John Carey: the constant reader

Despite the snobbery of Oxford, a young literary scholar found the liberty to know and speak his mind

March 13, 2014

Source: Brian Harris

To come to Oxford for the social cachet is unfair to poorer kids who would love to come to a place where work is serious

When John Carey was doing military service in Egypt before coming up to university, he writes in his new book, he visited the monastery near Mount Sinai – “and came away thinking perhaps an Oxford college would be quite like [it] – the seclusion, the scholarly calm, the garden. It was not a very accurate prediction.”

Oxford in the 1950s was a pretty strange place. The English syllabus stopped at 1832. Carey’s finals happened to take place in very hot weather, so “people quickly abandoned their jackets, ties and gowns. Heaps of them littered the floor, along with other trash brought in by candidates – teddy bears, smelling salts, wilting carnations – so you had to wade through a sort of flea market to get to your place.” His interview to become a graduate student was conducted by “an old-style don who did not really believe in literary ‘research’”, followed by dinner – and then it was out to the bowling green.

And there were also, of course, “toffs” everywhere. When Carey was asked to take over the teaching of English literature at Christ Church, then considered Oxford’s most aristocratic and exclusive college, for the academic year 1958-59, he says now, “it really was like Brideshead Revisited. The snobbery was astonishing.

“One student told me about a night in the year when the idea was to break more windows in Peckwater Quadrangle than your father or grandfather had done. So it created a maelstrom of glass. He was quite innocently walking through and a piece from a tonic-water bottle bounced off a wall and blinded him in one eye. He was absolutely unresentful. He was a public schoolboy and regarded that as the kind of risk you take: young gentlemen will let off steam – and if you were in the way, you were in the way.”

Things have obviously changed since then, and one of the aims of The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books is precisely to track such changes. Yet it also sets out to provide both a “selective and opinionated…short introduction to English literature” and a “tribute of gratitude to a grammar school”.

All this makes it a somewhat curious memoir. There are descriptions of Carey’s wartime childhood, army days and early poetic efforts, starting with “a Gothic tale, in heroic couplets, about a beauteous young maiden (named Geraldine) who, by ill chance, wakes from supposed death to find herself in a morgue”. (He later submitted to a magazine some verse which offered a “tasteful blend of Biggles and T. S. Eliot”.) But once the author and book reach Oxford, 60 years ago this autumn, much of the focus is on university life and the books Carey was reading. As the syllabus inched towards the present day, he kept a step ahead of his students and immersed himself first in Victorian and then in 20th-century literature. He even includes a chapter on his work as a newspaper critic, flagging up 20 favourites from the thousand books he has reviewed over the years.

This is hardly the most dramatic of lives and Carey certainly has his blind spots (beyond The Beatles and his wife’s “‘sack’ dresses, waistless and miniskirted, in which she looked irresistible”, he was left “untouched” by “the great tide of [1960s] pop culture”). Yet he is also generously enthusiastic and illuminating about writing from a wide range of times and places, from the canonical to the contemporary.

All this is very much in the spirit of Carey’s earlier books. Along with studies of John Milton, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Donne and William Golding, designed to reach well beyond an academic audience, he published in 2000 Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books. He has also edited three Faber Books on Reportage, Science and Utopias and declares himself “very much in favour of anthologies and fragments”, even if they are sometimes “frowned on” by other academics.

Asked for his general philosophy of writing and reviewing, Carey answers: “People read books less than they used to. I think that’s a pity, because reading enriches your life in a way that isn’t just pleasure – it actually educates you and makes you understand other times, places and ways of thought. It broadens your mind, as travel is said to. So that is a reason I want to keep up reading for pleasure.”

Given that his core aim is to “encourage people to widen their reading horizons”, Carey has little time for “scholars writing for scholars” on literary topics, noting that “the real objection is you feel that their books didn’t need to be written. People are writing to keep their jobs, as a prop to a career, though no one else wants to read their books.”

Equally irritating was his experience as chair of Oxford’s English faculty board, when he was “very much resented” and “accused of trying to abrogate academic freedom”, simply for urging his fellow dons to lecture on the syllabus rather than what happened to interest them.

So, although it is a very amiable book, The Unexpected Professor contains a good deal of implicit and sometimes explicit criticism of both Oxford and literary studies. What was it like for Carey to have nonetheless spent most of his life within them?

