In the United States, ‘English’ can mean ‘spin’: a deliberate turn put on a ball by striking it so that it swerves. It’s a subtle epithet, perhaps recording a canny colonial take on the larger distortions inseparable from imperial rule. But the truth is that as the English invented ‘Great Britain’ and then began the process of large-scale colonisation, they put quite a lot of English on ‘Englishness’ itself. Broadening as the Empire grew, its characteristics blossomed, not from the blood and soil of a single nation, reflecting its culture or essentialising its way of life, so much as from a vaguely conceived, free-floating notion of ‘humanity’ itself.
The result was invaluable to the powers implementing it. If recruitment to that kind of Englishness became one of the prizes offered by the builders of Empire to those over whom they ruled, there was also a practical side, since the exported teachers on whom it relied were clearly less expensive, or more expendable, than the regiments of soldiers whose functions they fulfilled. They were also, arguably, more effective. The purpose-built academic subject called ‘English literature’ quickly became an important symbol of and forcing-house for the sort of hand-me-down, portable Englishness in question: its basis less a firmly grounded way of life and scheme of values than a claim to be able to soar above the differences manifested by individual cultures. Bidding to be ahistorical and transcendent, ‘English literature’ rested on the unstated assumption that, beneath all the mess and confusion, a world that denied it was English-speaking, Shakespeare-loving, Dickens-fancying, must be kidding.
Meanwhile, four hundred years of careful cultural quilting had gradually produced an Englishness able to blanket difference so effectively that Britain could be spoken of as ‘England’, a God-given, coherent, sea-girt island. But as those certainties now unravel, and the country resolves itself once more into its component, unhallowed parts, it’s noticeable that the three most prominent academic teachers of English in Britain over the past decades have not, strictly speaking, either claimed to be English or cared to be thought so. Frank Kermode, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton are proud of their Manx, Welsh and Irish roots. As a result, each one’s journey from the periphery to the centre, from the working-class outskirts of English culture to its middle and upper-class core, from outlandish Douglas, Pandy and Salford to chairs at London, Cambridge and Oxford, takes on something of an epic air, almost at one with the path from Caliban’s cave to Prospero’s study.
One advantage of being on the periphery is that you know where the centre is. ‘I was an 18-year-old working-class Catholic, as certain as a speak-your-weight machine and as ignorant as a fish,’ Terry Eagleton says, contrasting himself with the middle-aged patrician English tutor, pseudonymously styled ‘Greenway’, whom he encountered as an undergraduate at Cambridge. If the one thing a fish is ignorant of is water, perhaps the future Thomas Warton Professor at Oxford already sensed he was in the swim. Certainly, Greenway’s absurd posturing acquires a kind of centrality in this frequently hilarious memoir. He represents the essence of that contorted, ‘Englished’ civilisation, which the mature Eagleton set himself to undermine: ‘Greenway was the first truly civilised man I had ever encountered, and about as warmly spontaneous as a shaving brush. He knew all about cheeses, wisteria, Rubens’s brushwork, herbaceous borders, flying buttresses, gilt-edged securities, the bird-life of Venezuela, varieties of Malaysian fruit, Leibniz, Gregorian chant . . .’
Needless to say, he seems to have known little about literature’s social and political dimensions, or any of the other issues which were beginning to engage Eagleton’s interest. In fact, Greenway’s deficiencies turned out to be shared by many other strange inhabitants of that intricately spun world, such as Dadie Rylands, a member of the English faculty with ‘about as much clue how to analyse literary works as a giraffe’; or a tweed-suited, walrus-moustached creature who, since he had nothing at all intelligent to say about poetry, used instead simply to say it, declaiming verses aloud with the judgment that ‘It’s all a matter of the stomach muscles, you know.’ Perhaps a child of Irish forbears, from a Salford barely conceivable by men of such fruity insouciance, was bound to be unimpressed by mysteries vouchsafed in the very belly of the beast. In any case, the young Eagleton already knew a great deal about access to holy places. As a ten-year-old altar boy in a Carmelite convent, he had held the position of ‘gatekeeper’, so that whenever a novice took the veil and vanished behind the walls for good, it was the hand of a future Marxist literary theorist which opened, then fatefully closed, the portals. As the title of his memoir hints, there’s a sense in which Eagleton has remained in office ever since: more commissionaire than commissar perhaps, but, as teacher and scholar, never less than alertly at the door.
