To arrive in Cambridge to study English literature with F.R. Leavis in the mid-Thirties was an act, on my part, of unconsciously astute timing. Since coming to Downing in 1932 as Director of Studies in English, he had written New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluation, among other books, and had helped to launch Scrutiny. His reputation for iconoclastic criticism, his demotion of Milton compared with Dryden, Pope, and the ‘Line of Wit’, or of Shelley compared with Wordsworth and Keats, underpinned by his close reading of ‘the words on the page’, had linked his name with Richards and Empson, two other Cambridge figures whose work had blown gusts of fresh air across the face of English literary studies.
Vol. 14 No. 9 · 14 May 1992
In his account of F. R. Leavis’s relations with Q (LRB, 23 April), Boris Ford envisages the two men sitting ‘in Q’s study drinking his most excellent whisky …’ His imagination has surely run away with him here. I have a letter from Mrs Leavis in which she disclosed that ‘whisky is something [FRL] never would touch, like rum, gin and liqueurs …’
Vol. 14 No. 10 · 28 May 1992
Professor Boris Ford (LRB, 23 April) thinks there is a Regius Chair of English at Cambridge. There is indeed a King Edward VII Chair of English Literature, founded, surprisingly enough, as a memorial to that monarch. But a Regius Chair is a chair founded by a king, and Edward VII did not found the chair. When its second holder, Q, was asked whether he did, he replied by quoting the one line of Wordsworth’s Ecclesiastical Sonnets that we can all remember: ‘Tax not that Royal Saint with vain expense.’
Continuing the Leavis and alcohol saga: John Sparrow once told me that Leavis was offered a sherry after giving a lecture in Oxford and he replied: ‘No thank you, I had a drink of water during the lecture.’
Brasenose College, Oxford
It is not, as Mr Kinch surmises (Letters, 14 May), my imagination that runs away with me but, quite possibly, my memory. I had it from Dr Leavis himself that he often sat with Q in his study drinking his most excellent – whisky, I’m sure he said. But if Queenie Leavis says that her husband never would touch whisky, then what touched their lips was brandy. And I believe Leavis occasionally sipped sherry while reading Tripos papers. All of this hardly matters greatly, except to help dispel the myth that Leavis was austere, unsmiling, and of course a teetotaller. I am sure these matters will become much clearer in Ian McKillop’s forthcoming biography of Leavis. In the meantime I would not dream of disputing matters with Mr Kinch, whose large and meticulous contribution to the bibliography of the Leavises deserves a great deal more recognition than it has received.