A Toast at the Trocadero

Terry Eagleton

  • The Prose Factory: Literary Life in England since 1918 by D.J. Taylor
    Chatto, 501 pp, £25.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 7011 8613 5

D.J. Taylor is the most charitable of critics. However absurd, third-rate or pretentious the authors he examines, he can always find something to say in their favour. In this latest study, he even puts in a good word for the preposterous Sitwell family, having first given them a roasting for their insufferable self-importance, on the grounds that Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell were at least serious about literature. Too much so, one might claim. The surreal figure of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who in the early years of the Cambridge English Faculty would greet a lecture audience composed largely of women with the word ‘Gentlemen!’, is partly excused for his belletristic waffling on the grounds that he was modestly self-deprecating. He had indeed much to be self-deprecating about. Astonishingly, Taylor even manages to imply that Quiller-Couch’s genteel brand of literary appreciation was in some ways preferable to the critical rigour of the Leavisites. He has a good word to say about me, too: ‘jaunty’. (I’m also a ‘somewhat old-fashioned Catholic moralist’.)

The Bloomsbury group, he admits, were a jealously exclusive elite, but so what? ‘It was their club: why should they be expected to let non-members through the door?’ he protests. Does this extend to banning Jews from golf clubs? Having provided plentiful evidence of Tolkien’s loathing of modernity, he enters one or two feeble excuses for his hostility to the study of post-Chaucerian English at Oxford. Lord David Cecil’s ‘gentlemanly and rather old-fashioned scholarship’ is duly noted, but ‘this is not to disparage Lord David’s accomplishments, either as critic or biographer.’ Why not? Even Empson’s expulsion from Magdalene College, Cambridge for being found in possession of contraceptives can be made to appear providential: given his iconoclastic temperament, Taylor suggests, he was better off elsewhere.

When two cases collide, Taylor is usually to be found standing dauntlessly in the middle. The phrase ‘on the other hand’ crops up regularly throughout the book. ‘Nothing wrong with [leftist] commitment, of course,’ one paragraph generously opens, but it’s clear that an ‘on the other hand’ is on the way, and it arrives only four lines later. A parody of Taylorian equivocation might read: ‘Though it is true that he threw his baby daughter over the cliff to her death, one should remember that the same daredevil impulsiveness played a vital role in his life as an artist.’ In customary liberal spirit, he is able to see almost everybody’s point of view but his own. He has a well-stocked head but very little fire in his belly. If he seems to review for almost every journal in the land apart from Farmers Weekly, and is something of a prose factory himself, it is partly because he is bright, splendidly readable and impressively erudite, and partly because few could baulk at his blandly inoffensive opinions, except for those who object to their bland inoffensiveness.

He is not, to be sure, quite as even-handed as he appears. There are times when he has to fight hard to suppress his distaste for Leavisites, literary theorists and leftists (though he praises Orwell, who appeals to his Plain Man side). In the Independent last year he patronised Jeremy Corbyn as a typical English puritan, in the usual lazy caricature of the sour-faced, high-minded left. He is easily irritated by talk of class conflict, and is not exactly in congratulatory mood when he calls John Carey the most class-conscious critic of the modern age. (The literary hackles raised by Carey’s recent memoir, The Unexpected Professor, which puts the petty-bourgeois boot into patrician dons, revealed just what kind of talk remains unacceptable in a supposedly liberal-minded literary establishment.) Yet Carey, for all his asperity and abrasiveness, is another figure to be let off with a caution, since – as for example in his treatment of Evelyn Waugh – ‘he is always capable of reining in his prejudices when something in him is stirred. Ultimately, Waugh’s snobbishness, his malice and his airs cease to matter because his novels are funny.’ It would be worth knowing why judging Waugh to be snobbish and malicious is a prejudice rather than a statement of fact, and why one can’t find him snobbish, malicious and funny at the same time.

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