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’.