December 2, 2005

Although I must have acquired Arnold Kettle's An Introduction to the English Novel in the early 1970s while I was a research student at Cambridge University, it was only when I had to teach the English novel at the University of Geneva a few years later that I sat down and read both volumes, and blessed the day I bought them.

Kettle's compelling accounts of Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Nostromo steered me through marathon seminars devoted to the microscopic analysis of those extraordinary narratives. But they did much more than that. They exemplified a way of thinking and writing about literature that had an enduring impact on me.

Kettle's Introduction , which was first published in 1951, rapidly earned him a place alongside the great modern critics of fiction: Henry James, E.M. Forster, F. R. Leavis and V. S. Pritchett. The book stayed in print for decades in Hutchinson's University Library series, inspiring generations of students.

Kettle took his cue from the novelists themselves rather than from abstruse theories of fiction. He shared D. H. Lawrence's conviction that "the novel can help us to live, as nothing else can". And he located the power of the novel, like Joseph Conrad, in the journey of "moral discovery" that readers undertake with the writer. A masterpiece such as Wuthering Heights transforms our perception of the way things are and expands our imagination of the way they could be. Teaching such books mattered, Kettle believed, because they could change hearts and minds, because they could make a difference.

Kettle's critical vision was fired by a radical commitment that set it apart from Leavis's grim moralism, though he never resorted to tub-thumping or jargon to press his case. The work itself always called the shots, and the critic's assumptions had to be shelved when the work would not wear them. It was equally crucial to communicate in strong, incisive prose that anyone could understand. Kettle could cut to the quick of Oliver Twist in one sentence: "When Oliver walks up to the master of the workhouse and asks for more gruel, issues are at stake which make the whole world of Jane Austen tremble."

It was his gift for couching complex ideas in plain language that made him the ideal choice as the first professor of literature at the Open University, where his perfectly pitched course books became the stuff of legend and changed many more lives than mine.

An Introduction to the English Novel may be dated in many respects, but it remains for me the touchstone of criticism that counts: criticism that brings literature alive in the world beyond the academy.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

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