SIR: RW. Johnson (LRB, 10 December 1987) attempts to rubbish, with cloistered Magdalen hindsight, a quarter of a century of Labour pragmatists and radicals alike. It is all rather too facile. Certainly Wilson was too devious and Callaghan too unimaginative to understand the new imperatives of political leadership. But Benn, Scargill and Living stone, though they failed to shift the direction of the winds of change, at least had a go: and for Johnson to write off Kinnock quite so soon (‘just a student union politician’) says more about high-table hubris than realistic political judgment. It is a fatal assumption about the political primacy of economics which blinds Johnson to what was actually happening in the first Wilson years: changing the law on abortion, homosexuality and divorce (which would not have happened without the carefully co-ordinated backbench efforts of a large Labour majority) did more for equality in the long term man any fiddling with the exchange rate could ever have achieved. Wilson in the Sixties may have been a timid leader and an economic incompetent: but he had a lot of quiet instinct for helping others to make social progress.
SIR: C.K. Stead’s anxiety to quash mat aspect of Claire Tomalin’s biography Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life which he sees as deriving from a hackneyed feminism (LRB, 26 November 1987) produces a series of crude misreadings extending beyond Tomalin’s book. Far from being a recent feminist trend, the argument for considering bisexuality as a problematic pole of Mansfield’s identity was mooted over a decade ago by Vincent O’Sullivan in his article ‘The Magnetic Chain: Notes and Approaches to K.M.’, published in the New Zealand quarterly Landfall (June, 1975). O’Sullivan’s qualified claim, based on a range of material from Mansfield’s notebooks, that ‘as a young woman (and to some extent all her life) Mansfield was bisexual’ is fully elaborated in Cherry Hankin’s study Katherine Mansfield and her Confessional Stories (1983), which analyses what Mansfield experienced as her ‘disunited being’ in terms of a struggle to deny her erotic attraction to women, an attraction Hankin sees developing out of Mansfield’s childhood sense of emotional neglect. The picture which emerged from Hankin’s study was of Mansfield as latently bisexual, maintaining for the duration of her short life an emotional dependence on a woman. Ida Baker (LM), who also served as an object through whom Mansfield could repudiate her lesbian feelings. Tomalin’s biography of Mansfield assumes a similar model: hence her several references to Mansfield’s bisexuality or ‘sexual ambiguity’. Contrary to the implications of Stead’s review, however, Tomalin does not present Mansfield’s relationship with LM as part of an argument for the adult Mansfield as actively bisexual. She does indeed instance the historical and social constraints which might have prevented Edith Bendall from recognising her experience with the adolescent Mansfield as erotic. But with regard to LM Tomalin is not, as Stead asserts, ‘sceptical of [her] denials’ (what LM denied was knowledge of the term ‘lesbian’) – she in fact confirms LM by stating that her love for Mansfield was innocent, never realised as something sexual. Stead’s additional claim that Mansfield’s abrupt overnight departure from her marriage to George Bowden ‘is allowed to hover as evidence of “bisexuality" ’ is a further misreading. It is plain from the text that it was Bowden who construed Mansfield’s bizarre behaviour as an indication of lesbianism;in Tomalin’s narrative this episode is clearly framed within Mansfield’s heterosexual affair with Garnet Trowell.
Stead’s review shows him bent upon proving Mansfield’s mature and unswerving heterosexuality. This approach is, at the very least, misjudged. Part of the value of Mansfield’s personal writing in the realm of sexual and human relations is that her responses loosen divisions between adult and infantile states and masculine and feminine roles in a way which entirely escapes the normative and prescriptive. When Tomalin describes Mansfield as ‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband and wife, and lovers of both sexes’, she conveys the troubled complexity of Mansfield’s domestic existence, for while married to and deeply loving J.M. Murry, she also relied upon, even demanded, the practical help and emotional sustenance of Ida Baker in the role of subservient spouse, telling her towards the end of their long and motley relation: ‘try and believe and keep on believing without signs from me that I do love you and want you for my wife.’ Stead’s careless misquotation of Tomalin’s text (‘sexually ambiguous, with a husband, a wife and lovers of both sexes’) literalises her meaning, so obscuring its figurative power.
I wish to make one further point relating to the issue Stead raises of the ‘New Zealandness’ of Mansfield’s writing. Stead describes a shift in Mansfield’s stories away from a ‘harsh regional realism’ to a more muted style which neutralises the New Zealand context, invoking the stories of ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’. He supports this claim with reference to Mansfield’s review of Jane Mander’s The Story of a New Zealand River in which she isolates a sentence and comments on its failure to produce an emotion, or convey a picture to ‘an English reader’. Mander’s sentence reads: ‘Stiff laurel like puriris stood beside the drooping lace fringe of the lacy rimu; hard blackish kahikateas brooded over the oak-like ti-toki with its lovely scarlet berry.’ Stead points out that Mander is calling native trees by their Maori names and castigates Mansfield for her Anglocentrism. But if one reads the rest of the review it is immediately clear that Mansfield is criticising, not the use of Maori names, but the congested prose in which they are cast, for Mander can find no other descriptive terms for indigenous trees but those of laurels, oaks and lace tablecloths. What Mansfield wanted, and what she was aiming at in her own writing, was poetic evocation of New Zealand’s difference, in place of reassuringly British and taxonomic prose. This is evident both from her statement that Mander is ‘immensely hampered in her writing by her adherence to the old unnecessary technical devices’, and, a little further on. ‘she leans too hard on England.’
In the opening section of Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’ one reads of ‘big bush-covered hills’, of ‘ferny basins’, ‘silvery, fluffy toi-toi’, a man in a ‘wide-awake’, ‘an enormous shock-haired giant with his arms stretched out’ which in the next sentence becomes a gum-tree, a ‘charred-looking little whare’. I am unsure whether it is because I am currently on foreign soil, but to me, in terms both of its reference and its method, this writing does not signal ‘relax’: rather it produces a vivid sense of that mixture of the strange and the familiar which I associate with New Zealand.
Darwin College, Cambridge
SIR: I much enjoyed Ronald Bryden’s review of Kathleen Tynan’s biography of her gifted and tragic husband (LRB, 10 December 1987). But he is surely mistaken in his remarks on Kenneth Tynan’s behaviour at Oxford. It may well be that the 1944 Education Act ‘opened Britain’s older universities’ to ‘a generation of grammar-school children’. But Tynan went to King Edward’s, Birmingham, a fee paying grammar school with a record of sending boys to Oxbridge since the 1840s and its great headmaster James Prince Lee. To attend a school which has produced Archbishop Benson and such eminent Classical scholars as Bishops Lightfoot and Westcott, not to mention J. Enoch Powell nearly a century later, would hardly have put Tynan at a disadvantage compared with Etonians, Harrovians and Wykehamists. Such disadvantage belonged to poor chaps from ordinary non-fee-paying grammar schools with no tradition of Oxbridge entrance. Tynan, I suspect, felt much closer to public school men. And, of course, by the usual definition of membership of the Headmasters’ Conference, King Edward’s was a public school. The sources of Tynan’s dandyism and pushiness must be sought elsewhere. ‘The new classes thrust in among the old ones’, in the sense Bryden implies – industry and trade versus land and titles – was more a phenomenon of the mid-19th century than the mid-20th.
Shipley, West Yorkshire
SIR: If you insist on publishing letters such as that of Mr Terence Hegarty, re ‘Language Writing’ (Letters, 26 November 1987), then you are in effect supporting his claim that America is a ‘ghastly desert of the modern mind’. Gibberish such as referring to his ‘discourse’ as ‘an agented event of definite arbitrariness’ certainly suggests the ‘sterility’ or ‘myth of sterility’ that he ascribes to American culture. Likewise, his calling the writers reviewed ‘wordmongers’ seems more a case of projection. If he had read the major anthology reviewed. In the American Tree, he would know that many of the writers included profess to be interested in the phrase and the sentence and not the word, with some, such as Jackson MacLow, having so many reservations about the name ‘language poetries’ as to scarcely qualify as any sort of languagemonger. I don’t think Mr Hegarty has read any of the work reviewed, but is merely basing his opinion on Jerome McGann’s description of it. I don’t think his qualifications as a guide to the small-press publishing scene in America are any better. His statements that similar writers to Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews are a ‘dime a dozen’, while it parades a showy knowledgability, does not square with what I am able to find in either of our two local small-press bookstores. I am not sure that I agree with Dr McGann’s rather positive evaluation of ‘language poetries’, but his review was quite perceptive and his quotations extremely well-chosen. The seriousness with which he was willing to discuss this work is, I gather, what Mr Hegarty meant to question, but how seriously can be taken the objections of someone who writes: ‘Somewhere in the middle of the first paragraph I decided to stop caring about you, but my self-absorption carried me on’? This is the posturing of a college boy. The whole letter reeks of naivety (‘America is justly famous for casting its great writers into outer darkness’). No doubt this provides comedy for those wishing to see America as overflowing with yahoos, but your responsibility is to enlightenment, not entertainment,
SIR: When Dillons announced their plan to open a branch in Oxford, they could count on a warm welcome in the Oxford academic community, where it was widely felt that Blackwells deserved some serious competition. Now that we have all had the opportunity to inspect our new bookshop, and the excitement and the early crowds have thinned, the disappointment is correspondingly severe. So far from being the bookshop that scholars, students and the serious reading public here want and need. Dillons looks to most of us like another display-conscious, fast-turnover affair, revealing indifferent range and little evidence of serious thought about how best to supply this – or any other – academic community. If they were restaurateurs, one would suspect that they were competing with Macdonalds rather than with the Petit Blanc. To check my first impressions, I looked further and asked for two recent books by prominent Oxford historians, drawing a blank in both cases; examining my own special field, American History, which probably accounts for the greatest actual quantity of publication of any national history, and plays a distinctive and increasing part in the syllabus here, one found a display of a few shelves, mostly filled with textbooks and books for the uninitiated. Military History occupied twice the space given to North America, but even here a lot of the books were of the popular variety. Conversations with colleagues in other disciplines give the same general impression. We and other academic communities do need bookshops. But we need bookshops that will stock subjects in depth, will move swiftly and courteously to order overseas publications not in stock and – a very important point – will normally re-order when a copy is sold, rather man waiting for another customer’s request.
The trend represented by Dillons is discouraging, because competition coming from the light weight end of the market will draw their competitors in that direction. And we have altogether too much of the fast-food variety of bookselling already.
Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions, Oxford
SIR: I was very interested to read the lengthy and thoughtful piece on William Empson’s Faustus and the Censor that you carried in a recent issue (LRB, 26 November 1987). As you know, this work was left far from finished at Empson’s death and it is only through the diligent industry of his friend John Henry Jones in editing the manuscript and preparing it for publication mat it has seen the light of day. As the publishers of Empson’s last work we are extremely grateful to Mr Jones for his efforts.
Basil Blackwell, Oxford