Dinah Birch

Dinah Birch is a pro-vice chancellor and professor of English at the University of Liverpool.

Proper Ghosts: ‘The Monk’

Dinah Birch, 16 June 2016

In the early 1980s​, before hitch-hikers disappeared from the roads, I gave a lift to a couple of teenage Goths on the way to Stratford-upon-Avon. Their cheerful conversation was reassuringly at odds with their get-up (black hair, white faces, silver skulls dangling from their ears). I wondered whether they might see a connection between Hamlet’s nighted colour and their own style,...

Janet Davey​’s books scrutinise contemporary lives, but are reluctant to claim a guiding theme. They are more interested in the failures of intention. The tales they begin to tell meander and lose direction, refusing to crystallise into plot. Her central characters seem baffled by their own histories and motives, and unsettled by those of others. Their misadventures result in no...

The Iron Way: Family History

Dinah Birch, 19 February 2015

Children​ often envy orphans. But the appeal of stories of parentless heroes who are free to make their own luck fades as the fluid possibilities of youth harden into adulthood. The quirks and prejudices of family life start to seem fascinating, or admirable. We hanker after a clearer picture of the vanished men and women who gave rise to our parents’ lives, and our own. As she grows...

Sisters come second: Siblings

Dinah Birch, 26 April 2012

You can’t choose whether or not to have siblings. Many children would change their situation, if they could. Some long for company, others are bent on ridding themselves of rivals. But the connection is often the most enduring of all social relationships. Friends, lovers and spouses come and go. Parents die: children arrive when we’re adults, if at all. But siblings can never be...

‘My father was a wicked man – a very wicked man,’ Charles Dickens’s daughter Kate Perugini wrote. ‘My father did not understand women.’ Yet he was never simply a chauvinist. Though he would not acknowledge women’s independence, he recognised their ambitions outside the home. He admired his musical sister Fanny, and was drawn to Nelly Ternan, who...

‘Governesses don’t wear ornaments. You had better get me a grey frieze livery and a straw poke, such as my aunt’s charity children wear.’ George Eliot’s Gwendolen Harleth is sour because it looks as though she will have to support her family by teaching the daughters of a bishop, but most would have shared her depression at the prospect. The efforts of the...

Very Pointed: Pugin

Dinah Birch, 20 September 2007

Modern lives look prim beside the turbulent existence of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin. Distractions and misfortunes proliferated throughout his career: shipwreck (he was in his own boat, trading antiquities as a teenager, and barely escaped drowning), bankruptcy, three marriages, several tumultuous love affairs, children conceived out of wedlock, and a series of uncertain commercial...

‘Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind’: it would be hard to devise a more off-putting title for Gillian Sutherland’s sympathetic account of the Clough family. It’s slightly misleading too, because her book is not much concerned with religious faith. The history it presents is shaped by faltering Christian conviction among the liberal elites of the 19th century, and the...

Printed in 1958, the Bible given to me as a child was illustrated with photographs of the Holy Land. I was particularly taken with the ‘Native House near Bethlehem’. A woman broods over the baby on her lap, while her husband steadily returns the viewer’s gaze. This calculated image, every shadow still imprinted on my memory, seemed both homely and exotic. Tethered to the stone wall, next to the manger, was what I recognised as a white-faced Hereford cow, like those which grazed around the farm where I was growing up. The incongruity was normal. Places I saw in my Bible (‘A Fountain at Nazareth’, ‘Road from Jerusalem to Jericho’), and heard about at Methodist Sunday school, were as familiar to my imagination as the villages and farmhouses where my grandparents, aunts and cousins lived. Some of the local fields had biblical names. My uncle’s land included a boggy patch known as Jericho, not far from our own Home Close.

His Greatest Pretend: the man behind Pan

Dinah Birch, 1 September 2005

The notorious refusal of J.M Barrie to leave boyhood behind was perverse and, in the end, destructive. Yet it became the foundation of his success, as a widely celebrated playwright, a wealthy baronet, and a leading figure in literary London. The stories and plays that led to these grown-up dignities were, as he understood them, grounded in a child’s make-believe. What makes him the...

Using literature as a way out of your life carries less of a stigma than lager or Grand Theft Auto. It’s understood as a mark of educated cultivation, not wilful indulgence or evasion. Yet reading, like every other exercise of the imagination, can be abused, can turn into an addiction. The connection between this and other kinds of abuse is something that Peter Rushforth has been...

