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PN Review 276
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This item is taken from PN Review 61, Volume 14 Number 5, May - June 1988.

DEAR EDITORS, In her quaint and muddled letter (PNR Volume 14, Number 4), Elizabeth Russell Taylor says that, 'instead of accepting tips from PLR', authors of 'serious' books should urge MPs to scrap PLR and 'replace it with an alternative that promotes excellence'. A PLR payment is not a tip or, as her letter calls it, 'a subsidy'. It is a right. Under the Labour government of James Callaghan, Parliament created in 1979 the right of authors to be paid in proportion to the borrowings of their books from public libraries.

I was one of 'the vocal group' that urged the government to introduce and MPs of all parties to support the PLR Act. I have received praises and prizes from my fellow-writers and from the now two trade unions that represent authors of books in Britain, the Writers' Guild and the Society of Authors. I know many writers to be generous in spirit and many to be neither so rich nor so poor as to disdain their PLR payments. I do not disdain mine, although my books' popularity with public-library borrowers brings me payments at the bottom of the PLR scale.

Ms Taylor says, however, that the most generous authors will not take their PLR payments but will consider the lending of their books as their service to the community. If she does not want or need any money the popularity of her books may earn her, may she rejoice in the news that no writer is paid PLR against his or her will. All a writer needs to do to forego his right to payment is refrain from claiming it.

Ms Taylor is probably mistaken in considering that all writers who are high earners of PLR are 'third-rate' and authors of 'light entertainment'. Nothing prevents a first-rate entertainer or the author of a plodding and pretentious 'serious' book from being popular enough with borrowers to earn large sums of PLR. Before you advocate the scrapping of PLR and its replacement by 'substantial subsidies for literature', you would be wise to make sure that you or even Ms Taylor can recognise literature on sight. Will those appointed to award subsidy do notably better than library-borrowers in distributing tax-payers' money-and will the tax-payers agree?
Brigid Brophy

DEAR EDITORS, No doubt others will comment on the political and moral issues raised by Elizabeth Russell Taylor. May I make some objective observations.

Almost half the distribution (47% & 49% in the last two years) goes in payments of less than £1,000. The 57 earning the maximum £5,000 take an eighth of the distribution - but they are not all in the 'star' category headed by Catherine Cookson.

A more significant analysis of earnings shows: Fiction 50 per cent, Children's Books 16 per cent, Literary Non-Fiction (Biography, Plays, Poetry, Literature, Language, Humour) 7 per cent, General Non-Fiction 27 per cent. More details will be published in 1988. The point to be made here is that Fiction writers - of all types and quality - take only half the Fund. Books borrowed from public libraries cover an enormous interest range; PLR payments are in consequence widely spread. The place of light fiction is large, but should not be exaggerated. As Peter Mann has shown, the business of first novels and literary fiction gets substantial support from public librarians - and PLR payments reflect this.

To get PLR authors have to register their books on the computer at Stockton-on-Tees. This is now a straightforward procedure and costs only time and postage. Once registered, the right can be assigned to another individual or organisation.

Should an author decide not to register on grounds of conscience, because they don't need the money, or as a "Russell Taylor" protest, than that is their right and no one would wish to interfere. But it is different if their non-registration comes from ignorance of the opportunity or from lack of interest in how their books are borrowed from the library. If this is the case I would urge them to register: details and forms can be obtained from the PLR Office, Bayheath House, Prince Regent Street, Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland TS18 1DF, tel. 0642-604699.

On a quick check only one of your General and Contributing Editors appears to have registered, while several have loans recorded to their potential benefit! If authors don't wish to keep the money themselves, they can always assign the right to the Arts Council or some other 'serious' cause - for which precedents exist! Yours etc
J.W. Sumsion

DEAR EDITORS, Avril Horner's review of the Faber anthology of 20th century Women's Poetry commits a misrepresentation in its account of omissions that she could not excuse on the ground of inadvertent 'neglect'. I am briefly noted in the preface to the anthology as an omission, as one objecting to gender differentiation in literary selections or collections, along with Gertrude Stein. Miss Horner's discriminatory avoidance of mention of omission of myself has a special absurdity in relation to the fact that the initial preface, of Fleur Adcock's single composition, as I understand, made special mention of me au pair with Gertrude Stein, the two pronounced distinguished by innovativeness - as poets. I know this because I was given the courtesy of sight of the original preface by the kindly person at Faber's with whom I corresponded on my unwillingness to contribute to this anthology - this person dealing very honorably with me in her revising of the preface in the light of my refusal to permit inclusion of poems of mine. In what she and sent to me for my approval, there appeared the point I had made in commenting on the reference to myself in the original preface, that Gertrude Stein was not a poet (her innovativeness assigned to her as a prose writer in the revised preface.)

