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cathy earnshaw (Berlin, Germany)

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Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years
Harriet Shelley: Five Long Years
by Louise Schutz Boas
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mary Shelley's tragic predecessor, 3 July 2010
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was still at Eton and approaching his 18th birthday when he met Harriet Westbrook though his sisters, Mary and Hellen. It was April 1810 and she was almost 15. Although still infatuated with his cousin at that time, Shelley recognised at their first meeting that Harriet was beautiful, eager to learn and "undeniably lovely" (2-3).

She had lived a sheltered life up to that momentous occasion, growing up with her sister and father who owned a coffee house on Lower Grosvenor Street in London. Predictably, the arrival of Shelley - tall, curly-haired, fashionably dressed and heir to a large fortune and a baronetcy - was intoxicating: he wanted to free her from the "prison" of school and tutor her in the need for radical social and legal reform: "No one in Harriet's sphere had ever suggested that she could be a person in her own right," Schutz Boas writes, "There was no subtler compliment" (12).

Shelley's father foresaw a parliamentary career for his prodigal son but Shelley, having gone up to Oxford only to be expelled for writing and printing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism in 1811, had other ideas - radical ones for that time. Influenced by William Godwin's Political Justice (he would later marry Godwin's daughter, Mary), Shelley strongly advocated social justice for the "lower classes" and freedom from the tyranny of parents and "superstitions" (religion). He eloped with Harriet and they married in Scotland on 28 August 1811. A spell of radical pamphleteering in Ireland followed as well as much house-hunting as Shelley restlessness increased and their family swelled: Ianthe was born in 1813 and Charles a year later.

Yearning to finally establish a radical-intellectual household and bored by his wife's docility ("She had too equable a temper, too conciliatory a nature, to keep her husband's mind preoccupied with her", 161), Shelley eloped with Mary Godwin in 1814 - his wife was five months pregnant at the time and Mary was 16 - and absconded through France to Switzerland, taking along Claire Clairmont (who was in hot pursuit of that famous icon of sexual profligacy, Lord Byron). Harriet, devastated at this turn of events and disillusioned by what she saw as Shelley's loss of idealism and rising preoccupation with money, seems nevertheless to have become pregnant by him a third time during their separation and custody wranglings. Schutz Boas presents her case that it was Shelley's child convincingly, seeing her pregnancy also as an explanation for her removal to new lodgings shortly before her death. Like Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter Fanny, who committed suicide in Oct. 1816, Harriet "felt unneeded; she was of no use to any one" (194). She disappeared on November 9th of the same year and her father had the local lakes dragged. A month later, her body was pulled out of the Serpentine in London, a precious ring still on her finger.

Shelley's self-exculpatory behaviour continued after Harriet's suicide - astonishingly, he accused her sister Eliza of having "murdered her for the sake of her father's money" (207)! He married Mary twenty days after Harriet's body was found and failed to win custody of his children ("Ianthe's children never heard the name Shelley spoken in their home", 196). Barely six years after Harriet's sad end, Shelley too met his fate in water, drowning off the coast of Italy in the summer of 1822. (4 stars)

Also recommended>
Janet Todd, Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley circle (2007)


Emily Bronte: Heretic
Emily Bronte: Heretic
by Stevie Davies
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Was Emily Brontė a lesbian?, 1 July 2010
This review is from: Emily Bronte: Heretic (Paperback)
For Stevie Davies she was (although not a practising one): "My intuition is that Wuthering Heights is not a heterosexual's book" (199). She concedes that she cannot prove this, but "its intense pledging of itself to the idea of likeness" - e.g. "Nelly, I am Heathcliff!" - implies for her "a lesbian consciousness". Which is a sweeping claim to be making so boldly (can you really conclude lesbianism from a text? Is there really such a thing as a lesbian text?). Many gender scholars have spent the last few decades strongly criticising French structuralist concepts of écriture féminine - the (supposed) inscription of the female body and difference in language and text, as made popular in the 1970s by Cixous, Irigaray and Wittig - which makes Davies's hunch about Brontė-as-lesbian seem somewhat outdated now.

