The First Modern Novel

F.R. & Queenie LeavisIn her documentary, “The Many Lovers of Jane Austen”, Amanda Vickery mentions F. R. Leavis (July 1895 – April 1978), a British literary critic. For much of his career, Leavis taught at Downing College, Cambridge. When he was nineteen, in 19141, Britain declared war on Germany and Leavis joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit. After the war, he attended the Emmanuel College, Cambridge and then the English School at Cambridge. In 1927, he was appointed a lecturer at the university. In 1929, he married Queenie Roth, one of his students. In 1930, he was appointed director of studies in English at Downing College where he taught for the next thirty years. During this time, Leavis was influential in the serious study of Jane Austen’s novels, notably Mansfield Park.


Amanda Vickery narrates2, “After the unimaginable barbarity of world war, the civilizing power of culture seemed essential for the future of mankind. And in the universities, the study of the humanities, especially English literature, expanded rapidly. This newly popular discipline demanded a scientific rigor be brought to the gentle art of reading books. In 1948, a controversial Cambridge don wrote a book that transformed Jane Austen’s ranking in the literary lead tables.3 F. R. Leavis was one of the most opinionated and influential critics of modern times and he was based here at Downing College. Leavis formed the tastes of generations of graduates, from the 1930s right through to the 1960s. In his bible, entitled The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis asserted that there are only five truly great novelists writing in English and they were D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, and then the writer he declared the mother of the great tradition, Jane Austen. F. R. and his wife Queenie both taught the young Janet Todd when she was a student in Cambridge in the ’60s.”


Professor Janet Todd (President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge): “It was right after the war and I think that the Leavises both thought that English literature was going to save civilization. And we were to learn it and get it correct, and then we were to go out into the big world and, in a sense, preach the doctrine of English literature. So, I think there was a real didactic aim in it. At the same time, they despised didacticism in literature — which is why they liked Jane Austen.”

Amanda Vickery: “Man Booker Prize-winner, Howard Jacobson, who roguishly calls himself the Jewish Jane Austen, was also a student of the Leavises.”


Howard Jacobson: “He was the ‘words on the page’ man — that was the phrase, ‘the words on the page’. And that was why I went to him, I was interested in the words on the page and that was why I’d got to Jane Austen myself, because of the words on the page. Nothing extraneous. Leavis said, Jane Austen is as serious a writer as you get and the fact that she is as funny as she is doesn’t detract from the seriousness — indeed, contributes to the seriousness. But these are as serious novels as you get, Leavis argues, about society and about morality, about the relation between manners and morality. And I had no difficulty reading her that way, too, when I got to Cambridge.”


Amanda Vickery: “So, what other qualities did they really praise, then, in Jane Austen. Because we have this — if she’s been praised in the 19th century for her kind of homely virtue and her domestic heroines, and then she seems to be praised in the early 20th century, you know, for her wit — where is the moral force, then, that Levis would have loved in her?”

Janet Todd: “Well, I think it’s a moral complexity, and that’s what they like, and it’s not Pride and Prejudice primarily, it’s Mansfield Park. And it’s — Queenie says that Mansfield Park is the first modern novel.”


Howard Jacobson: “Mansfield Park, interestingly, was probably the novel that, you know, we did most at Cambridge, that we thought most about at Cambridge. It was the one that had that air of being, you know, a serious investigation of the mores of that society. … The tragedy just under the surface of that world of high morals, of how snobbery or a certain kind of laxity here and there could lead to the most terrible consequences.”


1 2014 is the centennial of the beginning of World War I, as well as the bicentennial of the publication of Mansfield Park. The Johns Hopkins University Press Blog has an interesting post by Janine Barchas discussing the use of Jane Austen’s novels during the world wars in view of these anniversaries: G.I. Jane: Austen Goes to War.

2 Transcript from “The Many Lovers of Jane Austen” (BBC, 2011), written and presented by Professor Amanda Vickery (Queen Mary, University of London), produced and directed by Rupert Edwards.

3 I had trouble hearing exactly what was said at this point, but it sounded like “lead tables”, so that is what I put down.


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