Q. D. Leavis

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Life and Work

Q.D. Leavis pictured in the garden of her home in Cambridge

Q.D. Leavis pictured in the
garden of her home in Cambridge.

Queenie Dorothy Leavis was born at Edmonton, North London, on 7th December 1906 to Morris and Jane Roth. She was educated at Latymer School and Girton College, Cambridge, going up in 1925 to read English. Among her supervisors was F. R. Leavis, recently appointed a part-time lecturer at Emmanuel and, in 1927, to a probationary faculty lectureship. They were married in 1929. In the same year she won a research fellowship which enabled her to work for her PhD, under the supervision of I. A. Richards. Her thesis was published in 1932 as Fiction and the Reading Public and has been continuously in print since that time. Its chapters on Elizabethan prose and on the literature of the early Puritan tradition, though - like all good criticism - open to question on particular points, are wonderfully stimulating, and characteristic of her style throughout her writing life.

From the start the partnership between the Leavises was very much more than personal and domestic. They testified to it in their dedication to each other of their joint book Dickens the Novelist (1970):

We dedicate this book to each other as proof, along
With Scrutiny (of which for twenty-one years we sus
-tained the main burden and the responsibility), of forty
years and more of daily collaboration in living, university
teaching, discussion of literature and the social and cultural
context from which literature is born, and above all,
devotion to the fostering of that true respect for creative
writing, creative minds and, English literature being in
question, the English tradition, without which literary
criticism can have no validity and no life.

Words which Leavis applied to Mansfield Forbes in the early days of the Cambridge English tripos fit the beginnings of their partnership perfectly: 'Young, convinced, contagiously charged with energy and irrepressible.'

In the early days of Scrutiny (1932-53) Queenie Leavis acted as a 'back-room girl' but soon emerged as one its more accomplished reviewers - and an extraordinarily pungent one. Her contributions are perhaps exemplified at their characteristic best - lively and excoriating - in the reviews re-printed in the two volume Selection from 'Scrutiny' (Cambridge University Press, 1968) under the heading 'The Cambridge Tradition'. These included 'Academic Case-History' (a review of a biography of the anthropologist, A. C. Haddon) and 'Henry Sidgwick's Cambridge'. Here is a sample:

I once heard the late W. E. Johnson, who had taught all the Cambridge philosophers from Russell on, observe that he remembered when some of the most distinguished minds and most influential teachers in Cambridge were free-lances who supported themselves, without fellowships or faculty posts ... but that with ... the introduction of the faculty system, such a state of affairs had become impossible ... And it is easy to see that without such a means of bucking the party machine, so to speak, a Haddon can never again force his way into the stronghold of vested interests that faculties inevitably become. While this makes things more comfortable for the politicians and deadheads, it is not so good for the undergraduates ... ('Academic Case-History', 1943)

Easy to see too how such medicinal writing denied Q. D. Leavis formal academic recognition at Cambridge throughout her lifetime. And again:

No wonder it has been suggested that Sidgwick was the original of Daniel Deronda, at least as regards the effect Deronda was supposed to have on others ... He had been produced by the Cambridge of his youth just as a later Cambridge of men like Maitland was produced from his Cambridge ... Stephen says this Cambridge was characterised by a belief in candour, an impatience of humbug, and a suspicion of anything in the nature of affectation in manner ... A society that places a high value on character and intellectual virtue instead of on social and intellectual conformity is something that in these days at Cambridge we may look back to with both pride and nostalgia ... It is an act of more than piety to record for posterity the work, character and influence of the Sidgwicks and Haddons and Riverses of the past. ('Henry Sidgwick's Cambridge', 1947)

The Leavises soon after their marriage in 1929

The Leavises soon after their
marriage in 1929.

Her scathingness, as these passages illustrate, was never a matter of mere satirical relish.

