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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in