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.

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