Richard Davenport-Hines rss

‘The Duel after the Masquerade’ by Jean-Léon Gerome was exhibited to great acclaim in Paris in 1857, and a year later in London. The art historian Francis Haskell has suggested that the mysterious duelling figures from the commmedia dell’arte are characters in a story by Jules Champfleury

Crossed swords and pistols at dawn: the duel in literature

Touché: The Duel in Literature John Leigh

Harvard, pp.352, £20, ISBN: 9780674504387

Earlier this century I was a guest at a fine dinner, held in a citadel of aristocratic Catholicism, for youngish members of German student duelling societies. My hosts were splendidly… Read more

Oscar Wilde (Photo: Getty)

Oscar Wilde and the marvellous boy

Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism and the Art of Forgery Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell

Yale, pp.470, £25, ISBN: 9780300208306

The prodigious brilliance, blaring public ruin, dismal martyrdom and posthumous glory of Oscar Wilde’s reputation are almost too familiar. The facts have been rehashed in numerous biographies, and dramatised by… Read more

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portrait of William Wordsworth

The table talk of the poets: dining with Keats, Yeats, Blunt and Lamb, Flint, Pound and Moore

3 January 2015
The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth and Lamb Stanley Plumly

W. W. Norton, pp.336, £18.99, ISBN: 9780393080995

Poets and the Peacock Dinner: The Literary History of a Meal Lucy McDiarmid

Oxford University Press, pp.212, £20, ISBN: 9780198722786

In December 1817 Benjamin Robert Haydon — vivid diarist and painter of huge but inferior canvases of historic events — held a Sunday luncheon to which he invited John Keats,… Read more

Students at the Wartburg festival in October 1817, celebrating the tercentenary of the Reformation and the fourth anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, cause panic in the courts of Europe

How a clumsy drummer started the 1848 revolutions

18 October 2014
Phantom Terror: The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty, 1789–1848 Adam Zamoyski

William Collins, pp.569, £30, ISBN: 9780007282760

There are hundreds of resounding ideas and shrewd precepts in Adam Zamoyski’s temperate yet splendidly provocative Phantom Terror. This is the history of European ultra-reactionary repression and police espionage in… Read more

English economist John Maynard Keynes attends the United Nations International Monetary and Financial Conference at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire, 1944 Photo: Getty

The opéra bouffe that was the Bretton Woods conference

The Summit Ed Conway

Little, Brown, pp.453, £25, ISBN: 9781408704929

There ought to be a comic opera about the Bretton Woods conference — Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, about Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, with its mordant libretto by Philip Hensher,… Read more

An almost masochistic docility: E.M. Forster in his youth

What E.M. Forster didn't do

Arctic Summer Damon Galgut

Atlantic Books, pp.352, £17.99, ISBN: 9780857897183

‘On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings whom you think are sadly mistaken,’ said Penelope Fitzgerald in… Read more

Arshile Gorky (Photo: Gjon Mili//Time Life/Getty)

Critics can be creative - look at Malcolm Cowley

11 January 2014
The Long Voyage: Selected Letters of Malcolm Cowley, 1915–1987 Hans Bak

Harvard University Press, pp.775, £29.95, ISBN: 9780674051065

Even Spectator book reviewers have to concede that their craft is inferior to the creative travail of authors. Henry James railed against the practitioners of literary criticism long ago: So… Read more

W H Auden (Photo: H V Drees/Getty Images)

What would Auden have deemed evil in our time? European jingoism

9 November 2013
What Auden Can Do For You Alexander McCall Smith

Princeton, pp.137, £13.95, ISBN: 9780691144733

‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno’ was the first Auden poem that Alexander McCall Smith read in his youth. He discovered it in an anthology, and it puzzled him because he had… Read more

Christopher Isherwood with W. H. Auden  (Photo: John F Stephenson/Getty Images)

The Rothschilds, the Spenders, the Queen...

19 October 2013
Becoming a Londoner: A Diary David Plante

Bloomsbury, pp.532, £20, ISBN: 9781408839751

The novelist David Plante is French-Québécois by ancestry, grew up in a remote Francophone parish in Yankee New England and came to London half a century ago when still an… Read more

Portrait of the author
 Colette’s ‘L’Entrave’ in her flat in Paris, by André Dignimont

Colette’s France, by Jane Gilmour - review

28 September 2013
Colette’s France: Her Lives and her Loves Jane Gilmour

Hardie Grant Books, pp.532, £20, ISBN: 9781742705354

Monstrous innocence’ was the ruling quality that Colette claimed in both her life and books. Protesting her artless authenticity, she was sly in devising her newspaper celebrity and ruthless in… Read more

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood - review

31 August 2013
MaddAddam Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury, pp.394, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408819708

The two opening volumes of Margaret Atwood’s trilogy have sold over a million copies. One of them managed to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in the nadir year… Read more

A stalwart young career woman: Willa Cather in her early twenties

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell - review

17 August 2013
The Selected Letters of Willa Cather Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout

Knopf, pp.715, £24.65, ISBN: 9780307959300

Willa Cather is an American novelist without name-recognition in Europe, yet she had a wider range of subject and deeper penetration of character than other compatriot novelist of her century.… Read more

'Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff', by Cathryn J. Prince - review

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff Cathryn J. Prince

Palgrave Macmillan, pp.230, $27, ISBN: 9780230341562

Wilhelm Gustloff was a Nazi leader in Switzerland, who was shot dead in his Davos apartment by a Croatian Jewish medical student in 1936. Hitler at the ensuing state funeral… Read more

Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein – review

Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein

Yale, pp.335, £20, ISBN: 9780300186949

One often hears the caterwaul that the harsh new technology of emails has killed the gentle old craft of letter-writing.  Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael — septuagenarian pen-pals who have… Read more

Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony

The wilder shores of Wilde

26 January 2013
Ceremonies of Bravery: Oscar Wilde, Carlos Blacker and the Dreyfus Affair J. Robert Maguire

OUP, pp.213, £25, ISBN: 9780199660827

Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America Roy Morris, Jr

Harvard University Press, pp.212, £19.95, ISBN: 9780674066960

In 1946, as a Princeton graduate, J. Robert Maguire was attached to the American delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. He befriended an elderly survivor of the Dreyfus Affair, from… Read more

The French connection

17 November 2012
Through the Window Julian Barnes

Vintage, pp.243, £10.99, ISBN: 9780099578581

When novelists write essays, they often boom through megaphones, aggrandise the importance of their views and inflate their stature.  Julian Barnes, however, seems to be a novelist who enjoyed feeling… Read more

Flaws in our national treasure

22 September 2012
The Great Charles Dickens Scandal Michael Slater

Yale, pp.232, £20, ISBN: 9780300112191

Charles Dickens remains in his bicentennial year as much a national treasure as Shakespeare, and just as deeply embedded in the English psyche as the Bard, declares Michael Slater, an… Read more

Brotherly love

1 September 2012
Toby’s Room Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton, pp.264, £16.99, ISBN: 9780241144572

Twenty years ago Pat Barker won acclaim with Regeneration, her novel about shell-shocked army officers undergoing treatment at the Craiglockhart psychiatric hospital for soldiers during the first world war. Her… Read more

Philida, by André Brink

25 August 2012
Philida André Brink

Harvill Secker, pp.310, 14.99, ISBN: 9781846557040

The location of Philida is a Cape farm which used to be named Zandvliet and is now the celebrated vineyard Solms Delta, owned jointly by Richard Astor and the eminent… Read more

Preaching to the converted

Farther Away Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate, pp.321, 16.99, ISBN: 9780007459513

Jonathan Franzen is a pessimist with a capacity for quiet joy. In a revealing passage in this collection of essays, reviews and speeches he writes of his fellow novelist Alice… Read more


Hero or villein?

Tolstoy A.N. Wilson

Atlantic, pp.572, 25

‘Not one word’, exclaimed Turgenev of Tolstoy, ‘not one movement of his is natural! He is eternally posing before us!’ The recurrent underlying theme of A.N. Wilson’s prize-winning biography of… Read more


A lord of thin air

Higher Gossip John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff

Hamish Hamilton, pp.501, 25

It is easy, especially if one is not American, to feel ambivalent about the fictions of John Updike. The immaculate clarity of his prose style, the precision of his vocabulary,… Read more


A polished fragment

The Hanging Garden Patrick White

Cape, pp.224, 14.99

One evening nearly 40 years ago the world’s press descended on Patrick White in Sydney: they rampaged outside his house, pounded its doors, shouted through windows, camped on the lawn.… Read more

Picking up the pieces

The Chemistry of Tears Peter Carey

Faber, pp.271, 17.99

‘The World of Interiors’ might have been a better title for this novel. Its two chief protagonists, Catherine Gehrig and Henry Brandling, live a century and a half apart, but… Read more


Menace, mystery and decadence

11 February 2012
The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell

Faber, pp.880, 14.99

Amateurs in Eden Joanna Hodgkin

Virago, pp.335, 25

It is fitting that Charles Dickens’s bicentenary coincides with Lawrence Durrell’s centenary, for the two novelists have crucial resemblances: both of them are triumphant in the intensity and power of… Read more