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MARY KANE and JANE ROBERTS, EDS. Kane from Canada.


Kane from Canada.

Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2016. 284 pp. 45 illustrations, 2 family trees.

This is perhaps an odd book to be reviewed in an academic journal. Despite its cover (Piers with spade from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 104), and its author, the pre-eminent Piers Plowman editor, George Kane, it says almost nothing about editing or Piers or academic life until the last two of the fifteen chapters. In these Kane takes the reader through his academic career from 1946 until his appointment to the Chair at King's College, London in 1965. The book is unfinished in practice (Kane's last teaching was at Chapel Hill 1977 to 1987), but in all important ways, it is finished. It was edited by his daughter, Mary, and his former colleague at King's, Jane Roberts, after Kane's death in 2008 at the age of 92.

As a first-year undergraduate at King's in October 1966, I attended at least one of George Kane's lectures (I was a very poor attendee at all lectures)--at least, only one is memorable to me, and I still empathize with my callow self, incredulous that a whole hour could be spent discussing whether "shepe" meant sheep or shepherd (1. 2 of the Prologue). The decision to review this book was perhaps therefore affected by filial piety, although my personal experience of George Kane was remote and cold--my Ph.D. was supervised, not by him, but by Ron Waldron, who told me recently that Kane passed to him students he had no particular interest in supervising himself. Therefore the fact that I can say, having read this book, that my empathy with George Kane and my respect for him are both immeasurably enhanced, and indeed that my respect for him is immeasurable, is not what I had expected when I first set about reading it.

In fact, the bulk of the book (written for his grandchildren as a record of their origins) deals with Kane's early life in Canada and his experiences as a prisoner of war fighting between 1940 and 1945. Again, that is notasubject to which this reviewer would be naturally drawn. It is, however, very well written, completely enthralling, and utterly honest. George Kane was born in Canada in 1916 and moved to England to work on his Ph.D. in 1938. He enlisted in the British Army (Artists' Rifles) on the outbreak of war in September 1939 and was captured in the defence of Calais the following year. For the next five years he recorded carefully, and then in this book re-examines minutely and with forensic honesty, his experiences, particularly in relation to his homosocial relationships, his own personal character and the intricate details of the attempts, of which he was always part, of himself and his fellow prisoners of war to escape from, respectively, Laufen, Oflag VIB Warburg, Oflag VIIB Eichstatt, and Oflag LXAH Spangenberg.

Kane's resourcefulness and fortitude were most likely established by his paternal ancestry in Ulster, his maternal ancestry in Lutheran Germany, his rural upbringing in Saskatchewan, his close and loving family, and his education by the Benedictine fathers of St Peter's Abbey. These in themselves may explain what the book reveals of a strong sense of duty, a hatred of indolence (in himself more than others), a determination to be usefully occupied, a love of study, a love of the practical outdoors, and a strong companionship with men and strong attraction to women. Since this review must concentrate on those aspects relevant to this Journal, rather than describing the impact of Kane's personal characteristics on his wartime experiences (although these form the most compelling chapters of the book), one can see his life of scholarship in all these traits.

It is clear that Kane the editor came about by chance. He came to England in 1938 to work, as he thought, on a Ph.D. on John Milton with C.J. Sisson at University College, London; passed on by Sisson to R W. Chambers, he looked fruitlessly for a Milton supervisor until Chambers casually directed him towards his own work on Piers Plowman. Thus Kane found himself editing the last three passus of the B text. Interrupted by the war, he was compelled by his dogged sense of duty to complete the thesis (once his materials had been returned from Aberystwyth where they, with the English department, had gone for the duration of the war). Two sentences explain all about Kane as editor of Piers Plowman and as a man: "Over half a century I have from time to time bitterly regretted the luck that put the largest part of the burden of Piers Plowman editing on me, denying me studies that I loved and would have revelled in. But I have never been moved to hold this against Chambers; to have known him enriched my life" (79). In the war years, when books were sent to the prisoner of war camps, Kane read much. In particular he enjoyed reading all three books of the Divina Commedia with a fellow prisoner of war. The book parcel Chambers sent from England (Skeat's EETS Piers Plowman, Jusserand's English Wayfaring Life, Owst's Literature and Pulpit) remained untouched; Piers reminded Kane unhappily of his waiting Ph.D. and was anyway impossible to study without total uninterrupted concentration, and "with the best will in the world I could not force myself to be interested at that time in Jusserand's sturdy beggars and Owst's delinquent religious and mercenary friars" (184). Chambers's kindness ("unquestionably so intended") "should have directed me to examine my life constructively," but instead Kane turned to Candide, Manon Lescaut, Les liaisons dangereuses, and La dame aux camelias.

After the war it was imperative to complete the Ph.D. to salve Kane's conscience for his doctoral support by the Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire, and that was done: "my thesis was slight, and I am not proud of it." His hope had been that with the Ph.D. he "could go back to Canada and my beloved Renaissance" (73). This did not happen, and he remained at UCL. Entirely inexperienced as an assistant lecturer in 1946, he taught himself the gamut of Middle English literature (and some Old English). In particular, at a time when philology was king, he had no philological background. Indeed, while he had loved French as a subject at school, "nothing... had prepared me for the dry-as-dust phonology" of Mildred Pope's From Latin to Modern French, which was used at his university in Canada, Northwestern. (Not that he hated languages, just "dry-as-dustness." His German, for example, had made him one of the "Germans" who were given speaking roles in attempted camp escapes.) His description of the post-war years demonstrates the ease of university life in those far-off days, the academic camaraderie of the few scholars in teaching positions in the few English universities with few students (mostly ex-servicemen and then ex-National Service men), and the chance and lucky happenstance that led people with flats or houses to let and jobs to offer to wish to give the housing and employment to George Kane. (Not just chance--people liked and trusted him.) There was also much time (again in those far off days when administrative duties were light) to work on Piers Plowman, first on the B text, then, when it became obvious that he needed to understand the A text (but the work of its editors, Chambers and J. H. G. Grattan, had lapsed beyond recovery), on the A text.

In 1955, Kane moved to the women's college, Royal Holloway, for ten years, and then, as noted above, to King's for about the same period. His reminiscences of the pleasant college life at Englefield Green, and of the years of his children's upbringing, are charming, and his recollections of colleagues and students are fair but frank--the only criticism is the occasional observation that certain friends and colleagues did not take their research to the stage of publication, a sin for which Kane himself could never be accused, having sacrificed himself for the tedium of editing: "the price has been high, thirty-five years of preoccupation at the expense of time that would otherwise have gone to more lively and exciting literary engagement" (250). Perhaps it is as a literary critic manque that one must understand the editor Kane (for example, "it did not cross my mind that anyone at all well acquainted with the Piers poem could seriously propose that the sorry A text in MS Bodley 851 was an early form of the poem," [252]). The "preoccupation" was, however, alleviated by Kane's meeting with Talbot Donaldson, and the male camaraderie which comes across so clearly in his prisoner of war camp descriptions (and which he admits were partly the reason for his leaving Royal Holloway for King's) made his collaboration with Donaldson a pleasure: "I sacrificed a day with the Dictionary files [he was spending a month in New Haven working through the Middle English Dictionary] and in return acquired a collaborator as well as a lifelong friend" (253). The relationship was collaborative, but Donaldson had no manuscript experience and so became "a quick, apt pupil" (253) and a hard worker to Kane's brief: "The rich intellectual engagement I enjoyed during my twenty-five years of collaboration and association with Donaldson is, in retrospect, some recompense for the unquestionable drudgery of much of the editorial work" (263).

One is glad that George Kane found recompense for the emotional aridity of his scholarship. As his daughter says in her afterword: "His great loves were his immediate family, Canada and fishing, probably in that order" (282). It is clear to the reader of his book that Piers Plowman could not feature anywhere in a list of loves. But, thanks to this autobiography with its scrupulous lack of guile, the strength of George Kane's reputation can now he not only in Piers Plowman, but in his honesty and integrity of character. His daughter's last words in this book are: "He was a father who was hard to like at times but always easy to love, respect and be proud of (284).

Susan Powell, University of Salford (emerita), University of Leeds
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Author:Powell, Susan
Publication:The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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