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


Who Are ‘The French’?

The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War

by Graham Robb
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 in Seville: An Intermezzo

by Hugh Thomas
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

Leonard Woolf: A Biography

by Victoria Glendinning
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

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

by Leo Damrosch
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

Voltaire in Exile: The Last Years, 1753–78

by Ian Davidson

Candide, or, Optimism

by Voltaire,translated by Peter Constantine, with an introduction by Diane Johnson
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

Science and Polity in France: The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Years

by Charles Coulston Gillispie
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 …