As if Life Depended on It

John Mullan

  • Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English by David Ellis
    Liverpool, 151 pp, £25.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 1 84631 889 4
  • English as a Vocation: The ‘Scrutiny’ Movement by Christopher Hilliard
    Oxford, 298 pp, £57.00, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 969517 1
  • The Two Cultures?: The Significance of C.P. Snow by F.R. Leavis
    Cambridge, 118 pp, £10.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 1 107 61735 3

I once met F.R. Leavis – or almost. It was in October 1977, in a house in Bulstrode Gardens in Cambridge. I had arrived with a group of fellow students for an introductory meeting with our medieval supervisor, Mrs Helena Shire, a formidable Scottish lady of confident views and startling formality. As she ushered us into her sitting room we realised that it already had an occupant. A small, gaunt, elderly man in a jacket and open-necked shirt stood in the French window. I think I remember a look of something like panic on his face as the gaggle of 19-year-olds approached. After a brief hesitation he turned and exited rapidly through the glass doors into the garden. I watched as he walked away from the house, squeezed through a gap in the fence into the next-door garden and disappeared. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Mrs Shire said, ‘do you know who that was?’ She paused, more for dramatic effect than in any expectation of an answer. ‘That,’ she said, ‘was F.R. Leavis.’ She lingered on the two initials. No one said anything, but it was obvious that the name was meaningless to most of us. It was another example of someone who was famous in Cambridge but otherwise unknown. He was evidently Mrs Shire’s next-door neighbour.

It was hardly surprising that we were ignorant and unimpressed: Leavis had retired from his university post 13 years earlier. He died, aged 82, only six months after I glimpsed him. On the cover of David Ellis’s Memoirs of a Leavisite he is photographed standing with a tree and a bench behind him in (according to the jacket info) the very garden into which he escaped that autumn afternoon. He is wearing the same literary-critical uniform too: the baggy jacket and the wide-collared white shirt, open to the sternum. He holds a book, closed around his index finger, which is still marking the place. It is as if he has agreed to stop reading for just a moment, so that the photo can be taken. He stares straight at the camera and his expression is grim. Being a literary critic is a serious business; he will make no attempt to charm us.

Ellis is well aware of Leavis’s joyless reputation and tries to redeem it. He was one of the many students of Leavis at Downing College who went on to a successful academic career, in his case becoming a professor at the University of Kent. What makes him a ‘Leavisite’ is not so much a set of critical beliefs as a conviction that everything significant in his intellectual formation can be traced back to his experience as a student of Leavis. That experience was intellectually saturating. Ellis recalls that every Downing undergraduate would be taught by Leavis, as part of a group, for an hour three times every week, every term for three years. Shortly before Ellis arrived, every student was getting a Leavis class four times a week. Supervisions on their essays were usually with one of Leavis’s former students, hand-picked to cement the great man’s precepts. The big events were the classes with the master.

One of these classes is memorably imagined in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. The dour Professor Blackadder, shackled for life to the interminable editing of the works of Randolph Ash, has his poetic faculties cauterised in his youth by Leavis’s teaching. In a Downing College room, ‘the lean and agile don’ bamboozles a group of anxious students. He presents them with poems of apparently different periods and genres – but all of them are fakes written by Ash, a Victorian pasticheur. The young Blackadder watches Leavis ‘enticing unfortunate undergraduates into making wrong identifications, and then proceeding to demonstrate his own analytic brilliance in distinguishing fake from authenticity’. This demonstration of ‘the terrible, the magnificent importance and urgency of English literature’ is as baleful as it is irresistible. Ellis would call this representation a travesty. He remembers Leavis the teacher as lofty but ‘endlessly indulgent’. ‘I never heard him utter a harsh word.’

Admirers and antagonists agree that, more than any other major literary critic, Leavis’s influence was exerted through teaching. His classes were mostly devoted to the close analysis of particular passages, the purpose being to detect sincerity, vitality – as Byatt has it, ‘authenticity’. Leavis owed much to I.A. Richards’s advocacy of ‘practical criticism’, but gave it a special moral intensity. Telling the difference between real wit and mere stylistic facility, or discriminating verbal originality from formulaic phrasing, was a moral imperative. ‘When we looked at lines of poetry, or passages in a novel,’ Ellis recalls, ‘it was as if our very lives depended on it.’ He compares himself and his fellow students to early Protestants ‘let loose’ on the newly translated Bible and struggling to reach interpretations that could owe nothing to ecclesiastical authorities. Somewhere on the other side of Cambridge the English Faculty’s lectures were droning on, but Leavis did not encourage his students to attend them.

Leavis’s hold over so many of his students is not explained by the few recordings of him that remain. The British Library sound archive has a couple of lectures that Leavis gave late in life, one on Eliot’s poetry given at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 1968 and another on Eliot and Lawrence from the early 1970s. Admittedly he was by then in his seventies and these performances can hardly represent him at his most potent. Any listener now will be struck by the peculiar voice: reedy, nasal, lisping. He reads in an incantatory monotone. In each lecture he makes the audience laugh just once. In the earlier lecture this happens when he pours scorn on the ‘leisure’ of the working classes in the second half of the 20th century: ‘the telly, the car, the bingo hall … eating fish and chips in Spain’. The laughter of the Cheltenham audience is tinged with shock that he should be quite so sneering. In the second lecture, discussing the unfortunate consequences of Eliot’s ‘Francophilia’ and referring to his essay on Valéry, Leavis detects ‘the intellectual feebleness that has commonly passed for brilliance’. This raises a small wave of laughter that evidently surprises Leavis himself.

Both lectures confirm some stereotypes: the priestly conviction, the grand generalisations (‘in the Victorian age, major poetry was impossible’), the we’re-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart rhetoric. Culture is pretty much down the pan. Lawrence is as great as ever, and vital to us in ‘the present human crisis’. But few will understand his greatness. ‘Our civilisation breeds blankness as to the wonder and significance of his creativity.’ In the later lecture he supports Lawrence for inveighing against ‘the misuse of the mind that makes it an enemy of life’. ‘That misuse is a distinctive mark of our scientifico-industrial civilisation.’ Lawrence is rescuing life from ‘inner mechanisation’, and Leavis is with him on the mission. We live in ‘a world of mass democracy, statistical truths and computers that can write poems’. The pejorative use of ‘mass democracy’ is the kind of thing that has got Leavis a bad name.

In old age, his convictions still burned. The faith in Lawrence is all the more striking when set against the readiness to dismiss other writers. Open a book by Leavis and this dismissiveness is striking. The Great Tradition – based on articles that first appeared in Scrutiny in the 1930s and 1940s – may begin by telling you the names of ‘the great English novelists’ (Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad), but the opening chapter then takes us through the failings of those who came before them. Defoe ‘matters little as an influence’. Fielding existed to make Austen possible, but if you feel her ‘distinction’ you will also feel that ‘life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding.’ Richardson is a little more interesting, but ‘extremely limited in range and variety’. Sterne’s fiction is dismissed in a footnote as ‘irresponsible (and nasty) trifling’.

Even when Leavis writes about those he admires, he is ready to detect failure. After praising the ‘moral fineness’ of James’s presentation of Kate Croy in The Wings of the Dove, he adds that the novel ‘is nevertheless not a successful work’. Heart of Darkness may be ‘one of Conrad’s best things’, but Leavis’s analysis seems devoted to the ways in which the novella is ‘marred’ by Conradian adjectives (‘unspeakable’, ‘monstrous’, ‘inconceivable’): ‘The actual cheapening is little short of disastrous.’ Oddly, he is not prepared to think of the words as the properties of Conrad’s narrator rather than of the author himself. Those who survive his strictures are Lawrence, to whom he devoted a separate book, and Austen. She was too distinguished to be given the capsule treatment of The Great Tradition. On its first page he promised a longer study of her fiction, but it never came, leaving her at the mercy of Leavis’s arch-foe, Lord David Cecil.

