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Frock Consciousness

Some of the best examples of the ‘frock consciousness’ described by Rosemary Hill, and of its comic potential, can be found in the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson, written in the 1920s and 1930s (LRB, 5 April). Lucia, adamantly against pretentiousness in theory and an eager exponent of it in practice, lays down strict rules for clothing at social events. Hitum, your poshest and most formal frock; Titum, slightly less formal; and Scrub, what we would now call smart casual. The novels have many examples of the agonising struggle to ‘stand out and to fit in to the same degree and at the same time’, as Hill puts it. These include secret scrutiny of fashion magazines followed by instructing the local dressmaker to alter or dye a familiar dress, thus creating an apparently new Hitum garment (buying afresh was quite beyond people on tiny incomes who were trying desperately to keep up appearances). The ultimate nightmare is that your deadly but unacknowledged rival will turn up to the same event with the same freshly dyed garment.

Frock consciousness has different challenges today. Visiting Eltham Palace recently I was amused to see that the wardrobe space in the 1930s of the very rich Mrs Courtauld was about a third the dimensions of my own. Now it’s about too much choice, too many cheap items of clothing and worries over how best to discard all those frocks unwisely bought and never worn.

Jenny Rogers
London N1

In Jean Rhys’s 1927 short story ‘Illusion’, set in Paris, Miss Bruce, an expat portrait painter (a ‘sensible’, ‘gentlemanly’ wearer of ‘square and solid tweeds’), is suddenly taken ill and the narrator, a distant acquaintance, is let into her Montparnasse flat by the concierge to pick up a nightgown to take to the hospital. Opening the wardrobe, the narrator is astonished to see a collection of extravagant dresses: ‘glowing colours’, jewel-like silks, ‘jaunty embroidery’, silver and gold evening gowns, a carnival costume, flowered crêpe de chine. She speculates about the beginnings of Miss Bruce’s secret passion:

Passing by a shop, with the perpetual hunger to be beautiful and that thirst to be loved which is the real curse of Eve … Then must have begun the search for the dress, the perfect Dress, beautiful, beautifying, possible to be worn. And lastly, the search for illusion – a craving, almost a vice, the stolen waters and the bread eaten in secret of Miss Bruce’s life.

Annalena McAfee
London WC1

If Rosemary Hill wanted to extend her analysis beyond the interwar period, she might consider Hilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love (1995), in which Mantel plays in various ways with one of Hill’s chosen texts, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963). She transforms Spark’s hostel for ‘nice gals’ into a women’s hall of residence in the 1970s; postwar austerity becomes student poverty; both the hostel and the hall go up in flames; and, in Mantel’s novel, a fur coat is as much admired as Spark’s Schiaparelli dress. The fur coat belongs to Lynette, one of the undergraduates, and, like the dress, the coat is loaned to others. Lynette’s wardrobe also includes cashmere, silk and leather. Her clothes, but also the school skirts, boyfriends’ shirts, sweaters, waist-clinching belts and so on that feature at other points in Mantel’s novel, mark class and gender differences, aspirations and limitations. And in both texts too there is a murder. As the hall of residence burns, Lynette’s form is seen at a window, her body on fire. Karina, Lynette’s reviled roommate, appears with the fox fur over her arm; from its pocket drops the key to their room. As Hill indicates, clothes can sometimes be tellingly animated. The fur that on first sight had elegantly reclined on a bed with one arm ‘in languid salute’ becomes, in Karina’s possession, ‘limp and slaughtered’.

Mary Eagleton
York

A striking example of ‘frock consciousness’ occurs in Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Her central character, Kay Strong, dies in unclear circumstances, and her friends, as a final tribute, decide to dress her body in the Fortuny creation they know she would have loved. When they receive the corpse, however, they find that the undertakers have eviscerated it. A coffin containing a dress containing a body containing nothing; or, an absence encased in successive layers of what others have deemed fitting for it.

Peter Griffith
Droitwich, Worcestershire


The Right to Sex

I was reading Amia Srinivasan’s essay about ‘the right to sex’ and enjoying it very much when I ran into a surprise (LRB, 22 March). ‘Rebecca Solnit,’ she writes, ‘reminds us that “you don’t get to have sex with someone unless they want to have sex with you,” just as “you don’t get to share someone’s sandwich unless they want to share their sandwich with you.” Not getting a bite of someone’s sandwich is “not a form of oppression, either”, Solnit says. But the analogy complicates as much as it elucidates.’ She then goes on to speculate on the right to a sandwich at lunchtime.

To be rabbinical, we’re both right; there are indeed circumstances, if you push my analogy far enough, in which not having a sandwich is oppression, and Srinivasan enumerates some of them. But my analogy was made for a particular circumstance and indeed a particular misogynist, bitter that ‘access to sex is strictly controlled by the woman.’ That is, the woman is supposed to consent and have jurisdiction over her flesh, which he seemed to find oppressive because, as I noted, ‘if you assume that sex with a female body is a right that heterosexual men have, then women are just these crazy illegitimate gatekeepers always trying to get in between you and your rights.’ Srinivasan is arguing that maybe everyone should have a sandwich, and maybe they should, but my one point was that, when you yourself are the sandwich, you have the right to decide who gets a bite of you.

Rebecca Solnit
San Francisco

Amia Srinivasan writes: I entirely agree with Rebecca Solnit that women, despite what some men seem to think, ‘have the right to decide’ who gets to have sex with them, and that being denied sex by a woman isn’t a violation of any man’s rights. Indeed I describe this claim – right before I discuss Solnit’s sandwich analogy – as ‘axiomatic’. But my point is that this axiom does not, or should not, exhaust our thinking about the politics of sexual desire. The distribution of sexual desire, like the distribution of food, is shaped by oppressive forces. This does not take away from the fact that no one is entitled to anyone else’s body. But it does complicate it. Like Solnit, I discuss the analogy in the context of a particular, embittered misogynist, who likened raping a woman to stealing food when starving. Here the analogy between sex and food is used for precisely the misogynistic ends Solnit wants to condemn. That it can be repurposed in this way points to the limits of the analogy: while starvation excuses theft in many cases, sexual ‘starvation’ never excuses rape. What’s more, while many of us think it is the duty of the state to ensure a just distribution of basic goods like food, far fewer of us would welcome state intervention in our patterns of sexual desire.


A Little Look-Down

John Barrell writes that Y Glyn-diffwys ‘has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by virtue of the presence there of the limestone woundwort, transplanted to the glen in 1998 and growing in what Conwy Council describes as “rare semi-natural ancient broad-leaved woodland”’ (LRB, 22 March). This woodland has, he adds, ‘been allowed to grow up to the point’ where it is an impediment to views into the gorge of the Afon Ceirw from Thomas Telford’s ‘little look-down’ on the Holyhead road. I was responsible for the SSSI between 1996 and 2012 and instigated the transplanting of the limestone woundwort in my capacity as a conservation officer for the then Countryside Council for Wales.

Limestone woundwort is a rare flowering plant, found in only two other locations in the British Isles, near Ruthin in Denbighshire and in Gloucestershire. It is a short-lived perennial that takes advantage of periods when the woodland canopy is opened by clearance; the disturbance of the ground gives the long dormant seeds an opportunity to germinate. It was first recorded in the vicinity of Pont y Glyn-diffwys in 1927, but the colony was believed to have been destroyed by road-widening at a later date. The shady, humid conditions created by the tree canopy in the gorge are ideal for several species of notable bryophytes (liverworts and mosses). Any management of the canopy would have to take their survival into account.

The building of the new Glyn Bends bypass in the 1990s required that small portions of the SSSI, which was created in 1990 (before the woundwort was re-established) as an example of ancient woodland in a river gorge, be destroyed by the deep rock cutting needed for the new carriageway. It was agreed with the Highways Directorate that it would be a nice reversal of fortune for the limestone woundwort if a colony could be reinstated within the SSSI. Young plants were grown from seed collected at Ruthin and transplanted in 1998. The great majority of these were placed along the base of Telford’s retaining wall, in the woodland on the upslope side of the old carriageway and on some of the rock benches in the new cutting. Only a very few were planted deep in the gorge (by a daredevil botanist, not me). The success or otherwise of these plantings was monitored until 2003, beyond which time I don’t know what happened to them. However, the point is that to ensure the continued survival of the limestone woundwort occasional tree removal and ground disturbance is essential. Perhaps this doesn’t occur as frequently as Barrell would wish – trees do have an unfortunate habit of growing taller and wider – but the presence of limestone woundwort definitely isn’t responsible for impeding views of the gorge.

The new Glyn Bends are, by the way, now a notorious speed-trap, so there’s not much chance these days of stopping to admire the view.

John Osley
Abergele, Clwyd

John Barrell doesn’t mention the political affiliations of Thomas Telford’s biographer, Julian Glover. He wrote speeches for David Cameron; he was special adviser to the undistinguished transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin; he’s a shill for HS2; he writes for George Osborne’s Evening Standard. His account of Telford features a walk-on role for Ayn Rand, some Carlylean hero worship, a distinct suspicion of state and collective endeavour, as well as – in keeping with the mishmash of modern Toryism – a nod to Heseltinean public activism.

David Walker
London NW3


Short Selling

Donald MacKenzie writes that short selling isn’t effective against ‘capitalism’s big bubbles’ (LRB, 5 April). He overlooks the fact that the shorting of the mortgage-backed securities market in 2008 turned out for some to be an enormously profitable bet against one of the largest financial bubbles of all.

MacKenzie emphasises the forensic digging that some short sellers do into what may be wrong with a company’s strategy or its financial statements. Sometimes, though, short selling is nothing more than betting against the conventional wisdom and herd behaviour that hindsight has shown can be spectacularly wrong. A good illustration is the congressional testimony of the then chair of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, in July 2007 when he said that ‘the impact on the broader economy and financial markets from the problems in the subprime market seems likely to be contained.’

