Adultery

The perils of waiting on a Tudor queen

At 7 o’clock on a bleak February morning in 1542, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife Katherine Howard, so enfeebled by fear and misery that she could hardly stand, was half-led, half-carried from her cell in the Tower of London to the scaffold in a nearby courtyard. Watching as the axe fell on her mistress’s neck, and knowing it would be her turn next, was her lady in waiting Jane Rochford. This grisly scene illustrates the horror that underlay the glamour and magnetism of a court where ambition, intrigue, plot and counter-plot swirled in a giddying maelstrom and where balancing on the slippery tightrope of Henry’s moods was essential. Threaded through

Extremes of passion: What Will Survive of Us, by Howard Jacobson, reviewed

There is not going gently into that good night, and then there is teetering into it on spiked-heel boots while strapped into a leather corset in search of clandestine kicks among like-minded fetishists. If it sounds an exhausting and chilly way to spend an evening, well, it is. At least, that’s how it feels to Sam Quaid, the middle-aged playwright who is beset by misgivings – he himself is dressed in ‘the more chicken-hearted guise of a fallen Quaker who had never seen the sun’ – but gamely determined to accompany his lover, Lily. Where is Sam’s obeisance going to lead him, or Lily? Here is where the novel becomes

Love and loathing at Harold Wilson’s No. 10

If Marcia Williams is thought of at all today, it is in terms of hysterical outbursts, a mysterious hold over the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson and, above all, the ‘Lavender List’ – Wilson’s 1976 Resignation Honours List in which Marcia is believed to have played a significant part. Linda McDougall, the widow of the Labour MP Austin Mitchell, gives an infinitely more nuanced and sympathetic picture of this extraordinary woman. I found her biography gripping, with its insider knowledge of government, its picture of the emotional dynamics of Downing Street and its sensational claim that Marcia may have been drugged by Wilson’s own doctor.  She took Purple Hearts to

Hampton Court: an architectural symbol of royal lust

The Dowager Countess of Deloraine, who was governess to the children of George II at Hampton Court and other royal homes, was a notorious bore – so much so that her ‘every word’ made one ‘sick’, according to the courtier Lord Hervey. When she naively asked him why everyone was avoiding her, he replied with exquisite irony that ‘envy kept the women at a distance, despair the men’. This kind of witty, skittish anecdote is scattered throughout Gareth Russell’s scintillating hybrid of a book, which is partly a biography of a place and partly something stranger: an episodic history of England from Tudor times to the present, illustrated by lightning

A complex, driven, unhappy man: the truth about John le Carré

It is often said that the age of letter-writing is past. This forecast seems to me premature. I have edited three volumes of letters, in each case by writers labelled (though not by me) as ‘the last of their kind’. Yet here is another one, and I feel confident that more will follow. Few now write letters, but those who still do tend to take care what they write. And it will be some decades before we have used up the legacy of the living. John le Carré, who died almost two years ago at the age of 89, was one such. His work is likely to be reassessed over

I’m a one-woman man

Gstaad There’s a fin de saison feeling around here, but the restaurants are still full and the sons of the desert are still moping around. Building is going on non-stop and the cows are down from the mountains, making the village a friendlier and more civilised place. Something of a twilight mood has crept in, especially when I compare the cows with the people. Reclaiming vanished days is a sucker’s game, but it’s irresistible. I was up at my friend Mick Flick’s chalet the other afternoon, talking with Gstaad regulars about how much fun the place used to be. I tried the reverse of an old Woody Allen joke, announcing

A late fling: Free Love, by Tessa Hadley, reviewed

Tessa Hadley is the queen of the portentous evening, the pregnant light and the carefully composed life unwittingly waiting to be unravelled. Free Love, like its predecessor Late in the Day, begins on one such evening. The year is 1967 and Phyllis, a suburban housewife, is applying her make-up. She and her husband, a ‘respected Arabist’, are expecting the son of a family friend for dinner. Nicholas arrives, and broods angrily over his resentment of the staid old guard his hosts represent while plotting half-heartedly to seduce Phyllis as vengeance. Hadley is wonderfully wry at undermining the novel’s own urge towards solemnity: He wondered, if he pulled at that ribbon