Merde En Bas De Soie

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

One reason why Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754–1838) has proved such a popular subject for biography is that there is plenty of meat in him. His life was long and spanned a tumultuous period; he was active almost throughout it, and often centre-stage. He was born the same year as the decapitated French King, Louis XVI, […]

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Life On The Inside

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I don’t think anyone has tried to get under the skin of a group of monks in quite this way before. Nancy Klein Maguire closely follows the lives of five young men – Paddy, Hans, Bernie, Chuck and Dave – over five years between 1960 and 1965 as they each test their vocation as a […]

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Superior Sisters

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The life of a nun – in comparison to that of a wife – has many advantages. No cooking and cleaning; no skivvying at the kitchen sink or schlepping around the supermarket; none of the boring and interminable chores of running a household, starting with making lists, day after day after day, of what must […]

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Murder Most Foul

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1842, Edgar Allan Poe sold a long story to the Ladies’ Companion, a New York magazine. It was not the journal’s usual fare; it advertised itself as being for women of ‘exquisite refinement and taste’, and Poe’s tale was of the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. However, the editor could not […]

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Still Old Possum

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Craig Raine’s lively new book on T S Eliot conforms to its series by simply naming the poet as its subject; but it has a marked thematic line which could have borrowed its title from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘The Buried Life’. Raine concludes that Arnold is ‘Eliot’s powerful, repressed father figure’; as with Arnold and […]

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Sketches of Spain

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘But Beaumarchais was never in Seville!’ asserts Hugh Thomas at the beginning of his study of the author whose Sevillian-based plays inspired, among other works, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s Barber of Seville. Thomas points out that Bizet was not there either, and nor was Verdi or Beethoven, both of whom also set operas […]

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Little Blue Devils

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1936, just before his twenty-fifth birthday, Tennessee Williams began keeping a journal. ‘Saw first robin today – two in fact,’ reads the first entry, ‘pain in chest all morning but okay tonite.’ ‘Felt rather stupid all day,’ it concludes, ‘but will write tomorrow – .’ Williams then continued the journal intermittently until two years […]

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The End of Love

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is a strange fate for a celebrated writer to be remembered as the friend of a still more famous one. Such, for a generation after her death in 1937, was Edith Wharton’s lot. Her novels were out of fashion, indeed had been consigned to that limbo of all things ‘Victorian’ – ‘prim’, ‘mannered’, ‘violets […]

Chilblains and Petticoats

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fanny Duberly was the horse-loving wife of a Victorian cavalry officer. When the Crimean War broke out in 1854 she was twenty-six, cheerful, childless and strong-minded. She was among the handful of officers’ wives who sailed with their husbands’ regiments to the Black Sea. Lord Lucan, who commanded the cavalry, forbade her from entering the […]

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Rules of Engagement

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Forgotten Wars is the sequel to the same authors’ Forgotten Armies, which told the story of our war against Japan in the East. Like its predecessor, published in 2004, this new book is very detailed, the fruit of vast research, not always easy to read. Though it comes from a general publisher one would suppose […]

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Risorgimento Plan

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Sicilian writer Luigi Pirandello, best known as a dramatist, was also a master of the short story. In one of his tales (many of them set in his native island) a half-mad peasant crone, speaking in the last years of the nineteenth century, tells of her son, who went to the bad and became […]

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‘Bow-and-Arrow Fighting’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The dustjacket heralds Edward Paice’s new book as the ‘first’ proper history of the Great War in Africa. Certainly the fighting in Africa in 1914–18 was long neglected by historians – until recently that is. One of the chief merits of Hew Strachan’s brilliant First World War: To Arms (2002) was the way it underlined […]

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Write or Publish?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Cyril Connolly was always fascinated by the ways in which writers scraped a living. Shortly after the end of the war he sent a questionnaire to various eminent authors asking them what jobs or means of earning money were most compatible with the literary life, and published their answers in Horizon. Connolly himself recommended a […]

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Dolma Kyab

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I know that doing things, even contributing one’s life to the cause of a nation, raises very difficult questions. I would rather use my words to talk to other people than be an example to lead other people. (Dolma Kyab) Tibet formally became an autonomous region of China, known as the TAR, in 1965. The […]

Vengeful Victorians

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The promotional material that comes with Michael Cox’s debut novel serves notice of a worrying trend. Last year, having paid Cox a record £500,000 advance, publishers John Murray embarked on a ‘ground-breaking research Project’. They sent out 600 copies to ordinary readers, inviting them to submit their responses. ‘Fantastic, awesome, first-rate, marvellous, sensational, superb, stunning, […]

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Facing an Emotional Storm

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In her second novel, Mary Lawson returns to the fictional setting of her first – Crow Lake. The lake, in the far north of Canada, proves an apt metaphor for her narrative: ‘the silvery ever-moving surface hiding God knew what life-and-death struggles underneath, the long stretches of peacefulness that might or might not be broken […]

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Puberty and Lies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Adolescent male protagonists have proved popular with Man Booker judges in recent years. Following Life of Pi and Vernon God Little, this year’s longlist brings us David Mitchell’s Jason Taylor (narrator of Black Swan Green) and M J Hyland’s shortlisted Carry Me Down, which is narrated by an eleven-year-old named John Egan. Egan is the […]

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Coming of Age

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

As he nears the end of his life, Karl Frank writes an account of his coming-of-age as a legacy to his grandchildren so that a part of his family’s history will be preserved. ‘This is the story of how I became a man,’ he tells them. In particular, it is the tale of a fifteen-year-old […]

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