John donne

Four female writers at the court of Elizabeth I

Almost a century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf claimed that if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister the obstacles to her sharing his vocation would have been insurmountable. Woolf’s argument that a woman needs ‘money and a room of her own’ in order to write proved persuasive. ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ has become a pop-cultural trope. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the distinguished American scholar of the Renaissance Ramie Targoff should borrow the phrase for a study of four woman writers. Her title offers a shortcut to understanding how significant this immensely accomplished quartet is for readers and writers today. Not that Targoff’s elegantly readable, immaculately

There’s nothing shameful about hypochondria

The hypochondriac is the butt of jokes. Even his butt is the butt of jokes. A story doing the  rounds in the 16th and 17th centuries concerned a Parisian glassmaker who, believing himself to be also made of glass, fastened a cushion to his buttocks in case they broke when he sat down. His anxiety was mocked by a character in a play called Lingua, Or the Combat of the Tongue: ‘I am a Urinal, I dare not stirre,/ For fear of cracking in the Bottome.’ The aim of A Body Made of Glass is to take hypochondria, or ‘illness anxiety disorder’, seriously. But in a moment of levity, Caroline

The poet with many lives

This is an ingenious and infuriating book about an ingenious and infuriating writer. I first encountered Fernando Pessoa in the wonderful and lamented Penguin International Poets series, and what intrigued me was that he was more than one person. There was his poetry, but also sections attributed to his heteronyms, or imaginary alter egos. Stylistically they were very different. There was the rustic naïf, Caeiro; the neo-classicist, Reis (later to be a subject for one of Portugal’s other major literary figures, José Saramago); and the loud-mouthed modernist, Alvaro de Campos, a naval engineer who apparently studied in Glasgow. Later, I bought a copy of The Book of Disquiet, a posthumous