Vol. 42 No. 22 · 19 November 2020

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Emily of Fire & Violence

Paul Keegan gives a magisterial account of T.S. Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale, in the recently opened collection at Princeton (LRB, 22 October). He takes the time (and has been given the space) to deploy his materials at length, to quote liberally, to compare and contrast, in a fashion that accords with the prescriptions for good criticism laid down by Eliot himself. Keegan’s approach is in stark contrast to current practice. To cite just two examples of ‘trending’ criticism I have read and heard: one critic acknowledges as a ‘difficulty’ (for their argument) that the poet did not in fact physically assault women; the second appears to reproach the poet for dying, thereby abandoning his young second wife.

The release of Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale has occasioned a feeding frenzy and an interest that verges on voyeurism. We are all guzzling at the trough. However harsh Keegan’s final verdict may be – and Eliot’s ‘published statement’ on these letters uses Hale cruelly – his piece never presumes to judge, and is infused with empathy, tact and wit. After all, this correspondence, which lasted for 25 years, and for a decade after Eliot found he could not offer marriage to Hale, was carried on between consenting adults. Keegan is also courteous enough to entertain, lest we forget, Eliot’s own desperate request that certain things be kept private. It may even be – but merely to entertain this thought sounds like heresy, so far have we come – that these letters are simply not our business.

Stephen Romer

Occupy the Court

Theo Bollerman and Clare Bucknell write that real tennis can hardly be described as ‘an extreme minority pursuit’ when it has ten thousand players (Letters, 5 November). This makes it about as popular as mountain unicycling, lawnmower racing and bicycle polo, and somewhat less popular than Vinkensport, the Flemish pastime of chaffinch song counting (which has around 13,000 regular participants). All of these are also ‘games in which men and women compete against one another on an equal footing’. Perhaps Bollerman and Bucknell should give them a go, too.

Jon Day
London E10

The title of the book discussed by Jon Day is A People’s History of Tennis (LRB, 8 October). As a popular television spectacle, lawn tennis may have attracted a mass audience, but that has not made it the ‘people’s sport’. In Britain, at least, it has always been a middle-class game, organised largely through local tennis clubs, with their fees and social occasions. Although the Lawn Tennis Association has used some of the vast profits it gets from the televising of Wimbledon to provide coaching in local schools, the results have been pathetic.

The amateur game has always been associated with snobbery and exclusivity. The Wimbledon men’s final was won three times in the 1930s by Fred Perry, who was born in a terraced house in Stockport and was enormously popular with the public. This was the moment tennis might have become the ‘people’s sport’. Instead, the All England Club regarded Perry as a working-class upstart, perhaps because his father was a socialist and a well-known Co-operative Society official. It didn’t help that he had switched to tennis from table tennis at the age of 18. After winning his first Wimbledon title in 1934, the club tie, awarded to all champions, instead of being presented to Perry, was left on a chair for him to find.

Tony Judge

No Scampering

Admirers of Richard Aldington’s work have long been accustomed to see him miscast as the sole villain in the break-up of his marriage with H.D., and it is seldom worth the trouble to protest. But Susannah Clapp’s review of Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting contains a distortion that calls for correction (LRB, 22 October). Discussing H.D.’s ‘terrible time’ at Mecklenburgh Square, Clapp says that ‘after the death of their baby, Aldington scampered upstairs to have sex with someone else.’ This strongly implies that Aldington’s infidelity with Dorothy ‘Arabella’ Yorke followed immediately on the baby’s death. In fact, more than two years passed between these events.

H.D.’s first daughter was stillborn on the night of 20-21 May 1915. Aldington began his relationship with Yorke in late November or December 1917, while he was on leave. By April 1918, H.D. was living with Cecil Gray, who would be the father of her second child, while Aldington was on active service at the Western Front. Aldington and H.D. had agreed from the beginning on what we have since learned to call an ‘open marriage’; in practice, they found the emotional and sexual difficulties of such an arrangement too much to weather, and they separated – on H.D.’s initiative – shortly after the birth of her second child in 1919.

Elizabeth Vandiver
Tacoma, Washington

Flour Fixated

Bee Wilson gives the impression that mainstream breeding science has neglected wheat landraces and reduced biodiversity (LRB, 24 September). That doesn’t give the full picture. The Japanese variety used in crosses to make Borlaug’s semi-dwarf wheat was itself derived from a Japanese landrace called Daruma. Great efforts have been made around the world to preserve landraces in seed banks, not least by one of the pioneers of diversity in breeding science, Nikolai Vavilov, who died in a Siberian gulag. Vavilov realised that the process of domestication results in a shallowing of the gene pool, and set about collecting varieties from biodiverse areas near sites of domestication. Breeding new varieties using landraces or wild relatives remains essential, as has been demonstrated by the recent emergence in South Asia of wheat blast, to which very few varieties are resistant.

One of the major challenges for 21st-century agriculture is to reduce carbon emissions. Efficiency in crop production (measured in terms of carbon inputs and outputs) is more likely to be delivered by industrial systems than by ‘organic’ ones, which after all rely on carbon and water-intensive animal agriculture to supply manures. Whichever systems are employed, diverse landraces and cultivars will certainly be employed in pursuit of lower-emission agriculture.

Matt Shenton
Tsukuba, Japan

Bee Wilson describes the way wheat was ground to make flour in the second millennium BC. A woman ‘kneeled behind the quern and used her weight to crush the seeds with the rubbing stone. Eventually they broke down into flour. Over time, the woman’s body began to wear down too.’

There is a close description of this in Homer’s Odyssey (Book 20): ‘Twelve women had to toil away at these mills, grinding barley and wheat for nourishing bread. At the moment they had all ground their share and gone off to sleep, all except one not so vigorous as the rest, who had not yet finished her task.’ She appeals to Zeus: ‘Let today’s be the very last of the Suitors’ sumptuous feasts in Odysseus’ palace. My knees have grown weak from the heart-breaking drudgery of grinding corn … May this be their last dinner, say I.’

Laurence Carter
Farnham, Surrey

Strange Apprentice

Can we agree, T.J. Clark asks, that the light in Pissarro’s Le Champ de choux ‘is some kind of high-summer gloaming, maybe with moisture in the early evening air?’ (LRB, 8 October). Given the state of the vegetation, high summer seems right. But if it is summer, then the presence of a haze would suggest the scene takes place in the morning, since humidity is generally low at the end of a summer’s day. Clark also refers to the coolness and steadiness of the light, which also suggests the cooler, stable air conditions of early morning.

Clark evokes the half-dark of the trees that form the backdrop to the illuminated ‘champ de choux’. I do not think it is coincidental that the skyline is also defined by the rooflines of houses which, by their form and stature, suggest the property of the bourgeoisie. The background to the early morning activity of Pissarro’s peasant labourers is also the half-dark of a different social reality.

Vanessa Sherlock
Gentilly, France

Mountains v. Lowlands

Any long-lived cultural phenomenon is a complicated thing, and in any particular treatment of the phenomenon what’s left out can be as important to our understanding as what is included. Alex Abramovich fills in some of the important omissions from Ken Burns’s documentary Country Music, but his own account, too, omits some important aspects of the story (LRB, 8 October). In particular, his association of country music with the Old South of plantations and racist exploitation skates over some significant cultural and economic distinctions.

Country music is rooted in the Appalachian Mountain communities, which contrasted with those of the lowland South in a number of ways. The ancestry of the Appalachians’ inhabitants was Scots-Irish, versus the English of the lowlands. The small, isolated, poor and largely subsistence farmers of the mountains (along with some coal miners) contrasted with the slave-based (and subsequently share-cropper-based) plantations of the dominant parts of the lowland South. There were free Blacks and slaves in the Appalachians, but not in large numbers. The mountain people could be fiercely independent and resentful of aristocratic lowland domination. Politically, the people of the Appalachians were Union supporters in the Civil War and subsequently Republican through the heyday of the segregationist Democratic ‘Solid South’.

During the Civil War, West Virginia split off from Virginia, and the mountain sections of western North Carolina, north-west Georgia, eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky, while too small to hive off, were similarly inclined. Country Music was white because it arose in, and represented, a region that was very white – but not anti-Black. As it spread it got caught up in the South’s racial divide, so had to be categorised as either ‘white’ or ‘black’ – a division that was then locked into place, as Abramovich noted, by the segregated charts produced by national record companies. But country music’s roots and resonance remained in the mountain ‘Hollers’ and not in the plantation South.

David Kronenfeld
University of California, Riverside

In Gilead

Anne Enright refers to the characters of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels as living in a ‘non-specific American past’ (LRB, 22 October). In fact Gilead (around which the other novels circulate) is set in a very specific moment: 1956, the year Eisenhower was elected president for a second term; the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, and the rise to prominence of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. The novel Enright discusses, Jack, is a kind of prequel, and mostly takes place in the late 1940s.

Ben Knights
Leyburn, North Yorkshire


In his article on cronyism and clientelism in British public life, Peter Geoghegan wrote that the PR firm Public First had not done any work for Whitehall before the contracts it was awarded this year (LRB, 5 November). This was incorrect. Public First had previously worked for the Cabinet Office, Ofsted and the Department for International Trade.

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