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.

Taylor is also predictably philistine about literary theory. He seems, for example, to believe that Jacques Derrida declared that there was nothing outside the text, a myth as widespread as the claim that the Inuit have a great many words for snow. Nor is he greatly enamoured of feminist criticism, which receives one rather surly reference. American feminist critics of Virginia Woolf, while praiseworthy in developing new vantage points on her work (that’s Taylor being charitable again), have ended up waging an ‘ideological crusade’. He is not himself, need one say, an ideological critic: he is a card-carrying middle-class liberal, which is not a question of ideology but of common sense. Ideology, like bad breath, is what the other guy has. The far left is the prisoner of its own rigid egalitarian dogma, whereas middle-class liberals adhere in more moderate spirit to a system that generates extreme inequalities. It is ideological to rant on about class privilege, but not to send your children to private school.

Taylor is a product of the Oxford English School, and is by no means uncritical of its less than honourable history. When I first joined the outfit in the 1960s, English was a mixture of heavy-duty scholarship, critical impressionism and medievalist whimsy. By the time Taylor joined up a couple of decades later, some of this was still firmly in place, but it was increasingly under fire from radical literary theory. Official Oxford English wasn’t opposed to theory specifically: it was darkly suspicious of ideas as such, of which such theorising was simply an extravagant specimen. Literary works consist of feelings and images, not of abstractions. The very institution of literature was thus an implicit critique of political extremism. The sensuous particularity of the text acted as a curb on cerebral flights of utopian fancy, while its delicate interweaving of attitudes challenged any too partisan position. Postgraduate students who were informed by senior members of the Oxford faculty that their work contained a large number of ideas soon became aware that this was not intended as a compliment. It was that other place, inhabited by bolshie ideologues like Leavis, Empson, I.A. Richards and Raymond Williams, which set the pace as far as concepts and critical procedures were concerned, and which engaged in such superfluous pursuits as reflecting on why one was studying literature in the first place. Oxford people just read the books and said whether they liked them or not. The controversy over structuralism in the 1980s could only have erupted at Cambridge, given that most of Oxford had no idea what it was.

For all his readiness to rebuke his alma mater, however, Taylor shares its uneasiness with ideas. The Prose Factory is really a work of lightweight literary sociology, full of vivid cameos of obscure 20th-century writers and lightning sketches of groups and periodicals, but rarely standing far back enough to map deeper intellectual currents. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its cursory treatment of modernism, another blind spot of traditional Oxford English that Taylor has inherited. It is a prejudice apparent as late as Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses, but Oxfordians like C.S. Lewis assailed modernism from a conservative standpoint and Carey does it from a populist one. Modernism was by far the most significant movement of the period with which the book deals: it changed the face of literary culture and shook art to its foundations. Yet there is no extended discussion here of what it was or what it meant. Instead, it is assimilated to the category of ‘Modern Movements’, a chapter that devotes far more of its time to writers like the Sitwells than it does to Joyce, Pound and Lawrence, all three of whom receive no more than a handful of glancing allusions in the book as a whole. There is a single brief reference to Pound’s Cantos and four mentions of Wyndham Lewis. Sylvia Plath’s name surfaces only twice. The study is rich in literary chit-chat (first-class chit-chat, to be sure) about, say, T.S. Eliot proposing a toast to someone or other at the Trocadero, but there is no investigation of The Waste Land. (It’s true that Taylor’s title suggests that the book is confined to prose, but its subtitle suggests otherwise.)

This is a case of geographical as well as intellectual parochialism. Modernism was a resolutely cosmopolitan affair, often enough spurning national literary traditions as sterile and exhausted, while The Prose Factory, as its subtitle announces, is a solidly Anglocentric study. There is nothing amiss with attending to the literature of a particular nation, but in the era in question that body of writing was shaped by avant-garde currents by no means confined to Kensington. Perry Anderson (not, one imagines, Taylor’s favourite political thinker) has argued that modernist experiment on a major scale is generally underpinned by a history of political upheaval, one which culminated in early 20th-century Europe in the general crack-up of the First World War. It is in these years that many of the major works of modernist literary art appeared. Yet Britain was not at the time plunged into the kind of internal political crisis that afflicted, say, Germany; and this relative stability, along with a well-entrenched heritage of realism and empiricism, made it less vulnerable to the modernist epidemic than more strife-torn societies. By and large, then, the country had to import its modernist writers (James, Conrad, Eliot, Pound), or else appropriate them from a contiguous nation which for complex historical reasons was less invested in realism and more hospitable to artistic experiment than the British mainland (Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett). There were, to be sure, at least two towering homegrown modernist writers, but both were internal émigrés within English society, as opposed to literal expatriates like James, Conrad and Eliot. Woolf was a radical woman married to a Jewish socialist, while Lawrence was the son of a provincial coal miner. Both artists were for different reasons askew to the dominant culture.

As a relatively alien implant in native soil, the work of fancy long-haired foreigners and free-loving bohemians, English literary modernism didn’t weather all that well. With the arrival of Auden, Isherwood, Orwell and others, realism was soon back in the saddle, and it is this history that accounts in part for the marginalising of the movement that is so striking in Taylor’s study. Extraordinarily, he seems to think that Ronald Firbank was a major modernist writer, and spends far more time on the novels of Malcolm Bradbury, a former fellow member of the Norwich literati, than he does on the fiction of Virginia Woolf. Another reason for this curious lack of proportion is Taylor’s unflagging interest in literary figures nobody else has heard of. He has read books with titles like How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, a novel of 1975 by one J.L. Carr, as well as G.H. Goodchild’s handy wartime guide, Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps. There seems not to have been a dreadful piece of fiction published in 20th-century England that he hasn’t devoured. What claims his attention are irredeemably minor members of the scribbling classes, from obscure editors of Georgian journals to the wranglings of the modern-day Arts Council.

Much of this is fascinating stuff. Taylor can tell you how much Cyril Connolly was paid for a weekly newspaper article in the 1960s, or for how much Anthony Burgess sold the film rights of A Clockwork Orange. The book is crammed with intriguing chunks of information. We learn that Harold Monro, who established the Poetry Bookshop shortly before the First World War, was a twice-married homosexual of Scottish ancestry whose family owned a private lunatic asylum. Of the writers who made their literary debuts in the interwar era, well over a dozen, including Orwell, Anthony Powell, Connolly, Harold Acton and John Lehmann, were Old Etonians. The first million-selling paperback was Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters in 1956, while Kingsley Amis received £100 for Lucky Jim. There is a wonderful description by a friend of Virginia Woolf’s who arrived at her flat to find Woolf and Edith Sitwell, between whom relations were somewhat strained, sitting companionably together on the sofa ‘like two praying-mantises putting out delicate antennae towards each other’. Asked at the age of 91 to name his most treasured possession, Sacheverell Sitwell – the greatest poet of the previous 150 years, according to his dispassionate sister Edith – unhesitatingly nominated himself.

The Victorian man of letters had to be able to turn his hand to anything from theology to geology, not least because he was unable to earn a living from a single specialism. Taylor, by contrast, seems to live almost exclusively in the sphere of literature (and of fiction, not poetry or drama, at that), so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he evinces such curiosity about its inner operations. But do we really need to know that Evelyn Waugh was staying at the Easton Court Hotel in Chagford, Devon in the third week of September 1931, or that Dudley Carew’s memoir, The House Is Gone, was published in 1949 by the firm of Robert Hale? Who is Dudley Carew anyway, and where does Taylor lay his hands on these remarkably recondite texts? Why should one begin a paragraph with the sentence, ‘After publishing his first novel, A Day in Summer (1963), J.L. Carr gave up his job as a Northamptonshire head teacher and set up on his own account as a publisher-cum-writer’?

There is even a particular literary quality about the way Taylor styles himself. The Victorians did not generally call themselves by the initials of their first two names plus their surname (we don’t speak of C.J.H. Dickens), and neither do most authors from roughly the second half of the 20th century onwards. Martin Amis is not M.L. Amis. Between these two periods, however, this largely male habit of self-designation spreads thick and fast: H.G., T.S., W.B., E.M., D.H., L.P., W.H. and so on. No doubt some doctoral student will one day explain why. Perhaps it has to do with a certain English stiffness, which may be one reason it is rare in the United States. The English don’t like being on first-name terms with strangers, which is what authors and readers generally are to each other. It may also have to do with the doctrine of aesthetic impersonality, which was in fashion at the time. Taylor is by no means alone in this practice: the Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford, for example, calls himself R.F. Foster when in full academic dress and Roy when in more shirt-sleeved mode. But it may be a sign of Taylor’s intense attachment to early 20th-century English writing, a period on which it is hard to outmatch his knowledge, that he should opt for this way of writing his name.

The Prose Factory does an excellent job in retrieving the Georgian period from the enormous condescension of posterity, as well as demolishing the myth that the literature of the 1950s was hijacked by what the book calls ‘disaffected young proletarians from north of the Trent’. In any case, most of the Angry Young Men weren’t angry, or became angry right-wingers only when they were no longer young. Jim Dixon’s complaint in Lucky Jim, Taylor points out, is not that the social arrangements of the day exclude a large percentage of the population, but that they exclude him. Had Taylor been dealing with the theatre as well, he might have added that Terence Rattigan, one of the bêtes noires of the so-called kitchen sink generation of dramatists, was a lifelong socialist, which is more than can be said for John Osborne.

If the book doesn’t range much beyond literature, its scope within that field is impressively wide. It covers everything from writers’ (mostly exiguous) earnings to the politics of the little magazine, from academic English studies to the fortunes of small publishing houses, from Stalinist literary criticism to the economics of the book trade. A whole host of literary figures, some justly forgotten and others not, are dug up, dusted down and offered up for our relish and instruction, from the bibulous Georgian critic J.C. Squire, who once excused his failure to deliver a manuscript by claiming that the manuscript had blown out of the taxi window, to Middleton Murry, Edgell Rickword, Hugh Walpole, Douglas Jerrold, J.B. Priestley, G.K. Chesterton and a great many other erstwhile luminaries. The book extends as far as contemporary literary critics like James Wood, a man whom Taylor struggles to be nice about, disliking what he calls the ‘quaint academicism of his style’. Taylor himself steers a skilful course between the popular and the intellectual, and is neither glib nor obscurantist. The Prose Factory is a deeply enjoyable work. It just isn’t very deep.