Vol. 45 No. 22 · 16 November 2023

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A Woman’s Work

Daisy Hay quotes Sarah Ogilvie’s description, in her book The Dictionary People, of the Oxford English Dictionary contributor Jennett Humphreys as a ‘prim spinster’ (LRB, 19 October). Being unmarried has often been a necessary condition for women writers and researchers, though if they lacked independent means they were then at the mercy of the literary employment market.

As Ogilvie notes, Humphreys sent in thousands of quotations to the OED, as well as publishing books for children and occasional articles, including a valuable account of the OED editor James Murray’s Scriptorium. She was most remarkable, however, for the 98 biographies, many of them of women, she wrote for the first edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, making her one of the six most prolific women contributors to this male-dominated project.

Humphreys wrote an anguished letter to James Murray in 1887, reporting her summary dismissal from DNB employment by the editor, Leslie Stephen:

I cannot call it commercial, or even domestic; for I suppose if Mr Leslie were dismissing his coachman or his housemaid, he would give a month’s warning! … of course Mr Stephen does not know me, so he does not know that he has at one blow cut me off from my British Museum visits, from the foothold I was proud to have attained after thirty years’ struggle with authorship, from, in short, the one spot where I was in touch with the literary world.

The letter (in the Murray Papers archive in the Bodleian Library) will be included in next year’s update to our pilot edition of Murray’s letters, which can be consulted online at murrayscriptorium.org.

Charlotte Brewer; Stephen Turton
Hertford College, Oxford; Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

On Taxation

A couple of considerations might be added to Stefan Collini’s excellent treatise on taxation (LRB, 19 October). The first is what the Treasury calls ‘economic regulation’: the regulation of the natural monopolies whose privatisation and subsequent revaluation Collini discusses. Unlike the regulators of natural markets, who only have to set rules to prevent harm, the regulators of natural monopolies have to ‘create’ the markets, setting rules and prices to ensure competition, innovation and so on. A windfall tax on privatised utilities isn’t always about profits that have arisen as a result of world events or societal progress; it is often used as a clumsy device to correct for abject failures in these fake markets. An energy market where generators and distributors make vast profits while retailers operating on tiny margins struggle to stay in business needs fundamental redesign, not windfall taxes. A water market in which companies borrow huge sums to fund high-yield derivatives and then come cap in hand to the regulator saying they need to raise prices in order to fix crumbling infrastructure while repaying their debts is broken in a different way.

The second consideration is whether, once living standards have increased to the point where we no longer have to compete with our neighbours for essential resources, there isn’t some general obligation for those who have more to help those who have less. Does the state have a role to play in ensuring that help reaches the poor, or should that be the responsibility of individuals and charities?

Chris Carr
Beckenham, Greater London

Stefan Collini describes professional footballers as ‘fit young men who are good at kicking a ball around on Saturday afternoons’, and likens them to hedge-fund managers in not earning, or deserving to keep, their income. What this misses is that professional footballers create utility. Their scarce talents are in high demand, and bring pleasure to billions. Their incomes may be excessive, but compared to whose? These are people who have practised and trained all their lives to make good on their natural gifts. They have to perform under unimaginable pressure, can suffer painful injuries with uncertain prospects of recovery, are hounded by the media and are quickly sold or made unemployed if they’re not seen to be producing the goods. If Collini were looking for an example of parasitic, rent-seeking behaviour or unearned income, he would do better to cite the agents, owners, media organisations and sponsors that feed off the sport.

Andrew Day
London N4

Why did he not speak out?

Richard J. Evans says David Kertzer argues ‘persuasively’ that Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas broadcast and other addresses given by him were ‘couched in such abstract and convoluted language that they could be interpreted as sympathising with both sides in the war’ (LRB, 19 October).

Owen Chadwick, in Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War (1986), records that German intelligence sources described the 1942 broadcast as ‘one long attack on everything we stand for’ and accused the pope of making himself ‘the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals’. One of Pius XII’s biographers, Robert Ventresca, claims that the address ‘was interpreted by commentators around the world as an implicit criticism of the Third Reich’.

The section of the address that mentioned those who ‘sometimes only because of their nationality or race have been consigned to death or a slow decline’ may have been an elliptical rather than a direct reference to Jews, but in so speaking Pius XII went further than the Moscow Declaration of the Allies on Atrocities issued on 1 November 1943. That document referred to the murder of Italian officers, of French, Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian hostages, and of Cretan peasants, but said nothing of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

Evans also refers to criticisms of Pius XII made by Francis d’Arcy Osborne, British envoy to the Holy See throughout the Second World War. He doesn’t cite the verdict Osborne passed on the pope in a letter of 1947 to Oliver Harvey at the Foreign Office in London. Pius XII’s neutrality was ‘seemingly pusillanimous’, he wrote, but the pope had ‘specifically condemned all Nazi war crimes in his public speeches during the war’.

C.D.C. Armstrong

Richard J. Evans briefly mentions the Vatican’s support for the ‘genocidal’ conquest of Ethiopia between 1935 and 1941. Whatever factors restrained the Vatican during the period of German territorial expansion, it should have been able to speak out against what was happening in Italy’s own empire. But as Ian Campbell shows in his new book Holy War, Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, by his silence, effectively condoned the Catholic Church’s ‘crusade’ against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. What followed was the mass murder of Ethiopians, including Orthodox priests and monks, and the widespread destruction of churches and monasteries. The Holy See’s secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII in February 1939, was even more reluctant to criticise the fascist regime, and turned a blind eye to the destruction of Ethiopian churches, which continued until Haile Selassie was restored to the throne in May 1941.

Philip Woods
London W5


Jonathan Coe writes about the history of British comedy (LRB, 2 November). I looked in vain for mention of Absolutely Fabulous, in my recollection the first comedy programme by women for women. In a media culture in which, if a woman wanted to identify with the hero of a film, she had to mentally change sex, and if she wanted to laugh at comedy, had to shut off any sensitivity to being the butt of the joke, here was humour created by women, laughing at themselves. It was a revelation.

Nancy Blake

Worse than You Think

Kasia Boddy is correct that the United States’s idiosyncratic electoral college gives each vote cast for president by a Wyoming resident 3.6 times the value of a Californian’s (LRB, 19 October). But this injustice seems comparatively trivial when you consider that, since the constitution allots every state two senators, one vote for Senate in Wyoming (pop. 578,000) is worth 67 in California (pop. 39.2 million).

Ben Givan
Saratoga Springs, New York


David Thomson, writing about Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, reproduces the myth of the Hollywood starlet as the creation of male directors and producers, destined to wither into age and mediocrity once the powerbrokers lose interest (LRB, 19 October). In this case, the account depends on several elisions. For example, Thomson doesn’t mention Dark Passage (1947), the third Bogie-Bacall vehicle, made between The Big Sleep and Key Largo, in which Bacall’s performance is just as magnetic, even if the picture overall is inferior to the Hawks classics. And it isn’t true, as Thomson claims, that ‘well before the age of forty, she was out of consideration as a lead actress.’ She got second billing, after Paul Newman and John Wayne respectively, in Harper (1966) and Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976), for which she was nominated for a Bafta.

Thomson gives the impression that Bacall’s career ended in 1996. But in the 2000s she took on roles in a number of provocative smaller films: Lars von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, Jonathan Glazer’s Birth and Paul Schrader’s The Walker. She was clearly interested in the challenges offered by art cinema, and made the most of the esteem she was held in by directors who had grown up watching her iconic performances.

Sam Warren Miell
London E9

56 Years Ago

In a Diary piece for the LRB of 21 February 2002, Charles Glass wrote about an Israeli friend of his, an ex-soldier, who had a Hebrew newspaper advertisement pinned to his bulletin board. It read:

Our right to defend ourselves against extermination does not give us the right to oppress others.





Holding on to the Occupied Territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and victims of murder.


The ad appeared in Haaretz on 22 September 1967, Glass notes, ‘three months after Israel conquered the Territories and ten years before Likud won its first parliamentary elections’.

Nigel Wenban-Smith
London NW5


It’s a bit harsh of Colin Burrow to describe Winston Smith’s lover Julia in 1984 as ‘ultimately treacherous’, making her sound like the villain of the story (LRB, 5 October). We don’t know exactly what happens to her in Room 101, but we do know that Winston, in the same place, faced with his own nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, implores his tormentor to ‘Do it to Julia,’ thus putting his survival above hers. This is of course the point of the process, as the party’s aim is to destroy any love or loyalty that might exist between two individuals, as opposed to the love or loyalty they should feel towards Big Brother. We can assume from what Julia says to Winston when they meet up again that she underwent some parallel horror, and begged that Winston be subjected to it in her place; but if she betrayed Winston, then he betrayed her no more, no less.

Nick Wray
Coldingham, Borders

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