The strange cult of Emily Brontë and the ‘hot mess’ of Wuthering Heights

Brontë was no romantic child of nature but a pragmatic, self-interested Tory. Why is she still adored for her ‘screeching melodrama’ of a novel?

Over this ecstatic high summer, visitors to the Haworth parsonage museum will be able to watch a film that simulates the bird’s-eye view of Emily Brontë’s pet hawk, Nero, as he swoops over the moors to Top Withens, the ruined farmhouse that is the putative model for Wuthering Heights. You’ll be able to listen to the Unthanks, the quavery Northumbrian folk music sisters who have composed music in celebration of Emily’s 200th anniversary. If that’s not enough, you can watch a video installation by Lily Cole, the model-turned-actor-turned-Cambridge-double-first from Devon, which riffs on Heathcliff’s origins as a Liverpool foundling. Finally, Kate Bush, from Kent, has been busy on the moors unveiling a stone. In short, wherever you come from and whoever you are, you will find ...

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox review – a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes

Oscar Slater was imprisoned for the murder of an elderly woman in 1908. Arthur Conan Doyle turned detective to prove he didn’t do it

A few days before Christmas 1908 an elderly woman whom no one liked was bludgeoned to death in her smart Glasgow flat. Within hours a man whom no one liked either was identified as her killer and, in due course, condemned to hang. The Oscar Slater case is often invoked as an example of how easy it was for the police to fit someone up in an age before DNA, when crime scene protocol mostly consisted of slapping handcuffs on the nearest wrong ’un. But its broader message is perhaps: if you want to stay alive, it helps if people like you.

This was something that Slater, whose death sentence was changed to life imprisonment at the last moment, never completely understood. It was not, of ...

The Murderer of Warren Street review – magnetic revolutionary or serial killer?

Emmanuel Barthélemy manned the barricades in mid-19th century Paris and was hanged for murder in London. But how best to tell his story?

The way Marc Mulholland tells it, there wasn’t anyone whom Emmanuel Barthélemy didn’t itch to kill. During his London exile the young Frenchman had Karl Marx in his sights and later made plans to return to his homeland and take out the newly installed Emperor Napoléon III. As a teenager in 1839, Barthélemy tried and failed to murder a Parisian policeman and 13 years later he succeeded in finishing off a rival political exile in a duel on the Surrey hills (the last fatal duel in England). The next killing came in 1854 when Barthelémy bashed and then shot George Moore, a harmless soda water maker and writer of light verse who lived in London’s Warren Street and mostly minded his own business. Let’s not forget the ...

Whistler’s Mother review – a painting that’s not what it seems

A meticulous study of Anna Whistler, by Daniel E Sutherland and Georgia Toutziari, is a treasure trove of odd information

Over the last century and a half Whistler’s mother has been having a high old time. Perhaps 1934 was the giddiest year: Cole Porter name-checked her in “You’re the Top” while the US government put her on a postage stamp to celebrate Mother’s Day.

More recently the playwright Edward Bond turned her into the devil in a wheelchair in Grandma Faust, while in 1997 Rowan Atkinson gurned in front of her as Mr Bean. Whenever Whistler’s Mother (its official title is Arrangement in Grey and Black No 1) tours the world, gallery crowds flock to stare at the elderly, seated figure staring enigmatically into the middle distance.

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In Byron’s Wake and Ada Lovelace reviews – computing reputations

Annabella Byron is rescued from more than a century of bad press, while three mathematicians consider her daughter’s particular genius

“Oh! What an instrument of torture I have acquired in you,” Byron famously exclaimed on first beholding his baby daughter Ada, leaving it unclear whether he saw himself as the scourger or the scourged. In truth, it was probably a bit of both. Within six months the poet had left Britain and would never see either his daughter or his wife Annabella again. He spent the next decade racketing around the continent writing verse that was beautiful and scabrous by turns, and intervening in foreign conflicts that were actually none of his business. Annabella Byron, meanwhile, morphed from wretched bride into a queenly philanthropist, who was equally certain that she knew what was best for other people. Baby Ada, by contrast, grew up to be mostly interested in herself. She ...

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

At the age of 50, the acclaimed writer was divorced and living in a new flat. In elliptical, allusive prose, she re-engages with the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir

There’s a wonderful moment in a series of wonderful moments in this second instalment of Deborah Levy’s “living memoir”. It’s a “sad Tuesday” and she is being told off by a neighbour in the block of flats into which she has recently moved with her daughters following divorce from their father. This is supposed to be a fresh start for Levy, a liberation from the contortions of a family life that has become too difficult to sustain alongside her work as a writer. But now here comes a new kind of cultural policing, imposed not by a man but by another woman, who is part of what Levy calls the “societal” system.

With her sharp little teeth, rictus smile and high sweet voice, the ...

The Making of the Wind in the Willows review – Toad, Ratty and a manifesto for gay living

Peter Hunt’s elegant account of the genesis of Kenneth Grahame’s classic only hints at the revelations the author has discussed in promotional interviews

It turns out that being a juvenile muse is no guarantee of a happy ending. Peter Llewelyn Davies, JM Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan, grew up only to kill himself. Christopher Milne AKA Christopher Robin was estranged from his mother. Alice Liddell of Wonderland fame seems to have been permanently cross. And then there was Alastair Grahame, for whom The Wind in the Willows was written in 1908. Twelve years later, and still in his teens, he stumbled out of his Oxford college, lay down on the railway line and waited for a train.

There’s one difference, though, between Grahame and the others. While Peter, Alice and Christopher appeared as characters in “their” books, he doesn’t. The Wind in the Willows grew out of bedtime stories that ...

Debussy by Stephen Walsh review – a fine biography of a painter in sound

The French composer was once dismissed as a Romantic or ‘impressionist’ who prioritised mood and feeling. This life digs deep into his innovations

It turns out that Claude Debussy lived exactly as any self-respecting artist should. He drank too much, showed unwise taste in women, never got the hang of money and assumed that anyone who didn’t see music exactly the same way as he did was a duffer. He often thought of taking his own life but it was actually his first wife who pulled the trigger on herself, standing in the Place de la Concorde to make sure everyone noticed. Finally, the great composer died young, or youngish, leaving posterity to speculate about just where his genius would have taken him next.

Don’t imagine, though, that Stephen Walsh’s compelling new biography, published to coincide with the centenary of Debussy’s death, consists simply of one slack anecdote after another. ...

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan review – an enchanting memoir of childhood reading

Narnia, The Secret Garden and other favourites of a bookish child in Margaret Thatcher’s south London

To read Lucy Mangan’s memoir of growing up bookish is to be taken back to a time in life when reading wasn’t merely a gentle pleasure or mild obligation but an activity as essential as breathing. Not any old breathing either, but deep, sucking gulps made all the more urgent by the terror that the oxygen could get cut off at a moment’s notice. Mum might shout that it was time to come down for supper, or Miss might tell you to go out and play in the fresh air with the other children. Worse still, you might come to the end of a book and have nothing left to read apart from an old bus ticket fished out from the pocket of your mac.

I consumed Mangan’s beguiling book in the same feverish way ...

Nefertiti’s Face by Joyce Tyldesley review – the creation of an Ancient Egyptian icon

Why did the bust of a queen carved more than 3,000 years ago achieve such fame when it was exhibited in 1924?

Even with her blinded left eye, Nefertiti has come to epitomise female perfection. Uncannily symmetrical, and with the second most famous half-smile after the Mona Lisa, her image has been pressed into service to sell everything from cruise holidays to women’s underwear. Even now, when you think she might have earned a rest, she continues to turn up on key rings, T-shirts and, in a sinister turn, adverts for cosmetic surgery. Recently a British woman paid £200,000 and underwent eight nose jobs and three chin implants in an attempt to sculpt herself into a simulacrum of ancient Egypt’s most famous queen.

Nefertiti was first unearthed in 1912 when the archaeologists of the German Oriental Company went digging in the soft soil of the left bank of the upper Nile ...

What She Ate by Laura Shapiro review – witty essays on women and food

From Barbara Pym’s love for gastronomy to Eva Braun’s ruthless dedication to staying thin, these biographical essays about famous women and their food are clever and revealing

In this collection of clever, witty biographical essays, Laura Shapiro explores the relationship of six famous women to food. We start with Dorothy Wordsworth, who kept house for her brother at Dove Cottage in the early years of the 19th century. If William was the high priest of poetry, Dorothy was the vestal virgin, who delivered the sacraments in the form of freshly picked peas from the garden, mild bacon from the neighbours and her own bottled rum. Luminous though the details of the siblings’ meals may appear in Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal, there is nothing here that smacks of fleshly indulgence. Throughout the years of her ecstatic service, she retained the body of a high priestess, flayed into elegance by all ...

Blood on the Page by Thomas Harding review – the first British murder trial held in secret

A man is found dead in his London home. The killer is jailed. But is it all a high-level cover-up?

Writing a true-crime book while the legal process is still unfolding is a high-stakes business. There’s no assurance of a neat outcome, or really any outcome at all. The goodies might turn out to be baddies, and all that righteous anger about a possible miscarriage of justice could leave you looking foolish. Trial dates slip, which means you’re deprived of a cracking finale in which grateful relatives embrace you on the courtroom steps while the police stand by looking sheepish. You could end up, in other words, with a sort of fretful trailing off …

All of which happens in Blood on the Page. Despite the title, which promises a “body in the library” plot from the golden age of detective fiction, Thomas Harding has written a real-life procedural about ...

The Bedside Guardian 2017 review – 12 months that shook the world

From Trump to tragedy, Wonder Woman to The Maybot … a compelling roundup from an eye-opening year

This has hardly been a year for sweet dreams, and the latest edition of The Bedside Guardian is not in the business of pretending otherwise. In the 67 pieces selected here from the newspaper’s annual output – including everything from reportage and reviews to obituaries and analysis – we are plunged back into the 12 months that shook the world. Starting with Trump’s shock win in November 2016 (The Bedside Guardian runs from autumn to autumn) and ending with the row in which a transgender model was sacked by L’Oréal for claiming that all white people are racist, this was the year that didn’t so much shake things up as take a wrecking ball to them.

In his introduction, editor Gary Younge explains his decision to reprint an extract from the Guardian’s ...

Big & Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies by Lynne Vallone – review

How size has mattered from Queen Henrietta Maria’s dwarf to contemporary fat-shaming

If, like me, you pored over the Guinness Book of Records as a child, then perhaps you too found yourself gripped by the section on the tallest, shortest, thinnest and fattest men and women who ever lived. It was definitely the best section, much better than the bits about people staying awake for 10 days or walking around the world on their hands. My favourite record-holder was Daniel Lambert, a Georgian strongman of 53 stone whose coffin needed wheels. But I also had a soft spot for Robert Wadlow who was nearly 9ft tall and still growing at the time of his death in 1940. How I longed for Wadlow to be still alive so that he could stand beside the current shortest woman in the world, a bright sprite from India of 2ft.

Related: Wiping out ...

The best biography and autobiography books of 2017

Memories of the high life, heart surgery and a Homer odyssey move Kathryn Hughes

The Book of Forgotten Authors (Riverrun) sounds like a post-modern meta-novel from the early 1980s, one that everyone pretends to have read in the original Spanish. In fact, it’s the title of Christopher Fowler’s invigoratingly down-to-earth catalogue of 99 writers, mostly anglophone, who used to be famous 50 years ago but whom no one now remembers. There’s Pierre Boulle, the engineer who doubled up as the author of Bridge Over the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes. Intriguing too is Pamela Branch, whose second novel from 1951, The Lion in the Cellar, features a drunken bartender with a phantom marmoset on his shoulder. Bibliophiles will love revisiting the midlist of yesteryear while uppity authors should be given the book as a memento mori, a hint as to where they will be heading next.

Anxieties around ...

Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello review – brilliant essays on immortal beasts

The meanings of Dürer’s rhino, Mozart’s starling, Darwin’s tortoise and others explored with wild imagination and pyrotechnic prose

Elena Passarello starts this extraordinary book with the image of Yuka, a woolly mammoth chiselled from the softening permafrost by Siberian tusk hunters in 2010. First a rounded hoof comes into view, then a hollowed-out eye and finally the flank still bearing evidence of the gash that must have done for young Yuka – she was no more than 10 years old when she died – nearly 40 millennia ago. Most surprising of all, though, is the burning smoulder of her pelt, which has kept to its unconvincing ginger-red despite the passing centuries. Whoever knew that woolly mammoths shared their hair colour with dime-store dolls?

As Yuka is flopped on to the snowmobile it is not her odd dislocations – most of her spine is gone although her legs remain rigid – that qualify ...

Folk Song in England by Steve Roud review – the music of the common people?

It has been easy to mock the collectors of rustic tunes and enthusiasts of Merrie England. But their favourite songs were communal without being nationalistic

When is a folk song not a folk song? When it’s accompanied by someone on the piano? When its origins lie not in a ploughed field but on a music hall stage? When it’s written not by “anon” but by a person with a proper name? When Vaughan Williams decides to riff on it using the full resources of a military band? When it could equally accurately be described as a madrigal, a ballad or a nursery rhyme?

These are the questions over which clergymen, antiquarians and ladies of a liberal bent fretted at the end of the 19th century as they set out to recover the precious remnants of England’s vernacular musical culture. Armed with notepad, pencil and even the occasional phonograph, they cycled out ...

A Revolution of Feeling by Rachel Hewitt review – the anguish of failed utopians

A daring history of Mary Wollstonecraft and other 1790s radicals suggests this was the decade that ‘forged the modern mind’

In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey set out to save the human race. By establishing a small political community in which property was held in common and everyone had a vote, they wanted to create a utopia where “wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking” were nothing but a bad memory. The 27 hand-picked communitarians would rub along together comfortably, bound by a sort of sunny reasonableness. Coleridge and Southey, who were still undergraduates when they dreamed up the scheme, were typical of their time in believing that political change went hand in hand with “revolutions of feeling”. To have any hope of achieving one you had to fix the other.

Naturally it all went wrong. The original idea had been to set up the community in post-revolutionary America, an ...

The Witch by Ronald Hutton review – why fear of witchcraft hasn’t gone away

A magisterial account across space and time of why people have been accused, and how some societies have stayed clearIt comes as no surprise to learn that the study of witches and witchcraft has been pockmarked by feuds and even the occasional falling-out. According to the opening section of Ronald Hutton’s magisterial book, the battle lines were drawn from the 1960s to the 90s between those scholars who insisted on taking a global view of maleficent magic and those who argued for a more local approach. The big-picture people tended to be an older generation of anthropologists who believed that all expressions of witchcraft could be traced back to a pocketful of ancient sources. Local characteristics – hanging upside-down naked from a tree in Uganda, dressing your pet toad in a frock in the Basque country – were simply a dialect version of a universal shamanistic language that ...

That’s the Way It Crumbles by Matthew Engel review – against the Americanisation of British English

Engel is not anti-American and it is not linguistic purity he’s after, but rather difference. How will that pan out going forward?OK, here’s the thing. Maybe you like to think that you are a reliable user of the Queen’s English. You give slang a wide berth and never refer to anyone as a “guy” unless it happens to be the fifth of November. You don’t “do the math”, not least because back in your day it was called “maths”. Receiving an email that begins “Hi” makes you squirm and whenever you attempt to “kick ass” you worry about getting a call from the RSPCA. Well done you. Not. For as Matthew Engel shows in this jaunty book, even the most pedantic Britons use Americanisms – words, phrases, pronunciations and spellings, but also that indefinable thing called cadence – 24/7. We can’t help it. Our ears are exposed to an American ...