But she does have some interesting things to say about Wuthering Heights. The central names used in the book are, for example, clearly anagrammatic, she argues: both Catherine and Hareton contain "heart" and "earth" (a favourite word of Brontė's and the one with which she closes the novel); Catherine contains most of the word "heath" and Earnshaw most of "earth" and "heath" while Heathcliff not only compounds "heath" and "cliff" but also contains "Cathie". Finally, it is true that Catherine and Earnshaw also contain most of "Hareton" (65). Brontė uses these complex mirror-tricks to hint at common ground and identity, without guaranteeing it (which Davies understands as a kind of sexual teasing of the reader).

Davies is also good at debunking the myth of Emily as a heroine of unambiguous courage: Brontė retreated into a dreamworld and the parsonage, angrily avoiding strangers, and felt compelled to "brag" (her word) about having "no coward soul". The tone of that poem is defensive, Davies argues: "Serene self-confidence does not have to boast" (145).

She also has a refreshingly relaxed writing style, describing James H. Kavanagh's claim that Penistone Crags could mean "penis stone" and "stone" testicles as "cock and balls atop the Heights" (199)! But while Davies ridicules post-structuralist Freudian critics for "discovering a phallus on nearly every page", her own speculations about Emily Brontė's (supposed) masturbatory practices and their influence on her texts sound conspicuously "post-Freudian" themselves.

This is her third academic text on Emily Brontė and it's intended as a "culmination" (Davies would probably say "climax") of the two previous ones. She also published a Brontė-inspired novel, Four Dreamers and Emily, in 1996. (3.5 stars)

Recommended>
1. The Complete Poems of Emily Brontė (Penguin)
2. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontė by Daphne du Maurier
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 7, 2011 1:47 PM GMT


Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford Portraits Series)
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (Oxford Portraits Series)
by Janet Todd
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I am often with myself at war" (Letter to George Blood, July 6th 1786), 28 Jun. 2010
In Gender, Art and Death, Janet Todd went to town on Claire Tomalin's biography The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974) for what she termed "a failure of tact". The book was, she argued, "flippant", "sure of a singular identity and peculiar female subjectivity" and tactless in its insistence on Wollstonecraft's human frailty, her "imperfect heroism".

Over a quarter of a century later, Todd published her own biography of the 18th century philosopher and feminist. In the meantime she has clearly revised her view and can, at times, barely conceal her irritation when describing Wollstonecraft's behaviour: Mary "was quick to display the victimised woman" (240), she "imagined no subjectivity outside of her own" (288), and "was quick to find fault in others" (194). Tomalin must have choked on her breakfast when coming upon such negative judgements! Todd even uses the same word to describe Wollstonecraft that was the focal point of her reproach of Tomalin's work: "Twenty-eight, without home, money or employment, tactless, self-absorbed, depressive and energetic..." (116).

Against the background of a tendency to exalt MW in the early to mid-1970s (when, astonishingly, a total of six biographies were published on her), Todd relativises her impact on modern-day feminism: "The difficulties Wollstonecraft ignored have emerged more strongly [...] She underestimated the power of polarisation and physical difference. It was an oversimplification" (186). Personally MW seems to undergo little emotional development in her account, or if she does, it is only in the final months of her life when she marries William Godwin and a stronger foundation for stability is established. In her politics and her life - and Todd shows how the two are inextricable in this case - Wollstonecraft remains, as one critic has written, "an ambigious symbol of both feminism and femininity."

It is an exhaustive account and I for one could have done with less on the Imlay affair. Wollstonecraft's numerous letters to Gilbert Imlay, the peripatetic father of her illegitimate child, have been available to readers in book form since 1908 (some of them since 1798), making less exhaustive treatment possible. At over 500 pages, Todd's biography is inevitably more detailed than Tomalin's one (which is, incidentally, also worth reading) and is probably better suited to those studying Wollstonecraft and/or those *intensely* interested in her life, rather than the more casual reader. (4.5 stars)

Also recommended>
Janet Todd, Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle (2007)


Death & the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle
Death & the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle
by Janet Todd
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The short life and suicide of Mary Wollstonecraft's "little sprite", 22 Jun. 2010
When I first read Death and the Maidens (2007), I was frustrated by the dry, academic style, which didn't seem to allow the reader to *feel* or empathise with the tragedy of the brief life of Wollstonecraft's first daughter. But the book improved, months later, on a second reading.

Fanny's problems start with what to call her: Born and registered in France at the height of the Terror as Franēoise Imlay, she became a Wollstonecraft in England before the death of her mother in 1797 when she was 3. Subsequently, her stepfather Godwin adopted her, giving her his surname. Claire Tomalin calls her Fanny Imlay in The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft; Louise Schutz Boars refers to her as Fanny Godwin in Harriet Shelley and Marion Kingston Stocking compromises, using "Fanny Imlay Godwin" in The Clairmont Correspondence. Rather bizarrely, having consistently referred to her as Fanny Imlay in both A Revolutionary Life and The Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft, Janet Todd switches here to calling her Fanny Wollstonecraft. Perhaps certain similarities between mother and daughter - a tendency to melancholy, their general appearance, the brevity of their lives and, as Todd argues, difficulties with men that pushed them towards the grave - led her to reclaim Fanny as her mother's daughter.

In spite of her name resisting easy categorisation, Romantic scholars have had fewer problems characterising Fanny's personality. These characterisations have bordered on stereotype; repeatedly the adjectives "amiable", "meek", "self-sacrificing", "dutiful" and "plain" have swarmed around Fanny's head. Todd tries to bring alive a more rounded picture, arguing that it was unrequited love for the poet Shelley and her half-sister's rejection of her that finally drove Fanny over the edge. Aged 22, she travelled alone to Swansea (possibly meeting up with Shelley in Bath on the way), wrote a short suicide note regretting her "unfortunate" birth (echoing her mother's references to her in Letters written in Sweden) and swallowed laudanum. Neither Shelley nor Godwin claimed the body; with her signature torn off her final note, Fanny was given a pauper's burial at the state's expense.

It was a sad, tragic end for the girl who was so enchantingly described by her mother as a "little sprite" and "a little Hercules" and who gave her mother such hope and happiness in Letters written in Sweden. Fanny had a series of abandonments behind her when she died: the father she never knew (Gilbert Imlay), the mother who had twice attempted suicide, ostracisation from her half-sister Mary and step-sister Claire after they ran off with Shelley ("Fanny must have been pained at their neglect - they had not even left a note for her"). Left alone in the Godwin household, and overshadowed by her mother's public reputation, she had to contend with the cruel treatment of her stepmother Mary-Jane ("Mamma and I are not great friend's [sic]," she wrote pithily to Mary in October 1816) on top of the histrionics and unceasing money troubles of her step-father. Following the elopement, she attempted to be the peacemaker, shuttling between the two warring camps with letters, secret meetings and an unremitting longing for harmony. Hers was a thankless job: she was ridiculed by Mary for her loyalty to Godwin and received the brunt of Godwin's outrage and financial anxieties. Two aunts living in Ireland were to decide Fanny's fate: Would she become a schoolteacher in Dublin or remain in a household that had become intolerable? It must have deepened her sense of hopelessness that her future, bleak whichever path was chosen for her, was out of her hands.

'Her voice did quiver as we parted,' wrote Shelley, after he arrived too late in Swansea to save her from despair. Shelley and Godwin, who had earlier preached freedom from social convention, feared a scandal and concealed the truth. Even after her suicide Fanny was to remain the invisible woman: in August the following year even her step-brother Charles still didn't know that she had died. (4.5 stars)

Also recommended>
1. Claire Tomalin, The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft (1974)
2. Janet Todd, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (2000)


A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontee
A Chainless Soul: A Life of Emily Brontee
by Katherine Frank
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Emily Brontė as hunger artist, 17 Jun. 2010
Why Emily? So many seem to be drawn to her strange celebrity more than 160 years after her death, wanting to participate in the windswept world of the waif-like author who wrote one of the most original novels in the English language. Some seem to want to possess for themselves, however vicariously, that freedom of emotional expression no matter how unremitting or brutal or passionate, as represented by her novel and romanticised narratives of her life.

Frank's biography of Brontė - a relatively short one at just over 300 pages - was first published in 1990 and quickly garnered interest for its presentation of Emily as a 19th century anorexic: "If Emily Brontė were alive today," she tells us in the opening pages, "she would almost certainly be diagnosed as suffering from anorexia nervosa" (3). Not simply naturally thin and an avid walker, Emily had - Frank claims - a "drive to be slender [...] imbued with yearnings to be pure and spare, light and agile and free" (226). Brontė compensated for being a "poor eater" by becoming an accomplished cook and making the kitchen her own domain (255). The kitchen, Frank notes, features heavily in Wuthering Heights: Catherine tells Nelly 'I am Heathcliff' there; Edgar confronts Heathcliff in the kitchen at Thrushcross Grange; amidst the cooking of meals at the Heights, the relationship between Hareton and Cathy comes into being. But that does not an anorexic make! We should be wary of using art to explain the life and of not substantiating claims that seem ahistorical: Frank provides too little basis to support her characterisation of Brontė as a disordered eater and too little historical context on food, women and the 19th century for her rather wild claims to be convincing.

She also rehashes - without foundation or even acknowledgement - a rumour which Daphne Du Maurier began in her biography of Branwell Brontė: that he was expelled from his tutoring job because of "'improper advances' made to his pupil, Edmund Robinson" (209). This doesn't tally with the reports that we do have, which point to him having engaged in an extramarital affair with Lydia Robinson, his pupil's mother (the exact truth, though, is - as so often - irrecoverable).

In spite of her attempt to re-invent the author as a hunger artist, the Emily that emerges from Frank's rather fantasy-driven account - wilful, intractable, sensitive, stubbornly protective of her privacy and freedom, "through life and death, a chainless soul / With courage to endure!" - is ultimately not as far away from the romantic myth as she would have us believe. (2-3 stars)

Recommended>
1. Selected Letters of Charlotte Brontė, ed. by Margaret Smith
2. The Brontės by Juliet Barker
3. The Infernal World of Branwell Brontė by Daphne Du Maurier


Virginia Woolf And Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy
Virginia Woolf And Vanessa Bell: A Very Close Conspiracy
by Jane Dunn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An intense and complex conspiracy of sisterhood, 10 Jun. 2010
Jane Dunn - biographer of Mary Shelley, Antonia White, and more recently Elizabeth I & Mary Queen of Scots - has written an exceptionally absorbing account of the sibling relationship between the author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and the painter Vanessa Bell (1879-1961).

I found it fascinating to learn more about their mother Julia Stephen who tends to be something of a cipher in books related to Woolf and Bell, partly because her death in 1895 meant that she left their lives early. The tragedy of her death - when Virginia was 13 and Vanessa just short of 16 - provoked different reactions in the sisters: Vanessa, who identified more strongly with her mother and was already known for her practicality and good sense, "became increasingly sensible and self-contained" (36). Virginia, who experienced more ambivalent feelings towards her mother, felt painfully defenceless in the aftermath - "Her death was the greatest disaster that could happen", she wrote - and looked even more strongly to her elder sister to provide emotional stability and direction.

In contrast to the quiet intimacy of the sisters, the anguish of their father Leslie Stephen, for whom not only some members of his family but also Jane Dunn seems to have little patience, was "self-centred, self-pitying and noisy" (35). In a damning summary, Dunn zooms in on the crux of his difficult character - his "greed for female sympathy and blindness to his own tyranny" (43).

Against the background of the death of their half-sister Stella (which precipitated mental breakdown in Virginia), their father, and - suddenly and terribly, amidst misdiagnosis and confusion - their brother Thoby, the personalities of the sisters developed clearer contours and the symbiosis of their relationship deepened: "While Virginia was leaving the ground, Vanessa had to root herself even more firmly to earth" (46).

The opposition between and fusion of their characters, which forms the backbone of Dunn's book, is perhaps overemphasised and simplified. Dunn could be accused of having let herself be too influenced by Virginia Woolf's powerful romanticisation of her beloved sister as an almost mystically fecund, sexual and maternal being, a true goddess of nature. Yet it could be argued that this is an inherent problem when approaching Vanessa - she is such an enigmatic and emotionally reticent figure that you look to others to add detail and colour to what may at times seem like something of a blank canvas.

Dunn is exceptionally sensitive to the subtle hostilities, competitivism, and tensions between the two - that "passive ferocity" (74) which Woolf describes so vividly in her diary. Virginia's prolonged flirtation with Clive Bell, her elder sister's husband, left a long-standing and unspoken wound, while Vanessa's uncritical adoration of her children, for example, was a source of passionate irritation for her younger (and childless) sister. Vanessa often felt uneasy about her own ability as an artist and guilty about her interrupted dedication to painting in comparison to Virginia's extraordinary industry and experimentalism in the field of writing.

Dunn provides a brilliant summary of how both sisters settled in their 30s for ultimately sexless unions with the men they loved. And the final chapters of her book are intensely moving as Virginia fears the return of psychosis and drowns herself aged 59 in the River Ouse while Vanessa, still living over the hill at Charleston and even deeper in her chrysalis having suffered the death of her beloved son Julian in the Spanish Civil War, her former lover Roger Fry, and finally also that of her sister, succumbs to breast cancer almost exactly twenty years later.

This is fascinating, enriching reading. (5 stars)

Also recommended>
1. The Bloomsbury Group (Spoken Word CD)
2. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee


Sylvia Plath (Spoken Word) (The spoken Word)
Sylvia Plath (Spoken Word) (The spoken Word)
by Sylvia Plath
Edition: Audio CD

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sylvia Plath on her poems, being married to a writer, and her love of British butcher's shops, 25 April 2010
It's been a long time coming. For British audiences, there have been three key audio releases concerning the US poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) up to now: Sylvia Plath Reads (1977/1992), The Poet Speaks (1982/1995), and The Voice of the Poet (1999). But this new CD is special: it contains a previously unreleased live recording of Plath reading a poem in a London theatre, providing listeners with the chance to experience the poet with new, tantalising immediacy. All of her other known poetry recordings occurred in radio studios (usually at the BBC or the British Council). But here, she is introduced by a male host to a live audience and loud applause. She was a relatively unknown poet at the time, more famous as the wife of British poet Ted Hughes than as a writer in her own right.

The Spoken Word CD also contains a 20-minute interview with Plath and Hughes, in which they talk about where they were born, how they met, the differences and similarities between their writing styles, and their placidly domestic life in north London. In contrast to the dark myth that rose about her following her suicide in 1963 aged 30 and which rapidly spread as more and more poems - partly of an unforgiving, terrifying nature, but which also showed sharp wit and humour - came to light, Plath sounds relaxed, chatty and open. In another recording included here, What Made You Stay, Plath is interviewed alone and really comes into her own (it was conducted a month before her marriage collapsed in the wake of Hughes's affair with Assia Wevill). She talks wittily of her first impressions of England, being offered the choice of a hot water bottle or a cat before she went to bed, and her wonder at seeing real dead pigs and slabs of meat at the local butchers instead of neatly cellophaned chops filling the shelves of the supermarkets she knew from her childhood in Massachusetts.

The recordings, which are presented chronologically, took place in the last two and a half years of her life between October 1960 and January 1963. Alongside these interviews and the live theatre recording, Plath reads nine of her poems, mostly from the 'earlier' period of her writing career. Peter K Steinberg, author of the blog Sylvia Plath Info, provides a 6-page introduction in the booklet. The CD ends on what was probably the last audio recording that Plath made: a mere 32 days before her suicide (the influenza that deepened her difficulties and sense of hopelessness towards the end can be heard), the poet discusses and reads extracts from a new anthology of American verse. This is unmissable, essential listening. (5 stars)

Track listing (the speaker is Plath unless noted otherwise):

1. a) Leaving Early
b) Candles
2. Two of a Kind
a) Radio interview with Plath and Ted Hughes, 18.01.1961
b) Mushrooms (+ introduction)
c) Pike (read + introduced by Ted Hughes)
3. a) The Disquieting Muses (+ introduction)
b) Spinster (+ introduction)
c) Parliament Hill Fields (+ introduction)
d) The Stones (+ introduction)
4. Live poetry reading at the Mermaid Theatre, London, 17.07.1961
a) Plath introduced by unknown male moderator
b) Tulips (+ introducton)
5. The Surgeon at 2 a.m. (+ introduction)
6. What Made You Stay? Recorded interview with Plath on why she chose to live and work in the UK 14.04.1962
7. Berck-Plage
8. Plath reviews a recent anthology entitled Contemporary American Poetry, 10.01.1963

Duration: 73 minutes


The Quickening
The Quickening
Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £10.69

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Dreams are where inventions sleep", 28 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Quickening (Audio CD)
"The Quickening" presumably refers to the increased speed & spontaneity with which Kathryn Williams recorded the songs for her eighth album - in four days, live, with a maximum of three takes and without the musicians having heard the melodies before. It's also a match for her contemplative lyrics.

I know people get annoyed if you pay too much attention to the lyrics, but hers are always reliably interesting; unlike so many female singer-songwriters or performers dominating the airwaves these days (who seem to overcompensate for a lack of authentic individuality with forced eccentricity), KW's feel natural and unpretentious. There are some great one-liners: "Watch you in my lunchtime / like a silent matinee show" or "The nerves down my arms hit like sparks". She loves similes!

The first track - 50 White Lines - is fantastic, with its jaunty rhythm and mechanical counting of the recorded voice. Winter is Sharp is also more quickly paced than the others (I never understood why Guardian journalists complain about her music being too one-paced and maudlin - it's not!). Kate St John, who was musical director for the phenomenal Nick Drake tribute concerts in January this year, produced the album with KW and plays accordion and hurdy gurdy. Neill MacColl, who was a session musician at the same shows and collaborated with KW on the last album, contributes banjo (which sounds great!), mandolin, and guitar playing.

The doll's house on the cover and the miniature figures which inhabit the pictures inside reflect a love of the small world, of detail & domesticity that you can hear in her music, too. The album hasn't quite managed to replace Little Black Numbers, Over Fly Over or Old Low Light in my affections yet, and there are two tracks which I couldn't warm to as much as the others (Little Lesson, Up North).

She's playing London's Purcell Room on 6 March and before that Manchester, Glasgow, and Newcastle.

Standouts (IMHO): 50 White Lines, Wanting and Waiting, Noble Guesses, Just Leave


The Living Side
The Living Side
Price: £13.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars New serenity, 22 Feb. 2010
This review is from: The Living Side (Audio CD)
On her sixth studio album, Meg Hutchinson's songwriting is lyrically superb as always. And she's sounding very serene these days - there's no mistaking the calming effect of love in her new songs and that after some private psychological war, her feet have come down firmly on the side of the living. She wants to inspire those tiptoeing along the Golden Gate Bridge with eyes skyward to do the same (Gatekeeper). Not to drown out the chirps of sadness of birds perched on your tree, but to listen to their song. Not to turn away from darkness, but to become a night traveller using inner flashlights to illuminate the way forward (Full of Light).

She's skilful at threading the social and political into her personal world: the "strange and lovely vision" of passengers huddled on the rescue chutes of the plane which landed in the Hudson (Hopeful Things), the "year of the billion dollar bailout" and driving "past our Lady of Liberty" on Hard to Change. Knitted into this urban scenery is naturalistic imagery of lakes, apple fields, "a flock of white birds tossed into the sky" (a beautiful line!), and the mythic flight of Icarus towards the sun.

