Just a footnote?

(Gerrit Dou, Maid at the Window: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

So – yes and no. America’s made a decisive start on the crucial task of cleaning house but there are some stubborn stains and a deal of anxiety about just how much of the building is structurally sound. Will even this dark period not be an historical footnote eventually?

On that matter of footnotes – I was reading Denton Welch’s journal for January 1944, when Welch and Eric Oliver, the intimate companion of his last years, took refuge from the rain in a pub called the Chequers in the Kent village of Crouch. ‘It was not imitation at all, very home-made, unperiod, just itself. All round the walls were narrow benches. There was a daddlums board and darts board, nothing else except a table and two chairs.’[1]

There was a what board? ‘Daddlums’? My Chambers and Concise Oxford dictionaries merely shrugged when consulted; downstairs, my Shorter Oxford was heaved off the shelf with no better result. Wandering online confirmed a not unreasonable guess that it referred to a version of table skittles.

The Journals do carry a good many footnotes by their very efficient editor but these tend to be of that specific factual kind: explaining who people were, correcting or adding to an assertion that Welch has made, references to his published stories in which various people appear under different names, explanations of some abbreviation or phrase current at the time of Welch’s writing, much of it during the war and all of it during the 1940s – the journal covers the years from 1942 to 1948, when Welch died at the age of thirty-three. No ‘daddlums’, at any rate.

Ironically, perhaps, Welch himself writes a little later: ‘Is it in Montaigne that I have just read that the way to know what to write about is to think of all the things you wish writers in the past had mentioned? I wish that people should mention the tiny things in their lives that give them pleasure or fear or wonder. I would like to hear the bits of family or intimate history they knew’ (Journals 175). Yes, we tend not to mention the details of our lives which are so familiar that we barely notice them, and these are often the precise materials that future historians will be crying out for.

Personally, I’m a fan of footnotes and acknowledge the meatiness of the remark by Chick, Saul Bellow’s narrator: ‘I have always had a weakness for footnotes. For me a clever or a wicked footnote has redeemed many a text.’[2] They can  be a means of smuggling in an editor’s obsessive interests—which the text itself may not warrant mention of—and can ease other feelings too. Alethea Hayter writes of historical painter Benjamin Haydon’s son: ‘Frank Haydon suffered miseries of embarrassment from his father’s dogmatism and showing off, and years later he revenged himself by writing vicious footnotes to the more pious and pompous sentences in his father’s diary.’[3]

In context, there’s something undeniably pleasing about that ‘vicious footnotes’.

Of his 1941 book on W. B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice wrote: ‘The book is nearly all quotations (I am beginning to think the ideal lit. critic would only speak in person in footnotes)’,[4] while Hugh Kenner, leaving Santa Barbara for Baltimore, explained the nature of his concerns in a letter to Guy Davenport (21 November 1972): ‘The principle is not desertion of a leaky ship, nor sight of pastures greene, but simply need for a massive change if I am to avoid becoming a writer of footnotes and sequels to my previous work. I have finished what I set out to do 20 years ago, and need to get started on something else of some magnitude.’[5]

Should I quote Robert Phelps once again? Absolutely: ‘Scrapbooks, footnotes, almanacs, letters, diaries, questionnaires, marginalia, memos, alphabets . . . how I love them. Pasolini once called himself a “pasticheur.” I think I am an annotator. The story exists for the scribbled notes in the margin.’[6] Sylvia Townsend Warner, having created a new story about her elfin, faery world, wrote to her friends Marchette  & Joy Chute: ‘It is rather beautiful and has a great deal of information about Elfhame unknown till now as I have just invented it. Oh, how I long to give it learned footnotes, and references. There is such heartless happiness in scholarship.’[7]

Happy but not heartless, Bertie Wooster breaks off partway through The Mating Season to observe: ‘But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. You whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.’[8]

Still, questions inevitably arise. What to put in a footnote – or, very often, does this need a footnote at all? Or, occasionally, would a footnote here end up being longer than the page, chapter, volume, it is intended to explicate?

I recall editorial discussions over whether or not to footnote an anti-Semitic remark voiced by a character in Ford’s Parade’s End (we decided not to). As readers, we notice it, but should we, as editors, draw attention to it, to say, in effect, this is worthy of your scrutiny? What might that note say? That such racist slurs were commonplace in English society at that time in all classes? In a sense, that would militate against a text which renders a world, a time, a social context in which such remarks were, precisely, barely noticed or refuted or queried. And ‘at that time’? I recall a history of anti-Semitism by Léon Poliakov from the University of Pennsylvania Press: its four volumes ran from the time of Christ up to the rise of Hitler. Had there ever not been a time?

(George Orwell)

Some relevant phrases that had long stuck in my head I later tracked down to an essay by George Orwell, ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’, published in Contemporary Jewish Record in April 1945. Early on he writes: ‘it is generally admitted that anti-Semitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it.’[9] This is pretty dismaying, given the late stage of the war at which Orwell is writing, although the full horror of the concentration camps was only then just emerging into public knowledge, Auschwitz liberated as Orwell was writing the essay and others, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen among them, during April, as the essay was published.

Orwell points out almost immediately how ‘anti-Semitism is an irrational thing’ and that the ‘accusations’ of which he has given examples, remarks made to him over the past year or two, ‘merely rationalize some deep-rooted prejudice.’ He adds that, ‘To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless, and may sometimes be worse than useless’ (65), which has its own uneasy resonance for us, given the past four and a half years, to reach no further back. He concluded that he didn’t believe anti-Semitism could be ‘definitively cured without curing the larger disease of nationalism’ (70).

So yes, hardly helpful simply to point out that anti-Semitic remarks were common in the 1920s since they were still flourishing twenty years later in wartime Britain (and can hardly be said to have vanished now). And there is always the temptation in any case, which some commentators seem unable to resist, to ascribe fictional characters’ views and prejudices to their author, as Guy Davenport wrote to James Laughlin: ‘It annoys the hell out of me when reviewers say I like or dislike whatever: they’re always looking at what a character likes or dislikes. In a confessional age I keep my mouth shut (in fiction; not as a critic, natch). . . . ’[10]

Probably no footnote is necessary for ‘a confessional age’.


[1] Denton Welch, The Journals of Denton Welch, edited by Michael De-la-Noy (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), 121.

[2] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (London: Viking, 2000), 2.

[3] Alethea Hayter, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846 (London: Faber and Faber 1965), 70.

[4] Louis MacNeice, Letters of Louis MacNeice, edited by Jonathan Allison (London: Faber, 2010), 369.

[5] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward M. Burns, two volumes (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1424.

[6] Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps, edited by John McIntyre (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2010), 38.

[7] Letter of 8 April 1973, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, Letters, edited by William Maxwell (London: Chatto & Windus, 1982), 265.

[8] P. G. Wodehouse, The Mating Season (1949; in The Jeeves Omnibus: 3, London: Hutchinson, 1991), 177.

[9] Quotations from George Orwell, I Belong to the Left: 1945, edited by Peter Davison, revised and updated edition (London: Secker and Warburg, 2001), 64-70. The essay is cited approvingly in the opening pages of Brian Cheyette, Constructions of ‘the Jew’ in English literature and society: Racial representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1-2.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 96.