Header overlay
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s bookplate, kindly supplied by Dr Geoffrey Vevers | Derek Parker article, SF Issue 21

Going for the Thing

One day in May 1944, with the harbour of Fowey packed with vessels of all shapes and sizes ready for the invasion of France, Mr Spreadbury, our history master, turned up in a gown with very noticeable tears in it – almost as though someone had purposely rent it.

A row with Mrs Spreadbury, we conjectured? Then the bell of St Nicholas Church, down the hill, began to toll, and a little posse of masters set out for the funeral of one of the school’s governors – as it happened, a rather distinguished one: a critic and novelist, and the creator of the school of English literature at Cambridge – Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

‘Q’ – for that was how he signed himself throughout his writing career – is now, I suppose, pretty much forgotten. It is time for a revival. I first became conscious of him because he wrote what is still the best book about Cornish village life, Nicky-Nan, Reservist, which is set in the little village of Polpier – the ancient name of Polperro, where I spent a lot of my childhood. Q knew it well, and knew it – as I did – when he was an infant, for his grandfather was the village doctor, living in a house precariously perched above the stream which runs down through the village, just before it makes its final dash into the harbour. Dr Jonathan Couch was the village historian (his history of Polperro is still a small classic of village history), and one of Q’s earliest memories was of the old man’s funeral (he says nothing of the cause of death, though he does mention that at 69 he had married a second wife, a buxom girl of 22, who bore him three daughters).

Q was a normal village boy, swimming and fishing and indulging in mild fisticuffs – but his father was a reader. One day the boy was riding with his sister in his father’s dog-cart (just such a dog-cart as that in which my grandfather would drive me up Talland Hill to an uncle’s farm) when it overturned, and ‘we children were gently slid in a ditch, a small avalanche of books scattered on top of us. Out of these, while my father inspected the damage and our man trotted off on the mare to fetch help from a wheelwright, I picked a small volume (the first in a handy set of Knight’s Shakespeare) and started, among the brambles, to read The Tempest.’ From that moment on, he too was a reader – and a writer.

In Nicky-Nan he paints the most comprehensive picture of a Cornish village in 1914, with all its humour, all its charity and all its pettiness. The eponymous hero, whose real name is Nicholas Nanjivell, has a gammy leg, but the less charitable villagers, led by the awful Mrs Polsue, believe him to be faking, and there are accusations and white feathers. No need to go into the plot, which isn’t important; what is important is that the book is a time-capsule of a period which now seems as remote as life in classical Greece – though not life in Elizabethan England, which was probably not a great deal different in Polperro from what it was in 1914.

Nicky-Nan isn’t Q’s best-known book: that was Troy Town, which was published in 1888. Properly titled The Astonishing History of Troy Town, it made Fowey – in which Q lived for his whole adult life, when not at Cambridge – famous. It has been compared to Cranford, and that comparison will do to suggest its flavour to those who have read the one but not the other: that, and perhaps a quotation from its opening chapter:

You are to picture the drawing-room of the Misses Limpenny arranged for an ‘evening’: the green rep curtains drawn, the ‘Book of Beauty’ disposed upon the centre table, the ballad music on the piano, and the Admiral’s double-bass in the corner. Six wax candles were beaming graciously on cards, tea-cakes and ratafias; on the pictures of ‘The First Drive’ and ‘The Orphan’s Dream’, the photographic views of Troy from the harbour, the opposite hill, and one or two other points, and finally the noted oil-painting of Miss Limpenny’s papa as he appeared shortly after preaching an assize sermon.

If Troy Town is at least as worth reading as Cranford – and I would certainly argue that it is – is Q’s next novel as worth reading as Kidnapped? Q admired Stevenson as much as any writer, and thought of him as his master, at least where the writing of money-making books was concerned, and in his early years he needed to earn money: he was living with his young wife in London and trying to make a living as a literary journalist – dining with George Moore and Oscar Wilde (then editing The Woman’s World and dressed in ‘a magnificent coast of astrakhan’). Troy Town had been a success, and now in The Splendid Spur he recounted the adventures of young Jack Marvel during the Civil War, from Oxford all the way down the Great West Road to the battles of Bradock Down and Stamford Heath (so well recreated that he received fan letters from professional historians).

