Marilyn Butler

  • The New Pelican Guide to English Literature. Vol. I: Medieval Literature Part One: Chaucer and the Alliterative Tradition, Vol. II: The Age of Shakespeare, Vol. III: From Donne to Marvell, Vol. IV: From Dryden to Johnson edited by Boris Ford
    Penguin, 647 pp, £2.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 14 022264 2
  • Medieval Writers and their Work: Middle English Literature and its Background by J.A. Burrow
    Oxford, 148 pp, £9.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 19 289122 7
  • Contemporary Writers Series: Saul Bellow, Joe Orton, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Pynchon by Malcolm Bradbury, C.W.E. Bigsby, Peter Conradi, Jerome Klinkowitz and Blake Morrison
    Methuen, 110 pp, £1.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 416 31650 6

It is a current preoccupation on the Left, more fashionable now among many students of English than Post-Structuralism, that English Literature as an academic subject is a conspiracy of the Establishment. The message coming out of the polys is that the minds of students and (more disturbingly) of schoolchildren are being insidiously moulded by the classics they study at O and A Level. They are indoctrinated into a belief in national unity and identity, greatness and purpose, through the values elicited from the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Henry IV Part One, Keats’s Odes and Tom Jones, Emma and Tess. It is still happening, even after we have got historians to stop drilling them in the battles we won, and when geographers no longer offer them maps in which the Empire is coloured red. Penguin Books’ reissue of Boris Ford’s Pelican Guide to English Literature, which first appeared a quarter of a century ago as an alternative version to ‘authorised’ literary history, is a reminder that not much happens that is new in academic warfare.

Boris Ford presents again what are substantially still the same first four volumes (first issued 1954-7), though there are a number of additions and a few excisions. Ford was a follower of F.R. Leavis, and it could be argued that through the Guide he did more than anyone except Leavis himself to disseminate Leavisite views. This was an achievement at the practical rather than the theoretical level, since Ford came later than the pioneer, innovative group which in the Thirties shared with the Leavises the founding of Scrutiny. ‘The high period of the journal,’ says Francis Mulhern in his book The Moment of ‘Scrutiny’, ‘was that commanded by F.R. Leavis and the early graduates of Cambridge English, [D.W.] Harding, [L.C.] Knights, Q.D. Leavis and [Denys] Thompson – five authors who, in aggregate, wrote on virtually every topic that Scrutiny ever discussed. The second Scrutiny generation, led by [R.G.] Cox and Ford, was markedly more restricted in range.’ Ford and his like (according to Mulhern) worked through the conventional subject-matter of academic English, merely applying Leavisite insights and methods. Whether or not the accusation is fair to Ford as a critic, it is at first sight over-hard on him as an editor – restriction of range cannot be quite the characteristic of a Guide which runs from Chaucer to the Modern Age, through almost all authors likely to be taught to students of English in our institutions of education. Even so, there is eventually something humble, and humdrum, about the Guide. It is neither an independent survey of English literature, nor a radical Leavisian attack upon orthodoxy, but something in between, which at most codifies the scattered pronouncements of the original heroes of the Cambridge movement.

In seeming humdrum, popular and utilitarian, the Guide of course moves a long way from Leavis’s own tone and from the tone of Scrutiny. Concessiveness was not a feature of true Cambridge man. At more or less any point from the Thirties to the Fifties, British students might become Leavisites much as American students in the Eighties become born-again Christians. Conversion gave them a simplified view of intellectual problems and an encouraging sense of moral superiority over most of those in authority. While not on the make, any more than the youthful Christians of the New Right, Leavisites were being bred to succeed in the modern conditions of mass culture, even while they were being taught to despise them. Leavisism, as a cult of the years before and after the Second World War, cleverly adapted the study of literature to the requirements of the age of meritocracy. It selected from among the best of their generation – undergraduates studying the humanities at Cambridge – a yet smaller cadre of the highly serious. It drilled them in the mental habits appropriate to the learned professions – the universities, the Civil Service, the law, journalism and politics – for survival in the competitive, meritocratic postwar world. These habits included a black-and-white view of reality, moral certainty, and a healthy contempt for birth and breeding.

Leavis was thus already a fine, intuitive polemicist and self-advertiser, who hardly needed much help from acolytes like Ford. The aggression built into the master’s manner, with its churlish tone calculated to knock the politeness out of polite letters, had a more direct and heady appeal to the young than a Guide to the syllabus would ever have. Leavis indeed knew his own business best. If the Establishment brainwashes the young, then it is not particularly good at it, and no one has done more than Leavis to show this up. English was established as a cornerstone of school and university syllabuses only after the First World War, by men mature before the war, who retained Georgian notions of an upper-class, leisured community of ideal readers. To do well, you needed to have read a great deal; at those British universities still working this old-style English (which must be more than half of them), students from unlettered backgrounds are at a strong disadvantage. The great selling-point in Leavis’s system was that, on the novel in particular, he was ruthlessly selective. Gone was the eclecticism of turn-of-the-century scholars like George Saintsbury and Oliver Elton, and of surveys like the Cambridge History of English Literature. In The Great Tradition (1947), Leavis reduced the essential canon to only four writers, dismissing once-great names with scant ceremony, interpreting Fielding as too like his own Squire Western, Scott as a mere Border balladeer. Richardson and Dickens, though allowed some merit, were kept out of the limelight. Even within the oeuvres of the favoured George Eliot, James and Conrad, Leavis went in for a further process of separating wheat from chaff, so that it was not shelves of books, but a handful of books, that the truly serious student was committed to reading.

Culling the literary herd of its old, weak and marginal members was an exercise likely to find favour in the Thirties, a relatively guiltless fantasy in the decade of Hitler and Stalin. But it also happened to meet the needs of culture’s clients far more realistically than old-style literary history. Leavis’s habit of condemning as redundant the greater part of the literary inheritance, and all minor writing by definition, has proved admirably suited to 20th-century school conditions, to matriculation and the Higher School Certificate, and after them to O and A Level.

As practised by Leavis himself at his best, Leavisism eludes the charge of restrictedness to which most 20th-century literary study is liable. If they stick with English until they are 18, our children learn a close familiarity with about eight or ten books, a manageable feat even if their off-duty reading-matter is Honey or the TV Times. The paradoxical virtue of Leavis is that, in his style of reading a single text, he manages to suggest immensely. The scheme of cultural history he often draws on may not be very impressive – it is a kind of Romantic primitivism he shares with Burke, Coleridge, Cobbett and Dickens, the wish of Barrie’s Peter Pan that our lives could be simple and protected, like children’s, and that society had never had to grow up. But Leavis is genuinely powerful on morals, on relationships, especially domestic ones, between lovers or within the family. His insistence that pupils should read books as though they were living them keeps up his claim as a liberal educator – an extraordinary achievement when it is weighed against the extreme economy of his means.

The Pelican Guide, on the other hand, is fatally uneconomical. In format, it is the Cambridge History rather than The Great Tradition, a throwback to the daunting ideal of encyclopedic knowledge. Ford carefully denied in his original introduction (much of which he now repeats) that his Guide had aims resembling Saintsbury’s: ‘it does not set out to compete with the standard Histories of Literature, which inevitably tend to have a take-it or leave-it attitude about them. This is not a Bradshaw or a Whitaker’s Almanack of English Literature.’ On the contrary, he is anxious to rescue those who suffered from old-fashioned literary history, so that ‘our literary heritage... amounts, in memory, to an unattractive amalgam of set texts and school prizes.’ Ford’s implied promise to overthrow all that dreariness is hardly borne out by his tables of contents, similar in all the volumes – two chapters of historical background followed by critical chapters on the leading writers. There are hints in the introduction that the procedures of the critical chapters at least will be different, since Ford grandly hopes to convey ‘a feeling for a living literature and for the values it embodies’. But you can’t plausibly rescue the living without performing some Leavisian surgery to discard what is dead. The sheer bulk of the volumes, the acknowledgment in the titles of a sequential arrangement – From Donne to Marvell, From Dryden to Johnson – makes nonsense of the claim to rigour.