Richard Gildea
London W11

Donald MacKenzie writes: Certainly, some people made a lot of money betting against mortgage-backed securities. But their activities didn’t stop the bubble, and in some ways inadvertently exacerbated it. They couldn’t borrow those securities to short sell them in the way described in my article. As described in Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, they had to take out what are called ‘credit default swaps’ – a kind of quasi-insurance – on them. The banks that sold these swaps then repackaged them and sold them to investors in the form of what turned out to be particularly toxic ‘synthetic collateralised debt obligations’.


What’s in a wood?

Michael Neill treats the words forest and wood as semantically interchangeable (LRB, 22 March). Yet in Shakespeare’s time the two still had distinct senses. Wood is a near homophone of wode (‘mad’) and, as Neill points out, Shakespeare plays on this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Demetrius feels ‘wood within this wood’. Euphony and alliteration give us the wildwood, the earliest use of which recorded in the OED is in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A wood is a place of wildness, where madmen and outlaws tend to hide. Forest is, etymologically, the antithesis of woodland: it is a controlled space, usually requisitioned by the monarch and held as a game preserve, carefully nurtured, its uses licensed and its privileges guarded. Wood is of Old English provenance, forest of French, and it was the Normans who requisitioned the territories that would form the New Forest and the other medieval hunting grounds of England, which were intended for the pleasure of the few. (There was plenty of woodland in Ireland, but no forests of medieval date and name, as Spenser knew well; there are more than two hundred occurrences of the word wood in The Faerie Queene, and only twenty of forest.)

Forest is cognate with the Italian fuori and both derive from the Latin foris, ‘outdoors’ or ‘outside’, understood in terms of city walls and gates. Outside the gates is where one ‘dis-ports’ oneself, hence the word sport, whose etymology is still clear in the Spanish deportivo. Outside the gates one engages in the chase and in those pastimes which, being subject to rules, are known as games. The hunt is the chase, and what is hunted will be named for the rules, as game: ‘We have had pastimes here and pleasant game,’ quibbles the princess in Love’s Labours Lost.

It might be argued that the existence of Robin Hood, an outlaw who makes his home in Sherwood Forest, robs these etymological distinctions of any value. Certainly his legend has helped to transform our sense of the forest, leading to the modern conflation of forest and wood. But in Shakespeare’s plays the distinction remains: in a wood there is no law, and in a wood near Athens wild things happen, while Birnam Wood defies nature. By contrast, in the Forest of Arden all that occurs is of human devising.

Charles Lock
University of Copenhagen


Bomb in the Head

Thomas Jones digs up Carol Barton’s research article from 2001, in which she relayed her findings that, between 1972 and 1996, the risk of child leukaemia within ten kilometres of Aldermaston and Burghfield was double the rate for the UK as a whole (LRB, 5 April). Barton was then a consultant haematologist at the Royal Berkshire Hospital. ‘Until the cause of cancer is fully understood, and what the part of radiation in the process could be,’ she wrote, ‘no firm measures can be taken to redress the balance.’

Research has moved on since then. More than sixty epidemiological studies worldwide have examined the incidence of cancer in children near nuclear power plants (NPPs): most indicate increases in leukaemia. These include the landmark 2008 KiKK study commissioned by the German government, which found relative risks of 1.6 in total cancers and 2.2 in leukaemias among infants living within five kilometres of all German NPPs.

A number of hypotheses have been proposed to explain these findings. One is that the increased cancers arise from the exposure of pregnant women near NPPs to radiation. However, any theory has to account for the greater than a thousand-fold discrepancy between official estimates of radiation doses from nuclear emissions and the observed increases in cancer risk. It may be that radiation exposures from spikes in NPP radionuclide emissions are significantly larger than the averages recorded in official estimates. In addition, the risks to embryos and foetuses from radiation exposure are much greater than to adults, and the blood-forming tissues in embryos and foetuses are even more radiosensitive.

Ian Fairlie
London N8

Thomas Jones repeats the story that Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita after witnessing the first successful nuclear weapons test in New Mexico: ‘I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.’ I once had the chance to ask his brother, Frank, who was standing next to him at the time, what Oppie’s actual words were. Frank’s recollection was that he said: ‘I guess it worked.’

Jeremy Bernstein
New York


Can history help?

Linda Colley writes that ‘the leading populist party in Finland used to call itself the True Finns’ (LRB, 22 March). The party’s Finnish name is Perussuomalaiset, which is quite difficult to translate into English, but is closer to Ordinary, Typical or Basic Finns than to True Finns. Following the party’s big gains in the 2011 elections, the question of the English translation of its name received much attention. As the more correct alternatives sound quite lame, Perussuomalaiset initially settled for True Finns. But even they must have picked up on its sinister overtones: they switched to the Finns Party pretty quickly.

Raphaël Despouy
London SE14