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Drawing-rooms are always tidy

Ruth BernardYeazell, 20 August 1992

The Sexual Education of Edith Wharton 
by Gloria Erlich.
California, 210 pp., £13.95, May 1992, 0 520 07583 8
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... Among the hot items at my local video store these days is a recent Hollywood thriller called The hand that rocks the cradle. A successful instance of what might be called the yuppie nightmare film, this particular contribution to the genre also manages to exploit a tear that must trouble every mother who has temporarily handed over the care of her children to another woman – not the dread that the caretaker will harm or neglect them, but the anxiety lest she win their love away ...

Tears before the storm

Ruth BernardYeazell, 24 October 1991

The History of Tears: Sensibility and Sentimentality in France 
by Anne Vincent-Buffault.
Macmillan, 284 pp., £40, July 1991, 0 333 45594 0
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... It was front-page news in the United States recently when George Bush brushed away a tear as he described how he had wept while deciding to unleash the air war in the Gulf last January. ‘Like a lot of people, I’ve worried a little bit about shedding tears in public or the emotion of it,’ he told a convention of Southern Baptists in June, but ‘as Barbara and I prayed at Camp David before the air war began, we were thinking about those young men and women overseas ...

Sit like an Apple

Ruth BernardYeazell: Artists’ Wives, 23 October 2008

Hidden in the Shadow of the Master: The Model-Wives of Cézanne, Monet and Rodin 
by Ruth Butler.
Yale, 354 pp., £18.99, July 2008, 978 0 300 12624 2
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... however. Monet did not pay her to sit for him: like the other two women who are the subject of Ruth Butler’s new book – Hortense Fiquet (Paul Cézanne) and Rose Beuret (Auguste Rodin) – Doncieux was first the artist’s mistress and later his wife. Hiring a model cost a minimum of one franc an hour; painting the woman who already shared your bed was ...

‘I can’t go on like this’

Ruth BernardYeazell, 19 January 1989

The Letters of Edith Wharton 
edited by R.W.B. Lewis and Nancy Lewis.
Simon and Schuster, 654 pp., £16.95, October 1988, 0 671 69965 2
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Women Artists, Women Exiles: ‘Miss Grief’ and Other Stories 
by Constance Fenimore Woolson, edited by Joan Myers Weimer.
Rutgers, 341 pp., $42, December 1988, 0 8135 1347 2
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... and with great enjoyment in French and Italian, and perhaps above all in German: one letter to Bernard Berenson speaks nostalgically of returning to her adolescent love for the 13th-century Minneleider and the Old Icelandic Edda; in another, she picks up Nietzsche’s Jenseits von Gut und Böse as a ‘diversion’ from her own writing and finds it ...

Ah, la vie!

Ruth BernardYeazell: Lytton Strachey’s letters, 1 December 2005

The Letters of Lytton Strachey 
edited by Paul Levy.
Viking, 698 pp., £30, March 2005, 0 670 89112 6
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... setting the clocks ahead an hour and a paradoxically vivid account of the crypt-like atmosphere of Bernard Berenson’s establishment at I Tatti: And so much of it, too – such a large corpse – so many long dead corridors, so many dead primitives, so many dead pieces of furniture, and flowers, and servants, such multitudes of dead books; and ...

Doctors’ Orders

Ruth BernardYeazell, 18 February 1982

‘All that summer she was mad’: Virginia Woolf and Her Doctors 
by Stephen Trombley.
Junction, 338 pp., £12.50, November 1981, 9780862450397
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... In the summer following the death of Leslie Stephen in 1904, his daughter Virginia lay in bed, listening to the birds singing in Greek and imagining King Edward lurking naked in the azaleas, shouting obscenities; that same summer she apparently attempted to kill herself by leaping out of the window. ‘I have never spent such a wretched 8 months in my life,’ she wrote to a friend when the crisis had passed ...

The Henry James Show

Ruth BernardYeazell, 7 January 1988

Henry James: A Life 
by Leon Edel.
Collins, 740 pp., £25, July 1987, 0 00 217870 2
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The Complete Notebooks of Henry James 
edited by Leon Edel and Lyall Powers.
Oxford, 662 pp., £25, March 1987, 0 19 503782 0
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... In ‘The Birthplace’ (1903), a tale inspired by the case of a couple who had served as custodians of the Shakespeare house in Stratford, Henry James constructed a marvellously ironic narrative about the ‘stupid’ avidity of a public who care nothing for the artist’s work and everything for his legend, flocking to the shrine to see ‘where He hung up His hat and where He kept His boots and where His mother boiled her pot ...

Domineering

Ruth BernardYeazell, 7 November 1985

The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett 
by Daniel Karlin.
Oxford, 281 pp., £12.95, September 1985, 0 19 811728 0
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... Perhaps all human courtships follow narrative precedents, but few make for such a satisfying story as that of the Brownings. The slightest imaginative pressure can transform the familiar facts of the case into a myth or fairy-tale, with each of the principals in the affair behaving wonderfully true to type: the spellbound maiden, mysteriously immobilised by an unnamed curse; the patriarchal ogre, who keeps his daughter locked away in a darkened room and turns aside all suitors; the lover who arrives with spring to break the spell and carry the heroine south, restoring her to health, happiness and fertility ...

