Sunday, June 23, 2013

More on G. S. G.

So, I meant to make a second post re. the Tolkien references in Geo. Gordon's LETTERS and biography, then got too caught up in other things to make good on that. Accordingly, now that I have a quiet moment, thought I'd get back to that.

First, from THE LIFE OF GEORGE S. GORDON 1881-1942, by M. C. G. [=Mary C. Gordon, Mrs. G.S.G.], 1945:

[Chapter] Six 1919-1922

The years after his return to Leeds were full of activity. By 1920 he had almost recovered his health [from his wartime exhaustion and subsequent long  illness*], except for the occasional recurrences of fever, and he was deep in plans for the development and improvement of the English School . . . The number of graduate and undergraduate students attending courses in his Department increased from 116 to 263. He created a new and prosperous Honours School . . . It grew rapidly until it became the largest Honours School in English Literature outside Oxford, the number of those reading in it increasing from seven to sixty-nine. This, it was considered, was due to his personality, and to his constant interest in the work and fortunes of the English school. 

An increase of staff became an urgent necessity. G. H. Cowling, now a Professor in the University of Melbourne, was already on the English staff. Gordon chose his new colleagues well, and soon led a strong team. Two of his old pupils in Oxford were the first to come as lecturers -- R. Knox, now a Professor in Toronto, and Herbert Davis, who became, a few years ago, President of Smith College in the U.S.A.  They were presently joined by J. R. R. Tolkien as a Reader in English Language: he now holds the Chair of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford.   E. V. Gordon, who also came as a lecturer in English Language, later became Professor in that subject in Leeds. It was a very happy community; -- 'not so much staff', said G.S.G., 'as a Club!'  And the work went well.

(p. 67; I've introduced the paragraph break to make the long passage more readable)

*shades of JRRT!

Second, THE LETTERS OF GEORGE S. GORDON 1902-1942 (ed. M.C.G., 1943) is much more forthcoming, with several references.

(1) [?May or June 1920; GSG to C. T. Onions]
"I have now a staff of 4 instead of 2: all good. And I may take Tolkien** from you: but only, I hope, to give him leisure to do texts. On the other hand, having thought it necessary, after 5 years' absence [i.e., due to wartime service and illness], not to appear to avoid University business, I find myself, as I was telling Raleigh,*** not only God's Own Head of a Department, but Dean of the Faculty, Chairman of the Board of Arts, a Member of Council, O/C O.T.C., President of the Association of University Teachers, etc., etc., --

**"J. R. R. Tolkien became one of my husband's colleagues in the English School at leeds: later professor of Anglo-Saxon in Oxford." [Mrs. Gordon's note]

***i.e., Prof. Walter Raleigh of Oxford.

-- the interesting thing here is that the reason given for Tolkien's leaving the OED here is to allow him time to publish, and he did indeed over the next few years publish the MIDDLE ENGLISH VOCABULARY, his edition of SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (w. EVG), and worked on THE CLARDENDON CHAUCER (w. GSG).

(2) 25 July 1920, GSG to MCG, from Magdalen College, Oxford
"The Chapmans are delightfully kind . . . D.N.S.**** is dining with me here to-night. Saw Tolkien. I lunch with him on Tuesday. Also Onions, who hailed me from a bus: and almost leaped off the roof, but finally decided (with the speed of thought) to descend the stairs. I like him more every time I see him."

**** = David Nichol Smith

(3)   18 October 1921, GSG to DNS [David Nichol Smith]
"I am overwhelmed here with students, and have now an Honours School of nearly 120. I hope to prune it at Christmas. A committee has been appointed to see what can be one to find me Seminar accommodation, and I am urged to an increase of staff. Two more will be necessary: one a mature scholar if I can get him: a man of Readership or Tolkien standard in 'the other humanities'. 

-- here the interesting thing is Gordon's hoping to find "a man of . . . Tolkien standard" to supplement his staff alongside Tolkien himself, wh. suggests considerable satisfaction in the job Tolkien was doing.

(4) 29 October 1921, GSG to DNS
"Tolkien suggested a graduate called Gordon [i.e., E. V. Gordon], --at present B-Litting. His name is a disadvantage, but we could get over that. Do you know anything about him?

The rapid development of our Honours Schools, and more especially of my own, which is the extreme case, is being considered, and if an increase of staff is thought necessary, I should have authority to recruit my 2 men by the end of this term . . . 

[F. P.] Wilson of Birmingham, now with you, is the type for the senior post; and of course it is rare. I should be very glad of suggestions here. 

[Herbert] Davis will probably go to Toronto next session: which will mean another vacancy. I can't speak too highly of Davis's whole performance here.

-- the takeaway here is the role Tolkien played in getting EVG his Leeds job, which I had been previously unaware of. Reminds me a bit of the role Tolkien played in getting his friend C. S. Lewis the Cambridge post thirty-plus years later.

(5) 12 June 1923, GSG to H.D. [=?Herbert Davis], from Oxford
I don't go to Leeds till the 25th. This is sad news about Tolkien -- his illness; but E.V. says he's safe now, and pulling through.

-- as I've previously written about a few days ago, this was the passage that made me realize just how close Tolkien came to dying that summer of 1923, and how near we came to not having THE HOBBIT or THE LORD OF THE RINGS or even THE QUENTA.

So, there it is: not much material, but it rounds out some corners and provides a few suggestive glimpses into a period of Tolkien's life and career about which we know relatively little.

--John R
current reading: ORIENTAL TALES by Marguerite Yourcenar

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