Jean McNicol

Jean McNicol is deputy editor of the LRB.

An article published in the Times just after the 1922 election which suspiciously lists some of the things organised by the ILP: ‘Socialist study circles, socialist economics classes, socialist music festivals, socialist athletics competitions, socialist choirs, socialist dramatic societies, socialist plays – these are only a few of the devious ways in which they attempted to reach the unconverted.’ There were also socialist Sunday schools, cycling and hiking clubs, several newspapers and, unsurprisingly, endless meetings. The city in 1915 was described by the Daily Herald as ‘a place of many meetings; a place rumbling with revolt ... I seemed to see a meeting at every street corner, and late in the evening the theatres poured forth huge masses of people who had been, not at entertainments, but at serious deliberations.’ There was a belief that the people, once properly informed, would seize the opportunity to control their own fate: ‘We are out for life and all that life can give us,’ the revolutionary John Maclean said at his trial for sedition in 1918.

The Angry Men: Harriet Harman

Jean McNicol, 14 December 2017

Harman was first elected to the shadow cabinet in 1992 and her account of her difficulties in her first job, as shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Gordon Brown’s deputy, are typical of the descriptions she gives of her ministerial career as a whole. She stresses her own inadequacy and failure in a way it’s almost impossible to imagine a man’s political memoir doing.

While the existence of Brooke’s correspondences with Noel Olivier and James Strachey was known – it was just that they couldn’t be read – another set of letters that no one since Eddie Marsh seems to have known about emerged in 2000, when a brown paper parcel given to the British Library in 1948 with a fifty-year time seal was opened. It contained a bundle of letters and a memoir with ‘A TRUE STORY’ typed on the title page.

At the NPG: ‘Virginia Woolf’

Jean McNicol, 11 September 2014

On​ 16 October​ 1940 the house in Tavistock Square in which Virginia Woolf had lived for 15 years was destroyed by a bomb. The first image in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision (until 26 October), which claims to provide ‘a visual narrative akin to a portrait’ by looking at ‘telling ingredients in each period of her...

Julian Bell returned briefly to England in the spring of 1937. He was 29; he had been teaching in China for 18 months and was now determined to fight in Spain. Everyone knew this was his plan, or rather everyone except his mother, Vanessa, whom Julian had told that he might not go, that ‘of course it would depend on my persuading you.’ Perhaps he’d stay and work for the Labour...

Taking the Blame: Jennie Lee

Jean McNicol, 7 May 1998

In 1957 Jennie Lee wrote a long letter, which she did not send, to her husband Aneurin Bevan, asking him to give her ‘a little self-confidence’. The end of the letter makes it clear that Lee is really talking to herself:‘

One Night in Maidenhead

Jean McNicol, 30 October 1997

‘Honey, she’s a forerunner, that’s what she is, a kind of pioneer that’s got left behind. I believe she’s the beginning of things like me.’ Radclyffe Hall has long since been left behind, along with Joan Ogden, the heroine of her first novel, The Unlit Lamp, and the character to whom these words refer. The young women she had overheard, Ogden thought, were ‘aggressively intelligent … not at all self-conscious in their tailor-made clothes, not ashamed of their cropped hair; women who did things well … women who counted and who would go on counting … They might still be in the minority and yet they sprang up everywhere.’ This passage, with its untroubled description of lesbianism, is unusual in Hall’s fiction – although it is true that even these confident young women exist only to point up Joan’s own failure in this respect and others. The portrayal of homosexual life in Hall’s famous novel, The Well of Loneliness, is much more gloomy and melodramatic, and bears little resemblance to her own not terribly tragic life.’‘

Poor Darling

Jean McNicol, 21 March 1996

Soon after Vera Brittain returned to continue her interrupted studies at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1919, she began to avoid mirrors, believing that there was a dark shadow, like the beginnings of a beard, on her chin. A strikingly pretty woman with a concomitant interest in clothes she was thoughtfully given a college room containing five large mirrors: ‘I avoided it from breakfast till bedtime and if ever I had to go in to change my clothes or fetch a book, I pressed my hands desperately against my eyes lest five identical witches’ faces should suddenly stare at me from the cold remorseless mirrors.’ Her delusion appears to have been occasioned by guilt that she had survived the war and its nature underlines the degree to which she identified with the dead young men she wrote about in her autobiography Testament of Youth, which covers the years from her birth in 1893 until her marriage in 1925, but is centrally concerned with her experiences during the Great War, after which she felt herself ‘a haphazard survivor from another life’.

Who Cares?

Jean McNicol, 9 February 1995

At around 9 p.m. on 9 December 1992 Nigel Bartlett was walking down a quiet suburban street near Wood Green in North London when a man began to follow him. The man – Bartlett said he looked ‘like the Michelin man’ – started walking backwards in front of him and asked him if he was the devil, and then if he was happy. He had something in his hand; Bartlett thought it was a knife as it glinted in the streetlights, but then realised it was a screwdriver. The man waved it around and then hit Bartlett on the bridge of the nose, probably with his fist. As Bartlett lay in the road shouting for help his assailant walked away. The policeman who eventually arrived said that he thought he knew who the culprit was, that he lived locally and that he was mentally-ill – and so was unlikely to be prosecuted. The policeman, a PC Sullivan, seems to have made the connection between Bartlett’s attacker and the elusive subject of an abortive Mental Health Assessment he had attended the week before. He later, rather unconvincingly, denied all this and claimed that he had had no idea who attacked Nigel Bartlett.

Patron Saints

Jean McNicol, 12 May 1994

On 1 April 1933, around two months after Hitler became Chancellor, Germans were instructed to take part in a boycott of Jewish businesses. Martha Brixius and her mother braved the SA men at the door of a shop in Marburg:

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