There are just a few works of which he will use the word ‘masterpiece’: Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, Nostromo. Dickens does not merit a chapter in The Great Tradition, but Hard Times, on its own, does. ‘If I am right,’ Leavis writes, ‘of all Dickens’s works it is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show – that of a completely serious work of art.’ That opening qualifier is uncharacteristic, a flicker of hesitation such as Leavis does not usually allow himself. Read the chapter on Hard Times and you discover why he loved this, the most tendentious and merely emblematic of all Dickens’s novels. He dwells at length on the practice of Gradgrind in the classroom and the dire consequences of his supposedly utilitarian pedagogy. Here is a satire directed against everything Leavis most opposes: what he calls in his Cheltenham lecture ‘technological Benthamite civilisation’.

Ellis flinches at the recollection of his former teacher’s affirmation that ‘the adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to unusual and sustained seriousness.’ As he points out, the great man did recant near the end of his career. Yet the Leavis canon had to be narrow. Only the best could command unreserved and utterly concentrated attention. ‘To insist on the pre-eminent few’, as Leavis put it, was to bring reading to its most intense pitch. You could say in his defence that students arriving to be taught by him were generally better read than today’s: deploring Shelley was correcting their existing taste rather than banning a writer they had not yet encountered.

Christopher Hilliard’s English as a Vocation shows that applicants to Downing were expected already to have read large swathes of Shakespeare, 17th-century poetry, Romantic poetry and 19th-century fiction. Hilliard has dug up not only the entrance exams that Leavis set but also the reading suggestions he circulated to teachers: both would terrify the best of today’s English A-level candidates. Hilliard’s book is a wonderfully painstaking analysis of Leavis’s influence during his time as a teacher and writer. He has not been content with anecdotal truths about the kinds of student Leavis selected and tutored. He has been into Downing College’s archives, where admissions books record not only the schools that new undergraduates had attended but their father’s occupations. An appendix presents the data (minus the students’ names) year by year for every single one of the 335 men who read English at Downing between 1932 and 1962. Hilliard concludes that Leavis recruited his critical elite from ‘the prosperous middle class’, noticing that few were from the great public schools that still filled Cambridge. This is true, if ‘middle class’ includes the clerks, shopkeepers and accountants whose sons became Leavis’s students. Grammar schools predominate, and there certainly seems to be a higher proportion of students from working-class backgrounds than there would be at a Cambridge college now.

There are some surprises. Leavis attracted Catholic students in disproportionate numbers and leading Catholic schools sent him their brightest pupils. I dimly recall bound volumes of Scrutiny on a library shelf at my Benedictine monastery school and, sure enough, Hilliard confirms from a remaining trade sales ledger that my school had a subscription – and indeed that the monastery had its own separate subscription. The school also sent students to study English at Downing. Thinking back I realise that a couple of my most interesting, intellectually confident teachers were strongly influenced by Leavis. I may not have found Mrs Shire’s neighbour very impressive in the flesh, but perhaps some of his convictions had already been planted in me.

Leavis personally controlled admissions. When Downing entered an entrance examination consortium with other colleges, he made sure that English was the exception. His admissions exam would continue to be his. He was entirely open about his priorities, his circular for teachers announcing that in Practical Criticism candidates would be expected to compare a good passage with a bad one, detecting where qualities such as ‘sentimentality or insincerity’ lay. Questions on the Literature paper prodded willing teenagers towards the right response, asking them, for instance, to compare passages from Shakespeare and Milton with respect to their ‘concreteness, precision, subtlety’. A footnote to an Arden edition of Macbeth that Leavis had already deplored in print was set for discussion in the exam paper. The teacher who was versed in Leavis’s writing would have known how to prime his pupils.

It was a reciprocal arrangement. Nearly all of his students ‘had deliberately chosen Leavis and he had deliberately chosen them,’ Hilliard says. Ellis confirms this impression of a self-selecting and self-perpetuating praetorian guard of literary criticism: ‘Almost all my fellow students had been taught by men who were either former pupils of Leavis or very sympathetic to his point of view.’ It has long been conventional wisdom that Leavis sent his acolytes out into schools to propagate his teachings. There is some truth in this – schoolteaching was ‘by far the most common occupation for Downing English undergraduates’ – but it was also the most common occupation for Cambridge English graduates in general in the 1940s and 1950s.

Hilliard lists those of Leavis’s students who went on to become university teachers of English – about 10 per cent of the total. They include the founder of the LRB, Karl Miller. What is clear from both Hilliard’s and Ellis’s books is Leavis’s influence in English departments outside the UK. Hilliard gives the former students’ names and destinations (Canada, South Africa, Australia – only one to the United States) and provides a richly detailed sketch of Leavisite and anti-Leavisite ructions in Australian universities in the 1960s. These became so intense at the University of Sydney that for several years it offered two separate English curricula: one Leavisite (lots of close reading, dating of unseen passages and Lawrence) and one anti-Leavisite (compulsory palaeography, bibliography and editorial procedure). Oddly, Hilliard does not include David Ellis in his list of Leavis’s pupils destined for universities outside Britain. Ellis’s first academic post was at the newly founded La Trobe University in Melbourne, where he arrived in 1968. His head of department was a veteran of the war between pro and anti-Leavisites in Sydney.

Leavis’s students also went into the cultural institutions whose influence he often deprecated, notably the British Council and the BBC (it is pleasing to find out that Terrance Dicks, the main scriptwriter for Doctor Who in the 1970s, was once one of Leavis’s young men). For all his adoration of Shakespeare, Leavis was supremely uninterested in the theatre, yet the theatre directors Peter Wood and Trevor Nunn (in the same year as Ellis) were his students, and others like Peter Hall went to his seminars and admired him. Above all his influence was exercised via the students who became teachers, mostly in grammar schools. Leavisites like Denys Thompson and Raymond O’Malley produced English textbooks for them to use and edited the journal Use of English, which provided model lessons and exercises. It also promoted practical criticism teaching in schools, in the Leavis manner, via pairings of admirable against deplorable texts: John Clare compared with ‘a film song’; Mark Twain versus a shampoo advertisement; but also Donne versus Shelley.

Because he founded his literary criticism on social criticism, deploring the effects of industrialisation in the 19th century and commodity culture in the 20th century, Leavis intrigued the political left in Britain. Raymond Williams was a one-time follower, attracted by Leavis’s antagonisms: to London literary culture, to the press, to advertising. Hilliard is particularly good on the influence of Leavis on Richard Hoggart, even studying the logs of Hoggart’s extramural classes to find him imitating Leavis’s classes at Downing. Hoggart would incur the wrath of fellow Leavisites when he set up the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. Hilliard quotes letters to him by David Holbrook, a key follower of Leavis, who scolds him for dignifying television and ‘pop’ with critical attention. ‘In “pop” a dreamworld is created which is a substitute for actual living, and also a projection of inward myth-hallucinations.’

Leavis’s dislike of mass or commercial culture was sustained by many of his disciples. His training in reading was a training in resistance to the modern world, including much that we have come to call popular culture. He always mentioned television with disdain and was suspicious of the cinema. Ellis recalls him joking about Wittgenstein often being found in the queue outside a Cambridge cinema. After a day’s hard philosophy, Leavis told his pupils, ‘you perhaps need a period of complete mindlessness in order to recover.’ The youth culture of the 1960s drew predictable comment from Leavis, who deplored the ‘highly amplified, tortured sounds’ of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar (imagine Leavis sitting down to listen to Hendrix), an instrument he ‘handled with strong sexual overtones’.

Yet the 1960s was when Leavis became a national figure: his books were published in paperback by Penguin; his name was commonly mentioned in the metropolitan press he disdained; he started contributing to the Spectator and the TLS. The select audience of his journal Scrutiny (its print run varied from 750 to 1400) had become a rather large constituency, with the reprints of his books selling much better than the original editions. His influence was everywhere. Hilliard details, for instance, how the seven volumes of the Pelican Guide to English Literature were composed by ‘Scrutiny alumni and sympathisers’ and took the master’s values to tens of thousands of new readers. Leavis himself was typically suspicious of the whole enterprise, convinced that the editor, Boris Ford, would not be able to find enough contributors of ‘the necessary calibre’. You have to admire the old curmudgeon’s inexhaustible refusal to be pleased.


