by Gerry Hones
Few people have as much impact on the lives of their contemporaries as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. He influenced those who read his work but never actually met him as well as those who were fortunate enough to know him in person. This strong influence continued after his death in 1944 for he left a rich and varied legacy for those who followed.
Q first became known to the reading public through his articles and short stories in such leading late 19th century periodicals as The Speaker, The Illustrated London News, The Graphic and The Pall Mall. Meanwhile, his growing reputation as a writer developed even more rapidly when the first of his novels, Dead Man’s Rock, was published in 1887.
His plots had a wide range of underlying themes. They could be tragic or humorous in approach, an adventure story with the action taking place far away or a witty look at life in Cornwall. This often began as a quite straightforward account of a routine activity in life which moved into the supernatural, taking the reader along a completely unexpected and puzzling line of thinking.
His imaginative approach always reflected his appreciation of the background to his writing – showing a clear understanding of the natural physical elements of the environment as well as a sensitive use of the way of life of the people.
Believing that style was more important than content, his writing was always elegant and disciplined. This underlying discipline – which could be clearly seen in many other aspects of his life – could well have sprung from the scientific heritage he had inherited from his distinguished forbears.
His talent was quickly recognised and he was soon established as an author of renown.
Q was soon entertaining his admirers with humour when The Astonishing History of Troy Town was published in 1888 and he introduced the ‘real life-fictional’ characters living in a thinly disguised version of his much loved Fowey.
Within a year his readers were following the story of Jack Marvel, the Civil War hero in The Splendid Spur (1889). They were meeting Q in his new guise of historical novelist, revealing his underlying humanity and generally romantic view of life.
However, throughout this period, Q’s output also included evidence of his skill as a literary critic, the academic element of his work which attracted another major group of admirers. His Adventures in Criticism (1896) and many of his later works, such as The Art of Writing (1916), have stood the test of time and are still regarded as authoritative and stimulating guides for aspiring authors.
Nevertheless, it could be said that it is his role as an anthologist which has had the most widespread and long-standing influence in the field of literature. The Oxford Book of English Verse was very well received in 1900 and described as ‘the finest anthology of English verse that has ever been published’. In fact, more than 20 reprints were then needed before his much revised 2nd edition was published in 1939.
As a collection created from the choices made by Q, it naturally reflected much of his views on life and literature especially. A man who abhorred cynicism and took an almost idealist view of life, he overlooked a number of poems which were more sombre in style than the lighter verses which he preferred. However, Q was well aware of the ‘dark side’ of life as he had experienced a number of very difficult events in his own life. Coping with debts incurred by his family meant a long period of overwork which led to such a break-down in 1892 that he had been advised to move away from London and live a different lifestyle in Cornwall. Much later, the death of his only son, Bevil, in Germany in 1919 was a massive blow to Q and his wife. The tragic loss of the young man he later called ‘my dearest and most natural hope’ was always a shadow in his later life.
In its preface, Q’s genuine modesty appears in the words:
‘I have tried to range over the whole field of English Verse… It is for the reader to judge if I have managed it as to serve those who already love poetry and to implant that love in some young minds not yet initiated’.