Parse, if you will, the following sentence:
Expectations as unexacting as these are not, when they encounter significance, grateful for it, and when it meets them in that insistent form where nothing is very engaging as “life” unless its relevance is fully taken, miss it altogether.
This comes from the Analytical Note on Dickens’ novel Hard Times, in The Great Tradition, by the distinguished literary critic F. R. Leavis (Chatto & Windus, 1948). The expectations referred to relate to the traditional critical approach to the English novel. They are that the novelist should create a world, full of abundant life, and that the characters must be living, to the extent that they go on living outside the book.
Are these expectations unexacting? Anyone who has written a novel, or tried to write a novel, will know that the attempt to breathe life into the novel’s characters, and their world, is the hardest thing of all. But before I disagree with Dr Leavis’ opinion, I must try to understand what that opinion is. What does he mean? I’ve been gnawing away at that sentence all week, like a dog who buries a bone, and periodically digs it up again to worry away at it.
How did I embark on this thankless undertaking? I picked up Hard Times in a “Yellowback” in WHSmith’s last week. WHSmith sold these low price editions in railway stations during the nineteenth century, and now Smiths have recreated some of them to celebrate their 225th anniversary. Earlier this year I read the literary biographer Claire Tomalin’s autobiography, A Life of My Own, (Viking, 2017), in which she took exception to the fact that F. R. Leavis had apparently said that Hard Times was the only novel Dickens had written that was worth reading.
So I took it upon myself to read Hard Times, and then Leavis’ Analytical Note. Leavis thought the great novelists writing in English were Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence. Knowing his adulation of Lawrence I wasn’t surprised that he admired Hard Times so much. It is Lawrencian in its deep suspicion of industrial progress. It rejects the sterile world of “Facts” in favour of the life of the imagination, indeed, in favour of life itself. In his analytical note, Leavis actually quotes at length a passage from Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a description of Tevershall which might have sat quite comfortably in Hard Times as a description of Coketown, another equally squalid and miserable industrial town of the nineteenth century. Leavis thought Hard Times was a condemnation of the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. He was implacably opposed to the quantification of human souls. You feel the same sense of indignation in his merciless attack on C. P. Snow in his 1962 Richmond Lecture, Two Cultures? I was minded to write a piece on Hard Times and on Leavis’ reaction to it, but I got side-tracked. I became preoccupied by that single sentence. So let us parse it.
The sentence consists of a principal clause in two parts joined by the conjunction and:
Expectations as unexacting as these are not grateful for it, and… miss it altogether.
In addition, there are four subordinate clauses:
- …when they encounter significance…
- …when it meets them in that insistent form…
- …where nothing is very engaging as “life”…
- …unless its relevance is fully taken…
The great structural defect of this sentence resides in the fact that following the conjunction “and”, the subject of the sentence is no longer “expectations”, but “significance”. Now “expectations” are plural, and “significance” is singular; that is the only way we know what “them” and “it” subsequently denote. The “it” of the principal clause refers to the “significance” of the first subordinate clause, as does the “it” of the second subordinate clause. It is less clear what the “its” of the fourth subordinate clause refers to; it might too refer to “significance”, but could also refer to “life”. It might be clearer if we remove the pronouns and replace them with the nouns to which they refer. Thus:
Expectations as unexacting as these are not, when they encounter significance, grateful for significance, and when significance meets expectations in that insistent form where nothing is very engaging as “life” unless significance’s relevance (or perhaps “life’s” relevance) is fully taken, miss significance altogether.
Can expectations be grateful? Not really. But this is a figure of speech, in which the gratitude (or in this case ingratitude) of the holder of the expectations is transferred to the expectations themselves. I think Dr Leavis is trying to say something like this:
People who enjoy a good read because they like to enter an imagined world can be resentful if the writer chooses to explore a profound and serious matter. If the reader loses interest because he can’t appreciate how the argument relates to the life of the book, then he will miss the whole point of the book.
But I’m not sure. Let’s be frank, Frank. It’s such a clumsy sentence that I’m not sure that it means anything. Another literary critic, Philip Hobsbaum, another Cambridge man who sat at Leavis’ feet and rather admired him, was a great advocate of clarity of thought. In his magnum opus, A Theory of Communication (Macmillan, 1970) he developed his concept of “availability”. If the meaning of a sentence is not available to the reader, then the meaning is just not there. This implies that the thought behind the language is incoherent. The great experimental physicist Lord Rutherford of Nelson, who ran the Cavendish Laboratory, said something similar when he said that if you couldn’t explain your research to the person who cleaned the lab, then your research was probably flawed.
But to return to these unexacting expectations, Leavis puts them into quotation marks. The business of the novel is, “you gather”, to “create a world”. There must be “life”, “living characters”, and so on. Leavis is being snooty. The imputation is that these notions are clichés; that is why they are unexacting. The effect on the readers who might cherish such expectations is to persuade them that their taste is rather vulgar. Personally I would have much preferred it if he had removed the quotation marks from “life” and put them round that portentous word “significance”. The whole futility of critical analysis – at least as she is currently taught in our schools – resides in that single, appalling sentence from F. R. Leavis. You take an individual who has experienced a visceral and emotional response to literature, you cast aspersions on his, or her, enthusiasm, and then you take the life out of a work of art by recasting it in your own image, and interpreting it through the prism of your own prejudices.
Hard Times is fantastic. Some of the individual scenes therein are unbelievably vivid. As a matter of fact, Dickens has created a world that is full of life, and full of living characters. That’s really all you need to know. Read it yourself.