What slightly detracted from this atmosphere of poetic and emotional depth and the warmth of her voice was the production, which veered dangerously close to being too "soft", even a bit sentimental: especially the electric guitar on Yea Tho We Walk and the keyboards on See Me Now and Hard to Change (which left me wondering how much better they might sound without them or with piano accompaniment). I thought that the production sound of her last album Come Up Full, where the use of these "easy listening" keyboards wasn't apparent, fitted her songwriting perfectly.

But it's still a huge pleasure to wander through her visions and see the world through her eyes for eleven songs. How many other singer-songwriters reflect on the tyranny of machines in our modern lives - "I can barely hear you over these machines / Turn 'em all off and tell me about your dreams"? Or express our oppressive dependence on technology: "I bought all these tools to save time / Well, if they save so much, then where's all mine"? This is the sound of a soul wise beyond her years:

"They say perfect the life or perfect the art
A choice like that will only tear you apart
There's room for both of you in my heart."
-- Being Happy

Standouts (IMO): Hard to change, Hopeful things, Every Day, Travel in, Full of light


Leonard Woolf
Leonard Woolf
by Victoria Glendinning
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Nothing matters, and everything matters", 9 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Leonard Woolf (Paperback)
It was high time for a first full biography of Leonard Woolf (1880-1969). Known to many as husband to the English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf - he lent the purity of her first name some bite with his surname - Leonard was also at different times of his life a Cambridge student, a Colonial servant in Ceylon, a political commentator, a significant figure for the nascent Labour Party, publisher, novelist, and writer of five volumes of autobiography. What is fascinating about Victoria Glendinning's biography is what we learn "beyond Virginia" - the well-researched details she provides to flesh out Leonard's life before marrying and after losing the woman who was to become one of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century.

Leonard was the fourth of ten children born to Sidney Woolf and Marie de Jong. The Woolfs, who lived in Lexham Gardens, Kensington, were non-orthodox Jews, but Leonard was to remain a staunch atheist for the duration of his life. The family home was, Glendinning writes, "a matriarchal universe" which became all the more so after the early death of Leonard's father when the boy was 11.

He went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the last year of the 19th century. Reading Classics - he calculated that in a year he read 121 books outside of his course and ultimately left with a second-class degree - it was here that he met Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, Saxon Sydney-Turner, Clive Bell, and Thoby Stephen (Virginia's brother, who was to die young). Having met Virginia briefly in Cambridge when she came to visit Thoby in 1903, Leonard saw her again a year later at 46 Gordon Square, London, before he left for Ceylon where he was to live and work as a civil servant for the next seven years.

Glendinning does not write particularly sympathetically about Virginia, I felt. Understandably she stresses the strain that her recurrent mental illness placed Leonard under, but Glendinning's commentary on what many consider to be sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brothers is nonchalant at best: "All girls have to have some first experience of male sexuality, and George's late-night petting, however unsavoury and unwanted, was no worse than most." There are also some factual errors: Stella Duckworth is referred to on p.126 as Virginia's step-sister when she was in fact her half-sister (being her mother's daughter from her first marriage). Astonishingly, she also gets the year of Vita Sackville-West's death wrong (giving it as 1963 instead of 1962 on p.429) - astonishing because Glendinning has written an entire biography on Sackville-West! There are also a few typographical errors which have not been cleared up in the new printing and Glendinning has covered some of her tracks by not providing page numbers in the footnotes for references.

Leonard outlived his famous wife by over 28 years. Less than two years after she committed suicide in 1941, he fell in love again, this time with a married women called Trekkie Parsons (née Ritchie). The stories of female 'fans' from near and afar who felt attracted to and protective of the aging literary celebrity are particularly funny - Leonard often wrote them kind and appreciative letters. Funnier still are the anecdotes about his pedantic irascibility in later life. When one bottle proved missing from a wine delivery or one of his garden tools malfunctioned, however slightly, Leonard shot off letter after letter of complaint, harassing store assistants until they caved in! Stubbornly independent to the last, he was still driving himself around in his late 80s. When Virginia Browne-Wilkinson - one of the many younger women he befriended after his wife's death - challenged him in his last year about his lifelong motto that nothing mattered, he had modified his view, telling her: "Nothing matters, and everything matters." (3.5 stars)


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