Vol. 8 No. 16 · 18 September 1986

Search by issue:


SIR: Most of Pat Rogers’s complaints about Dale Spender’s Mothers of the Novel (LRB, 7 August) are valid. But if Spender is a tripper in the 18th century, Rogers is a tripper in the fresh woods of feminist criticism, equally oblivious of landscape features which are obvious to those acquainted with the local paths and pitfalls. Firstly, agreeing that a literature written exclusively by one sex will embody only half the truth, he blithely continues: ‘we read novels because they embody a deep, significant and coherent vision of the world.’ But exactly. The questions are: whose significance, whose world, whose ‘we’? Secondly, he treats the reprints which accompany Spender’s work, unlike the work itself, ‘without sneering’: but the context of that phrase is relevant too. One can hardly conceive fainter praise than ‘a novel of immense talent, with all sorts of historical interest which the author could scarcely have forseen’ (of Cecilia).

Pat Rogers values Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Brunton almost exclusively for the sake of their relation to Jane Austen – who, it appears, ‘can explore women’s lives so deeply because she understands men so well’ [my italics], and knows that ‘suburban Lotharios like Wickham’ behave like that ‘out of liking, however crass, for women’. This Lothario begins by stealing the 15-year-old sister of a male enemy who will be thereupon legally compelled to pay him £30,000. From this we are to learn that he likes women? That’s not what the other male party to the transaction thinks. ‘Mr Wickham’s chief object was unquestionably my sister’s fortune … but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me, was a strong inducement. His revenge would have been complete indeed.’ Whether or not Jane Austen understood suburbia, she understood the use of women as commodity.

‘Wegotism’ (Laetitia-Matilda Hawkins’s word), cavil dressed as praise, and the denial of feminist leanings in any woman writer whose credentials are undeniably in order: all these are dismally familiar techniques, quite unworthy of Pat Rogers’s usual originality and perceptiveness. Must we be forced to hope he will confine himself to half the historical truth so that we – including us – can go back to reading him with our usual pleasure?

Isobel Grundy
Queen Mary College, University of London

Grooms of the Stool

SIR: In his review of David Starkey’s The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (LRB, 7 August), Professor Conrad Russell persuasively emphasises the role of the court, broadly defined, involving king, queen, mistresses, counsellors, favourites, officials, as the arena in which important political decisions were made. It was here that Henry VIII found Anne Boleyn, here that the break with Rome was planned and justified, here that war and peace were determined, here that taxation was determined, here that, once religious diversity had emerged, true religion was defined. But two refinements are needed.

First, some important political decisions were made away from the court. One of the most important political decisions of the Henrician period, vital in the history of the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries, was that by George Talbot, fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, to resist the rebels of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire in October 1536. No doubt, like many political decisions it was instinctive rather than calculated, but its significance was immense. Shrewsbury’s decision prevented the rebels from advancing through his ‘country’ of south Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire towards London, demoralised the rebels in Lincolnshire, deprived the Pilgrims of Grace in Yorkshire of the comforting belief that great nobles were on their side, stiffened the resolve of other nobles, gave Henry VIII the time to organise military forces and to play a waiting game with the rebels. The Earl of Shrewsbury was in a sense part of the court where he held office even if he was an infrequent attender, but his decision in 1536 was not taken there and it was important not because of any ties he had with the court but because of that local military power that enabled him to raise 3,654 men within a week and lead them to confront the rebels at Doncaster. Any general view of Tudor politics that does not find a place for this kind of decision and action can only be partial.

Secondly, few would disagree that the court, broadly defined, was the centre of politics. But the thrust of much of Dr David Starkey’s work has been his division of the court into its component parts and his emphasis upon the privy chamber within the broader court. As Professor Russell says, Dr Starkey’s key question is who was the groom of the stool. Here in the privy chamber were to be found those men physically closest to the king. In his book, and in numberless exciting lectures which many sixth-formers and university students have been privileged to hear, Dr Starkey creates a vivid impression of their significance. He has notably brought out the importance of the financial role of the groom of the stool as the keeper of the king’s privy purse. But it is when he claims a political role for the privy chamber, setting it as ‘a second government of England’, that doubts creep in. Were grooms of the stool like Sir William Compton perhaps more interested in their own profit than in politics? Was the privy chamber really a centre of power that could rival a minister like Wolsey or Cromwell? Does Dr Starkey’s own explanation of the fall of Cromwell with its stress on the council not diminish the weight that should be given to the privy chamber? How often was the privy chamber an arena for struggles between ministers and nobles? Do such questions in themselves underrate the degree of consensus and co-operation between crown, ministers and nobles? How far could men in the privy chamber manipulate Henry VIII, how far was he his own man? How far does the evidence that Dr Starkey very fairly offers against his own argument diminish it? Even Dr Starkey sees Henry as to the fore in periods of war, and more politically active in the 1540s. Might not then Henry’s relationship with both Wolsey and Cromwell have been a partnership? As Professor Russell notes, ‘the picture of Henry which emerges from this book is a far from simple one,’ and so, consequently, is the picture of the privy chamber. Dr Starkey properly emphasises the significance of the court but whether the balance of influence within the Henrician court was as weighted towards the privy chamber as he would claim remains more doubtful.

George Bernard
Southampton University

Milton’s Republic

SIR: In his long letter. Craig Raine (Letters, 4 September) makes five basic points.

1. He commissioned the Faber Book of Political Verse. This is not something I’ve ever denied: it’s Mr Raine who has in the past seemed uneasy about it. Now that it’s been well received, however, he is so proud of his role in originating the anthology that he congratulates himself not just once but three times in the same letter. Tom Paulin’s anthology juxtaposes poems explicitly on public themes with apparently apolitical poems and in this way brings out political connotations that might not otherwise be apparent: it is thus concerned both with political verse narrowly defined and with the politics of different poetic traditions. But any anthology involves selection and this has political implications: a Faber Book of Verse which contained no woman poets would not be apolitical.

2. I’ve gone back my original argument. Not so: I’ve amplified it at his request, but I don’t have space to turn it into a book. I stated from the beginning both that Satan is presented with monarchical trappings with Beelzebub as obliging acolyte, and that the fallen angels also use republican terms. This fact may partly reflect Milton’s growing dis-illusion under the rule of Cromwell and Charles II, and his awareness that republican rhetoric could conceal authoritarian interests. And the last books present a bleakly disillusioned view of the people’s capacity for the burdens of liberty. But this doesn’t make the poem monarchist; and I believe that this pessimism is countered by other factors (see below).

3. Mr Raine argues that I’ve shifted my position on Milton’s representation of God. I still believe that it would have been possible to create a God who engaged the imagination more directly, either by a less sparse, more ceremonial representation of the heavenly kingdom, or by making Him a majestic figure only dimly glimpsed at the end of a vast hierarchy of intermediaries, as in the Paradiso. Such courses were made difficult for Milton both by his politics and by his theology: the Reformation stripped away many of the mythical representations of celestial hierarchies which had originated as means of buttressing hierarchical authority in the Church, a process which was in turn related to stratification in society at large. Mr Raine once again makes a sharp distinction between political and theological issues as if it were self-evident. But in the 17th century political analogies in theological discourse, and theological analogies in political discourse, were so deeply-rooted that Mr Raine’s confidence that he knows their exact boundaries is, in my view, misconceived. This is not just a historical matter: to declare that theology is above politics may be simply to refuse to allow a particular power structure to be questioned. To take an example central to Paradise Lost: Milton, following male theologians, declares that the Genesis story must be interpreted as showing woman’s inferiority to be part of the divine scheme: is this a theological question or a political one?

4. My account of the political connotations of blank verse is, he complains, ‘wonky’. Well, I could hardly give a definitive history on a letters page: my main aim was to try to provide some matter of more general interest than mere ad hominem point-scoring, and, far from boasting my own unique authority, to draw attention to at least a few of the many critics who are doing illuminating work in this area. Mr Raine responds with bluster but not a single counter-argument or counter-example. In arguing that the literary history of Britain has still to be properly written, I was not denying that there is a great deal of it which has been written and has merely yet to be read by Mr Raine. But the apolitical approach of older literary histories, and the anti-historical bias of dominant theories from the New Criticism through to deconstruction, have meant that there are a lot of gaps to be filled, and his letter does nothing to dissuade me from my belief that it is a good thing to know what one doesn’t know.

