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Wakey Wakey

Susan Eilenberg, 19 October 1995

Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind 
by Patricia Meyer Spacks.
Chicago, 290 pp., £19.99, January 1995, 0 226 76853 8
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... Every reader has an archetype of boredom, which every writer fears to realise: a book as thick as a stack of freshman essays, as dim and grammarless as a headache, every phrase a phrase of a certain age, every page only page two. Writers will do much to avoid reminding their readers of possible connections between their own work and this nightmare ideal, sometimes going so far as to pretend that it does not exist, an approach not invariably successful ...

What Charlotte Did

Susan Eilenberg, 6 April 1995

The Brontës 
by Juliet Barker.
Weidenfeld, 1003 pp., £25, November 1994, 0 297 81290 4
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... Juliet Barker’s The Brontës is an uneasy work. It seeks to defend the family it takes as its subject against those who sought to invade its privacy: the Victorian reading public, with its prurient speculations about the mysterious authors Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; meddling acquaintances whose reports fuelled those speculations; previous biographers who exploited those reports; close friends such as Ellen Nussey who defied Charlotte’s husband Arthur Nicholls and refused to burn the letters Charlotte sent her; even Charlotte herself, who, by reading her sister Emily’s poems, violated her privacy and thus allied herself with the intruders and the voyeurs ...

For the Good of the Sex

Susan Eilenberg, 8 December 1994

The Poems of Anna Letitia Barbauld 
edited by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft.
Georgia, 399 pp., £58.50, June 1994, 0 8203 1528 1
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... Once regarded as among the most distinguished poets in England, admired by Johnson, envied by Goldsmith, praised by Wordsworth, and read by everyone, Anna Letitia Barbauld has this last century or two thoroughly sunk into oblivion. Until recently, all that was remembered about her was an anecdote in Coleridge’s Table Talk, in which she figured, ingloriously, as the stooge whose miscomprehension of The Ancient Mariner provoked his comparison between that poem and the tale in the Arabian Nights of the genie, the merchant and the date shells ...

Treated with Ping-Pong

Susan Eilenberg: The History of Mental Medicine, 23 July 2009

Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present 
by Lisa Appignanesi.
Virago, 592 pp., £12.99, January 2009, 978 1 84408 234 6
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... I managed to grow up and leave home before I found out that my mother had once spent time in a mental ward. She was, at the time of her hospitalisation, a very new mother – of me – and consequently exhausted. What sent her to the mental ward was delirium. That, at least, was what the emergency room doctors thought when she arrived at the hospital extremely ill with encephalitis (which they never even suspected, despite her complaints about an unbearable headache and neck pain and nausea ...

Suicidal Piston Device

Susan Eilenberg: Being Lord Byron, 5 April 2007

Imposture 
by Benjamin Markovits.
Faber, 200 pp., £10.99, January 2007, 978 0 571 23332 8
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... He could dig no deeper than a grave, six feet perhaps of fractured soil, before the battering instrument began to turn upon itself. [It] sought to bury its body in the reluctant ground . . . Sam had passed the point of all his purposes . . . There was a kind of frantic joy to his desperation, as if the fury of failure itself offered some violent relief to his great disappointments; as if disaster proved its own reward in the end ...

Bite It above the Eyes

Susan Eilenberg: ‘Mister Pip’, 4 October 2007

Mister Pip 
by Lloyd Jones.
Murray, 223 pp., £12.99, June 2007, 978 0 7195 6456 7
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... As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them . . . my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly ...

Baggy and Thin

Susan Eilenberg: Annie Dillard, 3 January 2008

The Maytrees 
by Annie Dillard.
Hesperus, 185 pp., £12.99, September 2007, 978 1 84391 710 6
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... Patience has been the matter of Annie Dillard’s writing for thirty years and more: patience and watchfulness and humility, together with a good deal of meditation (some of it conducted while crouched ‘mute as a photographic plate’, waiting for some small stalked creature to put aside its alarm and show itself on a chilly mudbank or in midgey thickets in Virginia or the Pacific Northwest) on what the watching and the waiting are good for ...

Emily v. Mabel

Susan Eilenberg: Emily Dickinson, 30 June 2011

Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Virago, 491 pp., £9.99, April 2011, 978 1 84408 453 1
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Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 535 pp., £25.95, September 2010, 978 0 674 04867 6
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... Eliot and a sentimental writer who went by the name of Ik Marvel; her passionate friendship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, whom Austin married after a difficult courtship and who thereafter lived next door to Dickinson in The Evergreens, reading and commenting on the poems Dickinson sent her by the hundred; the poet’s famous ...
The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge 
by Rosemary Ashton.
Blackwell, 480 pp., £25, December 1996, 0 631 18746 4
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Coleridge: Selected Poems 
edited by Richard Holmes.
HarperCollins, 358 pp., £20, March 1996, 0 00 255579 4
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Coleridge’s Later Poetry 
by Morton Paley.
Oxford, 147 pp., £25, June 1996, 0 19 818372 0
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A Choice of Coleridge’s Verse 
edited by Ted Hughes.
Faber, 232 pp., £7.99, March 1996, 0 571 17604 6
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... He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do. Fond readers who dream of the poems Keats might have written had he lived past 25 and speculate about what works died with Shelley at 29, humane readers who deplore tuberculosis and drowning (together with rheumatic fever, arsenic and other wasters of Romantic genius), entertain a different and darker regret when they turn their attention to Coleridge, wishing, not that he had lived longer, but that he had died sooner ...

One Bit of Rock or Moor

Susan Eilenberg: Wordsworth and the Victorians, 3 September 1998

Wordsworth and the Victorians 
by Stephen Gill.
Oxford, 300 pp., £25, April 1998, 0 19 811965 8
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The Five-Book Prelude 
by William Wordsworth, edited by Duncan Wu.
Blackwell, 214 pp., £40, April 1997, 0 631 20548 9
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... Durability was what mattered. Wordsworth founded his poetry on what he called ‘the beautiful and permanent forms of nature’ and built it according to ‘the primary laws of our nature’. It cleaved stubbornly to facts, to countable things, to rocks and stones and trees, and behaved rather like the boy Wordsworth himself, who, as he much later reported, often ‘grasped at a wall or tree’ on his way to school in order to reassure himself of the material reality of a world he did not entirely believe in ...

Balloons and Counter-Balloons

Susan Eilenberg: ‘The Age of Wonder’, 7 January 2010

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science 
by Richard Holmes.
HarperPress, 380 pp., £9.99, September 2009, 978 0 00 714953 7
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... They had heard that we were great Philosophers, and expected much from us, one of the first questions that they askd was, when it would thunder. Joseph Banks, The ‘Endeavour’ Journal Richard Holmes describes The Age of Wonder as a ‘relay race of scientific stories’ about the explosion of exploration and scientific achievement in England between two celebrated voyages, Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation of the world in the Endeavour in the late 1760s and Charles Darwin’s expedition to the Galapagos in the 1830s ...

Forget that I exist

Susan Eilenberg: Mary Wollstonecraft, 30 November 2000

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life 
by Janet Todd.
Weidenfeld, 516 pp., £25, April 2000, 0 297 84299 4
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... Mary Wollstonecraft’s defenders have always found their task difficult. Writing her life to disastrous effect in 1798, intent on establishing her as one of those beings ‘endowed with the most exquisite and delicious sensibility, whose minds seem almost of too fine a texture to encounter the vicissitudes of human affairs, to whom pleasure is transport, and disappointment is agony indescribable’, an ‘incomparable woman’ than whom ‘perhaps no human creature ever suffered greater misery’, a ‘female Werther’, even a second Goethe, the still grieving widower William Godwin was forced to concede that his improbable dear was ‘what Dr Johnson would have called, “a very good hater” ...

Leaf, Button, Dog

Susan Eilenberg: The Sins of Hester Thrale, 1 November 2001

According to Queeney 
by Beryl Bainbridge.
Little, Brown, 242 pp., £16.99, September 2001, 0 316 85867 6
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... Who would believe Goldy when he told of a Ghost? a Man whom One could not believe when he told of a Brother. Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi, marginal annotation to Boswell’s Life of Johnson Here is a museum. Visitors may see in it Nero’s couch, a statue of Cerberus and a skeleton of an Ethiopian, the bones stuck with porcupine quills. Here is a cabinet of curiosities ...

Complacent Bounty

Susan Eilenberg: The Detachment of Muriel Spark, 15 December 2005

All the Poems 
by Muriel Spark.
Carcanet, 130 pp., £9.95, October 2004, 9781857547733
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The Finishing School 
by Muriel Spark.
Penguin, 156 pp., £6.99, April 2005, 9780141005980
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... For the past half-century Muriel Spark has been the recognised master of detachment. The closer she approaches matters of terror or outrage or betrayal or shame the more controlled her voice. To memory-summoned menace and ritually recalled violation her response has been severe amusement or colder revenge; to the threat of madness or obsession (her own or another’s), controlled glee ...

With A, then B, then C

Susan Eilenberg: The Sexual Life of Iris M., 5 September 2002

Iris Murdoch: A Life 
by Peter Conradi.
HarperCollins, 706 pp., £9.99, August 2002, 9780006531753
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... My friends, my friends, I say to the teacups and spoons. Such intense love for Puss – more and more,’ Iris Murdoch wrote in her journal. It was the summer of 1993. Her 25th novel was just being published, and she was working at her last, Jackson’s Dilemma. Who was Jackson? Puss asked her, but she could not tell. ‘I don’t think he’s been born yet,’ she said, at which Puss, accustomed to finding her amusing, was amused ...

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