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Wednesday 10 February 2021

Review: Philip Stephens, Britain Alone


This is a fluent narrative of the United Kingdom’s external political relations with the USA and the European Union from the Suez debacle of 1956 to the Brexit debacle of 2016 and its immediate aftermath. The story is told through the eyes and words of Prime Ministers, their advisers, and senior Whitehall civil servants. There is more detail in earlier chapters where even readers like myself who lived through the events may have forgotten the details - or worse: I can’t even remember if I voted in the first 1975 Referendum…... Later chapters assume, reasonably enough, that the reader’s memory is still reasonably fresh. But even those with very good memories will find things here which they didn’t already know.

Though the author (chief political commentator at the Financial Times - the newspaper I have read for several years after giving up on The Guardian of Morality) took the Remainer side in Britain’s (still ongoing) civil strife, the narrative does not feel unbalanced or obsessive. Nor does Stephens get side-tracked into gossip and he characterises Prime Ministers in terms of their grasp of issues, their management and presentational skills, their decisiveness - and their success or failure. So it’s a serious book.

There are two or three lacunae. Though Empire & Commonwealth figures in the background it rarely appears as a player, nor do those who have migrated from it to the UK. This misses several things. The Empire provided soldiers and supplies of essential goods through World War Two (see David Edgerton, Britain’s War Machine reviewed elsewhere on this blog) and in those ways was not untouched by the European conflict. Equally, more recent migrants from the Indian sub-continent have not had a European take on the world and have clearly been open to “Global Britain” rhetoric. The Leave campaign of 2016 courted the Asian vote (including that in the northern “Red Wall” constituencies) and it was made to appear that the ending of free movement from the EU would be the precursor to greater openness to migration from Asia. This appealed, among others, to Bangladeshi restaurant owners and so on, though they may yet be disappointed. But in 2021 the door has already been opened to dual national citizens of Hong Kong.

This seemingly small topic does sit within a larger one which would look more broadly at the UKs changing demographic which played a large part in making possible the Leave victory in 2016. It also qualifies the broad brush characterisation of the Leave campaign as racist or xenophobic. There are good foreigners and bad foreigners and those who live next door are always the worst.

Another seemingly small topic is Russian influence, which nowhere appears, except briefly in the quaint form of the Profumo scandal. Though Stephens charts a history of the arms-based Cold War and its end, he does not make a theme of the new Cold War in which Russia has deployed cyberattacks, money, kompromat, trolls, and sleeper agents to weaken and even destabilise Western democracies. It would not have been gossip to say something about the role of Russian money in the Leave campaign and in financially sustaining a Conservative Party which has very few members and relatively few enthusiastic donors. The UKs hesitations about its international allegiances and its real friends does seem to have opened a space for the operations of those who wish it failure rather than success. Put differently, the Conservative Party has changed and there are new Brexiters as well as the remaining old-guard of Iain Duncan-Smith, John Redwood, and so on.


Contemporary book jackets, done on the cheap by freelancers, are often dire. This one is quite clever and reminds me that in Germany the UK is now sometimes referred to as Die Insel. And in France, England’s decline is charted in the small linguistic change which has turned Les Rosbifs into Les Fuck-Offs.


Nearly all the books reviewed on this website are ones I have bought; this one was sent as a review copy by the publisher, Faber.

Sunday 7 February 2021

Review: Martha C. Nussbaum & Saul Levmore, Aging Thoughtfully


I’d like to think I am ageing thoughtfully so I bought this book, not least because in the past I have read and admired the work of the lead author[1]. But this book doesn’t quite work.

Published in 2017, it has become the victim of circumstances beyond its control: the degeneration of American society under the rule of the Trump Family and then the related devastation by COVID. As a result, it now reads as a bit complacent.

But more importantly, it gets caught in that trap which lies between the purely academic book which one can add to one’s CV (it was published in America by Oxford University Press) and the general readership to which most academics and academic publishers now aspire. There is a division of labour between Nussbaum and Levmore, the former pushing to be a bit controversial, the latter settling for the role of avuncular, unbiased adviser on tax planning. But both are held back by the exalted social positions they occupy: Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago; Levmore is William B. Graham Professor of Law in the same university. Nussbaum tries to break frame a bit when, for example, she writes about her colonoscopies. But neither wants to write anything which might deter anyone from becoming the future Ernst Freund’s and William B. Graham’s - sources of gifts and endowments. Rule one of American top university life: Don’t offend the alumni!