Penguin say they are reissuing the series because it sold and continued to sell, and a quarter of a century ago this was understandable. Then the Guide might have promised to have it both ways – by getting everything in, like the Edwardian literary histories, and by sorting it out, like the Leavisites. But we have had a quarter of a century in which to observe how the series fudges the issues, and in that time the sales have been running well ahead of the reputation. What critic or scholar quotes the Pelican Guide? What good student even plagiarises it?

Actually it is a surprise to open the volumes and examine them again, whether in the original version or the new, amplified one, for the contributors make an impressive list. It would be cheap to calculate how many have died or arrived at retirement, not necessarily early. Any series-editor would be proud of a team which includes Derek Brewer, Derek Traversi, D.W. Harding, L.G. Salingar, Peter Ure, Ian Watt, J.C. Maxwell, L.C. Knights, D.J. Enright, Roy Strong, John Broadbent, Arthur Humphreys, Philip Collins, Pat Rogers, D.W. Jefferson and John Preston. What is disturbing is that everyone made his reputation elsewhere, often in the format which is properly Leavisian, the short, iconoclastic critical article. The Guide is far less than the sum of its parts, an unwieldy featureless construct long since outstripped for university students by the more practical ‘guides’ of the Sixties – the collection of critical essays on a single period or topic, on great authors or great books.

It would be wrong to suggest that Ford was intentionally faithless to the critical tradition within which he and most of his contributors worked. He showed that he subscribed to Leavis’s priorities by giving prominence to, for example, Elizabethan drama, and originally by omitting Elizabethan lyric poetry. Chapters on Sidney, Spenser and also Milton are added in 1982, the latter two by W.W. Robson, but the emphases of both of Robson’s contributions illustrate what has always been the matter with the Pelican Guide. These are two grave period pieces, echoing the Thirties rather than the Fifties, and faintly grotesque to read for the first time in the Eighties. ‘Paradise Lost: Changing Interpretations and Controversy’ picks up its topic where Leavis and Eliot left it in 1936, and almost completely omits the work of more recent Miltonists. On Spenser, the characteristic brief, Is he a living poet? yields, predictably, the answer no. Occasionally Robson seems to hanker briefly after post-Leavisite explanations for some of the curious things Spenser does. Perhaps valuable clues are hidden in other arts, or in arcane learning, iconography or numerology? The thought is put aside. What of the historical revisionism of Frances Yates and others, that the ‘Elizabethan world view’ should be thought of as an ideological construct, state propaganda? Followed through, this could have encouraged a much more animate and sceptical weighing of the relationship between background and foreground, and given back to Spenser the complexity the Leavisites denied him: Robson, heavily cumbered with the period Modernism of the Thirties, uneasily alludes to the chapter he has chosen not to write. ‘It now seems reasonable to connect The Faerie Queene with the Elizabethan passion for tourneys in which nobles took part for royal entertainment, and the deliberate idealisation of life and times under an imaginary “Arthurian” chivalry which is mixed up with contemporary politics and ideology.’

In nothing does the Leavisite tradition now seem so dated, so wilfully limited, as in its uncritical confidence in its own vantage-point, its refusal to see texts in their contexts. Most of the best schools of critical thought of the inter-war period were similarly ahistorical, for to be so was part of the Modernist reaction against Victorianism. I.A. Richards took the view to an extreme in his Practical Criticism, with its premise that the reader of a poem needed knowledge of neither the author nor his milieu. T.S. Eliot seemed to acknowledge the role of culture, but his account of the evolution of culture was, like Leavis’s, grossly simplified and partisan. The Eliot scheme, which was shared by American Southern critics like Allen Tate and Cleanth Brooks, was recently summarised by Rene Wellek:

There used to be once a perfectly ordered world, which is, for instance, behind Dante’s poetry. This world disintegrated under the impact of science and scepticism. The ‘dissociation of sensibility’ took place at some time in the 17th century. Man became increasingly divided, alienated, specialised as industrialisation and secularism progressed. The Western world is in decay, but some hope seems to be held out for a reconstitution of the original wholeness. The total man, the undivided ‘unified sensibility’, is the ideal that requires a rejection of technological civilisation.

