SIR: Christopher Ricks’s review of A.N. Wilson’s novel Gentlemen in England (LRB, 21 November 1985) mentions some of its anachronisms and savonarolisms, but doesn’t go far enough. ‘Homer sometimes nods,’ he says: but all too often Wilson drops off completely, and the resulting solecisms and somnambulisms make nonsense of the novel’s apparently realistic background. This is especially true of the freethought movement, which plays an important part in the plot. Ricks says: ‘It is crucial that the book, responsibly preoccupied with historical reality … should watch its own sense of fact.’ And he continues: ‘How else could it honourably report a debate between Father Cuthbert and Charles Bradlaugh on whether “Jesus Christ was an Historical Reality"?’ But here, as a matter of fact, Wilson has violated historical reality.
The action of the novel takes place in 1880, and the debate takes place early in the Long Vacation from Oxford, at the headquarters of the National Secular Society, the Hall of Science in City Road, London. Unfortunately, however, the Hall of Science was closed for repairs throughout June, July and August 1880, and Bradlaugh (the president of the NSS) didn’t speak there between 30 May (on Parliamentary oaths and affirmations) and 7 November (on electoral corruption). It is true that he did speak about Jesus several times during June and July, but this was at meetings held at South Place Chapel which were not polemical debates but learned lectures on recent books by French scholars. It is also true that there was a debate on the historicity of Jesus at the Hall of Science that year, but it was held on 24 November, between Annie Besant (a vice-president of the NSS) and the Rev. A. Hatchard (curate of St Saviour’s, Shadwell), the chairman being Bradlaugh himself.
Moreover, in Wilson’s account Bradlaugh is given ‘a faint Birmingham accent’ (although he came from East London), the chairman ‘introduced himself as Mr Jacob Holyoake’ (presumably George Jacob Holyoake, who never called himself Jacob, and who had broken with Bradlaugh, but did come from Birmingham), the meeting is attended by Herbert Spencer and T.H. Huxley (who never went to such occasions), and the debate is conducted in crude and clumsy terms never used by Bradlaugh or Besant.
Nor is this the only absurd episode from the free-thought movement. Bradlaugh, says Wilson, ‘after the late election, had refused to take his oath in the House of Commons on the grounds of atheism’. This time the facts are that, when Bradlaugh was elected in April 1880, he immediately tried to affirm on the grounds of his atheism, but on being rejected he insisted on his right to take the oath despite his atheism; indeed he tried to do so a dozen times from May 1880 onwards, and did so several times, actually being prosecuted for doing so in 1884, and finally being permitted to do so in 1886. The ‘Commons brawl with which the newspapers were full’, mentioned by Wilson, occurred in June 1880, when Bradlaugh was arrested for refusing to leave the House when prevented from either affirming or taking the oath.
Nor are such anachronisms and solecisms confined to the freethought movement. Addison is described as ‘the essayist and hymn-writer’; he certainly wrote many poems – but hymns? The Virginians is said to have been published in the Cornhill: it actually appeared in monthly parts from 1857 to 1859, before the Cornhill began publication in 1869. Mrs Humphry Ward is described as ‘Tom Arnold’s girl’: she was actually his granddaughter. Routh is made President of Magdalen College more than twenty years after his death, and Spooner is made Warden of New College more than twenty years before his appointment.
In the end, it is easy to suspect that Wilson’s anachronisms are so frequent that they may be deliberate. But at any rate Gentlemen in England should perhaps be called an unhistorical rather than a historical novel, and not taken nearly as seriously as many reviewers have done.
SIR: John Lucas writes like an intellectual skateboarder – the swerves are hair-raising. Thus, he wonders why anybody should refer to the OED on a matter of pronunciation (Letters, 5 December 1985), and supposes that such reference must assume that the dictionary records ‘how people do speak or how they should speak’. He then imputes to Martin Dodsworth (whom, incidentally, I did not call, and do not consider, ‘urbane’) an inability to tell the difference between linguistic description and prescription, or recognise the importance of such a difference. All a reference to the dictionary shows, though, is how people have spoken, but, showing that, it gives a reason to suppose that they may still so speak. Reference to the OED proves that it is possible to pronounce the word ‘twilight’ with stress on the first syllable, and this is all that need be shown to disprove the claim that it must be pronounced with two equal stresses. It is those who specify pronunciation with two equal stresses who are in the business of prescribing pronunciation, and who display contempt for the speech-habits of others.
