Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jill Paton Walsh disses Tolkien

So, I hadn't known that the fourth of Jill Paton Walsh's Peter-and-Harriett faux-Sayers series of mysteries was out (or even that a fourth one was coming out, given that the third ended with what seemed a good place to wrap up the series)* until I saw a mention of it on the MythSoc list (thanks to Joe Christopher, who posted a capsule review)**

I got this one on the Kindle because I was troubled by something Joe mentioned, about the way Walsh describes Tolkien. And now, having just read it for myself, I can see that it's even worse than I thought: Walsh explicitly calls Tolkien a misogynist.

Or, to be more accurate, she has Lord Peter Wimsey do it, referring to JRRT as  "this misogynist professor". Here's the passage in full:


[HARRIET:] 'Well, do you know that the Merton Professor of English here will not take women pupils for tutorials? With one exception, that is -- he will tute girls sent to him by Miss [Elaine] Griffiths.'
[LORD PETER:] 'Have I heard of this misogynist professor?'
[HARRIET:] 'Didn't you read The Hobbit to the boys during an air-raid?'
[LORD PETER:] 'Yes, I remember that.'
[HARRIET:] 'That's him -- the Merton Professor is Tolkien'

Tolkien never appears in the book, though he's referred to twice more: once as being one of several medieval scholars at Oxford -- Lewis and Tolkien and Wren*** -- who tried (unsuccessfully) to find out who wrote a damning review in the TLS, and once near the end when a new term begins and life goes on, signalled by mention of new lecture series by Lewis, Bowra, and one J. L. Austin.

So, where did Walsh get the idea that Tolkien was a misogynist?  Certainly it means she doesn't know much about Tolkien, who was well-known at Oxford from his earliest days as a tutor for being unusually welcoming of women as students**** (the exact opposite being the case with CSL, whom she treats more favorably). I suspect the truth is that Tolkien famously once expressed criticism of Sayer's novels, saying that he was thoroughly tired of both Peter and Harriet by the time of GAUDY NIGHT (a sentiment Sayer herself seems to have shared, since she only wrote one more novel in the series after that point), and that Paton Walsh is gratuitously blackening his name as a belated revenge.

By contrast, Lewis is on record saying some good things about DLS, which I think here translates into a warmer depiction, despite the fact that Lewis had some real issues with women as students. It turns out Wimsey's brother-in-law, Inspector Parker, is a SCREWTAPE and NARNIA fan who, when in Oxford, asks to visit the Eagle & Child so he can see the great man go by -- not to meet or talk to or anything like that, but just to see in the flesh. This reminded me of Cripsin's famous "There goes C. S. Lewis -- it must be Tuesday". Perhaps there's now a tradition of characters in mysteries seeing CSL coming or going to that pub (if two examples seventy years apart can form a 'tradition').

As for Elaine Griffiths, it's nice to see a fictional portrayal of someone who played a key role in THE HOBBIT reaching a publisher, even if Walsh's apparent desire to honor an old friend does lead her to present Griffiths as the pre-eminant Old English scholar in all of Oxford, which one very much suspects was simply not the case.

As for Paton Walsh's portrayal of JRRT, technically you can't libel a dead man, so we need to come up for a new word for posthumous blackening someone's reputation with falsehoods. 

--John R.
current reading: THE LATE SCHOLAR by Jill Paton Walsh (2014) [just finished]
IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER by Ian Hamilton (1988)



*spoiler alert:
Duke's Denver catches fire, Peter's brother the duke dies of a heart attack while trying to save it, and Peter inherits the dukedom and family home, or what's left of it.

**https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/mythsoc/conversations/messages/25364


***sic; presumably she means Tolkien's successor as Rawlinson-Bosworth Professor, fellow Inkling C. L. Wrenn


****for the evidence of this, see my forthcoming essay "The Missing Women", which I delivered at Kalamazoo last year.

10 comments:

Troels said...

Thank you. I was rather curious to see more about this, but not, I admit, enough to go buy the book (particularly as it is the fourth of a series that I haven't read).

It might also be worth mentioning that Tolkien implies that he liked the Wimsey books (“his attractive beginnings”) up until Gaudy Night, “by which time I conceived a loathing for him,” as he writes.

David Bratman said...

As I'm sure you know, but others may not, Tolkien's association as a teacher of female students began in his earliest days tutoring in Oxford where, as a married man where most male dons were single, women students could be sent to his home for tutorials without being accompanied by a chaperone.

The number of novels in which fans encounter Lewis in the B&B is dwarfed by the number in which the Inklings get caught up in cloak-and-dagger supernatural adventures. Details of all the Inklings fictions I know about are in my bibliography.

David Bratman said...

One more thing, about Tolkien being the Merton Professor of English:

1) This has to take place after 1945, because before then he didn't hold that position.

2) There were (and are) actually two Merton Professors of English. Perhaps Harriet has mistaken the one man for the other?

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Troels

Yes, I too find it telling that Tolkien criticizes the next-to-last in a twelve-book series, suggesting he'd read quite a lot, if not almost all, of the Lord Peter WImsey books.

I actually found this the best so far of the four Paton-Walsh Wimseys, so it's not bad as a mystery, just appallingly off the mark so far as accuracy of 'local color' (which there are a few other examples of in the book)

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear David

Yes, Tolkien's setting a good example for his colleagues by the way in which he took his female students seriously hails all the way back to 1919/1920, when he first started tutoring at Oxford, even before he got the Leeds post. And he famously worked very closely with a number of his students, from Mary Salu and Simonne d'Ardenne to Helen Buckhurst and Stella Mills, not to mention Elaine Griffiths.

This particular mystery is set in circa 1952/53: Queen Elizabeth is newly come to the throne but rationing is apparently still on.

I'd thought of her possibly speaking of the other Merton Professor, F. P. Wilson, but that hope was dashed when she explicitly called out Tolkien by name.

Alas.


David Bratman said...

I'm looking for a desperate save here. Hypothesis:

1) Someone told Harriet that the Merton Professor doesn't tutor women.

2) Harriet knows that Tolkien is the Merton Professor.

3) But she doesn't know that there are two Merton Professors.

4) So she doesn't realize that the person in item #1 isn't Tolkien but Wilson.

5) She passes on the incorrect assumption to Peter.

It's not likely - and I don't know what Wilson's attitude towards women students was - but it's possible.

And such mixups are likely to happen. Owen Barfield wrote in an article that he recalled a proto-Inklings meeting in Lewis's rooms in the 20s and that Colin Hardie was there. It's unlikely that Lewis knew Hardie that early, as he was an undergraduate (at another college) until 1928 and not attached to Magdalen until 1936, where he was at first an unbeliever and didn't convert until a few years later. But Lewis was friends in the 20s with Hardie's brother Frank, so perhaps it was he that Barfield met, having just remembered the name "Hardie" but not that there were two of them.

Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles said...

Thanks, John, for writing about this. It is really a pity that some of the facts aren't out there and that prejudice seems to reign supreme in so many instances.

And thanks for the attempt at the save, David. Doesn't sound likely to me, though ;) Just a gut feeling there.

David Lenander said...

I really think that you should write Walsh with your response/remarks. It's possible that she has some other source/information in which you would be interested, but otherwise, she may be very interested in what you have to say, especially if (as David B has posited) she didn't know there were two Merton professors, etc. Perhaps she won't go so far as to try to change any future printing of the book, but it might affect her future writing somehow. Or, perhaps she could adopt David's suggested "save."

Carl Anderson said...

Just came across this post, and found it a remarkable thing. Whatever Paton Walsh thought of Tolkien, she followed his interpretation of the Finssburh Fragment almost exactly in her YA novel "Hengest's Tale". This was published in 1966, more than 15 years before Tolkien's "Finn and Hengest" was published ... but Paton Walsh is the nice of Alan Bliss (she was born Gillian Bliss) and dedicated "Hengest's Tale" to "Elaine [Griffiths]". Curiouser and curiouser ....

Carl Anderson said...

Just came across this post, and found it a remarkable thing. Whatever Paton Walsh thought of Tolkien, she followed his interpretation of the Finssburh Fragment almost exactly in her YA novel "Hengest's Tale". This was published in 1966, more than 15 years before Tolkien's "Finn and Hengest" was published ... but Paton Walsh is the nice of Alan Bliss (she was born Gillian Bliss) and dedicated "Hengest's Tale" to "Elaine [Griffiths]". Curiouser and curiouser ....