This week in 1863 saw the birth of Arthur Quiller-Couch, Cornwall’s foremost early twentieth century intellectual. While at Oxford Quiller-Couch adopted the pseudonym Q.
Born at Bodmin, his father hailed from a well-known Polperro family, Q’s grandfather being the naturalist Jonathan Couch. Yet his mother’s home was Newton Abbot and it was there, outside Cornwall, that the young Quiller-Couch received his education, before moving on to Clifton College, Bristol and Trinity College, Oxford.
Between leaving Oxford in 1886 and returning to formal academic life at Cambridge in 1912, Q was a full-time author, at first in London and then from 1892 at his wife’s home town of Fowey. His first novel was published in 1887 and this was followed by almost 40 novels, collections of short stories and anthologies. Many of these were set in Cornwall, the most notable being The Astonishing History of Troy Town (1888) and The Delectable Duchy (1893). The latter, with its humorous yet sympathetic treatment of a fading Cornish world, did much to put Cornwall on the tourist map. This was something Q agonised about in 1899-1900 when he edited the short-lived Cornish Magazine.
Having edited the Oxford Book of English Verse from 1900, the standard anthology of verse, Q was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University in 1912. He was a key figure there in the campaign that established English as a faculty separate from medieval and modern languages.
Meanwhile, outside the university terms he was more usually found back in Fowey. He served for 30 years on the Cornwall Education Committee, which oversaw the establishment of grammar schools after the Education Act of 1902. It was these that provided the route for A.L.Rowse, Q’s protégé, to become the leading light of the next generation of Cornish intellectuals.
Like many of his middle class contemporaries in Cornwall, Q was kindly disposed towards the Cornish ‘Revival’, although he remained the epitome of the English gentlemanly ideal. Nonetheless, while Conservative in cultural terms and Anglican in his religion, Q was resolutely liberal in his politics and was rewarded for his services with a knighthood from the Liberal Government in 1910.
As Alan Kent has pointed out, Q straddled the two worlds of the English establishment and Cornish particularism. Yet he remained sceptical of many of the more fanciful notions of the early twentieth century revivalists. When it was proposed that the mystery plays of the fourteenth-century should be restaged, Q remarked drily that ‘the audience would have to be play-acting even more strenuously than the actors’.
2 thoughts on “Q”
Effortlessly embracing more than one identity, Q was not untypical of a broad class of European intellectuals. For them, this involved no contradiction. Even if we disagree with them on this point, we will not understand them unless we grasp this.
His views on some Revivalist tactics were sound. Mind you, he cheerfully accepted membership of the first intake of Bards when the Gorsedh was founded. (According to one well-informed source, he was giggling throughout the ceremony.) It would be a good idea for many of us to read his remarks, and take them as a challenge.
A working journalist and a political activist, he always insisted on clarity of thought and expression. His hatchet job on a proposed compulsory sterilization programme (‘Open Letter to the Bishop of Exeter’) is one of the most eloquent demolitions I have seen of the horrible ideology of eugenics. His definition of English was texts in English which tell us something about life. One way or another, it would be a reflection of life and an extension of it. This is not to say that his judgements were infallible (his remarks on Ireland are often trite, and sometimes quite toe-curling), but to anybody who has been taken in by the Leavis-Eagleton school of higher silliness, reading Q’s criticism will be a delightful surprise.
We must never forget that he was a sharp-eyed chronicler of Cornish life. Again and again, episodes in his fiction and poetry can be traced back to things that happened – and often still happen. Contrary to Jack Clemo’s bizarre remarks in ‘Confession of a Rebel’, Q viewed Cornish life in full – including its dark side. I think I might get my Q collection out of storage, sit down, and read through the lot.
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*Mea culpa*: ‘his definition of English literature’.