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Catching the Prester John Bug

John Mullan: Umberto Eco, 8 May 2003

Baudolino 
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver.
Secker, 522 pp., £18, October 2002, 0 436 27603 8
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... Somewhere in the skirts of the fabled land of Prester John, late in the 12th century, Baudolino, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, encounters a pygmy. He discovers that ‘the greeting to exchange with him was Lumus kelmin pesso desmar lon emposo, which means that you pledged not to make war against him and his people ...

Under-Labourer

John Mullan, 19 September 1996

The Correspondence of Thomas Warton 
edited by David Fairer.
Georgia, 775 pp., $85, September 1995, 9780820315010
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... assistant. A typical letter from Malone asks where he might find a particular prologue by Sir John Denham, wonders whether Warton has come across any mention of ‘Marocco’ (a famous acrobatic horse exhibited around Europe in the 1590s), enquires about any use of ‘the pun on Ajax and A-jakes previous to Sir ...

Freak Anatomist

John Mullan: Hilary Mantel, 1 October 1998

The Giant, O'Brien 
by Hilary Mantel.
Fourth Estate, 211 pp., £14.99, September 1998, 1 85702 884 8
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... of Surgeons hangs the portrait by Joshua Reynolds of the 18th-century surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. It has been much darkened by the bitumen content of Reynolds’s paint, and restoration work in the Fifties has not been able to prevent the fading into the surrounding gloom of many of its supporting details. Only Hunter’s face, once bathed in ...

Cultivating Cultivation

John Mullan: English culture, 18 June 1998

The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the 18th Century 
by John Brewer.
HarperCollins, 448 pp., £19.99, January 1997, 0 00 255537 9
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... they were accessible to all who could pay the price of admission. One of the leading characters in John Brewer’s The Pleasure of the Imagination was a visitor to pleasure gardens. Anna Margaretta Larpent was a moderately prosperous lady living in London in the late 18th century, married to the state official responsible for vetting plays before they reached ...

Urban Messthetics

John Mullan: Black and Asian writers in London, 18 November 2004

London Calling: How Black and Asian Writers Imagined a City 
by Sukhdev Sandhu.
Harper Perennial, 498 pp., £9.99, November 2004, 0 00 653214 4
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... by the sight of potato-sellers whipping their asses in the street; he visits the theatre to see John Henderson play Falstaff; he takes his family down the Thames to Vauxhall Gardens. He also studies the newspapers, intrigued most of all by the doings of high society. His outraged account of the Gordon Riots of 1780 (‘the worse than Negro barbarity of the ...

Noticing and Not Noticing

John Mullan: Consciousness in Austen, 20 November 2014

The Hidden Jane Austen 
by John Wiltshire.
Cambridge, 195 pp., £17.99, April 2014, 978 1 107 64364 2
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... over her own want of presence of mind’, and we sense the denial of feelings hidden from herself. John Wiltshire’s finely observed study of Jane Austen’s six completed novels is all about the way she conjures characters’ hidden feelings. His title might lead you to expect some revelation of Austen’s private passions but, while knowledgable about her ...

The Labour of Being at Ease

John Mullan, 28 October 1999

Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times: Volume I 
by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Philip Ayres.
Oxford, 331 pp., £65, March 1999, 0 19 812376 0
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Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times: Volume II 
by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Philip Ayres.
Oxford, 397 pp., £65, March 1999, 0 19 812377 9
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... led Shaftesbury to seek out the spectacle of religious inspiration. On 5 July 1707, he watched as John Lacy, a well-to-do Presbyterian gentleman, spoke in tongues before a London audience of interested observers and fellow members of Lacy’s own Protestant sect: the French Prophets. This millenarian group, founded by Camisard refugees escaping persecution in ...

Beastliness

John Mullan: Eric Griffiths, 23 May 2019

If Not Critical 
by Eric Griffiths, edited by Freya Johnston.
Oxford, 248 pp., £25, March 2018, 978 0 19 880529 8
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The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry 
by Eric Griffiths.
Oxford, 351 pp., £55, July 2018, 978 0 19 882701 6
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... He usually picked on a big beast – big, that is, in the little world of Oxbridge English. John Carey, for instance, is lampooned for his ‘naivety’ in taking Shakespeare’s plays as ‘a good sample of how vivacious the English language was in the playwright’s day’. (This is really just an excuse for Griffiths to perform an imagined dialogue ...

