Frank Kermode gets at what 21st-century Janeism is about: ‘It is said that among the television audience there were some who saw Darcy’s emergence from his pond – an event Austen omitted from her narrative – as the high point of the book’ (LRB, 30 April). And things have got worse since Andrew Davies’s 1995 serial. It is sad to think that there is a generation who, when they try to conjure Lizzy Bennet from the page, will have to fight back images of Keira Knightley pouting and pretending not to be beautiful in a mud-hemmed dress.
Janeism wasn’t always so aggressively female-friendly. Rudyard Kipling wrote the endearingly odd story ‘The Janeites’ (making the term famous) in 1924. His Janeites are not mob-capped elderly women of Bath, but soldiers and officers on the Western Front. Soldier Humberstall, invalided out of the army with a head wound, finds a way back to the front, to discover that he is only fit to be an assistant mess-waiter. He survives in the officers’ mess by being introduced into the ‘cult’ of Jane by the head mess-waiter – chalking ‘Reverend Collins’, ‘Lady Catherine de Bugg’ and ‘General Tilney’ on the battalion’s guns brings him 100 cigarettes instead of a ticking off. But being able to speak to superiors on equal terms is not Jane’s only godmotherly power. When the battery is destroyed in a barrage, Humberstall is the only survivor. After he jokingly calls the senior nurse Miss Bates – a plot twist Ian McEwan would envy – she makes room for him on the hospital train, saving his life: ‘You take it from me … there’s no one to touch Jane when you’re in a tight place. Gawd bless ’er, whoever she was.’ Endowed with such healing power, it is no wonder that Pride and Prejudice was prescribed to shellshocked soldiers, or that Churchill said it was Austen’s novels he turned to when things seemed bleak during the Second World War. So it has not always been girls sighing over Darcy’s wet shirt; Lizzy has also had her devoted boy fans. In a lecture to the women of Newnham College, Cambridge in 1911, A.C. Bradley needed no scriptwriter’s prompting to say of Elizabeth Bennet: ‘I was meant to fall in love with her, and I do.’
James Wood begins his discussion of Ian McEwan’s novels by arguing that, though ‘shrewd’ about the impossibility of repressing trauma, they attempt at a formal level to ‘control the vivid, traumatic happenings that originate their plots’ (LRB, 30 April). Radically contingent events shatter the ordered, placid lives of McEwan’s characters, yet his ‘highly-strung narratives’, such as the ‘very tidy novel’ Atonement, seek to ‘contain and hold accident’. (Lévi-Strauss had a word for such seductively reassuring, contradiction-smoothing fictions: he called them myths.) The result is that ‘we may find that the novels have become too easily comprehensible.’ Who is ‘we’? Not Wood himself, who declares Atonement a ‘moving and ample story’, a book that ‘wants to have it both ways, and succeeds in having it both ways’. It’s as if he were retreating from the conclusions to which his own analytic powers have led him.
I was surprised to open the issue of the LRB following the one containing John Mearsheimer’s reflections on the unfortunate resignation of Charles Freeman from the National Intelligence Council and to find not a single peep of protest (LRB, 26 March). Mearsheimer’s article had a provocative enough heading – ‘The Lobby Falters’ – but no one seemingly could be bothered to write in and say faltered be damned, when Freeman after all had gone, which was just what the lobby had wanted to happen.
Another month went by, and I found a letter not claiming in so many triumphal words that the lobby had claimed a very worthwhile scalp, but rather that Mearsheimer was simply coming out as a conspiracy theorist yet once more in attributing to the lobby more influence than it actually has (Letters, 30 April). I had always myself thought that conspiracy theorists attributed influence not to the bodies and individuals who constitute the Israel lobby without making any secret of the fact, but to organisations that operate covertly; but never mind. The author of the letter, Abraham Foxman, gives as his address a body called the Anti-Defamation League, of which I’ll admit I had not heard, though I discover from its website it’s been going since 1913. I read there that its laudable aim has always been ‘to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all’. If, in the person of Foxman, it is now protesting against Mearsheimer’s filling in of the details of the concerted campaign by the lobby that helped to ensure Freeman’s withdrawal, that implies that what Mearsheimer wrote and the LRB published was anti-semitic, which is a wholly dishonourable charge that no power on earth, it seems, is capable of preventing being brought whenever the actions of the state of Israel are criticised.
Mearsheimer was above all regretting that the removal of Freeman from his public post meant the loss of someone who held views in respect of the Middle East that broke the mould where successive American administrations are concerned. President Obama has done nothing to date to suggest that his administration is going to behave any more evenhandedly there than its predecessors, unless the far more moderate attitude he has been showing towards Iran and its nuclear ambitions is a hint that we need to give him time before he feels confident enough to take on opponents such as the lobby. I find it remarkable that Foxman, who makes such a big thing about the Israel lobby representing not just its own narrow interests but what he chooses to call ‘mainstream American views’, which appear to be identical with his own, and who celebrates the ‘diversity of thinking on Middle Eastern issues’ to be found in this country, should at the same time see it as intolerable that someone like Charles Freeman, who has spoken out robustly for one valuable strand at least of that diversity, should be granted a public position in which he might be able to make his influence count for more than he can once reduced in rank to private citizen.
In his review of The Kindly Ones, Neal Ascherson takes Jonathan Littell to task for failing to explain how ordinary men become complicit in barbarism (LRB, 30 April). But is the story of Littell’s narrator, an SS officer called Maximilian Aue, really intended to shed light on the ‘ordinary men’ enigma? Aue would like us to think of him as an ordinary man, but then so did virtually every Nazi after the war, when confessions were self-absolved by the claim that ‘we were just following orders.’ While Littell may have read Christopher Browning’s study of Reserve Police Battalion 101, as Ascherson suggests, his protagonist – a member of the SS elite, as well as a sadist and sexual pervert – bears little resemblance to Browning’s subjects, men who were too old, or unsuitable, for the army. If Aue’s contention that ‘the real danger to mankind is me, is you’ fails to convince, that may be because it’s not intended to. Indeed, Aue is so extraordinary a character that one is tempted to read Littell’s book not as a study of the ‘banality of evil’, but as a reminder of Nazism’s ‘radical evil’, the concept Hannah Arendt developed in Origins of Totalitarianism, and discarded in Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Hugh Wilford asks whether we should ‘say thank you’ for the overrated Marshall Plan (LRB, 30 April). Since 1953, Britain has been expressing gratitude in the form of Marshall Scholarships for visiting American postgraduate students, at a cost of more than £2 million a year. It’s a lovely gesture, but meanwhile Alistair Darling’s Budget means that 28,000 British students won’t have university places next year because of funding cuts. Perhaps it’s time to tell the Yanks we’ve said our thank yous.
Despite all the drawbacks mentioned by John Lanchester, there is a small nostalgia factor in Street View’s favour (LRB, 9 April). I stumbled on it by accident, and found images of my grandparents’ street near North Pole Road in White City in London. My grandparents, a cleaning woman and a bricklayer, lived there from about 1932 until their deaths, in 1982 and 1986. When they moved in, the street was thought to be slightly upmarket, because policemen lived there. It looks rather shabby now. As my father remarked when he looked at the pictures, ‘I see the dustbins are still out front.’ I haven’t seen the place since just before my grandfather’s death and the pictures brought tears to my eyes.