Q.D. Leavis's Criticism: The Human Core. (Reconsideration)

By Ferns, John | Modern Age, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Q.D. Leavis's Criticism: The Human Core. (Reconsideration)


Ferns, John, Modern Age


IN THE PRESENT RECONSIDERATION of the literary criticism of Q.D. Leavis (1906-1981), I wish to discuss three related topics. First, I want to show that, independent of her collaboration with her famous husband, F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), Q.D. Leavis is an important critic. Second, I will argue that she is, in particular, a major critic of the novel, especially of the nineteenth-century British novel, and specifically the English and Anglo-Irish novel. Thirdly, I will support my case by discussing her method of analysis in, arguably, her finest discussion of a nineteenth-century novel, "A Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights" (1969).

When Q.D. Leavis died in March 1981, David Holloway in The Daily Telegraph (London) described her relationship with her husband, F.R. Leavis, as forming "one of the most formidable literary partnerships ever."1 Presumably, he had in mind the Brownings, the Carlyles, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill, and George Eliot and George Henry Lewes. In North America, we might think too of the Leavises' contemporaries: Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson, the Trillings or Janet Lewis and Yvor Winters. A collection of essays edited by Whitney Chadwick and Isabelle de Courtivron, entitled Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership2 describes, among others, the relationships of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, Clara and Andre Malraux, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. It shows that couples in love inspire each other. Though allied interests and love may be difficult to disentangle in most of the cases listed above, it is certainly tru e that the Leavises assisted and supported each other in their critical endeavors. Their mutual dedication to Dickens the Novelist (1970), as much and more the work of Q.D. than of F.R. Leavis, says it all:

We dedicate this book to each other as proof, along with Scrutiny (of which for twenty-one years we sustained the main burden and the responsibility), of forty years and more of daily collaboration in living, university teaching, discussion of literature and the social and cultural context from which literature is born, and above all, devotion to the fostering of that true respect for creative writing, creative minds and, English literature being in question, the English tradition, without which literary criticism can have no validity and no life. (3)

Fuller obituaries of Q.D. Leavis followed, but while there are, at least, fifteen books and countless articles about F.R. Leavis, less than half of these concern the Leavises together. Indeed, there are only half a dozen articles that discuss Q.D. Leavis independently, and one of the best of these is as yet unpublished. (4) The first of them, M. B. Kinch's "Q.D. Leavis: 19061981: An Appreciation" establishes the grounds for seeing Q.D. Leavis as an important literary critic. Kinch indicates "five distinctive types of critical activity" in which he shows Q.D. Leavis's indisputable accomplishment:

the rehabilitation of a writer who has been neglected or underrated or both; the investigation and rejection of claims to classic status made for a writer whose neglect is shown to have been fully justified; the discovery and celebration of a forgotten writer whose work is shown to be superior to many established classics; the immediate recognition of an individual work, since generally accepted as a modern classic, by a relatively unknown writer; and the uncompromising analysis and rejection of an inferior book by a distinguished contemporary writer. (5)

Kinch first discusses how Q.D. Leavis, in her 1938 review in Scrutiny, shows how Richard Jefferies had been neglected and underrated. She praises Edward Thomas's biography of Jefferies and, in fact, indicates, in detail, how a complete edition of Jefferies' works should be carried out. (6) As in her highly critical 1947 Scrutiny review of a selection of short stories of Henry James by David Garnettt, (7) Q.

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