This is a view that pits the individual against the world; in the person of his representative, the poet, man is morally and imaginatively superior to everything around him. Adherence, even qualified adherence, to such a historical model by so many literary critics helps to explain the gaps and disconnections in much literary history. It is not only the modern secular world of getting and spending which is wished away; it is not only wars and the doings of courts; it is common daily life itself, with its hardship, conflicts and problems. The prevailing aestheticism of the first half of the 20th century prevented Ford and his contributors from making connections between literature and the people who originally read, wrote or heard it. Small wonder, then, that literature as routinely surveyed in the Pelican Guide – literature not only prefaced by historical narrations, but periodised – is so often dead rather than alive.

John Burrow’s new volume for the OPUS series on ‘English Literature and its Background’ has an advantage over its rival (first) volume in the Pelican Guide – that of single authorship. Burrow, who also contributes the chapter on Gawain and the Green Knight in the Pelican, is a stylish writer and in most respects an ideal author for the OPUS series, since he has a strong modern literary awareness which should make him an imaginative guide to reading the literature of the remote past. But in fact Burrow’s modern sensibility is rather too intrusive in his book. He explains literary phenomena in literary terms, going behind the individual work to the genre, but not behind the genre to the circumstances that made the genre necessary. Though his tone is more conciliatory than the Leavisites’, Burrow shares their solicitude for modern students, and always seems anxiously aware of the errors they are about to fall into – like wanting poets to speak with a personal voice. His apologetics, which are intended to build a bridge to Medieval literature, may have the effect for some readers of distancing it.

Malcolm Bradbury’s series of monographs on modern authors sounds more positively convinced of the virtue of setting literature in period. It is boldly built upon a series of premises which tie texts to contexts; books of the Sixties and the Seventies, especially, are firmly placed against common social experience. Bradbury even writes as though the shared background is more important than the idiosyncrasies of the individual authors. ‘There now exists around us, in fiction, drama and poetry, a major achievement which belongs to our experience, our doubts and uncertainties, our ways of perceiving – an achievement stylistically radical and novel, and likely to be regarded as quite as exciting, important and innovative as that of any previous period.’ A shared perception of Bellow, Pynchon, Orton, Heaney, Fowles and Vonnegut as men of the moment or at least of the decade gives a common tone to the critiques of Bradbury and his team, and the slim volumes of the ‘Contemporary Writers’ series interact as the chapters of the Pelican Guide fail to do. But too much stress on circumstances can push a critic into brutalities, and the two editors of the series at times become deterministic to the point of self-parody. Bradbury on Saul Bellow is so insistent upon Henderson as a novel of the Fifties and Herzog as a novel of the Sixties and Mr Sammler’s Planet (1969) as a crisis book for a crisis year that one begins to feel he has undermined Bellow’s claim to his own royalties. C.W.E. Bigsby also sounds mechanical when he quarrels with Christopher Lasch over narcissism: ought it to be diagnosed as the vice of the Seventies, since Joe Orton’s work proves that it was endemic in the Sixties? Here literature illuminates sociology, rather than the other way about. Other contributors to the series sometimes manage to defy the curious notion that the English-speaking world has passed through one collective experience in the past quarter-century. Blake Morrison, while struggling gamely to relate Seamus Heaney to his and our times, cannot help but fix him eventually in his own particular place, which is in fact a substantially different matter. Tony Tanner observes suddenly that Thomas Pynchon’s most meaningful context is that of a literary tradition going back to Rabelais. Peter Conradi offers a dense study of John Fowles, some of it allusive and difficult for the audience aimed at, which subversively conveys that Fowles may be not so much a spokesman for his age as a trendy opportunist.

Such kicking against the pricks must be all to the good. The public evidently buys these series by various hands, or publishers would not be so fond of them. But even the best series doesn’t work as a whole, and can’t be expected to. It will work, if at all, as individual volumes or isolated chapters – where the critic has thought through the implications of his own material from the inside, for himself.