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Ruth Scurr: Foucault in the Bastille, 14 December 2017

Disorderly Families: Infamous Letters from the Bastille Archives 
by Arlette Farge and Michel Foucault, edited by Nancy Luxon, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton.
Minnesota, 328 pp., £28.99, January 2017, 978 0 8166 9534 8
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... At​ the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dr Manette is ‘recalled to life’. His death was figurative – he had been held in the Bastille for 18 years by lettre de cachet. The king’s sealed letter, authorising the detention of a man or woman without trial for an indeterminate period of time, was one of the Ancien Régime’s most reviled mechanisms ...


Ruth Scurr: A.S. Byatt, 10 August 2000

The Biographer's Tale 
by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 224 pp., £14.99, June 2000, 0 7011 6945 1
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... Antonia Byatt’s new novel opens with a lecture and a window. Phineas G. Nanson, listening to an exposition of Lacan’s theory of morcellement, looks up at the window and decides to quit academe. He thinks: ‘I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there ...

‘Because I am French!’

Ruth Scurr: Marie Antoinette’s Daughter, 3 July 2008

Marie-Thérèse: The Fate of Marie Antoinette’s Daughter 
by Susan Nagel.
Bloomsbury, 418 pp., £25, July 2008, 978 1 59691 057 7
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... The most ardent revolutionists and those most wrought upon by hatred and regicidal passions were not able to pass the tower of the Temple when the Terror was at its height, without experiencing certain qualms.’ Baron Arthur Léon Imbert de Saint Amand began his late 19th-century biography of Marie-Thérèse from a place of desolation. Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Madame Royale, later Duchesse d’Angoulême was the first child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and the sister of the dauphin, Louis-Charles ...

I have written as I rode

Adam Smyth: ‘Brief Lives’, 8 October 2015

‘Brief Lives’ with ‘An Apparatus for the Lives of Our English Mathematical Writers’ 
by John Aubrey, edited by Kate Bennett.
Oxford, 1968 pp., £250, March 2015, 978 0 19 968953 8
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John Aubrey: My Own Life 
by Ruth Scurr.
Chatto, 518 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 0 7011 7907 6
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... the past. Out of the scattered scraps that Aubrey left behind, and with some additions of her own, Ruth Scurr has built the diary that Aubrey never quite wrote. Scurr assembles a somewhat Pepysian, first-person Aubrey – paradoxically, given Aubrey’s evasive presence in his own biographical and antiquarian writings ...

If you’d seen his green eyes

Hilary Mantel: The People’s Robespierre, 20 April 2006

Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution 
by Ruth Scurr.
Chatto, 388 pp., £20, May 2006, 0 7011 7600 8
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... his vision was defective. Even with the help of spectacles, he didn’t see very well, and was, Ruth Scurr suggests, both short-sighted and long-sighted. His perspectives were strange; the lines between himself and the outside world were blurred. Diffident, rather gauche, he should have kept himself apart from the world; instead, he seems to merge ...

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