Amber Medland, writing about Nella Larsen, mentions the scandal that surrounded Larsen’s short story ‘Sanctuary’ and its resemblance to a story by the British writer Sheila Kaye-Smith (LRB, 6 May). Kaye-Smith’s books were highly popular in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Her story ‘Mrs Adis’, originally published in the UK in 1919, tells of a mother who shelters her son’s best friend, a poacher (and accidental killer), from the law. When he confesses, she lets him go, out of a combination of sentiment and class antipathy. ‘Shooting a keeper ain’t the same as shooting an ordinary sort of man, as we all know,’ she says, ‘and maybe he ain’t so much the worse.’
‘Mrs Adis’ appeared in the United States in Century magazine in January 1922. Larsen’s ‘Sanctuary’, which appeared in the Forum in 1930, was similar to Kaye-Smith’s story in terms of plot, some of the descriptions and dialogue. In ‘Sanctuary’ the mother, Annie Poole, hides Jim from the authorities even when she discovers that the man he has killed is her son. At the end of the story, Annie says bitterly: ‘Git outer mah feather baid, Jim Hammer, an’ outen mah house, an’ don’ nevah stop thankin’ yo Jesus he gone gib you that black face.’
The condemnation of Larsen was harsh: ‘Sanctuary’ was longer, better written and more explicitly political than ‘Mrs Adis’. What’s more, Kaye-Smith based her story on a parable by St Francis de Sales (1567-1622). The plot might have been drawn from an old folk tale. Many old legends and stories have been reworked by later writers, and the line between emulation and copying is thin and wavy.
Peacehaven, East Sussex
Robert Creeley, about whom August Kleinzahler writes, was a close friend of mine and of my late husband, Tom Raworth, also a poet, for more than forty years (LRB, 20 May). We had a frequent and continuing correspondence with him. He may have been often drunk, and on occasion ‘mean’ and ‘belligerent’ as, according to Kleinzahler, Jack Kerouac described him. However, I would not suppose Kerouac to be an infallible source. Bob was a faithful, generous, funny, perceptive friend, always ready to offer help in time of need, and fun, yes, fun. What he never was, was ‘dreary’. Ever. As for his marital life, well, most marriages don’t stand up to close outside scrutiny – mine certainly would not have.
Hove, East Sussex
I enjoyed August Kleinzahler’s review of the Selected Letters of Robert Creeley, but was surprised by the date of publication given. The paperback may have appeared in March 2020, but the appallingly edited book was issued originally in 2013, and reviewed by me in the Times Literary Supplement of 24 January 2014. My view of it wasn’t all that far removed from Kleinzahler’s. On the question of Creeley’s domestic violence, it elicited a letter from not one but two of his wives.
Colin Kidd does a good job of explaining the nuances of the factional divisions within the IRA, as well as internal distinctions between the leadership and the rank and file (LRB, 6 May). It’s a shame, then, that he goes on to describe Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum in terms of Britain’s ‘Ulsterisation’. An embarrassment regarding the legacies of imperialism has become rife in left-liberal considerations of modern British history. I would ask commentators to develop a greater degree of political seriousness on the matter and to understand that events such as the Ballymurphy Massacre and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings were direct symptoms of British rule in Ireland and not the result of political or social dynamics specific to ‘Ulster’. I would also suggest that they are not comparable to the embarrassment of ‘mixed company’ at dinner parties.
Nicholas Spice writes about Hans Keller, but does not mention his wife, the artist Milein Cosman, with whom he lived from 1947 until his death in 1985 (LRB, 4 February). Ines Schlenker, in Milein Cosman: Capturing Time (2019), demonstrates how closely their work was intertwined. At concerts or rehearsals, as Keller was meeting and reviewing famous musicians, Cosman was sketching them in action. Her dynamic drawings of famous players and conductors and her illustrations for the Radio Times reveal a great deal about the classical music personalities and performance customs of the time. Also included in the book are a number of Cosman’s pictures of Keller himself, mostly at work at his desk at home.
Emma Hogan, reviewing Diana Souhami’s No Modernism without Lesbians (LRB, 20 May), writes that during the Second World War Romaine Brooks and her lover Natalie Barney
went to a villa outside Florence where they dug a trench in the garden so that they could sunbathe; as disengaged with the war as they had been the first time round (Barney was antisemitic and stubbornly apolitical; Brooks was actively fascistic, raving about the German ‘blond warriors keeping the Red Russians at bay’.
The quotation about ‘blond warriors’ is from Brooks’s unpublished war diary, ‘On the Hills of Florence’ (the text is available online at the Archives of American Art). During the war, Brooks and Barney were subjected to surveillance, questioning and searches by Italian political and military police. They were under threat of deportation because of Barney’s Jewish heritage; her home in Paris had already been raided by Nazi troops seeking her arrest. The trench in the garden was dug to protect everyone living on Brooks’s farm (including strangers billeted there by government order) from bombs dropping on the nearby road and houses, sometimes no more than fifty feet away.
My research on Romaine Brooks is substantial. I have uncovered no evidence that she ever undertook any political activity, let alone provided support to any political party or government institution. The introduction to my Life of Brooks from 2015 addresses the issue of her politics, and I devote much of one chapter to the lives of Brooks and Barney during their six years in Italy. They were trapped, unable to escape after being denied permission to travel to Switzerland. It was never their intention to spend the war in Italy. Romaine Brooks held conservative views, but she was not a fascist. Such claims should not be made lightly.
East Elmhurst, New York
Susannah Clapp, writing about the V&A’s handbag show, laments the rarity of opportunities to ‘peer into someone else’s bag’ (LRB, 20 May). That prompted me to recall a French artist, Nathalie Lecroc – Miss Lecroc – whom I encountered in the agnès b. gallery in Paris fifteen or so years ago. She presented, intriguingly, as an on-the-spot painter and decoder of handbag contents, a reveller in those illicit interior spaces about which Clapp is so curious. Miss Lecroc was the equivalent of a palm reader, sorting meaning from mess, magic from make-up, in a rapid allocation of paint. Her delightful visual lists of handbag details are now to be found all over Pinterest, though where Miss Lecroc herself has vanished is a secret the internet does not readily disclose.
Liam Shaw takes issue with Christopher Tayler on the matter of the ‘convincingly Irish spelling’ of surnames (Letters, 20 May). The rendering of speech and pronunciation in written form in Ireland has a long and complex orthographical history and was only standardised between 1945 and 1958. My family name, fixed in its present form only since my grandfather’s arrival in England, had until then been rendered among his ancestors as Golding, Golden, Goulden and Goldin.
Newcastle upon Tyne
John Lanchester mentions that his mother, referring to a forthcoming sea voyage, said they would ‘take the boat’ (LRB, 22 April). ‘Fellow shipping fans,’ he adds in parenthesis, ‘I know it isn’t called a boat.’ Quite right, on salt water. Where I live, on the Great Lakes, all floating vessels have traditionally been referred to as boats, though in common usage ‘ship’ is increasingly used to refer to any large vessel. In sailing terminology, the word ‘ship’ properly refers only to a ship-rigged vessel (square-sails on at least the main and foremasts for running before trade winds), as distinct from a brig, sloop, ketch etc. A ship-rig is ideal for constant, reliable winds, but on the Lakes wind direction can change in an instant, so that ships are liable to capsize before their sails can be reset. This is what may well have happened to the first European-style vessel on the Lakes (which was properly a ship), Le Griffon, lost on the return leg of her maiden voyage in 1679. Subsequently, boats on the Lakes were mostly schooner-rigged.
Edward Said, as Adam Shatz notes, hated the nickname ‘Ed’ (LRB, 6 May). Susan Sontag, we are told in Sigrid Nunez’s memoir Sempre Susan (2011), ‘bristled and sharply corrected anyone who called her Sue’. And Christopher Hitchens, as I can personally attest, got annoyed when anyone addressed him as ‘Chris’. They kept you on your toes, those three.
Katherine Harloe remarks that classicists are embarrassed that the prime minister’s claims to intellectual prowess rest on his knowing the beginning of the Iliad off by heart, along with Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’ (LRB, 1 April). Actually, it’s more embarrassing than that: last time I heard him reciting ‘Mandalay’ he misquoted it, declaiming ‘Come you back, you English soldier.’
The news, delivered by Francis Gooding, that slime moulds can map the Tokyo subway system in a single day has revolutionised the way I clean my bathroom (LRB, 20 May). Until humanity has developed the skills necessary to negotiate with these species, I shall be adopting a policy of live and let live.
David Gilchrist writes from Copenhagen that Danish pastries are not croissants; they are Wienerbrød, introduced apparently by Austrian pastry chefs (Letters, 6 May). At the same time, those chefs may have introduced Kipferl, about which there are many legends, one of which is that Marie-Antoinette brought them to France when she married Louis XVI. The name derives from its description, not its provenance. Kipferl means ‘crescent’.
It isn’t surprising that people have problems distinguishing Wienerbrød – ‘Danish pastries’ to non-Danes – from croissants, since the secret of the flaky pastry in both came from the Turks, a lasting legacy to Western European culture from one of their unsuccessful sieges of Vienna.
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