SIR: According to Peter Gwyn (LRB, 20 December 1984), J.J. Scarisbrick’s The Reformation and the English People is ‘good, perhaps very good’ because it was written ‘for the simple, old-fashioned reason that its author was passionately interested in imparting his views’. So I believe (writing on the same subject as Professor Scarisbrick) was Abbot Gasquet and one wonders why anybody has bothered to improve on his account. By this criterion Heinrich Denifle wrote the best book on Martin Luther. And so on. The list of ‘good, perhaps very good’ history books could be extended indefinitely. As Sir John Seeley wrote in the 19th century: ‘No heart is pure which is not passionate.’ But as for me, I shall try to write new-fashioned, dispassionate, impure history.
Department of History, University of Sheffield
SIR: What I wrote about ‘plain English’ – my ‘first thousand words or so’, as Christopher Norris calls them (Letters, 24 January) – was my response to Peter Davison and Bernard Crick, not to Norris. His book reached me, as you know, some weeks later. In any case, I am pleased that he agrees with me on the rhetoric of Orwell’s style. My main disappointment with Norris’s book is that it is old hat: it doesn’t add anything, so far as it attacks Orwell, to the case against him which Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton and other critics variously on the Left have been maintaining for years. Norris’s trot through Deconstruction is also beside the point. I have read his two books on that subject, and reviewed one of them, so there is no need for me to accompany him round that course again. ‘There is, after all, an historical truth of the matter,’ he claims, the matter being the Spanish Civil War. And he refers to Orwell’s ‘falsification of history’ and his ‘extreme partiality of viewpoint’. These phrases claim that a true and impartial account of the war is available and that Norris is in possession of it. All I would say then is: fine; bring forward the truth, and let readers measure the degree of Orwell’s alleged distortion. ‘I criticise Althusserian theory,’ Norris says, ‘for its pretence of effortlessly rising above mere contingencies of “lived” historical experience.’ It is silly of Norris to refer to this criticism as his own: it is of course E.P. Thompson’s.
SIR: Geoffrey Hartman is well known to prefer literary theorising to the arduous and tiresome business of actually reading and responding to literary texts. Nonetheless it is astonishing – and even though he is a Professor of English at Yale – to find him attributing to Hopkins two of T.S. Eliot’s most famous lines: ‘The intolerable wrestle / With words and meanings’ (LRB, 24 January). Apart from a knowledge of Four Quartets which one would have thought could be taken for granted, it is inconceivable that Hopkins should have ever written those lines. Perhaps there is something to be said for Practical Criticism. I should add that there is nothing in Raymond O’Malley’s article in The Leavises, which Hartman is purportedly paraphrasing, to indicate that he is guilty of so gross a misattribution.
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
The Queen’s Flight
SIR: Now that the exact facts about Agatha Christie’s celebrated disappearance have been made clear in Janet Morgan’s biography (LRB, 6 December 1984), the spurious mystery surrounding their explanation, which has eluded all the book’s reviewers, your own included, appears more tiresome than ever. The desire to maintain it seems nothing more than a feeble conceit of the ‘mystery of a mystery writer’ kind. And it is clear, from the crass ingenuousness T.J. Binyon derides in Miss Morgan, that we shall gain scant illumination from that source. Agatha Christie was a classic victim of unresolved loss. Her father died when she was 11 – notoriously the worst age for a child to lose a parent. Her mother’s morbid preservation of, so to speak, the memento mori (down even to the last piece of soap used by her husband) suggests how little she came to terms with the loss, let alone provided the necessary reassurance for her children. A quarter of a century passes and what happens in the year of the bizarre disappearance? First the mother dies, thus reactivating the mood of the unresolved loss. Then, scarcely has Agatha emerged from the dismal business of clearing out the family house with all its memories than husband Archie comes out with the news that he’s fallen in love with another woman! Loss, reactivated loss, and now compounded by the threat of yet another loss. Flesh and blood may not be the principal qualities we associate with Agatha Christie’s characters, but they certainly existed for their author, who was after all only human: and this was more than they could bear. Flight was essential. It is only astonishing that it did not include suicide – though perhaps the accident with the car was a halfhearted attempt at it.
Clearly, then, this was the crisis point; and she negotiated it, if only just. But that the underlying sense of loss remained unexorcised is equally evident from everything that followed: she went on trying to make up the loss she had sustained so early in life. Why does death feature so crucially – obsessively – in her work? Why does the mystery surrounding it always have to be explained? Why does she allow of no ambiguity, insisting that every detail be worked out? Why, above all, does she feel the need to write, in another guise, romantic novels divorced, not just from real life (all her books are that), but even from the reality born of that morbid fascination with death that made of so guileless a personality the adored Queen of Crime?
Lord Hervey’s Mistresses
SIR: Since there’s no accounting for taste, A.J.P. Taylor, in one of his more distressing columns (and they’ve been increasing lately), is entitled to his belief that there can ‘be no more satisfactory novel’ than Arnold Bennett’s Riceyman Steps (LRB, 6 December 1984). That the judgment strikes me, for instance, as analogous to boasting about the tallest building in, say, Wichita, Kansas is beside the point. But what are we to make of his egregious comments on Lord Hervey?
First of all, will someone please tell the good professor that he’s been ‘struggling’, not with Lord Hervey’s diaries, but his Memoirs and if this sounds like nit-picking to him ask him to translate the following: ‘There are some curiosities in his [Lord Hervey’s] record all the same. The most remarkable is the number of regular mistresses kept by the King and by nearly all the members of the Court. The Queen did not lag behind,’ In what? Mistresses? Does Taylor know something Lord Hervey didn’t? At least there’s no mention in the text of this calumny. Professor Taylor may join, if he chooses, that dubious minority that finds Lord Hervey lacking in wit or even doubts his ability to write, but at least the gentleman could read.
Princeton, New Jersey
SIR: In 1986 Chatto and Windus plan to publish the first in a series of poetry books which will contain selections of work by six new writers whose poems have not previously been collected. May I ask all those who wish to submit poems for consideration to send them to me? Submissions should arrive not later than 1 July 1985.
Poetry Editor, Chatto and Windus, London
SIR: For a biography of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), motion-picture actor, producer, director, writer and composer, I would appreciate hearing from anyone who knew or worked with him and has information or documents that might be of use.
16 Francis Avenue, Cambridge, Massachusetts 03138
‘Not So Quiet’
SIR: We should be grateful to hear from any of your readers who could help us trace the copyright-holder or literary estate of Helen Smith, author of Not So Quiet … Stepdaughters of War, published by Albert Marriott, London in 1930.
Virago Press, 41 William IV Street, London WC2
SIR: Like Sally (Letters, 6 December 1984), I loved Rover’s letter (Letters, 15 November 1984). Sally will in time, no doubt, learn to read and write. Her mistress, who thinks Sally is dyslexic, should take lessons from my master, who, with the aid of his computers, has been able to tolatly eminilate fenile dyxlesia.
Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia, Vancouver