Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Very English Voice (Lord David Cecil)

So, earlier this month I managed to find a recording of Lord David Cecil's voice. I'd been searching for this for years, sure that there must be some snippet somewhere on the BBC, but never turned up a clip until now, thanks to a link within a link passed along to me by Marjorie Burns, who'd learned of it John Garth.

The reason I've wanted to find this is that Kingsley Amis, in his MEMOIRS, describes Cecil's voice as if it were only one step up from the wah-wah-wah of adults in PEANUTS. That didn't fit at all with my own recollection, the one time I spoke to Cecil. I'd arranged a meeting with him when I was in England for my 1985 research trip, the one in which (almost) everything went wrong, but when I phoned to fix the day, he told me his whole household was strickened with the flu and he had to cancel our get-together. And since he died the following year, before my next (1987) trip, I never did get to see him, to my regret.

This being the case, I wish I had a better memory of that one phone call, but I cdn't take notes because I had to keep feeding coins into the pay phone (my memory is that I'd cashed in five or ten pounds worth and blew through it all), and the other because I was marvelling at his voice, which I thought the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard. I didn't know there were people who actually talked like this.

Which made it all the more annoying that I cdn't, afterwards, remember just what it'd been like. I have a good memory for music but a bad memory for voices (maybe somehow linked to the face-blindness; I don't know). But when I read Amis's vicious little account, I was certain it didn't at all represent what I'd heard.

Here's how Amis in his MEMOIRS (which he largely used to settle old scores) describes Cecil lecturing:

Laze . . . laz and gentlemen, when we say a man looks like a poet . . . dough mean . . . looks like Chauthah . . . dough mean . . . looks like Dvyden . . . dough mean . . . looks like Theckthpyum (or something else barely recognizable as 'Shakespeare') . . . Mean looks like Shelley (pronounced 'Thellem' or thereabouts). Matthew Arnold (then Prestissimo) called Shelley beautiful ineffectual angel Matthew Arnold had face (rallentando) like a horth. But my subject this morning is not the poet Shelley. Jane . . . Austen . . . '
(Amis, MEMOIRS [1991], 101)* 

Amis also adds that Cecil's lectures were popular with women (apparently another black mark against him in Amis's reckoning), that he had pseudo-homosexual mannerisms without actually being gay, that he took offense easily and held grudges (which seems to be more aptly a self-description of Amis himself). In fact, he was nothing more nor less than 'a caricature of an Oxford don'.

It's easy to miss in all this that Cecil was one of the finest biographers of his generation, author of the best book on Jane Austen I've ever read. On the one hand he was linked to Bloomsbury by having married the daughter of Desmond MacCarthy, one of the core members of 'Old Bloomsbury'.** On the other, he was a champion of aesthetics at a time when literature was supposed to be judged by its social worth and contribution to various agendas. In the latter role he was cast by the vitriolic F. R. Leavis of Cambridge (one of the few critics and teachers whose main focus was to actively discourage students from reading books***) as the representation of all that was wrong in English academia.  Leavis's mania about Cecil was so marked a feature of Leavis's books that it plays a major part in the chapter devoted to Leavis in Frederick C. Crews' brilliant parody of mid-century schools of literary criticism, THE POOH PERPLEX [1963]: "Another Book to Cross Off Your List" by 'Simon Lacerous' (=Leavis), in which Cecil is represented by the figure 'Lord Wendell Dovetail'.

Here's how Amis ranks Cecil compared with his fellow Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien:

lecturers at Oxford . . . could be divided into the hard and the soft . . . The hard men gave you information, usually about language. Old and Middle English, strong verbs, vowel shifts and fearful old poems like The Dream of the Rood and The Owl and the Nightingale, and what they gave you was likely to reappear in the relevant parts of the final examination. The hardest lecturer I ever heard, and the worst technically, in delivery and so on, was J. R. R. Tolkien, but you sat through him because his explanation of the anomalous form 'hraergtrafum' was likely to be called for as the answer to a 'gobbet' on the paper. The soft men offered you civilised discourse with perhaps some critical interpretation and ideas about the past. The only reputable hard-soft merchant was C. S. Lewis, also the best lecturer I ever heard . . .  Lord David . . . was the softest of the soft, and undergraduates set on getting good degrees . . . tended to give him a short trial followed by a prolonged go-by' [Amis. 102]

Quite apart from his books, which won him his professorship in 1948****, he belonged to a distinguished family (something I suspect English readers are far more aware of than Americans like myself. His father had been in Churchill's cabinet and his grandfather Prime Minister. This tradition of high office went all the way back to Elizabethan days, when Lord Burleigh and Lord Cecil had been Elizabeth I's most trusted advisors.  Within Oxford, he was a leading figure among those advocating that literature had not ended in 1830, the cut-off date of Oxford's official syllabus, but might reasonably be expanded to included the Victorian era -- a viewpoint about which Tolkien was ambivalent (originally opposed, but gradually coming to favor later on) but CSL fervently opposed.

As for his voice, now that I can finally listen to it again and judge for myself, I find that it resembles neither the beautiful quintessentially English voice I remembered nor the vicious parody of Amis. What I didn't remember was the bit of a lisp, which makes him sound a bit like Bertie Wooster. What I heard instead was the deep, rich voice beneath it. Here's the link:

--John R.

current reading: "Old Bloomsbury" by Virginia Woolf

*N.B. that Amis credits this little snippet to Inkling John Wain. The figures he's talking about in the opening lines are Chaucer ('Chauthah') and Dryden ('Dvyden').

**whose members included the Stephen sisters (Vanessa Stephen Bell and Virginia Stephen Woolf), Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, Desmond MacCarthy, Clive Bell, and possibly two or three others, like Saxon Sydney-Turner, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Frye.

***that is, books of which Leavis did not approve -- which over time came to include all but five or six novelists: Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad, and above all D. H. Lawrence

****behind Wrenn, far behind Tolkien, but ahead of Lewis and Coghill

1 comment:

David Bratman said...

I don't have any trouble, listening to this recording of Cecil, imagining him as being caricatured in the way Amis describes. The way Cecil rushes through words, and his unclear enunciation, give that impression.

Cecil based his critical works on the assumption that the purpose of reading literature is to enjoy it. That's why his writings on the topic are general appreciations rather than analyses (see his essay "The Fine Art of Reading").