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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 16 · 24 August 1995

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Sister-Sister

There has been a spate of reports in the British press saying that in my essay about Jane Austen’s letters (LRB, 3 August) I made the claim that Jane Austen ‘may have been gay’ or may have had a ‘lesbian relationship’ with her sister Cassandra.

My comments have been grotesquely, indeed almost comically, distorted. Nowhere in my essay did I state that Jane Austen was a lesbian – certainly not in the modern clinical sense of the word – or that she had sex of some sort with her sister. As a number of Austen scholars and biographers consulted about the matter have pointed out, there is no evidence suggesting that Jane Austen had sexual relations of any sort with anyone, let alone with her sister Cassandra.

I stand by what I did say in the piece, however: that Austen’s relationship with Cassandra was unquestionably the most important emotional relationship of her life, that she lived with her sister on terms of considerable physical intimacy, and that the relationship – I believe – had its unconscious homoerotic dimensions. I am amazed, frankly, that in 1995 this should be considered so controversial and inflammatory a statement. Social historians have been writing for the past twenty years about the profoundly homosocial nature of middle and upper-class English cultural life in the 18th and 19th centuries: the sexes were highly segregated, and powerful emotional (and sometimes physical) ties between persons of the same sex were both common in the period and often expressed in highly romantic or passionate terms. Unmarried women, especially siblings, frequently shared a bed – as Austen and Cassandra did for all of their adult lives. I have been accused of ‘not realising’ that such physical intimacy between women was in fact ‘normal’ or ‘common’ in the period, when that was precisely part of my point. The culture at large reinforced – far more than our own culture does today – same-sex intimacy of all kinds. To point to a ‘homoerotic’ dimension in the Austen/Cassandra relationship is in one sense simply to state a truth about the lives of many English women in the early 19th century: that their closest affectional ties were with female relatives and friends rather than with men.

Elaborating on this fundamental point, I suggested that specific elements in Austen’s letters (the many satires on men and marriage) and in her novels (the compelling emotional importance given to sororal and quasi-sororal relations) indicate that she and Cassandra lived out a particularly intense version of the sister-bond. Once again, I did not say that I thought Austen necessarily acted out such feelings in any explicitly sexual way – only that I believe such feelings were there. I take it as a psychological given, obviously, that parental and sibling attachments have an erotic dimension – indeed provide the basic models for all of our subsequent affective attachments. Surely literary critics writing in the London Review are still allowed to speculate about such things.

Sadly, the hysterical reaction on the part of a number of press commentators – that I have somehow ‘polluted the shrine’ by daring to reflect along these lines about Austen’s emotional life – seems grounded in the most banal (and morally bankrupt) anti-homosexual sentiment. The question of Austen’s ‘sexual orientation’ is not the real issue here. No one – including the most well-informed Austen scholar – will ever be able to make more than an educated guess about that. What is disconcerting about the press reaction to my review is that so many people, apparently, still consider the mere suggestion that someone like Austen might have had homosexual feelings such an appalling slur that any hope for a sensitive debate on the matter becomes impossible. It is neither a crime nor a sin to love – in whatever way one is able – a person of one’s own sex.

Terry Castle
San Francisco

In her review of Deirdre Le Faye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters Terry Castle says: ‘It is a curious yet arresting phenomenon in the novels that so many of the final happy marriages seem designed not so much to bring about a union between hero and heroine as between the heroine and the hero’s sister.’ What is really curious and arresting, however, is that such a statement should be made – and made not as a casual obiter dictum but as evidence for a theory that Austen was primarily attracted to her own sex – when it is demonstrably false.

The only example Castle gives is that of Catherine Moreland and Henry and Eleanor Tilney in Northanger Abbey. Many readers would find Henry’s charm and sparkle quite sufficient reason for Catherine to want to marry him, even if the prospect of Eleanor as a sister-in-law was an added bonus. But let that pass. There are only seven other final happy marriages in the novels – the five principal ones plus Jane Bennet and John Bingley and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. Of the seven men involved, three – Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley and Edward Ferrars – have no sisters at all. John Bingley and Edmund Bertram have two each, but both pairs of sisters are unremittingly hostile to the women their brothers marry and definitely play no part at all in their achieved marital happiness. Wentworth’s sister, the wife of Admiral Croft, is a genial lady, well disposed to all, but there is no particular affection between her and Anne Elliot. Which leaves Darcy and Georgiana. While it is clear that Elizabeth is going to guide and inspire her husband’s unformed, motherless young sister, and will enjoy doing so, the prospect is dealt with in a paragraph and it would be ludicrous to regard it as a significant factor in the marriage.

Throughout the letters, as in the novels, when she is ridiculing defects of character, mind and body, Jane Austen is admirably evenhanded in her choice of male and female victims.

Kit McMahon
Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire

Terry Castle must have a gruesome imagination. He states in his lurid review of Jane Austen’s Letters that ‘implicit in everything everyone says about Cassandra is the unspoken question: why did Jane have to be the one to die?’ I am compelled to point out that not everybody, myself for one, shares this view.

I also take issue with his drip-drip implication that Jane and her sister shared some sort of incestuous relationship. From his evidence Austen cannot remotely be said to ‘flirt’ with Cassandra in the first line of her letters to her; or, if that is her aim, she does not manage very well. He also observes in what may be a typical masculine fashion that Austen’s remorseless eye for male fatuousness was ‘as if she were at once trying to reassure Cassandra – no one is good enough for me but you’. May I assure him one can observe (or read) men’s foolishness without having an ulterior motive.

It gets worse. Mr Castle uses those evocative words ‘spinsterish’ and ‘strident’ to describe Austen’s reaction to men who disturb her sexual self-possession. To back this up he kindly repeats her description of one Henry Wigram: ‘about 5 or 6 and 20, not ill-looking and not agreeable. – He is certainly no addition. – A sort of cool, gentlemanlike manner, but very silent.’ Strident? This strikes me as impressively restrained. Nor does it bear the hallmarks (tell me if I am missing the clues) of being written by an unmarried woman.

The reviewer goes on to speculate that Austen’s physical descriptions of women reveal ‘a kind of homophilic fascination’ and that Austen’s and Cassandra’s bodies are ‘insistently present’ in her letters. He cites Austen’s detailed description of a gown being made up for her in Bath. Has he never read a fashion magazine? This is a subject women (and men) will dwell happily on for hours in far more detail; but presumably Mr Castle would consider them acting out ‘homoerotic imperatives’.

I cannot finish without questioning one other observation – that Austen continually wants Cassandra to think about ‘her precise location in space’. This is hardly borne out by Austen’s remark that she is writing ‘in the Yellow room – very literally’. One art of letter-writing is surely vivid description. How much more vivid a correspondent could there be than the novelist Austen, with her eye for detail and her playful imagination?

Marianne Macdonald
Arts Reporter, the Independent

We wonder what Ms Macdonald would have written had she been alert to the fact that Terry Castle is a woman.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Down with Authenticity

Daniel Eisenstein (Letters, 20 July) asks if Nicholas Spice is seriously suggesting that we should abandon the attempt to discover more about musical languages of the past in favour of ‘anything that comes into our heads’. Apart from misrepresenting what Nicholas Spice said (if only by exaggeration) this seems to me to make some very unsafe assumptions about ‘authenticity’.

In the first place Mr Eisenstein seems unaware of the extent to which modern concert performances of classical music are not determined by the composer’s score at all, but by a mere idle-minded consensus of well-known recent performances. What he calls ‘the relatively uncreative task of interpreting the notes on the page’ can produce an astonishing range of different performances without departing from the notes at all; but such is the grip of consensus – or fashion, or whatever – that only a very small range of them ever see daylight. The situation can be judged by listening to almost any modern string quartet play Beethoven’s A minor Quartet, and comparing this performance with the recording made in the late Thirties by the Busch Quartet. The difference is not in any way a matter of fidelity to the text or authenticity (nor is it necessarily one of performance quality) yet no modern quartet that I know of would dare to perform the work in the manner of the Busch Quartet. (And if you object that, because modern string-playing technique is so different from that of the Twenties and Thirties, no quartet would be capable of playing it like the Busch Quartet, I agree; but I would say that this, too, is a measure of the extent to which originality has been stifled by consensus.) A good example of the force of this conservatism can be seen in the torrent of hostility visited on Glenn Gould for his no more than marginally unorthodox (and extremely beautiful) performance of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto.

For music written before the invention of recording we are dependent on written sources to judge how it was played, and there is considerable evidence that in many cases composers had no intention that their works should be performed with the hieratic attention to every square millimetre of the score given to them by modern players. A good deal of Baroque music, for instance, survives as no more than a melody and a figured bass, and was intended to be played with the continuo improvising somewhat in the manner of a jazz rhythm section. Yet how often in modern ‘authentic’ performances is a continuo improvised from a figured bass? In a quite different area, it is a matter of record that Liszt expressed dismay at the literal-minded way in which some of his pupils approached his piano music, and that Beethoven did not scruple jokingly to insert a vast improvised cadenza (lasting, apparently, twenty minutes) into a performance of his Piano and Wind Quintet. Of course knowledge of ‘authentic’ styles is useful so that performers take liberties in the right area – I’m a little uneasy about Glenn Gould on this count – but I would agree with Nicholas Spice that a performer for whom the only interpretative choice in playing Mozart’s A minor Piano Sonata (to take Mr Eisenstein ‘s example) is a matter of what edition to use, has abrogated both a right and a responsibility.

In any case, I have misgivings about Mr Eisenstein’s assertion, as I understand it, that music is always best played adhering to the convention of its time. As far as Mozart’s A minor Sonata is concerned, I am inclined to agree – but the particular does not prove the general. The most satisfying performance I have ever heard of the William Tell Overture was played as part of a kind of cabaret, by two trumpets, a tenor-horn, a trombone and a tuba (two of the players, I seem to remember, also filled in on tambourine and castanets). I do not doubt that it would have been considered irremediably vulgar even by that minority of classical musicians for whom the William Tell Overture is not irremediably vulgar already; but the combination of an adroit arrangement, a performance of great verve and the sheer unexpectedness of the setting woke me up to qualities in the work which in years of previous familiarity I had never noticed. It is possible to feel that the classical music establishment are currently so besotted with ‘correct’ performances that they have become deaf to the occasional advantages of performing music in the wrong way, the wrong context, the wrong idiom. I agree that the exercise is frequently unproductive but other such performances can yield an insight that could never be gained from a more conventional one: I cannot imagine any harpsichord player whose performance of the slow movement of Bach’s F minor Concerto would not be more enriched by knowing the extraordinary version of it sung by the Swingle Singers than by hearing half a dozen more ‘authentic’ performances by serious-minded Baroque ensembles.

Moreover, Mr Eisenstein (as Nicholas Spice before him) fails to make the distinction between instrumental authenticity, which can be verified, and authenticity of performance, which is a slippery concept indeed. Music would be the poorer without the magnificently spine-chilling noise of Adolf Scherbaum playing Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto on a natural trumpet – or without the dyspeptic clunking of imperfectly resuscitated forte-pianos or the exuberant wheezing of the Baroque racket. But when I hear earnest discussions about the historically correct extent to which Bach’s Cello Suites should be played in notes inégaux, or acciaccaturas struck simultaneously with the notes they precede, I am reminded of the efforts of several people I have known to learn to play jazz from ‘authoritative’ jazz textbooks rather than by simply listening to jazz and copying it; and I feel inclined to say that there are times when intuition is more likely to produce a good performance than any amount of scholarly attention to the work of 18th-century instrumental theorists. One of the debts modern music owes to recording is that we can evaluate very precisely the accuracy of textbooks and theoretical and descriptive writings about it: and while I acknowledge that jazz is something of a special case, the discrepancy between what jazz musicians actually do and what the textbooks say they do provides a good example of the danger of depending on written information about a performance art.

None of this means that I am opposed to discovering as much as possible about how 19th-century and earlier music was performed: I am all in favour of it. What I am not in favour of is the iron convention that requires performances of classical music to conform to very narrow, and only very dubiously authentic, consensual stereotypes, or else to be regarded as egregious, tasteless and inept.

James Fletcher
London E2

Unfair to the ‘OED’

John Sutherland’s review of Professor Willinsky’s Empire of Words; The Reign of the OED (LRB, 8 June) is perceptive in its discussion of the financing and management of long-term scholarly projects. But the reader may be left with the view that Willinsky ‘s own conclusions about the Oxford English Dictionary as a cultural icon should be accepted unchallenged. The problem with being a national institution is that people respond not to the institution itself, but to the idea of institutional authority, which is a very different thing. The OED is an excellent case in point. It is a book which records our language: the meanings of words, their history, their derivation. But meaning is an imprecise concept: dictionaries attempt an approximation of meaning according to the evidence available to the lexicographers and their ability to decipher it. The history of any word is also, in an absolute sense, insecure: the evidence simply is not available to document any word comprehensively. Derivation is an inexact science: for any root word there comes a point in its history at which we have to say that we have no idea why or from whence it evolved as it did.

But the eager reader has been led to expect certainties, in religion, in science, in medicine, and in almost any sphere of life. Although it is a commonplace that succeeding generations overturn the certainties of their predecessors, still the myth of certainty remains. The need to invest authority can be seen everywhere, as can the opposing need in others to topple the established authorities, either gratuitously or to replace them with a new temporary orthodoxy. It would be a disaster if this were to endanger work which is valuable. Criticism achieves a certain authority by the very fact of being in print, but may itself be as Hawed as the work it attempts to describe. The documentation of the English language in the OED is valuable: there is no other work which attempts the same tremendous goal, or which gets so close to achieving it. Authority is relative: errors should be corrected, imbalances eradicated, better information incorporated. But the sporadic undermining of a valuable record is dangerous, when the purposes of scholarship are better served by collaborative assistance. If a definition could be improved, then the scholar should submit an improvement; if new documentation is discovered, then this should be presented; if a point of policy is questioned, a better alternative should be proposed. We are fortunate that the Oxford University Press has shouldered the burden of revising the OED: in many ways the success of the enterprise depends on the contributions of those who are prepared to regard authority as relative.

John Simpson
Chief Editor, OED

Wa-Wa-Wa

I am in my second year of subscription to your finely literate magazine and I have no intention of ceasing my readership. However, there is one tiny complaint I feel compelled to express, even if it shows me up to be nothing but ignorant among my respected co-readers. I do not know French. I can’t read it, pronounce it or understand it. The two words I am most familiar with in French, outré and recherché, I learned from reading Sherlock Holmes. I did not see a warning that French is required on the subscription label I sent in to you. So it frequently irritates me when your writers insert French sayings into their articles, never having the courtesy to assume that some bumpkin in Montana won’t comprehend the language and neglecting to translate the lines in a succeeding parenthesis. One of the latest and worst infractions (there are always several per issue) was in Peter Campbell’s article on Brancusi (LRB, 20 July), where in the first paragraph he states that Duchamp ‘famously pointed to a propeller saying “wa-wa-wa, wa-wa-wa" ’ (as far as I could make out). I understand that Europeans perhaps assume that everyone is bilingual, and I can read Hebrew quite well, and I was once very fluent in Japanese, and I studied Spanish in school, but the only French I encounter in life here in Montana is on my passport and the Canadian goods I purchase over the border.

Mona Morstein
Great Falls, Montana

Monkey Business

All of your readers who wrote in response to my letter (Letters, 20 July) missed an important point. My four-liner was entitled ‘Evolution’, thus sowing the idea of the connection between humans who look like monkeys and Darwin and his theories. Anon and the nursery rhyme quoted do not make the same connection that I made first and Carol Ann Duffy second.

May I suggest to J.F. Fuggles (Letters, 3 August), who believes I am an invention and wants to see my photograph, that he go out and buy a copy of one of my books? Almost all of them have a picture on the back.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley
Hastings, East Sussex

Fiona Pitt-Kethley notes the similarities between her four-line poem of 1986 and Carol Ann Duffy’s work quoted in a review in the previous issue of LRB (Letters, 20 July). She also asks readers to judge which work is ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ in the scale of creative evolution. However, this question is irrelevant, as both poems are entirely derivative and stem directly from a far superior body of work, which I first came across in the early Seventies, but which, I suspect, had surfaced long before then. I refer, of course, to that most profound verse, sung by countless primary-school children to the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’:

Happy Birthday to you.
I went to the zoo,
I saw a big gorilla,
And it looked just like you.

Another popular version along the same theme is the following classic four-liner:

Happy Birthday to you.
Squashed tomatoes and slew,
Bread and butter in the gutter,
Happy birthday to you.

Matt Hackett
Hong Kong

Like Rabbits

Paul Keegan (LRB, 20 July) says that ‘as has been pointed out in these pages before now: there may be more people living now than all the people who have ever died.’ But Alex Shoumatoff notes in The Mountain of Names that ‘according to the most carefully reasoned estimates, between 69 and 110 billion people have lived since the appearance of humans.’ Unless Keegan has the impression that the world was a virtually unpopulated desert until some time in this century when humans began multiplying like rabbits, a minute’s reflection would have informed him that the number of the dead is indeed, as Sir Thomas Browne sensibly said, much greater than that of the living, of whom there are now about 5.4 billion. For example, supposing that an average of only 100 million people (an absurdly low estimate) have been living at all times over the last three thousand years and that these persons lived an average of fifty years (much longer than life expectancies were until recently), six billion persons (plus all those who lived before 1000 BC) would now be dead.

Shirrell Larsen
Salt Lake City

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