John Pemble

John Pemble is a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol. The Rome We Have Lost is coming out from Oxford next year.

Trollope’s Late Style

John Pemble, 3 November 2016

For a long time​ Anthony Trollope was remembered as the civil servant who introduced the pillar box to Britain and wrote fiction in three-hour stints before breakfast, sitting in front of a clock to make sure he produced 250 words every 15 minutes. Most had heard of Barchester Towers, but few read it, and the rest was forgotten. Three-volume, double-plot novels about people in crinolines,...

Victorian Capitalism

John Pemble, 7 January 2016

An MP and financier​ dead from poison on Hampstead Heath; the secretary of a life insurance company in his office with his brains blown out; a stockbroker with his throat cut in a railway carriage in Grosvenor Road Station; a diamond magnate jumping overboard from a passenger liner in the mid-Atlantic: lurid with suicide, Victorian capitalism got a very bad press. In 1776 Adam Smith had...

Apostles in Gibraltar

John Pemble, 9 September 2015

Franco’s henchmen​ arrested Lorca in the summer of 1936, after he’d taken refuge in a private house in Granada. Having extracted a ‘confession’, they transferred him to nearby Víznar where, on 19 August, he and another prisoner were executed by firing squad. Hardly anyone believed Franco’s claim that Lorca had been killed in a skirmish (‘a natural...


John Pemble, 5 December 2013

‘All actors want to play Disraeli, except fat ones,’ the American filmmaker Nunnally Johnson said. ‘It’s such a showy part – half Satan, half Don Juan, man of so many talents, he could write novels, flatter a queen, dig the Suez Canal. Present her with India. You can’t beat that, it’s better than Wyatt Earp.’ And it’s as good as Lord...

James Anthony Froude

John Pemble, 23 May 2013

The scene had been too trying even for the practised headsman of the Tower. His arm wandered. The blow fell on the knot of the handkerchief, and scarcely broke the skin. She neither spoke nor moved. He struck again, this time effectively. The head hung by a shred of skin, which he divided without withdrawing the axe; and at once a metamorphosis was witnessed, strange as was ever wrought by...

Victorian Corpse Trade

John Pemble, 25 October 2012

The last year of the workhouse was 1929. The old-age pension, introduced twenty years earlier, was still only ten shillings a week. George Orwell hadn’t imagined that anyone could live on it, but when he went slumming he discovered that people did, thanks to a diet of bread, margarine and tea, dirt-cheap lodgings and clothes from charities. By now, the unemployed could draw insurance...


John Pemble, 19 July 2012

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of...

Sherlock Holmes

John Pemble, 26 January 2012

‘Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?’ snapped Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1945. He refused to find out who did, because he’d already discovered that Agatha Christie’s books were garbage and that he couldn’t put them down. This is what you’d expect. Wilson was a literary prude, and detective stories are literature’s oldest profession....

Gilbert and Sullivan

John Pemble, 16 June 2011

Something remarkable happened one night in 1920, during a performance of Iolanthe at the Prince’s Theatre. After the chorus had sung

To say she is his mother is an utter bit of folly! Oh, fie! Our Strephon is a rogue! Perhaps his brain is addled, and it’s very melancholy! Taradiddle, taradiddle, tol lol lay!

the man sitting next to Maurice Baring turned to him and said:...

Late Georgian Westminster

John Pemble, 10 June 2010

In 1834 a spectacular fire destroyed the House of Commons. No one was sorry. More than 60 years later Gladstone still remembered the building’s lack of ‘corporeal conveniences’: there was nowhere even for ‘washing the hands’. The latest volumes of The History of Parliament confirm the slumminess of late Georgian Westminster. While Windsor Castle and Buckingham...

Cousin Marriage

John Pemble, 25 February 2010

In Britain privilege still means power, but power no longer means class. The British ruling class is long since dead. Its day was over when neoliberal think tanks dethroned liberal-humanist intellectuals and nobody was any longer interested in how to combine Adam Smith with the Bible, or the rule of the many with the wisdom of the few. Yet literature gives back what history has erased. In...

Rich Britons

John Pemble, 24 September 2009

William Rubinstein is an expatriate New Yorker who has spent his academic life investigating wealth and the wealthy in modern Britain and overturning cherished ideas by looking at the British from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Who Were the Rich?, compiled from probate records, will identify everyone who died in Britain between 1809 and 1914 leaving personal assets of...

Literary Tourists

John Pemble, 7 June 2007

Literary tourism is naff. It means coach parties, blue plaques, monuments, the National Trust, Friends of this and that. It buys from Oxfam books like The Brontë Country, Dickens’s London, With Hardy in Dorset, Literary Bypaths of Old England, The Land of Scott. Academic libraries don’t cater for it, and academic critics have about as much regard for it as they have for...

The Victorians

John Pemble, 8 March 2007

Will the history of the Victorian age ever be written? Lytton Strachey was emphatic that it wouldn’t. It will never be written, he declared in the preface to Eminent Victorians, because we know too much about it. Neither a Ranke nor a Gibbon could master the vast ocean of material bequeathed by those prolific generations. The historian could do no more than row across it, sink a bucket,...

Commenting on my comments on Ricardo and Malthus, Giancarlo de Vivo recycles the old caricature of ‘Parson Malthus’ – a final solutionist in a dog collar preaching ‘physical elimination’ of the unemployed as a remedy for unemployment (Letters, 22 November). Elimination was never a part of the Malthusian agenda; it was a natural catastrophe that the agenda was designed...

Superior Persons

E.S. Turner, 6 February 1986

‘We travellers are in very hard circumstances,’ said Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. ‘If we tell anything new we are laughed at as fabulous.’ This mistrust of the footloose is...

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