Persuasions #4, 1982 Pages 6-7
LORD DAVID CECIL
Most of the members of the Jane Austen Society of North America know of Lord David Cecil, President of the Jane Austen Society in England since 1965, and author of the very beautiful Portrait of Jane Austen. Even those of us who have never been to Chawton – have never attended an Annual Meeting there – have probably seen his picture on the jacket of that book – kindly, patrician, Oxford don that he appears. We have read of his distinguished family, his illustrious academic career, and his authorship of many works of literary biography and criticism.
Finding some of these books on the library shelf, one can very quickly become absorbed in Lord David Cecil’s world – the world of English literature and history. The “Prologue” to The Stricken Deer, his biography of William Cowper, for example, is itself a brilliant treatise on 18th-century arts and letters. Victorian Novelists presents penetrating, insightful studies and assessments of his subjects; while The Fine Art of Reading is very nearly a liberal education – certainly a course in appreciation of literature – elucidating the novel as form, the nature of the artist, from poet to letter-writer, from William Shakespeare to Walter Pater.
What a pleasure it is to be led through England’s literature by this gifted guide. In pure, lucid style, Lord David makes understandable, and highly palatable, fundamental principles of art in general, literary art in particular. Whoever is the subject of his pen – whether a charming female letter-writer of Commonwealth time, or a sensitive, solitary poet of the following century (in Two Quiet Lives) – he always paints a picture of an age. Manners, morals, mode and mood – all come into view, and the reader soon feels at home in another era. With a skill that is rare, he seems to capture on his canvas all of the atmosphere – high winds and subtle breezes – that made people feel and act and create as they did.
Yet, David Cecil shines most brightly, always, with his every mention of Jane Austen. Here, quotable, smiling passages leap out: (from The Fine Art of Reading) “ ... Even more entertaining than any single character … is the manner of the telling, that characteristic Austenian irony, so exquisite, so good-tempered, so ruthless …. No aspect of the story, however solemn, is protected from it. We find it pressed beneath each page like some delicious astringent herb and the whole book is sharp with its scent” (p. 155).
From his Poets and Story-Tellers (the Jane Austen chapter reprinted from a 1935 lecture): “There are those who do not like her, as there are those who do not like sunshine or unselfishness. But the very nervous defiance with which they shout their dissatisfaction shows that they know they are a despised minority. All discriminating critics admire her books, most educated readers enjoy them; her fame, of all English novelists, is the most secure …” (p. 99). Tolstoy would have stated [Mrs. Bennet’s character] without a smile; while every word of Jane Austen’s, every curt rhythm, every neat antithesis betrays she is not speaking with a straight face. By the mere tone of her voice she sets drab reality dancing and sparkling with the sunlight of her comic vision” (p. 106).
While still a young man, David Cecil won respect; with the passing years he has attained ever greater eminence. The British Crown appointed him Companion of Honour; the world of arts and letters has repeatedly honoured him – with fellowships and lectureships, with high office in literary and artistic societies, with honorary degrees bestowed by renowned universities. For over half a century, readers have been enriched by the fruits of this man’s talent and scholarship. His written words are still as fresh, as graceful, as compelling, as if written this morning – and available to anyone who takes the books from the shelf.
Lord David Cecil may justly take pride in many things; if he has a slight prejudice, it is one which will certainly not disgrace him, nor will it offend the members of JASNA: he may be a bit partial to “Our Jane.” In this gentle giant of English letters she has long had an eloquent advocate; his infectious love of her art (to borrow from his own words) is pressed beneath each page like some delicious herb, and all his work is sweet with its scent.
Cecil, Lord David. The Fine Art of Reading. Indianapolis & New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1957.
———. Poets and Story-Tellers. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1961.