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Archive by tag: Kathryn HughesReturn
May 20, 2022

The self-deceptions of a dangerous groomer unravel in a portrait that reassesses his life and writings

Giacomo Casanova, that serial seducer of Enlightenment Europe, liked to think of himself as providing a social service. Whether it was romping in a gondola, or making out with two women at the same time (sisters were good, mothers and daughters even better) or getting it on with a girl who was passing herself off as a castrato (cross-dressing excited him), he insisted on the right of everyone involved to experience pleasure. According to Histoire de Ma Vie, the monumental and hugely priapic autobiography that he left behind at his death in 1798, Casanova very seldom resorted to violence or coercion. The worst thing that any partner might complain of was a certain post-coital tristesse which lasted only until the next sexual encounter arrived to chase it away.

Veteran biographer Leo Damrosch knows just how dodgily self-deceiving all this sounds. It is hard to see how an adult man who often slept with very young girls (10 was the legal age of consent) could be read today as anything other than a paedophile. Casanova’s insistence that everything was consensual overlooks, or over-writes, the brutal power dynamics in play. While he didn’t generally sleep with sex workers, he often slept with girls who were being prostituted by their parents or their protectors in return for favours, promotion, social advantage or even just a heavy purse. Venereal disease – he refused to use a condom or, as he put it, “envelop myself in a dead skin” – was not just a hazard but could, on occasions, be weaponised. And when the inevitable happened and Casanova did sire children, he was careful to have nothing to do with them. On one occasion he ended up sleeping with his daughter Leonilda, who produced a baby boy who was, of course, also his grandson.

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May 12, 2022

The octogenarian playwright documents the baffling absurdities of lockdown with his usual flair

It is 16 August 2020 and Alan Bennett and his partner are on their customary evening walk. Given that 86-year-old Bennett is hobbled with arthritis, this is hardly an ambitious excursion – literally three minutes “round the block” of their north London street. Suddenly the windows fly open and neighbours start banging pots and clapping. Since he needs to lean heavily on his walking stick, Bennett is unable to join in, but he compensates by standing in the street and nodding enthusiastically. Until, that is, the horrible thought strikes him that it must look as if he is acknowledging the applause, perhaps even trying to generate it himself. To disavow this, he tries shaking his head, “but this just looks like modesty”.

It is a typical Bennett moment, part gentle social comedy part revelation about the self-delusions of the ego. It probably never occurred to the hollering neighbours that their joyful noise for the NHS might be misconstrued as directed at one elderly, slightly famous playwright. Bennett’s diaries, which he has been publishing since the early 1980s, are full of these “absurd and inexplicable” moments.

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Apr 27, 2022

From ancient China to Marilyn Monroe – this fascinating history celebrates the joy of ‘bookhood’

One of the most familiar visual tropes to emerge from the pandemic has been that of Serious People seated in front of their bookshelves. Whether it’s a cabinet minister on television or an accountant working from home, the poetics of Zoom insist on a backdrop of titles composed of equal parts stuffy professional manual, well‑thumbed Penguin Classic and, for those who like to raise the stakes, last year’s International Booker prize shortlist. Books don’t just furnish a room, they semaphore to the world exactly how you yourself would like to be read.

In this brilliantly written account of the book-as-material-object, Emma Smith explains that people have been posing in front of their libraries ever since Gutenberg started cranking up the printing press. Before, in fact: one of her earliest revelations is that people in China and Korea were printing books several centuries before sluggish northern Europe got round to it. Still, one of the most deft proponents of the early “shelfie” was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, also known as Madame de Pompadour, companion of Louis XV. In the 1750s, when Jeanne was making the tricky move from maîtresse-en-titre to femme savante, she enrolled her favourite painter, François Boucher, to manage the transformation. From now on he was to paint her either against a backdrop of crammed bookshelves or, better still, actually reading a book and looking thoughtful about it.

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Apr 20, 2022

How modern literary criticism came to be – with a little help from TS Eliot, FR Leavis, Raymond Williams and others

In a famous experiment from the late 1920s, IA Richards set his Cambridge students the task of reading a series of short, anonymous literary extracts. They were asked to pay minute attention to rhythm, sound, tone, texture and syntax before attempting to date each text. Richards conceived this Practical Criticism, as the methodology came to be called, as a tough-minded challenge to what had hitherto passed as literary criticism. In the prewar period, university professors were apt to make vague aesthetic judgments about a book’s “beauty” or “soul” before lobbing in a few comments about the author’s mother or the publishing practices of the time. Richards’s students, by contrast, were asked to exclude all such background blather in favour of what they could deduce from the words on the page.

In this exhilarating book, Terry Eagleton describes the sea change in literary criticism that occurred between the two world wars. The five intellectuals he concentrates on here are inevitably male – as well as Richards, there is TS Eliot, William Empson, FR Leavis and Raymond Williams – since Cambridge, the university with which they were all connected, was not particularly welcoming to female academics. Or, indeed, to anyone at all: most of the time these men appeared to dislike each other intensely and enjoyed saying so. Indeed, Eagleton’s great achievement here is to look beyond the scrim of five tricky personalities to identify the continuities in their work, which added up to a revolution in the way that people – not just professional academics, but the whole community of readers throughout the English-speaking world – thought and talked about books.

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Apr 06, 2022

Far from being ‘years of conformity and depression’, the 50s saw radicals in race, sexuality and activism break new ground

The 1950s have not had a good press. In the US the decade has long been synonymous with a retreat to political and social conservatism following the upheaval of the second world war. Senator McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities is the obvious example here, but there are many more. Women who had taken men’s jobs during the hostilities reconvened in dormitory suburbs to nest, wear pointy bras and full skirts and raise the next generation of patriotic Americans. Black servicemen who had fought alongside their white compatriots in Europe found themselves returning to a segregated south where they were required to sit at the back of the bus. The 50s, or to be more exact the period from 1946 to 1963, marked what Norman Mailer dubbed at the time the “years of conformity and depression”.

Except it didn’t, or at least not for everyone. As James Gaines shows in this revelatory study, beneath the Pleasantville surface of postwar America there churned all manner of resentment and refusal. Everywhere he looks, Gaines finds individuals who insisted on marching to their own drum, even when that brought them into direct and even dangerous conflict with the newly oppressive status quo. In the process, he sheds light on a whole range of underground movements tackling everything from race relations to working-class feminism by way of non-binary sexuality.

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Mar 19, 2022

The final volume of biography by Richardson, who died before finishing it, is a thrilling survey of Picasso’s surrealist era

John Richardson opens the final (fourth) volume of his magisterial biography of Pablo Picasso with the artist in more than usual disarray. The year is 1933 and, while his celebrity and his wealth are unassailable, Picasso’s marriage to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova has entered its bitter endgame. Meanwhile, his relationship with maîtresse-en-titre Marie-Thérèse Walter, tucked away in the country, is beginning to pall even before it has properly hit its stride. Waiting in the wings is Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer who will dominate Picasso’s life, mostly painfully, for the next eight years.

Richardson shows himself as deft as ever at making connections between Picasso’s tumultuous private life and his art. The increasingly despised Olga appears in a series of nightmare images – as a hideously toothy horse, as a wonky ballerina straining to hold her arms above her head and, worst of all, as a disappointed bride whose veil is slipping off the end of her nose. Earth mother Marie-Thérèse, meanwhile, is transposed into what Richardson describes as “a kinky cluster of boxed vaginas, beehive breasts, and turdlike fingers”. Then there is glamorous Dora, depicted famously in The Weeping Woman with a green face, stringy hair and sausage fingers. As Richardson pithily puts it: “Picasso Picassified people.”

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Feb 25, 2022

The Sassoons’ business empire once straddled the world, but later generations lacked the drive to keep it going

By the end of the 19th century, the Sassoon family were regularly referred to as “the Rothschilds of the East”. This wasn’t just lazy, it was wrong. For one thing the Sassoons’ interests and influence stretched right around the world from Shanghai via Bombay, London and Lancashire, all the way to the Atlantic coastal plain of the United States. Then there was the fact that, unlike the Rothschilds, the Sassoons were not bankers but traders, specialising in opium, cotton and oil. What perhaps the late Victorians really meant when they compared the Sassoons to the Rothschilds was simply this: they were very rich and they were Jewish, a combination that conjured ambivalent feelings not just in “polite” society through which antisemitism flowed like a subterranean river but, over time, in the Sassoons themselves.

Joseph Sassoon, who is a descendant of the dynasty’s founder David, believes that it was his family’s experience as serial immigrants that drove their success and explains their decline. Their original role as treasurers to the pashas of Baghdad meant that they seamlessly acquired the Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew and Persian that equipped them to do business throughout the vast Ottoman empire. When in 1828 they were forced to flee to Bombay as a result of a pogrom, they quickly added Hindustani to their repertoire and settled down to rebuild their lives, using their tried and tested methods of exemplary ethics and ferocious hard work.

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Feb 03, 2022

A compelling study of celebrates the working class pioneers of female emancipation who have been overlooked

In 1822 Susannah Wright stood before the Lord Chief Justice accused of blasphemy. Despite her limited education, she was determined to conduct her own defence and duly began to read out a carefully prepared statement. Her “blasphemy” had nothing to do with being a potty mouth. Rather, Susannah was found guilty of selling a pamphlet that challenged the right of the Established Church to meddle in secular matters. Infuriated by the effrontery of this young lacemaker from Nottingham, the judge attempted to cut her off. Sharply, she told him to be quiet: “You, sir, are paid to hear me.”

It is a thrilling moment. It is also, suggests Nan Sloane, one that deserves to be far better known. The same goes for the many other occasions on which working-class women dared to speak truth to power during the first third of the 19th century, a time of bitter unrest when it looked as though Great Britain might follow France and America into revolution. There is, for instance, Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood on the hustings alongside Henry Hunt at Peterloo in 1819 and only narrowly escaped death in the state-sanctioned carnage that followed. Or Jane Carlile who, like Susannah Wright, was found guilty of blasphemy for selling her husband’s newspaper The Republican, and was sentenced to two years inside Dorchester prison with her newborn baby.

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Feb 02, 2022

Despite controversy surrounding its findings, the work of a ‘cold case team’ powerfully illuminates what it was like to live under a genocidal regime

On 4 August 1944 Gestapo officer Karl Josef Silberbauer, together with three Dutch policemen, marched into a spice merchant’s on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht and demanded: “Where are the Jews?” It was a piercing moment in 20th-century history, one that never becomes dulled by retelling. Within minutes Silberbauer and his accomplices had located a dummy bookshelf, behind which lay a secret suite of rooms where two families had been hiding for two years. Placed under arrest, these eight men and women were subsequently sent to concentration camps in the east from which only one, the business’s owner, Otto Frank, returned.

We know all this because one of Frank’s first postwar acts was to publish the journal that his 15-year-old daughter had kept during their immuration. The Diary of Anne Frank became a canonical text, one of the few accounts we have of living through Hitler’s Final Solution in real time. And it is Anne’s face – peaky, clever, ferociously alive – that has become the emblem of all the evil unleashed by antisemitism in Europe’s terrible mid-century. Yet despite the story being so familiar, there is one detail that remains a mystery. Who tipped off the authorities that there were people hiding at the back of Prinsengracht 263?

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Jan 20, 2022

Following five materials through history, this richly evocative study exposes past snobberies and contemporary exploitation

People have always dressed above their station, and other people have always minded terribly. In 1913 the American reformer Bertha June Richardson was taken aback to discover that the girls whom she encountered in the New York tenements looked smarter than she did, with “everything about them in the latest style”. Unlike many of her pursed-lipped contemporaries, though, Richardson worked hard to understand what was really going on. The Smith graduate and author of The Woman Who Spends: A Study of Her Economic Function, concluded that these immigrant girls, many of them earning no more than $6 a week in the rag trade, were enacting their particular version of the American dream, one silk petticoat and puffy sleeve at a time.

One of the great pleasures of this panoramic history of getting dressed is Sofi Thanhauser’s ability to spot moments like these where human desire and material culture collide. When Molière wrote The Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670 about a burgher whose ambition to rise into the nobility requires him to get some fancy new outfits, audience members got the joke because they knew someone just like that and it was a relief, finally, to be allowed to snigger. A century later the script was flipped when Marie Antoinette attempted a bit of cross-class cosplay of her own. Enthralled by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s back-to-nature philosophy, the queen built her own toy farm in the grounds of Versailles and started a fashion for peasant costume among the ladies of her court. Not only was impersonating Bo Peep in the Hall of Mirrors a tone-deaf move, it decimated the domestic silk industry, throwing hundreds of Lyonnais artisans out of work. Without meaning to, the queen’s newfound passion for imported white muslin brought her a step or two closer to the guillotine.

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Dec 09, 2021

Whether capturing his fractured home life or the wider political currents of the time, this is an expert analysis of the Belgian artist’s life

Given the ubiquity of René Magritte’s images in our culture it is a shock to learn that no one was interested in the Belgian surrealist until it was almost too late. All those bowler-hatted men with occluded faces, the pipe that isn’t a pipe, the giant apples and the looming clouds were hard to like and difficult to sell until 1965, when a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York put him explosively on the map. Suddenly everyone from Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to a young Ed Ruscha couldn’t get enough of Magritte’s visual teases, linguistic puzzles and deadpan affect, which made banal objects – combs, matchsticks, bird cages – at once uncanny and irresistible. And still his reign continues: we are all Magrittians now, whether we know it or not, automatically decoding puzzles of space and scale presented to us in the countless advertisements and other commercial art that remains saturated by his hi-lo sensibility.

Magritte only had two years left to live by the time of the MoMA show, dying in Brussels in 1967 in the “villa” he had commissioned from an architect using his late-burgeoning fortune. He and his wife Georgette were very particular about having wall-to-wall carpeting. These dull, bourgeois touches are important, since the received narrative about Magritte’s life has always been that, in contrast to his shocking and sometimes pornographic imagination (one of his most famous works shows a woman’s naked body cut into pieces), his life was one of almost parodic respectability. He stayed married to the woman he had met when he was 14, invariably wore a suit like one of the men in his pictures, and took the dog (which was always called Loulou) for its walk at the same time every day. Alex Danchev suggests that Magritte’s rigid scheduling and besuited self-presentation may have provided a model for our own Gilbert and George.

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Jul 28, 2021

From snake-oil salesmen to the origins of the mermaid – why people lie, and why we always want to believe

At about the age of 18 months babies start to get sneaky. They hide food they don’t like and go in for bouts of fake crying. In other words, they have learned that reality, far from being set in stone, is something that can be performed, tinkered with or even made to disappear completely. This, suggests Aja Raden, is the great foundational moment of life, indeed of all our lives. From now on we spend our time tiptoeing along the boundary between true and false, with a dizzying sense of how little there is to choose between them.

From here Raden takes us on a whistle-stop tour of hoaxes and cons. She’s not talking here about little fibs, the grownup version of hiding your spinach under your plate, but rather the swaggery whoppers that are capable of bringing down a whole peer group. Something like the Bernie Madoff scandal, a long con that lasted three decades and involved a lot of very rich people believing a criminal when he promised to make them even richer, without explaining how. In effect, and on Madoff’s own eventual admission, he was running a $65bn pyramid scheme, which used the money from new investors to pay off the marks who had been in the game for longer. All fine and dandy until the day came when he ran out of fresh meat and the whole wonky structure came tumbling down.

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Jul 24, 2021

From Henry VIII on his charger to the sex symbol Michael Caine, this close-up history of glasses illuminates their special kind of cool

It turns out that all those stereotypes about people who wear glasses being clever, clumsy and a bit standoffish have their basis in something solid. During the dark ages, when everyone was blundering around with uncorrected vision, the myopes were rotten at finding their place in the world. Literally, they set off on the wrong path, never noticed when a wolf was waiting to pounce and were apt to lunge their sword at the wrong person. This put them at a distinct disadvantage. Not being able to lead the boar hunt, or failing to bow to a nobleman from the other side of the great hall, marked you out as an oik. The safest place was in the library where you could spend your days effortlessly scanning pages of monkish swirl and even having a go at adding some of your own. From then on, swottery and short-sightedness were soldered together in the cultural imagination.

Even once myopes started acquiring glasses during the late medieval period, many of these functional deficits remained. As soon becomes apparent in Travis Elborough’s brilliantly enjoyable survey on eyewear, short-sighted people didn’t suddenly acquire glasses and start morphing into party people and hawk-eyed hunters. Early glasses were beta-ish in the extreme, nothing more than a couple of bottle-thick lenses haphazardly tacked together with leather string or, if you were feeling fancy, gold wire. No one had yet noticed how useful ears could be and so, instead of having side arms, lenses were more likely to be attached to a band around the head or stuck on a stick and held up as a lorgnette. The first made you look like a doctor from a Leo Cullum New Yorker cartoon, the second like an effete French aristo about to have their head chopped off.

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Jul 07, 2021

Twelve stories of magnificent – if not moral - lives recall the fun and fizz of an unjustly overlooked period of British history

The way Robert Peal describes Georgian England, you’d be mad not to want to live there yourself. In “Merrie Englande” – he uses the term without irony and a fair shot of wistfulness – everyone is high on a trifecta of chocolate, sugar and gin. No one seems cross, although there must have been some almighty hangovers, and sex sounds polymorphous and unproblematic. In the period known as the long 18th century, suggests Peal in his euphoric introduction, you could love any way you chose, get giddy on spirits and dress in a positive rainbow of new colours imported from Britain’s nascent empire. Religion, moreover, was reasonable and unflustered by sin.

Peal knows it’s not really like this of course – in the 18th century most people couldn’t afford sugar, homosexuals were hanged and John Wesley founded Methodism in order to make people feel guilty about absolutely everything. Still, Peal’s aim in this avowedly populist book is to rescue the Georgians from collective cultural amnesia. For some reason we tend not to do them at school, jumping instead from one puritan to another, Oliver Cromwell to Queen Victoria. Nor do they crop up much in historical novels and costume dramas, ceding instead either to the Tudors (Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory) or the neo-gothic (Sarah Waters, Susanna Clarke). Editors of popular history magazines will tell you confidentially that putting a Georgian on the front cover, as opposed to a Plantagenet or a Nazi, just doesn’t shift copies. They are not what you’d call catchy.

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Jun 12, 2021

More than 150 years after Henry Mayhew’s revelatory survey of the capital’s poor, this collection of stories shows that too little has changed

In 1861 the journalist Henry Mayhew completed London Labour and the London Poor, a sprawling, four-volume account of life on the streets and on the skids. Here, for the first time, was first-person testimony from the kind of people who were usually nothing more than a silent smudge on Victorian England’s field of vision: street-sweepers and shit-collectors; sellers of wilted fruit, rotten fish and children’s bodies; beggars and beadles. Reviewing it, William Makepeace Thackeray called Mayhew’s revelatory masterpiece “a terror of tale and wonder”. Charles Dickens, famously, used Mayhew’s database of voices and experiences as a source book for peopling the odd, dark corners of his novels.

At the end of 2018 Jennifer Kavanagh set out to do a Mayhew for our own broken times. With notebook and recorder in hand, she has tramped her native city, talking to the men and women who live and work on its streets. What is at once striking is how little has changed in the intervening 160 years. There are still street sweepers, fruit sellers and even beadles (private security guards by another name). Many people are dependent on an economy of salvaging and repurposing. At night, as lucky Londoners head for their beds, thousands of others make do with the pavement. Food is still the kind that you can hold in your fingers and eat with minimal cutlery, but instead of trotters and hot potatoes it’s more likely to be a late-in-the-day sandwich. There are as many soup kitchens and flop houses as ever.

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May 19, 2021

Julia Copus captures the hard times and brilliance of an impoverished, independent woman who was ‘the greatest poetess’ Hardy ever knew

Whenever someone mentions Charlotte Mew, they feel obliged to add context. The fact that Thomas Hardy said she was the “greatest poetess” he knew, or that Siegfried Sassoon maintained she was “the only poet who can give me a lump in my throat”. Even Virginia Woolf conceded that Mew, who wrote short stories and essays as well as verse, was “very good and interesting and quite unlike anyone else”. Walter de la Mare, trying hard to define the source of Mew’s power, ventured “she just knows humanity”.

The reason why any account of Mew, including this fine biography by Julia Copus, feels obliged to begin by bigging her up is precisely because she has so often been done down. Even during her lifetime Mew’s name was familiar only to those who lived and breathed contemporary literature, the kind of people who frequented the Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury and waited impatiently for the next issue of the Poetry Review. For these readers Mew’s “The Farmer’s Bride” (1912) was nothing short of a punch to the gut and a slap on the ear, and all in a good way. The poem is a dramatic monologue in which an unschooled farmer laments the refusal of his child bride to respond to his physical and emotional expectations. Mew gives us both the farmer’s bumbling cruelty and the girl’s blind terror as she slips away “shy as a leveret” across the fertile fields. “The Farmer’s Bride” feels as old as the hills yet startlingly new, with its balladry, mixed-up metre and long, wayward lines.

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May 05, 2021

A revelatory biography of the Bloomsbury outsider and influential critic who championed modern art

One day when he was looking along his bookshelves, Mark Hussey realised that they contained no biography of Clive Bell. You can see why it would strike the distinguished Bloomsbury scholar as odd. Over the past 50 years a veritable industry of gossipy life-writing has grown up around even the most minor denizens of early-20th-century WC1, to the point where someone who danced with a man who danced with a woman who danced with Leonard Woolf (assuming Woolf ever kicked up his heels) can boast at least two fat biographies bristling with footnotes.

So why is Bell so Lifeless? After all, he belongs to the innermost circle of Bloomsbury, being both married to Vanessa Stephen and, unusual in a culture that made a point of not worrying what others thought, addicted to public utterance. Indeed, for many years Bell was a fixture in the press, at opening nights and, later, on the Third Programme at the newly minted BBC. While his family and friends wrote, painted, danced and bedded their way into the 20th century, it was Bell’s job to explain to the world just what they were doing and why it mattered.

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Apr 23, 2021

A scrupulous account of the brilliance and family tragedy that lies behind Kipling’s joyful collection of animal stories

Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories are often described, O Best Beloved, as creation myths. In 13 tales, more varied in tone and shape than most grownups ever quite remember, Kipling explains how the elephant got his trunk, the leopard his spots and the rhinoceros his saggy, baggy skin. The stories appeared in their final form in 1902 when Kipling was 36 and already a literary star, thanks to the success of Kim and The Jungle Book, both of which drew heavily on his Indian childhood to tell fables of social and emotional maturation. Now here he was, circling back to the shorter forms with which he had started his career, most obviously in his breakthrough collection Plain Tales from the Hills, assembled when he was working as a cub journalist in Lahore in the 1880s.

In this origin story of origins stories, John Batchelor sets out to explain the genesis of Just So. The first three tales – concerning the whale, the camel and the rhinoceros – were conceived as bedtime performances for Kipling’s eldest child, Josephine, and published initially in an American children’s magazine in the 1890s. It is “Effie” who wanted things “just so” in the way that small listeners often do. If her father changed the rhythm, or swapped a word, let alone altered the ending, she would insist that he correct his course until everything was as it was before. From here the phrase “just-so story” came to be used by evolutionary biologists in the 1960s to describe a fictional or fantastical origin yarn that politely yet stubbornly resisted rational challenge. It is so because I say so, O Best Beloved.

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Apr 16, 2021

Adventures in Siberia, in the Nile Valley and on Easter Island ... but these female pioneers faced prejudice and tragedy at home

When Maria Czaplicka first encountered the indigenous hunters and herders of northern Siberia it wasn’t clear who was doing anthropology on whom. The Oxford-based scholar had spent much of 1914 sledging over the Arctic steppes to reach the Evenks in order to ask them about their kinship structures, marriage customs and the right way to eat a reindeer. They in turn wanted to know which tundra she had come from and how she made a living without any fox skins to trade. And why did such a young person have such old hair (her blondness struck them as the grey of middle age), and then, the question that women still get: where were her children? The queries that hurtled back and forth were fearless but fertile and produced the rich data that Czaplicka marshalled so brilliantly in My Siberian Year (1916), the hit book that she published on her return to Britain.

It sounds as though Czaplicka was poised for success, if not celebrity. And yet, as Frances Larson explains in this enthralling group biography, the first generation of professional female anthropologists faced far more prejudice back home than they ever did out in the field. Funding, career progression, access to academic publishing (My Siberian Year was actually brought out by Mills & Boon) all remained tantalisingly out of reach. While it’s true that in 1916 Czaplicka was appointed Oxford’s first female lecturer in anthropology, it was made clear that she was to keep the post warm until the right man came home from the war. Obliged to move to Bristol University , the final straw came in 1921 when the Polish-born scholar failed to win a fellowship that would have allowed her to return to Siberia. Exhausted after years of begging and scraping together money for her field work, the 36-year-old downed five fatal pills of mercuric chloride.

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Apr 07, 2021

This excellent cradle-to-grave biography of a much loved novelist who goes in and out of fashion captures her alarming habits and tormented love affairs

In 1971 the author Barbara Pym was at her day job at the International African Institute when she noticed “Mr C” laboriously attacking his lunchtime sandwich with a knife and fork. Pym made a mental note of the detail before asking herself ruefully, “Oh why can’t I write about things like that any more – why is this kind of thing no longer acceptable?” Ten years earlier, Jonathan Cape had dumped her after her sixth book on the grounds that her brand of anthropological observation of English social manners was old lady-ish, dull and didn’t sell. As an extra humiliation, no other publishing house had been interested in picking up Miss Pym: books built on “the daily round of trivial things” could hardly compete with Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal or, if you were feeling fancy, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Jonathan Cape had even published John Lennon (Pym liked the Beatles, but still). Clearly there was no place in contemporary literature for Mr C and his oddly formal way with a sandwich.

There is nothing unusual about major minor novelists having a disappointing and disproportionate decline, followed by a posthumous flowering in reputation and sales. What’s unusual about Pym is that her phoenix moment came while she was still alive. In 1977 the Times Literary Supplement asked well-known writers and critics to nominate their most underappreciated novelist of the past 75 years. Only one person was mentioned twice – by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil – and that was Pym. As a result, Cape said that it would be delighted to publish her future books (too late, she explained: she’d just signed with Macmillan); Roy Plomley wanted her for Desert Island Discs; John Updike couldn’t say enough nice things about her in the New Yorker. Best of all, the Booker prize judges shortlisted her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, her first to appear for 16 years.

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Mar 12, 2021

Sex, scandal, kinks and queens … edited by Simon Heffer, these interwar diaries by the Tory MP are a masterpiece of storytelling and character assassination

“What is more dull than a discreet diary? One might as well have a dull soul,” wrote Henry “Chips” Channon in his journal for 25 July 1935. The question was rhetorical at this point, but it’s clear that he already had his future readers in mind. Channon knew he was as good as Pepys, and he had an inkling that it was his diary – rather than his not-very-good novels and his not-very-stellar Westminster career – that would be the key to the enduring fame he craved. A year later he reflects that it is never the goody two-shoes reformer-types whose names go down in history, but the “beaux”. And it is among the “beaux” – the sparkly, charming, lovely ones – that Channon is sure that he and his diary belong.

Like Pepys, who doubled up as secretary to the navy, Channon was an outsider-insider. While his adult life was spent thrillingly among the high-ups – “I’m only happy really with royalty” – his origins were relatively modest. He was born in Chicago in 1897 (although he consistently claimed to be two years younger) to a father who had made a fortune from a fleet of vessels ploughing the Great Lakes. He could write about the upper class so well because he hadn’t been born into even the American version of it. He remained constantly amazed that his wife, Lady Honor Guinness, the brewing heiress, was oblivious to everything that galvanised him – a purloined tiara, a froideur between two duchesses, a debutante getting chubby, a vacuum flask given as a wedding present (common, apparently). Channon shared Pepys’s sexually exhibitionist streak too. While the secretary for the navy had been known to get jiggy in church pews, Chips found himself bent over the altar rail, trousers down, being spanked by an elderly churchman who had a crush on him.

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Feb 24, 2021

A portrait of the poet and ‘public prophet’ spotlights her entanglements with empire and race but doesn’t neglect the schlockier pleasures of biographical speculation

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” asked Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1850, unwittingly turning herself from one of Britain’s pre-eminent poets into a Valentine’s card fixture. It wasn’t just the words, which are still lovely, but the way they tend to be read in conjunction with the story of her clandestine courtship by fellow-poet Robert Browning. In 1846, after a year and a half of epistolary romance and secret meetings, young Browning famously burst into the 40-year-old’s London sickroom and whisked her to Italy and a new life of sunshine, sex and lyric poetry.

Of course, this biographical reading would have appalled Browning, who spent a career trying to break the automatic identification between the “I” of the poem and the “me” of the poet. Chances are such a reductive approach would have unsettled Barrett Browning too. She saw herself as a public prophet rather than as what she scathingly called a “fair writer”. Her first publication as a precocious 14-year-old had been an account of the Battle of Marathon, and she went on to tackle big, gnarly subjects including the iniquity of laissez-faire capitalism (“The Cry of the Children”) and the struggle of Italy for political self-determination (“Casa Guidi Windows”). These days we forget that when Wordsworth died in 1850 it was Barrett, rather than Tennyson, who was most often mentioned as the next poet laureate.

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Feb 06, 2021

The Beatles, the pill, the Profumo affair ... how British morals thawed as the snowdrifts got higher

On Boxing Day 1962 it began to snow and didn’t stop for the next 10 weeks. In effect, Britain had entered its own little ice age. There were drifts 23ft high on the Kent-Sussex border, while Stonehenge was buried so deeply that it was almost invisible when viewed from the sky. Icebergs entered the River Medway and, inland, icicles hung from the trees. The upper middle classes dug out their skis, while everyone else experimented with bits of corrugated iron strapped to their feet. A milkman died at the wheel of his float in Essex while indoor laundry froze before it could dry, so that next week’s vests and pants stood rigidly to attention before the kitchen fire. Someone had calculated that the last time it had been this cold was 1814, the year before Napoleon met his Waterloo.

Meanwhile eight-year-old Juliet Nicolson divides her time between the King’s Road, where she lives with her unhappy parents, and Sissinghurst, the Kentish stately home recently bequeathed by her grandmother Vita Sackville-West. Vita’s widower, Harold Nicolson, haunts the beautiful old place in his own cloud of freezing damp, alternately sobbing aloud and snubbing his grandchildren. Back in Chelsea there is the excitement of having to queue at the standpipe for water, since all the indoor pipes have burst.

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Jan 22, 2021

When friends mean less than plots ... a flawed portrayal of the noir novelist as a figure bordering on the grotesque

In middle age Patricia Highsmith perfected a particularly ghastly party trick. Invited to a swanky London dinner, she arrived with 30 “pet” snails in her handbag which she proceeded to tip out on to the table. The snails immediately started their determined looping across the linen tablecloth, leaving behind a lattice of silvery slime. Everyone, including Highsmith herself, pretended not to notice.

If Highsmith were simply a sociopathic alcoholic, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that she was, then this anecdote would be picturesque but not important. What makes it matter is the way it captures the uncanny menace at the heart of her most successful novels, Strangers on a Train (1951) and The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). There’s nothing intrinsically evil about snails, handbags, linen tablecloths or even swish dinner parties. But put them in the right, or rather wrong, order and you have the kind of insidious nightmare that becomes impossible to shake off. Graham Greene, an early fan of Highsmith’s, described her as “the poet of apprehension”. You could not read her, he said, without constantly checking over your shoulder.

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Dec 22, 2020

A welcome reissue of Diane Johnson’s spirited book, which centres on a woman who was more than the daughter of Thomas Love Peacock and the wife of a famous novelist

Fifty years ago biography wasn’t much interested in people like Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith. Her life was deemed “lesser”, although of course it didn’t feel like that to her. Born in 1821 to the poet Thomas Love Peacock, as a little girl she had bobbed in the shallows of second generation Romantic culture. Her dad had a lock of Shelley’s hair, and the family lived in North Wales, which was craggy enough to pass as “sublime”. Her mother, a local Welsh girl, went mad and joined that distinguished club of literary wives who were confined to an asylum. Mary would grow up to marry the novelist George Meredith, whose great masterworks Modern Love (1862) and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) are generally agreed to be a forensic account of their mutual misery.

Everything was in place, then, for Mary to become a perfectly serviceable footnote in other peoples’ stories. But in 1972 an American writer called Diane Johnson decided that this really wouldn’t do. Second wave feminism was beginning to throw the spotlight on all those over-looked women who had been “hidden from history”, especially literary history. Perhaps they’d been omitted because someone had decided, on no particular authority, that their poems or novels weren’t very good; maybe they’d been overshadowed by the men in their life who spoke or wrote with a louder voice. Finally, there was that select sub-group who had been redacted from the record simply because they were “bad” women about whom the less said the better. Mary fell into the latter thrilling camp.

In this short, spirited book Johnson sets about to rescue Mary from history’s purse-lipped amnesia. She gives us a stirring tale of a headstrong girl, brought up under the old licence of the 18th century but obliged to knuckle down to the stern realities of the new Victorian age. Except Mary never did. After all, a woman who jots down in her Commonplace book that “the wicked are in earnest and the good are lukewarm”, has what you might call an interesting point of view. Having recklessly married a dashing young naval officer who died saving someone else’s life, Mary Peacock found herself on the receiving end of an adolescent crush by the younger novelist George Meredith. She married him by mistake and then left him for the artist Henry Wallis, the painter of The Death of Chatterton (1856), that stunning oil painting which has been read as a eulogy for the extended Romantic age. Just to make it all weirder, the model for the sprawled-out poet-suicide Chatterton was none other than George Meredith.

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