The Lent Term course on 18th century English Literature was not going well. No one seemed keen on the Augustan age. One lecturer assured us that ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ was the only poem by Dryden worth reading; the speaker on Swift got hopelessly bogged down in the Battle of the Books, and Derek Todd, lecturing on Pope, broke off in mid-sentence and announced, his face contorted into a memorable grimace, ‘I fear I’ve been grappling with the problem of satire for far too long.’
This was Durham, 1969, my second year reading English there. Towards the end of the term few of us were still putting ourselves through the weekly agony of the course. But then everything changed. Ruth Etchells (whose death occurred last month but whose obituary I only read in The Guardian yesterday) gave a memorable lecture on Robinson Crusoe. It was a masterclass, both on lecturing itself and on a novel most of us had never thought of taking seriously before that moment. She began with the idea that making huts, dens, camps – creating secret kingdoms – is a profound childhood instinct, a fantasy of adulthood created by children. She explored with us the reasons why Defoe’s novel appealed to young readers, and even looked at the way the novel had been adapted as a Ladybird book. Disillusioned no longer, we were hooked. And once she had hooked us, Ruth reeled us in with an exhilarating discussion of the imagery of the novel, and then of its significant contrasts: a book, she argued, that turned a desert island idyll into a tory treatise on middle-class social self-reliance. She showed us how the narrative worked. It was the sort of analysis we were learning to admire in The English Novel: Form and Function, Dorothy van Ghent’s guide to English fiction we all bought, and bought into.
Ruth was one of those lecturers, rare at any time, worth listening to whatever their subject. And her seminars were never those slightly awkward events where one or two eager speakers hog the discussions and everyone else hangs back: she involved us all, and made each of us feel our ideas mattered and were worth her serious reflection. She never condescended. I remember her classes on E.M. Forster, and the later conversations on A Passage to India she invited one or two of us to continue back at her flat at Trevelyan College. She loved Forster’s novels and his essays, and gave me a perspective on his importance I have never lost.
We knew some of her colleagues in the English Department disparaged her: hadn’t she come to higher education via school teaching and teacher education? And wasn’t her best-selling book, Unafraid to Be (1969) not strictly academic, a book unashamedly approaching modern writers from a Christian perspective? Actually, her ability to lecture on very recent literature - Pinter, Golding, Hughes, as well as to champion writers like Charles Williams already going out of fashion - showed a blend of imaginative and scholarly engagement with literature we admired in her and missed in her contemporaries. To hear her talk, and to talk with her, about writers and writing was to be convinced that literature mattered profoundly, and never just as an academic exercise.
By my third year at Durham, I knew I wanted to stay on to do research before starting to teach, but doubted I could afford to. Ruth persuaded me to take my PGCE first and then start my M.A, if I could get funding for it. She would supervise me for both years, even though my research (in those days at Durham a Master’s degree was by thesis only) was technically just for twelve months. I wanted to work on Ezra Pound’s early poetry, but wasn’t sure what approach to take. Characteristically, she suggested too many people were working on Pound just then and that I should choose a road less travelled. How about one of the Imagist poets, she asked, since to write about Imagism would still mean writing about Pound? That was how I came to study Richard Aldington, of whom no one in the British literary establishment had anything good to say at that time and on whom no one else in Britain was working at all. Ruth taught me the importance of approaching everything I read with an open mind. ‘We’ll work on him together,’ she said, and we did. I have never regretted my choice.
By the time I officially began my M.A., with the help of a State Studentship that made me self-supporting for a year, my preparation for the research was already well under way. We met once a fortnight to discuss Aldington’s poetry and once a month to submit my latest chapter (hand-written and carbon-copied; I had no typewriter) to her strict but always cheerful scrutiny.
What I learned from Ruth in that year became the foundation for much I have gone on to do since. When Ezra Pound died in November 1972, she suggested I write a 15-minute talk on him and send it to the Third Programme. The BBC turned it down but the producer wrote me a letter encouraging me to keep writing about writers. And later in the year, she arranged for me to give a lecture - at the end of a course on modern writers - on the poetry of Basil Bunting , whom I had got to know well while he had been Northern Arts Poetry Fellow at Durham. This was the first lecture I ever gave. I had an audience of twelve, mostly friends who had turned up out of loyalty or for a laugh; only towards the end did I realise Ruth too had slipped into the Elvet Riverside lecture theatre and was smiling in the back row.
‘That’s just the beginning,’ she said. And she wasn’t wrong.
[Illustration: Ruth Etchells’ book Unafraid To Be, (IVP 1969)