In a sternly careful review of the Adcock anthology, in the Times Literary Supplement, Professor Barbara Hardy (University of London) commented sharply on what she evidently regarded as a slighting reference to myself, as one omitted by her own choice, as 'an original poet, and an eccentric thinker', and, also sharply, in her reproof of the inclusion of Elisabeth Bishop, despite her recorded objection to literary gender-separation, with her literary executors, along with Faber, disregarding her position. (I had myself protested this disrespect of her, proudly admitted in the preface of which I had an early sight, in my correspondence with the good person at Faber's referred to here above.)

I feel moved to point out here, also, that Miss Horner's review passed editorial inspection where the oddity of no mention of omission of myself - as not referred to in the book's preface - might have been expected to be questioned.
Laura (Riding) Jackson

DEAR EDITORS, In his Comment (PNR 60), C.H. Sisson returns to the subject of the memoirs of the Marquise de Larochejaquelein, and speculates on the role played in their production by the young Prosper de Barante. He is not the first person to have raised this question, neither is the first to have insinuated that Barante claimed more than his fair share in the creation of this remarkable piece of writing ('the Marquise might have been surprised to know that the young man, no less ambitious in literature than in official and political life, would one day claim her memoirs as his own work.'). In fact, the issue first arose in 1824, when Alphonse de Beauchamp (himself a historian of the Vendée Wars) wrote to the Drapeau Blanc to claim that Ladvocat, Barante's publisher, was wrong in alluding to the 'sublime simplicité' of his style in the publicity for a new edition of the Memoirs. Beauchamp asserted on this occasion that he had compared the original text with the published version, and could vouch for the fact that the 'sublime simplicité' belonged entirely to the 'illustrious widow' herself.

Ladvocat's reply in 1824 was that, if Mme de La Rochejaquelein had objected to the formulation of his advertisement, she would certainly have protested herself. And there the matter rested, for nearly half a century. But in 1868, two years after Barante's death, the Bibliographie Catholique once again raised the claim that Barante had overestimated his role in the composition of the memoirs, and stated that comparison of the two versions demonstrated clearly that 'the young sub-prefect of Bressuire had only contributed a number of literary retouches.' Finally, in 1889, Mme de La Rochejaquelein's grandson published what he claimed to be the original, unedited manuscript, and reiterated the point that Barante's help had been insignificant. It was against this context that Barante's son, who published the Souvenirs mentioned by C.H. Sisson from 1890 onwards, attempted to set the record straight. And he rightly saw that the only way to clarify the situation was to refer to the correspondence between Barante and the Marquise during the period of the editing. Unfortunately he quoted from this correspondence so unsystematically that no very convincing picture emerged.

I am sure that C.H. Sisson will be pleased to know that all the evidence is now available for reaching a conclusion on this hotly debated question. The comparison between the original edited text and the 1889 edition is problematic, since the Marquise herself clearly added elements contributed by Barante to her original manuscript (such as his estimate of Charette). But the letters which she wrote to Barante over the 1809 period leave no room for doubt.1 After seeing the complete text in 1810, she acknowledged: 'I have no great knowledge of literature, but it seems to me that it is very difficult to embellish the style of another person without changing its character. I believe that you have succeeded. It is still my style, without the defects which I was aware of but could do nothing about [que je sentais inutilement].' In a preface composed for the memoirs in 1810, but not used in the eventual publication, she put the point even more clearly: 'So he is more the author of these Memoirs than I am. And consequently I am allowed to give a eulogy of the way they have been edited.'

I believe that it is worth resurrecting these issues for two reasons. The first is that C.H. Sisson has, in his enthusiasm for the memoirs and their progenitor, painted a distorted and unflattering picture of Barante. He was not the young careerist briefly evoked in this Comment. Or rather, he was undeniably a member of the generation which had been swept early to positions of influence by the Emperor's desire to promote loyal and capable young men. But his attachment to Madame de Stäel, Constant and their circle had given him a much broader area of interest than was compatible with the career of a Napoleonic bureaucrat. Before he met Mme de La Rochejaquelein, he had already published (anonymously) a critical survey of eighteenth-century French literature which made its mark in the cultural desert of imperial Paris. C.H. Sisson may regard Mme de Stäel and Constant as 'slightly flashy and excitable', but (as Châteaubriand has testified) they formed at this stage an unofficial opposition to the imperial monopoly of culture. Mme de Stäel's Del'Allemagne was of course prevented from appearing by the imperial censorship in 1810, the year in which Barante gave his readings from the manuscript of the memoirs in Geneva.

