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F. Matthias Alexander, Letters Vols. I and II: Review by David Gibbens.

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This essay reviews the scope and limitations of these two volumes of F. Matthias Alexander’s letters, exploring how they throw light on his character and ideas. Text pertaining to the practice and theory of the Alexander Technique and to its associated principles is discussed, along with Alexander’s comments about race, nation and society. The relevance of the historical context is emphasised. The combative side of Alexander’s nature is highlighted and linked to his background and position in society. His democratic and progressive orientation is noted.

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Article Text: 

F. Matthias Alexander, Letters Vols. I and II

Review Essay

David Gibbens

F. Matthias Alexander, Letters Volume I—1916-1942 & Letters Volume II—1942-1955 edited by Missy Vineyard and Jean M. O. Fischer.

ISBN 978-3950490718 & 978-3950490725. Graz, Mouritz, 2020. xxvii + 674 pages. 70.00€.


This essay reviews the scope and limitations of these two volumes of F. Matthias Alexander’s letters, exploring how they throw light on his character and ideas. Text pertaining to the practice and theory of the Alexander Technique and to its associated principles is discussed, along with Alexander’s comments about race, nation and society. The relevance of the historical context is emphasised. The combative side of Alexander’s nature is highlighted and linked to his background and position in society. His democratic and progressive orientation is noted.


The publication by Mouritz of two volumes of F. Matthias Alexander’s letters—685 of them in all—is a significant event for the Alexander community: at 500-odd pages, these previously unseen writings are five times the length of his most popular book, The Use of the Self. You might also say they are five times different. Set beside the four canonical books,[1] the Letters invite you to explore new Alexander landscapes. On the one hand they throw light on Alexander’s inner world; and on the other, you see him immersed in the contingencies of the moment: commenting on the issues of his era, grappling with day-to-day practicalities of life and work, and interacting in almost real time with other human beings. You can’t get from the Letters what Alexander puts into the four books, but equally, you can’t get from the four books what you can find in the Letters.

Along with the letters themselves, the two hardback volumes offer the scholarly editorial framework that characterises the Mouritz imprint. Jean Fischer’s copious endnotes and references are volume-specific, but both volumes reproduce the full index for the set. Similarly, letter, page, endnote, and reference numbers are continuous across the pair: it’s really one book in two volumes. The editors’ introductory material is—of course—in Volume 1, whilst a comprehensive bibliography is provided in Volume 2. No reader will fail to note the attention to detail or underestimate the work that must have been involved to bring these letters to the light of day. And while Jean Fischer’s record as an editor and publisher is well-known, in this case Missy Vineyard has also made an essential contribution. Her ‘Foreword’ recounts her decades-long project of hunting down and transcribing source material, endeavours that were surely the springboard for the entire project.[2]

As might be expected from the sheer number of words, there is material here that touches on core aspects of the Alexander Technique and on Alexander Technique history. But of greater value is what the Letters reveal of Alexander’s broader thinking and of Alexander the man, as he ranges across a jumble of topics that includes food, weather, horse-racing, gambling, breeding, ‘blood’,[3] ‘race’, books and papers, the conduct of war, evolution, money, dancing, music… and more besides. The letters are arranged chronologically and whilst occasional clusters present a unifying thread—written to the same correspondent, perhaps, or dealing with a particular event or situation—for the most part topics and correspondents appear randomly. This somewhat defeats the normal style of reading that depends on the continuity provided by the author. There is no theme or argument being pursued and accordingly no right way to proceed. There is a case for dipping in and out, for following topics or threads of correspondence via the index—even for opening pages at random. Having made my notes whilst scouring the Letters cover-to-cover, in scattered re-reading I was constantly surprised to find new angles and forced to question earlier interpretations. There is more here than meets the eye.

Whatever route you take, the work of interpretation can be challenging. You cannot base your reading on the solid ground of familiar Alexander-speak. You are exposed to a wide range of circumstances and individuals. There remain blank spaces where unrecognisable characters and unknown events flit across the pages: you are obliged to file away for the time being what is obscure or perplexing and discard the dross and the irrelevant (bearing mind that one person’s dross may be another person’s gold-dust). And to make headway you have to place Alexander, his work, his associates, and his ideas in context.

Historical contexts

Often, the context essential to making sense of the letters is ‘History’ on the grand scale. To take an example, as Alexander plans his return to England in the Spring of 1917, he confides to his wife, Edith Alexander, his anxiety about the forthcoming voyage in the face of submarine attack:

Of course if my darling were here I would not be so anxious about things in general, but I want to be with her so much that I cannot help worrying about what is to happen at the end of the month. You can understand that can’t you.[4]

The context here is Germany’s move to unrestricted submarine warfare from 1st February 1917.[5] Alexander’s concerns are understandable. In fact, April 1917, the month of his return voyage to England, is by some margin the worst of the war for the tonnage of shipping sunk.[6] So the timing positions us a little more precisely than the general context of ‘submarines/First World War’ which most readers will be familiar with. In another letter to his wife, written shortly afterwards, further connections can be made when Alexander comments on the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Allies:

I believe, however, that the war will be well over long before they can get into it. I may be wrong but I do not think so. If they get a decent army they can go down into Mexico and shake those devils up. They need someone to clear up their affairs.[7]

What has he got against the Mexicans, you might wonder? Is it just another random example of his disdain for ‘foreigners’ (discussed further below)? Is it a politically reactionary comment on the ongoing Mexican Revolution, involving legendary ‘devils’ such as Pancho Villa and Emile Zapata?[8] A more nuanced picture is available if this comment is connected to his concerns about surviving his forthcoming voyage. For Germany, rightly anticipating that the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare will catapult the United States into the war, seeks to mitigate the impact by making a secret offer of money and military help[9] to Mexico if the latter will join the war on the side of Germany. The aim is to tie up the American army and prevent it getting over to Europe. Once this ‘secret’ offer becomes public knowledge, it is understandable that Alexander might now perceive the Mexicans as potential enemies and connect them with his own exposure to U-boat attack, particularly given continuing uncertainty about Mexico’s stance on the War: it’s become personal.[10]

Lest there be any doubt, I did not start with sufficient knowledge of history to plot these connections: a certain amount of simple-enough research was required. And that is part of the pleasure to be had in exploring the Letters: your horizons are likely expand. But if that kind of history is not really your thing, there are other contexts to be considered, most notably Alexander’s other writings. Take the following, from the same period, where Alexander seeks to reduce the risk posed by the submarines threatening his journey home:

C.O. [Alexander’s travelling companion] is getting a suit made which floats you in water and keeps the water right out. It’s a remarkable invention and he wants me to get one also. It fits right over you from your neck downwards … It seems really worth while. I suggested that we put a bottle of whisky inside it and attach a tube to one’s mouth and so to keep warm if any experience came of being in the water.[11]

Here, Alexander’s wide-eyed description of the ingenious invention casts an interesting light on themes to be found in his published writings. To take an example, Alexander’s text in The Use of the Self includes (by my count) 25 references to the ‘ self’ but 109 to ‘ mechanism(s)’ and, moreover, contains the much-unquoted but surely important analogy that likens conscious directing to a machine gun firing through the propellor of a fighter plane.[12] What the Letters offer here is not just a reminder of a theme that might be found in the canonical ‘four books’: it is the vital touch of colour provided by Alexander’s enthusiasm for the ingenuity of the life-saving float-suit. It becomes possible to infer that Alexander entertains a comparable enthusiasm for the ingenuity of the machine-gun apparatus when he selects it as an analogy, sufficient for him to ignore that its sole purpose is to kill.[13]

From here, it is possible to wend a return from Alexander’s enthusiasm back to history—but history of a different and more diffuse nature, to the larger backcloth of ‘culture’ which shaped him. Alexander’s steampunk-style float-suit-with-whisky inevitably calls to mind those picture books of odd Victorian inventions.[14] It is a reminder that Alexander is firmly a product of the Victorian era. He is 32 when Queen Victoria dies, and seems to have absorbed the mid-to-late-nineteenth-century confidence in the power of human reason to produce technical solutions to practical problems.[15] Somewhere in the background, hazy though it may be, lurks a conception of the human being. The relevance for Alexander’s technique is probably best seen in Alexander’s emphasis on reason and the ‘objective mind’; by contrast, later teachers have added imagination to the agencies of conscious control. Similarly, the culture of the time is woven into his ideas about Mexico and the Mexicans: sending an American army down to Mexico to ‘clear up their affairs’ reveals Alexander’s imperial sensibilities; and in the light of further discussion below, it is not unreasonable to guess that in speaking of ‘devils’, Alexander is thinking not just of Mexicans’ affairs, but of Mexicans per se.

Lines of enquiry

The preceding discussion of just a handful of sentences demonstrates the impossibility, in a single article, of pursuing all the lines of enquiry that the Letters might invite. Understandably, I have singled out what seems most pertinent to the Alexander Technique; but the focus is more on what is revealed about Alexander the man and about his general ideas, for example the problematic ones associated with his evolutionary views of humankind. As ideas about humankind and the world are also ideas about oneself and one’s place in it, inevitably these themes are interwoven. It has also been instructive to explore how Alexander responds when faced with concrete situations occurring in his own life or in the wider world—how does his technique apply to that? And there is a kind of meta-theme around words—about the value Alexander places on his own writings, and how discourse relates to practice.

Core concepts

It must be conceded that there are thin pickings (in the context of 500 pages) for those who are looking detailed discussion around core Alexander Technique topics. But this is far from saying there is nothing to be found. Interesting and, so-to-speak, off-the-cuff remarks can capture the attention at any moment, e.g.

it takes even my most brilliant students from six months to six years … to distinguish the nature of our inhibition … from inhibition as a taboo.[16]

Like a fair number of Alexander’s remarks, this is a seductively simple statement that on further reflection is not quite so simple after all. Apparently, it’s not that his most brilliant students take six months ‘to distinguish the nature of our inhibition’, whilst others take up to six years: it seems that his most brilliant students can take six years too; this invites questions about what would constitute a ‘brilliant’ student, given the centrality of inhibition to the Technique. But in any case, what does ‘distinguish the nature of…’ mean? The phrase ‘inhibition as a taboo’ immediately conjures up Freudian concepts—or perhaps the idea of taboo as an explicit social prohibition, as described by anthropologists.[17] In either case, the contrast with Alexander’s inhibition is stark. On the one hand there are powerful forces that subjugate us—we are inhibited—and on the other there’s a conscious power that is exercised voluntarily. One happens, the other is practised. The two are like chalk and cheese; and like chalk and cheese it is difficult to understand how intelligent students could take up to six weeks, never mind six years, to ‘distinguish the nature’ of them. What kind of learning process could this possibly involve?

After considerable puzzlement, it occurred to me that Alexander’s phrasing had led me to think in terms of concepts of inhibition. What if Alexander is making entirely concrete observations? Let’s suppose he enjoins his students to keep their necks free, but they respond as though he has placed a taboo on stiffening the neck, reacting with a fear reflex—the classic Alexandrian double-bind. On this understanding, paradoxically, it is Alexander himself who unintentionally imposes a ‘taboo’ in the teaching situation. This interpretation provides a cautionary reminder that to understand Alexander’s texts, the reader needs to recognise how utterly rooted Alexander is in the certainties of his practice—and to consider how this plays out in his use of words.

The potential for ambiguity here is encountered elsewhere, but this is far from being the whole picture. By contrast, there is actually more text in the Letters clarifying Alexander’s understanding of the primary control than in all the four books put together. It seems that the concept has always been problematical, for some at least. In 1946, for example, Frank Pierce Jones sends Alexander a draft flyer which baldly defines the primary control as ‘the mechanism by means of which thought is translated into action; this apparently ‘operates in human beings as in animals on the subconscious level. Alexander tactfully suggests as an alternative

that relativity of the head to the neck and the head and the neck to the body … which makes for the integrated use of the mechanism of the self… [18]

It’s entirely different, and comparing the two formulations, you’re left scratching your head as to how the Alexander brothers can have deployed the concept of primary control during Jones’s teacher training.[19] Perhaps most importantly, though, you get as pure a definition as you might want of how Alexander understood the primary control in his later thinking, should any doubt remain.[20]

Surprisingly, there are scarcely any other letters that address issues of practice or theory raised by graduates from Alexander’s training course. You might expect that such letters, if they existed, would have been kept—treasured even—and would have appeared in this collection. I hypothesize that they don’t appear because they never existed. This invites further speculation as to causes. It’s too broad and uncertain a topic for this review, but merits attention in the context of a history of Alexander culture and institutions during Alexander’s lifetime.

In fact, there are more letters here in response to questions from pupils. These are among the most important in the collection, though it is sometimes frustrating to see only Alexander’s side of the correspondence. For example Robert Best,[21] who is starting his journey as long-term supporter/critic, writes in 1929 enclosing a ‘sketch query’. Alexander responds, inter alia,

If you wish to get any permanent result, of course you must use A (central control) first and B must in turn result from the employment of this central control.

