FR Leavis’ Concept of Great Tradition

FR Leavis’ The Great Tradition (1948), an uncompromising critical and polemical survey of English fiction, controversially begins thus: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad!” He regards these writers as the best because they not only “change the possibilities of art for practitioners and readers”, but also promote an “awareness of the possibilities of life.” The book embodies Leavis’ characteristically New Critical austere rejection of styles of fiction that he found lacking in moral intensity – a clear reaction to an age characterized by the ideologies of fascism and communism. The book was well appreciated by George Orwell, though many critics attacked Leavis, for his extremely limited idea of art enhancing vision, especially in that he allows no space for the comic, the grotesque and the carnivalesque.

Believing that the role of English department was to maintain cultural continuity, Leavis was actively involved in the campaign for the professionalization of literary studies in the 1930s. Leavis believed that the role of literature in life is to confer a sense of significance to our routine existence and to question our habitual judgement, and great literature does both. Emphasizing that a critic sustains the “living principle” (the tradition), he compared the critic to a wheelwright that draws on the skill of England, and held that so does a critic exhibit more than just individual taste – thus echoing Arnold’s view of a critic who upholds “the best that was known and thought in the world,” and TS Eliot’s ideas as encapsulated in his 1919 essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent. Being uncomfortable with the idea of plurality and multiplicity of meanings that is central to postmodernism, Leavis believed that a literary work had a comparative rather than an inherent value, which helps it carve a niche for itself in tradition Following Arnold’s Touchstone method, he endorsed that the purpose of evaluating literature is to keep alive the tradition.


F. R. Leavis


In The Great Tradition (1948), Leavis seeks to establish an order of importance and excellence in the novel in the manner of Arnold and Eliot. In doing so he makes the common-sense appeal that literature must be judged as an expression of life seen as a complex ethical reality, like Johnson and Arnold before; and, like all these writers and Mrs. Leavis, he makes self-discipline and maturity the indispensable ingredients of good writing. Consequently he agreed with his wife to put Jane Austen rather than a more obviously romantic novelist at the head of his tradition. But, paradoxically, he judged the eighteenth-century novel to be at best important historically, but not great. The Leavises, being teachers, intended this book to provide the university undergraduate (primarily) with an essential reading-list, not an exhaustive one.

The Great Tradition had upon its appearance the great Johnsonian virtue of stirring debate on the novel. Johnson hoped in the Preface to Shakespeare that ‘what I have here not dogmatically but deliberately written, may recall the principles of the drama to a new examination’.  Whatever the limitations of his book, and however readers choose to describe the manner of his writing, Leavis recalled readers to a new examination of the novel. He begins his book with a handsome tribute to his wife: ‘My sense of my immeasurable indebtedness, in every page of this book, to my wife cannot be adequately expressed’ (p. 7).

As in Revaluation, so in The Great Tradition Leavis declares his aim to make ‘essential discriminations’ (p. 9), both in the English novel at large and among the works of his great novelists. Leavis stresses energy as a chief quality in his great novelists. ‘They are all distinguished by a vital capacity for experience’ (p. 17), he says; and he speaks more than once of the ‘energy of vision’ (pp. 29, 232) that relates Conrad to Dickens.

However admirable the pursuit of beauty of form and style, an addiction to art too often masks an inner hollowness of human significance, Leavis feels, citing Flaubert, George Moore (pp. 16-17), and much of the late James. Similarly, Joyce’s ‘elaborate analogical structure[s]’ represent a ‘dead end’ (p. 36), for they too signify an intensity of art for art’s sake, and not for life’s sake. For Leavis the noblest art deals with the stuff of human experience; the truly great writer creates a vision of life; and the energy of his vision is a moral energy. The art of the great novelist is distinguished by a ‘marked moral intensity’ (p. 17). Evidently life in Ulysses is at the mercy of art.

In emphasising life as the subject-matter of great art, Leavis does not ignore aesthetic considerations. Rather, he insists that in the great novelist or poet the subject-matter determines the form it takes, the vision defines the art that expresses it. Thus, Rene Wellek’s seemingly disparaging remark that Leavis appears to be ‘quite uninterested in questions of technique in the novel’  holds true only in so far as Leavis does not examine style as a rhetorician would. But Leavis is a critic, not a rhetorician. And as a critic of the novel he places a very great importance on a novelist’s style and technique, well knowing that he makes his vision art by his style, by the way he uses language. Moreover the novel as art does not mean a moral essay disguised as fiction. A great novel ‘enacts its moral significance’ (p. 43). A novelist is great in so far as he impersonalises a significant theme by dramatic means.