When Thackeray died in 1863 his eldest daughter, Anny, who was 26, was left not just with a famous name and a sum of money but with an established place in London literary life. Affectionate and needy, Thackeray had nurtured Anny’s talents, and used her as his amanuensis. Before his death she had begun to publish work of her own, including a vigorous novel, The Story of Elizabeth....

Much of the literature of the 19th century grew out of sibling relationships. Tennyson’s first publication was a family project, with contributions from three brothers. The Brontës’ fiction emerged from the closed world of Haworth parsonage. Harriet Martineau’s writing was shaped by complicated feelings for her brother James. The work of the Rossetti family is among the...

‘No one knows what a literary ambition I had, nor how my failure has broken me,’ Elizabeth Stoddard wrote in 1876. She was 53, and knew she was not going to be numbered among the great American writers of her generation. The gloomy and self-dramatising tone is characteristic. In fact she was exceptionally robust, and nothing could break her. She went on writing for years, and...

Fond Father: A Victorian Naturalist

Dinah Birch, 19 September 2002

[Ann] Thwaite demonstrates that Edmund’s facts are contradicted by quantities of documentary evidence. Philip Henry Gosse was not a gloomy monster. He was a courageous and innovative scientist and a thoroughly likable human being.

Wintry Lessons: Anita Brookner

Dinah Birch, 27 June 2002

Anita Brookner’s first novel appeared in 1981. Since then she has published it again, slightly altered, almost every year. It is a remarkable feat. Nor is it irrelevant to what she has to say, for quiet persistence is part of what her fiction affirms. The same characters, the same situations, the same histories of seclusion and distress appear over and over again. Lonely children are...

There are good reasons, and a few bad ones, for lifting minor characters out of famous texts and putting them centre-stage. One bad reason might be that refiguring a large reputation quietly amplifies your own. Shakespeare’s cultural authority has made him a tempting source, but writers who provide Shakespeare’s marginal presences with another chance to speak also aim to make...

Freud takes it for granted that masculinity is the defining human condition, that all children begin life by imagining themselves as little men. When girls get round to noticing their lack of a penis and have to abandon fantasies of maleness, they feel envy and a lasting sense of alienation. Catherine Robson acknowledges and dismisses Freud and Lacan as forming ‘part of the continuing...

It is hard to make a living from poetry. Lavinia Greenlaw has turned her hand to all manner of activities to support her work – publishing, teaching, arts administration, posts as writer-in-residence. These haven’t just been ways of paying the bills: her imagination has been cultivated by dealing with institutions. Greenlaw’s writing fuses feeling with lucid observation,...

Fear among the Teacups: Ellen Wood

Dinah Birch, 8 February 2001

Andrew Maunder’s introduction to his new edition of Ellen Wood’s chronicle of scandalous goings-on among the Victorian middle classes claims that East Lynne may be ‘one of the most famous unread works in the English language’. Very possibly. Yet it was spectacularly successful in its day, and its popularity has turned out to be more durable than that of most publishing...

Tim Hilton’s foreword to the concluding volume of his biography of Ruskin is intimate and magisterial in a way that would seem presumptuous in anyone else. But Hilton has worked with Ruskin since the early 1960s and no one has a deeper understanding of either him or his writing. In the first volume, published in 1985, Hilton made it clear that the later life was to be the real focus of his biography: ‘I believe that Ruskin was a finer writer and, if I dare say so, a better man, in the years after 1860 and especially in the years after 1870.’ Still bolder was the claim that Fors Clavigera (1871-84), then little valued and rarely read, was Ruskin’s masterpiece. Both claims are made good in this book, which ought to reshape Ruskin studies.‘

No wonder it ached: George Eliot

Dinah Birch, 13 May 1999

It is odd that the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ has proved so durable. It persisted long after the identity of Adam Bede’s author had become public knowledge, and there has been no serious attempt to dislodge it since. Why has George Eliot never been known by her own name? One reason is that it has never been quite clear what it was. She began life as Mary Anne Evans, daughter of Robert Evans, a sturdy and prosperous land agent in Warwickshire. But Mary Anne sounds rather like a servant’s name (the White Rabbit’s housemaid is called Mary Ann). As the rising fortunes of the family gave her a lady’s education, she began to experiment and adapt – trying out Marianne, losing the final ‘e’, and later settling on Marian. Throughout her life, she accumulated nicknames: Minie, Polly, Pollian, together with more dignified and maternal tags in middle age – Madre, Mutter or Madonna.’‘

Grubbling: Anne Lister

Dinah Birch, 21 January 1999

Anne Lister was undoubtedly one of the most unorthodox women of the early 19th century. She was an active and entirely unashamed lesbian, a scholar, a dauntless traveller and a resourceful businesswoman. As an example of what female tenacity could achieve in the pre-Victorian period, she might be seen as a fortifying ideal. But she was also manipulative and snobbish, often careless of the welfare of her tenants and labourers, and a belligerent ultra-Tory. Not only was she quite without interest in women’s political advancement, she was clearly not at all nice. One of the most engaging features of this selection from her writings is Jill Liddington’s refusal to make either a heroine or a witch out of this resolutely selfish woman. Nor does she allow Lister’s sexuality to dominate her account, as earlier editors have tended to do. Though Lister’s clandestine homosexual marriage with her fellow heiress Ann Walker is the most extraordinary event of the years covered here, its dynastic and economic repercussions figure as prominently as its personal significance in Liddington’s commentary. Nothing can make Anne Lister anything other than sensational, but Liddington is determined to show that she was something more substantial than a sexual curiosity.

One of the Cracked: Barbara Bodichon

Dinah Birch, 1 October 1998

Like Many forceful Victorian women, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon had a strong father and an obscure mother. Benjamin Smith, known in the family as ‘the Pater’, came from a formidable line of radical activists who had campaigned vigorously against the slave trade, and fostered projects for educational and political reform. Capable and self-assured, he combined progressive liberalism with a sharp eye for business. His interest in social betterment evidently did not extend to an involvement with the temperance movement, and he saw no difficulty in making his fortune out of distilling spirits. Nor did he see any difficulty in arranging his private life according to his own convenience. Visiting his married sister Fanny Nightingale (mother of Florence, who inherited a full share of the Smith resolve), he met a young milliner, Anne Longden. She was the daughter of a local miller, far beneath him in fortune and rank. He made her his mistress, and Barbara Leigh Smith was the first of the five children she bore him. He did not marry Anne. The more fastidious Smiths including Florence Nightingale’s well-to-do parents, were never reconciled to this ‘tabooed family’, and refused to acknowledge them. Anne, like most of her numerous counterparts in fiction, did not live long, dying of tuberculosis when Barbara was seven. Ben called her ‘the least selfish being I ever saw’, a description which certainly could not have been applied to him. He soon found himself another mistress, still further down the social scale (the daughter of an agricultural labourer), with whom he had a second covert family, never acknowledged.‘

The Unwritten Fiction of Dead Brothers

Dinah Birch, 2 October 1997

The daughter of Samuel Holland, a prosperous Cheshire farmer and land agent, the wife of William Stevenson, a scholar and writer of some reputation, and the mother of Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the most celebrated Victorian novelists, Elizabeth Stevenson has vanished. No portrait survives, no letter or scrap of journal, no cherished family anecdotes, no remembered trace of her character or opinions. She died at the age of 40 in 1811 – we don’t know how, or why – leaving a 12-year-old son and a sturdy little girl, also called Elizabeth, who was just a year old. She may, or may not, have had six other children who died in infancy. John Chapple is punctilious about what he calls ‘the knotty entrails of oaken facts’, and will not pretend to know what he cannot prove. The pathos of Mrs Stevenson’s faded existence is not lost on him, and he does what he can for her – referring, twice, to a ‘desperately trivial’ mention of a curious fan she seems once to have owned (was it rare, he wonders, or finely worked?) as almost the only sure evidence that she had a life of her own. Her daughter seems to have felt something similar. Thirty-eight years after her mother died, Elizabeth Gaskell unexpectedly acquired some of her letters. Thanking the donor, she said that they were ‘the only relics of her that I have, and of more value to me than I can express, for I have so often longed for some little thing that had once been hers or been touched by her’.’

A Year upon the Sofa

Dinah Birch, 8 May 1997

Anti-feminist women puzzle and infuriate their feminist sisters. How can a capable and rational woman persuade herself to oppose a cause from which she has gained so much? Is it self-hatred, or misguided self-interest? Craven subservience to men, or mean-minded jealousy of the success of other women? Understandably, feminist scholars have often preferred to focus on the onward march of liberation, rather than the perversities of female resistance to women’s advance. Yet the story of anti-feminism is a fascinating one, and we can scarcely understand the debates that have pushed feminist thinking forward without giving it some serious attention. Historians of Victorian women’s writing have found this a particularly unappealing task. George Eliot’s steady opposition to women’s suffrage is an embarrassment, and it is not encouraging to find Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell united in their distaste for the robust feminist arguments of John Stuart Mill. ‘In short, J.S. Mill’s head is, I dare say, very good, but I feel disposed to scorn his heart,’ sniffed Charlotte in a letter to Elizabeth Gaskell. ‘Woman must obey,’ Christina Rossetti wrote in 1879. ‘Her office is to be man’s helpmeet.’ These are not popular sentiments in the 1990s. Yet no one would wish to deny the intelligence, courage or reforming imagination of these women.

Defence of the Housefly

Dinah Birch, 14 November 1996

Hardy’s wives were not inclined to be reticent about the trials of life at Max Gate. Florence was struck with uneasiness after one particularly edgy bout of discontent: ‘I hope you burn my letters. Some are, I fear, most horribly indiscreet.’ But her husband was by then the most famous literary man of his age, and Florence’s letters were not for burning. They might, after all, be worth something. Neither Emma nor Florence could come to terms with having the value of their lives measured by that of their husband. It is hard to know whether the first or second Mrs Hardy had the more doleful time. Emma is more mysterious. Already 33 when she married Hardy in 1874, she was a mature woman with decided opinions and a strong sense of self-esteem committing herself to a shy but ambitious novelist. Oddly, not one of the letters she wrote before her marriage, or for many years after it, has survived. She would have been far from pleased with Michael Millgate’s speculations on their disappearance. ‘In her later years she was often regarded as a faintly ludicrous figure, and in her earlier years her status as Miss Emma Gifford or even as Mrs Thomas Hardy might well have been insufficient to ensure that her letters would be kept and treasured.’ It was Emma herself who seems to have destroyed her early letters to her husband. Just two poignant scraps remain, transcribed by Hardy. In 1870, only months after they met, she wrote to him: ‘I take him (the reserved man) as I do the Bible; find out what I can, compare one text with another, & believe the rest in a lump of simple faith.’ Perhaps Emma was hurt to see such trusting intimacy transformed into grist for a literary mill. A revised version of what she had written appears in A Pair of Blue Eyes, published the year before her marriage to Hardy.

Getting to Tombstone

Dinah Birch, 17 October 1996

Volumes of short stories do not get into the bestseller lists, but Georgina Hammick’s first collection. People for Lunch (1987), did so at once. It can hardly have been the subject-matter: the stories are not especially violent or sexually inventive, nor do they offer revisionary analyses of late 20th-century culture. Anything quite exceptional, magic or grotesque is not their business. Nor is romantic reassurance. The voice is usually middle-class, the perspective often that of a harassed woman, struggling with wayward adolescent children, remembering youth and beginning to sense advancing age. Drinking, smoking and dogs get a sympathetic mention. Her next collection, Spoilt (1992), continued in like vein, contemplating loyalty and betrayal, maternal anxiety, family secrets and jokes, dreadful parties. Hammick has sharp eyes and even sharper ears, and a remarkable ability to write as people speak, to themselves and to others. This can make her a very funny writer, with a rare facility for reproducing the private comedies which keep families going. More often, it makes her unsettling. Her fiction insists on confrontations with discomfort, un-softened by glamour. She distrusts the consoling strategies of fantasy. To read her account of a dentist’s poisoned erotic fancies (‘Bad Taste’), or a bank clerk picturing the death of his wife (‘Deathcap’) is to be brought up hard against the clamorous needs of the imagination, and its power to corrupt. In ‘The Wheelchair Tennis Match’, a fearful mother (‘Bald tyres and a drunken or sleepy coach driver, an overweight coach driver all set to have a heart attack at the wheel … Driving too fast, falling asleep’) paralyses her relations with her family with her excessive fretting. Not, the story bleakly suggests, that she worries without reason. No one in these stories is wholly right or entirely wrong; no one is blamed, elevated to heroism or granted the charisma of villainy. ‘Noble Rot’, a story about English social class, undermines preconceptions with unobtrusive relish. Cicely, a modern lady of the manor, impulsively rescues an elderly couple having a miserable picnic on a busy lay-by, and sweeps them away for an afternoon’s entertainment in her very sophisticated garden. Cicely is generous and cultivated: so is her family. Arnold and Gladys behave with the awkwardness that might be expected under such circumstances. The satire seems to be of a recognisable type. But complications and questions are deftly accumulated. Cicely’s teenage children reveal themselves to be polished incompetents. Arnold and Gladys are capable, solidly aware of their worth, unfazed by this sudden glimpse of wealth and style. Their grandchildren are creative, doing well; the heirs to the manor are going nowhere. Yet the writing acknowledges and admires the charity and grace that led to Cicely’s eccentric invitation.

