It isn’t history, it isn’t fiction, and it isn’t scholarship, although it contains elements of all three: in fact, one might say that The Oxford Companion to English Literature belongs in a genre all of its own. That being the case, one might also say that reviews of Companions to English Literature belong to a genre all of their own as well. The idea is to read the new guide, edited by distinguished author X, and compare it to previous guides, written by distinguished authors Y and Z, either howling at the new elements of political correctness — the entries on ‘Gay and Lesbian Literature,’ say, or ‘Hypertext’ — or, alternatively, heaping praise upon them.
Handed the new edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble, I dutifully flipped to read all of the new entries: not only Gay and Lesbian Literature and Hypertext, but also New Irish Playwrights, Lads’ Literature, Kate Atkinson, Carol Shields, Louis de Bernières. Then I checked around to see if any of my friends had made it — I was delighted to find Ian Buruma, as well as A. N. Wilson — and then, quite frankly, didn’t know what to do next. The Gay and Lesbian Literature entry is neither as outrageous nor as indispensable as the battling parties in the canon wars would have it: Drabble, or her anonymous contributor, rather interestingly traces the genre back to Shakespeare, Plato, and 18th-century women’s diaries, but fails fully to convince me that she couldn’t have just got by with giving extra-long entries to Oscar Wilde, the Marquis de Sade, Jeanette Winterson and a few others.
Ditto Hypertext, which in fact refers to the internet: the entry also contained some valuable tidbits — did you know that one Vannevar Bush first began dreaming of something like the internet in 1945? — but still seemed not completely at home in a Companion to English Literature.
In fact, the true pleasure of this book lies elsewhere. Most literate people have, over the course of a lifetime, stumbled over names and references which they meant to look up, but never quite got around to doing it: now they can. Most also remember certain names from school — William Dean Howells, The Faerie Queene, Chrétien de Troyes — but would be hard-put to define or describe them: now they can. Reading this book for fun, and not with the polished eye of a literary critic or literary historian, provides the same satisfaction as finishing a jigsaw puzzle. All of the interesting bits of literary lore which one had forgotten (or never known) are now accessible. More to the point, they are readable. This Companion could have been merely dull and worthy. Drabble has made it deliberately enjoyable, gossipy, even funny.
Here, for example, are not one but three entries on ‘Arcadia’: one refers almost tongue in cheek to the actual place,
a bleak and mountainous district in the central Peloponnese which became, thanks to references in Virgil’s Eclogues, the traditional and incongruous location of the idealised world of the pastoral.
Another refers, rather obscurely, to a popular series of ‘verse eclogues connected by prose narratives’ published in 1504. A third refers to the prose romance by Sir Philip Sidney, published in two versions, Old and New. This entry goes on at great length, recounting the plots and the characters — again, once learned in school, now forgotten — and noting that Charles I allegedly repeated a prayer from the poem while in prison. For this he was attacked by Milton, who disgustedly described Arcadia as a ‘vain amatorious poem’. Later, Hazlitt called it ‘one of the greatest monuments of the abuse of intellectual power upon record’, and T. S. Eliot referred to it as a ‘monument of dulness’. In just a few paragraphs, the Companion has thus taken an idea (which most people probably vaguely associated with painting, or at least I did), pinpointed its geographical origins, elucidated its references, and, in one broad sweep from Virgil to Eliot, slotted Sir Philip Sidney deftly into the ongoing literary conversation that echoes down the centuries.
Hours and hours can be spent this way. Most remember Daniel Defoe as the author of Robinson Crusoe. Fewer will recall that he spent his early years as a hosiery merchant or that he subsequently failed as a businessman, breeding civet cats and selling marine insurance, before landing a job working as a secret agent for a Tory politician. Most remember Laurence Sterne as the author of Tristram Shandy. Fewer will recall that a ‘Shandean fate’ overtook his body after death, when it was stolen by grave-robbers, recognised at an anatomy lecture in Cambridge, and secretly returned to its grave.
Drabble has also found space for entries on the Koran, first translated into English in 1649; on Hurlothrumbo, a ‘popular burlesque’ by an 18th-century Manchester dancing master, described by a contemporary Mancunian as ‘full of oddities, out-of-the-waynesses, flights, madness, comicalities etc’; on Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, the barrister who gave up the law after the wild success of his novel, The Prisoner of Zenda; and on The Hunting of the Snark, the poem which Lewis Carroll said was inspired by a single line — ‘For the Snark was a boojum, you see’ — that suddenly came to him while out walking one day in 1874.
The real success of Drabble’s Companion, in fact, is that it treats authors not as abstract figures, to be put up on a pedestal or knocked away depending on the direction of literary fashion, but as real people, whose odd and bizarre lives contain just as many ups and downs as our own, as well as treating texts not as sacred objects, but as readable (or unreadable) books and poems and plays which some people have liked and some have loathed. Many people tend vaguely to think of all authors before the year 1900 as solitary gentlemen, wearing dressing-gowns or togas, labouring in abstract stillness in the great hall of some distant country house. Many people therefore forget how many great works of literature have been produced out of a desperate need to pay the rent. A book like this necessarily relies on a lot of subjective decisions, and is in part the work of chance, accident, and the prejudices of the people who edit it. But then, English literature itself is the work of chance, accident and prejudice. No reason why its Companion shouldn’t be the same.