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At St Peter’s

Colm Tóibín: The Dangers of a Priestly Education, 1 December 2005

The Ferns Report 
by Francis Murphy, Helen Buckley and Laraine Joyce.
Government Publications, 271 pp., €6, October 2005, 0 7557 7299 7
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... Everybody was afraid of Dr Sherwood. My mother was afraid of him at meetings of Pax Romana, the lay Catholic discussion group in Enniscorthy, our town, because he had a way of glaring at women members when they spoke. He didn’t, it seemed, like women speaking. At St Peter’s College, the seminary and boarding-school where I went at the age of 15 in 1970, he was dean of the seminary, but he had once been dean of discipline of the boarding-school, and had a fearsome reputation as a merciless wielder of the strap ...

On (Not) Saying What You Mean

Colm Tóibín, 30 November 1995

... I came to live in Dublin when I was 17, in October 1972. It was very exciting. The annual fee for an arts student at University College Dublin was £100. Someone from home told me that he wandered into Theatre L one morning as Denis Donoghue was lecturing and noticed me staring at Donoghue with my mouth wide open, as though I was hearing an amazing piece of gossip for the first time ...

Playboys of the GPO

Colm Tóibín, 18 April 1996

Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation 
by Declan Kiberd.
Cape, 719 pp., £20, November 1995, 0 224 04197 5
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... The most important thing we have done is that we have made a modern art, taking our traditional art as a basis, adorning it with new material, solving contemporary problems with a national spirit,’ the Catalan architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch wrote in 1903. By the turn of the century, the national spirit had taken over most cultural activities in Catalonia, so that art, architecture and the Catalan language had become more powerful weapons in politics than resentment about Madrid’s handling of foreign or economic policy ...

How to be a wife

Colm Tóibín: The Discretion of Jackie Kennedy, 6 June 2002

Janet & Jackie: The Story of a Mother and Her Daughter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis 
by Jan Pottker.
St Martin’s, 381 pp., $24.95, October 2001, 0 312 26607 3
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Mrs Kennedy: The Missing History of the Kennedy Years 
by Barbara Leaming.
Weidenfeld, 389 pp., £20, October 2001, 0 297 64333 9
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... On 29 January 1884 Henry James noted a story which he had heard from Gertrude Tennant. It struck him ‘as a dramatic and pretty subject’. Young Lord Stafford, it seemed, was in love with Lady Grosvenor, whom he had known before her marriage, but had now no expectation of being able to marry as her husband was alive and robust. ‘Yielding to family pressure,’ as James put it, ‘he offered his hand to a young, charming, innocent girl, the daughter of Lord Rosslyn ...

A Priest in the Family

Colm Tóibín: A Story, 6 May 2004

... She watched​ the sky darken, threatening rain. ‘There’s no light at all these days,’ she said. ‘It’s been the darkest winter. I hate the rain or the cold, but I don’t mind it at all when there’s no light.’ Father Greenwood sighed and glanced at the window. ‘Most people hate the winter,’ he said. She could think of nothing more to say and hoped that he might go now ...

I was Mary Queen of Scots

Colm Tóibín: Biographical empathy, 21 October 2004

My Heart Is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots 
by John Guy.
Harper Perennial, 574 pp., £8.99, August 2004, 1 84115 753 8
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Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens 
by Jane Dunn.
Harper Perennial, 592 pp., £8.99, March 2004, 9780006531920
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... Certain doomed spirits from the 16th century continue to haunt us and beguile us. On 21 May 1940 Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh on the subject: I used to masturbate whenever I thought about Lady Jane Grey so of course I thought about her constantly and even executed a fine watercolour of her on the scaffold, which my mother still has, framed, and in which Lady Jane and her ladies-in-waiting all wear watches hanging from enamel bows, as my mother did at the time … I still get quite excited when I think of Lady Jane (less and less often as the years roll on ...

Rinse it in dead champagne

Colm Tóibín: The women who invented beauty, 5 February 2004

War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry 
by Lindy Woodhead.
Virago, 498 pp., £20, April 2003, 1 86049 974 0
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Diana Vreeland 
by Eleanor Dwight.
HarperCollins, 308 pp., £30, December 2002, 0 688 16738 1
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... The women who invented beauty came from far away. They lied about their ages and their origins and the source of their magic; their secrets were known only to certain chemists and secretaries and the maids and butlers who lived in fear of them, who survived long enough to tell and tell again the shocking truth, for example, that Elizabeth Arden, one of the world’s richest women, lined the inside of her shoes with newspaper, or that Helena Rubinstein’s lawyer chose ‘the budget option’ at the funeral parlour after her death until wiser counsel prevailed, or that Diana Vreeland’s hair was so hard that once, when her maid bumped into it with a tray, ‘it clinked ...

In His Pink Negligée

Colm Tóibín: The Ruthless Truman Capote, 21 April 2005

The Complete Stories 
by Truman Capote.
Random House, 400 pp., $24.95, September 2004, 0 679 64310 9
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Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote 
edited by Gerald Clarke.
Random House, 487 pp., $27.95, September 2004, 0 375 50133 9
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... He was world-weary from the beginning. Nowhere was safe. Before he was 25 he declared New York to be a ‘giant snake pit’, Los Angeles to be ‘quel hole’. Naples was ‘crooked’, London ‘a dreary place’. Even Paris, ‘a divine city’, could be ‘colder than a nun’s cunt’. Once he had passed the quarter century he hit on Rome: ‘a beautiful city, really – though inhabited by a quarrelsome and cynical race ...

Avoid the Orient

Colm Tóibín: The Ghastly Paul Bowles, 4 January 2007

Paul Bowles: A Life 
by Virginia Spencer Carr.
Peter Owen, 431 pp., £19.95, July 2005, 0 7206 1254 3
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... Long before the sin of Orientalism was discovered, Paul Bowles had frequently been guilty of it, in word, in thought and in deed. In his first stories, for example, the natives are shining examples of naked otherness, created partly to refresh our view concerning the mixture of simplicity, guile and sexual beauty available in remote places. The white heroes, on the other hand, are neurotic and complex ...

The Wickedest Woman in Paris

Colm Tóibín, 6 September 2007

Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins 
by Rupert Everett.
Abacus, 406 pp., £7.99, July 2007, 978 0 349 12058 4
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... In listing Rupert Everett’s offences against decency, decorum and respect for his betters, it is hard to know where to start. For example, he is filled with pride over the telephone hoaxes which he – out of work and idle more often than not – in the company of a woman called Min Hogg, perpetrated against people who were, one presumes, rich and famous for very good reasons ...

The Art of Being Found Out

Colm Tóibín: The need to be revealed, 20 March 2008

... On 23 January 1894, Henry James entered in his notebook two stories told to him by Lady Gregory, whom he had met first in Rome 15 years earlier. She had given one of them to him, he wrote, as a plot, and ‘saw more in it than, I confess, I do myself’. ‘At any rate,’ he went on, ‘Lady G.’s story was that of an Irish squire who discovered his wife in an intrigue ...

Why should you be the only ones that sin?

Colm Tóibín, 5 September 1996

Thomas Mann: Eros and Literature 
by Anthony Heilbut.
Macmillan, 636 pp., £20, June 1996, 9780394556338
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Thomas Mann: A Biography 
by Ronald Hayman.
Bloomsbury, 672 pp., £20, March 1996, 0 7475 2531 5
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Thomas Mann: A Life 
by Donald Prater.
Oxford, 554 pp., £20, September 1995, 0 19 815861 0
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... All his life he kept his distance. At readings and concerts he would notice a young man, gaze at him, make his presence felt and understood, and later, in the semi-privacy of his diaries, record the moment. On Sunday morning, 31 October 1920, for example, when he was still working on The Magic Mountain, he went with Katia, his wife, to an open rehearsal of the Missa Solemnis, a work which would figure in Doctor Faustus more than twenty years later ...

Urning

Colm Tóibín: The revolutionary Edward Carpenter, 29 January 2009

Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love 
by Sheila Rowbotham.
Verso, 565 pp., £24.99, October 2008, 978 1 84467 295 0
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... On or about December 1910,’ Virginia Woolf noted, ‘human character changed.’ It was hard in or about March 1977 in Barcelona not to feel that human character had changed again, or had changed back, or might change more. Franco was less than 18 months dead, and many of the sights and images in the city were puzzling. One day, as I stood watching a newly formed Communist group march by, I saw in the middle of the marchers a barman whom I had grown to love for his winning smile and general meekness ...

The Stubbornness of Lorenzo Lotto

Colm Tóibín: Lorenzo Lotto, 8 April 2010

... Lorenzo Lotto was born in Venice around 1483. He belonged to the same world, therefore, as Titian and Giorgione. Despite the fact that he was a native of the city, however, which they were not, he never became a fully fledged Venetian as they did. By 1503 his name is recorded in legal documents in Treviso as a painter; he also worked in the towns of Recanati and Jesi ...

Ravishing

Colm Tóibín: Sex Lives of the Castrati, 8 October 2015

The Castrato: Reflections on Natures and Kinds 
by Martha Feldman.
California, 454 pp., £40, March 2015, 978 0 520 27949 0
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Portrait of a Castrato: Politics, Patronage and Music in the Life of Atto Melani 
by Roger Freitas.
Cambridge, 452 pp., £22.99, May 2014, 978 1 107 69610 5
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... Balzac’s​  Sarrasine tells the story of a young woman’s wonder at the strange appearance of an old man at a party in Paris. Balzac has tremendous fun describing the man. First his clothes: he is wearing ‘a white waistcoat embroidered with gold’ and ‘a shirt-frill of English lace, yellow with age, the magnificence of which a queen might have envied ...

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