Vol. 43 No. 1 · 7 January 2021

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Mothers were different

Susan Pedersen correctly observes that the death of a husband in 19th-century Britain ‘was an economic disaster, sending widows scrambling to find some, any, employment compatible with their domestic work’ (LRB, 19 November 2020). There were exceptions, of course. My great-grandmother Catherine Argyle was widowed in 1860 when her husband, William, a bootmaker, died of a heart attack. She was 39, the mother of seven children, and had never worked outside the home. She needed an occupation, and became a rag and bone dealer, collecting cast-offs from homes in her village of Heanor, Derbyshire. She soon had a handcart and then a horse and dray, supplying linen rags to paper makers, furniture to second-hand dealers and other more exotic products, including dog excrement (‘pure’), which was used in tanning leather. Rag and bone collectors were the recyclers of their day, giving unwanted products a second life. Catherine’s occupation offered her no status. But she kept her family together, never remarried, and in a few years had her own shop. She died in 1904, having lived as long as, and almost exactly in parallel with, Queen Victoria.

Ray Argyle
Kingston, Ontario

The Two Kissingers

David Runciman seeks to pin down Henry Kissinger (LRB, 3 December 2020). At Harvard on a Kennedy Scholarship in 1966-67, I attended two series of seminars by Kissinger. One of them was on strategic nuclear policy; the other, conducted jointly with a fellow European immigrant, Stanley Hoffmann, was on postwar Europe. There was little overlap in the style, atmosphere or student participants at the two series. The first, held around the imposing oval table of the Law School, was full of earnest young men with CIA crewcuts whom I never otherwise saw on campus. They had come to hear from the author of Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, already by the mid-1960s a standard work, about how to apply the doctrine of graduated response in a nuclear war. ‘If they take out Miami, don’t take out Leningrad’: the aim was, by acting so reasonably, to offer opportunities for de-escalation before mutually assured destruction (MAD-ness) prevailed. The second series, attended mainly by trainee academics, was a genial tour d’horizon of Western European policy development from 1945 to the mid-1960s. The two avuncular presiding professors interspersed more formal contributions with jokey anecdotes illustrating European cultural superiority. I felt embarrassed on behalf of the ‘colonial’ Americans who made up most of the audience.

Over the course of that year, I became increasingly uncomfortable at how very different Kissinger was with different subjects and different audiences. Here was someone who seemed to identify strongly with his adopted homeland, yet could with the flip of a switch revert to a European identity. Runciman concludes that his ‘shapeshifting allowed people to find in him what they wanted to find’. Yes, up to a point. The real Kissinger is a chameleon, as those seminars in the mid-1960s showed. But he was also someone who demanded that you accept his cultural and intellectual superiority.

David Forrester
London N7

Labour and Antisemitism

James Butler writes that the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party found it ‘responsible for three breaches of equality law, including indirect discrimination against Jews and harassment of Jews by party agents’ (LRB, 3 December 2020). In case anyone mistakes Butler as implying that the report confirms the view that Labour condones antisemitism, it should be made clear that if anything the report shows the opposite. The commission studied 70 of the 220 complaints of antisemitism in the party’s files, 59 of which were statements on social media. They identified only two cases in which they found good evidence that people holding office in the party had made antisemitic statements which broke the law. Even in these two cases, to find that the law had been broken required, first, stretching the definition of ‘harassment’ given in the Equality Act beyond ‘creating’ to ‘contributing to create’ a ‘hostile, intimidating or offensive environment’, i.e. a statement by one individual may be taken as harassing everyone in the party who feels offended by it; and, second, taking as sufficient evidence the fact that many Labour members and MPs told the commissioners they felt shocked and offended by it.

To avoid this seeming to give any group a veto on what can be said, simply by saying they feel offended, the EHRC states that in deciding whether a statement constitutes harassment, the harm done to those who say they feel offended must be balanced against the harm done by limiting an individual’s right to freedom of expression. The claim that the EHRC is authorised to make such a judgment – in effect to police the internal debates of any political party it chooses to investigate – would be remarkable enough were it made of an impartial, well-qualified and democratically accountable organisation and not a politically appointed body of amateurs which lacks political balance and is known for the publicly stated prejudices of several of its commissioners.

Colin Leys and Leo Panitch
London N4

Pay the artists!

Julian Barnes mentions Degas’s annoyance at the profit reaped by the collector Jean-Baptiste Faure when he sold back to Paul Durand-Ruel three Degas paintings he had bought from the dealer 19 years previously (LRB, 19 November 2020). At that time, the droit de suite (the French equivalent of the Artists’ Resale Right, or ARR) had not yet been enshrined in French law.

Barnes rightly notes that the ARR was extended into UK law in 2006 following a European Directive. Degas (who died in 1917) would, however, have been aware of the Peau de l’Ours fund initiated in 1904 by the financier André Level and his associates, which invested in the work of many leading avant-garde painters (including Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse). When liquidated at the Hôtel Drouot in 1914, the collection returned a handsome profit to investors. This was also the first recorded instance in which the artists received a share of the profits (Picasso earned nearly 4000 francs from the sale). This voluntary gesture on the part of the investors went some way to righting a wrong that dated back to the substantial profit made on the sale by the industrialist and art collector Pierre-Eugène Secrétan of Jean-François Millet’s Angelus. Secrétan had acquired the painting, originally purchased for 2000 francs, in 1881, paying 168,000 francs. When he sold it in 1889 it fetched 553,000 francs, but Millet’s family saw none of the profit and continued to live in poverty. The resale right was officially acknowledged in French law in 1920, too late for Millet and Degas, but benefiting legions of later artists and their heirs. As Barnes notes, the ARR remains fiercely opposed by the London art trade.

Tom Flynn
Eastbourne, East Sussex

Idiots v. Lunatics

Patricia Lockwood refers to that ‘old unquotable Rebecca West distinction, that men are lunatics and women are idiots’ (LRB, 3 December 2020). Let’s quote it in full anyway:

Idiocy is the female defect: intent on their private lives, women follow their fate through a darkness deep as that cast by malformed cells in the brain. It is no worse than the male defect, which is lunacy: they are so obsessed by public affairs that they see the world as by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature.

It’s from West’s extraordinary and monumental book about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, published in 1941. West notes that the word idiocy comes from the Greek word for ‘private person’. The distinction remains useful – though its alignment with gender may be less rigid now.

Diana Wallace
University of South Wales, Pontypridd

On Inauguration Day

In his description of Joe Biden’s campaign speech at Gettysburg and Biden’s desire to ‘talk down the violent extremes’, David Bromwich makes an apt comparison to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, made ‘when secession had already been declared by every eventual Confederate state except Virginia’ (LRB, 19 November 2020). At the time of Lincoln’s inauguration, on 4 March 1861, the situation was more fluid and volatile than Bromwich suggests. Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina hadn’t yet seceded from the Union, and wouldn’t do so until after Virginia’s secession, which led the way among these more reluctant slave states. Virginia’s convention initially voted against secession on 4 April 1861, but then chose to join the Confederacy after South Carolina’s attack on Fort Sumter on 12 April and Lincoln’s subsequent call for Union troops to suppress the insurrection. On Lincoln’s inauguration day, when he urged his countrymen to remember that ‘we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,’ eight slave states remained in the Union, while just seven had joined the Confederacy.

Mark Peterson
New Haven, Connecticut

On the Bows

Clare Bucknell writes that the age of steam brought an end to production of the ornate figureheads which used to adorn the bows of both warships and merchantmen (LRB, 19 November 2020). That’s true, but there remained a desire to decorate vessels, and in the second half of the 19th century figureheads were replaced by elaborate scroll work on the bows, which often featured coats of arms. This led in the early 20th century to the development of ships’ badges in the Royal Navy which sometimes included representations of the previous figureheads.

The functional design of steam-powered naval vessels rather limited the scope for figureheads, though the ship’s name was often carried on the stern in raised letters and, later, nameplates were displayed on the aft superstructure. Ships’ crews could be inventive in finding suitable nameplates. The light cruiser Southampton had a particularly impressive nameplate which was illuminated at night. When the ship was serving in the Mediterranean in 1937 Rear Admiral Somerville sent the following signal: ‘As a shareholder in the Southern Railway I must protest at what can only be called pilfering of one of the platform signs of the station whose name your flagship bears.’ Southampton was lost in early 1941 in an air attack to the east of Malta.

Chris Bailey
Retford, Nottinghamshire

Like a Bee

In his discussion of literary imitation, Tobias Gregory cites the 84th epistle of Seneca, which likens an author to a bee that gathers pollen from many flowers (LRB, 19 November 2020). Four centuries earlier, the Attic rhetorician Isocrates had used the same analogy in an epistle to his young friend Demonicus: ‘For just as we see the bee settling on all the flowers, and sipping the best from each, so also those who aspire to culture ought not to leave anything untasted, but should gather useful knowledge from every source.’ Seneca’s encomium to imitation was itself a borrowing.

Daniel Spaulding

It’s all relative

I was thrilled to learn, reading Kate Retford’s description of neoclassical dress, that my rather matronly figure conforms to the late 18th century ideal (LRB, 3 December 2020). It only struck me later that, although my bust is indeed ‘one and a half inches’ above my waist, both would have needed to be rather higher, relative to my chin.

Rachel Ware
Honiton, Devon

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