Manly Decency

Boris Ford

To arrive in Cambridge to study English literature with F.R. Leavis in the mid-Thirties was an act, on my part, of unconsciously astute timing. Since coming to Downing in 1932 as Director of Studies in English, he had written New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluation, among other books, and had helped to launch Scrutiny. His reputation for iconoclastic criticism, his demotion of Milton compared with Dryden, Pope, and the ‘Line of Wit’, or of Shelley compared with Wordsworth and Keats, underpinned by his close reading of ‘the words on the page’, had linked his name with Richards and Empson, two other Cambridge figures whose work had blown gusts of fresh air across the face of English literary studies.

As a result, Downing English attracted an increasing number of very bright students: so much so that the Observer, commenting on the number of Firsts they obtained, suggested that in terms of prestige Cambridge English had been overtaken by Downing English. This was hardly calculated to mollify relations between Leavis and the nabobs in the Faculty – one had quickly heard the saga of his non-appointment to a lectureship for a number of years because, so it was said, of his ‘tactless and intemperate’ attack on the Regius Professor’s Oxford Book of English Verse. In Nigel Williams’s film about Q and the Leavises recently shown by the BBC under the improbable title The Last Romantics, Leavis is seen being greeted with roars of student laughter when saying, during a lecture, that the Oxford Book ‘is a collection of dead flowers; dead flowers are one thing, but dead flowers shamming life are an obscenity’. (I wonder what Leavis really said.)

Q’s Oxford Book certainly contains some remarkable poems, of which I had always thought the most fatuous is T.E. Brown’s ‘A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!’ until I discovered that his Oxford Book of Victorian Verse includes an even greater masterpiece by Brown:

When love meets love, breast to breast,
God interposes,
An unacknowledged guest,
And leaves a little child among our roses.

We love, God makes: in our sweet mirth
God spies occasion for a birth.
Then is it his, or is it ours?
I know not – he is fond of flowers.

The notion of linking Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Leavis in a film about Cambridge English would have struck us in the Thirties as very odd indeed. For us Q was a genial figure from the past who still addressed his lecture audiences, in which women outnumbered men, as Gentlemen (since women were still not full members of the University, he argued, they were technically not present at University lectures). He was certainly not a practitioner of criticism at any level, at least not as we had come to understand the term.

Of Q the man Leavis always spoke affectionately and with admiration. He had been appointed to the Regius Chair in 1912 by Asquith; and Leavis used to tell how he and his wife found themselves cold-shouldered by fashionable Cambridge society. The Conservative gentry refused to leave cards and invite them to their Grange Road receptions. For discourtesies of that kind Q never forgave them; whereas, he asserted, any critic must feel free to offer breezy and even discourteous comments on the Oxford Book more than thirty years after it was published.

Leavis used to say that he was one of the few members of the Faculty with whom Q could talk comfortably. They had, after all, spent much time together in the early Twenties when Q supervised Leavis’s PhD thesis on ‘the relationship of journalism to literature’. One may wonder what these supervisions can have amounted to, even allowing that Q came to his Regius Chair from a life in literary journalism. Leavis was certainly critical of Q for not having been firmer with the Faculty in the matter of his appointment: yet he admitted that it was Q, with his ‘natural manly decency’, who had finally insisted on the Faculty appointing him to an assistant lectureship in his forties and a full lectureship ten years later. He was not made a Reader until his 65th year. And so, as they sat in Q’s study drinking his most excellent whisky, the old man would remark that they were both outsiders, in a way, Q because he was too detached and Leavis because he was too single-minded.

If the shape of the Tripos, like the inclusion of Shakespeare in the Medieval Paper, dissatisfied us students, it was none the less very enlightened in comparison with the state of English studies in other universities at that time. The Tripos had been fashioned in the First World War by Q, together with H.F. Stewart and the great H.M. Chadwick, Professor of Anglo-Saxon. Their proposals for a separate English School excluded the compulsory study of Anglo-Saxon, and Q saw to it that English studies should be freed from the yoke of philology. Ten years later, Q had pushed through his proposals for a Part II in the English Tripos which would ‘mainly concern itself with English thought, and be a stiff test of our men’s capacity to write (which includes thinking)’. Leavis’s ideas about education and literature in the universities, which appeared in four essays in Scrutiny during the war under the title ‘Education and the University’, were only meaningful within the context of the Tripos which Q had helped to create.

Leavis started from the premise that ‘education should be in some way concerned with countering certain characteristic tendencies of civilisation,’ and he went on to describe in considerable detail a refashioned English Tripos that would train, ‘in the way no other discipline can, intelligence and sensibility together, cultivating a sensitiveness and precision of response and a delicate integrity of intelligence’. His proposed courses, including in the third year a wide-ranging study of the 17th century as ‘a key passage in the history of civilisation’, could have provided a unique and most stimulating intellectual experience: but they were never discussed by the Faculty.

Unknown to us, Q, who had ceased before long to play any significant part in the Cambridge English Faculty, continued for thirty years, as a prominent Liberal, to play a leading role in the development of Cornish education. Would that Leavis had told us more about this side of a man mainly known by us for his Edwardian tastes and eloquence.

On the whole, it would have been far better if Nigel Williams had fictionalised his story. Whatever one may think of Rumbold-Q, the Leavis figure was a travesty. Apparently left with only one gormlesss student, there was no hint of the enormously successful and influential teacher that Leavis was in his heyday. And the portrait of Queenie Leavis as an austere bluestocking was absurd. Queenie was not only a brilliant critic, with a phenomenal knowledge of the totality of English, American and French fiction: she was also a proud housewife and mother bringing up three children, and she battled for years against cancer and deep burns. Totally committed to Leavis, she none the less led him a tense dance. Still, their Friday tea-parties were very relaxed occasions and there, stretched out on the floor, was Ralph, reading a full orchestral score. At about this time, when he was four, Ralph learned that Mr Eliot would shortly be coming to tea. When they had been introduced, Ralph said to Eliot that he was puzzled by a line in one of the ‘Five-Finger Exercises’, which asked: ‘When will Time flow away?’ When, Ralph asked, would that be? Eliot, nonplussed, asked Ralph what he thought. ‘I think there must be as much time BC as AD,’ Ralph replied, and produced a calculation he had made based on some verses from Genesis.