John Sutherland writes about the Condition of English question

  • Exploding English: Criticism, Theory, Culture by Bernard Bergonzi
    Oxford, 240 pp, £25.00, February 1990, ISBN 0 19 812852 5
  • Professing Literature: An Institutional History by Gerald Graff
    Chicago, 315 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 226 30604 6

In March 1889 Edward Arber applied for the vacant chair of English Literature and Language at University College London. Arber’s career had been unusual. He began his working life at 17 as an Admiralty clerk, but was excited by Henry Morley’s extension lectures into spending all his spare time on the study of English literature. At the age of 42 he left the Civil Service, where he felt his life was being wasted, to take up his first academic post, a lectureship under Morley at UCL. Modelling himself on his indefatigable head of department, Arber soon made up for his late start. In 1881 he was appointed Professor of English at Mason College Birmingham – Birmingham University, as it was to become.

As was normal practice, Arber’s application to UCL was tendered as a printed pamphlet. Its eighty pages were divided into two main sections: ‘professional work’ and ‘literary work’. It is instructive to discover what professing literature entailed a hundred years ago. ‘Work’ is the right word. Arber ran his Birmingham department of 76 students single-handed. He gave 500 lectures a year, an average of 21 a week (six on Tuesdays and Thursdays) during term. ‘My health is good,’ the 53-year-old candidate informed the appointing committee. ‘I have never missed a single lecture on account of sickness, or for any other cause.’ Arber covered everything in his lectures from Anglo-Saxon to the living Tennyson and taught all levels from matriculation classes through BA honours to MA and PhD level. Examining was done externally by London University and during the eight years Arber had had charge at Birmingham there was not one failure in English.

The account of Arber’s ‘Literary Work’ – his publications – runs to 40 printed pages. He specialised in critical reprints of Tudor and Stuart literature, aiming to do for that period what Furnivall had done for early English with his Early English Texts Society. Arber’s referee, Henry Morley, calculated that his protégé had ‘already given wide currency to not fewer than 125 separate texts’. Another referee, David Masson, wrote that, ‘by his own unaided exertions’, Arber had ‘accomplished labours of editing and reprinting, such as might have tasked the united efforts of several Publishing Societies’. A surprising number of minor works are still only easily available in Arber’s ‘English Reprints’, ‘An English Garner’ or ‘English Scholar’s Library’s editions. But his outstanding scholarly achievement was his five-volume Transcript of the Registers of the Company of Stationers of London, a heroic feat of compilation, which began publication in 1875. In 1889 he had embarked on a new labour: ‘during the last three years,’ he told the committee, ‘every spare minute has been devoted to Bibliography, in the preparation of a Chronological Conspectus, year by year, of the Golden Age of our literature, from 1533 to 1640 AD, which should be to this branch of knowledge what a map of the stars is to Astronomy.’

Arber did not get the job at UCL. It went to W. P. Ker, a flier twenty years younger with a Balliol first and an All Souls fellowship behind him. The drudge could not compete with such glamour, even though Ker had published nothing between hard covers and would not do so until 1897 when Epic and Romance appeared. By then, a dispirited Arber had taken early retirement from Birmingham. He spent his remaining years as a ‘man of letters’ in London, until being knocked down fatally by a taxi in 1912. He never completed his great map of the literary stars. Nor has anyone else, as far as I know.

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