Ruth Scurr

Was the French Revolution inevitable?

In the middle of the 18th century, on the north side of the Palais Royal gardens in Paris, there stood a magnificent chestnut tree called the Tree of Cracow. In his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 2000, Robert Darnton explained that the name Cracow probably derived from the heated debates that took

How do authors’ gardens inspire them?

When Henry James moved to Lamb House in the Sussex coastal town of Rye, he admitted that he could hardly tell a dahlia from a mignonette: ‘I am hopeless about the garden, which I don’t know what to do with and shall never, never know – I am densely ignorant.’ He sought advice from the

The imaginative energy of Katherine Mansfield

A hundred years ago, in a former Carmelite monastery 60 kilometres south of Paris, Katherine Mansfield ran up a flight of stairs to her bedroom and died of a haemorrhage.  She was 34 years old. She had known for five years that she had tuberculosis. After joining the spiritualist therapeutic community at Fontainebleau-Avon in October

Empress Eugénie’s shrine to the Bonapartes

The empress Eugénie – the Spanish-born last empress-consort of France, wife of Napoleon III, mother of the prince imperial – lived for the last 40 years of her life in Farnborough, between the military towns of Aldershot and Sandhurst. There she created a home, museum, mausoleum and chantry in commemoration of the first and second

The men of blood get their comeuppance in Revolutionary France

Colin Jones’s hour-by-hour reconstruction of the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, the French revolutionary most associated with the Terror, is inspired by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who believed that only by getting ‘up close’ to the ‘infinitely small’ details would it be possible to understand the truth about a Revolution that was stranger than fiction. Mercier (1740-1815) was

The life and loves of Mary Wollstonecraft

What did Mary Wollstonecraft like and love? This is the question Sylvana Tomaselli, a lecturer at Cambridge University, asks herself at the start of her new book about the writer and philosopher who is often described as ‘the mother of feminism’. After the unveiling of Maggi Hambling’s controversial statue in honour of Wollstonecraft on Newington

Too many of our children are battling severe depression

Christopher Hitchens once said that women just aren’t as funny as men and Caitlin Moran believed him. But that was many years ago — the great male essayist and orator has been dead for a decade — and Moran has matured into a bold, wise, middle-aged comedienne. When she was growing up in the 1980s,

The grisly art of Revolutionary France

There was a basket of thick red wool and two pairs of large knitting needles at the start of University College London’s cleverly curated exhibition, Witnessing Terror: French Revolutionary Prints 1792–94. Visitors were invited to contribute their own lines of stitches before picking up a copy of A Tale of Two Cities, in which Dickens

Conversations between truth and power

Denis Diderot (1713–84) is the least commemorated of the philosophes. Calls for his remains to be moved to the Panthéon on the tricentenary of his birth in 2013 were ignored. He has not taken his place alongside Rousseau and Voltaire in the Parisian vaults of fame, even though he was no less radical or progressive.

Character actors

Willa Drake’s second husband calls her ‘little one’, even though she is over 60 and the mother of two grown boys. After a troubled childhood in Lark City, Pennsylvania, she married at 21, stopped studying after her first pregnancy and was widowed with teenage children when her first husband was killed in a road-rage incident

A year full of birds

Deborah Levy draws her epigraph for The Cost of Living from Marguerite Duras’s Practicalities: ‘You’re always more unreal to yourself than other people are.’ Practicalities (1987) is a series of interviews Duras gave to a young friend with all the questions left out and the interview format effaced. Levy’s book is, similarly, one side of

The only word that hurts

It is hard to be honest about anorexia. The illness breeds deceit and distortion: ‘It thrives on looking-glass logic. It up-ends your thoughts, turns bone into flesh, makes life unlivable, death seem glorious.’ In her first book, the literary critic and art historian Laura Freeman is determined to tell the truth about her recovery from

A vanishing vision

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey were undergraduates when they met in June 1794, Coleridge at Cambridge university and Southey at Oxford. One of their earliest conversations concerned the political implications of the passions. A month later, on 28 July, the French Revolutionary Terror climaxed in the guillotining of the Incorruptible, Maximilien Robespierre. Evidence from

Dark night of the soul

As bombs fall everywhere in Syria and IS fighters destroy Palmyra, a musicologist in Vienna lies awake all night thinking of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, where he stayed in 1996, following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie and King Faisal. He remembers the hotel’s Ottoman ogival windows and its monumental staircase,

Spectator Books of the Year: Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Second-Hand Time’

‘Memory is a creature that is alive… nobody has simple relations with memory,’ Svetlana Alexievich told the Cambridge literary festival earlier this year. She was speaking through a translator about Second-Hand Time, first published in English in 2016 (Fitzcarraldo Editions, £14.99) and her earlier books including Chernobyl Prayer and War’s Unwomanly Face. Alexievich claims that

When the music changes

In 2011 the New York Times’s chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, asked: How should we react today to ‘Bojangles of Harlem’, the extended solo in the 1936 film Swing Time in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs. Zadie

Looking for treasure island

It is not easy to avoid clichés when writing about J.M.G. Le Clézio. Born in Nice in 1940, the recipient of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature is known in the Anglophone world as an ex-experimental novelist. His early work, exploring language and insanity, was praised by Michel Foucault. But since the 1970s his style

Fighting for progress

It is very difficult to uncover accurate connections between ideas and events in history. A.C. Grayling is a philosopher and polemicist with a particular story to tell about the rise of freedom in the 17th century. In the introduction to his new book he writes: I hope the sketches offered here will illustrate the claim