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Nit, Sick and Bore

India Knight: The Mitfords

3 January 2002
The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family 
by Mary Lovell.
Little, Brown, 611 pp., £20, September 2001, 0 316 85868 4
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Nancy Mitford: A Memoir 
by Harold Acton.
Gibson Square, 256 pp., £16.99, September 2001, 1 903933 01 3
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... sisters (in descending order: Nancy, Pam, Diana, Unity, Decca, Debo; there was also a brother, Tom), had little talent for levity. So the jokes are crucial. One occasionally gets the impression, from MaryLovell’s compelling, fluent and problematically sucker-uppy biography, that she isn’t always entirely sure whether the jokes are funny or not: she quotes the tried-and-tested ones over and over ...

Untold Stories

Alan Bennett

30 September 1999
... Liverpool) once a port, seems sullen, tight-fisted and at night raw and violent. Sometime in the course of this terrible hour a neat middle-aged woman stopped at the foot of Mam’s bed. ‘It’s Mary, love. I’m off now. They’ve just rung me a taxi.’ She turned to me: ‘Could you just go and see if it’s come.’ I went out into the entrance hall, cheered that one of these desperate women ...

Je suis bizarre

Sarah LeFanu: Gwen John

6 September 2001
Gwen John: A Life 
by Sue Roe.
Chatto, 364 pp., £25, June 2001, 0 7011 6695 9
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... watchful, appraising eyes. John’s portraits are almost entirely of women and young girls. She would paint the same subject over and over, so that her portraits become, as the painter and critic Mary Taubman put it, like a ‘distillation of self’, so powerfully do they evoke her own presence. When she followed her brother Augustus to the Slade in 1895, she joined a group of talented young ...


Ian Campbell Ross: ‘provincial genius’

23 October 2003
Hermsprong; or Man as He Is Not 
by Robert Bage, edited by Pamela Perkins.
Broadview, 387 pp., £8.99, March 2002, 1 55111 279 5
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... He had hoped to visit, among others, Erasmus Darwin, but finding the naturalist away from home, Godwin asked Darwin’s wife for a letter of introduction to Robert Bage instead. To his surprise, Mary Darwin said she could not properly provide one since, though Bage was her husband’s ‘very particular friend’, she wasn’t sure she had ever set eyes on him. Undeterred, Godwin determined to ...


Frank Kermode: Remembering William Empson

16 November 2006
William Empson. Vol. II: Against the Christians 
by John Haffenden.
Oxford, 797 pp., £30, November 2006, 0 19 927660 9
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... of the money; I was reminded of the lesson I myself had to learn as an inexperienced professor at Manchester when, arguing honestly for a new assistant lecturer, I was annihilated by Sir Bernard Lovell, who claimed that if he didn’t get the money I was asking for he would have to close down the Jodrell Bank telescopes. Empson at least had the experience of infighting in BBC committees. In my ...

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