Full of Glory

John Mullan: The Inklings, 19 November 2015

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings 
by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski.
Farrar, Straus, 644 pp., £11.20, June 2015, 978 0 374 15409 7
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... God, not another fucking elf!’ the English lecturer and long-time Inkling Hugo Dyson cried. John Wain, an attendee at meetings in the late 1940s, described his heart sinking as Tolkien appeared at Lewis’s door with a bulging jacket pocket, yet again. Tolkien looked down on Lewis’s Narnia, which he thought had been created with insufficient ...

Why always Dorothea?

John Mullan: How caricature can be sharp perception, 5 May 2005

The One v. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel 
by Alex Woloch.
Princeton, 391 pp., £13.95, February 2005, 0 691 11314 9
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... When we discuss novels, there is nothing easier or harder to talk about than characterisation. Nothing easier, in that unprofessional readers’ expressions of interest or aversion so often fix on a novel’s characters as vivid or pallid, believable or not. Nothing harder, in that academic critics (and their obedient students) have long since learned to steer away from the illusions of human reality conjured by fiction ...

Zone of Anecdotes

John Mullan: Betrothed to Christ and in a muddle, 17 February 2005

The Divine Husband 
by Francisco Goldman.
Atlantic, 465 pp., £15.99, January 2005, 1 84354 404 0
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... One day, María de las Nieves Moran, the heroine of Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband, unexpectedly receives a letter from a woman who had, many years earlier, been her fellow novice in a convent. This is Guatemala (though it is never named) in the 1870s. The country’s convents have been closed by the government; the nuns have long since fled or gone into hiding ...

High-Meriting, Low-Descended

John Mullan: The Unpolished Pamela, 12 December 2002

Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded 
by Samuel Richardson, edited by Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely.
Oxford, 592 pp., £6.99, June 2001, 0 19 282960 2
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... Samuel Richardson’s account of a servant girl’s defence of her virtue against the advances of her lascivious master (‘Mr B’), given in her own letters, made what we now call ‘the Novel’ (though Richardson never attached this label to his book) respectable. Pamela caused an unprecedented stir, exciting something like a national argument about the purposes and value of fiction ...

Hidden Consequences

John Mullan: Byron, 6 November 2003

Byron: Life and Legend 
by Fiona MacCarthy.
Faber, 674 pp., £9.99, November 2003, 0 571 17997 5
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... the wake of the couple’s acrimonious separation. Byron’s side of the story went up in smoke in John Murray’s grate when the poet’s publisher presided over the burning of his memoirs. If we want Byron’s relationships with those who knew him, why should we not just read his often wonderful letters? One answer might be that Leslie Marchand’s 12-volume ...

Restless Daniel

John Mullan: Defoe, 20 July 2006

The Life of Daniel Defoe: A Critical Biography 
by John Richetti.
Blackwell, 406 pp., £50, December 2005, 0 631 19529 7
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A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe 
by P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens.
Pickering & Chatto, 277 pp., £60, January 2006, 1 85196 810 5
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... and perhaps not all of them – could ever bear to read. Defoe always fancied himself a poet. John Richetti notes that he wrote more lines of verse than either Milton or Dryden, though it is now almost all forgotten. ‘To some extent, that is a shame,’ Richetti observes, not quite believing that he is putting right a wrong. The best of Defoe’s poetry ...

Taking Sides

John Mullan: On the high road with Bonnie Prince Charlie, 22 January 2004

The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Untold Story of the Jacobite Rising 
by Christopher Duffy.
Cassell, 639 pp., £20, March 2003, 0 304 35525 9
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Samuel Johnson in Historical Context 
edited by J.C.D. Clark and Howard Erskine-Hill.
Palgrave, 336 pp., £55, December 2001, 0 333 80447 3
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... the armies are the Jacobite Highlanders and the Hanoverian forces under Lieutenant General Sir John Cope. Duffy is giving a fair signal of the minute military history to come and a display of what he does best: the careful explanation of tactics (and tactical errors); the arrangement of eyewitness accounts; the painstaking analysis of the effects of ...

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