The importance that Leavis places on style and technique in relation to theme and subject matter, and to impersonality, can be seen in the astringently economical use he makes of Flaubert. He constantly invokes Flaubert when discussing ‘form’ in his great novelists, well knowing that Flaubert is an exemplar of ‘form’ and a standard by which to discuss ‘form’ in other novelists. He does so, then, partly as a compliment to the French master, and not just to snub him, as many think. But he also sees Flaubert as a warning for what happens when ‘form’ is pursued at the expense of subject-matter, when the novelist so interests himself in his art that he cuts himself off from his richest material: human experience, life. Leavis feels that Flaubert does pursue ‘form’ at the expense of life, and consequently that his art, impersonal though it may be, is relatively hollow and represents a retreat from life (p. 16.). However, he can use Flaubert as a kind of double yardstick, both for valuing ‘form’ in itself and for valuing ‘form’ in relation to subject-matter. So he argues that Conrad’s mastery of ‘form’ is more significant than Flaubert ‘s because it is the vehicle of a deep human interest.

Leavis stresses the originality of his great writers. They are all strongly individual, each making innovations in the art of the novel which they practise in common: ‘The great novelists … are all very much concerned with “form”; they are all very original technically, having turned their genius to the working out of their own appropriate methods and procedures’ (p. 16). Even intelligence, a quality Leavis prizes especially, will not be enough to make a writer great if he has not worked out his own form, as he feels is true of Scott: ‘He was a great and very intelligent man; but, not having the creative writer’s interest in literature, he made no serious attempt to work out his own form and break away from the bad tradition of the eighteenth-century romance’ (p. 14).

In contrast, Jane Austen, George Eliot, James, Conrad, and Dickens with Hard Times are creative and achieved at their best a wholly individual expression in the art of the novel. They then constitute a tradition of individuals who, by dint of making original contributions to a common art, ‘change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers’ (p. 10). But they constitute a tradition, too, by reason of their ‘common concern … with essential human issues’ (p. 19), and because they devote their art to promoting awareness of these-to promoting ‘awareness of the possibilities of life’ (p. 10).

Leavis finds it relatively easy to link Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James on this basis. But he has more trouble with Conrad. At least, the reader finds his assimilation more puzzling.

He does not give much time to Jane Austen, preferring for special reasons to refer the reader to his wife’s essays on her in Scrutiny. Nevertheless, he implies that, unlike Scott, Jane Austen did break away from her eighteenth-century precursors. She assimilated what she learned from Richardson, from Fielding and from Fanny Burney into an art all her own, especially in Emma (pp. 11-18). Consequently, she makes ‘an exceptionally illuminating study of the nature of originality’ (p. 13). Then, quoting from Felix Holt and the Middlemarch, he indicates an essential affinity between George Eliot and Jane Austen in their similar use of irony in expressing a moral interest in life (pp. 18-19). But more important, he adds, is the difference between them in the individual use to which they put their irony. It is, then, their ‘likeness’ in ‘unlikeness’, their expressing in individual ways a ‘common concern … with essential human issues’ (p. 19) that links them as great novelists in a tradition of human centrality. George Eliot added to what she had learned from Jane Austen. The ‘new impersonality’ she achieved for herself in handling the ‘Transome theme’ (p. 67.) in Felix Holt led on to Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, where, says Leavis,

she handled with unprecedented subtlety and refinement the personal relations of sophisticated characters exhibiting the ‘civilization’ of the ‘best society’, and used, in so doing, an original psychological notation corresponding to the fineness of her psychological and moral insight. (p. 25)

Yet, though Leavis insists that he has no desire to ‘establish indebtedness’ between his novelists, but rather their pre-eminence together above the more run-of-the-mill novelists, he devotes the longest section of the book, ‘Daniel Deronda and The Portrait of a Lady’, to showing how James’s masterpiece grew out of George Eliot’s last and longest novel. Consequently he makes his most convincing, because most detailed, illustration of ‘tradition’, an illustration of indebtedness. Moreover he does so seeming to grant all the laurels to George Eliot and few to James. However, he goes on in the following chapter to stress James’s originality, and so unlikeness to George Eliot. He finds that James’s brilliance in ‘dramatic presentation’ derives from George Eliot (p. 127). But the ‘creative wealth’ of The Portrait of a Lady is ‘all distinctively Jamesian’, and ‘Madame Merle … couldn’t have been done by George Eliot’ (p. 167). Meanwhile it is a chief point with Leavis that the strong James shows a greater affinity with Hawthorne in the American tradition, and with Jane Austen and George Eliot in the English tradition of the novel, than with Flaubert and Turgenev (p. 145). That is, he is great in the novels mostly of the middle period, The Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, The Europeans and Washington Square, in which he richly renders life. But the late James is too Flaubertian for Leavis’s taste. With the exception of The Awkward Age and What Maisie Knew, his novels have become too much like sophisticated word-pictures and puzzles, empty of human significance, and his art in general ‘synthetic’ rather than truly ‘poetic’ (p. 185.).

Leavis cannot so easily place Conrad in the tradition, and this may explain why he stressed his unconcern with indebtedness. Ironically, however, he keeps citing Dickens when he draws attention to Conrad’s ‘energy’ and ‘dramatic vividness’. Meanwhile, he posits Conrad’s originality in his ‘foreignness’ (p. 26), and suggests that Conrad can be linked with the others because he mastered the English language in full awareness, like the others, of the ‘moral tradition’ it embodies (p. 27). Moreover he says that Conrad gained this awareness as a result of his full baptism in another strongly moral English tradition, that of the Merchant Service: ‘the Merchant Service is for him both a spiritual fact and a spiritual symbol, and the interests that made it so for him control and animate his art everywhere’ (ibid.). Consequently his masterpiece, Nostromo, may show a Flaubertian mastery of ‘form’, but its range and depth and imaginative sympathy come from Conrad’s inwardness with the English language, with English experience, and with the moral tradition associated with these.

Here, then, we have a master of the English language, who chose it for its distinctive qualities and because of the moral tradition associated with it, and whose concern with art-he being like Jane Austen and George Eliot and Henry James an innovator in ‘form’ and method-is the servant of a profoundly serious interest in life. (Ibid.)

We see that by mastery of the English language Leavis means much more than an advanced skill with figurative words and poetic diction, as he well illustrates in criticising the weaknesses of the late James and the early Conrad. Both in different ways tend to scenepaint with words rather than to realise poetically, he feels. In his late novels James’s images seem too deliberated, lack the dramatic immediacy of metaphor, and look too much like ‘coloured diagram[ s ]’ (p. 185.), and the early Conrad tries to evoke significance with clusters and repetitions of vaguely evocative adjectives so that this work has only a ‘ “picturesque” human interest’ (pp. 198., 210). In such cases we are made too aware of the author’s presence in his work, Leavis feels. We see James as too consciously the symbolist, and Conrad as self-conscious artist of the tropics. But Leavis insists that a true mastery of language shows itself when subject-matter is communicated dramatically and speaks for itself with the immediacy of metaphor, as in Shakespeare and in the great novelists at their best.

Leavis, then, presents his ‘great tradition’ as a line of strongly individual masters of the English language, who made the novel into a richly poetic communication of essential human experience, and as such a major literary genre. They have a common human centrality. But they are all original in the technical innovations they have made, and in the way they have increased man’s awareness of his human or spiritual potential.

[T]he major novelists … count in the same way as the major poets, in the sense that they not only change the possibilities of the art for practitioners and readers, but they are significant in terms of that human awareness they promote; awareness of the possibilities of life. (p. 10)

All critical studies of any importance or length originate in a personal or private preference. On the other hand, it is undeniable that Leavis made a bad mistake in excluding Dickens, who so patently meets his criteria. But, significantly, he has restored only Dickens of English novelists, and, so passionately does he believe in literature as the basis of a humane education, it is hard to believe that he would not restore others if he could.

