Joseph Witriol and Hugh Stubbs

As well as typescripts of his articles, translations, reviews, his autobiography, Also Lived, and the volumes of his Journal, my father, Joseph Witriol, also kept many letters from (and also some copies of letters to) family and friends.

One of these friends was Hugh Stubbs whom he met while doing Army training at Blackdown during the war. His lengthy letters to him frequently have the verve and erudition found in his published work. Hugh Stubbs lectured for many years at Exeter University where one of his students, JK Rowling, said he provided the inspiration for Professor Binns, who sends students to sleep with his long-winded lessons. Joseph Witriol wrote in Also Lived:

His closely typed letters, with their wealth of historical and biblical allusion – he never quotes a biblical verse, just gives the chapter-and-verse reference – show up my puny attempts in reply. I suppose it helps if your grandfather was a bishop, even more if your granddad was Bishop Stubbs, author of the Constitutional History of England.

In the wartime letters [large PDF file] my father certainly musters an impressive range of foreign language quotes and expressions while maintaining the role of a junior in what he clearly saw as a battle of wits. What struck me was how this brilliant descendant of bishops employed his mastery of language, history and theology to make what I felt were derogatory observations about Jews and Judaism – their being written during the war only heightening the distaste I felt on reading them.

For Joseph Witriol, however, such barbs were legitimate challenges to be rebutted intellectually. In 1945, however, he wrote:

…does not this remark [“To my mind, the avoidance of pogroms and the smuggling of valuta probably plays as vital a role in Jewish life as do the seedtime and harvest which form the basis of religious life among other communities”]…strike you as overstepping the bounds of good taste?

…it would be idle to deny that it has made the continuation of what had hitherto been an enjoyable correspondence, and in fact the continuance of social relations of any kind between us, other than extremely difficult.

The heartfelt response that came back from Hugh Stubbs was enough to mollify “My Dear Johnny” who replied, in an equally heartfelt letter, still constructed with the precision and eloquence that was the hallmark of this correspondence, that he was:

…prepared to regard [the remark] as one of those Entgleisungen that may occur even in the best regulated families. 

The rest of the letter consists of the justification as to why he was entitled to object to the original remark, but ends with another scholarly reference to indicate that it was now my father who felt he should apologise:

If you suspect me of attempting to put over a Canossagang, then believe me, I am no longer,

Your sincere friend

The letters continued for another forty years or so, the frequency diminishing (at least based on the ones that I have), their scholarly and urbane nature remaining.


Jethro Bithell vs Joseph Witriol

After my father, Joseph Witriol, took his ‘Intermediate Arts’ in French, German and Logic in 1932, Jethro Bithell (Reader in German at Birkbeck College) sent a note, in German, saying “you will be heartily welcome to us as a first class honours man”. Dad got a third.

After this several notes from Mr Bithell followed in one of which, written in 1936, the possibility of working as a teaching assistant in “Austria or German-speaking parts of Switzerland” was mentioned. Obviously he knew that a Jew should not now go to Germany.

These notes also refer to the possibility of his taking an MA to “cancel the Third” as well as testimonials for job applications and the BM Library (“smile at the ghosts”)

Twenty years later the correspondence is renewed following the publication of dad’s translation of Max Brod’s Heinrich Heine: The Artist in Revolt. Bithell could now proudly place dad in the category of his pupils “who have distinguished themselves”, notably Lord Haw Haw (“the only one who had the distinction of being hanged”) and – lehavdil – Israel Sieff (“he belonged to the Jew slums of Manchester”).

These letters cover both the intellectual and technical side of reviews, publishing, translation and the like. They are suffused with literary allusions, foreign tags and urbane writing, interspersed with more homely comments (“I must rush off to vatric the guests’ bedroom”). Although stylish writing came easily to dad, I detect an attempt on occasions to try just a bit too hard, along with showing respect and gratitude that his tutor took the trouble to write at length to him.

According to the DNB entry, “…a charge against Bithell himself of antisemitism is hard to substantiate.” And no doubt some usages that seem inappropriate were acceptable in his day. Still, from some of his comments such as  “my best returns are always from firms directed by ‘dynamic’ Jews”, I wonder if he comes into that category of harmless antisemite who stereotypes too readily.

Jethro Bithell: correspondence with Joseph Witriol (large pdf file containing the letters my dad kept)