Faith & Finery

Posted on by David Gelber

How do Christian women dress? How do Jews dress? Atheists? Who knows? Such questions are so broad that they rarely offer revealing answers. Judging from the photographs in Elizabeth Bucar’s book, which presents a series of case studies of female dress in several cities where Islam is the predominant faith, ‘Muslim’ women in Tehran wear […]

Monarchs à la Mode

Posted on by David Gelber

The exaggerated profile of Henry VIII is instantly recognisable from Hans Holbein’s portrait – the colossal shoulders and chest counterbalanced by the broad stance that highlights his bulging calves. It is an image that has been reproduced countless times in paintings and prints, and subsequently on stage and screen. However, as Tudor Fashion seeks to […]

Doffing a Tricorne

Posted on by David Gelber

Do you know your dandies from your petit-maîtres? Could you tell a coxcomb from a Regency buck, a swell or a fop? As Peter McNeil’s Pretty Gentlemen efficiently illustrates, masculinity was a muddled business in 18th-century Britain. It masqueraded in different guises, literally: in costume, in print culture and on the stage. McNeil narrows in […]

Will China Rule the Waves?

Posted on by David Gelber

As Humphrey Hawksley points out in this fine new book, the history of Asia is as much a story about contested water as Europe’s is one about contested land. China has a coastline of approximately 9,000 miles. To the east its great rival Japan shelters under a US security umbrella and remains a well-armed contender […]

Bland Tour

Posted on by David Gelber

We need to know about Germany. While we are in the EU, it is the main bankroller of the project, and all dance to its tune. When we are out of it, Germany will remain the most significant country in Continental Europe in terms of population and economy, and an understanding of it will be […]

Rise of the Bollygarchs

Posted on by David Gelber

In India, the Bengali writer Nirad Chaudhuri once quipped, even exceptions run into the millions. The message to anyone preparing to sit down to write a book about this diverse, dynamic, often discombobulating nation is clear: avoid stereotypes, embrace contradictions and, above all, keep a calculator close. Nowhere is India’s mind-boggling, multi-zeroed exceptionalism

Voice of America

Posted on by Tom Fleming

The title of this book, The World As It Is, feels odd. Whatever state the world was in eighteen months ago, at the end of the presidency of Barack Obama, it is in the process of being completely altered by his successor. Donald Trump is intent on removing from the face of the earth, at […]

The Critic’s Critic

Posted on by Tom Fleming

This volume is made up almost entirely of Anthony Burgess’s book reviews and literary essays for The Guardian, The Observer, The Listener, the New York Times and The Spectator – for the most part, that is, for publications aimed at a fairly literate general readership, not at scholars and academics. He needed, then, the talent […]

Yours Severely

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In recent years, Flann O’Brien has often been characterised as the third member of the sacred trinity of Irish modernism, the Holy Ghost to James Joyce’s God the Father and Samuel Beckett’s God the Son. If so, he shares with the Holy Ghost a certain vagueness as to his identity: the press release that accompanies this book refers to him as ‘O’Nolan, or O’Brien, or Myles nagCopaleen or whatever his

Khans & Stans

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Genghis Khan died in 1227, but even today no account of Central Asia can ignore him. Ten modern states sprang from his empire. All of them figure in this magisterial and gorgeous book, the fourth and final volume of Christoph Baumer’s The History of Central Asia. Subtitled ‘The Age of Decline and Revival’, this survey […]

There Be Despots

Posted on by Tom Fleming

According to an edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the term ‘Enlightenment’ signifies ‘shallow and pretentious intellectualism, unreasonable contempt for authority and tradition, etc., applied esp. to the spirit and aims of the French philosophers of the 18th c.’ – a fine example of lexicography in the service of tendentious ideology. This is hardly […]

A Horse Performer Writes

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Recently discovered in the vast collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Thomas Hammond’s memoir is an important find. Most 18th-century memoirs were written by members of the elite, but Hammond was a servant. And he was a literary innovator, adapting the techniques of the early novel to autobiography. This is […]

Death Became Him

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It is easy to feel sorry for Charles I. Short and stuttering, with weak ankles, he spent his early years as an also-ran beside his glamorous and athletic elder brother, the charismatic Henry, Prince of Wales. Henry’s death in 1612 made Charles the unlikely heir to the kingdoms of England and Scotland: their mother, Anna […]

Earth, Wind & Colour

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Peter Lanyon was forty-six years old when he died from injuries sustained while crash-landing his glider in a field in Devon in August 1964. The paintings he had completed that summer were some of his boldest works – bright strata of colours and flight paths traced across abstracted backgrounds. His work was selling in America to private

Traditionalists & Exhibitionists

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘I approve of this Plan, let it be put into execution.’ With these words, scrawled in December 1768 at the foot of a document that was little more than a set of institutional rules, George III launched the Royal Academy of Arts, a private organisation run by and for artists that was to exercise an incalculable […]

A Dandy in Harlem

Posted on by Tom Fleming

After news circulated in 1907 that an African-American had been awarded a Rhodes scholarship for the first time, the recipient was far from pleased with the wave of letters from black and white well-wishers. Their ‘muddying of a purely personal issue of my life with the race problem’ left him intensely irritated, as he confided […]

Landgrabber-in-Chief

Posted on by Tom Fleming

It is astonishing that George Washington’s reputation is still so high. His position as an American monument presumably makes him unassailable, but sober history reveals the feet of clay. An arrogant prima donna of no real military or political talent, Washington succeeded thanks to his good luck and his remarkable capacity for blame-shifting and lies. […]

Prime Mediocrity No More

Posted on by Tom Fleming

An ‘Arch-Mediocrity who presided rather than ruled’ over a ‘Cabinet of Mediocrities’ – Benjamin Disraeli’s sneering dismissal of Lord Liverpool, prime minister during the turbulent years from 1812 to 1827, was scathing. Historical judgement, however, has moved on markedly since Disraeli’s flippant, self-serving denigration. Certainly, the self-effacing Liverpool was reticent in manner and sensitive to […]

Hostess with the Mostest

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Lord Byron, shortly before his brief, doomed marriage to her niece Annabella Milbanke, described Elizabeth Lamb, Lady Melbourne (known to the admiring young poet as Lady M), as ‘the best friend I ever had in my life, and the cleverest of women’. Lady Holland, a rival hostess in Georgian London, compared Elizabeth to the scheming […]

A Lover and a Fighter

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Of all personality traits, charisma is the hardest to appreciate at second hand. We read Cicero’s letters and can instantly tell that he was vain, insecure and ferociously clever; we read scraps of Samuel Johnson’s conversation in Boswell’s biography and know at once that he was magnificent, lovable and desperately unhappy. But as to what it was like to have Lord Byron turn the full force of his attention onto you

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter