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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995

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In Praise of Ulster Scots

In his Diary Tom Paulin refers to the film he is making, with David Hammond, about the Ulster Scots dialect (LRB, 24 August). In passing he describes a poem of mine as ‘packed with Ulster Scots words’; and goes on to wonder: ‘Maybe the poet is wanting to ruffle his deft parnassian or to raise certain readers ’hackles? For there’s a calculated over-determined quality to the language in the poem that makes it more like a piss-take.’ In my new collection The Ghost Orchid there are, in fact, two poems so ‘packed’, and a few others which use the dialect more sparingly. I hope that I can allay Paulin’s apparent suspicions about my motives.

In the Poetry Book Society’s Bulletin for Summer 1995 I try to explain what I am up to: ‘I had long wanted to make a self-contained lyric out of the scene in Book XXII of the Odyssey where Phemios the bard and Medon the herald beg for mercy from Telemachos and Odysseus who have just finished slaughtering Penelope’s suitors. By serendipity or subconscious design I was leafing through an Ulster Scots glossary, and found that dialect from my region was making available to me the terror and comedy of this scene out of Greek epic. Words such as banny, bam, gabble-blooter, keeking made fresh sounds and suggestions.’

Or perhaps Paulin has the other poem in mind, ‘The Mad Poet’, in which I use Ulster Scots to underline the satire at the end of Horace’s Ars Poetical? As someone who speaks fairly standard English I would, as a rule, choose Ulster Scots words only when they set free a concept or phrase or emotion which would otherwise not be accessible to me. In a third poem, for instance, dialect words for ‘birdsong’ (tweetle, wheep, chitter, chirl) help me to write tenderly about a very old (Scottish) relative who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Paulin is right to praise the Ulster Scots poet and United Irishman James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry. His ‘Donegore Hill’ (according to Paulin, ‘a brilliant, almost unknown political poem’) is probably the greatest poem to come out of 1798. As directors of Field Day as well as students of Ulster Scots, how did David Hammond and Tom Paulin allow the compendious Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) to omit not only ‘Donegore Hill’ but all writing in Ulster Scots? James Orr is represented by one poem, but it is in standard English, alas.

Michael Longley
Belfast

Tom Paulin in his references to Hazlitt and Coleridge omits (admittedly in the company of other commentators past and present) to identify as Unitarian the church at Wem, of which the poet’s father, the Rev. William Hazlitt, was minister. A toast and watchword of Unitarianism from the 18th century onwards has been ‘civil and religious liberty’ and so it should be no surprise to find many of the revolutionary and Romantic thinkers of the early 19th century associated with it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge preached in a number of Unitarian pulpits in the West Country and it was to the Unitarian chapel in Shrewsbury that Hazlitt walked ten miles to hear him. Indeed Coleridge had been proposed as the new minister and it was only an annuity provided for him by a Unitarian layman, Thomas Wedgwood, son of Josiah, that enabled the poet and philosopher to devote himself to writing.

May I add a footnote? In the (often fitful) light of the turbid history of Christianity in Ireland, I think – when referring to Presbyterian churches and meeting-houses – Paulin should acknowledge his awareness of the non-subscribing (to the Westminster confession) Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a creedless denomination, albeit small, which for two centuries has preached and practised tolerance in religion, in education and in social service.

Peter Sampson
Lancaster

Tillyard and Leavis

Frank Kermode (LRB, 24 August) rightly says that Dr Tillyard disliked Leavis. As one of Tillyard’s pupils, however, I can attest that he positively encouraged me to attend Leavis’s lectures and classes in order to hear a point of view different from his own. I learnt a lot from both, and remain deeply grateful to both of them.

S.S. Prawer
The Queen’s College

Sister-Sister

Professor Castle takes the British media too seriously. What she calls their ‘hysterical reaction’ (Letters, 24 August) was simply journalists earning their keep in hyping up a story. I was interviewed by four or five and can testify that they were their usual hard-nosed selves.

As to Cassandra’s feelings for Jane, we have the surviving letters to go on and we must make of them what we can. Professor Castle finds Jane writing to Cassandra ‘flirtatiously’, Cassandra being ‘seduced’ by the ‘constant foolery’ of the letters. Guided by accounts of ‘the psychic complexity of female-female relationships in late 18th and early 19th-century Britain’, Professor Castle is able to identify in the letters ‘a kind of homophilic fascination’ in Jane Austen’s ‘physical descriptions of women’, ‘the sexuality of women’s bodies’ eliciting ‘oddly visceral effects’. In her letters to Fanny Knight, Professor Castle suggests, one could look for evidence to support ‘the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism’.

