Bloomsbury’s Teenage Terrorist

What drives young men to be violent? The case of David Garnett, later darling of literary London, anticipated today’s extremists

Features History
Once a teenage revolutionary: David Garnett in the 1920s

David Garnett, the writer who died in 1981 aged 88, provided one of the last links to the high age of Bloomsbury. Virginia Woolf greeted Lady into Fox, his first fiction published in 1922, as a nonpareil and it sold in quantities worldwide. The young Garnett was the lover of Duncan Grant, the painter who was also the lover of Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, and David often stayed at Bell’s Charleston farmhouse. Of his later novels, although none stands out like Lady into Fox, Aspects of Love lives on as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. When Garnett wrote his three-volume autobiography, The Golden Echo, in the 1950s, he skated over telling personal detail, leaving his second wife Angelica Bell, Grant’s daughter, to write a painful account of his character 30 years later. Yet what he did include, without inhibition, was his brief spell as a would-be terrorist. Bloomsbury is not the obvious source for insight into terrorism, and Garnett’s remarkable story seems all the more shocking now that terrorism, rather than sexual misdemeanour, is absolutely unacceptable.

David was the only child of Constance and Edward Garnett, who lived in a large draughty neo-medieval farmhouse, The Cearne, on the High Chart in Kent. He grew up precocious in a peculiar political atmosphere. Edward was a publisher’s reader and pioneer literary agent who discovered Joseph Conrad. Constance, a classicist who taught herself Russian, translated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for posterity. Russia fascinated both parents and their home was a refuge for nihilist exiles, with one of whom Constance fell in love.

This man, who went by the nom de guerre Stepniak, had killed a tyrannical figure from the Tsarist military in cold blood on a St Petersburg street and was lucky to get out of the country. In London left-leaning literati adopted him. Bernard Shaw bestowed honorary one-of-us status upon him when he renamed him Steppy. Steppy loved the orderliness of England, so it was a tragedy for him when the Russian government began to spread the word he was a murderer. His death on a West London railway line was probably self-inflicted. He couldn’t take being exposed as a thug in a gentle land he held dear. While Steppy and his affiliates talked of assassination in a faraway country the Garnetts had friends who thought it a useful political tool anywhere. David remembered the socialist Cunningham Grahame seeming ridiculous when he parroted the Russians. Still the child marked by early exposure to anti-establishment politics didn’t easily find his social place.

When the Garnett parents opposed the Boer War, Edward clashed fiercely with his father Richard, Keeper of Books at the British Museum Reading Room, who supported the Empire. David remembered being taunted at school for adopting his parents’ anti-war view. Anti-imperialism coupled with Russian nihilism primed him for misadventure ahead. 

His home background made his school career difficult. He was independent-minded and found the canings cruel and some of the teachers mad. Constance pulled him out of prep school and taught him at home; sent him back to school again; then again before the sixth form withdrew him and sent him to a London crammer. There, step by step, hardly intentionally, he got to know the activists who would take the place of his parents’ Russian protégés. He met men whose cause was Indian independence. As he recalled, aged 50: “I had been brought up to accept acts of political murder and violence with sympathy bordering on admiration; I had known and respected at least two eminent assassins, and I should have thought it particularly disgraceful to resent the murder of Englishmen by Indians, since I was myself English and to some extent shared the guilt of British imperialism. Of course I took for granted, without investigation, that British rule in India must be bad, exactly as most British boys of my age took for granted that it was good.”

In his brief but mesmerising account of underground insurgency entirely integrated into an agreeable metropolitan life, David remembered tramping with his Indian companion, Vinayak Savarkar, a law student and charismatic revolutionary activist, across Hampstead Heath until they arrived at India House, then the headquarters of the Nationalist movement in Highgate. About 30 Indians were gathered, playing an Indian hymn proscribed by the Raj on a gramophone.  “I felt free,” Garnett recalled. “I was always feeling shy. Now I was delivered from that burden, simply because I did not know these people’s standards. Whatever I did, or was, would be strange to them. I felt exhilarated. I had embarked on an adventure of my own finding; there was nobody to guide me; nobody to feel ashamed of me.” What he specifically loved about Savarkar was “an intensity of faith […] and a curious single-minded recklessness”. The Indians put on English music for their visitor. When he objected, the silent Byronic figure of Madanlal Dhingra changed the record back to Indian song — the same man who would soon murder  Sir William Curzon Wyllie, mistaking him for the former Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, and hang for it too.

A white-faced Edward had flapped the newspaper at David when news of Wyllie’s assassination in London broke on July 1, 1909. “Are these your friends? Do you know anything about this?”

David doesn’t record his answer but relates what happened subsequently when police also arrested Savarkar in 1910 and put him in Brixton jail. Savarkar had supplied guns to rebels in India and was awaiting deportation. Garnett identified weaknesses in the prison routine and decided he could free him.

