Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

The trouble with trigger warnings is: how would you know when to stop? It isn't just that triggers (the sensory inputs that revive experiences of trauma; the violent siblings of the Proustian Madeleine moment) can be erratic. For some people, a description of the violence that traumatised them will leave them unscathed, but a taste, a smell, a colour or a texture might summon every horror they've known. How can any system of warnings predict the strange and painful networks of memory? But even if you restrict the trigger warning to only the obviously violent, to depictions of sexual aggression and racism, how much is there in the canon of literature that could be considered non-triggering?

The Bible would have to wear the warning, of course: too much begetting without consenting, and a lot of shedding of blood. Shakespeare too. There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape ("Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me") and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother's life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.

The great works of the Restoration, then. Pope's The Rape of the Lock parodies a society incident in which a young rake violated a beautiful woman's hair in retaliation for slighting him. The wit of the poem comes in the bathetic contrast between the epic ornamentation Pope uses and the perceived smallness of the crime – but really, and not to be a massive downer, we are talking about an assault and a more than passingly creepy one. Cutting away a lock of a woman's hair assumes a right to her person that is rooted in the deepest woman-hatred. And then there's Swift, both a great satirist and a great misogynist: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" he cries out, revenging rejection by dragging the desired woman into the humiliations of the grotesque. (At least Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was able to pay Swift back with her imperious and much funnier reply.)

To the romantics. Byron, of course – there's no shortage of triggering moments in Byron for victims of sexual violence. The novel appears about this time, and is reputedly a more female-friendly form, but Fanny Burney's Evelina is riddled with hate for women, especially the unmarriageable ones: in one scene, two elderly ladies are humiliatingly forced to race for gentlemanly entertainment. Jane Austen is surer ground, assuming we see no violence in the marriage market that she delineates with satirical clarity. Our contemporary expectation that women are people and not chattels would call such bargaining "financial abuse", and so Austen must be blazed with content notes too.

We should find safety in the reputed primness of the Victorians. But Browning's Porphyria is erotically strangled, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is raped – in decorous circumlocution, but repeatedly, until she has finally had enough and stabs the source of her abuses (Hardy blames the President of the Immortals for Tess's travails, but I blame the patriarchy) – and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a cavalcade of sexy sluts getting violated right in the vein. Wuthering Heights is an anatomy of familial violence, and a highly disturbing one. Racist too, with the focus on the exoticism of Heathcliff's dark gipsy skin and his bestial affinity with dogs.

As we get past the suffrage movement and into the 20th century, things should be looking up. Actually, not so much. The Waste Land plays on rape as a metaphor – and Eliot has no concern for the inner life of the female character he has fictionally despoiled; he doesn't want sympathy for her, her wants her as a symbol. The Great Gatsby ambushes you with antisemitism. Of Mice and Men, with the tragic, nameless Curley's Wife who exists only to menace men with her sexuality and be killed by an absolutely blameless character, because who could help killing a woman like that? Lolita, of course: how great, how elegant, how jewel-like in its precision, how absolutely stuffed with woman-killing and the sensual pleasures of child rape. Sylvia Plath's Ariel with its savage recreations of male violence – definitely triggering.

Where are we now? Practically contemporary. We could study Margaret Atwood's work, with its anatomical exploration of the marks left by violence against women – The Handmaid's Tale is the obvious classic (TW: rape, sexual assault, extreme patriarchy). Or one of my favourite novels, Alasdair Gray's 1982, Janine – a luminous descent punctuated by wild and lurid fantasies of sadism against female bodies. The problem is that what the trigger warning would highlight is something that is simply endemic in our culture: violence against women is just so much background hum, a cracked neck here, a severed tongue there, an aggressively inserted cock here and here and here.

There is nothing exceptional about this content. Wanting to be warned that it is coming is like wanting to be warned that there may be some exhaust fumes in the air you breathe. Well of course there will be – what do you want to do, live on a Hebridean smallholding in isolated purity, breathing in a clean, cultureless atmosphere? And with so much literature being subject to the trigger warning, if they are introduced to university syllabi (as has been proposed), what's to stop the lazy student from feigning trauma and skiving off two-thirds of the set texts? Not that English literature students need much institutional support for their skiving.

But a trigger warning doesn't have to be a do-not-enter notice. It could be a road sign, simply informing travellers of the kind of place they're about to enter: welcome to our village, twinned with patriarchy since publication date. And for every one of the works I've named above, I could write you an elaborate defence of the misogynistic content, contextualising it, explaining its artistic necessity or the way the author is interrogating patriarchy rather than simply replicating it. In some instances, I'd even believe what I was telling you.

That's not the point, though: the point is that this is what our art is made of, and until we notice that, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence? Trigger warnings are crude. They are patronising. Yes, they suggest that you the reader need to be protected from art. But get over all that and see them instead as beads on an abacus, counting up the many destructions of humanity that have gone into making our white, male canon: tick-tick-tick-tick – until at some point the frame topples over, and we realise that we must make something new and different if we can ever live beyond violence.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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After Strictly, I'd love to see Ed Balls start a new political party

My week, from babbling at Michael Gove to chatting Botox with Ed Balls and a trip to Stroke City.

