LRB Cover

Send letters to:

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London WC1A 2HN
letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and work and home telephone numbers.

Letters


Sister-Sister

‘Is she queer? – Is she prudish?’ These are not quotations from contenders in the brouhaha over Jane Austen’s sexuality. They are questions the rakish Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park asks as he wonders about the nerdiest of all heroines, Fanny Price. The erotic charm that makes other women in that novel yield one after another to Henry’s desire fails to make a dent on this mousy and withdrawn girl. Stymied, Henry wonders whether pathology or propriety accounts for her indifference to his allure. Is something wrong with her (is she odd, out of sorts, cold, and thus abnormally resistant to normal heterosexual seduction)? Or is something wrong with him (are his multiple and serial flirtations immoral, thus deserving the censure this unusually but not abnormally upright young lady levels against them)?

Since everyone cares about Jane Austen, and since Woolf was right in opining that people resent slurs on her genius as though they were insults offered to the chastity of their maiden aunts, I hope the public will forgive me for protracting the debate long enough, I hope, to clarify it. Henry Crawford’s sense that Fanny is queer or prudish also describes two contending traditions of Austenian reception that have prevailed since the mid-19th century, and that have clashed here over the past several weeks. Those adhering to the elegiac tradition are pleased to believe Austen gives us a reassuringly orthodox world perfectly sufficient to its own forms and rituals, where nothing too out of the ordinary ever occurs. Pressing fantasies about the wholesome serenity of Regency England into the service of nostalgic yearnings after intelligibility, such readers typically place Austen before the advent of such ills as industrialisation, world war, dubiety, and all of modernity’s (other) unseemly progeny: feminism, homosexuality, masturbation. In her novels, men are obviously gentlemen, women are obviously ladies, and the desires of gentlemen and ladies for each other are obviously complementary, mutually fulfilling, and above all inevitable.

Now, like most Austenians (Castle included, I dare say), I am incalculably indebted to B.C. Southam’s scholarship, and he is free to enjoy Austen as he wishes (Letters, 7 September). But when he asserts, ‘Discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are notable for their rarity, largely, one suspects, because they have so little to do with the way we read the novels,’ he is flying in the face of another, anti-normative tradition, much of which he himself has diligently compiled in his Critical Heritage volumes. Austen has been suspected of sexual abnormality for a good long time, though this abnormality has been given different content at different times. Charlotte Brontë is perhaps the first and most famous to link the perfection of Austen’s novels – her attention to ‘the surface of the lives of genteel English people’ – to a reprehensible sexual chilliness, to a lack of interest in ‘what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through’. Although Lionel Trilling attributed the ‘feral’ animosity of Twain and R. W. Garrod to ‘man’s panic fear at a fictional world in which the masculine principle, although represented as admirable and necessary, is prescribed and controlled by a female mind’, his explanation misrepresents such animosity as a conflict between the sexes, when it is really a conflict about sexuality. At least, it is not because she is a woman with a woman’s point of view that Garrod, Lawrence and Brontë deplore her, but because she is a woman who does not particularly privilege the representation of sexual passion with men in her fiction (Garrod takes particular umbrage at Austen’s quip, ‘Admiral Stanhope is a gentlemanlike man, but then his legs are too short and his tail too long’). Thus Lawrence decried ‘this old maid’ for typifying ‘the sharp knowing in apartness’; and George Sampson complained: ‘In her world there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, but just the make-believe mating of dolls … Jane Austen is abnormal … because [her characters] have no sex at all.’

But perhaps people won’t be satisfied until they see the 1-word. Once a discourse of psychosexual pathology was ready at hand, Austen’s ‘abnormality’ was perceived not as frigidity, or as hostility towards men, but as lesbianism tout court. Marvin Mudrick explicitly states that Emma Woodhouse – a heroine like Austen herself in her fear of commitment, her coldness, her need to dominate – is ‘in love’ with Harriet Smith. In stating as much, Mudrick himself acknowledges the work of Edmund Wilson, whose ‘A Long Talk about Jane Austen’ (1944) argued that Emma’s off-stage lesbianism is that ‘something outside the picture which is never made explicit in the story but which has to be recognised by the reader before it is possible for him to appreciate the book’. Nor does Wilson’s blissfully cogent and uncensorious essay baulk before the subject of sisterly passion, effortlessly agreeing with many that the most passionate relationship in Austen’s novels is between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and implying that Austen’s own deep intimacy with Cassandra was its model.