Baby Brothers

Dinah Birch, 18 April 1996

How does someone of Doris Lessing’s uncompromising intelligence turn into a little old lady? Not easily, especially if body conspires with mind in refusing to retire gracefully. ‘Most men and more women – young women afraid for themselves – punish older women with derision, punish them with cruelty, when they show inappropriate signs of sexuality.’ Having scorned maiden timidities sixty years ago. Lessing finds the discretions of age just as constraining. Love, Again is a novel about feelings – irrepressible love and paralysing grief – but it is still more about the analysis of feeling.’

George’s Hand

Dinah Birch, 7 March 1996

Edith Wharton’s reputation is finally disentangling itself from the long, fastidious shadow of Henry James. Only film and television could make the case in the public mind that Wharton is more than an imitative appendage of James. Scorsese’s intense version of The Age of Innocence found admirers, and the capering flounces of last year’s televised Buccaneers, with bosoms hardly out-swollen by the subsequent inflation of Pride and Prejudice, found many more. In Wharton’s case, displays of exuberant costume and calculated gloss make some sense. She understands the exhilaration of ‘swaying pyramids of pasteboard’ emerging from a Parisian milliner, and knows that the ‘long unerring lines’ of sophisticated dresses are to be taken seriously. Great clothes could be akin to great art in Wharton’s mind. This is one of the reasons for later habits of condescension towards her work. To sensibilities formed by Modernism, her frank preoccupation with wealth seemed crude and dated. Wharton insisted that grace, particularly women’s grace, was the product of money, and this made her an object of distaste to those who wanted to see culture and beauty as distinct from the polluted energies of capitalism. The celebrated stories of ‘Old New York’ represented what persisted of her fame: they were seen as period pieces, curious relics of a lost world.

Warming My Hands and Telling Lies

Dinah Birch, 3 August 1995

One of the most convincing inclusions in Granta’s list of the 20 best young British novelists, A.L. Kennedy has composed a distinctive voice out of youth and national identity. She was born in Dundee, and now lives in Glasgow; Scottishness informs her fiction. This is partly a matter of a characteristic introspection, the tradition of spiritual autobiography that generated the novel in the first place and has never, in the hard climate of Scotland, quite lost its original impetus:

The Little Woman Inside

Dinah Birch, 9 March 1995

Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised. We can begin to compare our lives with those of our mothers. Hilary Mantel, born in 1952, has tried out a number of female identities – more than most of us – and succeeded more than most. She has trained as a lawyer and given it up, she has been a social worker and a teacher, she has earned a living in the Middle East and in Africa. She has also been several kinds of good writer – a film critic, a travel writer and a prolific novelist. Her fiction has continually tested different formats. Black comedy, supernatural fantasy, political satire and social realism move in and out of her books. A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a brave and solidly researched novel on the French Revolution, was a surprise. Perhaps it ought not to have been, for the Revolution, the biggest experiment in European history, must have been a magnetic subject. These diverse novels all survey the provisional. Mantel is unremittingly concerned with the multiple models available for a good life, the choices that might be within reach, worth a try, or even, conditionally, best.

Situations Vacant

Dinah Birch, 20 October 1994

It must be many years since any girl spoke of going into service. The language of labour has changed. Farm workers are now described as full-time agricultural technicians; kitchen maids have turned into catering assistants. Thinking about what service was like, and how it was represented in language and literature, is a way of thinking about deep transformations in our culture. Servants are survivors from a pre-industrial world of mutual dependency and obligation. But they are also the focus of difficult transitions, as social mobility and new wage-based economies invade the older social frameworks of the large household. Conceding too much in an oddly self-abasing conclusion to his expansive account of literary servants, Bruce Robbins declares himself ‘ready to grant that I have not been talking about what is necessarily most complex, sophisticated, profound or even interesting in the English novel’. Do not believe him. The relations he perceives between servants and those they serve are dense with complexity and sophistication. The fictional traditions of the servant are rooted in drama, where the slave, clown or servant is often a crucial intermediary between play and audience. Theatrical servants, from Plautus onwards, know that what they are engaged with is only a play, and they can be trusted to deflate the dignified pretensions of their masters. Preoccupied, like the audience, with making a living in a difficult world, they are more interested in survival than in tragic fate – though they can touch or even cause tragedy if they attempt to interpret their lives in terms borrowed from their employers, as Malvolio or Iago exceptionally do. By and large, however, their business is with the comic persistence of life.’

Back Home

Dinah Birch, 12 May 1994

Do women want equality? To the militant suffragettes campaigning before August 1914, the answer was self-evident. They wanted equality badly, and were ready to do battle for it. The aggressive action which backed their polemical crusade was designed to demonstrate possession of virtues previously considered to be essentially masculine: the capacity for public action and rational argument, physical courage, a ruthless drive for justice. But the outbreak of what Christabel Pankhurst called ‘the other war’ changed all that. The long nightmare of the trenches meant that neither men nor women could see themselves in the same way. Images of gender fragmented into new and contradictory patterns that shadowed British feminism for decades after the Armistice.

Invalided home

Dinah Birch, 21 October 1993

Working-class memory generated Pat Barker’s writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life’, Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker’s work than that. Alongside the realism of her accounts of deprivation among the back streets was an intense imaginative inwardness. The lives she recounted were haunted, not only by the shared grind of poverty, but by private images of loss and love. There was a political edge to those novels, emerging as they did from the feminist Left, but what drove them was a long engagement with moments of vision, bleakly Wordsworthian spots of time that recur again and again in her fiction. Barker’s first four books had a cumulative force, shaping histories of obsession out of the hardships of oppression. The people she spoke for had an intimate particularity that tested the limits of political analysis. Their fantasies had the insistence, and often the violence, of a lived nightmare. Images of the body imprint themselves remorselessly on the minds of her characters, and her readers: the sputum and blood erupting from a dying man, the putrescent body of the murdered prostitute, the aborted foetus of the unmarried teenager. ‘She banished the image which always, in her rare moments of silence and solitude, returned to haunt her.’ Much of Barker’s fiction is involved with that attempted exorcism.

Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch, 25 June 1992

There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose. The peculiar prestige of the Greeks (Roman civilisation – for reasons worth investigating – never acquired quite the same glamour in Victorian eyes) has come to seem pervasive and deep-rooted, forming the dominant aspirations of the period in varied and contradictory ways. Its romantic historicism had a great deal in common with the fashion for the Medieval. But its influence on Victorian preoccupations was more widespread than the taste for Arthurian knights and damsels, and its consequences were more enduring.

In praise of work

Dinah Birch, 24 October 1991

Ford Madox Brown’s greatest picture is called Work, and it depicts the laying of a sewer. It is not beautiful. But that is part of Brown’s point, for he was after qualities that counted for more than beauty. Its subject was carefully chosen. Brown knew that sewers mattered. The threat of cholera haunted Mid-Victorian England, and only efficient sanitation could remove it. Seeing a group of labourers excavating some of the first suburban sewers in Hampstead in 1852, he realised that what he was looking at was a proper subject for ‘the powers of an English painter’. It took Brown 13 years to finish this ambitious picture. He endlessly packed and re-packed the picture to accommodate more thought, more observation, further depths of conviction. It was a painting that became a manifesto, a text to be read and learned from.


Dinah Birch, 27 June 1991

It has never been easy to place Ruskin. In his own lifetime, his influence was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about. The dislocation has continued since his death. As far as the mainstream disciplines in Britain are concerned (his legacy in America is a separate story), he has always seemed tangential. The works have become a kind of multiple service industry, studied in part and for divergent reasons. Art historians need to know something about him; so, in quite another manner, do political economists. Those wanting to look at the development of religion, or mythography, or science, find him unignorable. He inevitably interests cultural theorists. And then, of course, there are the literature specialists, who know that the development of Hopkins, Pater, Proust, and many others, cannot be understood without some reference to Ruskin. These assorted academics have all come up with their own versions of what is most significant in Ruskin’s multitudinous output, and most of them are ignorant of what most of the others have said.

Feminist Perplexities

Dinah Birch, 11 October 1990

Not so long ago, the most prestigious intellectual work, in the arts as in the sciences, was supposed to be impersonal. The convention was that the circumstances in which such work was produced – the age, gender, class, race or education of its producer, the institutional life which fostered it – all disappeared under a cloak of learned neutrality once it was published. This was a fiction, and everyone knew it. But it was a fiction – so the argument ran – with an egalitarian point. It didn’t matter if you were poor, or black, or a woman: once you’d managed to acquire an academic voice, your views, if suitably expressed, would be given the same consideration as those of an affluent white man. This tacit contract allowed a certain amount of mobility. Under its provisions, some working-class, black or female writers were able to make themselves heard. But they had to pay for their success with their identity: for the medium was not neutral. It spoke for an ideology which was white, masculine and middle-class. In order to make good, outsiders had to assume the values of a culture which was alien to their history and to their interests.’

The Great Mary

Dinah Birch, 13 September 1990

‘No Arnold can write a novel; if they could, I should have done it.’ That was Matthew Arnold’s reaction to his niece’s first significant attempt at fiction, Miss Bretherton, published in 1884. It can’t have been very encouraging. But Mary Ward was used to the magisterial arrogance of the Arnold men. Her father, Tom Arnold, had demolished the prosperity of his family and the happiness of his wife by his conversions and unconversions and reconversions to and from the Catholic faith. He took small interest in the upbringing of his oldest and most unruly daughter – ‘A child more obstinately self-willed I certainly never came across’ – and Mary was exiled from the family in a succession of more or less unhappy boarding-schools. She was briskly despatched to relatives for the holidays, and only reunited with her parents at the age of sixteen. It’s not altogether clear why she was so disfavoured. Perhaps her stormy resentment of restraint was to blame. Revisiting her infant school in later life, she proudly pointed to the wooden panels she had ‘bashed in with my fists in my fury when I was locked in the cloakroom’. Whatever the reason, Mary’s dismal childhood marked her for life. She never lost the stubborn self-will that had so displeased her still more self-willed father. But it was always accompanied by an eating insecurity, a covetous desire to earn acceptance and approval from those in authority.’

Out of the house

Dinah Birch, 30 August 1990

How can women come to a better understanding of their cultural situation? What needs to be changed, and why? The questions are as urgent as ever, despite wishful rumours to the contrary. Numerous books about women continue to appear, offering diverse models of thought to those looking for counsel. Psychoanalytical and deconstructionist critics have been among the most glamorous figures in the crowd, encouraging women to examine the complex linguistic processes that compose feminine subjectivity. These strategies give a new dimension to what has long been perceived as women’s domain: the inward life, placed in a primarily familial setting. To privilege the private over the public as such critics do may be interpreted as a feminist gesture. But it’s a self-limiting challenge, for their language often chooses to exclude the wider community, operating in terms of jokes and quarrels shared within a closely-knit intellectual family. The repressive fathers are simply shut out, excluded by language.


Dinah Birch, 21 December 1989

American black people describe their wildest girls as ‘womanish’. Alice Walker recalls that traditional usage in defining her own work: she is interested in ‘womanist’ rather than ‘feminist’ writing. ‘Womanist’ texts proclaim a double rebellion, fusing the long-suppressed anger of women with that of blacks. Alice Walker’s most forceful books to date (the novel The Color Purple, published in 1982, followed by a collection of essays, In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, in 1983) locates the identity of black women in the troubled perspectives of the past. In this she shares in a wider movement. The growing body of black literature in America asserts a need to make good what has come to seem one of the most damaging depredations imposed by slavery and exploitation: the loss of a known place in history.

Dark Spaces

Dinah Birch, 28 September 1989

The image of a lost golden past is as old as literature. Certainly as old as English literature at any rate, for the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts look backwards, haunted by a sense of vanished affection and security. But English is neither the only tradition nor the first language to have grown up within these islands. One of Raymond William’s polemical purposes in People of the Black Mountains, his final fiction, is to affirm that Wales has its own distinct identity, founded in unremembered time which reaches beyond written records. People of the Black Mountains is in part an attempted answer to a question which occupied Williams throughout his creative life. How is history made? ‘Actual stories are told by both winners and losers. Yet what becomes history is a selection by the winners. This is trustingly read back into earlier times.’ Questioning this trust, Williams constructs a different-kind of history. People of the Black Mountains seeks out the origins of the land in which he was born, from the ancient hunters moving across the landscape before the last Ice Age to an emergence in the 15th century into something we are able to recognise as the modern world. ‘The Beginning’ represents the first part of this long story, ending with the invasion of the Romans.

Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties of rationality, gives its narrative devices potent appeal to those placed by conviction, race or gender on the margins of the cultural establishment. Taking unfamiliar and ruthless forms, traditional tales have acquired new status in contemporary fiction. And we ought not, now, to need convincing that the public reverberations of privately refashioned legends can travel a long way. After The Satanic Verses, fantasy will never look cosy again.

Other People

Dinah Birch, 6 July 1989

What do the lives and thoughts of other people feel like? We’ll never really know, but fiction offers as good an approximation of knowing as we’re likely to come across. That absorbing illusion of a world elsewhere, with its promised distraction from the irksomeness of our own reality, has always been the most seductive reason for picking up novels and short stories. But like all pleasurable diversions, it has to be paid for. The practice of narrative has a hard history of moral ambition, and is as much concerned with what people ought to be as with what they are. Writers tend to agree that the two conditions rarely coincide. There isn’t a more complete guide to the ubiquity of human failure, cruelty and stupidity than the one you’ll find sitting on the fiction shelves of any bookshop. No matter how exotic their settings, or bizarre the doings of their characters, the lessons of novelists follow disconcertingly familiar patterns. The cumulative implications are clear: people’s lives have more in common than we might like to suppose.

The Medium in the Attic

Dinah Birch, 1 June 1989

Given the contemporary standing of spiritualism, you might suppose that only the gullible or feeble-minded among Victorian seekers after truth would have had any truck with its activities. But you’d be wrong. Some of the most sober luminaries of the age (Gladstone, Ruskin, even Queen Victoria) were prepared to accept, or at least to explore, the possibility of traffic with the dead. You wouldn’t, however, always guess as much from the biographies and memoirs that cluster round such eminent lives. The intellectual status of spiritualism was once appreciable, but it has long since dwindled to a point that diminishes the prestige of anyone known to have been drawn to its doctrines. One consequence of this fall from grace is that the story of spiritualism has commonly been bundled out of sight, like a batty old aunt at a family gathering.

Growing up

Dinah Birch, 20 April 1989

Growing up means leaving a family behind, and the novel has built itself around the diversity of separations that make maturity happen. It follows that any prospect of a universal rebellion against the family would be bad news for fiction. You can’t leave parents behind if they were no more than discredited ghosts in the first place. It’s tempting to suspect that an erosion of patriarchal authority had made today’s novelists more anxious about the staying power of the family than they used to be. There is plenty of evidence for such a thesis. But too much confidence in deducing a social revolution from chronicles of fathers found wanting or mothers that fail might be rash, for discontent with the family has been as persistent as the family itself. You don’t have to look very deeply into the history of fiction to discover delinquent parents. The fact is that astute writers, from Defoe onwards, have always known that families are at their most tenacious when they fall short of what we feel entitled to expect.


Dinah Birch, 19 January 1989

What fills our lives? We can’t manage without the grand abstractions of belief or love, but in the end they mostly come down to the engrossing triviality of our daily routines. What we usually do is keep things going. True for everyone: but especially true, or so it has seemed, for women. The really basic questions – what we are to eat today, what will happen to the children – have always been for women to answer. It has become clear that women’s novels can answer them, too.’


A pedant writes

20 September 2007

Martin Sanderson dislikes my choice of the word ‘masterful’ – rather than ‘masterly’ – to describe Rosemary Hill’s biography of Pugin (Letters, 4 October). But ‘masterful’ is what I meant. Not only is the book skilful, it is written with force and authority. ‘Masterly’ would have conveyed a different meaning, and not the one I wanted.

Seeing through Fuller

Nicholas Penny, 30 March 1989

It has been respectable for some while now to admit to being bored by the huge, flat, ‘pure’ abstracts on the white walls of the museums of modern art. And yet non-representational...

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