Some of the papers from the very enjoyable ‘Culture Wars’ conference at Sheffield Hallam University are available online. They are on the site of the Middlebrow Network, which has done much over the past few years to encourage intelligent thinking about the less academically respectable kinds of writing.
My own paper is about detective stories. Called ‘Cambridge versus the Cosy’, it contrasts the attitudes of Ludwig Wittgenstein (crazy-keen to read tales about hard-boiled American private eyes and Q.D. Leavis, who regarded all detective stories with scorn but reserved her special loathing for the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, which she lambasted in one of the most spectacularly damning reviews ever written.
It’s one of those papers where I’d have liked to have more time than the allotted twenty minutes. Maybe I’ll expand on it one day.
If I do rework it, it will be with more understanding of Q. D. Leavis. Jan Montefiore, who was at the conference, has kindly sent me an offprint of her interview with Kate Varney, the Leavises’ daughter (Women: A Cultural Review, vol 19 no 2, 2008)
Kate Varney gives a picture of her mother as a complicated woman, from a close family who cut her off when she married outside the Jewish faith.
(So clean was the break that Kate Varney had no idea of her mother’s Jewish background until she went to Somerville ‘and a Jewish girl reading English informed me of the fact, and I didn’t believe it.’) Frank Leavis was ten years older than Queenie Roth, and the pair clearly formed a band of two against the world.
The interview says much about Queenie Leavis’s domestic skills (bottling fruit, jam-making, darning, home decoration, needlework, washing, cooking and so on). As well as this, she did most of the routine work of Scrutiny, including typing all the contributor’s hand-written manuscripts (and this included her husband’s).
She seems to have been a much more social person than her husband, but her friends were mostly not academics: ‘She’d make friends with people on the bus and ask them round for tea, that kind of thing.’
Kate Varney reminds us that in Cambridge:
[P]eople didn’t approve of the Leavises on the whole, so we had very few Cambridge friends…
No wonder Queenie Leavis so disliked Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, with its cosy depiction of female Oxford dons as charming, chummy and engaged on research with no conceivable practical value.
Queenie Leavis wrote many of the best pieces in Scrutiny (and maybe some of The Great Tradition, too) but she did so without a room of her own. She worked on the dining-room table. Her husband had a study:
He needed quiet and lots of time to work, whereas she – he used to say, she could do her thinking while she was stirring the jam.
No wonder Q.D.Leavis wrote with such understanding of Margaret Oliphant, that extraordinary Victorian woman of letters, who also generally wrote at a table in a crowded sitting-room, did much literary drudge-work, and probably achieved less than she might have been capable of in different circumstances.