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Letters to the Editor - October 2013

A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.

Share your thoughts with the readers of History Today.

Email p.lay@historytoday.com, or send to

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Contested Struggle

June Purvis’ strong response to Martin Pugh concerning the motivations and death of Emily Wilding Davison (Letters, August 2013) highlights just how contested the women’s suffrage struggle remains.

The centenary of Davison’s death has been marked by a good deal of commentary on the relative claims of the different elements within the suffrage movement. Part of the heat generated by the writing of this history comes from the fact that many see the project of women’s emancipation as an incomplete one. It is also the case that it has been a historiographical battleground ever since the post-Great War writing of the suffrage struggle undertaken by the Suffragette Fellowship. In the words of Laura Mayhall it ‘created a master narrative of the militant suffrage movement, one that privileged the sequence of events leading from action on the part of women, to their arrest and incarceration’. That ‘master narrative’ is of significance still because it created a model of protest and campaign that stressed illegality, struggle and suffering – a ‘radical’ perspective on political activity.

Interestingly, this narrative had as much potency on the far right in the interwar period as it did on the left. Davison was accompanied on her final journey by Mary Richardson, who later became a women’s leader in the British Union of Fascists (BUF). She was, in the words of a woman Blackshirt who knew her at that time, ‘the moving spirit’ of the women’s BUF headquarters. Richardson escaped from the anti-suffragette mob after Davison’s action and was hidden in the ladies’ toilet of Epsom Station by the station master. Richardson later left the BUF, but the fascist movement counted other suffragettes among its supporters. These included Norah Elam, Mercedes Barrington and Mosley’s long-time supporter, Mary Allen. And it was not just personal experiences of suffragette struggle that underpinned the political activism of some women on the far right in the inter-war period, but also the knowledge of the struggle of female relatives. For example, the mother of Dorothy Eckersley, who broadcast for Germany during the Second World War, was a suffragette who had a profound impact on her daughter’s political life, while the motor sports champion, Fay Taylour, had, as a girl, visited her aunt in Holloway Prison, where she herself was later interned. If ever there was an example of contested history and meaning, the struggle for women’s suffrage must rank as a prime example.

Dr Stephen M. Cullen
University of Warwick

Three, Not Two

As a Welshman who has been a subscriber to your excellent journal for many years, I am sorry to see that the old reference ‘For Wales, see England’ is still allowed to hold force with your contributors.

In Linda Porter’s article James IV: Renaissance Monarch (September 2013) she states: ‘The two countries that occupied the island of Britain ...’. The period of which she writes predates the time when Wales was run from Ludlow and as late as 1529 the south Welsh leader Rhys ap Thomas of Dinefwr ‘was accused of plotting with the king of Scots to make himself ruler of Wales (John Davies, A History of Wales, 1993).

Richard L. M. Newell
Exeter

Useful Idiots

Roger Hudson (In Focus, September 2013) is too tender towards the stars who defended the ‘Hollywood Ten’.

Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye et al were typical examples of what Lenin termed ‘useful idiots’; left-liberals acting as a smokescreen to disguise the designs of their covert Communist colleagues.

Far from the product of ‘far right paranoia’, the truth is that there was a very real Communist conspiracy to subvert American democracy. High-ranking members of the New Deal – such as Alger Hiss – were spies working for the downfall of the free society that had nurtured them and for the triumph of the Soviet Union.

It is a satisfying irony of history that the foremost Hollywood figure to make a stand against the Communists behind the silver screen, Ronald Reagan, was later as US President to do more than anyone to precipitate the collapse of Soviet Communism.

Nigel Jones
Lewes, East Sussex

Singled Out

In the Reviews section of the August 2013 issue Richard Bosworth discusses Robert M. Edsel’s book Saving Italy. He writes: ‘the Vatican proves more effective in giving sanctuary to paintings than to Jews’. Is this an opinion to be found in Saving Italy or is it his own view? If the latter is the case, then I think this is a highly unscientific remark. Is it more based on prejudice than on fact, maybe? What is a fact is that opinion on the role of the Catholic Church, the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the war is divided. There are enough scholars who take a different view from that of Professor Bosworth, including William Doino, Jr (Inside the Vatican), J. Rychlak, Professor Hans Jansen of the Simon Wiesenthal Institute in Brussels and the Jewish writer Gary Krupp (Pope Pius XII and World War II: The Documented Truth). Furthermore, the track record of the Allied side regarding the Jewish people is not completely positive. Think of the voyage of the SS St Louis in 1939 when 937 German-Jewish refugees were denied entry to the US and Canada. Why then single out the Vatican for a special barb? Maybe because many ‘modern humanists’ consider the Vatican their enemy and use every opportunity to blacken this institution.

Herman van Dam
Zevenbergen, The Netherlands

Credit Due

In my article King Henry’s Niece (August 2013) I describe the manuscript Cotton Caligula BVIII as ‘previously overlooked’. In fact I am told it has been scrutinised in a brilliant MPhil thesis by Morgan Ring: ‘The Political Life of Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox, c.1530-1578’ (2012). Margaret Douglas is crying out for a new biographer and I hope the ideally qualified Dr Ring will consider taking up that challenge.

Leanda de Lisle
via email

Fostering Empathy

Richard Kennett’s call for teachers to foster narrative in history education is refreshing (Teachers Telling Tales, August 2013). However Kennett undercuts his argument when he writes: ‘I don’t think that the only thing students should learn is the story. Ultimately I want my students to go on to tackle the higher order analysis of causality or significance or interpretation.’ This notion of ‘higher order thinking’ is a residual echo of the taxonomy of learning domains proposed by Benjamin S. Bloom (1913-99). Recent reassessments of Bloom’s taxonomy by educational researchers suggest that these so-called ‘higher order’ cognitive skills should be threaded through a curriculum from foundation studies. For many history students, a bottleneck to understanding is that historical thinking is counterintuitive. It not only requires the close reading of historical texts and artefacts, but it calls for an evaluation of the past based upon its own terms.

In addition to understanding historical causality, significance, and interpretation, narrative may also foster historical empathy, which acknowledges the limitations of our ability to understand the past. It involves recognition that, because individuals and societies are bound by space and time, we cannot understand historical agents by applying contemporary beliefs, standards and attitudes. In this respect narrative is a pivotal device for understanding historical ‘thought-worlds’ and the particularity of the lives of historical subjects.

James G.R. Cronin
University College, Cork

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