Q. D. Leavis: Fiction and the Reading Public and Scrutiny (1932–47)

  • P. J. M. Robertson


In the period 1932–47 Mrs Leavis conducts a reconnaissance of the field of fiction and brings discussion of tradition and importance in the English novel to the point where her husband’s ‘essential discriminations’ in The Great Tradition1 are the natural consequence of her work. Her work in these years is more the investigative work of the scholar with a critical interest in literature than criticism as such.


Creative Writer Reading Public Critical Interest Great Tradition English Poetry 
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  1. 1.
    The Great Tradition (Harmondsworth, 1962) p. 9.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Sewanee Review, LIX (1951) 179–205 and 426–58.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Cited in her bibliography, but otherwise unmentioned, is a book by W. C. Phillips, Dickens, Reade, and Collins: Sensation Novelists (New York, 1919). Phillips’s subject is ‘A Study in the Conditions and Theories of Novel Writing in Victorian England’, and there are many resemblances between what he and Mrs Leavis write of this period. However, while Phillips is careful to pursue an impartial inquiry, and also to distinguish Dickens from his lesser imitators, Mrs Leavis seeks to reveal the originators of cheapness in fiction and does not refrain from acid value judgements: ‘The critical reader is never in any novel before 1820 made uncomfortable by crudities of feeling as he is in reading Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Kingsley, or by the vulgarity and puerility that he winces at in Dickens’ (Fiction and the Reading Public, p. 130).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    As she seems at one point to imply of Dickens: ‘Even Dickens, to take a leap to the beginning of another phase of popular fiction, was a great deal more than a member of his own public’ (ibid., p. 246).Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    She is to qualify this in implicitly approving Leslie Stephen’s judgement that ‘Sterne represents a comparatively shallow vein of thought…. He is too systematic a trifler’—‘Leslie Stephen: Cambridge Critic’, Scrutiny, VII (1939); repr. in A Selection from ‘Scrutiny’ (Cambridge, 1968) vol. I, p. 23. And Stephen’s judgement lies behind Leavis’s footnote in The Great Tradition (p. 11) about Sterne’s ‘irresponsible (and nasty) trifling’. In ‘nasty’ Leavis also condenses Stephen: ‘Sterne’s sudden excursions into the nauseous are like the brutal practical jokes of a dirty boy who should put filth into a scent bottle’—Hours in a Library (1894) vol. III, p. 152.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    According at least to Stanley Edgar Hyman in The Armed Vision (New York, 1955) p. 305.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Scrutiny, V (1936) 181.Google Scholar
  8. 18.
    Ibid., XI (1942) iii.Google Scholar
  9. 22.
    ‘Lives and Works of Richard Jefferies’, Scrutiny, VI (1938) 435–46; repr. in A Selection from ‘Scrutiny’, vol. II, pp. 204 and 210.Google Scholar
  10. 23.
    W. J. Keith, Richard Jefferies: A Critical Study (Toronto, 1965) p. 129.Google Scholar
  11. 24.
    ‘Henry James: The Stories’, Scrutiny, XIV (1947) 223–9; ‘Note on The Great Short Novels of Henry James [by Philip Rahv]’, ibid., pp. 305–6; ‘The Institution of Henry James’, ibid., XV (1947) 68–74.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© P.J.M. Robertson 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • P. J. M. Robertson
    • 1
  1. 1.KingstonCanada

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