The New Compass: A Critical Review

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Revaluing the Great Tradition and Confounding the Academy
J. Russell Perkin

Brian Crick. Love Confounded: Revaluing the Great Tradition. Denton, Norfolk: Edgeways, 2004. vii; 288 pages. £30.00.

It is easy to imagine three very different reviews of Brian Crick's Love Confounded. A cautious academic review would focus on its challenging thesis about the conflict between familial love and married love in the English novel from Austen to Lawrence, commending the many insights conveyed by Crick's unfashionable close readings of the texts, and indicating reservations about some of those readings, perhaps hinting that the author is overly hostile to certain approaches to the novels that differ from his own. From within the shrinking community of disciples of F. R. Leavis, a second reviewer might approach the novel in the mode of a family quarrel, noting that Crick's critical allegiance is clearly to the school of Leavis, but taking exception to the drastic way in which Love Confounded revalues the great tradition and argues that no nineteenth-century novelist is capable of treating married love "maturely." Only Conrad and Lawrence emerge unscathed. A third possibility would be a review that responded to Crick's critical assumptions and uncompromising moral humanism by dismissing the book as a nostalgic and intemperate rant that ignores the last fifty years of literary criticism and theory. I doubt that a critic who writes as forcefully as Crick does would welcome the first kind of review; I am not qualified to write the second kind, and the third kind would be grossly unfair to an important and valuable book, although at times Crick himself seems to anticipate and even half to invite a hostile response. I will gesture towards the first option, then address some points where I disagree with Crick's critical approach. I have read Leavis and re-read him since I was an undergraduate, but certainly do not see myself as in any way a disciple, so my review will inevitably fall into the formula of "this is a very good book, but I disagree with some of its basic assumptions."

Crick's argument, as he sums it up in his introduction, or "Afterword Preface" as he calls it, is that in both Shakespeare and in his successors who make up the great tradition of English fiction, "close family ties between members of the opposite sex" (especially brother and sister and father and daughter) are either depicted as a model for married love, "or the prospect of love between husband and wife is posed as a threat to the prior commitment" (18). Crick provides convincing readings of a number of novels, notably Mansfield Park and David Copperfield, and he has some striking aphoristic observations, for example, "No one ever thinks of David Copperfield as a man" (160). The strongest part of the book is the chapter on Joseph Conrad; in fact, Crick's reading of The Secret Agent as a domestic novel is one of the best pieces of criticism I have ever read on Conrad. Crick conveys most effectively what makes The Secret Agent such a disturbing and brilliant novel. I especially like his reference to "the fire of unrelenting irony that epitomises the style of The Secret Agent" (231). That nicely captures the ferocious tone of Conrad's narration. Crick does not spend much time in Love Confounded speculating about why nineteenth-century novelists, even those we regard as great, portray marriage the way that they do, but in the course of the chapter on Conrad he throws out a suggestion that I find extremely illuminating: "For the French novelist, adultery was the chief means for exposing the paucity or absence of passion within marriage, but Austen, Dickens and George Eliot settled on a less sensational but just as ubiquitous an antipathy, one that pitted familial and conjugal ties against each other" (244).

Crick's argument inevitably assumes a particular set of moral assumptions about marriage, and those are at least as much a challenge to the reader to respond as are the rereadings of the novels. Crick, like Leavis, writes in a way that often makes the reader uncomfortable, because he reads literature with a high degree of both ethical intensity and literary-critical rigour (I suspect he would not like the way I have made a distinction between those two qualities). Thus although I think that he is unfair to both Hardy and Woolf, the force of his argument makes me feel that I need to re-read the texts before I can be confident that he has underestimated those writers. In my judgment, Woolf's married ladies, Mrs. Ramsay and Mrs. Dalloway, have a lot to tell us about marriage, and I will be particularly attentive to the questions Crick raises when I next teach To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway.

Love Confounded is not a diplomatic book; it is full of grumpy asides about academics, whom Crick—not without reason—seems to regard in the main as accurately represented by Kingsley Amis's Professor Welch. Crick draws the reader's attention to his departures from conventional critical discourse, telling personal anecdotes about his life as a student, teacher, and scholar, commenting acerbically on famous critics, and indulging in sarcastic remarks about writers—Tennyson is another example—who are generally valued highly in academic circles. I wonder whether one reason for the adversarial tone might be that the Leavisite school of criticism has always been fundamentally ill at ease within the university, being of its nature more like what Northrop Frye calls "public criticism," concerned with the relation of literature and society rather than with literary studies as a body of knowledge.

My disagreement with Crick can best be explained by beginning with a passage he quotes from D. H. Lawrence's "John Galsworthy":
Literary criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing. Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudo-scientific classifying and analyzing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon. (254)

As an English professor, I certainly hope my students will learn to produce a "reasoned account" of the effect produced by the works they read, but in order to be able to read, for example, a Renaissance poem intelligently, they need to learn something about the history and structure of literature and that involves quite a bit of "classifying and analyzing" that I do not think is necessarily either dull or impertinent. Too many students arrive at university able to defend ill-informed responses with a rhetoric of sincerity. Thus I agree with Northrop Frye that the only way literary study can be taught as a discipline is as a body of knowledge with a coherent structure: "Literature is not a subject of study, but an object of study" (Anatomy of Criticism 11).

It may seem odd in 2004 to be repeating the response to Leavis that Frye so effectively makes in his "Polemical Introduction" to the Anatomy of Criticism in 1957. However, literary studies remains as fragmented today as it was when Frye wrote that work, and Crick's moral humanism is just one of many methodologies competing for students' attention. In my view, close reading is an invaluable discipline of attending to the text, but it needs to be encompassed by attention to the larger structures of literature, as something comprised of myth and metaphor and classifiable into forms based on the shape of its stories and the nature of its characters and themes.

There is something bracing about Crick's value-judgments, but to return to Frye's argument once more, I recall that his view of criticism as a science (not of course an exact science) is that "criticism has no business to react against things, but should show a steady advance toward undiscriminating catholicity" (Anatomy 25). Crick's view of the literary universe is rather confining, because he is looking for the embodiment of a particular view of marriage which he personally values highly. I agree with Crick that The Rainbow is a great novel, but I note that his approval is really only for the first half; it is not clear that Lawrence thinks anything like the marriages of the first two generations of the Brangwens is going to be possible in the twentieth century. Similarly, Crick is extremely exacting when it comes to evaluating the work of other scholars and critics. For example, he claims that "I can't think of a single piece of academic criticism on Hardy I could recommend to a serious student as essential reading" (199). My own standards must be less stringent; off the top of my head, I would certainly recommend J. Hillis Miller's book on Hardy, along with Michael Millgate's Thomas Hardy: His Career as a Novelist, David DeLaura's essay on "‘The Ache of Modernism' in Hardy's Later Novels," and Elaine Showalter's essay on The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Perhaps the problem is with the very direct relationship between literature and life assumed by the Leavis tradition. It is true that we sometimes model our lives on works of literature, though probably at least as often with disastrous results as with desirable ones, but I would like to think there are other and better guides to how to live one's life. I would also like to think that literature can be valued because it is frivolously entertaining, or ethereally beautiful; I don't see the point of a critical practice that would denigrate the wit and comedy of Fielding, the humour and satire of Thackeray, or the works of Pater and Wilde. Thus while I find Crick's book a stimulating and valuable discussion of the novels he focusses on, I find myself resisting the implications of his asides and of the critical assumptions which underpin his readings of the texts. I would prefer to see the moral humanism and close reading that Crick practices contained within the larger context of literature and criticism as a whole than to see them proclaimed as the only way to study literature. To me this is not a fuzzy relativism or eclecticism, but a recognition that there is an overall structure to the world of literature and literary experience, and that it is a larger world than even D. H. Lawrence on his own could dream of.

Perkin, J. Russell. "Revaluing the Great Tradition and Confounding the Academy." Rev. of Love Confounded: Revaluing the Great Tradition, by Brian Crick. The New Compass: A Critical Review 4 (December 2004) []

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