P. N. Furbank is the author of nine books, including biographies of Samuel Butler, Italo Svevo, and E.M. Forster.

Who Are ‘The French’?

One should perhaps begin by examining the title of this most appealing book. Graham Robb, the author of much-praised biographies of Victor Hugo, Balzac, and Rimbaud, tells us how he decided it was time for him “to explore the country on which [he] was supposed to be an authority.” For …

A Capacity for Impudence

Beaumarchais, the author of The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, did not think of himself primarily as a writer, but rather as an entrepreneur and a man of action—if possible a man of destiny. Moreover, why these two plays of his are familiar to us is because …

The Love of a Pessimist

It is natural, and no doubt correct, to suppose that Leonard Woolf has been thought to deserve an elaborate and large-scale biography because he married Virginia Stephen. But one needs to be careful how one phrases that remark. For the infinitely poignant story of Virginia Woolf’s life and death would …

The Charms of Selfishness

It is best to think of biography, with all its utilitarian obligations, as a craft, and autobiography as an art. But this makes difficulty for a biographer of Rousseau. For the main, and often the sole, source of information about his early life is his autobiographical Confessions, which is an …

Cultivating Voltaire’s Garden

In March 1753 Voltaire’s three-year sojourn at the court of Frederick the Great came to an acrimonious end: so ill-tempered that, upon Voltaire’s arrival in Frankfurt on his way home, Frederick had him put under house arrest, for illegal possession of some of his (the King’s) poems. He was joined …

The Scientific Takeover

A question is bound to arise how a scientifically ignorant person, like the present writer, can presume to review Charles Gillispie’s remarkable book (itself the continuation and completion of his earlier Science and Polity in France at the End of the Old Regime, published back in 1980). Of course, Gillispie’s …

Body and Soul

At his tragic and unexplained death in 2002, Roy Porter, the much-admired historian of medicine, author of The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity and many other works, left a manuscript of his latest book complete in its text, though needing more work on its endnotes. But …

What Adèle Knew

Between 1907 and 1908 the French publisher Plon brought out, under the title Récits d’une tante (Tales of an Aunt), the four volumes of the Memoirs of Adèle, Comtesse de Boigne; and a very remarkable book it is, with a remarkable subject. The comtesse, née Osmond, was born in 1781, …

‘Their Noon, Their Midnight…’

The reviewer of Colin Jones’s new history of eighteenth-century France is faced with a problem. Readers of a review might have hoped that it would deal with history, and the reviewer too might have liked this; but, instead, it has to be in large part about historiography. There is no …

Men in the Moon

The “five friends” of Jenny Uglow’s title are the manufacturer of metal goods Matthew Boulton (1728–1809); the potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730– 1795); the physician Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), grandfather of the author of On the Origin of Species; Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), the Unitarian preacher, experimental chemist, and political radical; and James …

The Art of Malice

In his Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV (originally published in French in 1997) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie aspires, he says, to provide “a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of Saint-Simon’s thought and work (but not of his writing or style).” The “work” referred to is the Duc de Saint-Simon’s …

A Royal Mystery

“Lives” of kings and queens, when they belong to the category of the biographie romancée, where facts are a little hazy and dialogues and private thoughts are freely invented, are usually shelved by libraries under “Biography.” More serious and scholarly royal biographies, on the other hand, tend to get placed …

Epic-Making

In 1957 J.G.A. Pocock published The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, an illuminating, and in some ways groundbreaking, investigation of seventeenth-century English historiography. It argued that Whiggish political theory before the advent of John Locke was essentially historical in character. Its exponents (for instance James Tyrrell as late as …

Dreams of the Body

There has been a lot of interest in recent years in the painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), the inspirer of neoclassicism. I am thinking particularly of Thomas Crow’s brilliant Emulation,[^1] which examines the human tensions and rivalries within David’s all-male studio, and of Michael Fried’s suggestive Absorption and Theatricality,[^2] which explores …

Brave New World

Daniel Roche is an eminent French scholar who has previously written on French provincial academies and the “people” of Paris. One must presumably call him a “social historian,” but in his long and wide-ranging book[^1] he aims, he says, to “move from social history to history on a broader scale.” …

Tocqueville’s Lament

It is now thirty years since, in Penser la Révolution française,[^1] the late François Furet offered a revisionist explanation of the French Revolution; but, if I am not mistaken, it is still the reigning orthodoxy. Which it well deserves to be. For it is simple but profound and is, before …

The Hack of Genius

It will be agreed that, in the case of a writer, biography and bibliography are inextricably intertwined. Were we to find reason for supposing that Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the attribution of which to James Hogg has occasionally been questioned, was really by Jane Austen, or that large chunks …

Portraits of a Lady

The “woman’s portrait” (“portrait de femme”) has tended, says the author of Women’s Words, to be a male genre. The genre has its great men—Sainte-Beuve, Michelet, the Goncourt brothers—and its own rules, chief among them being that the portrait should be done from the point of view of what Woman …

A Finished Woman

In August 1763, James Boswell went to Utrecht to complete his education, and within hours of arriving, appalled at the prospect of spending the winter in “so shocking a place,” he fell into the blackest depression. He believed he was going mad and would rush out into the streets, weeping …

The Pleasures of Reading Hogarth

William Hogarth, the tercentenary of whose birth falls this year, is an appealing subject. He is also an intriguing one, reminding us of Michel Butor’s remark in his essay “Words in Painting” that the presence of words “ruins the fundamental wall erected by our education between letters and the arts.”[^1] …

A Simple Facilitator

As has often been said, the French Revolution is still with us, and we feel it still matters to us, indeed quite deeply, what opinion we finally come to about Mirabeau or Danton or Robespierre. They continue to pose problems or, which comes to much the same, to suggest mysteries.

Love à la Mode

Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve, that is to say the selection of his unpublished writings brought out under that title in 1954, was a revelation in half-a-dozen different ways. As Bernard de Fallois made clear in his introduction, it was from a long-cherished plan of Proust’s to write an attack on Sainte-Beuve …

Call Me Madame

Let me summarize the opening chapter of Mme de Staël’s Corinne: or Italy, which was published in 1807 and became one of the most celebrated novels of the earlier nineteenth century. In this chapter we are introduced to Oswald, Lord Nelvil, a peer of Scotland who, late in the year …

The Time of Her Life

When Henry James’s friend Sarah Orne Jewett sent him a copy of her just completed historical novel The Tory Lover, written five years after the Maine stories of The Country of the Pointed Firs, he implored her: “Go back to the dear country of the Pointed Firs, come back to …

Nothing Sacred

Robert Darnton, the distinguished historian of the Book, and author of The Great Cat Massacre, has now produced his long-awaited study of the best seller in eighteenth-century France: or rather of a peculiar kind, the “forbidden” best seller, belonging to the class (a very extensive one, containing a large part …

Little Women

The subject of Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats is the four daughters of Charles Lennox, second Duke of Richmond, Lord of the Bedchamber to George II, and owner of Goodwood House in Sussex (famous for its Canaletto paintings and its menagerie). There have been separate biographies of Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox,[^1] …

All About Eve

The trouble with many biographies is that their authors have drawn on a stock pattern, the standard sort of thing for the class of subject they have in hand, whether pioneering scientist, maligned statesman, celebrated courtesan, or poet who died young. The result may be not exactly false but, for …