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Letters

Vol. 19 No. 14 · 17 July 1997

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Murphy’s Law

The LRB’s rather charming vagueness about distant places is evident in Stephen Sedley’s article (LRB, 22 May) in which he tells us that in 1929 ‘the Privy Council, on an appeal from Canada concerned with the election of the country’s first female senator, managed to get the common law off the hook’ by establishing that a female is indeed a legal ‘person’. Canadian senators, then and now, are not elected, they are appointed. The Privy Council case did involve the Canadian Senate, but not the first woman to be appointed there (Cairine Wilson in 1930). The petitioner to the Privy Council (supported by, among others, the Province of Alberta) was Emily Murphy, who in 1916 became the first woman in the British Empire to be elevated to the Bench. (Canada also had the first woman cabinet minister in the Empire, and the second.) But Emily Murphy, in whose cause the ‘Persons’ case was fought in London, never did make it to the Canadian Senate, perhaps because she was an advocate of eugenics. The eugenics movement had many followers in Britain and the United States but it was in Alberta, under Murphy’s determined leadership, that a Sexual Sterilisation Bill actually became law, and within a few years almost three thousand Albertans felt its sting. The first damages, of CA$740,000, were paid to a patient in 1996.

Ron Haggart
Toronto

What a carve-up!

Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 19 June) suggests that it was and is common practice for medical schools to cut the breasts off a female cadaver to render the body more ‘normal’ for budding students. Nothing of the sort occurred at the Royal Free Medical School in the mid-Eighties. Eventually breasts were detached but so were arms and legs. We were a fairly feisty feminist bunch (male and female alike) and removal to make a cadaver more ‘normal’ would have had us up in arms. Would Ms Doody name the hospital where the practice she describes persists, in order that its female residents might direct their donated bodies to the Royal Free instead?

James Barrett
National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London WC1

Cuvier v. Geoffrey

Armand Marie Leroi praises Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for seeing, at the beginning of the last century, that ‘the anatomy of a lobster laid on its back was uncannily like that of a mammal on its four feet’ (LRB, 19 June). Leroi also says of the ensuing debate between Geoffroy and Cuvier – the two zoologists of the Jardin des Plantes, who didn’t see eye to eye – which took place in March 1830 before a highly interested general public in the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris (not the Académie Française, they only wrangle about words there), that Geoffroy lost his case.

But Darwin was not the only one to give Geoffroy his due for understanding the fundamental unity of all animal life, kept cleanly apart by the different categories of Cuvier. In August 1830, a few days after the July Revolution, a friend came to see Goethe wanting to know how these great upheavals had affected him. Goethe was indeed thinking of Paris, but what he had on his mind was what had happened during the meeting in the Académie Royale des Sciences where Geoffroy had subverted the principles of zoological philosophy. This was a revolutionary change which Goethe rejoiced in. Cuvier, in other words, was not a very clear winner.

J.R. Evenhuis
Scheveningen, Netherlands

Armand Marie Leroi refers three times to the African clawed toad. No such beast exists. The creature beloved of molecular biologists is Xenopus Laevis, the African clawtoed frog.

Colin Tucker
London N1

What Bill and What Rights?

As Stephen Sedley wrote (LRB, 5 June), and as Lord Irvine has recently reminded us, the Government intends to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, a proposal that Liberty has supported for some time. The Convention itself is not of course a panacea and, being nearly fifty years old, needs to be supplemented by new rights in a domestic Bill of Rights. In the shorter term the Government needs to make some important decisions on how incorporation is to be achieved. In my view, the real test of the commitment of the new Parliament will be whether it is prepared to allow the courts to give a higher status to the Convention than to other legislation. The Canadians have developed devices that preserve the sovereignty of their Parliament while also giving fundamental rights the importance they deserve within the Constitution. In Canada, if in a particular case the courts have to resolve a conflict between the rights set out in their Charter and other legislation, the Charter rights are given precedence. The particular statute is not, however, ‘struck down’; instead the courts either ‘read in’ the missing rights or make it clear that part of the statute no longer applies. Parliament then has the opportunity either to clean up the statute in order to comply with the ruling or to re-enact it, adding a clause stating that the provision applies ‘notwithstanding’ the Charter. The latter option prevents the court from dis-applying that provision of the statute. The alternative model being discussed comes from New Zealand where, if there is a conflict between rights and statute, statute prevails. In this country the adoption of the New Zealand model would mean that the individual who was able to show to the satisfaction of the domestic court that her Convention rights had been violated would nevertheless lose the case.

The Labour Party’s consultation paper, published in December, proposes that Parliament change the law in any case where the domestic courts had found that the primary legislation did not comply with the Convention. Unfortunately, if it did not do so, the domestic courts would be powerless to do anything other than to remind Parliament every time a similar case came along. The danger with this approach is that if a case concerned an unpopular group of people, like suspected terrorists, travellers or protesters, or was controversial in some other way, as many human rights cases are, then Parliament might never get round to changing the law. We need not follow slavishly either the Canadian or the New Zealand model but the courts have to have the power to provide a real check when Parliament has legislated in such a way that our fundamental human rights are at risk.

John Wadham
Liberty

From the Boyne to Brussels

Since I was unaware until I read Brendan Bradshaw’s CV (Letters, 3 July) that he had been educated by the Christian Brothers, I must plead not guilty to attempting ‘an ad hominem put-down’ in my review of The British Problem when I compared his Irish nationalism with the attitudes traditionally (and not always justly) associated with the sort of school I went to myself.

Given my reservations about the way Bradshaw’s ‘nationalist narrative … sweeps aside caution about relating past and present’, I find it odd that Peter Lake should accuse me of participating in an ‘orgy of anachronism and present-mindedness without guilt’. (His objections are not entirely clear. What kinds of guilt do I incur for bad things done three centuries ago?) In practice, Lake seems to agree that we can better understand certain ‘aspects of recent events in Northern Ireland’ by thinking about the 17th century, and the conclusion which he reaches – that students of ‘the British problem’ should be ‘self-aware’ about the politics mixed up in the field – is exactly what I was arguing. Since my article didn’t posit a single historical ‘route’ from the Battle of the Boyne to modern Brussels, I can only assume that the acidity of Lake’s remarks was provoked by general irritation with the unnamed historians he castigates in the second half of his letter.

Right through the 17th century, from King Lear to late Dryden, the problems of unity and hybridity in a ‘three-kingdom’ polity were addressed in poems, plays and romances. This material has not yet been steadily scrutinised from the multiple-monarchy perspective which historians have been making available. The difficulties involved in constructing an archipelagic literary history are considerable. But I believe that, by doing so, students of literature can help historians resolve some of the confusions and uncertainties which – as Peter Lake indicates – currently bedevil ‘British history’.

John Kerrigan
St John’s College, Cambridge

Was he or wasn’t he?

A biographer has a duty to respect the available facts, not rubber-stamp the fictions. David Cobb (Letters, 3 July) asserts that my biography of Cary Grant – which he still seems not actually to have read – took issue with much of the gossip concerning his sexuality because I regarded ‘the slightest suggestion of non-heterosexuality threatening’ to my ‘personal vision of Cary Grant’. If Cobb could bring himself to do something so strenuously empirical as to consult my previous book, Rebel Males (1991), he would find an entirely uncritical reference to Grant’s ‘bisexual inclinations’; I came to doubt the accuracy of that description only after, and certainly not before, I had the opportunity to research his life in great detail.

Cobb goes on to share with us yet more of his many – admittedly ‘inconclusive’ – bits of ‘evidence’. He reveals, for example, the shocking fact that Grant, during his early years in Hollywood, shared a ‘bungalow’ with Randolph Scott. This is true: it was a seven-bedroom beach house in Santa Monica, just a few doors down from the very similar one shared by the well-known homosexuals David Niven and Errol Flynn. Cobb adds that a humorous picture of Grant and Scott in their kitchen was taken but ‘never released’: I know of at least two popular magazines of the time that printed it.

Cobb concludes by quoting at length from Brendan Gill’s predictably manipulative review of my book in the New Yorker. Gill declared that Betty Furness, a young starlet, was ‘good-natured’ enough to fake ‘an impassioned affair’ with Grant in the mid-Thirties in order to dupe the inquisitive press. In 1991, five years after Grant’s death, Betty Furness went on record as saying how angered she had been by the spurious claim put forward by a certain writer that her relationship with Grant had been a sham: ‘I would simply like to state,’ she said, ‘that my relationship with Cary was a romance on both parts. It was not set up by anyone.’ Who was the writer she was referring to? Brendan Gill.

Graham McCann
King’s College, Cambridge

Fabienne Loy

Readers of Jane Eldridge Miller’s review of Carolyn Burke’s biography of Mina Loy (LRB, 19 June) might wish to know that Loy’s daughter Fabienne, ill and nearing blindness, died – by her own hand – a few weeks ago.

Jeremy Bernstein
Aspen, Colorado

Under the Loincloth

Frank Kermode’s excellent review of Leo Steinberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (LRB, 3 April) implies that the images included in the first edition of the work are not included in this, the revised edition. The illustrations are, in fact, all there, in correct order, along with many new ones that expand the visual evidence for Professor Steinberg’s argument concerning the humanation of God.

G.B. Phillipson (Letters, 5 June) requests that Steinberg or Kermode produce for him a Renaissance image of a circumcised Christ. As Steinberg tells us, Renaissance artists ‘willingly paid the price of inaccuracy to spare the revered body the blemish of imperfection’ and mutilation associated with circumcision in the Christian 15th and 16th centuries.

Susan Bielstein
University of Chicago Press

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