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Lessons of an Immoderate Master

F.R. Leavis: A Literary Biography

by G. Singh
Duckworth, 300 pp., £35.00


Few critics are accorded the compliment of a biography; very few indeed can ever have been accorded the compliment of two, as F.R. Leavis has been in the UK—one following the other in quick succession. But then Leavis was not as other critics. He was a guru, a leader, a master of those who know; he was also, in his time, a major hate figure. One way or another, he succeeded in obsessing a large number of people; and although, nearly twenty years after his death, the passions he aroused have inevitably subsided, they are by no means extinct.

Of the two biographies, MacKillop’s, which has now appeared in the US, is the more conventional, and the more interesting. A former pupil of Leavis, he writes, for the most part, as a disciple; at the same time he is at pains to point out that his book isn’t “authorized,” that he hasn’t had the Leavis family’s blessing. Singh, on the other hand, has written a book which is authorized in all but name. He is one of Leavis’s literary executors, and his dust jacket carries an endorsement from his fellow executor, Leavis’s son Robin. Above all his approach is the only one you can imagine Leavis himself—assuming there had to be a biography—finding remotely acceptable: he concentrates overwhelmingly on books, articles, ideas, teaching activities, and literary attitudes, on publications and the public man. Leavis liked to call himself an “anti-philosopher,” and Singh’s book might well be termed an anti-biography. But a certain amount of life can’t help leaking in, even so.

Leavis was an important critic on a number of counts. His views defy easy summary, and until the later stages of his career he quite often shifted his ground, or his interests; but three of his books (he published some twenty in all) stand out in particular. New Bearings in English Poetry (1932) proclaimed a revolutionary break in the English poetic tradition. It contained a bleak survey of the situation before the advent of T.S. Eliot, long pioneering studies of Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, and a much more guarded appreciation of Ezra Pound. Revaluation (1936) examined the course of earlier English poetry in the light of post-Eliot insights and standards, though its estimate of individual authors was not necessarily the same as Eliot’s. Famous names, most notoriously Milton, were demoted; a number of others—Pope, for example, and Wordsworth—were sympathetically reappraised. The Great Tradition (1948), probably his most influential book, was a comparable attempt to redraw the map of classic English fiction. Once again, many established figures were downgraded, and in some cases virtually written out of the script. The “great tradition” itself was held to consist of Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D.H. Lawrence; of these only Eliot, James, and Conrad were considered at length, although Leavis was to publish a separate study of Lawrence’s fiction in 1955.

From early on his work was distinguished by the close reading of texts or selected passages, in a manner that was partly influenced by the “practical criticism” of I.A. Richards and that partly anticipated the American New Criticism of the 1940s. He was generally at his best in the analysis of verbal effects—or those to which he responded. (Where he was out of sympathy with a writer, he was often content to pounce on easily identified weaknesses.) At the same time, he set his face firmly against any suggestion of formalism or art for art’s sake. No twentieth-century critic of note has been more insistent that the function of literature is ultimately moral, and that criticism must always be to a large extent a form of moral discrimination.

The morality he invoked was never precisely formulated. Sometimes it seemed to be a modified version of traditional puritanism (minus its religious foundations), sometimes a vague form of vitalism (“art is on the side of life”). It also had a marked social dimension. He was the scourge of what he saw as degraded cultural standards; throughout his career he presented himself, to borrow the terms he used in the title of an early pamphlet, as the upholder of “minority culture” in a “mass civilization.” In this respect, he aspired to the mantle of Matthew Arnold.

To be reminded of such things is not, in 1996, an especially exciting business. Most of his views have long since been absorbed or rejected. But it is useful, I suppose, to have them sorted out systematically, as Singh and MacKillop do between them.

Even in his heyday, however, the views themselves were not enough to account for his legend. The excitement lay at least as much in the vehemence with which they were expressed and the effectiveness with which he imposed them. He accomplished whatever he did through force of personality, and it is his personality alone which is likely to sustain anyone’s interest in reading three hundred or four hundred pages about him today.

He himself, for all his aversion to biography, positively invites a personal approach in the truculent sentence quoted on the jacket of the MacKillop book: “I don’t believe in any ‘literary values,’ and you won’t find me talking about them; the judgments the literary critic is concerned with are judgments about life.” It is a characteristic sentiment. He was constantly invoking “life,” and not in any anodyne spirit, either: as often as not, his “judgments about life” took the form of ad hominem asperities and breathtaking condemnations. So how can we fail to be curious about his own life?

It is a curiosity which naturally extends to the personality of Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he married in 1929. F.R. and Q.D. were a team (as they signaled, most embarrassingly, when they wrote a book on Dickens together and dedicated it to each other), and any biography of Leavis must also be to a large extent the portrait of a marriage.

A mass of gossip and folklore gathered around the pair during their lifetime, but only a relatively small amount of it found its way into print. In 1984, however, three years after Queenie’s death, Cambridge University Press published a volume of “recollections and impressions” edited by Denys Thompson, who had been the co-author, back in 1933, of one of Leavis’s earliest books, Culture and Environment. It is a revealing work, in many ways more revealing than the new biographies. Naturally it set out to commemorate the Leavises’ positive achievements, and some of the tributes it contains command considerable respect: the memoir by the psychologist and critic D.W. Harding, for instance, who had been a leading collaborator of Leavis in the early years of the Leavis house magazine Scrutiny. But it also provides extensive evidence—by no means all of it unintended—of the Leavises’ less admirable qualities. By the time you have finished reading it, in fact, you are left wondering whether the careers which it is ostensibly designed to celebrate weren’t something of a horror story.

One notable incident is recounted by Denys Thompson himself. In 1935 he mentioned in a letter to Queenie that he had got engaged to one of her husband’s former pupils, though not the one she had had in mind for him. Her response was “a letter of perhaps a thousand words in her small, spidery, legible hand, criticising my intended wife in abusive terms.” Out of regard for F.R., he decided to send her a restrained reply, giving her the chance to make some kind of withdrawal. This time his reward was “two closely-filled sides of a quarto sheet in which I was now the target.”

Admittedly this is a story about only one member of the team. It is something Leavis felt forced to collude with as a husband, rather than an instance of his own ill-will. But collude he did; there were apparently similar instances of interference on Queenie’s part; and in an extreme form the incident reflects the atmosphere which both Leavises created around them—an atmosphere of anathema and interdiction, of promised salvation and very real rejection.

Another contributor to the Thompson volume, Leavis’s niece Mary Pitter, recalls an episode which is much more trivial, but hardly less chilling in its lack of common forbearance. Her father (Leavis’s brother-in-law) was an architect. At some time during the early married life of the Leavises, knowing how poor they were, he thought that a touch of luxury would cheer them up and sent them a bottle of Cointreau. Given their ascetic tastes, this was no doubt rather obtuse of him; but he meant well, and the only acknowledgment he received was “a letter from F.R.L. not only not thanking him for the present but saying tersely ‘Don’t ever do such a thing again.”’ It was a letter that was intended to hurt, and it did.

It is only fair to add that Mary Pitter, while regretting many things about the Leavises’ behavior, described her own relationship with them as “wonderfully enriching.” Life is complicated. But for an outsider, the most striking aspect of the Cointreau affair is how much it chimes in with other incidents in Leavis’s career—gifts sent back, friendly gestures (when they came from the “wrong” quarter) not merely disregarded but rebuffed, good deeds soundly punished.

A particularly grisly instance of what you might call active ingratitude concerns I.A. Richards. Richards had been the most prominent figure in the modernization of English studies at Cambridge in the 1920s, and Leavis owed him a major debt. In 1935, however, they fell out—an estrangement brought about by Leavis’s hostile review of Richards’s book on Coleridge. There was genuine intellectual disagreement between them, but over the years Leavis gave it a sharp personal edge with scornful references to Richards as a “neo-Benthamite” and the like. Then, in 1978, Leavis (aged eighty-two) was made a Companion of Honour. Among those who wrote congratulating him was Richards (aged eighty-four), who had himself been made a C.H. some years earlier. Professor Singh describes his letter as the most significant sent on this occasion by anyone in the literary world, and even quotes from it: “Warm companion’s felicitations! You should have had them long before this….” But that is all that Singh tells us, and for a fuller version of what happened one must turn to his fellow biographer. “Richards,” MacKillop reports, “had wondered whether such a letter would be in order, but his wife persuaded him to write. He was right to hesitate, because an insulting one-sentence reply was returned.” MacKillop doesn’t try to justify this behavior; all he can offer by way of exculpation is the suggestion that it may have been Queenie who guided her husband’s faltering hand.

This isn’t the only episode in his book which a more discreet disciple would have tiptoed past. While he remains committed to the Leavisite enterprise, MacKillop isn’t wholly worshipful: every so often he adopts an independent perspective. He even has a kind word for C.P. Snow—and he reminds us that the lofty themes of Leavis’s celebrated 1962 lecture attacking Snow and The Two Cultures didn’t prevent him from indulging in some decidedly low-level ridicule: there was one joke in the lecture about Snow’s novels being written by “an electronic brain called Charlie.” (It comes as no great surprise, incidentally, to learn that in 1953, when Scrutiny closed down, Snow had sent Leavis a letter of sympathy. He should have known he was asking for trouble.)

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