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Two Wheels Good

Graham Robb: The history of the bicycle, 6 July 2006

Bicycle: The History 
by David Herlihy.
Yale, 480 pp., £15.99, August 2006, 0 300 12047 8
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... In September 1814, the European powers were meeting at Vienna to carve up the continent after the fall of Napoleon. The delegation from the Grand Duchy of Baden was hoping to consolidate the territorial gains it had made under the French empire and to prove itself worthy of a major role in the new Europe. Duchy officials were alarmed, therefore, when they heard that Baron Karl von Drais, a publicity-seeking eccentric who was employed by the Duchy as a forest master, intended to use the Congress as a showcase for his horseless carriage ...

Hugolian Gothic

Graham Robb: Gargoyles of Notre-Dame, 25 February 2010

The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity 
by Michael Camille.
Chicago, 439 pp., £34, June 2009, 978 0 226 09245 4
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... It was Victor Hugo who first brought the water evacuation system of Notre-Dame cathedral to the world’s attention. The central character of Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) was like a living gargoyle, a tortured ‘bundle of disordered limbs’ swinging furiously on bell-ropes, scrambling over the face of Notre-Dame, dislodging the crows, as he leaped ‘from projection to projection ...

Missing Mother

Graham Robb: Romanticism, 19 October 2000

Romanticism and Its Discontents 
by Anita Brookner.
Viking, 208 pp., £25, September 2000, 0 670 89212 2
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... Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon began to acquire a large retinue of definitions. Mme de Staël associated it with the misty, melancholy North and declared Romanticism to be primarily an effect of climate ...

And what did she see?

Graham Robb: The Bête du Gévaudan, 19 May 2011

Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast 
by Jay Smith.
Harvard, 378 pp., £25.95, March 2011, 978 0 674 04716 7
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... In the summer of 2007, Jay Smith, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, was in Paris collecting information for a book about a mysterious beast that terrorised the remote French province of the Gévaudan between 1764 and 1767. One day, while lunching on the place de la Sorbonne, he was warned of a terrible danger. His companion, a French academic, told him that if he published a book about the Bête du Gévaudan he would not be ‘taken seriously’ by his fellow historians, ‘the subject was so firmly associated with the realm of popular entertainment ...

I want, I shall have

Graham Robb, 17 February 2000

La Grand Thérèse or The Greatest Swindle of the Century 
by Hilary Spurling.
Profile, 128 pp., £7.99, September 1999, 9781861971326
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... The role of Thérèse Humbert and her family in the life of Henri Matisse was one of the revelations of the first volume of Hilary Spurling’s pioneering biography: The Unknown Matisse. For more than twenty years, the Humberts were a major force in the social and political life of the Third Republic, until, in 1902, their legendary wealth was exposed as a hoax ...

Water me

Graham Robb: Excentricité, 26 March 2009

Eccentricity and the Cultural Imagination in 19th-Century Paris 
by Miranda Gill.
Oxford, 328 pp., £55, January 2009, 978 0 19 954328 1
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... The word excentricité was first used in its figurative sense by Germaine de Staël in her Considérations sur les principaux événements de la Révolution française (1817). Until then, it had been an astronomical and geometrical term. In its new sense, it was an anglicism, expressing ‘a wholly original way of behaving which pays no heed to the opinion of others ...

Migne and Moody

Graham Robb, 4 August 1994

God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne 
by R. Howard Bloch.
Chicago, 162 pp., £19.95, June 1994, 0 226 05970 7
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... The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’ (I Thessalonians 5.2). In 19th-century France, it came in the shape of the abbé Jacques-Paul Migne. Between 1840 and 1870, with the help of several hundred poorly-paid workers and the latest in steam-powered printing, Migne undid the effects of the French Revolution, reversed the Reformation, created ‘the two most beautiful historical monuments to be found anywhere in the world’ and directed ‘the greatest publishing enterprise since the invention of printing ...

Slippery Prince

Graham Robb: Napoleon III, 19 June 2003

Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza 
by David Baguley.
Louisiana State, 392 pp., £38.50, December 2000, 0 8071 2624 1
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The French Second Empire: An Anatomy of Political Power 
by Roger Price.
Cambridge, 507 pp., £55, January 2002, 0 521 80830 8
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... On the morning of 5 August 1840, a large pleasure boat chartered by a Frenchman was under steam at London Bridge. The owners of the Edinburgh Castle seem to have been remarkably incurious about the expedition. The day before, guns and ammunition, bundles of printed proclamations, a large amount of cash, sixty uniforms and several horses had been taken on board ...

