Jean Rhys, who died at the age of 88 in 1979, lived to be forgotten and rediscovered. Like many readers, I first came across her through her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which imagines the pre-history of Jane Eyre’s ‘madwoman in the attic’, the Creole heiress married off to Mr Rochester and then incarcerated by him at Thornfield Hall. When it came out to great acclaim in 1966, it marked the rebirth of a writer who hadn’t published a book for more than a quarter of a century and who had even been presumed dead.
The Philippines is the odd man out in Asia, a predominantly Catholic country colonised first by Spain, then the United States. An archipelago with more than 2,000 inhabited islands on the cusp of the Indian and Pacific oceans, its strategic location is obvious. Yet it receives scant coverage in the British media beyond its natural disasters, the flamboyance of its leaders, whether Imelda Marcos or Rodrigo Duterte, and its long-running Marxist and Muslim insurrections.
In October 1897, the grandees of the Royal Horticultural Society gathered to bestow their highest award, the Victoria Medal of Honour, struck to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, to 60 of gardening’s greatest luminaries. For the first time, these included two women. One was Gertrude Jekyll, known by all as the Queen of Spades; the other was the 39-year-old Ellen Willmott.
But Willmott did not turn up. This public snub was the beginning of her reputation as ‘gardening’s bad girl’, as Sandra Lawrence puts it, one that increased exponentially until it exploded in stories of daffodils being booby-trapped to deter bulb thieves.
Thomas Cromwell’s biographer Diarmaid MacCulloch once told me that my father’s family, the Dormers, had been servants of the great enforcer of Henry VIII’s Reformation. This may have been a tease. It is a matter of family pride that Jane Dormer’s great- uncle, the Carthusian monk Sebastian Newdigate, was executed for refusing to accept the Royal Supremacy. Jane, Duchess of Feria (1538-1612), was named after his pious sister, her grandmother.
Attacks on British elitism usually talk about Oxbridge, but Simon Kuper argues that it is specifically Oxford that is the problem, which has provided 11 (out of 15) prime ministers since the war. So what’s the explanation? Kuper thinks it’s all the fault of the Oxford Union, which fosters chaps who are clever at debating without particularly caring which side they are on. As a result, they acquire enough rhetorical skills to enable them to beat opponents who rely on thoughtful, fact-based arguments.
Mark Twain conquered almost every challenge that came his way except old age. Living well into his seventies, he was a printer, an investigative journalist, a riverboat captain, a government functionary, a bestselling novelist, an imperialism-defying political essayist, a successful playwright and a devoted father and husband. He travelled the world giving lectures that made him many fortunes, which he often used to replenish the fortunes he lost from his madder and most poorly managed investment schemes, such as the Paige Compositor, a self-justifying printing press which worked briefly for a few days in 1894 and then, just as mysteriously, stopped.
This is the kind of novel that will be discussed jubilantly in the book clubs of places like Lib Dem north Oxford. It is a social polemic disguised as fiction. Maggie Gee’s concerns are topical: migration, global warming, ‘the virus’, colour prejudice and first nations. The Red Children will be selective in its appeal.
The plot is a surreal fantasy set on ‘the edge of England’, in Ramsgate, where Gee lives. Strange red people with large heads turn up suddenly and stand about naked on the seafront looking out to the Channel or in to Pegwell Bay.
As I’ve occasionally come to think is the case with The Spectator, this book is perhaps best begun at the back. Otherwise it might be taken for niche history – applied historical moral philosophy, say, or an aspect of ‘the people’s war’ usually overshadowed by the manifest imperative to defeat the unparalleled evil of Nazism.
That evil, concludes Tobias Kelly, professor of political and legal anthropology at Edinburgh, has indeed ‘become the frame through which we seem to assess all evils’; but ‘the spectre of appeasement has also reared its head too often’.