/6, ensuring its books were affordable for middle-class buyers and attractive to lending libraries. Prentice joined a team consisting of Percy Spalding, Harold Raymond, and Geoffrey Whitworth, with the prolific critic and novelist Frank Swinnerton acting as manuscript reader.
During his years at Chatto, Prentice was a beloved figure by the many authors he ushered into print and formed particularly close friendships with David Garnett and Sylvia Townsend Warner (whom he called ‘Bunny’ and ‘Lolly’ respectively), T. F. Powys, and Richard Aldington. Called a ‘genius in eiderdown clothing’ by John Fothergill, Richard Aldington’s memoirs contain the most complete portrait of Prentice that remains in print: Charles was a shy and reserved man, gentle and almost hesitant in manner, often silent, with a very clear complexion and benevolent expression … with Charles the great difficulty was to restrain his lavish hospitality and generosity. His kindness was genuine and disinterested. […] He was unmarried, living in lodgings in Earl’s Terrace, Kensington, in a chaos of books, boxes of cigars, wines, and pictures by Wyndham Lewis […] with sure instinct he chose the profession of a publisher, for which he possessed something like genius.
Prentice’s amiability and kindness are preserved mainly through flashes of description in the memoirs of the authors he published, indicating a blend of business and pleasure that typified so many inter-war publishers. His relationships were strong, and mostly lasted, particularly with Warner. The pair first met in the autumn of 1923, and Prentice would become a regular visitor at her cottage in Chalton. Described by Warner’s biographer Claire Harman as her ‘escort’, Prentice’s relationship with Warner was deep, but remained Platonic, despite Valentine Ackland’s fears that he might propose.
Prentice’s remarkable epistolary record with these writers is mainly preserved through his business letters in the Chatto and Windus archive. They reveal a genial and eloquent man, as gracious when writing to authors he would reject as he was supportive and involved with those he accepted. Prentice’s acumen with advertising and skill at draughtsmanship were also notable: as well as being the lead typographer for Chatto in the field of book design, he also crafted by hand many of Chatto’s advertisements for new books. His reader’s reports, which he composed himself from the beginning to the end of his career, reveal a deep interest in literature, art and philosophy. ‘Literary’ works were his speciality: when the intellectual qualities of an unusual or difficult book were being debated by the firm’s partners, it was Prentice who was trusted with making the final judgement over a book’s permanent value to culture and the author’s potential to grow.
Prentice’s first major ‘discovery’ as a publisher was T. F. Powys. A virtual unknown in 1922, Prentice greatly assisted with the publication of his first work of fiction, The Left Leg, and would go on to play a key role in the development and maturation of Powys’ style, often working with the author to revise drafts of his fiction. Along with Harold Raymond, Frank Swinnerton, and later, Ian Parsons and Oliver Warner, Prentice was also responsible for the cultivation of the careers of Aldous Huxley and Sylvia Townsend Warner, championing their early work and creating the conditions for their subsequent popularity.
Similarly, Prentice was key to the career of Wyndham Lewis. Lewis, well-known in London as an oil painter and founder of Vorticism, had been struggling to find a publisher for a series of political books when Prentice accepted The Art of Being Ruled in 1925. The extent to which Prentice would promote books he considered intellectually valuable, sometimes against the grain of the market, is strongly evidenced by this title, which at 18/- was not widely picked up by libraries, instead pitching itself to a narrow literary readership. In order to protect the firm against loss, Prentice wrote to the printer John Kirkpatrick to say the book was ‘by no means a commercial proposition’ and arranged for a special discount of ten percent. As with Powys, Prentice would go on to form a strong personal connection to Lewis, playing a significant editorial role in his later work, before they broke in 1932 over a contractual dispute instigated by the author.
In addition to developing individual authors, Prentice played an important role in the rise of a new form of bookmaking in the early 1930s: the low-price pocket-book or ‘uniform edition’. The Phoenix Library (1928-49) and Dolphin books (1931-33) were attempts by Prentice and the other Chatto partners to sell books in larger volumes directly to wholesalers and bookshops, and circumvent the reliance on subscription libraries. While the success of the Phoenix Library was crucial in transforming authors such as Powys and Lewis into better-known names, the short-lived Dolphin series was also important, as Prentice used it to publish the work of Samuel Beckett and Thomas McGreevy in Britain for the first time.
In 1935, Prentice decided to end his distinguished career with Chatto, and received £13,750 from his shares in the company. In a letter to Harold Raymond, he wrote, ‘I wish the good ship Chatto and Windus infinite voyages of the richest profit and all happiness […] I hope that books and magazines will sell always in their thousands’. He pursued his long-held interest in Greek history and culture by moving to Greece for several years, returning to Britain periodically, before the death of his father in 1937 necessitated a move back to his birthplace of Greenock. Now a very wealthy bachelor, Prentice remained in touch with Chatto and worked as an advisor, giving his opinion on manuscripts and assisting in book production.
The end of Prentice’s life was, very much unlike his professional one, shrouded in controversy and scandal. In 1941, he eloped with his sister-in-law, Lynn Prentice, who went by the name Lynn Anderson. He explained to David Garnett that it was ‘an odd story; we had known each other amicably for 12 years, but suddenly a year ago there was an explosion. In December the Nisi should be an Absolute. Here we are anchored, as I had to buy the place, for the war anyhow – unless either of us is yanked out and applied to a lathe’. This situation did not end well. A marriage was arranged for later in the year, at Caxton Hall, with A.S. Frere of Heinemann acting as best man. However, the registrar refused to go through with the ceremony on the grounds that it was illegal for a man to marry his brother’s wife, and Frere ‘behaved disgustingly’, causing the reception to be cancelled as well.
Lynn Anderson and Prentice moved around a great deal in the following years, buying and renovating several cottages in the West Country but never settling down for more than a few years, and frequently travelled back and forth to various African countries, experiences which Prentice recounted in his letters to British-based friends with amazement and delight. From 1945, he worked as ‘a sort of get-up advisor to Penguin’, communicating via the post from his constantly-changing lodgings.
In 1948, Lynn and Prentice made the decision to move permanently to Nairobi, Kenya, where they were neighbours of William Powys, one of the 11 Powys siblings. Sadly, the scandal that had plagued Prentice’s attempted marriage seven years earlier was to be eclipsed by the manner of his death. On 30th June, 1949, Lynn returned from shopping to their urban hotel to find Prentice screaming in pain with his face covered by a sheet. Around his bed lay the bottles of over 50 barbiturate-based sleeping tablets, all empty. Despite the urgent attentions of a local doctor, he died soon afterwards. The colonial police suspected Lynn of murder; she was under house arrest for over a month. She was eventually let go, but in order to ‘keep up white prestige among the Africans’, his obituary declared a death of pneumonia. It was only in 1954, when David Garnett interviewed Lynn about Prentice’s death, that the suicide itself became known to his immediate friends. Prentice appeared jovial and happy in his final letters, and the motivation for his suicide remains a mystery. Garnett seems to have harboured at least some suspicions that it may have been murder after all. There was a distrust of Lynn that was common to Prentice’s friends, who generally believed she was guilty, at least, of exploiting his wealth and magnanimity.
Prentice’s legacy in the publishing trade is of significant literary historical importance. He played a prominent role in many of the major trends of the interwar book trade and shepherded several now-canonical writers into print with his editorial nous and love of good writing. A neglected maestro of publishing, Prentice stands as an important intermediary figure in the history of literature between modernist writers and book marketplaces, as well as a skilful typographical innovator, patron and editor.
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