F.L. Lucas


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

Can a book on style that was first published nearly 50 years ago have any value today? The answer is definitely yes. Lucas was a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and was known for his studies of the Classics as well as English Literature; he was also a poet, a novelist, and a critic. He was thus well qualified to write about style, and his advice has dated surprisingly little. True, he condemns contractions (shan't, won't) in prose, which seem to me to be acceptable in some contexts; but the language has moved further towards informality today. And he says that 'primates' is pronounced differently according to whether it refers to bishops or anthropoid apes; no longer true. But these are minor matters.

For Lucas, style is not something that is added to writing as a kind of decoration; it is simply the effective use of language. And it isn't something you can fake, for the foundation of style is character. Authors give themselves away when they write: a sobering thought. The whole book is, in a sense, an extended meditation on this theme, abundantly illustrated by quotations from a wide variety of sources in different languages, especially French (but translations are provided).

Three successive chapters have the same heading: Courtesy to Readers. The subheadings are Clarity, Brevity and Variety, and Urbanity and Simplicity. Other chapters deal with good humour, sincerity, vitality, simile and metaphor, and the harmony of prose; the final chapter is on methods of writing. Lucas was of course writing before the invention of the word processor, and I suspect he would have disapproved of it (he didn't much care for the typewriter). Yet he favoured the view that one should write quickly and then revise extensively, which the computer is ideally suited for. On the other hand, he warned against writing a first draft so quickly and carelessly that it needs to be not merely polished, but totally recast. It is sometimes curiously difficult, he says, to obliterate the memory of a piece that has been started on the wrong lines and begin afresh. I agree with this from my own experience.

One of the best features of Lucas's book is that he writes with style himself. A few examples:

  • (On writers who try to be too clever): I draw the conclusion that it is wiser to use one's mind as telescope, or microscope, or magic crystal, than as a looking-glass; and I would suggest that it is foolish to take singing-lessons from peacocks.

  • Many writers, especially of an academic or aesthetic kind (and never more than today), seem to me to stultify themselves because they are neither clever enough to be brilliant, nor honest enough to be simple. Were they translated into Basic English*, it would often become evident that they had said nothing to the purpose, and had nothing to the purpose to say.

  • (On prolixity): Why do people write or talk like this? Mainly, I suppose, because any abundance of words, thoughts, or knowledge may tempt its possessors to abuse it. They enjoy functioning.

  • Really dead metaphors, like really dead nettles, cannot sting; but often the metaphors are only half dead; and these need careful handling.

  • A clear word is like a finger-post pointing straight at its object; but our abstract terms are too often like signposts with many arms, some broken, some twisted, some half-effaced, pointing into a fog.

  • Those who chase originality… are more likely to find they have caught instead her ugly sister eccentricity…

Lucas's book has had a considerable influence on my own style, such as it is. My copy is foxed and threatening to distintegrate, but if it ever does so I shall make great efforts to track down a replacement. It's a book that I reread every few years.

*A now largely obsolete simplified subset of regular English, intended as an auxillary language and as an aid to teaching English as a second language.

%T Style
%A Lucas, F.L.
%I Cassell
%C London
%D 1964
%P 252 pp
%O Paperback; originally published 1955
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