Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell

There’s something about Mary (Wollstonecraft and Shelley)

25 April 2015
Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley Charlotte Gordon

Hutchinson, pp.649, £25, ISBN: 9780091958947

If Mary Wollstonecraft, as she once declared, ‘was not born to tred in the beaten track’, the same with even greater reason could be said of her daughter Mary Shelley.… Read more

Tolstoy with his secretary at Yasnaya Polyana, 1906

The prophet Tolstoy and his dodgy vicar

24 January 2015
Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov Alexandra Popoff

Pegasus, pp.309, £17.99, ISBN: 9781605986401

One fine day in June 1896, a lone Russian nihilist visited Leo Tolstoy on his country estate. Come to hear the master, the stranger questioned Tolstoy about his latest beliefs.… Read more

Churchill reading in his library at Chartwell

Churchill was as mad as a badger. We should all be thankful

19 April 2014
The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor Jonathan Rose

Yale, pp.516, £25, ISBN: 9780300204070

Land sakes! Another book about Winston Churchill? Really? Give us a break, the average reader may think. Actually though, as title and subtitle suggest, this isn’t just another biographical study.… Read more


Is any kind of sex still taboo in literature?

8 March 2014

The first gay marriage will be conducted this Easter, and those who still object to the idea find themselves in a minority. The majority, according to polls, can’t see what… Read more


Ian Buruma’s notebook: Teenagers discover Montaigne the blogger

22 February 2014

Bard College in upstate New York, where I teach in the spring semester, is an interesting institution, once better known for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll than academic rigour.… Read more


By the book: The NSA is behaving like a villain in a 1950s novel

18 January 2014

The continuing drip-feed of stories about governments and friendly-seeming internet giants sifting through our data has left some citizens feeling outraged and a bit duped. I have no doubt that… Read more

Woman in black: Madeleine St John, due for revival. 
‘Her steadiest relationships were with a series of cats’

Breakdowns, suicide attempts — and four great novels

18 January 2014
Madeleine Helen Trinca

Text Publishing, pp.384, £12.99, ISBN: 9781921922848

Among the clever young Australians who came over here in the 1960s to find themselves and make their mark, a number, as we all know, never went back. A few… Read more

Scarlett O’Hara runs through the streets of burning Atlanta

'Where are the happy fictional spinsters?'

18 January 2014
How to be a Heroine, or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much Samantha Ellis

Chatto, pp.250, £16.99, ISBN: 9780701187514

This book arose from an argument. Lifelong bookworm Samantha Ellis and her best friend had gone to Brontë country and were tramping about on the Yorkshire moors when they began… Read more

Top of the happiness scale: Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (English School, 15th century)

Look! Shakespeare! Wow! George Eliot! Criminy! Jane Austen!

16 November 2013
A Little History of Literature John Sutherland

Yale, pp.275, £14.99, ISBN: 9780300186857

Among the precursors to this breezy little book are, in form, the likes of The Story of Art, Our Island Story and A Brief History of Time and, in content,… Read more

Lose weight the Muriel Spark way

24 August 2013

Those of you dieting your way to a svelte physique amid the flesh-exposing terrors of summer should take courage from Mrs Hawkins, the heroine of Muriel Spark’s wonderful novel A… Read more

Mind your language: The springs before the Arab Spring

3 August 2013

Two hundred and forty-years ago next Tuesday, Thomas Gray was buried in his mother’s grave in Stoke Poges churchyard. In his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ (published… Read more

High life

23 March 2013

He was a member of a charmed circle of Hellene and Philhellene intellectuals just before and after the second world war, experiencing modern Greece and seeing it as a place… Read more

Group portrait of the Du Maurier sisters with their dog Brutus by Frederic Whiting (1918). From left to right: Daphne, Jeanne and Angela

'Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing', by Jane Dunn - review

9 March 2013
Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters: The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Bing Jane Dunn

Harper Press, pp.423, £25, ISBN: 9780007347089

Jane Dunn is something of a specialist on sisterhood. She has — we learn from the dedication — five sisters of her own; she has already written a book about… Read more

Monsieur Hollande and Madame Bovary

2 June 2012

François Hollande has had it with austerity. Well, fair enough — austerity is dull and painful. No wonder other European leaders are keen to follow his example. But perhaps Hollande… Read more


In a Greene shade

26 May 2012
The Man Within My Head: Graham Greene, My Father and Me Pico Iyer

Bloomsbury, pp.241, 16.99

One of the unanticipated benefits of British rule in India is the body of distinguished writing in the English language coming from the Indian diaspora — Naipaul, Seth, Rushdie, Mistry,… Read more


Hero of his own drama

17 March 2012
Strindberg: A Life Sue Prideaux

Yale, pp.371, 25

Sam Leith is enthralled by the larger-than-life genius, August Strindberg — playwright, horticulturalist, painter, alchemist and father of modern literature When I’m reading a book for review, it’s my habit… Read more

Abiding inspiration

17 March 2012
Why Trilling Matters Adam Kirsch

Yale, pp.188, 20

In 1971 looking back over his life, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) declared himself surprised at being referred to as a critic. Certainly his plan when young had been the pursuit of… Read more


Making sense of a cruel world

4 February 2012
Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World Simon Callow

Harper Press, pp.220, 16.99

Becoming Dickens: The Invention of a Novelist Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

Harvard University Press, pp.390, 20

The actor-biographer Simon Callow has played Dickens, and has created Dickensian characters, in monologues and in a solo bravura rendition of A Christmas Carol. Now he suggests that the theatricality… Read more


The truest man of letters

7 January 2012

In 1969 an author in his early thirties published his first book. The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters won the Duff Cooper prize, delighted the reading public,… Read more

S is for Speculative

3 December 2011
In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination Margaret Atwood

Virago, pp.256, 17.99

Margaret Atwood has written 20 novels, of which three (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood) are science fiction. Indeed, the first— and far the… Read more

England from above

6 August 2011
Visions of England Roy Strong

Bodley Head, pp.240, 17.99

It is a shame that Sir Roy Strong is subjected to the now-obligatory drivel about his being a ‘national treasure’, because this unthinking cliché diminishes his contribution, over more than… Read more


When the going got tough

16 July 2011

The acute emotional pain caused by his first wife’s infidelity was of priceless service to Evelyn Waugh as a novelist, says Paul Johnson Evelyn Waugh died, aged 62, in 1966,… Read more

A haze of artifice

The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue by W.H. Auden, edited by Alan Jacobs

Princeton University Press, pp.200, 15.95

Auden said: ‘The ideal audience the poet imagines consists of the beautiful who go to bed with him, the powerful who invite him to dinner and tell him secrets of… Read more


A heart made to be broken

18 June 2011
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde Franny Moyle

John Murray,, pp.374, 20

Very useful in modern conversation, Oscar Wilde. Not for the quotable quips — everyone knows those already. His real value comes when you’re trying to guess someone’s sexuality. ‘He can’t… Read more


Honour the most exalted poet

4 June 2011
Dante in Love A.N. Wilson

Atlantic Books, pp.400, 25

What’s your punishment going to be, when you get to Hell? At least as envisaged by Dante, you might be somewhat surprised. Hitler (mass murderer) is in the outer ring… Read more