Despite a sickly childhood and the general greyness of urban working-class Britain, Eagleton had the good fortune to grow up in a time when the Catholic Church seemed intent on flinging its own gates wide open, provoking a virtual stampede of monks and nuns, who leaped the walls to the sound of guitars and the whiff of illegal substances in something like ‘an ecclesiastical version of Escape from Colditz’. Escape certainly seemed a good idea at a time when the boys at his Salford primary school ‘were sometimes so famished that they shovelled great mounds of beetroot into themselves at lunch, then spewed it up again in steaming maroon heaps on their school desks’. Vaulting over family poverty, Eagleton fetched up at Trinity College, Cambridge, but what had appeared to be an escape almost immediately began to look like a more intricate entrapment: ‘almost all the students seemed well over six foot tall, the products of centuries of good breeding, brayed rather than spoke, and addressed each other in stentorian tones in intimate tête-à-tête conversation.’ And, he almost adds, the men were just the same.
But if 1960s Cambridge taught Eagleton a language, he also learned, like Caliban, how to curse. Marxism was taking its toll on many an attenuated faith, and words such as ‘ideology’, ‘dialectical’ and ‘false consciousness’ were in the air. They even began to acquire the status of legal intellectual tender. So when Cambridge became less than hospitable, it wasn’t altogether surprising that another gate opened, courtesy of Maurice Bowra and Lord David Cecil, to a fellowship at Oxford. The only begetter of the study of literary theory at Oxford, he became the subject’s best-known teacher there, the leading authority in the field in Britain, and one of its most acclaimed proponents in the world beyond.
Appropriately, the major function of literary theory on both sides of the Atlantic was to open a gate and sponsor an escape. Above all, as Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out, it bankrolled a break-out from Englishness. No longer were knees required to bend before a deadening Matthew Arnold-T. S. Eliot confection of tradition and canon. A different though not unrelated heritage also goaded some of the British to examine the ‘English’ bias distorting their own outlook. Not for the first time, revolutionary ideas imported from France proved crucial, while the most important gain was a sense of theory’s ubiquity. Stances claiming to be theory-free (‘there is no method except to be very intelligent,’ Eliot intoned) were shown to have roots in complex and deliberately self-concealing theories – not only of literature, but of history and economics too. Irreverently probed by Eagleton and others, even the academic subject called ‘English’ began to own up to its stake in the political programme it had been invented to serve. Suddenly, it seemed, the masks fell away and the game was up.
Looking back, there’s no doubt that theory generated its own economy of mystification, as the smokescreen of Frenchified jargon still fogging the pages of many literary journals testifies. Despite all the hand-wringing, however, it’s now acceptable to argue that twitterings concerning ‘the common pursuit of true judgment’ or ‘taste’ or ‘tradition’ are themselves the stuff of an older, more pernicious smokescreen: one which deploys not only jargon – the peculiarly British sort that masquerades as plain speaking – but also those deodorised and smoothed over prejudices from which the British love to construct the ‘self-evident’. Over the years, Eagleton’s spirited writing responded to, initiated and encouraged some of the most radical changes confronting ‘English’, and helped decisively to realign its engagement with the culture it addresses.
In this, he has always acknowledged the influence of Raymond Williams. A source of ‘perpetual faint bemusement’ to his Cambridge colleagues, hair too long, and with the ‘wrong’ voice and the ‘wrong’ face, Williams had all the right credentials for an Eagleton then barely stifling impulses ‘to smash in the face of anyone who . . . sported a cravat or said “rarely” when they meant “really”’. Operating in the interest of a still-powerful class-structure, British academic life sought then, as perhaps it still does, to detach its participants from prior, alternative, subcultural allegiances. Much of Williams’s work focuses on this culture of deracination and the political consequences that result from the ‘educated’ abandonment of older loyalties. It lies at the very heart of the ‘English’ that Englishness puts on the world. Like most of the Welsh, he also knew about the crucial role played by adjacent cultures when it comes to defining oneself: about boundaries, peripheries, gates that led – or often did not lead – beyond them; and he knew that we are made by what we oppose. His finest novel, Border Country, takes these issues as its central concern. Eagleton could hardly fail to be drawn to such a figure, and Williams stands out in The Gatekeeper as the single appropriate model that Cambridge had to offer.
The book is also cannier than that, however. Eagleton knows as well as anyone that autobiography is one of the subtlest forms of fiction. To make a topic of one’s own development demands the most careful management of narrative. The realistic novel’s rules still apply. When it comes to the selection and ordering of events, beginnings have to be aligned with endings, endings must unpack and resolve beginnings. Messy actuality must be trimmed to meet these imperatives, and in The Gatekeeper the deprivations of family life in 1950s Salford may well have been tweaked to make an effective contrast with the fatuities of college life in 1960s Cambridge. They operate as contrastive elements in a moral fable where the gate separating one way of life from the other – to say nothing of the ways of opening it – constitutes the central issue. In such a construction, levity and jokes not only oil the moving parts, they function as a disarming mode of argument, a way of outflanking heavily defended emplacements.
When it comes to getting a purchase on Englishness, to countering its spin, wit has few fellows. Its greatest exponent in this regard was himself a colonial, and his project took the sweetly satisfying form of a whole life lived as a kind of revenge. From his paradoxical literary style to his committed sexual role, that life was geared to the reversal, at all levels and in all respects, of the ‘English’ that spun his world. Eagleton’s interest in Oscar Wilde is profound. He identifies strongly with the English-Irish Oxfordian as the classic double agent from (as James Joyce has it) one of the capitals of duplicity, ‘Doublin’. The piquant blend of patrician and Paddy, of levity and high seriousness, comes naturally, he says, to both of them: ‘He fled a stagnant colony in time-honoured Irish fashion with only his linguistic wits to hawk, as I, like so many others, had nothing but linguistic capital to lever myself out of the working class.’ Although Eagleton doesn’t mention it, that identity speaks most surprisingly and cogently in Wilde’s astonishing reply to Arnold – and, as it were in advance, to Eliot – thus making him to some degree the first outspoken opponent of that alliance and perhaps the first British literary theorist. The essay is called ‘The Critic as Artist’, and its main purpose is to award criticism a primary not a secondary role: ‘Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all, worthy of the name . . . criticism demands infinitely more cultivation than creation does . . . criticism is itself an art . . . It is to criticism that the future belongs . . . There was never a time when Criticism was more needed than it is now.’ As the witty reversal of an apparently immutable hierarchy, one which habitually stresses criticism’s secondariness, this has a truly revolutionary flavour. As it becomes more pointed – ‘Considered as an instrument of thought, the English mind is coarse and undeveloped. The only thing that can purify it is the growth of the critical instinct’ – it begins to sound like a call to the academic barricades.
Those hoping for a weightier, more graphic account of that insurrection may be disappointed by The Gatekeeper’s congenial lightness, knockabout humour and occasional flippancy. That would be a mistake. Wilde as much as Williams is his model, and these tales of leafleting with the fissiparous Left, of a classic shift from Catholicism to Marxism, of a silent father, and an oral examination conducted by E.P. Thompson, not only give compelling glimpses of Eagleton’s experience: they also offer a consistently agile and admirably trenchant diagnosis of the kind of spin that the academic study of literature was designed to put on the world. Like Wilde, Eagleton uses wit and paradox to diagnose and subvert, but unlike Wilde, he has managed at last to come in from the cold. Escaping from Oxford, he has latterly made it back, if not to his roots, at least to a chair of Cultural Theory at Manchester. As a result, it’s scarcely surprising that this spry, engaging memoir has more than a touch of ‘mission accomplished’ about it, the suggestion of a gate finally closed. It’s only slightly unsettling that it also has the air of an ironic nunc dimittis.