Their positions do matter to them, and especially to Nussbaum who spends a significant bit of her share of the book making a pre-emptive strike against those who might expect her, in the near future (she was born - like me - in 1947)  to step down from the Ernst Freund. No chance. A compulsory retirement age is an evil, even if applied to all, and just part of the general  stigmatisation of discriminated-against old(er) people. She’s having none of it. She exercises, eats healthily, has all her marbles intact, and she is going nowhere. All this is asserted in prose which I found brash and not much more than special pleading. She tells us that many great philosophers have produced their best work when old, but unless you can generalise that to mathematicians, scientists and engineers it’s not really a sensible basis for a university retirement policy. Her determination to assert her rights may be the reason why one of the great writers on human ageing, Michel de Montaigne, doesn’t even make it into the index. He was far too willing to accept retirement and, indeed, celebrate it. Levmore is more nuanced on the subject of retirement and there, are of course, ways of softening the blow of compulsory retirement. In universities, the word “Emeritus” provides a little balm; continued use of an office even more - and for someone working in the humanities, surely enough to enable continued research activity. And though Oxford University insists on retirement at sixty seven - rightly in my view - there is no need to apply the rule to its press: a book can be judged on its merits each time, regardless of the age of the author. There are tricky areas: Oxford has a famous Professorship of Poetry, the holder chosen by vote open to all university graduates. The job has  nominal duties, modest stipend, and a fixed term of four years. But in 2019, when someone tried to nominate Denise Riley (born 1948) to the post, the university’s retirement rule disqualified her.

As well as “Retirement Policy” the book has chapters on the importance of friendship, the different kind of relationship we can have to our ageing bodies, the balancing act between retrospection and looking forward, romance and sex, the elderly poor and what to do about them (this is America so: not very much), and estate planning (“Giving It Away”). There are interesting passages throughout but there is too much which is emollient. And the authors do repeat themselves; an editor could have struck through quite a few lines because, as you know, older people do repeat themselves.

[1] See my review of Martha Nussbaum , Anger and Forgiveness in Philosophy Now,  Issue 124,  February / March 2018, page 51.

Saturday 30 January 2021

On the Use and Mention of Words


Students of linguistics, literature and philosophy sooner or later get the idea that there is an important distinction between the use of a word (any word) and its mention. In print, the distinction can be marked by putting on punctuation marks to indicate that a word is being mentioned (quoted); alternatively, it can be italicised. The common purpose is to prevent confusion about who said what. It also, in some circumstances at least, exempts someone who mentions a word from any criticism which might attach to its use. But it’s not always so simple.

A police officer is giving evidence in the kind of ordinary court of law found in many countries, and says at some point, “I then arrested him and he used a racist epithet”. Now because the police officer is giving evidence and is not prosecutor, judge and jury all at the same time, it is entirely legitimate and relevant to ask, “What epithet?” To know it may be relevant to assessing the gravity of an offence. The officer is only being asked to mention the word, to quote it, not use it themself. It ought to be simple. Sometimes it isn’t and the police officer may demur, “I don’t want to say the word”. In that situation, a judge may ask the officer to write it down, knowing that this is usually acceptable even when saying the word is not.  The slip of paper may then be passed silently to judge, prosecution, defence, and jury.

The officer’s hesitation may be prompted by different kinds of sensibility - they may simply not want to be party to circulating the word in any form, use or mention; they would like the word to go away and not saying it is a step in the right direction. Even if the officer does say it, a newspaper reporting the case will most likely not print it. Instead, a report may repeat the original “racist epithet” formula or, alternatively, print the word in a censored form, say, ******, which may be modified by providing one or two letters as clues. 

