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Womanism

Dinah Birch, 21 December 1989

The Temple of my Familiar 
by Alice Walker.
Women’s Press, 405 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7043 5041 6
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The Fog Line 
by Carol Birch.
Bloomsbury, 248 pp., £13.95, September 1989, 0 7475 0453 9
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Home Life Four 
by Alice Thomas Ellis.
Duckworth, 169 pp., £9.95, November 1989, 0 7156 2297 8
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TheFly in the Ointment 
by Alice Thomas Ellis.
Duckworth, 132 pp., £10.95, October 1989, 9780715622964
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Words of Love 
by Philip Norman.
Hamish Hamilton, 218 pp., £11.95, October 1989, 0 241 12586 3
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... are uttered. It is not reassuring to discover that unbounded optimism can look so banal. Carol Birch’s tough and gloomy new novel seems to emerge from a different world. The beleaguered life of Gloria, disillusioned heroine of The Fog Line, doesn’t leave room for Alice Walker’s sanguine visions. Yet she, too, is sustained by an image of ...

Little was expected of Annie

Dinah Birch: The Story of an English Family, 19 October 2006

Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind: The Cloughs and Their Circle 1820-1960 
by Gillian Sutherland.
Cambridge, 262 pp., £40, March 2006, 0 521 86155 1
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... Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind’: it would be hard to devise a more off-putting title for Gillian Sutherland’s sympathetic account of the Clough family. It’s slightly misleading too, because her book is not much concerned with religious faith. The history it presents is shaped by faltering Christian conviction among the liberal elites of the 19th century, and the pursuit of justice and progress that survived Christianity’s decline ...

The Little Woman Inside

Dinah Birch, 9 March 1995

An Experiment in Love 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 250 pp., £15, March 1995, 0 670 85922 2
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... Women of my age, born in the early Fifties and now in our forties, have reached the season of retrospection. We have become – or have not become – wives, wage-earners, mothers, home-makers, gardeners or taxpayers. Our place in post-war history, formed by a procession of notions (often experimental, often contradictory) of what success is for women, has settled into a pattern that can be discerned and appraised ...

No wonder it ached

Dinah Birch: George Eliot, 13 May 1999

The Journals of George Eliot 
edited by Margaret Harris and Judith Johnston.
Cambridge, 447 pp., £55, February 1999, 0 521 57412 9
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George Eliot: The Last Victorian 
by Kathryn Hughes.
Fourth Estate, 384 pp., £20, November 1998, 1 85702 420 6
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... her own family could be seen in characters such as the Dodson sisters in The Mill on the Floss, or Dinah Morris in Adam Bede, did not bring the longed for reconciliation any closer. She seems sometimes to have been surprised and disconcerted by the pain dial she could inflict. John Gwyther, the curate Eliot had known in nearby Chilvers Coton throughout the ...

In praise of work

Dinah Birch, 24 October 1991

Ford Madox Brown and the Pre-Raphaelite Circle 
by Teresa Newman and Ray Watkinson.
Chatto, 226 pp., £50, July 1991, 0 7011 3186 1
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... Ford Madox Brown’s greatest picture is called Work, and it depicts the laying of a sewer. It is not beautiful. But that is part of Brown’s point, for he was after qualities that counted for more than beauty. Its subject was carefully chosen. Brown knew that sewers mattered. The threat of cholera haunted Mid-Victorian England, and only efficient sanitation could remove it ...

Other People

Dinah Birch, 6 July 1989

The Middleman, and Other Stories 
by Bharati Mukherjee.
Virago, 197 pp., £11.95, June 1989, 1 85381 058 4
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The Burning Boys 
by John Fuller.
Chatto, 128 pp., £10.95, June 1989, 9780701134648
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Termination Rock 
by Gillian Freeman.
Pandora, 182 pp., £12.95, June 1989, 0 04 440352 6
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Blackground 
by Joan Aiken.
Gollancz, 254 pp., £11.95, June 1989, 0 575 04502 7
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... What do the lives and thoughts of other people feel like? We’ll never really know, but fiction offers as good an approximation of knowing as we’re likely to come across. That absorbing illusion of a world elsewhere, with its promised distraction from the irksomeness of our own reality, has always been the most seductive reason for picking up novels and short stories ...

Interdisciplinarity

Dinah Birch, 27 June 1991

The Desire of My Eyes: A Life of John Ruskin 
by Wolfgang Kemp, translated by Jan Van Huerck.
HarperCollins, 526 pp., £20, March 1991, 0 00 215166 9
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... It has never been easy to place Ruskin. In his own lifetime, his influence was fragmented by the bewildering range of subjects he undertook to write about. The dislocation has continued since his death. As far as the mainstream disciplines in Britain are concerned (his legacy in America is a separate story), he has always seemed tangential. The works have become a kind of multiple service industry, studied in part and for divergent reasons ...

The Medium in the Attic

Dinah Birch, 1 June 1989

The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England 
by Alex Owen.
Virago, 307 pp., £11.95, May 1989, 0 86068 567 5
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... Given the contemporary standing of spiritualism, you might suppose that only the gullible or feeble-minded among Victorian seekers after truth would have had any truck with its activities. But you’d be wrong. Some of the most sober luminaries of the age (Gladstone, Ruskin, even Queen Victoria) were prepared to accept, or at least to explore, the possibility of traffic with the dead ...