If these are not ‘discussions of sexuality’ which bear critically on our readings of Austen’s novels, what are they, chopped liver? Castle’s views are neither singular nor ephemeral. One of the biggest open secrets of the literate world, after all, is that Austen is a cult author for many gays and lesbians, and an unwillingness to acknowledge this would seem to confirm Castle’s sense that she has polluted some shrine. But like it or not (I do), not only her detractors but also her admirers have suspected that the heteronormative ‘passions’ were, in Charlotte Brontë’s words, ‘entirely unknown’ to Austen not because she was such a good girl, but because in some secret, perhaps not fully definable way, she was so bad.

Claudia Johnson
Princeton University

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, might provide Brian Southam and the Jane Austen Society with an example of sister-sister ‘marriage’. In that novel, Willoughby, whom Marianne near-fatally loves, is a walking lightning-bolt of specious glamour – not mad, nor wholly bad, but weak, corrupt and dangerous to know. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, whom Elinor and Marianne eventually marry (one apiece), are decent, solid, stolid, safe and unreconstructably dull. These men embody extremes. Between them no happy medium is to be found, no equivalent to Mr Darcy, say, as glittering as the one, as upright as the others.

Perhaps the gap is not filled by a man because Elinor and Marianne fill it. Marianne, for all her extravagant and vulnerable sensibility, is not without sense. Elinor, sensible to the point of self-punishment sometimes, is alive with reined-in sensibility. The sisters present a romantic and Platonic image as the complementary halves of a single whole, true twain, concordant one. Theirs, for all the strains brought to bear on it by themselves and their claustrophobic circumstances, is a marriage of true minds – platonic as well as Platonic, nothing at all to do with the masked or unconscious homoeroticism that might be induced by the warmth of the sisterly shared bed of Terry Castle’s imagining – far more intimate, inward and passionate than any other described by the novel, a marriage to which no impediment could or should be admitted were it not that in Austen’s world a single woman may best survive, if she’s lucky, by giving herself in marriage to that single man in possession of a good fortune who must be in want of a wife. At the end of Sense and Sensibility, Marianne is judged to be in want of a husband and, in short order, married off to one – by her own sister; by her own author.

J. Woolley
North Yorkshire


Breaking-Up

It is truncating my article to the point of distortion to suggest as Tam Dalyell does (Letters, 21 September) that it assumes most Scots ‘now want the break-up of Britain’. No such assumption or statement appears there. What the majority certainly appears to want is a degree of collective responsibility for its own affairs – approximately along the lines now advocated by Dalyell’s own Labour Party, and quite likely to be implemented after the next election. This is what he really detests, not an imaginary heresy in a book review. Here Dalyell’s view has been unchanging over the twenty years since his opposition to devolution – ‘the slippery slope’ – in the Seventies. Setting up even a semi-detached Scottish democracy will be unworkable, Dalyell believes, and any version of home rule must lead to break-up.

He is ‘Jeremiahing that Britain would become like Yugoslavia’. The only way to get across such a crazed suggestion is to deny one is making it. An additional discomfort of aligning Mother Russia with Mother Britain is that the Tory tabloids do this kind of thing far better. The same applies to his remarks about the Sociology Department of Edinburgh University, which may have befogged some LRB readers. The Department’s ‘European and international reputation’ needs no elaborate defence from me. The relevant point here is that it has for some years been running courses dealing with the sociology of nationalism, and recently regrouped its efforts at postgraduate level as ‘Nationalism Studies’. But Dalyell (like the Mail and the Express) sees such academic activity as indistinguishable from the SNP recruiting or running a Braveheart appreciation club. In the Sixties Conservatives saw sociologists as the maggots of moral decay and anarchy. Now they think sociologists are colluding with Scottish Nationalism too. Scandalous waste of public funds etc.

The only scandal visible to me is that of a Scottish Labour MP so incorrigibly hostile to the extension of democracy in Scotland. Non-Westminster (i.e. non-élite) democracy is the real issue here, not nationalism. No one wants the Scots ‘lurching into a break-up situation’. The point of having a parliament will be to avoid lurching by making rational decisions. I am hardly alone in having come to think that a democratically elected Scottish Parliament should assume the right to make the momentous decisions Dalyell is concerned about: staying in or leaving the UK, or the European Union. For example, were such a body to decide (like its 1707 ancestor) on dissolving itself again, I mightn’t like it but I would accept it. But would Dalyell accept the alternative – a return to statehood, or the difficult construction of a new federative UK system? Obviously not: they will say or do anything to prevent the possibility of such a decision ever being made.

