Views on Q

by Gerry Hones


Note: The following article was written by Gerry Hones, one of the individuals behind the preparation of the materials on this site. Gerry Hones died shortly afterwards and the account that follows describes a collection that was being developed at the time of writing.

Seventy years later, when asked how he had become interested in Quiller-Couch, a friend replied that ‘twenty five years ago, I was working in the Falkland Islands… There were few books not associated with the war – or penguins – and one of these was The Oxford Book of English Verse’. Now particularly interested in Q’s short stories, he cannot understand how someone who had a ‘large readership in their lifetime becomes neglected in a relatively short period’. In a way he represents those who met Q through his writing but never had the opportunity to meet him in person.  

(Ian Jebbett 22/07/09)

However, in a new collection being prepared for publication with the draft title ‘Views on Q’, there are some contributions from people who were fortunate enough to know him at some stage in his life.

His two biographers provide detailed accounts of Q’s life and work, from different perspectives and experience.

His close friend at Jesus College, Cambridge, Frederick Brittain produced his biographical study because, by the time of his death, Q had only covered the first 24 years of his life in his planned autobiography. Brittain did set out to ‘write as objectively as possible’ even though he ‘knew Q intimately’ and said that his ‘feelings towards him were such that I spent as much time in his company as I could’. He writes throughout with warmth and deep respect for Q as a person. As well as supplying a comprehensive bibliography and a record of his many achievements, he managed to show his great affection for the obstinate idealist who always hastened to the help and comfort of his friends.

Interestingly, the poet Hugh Sykes Davies was 50 years younger than Q when he became a junior lecturer in his faculty – yet he tells how he enjoyed civilised conversation with the man he had previously seen from afar as a myth. As a young colleague, he learnt to appreciate Q as a person, the man who maintained contact with the wide world outside and ‘did his best to do me some real good’ – before he later described him as a legend.

Although he was never a colleague, A.L. Rowse also knew Q well and the dedication he used for his biography of Q reflects a relationship he valued highly – and, maybe surprisingly, was willing to share it with another!

‘To Daphne du Maurier in common admiration for our old mentor and friend.’

Writing over 40 years later than Brittain, Rowse was fortunate in having access to a major collection of Q’s correspondence over many years. Added to his appreciation of Q as a writer and academic, he could see that Q was indeed an ‘enchanting letter-writer’ and was able to learn a great deal about his incredibly wide range of interests and social involvement. In A Cornish Childhood (1942) he tells how, as a young schoolboy, he was encouraged in his efforts to study at Oxford by the support of a kindly Q.

However, probably the best way to appreciate Rowse’s feelings for Q is to listen to him being interviewed on tape – Memories of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (May 1987) and Recollections of Q (July 1996) – are both included as resources in the DVD ‘Q – A Great Cornishman’. Not only is it possible to learn more about Q, the tapes also offer some revealing insights into Rowse himself.

As parts of the same DVD, there are also taped interviews with some Fowey people who knew Q when they were young and Charles Thomas, who had strong family connections. Archaeologist and historian, Charles later became the first Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies at Exeter University and once said that ‘any mention of Q revives me!’

Q’s breadth of interests in Cornwall led naturally to his making friends from many different walks of life. The renowned writer and drama critic J.C. Trewin was one. He regularly showed his admiration of Q’s writing but equally noticeable – for example, in the number of affectionate, almost wistful, references to Q that appeared in his published correspondence with the Bodmin newspaper editor H.J. Willmott – he saw Q as someone to whom he was very close as a person.

Active in the political scene as a life-long Liberal, Q strongly opposed the views of some of his friends like Kenneth Grahame, who has been quoted as referring to Q’s ‘pernicious doctrines’!  Always independent of thought, Q never aspired to a parliamentary seat and did not support his Liberal friend, Isaac Foot, whenever their views differed. A proud Devonian, Foot clearly wished that Q had developed an allegiance to his mother’s county, where he spent much of his youth. The warmth and emotional appeal in the way he wrote about Q after his death, however, revealed the depth of his love for a fellow west-country man.

Obituaries do not always manage to move away from an account which is formal, both in structure and style. However, when people like Foot wrote or talked about Q after his death it was different!  It was as if his personality defied a routine acknowledgment of his life and required a real celebration of what he had unassumingly achieved.