Few now would question Leavis’s choice of Jane Austen, George Eliot, James and Conrad as great English novelists, or deny his reasons for choosing them. He has been credited with largely pioneering the revival of interest in George Eliot and Conrad. What remains debatable is the exclusion of the eighteenth-century novel and of a host of worthy candidates in the novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The basic aim of the chapter called ‘The Great Tradition’ could not be more basic, or more full of common sense. It is to provide an essential reading-list in the English novel. Given the vastness of the field, this is what every good teacher at some time provides for his students, and every reader with a more than casual interest in literature decides on for himself, or so Leavis reasons. The teacher and critic’s ‘great concern is … to save the student from the usual laborious dissipation, to put him in the way of the concentrated reading that will truly educate him by giving him, as it were, the essential structure of literary experience’, he declared almost at the outset of his career. Accordingly he wrote New Bearings, Revaluation and then The Great Tradition. Only, Leavis has made his ‘essential discriminations’ (p. 9) in the English novel with such force and economy that he appears to have convinced almost everyone except himself  that there are no novelists worth reading apart from his great novelists. Yet closer inspection reveals that Leavis has identified at least two classes of importance aside from the great: those under the general head of permanent historical interest, and the anomalous geniuses, Dickens and Emily Bronte. The first group, which includes the chief novelists in the eighteenth-century tradition, are distinguished by such epithets as, ‘remarkable’, ‘distinguished’, ‘permanent’, ‘intelligent’, ‘impressive’, ‘important’ and ‘classic’. They are: Bunyan, Defoe, Fielding, Richardson, Fanny Burney, Scott, Peacock, Thackeray, Disraeli, Charlotte Bronte, Hardy, Joyce, T. F. Powys, L. H. Myers and Arthur Koestler. Significantly, Leavis has another set of terms to describe the great: ‘major’, ‘creative’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘significant’ and ‘pre-eminent’. It is significant, too, that he does not use the terms ‘create’, ‘creative’, ‘subtle’, ‘art’ or ‘artist’ to describe the novel before 1800; but of Jane Austen and her successors he uses them liberally. He implies thereby that the novel did not become fully an art, a major literary genre rivalling great poetry, until the nineteenth century. He was soon to say so explicitly.

In other words, Leavis does not aim to duplicate the literary histories wherever these have been just. For instance, Fielding is ‘important historically’ because ‘he leads to Jane Austen’, and consequently he ‘deserves the place of importance given him in the literary histories’ (p. 11). But ‘standards are formed in comparison’, he continues, and by the standards of technical subtlety and human complexity and depth visible in Jane Austen or George Eliot Fielding’s art can hardly be called great: ‘There can’t be subtlety of organization without richer matter to organize, and subtler interests, than Fielding has to offer’ (p. 12).

He implies that another test for saving the reader’s time in this vast field, and so for deciding a novel’s importance, might be whether or not a novel repays the labour spent in re-reading it. Accordingly Clarissa is a ‘really impressive work’, but, given the limitedness of its ‘range and variety’, Richardson makes ‘prohibitive’ demands on ‘the reader’s time’ (p. 13). Likewise ‘life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding’ (p. 11), and for the reader of Thackeray ‘it is merely a matter of going on and on’ (p. 31). Moreover, he questions his great novelists in the same way, wondering whether a large portion of Adam Bede (p. 49), all of Romola (p. 63), The Ambassadors (p. 178) and the early Conrad (p. 210) justify more than one reading.

Leavis, then, does not arbitrarily reject all save his great novelists. He makes his ‘essential discriminations’ and metes justice according to the highest standards, and with the strictest economy. He is invariably as forceful and incisive with a masterpiece of his great novelists, getting within a few pages to the heart of its significance without however simplifying its complex totality. A good example is his discussion of The Portrait of a Lady. Here, within six pages (pp. 163-9) and by means of a handful of key quotations and several carefully placed cross-references to other works of James’s discussed in adjacent pages, he builds up a strong impression both of the total complexity of this long novel and of its place in James’s oeuvre.

But very few readers have sympathised with Leavis’s rigorous economy, or even understood the common-sense reasons behind it. Nor is it well understood that Leavis accords a special status to Emily Bronte and Dickens. Though they do not fit into his scheme, he calls them both ‘genius’ (pp. 29, 38), and does not lump them with the also-rans. For instance, it is all too tempting to take Leavis’s description of Wuthering Heights as an ‘astonishing work’ and yet a ‘kind of sport’ for a convenient but mostly negative equivocation that lets him out of coping with Emily Bronte. But Richard Chase (Richard Chase (1914-1962) was a literary critic and a Professor of English at Columbia University. He is known for his work The American Novel and Its Tradition.) has seen the justice of Leavis’s judgement; that by it he does not mean to condemn Emily Bronte. Chase adds, though, that if Leavis were aware of the great American ‘poetic’ tradition he would have no difficulty in placing Wuthering Heights in it. This is well said. Actually, Leavis is aware of the American tradition in so far as he relates James to it through Melville and Hawthorne (p. 145), but he would have done well to make Chase’s point about Wuthering Heights.

