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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 ...

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 ...

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” ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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. Dressed in a carefully chosen series of gowns – by Deirdre David’s report, the wardrobe consisted of black or red velvet for the tragedies, white or pastel satin for the comedies, and dark green or blue brocade for the history plays – and with no props other than a large reading desk, some piled-up books and a pair of candelabra, Kemble became as famous for her Falstaffs and Prosperos as for the heroines she played as a young woman ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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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