He had a Winchester rifle, a present from “uncle” John Galsworthy, future Nobel laureate for literature, which he had passed on to Indian volunteers who had gone to Morocco to help local forces repel the Spanish. Confiscated in Gibraltar, the rifle came back to Garnett along with a second weapon, a Browning automatic with the serial number shaved off. When he found the number on the barrel still intact he wondered at his amateurish friends, but pressed on with his own plan. A couple of bags of pepper and a truncheon would do to overwhelm the Brixton prison guards. A car would then take Savarkar to the coast and from there his supporters would sail him to France.

David went to Paris to organise a team of helpers but the Nationalist representative there refused to cooperate. David’s intense personal adventure began when he realised he didn’t care a fig for their cause, or any cause, only for his friend. He took a train to the French coast to charter a yacht, but the weather blew up and no ship could put to sea. It was his third night without sleep, and he realised what a fool he was. “Then my intoxication and vainglory vanished suddenly.”

He got a message from a family friend, a Mrs Dryhurst, whom he had asked for help before he left: “Don’t let the ship sink for a ha’porth of tar.” He didn’t understand what she meant. She sent a second note, passed on by the Nationalist representative. It told David the name and address of the hotel where his father was staying.

When father and son met they hardly spoke. They had breakfast and left. One question in the train to Calais was: “Are you armed?” “No, Edward.” (He didn’t call him “father”.)

Savarkar was duly deported and spent 14 years in jail in the Andaman Islands. After his release he became a prominent campaigner for independence. Garnett, who never saw him again, was rescued from folly by a chain of friends. Mrs Dryhurst told Mabel Hobson, she told her brother, the future theatre critic Harold, and both told their parents. At the Hobsons’ message Connie collapsed but Edward managed to get himself across the Channel. When the police did discover David’s aborted plan, they tightened up their procedures but no officer interviewed the 17-year-old student from Hampstead. The well-known family escaped unscathed, as they never could today.

David maintained his political radicalism at least until he got married, in 1921. During the Russian Civil War he was “violently opposed to British intervention in Russia” and loudly proclaimed that he “did not know a single Conservative MP”. He was proud, in retrospect, of his “innocence and sincerity”, and also of his conspiratorial intelligence, for, aged 50, he was sure his Brixton end of the plot would have worked. But by the time Lady into Fox, a beautiful piece of English pastoral, later danced by the Ballet Rambert, was written, he had found his social place and subsided.

None of us knows what makes a terrorist, only that it involves what Garnett called “lack of a sense of reality”. Non-integration is a factor. All the fact and fiction that gets written about terrorism picks it up, but what remains unfathomable is the moment of dropping out. Why do some youngsters when they abandon home ties take up the violent cause? What David Garnett dipped a toe into one summer Osama bin Laden, another privileged son of a wealthy family, pursued for nearly 20 years a century later. All the intimate circle of would-be bombers in Doris Lessing’s 1985 novel The Good Terrorist were, in the Thatcher era, dropouts alienated from their parents and trying to conceal their middle-class voices. The 1997 novel American Pastoral, which helped Philip Roth to win the Man Booker International prize recently, tells the story of a teenage girl bomber through her father’s eyes: a father who was never absent and just can’t fathom what he did wrong.

Look, one wants to say to that father, young people worth their salt detest smugness, complacency and lack of vision, and the adult world can seem like that to them. Roth’s beautiful, talented little Merry, who turns into a fat, aggressive spouter of expletives and political jargon, probably feels: “Mom, Pop, why don’t you get it that not everyone wants to live in luxury and comfort?” There is a kind of American blindness about the novel. Add in the war in Vietnam, or some other faraway place, to justify bringing the message home with explosives, and we know why Merry does it. Still no one can say why monstrous destructiveness grips one child and not another. That’s the Rothian anguish.

Against Roth, Garnett’s real-life story suggests that terrorist susceptibility is often a product of upbringing. But if you suppress their unconventionality how can children grow up independent-minded and idealistic? Surely they can be good rebels, and discriminate among causes and methods? It’s not easy. (A friend of mine who spent most of his life verbally fighting Communism was horrified at the thuggery of some prominent demonstrators in the tuition fee marches last December. In a last note before he died, he denied any element of student idealism about them.)

Two elements in Garnett’s story about a youth who finally didn’t commit a terrorist act seem to me to hit home. One is that he quite quickly strikes himself as ridiculous. The other is that he doesn’t hate anyone. I haven’t noticed other novelists or commentators single out the point but, given that there will always be causes that urge both real and pseudo-idealists towards violence, not to produce haters is the best any parent can do. The rest is a matter of chance and evil.