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Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011

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Memories of Ernest Gellner

It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.

I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.

So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.

Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.

Sarah Gellner
London SE11

Where are the women?

Sir Walter Scott did not, as Perry Anderson claims, ‘inaugurate’ the historical novel (LRB, 28 July). As several critics have shown, it was already an established form by the time he published Waverley in 1814, and there was a body of existing historical fiction, much of it by women, on which he was able to draw. One of the most significant of these works was Sophia Lee’s extraordinary novel about the imagined twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots, The Recess (1783). Lee’s novel is not an exercise in ‘nation-building’ of the sort lauded by Lukács but a sophisticated exploration of history as subjective and gendered narrative.

In taking Waverley as the exemplary ‘classicial historical novel’ Lukács was responsible for establishing a Marxist model of the genre based on a concept of history as dialectical progress. This dominated critical work on the genre until very recently and has worked to exclude women’s novels from discussions of the form (Lukács does not discuss a single novel by a woman). Women’s historical novels simply do not fit the Lukácsian model that Anderson rehearses in his piece. They very rarely work with a notion of history as ‘progress’. They have been much more likely to be histories of defeat that explore the ways in which women have been violently excluded both from ‘history’ (the events of the past) and from ‘History’ (written accounts of the past). As such they predate by a couple of centuries what Anderson claims is the new departure of ‘meta-historical fiction’ led by Latin American novelists in the late 1940s and the turn in the 1970s to focus on the ‘experience of defeat’.

Moreover, the historical novel did not become a ‘recessive form’ after the First World War as Anderson claims. Instead it became, in Britain at least, a predominantly female form. Writers as disparate as Naomi Mitchison, Rose Macaulay, Georgette Heyer, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Bryher, Hilda Vaughan, Kate O’Brien, D.K. Broster, H.F.M. Prescott, Rosemary Sutcliff, Mary Renault and Jean Rhys reinvented the genre in radical ways, partly in response to changes in gender roles. And Virgina Woolf was not the only writer to produce the ‘modernist historical novels’ Anderson and Jameson think are impossible: other examples include H.D.’s important Palimpsest (1926) and Mary Butts’s iconoclastic Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra (1935). When Anderson refers to the ‘huge mound of trash’ of the postwar years, he is replicating the dismissive attitude towards these women writers which led to the historical novel being critically ignored during these years. What he sees as the abrupt ‘resurrection’ of the form in relation to the ‘postmodern turn’ looks rather less abrupt if it is seen in relation to these still neglected writers, the influence of whom can be detected in, for instance, the work of A.S. Byatt or Sarah Waters.

Diana Wallace
University of Glamorgan

I wonder whether Perry Anderson’s mention of George Eliot might not give readers unfamiliar with her work the wrong impression. Romola does take place much further from her own time than any of her other novels, but those other novels are not all ‘realistic representations of contemporary life’. Adam Bede (published in 1859) begins in 1799, while Felix Holt (1866), and Middlemarch (1869-72) both take place around the time of the First Reform Bill of 1832.

Stephen Burt
Belmont, Massachusetts

I realise that both Marx and Lukács were keen on Sir Walter Scott. To each their weaknesses. I wonder whether Perry Anderson has ever read Scott. The turgid prose, the desperate narrative, the deus ex machina, the pathetic romance, the deadly conservatism. Give me Henty any day. And why did he ignore Hilary Mantel, one of the finest historical novelists writing today, who is single-handedly reviving the genre? Or doesn’t she fit in the rigid categories of Marxist criticism?

Louise Hirsch

Useless Eaters

The phrase ‘useless eaters’, which Bernard Porter highlights as referring to Jews in his review of Lizzie Collingham’s The Taste of War, was first used by German advocates of eugenics in reference to that country’s disabled population (LRB, 14 July). In 1920, Binding and Hoche wrote their manifesto calling for the forced euthanasia of ‘life unworthy of life’, which sowed the seeds for the T-4 programme that resulted in the extermination, by a medical establishment colluding with the Nazis, of at least 70,000 (and perhaps as many as half a million) disabled and ‘feeble-minded’ citizens. The gas chamber method for mass killings was first developed for this purpose, and so while it is true in one way, as Porter says, that ‘the death camps … were a direct result of the unexpected resilience of the Polish Jews in the ghettos’ to the Nazi Hunger Plan, there is another story of how those places came to exist.

Alex Lockwood

Tacitean Nationalism

Anthony Grafton writes of Tacitus’ unwitting contribution to modern German nationalism (LRB, 14 July). In the same year as Germania appeared, Tacitus also published Agricola, a life of his father-in-law, the Roman general responsible for the conquest of much of Britain. Agricola defeated a confederacy of Caledonian tribes in 83 AD at Mons Graupius, thought to be somewhere in the Grampian mountains. Tacitus gives us the stirring eve-of-battle speech of the Caledonian leader, Calgacus, a phrase from which has become widely known: ‘They make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant). Calgacus’ resistance to the Romans has placed him alongside William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the annals of Scottish independence. A Google search for his name turns up websites called things like So there is also a link between Tacitus’ writings and modern Celtic nationalism. Calgacus appears in history only in the Agricola. Why did Tacitus transmit such a negative view of his father-in-law's mission to his readers? Perhaps, as in the Germania, he was attempting to make a point about what Grafton calls the ‘moral and political iniquity of the empire’.

S.C. McFarlane
Milton Keynes

The Goodwin and Giggs Show

David Elstein now seeks to justify the breach in Parliament of court orders on the ground that conscience may drive members to defy ‘injunctions based on a miscued Act’ (Letters, 28 July). He appears to believe the tabloid myth that the Human Rights Act and the Convention routinely protect privacy at the cost of freedom of expression. I would be interested to see a single privacy judgment given since the Act came into force in October 2000 which does not recognise the right to freedom of expression and balance it against the right to respect for private life. As often as not, the public interest in free expression carries the day. Would Elstein like to live in a society in which anyone could publish anything they chose regardless of its impact on those it affected?

Stephen Sedley
London EC4

My Libraries

Alan Bennett misses out one ‘modest library’ in Radcliffe Square in Oxford (LRB, 28 July). Brasenose College Main Library, which was completed in 1664, is an impressive room with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and views over the sublime, soaring architecture of Radcliffe Square, and, in the other direction, over Oxford’s smallest quadrangle, Brasenose’s ironically named Deer Park.

Christopher Allen

Not a Sect

‘Evangelische Kirche’ should be translated as ‘Protestant Church’ and not, as it seems to have been in Franziska Augstein’s piece on Angela Merkel, as ‘Evangelical Church’ (LRB, 14 July). The description of Merkel’s father’s institute is also misleading. The Pastoralkolleg Templin is a Lutheran pastoral seminary, not ‘an educational institute for evangelical theologians’. The Lutheran Church is the established Protestant church in Germany, not a minor sect.

Michael Robertson

Poor with Words

Tim Parks writes about the discrepancy in novels between the way a character is described and the way his interior monologue sounds (Letters, 28 July). I’ve always been puzzled by how someone as idle and ill-informed as Bertie Wooster is able, as ostensible narrator, to deliver, in subtle and nuanced prose, novels as perfectly and painstakingly constructed as, for example, The Code of the Woosters. I don’t know whether one can call up at Colindale, for the purpose of comparison, the copy of Milady’s Boudoir in which Bertie’s only piece of journalism, ‘What the Well-Dressed Young Man Is Wearing’, was published. I suppose the readiest explanation is that Jeeves did Bertie’s writing, as so much else, for him.

Joe Kerrigan

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