As with her husband's writing on nineteenth-century fiction, her essays show a remarkable inwardness, impossible today, with the culture from which the writers stemmed. It is here most obviously that the creative partnership between the Leavises shows itself. Two-thirds of Dickens the Novelist is QDL's work; here her chapters, like her extended discussion of Wuthering Heights in their joint Lectures in America (1969), is marked by her unique capacity to blend an evaluative approach with the provision of abundant, concentrated information. Her directness and incisiveness is apparent on every page: the style has been described as 'oxygenated'. And her range is astonishing: Hans Christian Andersen; Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam (these studies remain unpublished - though some discussion of Solzhenitsyn appears in her essay, 'The Russian Novel'); the Dickens illustrations; the influence of Scott on later Romantic fiction; Jane Austen as novelist and as letter-writer; pioneering studies of Mrs Oliphant; Mrs Inchbald; the Novel of Religious Controversy; the Anglo-Irish novel; extensive writing on classic American literature (which much absorbed FRL also); and knowledgeable work on fiction in several continental European languages. An incomparable body of work.

By her own account her influence is present in Leavis's The Great Tradition. It played a clear part in sustaining their shared interest in English popular culture and in the sociological context of literary production. 'My wife's a scholar, you know', Leavis once told Michael Black of the Cambridge University Press. 'Impossible (said Black) to convey all that he packed into the word, but respect, amazement, amusement and reprehension would be among the ingredients.' (She characterised herself - modestly - as a literary 'dowser'.) FRL also sometimes alluded to her emotional 'intensities' and there is no doubt that these contributed to her reputation as a difficult person. But this must be seen in the whole context of the unjustifiable slights and frustrations incident to both their careers, and may be attributable also to the impatience which sometimes accompanies very sharp intelligence. The rapidity of her reading matched that of her writing style and its sheer extent was astounding. One memoir (which could stand for many in this regard) recalled her recommending over the years such diverse books as Pudd'nhead Wilson, The House with the Green Shutters, Leigh-Fermor's The Violins of St Jacques, Kingsley's Hypatia, Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, Karen Blixen's Out of Africa ... the list continues (essay after essay is replete with reading suggestions). FRL, profoundly loyal and her most enduring admirer throughout their married life, believed that as a critic of the nineteenth-century novel, she had no equal.

Through much of her life Queenie Leavis battled with illness as well as bearing the brunt of the domestic and familial work in the Leavis household, partly in recognition of the remarkable nature of her husband's work and through the willing subordination this entailed on her, but partly too because she relished traditional household tasks and accomplishments. Some passages from her well known review of Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas are worth highlighting in this context:

Mrs. Woolf, by her own account, has personally received considerably more in the way of economic ease than she is humanly entitled to, and as this book reveals, has enjoyed the equally relaxing ease of an uncritical (not to say flattering) social circle: she cannot be supposed to have suffered any worse injury from mankind than a rare unfavourable review.

... the release of sex hostility this kind of writing represents is self-indulgent because it provides Mrs. Woolf with a self-righteous glow at the cost of furnishing an easy target for unsympathetic males, and at the still greater cost of embarrassing those women who are aware that the only chance of their getting accepted as intellectual equals by intelligent men (and so ultimately by the men who run the institutions and professions) is by living down their sex's reputation for having in general minds as ill-regulated as Mrs. Woolf's is here seen to be.

'Daughters of uneducated men have always done their thinking from hand to mouth ... They have thought while they stirred the pot, while they rocked the cradle. It was thus that they won us the right,' etc. I agree with someone who complained that to judge from the acquaintance with the realities of life displayed in this book there is no reason to suppose Mrs. Woolf would know which end of the cradle to stir. ... I myself, however, have generally had to produce contributions to this review with one hand while actually stirring the pot, or something of that kind, with the other, and if I have not done my thinking while rocking the cradle, it was only because the daughters even of uneducated men ceased to rock infants at least two generations ago. ... I feel bound to disagree with Mrs. Woolf's assumption that running a household and family unaided necessarily hinders or weakens thinking ... and I see no profit in letting our servants live for us.

Certainly there is no evidence that her own thinking and writing was seriously hindered or weakened by the multiplicity of her roles: critic, teacher, editorial administrator (to Scrutiny), wife, mother and generous hostess to generations of students. Indeed, her hospitality was legendary. Countless of Leavis's students enjoyed QDL's 'lavish provender', the home baking and ample sandwiches of the Friday afternoon teas at their early home in Chesterton Hall Crescent. One former student recalled how Leavis 'used to take home a sack of mulberries from an unregarded tree in the Fellows' garden: "My wife, you know, she knows what to do with these things." ' A journalist from The Times, visiting the Leavises on the occasion of FRL's 80th birthday, was struck by the very high standards of manners and hospitality which prevailed in their home. QDL also had an eye for form, style and design in the domestic setting (with a Scandinavian slant).