Without the diagram depicting (A) and (B), you’re at a loss. So far, so frustrating; but Alexander provides other advice in this same letter which, by contrast, is perfectly intelligible:

You must not trust your feelings in this matter. Use a mirror and your sense of sight.[22]

Historical aspects of this letter are also interesting: here in 1929 Alexander is still committed to using the term ‘central control’. And as regards use of a mirror, it should be noted that at this point The Use of the Self has yet to be published.

Reading writings

This particular letter invites a sideways step to explore another important theme, namely Alexander’s opinions as to the merits and limitations of his own books. The general position is clear enough: writing to Louise Morgan in 1952 he comments on her report that she is absorbed in re-reading all four of the books.

Wish we could induce more people to do this. The subject matter calls for study, not merely reading.[23]

But returning to 1929, we learn that the books are not necessarily of equal value if people do decide to study, for it seems that Best’s letter includes not only a diagram but also some wording from Man’s Supreme Inheritance, about which he seeks clarification. Alexander responds that the passages are of a more general nature than perhaps Best has realised but also goes on to ask

… why in Heavens name do you go to M.S.I. for help in the practical side of the work when you have the actual statement of the technique in the chapter ‘Illustration’ in the latter book, C.C.C.?[24]

After The Use of the Self is published in 1931, the position changes again. Writing to Waldo Frank in 1936, Alexander is disappointed to find that Frank has not read U.o.S. and extols its virtues:

DO please read it. There you have the detailed experimentation—simple experimentation—indicating the formula of future scientific research…

He goes on to note—contrary to what he has written to Best—

Man’s Supreme Inheritance ran into 4 editions almost at once. C.C.C. sold well—yet no person could get at the actual technique from these. But in the last book you [the Americans] get everything and won’t read it.[25]

Everything’: it’s quite a statement. Perhaps predictably, this is not quite the end of the story. In late 1940, as The Universal Constant in Living approaches publication, Alexander writes to Irene Tasker describing the forthcoming work as ‘the only one that does any justice to the subject matter’.[26]

Back in 1929, the correspondence with Best continues into another letter. You sense Alexander’s mounting irritation as Best seeks enlightenment from the written word. Alexander responds pointedly:

Naturally, we all want to believe that sensory experience can be conveyed by the written word. Every enthusiastic pupil one gets thinks he can get over the fundamental law involved, but sooner or later he gives up the job. Of course I have little sympathy with this phase of delusion, arising from the fact that the wish is father to the thought.

He concludes by offering half an hour for a ‘friendly discussion’ but says he ‘can’t waste any further time in writing.’[27]

Alexander is in a quandary insofar as he wants to promote the value of his books whilst at the same time arguing, when push comes to shove, that important truths about his technique are not in fact accessible via the written word (as indeed they are not). Nevertheless, whilst he acknowledges the issue, his impatience borders on contempt when faced with readers who profess difficulty with what he has written, and the more impressive the credentials of the reader, the greater the impatience. For example, it transpires that no less a figure than Nobel prize-winner Sir Charles Sherrington has been approached to write a review of The Universal Constant in Living but has declined to do so. Sherrington, it seems, has read the book more than once but avers—here Alexander quotes Sherrington’s reply to Watts, his publisher—

… I am not able to make out in what Alexander’s treatment consists and therefore to understand the book adequately for reviewing it. I quite appreciate that verbal description of his method may be difficult to give … [but] his papers leave me with no definite conception of what his system of treatment actually consists in.

Alexander’s response builds to a crescendo of negativity towards the scientific mind:

What do you think of a scientific brain after that. Shows that words do not mean anything to anyone in general—it’s all specific. … It’s all most interesting to me and serves as a great tonic since it is another proof of my mental classification of people like S. who have done the kind of experimentation he has done. False values everywhere, false relative values. These have brought man to where he is today.[28]

(Interesting aspects of Alexander’s character are revealed here, too, as his doomy comment on the state of ‘man’ is balanced by the ‘great tonic’ of being proved right about the causes thereof. It is fair to say that for Alexander, every cloud has a silver lining.)

Re-writing writings

So much for reading the books—but what of writing them? Many letters reflect the lengthy process of bringing The Universal Constant in Living to market, in which the important contributions made by Alexander’s associates become clear—indeed, Anthony Ludovici is actually credited with drafting one of the chapters.[29] How much re-writing of Alexander’s own drafts is undertaken by others is impossible to say, but it certainly occurs, e.g. again, by Ludovici.[30] Writing to Mungo Douglas, Alexander says

when you see the finished manuscript … you will hardly believe it could have been connected with the book as you have read it.[31]

Evidently the final product receives detailed attention to ensure that it says as clearly as possible what it is intended to say, based on the accumulated insights and language skills of Alexander and his associates.[32] Its core chapters deserve to be regarded as the ultimate statement of Alexander’s later—perhaps final—views, and are seen as such at the time by close associates such as Walter Carrington and Dr Peter Macdonald, as Alexander proudly recounts.[33]

It isn’t news that Alexander’s books received substantial input from others—this has previously been recorded by Irene Tasker, amongst others[34]—but the Letters enable us to see the process from new angles. Criticisms of Alexander’s style and opinions, justifiable or not, generally ignore the contributions made by others; but what we see of Alexander’s prose in its raw state in the Letters suggest that the amount of re-writing is considerable. Accordingly, it seems unfair to pile the blame for any shortcomings onto him alone: it’s a team effort. To take a key example, there is nothing in the Letters to suggest that he needs to fight a rear-guard action in defence of his ideas about the evolutionary framework of ‘savage’ and ‘civilised’—explored further below—for which he receives the most censure today.

Learning, teaching, and learning to teach

Occasionally, an individual letter addresses several important issues at once. A prime example is one responding to a formal plea—a ‘Memorandum’—from a number of Irene Tasker’s influential and committed pupils in South Africa. Writing in 1944, they invite Alexander to create a new framework there for disseminating the Technique, via a hierarchy of teachers and teacher assistants at different skill levels that is in turn to be underpinned by a new South African teacher training course. Whatever its faults, it’s a serious proposition, but one which receives short shrift from Alexander. Crucially, according to Alexander, not one of his four available teachers—including Irene Tasker—would attempt to train teachers because

they are too well aware of the difficulties and the need of the right kind of experience.[35]

Given that, at this point, Irene Tasker has been teaching for about twenty-five years, many of them spent under Alexander’s direct supervision and several in close contact with student teachers and the training course, this would imply a pretty gloomy future for the Technique if taken to its logical conclusion.

Of particular interest in this letter—and really it’s the crux of the matter—is where Alexander discusses his famous ‘anyone can do what I do if he will do what I have done.’ This is quoted by the South Africans as a plea to recognise a balance between the arts of teaching and of learning. As the current debate about remote teaching indicates, it’s a persistent and fundamental issue. In this exchange, the use of the quotation proves to be a double-edged sword: Alexander is able to turn it back on the South Africans by claiming that, based on his experience, no one is actually capable of the kind of self-directed learning that he undertook:

But how could anyone do it with the outlook and attitude which every pupil I have taken in the last fifty years has brought to the lessons and which I had to change by actually changing their use with my hands on their direction.[36]

At first glance, Alexander has rendered the South Africans’ argument irrelevant with a single swipe, but in its spirit it is more resilient: after all, nobody needs to repeat Alexander’s exact journey, considering that trained teachers and ‘The Evolution of a Technique’ are now available as guides: Alexander chooses to leave these resources out of the equation. This notional gulf between Alexander and the flawed creatures now coming to him for help (people like the South Africans, it is implied) serves to underline his authority and by implication demands unquestioning assent to his views. Arguably, this stance of infallibility implants an unhelpful template in the culture of the teaching profession. The over-confident, the would-be Alexanders, might be tempted to make the transition to infallibility prematurely, whilst the less confident might struggle under expectations they feel they can’t live up to.

The South Africans go on to commit a faux pas by then comparing teachers of Alexander’s technique with teachers of music. The nub of their argument is that you don’t have to be a virtuoso musician to be an effective teacher of music. As you might expect if you’re familiar with the discussion of music in Man’s Supreme Inheritance, this is like a red rag to a bull. For, as Alexander sees it, teachers in all subjects work on the basis of

sub-conscious guidance on the ‘trial-and-error’ plan, and the ‘will-to-do’ with misdirection; [but t]his applies most all to the teaching of music, for as we all know, the lower the standard of evolution, the greater the influence of music.

Having thus condemned music teachers to a lower evolutionary plane, Alexander slaps down the South Africans for failing to grasp what ‘working to principle’ means, ‘as proved by your contentions in regards to music and its teaching.’ Ouch! Here there can be no doubt about Alexander’s legacy: it remains axiomatic that you need to acquire a virtuoso manner of use to become an effective teacher. When you consider the complex demands of the teaching situation, however, this model may also be unhelpful insofar as effective teaching requires more strings to your bow than can be easily derived solely from a virtuoso manner of use.

The above discussion hardly does justice to the South African proposals, nor to Alexander’s response,[37] but does at least illustrate the importance of some of the material contained in the Letters. This particular letter may produce reactions polarised between those who see Alexander sternly upholding basic principles and those who—like myself—see Alexander producing a series of rather weak arguments in order to maintain control and protect his own interests. His concluding comment that there are only four teachers available ‘so I cannot possibly send anyone’ sums up for me where the power and the priorities lie.

This may seem a rather uncharitable conclusion, but it is defensible in the light of the correspondence connected with Louise Morgan’s Inside Yourself, published in 1954.[38]  From the outset the aim is to produce the first ‘popular’ book on the Technique. It’s pretty awful but thereby all the more fascinating, given that the Letters record Alexander supporting the project and offering practical help of many sorts, including comments on several drafts. After the book is published, he is fulsome in his praise of its impact. Its relevance to the preceding discussion is that Louise Morgan advertises herself as having learned the technique from his books—all four of them, read in sequence—without the help of lessons:

“I determined to try to put down in a practical way how I learned the technique from his books. If I had been able to do it, others could.” [39]

The second chapter of the book, ‘Recording a Miracle’, is an account of someone undergoing a course of thirty-two lessons, portraying Alexander as a great teacher; but nowhere does Morgan suggest any absolute need for a teacher, or indicate the difficulties of trying to learn without one, or mention the availability of teachers trained by Alexander. Only one of Alexander’s letters seems to express concern, in vague terms, at the omission.[40] His relative indifference to the issue is best understood by a comment in a later letter to the New Statesman magazine:

Miss Morgan’s idea in  writing the book was to make my technique more widely known and to advise people to read my books. … We know quite a number of people who purchased my four books after reading Inside Yourself.[41]

It turns out that Morgan’s book has the desired effect: Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual sells out, and Man’s Supreme Inheritance nearly so.[42] But one can only wonder how the teachers trained by Alexander might have reacted to it, and to the missed opportunity of the letter to the New Statesman to promote the importance of lessons with a trained teacher.[43]

Ends and means

One question usefully raised by the South African correspondence is what exactly the principle in ‘working to principle’ consists in. Presumably, in that case it is the ‘means-whereby’ principle (although, if so, it is noteworthy that Alexander doesn’t offer a single constructive suggestion as to the ‘means whereby’ the aspirations of the South Africans might eventually be met). The question is picked up elsewhere following an enquiry from Robert Best, who has admitted to a difficulty in understanding what the ‘test of principle’ is. His enquiry elicits the following, which I quote at length as one example of how ideas flow through Alexander’s pen:

We are concerned with two principles, the ‘end-gaining principle’ and the ‘means-whereby principle’. In practice the procedure of the former is that if something is ‘wrong’ we go to someone for help who will tell us what to do to put it right. The believer in the ‘means-whereby’ principle, on the other hand, goes to someone who will tell him what he is doing to cause the wrongness and tell him how to prevent this as a first response to any attitudes to activity. Consideration of this will reveal that here are two foundation stones to the scientific approach [to] truth, and as foundation stones they will ever remain—nothing can be added to them or be taken away from them as such.[44]

This is another cautionary example for readers, where again the key phrase is ‘in practice’. Alexander’s disquisition concludes with a grand rhetorical statement about ‘foundation stones’ that—as far as I can see—lacks even the slightest connection to science as it is normally practised. But sense can be made of what Alexander says if it is accepted that he is really thinking about the ‘truth’ of his own practice i.e. that of teaching a better manner of use of the self. What is revealed is Alexander’s monomaniacal commitment to promoting this truth as being more important than any other—here at the expense of truths about science generally. For this commitment he deserves the gratitude of today’s teaching profession, which otherwise might not exist. But leaving aside scientific foundation stones, even in the context of the Alexander Technique the ‘test of principle’ is unnecessarily narrowed by applying only to where someone might turn for help: it can hardly be said to capture the more general features of end-gaining and ‘means-wherebying’ that the use of the word ‘principle’ implies. Alexander’s own practice—his role as a teacher—drives his definition.

