Sunday, September 24, 2023

Sighcology: Davids Garnett, Lloyd George, Lawrence, Copperfield, Rook and Bronstein

Here's my column ('Sighcology') from the Summer issue of the Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy.

The theme of the issue was 'David', and these are the thoughts I came up with.

Davids Garnett, Lloyd George, Lawrence, Copperfield, Rook and Bronstein

There’s a law that whenever you submit a piece of academic writing you immediately come across something you wish you had known about and been able to include. I recently published a chapter on Dickens and antisemitism that drew parallels between Oliver Twist and the local cults of unofficial boy saints, supposedly the victims of ritual killings by Jews, that flourished in the Middle Ages. Just after sending it off, I learnt that – shockingly – a textbook used in British schools until the 1980s stated that the blood libel was true in the case of the most famous of these ‘saints’, Little St Hugh of Lincoln.

Many years before, I completed a Masters dissertation on the romances of the 19th-century writer Richard Jefferies. One of these, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, was published in 1882 as a three-volume novel for adults but was gradually supplied with the apparatus that allowed it to be sold as a children’s classic. In the 1930s it acquired illustrations by E.H. Shepard:  the map on the endpapers had been drawn back in 1904 by an 11-year-old David Garnett.

I was reading Bevis as the adult novel it had once been, noting how Jefferies was aware that the freedom to play and wander it celebrated existed only because his young heroes were the sons of farmers rather than agricultural labourers. So I wish I had happened upon Lucy Masterman’s biography of her husband Charles Masterman. He was the minister who piloted David Lloyd George’s Health Insurance Act through the Commons in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and the medical profession.

Lucy Masterman remembers a stay with Lloyd George and his family:

"If we kept the law about trespassing when we were children … we should have nowhere to play but a dusty strip of grass by the high road." I never remember during all our visit passing a 'trespassers will be prosecuted' notice without him remarking “I hate that sort of thing.”

Yes, children’s freedom is an intensely political subject. The best summation of the debate is in Victor Watson’s Reading Series Fiction, where he discusses the children’s ‘camping and tramping’ fiction Bevis helped to inspire:

The rural background to all those friendly and welcoming fictional farmers was, in reality, one of economic and social stagnation in which farmers had to supplement their incomes in any way they could. When farmers began to prosper and agriculture became intensive, an entire genre of children’s fiction was effectively wiped out by Common Market farming subsidies. And at about the same time the Beeching cuts closed down the branch lines that had taken so many fictional children by steam to their favourite holiday destinations.


Is D.H. Lawrence – that’s David Herbert Richards Lawrence – much read these days? Back in the Seventies, when we were taught by teachers who had been trained by people who had studied under F.R. Leavis, he was a fixture in the curriculum.

Not only did I study The Rainbow for A level, I kept a second-hand selection of his literary criticism by me as a charm or for inspiration. I don’t know if it included anything from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, but there you will find his most famous critical principle:

Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.

And Lawrence is right. The idea that the artist’s intention inhabits a work like a thin ghost is mistaken, as is the belief that it is this intention that gives the work its meaning. But then the idea that any work of art has just one meaning is wrong too. That’s a belief you see reflected in everyday criticism of popular music, where if a song can be seen to be about drugs or about sex then that becomes its real meaning and all other mere disguise

The truth is that works of art that remain of interest to us are the ones that reveal new meanings as the world changes around them. If you have just one thing to say, you don’t write a poem or produce a sculpture, you write a memo or put it on a coffee mug.


The adult David Copperfield can be a bit of a cold fish, so let’s quote George Orwell’s praise for Dickens’s depiction of him as a child:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child.


The novelist and illustrator David Rook has disappeared from view. There is no Wikipedia entry for him and the website of a dealer who sometimes has his artwork suggests that Rook is still alive. In fact, he died in a car crash 1970 at the age of 35.

Rook’s eclipse is surprising, because he specialised in the sort of nature stories that find a loyal following. Not only that: one of his Exmoor novels was filmed as Run Wild, Run Free in 1967 and a second as The Belstone Fox after his death. And the Disney film The Hound and the Fox sounds as though it owes more to that second novel (The Ballad of the Belstone Fox) than to the one it was officially adapting.

Rook gets a mention here because Run Wild, Run Free, which was based on his novel The White Colt, is about a boy whom we would now probably place somewhere on the autism spectrum. And the film is a firm believer in the ‘iceberg mother’ theory of the condition’s genesis.

That’s the thing about the Sixities: if there was a child with difficulties, it was always Sylvia Syms’s fault.


David Bronstein drew a match for the world chess championship in 1951, but under the rules the reigning champion, his fellow Soviet Mikhail Botvinnik, kept the title. Bronstein remained one of the greats of the game for another three decades.

The story is told that Bronstein once spent more than 30 minutes over his opening move in a tournament game. The audience thought: “This is wonderful. The maestro is working out a whole new opening scheme at the board.” But when one of his fellow grandmasters asked what he’d been thinking about all that time, he replied: “I was trying to remember where I’d left my hotel keys.”

The Ukranian-born Bronstein fell foul of the authorities when he declined to sign a round robin condemning the defection of the leading Soviet player Viktor Korchnoi. His own father had been sent to the Gulag because of an official belief, right or wrong, that he was related to Trotsky. There were also rumours that Bronstein had been put under pressure not to win his match against the model Soviet citizen Botvinnik.

But maybe he had already had his revenge. There is a story I have always believed, but am struggling to prove, that he named his son Lev. This made his full name Lev Davidovich Bronstein.

No comments: