Kane from Canada
Late in life, George Kane (1916–2008) set about writing the story of his life for his grandchildren, but he got no further than 1965. The memoir has at its centre Kane’s account of ‘the German war’ or ‘Hitler’s war’ – for his generation the First World War was still the ‘World War’ or the ‘Great War’. In the second year of his PhD at University College London, Kane enlisted in the British army (commissioned February 1940 and serving until 1946). He took part in the defence of Calais, where he was badly wounded and captured by the Germans. For most of the Second World War he was a prisoner of war, a period that fills over half the pages of the book. Whereas many have written exciting tales centred on escape and adventure, he gives a rounded picture of what day-to-day life was like and how it was endured. He was of course involved in escape attempts, as was to be expected of any self-respecting officer, but years were spent in a succession of camps. At Laufen he worked his way through Tauchnitz fiction reprints. Later, in Spangenberg, he schooled himself through great French novels systematically and while there he set about learning Italian well enough to read Dante. At Spangenberg he glimpsed near his bedside the photograph of a fellow prisoner’s sister, the girl he was to meet back in London in the spring of 1945 and to marry in June 1946 – a marriage that lasted for 62 years. But looking back on those war years, Kane writes: ‘one of the most horrifying experiences of the war, indeed of my life’, was ‘the newsreel of the first concentration camp liberated by British troops’ and, as he tells us, that newsreel put an end to his ‘self-pity about captivity’.
The early chapters tell of how his family came to be in Canada and of his early years in Saskatchewan. He grew up on a farm, attending the nearby Benedictine school, St Peter’s College, where his final year was also his first undergraduate year (University of Saskatchewan). From there he went on to the University of British Columbia, graduating with first class honours in English and Latin in 1937, then to Toronto for his M.A. and on to Northwestern, which he left only because he had been awarded an Imperial Order of Daughters of the Empire two-year graduate scholarship for 1938-40. He arrived in London eager to get on with a thesis-topic he had already mapped out on Milton, after which he would return to Canada, but was derailed into working on Langland under R. W. Chambers. After the war, he returned to London to finish his PhD, and for what remains of the memoir he taught in University College and in Royal Holloway. Thus the memoir ends at the point where his edition of PPl A had gained wide praise, his Piers Plowman: the Evidence for Authorship (1965) was to quash the issue of authorship for the next couple of decades, and the Chambers Memorial Lecture of the same year confronted ‘The autobiographical fallacy in Chaucer and Langland studies’, complementing his analysis of the evidence for multiple authorship of PPl. He was about to move to King’s College London, and thereafter years lay ahead in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For scholars of L, chapter 6, 13–15 are essential reading. Here they will learn about Skeat, Chambers and many more of the important editors, of how the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ editions came about, and of how a specialist in late renaissance literature came to acknowledge L and Chaucer ‘in their combination of similarities and differences the best company a man could wish for’. The book includes (pp. xxix–xxxviii) an assessment of Kane’s scholarship by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, like him a Canadian and Langlandian.