Unanswerable and unanswered

F R LEAVIS: A Life in Criticism by Ian MacKillop, Penguin pounds 25

THE CRITIC F R Leavis was not at all forthcoming with details of his private life. He once let slip to a former pupil that he had visited York in 1915 to train as a peace orderly, but as soon as he'd said it, issued this elaborate retraction: "I shouldn't have mentioned that. It was very wrong of me to say what I did. Please forget it entirely." Leavis was a copious letter-writer but did not write intimately to anyone but his wife Queenie, who destroyed all their most personal documents before her death, and he never kept a diary. He would not appear to be a very promising subject for a biographer, even without his executors' instructions to "discourage proposals" for a "life", and perhaps these restrictions decided Ian MacKillop to write what he admits is "hardly a biography at all", but a history.

MacKillop was a pupil of Leavis at Downing College, Cambridge, in the late 1950s, and the 'scientific' method he adopts is essentially Leavisian, but almost perversely frustrating to the reader's curiosity. We learn the colour of the duffle coat Leavis wore in 1946, the make of motorcycle on which his father had a fatal accident, the various lengths of probationary lectureships awarded to Leavis's colleagues in 1927, but a bizarre concision comes into play just when detail and discursiveness would be most appropriate. Leavis is said to have had two breakdowns in the year of his marriage but this is not explained or elaborated at all; Queenie's cancer is not identified though she suffered it for 35 years - it is first mentioned in an aside; and the exit of the Leavises' beloved child-prodigy son, Ralph, is marked only by this peculiarly unrevealing sentence: "In all the talk about decisions for his future there was a quarrel between the eldest son and QDL, and all relations between them ceased." Inevitably, Leavis's personality becomes less explicable and more unsympathetic as the book progresses, and an objective evaluation of his work as a critic and teacher becomes difficult.

Leavis's career was bound up with the emergence of his subject, English, as an academic discipline. He was one of the first Cambridge undergraduates to sign up for the new English tripos after the Great War, and as a junior lecturer struggled to exert as much influence as possible over the style and content of the syllabus. It flourished, but he did not; his very slow progress through the ranks to a fellowship was a source of bitterness to Leavis and Queenie, an ambitious, high-flying graduate of Girton. Together they founded the literary quarterly, Scrutiny, and collaborated on a number of projects, forming a formidable critical partnership which was not without its own difficulties: Queenie harboured resentment at being "pushed out" of Leavis's best-known book, The Great Tradition, and at having to "drudge" for the magazine. Leavis once said of her "electricity", "you can feel it coming through the wall." He admired her intensely, though she intimidated him at times too. What does not emerge is to what extent she called the shots in their peculiarly embattled professional lives.

Leavis's quarrels were legion and legendary. "What is the matter with (him)?" his former mentor I A Richards wrote to T S Eliot after another stinging attack in print, "You mind what you do, it will be your turn before long!" Leavis often behaved badly in these disputes, provoking or prolonging them unnecessarily and relishing the process. "It's the time to let you have it," he wrote menacingly to David Holbrook, an unconscious acknowledgement that there was a season to all his professional relationships. A former protege, Marius Bewley, bemoaned the fact that Leavis cultivated a position in the academic world that made "an association with him into a positive liability".

This intractability was consistent with Leavis's intellectual attitudes. He was most pleased with his own work when he felt it was "unanswerable". Discourse did not interest him because his method was based on singling out excellence. The concept of identifying a "Great Tradition" of English fiction that consists of only three writers (Eliot, James and Conrad, with Austen, Dickens and Lawrence mentioned in a subsidiary capacity) seems hopelessly dogmatic. His later books, on Dickens and Lawrence, apply the same method and in them Leavis makes no apology for discussing only a limited part of each writer's oeuvre.

The marking out of territory obsessed Leavis. Despite his and Queenie's own debts to the method, style and substance of the work of I A Richards, Eliot and Pound (amounting to a sort of chameleonism), he developed a mania for detecting plagiarism of his own work. He once attacked the editor of the TLS for not reviewing Scrutiny and sustained an acrimonious correspondence with him. "Leavis's replies are not pleasing reading," Ian MacKillop says, refraining from quoting them. Leavis's subsequent behaviour, circulating a cyclostyled "dossier" entitled Virtue in Our Time, was typically wrong- headed and inflammatory. As early as 1939 Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch had written of Leavis that "no good fortune would easily equal his sense of his desserts", and an acute sense of grievance stayed with him for life. The question of where it came from, or if it was a symptom of psychosis, is not tackled at all by Ian MacKillop, but left in rhetorical form in a footnote.

During his lifetime, Leavis managed to factionalise every English department in the country, but contemporary undergraduates are unlikely to respond to the initials "FRL" or "QDL". The word "Leavisite" itself has disappeared, replaced by the more abstract term "Leavisian". As the force of his personality fades, the legacy of this "dedicated and fairly unscrupulous controversialist" emerges, smaller and clearer than before, "What are the events in the life of a critic?" Ian MacKillop asks himself. Books, or rather, texts, and Leavis's dedication to his favourite authors and his rigorous analyses of their work still stand as models of a certain kind of ascetic aestheticism.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone