from ‘The Great Tradition’ by F.R. Leavis

03Mar05

Leavis declares the great English novelists as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad at the beginning of this selection. By the end of the selection, he has amended the list to include D.H. Lawrence also. According to Leavis, these writers “not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but…they are significant in terms of the human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life.” By defining the great English novelists, Leavis intends to define the great English tradition.

Throughout the selection, Leavis dismisses a panoply of significant British authors:

  • Henry Fielding: his subject matter and interests are too limited.
  • Samuel Richardson: his subject matter is also limited and his works demand too much of the reader’s time.
  • George Moore: he is too concerned with style. (And he wasn’t English, but the difference between British and English seems to have escaped Leavis.)
  • “The Trollopes” (Frances and Anthony, I assume): they could not understand and appreciate Austen.
  • James Joyce: his work lacks an organic form. (Also not English.)
  • Charlotte Brontë: “she couldn’t see why any value should be attached to Jane Austen.”
  • Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights seems like “a kind of sport” to Leavis and she only inspired a “minor tradition.”

In the selection I read, Leavis only discusses Austen, Eliot, and Lawrence’s merits that contribute to their inclusion.

  • Jane Austen: she is the rare kind of author whose work defines tradition retroactively. By reading Austen and discerning her influences, one can deduce the important novelists of the tradition who came before her.
  • George Eliot: she appreciated Austen. From Austen she borrowed a sense of irony related to morality. (I don’t quite understand Leavis’ point, probably because I haven’t read much Eliot, but anyway….)
  • D.H. Lawrence: he wrote novels that “demanded no unfamiliar effort of approach” and did not settle into one writing style once it gained success.

From what I can discern from this selection, Leavis believes that Austen is the center of the English tradition and appreciation and indebtedness to her work serves to include or to exclude novelists from the tradition. As one can see, three authors—Charlotte Brontë and the Trollopes—were dismissed due to lack of appreciation of Austen and Eliot seems to have been included because of her indebtedness to Austen.

Leavis is suggesting a deductive (oh, I hope I remembered the distinction between deductive and inductive so that I don’t look like an idiot) process of determining greatness—one approaches a text with a set of standards and the work’s adherence to those standards ascertains its greatness. The greatness is not found within the work.

Why this obsession with greatness? As I said, Leavis believes that defining great novelists will define tradition. But will a text’s lack of greatness make it any less a part of the English tradition? Even novelists that Leavis does not consider great—like Fielding, Richardson, and Fanny Burney—he admits influenced Austen. Thus, aren’t they part of the English tradition? Despite their lack of greatness, they helped mold the center of the English tradition, according to Leavis.

Can someone explain this sentence to me:

The writer [George Eliot] whose intellectual weight and moral earnestness strike some critics as her handicap certainly saw in Jane Austen something more than an ideal contemporary of Lytton Strachey.

Wuh? That sentence makes it sound like Strachey and Austen were contemporaries, but Strachey was born 63 years after Austen died. Eliot died the year that Strachey was born and I doubt that on her deathbed Eliot laid hands on Baby Lytton and proclaimed, “Ah! This boy will grow up to be a writer whom undergrad students will learn of when researching Virginia Woolf! This boy, he reminds me of Jane!” and then croaked. The footnote indicated at the end of that sentence talks about some guy named Peacock—the only Peacock I’m aware of is Thomas Love Peacock, but I would assume he would be classified as a Romantic and not a Victorian….I’m just bloody confused.

Mr. Leavis needed to learn something called parallelism. A critic of his distinction should not have lists of authors in his texts that look like this: “Trollope, Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Charles Reade, Charles and Henry Kingsley, Marryat, Shorthouse.” For god’s sack, man, either first and last name, last name only, or title and last name! Don’t use all three options in the same damn sentence! I could make an exception if you had mentioned some of these authors previously by first and last name and on following references called them by only the last name. But you, Frankie, hadn’t mentioned the last-namers previously. And you call Jane Austen “Jane Austen” every damn time you mention her. You refer to George Eliot as “George Eliot” and T.S. Eliot as “Mr. Eliot,” and while I believe you intend the title to imply derision at T.S., good, old George, whom you actually admire, appears to be slighted. And please don’t just start talking about “Richardson” as if everyone should know about whom you are speaking before you mention Clarissa, okay? Some of us, especially those of us who have been reading a lot of women’s lit of late, might think, “Richardson? Dorothy Richardson?” which really isn’t that stupid of an assumption because she was British too. Yeah, yeah, yeah….you’re thinking, “I’m dead! Get over it!” Well, sucks to your assmar, Frankie!

Ahem. Anyway….



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