The Wizard of Finella

E.E. Duncan-Jones

  • Mansfield Forbes and his Cambridge by Hugh Carey
    Cambridge, 154 pp, £15.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 521 25680 1

‘That Enchanter, Manny Forbes ... spell-binding ... the most saintly spirit ... very bizarre’. So I.A. Richards, in 1973, of his old Cambridge colleague, nearly forty years dead. Today, even in Cambridge, the name of Forbes is no longer one to conjure with, except among the dwindling band who remember his performances in Clare as one of the two high points of the undergraduate week, the other being Richards on Practical Criticism. ‘That mysterious figure who gave such wonderful lectures’ is the most one can expect to hear from a younger generation. The house he called Finella and converted with the aid of the Australian architect and poet, Raymond McGrath, from an Early Victorian residence, called The Yews, to what Pevsner considers a milestone in Expressionist decoration, still stands, not quite as it was, for the abundant use of glass would have made it too vulnerable to air attack. For a short time, in 1931, when it housed Epstein’s Genesis, it was said to be the most visited house in England. I am told that nowadays very occasionally somebody asks to look over it. Forbes’s other tangible monument, Clare College 1326-1926 in two uncommonly heavy volumes, has, as Hugh Carey laments, obstinately refused to become a ‘rare book’ or a widely read one, or even the cult of a few. A pity, whether one takes the view of Ian Parsons that it is a literary, historical and bibliographical treasure-house or that of Maynard Keynes, not perhaps incompatible, that its highest quality is ‘a certain magnificent Sillyness, using the word in its ancient sense – admirable and attractive to the reader’.

This was certainly the moment to try to stem the tide of oblivion as Hugh Carey has done, with much resourcefulness and skill. Forbes did little to organise his own immortality. He does not even figure in the DNB. Born in 1889 in Ceylon, where his father managed a tea and rubber estate, he was educated at Cheltenham and Clare, of which at the age of 22 he was made a Fellow. He had read History but lectured at first for H.M. Chadwick on Norse and Anglo-Saxon. Weak eyesight exempted him from military service. Together with Chadwick, he did a great deal, between 1915 and 1919, to establish the new Cambridge English School, for which he subsequently taught and examined. Throughout his life he was as much interested in architecture and archaeology as in literature. His publications include a history of his college and a substantial article on the castles of Aberdeenshire. He died in 1936. Suffering from a thrombosis and warned not to leave his bed, he carelessly got out to fetch a book. Carey adds that on the night of Forbes’s death a Scottish cousin dreamed that Forbes was teaching her to levitate and then himself flew out into the great cedar in the garden of Finella. Of course he was a character who attracted legends. One is that he was rich. This, though often said and said in print, Carey maintains to have been untrue; the £20 Forbes spent annually on bisurated magnesia and picture-postcards constituted a tenth of his income. It is not quite clear how he got the money to rent and modernise Finella – perhaps it was borrowed. Certainly he was exceptionally generous and certainly he concerned himself greatly with the poverty of others: ‘a loathing of institutionalised poverty almost unbalanced him during the economic depression of his last years’. His longest obituary was in the magazine of a campaign called ‘Abolish Poverty’. An absurd legend that Carey destroys, a curious example of what used to be called Russian Scandal, claimed that one of the baths in Finella had painted on it the figure of a guardsman. What it had in fact was a rim which had been described in an architectural journal as ‘painted grenadier-red’.

That I.A. Richards should speak with enthusiasm of Forbes, his close friend, the collaborator who in 1919 had persuaded him to give up the notion of becoming a mountain guide on Skye and, instead, lecture for the Cambridge English Tripos, is what one would expect. A rare distinction for a member of the English Faculty is never to have been spoken of except with warm admiration by F.R. Leavis. Among a mass of Forbes’s papers, housed for decades by his friend Ian Parsons and eventually sorted by Dr Rylands, was a remarkable letter from the young Frank Leavis of 1921 which Carey is the first to print. (An appendix includes a number of new letters from I.A. Richards.) Thanking Forbes for help in getting a research studentship, Leavis writes: ‘What I owe to you I cannot adequately acknowledge. My sense of obligation is the more overwhelming since I had no claim on your attention, and am, moreover, painfully aware that in our personal intercourse I’ve always displayed a singularly unprepossessing gaucherie.’ Nearly fifty years later, Leavis dedicated his Clark Lectures ‘To the Memory of H. Munro Chadwick and Mansfield D. Forbes, to whom the world owes more than it knows’ – praise indeed. Having described the opening for the ‘intelligent study of literature’ that the framers of the new Tripos had provided, Leavis gives all the credit to Forbes, ‘who from the very outset ensured that the opportunity should be taken ... Young, convinced, contagiously charged with energy, and irrepressible, he performed during those opening years of Cambridge English ... the service he was unmistakably and irrepressibly fitted for’.

The Forbes of Leavis’s eulogy is not the whole man. There was also a Forbes who was conscious that at his worst he could be seen as a ‘fantastic neurotic’, who had to struggle constantly against ‘the grim tendency to be fundamentally miserable’. Still, though it is a pity that there is no praise for Richards, nothing that Leavis says of Forbes’s part in Cambridge English is untrue. Sad that by 1933, according to Hugh Carey, Forbes was ‘becoming disenchanted with English teaching in the university, which ... he felt to be increasingly concerned with dogmatic statements, rather than with the integrity of a personal search for experience’.

Books about cherished figures of the small societies of Cambridge and even of Oxford are in danger of being seen by the outside world as self-complacent and claustrophobic in their concern with small precedences and promotions. Hugh Carey is well aware that the small beer of Cambridge is not necessarily champagne to the outside world. His biography is not of the suffocating kind. Forbes’s concerns were never worldly, and the scene, in spite of the book’s title, is not always Cambridge. There are indeed unkind remarks from both Forbes and Richards about the ‘fetidities’ and ‘discontinuities’ of Cambridge, which seems to be the place they are always trying to get away from – if possible to mountains. A memorable illustration shows Forbes in plus-fours standing on the vitrified fort – he had a particular feeling for vitrified forts – at a place called Tap o’ Noth. Then again Carey does not write as a disciple. There could be no disciples of Forbes, no Forbesites: his teaching was undogmatic, he held that the way to educate oneself is to form accretions round one’s aesthetic preferences. For Carey, Forbes was a family friend, regarded with a mixture of admiration and – since Gordon Carey, Hugh’s father, worked at one time in the University Press and had dealings with Forbes as an author-exasperation.

In one of her Scrutiny articles Q.D. Leavis desiderated studies of influential teachers who still exist in living memory among grateful old pupils. Carey makes this wish of hers the epigraph to his book: but he does not present Forbes as simply the inspired and inspiring teacher that L.C. Knights has called him. To those not much concerned with the history of the English Faculty at Cambridge the interest of Carey’s book is in its portrayal of a most original and eccentric character – not a Peacockian package of predictable oddities, but a fount of surprise. ‘He wanted to have a party all the time,’ as somebody said to me after reading this book. Certainly when Forbes had parties he put a lot into them. When the little old mill at Bourn was handed over to the Cambridge Preservation Trust with an endowment derived from visits to Epstein’s Genesis in Finella, it was arranged that an Autogyro (Carey explains that this was a primitive form of helicopter) was to frame and punctuate the proceedings overhead, while under the flags of Great Britain, the United States, the new Spanish Republic and, for some reason, Argentina, friends dressed up as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilted below.

Forbes could not resist playing with words or situations. This can be seen as infuriating or enchanting. ‘You must love him ere to you he will seem worthy of your love.’ Something of this playful, this more than casual tone, giving the impression that some kind of propriety or convention is being enjoyably flouted, seems in distant retrospect to have been a characteristic of Cambridge English in the late Twenties. (No doubt things altered sharply in the subsequent decade.) I do not know that Forbes and Empson were very close: but it seems to me that Empson all his life wrote with something of the tone I try to describe.

As Carey says, Forbes had no urge to publish. He disliked ‘the finality of print’. He was a passionate and omnivorous reader but never a passive one. Books were not sacred objects. He was another Coleridge in his need to express his own views in margins. Indeed, he went further. On occasion, it seems, he cut out bits he disapproved of (Clare’s only relic of Ferrars’s community at Little Gidding is a fragment of tapestry long since ‘shorn from the altar by some unpardonably pardonable vandal’). One of many minor difficulties put in the way of his biographer must have been Forbes’s habit of composing long letters on the backs of twenty or thirty picture-post-cards: a way of playing games with the reader, ensuring that he did not read passively? The enterprise of converting Finella was put under a mysterious motto, ‘Simple intime’, of which Carey has not been able to find the source. There is a good deal about the marvels of the house which seems neither simple nor intimate, instances of planned surprises. Of one sequence of rooms in Finella Forbes himself wrote: ‘This door can only surely give upon the small blindness of a relic chamber, or perhaps a little day-dream mortuary, at the most ...? On the contrary it admits to the rose-pink spaciousness of a 50ft double room.’ The games Forbes played at Finella remind one of those Scott played at Abbotsford, where when the gas came on in the dining-room the dinner guests were startled by ‘a gush of splendour worthy of the palace of Aladdin’. What gas was to Scott glass was to Forbes; and both liked the visitor to link the latest thing with relics of the past. Scott’s gaslight fell on ancient weapons, Forbes incised Pictish harpers on his pink Induroleum.

Carey’s most difficult task was to re-create the effect of Forbes’s lectures. These were pre-eminently not of the kind that invited note-taking, and though some very diligent and intelligent students did take notes, the essence seems to me to have departed. It was often not the remarks in themselves that were valuable, but the remarks as issuing from Forbes, newly-minted, and to him, and therefore to us, for his audience was always on his side, irresistible. Perhaps, as Carey perceives, the nearest one comes to Forbes’s speaking voice is in the anonymous criticisms – ‘protocols’, we were taught to call them – contributed to I.A. Richards’s course of Practical Criticism. Of a rather portentous poem called ‘The Trees’ by J.D.C. Pellew, Forbes says: ‘Here we have the stoical sublime to order, as from the appropriate department of a literary stores – out-Harroding Harrods, as they say – or Waring its rue with a Gillow.’

It has been said that it was Forbes who taught Richards to read poetry. It is reassuring that they did not always agree. Of Longfellow’s poem, ‘In a Village Churchyard’, admired by Richards, a contributor who can only be Mansfield Forbes observes: ‘I hardly like to come near it but must confess to being a little fascinated by such an emanation from Joanna Southcott’s Gladstone bag ... this poem is a storm brewed among sodden Typhoo-tips, in the dregs of a cracked Woolworth tea-cup by an incorrigible moral charlatan, simpleton or bore.’ Cold print is not what such prose was made for, nor is it the style in which he composes the 220 pages on his hero, the 17th-century Nicholas Ferrar, in the book on Clare: though even there the page-headings (e.g. ‘Much Gadding to Little Gidding’) often remind one of Forbes’s perpetual urge to the unserious. Nicholas Ferrar was in Forbes’s view a man with such gifts for reconciliation that had he been content to apply them only to this world he might have prevented our Civil War. Talking about Ferrar’s excellence in reading aloud, he said: ‘Good reading as much as good speaking is the life of grammar made manifest – grammar is never really alive except in the creative sensibility that knows how to vary intonation, pitch, and stress of verse in the desire to fulfil communication.’ To hear Forbes himself read a poem was to possess it for life.