Rupert Christiansen

Memoirs of a Leavisite, by David Elllis - review

Text settings

Memoirs of a Leavisite: The Decline and Fall of Cambridge English

David Ellis

Liverpool University Press, pp. 224, £

As the author of this wise, patient and delightful book wryly reminds us, Stephen Fry — who, of course, knows everything — has recently written F.R. Leavis off as a ‘sanctimonious prick’. The phrase is probably typical of the way that today’s literary intelligentsia caricatures this tragically lonely, embattled and complex figure. ‘Hairshirt paranoiac’ I’ve also encountered somewhere: it does the trick equally well.

Does any academic under the age of 50 now treat Leavis’s map of English literature, let alone his values and judgments, as pedagogically viable forces? Most probably not: his enterprise as critic, teacher and editor of Scrutiny is now strictly a matter for the historians (Christopher Hilliard’s authoritative English as a Vocation being a recent and distinguished study), leaving ideas such as the organic community, the Great Tradition and technologico-Benthamitism, once considered dangerously radical, mere shibboleths obscurely niched in the pantheon of academic delusions.

But for those who were taught by him at Cambridge and came under the spell of his piercing avian gaze, Leavis remains 35 years after his death a vivid and inescapable voice of intellectual conscience. As well as proposing to susceptible young males a fruitful method of intelligent and discriminating reading, he offered them an enchanting moral vision of unimpeachable integrity which steered adroitly between the rocks of political ideology, scientific theory and religious mysticism. But as with the Old Testament prophets he in some sense resembled, you had to be there to feel the full power.

David Ellis was one such witness — a northern grammar school boy from a modest, bookless background who became a pupil of Leavis’s at Downing College in the early 1960s. Fifty years on, after a lifetime of teaching English at the University of Kent, he has written a quietly meditative memoir of what Leavis has meant to him, unegocentrically weaving something of his own biography into a critique of the man who represents his most formative influence.

Ellis has neither been imprisoned by the orthodoxies of the creed, nor sucked into the in-fighting which raged in the wake of Leavis’s notorious attack on C.P. Snow. He writes in a nuanced and sensitive style far from Leavis’s own knotted, kneaded and pummelling manner. Gentle ironies, subtle shades of feeling, ambivalences and reservations abound here, through which Ellis emerges as a gentle, kind and tolerant man, devoid of the evangelical arrogance usually attached to the label of Leavisite.

Master and pupil were not personally close. For three years, Ellis spent three hours a week in a classroom being lectured by Leavis, but they had virtually no more intimate contact. Although Leavis famously proposed the formulas ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ and ‘Yes, but…’ as two phrases which should preface the exchange of critical views, Ellis seldom heard him utter either of them: in effect his seminars were monologues to which students were obliged to listen in respectful silence.

But Ellis learnt lessons here which he has never forgotten or rejected: the central importance of a rich, vital and poetic language as a transmitter of feelings and values, for example; the moral imperative which informs trajectories of English literature; the art of ‘close reading’ of literary texts; the pernicious futility of a sort of academicism or aestheticism which failed to connect with wider social and spiritual dilemmas; and a special fascination with the strand of fiction which runs from Dickens and George Eliot to Henry James and D. H. Lawrence.

Many Leavisites never really got any further than this, slavishly following the master’s increasingly straitened and truculent views, based on limited experience and evidence of what was right and wrong, good and bad about the world. Ellis is one who got away: France and a French wife opened him up invigoratingly to another dimension of language, culture and literature which has led him to write on Stendhal and to develop a taste for Roland Barthes’ playful deconstruction — a phenomenon which his mentor would surely have violently anathematised.

Yet it is to him that Ellis holds. Movingly — and persuasively — he concludes that

if there is a better approach to teaching English than the one Leavis advocated, or an attitude that provides more insurance than his did against the dangers of functional autonomy (that tendency of institutions to churn on regardless, quite cut off from any initial social aim or utility), I have not yet found them.