This curious practice of giving clues is a modification of the slip-of-paper compromise: the reader now does not have to see the word, but is enabled to infer it, and the more clues provided the less uncertain becomes the inference until the word is staring you in the face. If you want to check the first line of Philip Larkin’s poem, This Be The Verse, online sources will offer you as the second word several versions: “****”, “***k”, “f**k” and “f*ck”. It is an interesting question why anyone should think “f*ck” preferable as an alternative to what Larkin actually wrote in those heady days back in the 1970s when people were trying to say and write what they meant. The obvious answer is that they now mis-quote it as “f*ck” because they do not want anyone to see the complete word, just as the police officer did not want to hear the racist epithet even in the form of a mention.

Expressions like “The F-word” and “The N-word” are rather obviously euphemistic - in the same way that “Number One” and “Number Two” are euphemistic - and also simultaneously expressions of disapproval. They belong with what I call Sunday School language.  The use of asterisks is in the same category and the category is probably linked to social class: these are typically lower middle class ways of encountering and managing the unpleasant side of the world. But it is strange and irritating that should you want to fact-check a line of poetry you can only do so at the same time as being given an indication of someone’s (anonymised) disapproval.

In my country at the time of writing, we have an upper-class Prime Minister, Mr Boris Johnson, who freely uses the word “fuck” both in speech and text messages, as upper class people often do. But when they print what he says or writes, only one newspaper to my knowledge (The Financial Times) and one widely-read magazine (Private Eye) do so without using disapproval asterisks.

There is, however, a further concern which someone may have about mentioning a word. Especially in relation to speech, there may be a fear that your audience might react in an unwanted way. A police officer who says, “I then arrested him and he used a fat-shaming epithet” may not want to mention the word or expression used simply from anxiety that the court-room audience might not be sufficiently on guard to suppress a titter. It’s possible that they have already had such a thought about the unfortunate officer. An epithet can be well-chosen, even if disgraceful or illegal.

There is a back story perhaps relevant to the discussion. In all the main monotheistic religions, use or mention of the name of God is hedged about with prohibitions, taboos, and contextual requirements; it is one of the Ten Commandments that “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). This requires interpretation, and indeed since it was first written down, many (millions of?)  man-hours have been devoted to its exegesis. One fairly common interpretation leads to the conclusion that, really, one should not use the name of the **** at all, though whether that is a matter of piety or prudence has also to be decided.

There is also a heresy within Russian Orthodoxy which goes in the reverse direction. The name of God should not be used carelessly because the name of God is God, rather in the way that some mathematicians think that the number names are the numbers, without any other kind of existence than the words we commonly employ - though that existence is reckoned well-worth having.

Those who believe that the name of God is God - the heresy is still alive - are called Imyaslavtsy, meaning Those who glorify the Name. When in 1913 Nicholas the Second of Russia was told that Russian monks on Mont Athos had become infected with the new heresy, he despatched a gunboat and two transport ships to Mont Athos. The Archbishop of Vologda was put ashore and held lengthy talks in which many monks identified themselves as heretics and refused to recant. As a result, initiative was passed back to the repressive apparatus of the Russian state. Troops came ashore, rounded up the heretics - killing four, injuring around fifty - and eventually loaded over eight hundred monks onto the ships for transport to Odessa where a few were found Not Guilty and allowed to return to Athos; rather more were jailed; and the remainder defrocked and sent into internal exile.  


This little discussion actually has an ultra-modern relevance. There has always been a part of linguistics, notably that associated with the making of dictionaries, which has interested itself in first uses of a word, subsequent developments in the way the word is used, and in some cases, a word’s fall into disuse. Such corpus linguistics was heavily dependent on printed texts and was extremely laborious work. Modern computer-based data harvesting radically alters the situation: provided it is online, truly huge amounts of data can be harvested with ease. Take any word which, say, has recently become popular and it will be possible to track its origins, its often-global dissemination, its typical users (classified along any dimensions you like), and so on. But there is a hazard involved. 

Suppose I want to give an example of a newly popular word and choose “genderfluid”. Then if what I write should appear online, a data-harvesting program designed to pick up occurrences of the word will pick it up. But I haven’t used the word; I have mentioned it. And unless the program is trained to distinguish use and mention it cannot ground certain interpretations which human users of the data might want to make. Unable to distinguish use and mention, a program would not differentiate between such very different occurrences of “genderfluid” as these:

(1)   I am genderfluid

(2)   I never use the word “genderfluid”; I would not like to take it in vain.