Leavis is much more precise in his ‘essential discriminations’ with Dickens, as well as more favourable to Dickens than most readers have realised. He accepts Hard Times as a great novel and calls Dickens a ‘great genius’ for family entertainment-at, that is, his chosen level (p. 29). He was wrong in his overall judgement at this time, that ‘the adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness’ (p. 29), but there can be no reason for doubting the sincerity with which he made it, or for not perceiving that by it he distinguished Dickens above all those outside ‘the great tradition’.

However, it is undeniable that, in excluding Emily Bronte and Dickens, Leavis narrowed and weakened his ‘great tradition’, for, apart from anything else, he left out the two most significant English precursors of Conrad. We can even see that Leavis seems half-aware that Conrad’s affinities with Dickens have a greater importance than he allows. He writes in the opening chapter,

As I point out in my discussion of him, Conrad is in certain respects so like Dickens that it is difficult to say for just how much influence Dickens counts. He is undoubtedly there in the London of The Secret Agent . … This co-presence of obvious influence with assimilation suggests that Dickens may have counted for more in Conrad’s mature art than seems at first probable: it suggests that Dickens may have encouraged the development in Conrad’s art of that energy of vision and registration in which they are akin. (pp. 28-9)

He certainly goes on to demonstrate what he says here in the critique of Conrad, but without bringing himself to consolidate the link. He prefers on the grounds of Conrad’s greater maturity to call his ‘energy of vision and characterization’ Shakespearean rather than Dickensian (p. 232). And yet the critique of Hard Times which follows is devoted to extolling Dickens’s Shakespearean dramatic power, poetic energy and flexibility of mode!

All that we have been saying of Emily Bronte and Dickens points to the fact that, had Leavis at this time re-read Dickens and had greater confidence in his idea of ‘the novel as dramatic poem’,  he would have made The Great Tradition a different and very much more satisfying book. And this was to come: if we include Mrs Leavis’s ‘Fresh Approach to Wuthering Heights‘, the Leavises provided in Dickens the Novelist a revised version of The Great Tradition.

Suffice it to say, first, that there is no question in The Great Tradition of Leavis’s lumping Dickens with Congreve, Sterne and Meredith. His point in endorsing Santayana’s (George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher, poet, and humanist who made important contributions to aesthetics, speculative philosophy, and literary criticism) advice about Dickens is that Dickens is a great genius for family entertainment, his chosen level of creation. For the rest, and with the exception of Hard Times, Dickens was ‘innocent’ of ‘mature standards and interests’ (p.147). By this description Leavis means that Dickens does not aspire to create art of mature subtlety, and ‘innocent of, going with the endorsement of Santayana, constitutes a fondly ‘placing’ judgement, however wrong and limiting it proved to be. Leavis’s attitude to the other three is very different. He implies that they do aspire to write with mature subtlety for a mature audience, but that in failing to do so they are immature in a pejorative sense. Secondly, literature being in question, it is scarcely credible that the oeuvre of Congreve, Sterne and Meredith can either individually or collectively be described as having ‘enormous human significance’. Nor, thirdly, is it credible that Leavis takes only a solemn interest in, say, Emma, The Europeans and Hard Times.

Leavis begins to identify the qualities of a great novelist in Jane Austen. Her interest in her art, he suggests, cannot be separated from her close interest in life. She works out her own technique (unlike Scott, whom Leavis has just been mentioning) to suit her subject-matter, and both the technique and the subject-matter derive from an ‘intense moral interest of her own in life’:

The principle of organization, and the principle of development, in her work is an intense moral interest of her own in life that is in the first place a preoccupation with certain problems that life compels on her as personal ones. (p. 15).

But such an interest in her art and in life does not mean that her art is confessional, or a kind of personal therapy, for

She is intelligent and serious enough to be able to impersonalize her moral tensions as she strives, in her art, to become more fully conscious of them, and to learn what, in the interests of life, she ought to do with them. Without her intense moral preoccupation she wouldn’t have been a great novelist. (p. 16)

Two major criteria emerge from these two quotations. The great novelist creates out of a deep, personal engagement with reality. The process is not one of self-indulgence, but rather of his striving toward a completer, more disinterested understanding of his relation to life. Consequently he achieves a vision of reality unvitiated by personality. This kind of impersonality, Leavis is to instance again and again, indicates the writer’s maturity in his attitude to both literature and life. It is neither Eliot’s ‘escape from personality’, nor Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus’s nail-paring indifference, but rather the completion of personality described by I. A. Richards. The more, says Richards, ‘our personality is engaged’ in the objects of its interest ‘the more we seem to see “all round” them’, and ‘the more detached our attitude becomes’, so that ‘to say we are impersonal is merely a curious way of saying that our personality is more completely involved’.

Leavis went on to clarify what he himself meant in the first of the essays belonging to ‘Notes in the Analysis of Poetry’ called ‘ “Thought” and Emotional Quality’. There, by means of comparison and contrast of a large variety of poems by Wordsworth, Tennyson, Lawrence, Marvell, Lionel Johnson, Blake and Shelley, he aimed to demonstrate that, where the emotional life of a poem is seen to be controlled and objectified by the poet’s thought, the result is a sincere, mature and impersonal evocation of reality; but that, where this has not happened, the result is personal indulgence and a falsification of reality. ‘The “impersonal” poem’, he says, ‘unmistakably derives from a seismic personal experience’. First-hand experience generates the emotional life in the poem and gives it vitality. But for the poem to become fully impersonalised and to be more, in other words, than a mere overflow of personal emotion, feeling must be controlled by the ‘thought’ or critical attitude which the poet takes towards it. The poet’s thought, he says, varying his terms, is ‘an element of disinterested valuation’; and he adds that in the completely impersonalised poem the poet’s emotion is not seen as a thing apart from his thought: ‘feeling is not divorced from thinking’. As he remarks of Wordsworth’s ‘A slumber did my spirit seal’, ‘No one can doubt that Wordsworth wrote his poem because of something profoundly and involuntarily suffered-suffered as a personal calamity, but the experience has been so impersonalized that the effect … is one of bare and disinterested presentment. ‘ And what he goes on to say of the ‘Metaphysical habit’ applies directly to what he said of Jane Austen in the passage already quoted:

The activity of the thinking mind, the energy of intelligence, involved in the Metaphysical habit means that, when the poet has urgent personal experience to deal with it is attended to and contemplated-which in turn means some kind of separation, or distinction, between experiencer and experience … to analyse your experience you must, while keeping it alive and immediately present as experience, treat it in some sense as an object. That is, an essential part of the strength of good Metaphysical poetry turns out to be of the same order as the strength of all the most satisfying poetry.

And, he might have added, of all the most satisfying novels. For, as he observes of their finest work, George Eliot, James and Conrad write out of ‘urgent personal experience’ but so as to maintain a ‘distinction between experiencer and experience’. As he often puts it, it is a matter of the novelist’s knowing the experience or situation he portrays from ‘inside’ while he at the same time adopts a critical attitude to it from ‘outside’. It amounts to a critical detachment which is sometimes ironic. Thus Leavis finds James’s portrayal of New England civilisation fine and effective ‘because he is not merely an ironic critic … he both knows it from inside and sees it from outside with the eye of a professional student of civilisation who has had much experience of non-Puritan cultures’ (p. 150). Similarly, Conrad’s successes with Typhoon and The Shadow-Line result both from his knowing the Merchant Service ‘from the inside’ and from ‘the capacity for detachment that makes intimate knowledge uniquely conscious and articulate’ (p. 208). The same is true of George Eliot in Middlemarch: so long as she controls from outside what she knows from inside-that is, from first-hand experience-she achieves ‘the poised impersonal insight of a finely tempered wisdom’ (p. 89). Hence her success with the portraits of her intellectuals, Casaubon and Lydgate. These are so successful because she herself knows very well the strain of intellectual life: ‘Only a novelist who had known from the inside the exhaustions and discouragements of long-range intellectual enterprises could have conveyed the pathos of Dr Casaubon’s predicament’ (p. 75). She succeeds with Lydgate for similar reasons (p. 79). This knowing from the inside is what Leavis meant at the outset when he said that the great novelists have a ‘vital capacity for experience’: they explore reality at first hand. However, the novelist must control his explorations with critical detachment. Lydgate and Casaubon are strongly real because subjected to the ‘irony that informs our vision of the other characters in these opening chapters’ (p. 87).

In stressing irony as a means for distancing the novelist from his subject, the experiencer from the experience, Leavis anticipates much subsequent important theory on the novel, for he is talking essentially of the ironic distance which later theorists on the novel have written so extensively about, most notably Wayne Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). Only, for Leavis, the great novelist combines irony with a rich sympathy and understanding of the reality he transmutes into art.

Leavis can illustrate particularly well in George Eliot his key criteria for judging creativity-impersonality, realisation, concreteness, self-knowledge, maturity-because he finds her habitually failing to write impersonally. This happens when she fails to distance herself from a character in whom she has a special interest; with whom, rather, she identifies herself too emotionally, as Leavis finds she does again and again in her novels: with Maggie Tulliver, with Adam Bede, with Dorothea Brooke and with Daniel Deronda. In such cases she ‘idealises’ instead of ‘realises’. For instance, he finds that Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch is not an independent dramatic reality, but, rather, a product of George Eliot’s precreative ‘idealising’ imagination, and, furthermore, that the ‘idealised’ Will is merely a means for filtering to the reader George Eliot’s self-idealisation in Dorothea Brooke.

The novel Hard Times, which Leavis sees as a ‘moral fable’ depicting ‘the confutation of Utilitarianism by life’ (pp. 250, 260) and for which he inaugurated the analogy ‘the novel as dramatic poem’, plainly deserves a more central place in The Great Tradition. Quite simply, the evaluation and affirmation of Dickens’s Shakespearean vitality, flexibility of mode, dramatic power, and poetry reads as the strongest passage in The Great Tradition:

There is no need to insist on the force-representation of Dickens’s art in general in Hard Times-with which the moral and spiritual differences are rendered here [the description of Sissy Jupe and Bitzer in the schoolroom] in terms of sensation, so that the symbolic intention emerges out of metaphor and the vivid evocation of the concrete. (p. 253)

Then comes this clinching judgement (on the passage dealing with the discovery of Tom Gradgrind disguised as a negro servant in the travelling circus) which justifies the original title for the critique:

The excerpt in itself suggests the justification for saying that Hard Times is a poetic work. It suggests that the genius of the writer may fairly be described as that of a poetic dramatist, and that, in our preconceptions about ‘the novel’, we may miss, within the field of fictional prose, possibilities of concentration and flexibility in -the interpretation of life such as we associate with Shakespearean drama. (p. 266)

In sum, the critique of Hard Times, annexed half-apologetically in The Great Tradition, has become a landmark in Leavis’s criticism. Looking back to it through the later criticism, we see that it provided a basis for a more stringent and up-to-date evaluation of two key conceptions: relevance and significance. For we watch Leavis come increasingly through the 1960s and 1970s to find that the truly relevant and really significant writers are those who defend human values and human life in the face of the dehumanising forces in, as he terms it, the ‘technologico-Benthamite age’, and do so not by overt propagandising but by creating insights into what human values are and by imagining and dramatising in a richly poetic art possibilities of living humanly. One such possibility is triumphantly figured for Leavis by Daniel Doyce, the inventive engineer in Little Dorrit, in his calm perseverance in the face of the dispiriting, faceless obstructiveness of the Circumlocution Office. So in the new phase Leavis’s criticism becomes progressively sociological in direction, and more deeply rooted in the spiritual qualities of creative literature. He becomes more and more urgently interested in poetry and fiction that vindicate man’s essential humanity and individuality. And in the process he proposes a new tradition of transcendently great writers coming after Shakespeare: Blake, Dickens and Lawrence.

As to the question why Leavis did not make Dickens a full member of ‘the great tradition’ at this earlier time, he has himself supplied the good, if astonishing, reason that he had not reread Dickens (Dickens the Novelist, pp. 1-2). And paradoxically it may after all have been fortunate that he had not done so. For we may believe that with Mrs Leavis’s major contribution Dickens the Novelist gives a far more compelling and more rounded account of Dickens’s genius than Leavis could have given on his own in The Great Tradition.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Modernism

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