Bennett and Woolf

Margaret Drabble says that “the question of class is at the heart of the opposition of [Virginia] Woolf and [Arnold] Bennett, and it has little to do with feminism” (May 13), and this might well seem so to any reader of the well-known essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, with its certainly “embarrassing” portrait of the (fictional) latter. But the matter is complicated by two lengthy letters that Woolf published in the New Statesman in October 1920, responding to a favorite review of Bennett’s essay collection Our Women by the columnist “Affable Hawk” (Desmond MacCarthy).

Affable Hawk has, Woolf says, stated that “the fact that women are inferior to men in intellectual power ‘stares him in the face'”. Her outrage is apparent, but the (superb) letters are coolly argued as she traces a history of social inhibition and a partial advance in opportunity from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, offering a list of outstanding women intellectuals from the Duchess of Newcastle to Jane Harrison. “The effects of liberty and education” are, she says, “scarcely to be overrated”; but these are “conditions … impeded by such statements as those of ‘Affable Hawk’ and Mr. Bennett, for a man has still much greater facilities than a woman for making his views known and respected.” Should such conditions prevail, she says, “we shall remain in a condition of half-civilised barbarism”.

Her second letter (necessitated by a further intervention by the Hawk) ends: “For the degradation of being a slave is only equaled by the degradation of being a master.” The terms of her antithesis, which is also an equivalence, equate, obviously, to the relations between women and men; but, however hopeless she was at portraying servants in her work, and however badly she may have behaved to her own in life, she cannot possibly have failed to see that those terms had another pressing application too.

Neil Corcoran
Oxton, Prenton, Wirral

Margaret Drabble finds Virginia Woolf’s remarks about cooks “embarrassing”. Surely Woolf is basing them on her own experience. Sophie Farrell, the Stephens’ family cook, may not have been “silent” or “inscrutable”, but she was certainly “formidable”, insisting on ordering the best cuts of meat, regardless of the family budget. The servants were relegated to the dark basement of 22 Hyde Park Gate: “It’s like hell”, said one servant on occasion to Woolf’s mother. The modern cook, “in and of the drawing- room” of 52 Tavistock Square in 1924, is based on Nellie Boxall, with whom Woolf had an out difficult relationship over the eighteen years from 1916 to 1934. Dabble seems to have forgotten what she wrote fifty years ago: “It is in vain to look in [Woolf’s] work for a modern woman, leading the kind of life that we lead … There were no middle-class housewives giving dinner parties of extreme sophistication and Elizabeth David cuisine, with no servants in the kitchen.”

Stuart N. Clarke
Banks, Lancashire

Margaret Dabble doesn’t think she “invented” the story about Arnold Bennett hiding under a bed a picture he had bought in order to conceal his extravagance from his wife, Marguerite. Indeed she didn’t: the story comes from Frank Swinnerton, who, in his Arnold Bennett: A last word (1978), states that Bennett “confessed that he often bought a picture and hid it under his bed for several weeks … When challenged by Marguerite with having acquired something new and expensive, he would say, carelessly, ‘That? Oh, I’ve had it … for a long time'”. Swinnerton adds that Marguerite was wise to his attempted deceit and “evidently was in the habit of looking under beds”.

There’s no mention of a Modigliani in Swinnerton’s account; but, as Drabble reveals in her own biography, Bennett did buy one of the artist’s paintings in 1919, “continuing faithfully in his role of popularizer of high art”.

JRS Davies

Sexually adventurous females

The subtext of Carol Tavris’s extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking review of Different and Bitch (April 29) is that monogamy is an attempt by human males to stifle a more “natural” and pleasurable state of sexual adventurousness. Tavris states that “females who have sex with many males … reduce the risk that a new male partner will kill offspring that he didn’t sire”. Is it possible that monogamy was actually invented by females to reduce the amount of this “protection racket” sex that they needed to endure? I’m not proposing this as a fact, merely a philosophically possible interpretation of some of the data mentioned in the article.

Keith Jewitt

Carol Tavris focuses on the perception of “sexually adventurous” behaviour, especially relating to females, in various species, and how many studies refute the notion that females do not engage in “excess” sex. Tavris uses many examples from the books under review to refute this long-held principle. Female chimpanzees “mate hundreds of time a day during oestrus with multiple males” – since an adult female chimpanzee goes into oestrus every thirty-six days, we are talking impressive numbers. We also learn “that females in 93 per cent of all species have multiple partners” and that “some 450 animal species (and counting) engage in same sex behaviour”. Tavris also discusses whether animals have orgasms, sham sexuality, sex while pregnant, etc. A lot of possibilities, it appears, for endless adventures.

I was reminded of George Steiner’s essay “Night Words: High pornography and human privacy”, in which he writes:

Despite all the lyric or obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations and imaginings is drastically limited. There are probably more foods, more undiscovered events of gastronomic enjoyment or revulsion than there have been sexual inventions since the Empress Theodora resolved “to satisfy all amorous orifices of the human body to the full and at the same time”. There just aren’t that many orifices. The mechanisms of orgasm imply fairly rapid exhaustion and frequent intermission. The nervous system is so organized that responses to simultaneous stimuli at different points of the body tend to yield a single, blurred sensation.

William Shine
Bethesda MD

Burgoyne and Cornwallis

Andrew Roberts disagrees with me that George III’s different treatment of the defeated generals John Burgoyne and Charles Cornwallis was due to the former being a commoner and the latter a nobleman (Letters, April 29). Roberts is of course entitled to his opinion, but not to misstate facts. Burgoyne did not return to England after his surrender at Saratoga “intending to embarrass Lord North’s ministry as much as possible”. On the contrary, he returned to clear his name and to plead in the House of Commons on behalf of the officers and men who had served under him. He asked for a court martial so that he would not be disgraced without an opportunity to defend himself in a public hearing; The government, determined to pin the sole blame for Saratoga on Burgoyne and to avoid any exposure of its own culpability, refused. When it could not silence Burgoyne, he tried unsuccessfully to send him back to America.

Roberts states that Burgoyne was “feared and disliked as a life-long and inveterate troublemaker”. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had a wide circle of friends and admirers, which, before Saratoga, included the king. If Burgoyne’s efforts as an MP to fight the corruption in the East India Company make him a troublemaker, so be it.

Burgoyne was not, as Roberts asserts, “virtually indistinguishable from Cornwallis in class terms”. Cornwallis had the noble rank of earl (the king promoted him to the even higher rank of marquess after his surrender at Yorktown), while Burgoyne, a commoner, was the son of an army captain on half-pay. Why Roberts brings up the rumour, which may have been true, that he was the illegitimate – and unacknowledged – son of Lord Bingley is a mystery to me.

The fact that several noblemen were outraged by the king’s appointment of the generally despised Lord Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to the peerage despite his mis-handling of the American war only supports my view that Burgoyne suffered the humiliation he did because he was not a nobleman. It is beyond belief that the king would have made Germain a peer if he had not been an Aristocrat by birth: the younger son of a duke.

Norman S. Poser
Brooklyn Law School, Brooklyn NY


Jonathan Keates’s review of Honor and the Sword by Joseph Farrell (April 15) delights and instructs. It falls short at one point, however. To consider “the paradox that life imitates art nowhere better exemplified” than in Pushkin’s fatal duel overlooks Mikhail Lermontov, shot dead in a duel in the Caucasus in July 1841. Lermontov’s poem “The Dream” (in Vladimir Nabokov’s translation) opens with unsurpassable foresight : “In noon’s heat, in a dale of Dagestan / With lead inside my breast, stirless I lay…”.

Samuel Klonimos


Has Brian Vickers (April 22) really never come across the term “theatergram”? It was coined by Professor Louise George Clubb, principally in her Italian Drama in Shakespeare’s Time (1989).

A generation or more of scholars has been using the word regularly to denote transferable, repeatable units of drama—plot elements, confrontations, scene structures—that were tossed between one play and another, transnationally, during the early modern period. For example (Clubb’s example), the confrontation between the idealistically devoted Juliet and her earthily pragmatic nurse (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, scene v) is a theatergram. It is in a number of Italian plays, and in operas including Monteverdi’s Ulisse and Poppea.

Richard Andrews

Thomas Piketty

Ian Malcolm notes that Thomas Piketty devotes a page or two to discussing the rise of the average real income (Letters, May 13). But all Piketty’s other many hundreds of pages talk about the dispersion of income alone. That ordinary folk have been immensely enriched by liberalism since 1776 is trivial in his judgment compared with that envy-arousing dispersion.

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey
University of Illinois at Chicago

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