He cuts many such corners with dash. I am said to have misunderstood his ‘case’ against the sequence, ‘An Apology … ’ This case dwindles to a ‘point’ two sentences later, and shrinks to an ‘I would suggest’ in the next sentence. Lucas, no doubt, suggests many, very various things to many people, but a suggestion is not a point and a point does not constitute a case. At the heart of this glissade, Lucas makes out that Hill’s use of ‘heavily allusive language, which is certainly not the language of society in the widest sense’ entails that Hill’s allusions are ‘ways of warding off the kinds of criticism that are independent of nostalgia’. I cannot see that this follows; it sounds oddly like Leavis’s old argument about ‘Shakespearean’ as against ‘Miltonic’ relations to the language, and amounts, as did Leavis’s argument, to no more than a stipulation about how poets should write. But there is no reason why poets should welcome every idiom or usage into their poems, as there is no duty on a householder to welcome any and every caller into his house. Some things you may set your face against, or turn your back on. You may be right or wrong to do so in particular cases, but the mere fact of doing so does not prove that you are a victim of embattled nostalgia and unable to tell the difference between your house and a castle. Anyway, there is no such thing as ‘the language of society in the widest sense’: we are a multilingual society, and this is why, as the first editor of the OED noted, ‘no man’s English is all English.’ Not even Hill’s (or Shakespeare’s).
Pastiche is one way of recognising this fact, because it rests on a sense of linguistic distinctness, the distinction between what you might say and what the language you are pastiching would say. It need not convey a belittlement of what is pastiched because it may simultaneously recognise the paucity of your own means of speech. Even had Lucas a ‘case’ against ‘An Apology … ’, it could not rest on the supposed fact of pastiche in these poems and the assumption, in Lucas’s first letter, restated without examination in his second, that pastiche must have ‘deadening effects’. Nor could it rest on the fact that the poems contain ‘heavy layers of allusion and echo’ from which they ‘are unable to break free’ – another little corner cut there, as Lucas assumes that the only thing worth doing with allusions and the like is to break free from them. There is no ‘evidence’ offered for such assumptions, and they are not clearly analytic truths about the words ‘pastiche’ and ‘allusion’. Lucas puts things as plainly as he can when he suggests that ‘although Hill may say he is using nostalgia, in fact nostalgia is using him.’ This plainness is shoddy. Hill did not say, in the remark Lucas quotes, that he was ‘using’ nostalgia; he said: ‘I accept nostalgia as part of the psychological experience of a society and of an ancient and troubled nation.’ And it is not a matter, as Lucas’s syntax implies, of either using nostalgia or being used by it. Hill’s remark accepts that one is used by what one uses. This is a well-known feature of poetic imagination, the ‘dyer’s hand’, etc, but not known to Lucas who belongs to the Black and Decker school of criticism, which talks as if verse-forms, cultural shifts, linguistic history and so on lie to hand, to be ‘used’ or not, as occasion suits. Hence the moth-eaten cant in his first letter about choosing ‘how we see or have access to our sense of the past’. Something that could be chosen, like a drill-attachment, is not likely to be a past.
Sly of hand and fleet of foot, Lucas proceeds to remark that ‘yet another revisiting of the country-house theme provides clear evidence’ of addicted nostalgia. (He uses the word ‘addiction’ and its cognates in a light-hearted manner.) It is not clear whether he means that Geoffrey Hill is always banging on about country houses, or that other English poets have sufficiently ‘done’ the theme. If the former, the remark is untrue; if the latter, meaningless, unless Lucas can explain just how many times a theme may be treated in a literature before it has been treated ‘too often’. A judgment is foisted on us by the phrase ‘yet another revisiting’: we are not given a chance to protest that ‘The Laurel Axe’ does something different, doesn’t just revisit. I suppose that such foisting of judgments is what Lucas means by making a case, but you don’t need the OED to see that this is a corrupt and corrupting use of words.
John Lucas likes rhetorical questions (there were 15 in his two letters), but seems less fond of actual questions. So he doesn’t explain his use of the word ‘orthodoxy’ in his first letter, nor does he address the point that, though there are country houses in ‘An Apology … ’, there are other dwellings too, nor reply to the reasons given for thinking the sequence not unquestioningly Anglican. One question he does address is what Tom Paulin meant by ‘chthonic nationalist’. Address, but not answer. His answer tells us what Seamus Heaney might have meant by the phrase had he used it. Perhaps he believes that all Irishmen are indistinguishable from each other (being illogical, troublesome, perpetually drunk and with peat behind their ears), but I would need to be given a reason for believing this. In the absence of such a reason, I can still tell the difference between Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney, and know that a quotation from Heaney praising Mercian Hymns (and alluding – horrible dictu – to Yeats) probably does not give a good gloss on a phrase of Paulin’s criticising Hill.
Trinity College, Cambridge
SIR: The ‘MacCabe Affair’ lingers on. Eric Griffiths’s review of MacCabe’s Theoretical Essays (LRB, 19 December 1985) has all the single-minded venom of a Leavis trying to stamp out the latest life-destroying critical heresy. The enemy is ‘theory’, and unfortunately for me he came across my modest little introduction – A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory – and decided to rubbish it in a few insulting sentences in the course of his attack on MacCabe, the old Cambridge enemy.
I would have thought it beneath the dignity of your review to print the following: ‘This book belongs in the waste-paper bin, and its author in the pillory.’ On the other hand, such vehemence is in a sense flattering. Have I really written something so noxious? Do I really deserve martydom? However, Mr Griffiths also seems concerned that my ‘wretched book’ might sell, since I seem to have ‘a canny eye to the market’. I had no idea that literary theory was such a potential money-spinner. This distaste for cheap commercial motives (which I share) seems to inflame Griffiths’s mind. There is nothing new under the sun, he insists. That theory has something new to say about anything is absurd. He clearly feels that he has a mission to stop this poisonous stuff from flooding the critical market. It is merely retailing old ideas in specious vocabulary. The question which needs to be asked is why he and other recent reviewers have felt so threatened that they descend to virtual libel in their attempts at judgement.
When Mr Griffith condescends to comment on the book in detail he can only distort. My summary of Voloshinov’s theory of discourse includes a sentence in which I describe what I call his ‘central insight’. Griffiths perversely asserts that ‘Voloshinov is credited with discovering the fact that … ’, thus turning my account into a false claim for Voloshinov’s originality. He attacks me for not including in the bibliography works critical of some theorists, making no allowances for the book’s introductory function. He quotes without explanation two sentences of mine as examples of my laughable simple-mindedness. He could have spared me the insult and used the space to justify his contempt.
I would be the first to admit that my brief Guide often simplifies complex issues and does not treat the historical roots of recent critical theory. Even so, Griffiths very unfairly takes my opening remarks about the state of criticism before the late Sixties as a statement about English literary and critical history ab initio. Any sympathetic reader would have seen that I was talking about the consensus of Anglo-American criticism in the post-1945 period. But then Mr Griffiths was not aiming to be fair or just. He seems to have been determined to stir up a mood of sectarian violence worthy of Mr Paisley. All that eloquence gone to waste …
SIR: My letter on the subject of The Bone People (Letters, 5 December 1985) was derived from an article written for a Canadian journal over a year ago: so Rod Edmond (Letters, 23 January) is wrong when he suggests that my discussion of the Pegasus Award is offered as an analogue for the Booker Prize. I am often puzzled by the Booker short list (why did A.S. Byatt’s Still Life not make it in 1985?) and sometimes by the winner (Hotel du Lac in 1984 seemed a weak choice): but that is in the nature of literary awards. It is a prize any writer ought to be proud to have won, and I congratulate Keri Hulme. As for the rest of what Edmond has to say – none of it persuades me to alter my opinions of The Bone People as they were expressed. It doesn’t surprise me that someone intelligent and well-informed, as Edmond is, should disagree. It does surprise me that he should ascribe my opinions to ‘paranoia’.
