Sarah Burton

Male-order bride

If you want to learn how to create the perfect wife, you should not read this book. You should make an emergency appointment with reality and remain under self-imposed house arrest until help arrives. If you are a man in search of a tolerably compatible partner, just keep looking. If you are a woman, read

Marilyn was murdered

In The Mill on the Floss, having been given a ‘petrifying’ summary of Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil by young Maggie, Mr Riley challenges Mr Tulliver with allowing his daughter access to such dangerous reading material. A perplexed Tulliver explains: Why, it’s one o’ the books I bought at Partridge’s sale.They was all bound

Art for ransom

These two books make mutually illuminating and surprisingly contrasting companions, given the similarity of their subjects. Both are written by those with hands-on experience in the field of art preservation and security. Sandy Nairne was Director of Programmes at the Tate Gallery in 1994 when two important paintings by J.M.W. Turner were stolen while on

His island story

‘If you don’t come to terms with the ghost of your father, it will never let you be your own man.’ Here Christopher Ondaatje (brother of novelist Michael) combines his voyage of filial discovery with another quest: to pursue his obsession with a story he heard at his father’s knee, of a man-eating leopard. ‘If

First knight and his lady

A Strange, Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and Their Remarkable Families, by Michael Holroyd It is rare today to come across a non-fiction book that does not include in its title or subtitle the assertion that the tale it tells is ‘remarkable’, ‘extraordinary’, or ‘fas- cinating’, publishers presumably having decided

A fascinating woman, ill-served

Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope, by Kirsten Ellis Unlike her republican-minded father, ‘Citizen Stanhope’, Hester declared ‘I am an aristocrat and I make a boast of it’. After falling out with him (her mother had died when Hester was four) and quarrelling with his heir, her brother, in her

Lucky dip for lovers

First published in 1857, The Ladies’ Oracle dates from a period when very little literature of real merit was widely considered appropriate reading material for respectable young women, with the consequence that the presses fairly overran with little books designed to fill, rather than enrich, their idle moments — lest the Devil had plans for

The net result

Vermeer’s Hat turns on its head the conventional relationship between a history book and its illustrations. The seven paintings and one plate reproduced here are not intended to give us clues as to what the period and people in the narrative looked like, but are themselves the starting points for the web of narratives that

Dramatic thrills and chills

To be a member of a good audience is exhilarating. The sounds that it makes around you are as much a part of the show as the sounds from the stage: the sound of alert anticipation before the curtain rises — the sound of silence — the sound of implications being understood — the sound

Inscrutable lords of the deep

The sperm whale, more than any other whale, has captured the public’s imagination, to the point that when the average person envisions a whale, it is the sperm whale that they most often see. As a child I definitely saw, in my mind’s eye, the whale that swallowed Jonah as a sperm whale (although I

Nanny comes to the rescue

Footballers’ wives and girlfriends, pop stars’ and politicians’ sons and daughters, are gilded by proximity to the golden ones, often regardless of their own intrinsic talent (or lack of it). It is unusual to find this phenomenon operating upwards through the generations, however. Jennie Churchill, despite her great beauty, charisma, notorious marriages, and reputed 200

The invisible woman

Elizabeth Marsh was an undistinguished member of an unremarkable dynasty. She was neither famous nor infamous and had no conspicuous talent except, perhaps, for survival. Her father’s family was involved in maritime activity but of her mother we know nothing. Elizabeth herself was married to James Crisp, an entrepreneur of uncertain fortunes from whom she

The Welshman in the Court of Vienna

In the opening pages of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller books are memorably divided into certain useful categories: Books You Needn’t Read, Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Need To Read First, Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But

Challenged at the top level

Coming as I do from a long line of hairless wonders, baldness has fascinated me since childhood. One of my earliest memories is of my father harvesting and boiling nettles to produce a concoction which he then spread on his pate in the hope of checking the premature departure of his hair. What was more

Mother both superior and inferior

In January 1831 26-year-old Aurore Dupin Duvenant abandoned her secure provincial existence, her husband and small children, and set out for Paris and la vie bohème. She soon took a 19-year-old lover, adopted male dress, and began to write for a living. The publication of her novel Indiana led to a staff job on La

Famous for being famous

Mary Robinson: actress, poet, novelist, playwright, feminist and London bus. One could wait over a century for a biography of her and then three come along at once. Had London buses existed in Robinson’s lifetime, contemporary satirists would have leapt at the analogy, as it was widely believed that anyone who could afford the fare

Birds in a gilded cage

George III freely acknowledged he was in no hurry to see his daughters married: ‘I am happy in their company, and do not in the least want a separation.’ As a consequence, three of them (Augusta, Sophia and Amelia) never married; the others did so late: Charlotte at 31, Mary at 40 and Elizabeth at