Dr Blair, the Leavis of the North

Terence Hawkes

  • The Scottish Invention of English Literature edited by Robert Crawford
    Cambridge, 271 pp, £35.00, July 1998, ISBN 0 521 59038 8

Until recently, the notion that the academic subject called ‘English’ had any sort of history would have seemed rather odd. Hadn’t it always just, well, existed? Surely, at his Stratford grammar school, the lad Shakespeare mugged up his Chaucer, if not the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads and Pride and Prejudice like the rest of us? How otherwise could he have written plays full of ‘characters’ who, as all O and A-level candidates know, endlessly, remorselessly, ‘develop’? Admittedly, Stephen Potter’s The Muse in Chains had offered to blow the gaff in 1937. But pell-mell postwar expansion, to say nothing of Potter’s decline into a chronicler of comfy national foibles, soon settled its hash. ‘English’ seemed to be just there: as natural as Syrup of Figs or Marmite, and as volcanically cleansing or as briskly bracing as either to the costive national soul. Gloomy siftings of the details of the subject’s invention could be dismissed as further evidence of a crisis whose other barely distinguishable symptoms were marijuana, acne and the vapourisings of feckless French fumisterie.

Talk of a ‘crisis’ in English studies usually misses the point. It’s more appropriate to see the English studies itself as the response to a crisis. Politics were always involved, and the pressures of industrial competition and international market forces made their presence felt from the start. In a standard English version, matters came to a head in the spring of 1917. First the United States vaulted onto the world stage by declaring war on Germany. Then, in the autumn, the successful Bolshevik coup inaugurated a challenger regime that would remain in contention for more than seventy years. With America’s entry into the war effectively guaranteeing the dominance of English as a world language over its chief competitor, German, the spotlight fell on education. Had not Lloyd George declared in 1918 that ‘the most formidable institution we had to fight in Germany was not the arsenals of Krupps or the yards in which they turned out submarines, but the schools of Germany. They were our most formidable competitors in business and our most terrible opponents in war’? The implication was clear. With one battle won, the study of literature written in the world’s most powerful tongue could now usefully serve to promote a sense of cultural coherence as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Thus it was, F.L. Lucas laconically reports, that in March 1917, ‘while Russia was tottering into revolution and America preparing for war ... at Cambridge members of the Senate met to debate the formation of an English Tripos.’

Just as world politics colour this highly selective account of the subject’s birth, party politics played a substantial role in the appointment of the King Edward VII Professor of English at Cambridge, who from this point presided over its growth and development. The Liberal Prime Minister Asquith had originally intended to offer the job to Sir Herbert Grierson, recent editor of the poems of John Donne. However, he allowed Lloyd George to persuade him that a post of such eminence ought rather to be a party appointment. Without doubt, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863-1944) fitted that bill. He had worked long and hard for the Liberals in his native Cornwall, holding most of the major public offices: county councillor, alderman, Justice of the Peace and ultimately Mayor of Fowey. His knighthood had been awarded primarily for political activity. On his return to Fowey from the investiture, the town brass band immediately registered a sense of professorial potential by playing ‘He’s A Fine Old English Gentleman.’

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