Discussions of Jane Austen’s sexuality are notable for their rarity, largely, one suspects, because they have so little to do with the way we read the novels. The yield from Professor Castle is meagre and curiously unconvincing: ‘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’; and that ‘the heroes are often more like sisters than lovers in the conventional sense.’ One hunts for examples. Professor Castle produces Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney. And the rest?

On the matter of sexuality, too, Professor Castle must be judged on the evidence produced and its handling. Her major exhibit is an extract of twenty lines from a letter Jane wrote to Cassandra in May 1801 describing a new gown, a description Professor Castle calls ‘so fantastically detailed as to border on the compulsive’. ‘Such passages remind us strikingly of how important a role clothes have played in the subliminal fetish-life of women.’ Professor Castle’s paragraph of commentary concludes by connecting the gown description to the two women’s acting out of ‘unconscious narcissistic or homoerotic imperatives’. And, in the next paragraph, the discussion is extended, referring back to the gown description, with the idea of Jane’s ‘desire to be seen and imaginatively embraced’ by Cassandra.

Whether or not we like this line of argument, it has to be taken seriously. But there’s something missing, the sentence before, a sentence which tumbles the entire edifice of Professor Castle’s speculation. For, in introducing the description of the gown, Jane tells Cassandra a signal circumstantial fact: ‘Mrs Mussell [her dressmaker] has got my Gown, & I will endeavour to explain what her intentions are.’ The ‘compulsive’ diagnosis, and all that follows from the discovering of that first neurotic trait, collapses before our eyes. For Jane Austen’s description of the gown is an accurate and detailed explanation of Mrs Mussell’s ‘intentions’: the outcome of discussions with Jane, using Mrs Mussell’s professional knowledge about what can best be done with these particular materials. Far from being ‘compulsive’, all this is what any woman would meet with today, as Jane Austen did in Bath, two hundred years ago, in submitting her ideas to the judgment of a dressmaker.

This part of the letter, packed with information, is written from one amateur dressmaker to another, for that is what the Austen sisters were, except on special occasions, such as this, when one or other of them could afford to splash out on a real dressmaker’s gown, or, in this case, possibly, be treated to one, by Mrs Leigh-Perrot, the well-to-do Aunt at whose smart address (No 1 Paragon) Jane and her mother were then staying. Hence her concluding sentence, about fearing she has not been ‘particular enough’. Jane wanted to tell Cassandra what was fashionable about her gown as well as what was practicable; and she continues the letter to its end, nine lines later, with an account of what is in fashion in Bath by way of ‘Bonnets’ (both ‘straw’ and ‘Cambric Muslin’) and ‘Cloaks’ of ‘Black gauze’. Pursuing her case, Professor Castle could have quoted these lines, too, as evidence of Jane Austen’s ‘compulsive’ bent, as further evidence of the sisters’ ‘subliminal fetish-life’. But we know different.

Professor Castle complains that, in the press, her ‘comments have been grotesquely, indeed almost comically, distorted’. We could reply, on behalf of Jane Austen, that this passage from her letter has been treated to no less distortion – equally grotesque, equally comic – at the hands of Professor Castle.

Brian Southam
Jane Austen Society

Shame on the London Review for deliberately provoking a controversy over Terry Castle’s review of the new edition of Jane Austen’s letters (LRB, 3 August). The mischief created by your eye-catching rubric ‘Was Jane Austen Gay?’ was compounded in your 24 August issue by your publication of Marianne Macdonald’s letter in which she erroneously assumed that Castle must be a man. Obviously knowing that Ms Macdonald was making an embarrassing mistake, you nevertheless chose to publish her letter, apparently because it offered the smug opportunity to humiliate her on the spot, whilst also allowing a dig at the Independent for employing such an ‘unalert’ Arts Reporter.

Linda-Jo Bartholomew
Wivenhoe, Essex

I am flattered you thought my letter on Terry Castle’s absurd review of Jane Austen’s Letters worthy of publication, even though you wondered at the end what I would have written had I been ‘alert to the fact that Terry Castle is a woman’. A fair enough point, had not your own press release on the subject described Ms Castle as a man.

Marianne Macdonald
Arts Reporter, the Independent

Would Ms Macdonald like to take another look at the press release?

Editor, ‘London Review’

Find Your Level

In his review of Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Bert Hölldobler and Wilson’s Journey to the Ants (LRB, 20 July), Steven Rose repeats some of his objections to sociobiology. He is entitled to be uncomfortable with ‘reductionism’ but he cannot discredit sociobiological research by reducing it to a straw man; and he cannot dictate what can or cannot be explained in the sciences. He trivialises Wilson’s position by stating that in his ‘reductionist argument’ Wilson fails to see that ‘it is not only religion which cannot be explained exclusively in terms of atoms or genes.’ Neither Wilson nor (probably) any other sociobiologist claims that cultural systems can be explained ‘exclusively’ by biology (or physics). As for Rose’s assertion that ‘even the self-organising properties of a single cell’ cannot be explained ‘merely’ in terms of atoms or genes, that issue is the subject of ongoing research. Rose’s confident pronunciamento cannot close the question. His metaphysical argument that ‘each level of complexity of living systems requires study in its own terms’ carries little weight at this point in the history of science. Those hallowed ‘levels’ – presumably mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – are shifting historical artefacts, not rigid categories, and what they can or cannot explain are subjects of research. In the 17th century the Church advised Galileo that in science planetary astronomy may be studied in terms of mathematics but not physics. How the planets actually move, it was claimed, had been determined on the ‘level’ of theology.

Gabriel Dover’s review of Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA (LRB, 3 August) is an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics. He refers to theoretical geneticists as ‘thousands of molecular zombies’ and his review makes the unsubstantiated claim that the fundamental processes of life are not merely unknown, they are unknowable. He quotes approvingly Pollack’s prediction that ‘experimentation on human genes, no matter how imaginative, will never give a single, complete meaning to the human genome’ as well as his belief that ‘genes and proteins … are time-dependent and historically rooted; and we are finding out the hard way, neither is totally knowable or predictable.’ (Pollack’s argument, incidentally, is based on an analogy between the levels of physics – ‘unpredictable atoms’ – and biology.) Many scholars and scientists are understandably concerned that the liberal programme of reforming society may be restricted by the misuse of scientific knowledge to perpetuate social injustice. Rose faults Wilson for failing to ‘comment on the pseudo-scientific use of sociobiological claims by racists on the far right’. Would it not be better to engage political opponents on the ‘level’ of politics rather than by finding philosophical fault with scientific research?

Harold Dorn
Stevens Institute of Technology

Will Blair do it?

While I am sure that Scotland is entitled to whatever form of autonomy or independence its people may decide they want, how does Tom Nairn (LRB, 24 August) think the experience of the ordinary person in Glasgow is any different from, for example, that of the ordinary person in Tottenham? If the answer is that there is no difference of significance, as I believe it is, then the question becomes not one of Scottish independence but of how ordinary people can get the profit system off their backs. This leads to a second point. If it is possible to achieve some form of Scottish independence, why stop there? Why no discussion of John Maclean’s workers’ republic? Finally, does Nairn think that Tony Blair and New Labour will grant Scotland independence?

Keith Flett
London N17

Down with Authenticity

Daniel Eisenstein takes up the gage for authentic classical music performance (Letters, 20 July). I’d like to thwack it back into his court. First, most of the classical repertoire familiar to us carries great increments of significance picked up in its passage through the Romantic period onwards. I love this patina and wouldn’t want it too thoroughly scrubbed away. Second, though study of performance practice years ago does lead to new insights into the meaning of the work, to follow them closely may not convey what was then intended. For instance, an all-male Shakespeare production in the commercial theatre today will have lots of unintended resonances. As far as musicians being able to play whatever they want if not tied to rigorous period authenticity, we all know who they are and will bad-mouth them on plenty of other valid grounds.

Caroline Norwood
Rochester, New York

Random

In his review of surveys of sexual behaviour, Lawrence Stone (LRB, 3 August) notes that the Kinsey Report used ‘biased samples’ and received ‘devastating reviews at the time in the scientific journals’. Given his awareness of the controversy around Kinsey’s claim that 10 per cent of men were homosexual, Stone’s unquestioning acceptance of the new, but equally controversial, claim of 3 per cent is bizarre. The new surveys use samples that are geographically random, meaning that a 30-year-old white skilled working-class male living in Northumberland was as likely to be interviewed as a similar 30-year-old in London. The method fails to recognise that if the man in Northumberland was gay and didn’t want to live in the closet, he would probably have chosen to leave Northumberland several years before the re searchers arrived.

Roger Pebody
London W1

Lawrence Stone accuses Shere Hite of using biased samples in her Reports. He refers to her use of respondents recruited through magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse, giving the impression that these were her only sources. In this he reveals his own bias and prejudice. First, although he does not say so, he is referring only to The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, and not to the three Hite Reports which dealt with female sexuality. Second, in The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, only 11 per cent of the replies came from readers of men’s magazines, and I would think that at least 11 per cent of the US male population read sexually-oriented magazines. Fifteen per cent of the responses came from men who had read The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, and 48 per cent from members of men’s clubs, church organisations, professional associations and sports groups. The remaining 26 per cent came from geographical areas and sectors of the population that were not adequately represented in the first wave of replies.

Ethna Viney
Westport, Co. Mayo

Emerson’s Great Essay

Injury succeeds insult for Ralph Waldo Emerson in the pages of the London Review of Books. Ian Hamilton’s poem ‘Steps’ (LRB, 3 August) reads like a hastily versified set of notes taken from the first paragraph of ‘Experience’. The text of Emerson’s great essay reads as follows:

Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which according to the old belief stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday.

Hamilton’s poem reproduces not only the paragraph’s central image (that of the staircase), which is commonplace enough, but also, word for word, its opening sentence (‘Where do we find ourselves?’), its second sentence, in a somewhat altered version (‘we know not the extremes’), and, in a very slight variation, one of the paragraph’s most striking phrases (‘this lethargy at noon’). I question the tact of the author, and the judgment of his editors, in publishing this work without acknowledgment.

J. Mark Smith
Mammoth Lakes, California

Ian Hamilton made it clear when he offered us ‘Steps’ for publication that the poem had its source in an essay by Emerson. Archaisms like ‘We know not’ and ‘Alas’ surely signal that there is a source and that the poet is not addressing us in his own person. A formal acknowledgment, it seemed to us and to him, would have been heavy-handed.

Editor, ‘London Review’

What’s the fuss about?

Ian Sansom offers a provocative explanation for the popularity of Carol Ann Duffy’s verse (LRB, 6 July). He suggests it ‘has undoubtedly made a lot of English teachers very very happy’. It’s ‘accessible’, i.e. it’s easy, so kids like it.

I sympathise with teachers who are nervous of poetry: it is difficult to teach, especially if you neither like nor read it yourself. But anxiety can make one easy prey to unscrupulous ‘experts’. Witness the amount of mediocre contemporary poetry on English syllabuses and exam papers and crowding stock-room shelves. Outside the narrow world of contemporary poetry most of this stuff would pass unremarked. Good stand-up comics are wittier and more perceptive; much TV drama (including soaps) more skilful and thought-provoking; most popular music more fun. But here’s Ian McMillan telling teachers that this very ordinary poet is ‘at the height of her powers’ and Sean O’Brien placing her ‘high on my list’ of exemplars. Come off it.

Barry Simner
Tywyn, Gwynedd

Crazy Don

Michael Wood’s essay on translations of Cervantes’s Don Quixote (LRB, 3 August) brought back memories of some seventy years ago when as a teenager I read this masterpiece translated into Hungarian, my mother tongue. Professor Wood writes about ‘the great challenge’ in translating Cervantes and mentions, as an example, the opening of the first chapter. Translated literally, as he says, the sentence should be in English: ‘In a place in Mancha whose name I do not want to recall’. Though I’m aware that very few, if any, of your readers understand the difficult language of Magyars, I venture to quote this beginning in Hungarian: ‘La Mancha egyik falujában amelynek nevét nem akarom emliteni’. Well, the Hungarian translation should please Professor Wood. In English it reads: ‘In a village of La Mancha whose name I do not want to mention’. Striking similarity, isn’t it? The two-volume Don Quixote was among the few books I could bring out from Hungary after the 1956 Revolution. Now, having read Professor Wood’s excellent piece, I am especially happy I did.

Endre Marton
Chevy Chase, Maryland

‘Chambers’ wins

Professor Sutherland, in his review of John Willinsky’s Empire of Words: The Reign of the ‘OED’ (LRB, 8 June), informs us that ‘no longer will scholars use OED in the same way that Scrabble players use the Shorter Oxford and Webster, as a Bible on matters linguistic.’ I do not know about Webster and the US, and I would not quibble about the Shorter Oxford as a Bible on matters linguistic but, according to the information inside the cover of my copy of the 1993 edition of Chambers Dictionary, it is the official reference dictionary for the UK National Scrabble Championship. Chambers is, therefore, the Bible for Scrabble players.

L.B. McKenzie
West Pennant Hills, New South Wales

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