This was – is – a splendid adventure story with the prettiest heroine and the most infamous villains, heroic and touching. Others followed – perhaps the best, in 1899, The Ship of Stars, partly autobiographical, and a tragic love story, though with much humour; Q was incapable of over-solemnity. The book is crammed with Cornish folklore, too – as are his splendid collections of short stories, The Delectable Duchy and Old Fires and Profitable Ghosts.

Apart from his work as a writer of fiction, Q’s life had two more strands. He was enormously active in the life of Cornwall – not only in Fowey, where he was Mayor, but on the county council where he was an almost violent activist on behalf of young people, establishing the first and in its time the only scholarship to Oxford (won in its first year by the historian A. L. Rowse). And then there was Cambridge. In 1912 he became King Edward VII Professor of English there, and remained so until his death in 1944. University toffs thought the appointment absurd, and were extremely catty about it: A. C. Benson, Master of Magdalene, remarked that he was ‘amiable but common – looks like a racing tout’, while Henry Newbolt put it about that Q was ‘a mixture of fisherman and country doctor, with a wife of a lower class’.

But Q proved a man impossible to dislike, and a diplomat who cut through the petty jealousies and quarrels of academic life and succeeded in organizing the English Faculty. He was also the most notable English literary critic of his time, his influence paramount until the unfortunate false dawn of F. R. Leavis. Literature, Q believed, ‘is not an abstract Science, to which exact definitions can be applied. It is an Art rather, the success of which depends on personal persuasiveness, on the author’s skill to give as on ours to receive.’ His argument was trenchant and forceful. ‘Remember,’ he told his students,

that you are English and to go always for the thing – casting out of your vocabulary all such words as ‘tendencies’, ‘influences’, ‘revivals’, ‘revolts’. ‘Tendencies’ did not write The Canterbury Tales; Geoffrey Chaucer wrote them. ‘Influences’ did not make The Faerie Queene: Edmund Spenser made it: as a man called Ben Jonson wrote The Alchemist, a man called Sheridan wrote The Rivals . . .

The series of his published lectures are among the most persuasive illuminations of genius any English critic has ever produced. On Shakespeare he is almost unrivalled (read him, in Studies on Literature, on Antony and Cleopatra). On the characters of Shakespeare’s plays he is as good as Hazlitt – as he is on Byron, Shelley, Milton.

I still go most often to his fiction, however; good at adventures, he is wonderful at small characters; the aforesaid Mrs Polsue is as memorable as Benson’s Lucia:

Like some other folks in this world, she produced much of her total effect by suggesting that she had access to sources of information sealed to the run of mankind. She ever managed to convey the suggestion by phrases – and, still more cleverly, by silences – which left the evidence conveniently vague. To be sure, a great-uncle of hers had commanded in his time a Post-Office Packet plying between Falmouth and Surinam, and few secrets of the Government had been withheld from him . . . She had also a cousin in London, ‘in a large way of drapery business’, who communicated to her ‘what was wearing’ . . .

And then, of course, there is the best-selling book which in its time had more influence on popular taste in poetry than any other of its time: The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900).

There is an annual festival in Fowey every year to celebrate the romantic novels of Daphne du Maurier. All well and good. But the writer she admired among all others was – Q. Goodness knows, he deserves to share whatever limelight is going.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 21 © Derek Parker 2009

About the contributor

Derek Parker, for forty years a critic and broadcaster in London, now lives with his wife in Sydney. His book, Outback, tells the story of the opening out of the centre of Australia by its earliest explorers.

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

  1. Marji Toensing says:

    Wonderful. I reread Helene Hanff’s Q’s Legacy once a year at least, as well as all her other books, and was lucky enough to meet her in person once when I visited New York. She was a dear and lovely person. Now I intend to read Q’s books, too.

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.