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This review is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

A STRANGE, TOUGH SPIRIT STEPHEN MEDCALF, The Spirit of England: Selected Essays, edited by Brian Cummings and Gabriel Josipovici (Legenda) £35.50
Stephen Medcalf was a memorable teacher, as his Sussex University students (Ian McEwan, Alan Jenkins and William Golding’s daughter Judy among them) will recall. But in contrast to his close friend and colleague A. D. Nuttall, his teaching was not translated into a phalanx of books. As a writer, he seems to have operated on the taxicab principle identified by Isaiah Berlin; if he was asked to go somewhere, he would do so, and arrive at the required destination by an interesting route; but his longer self-initiated journeys – the books on literary facets of the Bible and on the development of T.S. Eliot’s thought – never came to an end; as one of the editors of this volume, Brian Cummings, recalled in an Independent obituary, the latter project became ‘increasingly Shandyesque’ though it generated ‘dozens of notebooks’. Reading the essays in The Spirit of England, especially the more substantial of them, one regrets the books that might have been, while being grateful for the work that Cummings and Josipovici have assembled here. That work is, as the editors acknowledge in their introduction, necessarily miscellaneous and occasional; it is also of varying quality; but the volume as a whole does convey a sense of a copiously stocked and subtle mind, rich in erudition and insight. The title of the volume, however, makes a larger claim whose application to a collection of well-turned occasional essays might be questioned; it implies that the collection gives access to, not only an individual mind, but ...


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