Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp worked at the LRB from 1979 to 1992. She has been the theatre critic of the Observer since 1997.

On David King

Susannah Clapp, 21 June 2018

In the days​ before artists brought colour to the cover, the London Review of Books was black and white. Of course, originally, it had no front at all: the first edition, in 1979, was meekly folded into the New York Review of Books. The following year it jumped out of that pouch and into a world where literary journals were routinely typographical. Not all faces around the editorial table...

The Buffalo in the Hall: Beryl Bainbridge

Susannah Clapp, 5 January 2017

Acting came in handy. She knew how to cut a dash, draw the gaze, and deflect it. An air of vagueness – and a celebrated stuffed buffalo in the hall of her house – fed into constricted ideas about women who write books. Big brain or scatterbrain? Bainbridge had a fringe and was skinny; she looked like a chanteuse. Bingo: she was one of the dippy ones. She colluded with this.

Bully off

Susannah Clapp, 5 November 1992

Shena Mackay has written the first antispeciesist novel. Dunedin does not feature animals in any large anthropomorphic or allegorical capacity, and there is hardly a pet in sight. But what happens at the edges of Mackay’s novels, what is taken for granted, has always been vital in establishing their distinctive flavour and their point. Dunedin is about London, poverty and pinched lives, but the background imagery is consistently, though often quietly animal. This imagery helps to make Dunedin as original as any of Mackay’s earlier books. It was one of the few things not praised in the unexpected eulogy bestowed upon Mackay by the pit-bull of the literary pages Julie Burchill when, in Elle magazine, she dismissed other contemporary women authors as ‘a mannered, marginal bunch of second bananas’, and went on to proclaim Mackay as ‘the best writer in the world today’.

Diary: On Angela Carter

Susannah Clapp, 12 March 1992

Last month Birnam Wood came to Putney Vale Crematorium. Or so it seemed. As the attenders at Angela Carter’s funeral emerged from the chapel, surrounding trees began to rearrange themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched – and they dispelled themselves. They shook themselves free of foliage and dwindled. They changed into Special Branch men, moving forward to enclose Salman Rushdie, who had been speaking at his friend’s service. The hullabaloo they evoked bore out a Carter point which had been cited by Rushdie as an example of her genial frankness. When her lung cancer was diagnosed a year ago, he had volunteered his assistance: ‘I don’t think,’ she replied in her meticulous way, ‘I need any help from you …’’

Lovers on a Train

Susannah Clapp, 10 January 1991

‘Beautifully written’ is novel-reviewer’s shorthand for ‘written by a woman’. So is ‘slim’. And ‘slender’. I began to note these casual condescensions when I was helping to judge last year’s Booker Prize. But then, prizes bring out prickliness. ‘Do you think,’ asked one contributor to the London Review of Books, ‘that the Booker panel is as distinguished as it should be?’ The question was delivered with a speculative air, worthy of the academic who spoke. ‘After all,’ he mused on, ‘there are probably dons who would be prepared to act as judges.’

Purging Stephen Spender

Susannah Clapp, 26 October 1989

Before she was born, Sylvia Townsend Warner was called Andrew. When she was seven, her mother took against her for failing to be pretty and failing to be male; by the time she was 17 she was known to the boys of Harrow, where her father was a master, as ‘the cleverest fellow we had’. She described herself as repelled by the ‘devouring femaleness’ of her mother and as owning a ‘preponderantly masculine’ intellect. At the age of 36 she fell for a young woman with a face like a sulky choirboy, and relaxed into a lifelong partnership, explaining: ‘I lean more and more on her trousers.’

Coming out with something

Susannah Clapp, 6 July 1989

‘Of course, one has to write, but what can one say?’ Ursula Wyndham’s mother set up this despairing wail whenever she read in the Times that a friend had given birth. To a girl. Her contempt for female children extended – with knobs on – to her daughter, and she was backed up by a husband who acknowledged his least loved offspring only by explosions of distaste. ‘Can nothing be done about that girl’s spots?’ he would grumble in front of the offending child. Or, when friends were assembled: ‘The tragedy about Ursula is that she is grotesquely tall.’’

Ventures

Susannah Clapp, 10 November 1988

‘In so short a time you have achieved the kind of fame people work towards for a lifetime,’ Diana Lamplugh wrote to her eldest daughter in August 1986. This daughter had achieved fame by disappearing: by being, at the age of 25, presumed dead. In July, Susannah Lamplugh had left the estate agent’s office where she worked, apparently to meet a client, and had never returned. She seemed to have been abducted; she was thought by most people to have been murdered. Mrs Lamplugh’s letter, which described what had happened since Susannah disappeared, was, it seems, written to steady her nerves, and written without much hope that her daughter would ever read it. But the letter was not short of respondents. Mrs Lamplugh gave it to her family, and to the Evening Standard, who printed parts of it. The Telegraph, Mirror and Star also published extracts. BBC Television News showed the writer typing her letter at her desk. Some months later, Diana Lamplugh was able to provide another chilling announcement: ‘We are probably (bar the Royals) one of the most well-known families in Britain.’

Bad Books

Susannah Clapp, 4 August 1988

On 3 October 1922 Percy Thompson, a shipping clerk and old member of the Stepney Elocution Class, was stabbed to death in the street near his home in Ilford. His wife, Edith, was with him; her lover and former lodger, Frederick Bywaters, was the attacker. These circumstances were not disputed when the couple were charged with Thompson’s murder. But when they were found guilty and sentenced to hang, the clamour for reprieve was insistent. The magistrate who had committed them for trial at the Old Bailey protested to the Home Office. The Daily Sketch featured front-page pictures of the lovers’ parents. A petition seeking commutation of the sentence, placed in cinemas, tube stations and theatres, was signed by over a million people. It took a poet to applaud the verdict. Thomas Hardy enthused:

Pisseurs

Susannah Clapp, 2 June 1988

Twenty years ago Muriel Spark described a principle on which ‘much of my literary composition is based’. This was ‘the nevertheless idea’. Mrs Spark was writing about Edinburgh, about her exile from and her attachment to that city, a city in which, she explained, ‘nevertheless’ becomes ‘niverthelace’: ‘I can see the lips of tough elderly women in musquash coats taking tea at MacVittie’s, enunciating this word of final justification … I believe myself to be fairly indoctrinated by the habit of thought which calls for this word. In fact I approve of the ceremonious accumulation of weather forecasts and barometer-readings that pronounce for a fine day, before letting rip on the statement: “Nevertheless, it’s raining.” ’

Hoydens

Susannah Clapp, 18 February 1988

The young Noel Coward thought E. Nesbit was ‘the most genuine Bohemian I had ever seen’. Berta Ruck called her ‘the Duchess’. Nesbit set herself up as the complete Edwardian: a free-thinker, a matriarch and a madcap. She bobbed her hair, carried her tobacco in a corset box, and acquiesced in her Fabian husband’s disdain for the suffragettes: ‘Votes for women? … Votes for dogs!’ She wrote feeble verses which she prized, and robust books for children which made her famous. Like many successful writers of fiction for the young, she produced unhappy offspring: she was not wild about children; she was transfixed by the idea of herself as a child.

Dark and Buzzing Looks

Susannah Clapp, 1 October 1987

When William Shakespeare kisses the heroine of Erica Jong’s novel, he does so ‘with molten sweetness’. When he goes to bed with her, Jessica Pruitt is ‘caught up in a sort of natural disaster … It was as if meteorites showered the earth.’ This is new even to Ms Pruitt, who is accustomed to feeling her ‘silk panties moisten’, and given to referring darkly to ‘those other, lower lips’. She has flown to Italy from Hollywood to act her namesake in a ‘filmic fantasy’ based on The Merchant of Venice. She has speculated that in modern Venice, ‘life is very much as it was centuries ago.’ She has found herself whisked, at the touch of a magic ring, to the 16th century, where she is indeed Shylock’s daughter, and where ‘word-drunk Will’ is cruising the city with a very lascivious Earl of Southampton.