Doubling the Oliphant

Ruth BernardYeazell, 7 September 1995

Mrs Oliphant: ‘A Fiction to Herself’ 
by Elisabeth Jay.
Oxford, 355 pp., £25, February 1995, 0 19 812875 4
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... Even by the standards of her contemporaries Margaret Oliphant’s productivity was phenomenal. As the author of 98 novels, she surpassed that other prodigious maker of fictions, Anthony Trollope, by roughly two to one – and this is not to mention her 25 works of non-fiction, 50 short stories and over three hundred contributions to periodicals. Though she usually prided herself on her robust health, it is little wonder that at the age of 65 she half-boasted to her publisher of how she had ‘worked a hole’ in her right forefinger ‘with the pen, I suppose!’ and could not get it to heal – ‘also from excessive use of that little implement ...

Her pen made the first move

Ruth BernardYeazell, 7 July 1994

Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Chatto, 418 pp., £17.99, March 1994, 9780701161378
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Shared Lives 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Vintage, 285 pp., £6.99, March 1994, 0 09 942461 4
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The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill 
by Miriam Bailin.
Cambridge, 169 pp., £30, April 1994, 0 521 44526 4
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... When Charlotte Brontë was not yet 21, she submitted a sample of her work to the reigning poet laureate, Robert Southey, together with a letter in which she apparently confided her ambition ‘to be for ever known’ as a poet. Three months later, Southey replied. Though he acknowledged her gift and encouraged her to continue writing ‘for its own sake’, he also made clear that her habit of day-dreaming threatened to unfit her for the ‘ordinary uses’ of the world ...

The world’s worst-dressed woman

Ruth BernardYeazell, 1 August 1996

Queen Victoria’s Secrets 
by Adrienne Munich.
Columbia, 264 pp., £22, June 1996, 0 231 10480 4
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... When Lytton Strachey looked back at the ‘apotheosis’ of Queen Victoria’s final years in his biography of 1921, he could only wonder at the disparity between the ‘dazzled imagination of her subjects’ and the unimaginative woman who had somehow inspired them. While ‘Victoria soared aloft towards the regions of divinity through a nimbus of purest glory,’ as Strachey put it, no one appeared to realise how inadequate she was to her symbolic task: That the nation’s idol was a very incomplete representative of the nation was a circumstance that was hardly noticed, and yet it was conspicuously true ...

Glad to Go

Ruth BernardYeazell, 6 March 1997

Death in the Victorian Family 
by Pat Jalland.
Oxford, 464 pp., £25, November 1996, 0 19 820188 5
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... Nothing proves a better test of historical difference than what we all have in common. Like us, the Victorians thought the death of the young more terrible than that of the old; they found sudden loss more difficult to cope with than losses they had long anticipated; they relied on family and friends for comfort in times of bereavement; they took solace from memories of the dead, whom they were inclined, at least in the early stages of their grief, to idealise ...

Domestic Disaffection

Ruth BernardYeazell, 10 June 1993

Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family 
by Walter Herbert.
California, 351 pp., $28, April 1993, 0 520 07587 0
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... He had lived primarily in his domestic affections, which were of the tenderest kind; and then – without eagerness, without pretension, but with a great deal of quiet devotion in his charming art.’ So Henry James summed up the career of his great predecessor in his Hawthorne of 1879. James was usually a shrewd critic, but ‘charming’ is hardly the adjective that first leaps to mind when the modern reader confronts ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, say, or The Marble Faun ...

Ructions in the Seraglio

Ruth BernardYeazell, 8 December 1994

The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood 
by Fatima Mernissi.
Doubleday, 254 pp., £16.99, September 1994, 0 385 40542 1
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Ramza 
by Out el Kouloub, translated by Nayra Atiya.
Syracuse, 201 pp., £13.50, July 1994, 0 8156 0280 4
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... In a little-known film of 1985 called Harem, a yuppie female stockbroker (Natassja Kinski) is drugged and kidnapped on the streets of New York, only to wake up in the harem of an enigmatic oil tycoon (Ben Kingsley) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Given its wildly implausible plot and clumsy editing – not to mention Kinski’s permanently drugged performance – the movie more than deserves its present obscurity ...

Collapse of the Sofa Cushions

Ruth BernardYeazell, 24 March 1994

Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics 
by Isobel Armstrong.
Routledge, 545 pp., £35, October 1993, 0 415 03016 1
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The Woman Reader: 1837-1914 
by Kate Flint.
Oxford, 366 pp., £25, October 1993, 0 19 811719 1
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... New literary movements often declare themselves by denouncing their immediate predecessors, but the Modernist attack on Victorian poetry has endured longer than most. In his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) Yeats summed up his generation’s complaint: ‘The revolt against Victorianism meant to the young poet a revolt against irrelevant descriptions of nature, the scientific and moral discursiveness of In Memoriam – “When he should have been broken-hearted,” said Verlaine, “he had many reminiscences” – the political eloquence of Swinburne, the psychological curiosity of Browning, and the poetical diction of everybody ...

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