Tall Lady, Eating Sandwiches
How refreshing to come across Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, the ultimate cosmopolitan European, in Nicholas Penny’s piece about his Letters of a Dead Man (LRB, 16 June). As a child I read his limpid pastoral account of early 18th-century Ireland with tears in my eyes. Heiress hunter and conceptual landscape gardener, Pückler-Muskau pops up in the most unlikely places. Recently, while trying to decipher Rilke’s auto-fiction The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, I spotted a sly mention of him. Rilke/Malte remembers his governess falling asleep over Bettina von Arnim’s Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child. Bettina in her twenties exchanged letters with the poet, turning sixty, and rewrote his side to make it more interesting. Bettina published the Correspondence after Goethe’s death, and annotated the book with ‘rich pickings from some of his less discreet friends, not least Pückler-Muskau’. It was a succès de scandale. The prince wasn’t best pleased, but honour was satisfied when she arranged that the cash-strapped Pückler-Muskau be made the patron-by-name of a newly created confection, a tutti-frutti ice cream. In a postscript Bettina describes Goethe’s evasive response when she suggested that Beethoven and he get together with Pückler-Muskau to create an open-air spectacle of Germanic genius. She went on to become a social reformer (‘in a small way’). Her pamphlets in support of the sick and poor were backed by practical philanthropy – she always carried smelling salts in her purse and loose coins in her socks.
Still Bettina wasn’t finished with Goethe; she designed and commissioned a giant marble statue of him to outdo the many that had already been erected in the cities of Germany. The Great Man sits like Jupiter on his throne in classical vines, one hand holding a wreath, the other a lyre raised aloft. An infant angel stands on his lap, strumming the strings. Pückler-Muskau knew how miffed Bettina was that Goethe never wrote a sonnet to her. A fragment of the sculpture that survived in the backyard of the Weimar Museum was resurrected for a Faust exhibition in 1909, the year Malte Laurids Brigge was published.
Was Prince Pückler-Muskau as gullible as Nicholas Penny suggests? The story of a girl being decapitated by a falling rock appears in George Young’s History of Whitby (1817). Penny’s reference to Pickwick Papers is apt: the elegance and matter-of-factness of Young’s description of the gruesome event gives an insight into the roots of Dickens’s own style. This is Young’s final sentence: ‘A splinter [of rock], which, by striking against a ledge had acquired a rotatory motion, fell from the cliff, and hitting one of the girls on the hinder part of the neck, severed her head from her body in a moment, and the head rolled to a considerable distance along the scar.’
Snainton, North Yorkshire
On the subject of Jingle’s first meeting Pickwick, Nicholas Penny’s chronology is bad: it cannot have been in 1827. Jingle brags about having ‘banged the fieldpiece and twanged the lyre’ in the July Revolution, which took place in 1830 and replaced Charles X with Louis Philippe.
Nicholas Penny writes: Dickens provided a footnote, obviously realising his error but liking the phrase: ‘A remarkable instance of the prophetic force of Mr Jingle’s imagination; his dialogue occurring in the year 1827, and the Revolution in 1830.’
Who’s in charge of the BBC?
In his reflections on the government White Paper that sets out proposals for the future of the BBC Dan Hind doesn’t mention that the changes in BBC governance – a new unitary board and external regulation by Ofcom – were what the BBC itself recommended (LRB, 16 June). The same is true of open competition for BBC content commissioning: the BBC offered that in exchange for its in-house production arm being allowed to compete for commissions from other broadcasters. This is nothing to do with Thatcherism, just a matter of optimising the creative potential of thousands of talented production staff.
Ofcom, as it happens, has for ten years been empowered to give its view on the market impact of proposed BBC ventures: so no change there. And the fact that Ofcom will now adjudicate on alleged breaches of BBC impartiality explains why there was no point in the White Paper discussing research from Cardiff, or elsewhere: all allegations of that type, including those from disgruntled Tory backbenchers, can in future be submitted for Ofcom’s verdict.
As for the ‘independently funded news consortia’, Ofcom proposed in 2009 to replace ITV regional news provision. This was a belated response to ITV’s severe cuts in such coverage after the 2008 advertising downturn – cuts Ofcom was unable to prevent. The idea was not ‘quietly dropped’: it was abandoned after the Conservative opposition noisily announced its rejection of the idea, making continued expense on the project ahead of the 2010 election impossible to justify.
Hind would like to see the BBC funding independent local journalism, but there is little prospect of the BBC itself handing over licence fee funds on a contestable basis to independent consortia, with outcomes decided by viewers and listeners voting their preferences. The BBC has offered to inject resources into local journalism under its own control; the regional press are – mostly – hostile to this, and want any money coming from the BBC to be allocated according to their preferences. The compromise that has been reached may offend Hind – ‘giving public money to private monopolies’ – but it gets an important hostile lobbying group off the BBC’s back, relatively cheaply.
