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. Continue reading...
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. Continue reading...
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.
Dec 12, 2020
Essays that test the boundaries of our relationships with animals and, above all, birds
In the introduction to this collection of 41 “new and collected essays”, Helen Macdonald suggests that we think of her book as a Wunderkammer – one of those ornately constructed cabinets of curiosities that became so fashionable from the 16th century onwards. In each cubbyhole you would find a natural or man-made object that was placed with no regard to formal classification. The pleasure came instead from spotting continuities and distinctions between unlikely neighbours – an enamel miniature next to a feather, a miniature musical instrument adjacent to a piece of coral. Macdonald hopes her essays might function in the same idiosyncratic way, although she suggests a more literal translation of Wunderkammer. Rather than a collection powered by “curiosity”, with its greedy needing-to-know, she prefers “wonder” which speaks instead of receptive rapture.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Macdonald’s work feels passive or diffuse. One of the great pleasures in this collection of pieces is seeing how determinedly she picks away at conundrums first encountered in H Is for Hawk, her hugely successful memoir of 2014. At the heart of that book lay her attempt to escape the messy world of human grief by training a falcon to soar above the earth as her beastly proxy. Macdonald is still testing the possibility of crossing the species barrier. On one occasion, while working in a falcon-breeding centre in Wales, she clucks softly at an incubating egg and weeps when the tiny grey gremlin inside the shell calls back. Another, fiercer, time she goes gonzo, smears her face with mud and crawls on her belly in an attempt to infiltrate a field of bullocks. Continue reading...
Dec 07, 2020
Ann Pasternak Slater has written a partial account of the life of Vivien Eliot in which her famous husband’s behaviour is always tip-top
By the end of this exhaustive and exhausting book I felt as though I had myself been married to Vivien Eliot and barely survived to tell the tale. Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater spares us no squalid detail about TS Eliot’s infamous first wife, the “madwoman” whom the author of The Murder in the Cathedral was obliged to keep hidden not in his attic but in Northumberland House, an Italianate country house asylum in suburban north London. Before the Eliots reached that point of relative stasis in 1938 though, he (and we) have to get through two decades of a relationship that Eliot himself famously described as “utter hell”. Prepare yourself for nearly 800 pages of emotional mayhem, including (but not limited to) hysterical laughter, fake letters, ruinous medical bills, explosive diarrhoea, bloody bedsheets and some really terrifying road trips (the driving test had yet to be invented and neither Eliot was exactly a natural behind the wheel).
None of this is new and most of it will be familiar to the reader of the monumental The Letters of TS Eliot. What Pasternak Slater has done is, in her own words, “pick out a coherent narrative” from this sea of material, to which is added Vivien’s own writings, published here for the first time, with her journals, which have been digitised by the Bodleian library and are now available online. Pasternak Slater will, she promises, be “objective” and shun all “conjecture” and contemporary gossip (unless it comes from Virginia Woolf, who is just too funny to be excluded). All this sounds eminently sensible, bordering indeed on the radical impersonality that was such a key component of Eliot’s own thinking about art. Continue reading...
Nov 18, 2020
Drinking wine aged 10, endless parties and so many women ... a fine novelist who preferred good times to writing
The novelist Sybille Bedford is the patron saint of writers who hate writing. She described the actual act as “tearing, crushing, defeating agony” and filled her journal for 1949 with despairing accounts of “Thinking – Dawdling – Dreaming – Fiddling”, ending always with an accusatory blank page. Sometimes she tried to trick her muse by practising typing exercises, but even her typewriter seemed to get wise to this and she was left feeling “sick with disgust, discouragement, heaviness”. She used drink and drugs to jolly herself into a more productive state of mind, but in the end found that only weak black tea did the trick.
Even then her struggles weren’t over. Seven years after those punishing diary entries, Bedford finally published her first novel, A Legacy, based on her own family history of the late 19th century, but said she could only look at it with a shudder – “that ogre, that snail novel”. The fact that Evelyn Waugh hailed 48-year-old Bedford in the Spectator as a “new writer of remarkable accomplishment” wasn’t enough to get her going again. It took 30 years for her to produce a sequel, the intensely autobiographical Jigsaw. This time, and by now pushing 80, Bedford was nominated for the Booker. Continue reading...
Nov 03, 2020
Lockdown binges, craft gin and ‘kitchen suppers’ ... a terrific history, in bite-sized chunks, of how food and drink relates to social status
During peak lockdown you couldn’t move for stories about furloughed professionals filling their empty days with heroic bouts of home baking. Deliveroo couriers, by contrast, were pictured stuffing down Wispas while chasing their next scrap of paid work. Obesity, already understood as a consequence of economic and cultural deprivation, gained a new terror with the discovery that overweight people were 50% more likely to die of the virus. And now there’s a new twist to the story of food privilege with the revelation that 70% of our immune system lives in our guts. For those who can afford it, pricey probiotics have become a staple ingredient in the Covid-era kitchen.
Nothing about this story of food inequality would come as a surprise to Pen Vogler, who sets out to show how the relationship between class and food was baked into Britain from the beginning. Her title, Scoff, plays on two meanings, the first being to chow down and fill your boots with whatever good things come your way, while the second means to mock or negate another person’s way of life – their taste, in other words. In Vogler’s rich survey these two meanings weave around each other as she offers a series of bite-sized chunks on the social status of everything from gingerbread to veal, fish and chips to quince. Continue reading...
Sep 30, 2020
Objects flying, doors slamming and a terrapin appearing out of thin air ... in her best book since The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the author tackles the strange case of a 1930s poltergeist
In the late 1930s something strange was happening in the semis and terraces of suburban Britain. Tables bucked and strange stigmata appeared on the bodies of quiet people living dull lives in Putney and Bexley. Wardrobes were particularly vicious, apt to slam their doors whenever they felt threatened. These poltergeists (from the German “noisy spirits”) were very different from the genteel rectory ghosts of earlier times. Rowdy, rebellious and frankly a bit common, they were deeply engaged with the new world of mass consumption, happy to turn up and make mischief at Woolworths, or the giant new cinema opposite the bus station.
In this terrific book, her best since The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale tells the story of Alma Fielding, a working-class wife and mother from Croydon who in 1938 became a one-woman forcefield of domestic weirdness. Crockery flew around the family’s end-of-terrace; a Bakelite radio smashed itself on the tiled floor; and the wardrobe, living up to its reputation for bad temper, hurled itself across the bed usually occupied by the Fieldings’ teenage son, who had sensibly gone to stay next door. Then there were the “apports”, the material objects that 35-year-old Fielding apparently materialised from thin air. Jewellery stolen from British Home Stores appeared on her fingers, beetles scuttled out of her gloves and once, during a car journey, a live terrapin, scaly, thrusting and slightly obscene, turned up on her lap. Continue reading...
Aug 20, 2020
From ‘Je t’aime’ with Serge Gainsbourg to partying with Roman Polanski … the star‑studded early years of an actor and hit singer
“Cliff Richard to me is perfect, and I do love him,” writes the 16-year-old Jane Birkin, stuck at boarding school on the Isle of Wight with only her diary and a stuffed toy called Munkey for solace. She has, it is true, got hold of a contraband copy of the book Peyton Place, but feels “very coarse and common” whenever she dips into it. Such is the inner life of the girl who, within seven years, will release a pop song so smutty that it will be banned by the BBC and condemned by the Vatican. “Je t’aime … mois non plus”, written by her lover Serge Gainsbourg, became a global hit in 1969. Even now, 50 years later, Birkin remains associated with a particular kind of arty transgressiveness, not to mention the very expensive Hermès handbag that bears her name.
Related: Jane Birkin: 'Serge Gainsbourg was never a boring genius' Continue reading...
Aug 14, 2020
Forget the tea ceremonies and geishas. This is a vivid examination of the life of an ordinary if much-married woman
In 1839 a priest’s daughter called Tsuneno ran away from her village in Echigo, otherwise known as the Snow Country of north-central Japan. Her destination was Edo, the shogun’s city, which she had longed to see from the moment she first heard of its existence. The journey took two weeks and involved a treacherous mountain trek, but to Tsuneno it was worth it. Her village home was not only on ice from equinox to equinox, but its customs and expectations seemed frozen too. The shogunate, an ancient feudal system of governance, might be on its last legs but Edo still meant warmth and sizzle and the kind of social melt that allowed for fresh starts.
Tsuneno, though, was no one’s idea of a lovely young heroine, nor did she, as you might expect from the slackly orientalist cover design and title of Amy Stanley’s book, end up as a tip-top geisha with a sideline in erotic yet subversively feminist poetry. She was, in fact, a much-married middle-aged woman with such a bad temper that, on the occasion of her fourth marriage, her eldest brother Giyu felt obliged to warn the groom: “As you probably know, she’s a very selfish person, so please return her to us if things don’t go well.” Continue reading...
Jul 23, 2020
A new account of the difficulties of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, with contemporary resonances and speculation about an attempt to kill Edward VIII
It says something about how close the abdication of 1936 has come to slipping from living memory that Alexander Larman feels obliged to plant broad reminders early on. Remember that natty cove played by Alex Jennings and Derek Jacobi in the first three series of The Crown? That’s our leading man, the Prince of Wales, AKA Edward VIII, AKA the Duke of Windsor. Recall Andrea Riseborough being all brittle and American and fiercely-eyebrowed in W.E., that royal flop written and directed by Madonna in 2011? That’s Wallis Simpson, AKA the Duchess of Windsor. Larman doesn’t mention Edward & Mrs Simpson, the Bafta and Emmy-winning TV series of 1978, in which Edward Fox played the spoilt king to the manner born. But there again, people who watched that are old enough to remember for themselves the way that, 40 years ago, you knew not to mention the abdication in front of your grandparents for fear of being sent out of the room.
Edward & Mrs Simpson was based on Frances Donaldson’s explosive book Edward VIII: The Road to Abdication, written two years after the death of the Duke of Windsor in 1972. Donaldson’s great achievement was to show the story from the inside and in real time, by drawing on the private papers of Edward’s equerry “Fruity” Metcalfe and his wife, Baba. Donaldson was sufficiently detached from the court to be able to call out the chilly, costive atmosphere in which Edward grew up. She showed how a bleak childhood (George V remote and shouty, Queen Mary glacial and simmering) gave rise to a forlorn boy-man, who chased acceptance in all the wrong places, including fast women and fascist politics. Continue reading...
Jul 04, 2020
Britain had never been richer, so how did working families become trapped in a nightmare of dirt and want? An intimate history, from darning to dinners in the gutter
As a lad in 1880s Bermondsey Sid Causer appeased his hunger by filching fruit from market barrows. Louie Stride, brought up dirt poor in genteel Bath, thought nothing of looking for dinner in the gutter. Joseph Sharpe from Derbyshire was obliged to go “barefooted and barelegged” and get by on “tea sops and flour porridge”. Causer, Stride and Sharpe are just a few of the pale, pinched children who stare out at us from the photographs of late Victorian Britain. The girls are bundled up in shawls while the boys have the oyster eyes of the permanently exhausted. Together they make up a visual shorthand for “the Victorian urban poor”.
But why were they so poor? Britain had never been richer. By the end of the 19th century all those lovely inventions, from tarmac to sewing machines and toilets to telegraphs, had transformed the fabric of ordinary life. Real wages had roughly doubled. Given that Britain was a byword for progress and prosperity, what was to be made of the revelation by social investigators such as Charles Booth and Henry Rowntree that an increasing number of working families were trapped in a gothic nightmare of dirt and want? Continue reading...
Jun 24, 2020
A dazzling, anecdote-rich study of what, in the past, has been reused, and what discarded
In 1947 the nation was shocked to hear that British troops in Egypt were wearing pants made out of old flour bags. The war was over, we had won, and yet here were our boys wearing scratchy, dusty undercrackers. Five years earlier this might have seemed like a gesture of patriotic making-do, but now it just seemed shoddy. The war services secretary assured the House of Commons that he would be looking into the soldiers’ pants immediately.
In this brilliantly original and deeply researched book, Emily Cockayne sets out to show how the meanings of material reuse zigzag wildly according to context. There is something honourable about aristocrats handing down the family silver; something worthy about a green-minded family rummaging through a car boot sale; something pitiable about a rough sleeper investigating the contents of a public rubbish bin. Continue reading...
Apr 25, 2020
From Bauhaus to bohemian love … the intricate lives and art of interwar modernists are captured in this hugely enjoyable and well-plotted book
In 1937 the art critic Myfanwy Evans published The Painter’s Object, an anthology of new essays by leading artists of the day including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Nash. While Evans’s aim was to present a snapshot of contemporary practice, it’s clear from her introduction that she wasn’t holding out for consensus. In fact, she suggested, the art world was currently in the middle of a series of all-encompassing “battles” between “Hampstead, Bloomsbury, surrealist, abstract, social realist, Spain, Germany, heaven, hell, paradise, chaos, light, dark, round, square”.
Evans’s breathless list was meant to be playful, but she was making a serious point. Within the broad church of modernism, you could find the cool abstract grids of Piet Mondrian, the increasingly politically engaged style of Picasso or, more recently, the curve ball of surrealism, as represented by Salvador Dalí and his lobster telephone. What made the struggle for dominance more intense is that much of it was being played out within a few streets around Hampstead and neighbouring Belsize Park in north-west London. Continue reading...
Mar 27, 2020
Unfettered by time and space ... this beguiling journal opens a window on to a long and well-remembered life
At getting on for 94, Jan Morris is realistic that this will probably be her last book. For the past 70 years she has roamed far and wide: as a journalist she was at the triumphant ascent of Everest in 1953 and was there too for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Most famously in the early 1970s she described what it was like to be in the advance guard of gender reassignment when she transitioned from James to Jan via surgery in Casablanca. Her historical writing has tended to the epic: her trilogy on the rise and fall of the British empire, Pax Britannica, is a monumental work that feels as if it had access to every heartbeat under the searing sun.
Morris has now turned to a new way of writing that allows her to stay put. She has started to keep a diary, and it is the second instalment, covering 130 days from the beginning of spring 2018, that makes up Thinking Again. Don’t imagine, though, that there is anything reduced about this new world. Morris has long admired the diary form for its capaciousness, and sticking within a small radius of the converted north Wales barn where she now lives allows her to roam far and wide in her imagination, unfettered by time or space. Continue reading...