University of Auckland, New Zealand
SIR: As an ex-Bomber Command pilot who lost many good friends in the skies over Germany, I remember well the nature of the regime we fought to defeat and its corrosive effect on artistic and intellectual life. However, over forty years later I am content to judge by musical rather than political standards the work of German musicians in that period, whether composers (Orff, Richard Strauss) or conductors (Furtwängler). We in Britain never had to face the agonising choices of conscience and morals which men like these confronted in Germany: there is nothing to be gained by reviving these controversies.
John Deathridge (Letters, 19 December 1985) implies that one cannot properly like both Orff and Birtwistle. This is the Thatcher/Kinnock confrontation syndrome transferred to music, and it makes no more sense there than it does in politics. Peter Godman, on the same Letters page, considers ‘musical pomposity’ what I find splendid, invigorating and rhythmically exciting music: these are normal differences of reaction, but I do not understand why Dr Deathridge thinks that my admiration for Orff (even were it not combined with similar views on Birtwistle) turns me into a ‘modern fresh-air fanatic’.
It was remiss of me to be seduced by attendance at a ‘90th birthday lecture’ about Orff in Leipzig recently into failing to consult the reference books about his dates.
SIR: John Lloyd is altogether too generous to Geoffrey Goodman, author of The Miners’ Strike, in placing him on the ‘sensible’ left (LRB, 21 November 1985). There is nothing in Mr Goodman’s polemic with which any self-respecting activist would wish to take issue. First, the book itself, dedicated ‘to the British miners whose courage’ the author salutes, is issued under the imprint of Pluto Press, which is strongly identified with the far Left. Secondly, the list of people to whom the author turned for help is, to say the least, instructive. It includes Bill Keys, Moss Evans, Ray Buckton, Ron Todd, Rodney Bickerstaffe, Tony Bunyan and Cathie Lloyd (both of the GLC Police Committee) and ‘my old friend the late Will Paynter, one of the finest NUM leaders of all time’. Will Paynter was also an unwavering Communist but Mr Goodman does not mention this. Nor does he see fit to tell his readers that Andrew Glyn (‘Fellow in Economics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford’) is a Trotskyist of the Militant Tendency. Thirdly, the book concludes that
primary responsibility for the conflict has to be attributed to the Government. It wanted a showdown because it had become convinced that this was the only way to destroy Arthur Scargill and ‘Scargillism’ and through that route to administer a severe blow to active trade-unionism. The police forces were used quite unscrupulously, as subsequent court events have made remarkably apparent. And the NUM leadership played their part by misreading the signs and misusing their own card. That in no way diminishes the astonishing courage and fortitude of the miners and their families. Theirs was a heroic stand …
If the NUM strike under Scargill’s leadership was, as Goodman implies, an example of ‘active’ trade-unionism, then we know what this means. Fourthly, according to the publisher’s blurb, ‘the author produces powerful evidence that the Government deliberately set out to provoke the strike.’ Given Mr Scargill’s repeated threats to destroy ‘Thatcherism’ by industrial action, this is a most remarkable conclusion to reach.
Lastly, Mr Goodman is far too sympathetic to the aims of the strike to be capable of reaching any kind of independent assessment and he takes issue with Mr Scargill only on tactical grounds. In Goodman’s view Scargill ought to have won but didn’t because he employed the wrong tactics. This, incidentally, is also the view of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and in particular of their Industrial Organiser, Pete Carter, whom Goodman quotes. Does John Lloyd really believe that an identity of opinion with the CPGB is the mark of the ‘sensible’ Left?
SIR: Robert Hanlon (Letters, 19 December 1985) will be pleased to hear that Chatto will be publishing Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s first full-length collection of poems, Sky Ray Lolly, in April. It will, I’m sure, leave him – and her many other fans – even more ‘charmed, zapped, entranced, amused’.
Chatto, London WC2
In the last issue J.M. Roberts discussed a book by D.M.G. Sutherland whose title should have read France 1789-1815: Revolution and Counter-Revolution.
Editors, ‘London Review’
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