Values and circumstances

Hovering in the background here are the more fundamental questions that words like ‘means’ and ‘ends’ conjure up. Does the Alexander Technique offer any basis for determining what our ends should be? Does attention to means lead to better ends, as well as producing better outcomes for the ends already selected? Considering what Alexander himself has to say in his Letters, there is not much encouragement for the idealist. The war of 1939‑45 provides a case in point. In March 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, Alexander is deploring the German bombing campaign:

what cowardly service with their throng [throwing?] of bombs anywhere on civilians. That’s where the unfairness comes in because we don’t want to resort to their dirty way of fighting.[45]

But come the end of June, he notes that 17 days of continuous bombing of Germany is a ‘pleasing fact’; he hopes it will continue, going on to say that

the German people don’t stand up to the bombing as our people do, that is certain.[46]

Shortly afterwards, he looks forward to the civilian population ‘getting it in the neck’.[47] He justifies the change in values in a letter to Robert van Geuns:

 …fundamental change involves the recognition of change of standards in all things in accordance with the circumstances. For instance, before this war began we all agreed that destruction of life and property was wrong, was sinful, but with the change of circumstances we all consider it right…[48]

As regards the importance of circumstances, this is in part consistent with Alexander’s famous reference to the ‘variations of the teacher’s art’ needed to address the challenges peculiar to individual pupils.[49] Against this, it is surely the case that the specific needs of the individual pupil don’t over-ride the need to achieve an appropriate use of the primary control, nor to inhibit inappropriate habitual reactions: in other words, human biology and psychology make these universal means, regardless of circumstances. For many people, pursuing these means produces distinct qualities of experience, such as a sense of detachment, a living-in-the-present, a serenity, perhaps, that seem to invite wider applications. In tuning how you treat yourself, these Alexander epiphanies can seem—perhaps only seem—to have implications for how you might treat other human beings. Such experiences seem to have enthused Aldous Huxley and underpin his positive account of the Alexander Technique in, for example, Ends and Means.[50] But Alexander’s testimony here implies a jarring absence of ideals or ultimate ends in respect of other human beings. On this view, the Alexander Technique does not produce an ethical standpoint: the same detachment that allows you to resist feelings of hatred may also allow you to resist feelings of compassion. This is food for thought if you want to believe that the Alexander Technique has more to offer humanity—as Alexander surely suggests it does—than simply the well-being of the individuals who practise it. The route from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ remains uncharted.

There is one further and related aspect of the letter to Geuns that deserves comment: this Alexander of ‘we all agreed’ is not Alexander as he is normally represented, i.e. the Alexander of solitary genius and determined iconoclasm. Here, we see an ordinary man reciting the common sentiments of his time. Paradoxically, however—and perhaps it is just my wishful thinking—I sense that behind this uncharacteristic ‘we all’, and in his need to supply an unconvincing cod-philosophical justification for the ‘change of standards’, lurks the shadow of a doubt: I prefer to see Alexander trying to justify to himself something that, ultimately, offends his humanity.

The man and his times

So much for topics closely connected with the principles of the Alexander Technique; but as already suggested, much of what is valuable here lies in matters of broader interest. As good a place as any to start is the very first letter, written to the young New York writer Waldo Frank. In picking up the threads and following them through the Letters and beyond, I hope to illustrate the potential for new insight into Alexander the man, and his ideas. Here it is in full:[51]

16 Ashley Place
18 Aug. 16

Dear Mr. Frank

Just a few lines in desperate haste, as I pass through London, to thank you for your letter and the printed matter. Also to offer you my hearty congratulations on the landing of your novel and the appointment on the editorial staff of the Seven Arts magazine. I have written Beresford and urged him to send you on any short stories he may have on hand. I know how pleased you will be to see the Allies moving steadily but ready to decisive victory. It is certain now and within a comparatively short space of time. I hope the N. Y. papers have printed Lord Montagu’s speech in which he gave the figures concerning the output of munitions here. Really it reads like a miracle and serves to prove that the best blood which runs in the veins of the people of this old country and the right good sorts in America are the real A1 article, if I may so express it. I will have a great deal to tell you when we meet again and with best wishes to you and yours,

Believe me, yours sincerely
F. Matthias Alexander
P. S. Best wishes to all our mutual friends.

18th August 1916[52]

A preliminary point of interest is the date. Not a single letter here is written before Alexander reaches the age of 47,[53] nearly six years after the publication of his first major work. The 685 letters here must represent only a fraction of what once existed. Inevitably the ones that survive reflect what Jean Fischer calls ‘historical happenstance’,[54] which in practice means that they are restricted to particular periods and particular correspondents. This invites the question as to how representative they are. Whilst no certainty is possible, and despite enormous gaps, there remains a decent spread of correspondent, including long-term associates such as Irene Tasker, younger teachers such as Walter Carrington and Frank Pierce Jones, committed pupils such as Waldo Frank and Robert Best, Alexander’s wife, scientists seeking to draw him into their research projects, and close supporters such as Mungo and Sydney Douglas. You can regret the absence of more letters to people like John Dewey, but there is no reason to dismiss or undervalue the material that is actually here, or to hesitate about making judgements on the basis of the material actually present.[55]


‘Just a few lines in desperate haste … to thank you for your letter and the printed matter’

We do not know what the printed matter was. But it is truly noteworthy the frequency with which Alexander is asking for such matter to be sent to him, or is offering to send it to others, or is actually sending it, or has actually received it, or is commenting on its arrival, non-arrival, location, non-availability, etc. It is sobering to be reminded, again and again, what was involved in the exchange of ideas, pre-photocopier, pre-digital media, pre-internet, and when books and journals published in one country were not necessarily available in another. The effort involved reveals Alexander to be fully engaged, along with his associates, in exploring ideas relevant to ‘the Work’. It continues from the first letter to the very last.

Amongst the literati

‘Also to offer you my hearty congratulations on the landing of your novel and the appointment on the editorial staff of the Seven Arts magazine.’

Jean Fischer’s end-notes—in this case longer than the letter itself—deserve mention here. They provide essential information about the newly launched Seven Arts magazine and about Frank, Beresford and Montagu. Sometimes the notes mean you don’t have to extract what is relevant from lengthy Wikipedia articles or other, relatively accessible sources. But elsewhere—in this instance the notes on Frank and Beresford—there is an Alexander Technique angle which you won’t find in Wikipedia anyway, and where Fischer’s in-depth knowledge of Alexander Technique history is invaluable. The end-notes, with their associated references, are a goldmine.

How much further you want to explore beyond the end-notes will depend on your interests. Here, I pursue my own, which concern Alexander’s transition from health-worker to visionary—to the birth of the ‘ideas’—as he starts to promote the evolutionary significance of his work. The handful of letters from 1916-17 is like the glow from this Big Bang, where we catch a glimpse of Alexander establishing himself amongst the intellectuals. His foothold there becomes normal—initially in the U.S.A. but more so, later, in Great Britain. It shapes how teachers see Alexander today, as he rubs shoulders with the likes of John Dewey and Aldous Huxley. But for Alexander himself—even after teaching for over twenty years—it is something radically new. A passage from a letter to his wife, in February 1917, captures what it means:

New people continue to come along darling—under such delightful & gratifying conditions. … I long to tell you all about the great things which are happening, because they are truly great my loved one. Much greater than you can think until I can give you all the details. We are really on the high road to real fame I can assure you, such as few have dreamed of. I am doing work such as I have never done before. I have come into powers of which I could hardly have dreamed a year ago.[56]

In trying to understand how this came about it is helpful to consider the world of 1910 in which Man’s Supreme Inheritance has landed. In a much-cited remark, Virginia Woolf claims (in 1922) that ‘in or about December, 1910, human character changed.’[57] She is, of course, not being literal, whether about date or human character; but her tongue-in-cheek reference to a particular month and year is intended to convey her view that some sort of revolutionary change has occurred. The Victorian era is over and the era of cultural modernism is fully underway. In the visual arts this is highlighted by epochal events such as the London Post-Impressionist show of that year,[58] and the 1913 Armory Show in the United States—but these festivals of modernism in the visual arts are just the tip of the iceberg. The thinking public is grappling with the implications of Freud and Nietzsche and Einstein, of the instincts and the unconscious, of ‘primitive’ peoples and ‘the masses’. Precursors exist before 1900, but radically new perspectives now gather momentum. And key amongst the topics to be explored is what the Self might be as Victorian certainties about ‘character’ fade. In this ferment of ideas, Alexander’s route to exploring the nature of ‘Man’ as proposed in Man’s Supreme Inheritance is of interest in a way that ‘Respiratory Education’ and ‘Re-Education of the Kinaesthetic Systems’ can never be. And whilst Alexander’s thinking is pretty solidly rooted in the era just gone by, his teaching provides new experiences of the self that illuminate some of the questions of the modern era and give him a place in it.

Frank’s The Seven Arts is very much of these new times, publishing stories, essays, playlets, and poems by authors who are mostly young, politically radical, and American. In any case, Frank is just one of the American intellectuals to find his way to Alexander. In other letters from Alexander to his wife Edith in 1917, he refers to starting work with ‘Mrs. J. Dewey … a big connecting link all round,’[59] and alludes to ‘the great people who are here in the intellectual world. That is the thing which pleases me so much.’[60] The point to be emphasised is that Alexander now has a presence in this world, even if he is not really of it. He will have to refine and develop his own ideas in response to a changing intellectual environment—a challenge he attempts to meet in Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual. Nor are the challenges purely theoretical. He writes to John Dewey at the end of 1918, regarding Dewey’s close friend Albert C. Barnes,

I have asked him to curb his activities in the ‘roaring wilderness’ of psycho-analysis until such times as I have replaced his debauched kinaesthesia …[61]

The importance the progressive American intelligentsia assign to Alexander at this time can be gauged from Barnes’s correspondence with James Harvey Robinson in 1918 which, according to the index to the correspondence, ‘includes Barnes’s opinion of the theories of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler, and Alexander.’[62]

Gift exchange

‘I have written Beresford and urged him to send you on any short stories he may have on hand.’

This is one of many instances where we see Alexander supporting and encouraging others, already part of his network, to get their letters or papers published. This particular example is different, and interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, Alexander is offering help without there being any obvious immediate benefit to him; it does, however, reinforce his place in a literary-intellectual network by offering benefits to both Frank and Beresford—a gift that might be repaid down the line. Secondly, it is interesting precisely because it is Beresford—the Beresford who helped Alexander write Man’s Supreme Inheritance. I’d guess the most widely known account of the connection between the two men is Walter Carrington’s narrative, in which Beresford is hired as a hack ghost-writer who can’t produce what Alexander wants and is then fired.[63] The letter here implies a different story. Alexander is still close enough to Beresford, even six years later, to feel able to ‘urge’ him to help Waldo Frank. Equally important is what Alexander writes in answer to a query from Irene Tasker shortly afterwards:

I had known him [Beresford], I should say, about 6 to 9 months, during which time I gave him lessons + he gave me help with Man’s Supreme Inheritance.

He goes on to claim that he, in turn, has indirectly helped Beresford finish a book:

the experience with me had enabled him to couple the whole thing up. So you see it was quite a happy meeting.[64]

There are several postscripts to this Alexander-Frank-Beresford tale. Firstly, Beresford does indeed provide short stories for the Seven Arts, the first one appearing in December 1916, in issue 2. There are other stories to come, and Beresford gets a special mention in Frank’s memoirs.[65] More importantly, the close association with Alexander invites consideration of how far Beresford may have helped shape not just the prose but the actual framework of ideas in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. Many of those ideas have neither precedent nor follow-up in Alexander’s writings but they do reflect some of what is known about Beresford’s preoccupations.[66] Looking forwards from 1916, it may be relevant that Beresford becomes an important player in British post-war literary networks, not just as a respected writer but also working for Collins, the publisher, as a literary adviser.[67] Perhaps Beresford played a part in introducing people in this world to Alexander.[68] Finally, Carrington’s version of Beresford’s involvement is a useful reminder that neither memories nor narrators are necessarily reliable. In this case, uncertainty lingers to the extent that we want to doubt Alexander’s own account in his letter to Irene Tasker. Either way, the Letters, as source documents, provide a more compelling evidence base than the memories of first generation teachers, memories often captured some decades after the events being recalled.[69] As for Waldo Frank, he repays his debt with a long and positive review of Man’s Supreme Inheritance in the Chicago Tribune in 1919[70] and remains in Alexander’s network until the end.[71]

War correspondent

‘I know how pleased you will be to see the Allies moving steadily but ready[72] to decisive victory. It is certain now and within a comparatively short space of time.’