In the year of his retirement from his readership in the Cambridge English Faculty (he was never promoted to professor) he achieved notoriety with his riposte to C.P. Snow’s lecture ‘The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution’. Snow had proposed that the progressive application of science and technology was being frustrated by the divide between those who were scientifically educated and those who had been schooled in the humanities. He bequeathed the phrase ‘the Two Cultures’, still commonly used, to describe these groups. His original lecture was given in 1959; it was entirely characteristic that Leavis should not have read it until a couple of years later. When he did he was inspired to an eloquently scornful response, given as the Richmond Lecture in Downing College in 1962. It was printed in full in the Spectator shortly afterwards, provoking ‘a storm of comment’. It has now been republished with a lengthy and attentive introduction by Stefan Collini, along with a later lecture, ‘Luddites? Or, There Is Only One Culture’, in which Leavis responds to critics of his earlier performance.

The performance survives rather well. At the time he was widely condemned for bad academic manners – his undisguised scorn for his opponent. Now his hostility feels more like well-judged satire. He has an ear for Snow’s parade of authority and expertly ridicules the leisurely pomposity of his style. And as Leavis declares, ‘criticism of the style’ is ‘criticism of the thought’. His dismantling of the pretensions of Snow’s fiction is irresistible. In his fiction Snow ‘tells you what you are to take him as doing, but he can give you no more than the telling’. Above all, though, Leavis attacks the implicit assumption that the nation’s economic prosperity should be the ruling aim of educational policy. At the end of his ‘Luddites?’ lecture, he identifies Lord Robbins, chief author of the 1963 report recommending expansion of higher education, as a predictable ally of Snow. Believing that universities exist to meet ‘the needs of the economy’, Robbins figures prominently, as Collini says, in ‘Leavis’s demonology’. It is clear from his introduction that Collini sees Leavis’s polemic as prescient, that Leavis all but predicts that Snow’s assumptions will lead to current government policy on the funding of higher education.

Ellis begins his memoir by accepting that, for those now teaching English in schools or universities, ‘Leavis is an irrelevance.’ He certainly seemed an irrelevance to us as students in the late 1970s. We were about to be plunged into the giddy world of structuralism and deconstruction. If any of us had been recommended Leavis by an earnest English teacher, his authority would soon have been relinquished for Barthes and Derrida and Foucault. Some of the convictions that sustained him now seem odd relics. Hilliard details the mythologisation in Scrutiny of a lost world where labourers were creative artisans rather than alienated wage slaves. In particular Leavis recommended George Sturt’s 1923 study, The Wheelwright’s Shop, a paean to the fulfilment supposedly once found by the skilled worker in an organic community. Leavis mentions it again in ‘Luddites?’ as evidence of a relation between ‘cultural values’ and ‘economic fact’ that is ‘finally gone’.

Yet that supposed ‘irrelevance’ is only apparent. All these books manage to suggest that Leavis reshaped ideas about the value of reading so completely that we do not notice it. He taught that every encounter with the greatest literature is completely fresh and demanding. In his early book How to Teach Reading he scorned ‘discussing literature in terms of Hamlet’s and Lamb’s personalities, Milton’s universe, Johnson’s conversation, Wordsworth’s philosophy, and Othello’s or Shelley’s private life’. We don’t have to reject all these topics to understand the value of clearing them away. Leavis bequeathed a confidence in the essential value of any intelligent reader’s intense engagement with the best literature. There is not exactly a Leavisite method to follow. As Collini rightly says, reading Leavis’s criticism one often gets the disconcerting sense that ‘the work of discrimination’ has already been done and that ‘the reader is merely being issued with a reminder of what was “plainly” the case.’ He is little interested in William Empson’s brand of close reading with its minute verbal explication. His critical writing often deploys extended quotation as if the best writing proves itself. But he had a virtue that would be rare among leading academic critics of a later generation: he found all that was valuable within the literary work rather than taking pride in his own critical ingenuity (in this respect at least, Byatt’s caricature seems wrong). Leavis taught his students that great literature is a test of the reader, endlessly renewable, and in this he seems both influential still and right.