There is no pseudo-ethnic problem of ‘the English in Scotland’. There is, however, the genuine problem well expressed in Dalyell’s letter: that of the diminishing but still influential number of unrepentant and inflexible British Nationalists in Scotland (most of them Scots).

Tom Nairn
Sociology Department


In Praise of Ulster Scots

Tom Paulin, in his Diary (LRB, 24 August), notices what is hard to miss in Northern Ireland these days, when he mentions the media campaign pushing certain ‘feelgood’ aspects of the ‘peace process’, with its images of tourist beauty-spots and playing children, and its Van Morrison soundtrack. Like Paulin, I am uneasy about the assumptions behind a campaign like this, and find the television ads almost impossible to stomach. But Paulin has missed out on a vital nuance: the sign-off line for each ad (and the catchphrase for the whole corny campaign) is indeed Van Morrison’s line from ‘Coney Island’, but the Diary’s version of this – ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’ – is a misquotation, and loses much of the effect. What Van the Man actually says is ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?’: the ‘great’ has its full Belfast ‘gree-at’, and the whole phrase carries a vividly Northern Irish intonation. I’ve been trying to say, ‘Why can’t it be like this all the time?’ in a Belfast accent, but somehow it’s just not the same – it’s English-sounding in some odd, remote way. ‘Why can’t it …’ was a pretty unusual construction when I was a wee lad, at least.

It’s entertaining to read elsewhere in the Diary about Paulin’s weirdly Yeatsian encounter with an old man of the hills, whose ‘soul sings’ in Ulster Scots, a language which seems to link us with the poetry and ideas of 1798 and all that: the whole scene is touchingly romantic. Even so, it’s hard to thole Paulin’s sleekit poke at Michael Longley’s use of Ulster Scots words in The Ghost Orchid: ‘a calculated over-determined quality to the language’? This has a familiar ring, since it’s pretty much what many readers of Paulin’s poetry (and especially readers from Northern Ireland) have said about his own ventures into the vernacular, which are sometimes just a wee bit wobbly. Are there approved and non-approved users of Ulster Scots? Maybe this explains Paulin’s dark suspicion that Longley might be taking the piss, though the case might be more persuasive if he came out with this in plainer terms. As for hints about Longley’s ‘deft parnassian’, such shorthand (which compresses, I think, a seriously inaccurate judgment) needs to be backed up by something like a real critical argument – as Paulin knows.

Peter McDonald
English Department

As the ‘old man’ (I have just staggered past my 64th birthday) referred to by Tom Paulin and as compiler of the forthcoming Ulster-Scots dictionary to which he also refers, I must correct a couple of inaccuracies in his account of what was said on the moss at Slemish (I was there mainly to provide a dialectal account of the cutting and winning of peats). His list of bird names contains several not provided by me for rural Antrim (though well-known elsewhere and especially in the coastal areas of Down); and the words ‘my soul sings in it’ have never, I swear by Saint Patrick, been uttered by me (though I understand they were used by Philip Robinson of the Ulster-Scots Language Society in a separate interview).

Such slips are probably inevitable when extensive notes are hurriedly taken over a short, hectic period. However, a full explanation should possibly take account of Tom’s revelation that (perhaps unmindful of the risk to his poetic licence) he had consumed Powers in David Hammond’s house on the previous evening, since only the mightiest of stimulants could have enabled him also to roll two great hills (Divis and Black Mountain) into one and to shift Garvaghy from Portadown to Lisburn. Whatever the reason, nothing could take away from the pleasure and privilege of sharing the company of a distinguished poet and scholar.

Finally, I should point out to readers interested in the Ulster Scots poetry of James Orr and his contemporaries that much of its language, sadly, would today be largely alien to those for whom Ulster Scots is still their first tongue.

Jim Fenton
Newtonabbey, Co. Antrim


Find Your Level

Harold Dorn (Letters, 7 September) takes issue with comments I made on the scientific and political claims of sociobiology in my review of E.O. Wilson’s autobiography. His argument, as I understand it, is that: 1. neither Wilson nor any other sociobiologist offers reductionist explanations of social phenomena in terms of genetics or physics; 2. there is no metaphysical or philosophical analysis that can legitimately be made of scientific claims, so that the question of whether complex systems can be reductively explained is a matter of empirical enquiry; 3. hence my critique of sociobiology is more political than either scientific or philosophical.

To deal with Dorn’s points in order. 1. The clearest-cut reductive statements I have ever heard come from James Watson: ‘In the last analysis there is only one science, physics. There are only atoms; everything else is social work.’ I agree that Wilson would not put it in quite such triumphant terms, but I challenge anyone to read the opening pages of Sociobiology without drawing this inference. 2. Are levels of complexity ontological or epistemological? Dorn ducks this question by equating levels of complexity with different scientific disciplines, whose history interweaves the ontological and the epistemological. There are nearly as many meanings encased within the term ‘level’ as philosophers once found in Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’. But if Dorn really believes that there is nothing more to be understood about the two paragraphs that make up his letter than an analysis of the printer’s ink of which the black marks are composed and the paper on which they are printed, then I feel he might as well cancel his subscription to the LRB forthwith, for reading can have no meaning for him. 3. My critique of sociobiology is in fact simultaneously philosophical, scientific and political. Philosophical because I believe the logic of sociobiology is flawed in important respects; scientific because sociobiology’s framing paradigm often leads to inappropriate questions being asked about the world of living systems, and as a student of animal brains and behaviour, I find this regrettable. I tried to show why in my review. As for politics, it is sociobiology’s protagonists, not its opponents, who opened the debate by making claims as to its relevance to human affairs.

Steven Rose
Open University


Old Gravy

Mark Ford (LRB, 7 September) speaks interestingly of Robert Graves’s line of 1945, ‘There is one story and one story only,’ while showing no awareness of its earlier history in Laura (Riding) Jackson’s thought and published work. See, for instance, her remarkable early story-sequence Progress of Stories, with its prefatory observation that ‘there is only one subject, and it is impossible to change it.’ Or see her poem ‘Disclaimer of the Person’ – its original version was hand-printed in 1933 by the equal partners Riding and Graves on their Albion at the Seizin Press:

There is one thing to say only.
There is one thing only.

Or:

The name is the one word only.
The one word only is the one thing only.
The one thing only is the word which says.

The human validity of ‘one story’ still requires protection from Graves’s memorable but regressive nonce-use. Such a haven is provided by Mrs Jackson in The Telling (1972), a quietly measured statement of her dedication to that true ‘one story’ which, however little honoured yet, comprehends everyone’s. I commend the entire book – its author’s ‘personal evangel’ – for impartial reading.

While it may or may not be true that Graves’s own ‘patterns of gender relation’, as Mr Ford puts it, reveal ‘a crassly stereotyped and cramping polarisation’, the attitudes exemplified in Graves’s Man Does, Woman Is book-title and poem, of 1964, have, among their several un-remarked Riding origins, a particularly identifiable one in a book originally addressed to one of Graves’s daughters (then aged eight), Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1930):

And, dear Catherine, this is the way the world is. Only a small part of the doings in it are done for comfort or fun. The rest is just showing-off. The greatest showers-off and busy-bodies are men. And so this world is ruled by men, because it is a world not of doing but overdoing. A world of simple doing would need no ruling. It takes really very little doing to keep comfortably and happily alive. We ought not to pay much more attention to doing man to breathing.

And another, from the mid-Thirties, in The Word ‘Woman’:

When a woman meets another woman she knows what she is, in a way in which she cannot immediately know what any man is, or a man any other man: she knows that the other woman is a woman; whereas with a man the question of What is he? can only be answered by saying what he does – what particular kind of activity he represents.

The weirdest of Mr Ford’s biographer-engendered assertions is that Riding ‘later claimed’ to have ‘invented the notion of the White Goddess’. In the soaring 1938 preface to her Collected Poems, Riding – least backward-looking of writers – explicitly rejects the validity, for poets of her time, of myth-and-Muse accountings for the ‘tremendous compulsion’ of poetry: ‘it is dishonest to put the onus of compulsion on some outside force – one only does this by way of excusing one’s failures.’ Her own poetic employments of grand female personification are scrupulously delimited; as for instance in ‘The Flowering Urn’:

Will rise the same peace that held
Before fertility’s like awoke
The virgin sleep of Mother All …

What (Riding) Jackson later pointed out, trenchantly and in various registers, was that Graves’s ‘prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book’ – as T.S. Eliot’s 1948 blurb memorably calls it – makes ‘a mauling use of [her] identity’ and a spirit-killing ‘literary transmogrification’ of her thought – both thought ascertainably recorded in print, and thought shared with Graves over 14 years.

