Vol. 2 No. 8 · 1 May 1980

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Seen reading

SIR: I am writing to protest about the curiously obtuse article by Mary McCarthy, ‘Ideas and the Novel: Henry James and some others’ (LRB, 3 April). On James a constant lack of critical finesse and even simple accuracy is revealed. To take a few simple examples, we are told that characters in late James are ‘never seen reading’. Yet in Chapter 36 of The Golden Bowl Maggie is seen reading a French periodical. Admittedly, she soon turns from ‘those refinements of the higher criticism’ of literature to more engaging encounters with her social circle, but we are made to feel that a considerable part of her behaviour, for better or worse, has its origins in an intellectual climate of ideas. We are told that the characters never ‘prefer one artist to another’, but it is quite clear in The Golden Blow that Adam Verver has a very definite set of tastes, constituting a matrix that we have come to call the Burlingtonian vision. That he likes Luini summons up a whole Paterian world, and in him ‘the aesthetic principle’ burns ‘with a cold, still flame’. One has no difficulty in imagining him as a sort of composite of Berenson (who was a disciple of Pater) and Isabella Stewart Gardner. Miss McCarthy regrets that Adam does not express himself on contemporary matters. It is not difficult to imagine what he might say about bi-metallism, for instance, and Miss McCarthy expects that he could only utter ‘banalities’. In this novel even if he spake with the tongues of angels or Moreton Frewen (an acquaintance of James and a leading bi-metallist of the 1890s), such views would still sound banal. It is the strength of James, not the weakness, that this should be so.

Miss McCarthy describes The Spoils of Poynton as ‘Balzacian’. This is precisely what it is not, and the choice of epithet is symptomatic of her capacity for misreading. This novel is not even Balzac manqué. When James began composition he thought that he might have to meet the challenge posed by Balzac: ‘something would have to be done for [the spoils] not too ignobly unlike the great array in which Balzac, say, would have marshalled them.’ But once he began his interest drifted away from Mrs Gereth and the spoils to Fleda and a moral concern precisely of a kind that Miss McCarthy denies to James. In an essay on Balzac of December 1875 James thought that, unlike George Sand, George Eliot and Turgenev, Balzac lacked a moral sense, however alive and alert his other senses might have been. Balzac would have devoted twenty pages to Waterbath and thirty to Poynton. James does not, not because he could not, but because such descriptive investment would make us more interested in the objects than we should be. Their shadowiness is, finally, a virtue, since it enables them to live where objects have a tendency most vividly to live in James’s novels: in the minds of characters. And what better place? James, much as he admired Balzac, is in effect writing an anti-Balzacian novel. He is importing into a world apparently Balzacian a moral sense derived from George Eliot and similar novelists. Typical of Miss McCarthy’s carelessness and haste is that she describes the one object that is specified at Poynton, the ‘Maltese cross’, ‘the gem of the collection’, as ‘Spanish’.

Miss McCarthy is making a plea against the sorts of things that great novels need to survive: selectivity, economy, functionality of elements. Surely her argument is at the intellectual level of a fifth-former who is disturbed that Jane Austen doesn’t wheel on a guillotine or Austerlitz? Indeed, thinking of Jane Austen’s rigorous marshalling of data reminds one that the Jamesian novel was not invented by James, but by Fielding and Jane Austen.

Bernard Richards
Brasenose College, Oxford


SIR: Much as I admire Clive James as a writer and agree whole-heartedly with a lot of what he has to say in his review of Wayne Booth’s Critical Understanding (LRB, 3 April), I cannot help taking exception to some of his comments. Writing about PhD students, he claims that ‘in the long run it can’t be good that boys and girls are being encouraged to pontificate on topics about which wise men and women would consider it presumptuous to venture an aphorism.’ Surely this directly contradicts the whole thrust of his ‘anti-heavies’ argument by implying that only the Auerbachs, Curtiuses and Booths of this world are legitimately entitled to comment on the weighty issues confronting us in epoch-making works of art. Whether the ‘boys and girls’ of the PhD programmes are amateurs or not is a matter of some dispute – there have in fact been PhD theses which became seminal works – but even if they were (as James tacitly assumes), they would not therefore automatically forfeit the right to comment meaningfully on issues which more educated minds have despaired over. As James himself writes, ‘it would be a very trivial critic who believed that the real work of appreciation had not already been done, long ago and by nameless amateurs.’

René Weis
London WC1

Simplicity Smith

SIR: D.D. Raphael, who has sent you a powerful criticism of my review of Professor Skinner’s papers (Letters, 17 April), certainly knows Adam Smith better than I do, and I bow to his main lines of attack. However, if he would accept that I am amazed whenever I use The Wealth of Nations at the subtlety and depth of its perceptions he might still accept that the points I made were not totally frivolous. I know that Smith saw the confrontations of business as a source of moral relationships, but it still seems to me that these are not identical with the morality derived from the deeper concept of sympathy. The phrase ‘hidden hand’ came from writing away from the text, but the concept of the ‘invisible hand’ had seemed to me to imply a desire to present an apparent assent to theism.

I am not an economist. I use Smith as a source of economic history, and here it is impossible not to notice that he has made factual statements without support, and that in some cases the statements are wrong. One matter for which material was readily available in 1776 but not used was the trend of corn prices. Smith also made an assertion about cattle prices. No one has as yet done the important work of checking on this, and it would have been much easier to check then than it is now.

Rosalind Mitchison
Pencaitland, East Lothian

Blunt’s Professorship

SIR: In his letter in your last issue, Yorick Wilks claims to believe that Anthony Blunt was motivated by ‘hatred for his fellows, or at least for a large proportion of them’. I cannot think that this is his considered opinion. Professor Wilks is a university teacher. He must respect evidence (although he reiterates a piece of gossip from Privite Eye), and the facts about Blunt’s actions are almost completely uncertain. Professor Wilks is an adult human being. He must have enough acquaintance with human nature and the world to know that opposing political creeds cannot be explained by simplifications like ‘hatred’. No doubt there are ordinary people in Russia who would hastily suppose that Professor Wilks hates them. Let him reflect on how such a fallacy could arise, and how stupid and pernicious it would be.

In his heart he cannot be confident that his letter about Anthony Blunt is truthful, and consequently he should be ashamed to have written it.

Michael Mason
London WC1

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