Now emeritus professor of English, Carey no longer has a room in his old college, Merton. When he invites me to lunch there, we have to go through its vast medieval door to the hall, up and down staircases, through a beautiful 17th-century panelled room – although it is probably not, he explains, the room where Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, held court during the Civil War – to find a perch for our interview.

John Carey

Class division is ironed out in debate. You find out what a mind is worth. People start to be valued for who they are rather than who their parents are

Why, I asked him, did he have such a thing about “toffs”? (This is reflected in several comments in the new book, such as “my early-warning system had instantly diagnosed him as public-school, but on the other hand he was very nice”.) Besides, if he is so allergic to public-school types, wasn’t it strange to have spent his whole career in Oxford?

“Early on,” he replies, “I stayed in Oxford, because that was where I could work. If you want to do serious work on an earlier period [as when his research focused on Milton, Marvell and Donne], it has to be somewhere with a copyright library.”

A great believer in the tutorial system, Carey argues that “a lot of teaching in the arts depends on sharing ideas quickly, in conversation, having a serious debate about something someone has written…Class division is ironed out in debate. In tutorials and close contact with teachers you start to find out what a mind is worth, as opposed to airs and graces. People start to be valued for what they are rather than who their parents are.”

Furthermore, he continues, he “tried to change Oxford” from within and, for example, “corresponded with a lot of teachers in non-public schools and, other things being equal, certainly tried to move towards an intake with non-public-school undergraduates. Not many other people were doing that in the early 1960s.

“I don’t like to see people coming to Oxford who are not serious about the subject. If you come for social reasons, because daddy came or because friends from school are going or because of the social cachet, I think that’s unfair to the kids from poorer backgrounds who would love to come to a place where work is serious and they get a lot of help. If you come for anything other than academic reasons, you should go elsewhere.”

Much of the blame for the continuing high proportion of public-school pupils in Oxbridge, in Carey’s view, can be put down to “the destruction of the grammar schools”. If institutions like his own “perfectly ordinary suburban grammar school” still existed, they would long ago have become “the largest recruitment field for Oxford, since entry to them was by merit not money”.

In his 2005 book What Good Are the Arts?, Carey has a good deal of fun at the expense of those who get rhapsodic about culture, turn it into a substitute for religion or claim that their taste is valid for all time.

“I enjoyed writing about how a particular kind of literary taste is formed by your background, your parents and so on,” he recalls, suggesting that much the same applies to academic research. Take the genesis of his controversial 1992 book, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939.

“The idea was to explain how Modernism had happened,” he tells me. “I was carrying out a kind of experiment, seeing if you could explain why literature had taken a turn into obscurity and, perhaps deliberately, into avenues not attractive to large numbers of readers, and whether you can link that to something seemingly unrelated, population growth, which led to burgeoning suburbs, the destruction of the countryside and so on.”

What emerged from his research was a calmly forensic analysis of many writers Carey otherwise admires, such as T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats and Virginia Woolf, illustrating just how intense was their contempt for the “masses”, enthusiasm for eugenics, flirtation with fascism and even what he calls “attempts to eliminate large parts of the human race”.

This disturbing and much criticised book, Carey makes a point of revealing in The Unexpected Professor, was related to some very personal experiences. While at Christ Church, the economist Sir Roy Harrod (who had loose connections to the Bloomsbury Group) “pointedly refrained from ever addressing a single remark to me in my three terms’ residence” and even said “Oh, that’s nobody” when a fellow dinner guest asked who Carey was. Not long afterwards, Carey writes, his accountant father found him some work to tide him over the unpaid summer holiday, leading him to reflect that Carey senior was both “a loveable man” and someone whom “Sir Roy Harrod, and people of his ilk, would have despised…as he had despised me.

“That thought was the seed of…The Intellectuals and the Masses…The chapter that his shade particularly hovered around, in my imagination, was the one about the Bloomsbury Group and their contempt for office workers, generically referred to as ‘clerks’.”

Although Carey’s “Oxford life in books” has been fairly sedate, and his account of it is largely gentle, some of its best moments come when the author’s fiercer emotions break through.

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Reader's comments (1)

"Much of the blame for the continuing high proportion of public-school pupils in Oxbridge, in Carey’s view, can be put down to 'the destruction of the grammar schools'. If institutions like his own 'perfectly ordinary suburban grammar school” still existed, they would long ago have become “the largest recruitment field for Oxford, since entry to them was by merit not money'. The same thing, unfortunately, is happening in the U.S. to the detriment of American intellectual life.


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