Looking for magic

Dinah Birch, 14 September 1989

Lewis Percy 
by Anita Brookner.
Cape, 261 pp., £11.95, August 1989, 0 224 02668 2
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Sexing the cherry 
by Jeanette Winterson.
Bloomsbury, 167 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 7475 0464 4
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Fludd 
by Hilary Mantel.
Viking, 186 pp., £11.95, September 1989, 0 670 82118 7
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... It’s not long since the fairy story seemed the least political of genres. Not so today. A preoccupation with transformation and escape, coupled with a repudiation of the sober certainties of rationality, gives its narrative devices potent appeal to those placed by conviction, race or gender on the margins of the cultural establishment. Taking unfamiliar and ruthless forms, traditional tales have acquired new status in contemporary fiction ...

Dark Spaces

Dinah Birch, 28 September 1989

People of the Black Mountains: The Beginning 
by Raymond Williams.
Chatto, 361 pp., £13.95, September 1989, 0 7011 2845 3
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The Politics of Modernism 
by Raymond Williams.
Verso, 208 pp., £24, August 1989, 0 86091 241 8
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A Natural Curiosity 
by Margaret Drabble.
Viking, 309 pp., £12.95, September 1989, 0 670 82837 8
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... The image of a lost golden past is as old as literature. Certainly as old as English literature at any rate, for the earliest Anglo-Saxon texts look backwards, haunted by a sense of vanished affection and security. But English is neither the only tradition nor the first language to have grown up within these islands. One of Raymond William’s polemical purposes in People of the Black Mountains, his final fiction, is to affirm that Wales has its own distinct identity, founded in unremembered time which reaches beyond written records ...

Common Sense and the Classics

Dinah Birch, 25 June 1992

Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance 
by Richard Jenkyns.
HarperCollins, 363 pp., £20, November 1991, 0 00 223843 8
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... There used to be a notion that the 19th century abandoned the ancient world as a cultural model, and looked instead either to progressive scientific materialism or escapist Gothic Medievalism. Like most such generalisations, this hypothesis was full of holes. The story of 19th-century Classicism has now received much scholarly attention, and it has turned out to be odder and more complicated than anyone used to suppose ...

Out of the house

Dinah Birch, 30 August 1990

The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing and Fiction, 1660-1800 
by Janet Todd.
Virago, 328 pp., £12.99, April 1989, 0 86068 576 4
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Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian Britain 
by Mary Poovey.
Virago, 282 pp., £12.99, February 1989, 1 85381 035 5
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The Woman Question. Society and Literature In Britain and America, 1837-1883: Vols I-III 
edited by Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets and William Veeder.
Chicago, 146 pp., £7.95, February 1989, 0 226 32666 7
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Sexual Science: The Victorian Construction of Womanhood 
by Cynthia Eagle Russett.
Harvard, 245 pp., £15.95, June 1989, 9780674802902
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... How can women come to a better understanding of their cultural situation? What needs to be changed, and why? The questions are as urgent as ever, despite wishful rumours to the contrary. Numerous books about women continue to appear, offering diverse models of thought to those looking for counsel. Psychoanalytical and deconstructionist critics have been among the most glamorous figures in the crowd, encouraging women to examine the complex linguistic processes that compose feminine subjectivity ...

Feminist Perplexities

Dinah Birch, 11 October 1990

Seductions: Studies in Reading and Culture 
by Jane Miller.
Virago, 194 pp., £14.99, September 1990, 0 86068 943 3
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... Not so long ago, the most prestigious intellectual work, in the arts as in the sciences, was supposed to be impersonal. The convention was that the circumstances in which such work was produced – the age, gender, class, race or education of its producer, the institutional life which fostered it – all disappeared under a cloak of learned neutrality once it was published ...

Old Lecturer of Incalculable Age

Dinah Birch: John Ruskin, 10 August 2000

John Ruskin: The Later Years 
by Tim Hilton.
Yale, 656 pp., £20, March 2000, 0 300 08311 4
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... Tim Hilton’s foreword to the concluding volume of his biography of Ruskin is intimate and magisterial in a way that would seem presumptuous in anyone else. But Hilton has worked with Ruskin since the early 1960s and no one has a deeper understanding of either him or his writing. In the first volume, published in 1985, Hilton made it clear that the later life was to be the real focus of his biography: ‘I believe that Ruskin was a finer writer and, if I dare say so, a better man, in the years after 1860 and especially in the years after 1870 ...

Invalided home

Dinah Birch, 21 October 1993

The Eye in the Door 
by Pat Barker.
Viking, 280 pp., £14.99, September 1993, 0 670 84414 4
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... Working-class memory generated Pat Barker’s writing. Her early fiction presented itself as a tribute to generations of suffering and survival in the industrial North-East of England. It seemed to fall into a ready-made tradition: ‘the grit, the humour, the reality of working-class life’, Virago burbled cheerfully about Union Street (1982). But there was more to Barker’s work than that ...

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