- The Q Factor
During the Great Depression an eighteen-year old girl found a book in the Philadelphia public library that changed her life.
That is how it began. Years later, in 1970, Helen Hanff had a startling success with 84 Charing Cross Road, a best seller that became a play and then a film. Based on a cache of lively and warmhearted letters to a London bookseller she never met, it made her suddenly celebrated. Later, in a memoir called The Q Legacy (1986), she told in intimate detail how it had all happened. Her parents could only afford her a year in college, and at the end of the year, eager to write, she went to the public library and was shown a section where books on literature were alphabetically arranged. After a time she came to the letter Q. There was only one author there, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, known simply as Q, and a book promisingly called The Art of Writing published in 1916.
The preface inspired confidence. He was King Edward VII professor of English at the University of Cambridge, it said, the dust jacket adding that he was an Oxford graduate; and she had always been told Oxford and Cambridge were the best with a capital B. The first chapter was his inaugural lecture of January 1913; the second was “The Practice of Writing,” which she could understand. So she read the fifth chapter on jargon, though she did not know the word, and suddenly felt there was a misprint. Q had juxtaposed two illustrative sentences:
He was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition.
He was carried home drunk.
The first sentence was jargon, said Q; the second, good English.
The teenager stared in disbelief. Surely a “not” had been left out? “I liked fancy words—I thought they were literary.” She felt that “carried home drunk” was lower class. But at least Q wrote what she could understand, and she had toiled through most of the alphabet to find him. Besides he had a sense of humor; and, most of all, he was Oxford and Cambridge. So she took The Art of Writing home, along with another volume of his lectures, and [End Page 292] renewed them both after four weeks. By then she was hooked. Q’s quotations from Izaak Walton, Cardinal Newman, and Milton had fascinated her, and by the end of her summer job at a bookshop, which paid ten dollars a week, she had saved enough to buy his other lectures. So, when her job ended in September, she gave her waking hours to reading: two hours to Q, two to Milton, and two to Shakespeare.
Then her parents made her learn shorthand and typing. With money earned from office jobs she bought other volumes of Q’s and found a place with the Theatre Guild of New York, which after years of flops had a success in 1944 with Oklahoma.
The story is heartening in diverse ways. Literary criticism can be discovered if you seek it out, it does not have to be new, and it can change your life. Like a time bomb it can lie unnoticed for years before it explodes. My own life, as it happens, was changed shortly after that incident in a library, when I was a schoolboy in wartime Australia, but I have no dramatic recollection of how I found Q. Certainly I never dreamed, at that childish age, that some twenty years later I would be teaching in the school of English he had founded at Cambridge in 1917. Nor, I imagine, did Q ever dream of such readers or such successors. In fact he habitually began a lecture with the word Gentlemen, a form of address unlikely to include a teenage girl in Pennsylvania or a boy on a subtropical farm in the southern hemisphere. Authorship is like that. When you write you have no idea who will read; when you lecture, no idea who might be listening. A Norwegian professor on the point of retirement recently told me, nearly half a century after The Literary Critics appeared in 1962, that the...