There were three children of the marriage: Ralph, born in 1934 and educated at Dartington Hall and Oxford, who exhibited prodigious musical talent; Kate, born in 1939, who also went up to Oxford, and later held an academic post at the University of East Anglia; and (Lawrence) Robin, born in 1944 (who followed most nearly in his father's steps), going up to Clare College, Cambridge and becoming a lecturer in English at the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Leavis's death in April 1978, left QDL feeling bereft. She told a former Indian student of her husband's that she understood 'why some women commit sati.' She left a moving memoir of their early life together, published by Professor Ghan Singh in his F. R. Leavis: a literary biography (1995). Though increasingly frail, she continued with her own work and with public speaking commitments when she could. Throughout her established career she received many lecture invitations at home and abroad but never any formal academic recognition. She died on 17th March 1981. Many of her essays and lectures were published posthumously.

In a memoir published in 1984, Professor Nora Crook recalled her feelings at the time of Q. D. Leavis's death:

We sat in the crematorium chapel, and I thought of this woman who had so long counteracted the devil, which is death, by brisking about the life. It is a talent for the sake of which the possessor deserves to be forgiven much. Most of us are memento moris to one another. But Mrs Leavis deserved only gratitude from me -

Tread soft on her grave and do right to her honor
Let neither rude hand or ill tongue light upon her
Do all the small favors that now can be done her.

- for she had given me nothing but affection, encouragement and bracing friendship.

The modern reader is at once struck by the body of traditional lore the [Elizabethan] people must have possessed which served instead of the 'knowledge' (i.e. acquaintance with a mass of more or less unrelated facts, derived principally from an elementary school education and the newspaper) that forms the background of the modern working-man's mind.
QDL Fiction and the Reading Public



For a full bibliography of Q. D. Leavis's writings up to 1979, see William Baker, F. R. Leavis, 1965-1979, and Q. D. Leavis, 1922-1979: a Bibliography of writings by and about them , 'Bulletin of Bibliography', F. W. Faxon Co., Inc., Massachusetts, vol. 37, pp. 185-208, 1980.

The lists below gives Q. D.Leavis's main published writings with details of first publication. 


1. Fiction and the Reading Public, Chatto & Windus, 1932

2. Lectures in America (with F.R.Leavis), Chatto & Windus, 1969

3. Dickens the Novelist (with F.R.Leavis), Chatto & Windus, 1970

4. Collected Essays, vol. 1: The Englishness of the English Novel (ed. G. Singh) Cambridge University Press, 1983

5. Collected Essays, vol. 2:The American Novel and Reflections on the European Novel (ed. G. Singh) Cambridge University Press, 1985

6. Collected Essays, vol 3: The Novel of Religious Controversy (ed. G. Singh) Cambridge University Press, 1989


(Scrutiny is abbreviated to S.)

(a) Assessments of the Work of Particular Authors


A Middleman of Ideas - the Work of Stuart Chase, S 1, 69-73, 1932

The Critical Writings of George Santayana, S 4, 278-295, 1935

Lives and Work of Richard Jefferies, S 6, 435-466, 1938

Gissing and the English Novel, S 7, 73-81, 1938

Henry James's Heiress: the Importance of Edith Wharton, S 7, 261-276, 1938

Leslie Stephen: Cambridge Critic, S 7, 404-415, 1939

A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings, S 10, 61-87, 114-142, 272-294, 1941-42

Hardy and Criticism, S 11, 230-297, 1943

A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings: The Letters, S 12, 104-119, 1944

Henry James: the Stories, S 14, 223-9, 1947

Hawthorne as Poet, Sewanee Review, Spring and Summer, 1958 (two parts)

Joseph Conrad, Sewanee Review, Spring, 1958

Edith Wharton - contribution to Edith, Wharton: a Collection of Critical Essays, ed. I. Howe, Prentice-Hall, 1962

Introduction to Autobiography and Letters of Mrs Margaret 0liphant, ed. Mrs Harry Coghill, Leicester University Press, 1974

Melville: the 1853-6 Phase - contribution to New Essays on Melville, ed. F. Pullin, Edinburgh University press, 1978

(b) Analyses of Individual Works


Caterpillars of the Commonwealth Unite - review of Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, S 7, 203-214, 1938

Introduction to Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Macdonald, 1957

Introduction to Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Macdonald, 1958

Introduction to Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Penguin Books, 1966

Introduction to George Eliot, Silas Marner, Penguin Books, 1967

Introduction to Mrs Oliphant, Miss Marjoribanks, Zodiac (Chatto & Windus), 1969

Introduction to Charlotte Bronte, Villette, Harper Colophon, 1972

The Water Babies, Children's Literature in Education, Winter, 1976

(c) Book Reviews


Proletarian Criticism - review of Henri Barbusse, Zola S 1, 287-288, 1932

The Salutation (Sylvia Townsend Warner), S 1 296, 1932

The Last Epicurean - review of George Santayana, The Last Puritan, S 4, 320, 1935

Clear Horizon (Dorothy Richardson), King Coffin (Conrad Aiken) and Beany-Eye (David Gamett), S 4, 328-333, 1935

Regional Novels - review of H. L. Davis, Honey in the Horn S 4, 440-447, 1936

English Novelists and Higher Reviewers - review of Derek Verschoyle (ed.), The English Novelists, S 5, 93-99, 1936

Mr E.M.Forster - review of Abinger Harvest, S 5, 100-105

Twentieth-Century Bunyans - review of Hugo von Hoffmannsthal,

Andreas or the United, S 5, 177-178, 1936

Mr Aldous Huxley - review of Eyeless in Gaza, S 5, 17

Dustier and Dustier - review of Rosamond Lehmann, Weather in the Streets, S 5, 183-185, 1936

Mr Dos Passos Ends His Trilogy - reviews of The Big Money

SvIvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show and Kay Boyle, Death of a Man, S 5, 294-299, 1936

Entertainment Literature - review of Robert Graves, Antigua, Penny, Puce, S 5, 300-301, 1936

Class War Criticism - review of P. Henderson, The Novel Today S 5, 418-423, 1937

Salavin (Georges Duhamel) and Studs Lonigan (James T. Farrell) S 5, 423-424, 1937

" 'Femina Vie Heureuse' Please Note" - review of Ruth Adam, I'm Not Complaining, S 7, 81-85, 1938

Ruth Adam Again - review of There Needs No Ghost, S7 , 458, 1939

Beggars on Horseback - reviews of Irving Stone, Sailor on Horseback: the Biography of Jack London and Margaret Lane, Edgar Wallace, S 7, 478-479, 1939

A Novel to Recommend - review of Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, S 11, 16oa, 1942

A Passage to Palestine - review of Arthur Koestler, Thieves in the Night, S 14, 138-141, 1946

The Institution of Henry James - review of F. W. Dupee (ed.), The Question of Henry James, S 15, 68-74, 1947

(d) Miscellaneous


The following items are included here rather than in section (c) above because of their wide-ranging nature: they were often occasioned by the publication of books which QDL regarded as representative of contemporary trends.

The Book Society Recommends ... S 1, 179-181, 1932

Our Serious Weeklies, S 2, 182-183, 1933

Fleet Street and Pierian Roses , S 2, 387-392, 1934

Lady Novelists and the Lower Orders S 4, 112-132, 1935

The Case of Miss Dorothy Sayers S 6, 334-340, 1937

The Background of Twentieth-Century Letters , S 8, 72-77, 1939

The Literary Life Respectable S 9, 170-176, 1940

Academic Case-History S 11, 305-310, 1943

The Discipline of Letters: a Sociological Note, S 12, 12-26, 1943

English Character S 12, 67-71, 1943

Charlotte Yonge and 'Christian Discrimination' S 12, 152-16o, 1944

Professor Chadwick and English Studies (by 'A Pupil'), S 14, 204-208, 1947

Henry Sidgwick's Cambridge , S 15, 2-11, 1947

A Note on Literary Indebtedness: Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Hudson Review 8, 423-428, 1955

The Englishness of the English Novel, Cheltenham Literature Festival Lecture, October, 1980; New Universities Quarterly, Spring, 1981


Unless men and women are capable of relationships which include loyalty, confidence, mutual interests, and there are people of integrity who can act disinterestedly sometimes, which of course requires courage and faith - people, in short, capable of respect for themselves and each other, I don't see how one can expect that novels worth consideration could be written.
QDL 'The Italian Novel'