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  • The Good Old Days
  • David Ellis (bio)
The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism by Stefan Collini. Oxford University Press, 2019. £25. ISBN 9 7801 9880 0170

Stefan Collini's concern in this new book is with literary criticism as it developed in the last century, principally between the two world wars but also into the 1950s and 1960s. One of the more familiar ways in which this body of work has been characterised is by contrast with the literary histories which were in circulation in the late nineteenth century, and before the First World War. He feels this habit may have given an impression that the literary critics of his chosen period were not interested in history, one which may then have been bolstered by their supposed focus on the 'words on the page'. He sets out to show how false all this is, beginning with T. S. Eliot's famous assertion in 1921 that what certain literary texts illustrate is how, in the seventeenth century, there was a 'dissociation of sensibility'. He then carefully tracks the progress of this essentially historical notion through Basil Willey's work on the seventeenthand eighteenth-century 'backgrounds', and L. C. Knights's book on Jonson and seventeenth-century drama. It is not always the particular terms of Eliot's claim which these critics pick up but rather the belief they imply in steady cultural decline.

That is not so obvious in the work of William Empson, whom Collini admits to being something of a square peg in this context, and whose claims to a whole chapter one might have thought less strong than those of an otherwise relatively neglected I. A. Richards. But he regards Empson as 'without question' one of the two or three significant literary critics of the twentieth century and is anxious to make a case for The Structure of Complex Words as a neglected classic. He therefore teases out a 'unifying narrative thread' in Empson's dealings with history, suggesting, for example, that Some Versions of Pastoral gives 'an oblique history of class relations in England from the 16th to the 19th century' although at the same time admitting that his historical assumptions were not structured around the 'Eliotic scheme'. [End Page 393]

The trail Collini has set out to follow is easier to pick up with the Leavises. What one might think of first, in relation to them, is an interest in the development of the reading public as well as an analysis of the effects of industrialisation on literary culture in the nineteenth century in which (he suggests) Dickens's Hard Times was given a status it did not deserve and 'utilitarian' began to be used as 'a generalised swear word'. But before all this, F. R. Leavis had sketched out the changes which he would like to have seen in the teaching of English in Cambridge and included in them a special concentration on the seventeenth century. This was designed not so much to investigate the justification for Eliot's claim about the looming separation between thought and feeling in that period as to exemplify it, to give it a little more 'historical stuffing' as Collini puts it. It was noted at the time that the reading list for this proposed course on the seventeenth century included at least as many historical as literary texts.

In the various versions of history Willey, Knights, and the Leavises propose, cultural decline tends to be associated with the move away from a supposedly homogeneous agricultural economy and the extension of democratic rights. The final two figures Collini considers, Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, were certainly not against giving more power to the people; but in blaming capitalism, and especially certain commercial developments in their own day, for having helped to destroy a previously healthy working-class culture and ensure that the effect of 'mass literacy' was not all it might have been, they too helped to turn the Whig interpretation of history on its head. Williams's tendency, as Collini conceives it, was to see the Industrial Revolution in terms of a Welsh nonconformist version of the Fall, the decisive moment when everything went wrong, so...


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pp. 393-396
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