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Jewish World Review
July 6, 2006
/ 10 Tamuz, 5766
The misleading dimensions of persons and lives
I am disquietingly conscious of feeling smaller than I was; relatively, that is. For most of my life,
being six foot one, I have loomed over the majority of men and almost all women. Now, at the local
Sainsbury's, where queues are constant as they are too mean to employ enough staff, I find I am
often out-topped by young fellow-queuers, sometimes even by girls. Many of the young men are
enormous, six-and-a-half, even seven feet. Female six-footers stride along the pavements, elbowing
elderly dwarves out of the way.
When I was a young man living in Paris, one of my girlfriends was a
six-footer, an American called Euphemia, whom the goggling French thought a gratte-ciel. But that
was most unusual. My French girls tended to be around five foot two or three. Quite enough, as tall
French females, in my experience, tend to be exceptionally tiresome. So, paradoxically, do English
girls of five foot or less. Dorothy Wordsworth was an exception, being one of the most angelic
figures in our literary history, until she got Alzheimer's in the 1840s. She said she was five foot. She
was delighted to meet the tiny Thomas de Quincy, just under four foot ten, because 'he is the first
person who has made me feel tall'.
What I want to know is this. Is the increase in average height, which is clearly a fact, being
accompanied by an increase in intelligence? If so, it is a historic reversal. In the diaries of Edmund
Wilson, which I have been reading, there is a passage on this point. Stephen Spender, a tall man,
complains to him that for physiological reasons, relative intelligence declines with height. He said he
had been lamenting this correlation with Aldous Huxley, who was a lanky giant and who argued that
it was impossible for someone of his physique to have an absolutely first-class brain. Wilson, who
was short and stout, heard this with some complacency and cited another example: Ernest
Hemingway, a tall man whose cerebration somehow did not come up to scratch. Plato, Aristotle,
Aquinas, Kant were all pretty short, were they not? But not all beanpoles concur. Old Galbraith, the
economist, who died the other day in his late nineties, often boasted of his 'towering intelligence', as
though it could be measured in feet and inches. He was certainly exceptionally tall. At the funeral of
Jack Kennedy in Washington, General de Gaulle, six foot eight, I think, who took a keen interest in
men as tall as himself (though he liked small women), spotted him and demanded: 'Present that
homme élevé to me.' You could not exactly say that de Gaulle was short on intelligence, though he
certainly lacked other things generosity, gratitude, tolerance, magnanimity, etc. He was in the
wrong profession until he transformed himself into a politician, since almost all successful generals
have been below average height. There are, of course, exceptions Washington being one.
I wish some meticulous scholar would produce a book giving the heights (and other personal details,
such as hair colour) of important historical figures. Recently, one of those know-all correspondents
in The Spectator challenged my assertion (taken from the DNB) that Mary Queen of Scots was five
foot ten, and insisted that both she, and her mother Mary of Guise, were both exactly six foot. How
can anyone be so sure? Take the case of Nelson. He was smallish. But how small exactly?
Enormous trouble has been taken by generations of biographers, from Southey onwards, to get a
precise figure. His effigy in Westminster Abbey, confidently asserted at the time to be lifesize, is five
foot five inches. 'Nelson's Spot', a height measurement in the old Admiralty Board Room, is five
foot four. Some of Nelson's uniforms, and many other articles of clothing, have survived, and
calculations based on them give estimates varying from five foot four to five foot six. But some
contemporary guesses put it at below five foot four. There has been a lot of argument, too, over the
exact height of Napoleon and Wellington, both small men. Monty was small, too, and so was
Harding, best of our postwar generals. Ike was not particularly small: when I met him at Nato HQ
I'd say he was 'average'. But then he was not much of a general. How tall was Patton? Photos make
him look big. Above all, what was the height of Rommel? We ought to know such things.
Why, you ask? Sheer curiosity. And did not Dr Johnson rightly remark: 'Sir, there is no item of
information, however insignificant, which I would not rather know, than not know.' Such a book, if
conscientiously compiled so we could trust it, would tell us these minutiae, and would be widely
bought and consulted. It should cover as many fields as possible. For instance, I have an impression
that famous historians were small. This was formed at Oxford, where I saw Powicke, Gabriel le
Bras, Neale, Braudel, Southern, etc. But Carlyle was an exception, not far short of six foot, and so
was the shambling Lecky. But how tall was Maitland? Then again, writers. A lot were certainly
small: Milton, Pope, Gray, Lamb, Hardy, Wells, Waugh being examples taken at random. But
Thackeray was enormous, and Shaw pretty tall. Wilde was always a strong, hefty fellow even
before he put on weight.
Mention of Shaw raises another point I have been thinking about. Somewhere in the Letters of Sir
Walter Raleigh, 1884-1922, the old critic and literary pundit remarks: 'We often talk about length
of life, but the number of years a man lives can be misleading. We should also consider breadth of
life.' That is true. Shaw lived to be 94, being born in 1856 and dying in 1950, an immensely long life
by the standards of a century ago. But his life lacked breadth: there were whole areas of the
emotions and the senses into which he never ventured, and he emerges from his huge volumes of
correspondence, which I have on my shelves, as narrow and bony, like his body. He lived so long, I
suspect, because only part of him was actually alive.
Of course it has to be said that shortness of life does not guarantee breadth: far from it. For
instance, Dylan Thomas's life was short, but the fat volume of his letters gives an impression of its
narrowness, an existence focused on distressingly few, almost entirely sensual, objects, dominated
by the need to get money by writing endless begging letters. Keats, by contrast, died very young but
his letters have an overarching span of impressive width, and all his activities under the span were
intense, whirling, potent and driven by strong emotion, right up to the last weary collapse. On the
other hand again, Shelley's life, certainly lacking length, did not exactly lack breadth, but there was
something missing: an ability to feel personal affection or emotion beyond a certain point where it
ceased to have the abstract or idealistic or theoretical aspects which interested him. In short, he
I notice comparable contrasts between pairs of contemporaries in the arts. Turner said of Girtin,
wiped out by TB, 'If Tom had lived, I should have starved.' Untrue, of course. But Turner's life,
totally intense in his work (no artist was ever so wholly absorbed in his profession) lacked breadth
at a personal level. And poor Géricault's life, tragically short, was rich in breadth, whereas
Delacroix, who lived so long, never advanced beyond the point at which Géricault's death left him.
There is much food for argument here.
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06/06/06: First editions are not gold
05/23/06: A downright ugly man need never despair of attracting women, even pretty
04/25/06: Was Washington right about political parties?
04/12/06: Let's Have More Babies!
04/05/06: For the love of trains
03/29/06: Lincoln and the Compensation Culture
03/22/06: Bottle-beauties and the globalised blond beast
03/15/06: Europe's utopian hangover
03/08/06: Kindly write on only one side of the paper
02/28/06: Creators versus critics
02/21/06: The Rhino Principle
© 2006, Paul Johnson