LINGUIST List 12.2552

Fri Oct 12 2001

Review: Carter & McRae, Routledge History of Literature

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  1. Margaret Sonmez, Review of The Routledge History of Literature in English

Message 1: Review of The Routledge History of Literature in English

Date: Thu, 11 Oct 2001 11:38:23 +0300
From: Margaret Sonmez <>
Subject: Review of The Routledge History of Literature in English

Carter, Ronald, and John McRae (2001) The Routledge History of
Literature in English: Britain and Ireland, 2nd ed. Routledge,
paperback ISBN 0-415-24318-1, xix+570pp, $24.95
(hardback ISBN 0-415-24317-3).

Margaret J-M Sonmez, Middle East Technical University, Turkey

This is a new and updated edition of a book which provides extensive
coverage of the main works and trends in English literature from its
beginnings to the present day. Intended for British and foreign readers,
it provides a general historical background to its discussions of the
main writers, literary works and language issues of each period. Although
the late Malcolm Bradbury, in his Foreword to this edition, calls it a
textbook (xviii), it seems to exist more as background or reference
material for students than as a potential 'set' or course book. I
imagine that it is more useful for non-British readers than for the home
readership, because most British university courses would expect their
students to have access to a deeper level of historical and background
knowledge than there is space to provide in this book, although it can
still be very useful in introducing undergraduates to figures they may
not have heard of in their courses and as a general reference book
supplementing other, more chronologically limited sources. Certainly it
is hard to find any other work that places British literary and language
history from the earliest to the latest times within the same book
covers; it provides the invaluable service of allowing the reader to see
English literature as a continuous dynamic rather than as a sequence of
relatively independent periods.

This second edition remains essentially the same as the first with the
addition of eight further language notes ('Puttenhams Social Poetics',
'Shakespeare's Language', 'Reading Wordsworth', 'Reading Dickens',
'Reading the language of theatre and drama', 'Reading Hardy', 'Reading
Auden', 'Common Speech') and 3 sections ('Rights and voices and poetry' -
women writers of the late 18th and 19th centuries, '... so-called
children's literature', and 'Rotten Englishes'). Some of the sections
dealing with twentieth century literature have been slightly expanded
(Empson has been added to the section on 'Thirties Poets', for instance):
the book now contains references to books published up to the late 1990s.
Lists of Booker and Whitbread prize-winners have been added to the list
of Nobel prize-winners, and there is a new Select Bibliography (very
select, perhaps too much so). There is still no discussion of literary
theory. Some sections have been divided and given new names, others
renamed, or conflated, and the formatting has been improved, making the
language notes stand out from the rest of the text more noticeably and
resulting in a book that contains more words in less pages.

Considering the body of sources to which this book belongs, one is drawn
to make a Genette-like observation about books which include the
publisher's name in their title. Generally speaking we expect such books
to be works of reference rather than directly presenting the research,
thoughts and analysis of the writer(s), although there are many
exceptions (Cambridge University Press, for instance, presents
compilations of essays in their 'Companion to' series). Current
conventions of reference book writing include a certain bland tone,
which is meant to reassure the reader that all the contents are objective
and therefore (by a piece of popular but false reasoning) reliable.
This is a relatively new trend in literary commentary and the fact that
it has been accepted and promoted in the last forty years or so does not
mean that it is necessarily always the most desirable stylistic
approach to literary studies. The great writers about literature put
themselves on the line, and there is no reason why histories and
handbooks of literature should not include more personality than most of
them do at present. By 'personality' a degree of individual interaction
with literary texts, ultimately of judgement, is implied. Readers may
not like the judgements, the author's style or comments may irritate
them, but there is at least something to agree or disagree with, and
reading such works can be very stimulating.

Looking at the book from the standpoint of the literature and language
handbooks that have preceded it, as its title warns us *The Routledge
History. . .* is one of those publishing house reference works which
provide a helpful accumulation of information in an admirably clear but
conventionally bland style. It contains no surprises. In many ways it
is close to a chronologically re-arranged and severely restricted version
of *The Oxford Companion to English Literature*. I would say that it
is more akin in structure and focus to Legouis and Cazamian than to
Adams, with less references and less personality than the former, but
more references (and still less personality) than Burgess. Legouis and
Cazamian is very dated now, and out of print as far as I know, but it is
much more detailed and scholarly than *The Routledge History . . .* - and
nearly three times the length. I would still refer more advanced students
to it rather than to the volume under discussion. Deeper analysis of both
the literature and the historical context of the literature are readily
available in the introductory pages to each section of the two volumes of
*The Norton Anthology of English Literature *, and specialist essays in
the many volumes of the *Pelican Guide[s] to English Literature* (old and
new series) remain among the best in their field. Adams is still,
arguably, the best introductory account of English history seen with and
through literary history on our shelves, and one should not ignore the
solid historical scholarship in the old Oxford University Press and
Cambridge University Press multi-volume histories of English Literature
. Students studying the history of the language have many and excellent
text books available, and my feeling is once more that the more advanced
students will be referred elsewhere, to such handbooks as Baugh and Cable
or Millward rather than to the language notes in this book. Nevertheless
we have to admit that many students of English Literature avoid books
about language as much as they can, and for them the language notes here
are sufficiently detailed and clear to be genuinely useful. A Turkish PhD
student of English Literature has told me that as a foreign reader she
found the language notes in her first edition excellent, and among the
most used and useful parts of the book. In general, then, the
information presented here is mostly available elsewhere but not in the
same combination or format, so the work can be said to have made a place
for itself with its particular configuration of chronological scope and
structure, breadth of literary reference, inclusion of language notes,
and inclusion of general comments about the literature, the combination
of which make the book an introduction to literary history that is at
the same time useful and more readable than is usually the case with
reference works.

The book is historical in so far as it presents the material
chronologically and with reference to major historical events and to
developments within English language and literature, but otherwise it
could be described more accurately as a survey than as a history. In fact
it could be claimed that the weakest part of the book lies in its
somewhat inconsistent confrontation with the details of history. Readers
looking for any depth of historical description or analysis will be
disappointed, and even the early promise of an overview, implied by maps
of fifth and of ninth to tenth Century England (pp.4-5) is soon
forgotten. If the publishers are planning a third edition I would
strongly recommend that they review these maps and either take them out
or make them more relevant to the text. I could not find any
particularly strong reason for marking those places that are labelled on
them, not could I find marked on the maps those places discussed in the
text that readers may need to have illustrated (for instance we are
referred to "a line between the Wash and the Severn Estuary" p.19; but
neither the Wash nor the Severn are labelled on the maps). Bradbury's
Foreword mentioned useful summaries of the main points of a period
(xviii), but these do not appear, unless one is to interpret each chapter
as such a summary (his 'glosses of literary terms' (ibid.) are nowhere
to be found, either). The need to draw history in broad lines has
definitely taken its toll, and I worry about some generalisations that
lead, I believe, to serious misrepresentation. The examples I have in
mind concern particularly the statements about the Reformation, where no
clear distinction is made between Luther's and Calvin's doctrines,
leading to ambiguity concerning the rift between puritans and other
protestants. Again, over simplification has very misleading results in
the case of the Reformation in England, where we are told that Henry
VIII's split from Rome resulted in the king being 'the closest human
being to God -- a role previously given to the Pope' (52). I doubt that
any scholars of the Reformation would agree with this interpretation of
Henry's theological position within the Anglican church or, indeed , of
the Pope's position within Roman Catholicism, which has always seen Jesus
as the closest human being to God, and given the saints a certain
prominence in this matter, too.

Apart from this tendency to oversimplify the historical context, which
could be seen as a serious drawback, I have noticed a number of
infelicities, phrases which are ambiguous or open to incorrect or
debatable interpretation (Gerard Manly Hopkins's texts are, surely,
'modernist' (10) in only limited ways), and others whose wording could
be more careful, as in the implication that Caxton first 'published'
Malory (51) whereas, strictly speaking, it may previously have been
published in manuscript form and Caxton's 'first' was in its printing.
A rushed reading of the book by a reader better versed in the earlier
periods of literary history unearthed only one clear error - a slip more
than an error perhaps - a mistaken attribution of the action in Doris
Lessing's *Love, again* to the 'late nineteenth century' (490); this
should read 'late twentieth century'.

The title indicates current sensitivities about what 'English' literature
involves, and accurately indicates the book's focus on Britain and
Ireland. There is no discussion of English literature produced by
non-British or non-Irish writers, although the 'adopted' and
'bi-national' cases of Henry James, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden are, of
course, included - as are well-known contemporary writers whose roots go
far beyond the British Isles, such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and
Fred d'Aguiar. With the geographic focus being indicated only by a very
discreetly printed subtitle, one may wonder if Routledge are planning a
companion volume of literature in English from other places. There is no
indication of this on their web site, though.

This review has drawn attention to a few areas that are open to criticism,
but in the reviewer's opinion the book fills a gap that has existed
ever since Legouis and Cazamian became outdated, and that was quite
a long time ago. Where it loses in scholarliness and attention to
minute detail it gains in readability and clarity, and the book contains
plenty of interesting leads into further, deeper literary issues. I hope
undergraduates in their first year will now buy this book instead of
Burgess, which has been a favourite with overseas students for some while
and which is, I think, dangerous to those inclined to believe everything
they see in print. They say that actions speak louder than words: I have
ordered it for our library.

Abrams, M. H. et al. *The Norton Anthology of English Literature*. vols
1 and 2. 6th Edition. New York: Norton, 1993

Adams, Robert M. *The Land and Literature of England: A Historical
Account*. New York: Norton, 1986

Baugh, Albert C. and Thomas Cable. *A History of the English Language*.
4th Edition. London: Routledge, 1993

Burgess, Anthony. *English Literature: A Survey for Student*. London:
Longman, 1974

Drabble, Margaret. *The Oxford Companion to English Literature*. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2000

Legouis, Emile and Louis Cazamian. *A History of English Literature*.
Translated by Helen Douglas Irvine, W. D. MacInnes. Revised Edition
London: Dent, 1947

Millward, C. M. *A Biography of the English Language*. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1989

I am Assistant Professor in the Department of Foreign Language Education
at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey. My PhD was a
linguistic investigation of the process of spelling standardisation as
witnessed in mid-seventeenth century texts. While mostly concentrating
on language and linguistics in my research and teaching, I also teach and
publish on English literature. My most recent research publications
include "Oaths, Exclamations and Selected Discourse Markers in Three
Genres" in the European Journal of English Studies (5/2, Aug. 2001) and
"The Influence of Early Monolingual Dictionaries and Word Lists on the
Standardisation of English Spelling" in *Anglia* (forthcoming - any day
now). I suppose most of my research boils down to an interest in how
language is perceived.
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