The Oxford Companion to English Literature 
edited by Margaret Drabble.
Oxford, 1155 pp., £15, April 1985, 0 19 866130 4
Show More
Show More

The Oxford Companion to – or Bumper Book of – English Literature was first published in 1932 and updated in three subsequent editions and many reprints. It has now been extensively re-edited by Margaret Drabble, aided by an impressive list of experts. The original editor, Sir Paul Harvey, explained that his intention was to be useful to ordinary everyday readers. He offered the dates and brief biographies of a large number of English authors, listed the more important works of fiction, with sketches of their plots, and made a point of including American books and writers as ‘an essential part of the literature of our language’. He also tried to elucidate recurrent allusions: for instance, to literary terms, wines, mythological figures, heroes, philosophers, musicians, actors, historical events and foreign authors of eminence. The result is necessarily a bit random. Harvey contains a lot of information one can feel little pain in lacking and little delight in possessing: for instance, the knowledge that Sir Archy MacSarcasm and Sir Pertinax MacSycophant come from a play by Charles Macklin, together with Sir Callagham O’Brallaghan. As it happens, this information is still to be found in the fifth edition, and I suppose it might be vital to somebody some day.

Drabble, as this tiny example shows, has used Harvey as a data base, but the changes she has introduced are much more radical than it suggests. She needed space, and this has been gained not only by making the book much longer (it is obviously a terrific bargain at £15) but by cutting. Even so, you had to be born by 1939 to get in. But many authors deserving note were born between Harvey and 1939, so harsh decisions were required: a lot had to go, and Drabble thinks we can, with relative ease, seek alternative sources of information about pieces of eight, the Doge of Venice, and Woolworths. More painfully, all the Classical allusions have been cut: Hercules and his Pillars, Hermes and his many roles, Zeus, which seems undignified when Zoroaster gets in. This wholesale omission strikes me as a mistake. The plea that there are plenty of other places to find out about Zeus and Hermes doesn’t really work: there are plenty of places to find out about everything, and this is the sort of information people seem at present to be most lacking – even if they know all about dissemination, difference and heterodiegetic analepsis. Still, editors have to be bold, and since we shall soon be looking things up on home computers which access vast data banks, these arrangements are makeshift and temporary; of course the editor was right to take responsibility for the choice of what might seem useful to the dwindling remnant of book-users.

She has a certain tenderness for Harvey, retaining his plot summaries even when they take up a disproportionate amount of space, as (many would think) in the case of Scott. But I notice that a good deal of what appears to have been carried forward has been unobtrusively revised or augmented. Harvey is said to have been rather weak on ‘movements’, and the new editor has tried to remedy this defect, even claiming to have been rather daring and contentious in doing so. I haven’t found much evidence of such coat-trailing. The entry on structuralism seems neutral and contains a modest reference to deconstruction. The article on Freudian criticism, which is extremely feeble, ends with a cross little remark. ‘Marxist Literary Criticism’ is for the most part a respectful list of names. ‘Realism’, of which somebody called ‘Stendahl’ is claimed as a precursor, is said to be meaningless except when in opposition to something else, which may be true but is not very defiant. I notice in passing that the wartime New Apocalypse gets a mention, though none of its poets rates an individual entry unless, like Barker and Watkins, they made it elsewhere on their own. Poetry London, the only magazine to which I ever subscribed without receiving a single copy, is dignified by inclusion, and even gets more space than Horizon, though much less than Scrutiny. I suppose Scrutiny was in fact more of a ‘movement’ than the others, small as its influence on creative writing has been. The British aren’t really into movements, as you can tell from this book.

If it isn’t contentious, it’s certainly conscientious. You feel that Harvey’s Perpetual Calendar and list of Movable Feasts must have been carefully checked. His section on Feasts and Saints’ Days used in Dating Documents is actually lengthened. Altogether the Companion is so careful and sensible that a reviewer, before settling down to a bit of sniping, has a duty to congratulate all concerned and to declare that it is quite difficult to imagine, in this genre, a more useful publication.

I’ve mentioned the regrettable though perhaps necessary omission of mythological information. The Bible gets left out, too, and that at a time when fewer people than before know anything about it. Who was Aholah, who Aholibah? You might want to know while reading Swinburne, and Harvey will tell you, but not Drabble. Are you clear about Herod, Herod Agrippa, Herodias? Harvey will help if you’re not. And so on. In other areas the information provided is curiously selective. Why are there entries for Trinity, Magdalene, Newnham and Girton but not for King’s or Christ’s or St John’s? Why did Phoebe Hessel (1713-1821), female soldier and centenarian, have to be written out of the record? So that the entry on Henty could be enlarged? To make space for Alfred Noyes?

More seriously, Harvey’s commitment to American literature is not fully honoured, and the representation of Commonwealth writers and writing is very spotty. None of the following poets, all born before 1939, gets in: Ammons, Ashbery, Dorn, Hecht, Hollander, Zukofsky. Moby-Dick, here described as an ‘epic tragedy’, is summarised in about half the space devoted to Humphrey Clinker. Melville, like Hawthorne, gets the same wordage as Day-Lewis and a lot less than Maugham. From Australia we have Patrick White but not Christopher Brennan or A.D. Hope. Elsewhere one notes the ample presence of D. Lessing and the absence of D. Jacobson; his near-namesake Roman Jakobson is in, and said to be still alive, though alas he is not. Why Auerbach and not Curtius or Spitzer? Why the uninteresting Richard Hengist Horne and not the fascinating Herbert Horne? There’s a conspiracy against Herbert Horne: he isn’t even in the DNB, which he helped to write. Which reminds me that among the contributors listed at the front of this Companion I see the name of Penelope Fitgerald – not, however, to be found in the body of the book. Why Ian Fleming and not, say, Gavin Ewart? Why Alfred Noyes and not Olivia Manning? Why not both A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble? Doubtless for all sorts of reasons. Why Tannhäuser and not Parsifal? Why summarise The Shaving of Shagpat and not Living or Loving? However, a measure of arbitrariness is welcome: it mimes the fickleness of fortune, the chance element in celebrity. It seems, for instance, that 77 writers have won the Nobel Prize for literature; only 48 of them are held to merit inclusion on other grounds than their having got the prize. Nearer home, only nine of 16 Booker Prize winners get in. However, all the Poets Laureate are thought to be deserving, including Eusden, Pye and Austin; here a neat piece of editorial work gets Ted Hughes into the list.

The needs and assumptions of the reading public, and the taste of editors, have changed since 1932, and the surprising thing no doubt is that so much of the old book was worth keeping. One finds these fairly typical changes of content and emphasis: Hemingway enlarged, Hemans out; George Herbert expanded from two inches to two columns, and his brother Edward similarly preferred; the article on Henslowe carefully rewritten; the Heptameron, described by Harvey as ‘a collection of tales of love depicted not as vulgar gallantry but as a serious and sometimes a tragic passion’, is now just ‘a collection of tales of love depicted as a serious and sometimes a tragic passion’; Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple no longer gets its plot summarised; Hesiod’s date used to be eighth cent. BC? and is now just eighth cent. BC; hermeticism replaces Hermes, Georgette Heyer the Hexenhammer, Patricia Highsmith Hildesheim or possibly the Heythrop Hunt. Adrian Henri, but not R. McGough or B. Patten, is allowed in, perhaps because he fitted better into the space left by Henri IV.

Sometimes both editors are unhelpful, as when Harvey’s inadequate description of Gongorism is simply repeated; Marino fares little better, which is odd when you think how fully the new edition reflects the modern reappraisal of 17th-century writing. As I’ve hinted, Harvey still has his use, as you will discover if you ever need to know what Hermandad means or who the Havenbites were (18th-century London street bullies). The answer is simple, however: when you acquire this new edition, don’t throw Harvey out, or not until you get your encyclopedic computer, when you can lighten your shelves of both.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences