‘Crisp as a Celery Stick’

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Maggie Smith: A Bright Particular Star, Michael Coveney’s 1992 biography of the actress, took his subject to the age of fifty-seven. She had just become a dame and was about to play, after some hesitation, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, the role that Dame Edith Evans had once made her own

Get with the Program

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘It’s not easy being the daughter of a celebrity mad genius deviant sex god,’ remarks Sydney Padua at the start of the wittiest, best-researched and most original tribute yet paid to the achievements of Lord Byron’s brilliant, tearaway and tragically short-lived child, Ada Lovelace. Padua is a Canadian-born, London-based visual-effects artist whose annoyingly cryptic author’s […]

Notes on Liberty

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Isaiah Berlin had no very high opinion of his contribution to human thought. Writing in 1978 to the psychoanalyst Anthony Storr, he confessed, ‘Every line I have ever written and every lecture I have ever delivered seems to me of very little or no value.’ Nor did Berlin attach any great importance to the publication of his ideas

Rock & Rule

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

That remarkable Indian ruler Ashoka Maurya, who lived from approximately 304 to 232 BC, remained lost to history for some two thousand years until the words written on his rock and pillar edicts were first deciphered and translated by James Prinsep in 1837. Even then it took the better part of a century for India’s […]

The Sword & the Flute

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

It has done no favours to the modern reputation of King Frederick II of Prussia – ‘Frederick the Great’ – that Hitler, during the mad final days of the Third Reich, placed the monarch’s portrait above his desk in the Berlin bunker. For much of the period since, a powerful narrative – purveyed mainly, but not

Emperor of Self

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

‘After such knowledge, what forgiveness?’ So Jay Parini quotes from TS Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ at the end of this clear-eyed book, and while he suggests that the question ‘haunts every biographer’, it seems especially apposite here. What can be said about Gore Vidal, for or against him, that he hasn’t already said himself, and better than any of us can hope to? How should we see this thin-skinned litigious charmer, this predatory and all too talented monstre of ego, who neither forgot nor forgave anything? The indictment is long; against it lie some enduring friendships and a talent to amuse. And the books, though it’s too early to tell if they will earn time’s pardon.

Of Arms and Architecture

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The great architects of the age of Baroque came in threes. There were Bernini, Borromini and Pietro da Cortona in Rome; Juvarra, Guarini and Vittone in Turin; Fischer von Erlach, Johann von Hildebrandt and Jakob Prandtauer in Vienna; and, of course, our own Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in London. The Trinitarian character of these architects […]

Queen of the East

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It was the George Cruikshank cartoon that never appeared and the one meeting in her peripatetic career that the wildly adventurous Lady Hester Stanhope funked. In July 1816, Caroline of Brunswick, the estranged wife of George, Prince of Wales, was paying a supposed pilgrimage to the Holy Land (in reality, a forced long vacation from […]

The Voice of Everywoman

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Fanny Burney’s famous account of having her breast cut off without anaesthetic in 1812 was recently read out on Woman’s Hour, a programme whose unflinching and trustworthy ethos is personified in its presenter, Jenni Murray. Whether listening to harrowing tales of pain and loss and human indomitability, or beadily interrogating devious politicians, or confessing to […]

Woman in Black

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This must have been a hard book to sell. Ettie Desborough is not exactly a household name. If her great friend Arthur Balfour was a whiff of scent on a lady’s pocket handkerchief, Ettie seems even more evanescent. A society hostess, a leading member of the Souls, an Edwardian grande dame – her story seems […]

Late Flowering

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

By the time they reach their sixties, most novelists have produced their best work. But it was not until she was sixty-one that Penelope Fitzgerald began to write, in rapid succession, the novels – each better than its predecessor – that finally culminated, when she was seventy-eight, in her masterpiece, The Blue Flower.  In his […]

Literary Legacies

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

At first sight, this book might seem to be a vindication of the hereditary principle in its purest form: male primogeniture. It tells the story of John Murray, a powerful publishing house for almost two hundred and fifty years, and until recently controlled by its eponymous head in an unbroken line from father to son. […]

Bertie, Lillibet, Margaret & Me

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Radiant, charming, swathed in pearls, furs and feathers, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later Duchess of York, consort of King George VI and finally Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, was a tough cookie. She was the daughter of a large Scottish aristocratic family with a military ethos and deep Christian beliefs impressed on her by her mother, […]

Scourge of Obscenity

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Although Mary Whitehouse was often portrayed as a prudish busybody, a latter-day Dr Bowdler or Mrs Grundy, she preferred to see herself as a Christian martyr. Her Clean-Up TV campaign, later renamed the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, sprang from the creepy Moral Re-Armament cult of which both Whitehouse and her husband, Ernest, were devotedly […]

The Squire & the Schoolmaster

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) and Edmund Blunden (1896–1974) first came across one another in 1919, when Blunden submitted a poem to the Daily Herald, of whose books pages Sassoon was briefly in charge. Although sexually, socially, temperamentally and physically distinct – Sassoon was a tall, saturnine, homosexual country squire, Blunden a small, sociable, heterosexual schoolmaster’s son […]

‘Led Away by Paper’

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Sylvia Townsend Warner declined to write an autobiography on the grounds that she was ‘too imaginative’. She liked to make a distinction between her self as a person and as an artist; the Sylvia self existed quite apart from her books, ‘no more to me than the woman reflected in the mirror opposite’. Towards the […]

Did She Or Didn’t She?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

On the afternoon of 6 July 1928, a Gloucester jury acquitted Beatrice Pace of murdering her husband. When this thin, pale woman left the court, a vast crowd, estimated by some observers as 10,000 strong, cheered her every step. ‘The word went forth from mouth to mouth,’ gushed The People. ‘Men and women yelled it […]

Laureate of Melancholy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was not among the eminent Victorians skewered by Lytton Strachey in his once-famous book, but he has remained in many ways the very idea of a Victorian, possessing the full mixture of suppressed turmoil, self-blindness, and strenuous achievement that Strachey found in the age at large. Even among that troubled company, Tennyson […]

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