The mystery of Doctor Leavis

To the world, FR Leavis and his wife, Queenie, were the most famous critics of their generation. At home, their relationship had a darker side. By Nigel Williams; FR Leavis: A Life in Criticism by Ian MacKillop Viking, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
Some years ago I wrote a television film about the English critic and teacher, FR Leavis, now the subject of a massive and scholarly biography from Ian MacKillop, of the University of Sheffield. The actor deputed to play the sage of Bulstrode Road was Ian Holm, who was sent up to Cambridge to find out the kind of things actors need to know about the characters they are playing. He was talking to an aged don about the late lecturer from Downing and, feeling stuck for something to say, remarked "I suppose Dr Leavis is greatly missed". There was a long pause. The aged don fixed him with a bright stare and, finally, said - "I wouldn't say that exactly."

Plenty of interesting things emerge from MacKillop's book, but it still doesn't quite explain the unique brand of antagonism Leavis seems to have aroused. Part of the reason appears to have been that, while keen on dishing out criticism, he was rather less good at taking it - perhaps because, like a lot of critics, he wasn't a natural writer. His wife, Queenie, is here described as confiding to someone, "he's writing again!" - but you would be wrong to let her awed excitement fool you into thinking the man was shaping up an epic poem or hacking out a blank verse drama. She was talking about half an article. Leavis strikes one as a man who could get writer's block about a note to the milkman, which, when one is aware of the categorical and final nature of his dislikes, is not very surprising. Almost every move in the game of literary reputation-making, was, in the good doctor's mind, part of the wider conspiracy against him. A long biographical essay about him in 1975, published in Ian Hamilton's New Review, is dismissed contemptuously because, wait for it, Ian Hamilton is ... a friend of John Gross, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and John Gross once wrote a book called The Rise And Fall of the Man of Letters! Hey! I hear you saying, doesn't that mean they're pals? Aren't these guys all on the same team? Well, no. Because Queenie Leavis, FR's wife, once wrote a book which was sort of on the same subject! Unforgiveable insolence of Gross, what?

It's hard to tell, when one comes across that story on page 404 of this biography, whether the crazed paranoia it exemplifies comes from biographer or subject, since MacKillop doesn't tell us whether this was an attributable opinion of Leavis's, something told him in confidence or simply informed guesswork. What he does tell us is that Leavis "leafed the book over loosely" before pronouncing it no good - a critical method that may have been responsible for rather more of his literary judgements than many worshippers suppose. But this minor evasion in a gigantic and, on the whole, beautifully written and annotated work, tells us a great deal about FR Leavis: A Life in Cricitism. It can be partly explained by the fact that MacKillop was a pupil of Leavis's between 1957 and 1960, although even detailed study of the footnotes for the relevant period in his biography does not reveal a trace of anything so shameful as personal reminiscence. The author reserves his obvious love and respect for Leavis the teacher to the prologue. MacKillop's book is, so the dust jacket tells us, an "objective" biography of the great man.

Leavis's secrecy is almost impenetrable. When I was working on my play about him, I rang Wilfred Mellers, who, I had been told was a friend of the Leavises. He sounded like a Muscovite who had been asked to give his opinion on Josef Stalin in 1936, and, when I pressed him, I seem to remember a faint, wounded allusion to a quarrel of some kind. While there seems to be little disagreement from anyone about his early years - a loving, and loved, father who died tragically in a motorcycle accident, a genuine and touching passion for great literature, an even more touching love affair with his wife Queenie, whom he met while she was an undergradute at Girton, an admirable and bravely individual service on the ambulance trains of the First War - as soon as we come to his mature life and to his own intimates, a curtain descends. It is with his attempts to make a career in teaching English at Cambridge that the bitterness and unhappiness begins. Wittgenstein, an acquaintance of Leavis's, is quoted in the Prologue as saying that he had not suffered any real calamities in his life - such as suicide, madness or quarrels - but in the Leavis family there does seem to be some dark secret, unexplored in this book, which might help to explain the sudden outbursts of rage and vituperation which so mystified CP Snow and made TS Eliot mutter, when told that Leavis's journal, Scrutiny, had been nice about him, that next time round the Leavis crew would be after his blood.

This is not MacKillop's area of interest. He does not probe the internal struggles of "the Criticastery", as Queenie called their Cambridge home. He gives no explanation as to why their eldest son, Ralph - here described as a child of "Mozartian" brilliance - seems to have quarrelled violently with his mother. Nor does he dig deep enough into Queenie's experience: an orthodox Jew so strict in her youth that a friend recalls her refusing help when sick on the Sabbath, she was disowned by her family after "marrying out". He tells us (without evidence) that there is no truth in the story that Queenie's parents followed the observances for the dead after she married, but he does not seem curious to know more. He is an honest and consciencious ex-pupil and he is trying to be both fair, tactful and not too intrusive, not all of which are good qualities in a biographer.

There may be a weakness at the heart of an attempt to write an "objective" life of anyone, and this claim to objectivity may illuminate a weakness in critical method of Dr Leavis himself. The conflict in the marriage - and it's hard to think of a marriage in which there isn't conflict let alone one in which the eldest son will only communicate with the father - may have not only had an influence on the quarrels with the governing powers in the English faculty, but have also created the habits of thought that led Morris Shapira, a former ally who betrayed the cause, to tell his old master that he was a self-dramatising poseur who saw himself as "the hero of a coup de theatre". Shapira adds, tellingly, "What strikes me as utterly contemptible is the effect that all this poppycock has on your wife's reputation."

Leavis's own criticism, while formed in the atmosphere of the practical, analytic approach of IA Richards, was most influenced by his wife. Their perception of the need to fight for and define a literary culture surface in Leavis's PhD thesis on journalism and Literature, take published form in Queenie's Fiction and the Reading Public and by the time of the later Leavis, of The Common Pursuit are a sort of ghost at the feast, an unspoken justification for his often extraordinarily dumb judgements about fiction, such as the absurd idea that Lady Chatterley is better than Women in Love.

MacKillop's book forces us to take the good doctor on his own and examine his "true judgements" and "great tradition" without the prejudice created by his life and personality. And, here, they can be seen to have led him not only into great creative judgements, as in his championship of early Eliot, but also into supporting second-rate talents such as Ronald Bottrall,whose oeuvre includes such classics as: "Perchance after all living within/ And for ouselves, exhaling our entity/ In our perceptions, yet not all together bent/ With our breaths ...

He was plainly wrong about a lot of things. Yet Leavis's refusal to compromise his notion of what culture is remains an important gesture in a society in which brutality and illiteracy seem to be marching hand in hand. But that should not blind us to the fact that he seems to have been a better teacher than a critic. There was a bitterness and a sentimentality about him, an unfinished quality, that, even after 476 pages, remains a mystery. Perhaps Leavis could only have been explained by reference to things that - in spite of his scholarship, elegance and good-humoured intellectual curiosity - have eluded this biographer"s grasp.