F.R. Leavis: A Life in Criticism 
by Ian MacKillop.
Allen Lane, 476 pp., £25, July 1995, 0 7139 9062 7
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‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.’ So F.R. Leavis in an exultant moment; and this biography for the most part concentrates on the local conflicts and gestures of defiance the remark implies. To a biographer who was also a pupil of Leavis, this limitation will have seemed natural, inevitable. Yet in fact Leavis’s influence extended far beyond Cambridge, and even beyond the schools in which his loyal followers taught English and from which, if they could, they sent their pupils to Downing College for more advanced indoctrination by the master or his acolytes. As a provincial student in the late Thirties I was scolded for impudently and prematurely imitating his voice, mimicking those apparently incontrovertible judgments, trying to master what is here called ‘the wry jeer’.

The reproof was deserved, but the offence was venial. The impulse to emulate Leavis rather than, say, Oliver Elton, was understandable. It wasn’t only that he sounded less tweedy, more challenging, more convinced. He gave one a new idea of what it meant to read, and seemed more intimately, more agonistically engaged with poetry than anybody else except possibly the youthful William Empson, whom at this time he greatly admired. And the whole business of criticism acquired a new and exhilarating quality. That gnarled manner of speaking or writing sounded serious, deliberate and urgent, a new way of stressing the high importance of the subject. At his best, Leavis seemed to move with the most exciting movements of language, and he was determined to teach others who wished to be civilised how, at its best, language, the main medium of culture, worked in great writing. He believed that such study was a principal means of access to a civilised society.

Here, selected almost at random, is a single example of his powers, taken from Education and the University (1943). He is discussing these lines from Lady Macbeth’s welcome to Duncan:

                             All our service
In every point twice done, and then done double
Were poor and single business, to contend
Against those honours deep and broad, wherewith
Your Majesty loads our house.

Leavis comments on the possible conflict between the figures implied by ‘deep and broad’ and ‘loads’, remarking that Shakespeare ‘has controlled his realisation to the requisite degree of incipience. And in this marvellously sure and subtle control of realisation Shakespeare’s genius is manifested as much as in the vividness of his most striking imagery.’ ‘The requisite degree of incipience’ may, like other critical formulations of Leavis’s, have an oddly bureaucratic sound, but it is an accurate description of a power that Shakespeare developed, occasionally almost over-developed, in the plays after Hamlet. Any admirer could multiply instances, memorable insights and formulations achieved almost, it seems, in passing. They do more than the more celebrated hostile analyses, say, of Milton or Shelley, to reinforce Leavis’s right to be called a major critic. To paraphrase Johnson’s remark on Gray and his ‘Elegy’, had he always written like this, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.

Critical commentary of this kind usually had its origin in the classroom. It was essential to Leavis’s project that he should be at the charismatic centre of an educational movement, and although others might find that claim absurd or presumptuous, Downing was that centre, the essential Cambridge. Until quite late in his career his university lectures were not particularly well attended; his field of operation was the college room. There are many testimonies to his courteous, considerate manners, but they weren’t always evident in his dealings with colleagues in other colleges, and he was quite often at loggerheads with the fellowship of his own. His relations with his pupils – ‘disciples’ might be better – were intense, and complicated by the attitudes of his remarkable partner, Q.D. Leavis. They mostly ended in tears.

Unfortunately it isn’t really possible to understand the agonies and ecstasies of this life without knowing something about the Cambridge in which it was lived. Mr MacKillop is obliged and willing to provide the necessary information, and for this reason among others his book tends to be dull as well as conscientious. The relation between the university and the quasi-autonomous colleges, the absence of what are elsewhere called ‘Departments’, the complexity of the appointments procedures that led to coveted but often impermanent posts with exiguous salaries, the opportunities for lobbying and genteel but ruthless skulduggery, all would be difficult for outsiders to understand. In Cambridge they are of course simply the way things are, but in the circumstances of this book the author is under the necessity of explaining them. MacKillop does so assiduously, but cannot help making the plots, treacheries, even the few genuine disagreements that had some intellectual content, sound like aldermanic bickering; and outsiders could be excused for thinking this Cambridge an uninteresting can of worms, though it was one into which the distinguished critic was, decade after decade, compelled disgustedly to peer. MacKillop certainly allows one to see the contrast between the passionate ambition of the work and the sour, harassed parochialism of the life.