Revised August 2021



Thursday 21 January 2021

The Manufacturing Interest: Booker Prize Shortlisted Books 2020


I bought five of the six as a bundle on Amazon, not with any great enthusiasm - more with a view to updating myself on what kinds of books the manufacturing interest wishes to promote: it costs £5000 to enter a book for the Booker Prize. I left one of the six off my order since it was described as the third volume of a trilogy and if that’s the case then I would have to buy the trilogy, wouldn’t I? What are they doing just listing a third of a work as a potential prize-winner? (Tsitsi Dangarmbga, This Mournable Body)?

I took the shortest book first, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar: sensible length (229 pages, wide spacing to text, decent font size), short chapters, crisp writing. The first person narrator (Antara) is not very nice, very prickly, a bit disturbed and with every reason for being so. She splices the story of her Indian childhood into a narrative of her current situation (still in India) as wife of Dilip and eventually less-than-perfect mother of baby Annika. The pace is steady but the narrative tension and edginess increases through the book, and as a result my approval rating went up as I read on. Like many readers, my attention span has been shortened by the siren call of the computer sitting opposite on my desk but though at first I was checking my emails more or less after each chapter I settled into longer reading stints - the chapters about the narrator’s adolescence are very well done. First impression: at least good enough to be in the running for a prize of some kind.


Next up, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King set mostly in 1930s Ethiopia. My paperback has over twenty endorsements (always depressing), but including one from Salman Rushdie who writes, “A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth”. I think he is pulling out the most important aspect, but I also think the novel doesn’t quite achieve its goal of lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s readable, at times gripping, there is a strong narrative thread, and I guess that for most readers the fictionalised history will be new to them as it was to me. So lots of positives, to which reviewers from the police department add that the book is about “female empowerment”. Why bother with Aster and Hirut, Ferres and the cook, Kidane and Fucelli, Aklilu and Navarra when you could just write about “female empowerment”?

But the problematic aspect begins with the simple fact that the book has three epigraphs, which is two too many. We are offered “The Iliad by Homer”, “Isaiah”, and “Agamemnon by Aeschylus”.  From this one can deduce that Mengiste, or her editor, reckons that her readers will know what “Isaiah” is but might not be able to place “The Iliad” or “Agamemnon” unless reminded of their authors or vice versa, though I guess there are those who will have recently been reading Madeleine Miller.

As well as providing a historical narrative in which complex characters are developed, Mengiste tries to lift it into myth in passages (including Greek-inspired “Chorus” passages) which I ended up feeling were overwritten, overwrought, and at worst meant to help out the person who will be trying to sell the film rights to Hollywood. In that terrible place they would be converted  into panoramic images of “woman standing erect beside man on horseback on top of mountain, silhouetted by sun, hair blowing in wind” etc.

I can imagine a better novel in which all this stuff was cut out and Mengiste stayed with the exploration of human complexity, intensity of human feeling, and the sometimes ambiguous character of violence - all things about which Mengiste writes extremely well, and in general leaving it to the reader to develop their own understanding of what has been depicted.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Booker judges gave it the prize.


There is something not quite right about Douglas Stuart’s autobiographical novel Shuggie Bain - I guess Douglas was probably called Duggie as a child. He grew up in Glasgow but now lives in the USA where he wrote this book. It was first published in America and apart from a one-word puff from Graham Norton (“Brilliant”) all the puffs on the jacket of my hardback are from American publications. The book belongs to the genre of rough working class childhood - in this case declining industries (coal and shipyards), delinquent father (taxi driver), very alcoholic mother, older siblings busily trying to escape. The genre is still acceptable, though nowadays if the eponymous hero is male he also needs to be gay, since straight working class white males are going nowhere in publishing. Shuggie is gay right from the start: the child trails Daphne, a pink plastic doll, to alert his readers.

Stuart acknowledges a lot of help and from the names and places I guess that most of the help was American with rough working class morphing into trailer trash.  Whatever the genesis, the result is a parody of the original genre: relentless, no opportunity missed to deepen the misery, no comic relief, no irony. And I suspect it may be the fault of his helpers rather than the author.  I do hope it doesn’t win the prize; I abandoned the book half-way through.