It is, I must admit, a little extraordinary that Barante was able to continue to cultivate this proto-liberal literary opposition to the Emperor, just as he was able to cultivate the La Rochejaqueleins, without his career as an imperial official being in any way impaired.2 That this was so, says no doubt as much for the imperfections of Napoleon's system of coercion as it does for Barante's broadmindedness. Nevertheless, C.H. Sisson's view of his political stance is obviously flawed, as it pays scant attention to the complexity of French history during the Empire and Restoration. He opines that the Marquise 'would have been less surprised to know that, after the restoration of the Bourbons, Barante would produce a history of the Dukes of Burgundy of the house of Valois, and immediately be admitted to the Academy.' This again evokes a Barante pathetically anxious to ingratiate himself with whatever regime was in power. It neglects to mention: firstly, that Barante served the centre-left government of the French constitutional monarchy from 1815 to 1820, and was removed from power as a result of the right-ward movement of the Assembly in the latter year; secondly, that his work as a historian was far from being in tune with the ethos of the Academy at the time when he was writing the Ducs de Bourgogne - so little so that Stendhal actually includes him in his own substitute academy in Racine et Shakespeare; and thirdly, that the Ducs de Bourgogne was in any event neither intended nor received as propaganda for Royalism (one of its major political effects was, by drawing attention to the revolt of the Low Countries against Burgundy, to encourage the cause of Belgian independence).

I hope that it will not appear pedantic of me to insist on these points. Unfortunately it takes a good deal longer to dismiss the kind of unsupported insinuations made by C.H. Sisson than it does to initiate them. And I would obviously need even more space to show how singularly far his image of a careerist Barante lies wide of the mark.

In fact, the second reason why I feel it necessary to respond to his Comment is not primarily historical. He writes: 'Almost certainly a touch of facility in the memoirs of the Marquise was contributed by Barante.' As I have implied, the near-certainty is supplied only by developing the tendency to eulogise the excellent Marquise at Barante's expense. It certainly does not correspond to the frequent and evidently sincere acknowledgements of Barante's editorial ability made by her in the course of the correspondence. I would see the remarkable achievement of the memoirs precisely in the fact that the narrative gifts of the heroine of the Vendée found in the young sub-prefect an ideal complement. He had himself been fascinated by the wars since his childhood, having had a distant relative who participated in them. It was a labour of love for him to do the necessary but unobtrusive work of corroborating dates and facts with other sources (some of which still remain in the library of the Château de Barante in Auvergne). It was also perfectly consistent with the view of literature that he had started to work out that he should strive, through his editorial labour, for the 'vérité de la chose' and not the 'vérité de l'auteur'. Paradoxically, Barante's particular success in effacing the tracks of his own contribution has led to the subsequent, ill-considered judgements that he was trying to supplant the authentic source.

Finally, I think it significant, in this context, to mention that the publication of the memoirs of 1815, and their subsequent success, were very far from the minds of Barante and the Marquise in the years of their first acquaintanceship. As Barante put it in one of his letters to Mme de Stäel: 'how I would have spoiled the Vendée, if I had for one moment had the idea of making it public.' Once the work was published, it inevitably became a stake in the political conflicts of post-revolutionary France, irrespective of the views of those who had collaborated on it, and subsequent attempts to disparage Barante's contribution owed more (I believe) to political animus than to good critical sense. Now that all the documents are available, there is no reason not to be fair.
Stephen Bann

  1. 1The letters of the Marquise to Barante are published in Andegeviana, 5e série, ed. F. Uzureau (Paris/Angers, 1906). Barante's letters to Mme de Stäel, published in Clermont-Ferrand in 1929, also give a fascinating record of his work on the memoirs. Neither of these sources are easily available, and I can sympathise with Mr Sisson's difficulty in getting to the heart of the matter, even as regards the editions of the memoirs.

  2. 2Such was however the case. A secret police report on Barante, completed in 1813, made a positive virtue of his fortune, education and social connections, without referring to his liaison with Mme de Stäel and her friends. Shortly afterwards, he was promoted to the important department of Loire-Inférieure, as Prefect.

C.H. SISSON writes:
I said in PNR 60 that 'it may be that there is a scholarly answer' to the question as to how much rehandling the marquise's memoirs had received, and no doubt this is it. But I am not sure that there is much between Stephen Bann and myself except what he fairly calls my 'tendency to eulogise the excellent Marquise at Barante's expense.' To this I freely confess. How much and what exactly each of the two contributed to the memoirs must, it seems, still be a matter for speculation, and if we haven't got the marquise's original MS Bann is surely going a bit far in saying that 'all the documents are available.' What he quotes of the lady's letters certainly proves - if proof were necessary - her modesty and politeness, but I should have thought that it corroborates, rather than otherwise, my suggestion that 'a touch of facility in the memoirs' comes from Barante's more practised hand. Anyhow, all that can matter to readers now is that they should not look for the same charm in Barante's other work as in the book he in some measure ghosted.

This item is taken from PN Review 61, Volume 14 Number 5, May - June 1988.

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