Misbehavin’

Susannah Clapp, 23 July 1987

When the London Review of Books began to run a Diary in 1982, A.J.P. Taylor was one of its authors. He always delivered to an exact length, well before the deadline, and often in person. A new editorial assistant, handed copy by the small seventy-five-year-old in a deerstalker who had scaled the steep stairs to our earlier offices, decided he must be a Mercury messenger. In these Diaries Taylor wrote about the early days of CND, his contempt for the New English Bible, his delight in nude bathing, and his belief that if David Owen had stayed in the Labour Party he would have become its leader. All his columns were eagerly followed, but one series excited particular attention. He reported that his wife, the Hungarian historian Eva Haraszti, was in hospital, and chronicled the resulting ‘devastation’: his incompetence at bed-making, his inability to light the oven, the misery of his solitary meals. In the middle of reading one such bulletin, I rang the Taylors’ home to take his proof marks. Eva Taylor answered the phone: she was home and she was better. What had hospital been like? ‘Very interesting. But – I had homesickness.’ Had she perhaps kept a diary? ‘Of course.’ And here it is.’

Criminal Elastic

Susannah Clapp, 5 February 1987

‘I too work hard, Mrs Oliphant,’ said Queen Victoria to the Scottish novelist. Mrs Oliphant was famous for her productivity. She published biographies of Edward Irving and the Comte de Montalembert, a literary history of England and more than sixty fat novels. From the mid-1850s until her death in 1897 she contributed half a dozen essays a year to Blackwood’s Magazine, delivering on Bunsen, Savonarola, Queen Anne, Marco Polo and Jesus Christ. Her fluency brought her compliments on her ‘industry’ in which she detected ‘a delightful superiority’: she was a connoisseur of condescensions. It also brought her undisguised insults. Stung by Mrs Oliphant’s review of Jude the Obscure, Hardy exclaimed: ‘That a woman who purely for money’s sake has for the last thirty years flooded the magazines and starved out scores of better workers, should try to write down rival novelists whose books sell better than her own, caps all the shamelessness of Arabella, to my mind.’

Little Men

Susannah Clapp, 7 August 1986

Rebecca West liked short men. Towards the end of her life a young journalist went to interview her. He arrived late, to hear West’s companion announce: ‘He’s worth waiting for!’ When West appeared her face fell. ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ she said damningly. ‘Small men are so energetic.’ Her posthumous novel Sunflower features fictional versions of two small men with big names: little H.G. Wells is one; little Lord Beaverbrook is the other.

Palmers Greenery

Susannah Clapp, 19 December 1985

This biography gets off to a bad start with its title. The writer called Stevie Smith was also a celebrity called Stevie – a spiky sprite who was famous for being unfashionable. This creature thrived on being a spinster, which licensed her to be a bit cuckoo, and on speaking her hard words from a spindly frame decked out like a schoolgirl’s – as if it were a feat to think behind a fringe. For Stevie Smith the writer it was comfortable, though not always convenient, to live out of the centre of London: for Stevie the celebrity it was a triumph – an acquaintance is cited here as drawling that her ‘ability’ to live in Palmers Green while moving in London literary circles was ‘the most compelling thing about her’. First-named throughout this book, by biographers who apparently never met her, Stevie Smith and her work are draped in Palmers Greenery. Would a biographer of Hughes call him Ted?’

At Portobello

Susannah Clapp, 4 April 1985

In March 1811 a 15-year-old girl testified to the Edinburgh Court of Session that the mistresses in charge of her boarding-school had been ‘indecent together’. They had, she said, regularly visited each other in bed: they had lain one on top of the other, lifted up their night shifts and made the bed shake. And they had produced a strange noise – a noise that was ‘like putting one’s finger into the neck of a wet bottle’. Jane Cumming was giving evidence in the libel suit brought against her grandmother, Dame Helen Cumming Gordon, by the two schoolmistresses. Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie claimed that, acting on the word of her granddaughter, Dame Helen had brought about the ruin of their school and their reputations: she had withdrawn Jane Cumming from the school and caused the other pupils to be removed; she had not given the teachers a reason for her behaviour; the child’s allegations were without foundation.’

Finishing Touches

Susannah Clapp, 20 December 1984

On 24 March 1928 Charlotte Mew killed herself by drinking a bottle of disinfectant in a nursing-home near Baker Street. She left behind her a volume of poems, a number of uncollected essays and short stories, and instructions that after her death her main artery should be severed: she had thought a lot about being buried alive. Local newspapers reported the ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’ of ‘Charlotte New, a writer of verse’, and of ‘Charlotte Mew, said to be a writer’.

‘You are my heart’s delight’

Susannah Clapp, 7 June 1984

According to Rebecca West, F. Tennyson Jesse was ‘ideally beautiful. I have never seen a lovelier girl.’ A sketch in Joanna Colenbrander’s biography shows a flat, winsome face with wide, rather fishy eyes; her thin limbs are splayed out with flapperish elegance. It may be that her attractions – a fat bundle of love-letters was destroyed when she died, and Mrs Colenbrander finds several witnesses to testify to her ‘aura’ – had less to do with ideal beauty than with loquaciousness and flair. She published more than thirty books, and was praised for her ‘masculine insight into human motives’, but her most enduring fictional creations are women who passed themselves off as gorgeous.–

Sweet Home

Susannah Clapp, 19 May 1983

Elizabeth Bishop’s great gift was to perfect a way of writing about human procedures and concerns without talking chiefly about human behaviour. Her poems are intelligent, supple, grave and witty; often perplexed, but never presenting perplexity as their main source of interest. Her verse is among the least neurotic written in the 20th century.

Who is Laura?

Susannah Clapp, 3 December 1981

In February 1948 André Gide received an uncharacteristically triumphant letter from his English translator. Used to hearing about Gide’s exploits, she now had, girlishly, ‘a little adventure of my own’ to confess. The manuscript of a short story which she had written and sent to Gide 19 years earlier – ‘Oh how could I be so idiotic?’ – and which Gide had stuffed in his desk drawer, had at last been shown to friends in London. Rosamond Lehmann had praised it; Leonard Woolf wanted to publish it. The story was Olivia; the author, anonymous on publication in 1949, was Dorothy Strachey Bussy, Lytton Strachey’s sister.

Social Stations

Susannah Clapp, 1 October 1981

This book contains the memories of nine old people. Asked by a number of interviewers to talk about their childhoods in England before the First World War, they offer notes on families, schools and factories, on nursery teas and crocheting and ringworm. They talk a little about their feelings, less about their fantasies. Collected together to make a bag of recollections, their observations are presented less as life-histories than as a means of becoming acquainted with the conditions of a generation – a generation which, as one contributor points out, ‘was pretty well wiped out’.

Hatless to Hindhead

Susannah Clapp, 1 May 1980

Flora Thompson was born in 1876 in the hamlet of Juniper Hill in Oxfordshire, the daughter of a nursemaid and a stonemason. At the village school she was good at skipping and scripture. She was expected to go into service like most of her schoolfriends, but she was bad at sewing and ineffective with babies; when she was 14 she became a post-office clerk in a nearby village. Ten years later, she married a future postmaster; they had three children – Basil and Winifred and Peter. She published a few stories in magazines, and was sneered at by her husband’s relatives. In her sixties she wrote three books which made her famous as an articulate inhabitant of that strange planet, the countryside.

Hairy Fairies: Angela Carter

Rosemary Hill, 10 May 2012

Angela Carter didn’t enjoy much of what she called ‘the pleasantest but most evanescent kind of fame’.

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The Best Barnet

Jeremy Harding, 20 February 1997

Susannah Clapp’s memoir of Bruce Chatwin has little in the way of hard-going and nothing of the comprehensive record that bloats a literary biography. It makes no claims about the relation...

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