Frances Wilson

The horrors of dining with a Roman emperor

Emperor of Rome? Is there a typo in the title? Mary Beard’s latest book is about not one but 30 Roman emperors, from Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) to Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 CE), so why the singular? The answer is that Emperor of Rome is a study of autocracy and one autocrat, as Marcus

Triumph and disaster in the War of Jenkins’ Ear

It all began in 1731 when Robert Jenkins, the captain of the Rebecca, had his ear sliced off by Juan de León Fandiño of the Spanish patrol boat La Isabela. Storming the British brig in the Caribbean, Fandiño accused Jenkins of smuggling sugar from Spanish colonies. He would cut King George’s ear off too, Fandiño

How the quarrelsome ‘Jena set’ paved the way for Hitler

Today, the German city of Jena, 150 miles south-west of Berlin, is the world centre of the optical and precision industry; but in the 1790s it spawned an even more marketable commodity. It was then a small medieval town on the banks of the river Saale with crumbling walls, 800 half-timbered houses, a market square

Was Jane Morris a sphinx without a secret?

William Morris was the son of a stock-broker and Jane Burden was the daughter of a stablehand. He was raised in a mansion in Walthamstow (now the William Morris Gallery) and she grew up in a hovel in Oxford. Had she not been talent-spotted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti when she was leaving the theatre one

How does David Sedaris get away with saying the unsayable?

These aren’t diaries in the sense that Chips Channon kept diaries, or Samuel Pepys. They aren’t diaries at all, beyond the fact that each entry records an event and has a date and place attached. If a diary is a conversation with yourself, A Carnival of Snackery is a conversation with a crowd, because the

Frances Wilson on the great and comedic life of D H Lawrence

44 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is Frances Wilson, whose new book Burning Man: The Ascent of D H Lawrence sets out to take a fresh look at a now unfashionable figure. Frances tells me why we’re looking in the wrong places for Lawrence’s greatness, explains why the supposed prophet of sexual liberation

Stealing the story: A Lonely Man, by Chris Power, reviewed

Robert Prowe has writer’s block. An Englishman reaching middle age, he lives in Berlin with his Swedish wife and their two young daughters: two prams in the hall, two enemies of promise. Having enjoyed some success with a collection of short stories, Robert has been commissioned to write a novel; but the submission date was

What does ownership of land really mean?

At the end of the last century, Simon Winchester bought 123 acres of wooded mountainside in the hamlet of Wassaic, the village of Armenia, the town of Dover, the country of Dutchess, the state of New York, the country of America. His land had originally been inhabited by the Mohicans, who grew corn and squash

Good biographers make the best companions

Strange, when your own life flatlines, the way in which other lives become suddenly more interesting. I have been retreating into biographies and memoirs as never before, scouring them for accounts of incarceration, illness, boredom, family meltdowns and sudden financial freefalls. One of the pleasures of the genre is the way in which the peaks

Excess and incest were meat and drink to the Byrons

‘Some curse hangs over me and mine,’ wrote Lord Byron, and thanks to Emily Brand, who is a genealogist, it is now possible to see why Byron was so darned Byronic: excess, incest and marital misery flowed in the bloodstream. The gloom that looked like a Regency pose was entirely pre-programmed; George Gordon Byron’s script

Could Leslie Jamison please stop sitting on the fence?

Leslie Jamison is creating quite a stir in America. Her first collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, went straight to the New York Times bestseller list, and this second collection comes crowned in laurels: ‘She’s an unstoppable force of nature,’ says her American editor. ‘This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best,’ says Eleanor

The gifts of Gabo

Gerald Martin’s titanic biography of 2010, Gabriel García Márquez: A Life, was the product of 17 years of research and 300 interviews, including one with Fidel Castro. So what does Solitude & Company add to the fairytale history of ‘Gabo’, as Latin America’s greatest teller of historical fairy tales is generally known? In the year

‘I don’t want to explain myself’

There is an African bird called the ox-pecker with which Germaine Greer, conversant as she is with the natural world, will doubtless be familiar. Oxpeckers ride on the backs of large mammals — giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest and the like — feeding off their lice. Once thought an example of mutualism, the relationship between diner and

Simply divine

‘The Divine Comedy is a book that everyone ought to read,’ according to Jorge Luis Borges, and every Italian has read it. Dante’s midlife crisis in the dark wood, his journey down the circles of hell, up the ledges of Purgatory and into the arms of Beatrice is mother’s milk to Italian schoolchildren. Today lines