the great dismisser


I once met F.R. Leavis – or almost. It was in October 1977, in a house in Bulstrode Gardens in Cambridge. I had arrived with a group of fellow students for an introductory meeting with our medieval supervisor, Mrs Helena Shire, a formidable Scottish lady of confident views and startling formality. As she ushered us into her sitting room we realised that it already had an occupant. A small, gaunt, elderly man in a jacket and open-necked shirt stood in the French window. I think I remember a look of something like panic on his face as the gaggle of 19-year-olds approached. After a brief hesitation he turned and exited rapidly through the glass doors into the garden. I watched as he walked away from the house, squeezed through a gap in the fence into the next-door garden and disappeared. ‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Mrs Shire said, ‘do you know who that was?’ She paused, more for dramatic effect than in any expectation of an answer. ‘That,’ she said, ‘was F.R. Leavis.’ She lingered on the two initials. No one said anything, but it was obvious that the name was meaningless to most of us. It was another example of someone who was famous in Cambridge but otherwise unknown. He was evidently Mrs Shire’s next-door neighbour.

more from John Mullan at the LRB here.