If you want to see yourself as others see you, write a weekly column in a national newspaper, then steel yourself to read “below the line”. Under my last offering I read the following comment: “Don’t be angry, feel pity. Her father was a member of the European Parliament. Her older brother has been a member of parliament, a cabinet minister, a secretary of state, a historian, a mayor of London. Her younger brother is a member of parliament and minister for universities and science. She has a column in the Daily Mail. Can you imagine how she feels deep inside?” Before I slammed my laptop shut – the truth always hurts – my eye fell on this. “When is Rachel going to pose for Playboy seniors’ edition?” Who knew that Playboy did a seniors’ edition? This is the best compliment I’ve had all year!

 

Three parts of Michael Gove

Part one Bumped into Michael Gove the other day for the first time since I called him a “political psychopath” and “Westminster suicide bomber” in print. We had one of those classic English non-conversations. I babbled. Gove segued into an anecdote about waiting for a London train at Castle Cary in his trusty Boden navy jacket and being accosted by Johnnie Boden wearing the exact same one. I’m afraid that’s the punchline! Part two I’ve just had a courtesy call from the Cheltenham Literature Festival to inform me that Gove has been parachuted into my event. I’ve been booked in since June, and the panel is on modern manners. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, of course, but I do lie in bed imagining the questions I hope I might be asked at the Q&A session afterwards. Part three There has been what we might call a serious “infarction” of books about Brexit, serialised passim. I never thought I would write these words, but I’m feeling sorry for the chap. Gove gets such a pasting in the diaries of Sir Craig Oliver.

Still, I suppose Michael can have his own say, because he’s returning to the Times this week as a columnist. Part of me hopes he’ll “do a Sarah Vine”, as it’s known in the trade (ie, write a column spiced with intimate revelations). But I am braced for policy wonkery rather than the petty score-settling and invasions of his own family privacy that would be so much more entertaining.

 

I capture the castle

I’ve been at an event on foreign affairs called the Mount Stewart Conversations, co-hosted by BBC Northern Ireland and the National Trust. Before my departure for Belfast, I mentioned that I was going to the province to the much “misunderestimated” Jemima Goldsmith, the producer, and writer of this parish. I didn’t drop either the name of the house or the fact that Castlereagh, a former foreign secretary, used to live there, and that the desk that the Congress of Vienna was signed on is in the house, as I assumed in my snooty way that Ms Goldsmith wouldn’t have heard of either. “Oh, we used to have a house in Northern Ireland, Mount Stewart,” she said, when I said I was going there. “It used to belong to Mum.” That told me.

Anyway, it was a wonderful weekend, full of foreign policy and academic rock stars too numerous to mention. Plus, at the Stormont Hotel, the staff served porridge with double cream and Bushmills whiskey for breakfast; and the gardens at Mount Stewart were stupendous. A top performer was Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, who runs his own conflict resolution charity. Powell negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and also has a very natty line in weekend casual wear. Jeremy Corbyn has said he wants a minister for peace, as well as party unity. Surely “Curly” Powell – a prince of peace if ever there was one – must be shoo-in for this gig.

PS: I was told that Derry/Londonderry is now known as “Stroke City”. I imagined stricken residents all being rushed to Casualty, before I worked it out.

 

On board with Balls

Isn’t Ed Balls bliss? From originating Twitter’s Ed Balls Day to becoming Strictly Come Dancing’s Ed Balls, he is adding hugely to the gaiety of the nation. I did the ITV show The Agenda with Tom Bradby this week, and as a fellow guest Balls was a non-stop stream of campery, charleston steps, Strictly gossip and girly questions about whether he should have a spray tan (no!), or Botox under his armpits to staunch the sweat (also no! If you block the armpits, it will only appear somewhere else!).

He is clever, fluent, kind, built like a s*** outhouse, and nice. I don’t care that his waltz looked as if his partner, Katya, was trying to move a double-doored Sub-Zero American fridge across a shiny floor. After Strictly I’d like to see him start a new party for all the socially liberal, fiscally conservative, pro-European millions of us who have been disenfranchised by Brexit and the Corbynisation of the Labour Party. In fact, I said this on air. If he doesn’t organise it, I will, and he sort of promised to be on board!

 

A shot in the dark

I was trying to think of something that would irritate New Statesman readers to end with. How about this: my husband is shooting every weekend between now and 2017. This weekend we are in Drynachan, the seat of Clan Campbell and the Thanes of Cawdor. I have been fielding calls from our host, a type-A American financier, about the transportation of shotguns on BA flights to Inverness – even though I don’t shoot and can’t stand the sport.

I was overheard droning on by Adrian Tinniswood, the author of the fashionable history of country houses The Long Weekend. He told me that the 11th Duke of Bedford kept four cars and eight chauffeurs to ferry revellers to his pile at Woburn. Guests were picked up in town by a chauffeur, accompanied by footmen. Luggage went in another car, also escorted by footmen, as it was not done to travel with your suitcase.

It’s beyond Downton! I must remember to tell mine host how real toffs do it. He might send a plane just for the guns.

Rachel Johnson is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories