The Victorians by Jacob Rees-Mogg review – history as manifesto


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Confidence and moral purpose made Britain great, argues this poorly written book, designed to reflect the rightwinger back to himself at twice the size

On the cover of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s cymbal-clashing account of 12 Victorian “Titans who forged Britain” is a statue of a lion. At least I think it’s a lion. The animal’s musculature is so wildly exaggerated that it appears to have put on body armour for the occasion. It has also spiked its hair into a coronet and arranged its face into the sort of warning snarl that suggests that it is not planning to lie down with a lamb any time soon. Neither entirely real nor exactly symbolic, here is an animal that has been assembled not from close observation or deep contemplation, but from feverish memory and desperate desire.

This unlocated quality is entirely fitting for Rees-Mogg’s collection of biographical essays of eminent Victorians. ...

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell – review


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The Titanic as a metaphor that has rattled down the ages ... does this book work as a morality tale about the collapse of a slipshod civilisation?

The story of the Titanic has been retold so often, most frequently during 2012 when the centenary of its capsizing rolled around, that it is hard to see why it would need to be done again. But perhaps that is to miss the point of Gareth Russell’s book. People who consume one thing about the Titanic tend to consume many, and there is always a shivery pleasure in accompanying old friends as they climb aboard once more, unaware that they are walking not only into a deathtrap but into a metaphor that will rattle down the ages.

In stateroom C-77 is the Countess of Rothes, the public-spirited British aristocrat who is on her way to join her husband in the US, where they will ...

Walter Gropius by Fiona MacCarthy review – the visionary behind Bauhaus


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From Weimar to Ikea ... a brilliant biography makes clear the master of modernism’s deep influence on design

If Fiona MacCarthy were a less confident writer, she would have started her biography of Walter Gropius with the moment they met, a year before the great man’s death in 1969. MacCarthy was attending the Bauhaus exhibition at the Royal Academy, a landmark event intended to introduce postwar London to the seminal art school Gropius had founded 50 years earlier in Weimar. While British builders and manufacturers had spent the early part of the 20th century churning out Tudorbethan semis and stuffing them with mass-produced clutter, their Bauhaus-trained counterparts – Germans, but also Swiss, Czechs and Hungarians – had been working towards a sleekly modern “international” aesthetic in service of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) in which buildings and their contents were conceived as a whole entity. Here was a rational, functional ...

Matilda: by Catherine Hanley review – from warrior to queen of England


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Rivalry, tragedy and a fairytale escape: an impressive account of a medieval warrior’s quest to be England’s first regnant queen

In 1142 Empress Matilda escaped from Oxford Castle where she was being held by her dynastic rival, Stephen of Blois. Since it was a snowy December, the self-proclaimed “Lady of the English” wrapped herself in a white fur cloak to blend into the snowy landscape before skating down the frozen river Thames to freedom. As a bedtime story for history-mad girls, Matilda’s flight has always had everything: a heroine outtricking a boy and a nod to the enchantment of Narnia.

Catherine Hanley, though, is writing for grown-ups, and her intention in this impressive study is to remove Matilda’s cloak of invisibility – there have been remarkably few books written about the woman who was arguably England’s first regnant queen – and restore her to full subjecthood. For while Matilda never ...

How Dickens, Brontë and Eliot influenced Vincent van Gogh


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Van Gogh spent three years in London and delighted in Britain’s literary heritage, a love that is explored in a new Tate show

As Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône goes on show at Tate Britain, it is, in one sense, coming home. This might sound like wishful thinking. For the past half century the painting has hung in Paris, and its singing Mediterranean colours, which the artist himself described as “aquamarine”, “royal blue” and “russet gold”, bear little resemblance to the murky half-tints of the Thames, which runs past Tate Britain’s Millbank site. Yet its spring exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, is organised on the principle that the foundations of the Dutchman’s art, both his eye and his intellect, were laid not in the south of France, nor in the misty light of the Low Countries, but in London, where he spent three life-defining years (1873-76) ...

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – what LA lost when its library burned down


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Recipes for hooch, designs for a boat, a place to cry or sleep … a fascinating account of what a city of seekers found at LA Central Library

On 29 April 1986 Los Angeles Central Library went up in flames. The fire started somewhere in the fiction stacks, snaked up the staircases and, gathering force, banged into ceilings. As the temperature reached 1370C, the metal shelves brightened from grey to white and then subsided in a tangle of cherry red. All the staff and visitors got out safely, although the same, of course, could not be said of the books. By the time the fire, and then the high-pressure hoses, had done their worst, half a million volumes were pronounced dead, with the same number again on the critical list. If books could bleed, you would have said the scene was carnage.

Susan Orlean has a knack for finding compelling ...

The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe review – a journey through bereavement


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Classic fiction, married life and past sex are explored in a revealing memoir about coping with loss

Sophie Ratcliffe was 13 when her father died. Over the course of this demi-memoir we gradually learn the reasons why, which turn out to be both shocking and mundane. A marble-blue complexion, a sketchy knowledge of the harmful effects of UV rays (it’s the 1980s) and some unlucky genes meant that the mild-mannered north London civil servant was killed by skin cancer at the age of just 45.

Ratcliffe’s description of loss, which she lugs through the next 30 years, is wonderfully done. She describes her particular version as having grey pilled fur and webbed feet. Her loss is clammy and smelly and turns up to spoil everything that is supposed to be good – Christmas, sex, conversations with new friends (her loss has a weakness for alcohol and a tendency to overshare). ...

Fakes and fortunes: has the time come to forgive literary forger Lee Israel?


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In the pre-internet era, Israel made a career from forging letters from stars including Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. As a new film starring Melissa McCarthy is released, Kathryn Hughes explores why she did it

In 1993, New York author Lee Israel found herself staring down the barrel of a prison sentence. Following an investigation by the FBI, she had been busted as a literary forger. For the past two years, the 53-year-old biographer and journalist had made a killing – not a fortune, but enough to pay the arrears on her rent and get her beloved sick cat treated by the vet – by inventing letters from well-known wits of the mid-20th century. In a series of clever fakes bashed out on vintage Remingtons and Adlers sourced from local junk shops, Israel had ventriloquised funny one-pagers from the likes of Noël Coward, the actor Fanny Brice and, her particular ...

The Invention of the Modern Dog review – our long obsession with canine design


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From dastardly dachshunds to car-friendly cavapoos … Michael Worboys, Julia-Marie Strange and Neil Pemberton explore the history of hounds

“Why are mongrels a dying breed?” Jilly Cooper wondered out loud in 2013. She might equally have asked “Whatever happened to pedigrees?” She was referring to the fact that the dogs you meet these days are seldom pure-bred or mutt, but tongue-twisting mash-ups: labdradoodle, puggle, cavapoo, zuchon, beaglier. The emergence of these artful hybrids in recent years is the result of the marketplace’s demand for an animal designed with human needs in mind: loyal but not clingy, confident yet chilled, fluffy as a puffball but mercifully inclined to hang on to its own hair. And exactly the right size to fit into your car.

Dogs, then, are largely humanmade manufactures, their changing shape and proliferating forms the consequence of fantasy, hope and greed (a good crossbreed with all its ...

Bleak house: the dark truth behind Charles Dickens’ Christmas obsession


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Nobody celebrated Christmas quite like Dickens – yet behind the showy dinners and determined good cheer was a painful reality, only hinted at in his most famous works

When Charles Dickens’s death was announced in June 1870 the young daughter of a London costermonger asked anxiously: “Mr Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” The story has been handed down the generations like a recipe for plum pudding, savoured for the deft way it knits the novelist and the midwinter festival together into one cosy stocking. Just the phrase “costermonger’s daughter” suggests all sorts of Dickensian themes – city grime, cheap street food, the capacity of innocent children to rise lispingly above the squalor of their circumstance. But what often gets missed is the way that the little girl’s question – if she really existed, if she ever said it – assumes how vulnerable Christmas is. Just like ...

The Vampire: A New History by Nick Groom review – an undead family tree


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An eloquent case for the vitality of the vampire figure, from 18th-century Slavic folk tales to Twilight, via Dracula

Nick Groom concludes this invigorating study of vampires by suggesting that we should try to be a bit more like them. Thankfully this doesn’t entail hanging shiftily around blood donor banks or having your cuspids filed to a point (that’s a thing apparently – although heaven knows where you’d find a dentist who’d oblige). Rather, Groom wants us to think about vampires as a way of re-enchanting the contemporary human condition.

Before we can do that, though, we need to know what we’re dealing with. Groom’s pet peeve is the way recent scholarly work has wrenched the figure of the vampire from its political and social origins and turned it into an ahistorical archetype on which to dump any passing concerns. For instance, much has been written about how the vampire ...

Untrue by Wednesday Martin review – the ‘new science’ on infidelity


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How much does anthropology help to destroy the myth that women ‘naturally’ seek one steady partner?

According to Wednesday Martin, if you want to know how early humans organised their sex lives, before prudery, habit and agrarian production got in the way, you should take a look at bonobos. Once known as pygmy chimps, these primates are the closest thing we have to a living ancestor. Certainly, they resemble us more than the common chimp. They are fine-boned, with pink lips, proportionately long legs on which they can walk upright and hair that falls into a neat centre parting.

However that prissy hair-do is misleading. Bonobos are, as is well known, shameless sexual gluttons, especially the females. They wander around in a girl gang and, when they fancy a bloke, go up and put their arm around him. If he moves away the female follows him for a bit. Pretty ...

Help Me! by Marianne Power review – can self-help books really change your life?


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Power’s expanded blog on living each month according to a different manual floats over Bridget Jones and Fleabag territory

If, like me, you spent your 20s, 30s and maybe a bit more reading self-help manuals, then the titles that Marianne Power name-checks in this memoir will feel like dog-eared old familiars. There’s Susan JeffersFeel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Paul McKenna’s I Can Make You Rich (although it was actually his companion text I Can Make You Thin that became my personal bible), Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and Jack Canfield’s Chicken Soup for the Soul. Some were better than others, but one of the biggest challenges was trying to map a mostly American worldview on to another thousands of miles away. Should you put a picture of “your dream condo” on your vision board? ...

Gypsies by David Cressy and The Stopping Places by Damian Le Bas review – the truth about life on the road


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Did Gypsies mend kettles and steal virgins? Old myths and fresh insights in two new studies

Elizabeth Canning, a maidservant, was abducted as she walked to her lodgings in the City of London on New Year’s Day 1753. She claimed that two men dragged her away to “a house of ill-repute” in Enfield where she was confronted by an old Gypsy woman who asked her to become a prostitute. When Canning refused, the Gypsy cut off the girl’s corset and shut her up in the loft. After being kept prisoner for a month, Canning managed to scramble out of a window and limp the 10 miles home.

Initially it seemed an open and shut case with a pleasingly simple moral design. The “ugly, old, decrepit hag”, Mary Squires, was condemned to hang and meek and mild Canning was lauded for her maidenly virtue. But something wasn’t right. There was the ...

Sizzle, spice and not very nice: 100 years of the tell-all biography


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Lytton Strachey’s explosive biographies demolished reputations – not even Florence Nightingale escaped his wrath. But what is his impact on life writing?

A hundred years ago, Lytton Strachey published Eminent Victorians, a sequence of four biographical essays whose elegance belied their punkish intent. Strachey’s subjects, although “targets” might be more accurate, were Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Thomas Arnold and Cardinal Manning. These four eminences – the founder of modern nursing, the British empire’s most honoured military man, the reforming headmaster of Rugby School and Protestant England’s most prominent Catholic churchman – were simultaneously knocked down, duffed up and left looking slightly ridiculous. With language sharpened to a scalpel, Strachey cut away the fatty layers of celebratory bluster to reveal these heroes of Victorian Britain as deluded narcissists whose achievements depended on the ruthless exploitation of those around them. Gordon drank, “was particularly fond of boys” and slapped his ...

Copycats and Contrarians review – should we follow the herd?


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What’s behind our tendency to go with the crowd, sensible thinking or emotion? And what are its dangers?

No one likes to think of themselves as one of life’s sheep. And yet, Michelle Baddeley suggests, there are many circumstances where following the herd is the smart option, because it saves you the bother of decision-making from scratch. Say you’re after a new fridge freezer. Instead of exhaustively researching the topic, you could just buy the one that everyone in your street has got. Chances are that your neighbours have done all the grunt work of comparing thermostats and drip trays and you can simply benefit from their expertise. The time you save could be more usefully employed in learning Mandarin or cooking delicious midweek dinners.

What’s being enacted here, she explains, is the sort of self-interested herding you see in nature. We’re not just talking obvious stuff, such as meerkats ...

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


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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


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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?


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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


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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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