Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981

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Defence of Shelley

SIR: It seems to me a pity that Claire Tomalin (LRB, 19 February) has come to be regarded, in this country at least, as the main authority on Shelley and his circle, if only because, as her book on Mary Wollstonecraft proved, she has no understanding of and, one suspects, little interest in the political ideas of the time that motivated both Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and to which no daughter of Mary and William Godwin could have been immune. All were influenced by Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and in the forefront of revolutionary thinking.

According to Ms Tomalin’s own biography, Mary Wollstonecraft left England for Paris solely to find a man! This is a ludicrous theory, if only because, like so many English radicals at the time, Mary went to study, and if possible participate in, the French Revolution. Like the rest, she wrote on it at some length.

If anything emerges from the Shelley/Harriet marriage it is that Harriet, an adolescent girl deeply in love, genuinely tried to grasp Shelley’s political ideas, but failed to register more than a faint imprint of what he told her, and soon tired of pretending. Shelley, too eager and chivalrous to realise this at first, did so as soon as he contacted the Godwins and Mary’s far tougher mind. In what way was he ‘mendacious’ about Harriet? She was certainly pregnant when she drowned, and it would seem definitely not by him. Years later, he expressed some sense of guilt, but this was surely inevitable in the circumstances.

There is no evidence at all that he had an affair with Claire Clairmont, although a good deal that she was a trial to both him and Mary. The fashionable new theory that the Naples child was his is also just that: an assumption entirely without concrete evidence. Shelley’s kindness to and selfless activity on behalf of others in trouble was proverbial. Under this theory, his vigorous protests when he heard the rumour must all be lies, which is surely singular in one so prone to trumpet the truth as he saw it, and what he knew were highly controversial views and ideas on love, marriage and society.

The fact is that Shelley’s political writings are the best guide to his type of mind; our age is far too prone to emotional assessments, owing to its obsession with sex and private lives, and its refusal to admit that any friendship between the sexes can be, and remain, platonic, even if there is an implicit attraction. Shelley’s views on marriage, incidentally, were that it should be easily breakable where it had obviously failed: not that the answer was polygamy or simultaneous sexual attachments.

My dearest Mary, wherefore hast thou gone,
And left me in this dreary world alone?

is no rebuke, and still less the pang of one finding solace elsewhere.

If Ms Tomalin can produce foolproof evidence of her own and other modern assumptions about Shelley’s supposed infidelities with Claire Clairmont, Jane Williams or anyone else, then it is time she did so. Love poetry is not evidence and is frequently a literary exercise. Williams, at least, seems to have realised this and taken it in good part. The verses addressed to Jane were written for the eyes of all four.

It is not for nothing that Bernard Shaw was an admirer of Shelley, and recognised a similarity of outlook.

Audrey Williamson
London SW1

Coward Studies

SIR: It was welcome to have a discussion of Coward the dramatist in John Lahr’s article (LRB, 4 December 1980), but I wonder if his lively account of Coward’s stylish frivolity takes us far enough. Sheridan Morley’s comments (Letters, 22 January) resemble the corrective touches on the helm of a seasoned shipmaster not yet satisfied with a new helmsman’s skill. But he fails to note a misquotation (it is the cosmic thingummys that fuse at the same moment in Private Lives) and then suddenly sets a spectacular course saying that ‘neither Cavalcade nor Happy Breed were in tune with their political times.’ True, Post-Mortem, the pacifist First World War play, wasn’t (just too late), and that is why Coward, after consulting with Lawrence of Arabia, suppressed it. But as Lahr says, most of Coward’s plays are of their historical moment, Cavalcade and This happy Breed a fortiori.

The Eyre Methuen four-volume edition is not discussed in Lahr’s ‘review’, which seems strange for the edition omits significant plays, even allowing for a future fifth volume of late plays. The Rat Trap and Point Valaine are not included, while the insignificant Conversation Piece is. The text is a facsimile reprint of the Heinemann ‘Play Parade’ edition: a publishing convenience no doubt, but the opportunity was missed to make a number of corrections that have been waiting on the shelf for 40 years.

Caward was a ‘solid gold jazz-baby who later turned into an international glamour-puss’, but he was also a mellowing playwright whose later work shows preoccupation with classical and universal themes such as the effect of time on human relationships, old age and death (Quadrille, Waiting in the wings, Suite in Three keys). Lahr says that Coward does not ‘sport directly with ideas’. On the contrary, he devoted a good deal of energy from early in his career to persuading the public that he had something to say on, for instance, sexual morality (Fallen Angels), the conflicting demands of professional and private lives (The Rat Trap) and feminism (Easy Virtue). He claimed a place, with some justification, as the modernising successor to the tradition of the Edwardian problem play. Other ‘ideas’ he used were religion (The Marquise and Easy Virtue), Freudianism (The Astonished Heart) and a range of social-political values and references in the four ‘matter of Britain’ plays, Post-Mortem, Cavalcade, This Happy Breed, Peace in Our Time.

Homosexuality did get treated on the stage. The Pretty Boys chorus in Bitter Sweet may or may not be a ‘push’, but it is disconcertingly arbitrary in context. By contrast, homosexuality is a central subject in A Song at Twilight, and one is impressed both by the personal frankness of Coward, himself playing the Maugham-like Hugo Latymer and opening the closet door marked ‘skeleton’ before West End audiences in the mid-Sixties, and by the continuity with his youthful avant-garde audacity in presenting current social-moral problems in the theatre.

Eventually even publishers may recognise the chance afforded them by a subject of more than academic interest. As the author of a book on Coward’s plays, I have found a depressing reluctance on the part of dozens of them to take it on. On the other hand, the American response is very different, and reports from academic publishers there indicate that Coward studies are definitely on the map.

Roger Kojecky

Hitler and History

SIR: I like the witty and trenchant ways of British criticism and enjoyed above all Clive James’s snobby review of Ian Hunter’s very provincial biography of Malcolm Muggeridge (LRB, 5 February) and Hans Keller’s piece on ‘Hitler and History’ (LRB, 5 February). In the latter, however, I found one unfortunate error, which should be corrected. Hans Keller makes fun of the Barneses’ ignorance about the German presidency in 1932. ‘Hitler got his German citizenship just in time to run for the Presidency of the Weimar Republic,’ said the Barneses, but they were simply right! On 25 February, Hitler was made a Regierungsrat (and thus became a citizen of the German Reich) in the Land Braunschweig, where his party was governing in a coalition. He was now eligible for the presidential election which took place on 13 March (first turn) and 10 April (second turn). At the second turn Hitler was beaten by Hindenburg, who got 19.35 million votes against 13.41 million. Already at the first turn the Catholic Zentrum Party and the Social Democrats had appealed to their voters to vote for Hindenburg, who felt quite uncomfortable at this new support from what for him was the ‘far left’. But only in that way could Hitler’s victory at the presidential elections be avoided.

Iring Fetscher
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main

Hans Keller writes: If Hitler ran for the Presidency, I did not know: it isn’t only historians whose historical knowledge is incomplete. I am grateful for, and fascinated by, the correction. History should be written in order to be corrected.


SIR: I would like if I may to clarify certain points arising out of my comment on Anne Barton’s review of Puritanism and Theatre by Margot Heinemann (Letters, 5 February). Readers both of the book and of the review will certainly gain the impression that a sharp distinction is being drawn between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Puritans, and that hostility to the theatre was only characteristic of the latter. Hence my citation of John Rainolds, author of The Overthrow of Stage-Plays (1599). He was the chief spokesman for the Puritans at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 and a major religious influence on his generation. His Puritanism is demonstrably moderate, involving acceptance of episcopacy and personal conformity. A later edition of The Overthrow of Stage-Plays was published at Oxford in 1629, during the chancellorship of the Earl of Pembroke.

That said, I think there is probably an important difference btween clerical and lay Puritan attitudes to the theatre. The problem only arises in the case of Thomas Middleton, however, if it is insisted that he was in some sense a Puritan, and the evidence still strikes me as flimsy. My point in emphasising that Pembroke was a courtier was intended as a comment on his politics, not his religion. Of course there were Puritan courtiers, although whether Pembroke was one is another matter. The views of Conrad Russell, to which Dr Barton refers, have been available since the mid-1970s. More generally, Dr Barton enters a plea for the old terminology ‘carefully deployed and craftily qualified’, but it is precisely the failure to do this which is at issue. Indeed, many of the ‘old words’ appear to have failed completely as analytical tools.

Nicholas Tyacke
Department of History, University College London

Frozen Freedom

SIR: In your last issue, I may have puzzled a few readers by seeming to say that some Labour candidates for the European Parliament wanted to ‘free’ its powers. In the proof, the word read ‘freee’. Need I add that what I wrote was ‘freeze’?

Richard Mayne
London NW1

‘Australian Book Review’

SIR: I write in relation to the advertisement for Quadrant in your latest issue (LRB, 5 March 1981). This is not the only Australian literary monthly. The Australian Book Review, published by the National Book Council of Australia, appears monthly from March to December. It contains reviews or short notices of almost a thousand Australian books each year, together with commentary and special articles. Sample copies and subscriptions (only $20 Australian or £10 sterling surface mail, $10 extra for airmail) can be obtained from PO Box 89, Parkville, Vic 3052, Australia.

John McLaren
Editor, Australian Book Review, Cambridge

Alan Sheridan’s Michel Foucault: The Will to Truth, discussed by Richard Rorty in the last issue, is available from Tavistock not only in hardback but also in paperback at £4.50.

Editors, ‘London Review’

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