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Letters

Vol. 26 No. 4 · 19 February 2004

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Spies in Drag

Paul Laity doesn't mention transvestites in his piece about women spies in the First World War (LRB, 8 January). Dyce Murphy, an Australian adventurer and cross-dresser, spied for the British on the Continent under the name of Edith Dyce Murphy. He was painted in drag by E. Phillips-Cox, the portrait inspiring Patrick White to write The Twyborn Affair. Dyce Murphy was also a successful whaler and explored the Antarctic with Douglas Mawson – usually, but not always, in masculine gear.

Robert Brain
Leura, New South Wales

Had the Jacobites Won

I was interested to read John Mullan’s review of two recent books on Jacobitism, in one of which I had a hand (LRB, 22 January). It is remarkable how this episode still attracts passionate involvement by partisans of either side (of whom I cannot, pace Mullan, claim to be one). It seems from his review that two different things are going on simultaneously. One is the use of a shared repudiation of romanticism to denigrate the Stuart cause. The other is indignation at some historians’ recourse to contingency and the counterfactual to unsettle old certainties. Yet these are not at all the same thing.

Mullan wants us to believe that recent writers on Jacobitism are motivated by a romantic attachment to that cause, and reveal their ‘sentimental’ sympathies by referring to the exiled dynasty with the titles they claimed for themselves. Since everyone known to me in that school has consistently condemned this sort of biscuit-tin Jacobite kitsch, I fear that such censure discloses either Mullan’s lack of familiarity with the scholarship, or a desire to misrepresent it. For an example of historians’ legitimate use of proper names to unsettle assumptions (without endorsing a claim) he might ponder Norman Davies’s The Isles; or does he want to dismiss Davies’s locution ‘Guillaume le conquérant’ as emotional subservience to the Norman enterprise?

Mullan thinks that those who have argued that Jacobitism was more widespread than generally realised have taken up ‘entrenched positions’. Yet holding fast to romantic attachments is inconsistent with the other vice he attributes to the authors in question: the position that everything might have happened differently. Contingency is the heart of the matter, but this is true of all outcomes in all centuries. To belittle as ‘polemical’ the organisation of historical evidence on ideologies and allegiances gets us nowhere. Mullan’s only contribution to the debate on Johnson’s evolving commitments is a weighty ‘perhaps’: such matters are settled by evidence, not perhapses.

That being so, I am concerned at the way in which scholars in English departments increasingly imply that to write about a past author is to offer a covert endorsement of that individual. Even if this practice were acceptable, I might plead not guilty, having elsewhere laboured to rescue Burke from identification as a ‘slumbering Jacobite’ and to re-place him as a reforming Whig: Whigs too can be idealists, I urged (evidently in vain). But the practice is not acceptable. It would make the work of historians almost impossible; it would poison the wells of scholarship; and it goes some way to explaining why historians sometimes have difficulty in taking some literary critics entirely seriously.

Jonathan Clark
Lawrence, Kansas

Like/Unlike Alan Bennett . . .

I can quite believe that Alan Bennett's patience with Tony Blair is exhausted, but when he and Graham Brown (Letters, 22 January) want me to consider carefully how to vote at the next general election I need further advice. Have I missed Michael Howard's anti-war speeches, can I imagine Charles Kennedy in Number 10, or should I believe in the miracle of St Gordon, sitting in cabinet, providing the money yet somehow not implicated? Staying at home isn't an option for me.

Jane Binyon
Oxford

Vanessa Coode may rest assured that I intended to impugn only Alan Bennett’s politics (Letters, 5 February). ‘Hysterical schoolgirl’ as a term of political abuse is not original. Attacking Lord Carson’s speech against the Anglo-Irish Treaty in the House of Lords on 14 December 1921, the Earl of Birkenhead said that ‘as a constructive effort of Statecraft’ it ‘would have been immature upon the lips of an hysterical schoolgirl’. It is unlikely that Birkenhead thought Carson insufficiently manly.

Colin Armstrong
Belfast

Unimprovable

Richard Wollheim’s piece on improvisation, triggered by his conversation with the architect Richard Meier, who was deeply hostile to such disorderly conduct (LRB, 4 December 2003), reminded me of my first contact with another great architect impatient of improvisation. As an Oxford undergraduate in the early 1960s, I helped put on an exhibition of paintings by another student, Michael Honor, in the common room of the newly completed St Catherine’s. The room was lit by cylindrical skylights, each placed above an alcove of unplastered brickwork with recessed pointing. We found that a framed painting with two nails driven in the back could be hooked securely into the slot between brick courses below each skylight. Each was thus bathed in natural light all day (and electric light by night) with no glare. It was, we thought, an admirable way to hang an exhibition, and we were delighted that the architect who designed the college, Arne Jacobsen, happened to appear. We looked forward to his pleasure at the use made of his room, but he was furious. ‘If you had wanted an art gallery,’ he said, ‘you should have asked for one.’

Michael Edwards
University College London

Hooray for Vernon Lee

In her review of Vineta Colby’s biography of Vernon Lee (LRB, 22 January), Miranda Seymour says that Lee’s ‘more serious work remains, for good reason, neglected’ and that Colby’s book is ‘a worthy attempt to revive interest in work which nobody other than Edward Casaubon or a masochist could be impatient to read’. LRB readers may be interested to know that the international conference on Vernon Lee which we organised last June at the London Institute of English Studies attracted 28 speakers from the US, the UK, France, Italy and Germany and delegates from as far afield as Australia. In addition to Colby’s biography, 2003 also saw the publication of Christa Zorn’s Vernon Lee: History, Aesthetics, and the Female Intellectual, while a number of other monographs and essays are due to be published. Those keen to buck the age-old trend of discounting a woman’s work will find the experience of reading Vernon Lee confers few pains and many pleasures.

Catherine Maxwell and Patricia Pulham
Queen Mary, University of London

As Easy to Fly as a Bicycle

Am I the only anorak among your readers to have noticed the howler at the head of Robert Macfarlane’s piece about the Wright Brothers and Santos Dumont (LRB, 5 February)? ‘Seven miles per hour’ was the speed over the ground, not speed through the air. It was pretty windy on the day! Given the drag-inducing aerodynamics of the Wright Flyer and its minimal engine power, actual airspeed was a commendable 31 miles an hour. Further on, we have another instance of technical illiteracy in the statement that the slight twist in the wing of the Boeing 747 enables it to turn, just like the wing-warping system did on the aircraft built by the Wrights. This ‘twist’ is a feature called ‘washout’, which virtually all swept-wing aircraft need to avoid stalling of the wingtips when flying at low speeds or at high Mach numbers. Finally, it isn’t true to say that Otto Lilienthal died because his glider was unstable. It was because he relied on weight-shifting for steering. The Wrights designed their aircraft to be unstable, knowing that with good controls, like wing-warping and rudders, they would be as easy to fly as the bicycles that the Wrights had taught themselves to ride and went on to manufacture.

Fred Starr
London SW16

My baby done left me

John Heath is right to distinguish traditional Cretan music from the gritty urban (usually Athenian) recorded music of the 1920s and 1930s known as rebétika (Letters, 5 February). I was obviously hitting the ouzo. But in my own defence I find, consulting the liner notes of Greek-Oriental Rebetica: The Golden Years: 1911-37, that the words of my favourite rebétika song, ‘If I were the hem of your skirt’ (‘Hyotikos Manes’), are based ‘on a … couplet known not only in Istanbul but also various localities of Greece, e.g. Chios and Crete’:

If I were and if I were the hem of your skirt,
I would stoop and see what? The hole of
your twat.

Terry Castle
Stanford

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