It isn’t unusual for Cambridge dons to be deceived into thinking that there is nowhere else they could possibly exist. One result of this fixation is that the scramble for jobs is especially intense. Rather than seek a living elsewhere, men and women prefer to hang around picking up a meagre living from supervisions while they wait for some college vacancy, quite likely to be temporary and with no certain prospects. The world elsewhere was, in Leavis’s day, for the most part unthinkably redbrick. He himself seems hardly ever to have considered the possibility of working anywhere else (he quite unaffectedly referred to absence from Cambridge as ‘exile’) until, after his retirement, he resigned his fellowship and went to York as a part-time professor.

In a world full of professors it may seem odd to the uninitiated that Leavis, by far the most celebrated member of the Faculty of English, never reached that rank in Cambridge. He was well on in his career before he even became a Reader. His slow advancement had mundane consequences, for it affected his pension, but it also made for an increasingly rancorous attitude to rivals.

He returned from France at the end of the Great War in no great shape to begin the ascent of the Cambridge ladder. He might have fancied his chance when the English Faculty was formed in 1926 and there were no fewer than 12 university appointments to be competed for. Leavis, at the time a college lecturer, missed out, to be consoled by a probationary assistant lectureship in the following year. It was a false start, and six years later, once more without a university job, he could not even find a room in Downing to give the supervisions on which his income largely depended. He held them in his house, but having quarrelled with an important source of supply at his old college, Emmanuel, he was also short of students. ‘They will starve me out,’ he said, ‘they’ being probably not only his ex-friends at Emmanuel but F.L. Lucas, especially detested for being at King’s and associated with Bloomsbury, and E.M.W. Tillyard of Jesus, an inveterate and skilful enemy.

So his life was often a series of fights, under Cambridge rules, but he could probably conceive of no alternative. MacKillop remarks that as late as the Sixties Leavis, by now famous and feeling he had something important to say about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, still thought first of publishing his article not in some London paper but in the Cambridge Review. He was confident that it would be rejected there: ‘It’s wrong to affront the Provost of King’s, Mrs Bennett’ – wife of his enemy at Emmanuel – ‘and Mr Hough.’ These were people he had a variety of reasons for not liking. But he also had reasons at least as strong for disliking the editors of the Times Literary Supplement (successively Alan Pryce-Jones, Arthur Crook and John Gross) and indeed held the whole London literary world in contempt as a self-serving clique.

He became a lecturer in 1936, already over forty, and a full lecturer at 52. MacKillop deals with this scandalously slow ascent in great detail and with a measure of impartiality, reporting Lord Annan’s opinion that Leavis’s treatment was, in MacKillop’s paraphrase, ‘tough, but not unexpected or unjust’. Annan was Provost of King’s and knew the Cambridge system, if that is the word, intimately. But MacKillop also knows it, and, with his usual moderation, demurs, seeming to agree with Leavis that he was passed over because others had got the power to ‘work the system’ and exclude him as persona non grata. He does add that Leavis had made himself so obviously a ‘college man’, working his own system independently of the rest of them, that they could have had genuine doubts about letting him loose in theirs.

It does seem absurd that this man should have had to devote his energy to these parish council brawls and intrigues, but no one can doubt that in large part he had himself to blame. He hurt himself, and he also hurt some of his associates and disciples. That he was hard to get on with even his best friends admit. His distinguished American pupil and colleague Marius Bewley (described by another ex-disciple as ‘the only one of Leavis’s pupils who could write’) remarked acutely that

Leavis will never learn, and there is something irritating about a person who won’t ... His undergraduates have expended years, energy and money to study with him and enlarge his reputation. The least he could have done would have been not to cultivate a position in the academic world that would have made an association with him a positive liability when it came time for those people to make their living. That he should have failed to understand this point is a really shocking weakness.

And it is true that hardly any of his pupils achieved university appointments at Cambridge. One difficulty was the ambiguity of Leavis’s attitude to the English Tripos. It’s hardly conceivable that the history of this examination can be of much interest outside Cambridge, and detached observers might find it peculiarly difficult to believe that it could be thought of as the basis of national and cultural recovery. However, a brief word may be helpful. There never was anything that could be called a syllabus, although the second part of the Tripos, generally rather permissive, had a compulsory paper on tragedy and also, and perhaps most importantly, a paper on Practical Criticism. This exercise stemmed originally from I.A. Richards’s book of the same name, though it developed what MacKillop often calls the ‘anthropo-critical’ approach, and consisted of exercises in critical analysis and the dating of anonymous passages, the kind of thing Leavis himself performed with virtuosity. The hallmark of ‘Cambridge English’, it was the only innovation to be widely imitated elsewhere.

The compulsory papers aside, Leavis for the most part could teach much as he pleased in his own college. What is surprising is that while deploring the way in which the Tripos was taught by others, he regarded this rather vague and shifting programme as very important, and a serviceable foundation for a general reform of humanist education. Hardly anybody outside Downing took a view of the matter remotely like his.

In the course of his narrative MacKillop considers the whole question whether Leavis was unjustly treated, and whether he was ‘paranoid’. As to the first, he suggests, rather implausibly, that the colleagues concerned failed to give him useful support because they themselves did not understand the byzantine Cambridge appointments system. (On his own account that cannot have been true of the most powerful enemies.) He rejects conspiracy theories, while allowing that Tillyard in particular truly disliked Leavis, who felt the same way and would mock the Master of Jesus in his lectures. As to paranoia, MacKillop rightly warns against the indiscriminate use of a term known to be clinically vague. But he provides plenty of evidence of the bizarre behaviour that led people to misuse it. When the Radio Times announced a series of broadcast talks by Geoffrey Grigson on the novel, Leavis, in great agitation, tried to have them stopped, on the ground that they would certainly plagiarise The Great Tradition. He was indignant and suspicious when he heard that Graham Hough was writing a book on D.H. Lawrence, whom he himself had so recently and definitively dealt with. Hough must be up to something. In fact Hough, who had a perfect right to produce a book on Lawrence if he felt like it, was a good hater himself, in that respect a match for Leavis. John Gross was condemned for writing The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, for this was trespassing on Queenie Leavis’s territory. The attack on Snow is too well known to need recall. I.A. Richards was excommunicated on the evidence of his book on Coleridge. Leavis told his students that in the course of reviewing it he had kicked the book across the room. Like Leavis’s erstwhile friend and Scrutiny co-editor L.C. Knights, Richards was snubbed on his return to Cambridge in much later life. Knights had ‘ratted’. Richards dared to write congratulating Leavis on his CH (‘Dead Sea fruit’, said his wife). Boris Ford was accused of killing Scrutiny off by stealing its contributors for the Penguin Guide to English Literature. Few friends, however loyal, escaped. Wilfrid Mellers, H.A. Mason and others all fell foul of him in one way or another. As to his enemies, the Lucases and Houghs and Tillyards, they could hardly be said to have betrayed him: they did the work of the devil in other ways.

The relationship with T.S. Eliot was the strangest of all. He was an early hero, and Leavis was still writing about him in his last years, but he was suspect because of his religious opinions and his deplorable Bloomsbury connections. Moreover he was held to have offered little support to Scrutiny in the Criterion. Eliot was always cautious; he admired Leavis, but thought him ‘intemperate and extravagant’. He did, however, visit the Leavises in Cambridge. Mrs Leavis was strongly opposed to the visit: ‘Why do you let that man in the house? You know what he wants.’ ‘You ought to trust me, my dear,’ replied Leavis. ‘Of course I know. He won’t get it.’ The visit went well despite Eliot’s incessant smoking, because Ralph Leavis, as a small boy and a prodigy, entertained the visitor with precocious literary and musical talk.

Younger writers Leavis admired but turned against included William Empson and Ronald Bottrall, who had once been his ‘tips’ for the future of poetry; after Seven Types of Ambiguity, which was repeatedly praised, Empson began to seem less intelligent. A remarkably successful attempt on the part of his admirers to raise funds for a Leavis Lectureship went badly wrong: there was a series of administrative disasters, and, instead of enjoying the compliment, he was hurt and affronted. This affair contributed to the bad-tempered mood of his last days at Downing: he resigned his fellowship and left Cambridge in anger.

I was aware, from academic gossip, that I, too, was sometimes derided in lectures, attacked by disciples and condemned (here, at least, ignorantly) as a London parasite, but MacKillop’s book provides some information that hadn’t come my way. It seems that Leavis demanded a copy of the script of a talk I gave on the Third Programme. When he complained about it he was invited to attend the Programme’s weekly Talks Committee, an unusual invitation, but bitterly declined: it was not his job, he said, to reform BBC policy. I was told nothing of this. At another point MacKillop, I’m afraid, misrepresents me. He reports at length an obscure and (naturally in my view) intemperate attack on me by Morris Shapira, most favoured and most faithful of the clan. He rather amazingly argues that Shapira’s article, perhaps the more striking because it came from a man who wrote virtually nothing else, was responsible for Leavis’s decision to attack C.P Snow. Even less credibly, I am held responsible for the rejection by Cambridge University Press of a book about the Leavises by one Garry Watson. I do not know this book and cannot say whether I ‘received thorough criticism’ in it, as MacKillop asserts. But that is irrelevant; the argument is that because I was at the time of its submission a Syndic of the Press, and Watson was very rude to me, the publisher Michael Black preferred not to submit a proposal to the Syndicate. I hope and believe this is not true, and that Black, a serious Leavisian with whom I was quite genially associated for a good many years, knew me well enough to understand that such a consideration would not have influenced me. (But I do see that students of the Leavisian controversies might not understand how that could be so.) Incidentally, the book was turned down by another Leavis pupil, D.J. Enright, at Chatto; perhaps I should add that he had no occasion to consult my feelings.

MacKillop describes in his usual detail the extraordinary series of events which followed Brian Vickers’s acceptance of a fellowship (to teach English) at Downing. Leavis had naturally wanted the appointment for one of his own men, and he created such a rumpus that young Vickers withdrew. In the course of this row Leavis seems to have given the governing body a great deal of trouble; their patience and deference show how powerful he was in his own college. He complained of being ‘intimidated’, surely an extraordinary charge coming from the intimidator himself: but we are told that ‘he believed his inner nature required him to be diagnostically or descriptively explicit about the betrayals he experienced.’ He was always convinced, on perhaps better grounds, that he was ‘battling for survival in a hostile environment’. Later Vickers (whom Leavis treated courteously; the resistance wasn’t a matter of personal animus but of principle) was reinstated, and Leavis, losing again, at last left Cambridge for York.

Even while he taught at York he was always in Cambridge for meetings of the Faculty Board (though it’s not clear to me why at this stage he was on it). He was never truly an exile. According to Leavis, the only good passage in Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (a book he otherwise despised) was the one about Meredith making the Home Counties pose as the universe. Substitute Cambridge and the line will serve for Leavis: a hostile universe, however, not the source of much joy or comfort. In his old age he said that although people seemed to think him happy this could not be further from the truth. He had had something close to a breakdown in early life, and was helped by the Professor, Quiller Couch, whom he excepted from the condemnations he would in other circumstances almost inevitably have attracted. MacKillop remarks that although Leavis prided himself on his athleticism he often complained of fatigue; understandably perhaps, for he took teaching very seriously and serious teaching, on the scale he adopted, is tiring. His ‘men’ were not merely weekly attendants at supervisions, he knew them well and they were at home in his house. There is something daunting about the career of this man who treated his insomnia by running around Cambridge in the middle of the night, and often in the day sought occasions of grievance to keep him awake.

Mrs Leavis was later to claim, apparently with some justice, that her part in her husband’s work was much greater than appeared. Her book Fiction and the Reading Public, based on her PhD thesis, was extremely influential in my youth. She had projects, but her later work was mostly connected with Scrutiny, for which she wrote devastating reviews as well as doing much of the editorial work. Much admired as a supervisor, she was as suspicious as she was outspoken. In youth scrupulous in religious observance, she had been cut off by her Orthodox Jewish family when she married out, but was as severe as they had been on all who rejected the new orthodoxy. Leavis himself seemed to be almost as much in awe of this formidable woman as everybody else. She broke off all contact with one of her sons, reflecting in her generation the conduct of her parents in theirs. Beset by much illness and much disappointment, she remained an admirable but forbidding figure, in the end even more alarming than her husband.

In his many controversies Leavis was always unwilling to give ground and could sometimes be evasive. René Wellek, a Czech-American scholar and a historian of criticism, once politely challenged him to state the theoretical basis of his criticism. Leavis speedily and rather aggressively replied that nothing of the sort was needed, his criteria and his method were incorporated in what he wrote. All the same, he worked over some years on a theoretical treatise called ‘Authority and Method’, which he never finished. One can perhaps see why: he had authority, and that was that; as to method, he worked with the language and on the basis of that work made judgments. These tended to be very firm, and if you were young it was hard to dissent (despite the famous claim that he was only saying: ‘This is so, is it not?’). ‘That is what Henry James says about the novels of Arnold Bennett, and I think you will agree. It is final,’ he told the man who painted his portrait. Yet later, it seems, he somewhat revised this judgment. Over the famous change of mind about Dickens, MacKillop is cautious, not remarking that after Dickens became OK a disparaging remark in The Great Tradition was silently modified in later editions – a move that might be thought simply vain and slyly self-protective were it not so obvious that it was important to him, to his students and to the public at large, not to allow signs of confusion or dubiety in dogmatic pronouncements.

That he had a remarkable influence on a great variety of students is certain. Contrary to the myth, he encouraged promiscuous reading and did not want everybody to be a canonic literary critic. One pupil, the art historian Michael Baxandall, pays his impressive tribute in this book. There are others as well known, and now, like Baxandall, long removed from the immediate circle of Leavisians: for example, Karl Miller in this country, Richard Poirier and (perhaps surprisingly) Norman Podhoretz in New York. They fanned out into their own careers, but most, even if alienated or excommunicated, freely allow that he made his mark on them.

He had his own idols or heroes: Lawrence, increasingly, Eliot with all kinds of complicated reservations (he thought he saw himself in the ‘familiar compound ghost’ of Little Gidding). Late in life he wrote literary criticism of some non-English works (Anna Karenina, Montale), for him an adventure not as to reading – for it seems he always read widely, especially in French – but as to writing about what he read.

Now, at the moment of his centenary, his direct influence has waned. He has little appeal to the new theorists, and the last generation of Scrutineering sixth-form teachers is passing into retirement. There are some intelligent and still dedicated defenders, even in Cambridge, the publisher and writer Michael Black and the philosopher and Wagnerian Michael Tanner among them. But as far as I can judge the old issues are no longer debated with heat. Perhaps, with his firm views on our decadence, he would have expected this falling away. But I think there will be a revival of interest, and that it will not have much to do with the sociological Leavis, the organic society and so forth. It will instead try to recover his feel for language. Very little literary criticism lasts long, but if it has that it will always be right to return to it; so there must be a future for Leavis.

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Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995

Frank Kermode (LRB, 24 August) rightly says that Dr Tillyard disliked Leavis. As one of Tillyard’s pupils, however, I can attest that he positively encouraged me to attend Leavis’s lectures and classes in order to hear a point of view different from his own. I learnt a lot from both, and remain deeply grateful to both of them.

S.S. Prawer
The Queen’s College

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