By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Without John Aubrey – the seventeenth-century antiquarian, toponymist, playwright, astrologer, folklorist, educational theorist, assiduous collector – we wouldn’t know much about the personal, curious traits of many of the most important figures (mainly men, but some women, too) of his age (and the one before it). Posthumously published as Brief Lives, Aubrey’s notes on people such as Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, Elizabeth Danvers, René Descartes, Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare are the work of a journalist before the age of journalism, uniquely voicing a vanishing past (he lived through the Civil War and the Great Fire of London). Yet what do we know about Aubrey himself? His own life has always been overshadowed, perhaps understandably, by those of his more famous subjects.
In this week’s TLS, Stuart Kelly reviews Ruth Scurr’s new Life of Aubrey, “an experiment in the art of biography” that illuminates both its shadowy subject and “the unquestioned presumptions” behind the genre. Scurr's clever conceit is to write the biography as if it’s the diary Aubrey might have written, if he’d kept one. Recently, she joined me in our studio for the latest in the TLS Voices series (listen above) to tell us a little more about this unconventional approach. She gives us a wonderful sense of Aubrey’s brutally honest Lives and reads some excerpts, including one on the “sanguine and tractable” Venetia Stanley, who died in her bed suddenly: “When her head was opened there was found but little brain, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper-wine; but spiteful women would say 'twas a viper-husband who was jealous of her that she would steal a leap . . .”. Is this just speculation? And why should we care about it? Well, after all – in the words of Truman Capote – isn’t all literature gossip?
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Photo: Ben Knight
By MICHAEL CAINES
If she had the chance, Lady Antonia Fraser, whose title derives from her family's Anglo-Irish inheritance, would throw the hereditary peers out of the House of Lords. She has stories of archival research under the suspicious gaze of two gendarmes, and being advised by royalty to "have a fling" when she goes up to university (to Oxford, that is, where she grew up). She falls gleefully on page 286 of her latest book, to read out a howler that the reviewers have all, so far, missed.
I make that new book, My History: A memoir of growing up, Antonia Fraser's twenty-seventh. As a "prequel" to her memoir about life with Harold Pinter (Must You Go?, written soon after his death), she describes it as a nostalgic exercise – as "fun". . . .
By ROZ DINEEN
“To Kill A Mockingbird comes from America laden with well-deserved praise” – this from the TLS of Friday October 28, 1960. “In situation and tone it has something in common with The Member of the Wedding though its development and atmosphere are more commonplace . . . the message [is] one that can stand repetition . . . ”.
A Pulitzer prize, about 40 million copies, countless exams papers and fifty-five years later, at Penguin Random House on a Tuesday afternoon, “A series of screams went up around the office”. Excited staff members having just heard that their company has acquired the UK and Commonwealth rights to Harper Lee’s next book, Go Set a Watchman.
By TOBY LICHTIG
Don't tell everyone but it turns out you can stay at Sissinghurst. I don't mean the small and picturesque village in Kent, near the splendid estate where Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson resurrected the ruins of a Renaissance manor and lived for three decades until their deaths in the 1960s. I don't even mean the B&B on the fringes of the estate. I'm talking about a small Elizabethan cottage, the Priest's House, slap bang in the middle of the estate itself and fringed by the renowned “white garden” designed by Vita.
Sissinghurst Castle Garden has for many years been administered by the National Trust, which, in its wisdom, lets out the Priest's House to weekenders willing to pay National Trust prices to stay in a cosy, three-bedroomed cottage, complete with mullion and leaded windows, brick floors and inglenook – a word I've always admired but never previously had the chance to employ. 200,000 people visit Sissinghurst Castle Garden every year, but not many of them in December and January. Even in the middle of the day it felt like we had the run of the estate.
Around this time of year, as TLS subscribers will know, our weekly diary column, NB, takes note of the literary causes for celebration and reassessment over the year to come. Births, deaths and the anniversaries of significant publications are all too likely to draw the attention of literary editors and freelance writers alike, while visitors to the British Library will no doubt find themselves paying homage to Anthony Trollope (born April 24, 1815) and Alice in Wonderland (first published in 1865), as well as the considerably older Magna Carta. You wouldn't be entirely wrong to imagine that this sort of thing might rub off on the TLS itself, too, although I'm not holding out much hope of some enterprising theatre company reviving Gay, Pope and Dr Arbuthnot's "tragi-comi-pastoral farce" The What D'Ye Call It (1715) . . .
Here are NB's wry observations about the year just gone and the year to come, from the first issue of 2015:
By DAVID HORSPOOL
Sometimes, dating things can be a bit of a distraction for historians, though putting things in the right order might seem like the least we should expect of them. Yesterday, at the British Library’s announcement of their exhibitions and events for 2015, dates were much discussed. There were anniversaries: 800 years since Magna Carta, 150 since the publication of Alice in Wonderland, 200 since the birth of Anthony Trollope.
But there was also the question of putting things in order. For the Library’s Magna Carta exhibition, “Law, Liberty, Legacy”, which will run from March 13 to the beginning of September next year, one of the most intriguing exhibits will be the Library’s manuscript of the Scottish Melrose Chronicle, Cotton MS Faustina B IX (pictured above), which contains what is described as “the earliest independent account of the negotiations between King John and the Barons at Runnymede”.
By CATHARINE MORRIS
“The great thing about a dictionary”, said Mark Forsyth – the author of The Etymologicon (2011), among other books – at the launch of the new Collins English Dictionary at Waterstones Piccadilly a couple of weeks ago, “is that you can start anywhere and finish anywhere”. “I go to a dictionary to look up a particular word and I find – ah yes, ‘Agnate’ means ‘sharing a common male ancestor’ or whatever it happens to be and then my eye just sort of drifts, so I discover that there’s a word ‘aglet’ meaning the small bits of plastic on the end of your shoelaces . . . and then my eye drifts further and further and further and eventually I come to look at my watch and discover that it’s February”.
The theme of the evening was favourite and least favourite words (the TLS contributor David Collard has written very entertainingly on the topic from an aesthetic point of view; you can find his blog posts here and here). Our host, the journalist Lucy Mangan, asked Forsyth, who provided the introduction to the new dictionary, what qualities he looked for in a word. “It’s wonderful when a word means something very, very specific . . . like ‘gongoozle’ – I remember finding that in a dictionary of canal terminology . . . . Gongoozle means ‘To stare idly at a canal or other watercourse and do nothing’ . . . . I have since discovered that it is still extant in the houseboat community”. He also offered “sprunt”, used in the Roxburgh district of Scotland in the early nineteenth century, which means “to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark”; and “mamihlapinatapai”, used by the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America, which he defined as “two people looking at each other both wanting to do the same thing but neither wanting to be the person to do it”. (When Mangan said that it should be a British word, Forsyth agreed: “It describes every kiss I’ve ever had”.)
Above: Steven Pinker; Nick Cunard/Writer Pictures
By CATHARINE MORRIS
“Why is so much writing so bad?”, Steven Pinker asked recently, at an Intelligence Squared event with Ian McEwan at the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington. (The event was filmed, and the video can now be watched online here.) He’s not convinced, as some people are, that bad writing is a deliberate choice – as in the case of "academics in softer fields" who try to compensate for a lack of substance by "spouting highfalutin gobbledegook" – or that it came in with digital media. “Bad writing has always been with us . . . in every decade . . . going back to the invention of the printing press."
The abundance of bad writing, Pinker said, is testimony to the fact that writing is inherently difficult: it involves pretence and "a great deal of craftsmanship". For the past two decades Pinker has been in the business of expressing complex ideas for a wide readership, and many of those ideas have been about language itself, so he has a "dual interest" in the subject of good writing. In researching it, he asked a number of respected authors what style manuals they read when they were learning their craft, and "every last one" gave the answer "None". What they all had in common was “immersion in the world of edited prose . . . . Every great writer has spent an enormous amount of time consuming the prose of others”. And it’s “good reading, not simply reading”: dwelling on it; taking in idioms and paragraph structure; studying particularly striking or moving passages and trying to “reverse-engineer” them.
By MICHAEL CAINES
It's the launch for the new Penguin Ibsen tonight, at the Barbican, where the "reimagined" Belvoir Sydney production of The Wild Duck has just opened. What does that tell us? Well, only that the stars were in an impish mood when they lined this one up . . .
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