I wrote the previous paragraphs nearly four months ago. I then picked up Diane Cooke’s The New Wilderness, and promptly put it down again. No thanks. And when Shuggie Bain won the prize, I didn’t have the heart to bother with the final book on the shortlist, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. But I have read it now, a few months later - I saw it on the shelf and thought “Well, I bought it, I suppose I should try …”. It’s good. Technically, there are some accomplished set piece scenes in which the small cast of characters are meeting together, taking time out, exchanging remarks which sometimes turn awkward. These scenes are tautly written and keep the reader on edge.  There is an interesting and unusual backdrop of campus science labs. There is a complex main character, gay black male Wallace, who only feels clichéd in the stream of consciousness / monologue in which he describes his childhood. The chapter which it occupies (pp 193 - 201) is perhaps just too short to attain a complexity which matches the character we are learning about in the other chapters. There are hints of Virginia Woolf in the writing - there is a nod to To The Lighthouse - but the writing - though frequently referencing landscape and weather in the context of an exploration of human emotion - is not either over-literary or under-literary. It’s a book you could compare & contrast with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Forced to choose between Taylor's Real Life and Doshi's Burnt Sugarwith which it has things in common, I would pick her book.







Wednesday 28 October 2020

Review: Richard Scholar, Émigrés. French Words That Turned English


I saw this book advertised and bought it for two very local and immediate reasons.

I had been writing about emigration and exile and found that every time I used the word emigré Microsoft objected with its red squiggle. I didn’t understand why. I tried taking off the accent but when I did that Microsoft autocorrected to émigré. No, that’s wrong, I thought: emigré is a fully-assimilated loan-word from French and no longer requires the first accent, only the second which deflects readers from a spelling pronunciation. In the same way, we don’t write Hotel with a circumflex (no risk of mis-pronunciation) but do keep an accent on café (automatically supplied by Microsoft) likewise to deter a spelling pronunciation. 

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on CAFÉ,though in French accents over capital letters are optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café” - I will use the CAFE DE FLORE to prove my point.    In short, if someone asks you whether written English uses accents, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different depending on lower case and upper case. But don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. Anyway, I was curious about a book in English which signalled that it would take the Microsoft plus royaliste que le roi position (it has an American publisher, which may explain everything,  as we shall see later).

The second reason was another piece of writing in progress in which I was having fun with the very last of Vivian Darkbloom’s Notes to Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor where Darkbloom glosses or translates the word gamine as lassie which I found hilarious until I discovered that there are real dictionaries which do the same, no kidding.[1]

Anyway, now to Professor Scholar’s book which isn’t quite how I imagined it but is nonetheless a very informative survey of the history of the partial assimilation / incorporation / …. of one expression and three words of French origin into written, literary English:  À la mode, Naïveté, Ennui, Caprice. (Microsoft now fails to autocorrect and does not provide an accent to À (Scholar does so I have copied) and simply squiggles red under Naïveté which I have also had to bring in line manually to Scholar’s preferred form. (Imagine there’s no loan words, it’s easier when you type ….)

Scholar sticks mainly to literary English and a historical approach to expressions which have stood the test of time but are not so fully assimilated as to no longer  carry any reminder of their origin in French. He is mostly concerned with written contributions to dominant cultures and so you will find here no parlay voos,  voolay voos, san fairy anns, ooh la las, excuzay mwas, comprenay? Nor are there any aperitifs, patays, creps or bonbons (that one now only a retro choice).

He is particularly good at bringing out how the use of a partially-assimilated loan-word can function to gesture to something ineffable or vaguer than a seemingly English equivalent, and ennui provides a good example. Similarly, such words may carry both positive and negative connotations and that may be something which can be exploited in a literary context. Of course, there will often be an element of showing off  and it is hostility to that which generates initial opposition to imported words but which, with the passage of time, no longer arouses  such strong reactions.

