The Best of Brit Lit

TLS editor Peter Stothard picks his favorite British reads. This week: the new neurosexism, the final years of the War of Roses, and a novel-length monologue by Adam Mars-Jones.

02.02.11 4:58 PM ET

The New Neurosexism 

No one disputes that the sexes differ in hormones and anatomy. But so what? That is the “eternal question,” posed by Carol Tavris in her review of Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. Remember ‘wandering wombs’, an anatomically destined penis envy, smaller brains, larger frontal lobes, right-hemisphere dominance, too much estrogen, not enough testosterone. All have been invoked to explain why women are intellectually inferior to men, more emotional, less logical, better at asking for directions, worse at map reading, hopeless at math and science, and ever so much better suited to jobs involving finger dexterity, nappies, and dishes. However much amusement we see in the efforts of nineteenth-century scientists to weigh, cut, split, or dissect brains in their pursuit of finding the precise anatomical reason for female inferiority, how much more scientific are we today with our sophisticated measurements and scans? Modern neuroscientists, it seems, are travelling the same path as earlier investigators. What, if anything, do observed differences in the brain have to do with work, love, success, ambition, love of sports, and who does the housework? In the world of the MRI and the PET scan, it seems that there is “more than one echo of the insalubrious past.” Today’s scientists, says Tavris, would never commit such a methodological faux pas as failing to have a control group or knowing the sex of the brain they are dissecting: or would they? Brain scans don’t lie: or do they? Well, yes, she says, they would and they do.

The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason—The Secret Wars Against the Tudors By Desmond Seward 384 pages. Constable. £

Wars of the Roses, Continued  

Desmond Seward’s theme in The Last White Rose is the precariousness of the Tudor title to the English throne. So monolithic does the place of the Tudors in history now seem, not least TV and film history, that it is salutary to remember, says Helen Castor, how unlikely were their beginnings, and how fragile their survival. Henry VII’s claim to the throne was overwhelmingly a matter of might rather than right. This last scraping of the Lancastrian barrel was transformed from no-hoper to credible contender only by the unexpected usurpation of Richard III in 1483, which tore the Yorkist regime apart and left those who were unable to stomach the disappearance of Edward IV’s young sons looking frantically for an alternative candidate, however tenuously royal he might be. But a king who had won his crown in battle ran the risk of losing it the same way. As Seward shows, it is only hindsight and the skill of Tudor propagandists that made 1485 the historiographical fulcrum between “medieval” and “early modern” England. Two years after Bosworth, Henry VII was forced to fight once again on English soil to defend his throne against a rival claimant; and the Plantagenet pretenders kept coming.

Lambert Simnel, first figurehead for the rebels, was the son of a carpenter whose claim to be the Earl of Warwick, son of Edward IV’s brother, was undermined by the fact that the real Earl of Warwick was safely locked in the Tower of London. With disparaging magnanimity in victory, Henry took Simnel into his kitchens as a turnspit. Much harder to dismiss, however, was the charismatic figure of Perkin Warbeck, whose claim to be the younger of the vanished princes in the Tower could not be conclusively disproved.

Not until 1499 did Henry finally rid himself of the threat that Warbeck represented, when the would-be Richard IV was executed, along with the hapless (real) Earl of Warwick, in order to reassure the Spanish that their Princess Katherine would be safe in Tudor hands as a bride for Henry’s eldest son, Arthur. Arthur died only five months after his wedding, and Henry VIII—as the lone surviving Tudor male—became not unreasonably exercised about his own urgent need to secure the future of the Tudor line.

Cedilla By Adam Mars-Jones 752 pages. Faber and Faber. £20.

A Very English Introvert  

Adam Mars-Jones’s novel Cedilla follows the highly regarded Pilcrow (2008) and is the second part of a proposed trilogy about a catastrophically disabled gay man who is “four foot nine and one eighth inches tall when he finishes growing.” Pilcrow ended with its hero at the age of sixteen, liberating himself from the confines of a special school and into the wider world. Cedilla follows him to Cambridge. The second installment, says Ben Jeffery, takes the same form as the first: “an unhurried, high-wattage detailing of all the assorted sights, thoughts, impressions and feelings parading from moment to moment". Scrupulous descriptions are given of his relationships, schools and medical care; opinions provided on philosophy and popular culture; tangents taken into Hindu mysticism; slates of technical wisdom dropped in (such as how to master a “bum snorkel”—the device that allows the hero to wipe his bottom unassisted); and much else besides. Mars-Jones “invokes something akin to the feel of a heavily Anglicized Saul Bellow—Bellow as he is in The Adventures of Augie March or Humboldt's Gift, possessed of the conviction that he can go on being interesting and attentive for just as long as he pleases. Cedilla does not cast an unfailing spell—it would be close to a miracle to read through a 700-page monologue without succumbing to bouts of boredom or irritation, and there are some notably heavy stretches of prose in the Cambridge section—but its display of energy is remarkable nonetheless.”

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Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq War.