Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The triumphs and disasters of 1845

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: not France in 1789, convulsed by revolution, but Britain in 1845, when the period Dickens referred to as ‘the moving age’ was in danger of spinning out of control. It was the year when the SS Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel,

The many rival identities of Charles Dickens

Until the age of ten I lived in a street of mock-Georgian houses called Dickens Drive. Copperfield Way and Pickwick Close were just around the corner. Even now I regularly pass the Pickwick Guest House on the main road out of Oxford. None of this is especially surprising. Go online and you can buy a

The other half of Wham!

Have you heard the story about the time that Andrew Ridgeley, the 1980s heart-throb, refused to answer the door to Andy Warhol after John Lennon hissed at him: ‘Do you want him coming in here taking photos when you’ve got icicles of coke hanging out of your nose?’? How about Ridgeley’s fondness for orgies, during

From fame to shame

Biographers are a shady lot. For all their claims about immortalising someone in print, as if their ink were a kind of embalming fluid, it has long been suspected that they enjoy wielding their pens more like a cosh or a scalpel. Victorian writers were especially nervous about the prospect of a biographer prodding and

In the bedroom, with a carving-knife

Early on the morning of 6 May 1840, a young housemaid in a respectable Mayfair street discovered that her master, the elderly and mildly eccentric peer Lord William Russell, had been murdered in his bed. His throat had been hacked at like a joint of meat, slicing through the windpipe and almost severing his head.

Trigger-happy madcap

This is a biography that begins with a bang, swiftly followed by puddles of blood, shrieks of ‘Murder!’ and a chase through the foggy streets of Victorian London. On 8 December 1854, a French émigré was walking through Fitzrovia, close to the heart of radical London, having recently left a pistol-shooting range in Westminster. He

A flawed and dangerous theory

If there were a prize awarded to the book with the best opening line, A. N. Wilson would be clearing a space on his mantelpiece. ‘Darwin was wrong’, he announces at the start of this hugely enjoyable revisionist biography, which will be read in certain scientific circles to the background noise of teeth being ground

Behind the fringe

‘Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three,’ Philip Larkin famously announced in his poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, ‘Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.’ But the key line is a far more private confession, caught in parentheses like a gloomy thought bubble: ‘(which was rather late for me)’. Few of

Hit and miss | 15 September 2016

A few years ago, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune stumbled upon what was widely reported as ‘the Holy Grail of chicken’: a version of Colonel Sanders’s secret recipe that his second wife had scribbled in an album. Anyone hoping that it would contain exotic ingredients such as powdered lark’s tongue or virgin snow from

The laureate of repression

In 1927, while delivering the lectures that would later be published as Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster made a shy attempt to get to know his Cambridge neighbour, the classical scholar A.E. Housman. At first all appeared to be going well. After one lecture the two men dined together, and Housman told Forster ‘with

‘Mother says I look like a sick ostrich’

Most modern biographers feed off celebrity like vampires let loose in a blood bank. That is why their books sell: they give readers the illusion of intimacy with people they will never know. Alexander Masters is different. He specialises in what one might call ‘marginal biography’, devoting hundreds of pages to individuals who live on

From the Big Smoke to the Big Choke

‘A foggy day in London town,’ croons Fred Astaire in the 1937 musical comedy A Damsel in Distress, puffing nonchalantly on a cigar as he wanders through a wood that has already been half obliterated by belching Hollywood smoke machines. Today Gershwin’s lyrics conjure up a nostalgic vision of life in the city, involving pale