Socialism and Art
SIR: If I understand Donald Davie (LRB, 5 May), he wishes to challenge my claim that Hardy’s poetry is remarkable for its generosity of vision. He does this by quoting Edward Clodd’s remark that Hardy ‘was a great author: he was not a great man; there was no largeness of soul.’ Clodd’s ‘judgment’ or ‘diagnosis’ is, according to Davie, ‘the verdict of a friend over many years with no particular axe to grind’, and he adds that it is amply borne out by Robert Gittings’s biography. It is true that Gittings quotes Clodd’s remark, but he points out that it was made after Clodd and Hardy had quarrelled. I do not see that it can be taken on trust. On the other hand, it is quite true that Gittings is not much interested in challenging it. Why should he be? Like most biographers, he is more interested in cutting his subject down to size. Anything that can be made to show Hardy in a bad light is seized on. Reports that don’t fit his picture are ignored. Arnold Bennett has an entry in his Journals from which it is clear that he saw Hardy’s relationship with Florence as one of friendly affection. Gittings does not mention it. When Siegfried Sassoon first visited Hardy he noted in his diary that Hardy was ‘wise, for all his simplicity’. On a later visit, Hardy sang ballads ‘with tenderness, as though he were handling some relic of youth long-cherished and hallowed by memory. And he does these things with the same half-humorous seriousness and simplicity that pervade his poems. This quality is the keynote of his greatness. It is his strength and sweetness.’
Who am I to believe: Gittings or Bennett, Clodd or Sassoon? Obviously, Bennett and Sassoon. What they say makes better sense. It feels true. Yet this is not to deny that Gittings and Clodd may have some justice on their side. It is, however, to say that any biography which goes beyond the merely factual runs grave risks. (I leave aside the very few biographies that deal with a writer’s intellectual and cultural milieu, although, as Christopher Hill’s exemplary Milton makes plain, these are the ones we need.)
Henry James put his finger on the almost insoluble problem of writing the kind of biography which Gittings has attempted when he said, apropos of Froude’s Short Studies on Great Subjects, that ‘to judge [individuals] morally we are obliged to push our enquiry through a concatenation of causes and effects in which, from their delicate nature, enquiry very soon becomes impracticable, and thus we are reduced to talking sentiment. Nothing is more surprising than the alertness with which writers like Mr Froude are ready to pronounce upon the moral character of historical persons, and their readiness to make vague moral epithets stand in lieu of real psychological facts.’
Davie uses Gittings as a stick with which to beat the Hardy industry. I think that they probably deserve each other. Still, if the industry is to include editors, then there is something to be said for it: because the first requirement of any student of literature is decent texts, modestly priced. I stress the word ‘any’, because Davie claims that I hold élitist opinions about education. I do not. I do hold élitist opinions about art. As a socialist, I want everyone to have access to what Tawney called our common heritage, and I certainly do not want that heritage junked in favour of bus tickets or Crossroads. I have to say, however, that I think the heritage is as much endangered by the rancorous spirit of biographers as it is by those who think of themselves as socialists and yet who have no sense of the great socialist tradition of respect for art.
SIR: How can one take seriously Donald Davie’s fulminations against Hardy’s lack of magnanimity (LRB, 5 May) when he himself is so mean to Millgate’s major contribution to de-mythologising the Wizard of Wessex? And surely few contributors to the Hardy industry he deplores would be capable of the lack of self-awareness displayed in the astonishing proclamation re Millgate’s biography that it ‘is said to be (I haven’t read it) more temperate and more boring’ (than Gittings’s biography). Wow! Donald Davie, come home!
Donald Davie writes: Why is it mean of me to report that Michael Millgate is thought to be more temperate and more compassionate than Robert Gittings? If my informants found him also more boring, that may mean only that, like many of us, they enjoy a cruel book more than a kind one. I am touched by Alan Hurst’s plea to me to ‘come home’, and I hope he is right that this would sort out all my problems – for instance, my having fulminated when I thought I’d done nothing of the kind.
SIR: In his extraordinarily pretentious review of Angela Carter’s book (LRB, 3 March), Tom Paulin exhorts her to develop her talent for documentary. Miss Carter’s description of Bradford prompts him to wax lyrical over ‘the new post-imperial sensibility singing its delighted sense of being free from all that pompous gruffness which goes with a concept of progress and national destiny.’ The passage he quotes reads: ‘Like monstrous genii loci, petrifications of stern industrialists pose in squares and on road islands, clasping technological devices or depicted in the act of raising the weeping orphan. There is something inherently risible in a monumental statue showing a man in full mid-Victorian rig, watch chain and all, shoving one hand in his waistcoat à la Napoleon and, with the other, exhorting the masses to, presumably, greater and yet greater productiveness.’ Facts are certainly not sacred in Angela Carter’s eyes. In Bradford there is only one statue of an industrialist in a square: that of W.E. Forster, depicted persuading the House of Commons to pass the 1870 Education Bill, rather than exhorting the masses to anything whatever. He wears no watch chain, neither does he have a hand in his waistcoat. The statue of S.C. Lister, clasping a two-foot ruler (hardly a ‘technological device’), is in a public park. The ‘weeping orphan’ does not exist. This may be a reference to the statue of Richard Oastler. There are two children at his side, neither orphans, weeping nor being raised, but factory children whom Oastler, a land agent, sought to protect by law from stern industrialists.
On this showing, Angela Carter would do better to confine herself to her fluent and stylish fictions, or at least acquire a new pair of specs and an O level in History. It would be nice to think that her Japanese bright pink sugar penises don’t exist either, though I fear otherwise. Meanwhile Tom Paulin ought to sneak quietly out of Pseuds’ Corner.
Shipley, West Yorkshire
‘The love that dares to speak its name’
SIR: Brigid Brophy’s review of Stephen Coote’s Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (LRB, 21 April) contains a reference to James Kirkup’s poem ‘The love that dares to speak its name’ which deserves expansion and explanation. She says that the book contains ‘a note simply stating why the text of the blasphemy-case poem is not printed’. The note is as follows: ‘Gay News was successfully prosecuted for blasphemous libel on publishing this poem. It therefore remains unavailable to the British public.’
It is true that if the poem were printed in a commercial magazine or book the publisher might be prosecuted, but it is not true that the poem has been unavailable since it was first published and suppressed seven years ago. The fact is that, although Gay News was indeed prosecuted in 1976, convicted in 1977, and lost its appeals in 1978 and 1979, the poem was available to the British public throughout this period. It was printed in several political papers (Young Liberal, socialist, pacifist, anarchist), it was reproduced by several student unions, and it was circulated by the Free Speech Movement in several leaflet versions, the last and largest in 1978 being signed by more than a hundred writers, editors, publishers, academics and similar people (including Brigid Brophy and myself). As in every previous blasphemy case, the trial led not to the suppression but to the continued and increased circulation of the offending item.
SIR: For a study of the ‘Neo-Pagans’, a group of friends in 1907-1912, I would appreciate information on the whereabouts of correspondence between any of the following: Rupert Brooke, Frances Cornford, Gwen Raverat, Jacques Raverat, Noel Olivier, Brynhild Olivier, Ka (Cox) Arnold-Forster, David Garnett, Justin Brooke, Ferenc Bekassy, Godwin Baynes. Also, can anyone document the first use of the term ‘neo-pagan’?
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada V5A 1S6