Vol. 44 No. 12 · 23 June 2022

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Lost Cause

A peculiar sort of ‘lost cause’ monarchism has surfaced in the LRB recently. First Neal Ascherson, in the issue of 12 May, mourns the 18th-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a sort of serf-holding proto-bulwark against Putin. Then Clare Jackson, in the following issue, takes a liking to Elizabeth Stuart, the sister who made Charles I look democratic by comparison and influenced the future history of the British royal family through incontinent breeding (thirteen children).

Elizabeth Stuart once declared that she would ‘strangle my children with my own hands’ if they became Catholic. Judging by the mental composition of her relatives, it is fair to say she meant it. One such relative was Christian of Brunswick. ‘On the battlefield,’ Jackson writes, ‘Elizabeth could rely on steadfast service from German relations such as her first cousin Christian of Brunswick, who was wounded at the Battle of Fleurus in 1622; fitted with a silver prosthesis, he assured Elizabeth that despite having “lost one arm in her service”, he “had another and a life left to spend in her quarrel”.’ This warlord, known as the Mad Christian, the Wild Duke and the Madman from Halberstadt, led an army of mercenaries provided by his brother, Elizabeth’s husband, without having the money to pay them. Christian was a war entrepreneur, and his ‘service’ was to lead thugs about Europe, killing, robbing, raping and extorting to meet the payroll. He won no real victories, only plunder. In Paderborn he looted the cathedral, taking the church silver and the shrine of St Liborius, which he broke up and melted down for cash. When demanding protection money he anticipated horror movies by sending letters, on singed black paper, conveying such threats as (in the original, in full) ‘Blut, Blut!’ As for the silver prosthesis, Christian is said to have had his forearm sawn off to a drum roll in front of his men to build morale. There is an iron (not silver, not silver-coloured) prosthetic known as the Braunschweiger Hand in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig. Today the prevailing view is that it didn’t in fact belong to Christian, and that he used ad hoc wooden attachments. He was dead at 26, unmourned, psychotic as they come. In character his cousin Elizabeth Stuart wasn’t so different. She simply had more money, more children and more years on this earth.

A better monarchism is possible. There have been monarchs who ruled justly and contributed to the arts and sciences. There is no need to indulge in obscurantist whitewashing of nasty noble nobodies.

Benjamin Letzler
Mödling, Austria

The Cost of Diamonds

Rosa Lyster quotes Tijl Vanneste to the effect that until stories about ‘blood diamonds’ appeared in the 1990s, the ‘human cost’ of diamond mining had been overlooked (LRB, 26 May). Alice Kinloch, a ‘coloured’ South African, made every effort in the late 1890s to alert British audiences and readers to the brutalities of the compound system in South Africa. Her family, the Alexanders, were early migrants to Kimberley in the 1870s. Her father and her two brothers worked in the diamond mines there, and Alice had first-hand knowledge of ‘the ill-treatment of the natives of South Africa’.

In 1896 Alice Kinloch (she married Edwin Kinloch, an African Scot) arrived in Britain. Why she came isn’t known, but within a short time she was employed by Fox Bourne of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, and spoke at public meetings across the country about the harsh working conditions at Kimberley. Her pamphlet ‘Are South African Diamonds Worth Their Cost?’, which appeared under her maiden name, A.V. Alexander, was published by the Labour Press in September 1897. That she wrote it is clear from the signed copy she sent to her friend Harriette Colenso, now in the Pietermaritzburg Archives. Among the reasons she may have had to disguise her authorship are that the pamphlet dealt with sodomy among mine workers and with the body searches for diamonds carried out by the white employees of De Beers.

In September 1897 Kinloch helped set up the African Association, the first known modern body to represent black people living in London. In a letter to the Quaker journal the Friend, she wrote that ‘with some men of my race in this country, I have formed a society for the benefit of our people in Africa,’ which she hoped would help ‘educate people in this country in regard to the iniquitous laws made for blacks in South Africa’. She returned there in early 1898.

David Killingray
Sevenoaks, Kent

Limping to Success

James Butler is correct that Labour has ‘limped to success through Tory failure’ (LRB, 26 May). It is indeed a poor basis for hope. But its results in 2019 weren’t as catastrophic as Butler, along with most of the media, claims. The key lies in his observation that ‘inertia and inanition’ keep Labour wedded to first past the post. Starmer didn’t do any better in the local elections than Corbyn in 2018, but if we look at the popular vote in general elections, in 2019 Corbyn did better than both Miliband (2015) and Brown (2010). And in 2017 Corbyn garnered a popular vote of 40 per cent; nearly the best result this century. Blair pipped him in 2001 by 0.7 per cent. His reward was 150 more seats. Our electoral system has a lot to answer for in creating the mess we are in.

Peter Thomson
Newcastle upon Tyne

Joyce and Pater

Anne Enright, in her piece on Joyce and Dublin, says of the Stephen of Ulysses that his ‘concern with the body’s sheddings, with extramission and loss, owes something to a childhood metaphysics about growth and the self’ (LRB, 26 May). It also owes something to Walter Pater, and so is less a feature of Joyce’s childhood than of his adolescence, at least if its representation in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is to be believed. Pater, who, as Yeats wrote in 1936, enjoyed his generation’s ‘entire uncritical admiration’, is behind Stephen’s terminology: in the conclusion to The Renaissance, he describes ‘that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves’ which Stephen is surely accessing in the passage Enright quotes, and which only strengthens the sense she has of the way Ulysses ‘often feels experienced rather than transparently observed’.

We’re supposed to be thinking about influence here, as well as feeling that the tracing of influence poses difficulties. Yet where Stephen cites Shelley, and his interlocutor a poetics stretching back further still (‘Drummond of Hawthornden helped you at that stile,’ says the bluffly assured John Eglinton, establishing the question of the provenance of such a ‘stile’ as paramount, even as he gets that provenance wrong), Joyce hides the resonance of the late Victorian prose stylist Pater in plain sight. It is an appropriate homage, since the theme is the change and decay of matter, and since Pater’s style, as Angela Leighton has suggested, registers in its rhythms (themselves a weaving and unweaving) the ethical commitments his arguments make explicit: to a contemporary science that Pater felt described matter as itself continually ‘vanishing away’. The levelling of all experience to nature’s least productive, even ugliest processes is there in Pater, who almost gleefully notes the way ‘the action’ of the physical world ‘rusts iron and ripens corn’, and Joyce’s achievement is to point up the tense irony in the sheer gorgeousness of Pater’s style: that it is ultimately unable to contemplate the kinds of coarseness in which Stephen is happy to indulge. It took Joyce to imagine something more mundane than rusted iron, and so to go rhetorically where Pater’s metaphysics couldn’t.

Peter Huhne

The First Bicycle

Sue King-Smith makes a case for Kirkpatrick Macmillan as the inventor of the bicycle (Letters, 9 June). Unfortunately, his claim doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny. The only primary evidence ever adduced was the court report in the Glasgow Herald about the accident to which King-Smith alludes, and this poses difficulties for Macmillan’s claim in at least four ways. First, he is not established as the defendant. Indeed the person placed at the Gorbals police bar is nowhere named, but referred to as a gentleman. In the socially stratified 1840s, a mechanic and part-time teeth-puller would probably not be so described. Second, it doesn’t establish that the rider of the velocipede in question was its inventor, or even its owner. Third, the term velocipede at the time referred to three and four-wheeled machines, as well as two-wheeled hobby horses. It is not established that this was a two-wheeler; three-wheeled cranked vehicles were not uncommon at the time. Fourth, the report refers to a hand-cranked transmission rather than foot treadles (never mind rotary pedals), also indicating a tricycle.

Whats more, the claim for Macmillan only surfaced in the early 1890s, a full fifty years after the supposed fact. It was put forward by a man called James Johnston, whose only direct evidence was this newspaper report. Macmillan left no patents, drawings or designs, did not refer to the machine in personal correspondence, and made no attempt to engage in commercial production. 

In the 1890s, there were competing nationalistic reasons for wanting to stake such claims. As well as Macmillan’s tombstone and plaque, there is in Bar-le-Duc a memorial monument from 1893 to Pierre and Ernest Michaux, celebrating them as the inventors  a claim that appears to be as specious as Macmillan’s in the light of more convincing evidence about Pierre Lallement, whose claim I outlined in my original letter (26 May). The Russians have equally speciously also put forward a candidate (Efim Artamonov) and built a monument to him.

Tom Wells
Cardigan, Ceredigion

Crown without a Monarch

Canada may have an answer to the question that Jonathan Meades doesn’t ask: what next for the monarchy? (LRB, 9 June). Canada’s solution is the Crown without a monarch. We have been fashioning a Canadian Crown since the days of New France under the sometimes watchful, more often distracted eye of absentee monarchs both French and British. All manner of Canadian ‘Crown institutions’ – government, legal, judicial, cultural, social, even sporting – have been developed. The governor-general is the ‘queen’s representative’, but is in practice the head of state. Appointed every five years, the governor-general is the representative both of the Crown and of the diversity of the Canadian population. No dynasties there; no Firm in formation. Moreover, given our federal system of government and the presence of lieutenant-governors in each of our provinces and territories, we are already well versed in divided sovereignty. Take out the monarch, and our parliamentary democracy would stay essentially the same; the result would be a typically Canadian middle way between monarchy and republic, neither of which has much to say for itself these days.

Susan Mann

The Uses of Poetry

Freya Johnston quotes the narrator of Christine Smallwood’s The Life of the Mind: ‘No one wants to listen to the Ancient Mariner’ (LRB, 26 May). I can’t be sure of my five-month-old son’s response to the mariner per se, but certainly he enjoys recitals of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ far more than tales of Gruffalos and hungry caterpillars. The Mariner’s account of water snakes gets a particularly ecstatic reception. It’s the best use I’ve ever found for these poems: after twenty years I’m finally getting my money’s worth from set text poetry anthologies.

Garry MacKenzie
Crail, Fife

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