Ruth Scurr

Ruth Scurr is the author of a biography of Robespierre and, most recently, of John Aubrey: My Own Life.

Denunciations: Foucault in the Bastille

Ruth Scurr, 14 December 2017

At​ the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dr Manette is ‘recalled to life’. His death was figurative – he had been held in the Bastille for 18 years by lettre de cachet. The king’s sealed letter, authorising the detention of a man or woman without trial for an indeterminate period of time, was one of the Ancien Régime’s most reviled mechanisms. The...

‘The most ardent revolutionists and those most wrought upon by hatred and regicidal passions were not able to pass the tower of the Temple when the Terror was at its height, without experiencing certain qualms.’ Baron Arthur Léon Imbert de Saint Amand began his late 19th-century biography of Marie-Thérèse from a place of desolation....

Underlinings: A.S. Byatt

Ruth Scurr, 10 August 2000

Antonia Byatt’s new novel opens with a lecture and a window. Phineas G. Nanson, listening to an exposition of Lacan’s theory of morcellement, looks up at the window and decides to quit academe. He thinks: ‘I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing.’ An earlier Byatt novel, Still Life, invoked the well-worn line from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson: ‘Say it, no ideas but in things.’ Still Life is the second in a trilogy of predominantly realist novels about the extended Potter family. It details the cerebral and romantic struggles of the clever middle-class sisters Frederica and Stephanie, educated at Cambridge in the 1950s. In contrast, The Biographer’s Tale is a lush celebration of allusive and imaginative metaphor: rich pickings from at least four centuries of Western civilisation are piled up in a teetering fictional edifice. The novel is like one of those new-old children’s toys through which you can post marbles and watch them ricochet down steps, seemingly out of control. Byatt herself describes it as ‘a patchwork, echoing book’, but the echoes you hear, the walls you hit and the angles you hit them at, have all been decided in advance. This is the point. And the point is underlined, several times.‘

A friend​ who teaches in New York told me that the historian Peter Lake told him that J.G.A. Pocock told him that Conrad Russell told him that Bertrand Russell told him that Lord John...

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He expected it to end badly, and it did: a bullet from a pistol which shattered his jaw, a night of unspeaking agony, death without trial. During that night – ninth Thermidor, or 27 July...

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