Clearly, Rachael Padman and Jay Prosser exist (Letters, 16 June). It is to be hoped that they enjoy well-being, peace and love in their lives. They are part of a movement that has been remarkably successful at the level of law and popular culture. They can surely feel affirmed by Jacqueline Rose’s essay – an exemplar of her talent for inquiry and ambivalence (LRB, 5 May). It isn’t their existence that troubles many feminists. Women are all too familiar with the slur that we are not really there, that we are not real women because of our shape, style, sexual orientation or politics. But neither sexism nor feminist challenges to certainties about inherent femininities or masculinities ever stopped women in general – including transwomen – from existing. The philosopher Jane Clare Jones touches a nerve in Trouble and Strife. For ‘many non-trans women’, she writes, ‘the idea that the essence of being a woman resides in “feeling like” a woman is not so much wrong as incomprehensible’. To insist that challenging gender is transphobic, she continues, ‘functions to close down discourse by rendering feminism’s long-held analysis of gender unsayable’.
Debate is not a death sentence and feeling offended is not the same as feeling or being exterminated. There is a human right to life, but there is no right to be not offended. As Gary Younge has put it, ‘being offended is not a political position.’ My challenge is not to trans people, but to the authoritarian turn exemplified by no-platforming, supported by the National Union of Students, and by proscribing feminist challenges to gender – the crux of its emancipatory project.
Padman and Prosser: do you really want to be part of a movement that aims to shut women up – including transwomen – and to make gender critique an offence? You work in universities, the locus of no-platforming, which is bleeding into other arenas. Do you want to participate in reducing students’ participation in democratic debate?
Beverley, East Riding
Rachael Padman argues that ‘social animals’ possess the ‘ability to recognise others as “my sort” or “not my sort”’. This is an important part of how we understand ourselves. Nonetheless, if it is impossible for Padman to accept ‘anyone else, who can’t see inside my head, telling me that I am mistaken about who I am’, the same is true for others, including those of us who experience gender not as a form of biologically deterministic coding, but as a location within a social hierarchy. If some of us identify ‘my sort’ as ‘those who have undergone a particular form of embodied experience and social conditioning’ it is not for Padman to tell us we are not who we say we are.
That gender functions as a social hierarchy rooted in the perception of reproductive difference is a demonstrable fact. It is demonstrated by 47,000 female deaths annually due to unsafe abortion; by 830 deaths daily due to preventable complications of pregnancy; by the abortion of female foetuses and abandonment of baby girls leading to distorted sex ratios in countries across the globe. Both Padman and Jay Prosser conflate a failure to acknowledge a person’s self-perception as an objective political reality with denying a person’s ‘right to exist’. In the case of millions of women and girls, however, the denial of the right to exist is literal. If words matter for some, they matter for everyone, and it has to be recognised that the needs of some are greater than those of others.
Dinah Birch wonders, along with many teachers of literature, why students persist in being fascinated with spin-offs of the classic Gothic novels (LRB, 16 June). Her reading questions whether the influence of the French Revolution is sufficient to explain the ‘riotous invention’ of Matthew Lewis’s The Monk. It may help to explain the sexual violence of that novel to consider facts that have always been in plain view. All four of the first Gothic novelists – Horace Walpole, William Thomas Beckford, Lewis and Ann Radcliffe – were significantly involved with plantation slavery and/or its abolition, the great cause of the day. All three men, highly privileged, were gay or bisexual in an era when homosexuality was punishable by hanging.
Lewis straddled both sides of the abolition controversy, at times with extreme discomfort. In his successful play The Castle Spectre, the character Hassan is an African kidnapped into slavery. He pleads his humanity in eloquent speeches that echo The Merchant of Venice. Lewis was suspected of speaking out in favour of the Haitian Revolution, an almost unthinkably radical position. In his last term as MP he also spoke in favour of abolition. But when his father died, he inherited two sugar plantations in Jamaica, and ‘abandoned the stage for sugar’, as Byron put it.
Beckford’s fortune (he was the wealthiest man in England) derived from his immense Jamaican holdings in sugar and slaves. Walpole, son of England’s first prime minister and head of the government that boosted the activities of the ‘castles’ or slaving entrepôts of the Gold Coast, wrote scathingly against slavery in his witty letters long before the issue became fashionable. And Radcliffe, abandoned as a child and as a woman necessarily disprivileged, grew up in the circle of the Wedgwoods, who manufactured the first political badge, showing a kneeling slave in chains under the legend ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’
I would argue that the invention of the Gothic novel – then called the ‘terrorist novel’ – owes as much to the confluence of these factors as those usually cited. Gothic literature deals with outrages against humanity by invoking supernatural agents to avenge those who have suffered in a world devoid of justice. It is not hard to see why this scenario, as well as its originating psychological predicament – namely, being simultaneously highly privileged and yet legally targeted and suppressed – might resonate with young people today.