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E Pluribus Unum

Ruth BernardYeazell, 11 December 1997

Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society 
by Irwin Altman and Joseph Ginat.
Cambridge, 512 pp., £55, December 1996, 0 521 56169 8
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... Forget sleepy odalisques and dreams of the East. Polygamy – in the contemporary US – is hard work. And that holds true for both sexes, though the one in shorter supply may well have the more arduous time. The subjects of Polygamous Families in Contemporary Society are fundamentalist Mormons, whose marriages violate both official church doctrine and the laws of the state; but the threat of persecution, legal or otherwise, seems to be among the least of their difficulties ...

‘I thirst for his blood’

Ruth BernardYeazell: Henry James, 25 November 1999

Henry James: A Life in Letters 
edited by Philip Horne.
Penguin, 668 pp., £25, June 1999, 0 7139 9126 7
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A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Chatto, 500 pp., £20, October 1998, 0 7011 6166 3
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... Henry James was a generous correspondent in more senses than one, but his fellow writers may have found some of the Master’s letters rather exasperating. ‘I read your current novel with pleasure,’ he wrote to William Dean Howells in 1880, ‘but I don’t think the subject fruitful, & I suspect that much of the public will agree with me ...

One of the Pyramids of Egypt

Ruth BernardYeazell: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, 27 May 1999

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment 
by Isobel Grundy.
Oxford, 680 pp., £30, April 1999, 0 19 811289 0
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... Immediately after becoming a woman, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando returns from a spell as Ambassador Extraordinary in Constantinople for tea and literary gossip with Addison, Pope and Swift – only to find that her pleasure in their company dissipates when the volatile Pope turns the force of his anger against her. Offended by Orlando’s carelessness in letting sugar splash into his tea, Pope responds by handing her ‘the rough draught of a certain famous line in the “Characters of Women” ...

Mongkut and I

Ruth BernardYeazell, 30 January 1992

The Romance of the Harem 
by Anna Leonowens, edited by Susan Morgan.
Virginia, 285 pp., £10.50, August 1991, 0 8139 1328 4
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... In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, The King and I, the English governess quarrels with her royal employer over his refusal to provide her with a separate house, outside the harem walls. Alone in her room afterwards, Anna takes her revenge with a spirited patter song, indignantly denouncing the King as a ‘conceited, self-indulgent libertine’ and seizing the occasion to inform him in – absentia – of ‘certain goings on around this place/That I wish to tell you I do not admire ...

Allowed to speak

Ruth BernardYeazell, 19 November 1992

Sororophobia: Differences Among Women in Literature and Culture 
by Helena Michie.
Oxford, 216 pp., £25, August 1992, 0 19 507387 8
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Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic 
by Elisabeth Bronfen.
Manchester, 460 pp., £45, October 1992, 0 7190 3827 8
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... The category of the Other,’ Simone de Beauvoir declared in the opening pages of The Second Sex, ‘is as primordial as consciousness itself.’ No doubt she was right. But it is hard to believe that the term has ever had such intellectual currency as it has at present. Whether in works of high theory or in the popular press, invocations of ‘the Other’, ‘otherness’ – even ‘othering’ – continue to proliferate ...

Vampiric Words

Ruth BernardYeazell, 26 May 1994

The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment 
by Maud Ellmann.
Virago, 136 pp., £7.99, September 1993, 1 85381 675 2
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... When Jane Fonda told an interviewer for Family Circle some months ago that she was heavier than she had previously been but also ‘more comfortable’ with her body, Associated Press duly relayed the news to the world. ‘I don’t weigh myself anymore,’ the 57-year-old Fonda announced, explaining that after two decades of ‘going for the burn’ when she exercised and of binging and purging when she ate, she had decided that there was something unhealthily obsessive about her relation to her flesh ...

Peaches d’antan

Ruth BernardYeazell: Henry James’s Autobiographies, 11 August 2016

Autobiographies: ‘A Small Boy and Others’; ‘Notes of a Son and Brother’; ‘The Middle Years’ and Other Writings 
by Henry James, edited by Philip Horne.
Library of America, 848 pp., £26.99, January 2016, 978 1 59853 471 9
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... Henry James​ liked to represent himself as hopelessly lagging behind his older brother, but he was also very good at turning childish inadequacy to imaginative account. A year after William’s death in 1910, he set out to edit a selection of William’s letters only to end up producing a remarkable self-portrait. Though he had intended to preface the letters with a short history of their family, recollection soon faltered ...

Viva la trattoria

Ruth BernardYeazell: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 9 October 2003

Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Her Sister Arabella 
edited by Scott Lewis.
Wedgestone, $300, October 2002, 0 911459 29 4
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... Eleven of Edward Moulton-Barrett’s dozen children survived to adulthood; and eight were left behind when the eldest escaped to Italy with Robert Browning in 1846 (two sons, including the father’s namesake, had died six years earlier). Moulton-Barrett did not attempt to hoard girl-children only, although the legend surrounding his daughter’s elopement has sometimes suggested that ...

Maisie’s Sisters

Ruth BernardYeazell: Sargent’s Daughters, 5 August 2010

Sargent’s Daughters: The Biography of a Painting 
by Erica Hirshler.
MFA, 262 pp., £23.95, October 2009, 978 0 87846 742 6
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... John Singer Sargent has often been accused of lacking a soul. Even Henry James, who helped introduce him to the London scene in the 1880s and continued to promote his work, worried that he suffered from a ‘sort of excess of cleverness’. The fact that Sargent catered to a transatlantic clientele of celebrities and nouveaux riches at the height of the Gilded Age only encouraged the imputations of superficiality ...

Merry Companies

Ruth BernardYeazell: The Golden Age of Dutch painting, 20 January 2005

Dutch 17th-century Genre Painting: Its Stylistic and Thematic Evolution 
by Wayne Franits.
Yale, 328 pp., £45, June 2004, 0 300 10237 2
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... When we admire genre paintings of the Dutch Golden Age for their realistic representation of everyday life, we may be responding as much to the spell of the 19th century as to the artistry of the 17th. It was in the 19th century that ‘realism’ began to be used as a description of such images, and one of the earliest uses of the French term in an aesthetic sense comes from an 1846 study of the Dutch and Flemish painters ...

Oh! – only Oh!

Ruth BernardYeazell: Burne-Jones, 9 February 2012

The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination 
by Fiona MacCarthy.
Faber, 629 pp., £25, September 2011, 978 0 571 22861 4
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... Edward Jones – the Burne came later – was born in Birmingham to a mother who died giving birth to him and a father who eked out a living as a frame-maker, although art, his son reported, ‘was always a great bewilderment to him’. The only person who seems to have recognised the boy’s talent – a neighbour who bought pictures to rework – had the dubious merit of having once painted stormy waves over a calm harbour scene by Turner ...

Too late to die early

Ruth BernardYeazell: Virginia Woolf and Harriet Martineaun in the sick room, 5 February 2004

Life in the Sick-Room 
by Harriet Martineau, edited by Maria Frawley.
Broadview, 260 pp., £8.99, March 2003, 1 55111 265 5
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On Being Ill 
by Virginia Woolf, edited by Hermione Lee.
Paris Press, 28 pp., £15, October 2002, 1 930464 06 1
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... In the spring of 1877 T.M. Greenhow, a retired surgeon, published an article in the British Medical Journal on the case of Harriet Martineau, who had died in her house in Ambleside the previous summer. Greenhow hoped to settle a heated debate about Martineau’s medical history that had been ignited – or rather, reignited – by some disparaging remarks about doctors which Martineau had managed to circulate posthumously ...

Is everybody’s life like this?

Ruth BernardYeazell: Amy Levy, 16 November 2000

Amy Levy: Her Life and Letters 
by Linda Hunt Beckman.
Ohio, 331 pp., £49, May 2000, 0 8214 1329 5
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... Had Amy Levy (1861-89) never existed, contemporary criticism would have thought her up. We have been recovering women writers for three decades now, but Levy was also a Jew and probably a lesbian, as well as a feminist; and at a time like ours when ‘margins’ are central, she can be singled out for having inhabited several at once. Not only did she belong to the pioneering generation of women at Cambridge, she was the first Jew to be admitted to Newnham ...

Howl, Howl, Howl!

Ruth BernardYeazell: Fanny Kemble, 22 May 2008

Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life 
by Deirdre David.
Pennsylvania, 347 pp., £26, June 2007, 978 0 8122 4023 8
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... Fanny Kemble was happiest on stage when she took all the parts. She had been a celebrity at 19, when she made her debut as Juliet at Covent Garden in 1829; but she was a middle-aged woman in flight from a terrible marriage when she began a second career reading Shakespeare’s plays before enthusiastic audiences on both sides of the Atlantic ...

Self-Made Man

Ruth BernardYeazell: Edith Wharton’s Domestic Arrangements, 5 April 2007

Edith Wharton 
by Hermione Lee.
Chatto, 853 pp., £25, February 2007, 978 0 7011 6665 6
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... Berry’s death in 1927 may have left Wharton ‘utterly rudderless’, as she wrote to Bernard Berenson; but she still managed to get into his Paris apartment and to burn almost all the letters she had ever written to him. ‘No words can say, because such things are unsayable, how the influence of his thought, his character, his deepest ...

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