5. On the 1668 note in particular, he is inclined to think that my political reading is wilfully subjective. The note is to be read entirely straight, and he finds it an ‘entirely adequate’ reason for Milton’s casting Paradise Lost in blank verse that he wasn’t as good at finding apt rhymes as Cleveland, Cowley, Crashaw, Davenant, Denham, Dryden etc. He roundly reiterates that the note is, ‘in its entirety, aesthetic, not political’. And yet he concedes that Milton may have intended readers to pick up political connotations (I would suggest he compares the note’s last phrase with the title The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, Restored to the Good of Both Sexes from the Bondage of Canon Law). So the ‘entirety’ turns out to be not so entire. But Mr Raine is prepared to dismiss whatever political meanings the note may have had to Milton, to contemporary readers such as Marvell, and to modern readers, as merely subjective, whereas, as guardian of ‘the correct position’, he believes the note’s aesthetic meaning to be absolutely objective, an unchanging, Platonic essence. His anti-intentionalism was one reason that made me assume he might have been influenced by the New Criticism, since he is most evidently not a post-structuralist: but I’m happy to accept that his disdain for inquiring into Milton’s intention springs purely from his touchingly serene conviction that his own knowledge and intellectual abilities are so vastly superior to Milton’s. But if we descend from Mr Raine’s level to Milton’s, I think we find a much more fruitful way of reading poetry, looking at the infinitely complex modes of interaction between poetic and political history rather than dismissing politics as subjective irrelevance. If the 1668 note has a ‘republican twitch’, I would suggest that it is because Milton is directing into poetry the political energies that blindness and the Restoration had diverted from politics. But while this process has a despairing aspect, the narrator’s presentation of his triumph against adversity, the sense of creative energy in the descriptions of the making of a new world, counteract that pessimism and raise the possibility that such energies may one day be redirected into political creativity. That’s a very simplified way of putting a very complex process, but I’m afraid I’m getting weary of providing Mr Raine with painless digests of what’s been happening in literary history and theory for the last quarter-century. One day he should come down from Mars and start finding out for himself.

David Norbrook
Magdalen College, Oxford

Early English Texts

SIR: It was good to see a letter from Professor Burrow in your pages (Letters, 7 August) reaffirming Furnivall’s intention of using the Early English Text Society ‘to make the work of English writers before the Renaissance available to more than language specialists’. But I am afraid that the response of the common reader to his invitation to subscribe might well be: ‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on.’ Even Late Middle English can be pretty hard going for the non-specialist, and earlier stages of English quite impenetrable; and the EETS glossaries, valuable as they are, are not a full solution to the problem. Using a glossary efficiently is a skill which has to be learnt (I spend several weeks every year teaching it to my first-year students), and it is in any case a very laborious way of getting at the sense of a work. In Furnivall’s day, EETS texts were often supplied not only with glossaries but with interleaved translations, or at least running commentaries in the margin which offered a guide to the meaning: but this is no longer EETS policy. I have been told on good authority that the main reason for this change of course was to keep expenses down. If EETS were publishing works for the exclusive use of specialists in Medieval English, this would be fair enough, but offering this kind of edition to the non-specialist is rather like offering a prospective house-buyer a pile of bricks – more moderately priced than the completed building, admittedly, but not really meeting the buyer’s needs.

I believe myself that interleaved translations, at least for the more difficult texts, would make EETS editions not only more accessible to the general reader but far more serviceable to professional Medievalists. I have reason to be grateful to Furnivall, since it was one of his EETS translations which started me on my own research, and it saddens me to see the high-quality scholarship of the EETS editions restricted to a handful of specialists.

Bella Millett
Southampton University

Life of Melanie Klein

SIR: As the archivist engaged in cataloguing the Melanie Klein papers, I should like to contribute to the discussion of her ‘Autobiography’ in the London Review. In the collection of Klein papers held in the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, in addition to a few short autobiographical notes, there is one 48-page piece of autobiographical writing: a rough draft apparently typed from dictation. The first 32 pages recount events in Klein’s life up to and including her move to England. The following 16 pages are a series of further reflections about her family, her marriage, her choice of career in psychoanalysis, covering much of the same ground as the main account. While neither of these sections deals in any detail with her life and career during the Thirties, on page 15, at the end of her account of her brother Emmanuel’s life and death, she mentions, as resembling him, her son Hans ‘who died at the age of 27 when mountaineering’. Given that there seem to be several versions of this ‘Autobiography’ circulating, I should be very grateful for a sight of them. It might be possible to ascertain whether they are, in fact, really variant versions, or whether they are partial or edited transcripts of the account now in the CMAC. We would of course reimburse photocopying fees and postage.

Lesley Hall
Wellcome Institute, 183 Euston Road, London NW1

KAL 007

SIR: In his review of Shootdown: The Verdict on KAL 007 (LRB, 24 July), Paul Foot, like R.W. Johnson, finds telling evidence of there having been a fully prepared espionage operation in the fact that the CIA originally lied about the fate of 007, putting out a false report that the plane was not shot down but safe on Sakhalin. The CIA, it is said, did this because it needed a ‘holding operation’, time to doctor the tapes and ‘put the best possible picture’ before the world. Whatever merit there may be in Johnson’s book, this claim makes absolutely no sense. Assume there was a deliberate incursion into Soviet airspace. Presumably, the CIA hoped the plane would be forced down safely and not shot down, but obviously, just what its fate would be once Soviet defences were alerted could not be guaranteed beforehand. The CIA does not have to explain anything more should the plane be shot down: rather it must explain what the plane was doing there at all, and this explanation presumably would be exactly the same whatever the Soviet response. If I have prepared an alibi as to what I am doing going through your valuables with the lights off, that alibi is just as good – or as bad – whether you lose your head and shoot me or simply turn me over to the police.

Steven and Julie Ross
New York City

Upper-Class Casualties

SIR: Paul Addison asserts (LRB, 24 July) that in the First World War ‘a disproportionate number’ of the three-quarters of a million British servicemen killed were from ‘the upper classes’. He does not say whether he found this statistic in either of the two books he is reviewing or indeed what is the evidence for it. It is an all too familiar assertion and I would like to know where the figures which underpin it can be found. At the moment, I am removed from most of my books, but I seem to recall that I once came across in a work by one of his authors, Correlli Barnett, a total of British officers killed. It was, to the best of my memory, around thirty thousand. I make that 4 per cent. Were the upper classes much less than 4 per cent of the population in 1914? Were, indeed, all the officers members of the upper class? My own hunch is that members of the upper class made a so much greater hole in the consciousness of the articulate section of society when they were killed that they tended to be counted over and over again. Raymond Asquith, say, would easily outweigh, with all his friends, cousins, school and college contemporaries, colleagues and dependents in the heart of the Establishment, 25 Durham Light Infantry privates. But this may be just lefty prejudice. Does anyone really know what proportion of the First World War dead on the British side were this or that class? If so, would he or she kindly let us hear from them?

Alan Brien
Llandrillo, Clwyd

Darling Clem

SIR: Clem Attlee was neither a Superman nor a Mr Pooter (Paul Addison, Letters, 3 July). But he might, at a stretch, and without nostalgia, be considered a Super Pooter.