Isaac Foot was one of the contributors in a discussion that was presented on the BBC West of England Home Service in February 1958 – with the title ‘A portrait of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch by those who knew him in Fowey and Cambridge’. This programme appeared to be mostly unscripted – and only lightly edited – admirably fitting the man they were remembering. It is interesting to note that Foot said that Q always had a linguistic style of his own which was essentially whimsical – and then link that comment of 1958 with Ian Carter’s analysis 42 years later of Q’s influential elegant tone shifting ‘Railway fiction from power to whimsy!’

In the programme, local residents recalled his love of the harbour, how he watched the sailing ships coming and going and the way he made sure that he could meet the sailors in Fowey streets. Many of their memories referred to his active involvement in so many aspects of life in the town – social, fund-raising, sporting, educational or concerned with local government. His ability to evoke the Cornish atmosphere because ‘he was soaked in it’, as one put it, was a natural advantage when he came to write his local stories.

One of the Cambridge-based contributors was Gerald Bullett, also of Jesus College. He described Q as having ‘an extraordinary love of humanity and an extraordinary shrewd eye for human character in all kinds and classes of people’.

Another was S.C. Roberts who had been Secretary of the Cambridge University Press and had known Q well describing him as ‘Primarily… a man who inspired immense affection… he was an essentially companionable man and you would always look forward to the opportunity of spending a few hours with him’. Holding Q’s light verse in high regard he quoted his favourite example:

Two students of psycho-analysis
Corresponded on sexual fallacies
Till confusion arose
And now nobody knows
Which Algernon was or which Alice is.

There is also a letter of his among those sent to Lady Quiller-Couch on the occasion of Q’s death and now held in the Q archive at Trinity College, Oxford. In this he wrote: ‘What good times I have had in these rooms at Jesus and how blank they are now. His sense of fun was as real as his lovely sense of style’.

This archive is a collection of immediate emotional responses, many having been written within a few days of the writer hearing the sad news.

Included are letters from Mrs. Midgley, his ‘bedmaker’ at Jesus for many years – A. Pearce, his hairdresser at Cambridge and Fowey hairdresser, John Rickard, who wrote of ‘my oldest customer and one who allowed me to call him my friend’.

William Parsons wrote from mid-Cornwall, saying that as Q’s servant, when serving in the 10th Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, he always found him ‘to be a perfect gentleman in every way’. This letter reminds us that in the summer of 1915, Q raised this DCLI Pioneer Battalion with very limited help. Always likely to do the unusual, there is one photograph which shows him with his wife giving tea to his company of over 200 men in the garden of The Haven!  His patriotism was clearly at odds with his views on the ethics of war.

Another letter was from E.W. Bolitho of the well known family of that name, ‘Today not only Cornwall but the whole English-speaking world mourns a great man of letters… Cornwall has lost her greatest man since Trevithick’.

Not surprisingly, Q’s views appear very clearly in much of his writing. Following his analysis of Q’s novels and short stories, Andrew Symons noted that they ‘are steeped in issues of social concern and social justice’, showing a connection between politics and literature and elements of his underlying radicalism. ‘Below the whimsical, the genial and courteous there was a deeply serious and emotionally committed man with a very original view of the world’, a man who was never afraid to challenge established conventions, authority or even his friends if he felt that it was necessary.

An example of this is shown in a draft manuscript of a letter – undated and perhaps written for the press? – held among his papers at Trinity College, Oxford. The first few sentences below are the introduction to his analysis of what he saw as a most unfair arrangement.


To the detached observer nothing in the Mid Cornwall Clay Strike is more ludicrously pathetic than to note how, of the three parties interested in the business, two are locked in an angry wrestle while the third sits cheerfully and impartially on the necks of both.

Does it ever occur to the disputants that the profit on every ton of clay has to be shared between three persons – the workman, the merchant and the royalty owner; and that of these the last – the only idler – draws his profit before it is made, and gets his share whether it is made or not?

The letter ends:

But the purpose of this letter is, first, to ask Cornish ratepayers to ponder for what and for whom they are paying about a thousand pounds a week; and next – and more seriously still – to ask him what, as a citizen, he thinks of the spectacle of these two live men – the merchant and the clay worker – locked and grappling, while the man against whose extortion they should make common interest, rattles his pockets and smiles.

I am, Sir,

Your obedient servant

Arthur Quiller-Couch