Monday 13 October 2014

'still has the power to irritate'

I'm finally reading a book that's been in my sights for quite a while - John Gross's The Rise and Fall of the English Man of Letters: Aspects of English Literary Life Since 1800 (1969 - mine's a browning Pelican edition from the 70s) - and I'm loving it. Tracing his subject from the rise of the reviewers (a pretty terrible bunch) early in the 19th century to the ascent of Carlyle, John Stuart Mill and Matthew Arnold and on to the Higher Journalism of the Victorian era... Actually, that's as far as I've got at this point, but I can report that I haven't enjoyed a work of literary criticism so much since I reread Keats and Embarrassment.
 Gross is immensely readable, quietly humorous, never dull or pompous, and with a shrewd, sharp but always humane and balanced judgment. He is brilliant on Carlyle, giving full weight to his virtues as well as his all too evident flaws and insisting (probably too late) that the latter should not be allowed to eclipse the former. And here he is on George Henry Lewes, whose status as Literary Footnote is secured by his relationship with George Eliot (of whose critical essays in Lewes's Westminster Review, Gross writes 'Aspiring wherever possible to praise rather than condemn, she none the less manages to temper her mercy with a disconcerting amount of justice'). But Lewes had many more strings to his bow - from theatre critic and writer of potboiling farces to essayist and reviewer, translator, biographer of Goethe, writer of many volumes of popular science, and serial dabbler in utopian philosophies:
 'If a longing for intellectual certainty predisposed him towards the secular messiahs and utopian conventicles thrown up by the age, his native wit usually saved him from toppling over into complete extravagance. On the other hand, there was often the strong odour of a crank's kitchen about the circle in which he moved.' Of Lewes's essay on Dickens (in which 'the "advanced" critic plods along behind the unintellectual author'), Gross says that it 'still has the power to irritate'. Which is something...
 Gross clearly loves his subject, and his book is in part a celebration of how the world of letters used to be in a lost age when a living common culture (literary, artistic, scientific, philosophical, political) seemed at least a possible reality - and before English Literature was packed off to the universities as an increasingly arid and irrelevant 'discipline', of interest to none but specialists.

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