Scholar does introduce a theorising element in an endeavour to make sense of and generalise the detail with which he is concerned and he does this with the concept of creolization (which for me is now in free variation with  creolisation; Microsoft accepts both). A more obvious choice might have been cultural appropriation which appears only once (page 133) and I assume to the relief of his publisher, since Scholar’s book celebrates it. (I think cultural appropriation is inevitable and that people should get over it and start enjoying the possibilities it opens up, both ways: subordinate to dominant, dominant to subordinate).

But creolization doesn’t quite work. It already carries baggage which makes it difficult to fit in to Scholar’s argument.

Linguists have categories of trade jargons and pidgins which provide for limited forms of communication. They are found not only on slave plantations but in  ports and trading centres and do not imply any particular relation of power. So, for example, Russenorsk [Russo-Norwegian] was once used among people who were basically equal as traders or whalers. Importantly, such trade jargons and pidgins are created by and used by adults and generational transmission within a family may be limited or non-existent. Some of them have been  extremely limited in geographical and temporal extent like another jargon or pidgin from the Russian far north, Solombala English, which has a Wikipedia page but about which very, very little is known.

But on a slave plantation (to take the central case) a pidgin used for Master-Slave practical communication can evolve rapidly into a much richer creole driven by children from different language backgrounds who need  to communicate with each other about a wide range of topics. The speed of development is enhanced by the simple facts of short life expectancy and accelerated transitions from childhood to adult responsibilities. In this context, parents are not teachers nor do they possess normative authority because they (literally) do not understand their own children - rather in the way that in our own societies children run ahead of their parents in the social media and computing skills which they need.  Creoles are the creations of children who just want to be able to talk about anything and everything with members of their own generation. They are entirely oral creations. But within a few generations a pidgin turned creole can then be given written form and turned into a fully-fledged language with norms - in some cases, even into a national language like Papua’s Tok Pisin - which you can indeed translate as Talk Pidgin but it is now an official national language with a written form and sufficient syntax and vocabulary, and so on.

This assorts badly with the kind of reflexive, knowing borrowings and incorporations with which Scholar is concerned. These are late enhancements to fairly fully-fledged languages. Normative considerations are always in play and so too is power and prestige. One could  talk about cultural capital, a concept of fairly recent and French origin in the work of Pierre Bourdieu who does not appear in Scholar’s book.

Both cultural appropriation and cultural capital as concepts / theories allow one to explore the fact that what Scholar calls creolization is often marked by notable antagonisms. He acknowledges the reality of this repeatedly, quoting from authors who want to resist the invasion of foreign words into their native language. Such active and reflexive conflicts (culture wars) are rather different to more passive and inevitable processes which do exist and which can be talked about in the neutral language of “contact”. So Scholar is not wrong when he  writes of “those words that come into the language from outside and  turn it in new and unexpected directions” (page 169) but such passive processes are only half the story, as he knows and documents. Some things get into our language under the radar, but not all and those which don’t are the only ones talked and written about - until much later when historical linguists start to reconstruct broader histories, and attempt to look under the radar.

Added 9 November 2020: In a structural rather than historical analysis one would try to locate an assimilated word like emigré in its semantic field. That would include words like immigrant, migrant, exile, refugee, asylum seeker. Almost immediately I find myself thinking that the word emigré is involved in at least two semantic oppositions. The first is a matter of social class: poor people do not become emigrés; they become one of the other things on my list (though not exiles). There are no emigré labourers, only migrant ones. The second is about allowing a certain amount of ambivalence. An exile is someone who was forced out of somewhere else and may not welcome the fact that they have ended up where they are. They may be grateful for being allowed in, but they would rather be back where they came from. In contrast, an emigré can at least half-suggest that they moved of their own accord, that they came because they thought they would find their new hosts more congenial than their old neighbours. They may be able to hint that they could have gone elsewhere and that, perhaps, you are lucky to be favoured by their presence. Of course, over time semantic fields shift and though the dimensions of social class and ambivalence may last for a long period, within the field subtle re-arrangements are always going on so that to call someone in 2020 a Russian emigré will carry different connotations to those the expression would have had in 1940. And does a Russian oligarch who makes their home in London need any further characterisation beyond being called an oligarch? Are they outside the semantic field I have just sketched?  

The American publisher. American presses have a bad reputation for wanting to dumb down books for what they assume is a dumb audience; I have written about this[2]. It often involves adding explanatory glosses; for example, at page 114 of this book I read, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) …..”.

The author could have pointed out that this is not a junior high school text and that anyone mad enough to read a book about “French Words That Turned English” would probably know Rousseau basics.

It’s not always easy to make the right judgment call. The editorial re-writer sometimes disappears when perhaps more needed. So at page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no footnote that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on perhaps his most famous painting. Now that is 101 stuff and might have been rather more worthy of the editor’s skills. But how come it was missed? There is no proper name in the immediate vicinity.

That is one reason why I have concluded - this is hot off the press -  that modern editors are using an App. which works by identifying  proper names and then inserts standardised patter on one side of the name and dates of birth and death on the other:

“playwrights such  as William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616), for example, wrote history plays…” (page 80)

At least he is not English-speaking William Shakespeare, but this is still the language of an out-of-control App. as is evidenced by the double redundancies (playwrights/wrote ... plays;  such as/ for example). Authors sometimes need to take back control.




[1] The fun is now in my Nabokov’s Dream (2021)


Sunday 6 September 2020

Reclaim Her Name? George Eliot and Middlemarch


I had been meaning to re-read Middlemarch and promoted it to the top of the waiting list after reading that a well-known alcoholic drinks company, Baileys, had recently re-issued it - along with 24 other books. This is what the Baileys website currently says about its project:


Reclaim Her Name was created to mark the 25th year of the Women’s Prize for Fiction, who we have proudly supported for the last 7 years …. The campaign was about championing female writers, something that the Women’s Prize for Fiction do every day.

(If you are unhappy with the grammar, I assure you I have copied carefully from the website; I can see Microsoft’s squiggle on my copying).

The twenty five books were all written by women but were published originally under male or gender-neutral names. Middlemarch was among the books selected and its new cover attributes authorship to “Mary Ann Evans”; it was originally published in 1871 under the name of the by-then very well-known and successful writer, “George Eliot”, whose first novel Adam Bede had appeared in 1859.

In 1854, a translation The Essence of Christianity (still the standard one) of Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums gave title-page credit to “Marian Evans”, a name which Mary Ann Evans began to use when she arrived in London determined to become a writer; by 1854 she had become prominent as an editor and contributor at The Westminster Review. But current paperback editions of the Feuerbach give jacket credit to “George Eliot”, a name she only adopted later and specifically for her fiction.

It seems that Mary Ann Evans can’t win: “Marian Evans” has been taken away and replaced by “George Eliot”; “George Eliot” is now taken away and replaced by “Mary Ann Evans”. It’s tough being a woman; you can be confident that no one is going to mess with “George Orwell”.

I am sure the late but very strong-minded writer is mistreated both ways, but I take consolation from the fact that in Middlemarch she treats her fate in a light-hearted manner. If you turn to the Finale in the respectful Penguin edition which credits Middlemarch to George Eliot,  at pages 832-33 (yes, it’s a very long novel and in small print, too) you will find surprising attention given to questions of authorship.

Fred Vincy wins congratulations from the agricultural fraternity for his Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding but in Middlemarch “most persons there were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife, since they had never expected Fred Vincy to write on turnips and mangel-wurzel” (832). She continues, “But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch… every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, ‘where the ancients were studied’ ….” (832).

She concludes, “In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book since it was always done by somebody else” (833).


I did read the novel cover to cover and enjoyed it despite its 800+ pages. There is a cast of characters of which at most one or two could be regarded as simple, black and white, souls who we can cheer for. The others have complex characters, merits and demerits, virtues and vices jostling or running in harness. Narrative tension is sustained through eighty six, mostly short, chapters. A few things grate (the over-used word "ardent", for example). Only in the final Book Eight - the novel was issued in serial form - titled "Sunset and Sunrise" was I a bit disappointed: the future lives of the main characters are packaged rather too neatly as tidy gifts to the loyal reader who has bought all the instalments. But, then, George Eliot did want to be a commercially successful novelist and was.That she was much more than that is the reason she has always been widely read ever since, by men and women alike, and surprisingly without much help from the manufacturing interest.