Biography & Memoir

Photograph of Barbara Comyns (1947) Image courtesy of Manchester University Press

Barbara Comyns’s Childhood

Rosemary Hill

9 May 2024

Her childhood in rural Warwickshire gave Comyns the material for her first book, Sisters by a River. It was essential to much of what followed in both life and work, though she was lucky to get out of it alive. She herself was the original of the peculiar children and the childlike voices that recur in her later writing. 

Read more about See stars, Mummy: Barbara Comyns’s Childhood

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 . . .

Halldór Laxness does both

Michael Hofmann

4 April 2024

If geography​ isn’t destiny, it comes close. Consider Iceland, at the apex of the North Atlantic. From there, one leg of a pair of dividers drops south to the Scandinavian ports and Scotland, and then . . .

The Bussolengo Letters

Malcolm Gaskill

21 March 2024

Cambridge​ in the autumn of 1989 seemed to me a lonely place. I had just taken up that loneliest of occupations, doctoral research in the humanities: three years of self-exile in libraries and archives . . .

On Jo Ann Beard

Ange Mlinko

21 March 2024

Jo Ann Beard’s​ Festival Days appeared in 2021; The Boys of My Youth in 1998. Republished together as her Collected Works (the book excludes her 2011 novel In Zanesville), they register the two-decade . . .

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.

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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

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. 

Read more about Diary: David’s Presence

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...

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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...

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Fill in the Blanks: On Army Forms

Jonathan Sawday, 29 June 2023

A. 2042 was designed to be sent to family or friends at home by those on active service. It began by warning that ‘nothing is to be written on this side’ other than the sender’s signature and the...

Read more about Fill in the Blanks: On Army Forms

María Gainza’s idea is that absorption is only one kind of attention: becoming distracted in the course of looking at something might be a sign of meaningful engagement. It’s when María’s mind...

Read more about Renée kept a crocodile: ‘Portrait of an Unknown Lady’

Derek Parfit’s approach isn’t designed to get us to appreciate the mysterious, awe-inspiring significance of procreation and death in human life; it is simply the springboard for a new puzzle in moral...

Read more about Non-Identity Crisis: Parfit’s Trolley Problem

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