Alan Clarke
Reading


Subjective

A good sentence bears repetition, and since Charles Altieri repeats my quotation in his letter (Letters, 3 August) in response to my review, I can do no better than to repeat it once more: ‘I will ignore the many ways that this model can go wrong.’ Professor Altieri has attempted to write an account of ‘subjective agency’ – that is, of the ways in which people identify, articulate, establish and impose themselves in the world – that suspends such factors as ‘self-delusion’ and ‘manipulation by others’. By these terms I understand Altieri to refer to such things as error, the unconscious and pressure from the outside world. He writes as if ‘the subject’ could be described without these factors, as if these were incidental to our functioning and could be added on later. I take them to be the conditions of ‘subjective agency’ from the outset. To attempt to describe human behaviour without them is like trying to say what happens when a club strikes a golf ball without, for the moment, factoring in gravity.

Writing a book is an interesting test of the differences between Altieri’s views and mine. In some respects, it is an exercise made for people who believe as he does. One controls everything about one’s carefully revised monologue, and sends it out into the world as a presumably symptom-free ‘chain of arguments’, there to be received by similarly untroubled subjects who will assess its claims and find them worthy or not. But what actually happens next is always a disappointment. The book (let’s hope) falls into the hands of others, including in the first instance reviewers, who have their own priorities, projects and phobias; who are loaded down with motives; who see things differently, and sometimes wrongly. The first, and eminently understandable, response of someone who sees his book understood differently, placed in a context he does not control, is to charge the reviewer with being unqualified, an egotist with personal problems that inhibit a clean act of perception, even a deeply immoral man who does not honour the specificity of the arguments.

But to write – and, to return to my point, to be in the world as a ‘subjective agent’ at all – is necessarily to be enmeshed in and constituted by the ways in which models go wrong. Nor, I think, is it irrelevant to point out that respecting individual differences is supposedly what his book is all about. Where does this respecting begin? Is it, too, to be added on at a later date – after one’s book is received by an uncritically grateful world? In short, I stand by my review as a fair and accurate assessment of Altieri’s book – within the limitations imposed on me by the occasion, the genre, the medium, the editor, the audience and my own cognitive equipment.

Geoffrey Gait Harpham
Tulane University


Fletter

Alan Ryan’s search for the big idea behind Fascism (LRB, 21 September) is a complete failure because Fascism is an irrational set of beliefs tailored to suit the moment. What Fascism does is easier to determine. It smashes trade unions and the Left and it sends Jews, lesbians and gays, disabled people and socialists to concentration camps in their millions. Somehow Ryan doesn’t quite get around to this awkward reality, which may be why he ends up by deciding that modern Fascists from the British BNP to Fini in Italy and Le Pen in France don’t amount to much. They do, of course, and everyone follows the traditional Fascist practice of sharp suits and a respectable image for election times, and boots and knives for when they hope no one is looking. There was one person who came up with an idea about how to stop such people – namely, to confront them physically on the streets and stop their marches while at the same time developing a socialist alternative to the despair which Fascism breeds on. That person was Leon Trotsky.

Keith Flett
London N17


Wa-Wa-Wa

Mona Morstein censures the London Review of Books (Letters, 24 August) for its use of French words and phrases. Well, it depends on what is to count as ‘French’. In the same issue there is a letter signed ‘James Fletcher’, and (I assume) passed or emended by the LRB letters editor, in which we discover that note is masculine: ‘notes égaux’. In the issue for 3 August, the heading for Jonathan Fenby’s piece on Le Pen was the work of someone who, innocent of the original Biblical ‘le salaire du péché’, thought that the invention ‘les gages de la peur’ would do for ‘the wages of fear’. (And leaving it in plain English would never do, would it?)

Alan Gabbey
Barnard College, New York

What is wrong with ‘les gages de la peur’ – apart from its not being Biblical (or the title of the film)?

Editor, ‘London Review’