I bought David Cecil’s Life of William Cowper, The Stricken Deer, at a time, in my early twenties, when I was starting to devour literary biography, my preferred reading ever since. I was by then familiar not just with Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Eyre and David Copperfield but with Jane Austen, the Brontës and Charles Dickens. Most of my literary friends were in the nineteenth century: the eighteenth was largely unfamiliar territory. All I knew about William Cowper was that he had been a favourite poet of Jane Austen’s.
It was David Cecil who changed that. At the time I knew no more about Cecil than I did about Cowper, but over the years, as his books lined up on my shelves, he too became a literary friend. A willowy figure who grew up in the Cecils’ ancestral home, Hatfield House, and married into the Bloomsbury group, he started out as a historian before becoming an Oxford literature don. The Stricken Deer was his first book, published in 1929 when he was only 27.
For Cecil, an unacademic academic who had little time for doctrine, reading literature was all about enjoyment, and teaching it was about transmitting that enjoyment. The imagination excited him more than scholarship, people more than theories. F. R. Leavis frowned on him as a dilettante, but students fondly recalled his breathless enthusiasm and the magical flow of his conversation.
It is surprising to learn from his friend L. P. Hartley that Cecil, an inveterate talker, found writing, by contrast, hard labour. On a train to Venice while he was writing The Stricken Deer, he kept his sleeping-car companion awake with his groans as he worked on the manuscript through the night, but by morning he had produced just three sentences. The lyrical flow of his prose gives no sense of the effort that went into it.
‘From the first the atmosphere in which Cowper passed his life was domestic.’ Like the opening of a novel by Jane Austen, a writer Cecil greatly ad
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