Come Back, You Bastards!

Graham Robb: Who cut the tow rope?, 5 July 2007

Medusa: The Shipwreck, the Scandal, the Masterpiece 
by Jonathan Miles.
Cape, 334 pp., £17.99, April 2007, 978 0 224 07303 5
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... The first reports of a gruesome disaster reached Paris on 5 September 1816. A French frigate, the Medusa, had run aground on the notorious and poorly mapped Arguin Bank off the coast of West Africa. It was the flagship of a small expedition sent to repossess the settlement of Senegal, which had been handed back to the French by the Treaties of Paris (1814 and 1815 ...

Like a Carp on a Lawn

Graham Robb: Marie D’Agoult, 7 June 2001

The Life of Marie d'Agoult, Alias Daniel Stern 
by Phyllis Stock-Morton.
Johns Hopkins, 291 pp., £33, July 2000, 0 8018 6313 9
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Marie d’Agoult: The Rebel Countess 
by Richard Bolster.
Yale, 288 pp., £16.95, September 2000, 0 300 08246 0
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... Marie Catherine Sophie de Flavigny, Comtesse d’Agoult (born Frankfurt, 1805; died Paris, 1876) is famous for two contrasting reasons. In 1835, she left her husband for Franz Liszt. The affair lasted about ten years and produced three children, the second of whom, Cosima, succeeded ‘where her mother had failed’, says Phyllis Stock-Morton, by ‘becoming the permanent muse of a great composer’ (Wagner ...

Walking through Walls

Graham Robb: The world’s first anti-hero rogue cop, 18 March 2004

Memoirs of Vidocq: Master of Crime 
AK Press, 370 pp., £14, July 2003, 1 902593 71 5Show More
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... In June 1845, an odd assortment of faintly disconcerting objects was drawing large crowds to the Cosmorama in Regent Street. The exhibition catalogue was headed: ‘Vidocq, chef de la police de sûreté (detective force) de Paris, which was created by him, and which he directed for 29 years with extraordinary success’. For five shillings, visitors could inspect a collection of disguises worn by M ...


Graham Robb: The Tour de France, 19 August 2004

... At three o’clock in the morning somewhere between Auxerre and Lyon on the European Bike Express bus, I dreamed that I had an exclusive interview with Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is the Texan cycling supremo who recovered from advanced testicular cancer to win the Tour de France five times in a row. One condition was imposed: the interview had to be conducted on bicycles ...

Are your fingers pointed or blunt?

P.N. Furbank: Medical myths of homosexuality, 22 July 2004

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 342 pp., £18.99, November 2003, 0 330 48223 8
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... Graham Robb, who is well known for his biographies of Balzac, Victor Hugo and Rimbaud, has written a history of what he calls a ‘vanished civilisation’, his theme being that in the 19th century, although homosexual love and homosexual fraternising were hardly admitted to exist, except perhaps in court reports, they were an omnipresent and vital part of the national life ...

Arthur Rimbaud at Scamblesby, 1873

John Burnside, 5 January 2017

... There is no evidence that Rimbaud ever visited Scarborough. Graham Robb At times, it feels like someone else’s dream, copious rain, when it comes, and the sense of Paraclete in every tongue of flame and hymnsong in the sky above the fen; and nightfall, in the gaps between the hills, is quick and unrelenting, like the mouth that glides out from the ditch, no voice to tell what symmetry it brings ...

Oui Oyi Awè Jo Ja Oua

Michael Sheringham: The French Provinces, 31 July 2008

The Discovery of France 
by Graham Robb.
Picador, 454 pp., £9.99, July 2008, 978 0 330 42761 6
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... As Graham Robb points out, the ‘discovery’ of France – by politicians, bureaucrats, map-makers, statisticians, engineers, folklorists, tourists and, until fairly recently, the country’s inhabitants on the rare occasions when they ventured outside their own patch – almost invariably involved the swapping of one set of illusions or prejudices for another ...

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