Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch

The Annual Dinner was held on March 7, 1913, the Prior being Friar E. Clodd, and the guest of the evening Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The Prior extended a cordial welcome to Sir Arthur and the other guests and Friars, whom he invited to drink ‘Prosperity to the Whitefriars Club.’

From the Whitefriars Journal,vol. II, 8, April 1905, pp. 175-81.

Friar Sir Robertson Nicoll was warmly greeted on rising to propose the toast of ‘Literature’. Sometimes in submitting such a toast, he said, there was a certain difficulty in establish ing a connection between literature and the gentleman who was to answer for it. There was no such difficulty confronting him on that occasion; the words ‘literature’ and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch were of constant association. He congratulated Sir Arthur on his appointment as King Edward Professor of Literature of the University of Cambridge. He had never known a public appointment which had met with such unanimous approval on all hands as this one. That approval came chiefly from persons engaged in the profession of literature; we felt that he was one of us. Sir Arthur had been a poet, journalist, critic, essayist, novelist, and all the rest of it ; there was not a branch of our business he did not know perfectly well.

The speaker desired to mention a few of the lines which some of his old comrades expected the new Professor’s activities would take. It was the duty of a Professor of English Literature to produce literature which was fit to be read by men with whiskers. That literature, as we know, did not pay. It was the duty of a Professor of English Literature to write proper histories of English literature. Greatly daring, in the presence of the Professor, he would state that there was not a single English history of literature which had been written satisfactorily. We were going to have an entirely new style of literary history; in this new form the biography would be fitted exactly in the history of the books. We know that Johnson wrote Rasselas to pay the expenses of his mother’s funeral; if we looked in his biography we should find why this book was chosen for the purpose. Why did George Meredith write The Ordeal of Richard Feverel in a certain year? We should see from his letters, just before he wrote it he had put under somebody’s charge the offspring of his first marriage; the power of his imaginative mind conceived all the possibilities of a child travelling the rough road of life. Why did Dickens write Great Expectations, returning to the summer light of his genius? There was a reply to this. Why did Charlotte Bronte write Shirley? Here again there was an answer. A complete history of English literature would take in such problems as that. Nobody had done more to give a guide and a lead in that direction than his friend, Gilbert Chesterton.

The second part of the Professor’s duty – he did not think that Sir Arthur wanted teaching on this point – was to look cordially, hopefully, and with an expectant spirit on every form of new experiment in literature. He was sure that the Professor would agree with him that the greatest disfigurement of English literature was the unwillingness to recognise new forms. He knew that the reviews were not so severe as they used to be. Recently he had read a conversation between an American lady and her friend. The lady said ‘That husband of mine has gone the limit at last.’

1Sir William Robertson Nicol, CH (1851-1923), founder, with support from Hodder & Stoughton, of The Expositor in 1884, The British Weekly, also with their support, in 1886, and founding editor of The Bookman, from 1891.