Victoria Glendinning

Recycling Sackville-West style

Here’s a book co-authored by one dead woman and one living one. Sarah Raven is the second wife of Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West. In 1930 Vita bought Sissinghurst, the ruins of a great 16th-century house, and with her husband Harold Nicolson created the world-famous garden. Tell me the old, old story. Vita died

‘Trespassers: A Memoir’, by Julia O¹Faolain

In this memoir Julia O’Faolain, author of seven distinguished novels and many short stories, asserts that she has nothing to say about the ‘inner Julia’, because being a writer she is more interested in observing other people. And, importantly, ‘I write because Seán and Eileen did.’ Some women stop identifying themselves as their parents’ daughter

The good …

Edna O’Brien would obviously never write a typical Irish ‘misery memoir’, though she has experienced more misery than is quite fair, even to the point of planning suicide. Country Girl is an emotional roller-coaster of a book, beginning with two disturbing dreams of her old home, setting the elegiac tone. Family life was a ‘ragbag

Everyone is lost in the forest

The Grimm brothers’ fairy tales are gruesome. Heads are cut off and sometimes stuck back on again. Children are maimed, or chopped up, cooked and eaten. Broken promises are punished horribly, though a magic bird or a talking animal can sometimes make everything come right. Yet those tender-minded parents are misguided who keep their children

Nature study

On my desk is the vertebra of a narwhal. It was given to me by a man in Canada after a convivial dinner. Narwhals are Arctic whales with long spiky tusks on their noses. This vertebra is about three inches across, embedded in bone expanding into waisted wings, like a propeller. If I were the

A man who quite liked women

It is noticeable that the kind of young woman that a clever public man most likes talking to is intelligent but totally unchallenging. This is pleasant for both. She gets to pick up useful knowledge, while he can hold forth, happy that she doesn’t have the inclination or firepower to disagree, argue or interrupt.   

Black swan

At a time when publishers seem chary of commissioning literary biographies, the conditions for writing them have never been better. Major authors born in the 1890s and early 1900s were written about pretty comprehensively in the so-called golden age of biography, stretching from the last quarter of the past century into the first few years

Country matters

Clive Aslet was the long-time editor of Country Life, and now, as its ‘Editor at Large’, is released into the environment. Clive Aslet was the long-time editor of Country Life, and now, as its ‘Editor at Large’, is released into the environment. It obviously suits him. He writes wonderfully in Villages of Britain about building

Home and away

Rats cannot be sick, says Bill Bryson. Not many people know that. Rats can have sex 20 times a day. Further down the same page, we read that they also sleep 20 hours a day. Do the sums. Rats must fornicate five times an hour in their waking period, as well as eating rubbish and

Pearl of the Orient

When she was a little girl, playing in the countryside around her missionary parents’ home in China, Pearl Buck used to come across the scattered body parts of babies abandoned for animals to devour. She would bury them, and tell no one. When she was a little girl, playing in the countryside around her missionary

Books do furnish a life

Ronald Blythe writes from his old Suffolk farmhouse, and Susan Hill writes from her old Gloucestershire farmhouse. The view from the windows, the weather, the changing light and the rhythm of the seasons, are evoked by both of them with a similar lyric precision and grace. Reading about their extraordinarily pleasing surroundings and rich interior

Live and let die

The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 5, 1922-1923, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott; Death & the Author: How D.H. Lawrence Died and Was Remembered, by David Ellis The story of a life is also the story of a death, and one of the values of biography is that it enables us to

Selective breeding

The ‘entirely fresh view’ of childhood in England presented by Anthony Fletcher in 414 pages of text and apparatus may come to some as a bit of an anti-climax. Although material conditions changed enormously, and children by the end of his period had more toys and books and birthday presents, his 12 years of research

Small elephant at Dove Cottage

This is a lively contribution to that mound of books — now approximately the height of Skiddaw — about Wordsworth and Coleridge and their ladies in the Lake District. Frances Wilson has found a niche, basing her book on Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals, written during the two and a half years at the opening of

More marks on paper

Life is not fair. Talents are not distributed equitably. The likelihood is that if you are good at one thing, you will be good at other things too. But there is a twist in the tail. The more things you are good at, the less you will be perceived as pre-eminent in any of them.

Agony of the aunts

Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson One day in 1917 the senior mistress of Bournemouth High School for Girls told the assembled sixth form, ‘I have come to tell you a terrible fact. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry.’ She was right. Nearly three quarters of a million young

Tasty Woolf rissoles

When I was a child, an aunt gave my mother a cookery book called 100 Ways with Mince. This made a huge impression on me, because of my mother’s irritation — it was not her idea of a present — but even more so because of the enormity of the title. It sprang into my