Wordsworth in Bed
SIR: Jonathan Wordsworth’s game of speculating about what his decorous colleagues would look like in bed is an entertaining way of getting through a meeting (LRB, 15 October). But can he recruit Shelley as a player on the strength of his description in ‘Peter Bell the Third’ of Wordsworth as ‘a solemn and unsexual man’? Wasn’t Shelley writing of what he knew more about, the subject-matter of Wordsworth’s poetry?
The newly-published Wordsworth letters are well edited, well produced and fascinating, and they incidentally convey some notions of the Wordsworths in bed. Happiness there is certainly implied in the letters both of William and of his wife Mary. Yet the correspondence says more about the bonding to his home that William himself discovered only when he had to go away for two months, Even more eloquent is Mary’s surprise, after his first letter, at finding herself so much needed. Her fear of not being able to convey her gratitude to the ‘first and best of men’ for singling her out is truly touching. So is her quiet scaling down of her own responses, after William gets used to being away and writes more matter-of-factly. It’s interesting that by the end he thinks it’s she who’s missing him.
Those who have found the Wordsworth ménage a mite unendearing will surely have to relent a little. It’s nice that he was homesick for Mary and his babies, and very nice that she responded as she did.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford
SIR: I feel injured – though more surprised than hurt – by Noël Annan’s reference to an article of mine about the late Albert Speer in his ‘De-Nazification’ review (LRB, 15 October). Paving his way to Burke’s famous quotation about the impossibility of indicting a whole people, he cites my article as a fit of ‘fervour for a perfect world’. Noël Annan’s intention here, I take it, was to deride the old notion of ‘collective guilt’ as applied to Germany, or at least the idea that one can reasonably expect a whole nation to feel guilt.
I was not proposing that. My article suggested that it was misleading of Speer to suggest, as he did, that the mass of Germans had no access to knowledge about the crimes being committed in their name. To say that ordinary Germans could have known a great deal if they had wished to is a long way from stating in the manner of Morgenthau that the entire nation bore direct personal responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich and could therefore be collectively punished. I do not know why Noël Annan then made me say that only the middle class had such access to knowledge. All I wrote about the pre-war middle class was that its members tended to regard democracy as a failure.
Neither Noël Annan nor – as far as one can gather from the review – Tom Bower mentions another possibility which might have dispensed with all the intractable difficulties of de-Nazification and punishment by the occupation powers. This was to encourage the Germans to clean out their own house by carrying out a revolution – which would probably have been a social-democratic revolution in alliance with liberal forces, rather than the artificial transformation imposed in the Soviet Zone. There were thousands of men and women burning to undertake this, who were bitterly disillusioned by the absolute refusal of the Western powers, especially, to permit any such movement. It may be that the prior agreements and mutual suspicions of the victor powers made such a revolution impossible. But the option ought at least to be part of any discussion of occupation policy.
The Observer, London EC4
SIR: I noted E.S. Turner’s explicit hostility to the Mass-Observation project in his review of Nella Last’s War (LRB, 1 October), and his obvious (though less explicit) hostility to a woman’s view of history, which Nella Last’s War represents. He comments of her life, ‘little in the way of hard incident occurs,’ and attempts in his review to trivialise both what the experience of war was for housewives and the quality of Nella Last’s writing.
Perhaps he is simply outraged that a housewife should have written a book, and an important one at that. He certainly is preoccupied by the fact that she (once) refers to her husband as ‘that one’. This obviously so irritated E.S. Turner that he refers to it twice. I can only assume that he is ignorant of how common it is for women to discuss their husbands in disparaging terms – though it certainly is uncommon for this kind of women’s view to appear in a history book.
Nella Last’s book is unique, not only because it has been edited from over two million words, but because she has captured so honestly the experience of millions of housewives like herself. That includes the experience of a growing self-awareness, a questioning of her husband’s authority, and an increasing confidence that her own view of the world and of events is valid. It is striking that, as a whole, historians have served us so badly that for a long time we were misled into assuming that the current women’s movement began in the 1960s. Nella Last’s book is one indication that we have a distinguished history, and not just among the famous.
E.S. Turner gives no clearer evidence of his conviction that only his view of the world is valid than in his presumption that everyone (perhaps we should add ‘who matters’) would know what Zeppelins were. The existence of a generation born since the war and the massiveness of post-war immigration seem to have passed him by. He certainly has no sense that we have explained these and other terms in the book, not only for the benefit of ‘foreigners’ (his word), but for school and college use.
I feel I must add that I was struck by the overwhelming preponderance of male reviewers in the issue which carried Turner’s attack on women’s history. Is this a case of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’?
SIR: ‘Investigative journalism has many triumphs to its credit,’ writes Noël Annan in your issue of 15 October (LRB, 15 October) before going on to explain why Tom Bower’s book. Blind Eye to Murder, about Nazi war criminals, isn’t one of them. Nor, for not very different reasons, which is what prompts me to write this letter, is the ‘exposure’ of Leo Long – in the eyes of the press another sort of war criminal. What did Mr Long do: he gave Britain’s allies – the Russians – information which would assist them in the war against Britain’s enemy, the Germans. ‘Self-confessed traitor,’ says the press: ‘hound him, hound him.’ I remember that at the time of the ‘Blunt crisis’ you published a piece (LRB, 20 March 1980) in which one of Anthony Blunt’s fellow academics pointed out, as academics do, that there were moral complexities in the affair which the press, in its crusade against Blunt, had wholly ignored. There are few moral complexities in Mr Long’s case. As I understand the word, one can’t betray one’s country to an ally. Nor was the Soviet Union our enemy then because it is – is it? – our enemy now. Mr Long no doubt violated the Official Secrets Act, in its wartime version: but that is not an offence for which we ought to require people, 40 years after the event, to have their right hands cut off in the marketplace or – our nearest equivalent – to eat shit on television.
SIR: Oh dear. Who sent Lords Shelburne and Holland to Christ’s College, Cambridge instead of to Christ Church, Oxford? Was it you? Was it me? Or was it malign fate? At any rate it is wrong.
It was a beautifully-executed collaborative effort.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I’ve just read J.I.M. Stewart’s review of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkein and Tolkein and the Silmarils (LRB, 17 September). I’d assumed years ago that The Lord of the Rings was noticeably Christian, in the sense of being a sort of crusade, with Hobbits at home at one end of a NW/SE axis and Gondor (?Byzantium) imperilled at the other. Mordor with an outline resembling that of Asia Minor, and full of Orcs, too, those Ottoman Baddies with names seemingly taken wholesale from the Istanbul telephone directory? But I thought it was the Ents who babbled away in Finnish.
SIR: We are currently working on a book about the work of Paul Rotha, the British documentary film-maker and film theorist. We are also holding a retrospective of Rotha’s films at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, starting in January 1982. We hope that this will be accompanied by an exhibition of stills and archive material. If any of your readers have any material about Paul Rotha we would be most grateful if they would get in touch with us as soon as possible.
Oxford Film-Makers Workshop, The Stables, North Place, Headington, Oxford