Letters 1 to 20 are written during the First World War; letters 97 to 326 (‘early August 1945’) during World War 2. That’s over a third of all the letters here and it’s no surprise that Alexander frequently comments on the unfolding conflicts.[73] Inevitably, too, Alexander’s war-related commentary takes various forms, according to what is happening, who he is writing to, and the emotions that are stirred in him. In this letter, Alexander’s emotions are played down—you can sense him still feeling his way with Waldo Frank—as he describes the strategic picture. His calm assurance forms part of a strange thread of over-optimism that runs through letters from both the World Wars. Here, in mid-August 1916, the war is less than halfway through; ditto the ongoing Battle of the Somme. True, at this point the outcome of the battle cannot be known, but recent setbacks such as the failures at Gallipoli, where so many of Alexander’s compatriot Australians died, and the sobering loss of British warships at the Battle of Jutland just over a month previously, scarcely justify Alexander’s confidence in imminent victory. More specifically, the attritional nature of trench warfare is now widely-reported and by mid-August is apparent from the limited progress on the Somme.[74] There really isn’t any basis for Alexander to predict certain victory in a short period of time.

The most striking example of Alexander’s wishful thinking concerns the fall of Singapore in World War 2. As the Japanese forces approach the supposedly impregnable fortress in February 1942, Alexander is writing:

The news of the war … pleases me very much and I still cannot see it going on for a long period. Seems impossible to us that it can. … I am confident they [the Japanese] will never take Singapore.[75]

Two weeks later Singapore falls, in what Winston Churchill is to later call the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.[76] At first, Alexander reacts with understandable dismay. But not for long. Within two months, he writes to Irene Tasker with the outlandish interpretation that

It is clear now that the grand strategy did not include the full defense of Hong Kong and Singapore but to make a base in Australia and start the real plan of attack from there, and I think that it will be found to be a wise decision.[77]

The question arises as to how Alexander can arrive at such opinions. Jean Fischer argues in his ‘Introductory Notes’ that there are mitigating circumstances in the form of wartime propaganda.[78] But many of Alexander’s opinions—such as his explanation for the fall of Singapore—float free of any plausible (or actual?) propaganda. An alternative explanation is proposed by Jackie Evans in her family history. Having served in the armed forces she is acutely aware of the human cost of war: it is palpable in the way she writes about the slaughter in the First World War trenches.[79] It is no surprise, then, that she searches for a justification of Alexander’s undue cheeriness in regard to the ‘war business’ during World War 2. She suggests that ‘he saw it as his responsibility to maintain the morale of all his correspondents.’[80] It is a generous explanation but unconvincing: it is just not how the letters read, for Alexander seems convinced by what he says. Amongst other scholars, Michael Bloch refers in passing to Alexander’s ‘blithe optimism’. It’s a good description of Alexander’s tone, but hardly explains his wilder judgements—'pathological denial’ might be more accurate.[81] A variation on Bloch’s view does appeal to me, however: this would see Alexander, a natural actor and a natural optimist, instinctively playing the role of ‘the Optimist’ with a gusto that over-rides objectivity.

Whatever the explanation, the cumulative effect of Alexander’s comments goes beyond a mere a raising of the eyebrow. The unsettling picture emerges of a man eager to have his views taken seriously but incapable of seeing things as they really are. The impression grows that, for him no less than the rest of humanity, the wish is parent to the thought. The Letters provide some clues as to the source of those wishes, as I hope to show.

Two final points: firstly, turning from the trees to the wood, Alexander’s many and often lengthy comments on war-related matters are in noticeable contrast to his near-silence on other events of historical importance. Based on the Letters, war holds a unique fascination for him. And secondly, and most importantly, the publication of the Letters means that no one has to accept the Evans, Fischer, Gibbens, or Bloch interpretations of Alexander’s motivations: you are able to make your own judgements and reach your own conclusions.

Joining in the fray

‘I hope the N. Y. papers have printed Lord Montagu’s speech in which he gave the figures concerning the output of munitions here. Really it reads like a miracle …’

Alongside Alexander’s observations on strategic situations, his reactions to individual events such as Montagu’s speech are also instructive. In letters to those closer to him than Frank there are more visceral responses, revealing the pugnacious side of his personality, well-documented in many places other than the Letters.[82] Sometimes individual engagements capture his imagination and are described in triumphant detail: ‘Great stuff isn’t it,’ he writes to Irene Tasker.[83] On hearing that some friends have witnessed an aerial dog-fight during the Battle of Britain he writes ‘God wouldn’t I have liked to see a show like that.’[84] Most frequently this combativity is expressed in the form of insults. It is rarely enough for him to refer simply to ‘the Germans’. It has to be the ‘dirty Germans’, the ‘lowly evolved Germans’, the ‘dogs’, the ‘snakes’, the ‘swine’, the ‘white savages’.

Anglo-Saxon blood

‘… and serves to prove that the best blood which runs in the veins of the people of this old country and the right good sorts in America are the real A1 article, if I may so express it.’

Although the untidy grammar makes it hard to unravel the precise meaning, the gist is clear enough: in both America and Britain there are people who are the real A1 article; and in part, this is determined by their blood. (The fact that Alexander has unconsciously elevated Montagu to the peerage provides an interesting hint of deference here.)[85] And then the ‘if I may so express it’ makes it all rather tentative, as though he doesn’t want to be seen to be presuming too much. Making his way into the rarefied social world of his new clientele, the New York intellectuals, he may be cautious about his credentials for making such a sweeping judgement to the highly-educated Waldo Frank. Or perhaps he just lacks confidence about his use of language to articulate his views, which is, after all, a closely-related insecurity.

Two themes are interwoven here. The first is explicit: Alexander considers humanity to comprise sub-groups or types that are constitutionally different. It is in the blood. These types can be placed in a hierarchy of quality such as ‘A1’.[86] The second theme is implicit—it is about where he fits in. This question of status would be unavoidable. Alexander’s era is saturated with class, race, and gender prejudice. ‘England,’ writes George Orwell in 1941, ‘is the most class-ridden country under the sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly.’[87] Alexander’s roots as a blacksmith’s son from the Australian outback, his career as an entertainer, the level of his education, and his evident quackery, will always preclude him from belonging to the elite circles that he hopes to influence. He may dress in fine clothes, eat fine food, drink fine wine, ride his horse, and commute between London and his country house, but the trappings of an English gentleman are never going to make him one. To take a leading example, the Manpower editorial that is the focus of the South African libel action is peppered with sarcastic jibes at Alexander the man, characterised as the ‘Australian actor’, the ‘Australian immortal’, the ‘great man’.[88] Paradoxically, the higher Alexander climbs, the more exposed to this kind of snobbery he must become. His supporters, his training course students, his pupils—as time goes by, a large majority of his closest associates come from a well-heeled, highly-educated elite, mostly imbued with a well-developed sense of their superiority.[89]

In a world obsessed with status, it isn’t altogether surprising that Alexander responds by constructing his own hierarchy of worth. The Letters are littered with his attempts to do so and colour the overall impact of the two volumes. His favourite method is commonplace enough, then and now: he inflates his own status by demeaning others, often according to nationality or ethnicity. Amongst the Europeans it isn’t just the Germans who get this treatment: there are xenophobic remarks about the French and Italians.[90] Of New York in 1941, we hear that

this awful city is filled with refugees… As you walk through the streets you meet chiefly foreigners, and such awful creatures to look at.[91]

And then there are the racial slurs, discussed further below, such as calling the Japanese ‘brown apes’.

Contrasted with these supposedly inferior types is the group to which Alexander considers himself to belong: the Anglo-Saxons. As the U.S.A. enters the First World War, he writes to his wife from New York:

The real people here are Anglo Saxon like ourselves and so many of them are really splendid. As a matter of fact the real English never change in character wherever they may be placed in the world.[92]

As with Alexander’s letter to Waldo Frank, pride at British war achievement is a constant theme.  During the London Blitz he reports from Boston the admiration expressed there for the British, adding

when this war is over there will not be anyone to doubt that the place they have held in the world for so long was not deserved.[93]

Here, I suggest, is another possible key to Alexander’s ‘blithe optimism’ during the World Wars: his emotional investment in British/Anglo-Saxon superiority—and hence his own superiority—produces a blind faith not just in eventual victory but in imminent victory that keeps alternative possibilities at maximum distance.

Imperial progress?

Alexander’s views about the historic superiority of the Anglo-Saxons necessarily imply views about the British Empire. Whilst these deserve a more thorough investigation than is possible here, they are clearly positive. It is equally clear that, from a 21st century perspective, the Empire was for the most part established by violence, maintained by force, fuelled by greed, underpinned by racist justifications, and—for the majority of the people—fundamentally undemocratic. By this yardstick, the intensity of Alexander’s hatred for Germany’s militarism at the time of the First World War smacks of the ‘narcissism of minor differences’. This is not just a 21st century perspective, given that British hypocrisy about the Empire is a major target of German propaganda both before and during the war.[94] Lauding the virtues of British imperialism as against the vices of German militarism is the default position amongst Alexander’s contemporaries,[95] but here it is worth noting the particular circumstances of his background. To bring this into focus, consider a reminiscence from an inter-war childhood in a northern English town:

‘I had no idea why we had such a big Empire except it was taken for granted we were better than anyone else. … The meaning to me was that we got free buns and a half-day off school.’[96]

Alexander, by contrast, doesn’t have an Empire: he is the Empire. You can hardly be more ‘Empire’ than coming from Tasmania, the site of Britain’s most notorious colonial genocide. Alexander’s sense of himself as an Anglo-Saxon citizen of the British Empire—at heart, always an Australian—deserves, then, to be kept in mind. His hatred of Germany in both wars serves as a reminder that, whilst defeat may not mean the end of Britain itself, it can certainly spell the end of the British Empire. Nor is the accident of Alexander’s colonial past entirely separate from some of the ideas connected with his Technique. For example, the high valuation placed on reason directly reflects the kinds of justification given by imperialists for their control over ‘childish’ subject peoples.

The Letters do at least suggest that Alexander takes the ‘progressive’ role of the Empire seriously. This is clear in his enthusiastic letters in praise of Stafford Cripps’s Mission to India in 1942, which aims to secure the support of the Indian National Congress for Britain’s war effort by promising Indian self-determination when the war is over. [97] There’s no hint here that Alexander is hostile to Britain relinquishing control of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of its Empire.

Man of the People

Returning to Alexander’s ‘blithe optimism’ about the wars, it is instructive to see what happens when a wartime setback is so serious that there is no possibility of putting a positive spin on it. The most prominent example is the fall of France in 1940, when the defeated British Army is evacuated from Dunkirk. Writing to Irene Tasker, Alexander points the finger of blame in all directions. Predictably, his first target is the French—their sit-down strikers, their pro-Nazi cabinet—‘Treachery, treachery everywhere in France…’[98] A less predictable target is religion. He points out that the surrender of the Belgian Army and the later capitulation of France under Pétain have both occurred on Mondays, which in Alexander’s view highlights the uselessness of the Sunday prayers of the previous day:

They have undone for years the things they ought to have done and then they pray to the Lord to help them make good. Terrible, terrible and there will be no hope for humanity while they think they can get away with such things.

He attacks the pacifists and the neutrals, although his attack on the latter is more a broadside against humanity: Belgian neutrality—maintained up to the very point of being invaded—is

more than amazing, it’s paralysing and confirms what I have thought for so long of my fellow man and his wretched beliefs.

But despite this wholesale attack on his ‘fellow man’ he starts to make an interesting distinction between the ordinary man and woman in the street and the incompetents in high places (the ‘they’ of the text quoted above). He exacts a kind of revenge on the sorts of people most likely to have looked down their noses at him. In a letter to Irene Tasker he comments:

And here, my dear, the curse of the old school tie and the school certificate is causing a rot by incompetence …. [U]nless these ‘influence’ devils can be thrown out this war will drag on and on. Beaverbrook has been … putting the merit people in the place of the school tie gang. Bevin and Morrison are … cleaning out the long seated loafers and duds. All this does not apply to the ordinary man and woman in the street. They are ready and willing and anxious to do something real.

It is true that the fall of Singapore initially produces another cry of anguish against the deficiencies of the human race as a whole (it is ‘all because of man’s stupidity—mass stupidity—and all are to blame’),[99] but as noted above, the anguish is soon replaced by the idea that Singapore has been sacrificed as part of a larger plan,[100] and a more positive view of the common people reasserts itself. By 1943, writing to Annie Alexander in Australia, he is eloquent in his praise:

Here the people are just remarkable seeing what they have gone through. So cheerful, calm, confident and patient, manifesting such endurance as one did not think possible.[101]

There is a corresponding shift in political views, and over a relatively short period of time. In 1939, it is ‘the socialist rats’ and ‘stupid socialists’ and ‘dear old Chamberlain’[102] and a confident prediction that Labour will not get to govern for a quarter of a century.[103] But by 1945, Alexander is corresponding with his pupil and Labour leading light, Stafford Cripps, in ways that are solidly supportive of Cripps’s political agenda.[104] Alexander records voting Labour for the first time in his life.[105]

My sense is that on some level the People’s War[106] enables Alexander to feel a surer footing in British society than previously. It allows him to enjoy and value a connection with his roots in the ordinary people—the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people, of course—whose conduct he praises. Bevin and Morrison may—like him—be relatively uneducated but—also like him—look what they’ve achieved in practical terms![107] It is pertinent that the concluding chapter of 1941’s Universal Constant in Living deals in its entirety with democracy and calls for a new viewpoint—‘last but not least’, insists Alexander—‘on class and social relations and intercourse.’[108] Alexander may not harbour illusions about the ‘masses’, but he can’t renounce a commitment to the democratic ideal. And not only does he have sufficient faith in the mass of humanity to think them worth addressing but he also counts himself amongst them:

If we face the facts … each and every one of us is more or less responsible for the crises of 1914 and 1939.[109]

When you consider that his close associates include the ultra-reactionary anti-democrat and anti-feminist, Anthony Ludovici, such a perspective should not be taken for granted.

In this regard, it is interesting to consider the ambivalence revealed in the Letters where, on the one hand, he laments the role of the masses in supposedly bringing dictators to power, but on the other expresses positive views about popular revolutions to overthrow the oppressors. Thus, writing to his wife in 1917, he is wholehearted in his support of the overthrow of the Tsar (‘The one bright spot is Russian freedom’) and looks forward to this lighting the spark of revolution in Germany, where ‘even German flesh and blood cannot continue to bear the oppression they experience.’[110] The aftermath of the Russian Revolution tempers his enthusiasm—in 1947 he concludes that ‘revolution has ever been one of man’s tragic playthings.’ But what is tragic about it is that it becomes a complete replica of the absolutism of ‘the Czar and his royally clad aiders and abettors.’[111] It is essential, then, to distinguish Alexander’s views from those of reactionaries and elitists who are terrified of ‘the masses’ and fundamentally hostile to democracy: for Alexander, the People are his people, and ultimately he is on their side.

‘Science’ and knowledge

If celebrating the wartime achievements of the ordinary people from whence he has sprung allows Alexander a stronger position from which to resist pure class snobbery, it doesn’t address where he stands in relation to those whose status is based on supposedly superior knowledge. Alexander uses familiar tactics to move himself up the status ladder, primarily by denigrating his presumptive betters. It is noticeable that even his attack on ‘loafers and duds’ cited earlier pivots around educational aspects, with references to ‘the curse of the old school tie and the school certificate’.[112] But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere: Exhibit 1: his sarcastic references to the difficulty teaching people who ‘know’. Exhibit 2: the disparaging remarks directed towards scientists who want to apply their orthodox methods of experimentation to the investigation of his technique.[113] Exhibit 3: the scattering of insults aimed at, for example, ‘the stupid objections made… by stupid scientists’[114]—or the comments about Sherrington cited earlier. Elsewhere, we learn that Magnus was ‘hindered and limited by the acceptance and adoption of the principle of separation in all his explanations’ … ditto Sherrington. Their results may be correct, but they are incomplete.[115] Exhibit 4: Alexander’s accusations (sometimes justified) that people have stolen his ideas:

People who have a chance to help simply steal their ideas from my book and use them as if they were their own…[116]

Exhibit 5: if they haven’t stolen his ideas, he has certainly anticipated them, as with Magnus; or, à propos a book by Trigant Burrow: ‘Most of Mr. Burrow’s concepts have been put forward long ago in my books.’[117]  Exhibit 6: claims that he is being deliberately ignored by the scientific establishment; so when the journal Psychosomatic Medicine is launched in 1939 Alexander accuses it of ‘trying to steal Coghill and cut a way around yours truly.’[118]

So much for the negative side. There is less on the positive side concerning the superiority of Alexander’s knowledge: this is mainly implied as a corollary of his disdain for others. It is interesting that when criticising proposals for scientific research Alexander makes no concrete criticisms, nor does he offer any constructive suggestions for alternative approaches. What becomes clear is that lessons with Alexander—or perhaps the ‘science’ recorded in the ‘Evolution of a Technique’—are the necessary experiment. Writing to Irene Tasker about his recent discovery of Coghill’s work, he notes:

It has always been difficult for me to believe that it is difficult to prove such things from the physiological side. The impeding factor is their idea of the way proof must be produced. From my point of view the objective side as set down in the Use of the Self is complete proof of all of it…[119]

Certain of his ‘complete proof’, Alexander is the sole inhabitant of an impregnable fortress constructed out of the insights gained from a lifetime of practice. No other knowledge is really worth considering; no one else can enter the castle … and he, in turn, is incapable of leaving it.

Race thinking[120]

In amongst Alexander’s views about the superiority of Britons/Anglo-Saxons sit his ideas about ‘race’. As professional teaching organisations continue to assign high status to Alexander’s writings, this invites an unavoidable question: what does he write about the world’s several billion ‘people of colour’?[121] The topic requires a more detailed exploration, encompassing all of Alexander’s writings, than can be accommodated here, but new evidence provided by the Letters needs at least to be registered.

As regards historical context, it is widely understood that the period around the turn of the twentieth century marked a high point in race thinking in Western cultures. Fundamental distinctions were made according to the biological marker of skin colour, using hierarchical classifications in which the darker the skin, the lower the value assigned, across a wide range of characteristics.[122] Parallel to this macro-scale race thinking ran a micro-scale version that involved classifications and generalisations based on trivial or imaginary physical differences, allowing the avid racialist to distinguish—as an example—between the physical and mental characteristics of four different types of Welsh person,[123] or to provide a page of illustrations of English people purporting to show ‘West Riding types’ as against ‘Nottinghamshire’ or ‘Sussex’ types.[124] When fused with the macro version, this superficially absurd micro version could have equally devastating consequences, for example to those caught up in the ‘one-drop’ rules imposed by Nazi Germany and racist states in the U.S.A., where minimal Jewish or Black or Native American ‘blood’ was treated as a kind of contamination sufficient to expose people to extremes of racist oppression.[125]

The Letters provide evidence of both scales of race thinking. Alexander’s ‘blood’ thinking about Anglo-Saxons, with its implication that Germans, French, Italians, and foreigners of a similar ilk are of inferior stock, represents the micro version. From the perspective of a twenty-first century international Alexander community, this kind of xenophobia makes Alexander look small-minded. But to the extent that its focus is on differences between peoples adjudged to be ‘European’ it is of lesser historical significance than, say, antisemitism or the colour-coded race thinking that was used to justify slavery and colonialism and enjoys an afterlife in the institutional racism of today.

The question of antisemitism arises partly because one of Alexander’s letters starts with a joke that relies on the stereotype of the cunningly frugal Jew.[126] This can’t be assumed to reflect a worked-up ideology: the same stereotype of frugality is often used in English jokes about ‘the Scotsman’ or ‘the Yorkshireman’ (it’s normally a man).[127] In one letter Alexander actually applies a variant of the stereotype to himself on the basis of his purportedly Scottish ancestry, joking that at a forthcoming meeting he, being (he claims) half Scottish, will be at a disadvantage negotiating with a full-blood Scot.[128] Nevertheless, a couple of other remarks suggest Alexander has in his mind some conception of ‘the Jew’ as a distinct type;[129] and Alexander the entertainer is reported as acting out stereotypical representations of ‘the ghetto Jew’ when playing Shylock in his productions of The Merchant of Venice.[130] It is a long stretch from Alexander’s deployment of stereotypes for the purposes of entertainment to Nazi extermination camps; but we have learned the hard way the need to challenge remarks that prepare the soil in which racist oppression can grow.

As for colour-coded race thinking, it maintains a small but significant foothold in The Letters. A prime example occurs in a letter to Frank Pierce Jones:

I am not surprised that coloured people are more teachable than whites. The trouble is that the latter know.[131]

The implication is that ‘coloured people’—no exceptions are entertained here—don’t ‘know’. This accords with a racist expectation that they have a lesser intellectual endowment or attainment. A more complex example concerns the Chinese and the Japanese. Alexander is positive about the wartime accomplishments of the Chinese, referring to the former as ‘my little “yellow bellys”[sic]’ and, a month later, his ‘Chinese pals’. The patronising, colour-conscious tone of ‘my little “yellow bellys”’ of the first letter undermines but certainly doesn’t destroy the impression of Alexander’s respect for China as an independent civilisation which he demonstrates in the second letter:

their achievement stands out as the most remarkable military and strategic accomplishment within our knowledge, to say nothing of the industrial and economic side of their great adventure. Whoever has them on their side in the future will or can be masters of the world situation …[132]

To arrive at a balanced view of Alexander’s racism, this statement has to be considered alongside the racist remarks in Man’s Supreme Inheritance.

By contrast, when it comes to the Japanese, the wartime enemy, it is a different picture. They are the ‘brown apes’—a term of abuse that earns an index entry referencing ten pages—and elsewhere, ‘brown monkeys’ and ‘brown rats’.[133] The description of the Japanese as ‘brown’ rather than ‘yellow’ strikes me as a classic example of the colour-coded racism that equates darker skin with inferior worth.[134] And of course the word ‘ape’ resonates with some of the ugliest racial stereotypes in a way that calling Germans ‘snakes’, ‘swine’, or ‘dogs’ does not. But the name-calling needs to be put into perspective. It is simply not possible to believe that Alexander really sees the highly complex, militarily, scientifically, and industrially advanced societies of Japan and Germany as fitting the model of ‘savage’ society that he counterposes to civilisation in his first two books, or that, in characterising the Japanese as ‘apes’, he is doing any more than indulging in playground insults. He is not regurgitating the most disturbing nineteenth century racism that really did try and equate some less technologically developed (‘primitive’, ‘savage’) peoples to apes. On the other hand, it is fair to connect his accusations of savagery with the widely-accepted view that ‘savage survivals’ exist in supposedly civilised peoples: in other words, he surely does regard certain behaviours of the enemy countries as ‘savage’.[135] If a cautious distinction is made between Alexander’s half-baked ideas about evolution and his capacity for dispensing insults, the issue of greater concern then becomes not that he calls the Japanese ‘apes’, but rather what his colour-coded use of ‘brown’ as an insult suggests about his view of Blacks.

One other comment seems relevant here. When Irene Tasker goes to India in 1940 he hopes that she

will find the people of the native race interested in the conscious side of life … . As things are moving in civilization now I am certain that some kind of conscious help must come to them.

but he then adds doubtfully

—that is if anything is to be done for them.[136]

Like many of Alexander’s statements, there is a vagueness here that defies exact interpretation. The gist is not flattering to Indians, yet the vagueness itself is telling. It suggests that Alexander is simply not interested in any meaningful way with the situation of people outside of his target audience within ‘Western civilization’: the ‘native race’ is a scarcely-imaginable Other, like an obscure object seen through the wrong end of a telescope.

Dark racism

Aside from the casual remarks already discussed, there is only one place where Alexander elaborates about peoples that, based on the evolutionary schema outlined in the first two books, he would see as ‘savage’. He is responding, in 1936, to a letter from Margaret Isherwood in which she apparently makes a close connection between ‘dancing’ and ‘natural rhythmic movement’. Alexander is keen to correct her and distinguish the two: ‘the connexion does not hold water,’ he assures her. Whites, it seems, have lost the capacity for ‘natural rhythmic movement’, which is still possessed by Blacks. As an example of white dancers he cites Adeline Genée—’the most perfect rhythmic dancer we ever watched’—but notes that when not dancing ‘she was a monstrosity in the co-ordinated sense.’ In other words, her rhythmic dancing is learned, not a natural skill. He elucidates as follows:

Then the rhythmic manifestation has been referred to so often in regard to movements of the Maoris, Red Indians and Zulus in particular. All dark people in America have the rhythmic quality highly developed with their other undesirable qualities. The trouble with the white races of today is that they never possessed the ‘faculty’ which they must acquire consciously if they are to meet successfully the demands of the quickly changing environment … characteristic of civilization … The dark races have to face this—I saw in New Zealand that they go to pieces in a year or Typo in header corrected, new web location (_v2c) 17 July in civilization.[137]

About the only positive point that can be taken from this is an apparent belief that ‘the dark races’ have a future in which they can face the challenges of civilization. Elsewhere, minor illumination at best is provided by a 1939 letter to Irene Tasker, who has reported on her experience in Swaziland. Alexander notes that

… it is good that the people are on the land and left to themselves and not, as you remark, exploited.[138]

It can be assumed that Tasker has drawn a contrast between Swaziland, then a British Protectorate that retained some of its traditional political and economic structures, and the Union of South Africa with its oppressed Black proletariat. The picture of Swaziland may be over-romanticized[139] but again a salient point in assessing Alexander’s attitudes is his satisfaction that the ‘people’ (i.e. the Black people) are not being exploited.

In addition to what Alexander does say, there is also what he doesn’t say. In response to another letter from Irene Tasker in South Africa, which we can reasonably assume refers to a difficulty with her Black servants, he notes

The native servant question must be very trying. But are they really worse than ours—ours are pretty bad.[140]

Whatever you might think about Alexander’s class prejudices, this is not what you would expect from the kind of dyed-in-the-wool racist who sees everything through the lens of ‘race’.


Alexander’s evolutionary frame of thinking is implied in various remarks cited above, but there is little in the way of elaboration. A passing remark does, however, throw light on how he sees the interaction between the physical and the behavioural. He is responding to a 1945 letter from Frank Pierce Jones that contains a tale of a man—probably a pupil—who has been proposing or experimenting with carrying loads on his head. (It is implied that the aim is to activate a better head-neck-back relationship by emulating people who traditionally carry loads on their heads.)

The absurdity of the carrying on heads which need re-education is obvious and he doesn’t make the connexion that the people who do this inherited the head habit by long custom.

Alexander’s reference to an inherited habit helps clarify how he views differences between peoples—whether ‘races’, nations, or otherwise. How ‘inherited habit’ might work biologically is unclear, but it provides a framework that allows him to differentiate between peoples (‘savage’ and ‘civilized’) who on the one hand have inherited the same physical make-up—as he indicates in Man’s Supreme Inheritance—yet are somehow constitutionally different.[141] It is a view that resonates with strands in the wider culture of the time—for example, Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’—and no doubt reflects uncertainty about what, if anything, anchors ‘mind’—in this case taking the form of habit—to ‘body’.[142]

If there is little further clarity in the Letters about the content of Alexander’s evolutionary ideas, there can be no doubt that they remained important to him. His frequent resort to ‘lowly-evolved’ as an insult is one marker, but the most telling example—not least because it reveals so much about his immediate circle—occurs in a letter to Irene Tasker following 70th birthday celebration dinners held in his honour early in 1939:

Have letters from Miss Atkinson and Marj Barstow giving particulars of the dinner given by the former in connexion with the dinner here. They were having their dinner as we had ours. Evidently they had a fine time in the true American way, of which we had experience when you enacted the part of the ‘lowly evolved’. Great night that wasn’t it and Miss Atkinson as the Jew was a scream.[143]


Such remarks bring to mind comments in Man’s Supreme Inheritance where Alexander contrasts the ‘unbridled passions’ of ‘primitive nations’ with the control that he would like to see exercised.[144] It is interesting, then, to see what can be gleaned about how Alexander deals with feelings. Certainly, control does not prevent feelings being expressed: after news of a heavy bombing raid on Berlin, he records that ‘we all give our brutal instincts a chance to {exult}’ and goes on to say that, if only Goering and Goebbels had been killed,

we could allow the instincts I have named a debauch such as they have never enjoyed before.[145]

The key words here are ‘give’ and ‘allowed’: the self, it seems, remains in ultimate control; the ‘debauch’ can be ended at will and the passions are not therefore terminally ‘unbridled’. Elsewhere, there are hints that by today’s standards maintaining control can spill over into a need for a stiff upper lip, as when Alexander responds to a letter from Robert van Geuns that reports the death or flight (so I infer) of his wife:

I offer you my deepest sympathy in your domestic sorrow but, dear Mr van Geuns, you must try to find consolation in having the love and companionship of your three daughters… .[146]

Thus far, discussion has focused mainly on negative feelings, as in Alexander’s burning contempt for enemies and his resentment of those who might consider themselves his intellectual betters. But this only picks out a discordant note in writing that for the most part expresses enthusiasm and positivity about his life, his books and his work—and the wider world, too, when it allows it—along with a stoical acceptance of many of the difficulties he has to face. These are the over-riding impressions. On a more personal note, Alexander expresses genuine warmth in letters to close associates such as Irene Tasker and Walter Carrington;[147] warmer still are the letters written to his wife, Edith Page Alexander, in early 1917. They are full of tenderness for his ‘dear little loved one’ and concern for her well-being:

I want my darling to do her Ahs and exercises to get rid of that nasty cold and to really take the greatest possible care of her dear sweet self.[148]

Along with his warmth, Alexander is not afraid to tell her of his enthusiasms nor of his fears. Unexpectedly, too, these letters give pause for thought about the shape of Alexander’s deeper convictions in their mix of tenderness with religious sentiments:

May God bless, guide and watch over you is the constant wish and prayer of your ever loving and affectionate husband.[149]

Perhaps there is an element in these letters of playing a role, of dealing in conventionalities. There is an awkwardness in Alexander’s use of the third person, positioning himself as a husband and using ‘her’ rather than ‘your’. Alongside the rush of incidentals in these letters, which twinkle with the details of a shared life, these assorted markers of distance and gender role suggest that this might not be a meeting of souls. Nevertheless, given the enthusiasm and openness expressed by Alexander, it is sad to know how the story of this marriage will end[150] and to wonder if he ever finds the lasting intimacy for which a potential seems to exist. If he did, there are no letters to record it.

Surprisingly, the letter that (in my reading) conveys the most profound feeling is written not to Alexander’s wife but to Robert Best, the long-standing pupil mentioned above. It recounts Alexander’s experience having for the first time visited the House of Commons in 1947:

… I came away without any hope of change in the near future. The reactions which had their source in what is known as party politics, manifested by the speakers, left me chilled and empty, overwhelmed with sorrow and rudderless.[151]

The tone here is unique among the Letters. I was so startled by the unprecedented rawness of some of the phrases here that I searched the web—without success—to see if they were quotations, perhaps from Shakespeare. On reflection, I conclude that they provide a window onto the deeper layers of Alexander’s being, revealing his sensitivity and vulnerability. The signs are there all along, implied by the protective shell of bravado.

The particular occasion of Alexander’s distress is also of interest. For all his self-confidence, Alexander does not seem to harbour illusions about the scope of his competence: he looks to the likes of politicians such as ‘Lord’ Moran, ‘dear old Chamberlain’, and Stafford Cripps[152] to steer Britain in the right direction. But if the great and the good assembled in the Mother of Parliaments have feet of clay, then Alexander can hardly help but feel rudderless. Nor should it be overlooked that the intensity of Alexander’s disappointment is directly proportional to his hope for change: it couldn’t be clearer how much he yearns for the better world that he calls for in the final chapter of The Universal Constant in Living.

It is interesting to sharpen this image of a sensitive and vulnerable Alexander by considering some of the externalities that he may experience as threats, beyond the various snobberies discussed earlier. When you read in the Australian newspaper archive of his father being fined for dragging his mother about the house by her hair in 1872, it is a useful reminder of the violent male culture this slightly built and sickly child grew to adulthood in.[153] When you read of his Merchant of Venice being barracked by the larrikins (admittedly ‘less than a third of the audience’!) as he tours the hinterland of Sydney in 1902[154] you see the other side of the coin from the endless snobbery of the British elite and the disdain of the sceptics amongst the scientists. It is appropriate to reflect that Alexander’s views about music presumably indicate his experience of music—because music gets you, doesn’t it, like it or not?—it goes straight to your heart or sets your feet tapping. The spectacle of dance, too, inspires spontaneous currents in the body too deep to ignore or entirely control. Alexander’s ideas and values, and the Empire that he thinks epitomises them, are all under genuine attack from German militarism. He is under threat, it turns out, even from food: in 1917 his friends in America prepare him ‘nice cakes and things’ for the journey home across the Atlantic because the food on the ship

is certain to be pretty bad & I cannot eat bad food. I can do with ever so little but I can’t stand bad stuff.[155]

Gambling man

The emotional landscapes revealed by the Letters suggest some general patterns. As just noted, Alexander may have his reasons for feeling under threat: and he, in turn, seems constitutionally disposed to treat attack as his best form of defence—indeed, to get his retaliation in first. But in this continual stirring-up of emotions, ‘control’ becomes not just an ad hoc option but an essential tool to manage the drama of existence. Alexander seems compelled both to court stimulation and to control his reactions to it, in a continuing to-and-fro of aliveness. And if Alexander’s career on the stage provides one way of both expressing and bridling emotion, another outlet is the world of horse-racing and betting. What, after all, could be more dramatic than the thunder of hooves in this ‘sport of kings’, where the central player is the horse, that epitome of muscularity and archetype of human emotion?[156] Winners and losers, it is combat of a different sort; and if the race itself is not enough, the stimulation can be enhanced—but, importantly, also sublimated?—by betting on the outcome. Betting invites reason to the party. Form, pedigree, ground conditions, trainer, stables, inside knowledge—and more—all need to get factored into the equation. Unless you are to become a hopeless gambling addict, betting enforces a discipline, and provides a kind of restraining framework into which outcomes good and bad can be slotted. You can lay each-way bets, so that you can earn money even if your horse fails to win. You can choose to focus on long odds, knowing that your chosen horses will lose most of the time (but provide greater rewards when they win). You can mix and match different strategies. Here, the framework of ‘control’ can operate as an essential precondition for enjoyment.

Occasional references to horse-racing are scattered through both volumes of the Letters, but in the last three years or so of Alexander’s life the topic comes to the fore, most notably in his correspondence with Mungo and Sydney Douglas. The floodgates open in June 1952: in the majority of letters to the Douglases thereafter—there are at least 25 of them—Alexander eagerly provides a stream of commentary on racing matters: meetings, stables, horses, and how to bet (‘increase the amount of your bets when you have a winner.’[157]) It is somehow fitting that the final dated letter in these volumes, written by Alexander four weeks before he dies, refers briefly to sales of books, to numbers of pupils, and to an article on the Technique, but is above all concerned with horses and trips to racecourses. If this is what Alexander loves, his sixty years of endeavour in pursuance of human well-being has certainly earned him the right to indulge himself.

Concluding remarks

To read the Letters is to embark on a journey that invites many excursions into history and into the wider Alexander literature. Only a handful of themes is pursued here—and the treatment of them is far from definitive—but the potential of this new material should be apparent. Whatever topic you want to pursue, the Letters can be trusted to offer new angles and insight—not to mention fresh questions.

There remains the important matter of who will want to undertake the journey. For those professional teaching organisations (all of them?) that assign Alexander’s writings a foundational and official status, study is obligatory. The results will be challenging, given the number of entries that can now be added to the inventory of Alexander’s race thinking. Here, at least, some tentative conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, his later ideas seem to remain approximately the same as those he expresses in 1918. Secondly, whatever his misconceptions and prejudices, nowhere in the Letters does he call for racist political or social programmes. You do not have to read far to discover that in historical context Alexander’s feeble engagement with issues of ‘race’—based on such of his writings as are currently available—simply parrots the ubiquitous prejudices he will have encountered in his formative years: he is not bellowing out arguments in favour of systematic and overt oppression; he is not a race warrior. But the problem remains, and it’s a pretty big one, given the extent to which racial oppression has been justified by variants of the ideas that Alexander expresses. For that matter, new letters might come to light  articulating unsavoury opinions compatible with the material already available but more focused—hostility to mixed marriages, for example.[158]

Seventy-odd years after he died, Alexander is still positioned as the poster-boy for the profession. It seems to me that it would be generous to Alexander and wise for the profession to cut the Gordian knot that keeps him there. If there are dramatic journeys of transformation to be recounted, let teachers recount their own. Allow Alexander to take his place in history and let the Technique he originated stand on its own two feet, supported by foundational documents that articulate in words appropriate to today the discoveries and experiences of all generations of teachers. Trainee teachers might then expect to encounter Alexander and his writings in the context of a broad historical picture of how theory, practice, and institutions have developed since 1894, of the kind that any professional training programme would expect to encompass.

For the individual English-speaking teacher or supporter of the Alexander Technique, as against the profession, the position is quite different. Here, reading the Letters is more a choice than a duty. What is on offer is the opportunity to get as close to meeting Alexander himself as you are ever likely to get. Now, for the first time, you can make your own judgements about the man unencumbered by the standpoints and interpretations of others. For many—particularly those with a professional title of ‘Alexander Teacher’—this may be a sufficient reason on its own. Otherwise, for anyone who has come to value Alexander’s writings generally, these two volumes are an essential addition to the bookshelf. What you get from Alexander’s four books will undergo subtle but important changes when read in the light of these more unbuttoned and spontaneous texts. From the very first sentence—where Alexander is to be found writing ‘in desperate haste’—you hear a different voice, after which the old voice will never sound quite the same again. Jean Fischer and Missy Vineyard have performed an enormous service in making these two volumes available.


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Copyright © David Gibbens, 2023; Mouritz, 2023

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

How to cite and access

Do not cite this online version. Cite version-of-record:
David Gibbens, ‘F. Matthias Alexander, Letters, Vols I & II: review essay’, Poise, Vol. 1 (2023), article POI023JE1.03.
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Author details

David qualified from Fellside Alexander School in 1992 and was certified by STAT in 1997. He does not currently teach but has been actively involved in supporting the Alexander community since 2010. He is Senior Editor of Poise and project lead and editor for the Mouritz website.

Contact e-mail:


Thanks to Jean Fischer and Regina Stratil for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

Conflicts of interest

David is Senior Editor of Poise and project lead and editor for the Mouritz website. He receives, and has received, no payments from Mouritz and has no financial interest in the Mouritz business.

Mouritz contact details

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Publication history

First published 14 July 2023.
For details of subsequent revisions, if any, see the version of record.


[1]    Unless otherwise stated, the editions of Alexander’s works referenced here, with the date of first publication shown in square brackets, are: (a) the three books published by Mouritz and edited by Jean M. O. Fischer: Man’s Supreme Inheritance (1996 [1910, 1918]), Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual (2004 [1923]), The Universal Constant in Living (2000 [1941]); and (b) The Use of the Self (Gollancz, 1985 [1932]); all places of publication, London.

[2]    The ‘Acknowledgements’ also record important contributions by others in the Alexander teaching community (Vol. I, pp. xxiii-xiv).

[3]    When quoting Alexander in the run of text I have used single quotation marks; when quoting others, I use double quotation marks; for block quotes by Alexander only, I omit quotation marks.

[4]    7th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 9.

[5]    ‘Unrestricted’ meaning ‘sink on sight’, without warning, including ships from neutral countries trading with Great Britain.

[6]           See <> accessed 17th August, 2022: figures for British-flagged shipping only.

[7]    27th April 1917: Vol. I, p. 22.

[8]    I have omitted references to sources where relevant facts about characters and events are readily available via the world-wide web and not in dispute.

[9]    This is the ‘Zimmerman Telegram’.

[10] News stories in the preceding days had described the Mexican President announcing a policy of neutrality (New York Times [NYT], 16th April 1917); but also the Mexican deputies to the National Congress hissing the American Ambassador and applauding the German representatives present (NYT, 22nd April 1917). ‘We must watch Mexico’ concluded another article (NYT, 18th April 1917)

[11] 8th March 1917: Vol. I, pp. 11-12.

[12] The Use of the Self, p. 64, note. Alexander’s appreciation of the ingenuity of individual mechanisms —machines serving humans—is to be contrasted with his view of ‘mechanization’—humans serving machines—to which he is unfailingly hostile.

[13] This is not to say that he thought it was a ‘good thing’.

[14] See for example Julie Halls, Inventions that Didn’t Change the World (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2014).

[15] Whilst Victorian culture was more heterogeneous than the caricatures promoted by later generations would allow—see, e.g., Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)—the human ingenuity manifested in technological progress seems to have been almost universally appreciated, even if the consequences thereof were not.

[16] Letter to V. C. Berrangé, April 1944: Vol. II, p. 336.

[17] The two conceptions of course collided in Freud’s Totem and Taboo, which by 1938 was widely available in Britain as a Pelican at 6d a copy.

[18] December 1946: Vol. II, pp. 403-05. Jones’s reference to the primary control is not merely a passing one: the flyer—usefully replicated in the text—is sub-titled ‘Lessons in the Application of F. M. Alexander’s Principle of Primary Control to Individual Problems’.

[19] A. R. Alexander helped train Jones.

[20] See also Alexander’s important explanation of the term ‘relativity’ in another letter to Jones of 22nd June 1947: Vol. II, pp. 416-17.

[22] 11th November 1929: Vol. I, pp. 30-31.

[23] 6th August 1952: Vol. II, p. 502.

[24] 11th November 1929: Vol. I, pp. 30-31. We should not assume that the ‘technique’ in question is the Alexander Technique: Best’s queries may relate specifically to aspects of the technique described in the ‘Illustration’.

[25] 17th October 1936: Vol. I, p. 41.

[26]  15th November 1940: Vol. I, p. 126.

[27] 14th December 1929: Vol. I, p. 31.

[28] 21st May 1942: Vol. I, p. 206. To be fair to Sherrington, The Universal Constant in Living would be a hard book for anyone to review unless they had read the other books. You can just imagine the world-famous physiologist scratching his head as he grapples with the concept of ‘our habitual reflex activity’ (UCL, p. 86); and Sherrington surely redeems himself when he praises Alexander’s understanding of the “total neuro-muscular activity of the moment—not least of the head and the neck” and includes a direct reference to UCL in The Endeavour of Jean Fernel (Cambridge, England, 1946 [1974 reprint by Dawsons]), p. 87 and note 1.

[29] 25th June 1939: Vol. I, p. 70. As this is said to link in with Coghill’s work, it is probably the chapter on ‘Physiology and Physiologists’.

[30] 28th May 1939: Vol. I, pp. 66

[31] 11th June 1943: Vol. II, p. 320; 4th August 1943: p. 323.

[32] In his last two books, unlike the first two, Alexander is at pains to acknowledge the help he has received. In The Universal Constant in Living this extends to a two-page ‘Thanks offering’: pp. xvii-xviii.

[33] 21st May 1942: Vol. I, pp. 206-7.

[34] Irene Tasker, Connecting Links (London: Sheildrake Press, 1978) pp. 4, 15. See also Regina Stratil, Irene Tasker: Her Life and Work with the Alexander Technique (Graz: Mouritz, 2020), pp. 39-41.

[35] All quotations here from letter to V. C. Berrangé, April 1944: Vol. II, pp. 336-9.

[36] One unfortunate implication of Alexander’s claim would be to demolish the scientific credentials of his original discovery process, as it would appear not to be a replicable experiment. As for ‘… my hands on their direction’, it’s a phrase beautifully rich in the possibilities and impossibilities of teaching.

[37] The full text of the South African ‘Memorandum’ can be found in Regina Stratil’s important biography of Irene Tasker (note 34 above), along with other valuable material that sheds light on the saga: see pp. 117-124, 315-321. It makes essential reading.

[38] Louise Morgan, Inside Yourself (London: Hutchinson, 1954); [2nd ed. by Mouritz (London, 2016)].

[39] Ibid., p. 37.

[40] 11th January 1953: Vol. II, p. 514.

[41] Vol. II, pp. 621-2, n. 551.

[42] 10th February 1955: Vol. II, p. 569.

[43] The correspondence with Morgan also includes the letter (24th April 1954) where Alexander refuses to recommend any New York teacher at a time when Lulie Westfeldt is working there: Vol. II, p. 553.

[44] 27th March 1947: Vol. II, p. 411.

[45] To Joan Mechin, 22nd March 1941: Vol. I, p. 147.

[46] To Joan Mechin, 30th June 1941: Vol. I, p. 155.

[47] To Joan Mechin, 21st July 1941: Vol. I, p. 159.

[48] 14th November 1942: Vol. I, p. 222.

[49] Constructive Conscious Control of the Individual, p. 110 fn.

[50] Huxley, however, demands that means are consistent with ends “But good ends … can be achieved only by the use of good … means”: Ends and Means (London: Chatto & Windus, 1937), p. 320.

[51] Vol. I, p. 3.

[52] Key text from this letter is repeated in italics and quotations above the relevant discussion.

[53] A ‘Foreword’ notes Alexander’s age as 38 in 1917, when letter 2 was written (p. xii): he was actually 48.

[54] Vol. I, p. xv.

[55] Jean Fischer has reproduced all the letters available to him, without selection, censorship, or abridgement, though there remain letters he was not able to publish. Personal communication and Vol. I, p. xiv.

[56] 27th February 1917: Vol. I, p. 7.

[57] Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays Volume I (London: The Hogarth Press, 1925), p. 320. For an illuminating discussion of how she came pick December 1910, see Edwin J. Kenney, Jr. ‘The Moment, 1910: Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, and Turn of the Century Consciousness’, Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 13 No. 1 (March 1977), pp. 42-46.

[58] This finds its way into the correspondence between William Archer and Alexander about ‘the Open Mind’, reproduced in Man’s Supreme Inheritance: see pp. 48-53, particularly p. 49.

[59] 8th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 11.

[60] 7th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 10.

[61] 19th December 1918: Vol. I, p. 25-26.

[62]  ‘Albert C. Barnes Correspondence 1902-1951 ABC’, prepared by Barbara Anne Beaucar, p. 147: PDF file downloaded 18th February 2022 from <>. (Links to an assumed relevant webpage on the Albert C. Barnes website were not working on that date.)

[63] Walter Carrington and Seán Carey, Explaining the Alexander Technique (London: Mouritz, 2004[1992]), p. 3. In summarising the story, Carey asks “So it’s not accurate to claim that MSI was ghost-written, simply because the ghost had been sacked?”. Carrington responds, “That’s right”.

[64] 3rd August 1917: Vol. I, p. 24. It would be interesting to seek signs of Alexander’s influence in Beresford’s works from this period, but. Alexander is not mentioned in George M. Johnson’s critical study J. D. Beresford (New York: Twayne, 1998), which draws on Beresford’s unpublished autobiographical ‘Memories and Reflections’: more research is needed.

[65] Memoirs of Waldo Frank, ed. Alan Trachtenberg (University of Massachusetts, 1973), p. 87.

[66] It may be Beresford’s mysticism that is reflected in the references in Man’s Supreme Inheritance to Ralph Waldo Trine’s In Tune with the Infinite, to faith, and to Frederick Myers. These can be read as though Alexander is debating with Beresford, or Beresford is debating with himself, where the ‘New Thought’ and Myers’ ‘subliminal self’ fit in (e.g. Man’s Supreme Inheritance, pp. 20-21, 28-32). Jeroen Staring comes to similar conclusions in Frederick Matthias Alexander 1969-1955 (Nijmegen: Integraal, 2005), pp. 154, 403n6.

[67] George M. Johnson, J. D. Beresford, pp. 24-5.

[68] Most of Alexander’s connections with British literati seem to have occurred in the 1930s, when we know he gave lessons to Leonard Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Aldous Huxley, and Maurice Baring. But already in 1918 he was giving lessons to Lady Ottoline Morrell, a major patron of the arts and the host of an important literary salon: Miranda Seymour, Ottoline Morrell (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992), p. 406.

[69]  Alexander’s account in his letter to Irene Tasker must also be subject to critical consideration. For example, he may be choosing  to exaggerate the degree of involvement with Beresford to gain reflected glory from Beresford’s success as a writer. Carrington’s version, captured by Carey 80 years after the event, was also recorded 30 years earlier in notes made by Edward Owen, where Carrington remembers that an associate (‘Cliff’’ in Owen’s notes) had been told by Beresford in the 1940s that he (Beresford) had not had lessons with Alexander: ‘Edward Owen Interview Notes 1961–62’, ed. by Jean M. O. Fischer, pp. 3-4, available at <> [accessed 14 April 2022]. Beresford may have had reasons for tweaking his version of events, which directly contradicts Alexander’s. The chain of evidence involves Owen summarising Carrington summarising a past conversation with ‘Cliff’ summarising Beresford recalling encounters with Alexander that had happened thirty  years previously.

[70] Waldo Frank, ‘The Logic of the Body’, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, 9th February 1919, Part 8 page 5.

[71] See Waldo Frank, The Rediscovery of Man (New York: George Brazilier, 1958), which promotes the value of  Alexander’s work, albeit now fused with Frank’s own spiritual, social, and psychological insights: pp. 159, 451-55, 468. The two seem to have dropped out of contact, until an interesting exchange emerges—starting 16th August 1936: Vol. I, pp. 39-48, passim.

[72] Did he really mean to write ‘ready’? Or was he aiming for the more euphonious and intelligible ‘steadily and readily’? Or is that what he actually did write but there was an error in the transcription? The act of transcription and the original act of writing would both be prone to the same slips of the pen. Regardless of the position here, having attempted to read some of Alexander’s original letters myself, I can only praise Missy Vineyard and other transcribers in the highest terms for what they have achieved.

[73] His comments are lengthier and more frequent than those I have seen in the correspondence of a number of other non-combatants.

[74]  On 15th August, newspapers are reporting British troops regaining from the Germans trenches lost a couple of days earlier, e.g. Pall Mall Gazette, 15th August 1916, front page. Earlier in the battle, the front page of the 8th of July, reports Lord Derby, newly appointed Under-Secretary of State for War, describing the ‘Great Advance’ on the Somme as part of a war that will not be won by ‘spectacular spurts of military activity’. See British Newspaper Archive at <> for Pall Mall Gazette; <> for reports in national dailies. Subscriptions required.

[75] 1st February 1942: Vol. I, p. 190.

[76] Winston Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1951), p. 43.

[77] 20th March 1942: Vol. I, p. 195.It is perhaps relevant that a base in Australia for a ‘plan of attack’ is also a base for the defence of Alexander’s homeland.

[78] Vol. I, p. xv.

[79] Jackie Evans, Frederick Matthias Alexander - A Family History (Chichester: Phillimore, 2001), in particular pp. 158-69.

[80] Ibid., p. 211. Jackie Evans was writing twenty years before the publication of the Letters, but it seems she had access to some, perhaps many, of them.

[81] Michael Bloch, F. M. Alexander (London, Little, Brown, 2004), p. 178. I have not located a discussion of this theme in Jeroen Staring’s work.

[82] In Edward Owen’s interview notes, for example: see n.69 above for full reference.

[83] 4th December 1939: Vol. I, p. 82.

[84] Letter to Walter Carrington, 24th September 1940: Vol. I, p. 116.

[85]  Newspaper stories about Montagu’s speech clearly identify him as ‘Mr.’ Montagu, e.g. ‘Mr. Montagu’s Speech’, Pall Mall Gazette¸15 August 1916, viewed at <> [accessed 31 March 2022] (subscription required).

[86] The A1 classification is derived from the Lloyds Register of shipping and means the best quality of construction (=A) and the best quality of equipment (=1). See ‘The ‘A1’ Reputation of the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping’, Case Study #13, Global History of Capitalism Project (Oxford Centre for Global History), <> [accessed 4 March 2022].

[87] George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (London: Penguin, 1982 [1941]), p. 52.

[88] ‘Editorial (Quackery versus Physical education)’, Manpower, Vol. 2 No. 2, March 1944, available at <> [downloaded 21 April 2022]. The article refers to Alexander as the ‘Australian actor’ twelve times.

[89] See, for example, John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London: Faber & Faber, 1992). For a case study: The Hidden Huxley: Contempt and Compassion for the Masses, edited by David Bradshaw (London: Faber & Faber, 1994).

[90] E.g., letter to Irene Tasker 3rd July 1941: Vol. I, p. 157.

[91] Letter to Gertrude Aspen, 20th October 1941: Vol. I, p. 174. Three weeks before the outbreak of World War 2, he comments about the ‘refugee stunt’ in Britain. ‘The number in this country at the moment alarms one. The streets are full of them.’ (Letter to Irene Tasker, 10th August 1939: Vol. I, p. 73.) He is presumably referring to Jews fleeing the Nazis.

[92] 8th April 1917: Vol. I, p. 20.

[93] Letter to Walter Carrington, 11th October 1940: Vol. I, p. 118.

[94] See, e.g., Rudolf Cronau, The British Black Book (New York: Max Schetterling, 1915).

[95] For chapter and verse on British attitudes to German militarism, see John Ramsden, Don’t Mention the War: The British and the Germans since 1890 (London: Abacus, 2007).

[96] Quoted in Martin Pugh, ‘We Danced All Night’ – A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London: The Bodley Head, 2008), p. 402.

[97] Letter to Cripps, 19th February 1942: Vol. I, p. 192; letter to Irene Tasker, 22nd February 1942, p. 194.

[98] Unless otherwise noted, the quotations in this and the following paragraph are all from letters to Irene Tasker, 16th to 28th June: Vol. I, pp. 102-4.

[99] Letter to Marjory and Wilfred Barlow, 16th February 1942: Vol. I, p. 191.

[100] A comparable rewriting of history occurs in 1943 when Alexander refers to the ‘glorious triumph at Dunkirk’: letter to Frank Pierce Jones, 4th June 1943: Vol. II, p. 318.

[101] 11th September 1943: Vol. II, p. 325.

[102] Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, was a Conservative.

[103] Letters to Irene Tasker, 28th April 1939: Vol. I p. 63; 30th April 1939: p. 64; 3rd September 1939: p. 77. By socialists, he means the Labour Party.

[104] 17th and 20th June, 1945: Vol. II, p. 370-2.

[105] Letter to Sydney and Mungo Douglas, August 1945: Vol. II, p. 373.

[106] See Angus Calder, The People’s War (New York: Pantheon, 1969), esp. pp. 136-139.

[107] Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison were Labour leaders from humble backgrounds. They left school at 11 and 14 respectively.

[108] The Universal Constant in Living, pp. 183-88.

[109] Ibid. p. 184. It would have been interesting to hear Alexander defend this entirely questionable assertion.

[110] 8th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 11.

[111] Letter to Robert Best, 27th March 1947: Vol. II, p. 411.

[112] It is interesting that Alexander mentions the ‘school certificate’. Unlike the ‘old school tie’, typically a reference to expensive ‘public schools’ and thus the privileged elite, the school certificate reflects a level of secondary education attained by many attending state schools (this applies even if Alexander means to refer to the Higher School Certificate). It suggests considerable resentment against the educated middle class.

[113] E.g., letter to Lawrence Frank, 7th December 1938: Vol. I, pp. 49-50; letter to Ludwig Kast, 14th March 1939: Vol. I, pp. 56-7.

[114] Letter to Waldo Frank, 16th August 1936: Vol. I, p. 40.

[115] Letter to Mungo and Sydney Douglas, 18th March 1952: Vol. II, p. 495. True, perhaps, but clearly, from the perspective of a Sherrington or a Magnus, Alexander’s work is equally incomplete.

[116] Letter to Margaret Isherwood, 3rd November 1936: Vol. I, p. 42.

[117] Letter to Lawrence Frank, 7th December 1938: Vol. I, p. 50.

[118] Letter to Irene Tasker, 11th June 1939: Vol. I, p. 67. In reality, any ‘stealing’ of Coghill may have been the other way around. Helen Flanders Dunbar, the journal’s managing editor, had published Emotions and Bodily Change (New York: Columbia University Press) in 1935: it included an important section on ‘Integration and differentiation’ that drew on the work of Coghill and which, as far as I know, predates any reference to Coghill in the Alexander literature. (And, by contrast, the two issues of the newly launched journal published before Alexander’s letter contain no reference to Coghill.) Her widely reviewed book may have been responsible for stimulating interest in Coghill amongst the Alexander community. There is no reference to Alexander in her extensive bibliography or index, so she certainly manages to ‘cut her way around’ him: but perhaps this is justified by the criteria used by Dunbar in what is essentially a giant bibliography of literature relevant to psychosomatic medicine.

[119] 30th April 1939: Vol. I, p. 64, emphasis added.

[120] I treat ‘race’ as a socially-constructed category of biological difference that has no scientific value, but is harmful when it is treated as though it does have scientific value, hence the inverted commas. Where it is discussed as a social construct, as in the phrase ‘race thinking’, I omit the inverted commas.

[121] I use the phrase ‘people of colour’ in recognition of its wide usage, whilst recognising its downsides. I have used more specific terms such as ‘Black’ where possible. Discussions of the associated issues abound and can easily be retrieved from the world-wide web.

[122] As humans don’t fall into such neat groups, this occasions endless  debate amongst learned racists about appropriate groupings and demarcations.

[123] Robert J. C. Young, ‘Hybridism and the ethnicity of the English’ in Cultural readings of imperialism: Edward Said and the gravity of history, edited by Keith Ansell Pearson, Benita Parry, and Judith Squires (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1997), particularly pp. 141-43.

[124] Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998) p. 128.

[125] These are the best-known examples, but corresponding policies also affected ‘mixed-race’ people across most of the British Empire. Although the criteria applied were generally less strict and the policies generally—not always—less oppressive, they certainly deserve wider exposure than they seem to receive.

[126] Letter to Mungo and Sydney Douglas, 13th July 1943, Vol. II, p. 321.

[127] A further case in point is the section of ‘Scottish jokes’ produced by the children at the Little School in The Alexander Times. The Journal of the Little School. See Volume 1: 1929-1932, edited by Jean Fischer (London: Mouritz, 2017), pp. 106-114.

[128] Letter to Irene Tasker, 22nd October 1940: Vol. I, p. 121.

[129] See below under ‘Evolution’; there is also a patronising but essentially positive reference to Irene Tasker’s ‘little Jew friend’ (16th December 1940: Vol. I, p. 133).

[130] See for example reviews of his 1901 portrayal of Shylock, accessible at <> [accessed 14 September 2022].

[131] 11th February 1944: Vol. II, p. 333. It is likely, given Jones was teaching in the U.S.A., that ‘coloured’ means ‘Black’. It can be inferred here that Alexander himself has never taught a ‘coloured’ person such as Jones has mentioned.

[132] Letter to Irene Tasker, 30th October 1940: Vol. I, p.124;  letter to Walter Carrington, 5th December 1940: p. 131.

[133] The ‘brown monkeys’ slur (which is not indexed) actually occurs two years before Britain is at war with Japan (letter to Irene Tasker, 4th August 1939: Vol. I, p. 73); but at this point, Britain and Japan are in a high-stakes face-off over the Tientsin Incident.

[134] In relevant Wikipedia articles, there is no reference to the Japanese being characterised as ‘brown’: ‘Anti-Japanese sentiment’: <>; ‘List of ethnic slurs and epithets by ethnicity’: <> [both accessed 31 March 2022]; and a chapter-length academic study of ‘ape’ slurs against the Japanese makes no reference to ‘brown apes’: Susan C. Townsend, ‘The Yellow Monkey: Simianizing the Japanese’ in Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class, and Race, ed. by Wulf D. Hund, Charles W. Mills, and Silvia Sebastiani (Zurich: LIT, 2015).

[135] See Margaret Hodgen, The Doctrine of Survivals (London: Allenson, 1936), which explores the nineteenth century background of the idea.

[136] 29th January 1940: Vol. I, p. 89.

[137] 20th December 1936: Vol. I, p. 44. It isn’t clear whether there is any connection in the foregoing between Alexander’s comments about the ‘rhythmic manifestations’ of his (deliberately multi-continental?) selection of ‘dark races’ and the statements about ‘the ‘faculty’’; his letters do often change subject abruptly from one sentence to the next so that he may well be referring to some other ‘faculty’ mentioned in Isherwood’s letter rather than the faculty of ‘natural rhythmic movement’. But the text does flow on from the remarks about dance and with its theme of racial difference warrants inclusion here.

[138] 10th August 1939: Vol. I, p. 73.

[139] Hilda Kuper, The Swazi (New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1964). Ronald Hyam, in Britain’s Declining Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 373-86, documents the influence of traditional ways as Swaziland moved to independence in 1968.

[140] 28th April 1939: Vol. I, p. 63.

[141] ‘ … from the evolutionary standpoint the mental progress of these [savage black] races has not kept pace with their physical evolution.’ Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p. 45. In Man’s Supreme Inheritance, he also refers to ‘racial habit’ (p. 7). It could be argued that ‘custom’ alone is meant as the mechanism of transmission, but the phrasing here and in Man’s Supreme Inheritance suggests otherwise.

[142] For a general discussion, see Laura Otis, Organic Memory: History & the Body in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994). More specifically, see Farhad Dalal, ‘The racism of Jung’, Race and Class Vol. XXIX, No. 3 (1988); and for Freud, Celia Brickman, Race in Psychoanalysis: Aboriginal Populations in the Mind (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).

[143] 29th January 1939: Vol. I, p. 52.

[144] Man’s Supreme Inheritance, p. 99. In the light of points made earlier, note that Alexander’s ideas about reason superseding instincts and emotions in the individual reflect exactly contemporary ethical justifications for the imperial yoke over subject peoples, i.e. that they were incapable of ‘reasoning’ self-government.

[145] Letter to Marjory Barlow, 29th March 1943: Vol. II, p. 309. Here, again, his use of ‘we’ suggests a degree of sensitivity around the appropriateness of allowing a ‘debauch’ of ‘brutal instincts’.

[146] 11th October 1947: Vol. II, p. 421.

[147] Letters to Walter Carrington (6th January 1942) and Irene Tasker (7th January 1942): Vol. I, pp.183-5.

[148] 26th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 16.

[149] 30th March 1917: Vol. I, p. 17.

[150] They had separated permanently by 1929: Jackie Evans, Frederick Matthias Alexander - A Family History, p. 186.

[151]  27th March 1947: Vol. II, p. 411. An earlier letter to Robert Best mentions his forthcoming visit to see Stafford Cripps in action. The Commons debate can be read at <> [accessed 12 September 2022].

[152] Several letters show Alexander’s respect for Cripps, e.g. letter to Cripps 19th February 1942: Vol. I, p. 192.

[153] Cornwall Chronicle, 22 December 1871, p. 3, col. 2. This incident escapes the notice of Jackie Evans in her Family History, perhaps because the digitised newspaper archive was not available to her.

[154]  National Advocate (Bathurst, NSW)—17 June 1902, p. 2, in ‘Reviews and notices of F. M. Alexander’s theatre performances 1901-02. Part 2: 1902’, downloaded from <> [accessed 21 April 2022].

[155] Letter to Edith Alexander, 27th April 1917: Vol. I, p. 22.

[156] For a eulogy to the horse and its place in Alexander’s time, see Ulrich Raulff, Farewell to the Horse (UK: Allen Lane, 2017).

[157] 20th July 1952: Vol. II, p. 501.

[158] And after all, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As late as 1958, Gallup reported that only 4% of the American population approved of marriages between white and ‘coloured people’: it would be no surprise to find that Alexander shared such views ( [accessed 15 December 2022]).