Vol. 20 No. 11 · 4 June 1998

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Because it’s there

I greatly enjoyed Murray Sayle’s piece about Eric Shipton (LRB, 7 May). Some years ago I spent an evening with Shipton, who told me that on one of his Everest expeditions of the Thirties he stood at much the same spot where, as Sayle recounts, Noel Odell thought he saw Mallory and Irvine before they disappeared. Shipton saw what appeared to be two figures above him but clearly they were rocks. He felt that this must have been what Odell saw and told me he thought Mallory and Irvine had fallen on the slanted slabs – like ice-covered roofs – characteristic of the classical Tibetan route. He also confirmed something that I had read about his relationship with his great climbing partner H.W. Tilman. After some years of expeditionary climbing together Shipton asked if, given everything, they might call each other Bill and Eric instead of Mr Shipton and Mr Tilman. Tilman said that he was willing, except that it sounded ‘so damn silly’.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

Feathered Wombs

Zoë Heller an authority on Blackwomen’s writing (LRB, 7 May)? I think not. If the LRB does not take our writing seriously enough to be reviewed by the same criteria of scholarship and prior knowledge that you privilege white authors with, then do not bother to review it at all.

Maud Sulter
Founder, Blackwomens Creativity Project
University of Central Lancashire

Austen and Edgeworth

Reviewing two Jane Austen biographies, Marilyn Butler (LRB, 5 March) argues for Austen’s dependency on Maria Edgeworth in her novel Lady Susan (and a lateish dating for it) partly on the grounds that Austen’s use of the word ‘manoeuvre’ in a social (instead of the older military/naval) context may derive from Edgeworth’s tale ‘Manoeuvring’, published in 1809. Certainly Edgeworth liked metaphors of manoeuvre, but the term was already being used in this transferred sense as early as 1774, according to the OED, and therefore offers no clue to the dating. It seems to have been current in Bath in the 1790s, before Jane Austen even visited the spa, as a manuscript letter in Bath Central Library from a bright Georgian teenager, Elizabeth Canning, demonstrates. This would-be debutante, writing to her mother in December 1792, describes amusingly, almost Austenishly, the humming and hawing of her aunts in the Assembly Rooms, first over whether she might join in the country dances at all, and then over the manifest unsuitability of the only partner available, ‘a Young Gem’mon of about fifteen’. She ends her account by remarking that on this occasion ‘your poor little picksy was obliged to content herself without cutting capers … but the next time I go to a Ball now that I know the Manoeuvres of it, I shall get them to look out for a partner earlier in the Evening, & then I shall have a better chance.’ This casual remark by an adolescent girl in a family letter – matching Jane Austen’s ‘Silly Woman! what does she expect by such Manoeuvres?’ in Lady Susan – indicates the popularity of the expression well before Maria Edgeworth published ‘Manoeuvring’.

Trevor Fawcett

Black Letter, Black Spirit

Andrew Gow (Letters, 21 May) regrets that a ‘skilled journalist’ rather than a ‘trained historian’ reviewed Peter Ackroyd’s ‘important’ biography of Thomas More. I would far rather be called an unskilled secularist than a skilled journalist. (And I doubt, by the way, that a decent historian would have called Ackroyd’s book ‘important’.) Gow complains that I chastised More for failing to see the rightness of the Protestant cause, and that I rolled out the old, now discredited, Protestant case against the evil of the medieval Catholic Church. Scholars such as Eamon Duffy, Jack Scarisbrick and Christopher Haigh have certainly made a convincing case that the pre-Reformation English Church was widely revered, and many more have demonstrated the atrocious vandalism of the Protestant Dissolution. But is it possible to attack More for being ‘cruel’ and ‘glib’ (two words that Gow himself uses) and not simultaneously attack the system of thought which he represented – that of Roman Catholicism? That is why I mentioned Cardinal Newman, whose intellectual habits, three hundred years after More, are indistinguishable from More’s – the same evasion, the same devotion to institutional religious authority, the same circularity. In The Idea of a University (1852), for instance, Newman writes that the Spanish Inquisition ‘in no proper sense belonged to the Church. It was simply and entirely a state institution’ – just as More had argued that the Church had nothing to do with the burning of heretics.

Is this anti-Catholicism of mine, as Gow asserts, a Protestant argument? I hope that I made clear that the Protestant case is not powerful enough. This is partly because Protestants have been, at times, quite as cruel as Catholics (Cotton Mather et al), and partly because the danger of making More sound like someone who was just too old to catch the new modern secret of Protestantism (the ‘inevitable modern Reformation’ argument) has the effect of making him a doomed, tragic figure – and therefore something of a hero. There is a secular anti-Christian argument against More, and this is not as ‘anachronistic’ as Gow thinks. To convict More of unusual cruelty and zealousness in the burning of heretics is not to condemn him for failing to act like Robert Runcie or Tony Blair. No, one should merely note that Wolsey, in his much longer chancellorship, put no heretics to death. And one should also note that, from Epicurus to Erasmus, belief in gods or God has not automatically entailed a vicious commitment to the idea of punishable heresy. As Mill wrote in On Liberty, ‘it may be better to be a John Knox than an Alcibiades, but it is better to be a Pericles than either.’

James Wood
Washington DC

Paint your wagon

The only pictures on the walls of my son’s infant school are by himself and his classmates. Not to be scoffed at, but there’d be scope, you’d have thought, for the odd reproduction, as there was in Alan Bennett’s day (LRB, 2 April), though I’m not sure, multiculturally speaking, that an Adoration would go down well in our LEA. My son is not yet a devotee of the LRB but Bennett’s piece, open on the kitchen table, caught his interest. He liked the Stubbs more than anything and explained that Hambletonian was running away from the remains of a smouldering rainforest in South America. There’d been conflagration and a fantastic application of saws and axes. Hambletonian had made his getaway as the last tree crashed to the ground. Until then, I’d thought that kids in schools would mostly want to know why there’s a house where Hambletonian’s willy might be, but I see now that this is a frivolous adult anxiety.

Harvey Plant

Alan Bennett recalls childhood trips to the swimming baths – please tell him I went to the baths on the bus to Middleton Junction, that’s Middleton north of Manchester – and wonders why no one carries their cossies about in a Swiss roll nowadays. The first answer that came to mind was just that we went by bus in those days not by car. But a better answer is that, since then, plastic has come into common use. So the answer is the cheap carrier bag. You couldn’t put a wet cossy into anything made of paper.

David Andrew

Red Star over Gillespie Road

Keith Flett upbraids Tobias Jones for not mentioning the new breed of socialist Arsenal fan (Letters, 21 May). Here in Dumbarton we are inclined to forgive Mr Jones. Arsenal is now guilty of the very un-socialist act of winning two good battles in a row. And just last week, to seal the bargain, the club’s most decorated bootboy, Nick Hornby, was announced as being the writer most admired by that avid son of horny-handed toil, Jeffrey Archer. Storm the barricades, or what? And speaking of disobedience, one of our little local teams, Celtic FC, have been equally good at keeping themselves on the right side of socialism. After winning the League the other day, the boys from Parkhead were spotted in the ‘cosy’ of a city centre hotel, discussing the merchandising opportunities arising from recent adventures, and the promise of future bonuses. The barmaid reports a ceaselessly colourful deployment of the word ‘cunt’. Or – at the very height of their shared happiness – ‘cunts’. It’s a good thing the socialist city fathers weren’t there – no bonus is safe in their sticky paws.

David Tully

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