Trevor Burridge
Département d’Histoire, Université de Montréal


SIR: A.J. Ayer’s opinion (LRB, 24 July) that it was ‘possibly’ not the best team that won the World Cup Final in 1974 between the West Germans and the Dutch seems to me a rather gross understatement. The utterly undeserved defeat of the widely admired Dutch ‘hippie’-team, under Johan Cruijff, by the completely impotent Germans with their two lucky goals, is nothing less than a landmark in the decline of Dutch culture in the 1970s. As our prime minister remarked on television: ‘After this, things will never be the same as before.’ At the same time, it did prove (as did the similar defeat of the French in the semi-finals of the 1982 Cup) that the Germans still have this remarkable quality of being incapable of surrendering to an opponent who has the moral right to victory. As the saying goes, ‘if you scratch a German, there will always be a German underneath.’ This holds true for the World Cup as much as for other contests in human history. (Undoubtedly, it has to do with the fact that they were never really subdued by the Romans, and with their traumatic unification in the 19th century. We eagerly await the comprehensive doctoral dissertation on the subject.) In any case, it seems certain that the greater part of my generation in the Netherlands, who witnessed and survived the loss of the Cup in 1974, has been severely traumatised by the event. It marked a loss of innocence and vitality for the Dutch nation, and the beginning of a cultural and economic decline from the results of which we, ‘the lost generation of 1974’, still suffer daily. Soccer, moreover, has never been the same, as this year’s boring World Cup extensively proved.

Bastiaan Bommeljé
Department of Ancient History, University of Utrecht

SIR: A.J. Ayer’s piece on the World Cup may be precise but his vision was as constricted as Hoddle’s performance against Argentina in the decisive quarter-final. Neither Ayer nor Hoddle can be blamed for this since Mexico ’86 was not a logical tournament, nor was it football as played at White Hart Lane in the English League. It was a TV game dominated by hearts and legs, not minds and feet. Argentina’s defenders were too strong and too fast for England’s lightweight forwards, while the rest of the English midfield were shepherding Maradona away from goal. They did this most effectively bar one ten-second lapse, his astonishing second goal – arising because ‘Diego felt so bad about the first one,’ according to Valdano, the Argentinian forward. Guilt-ridden genius transcends logic.

The prospect of lucrative TV profits (for what high-ups?) brought the World Cup to Mexico for an unprecedented second time. Which meant the matches had to be played in 100°F heat and 70 per cent or more humidity – all at 8,000 feet above sea level – so as to fit European viewing times. This is roughly equivalent to playing cricket in Antarctica. It explains why three out of four quarter-finals went to penalty shoot-outs, since the physiological exhaustion of the teams made scoring impossible after full time. It also explains why Argentina met West Germany in the final. They were the two strongest-legged teams, since their average thigh circumference was – I would wager – significantly larger than the other competitors’. They also played tight, economic, defensive football, conserving their energies (unlike the naive Danes and Russians) for the later stages. It goes without saying that the English running game, Hoddle and all his long-legged beauty notwithstanding, is unplayable in such conditions. But their good manners, in not ‘trampling the referee’ after the hand-ball first goal – as Pele suggested the Argentinians would have done – will bring its reward from FIFA.

Ayer’s conclusion, that Argentina deserved to win, is quite right. Their hearts could not contemplate another Wembley ’66 or Malvinas humiliation. Their legs were strong. The hand of Diego/Diogo (God) was on their side. Football is a religion, which flourishes in Catholic countries. Argentina will probably win again in Italy 1990, where the heat, TV, and God’s vicar (in his own backyard), will negate any logical positivist virtues.

T.H. Turner
Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, London SE5

Gerald Brenan

SIR: I have been commissioned by Hamish Hamilton to write the biography of Gerald Brenan. I should very much like to hear from any of your readers who have letters from Brenan or significant memories of him.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
31 Blacksmith’s Yard, Binham, Fakenham, Norfolk NR21 0AL

Wilkie Collins

SIR: I am writing a biography of Wilkie Collins, to be published by Secker and Warburg. I would be grateful for any information from your readers as to the whereabouts of any unpublished letters or other manuscript material by, or relating to, Collins, in private hands.

Catherine Peters
45 Chalfont Road, Oxford OX2 6TJ

Matthew Arnold

SIR: I am editing a complete, authorised edition of the letters of Matthew Arnold, to be published by Harvard and Clarendon, and would be grateful if anyone owning or knowing of letters by or to him or his family would get in touch with me.

Cecil Lang
Department of English, University of Virginia, Charlotte, VA 22903

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences