Biography & Memoir

Pauline Boty in 1962

Pauline Boty’s Presence

Rosemary Hill

26 June 2024

There has been an element of ‘infatuation-driven hyperbole’ in almost everything that has been said and written about Pauline Boty. In her lifetime her physical presence was always part of her reputation. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, but that she was beautiful in a particularly timely way. Blonde, long-limbed, slightly lush, she was the Sixties ideal.

Read more about The Talk of Carshalton: Pauline Boty’s Presence

Henry’s Fool

Clare Bucknell

26 June 2024

Tudor writers​ made being a court fool sound like a holiday. In John Heywood’s play Witty and Witless (c.1520s), ordinary working men are said to live with great ‘payne of body’: they strain their . . .

Revolutionary Féminisme

David Todd

26 June 2024

Choderlos de Laclos​’s Liaisons dangereuses is remembered for its salacious intrigues, but it’s also about the condition of women. Addressing the Vicomte de Valmont, her partner in games of intimate . . .

Barbara Comyns’s Childhood

Rosemary Hill

9 May 2024

‘But you’ve killed me!’ Barbara Comyns’s daughter, Caroline, recognised her younger self in Fanny, the little girl who dies of scarlet fever in Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths . . .

Famous Seamus

John Kerrigan

25 April 2024

Towards​ the end of 1997, Seamus Heaney wrote to his friend Derek Mahon from Magdalen College, Oxford. ‘Amigo, Here briefly, at the fall of the leaf,’ he began, archly but affably. ‘The deer-park . . .

Always the Same Dream: Princess Margaret

Ferdinand Mount, 4 January 2018

Only the hardest heart would repress a twitch of sympathy. To live on the receiving end of so much gush and so much abuse, to be simultaneously spoilt rotten and hopelessly infantilised, how well would any of us stand up to it?

Read more about Always the Same Dream: Princess Margaret

On Not Going Home

James Wood, 20 February 2014

A panic suddenly overtakes me, and I wonder: how did I get here? And then the moment passes, and ordinary life closes itself around what had seemed, for a moment, a desperate lack.

Read more about On Not Going Home

Desperately Seeking Susan: remembering Susan Sontag

Terry Castle, 17 March 2005

At its best, our relationship was rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge – or possibly Stalin and Malenkov. Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer. Whenever she came to San Francisco, usually once or twice a year, I instantly became her female aide-de-camp.

Read more about Desperately Seeking Susan: remembering Susan Sontag

Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

David Sylvester, 5 July 2001

I cannot recall the crucial incident itself, can only remember how I cringed when my parents told me about it, proudly, some years later, when I was about nine or ten. We had gone to a tea-shop on boat-race day where a lady had kindly asked whether I was Oxford or Cambridge. I had answered: ‘I’m a Jew.’

Read more about Memoirs of a Pet Lamb

A Feeling for Ice

Jenny Diski, 2 January 1997

I am not entirely content with the degree of whiteness in my life. My bedroom is white; white walls, icy mirrors, white sheets and pillowcases, white slatted blinds. It’s the best I could do.

Read more about A Feeling for Ice

The Old Devil and his wife

Lorna Sage, 7 October 1993

Grandfather’s skirts would flap in the wind along the churchyard path, and I would hang on. He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn’t get up to much. I was a sort of hobble; he was my minder and I was his.

Read more about The Old Devil and his wife

Too Close to the Bone

Allon White, 4 May 1989

Faust, despairing of all philosophies, may yet drain a marsh or rescue some acres from the sea.

Read more about Too Close to the Bone

Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces...

Read more about Paul de Man’s Abyss

The Wrong Blond

Alan Bennett, 23 May 1985

On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off Newfoundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant.

Read more about The Wrong Blond

Like the inhabitants of other small and remote countries, the Icelander has the choice to go or stay. Halldór Laxness did both. He was a cosmopolitan and a homebody. He yo-yoed. He stayed in Iceland and...

Read more about Double-Time Seabird: Halldór Laxness does both

Diary: The Bussolengo Letters

Malcolm Gaskill, 21 March 2024

Each war speaks to every war, providing fresh testimony of nerves strained, hopes raised and dashed. And yet there is something tragically unusual – nearly unique – about these particular letters:...

Read more about Diary: The Bussolengo Letters

Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

Ange Mlinko, 21 March 2024

Jo Ann Beard is a cunning craftswoman who draws circles and parallels across time, embedding patterns that unite seemingly disparate tales.

Read more about Sprigs of Wire: On Jo Ann Beard

Buchi Emecheta said that all her books were about survival, but survival doesn’t always mean gritting your teeth. Sometimes it means acting the tourist for a day, skipping the royal press conference...

Read more about Lady This and Princess That: On Buchi Emecheta

The torture that comes with Ronnie O’Sullivan’s freakish gift is partly down to the fact that he is playing a game where the stakes have become, for most people, so low. But for the fans, the magic...

Read more about Clunk, Clack, Swish: Watching the Snooker

There’s a voyeuristic quality to so many of the discussions of Anne’s rise and fall, since it was allegedly her sexual allure that made her queen and her sexual licence that led to her death. The compulsion...

Read more about Whip with Six Strings: Anne Boleyn’s Allure

Alasdair MacIntyre drew a conclusion he has stuck to ever since: that philosophy takes time. Instead of choosing an opinion that appeals to you and forsaking all others, you need to take on different arguments...

Read more about Like a Top Hat: Morality without the Metaphysics

The Secret Life: On the poet Molly Brodak

Patricia Lockwood, 25 January 2024

You do walk through the world with some people. You don’t know anything about them, but you walk through the world; if they die, you do not get used to it.

Read more about The Secret Life: On the poet Molly Brodak

The BBC was a postwar phenomenon and a promising field for a woman. When Hilda Matheson met John Reith he recruited her to be director of talks on the phenomenal salary of £900 a year. She was 38 and...

Read more about Talking about Manure: Hilda Matheson’s Voice

Hooted from the Stage: Living with Keats

Susan Eilenberg, 25 January 2024

Keats was deeply interested in suffering. He came by it naturally and also medically; sometimes it appeared as an impulse towards poetic tragedy. He wants what he has always wanted, to soothe pain. If...

Read more about Hooted from the Stage: Living with Keats

Wheatley’s writing was the supposed product of her leisure time rather than her enslaved labour. She imitated white aesthetics while drawing attention to her Blackness in ways that mixed humility with...

Read more about Victory by Simile: Phillis Wheatley’s Evolution

Teachers, classmates, relatives would remember Mansfield as ‘completely self-centred’, ‘careless’, ‘lazy’, ‘impatient’, ‘the last child in the world they ever expected to become a writer’,...

Read more about I behave like a fiend: Katherine Mansfield’s Lies

Mainly Puddling: Thomas Carlyle’s Excesses

Stefan Collini, 14 December 2023

By​ 1875 the eighty-year-old Thomas Carlyle was ready to die. In fact, he was rather looking forward to death, at least officially, more than once referring to it as ‘release’. To...

Read more about Mainly Puddling: Thomas Carlyle’s Excesses

In the crisis-ridden 1930s, Hughes was happy to combine the roles of activist, foreign correspondent and purveyor of agitprop verse. His most inventive and original poetry, however, had other sources,...

Read more about Daddy, ain’t you heard? Langston Hughes’s Journeys

Diary: David’s Presence

Gale Walden, 2 November 2023

Even before he died, I avoided telling people I knew David Foster Wallace. If they knew who he was, they wanted to know details about him. I became a secondary character, as women often are. 

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Go to Immirica: Hate Mail

Dinah Birch, 21 September 2023

Sending venom through the post, rather than using email or social media, today appears an old-fashioned gesture. The laptop provides easier options. Yet abusive letters haven’t altogether gone away,...

Read more about Go to Immirica: Hate Mail

Disappearing Ink: Life of a Diplomat

Tom Stevenson, 10 August 2023

Diplomats are often quite isolated from the societies to which they are posted. Their central task is not statecraft but the promotion of their country’s ‘interests’ – reducible to the arms industry...

Read more about Disappearing Ink: Life of a Diplomat

Russian Podunks

Michael Hofmann, 29 June 2023

Konstantin Paustovsky’s fiction tends to be set in public and among strangers, so that one is tempted to think: ‘Aha, the great frieze of society,’ or ‘Is this perhaps social realism?’ But that’s...

Read more about Russian Podunks

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