With the wind in our shrouds

Mary Beard

  • The Making of ‘The Golden Bough’: The Origin and Growth of an Argument by Robert Fraser
    Macmillan, 240 pp, £35.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 333 49631 0

’He has changed the world – not as Mussolini has changed it, with coloured shirts and castor oil; not as Lenin has changed it, boldly emptying out the baby of the humanities with the filthy bath of Tsarism; nor as Hitler, with the fanfaronade of physical force. He has changed it by altering the chemical composition of the cultural air that all men breathe.’

The cultural revolutionary celebrated here (unlikely as it must now seem) is Sir James Frazer, extravagantly written up over half a page in the News Chronicle of 27 January 1937. The article – under the title ‘He discovered why you believe what you do’ – certainly does not stint its praises of the grand old man, then in his eighties. Later on in the piece Frazer is portrayed as a hero-explorer of time and space, ‘at home in the Polynesia of a thousand years BC or the frozen north before even the Vikings had touched its shore’. And he ends up compared (to his own advantage, once more) with one of the most romantic of British heroes: ‘this quiet sedentary student has a mind similar to the body of Sir Francis Drake, ranging distant countries and bringing back their treasures for his own kind.’

It would be convenient to dismiss this nonsense as the outpourings of a pre-war hack, with an unabashed talent for hyperbole and a peculiar passion for The Golden Bough. But the uncomfortable truth is that this is just one example (and not even a particularly extreme one) of the widespread idealisation of Frazer in the Twenties and Thirties. The press throughout the Empire – from the Huddersfield Examiner to the Melbourne Age – colluded in turning into a contemporary hero an obsessive, retiring Victorian academic.

Part of Frazer’s appeal was precisely his shy donnish character – the stereotype of the unworldly professor, devoted to learning at all hours of the day and night. ‘To Sir James Frazer,’ ran one report (based on an interview with ‘a close friend’) ‘work is a rite. During his life as a scholar he has worked 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and the same on holidays.’ No admission here of the tedium of such a regime; nothing but admiration for the strange paradox that Frazer’s writings explored the farthest-flung regions of the world, while Frazer himself rarely left his study. ‘Authority on savages – but he has never seen one,’ declared (approvingly, it seems) the headlines of several articles; and they went on to reassure their readers that Sir James ‘is fond of saying that he has never seen a savage in his life; his books are the outcome of research into original scientific work.’ This was, in fact, exactly what Frazer did say to the gossip columnist of the Sunday Chronicle in conversation at a literary lunch in August 1937. The ignorant columnist had naively assumed that the anthropologist must have ‘pottered intellectually around Polynesia, New Guinea, the Great Barrier Reef and a few other places where our aboriginal brothers and sisters reside’ – but was assured by Frazer that he ‘had never been further than Greece’.

All the trivia of Frazer’s life became good copy for any journalist. While the readers of Les Nouvelles Littéraires were let in on the secret that Sir James vendrait son âme pour des fruits confits, the British public lapped up anecdotes about his ludicrously high-minded devotion to scholarship. These had greatest appeal when they showed him fearlessly neglecting all thought of his own comfort, even his own safety, in pursuit of just a few more precious moments at his books: he barely looked up, so it was reported, when a German aeroplane circled overhead; when he had singed off half his beard and his eyebrows in an exploding meths stove, he quickly reassured his wife that he was all right and got straight back to his books. The latter incident ended up as a cartoon (one of Lady Frazer’s treasured possessions) showing a group of ‘savages’ dancing round a blazing cauldron in which Frazer sat calmly reading a book on folklore.

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