Fierce Appetites: Loving, Losing and Living to Excess in My Present and in the Writings of the Past by Elizabeth Boyle; Mad about Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room by Jonathan Bate - review by Lucy Lethbridge

Lucy Lethbridge

Life Lessons from the Sinful Greek Girl

Fierce Appetites: Loving, Losing and Living to Excess in My Present and in the Writings of the Past

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Sandycove 337pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

Mad about Shakespeare: From Classroom to Theatre to Emergency Room

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William Collins 301pp £25 order from our bookshop
 

Here are two books by academics. They are memoirs of reading, or rather they are books about reading, writing and storytelling with sections of autobiography. Both are about death as well as living, and at least in part about how literature can make some consoling sense of the afflictions or demands of the body. Elizabeth Boyle’s Fierce Appetites opens with the night her father died and Jonathan Bate also recalls the death of his much-loved and admired father. Both authors find that in the aftermath of these deaths, their grief is given voice by poetry. For Bate, it is King Lear which provides the words (‘Vex not his ghost’) and for Boyle it is the anonymous Irish poet who wrote, ‘My heart is a clot of blood.’ Despite being titled Mad about Shakespeare, Bate’s book ranges elegantly over a range of literary figures. Boyle focuses on the little-known early medieval manuscripts that are her specialism. Although the two authors are vastly different in style, the reader may sense that self-revelation does not come effortlessly to either of them; it is easiest, perhaps, when it is filtered through the language of others. ‘If you’re patient enough to persevere with him’, writes Bate, ‘Shakespeare will give you the words.’ And Boyle finds that the issues of today are neatly (too neatly?) reflected in the manuscripts of the past: ‘One thing I have learned as a historian is that most things are not as old as you think they are.’

The ‘fierce appetites’ of Boyle’s title are primarily her own. She is, she tells us, an alcoholic and a veteran of one-night stands with an unsisterly predilection for married men. Like many others during the pandemic, after an initial, short-lived rush of good intentions, she got untethered: she

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