Sir Arthur Quiller Couch and being Q

Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb, (c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by Henry Lamb, (c) Mrs Henrietta Phipps, Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Today’s letter is Q in the Really Like This Book scripts catch-up, and today’s author was a struggle to find. Q is not a common initial capital letter for anglophone surnames, and whoever I chose was going to be obscure. In the end, after consultating the online Literary Encyclopaedia, I had a choice of the classical Latin orator Quintilian on rhetoric (not a lot of enjoyment there), or the Victorian/Edwardian novelist, professor and poetry critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote his novels under the pen-name of Q. Quiller-Couch won, because I’ve read him: the American writer Helene Hanff began her reading career after reading his books of lectures during the Depression, when she couldn’t afford to go to college.

He published his second novel, The Astonishing Tale of Troy Town in 1888. He wrote this when he was a student at Oxford, and it is certainly a young man’s novel. It’s also a bundle of gentle laughs, because it’s a satire on Victorian fiction, as well as provincial small-town Cornwall, where Quiller-Couch grew up. The small Cornish town of Troy is about to be shaken up by Mr and Mrs Goodwyn-Sands, a pair of fraudsters and a glamorous society couple who bring snobbery and new fashions to the sleepy town, but they also bring dissension, and divide the population. Their nemesis is at hand in the shape of Mrs Goodwyn-Sands’ deserted husband, who has retired to live the life of a hermit, abjuring women, while falling in love with his landlord’s daughter.

Q 2I didn’t get any further than the obvious corruption of the customs officer by Mrs Goodwyn-Sands’s big eyes, because I could work out the rest of the plot for myself. The name of the fraudstering couple, Goodwyn-Sands, indicates the level of humour you can expect. Mr Goodwyn-Sands is the younger brother of Lord Chatham, but the Goodwin Sands in real life is the name of a large and dangerous sandbar at the south-east tip of England, where ships were wrecked regularly each year. Given that the leading personality in the town is an Admiral, and Chatham was the British Naval dockyard, I think we can all see the metaphor coming from some way off. As I said, this novel is fun, but it’s just a bit slow. I don’t know, call me too impatient, but I require a faster-moving plot, or more incident in my fiction, before I can say that I really, really like it. Troy Town is clever, and good, but it’s not great.

However, it’s worth knowing about, because now we know that Quiller-Couch was publishing novels when he was barely out of his 20s. He was also a poet, and a critic, and became a full professor at Cambridge in 1912. His most famous achievement was editing the classic anthology the Oxford Book of English Verse, but he is also worth remembering for completing Robert Louis Stevenson’s last novel, St Ives. Stevenson left this manuscript unfinished at his death, and it had largely been written from his dictation as he was dying. Someone had to be found who would be ‘thoroughly steeped in the Stevensonian legend’, and Q wrote the last 6 chapters from Stevenson’s outline.  Leaving aside the quality of the writing for a moment, this is a pretty important accolade to be given to a man whose own novels were never regarded as more than good quality entertainment. Stevenson was the great novelist of his day, he was a romantic legend, he was a recluse in the South Seas, his novels are Scottish classics, and some of them, like Treasure Island, are world classics. So to be asked to finish his novel is equivalent to someone being asked to finish off a novel by Margaret Atwood. Q was that man, at the end of the Victorian period.

glorious poster for the 1998 film that presumably went straight to DVD?
glorious poster for the 1998 film that presumably went straight to DVD?

St Ives itself is not the greatest thing Stevenson ever wrote, but it’s not at all bad. It’s a historical romance, set in the Napoleonic Wars, and romps its way up and down Scotland and England very comfortably. When Q takes over, the tone changes. Suddenly the hero (a French Vicomte) starts quoting Latin tags, and his language becomes much more complex: this isn’t a good sign. Q also messes around with the plot. Stevenson had got it all ready for a daring escape by the hero by balloon, and Q dutifully carries this out, but he then introduces a totally pointless voyage to America and back, on a privateer’s ship, which is a muddle from start to finish.  Q keeps to the spirit of Stevenson well, but he over-eggs the cake. St Ives is a curiosity, but I think it always would have been, even if Stevenson had lived to complete it himself.

Then there’s Q the university professor. He published several sets of his lectures: Helene Hanff first got hooked on his The Art of Writing. I started to read his Studies in Literature, and near the beginning, when he is describing the pointlessness of defining literature in terms of ‘isms’, I came across this: ‘Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley did not write ‘classicism’ or ‘romanticism’. They wrote Hamlet, Lycidas, The Cenci.’ That makes perfect sense to me. The text is the important thing, not the abstract concept. He didn’t object to plays or poems being described as ‘classical’ or ‘romantic’, though he was pretty challenging on the difficulty of defining either term. But he did object to the concept of isms, and was very rude about German scholarship, in particular, when putting romanticism down. So I was kindly disposed to the way Q thought, as a critic.

Q 4However, the anti-German thing was a bit disturbing. Given that this set of lectures was published in 1918, at the end of the First World War, and that Q was teaching young men either mad keen to fight on the Western Front and risk fairly likely death or injury, or who had already been invalided out, it isn’t surprising that he lets loose his vitriol at the Germans regularly and often. It isn’t surprising, but it’s startling, and occasionally offensive, to the modern reader, no matter how much we mutter ‘context, context’ to ourselves. It’s a regular problem when you read literature that speaks directly to its times.

Overall, though, in these lectures we have an esteemed and famously eccentric professor holding forth on his special subject. He slips in a few jokes now and again to keep his students awake and on their toes. These lectures are not for the beginner, though if you do plunge in, eager to learn, you’ll come out at the other end knowing a great deal more about 17thC poetry. The chapter on the Horatian model in English verse requires some previous knowledge in Latin poetry, so it could be daunting. The chapter on George Herbert is also pretty stiff going. But it’s great stuff! I don’t want to scare you off from Q’s lectures, because Q’s writing, his voice, is a sparkling, lively fount of knowledge and learning. It’s a treat to read because we can hear his voice. Much as I worked hard for my own professors when I was a student, I hardly ever received instruction from them that was as entertaining and enthusing as this. This book is really, really good as an introduction to Q the teacher, which is no bad thing.

Cambridge students protest against women being admitted to the university by exhibiting an effigy of a woman in bloomers riding a bike.
Cambridge students protest against women being admitted to the university by exhibiting an effigy of a woman in bloomers riding a bike.

Q’s influence was very far-reaching. One of his Cambridge students was the critic and academic rebel F R Leavis, who went on to form a school of academic criticism that dominated how we were all taught how to read English literature, for about 60 years. Leavis’s influence is loosening, slowly, as Leavis’s own pupils move towards retirement, and ‘new’ ways of reading critically recycle themselves. Behind Leavis’s ideas about the novel, which were all about excluding works that are not worthy, I suppose we ought to be able to find Q’s influence. I don’t want to find Q there, because I don’t follow Leavis’s thinking about literary classification, and I’d like to think that I could have been a good student of Q. But I couldn’t. In 1897, when Q was finishing off St Ives and working on his poetry criticism, there were riots in Cambridge over the question of allowing women to be admitted as students, and the riots were not in favour of the idea. Women were allowed to take examinations, and presumably attend lectures, from the late 1880s, when Q was an undergraduate himself, but Cambridge didn’t award women degrees until 1948. Q’s lectures are all addressed to ‘Gentlemen’.

Why do I really, really like Q? I admire his influence, and I love his voice, his terrific energy in dissecting a poem, and how he takes his students from poem to poem without worrying too much about whether they know it already. He is always showing new things, and opening up new ideas about how to read. He makes you interested: it’s as simple as that. No teacher could do better.


2 thoughts on “Sir Arthur Quiller Couch and being Q

  1. “Stevenson was the great novelist of his day”
    Hardly. His friends and contemporaries included Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford to begin with.


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