‘Everybody Dies’: bodies in art

Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, his death referenced in a passing sigh, “my poor Fool is hanged”; at the National, he is beaten to death in front of us. Goneril and Regan, too, both die onstage, contrary to the stage directions, as does Gloucester, whose heart “bursts smilingly”. Add in Lear, Edmund and Cordelia, and that’s quite a pile-up.

But this steep body-count isn’t a modern invention. There are 66 deaths in just 11 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Titus Andronicus has a hefty 14, The Winter’s Tale has only one, if you assume that a man who “exits, pursued by a bear” isn’t going to get very far.) In fact, that Shakespeare and blood go hand in hand is so well known that the National’s bookshop sells a poster entitled “Everybody Dies”, with handy pictograms of the fates of Romeo, Juliet and their unfortunate friends.

So the recent pout from the playwright David Hare, who has called the high death rate in contemporary crime-drama “ridiculous” seems wilfully obtuse. “At what level of reality is this meant to be happening?” he huffed.

The obvious answer is, at no level. That’s why it’s called “drama”, not “reality”. Aeschylus, who knew a thing or two about drama, reminded us to “Call no man happy until he is dead” – we can’t know how a person’s life turns out until it’s over. Since one of the joys of drama is that it gives shape and coherence to the random events that constitute our lives, death is a dramatic necessity.

It’s not as if this is a secret. Almost all opera could be subtitled “Dead Women”. Elizabethan drama would have to pack up and go home without murder: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good”, says the central character in The Revenger’s Tragedy, before killing his enemy by giving him a poisoned skull to kiss – oh, that old trick – and for good measure pimping out his sister. In The Spanish Tragedy, two of the characters die before the curtain rises, but nevertheless have speaking roles.

If we were to stipulate that reality was the starting-point for drama, where would crime-fiction, films and mini-series be set? Not in Europe or North America for a start, with their death rates hovering between 5 per 100,000 (ultra-violent US), 1.8 (calm Canada), and 0.6 (safe Sweden). Monaco would be out: 0 per 100,000. Sorry, Mr Bond, no Casino Royale for you, you’ll have to head to Honduras instead: 82.1 per 100,000.

Hare, promoting his new BBC drama, Turks & Caicos, says that he wants to “restore tension”, like Hitchcock who “never killed anybody”. Say what? The Hitchcock I know had no problem killing his characters, from the 1920s The Lodger, which begins with a woman being murdered, through Rope (the victim not merely strangled, but then stuffed in a box on which dinner is served – more “reality”, no doubt). And unless I’ve misread Psycho all these years, Marion doesn’t get out of that shower, dry her hair and find a good place for brunch. There is even a film-clip on YouTube where, to save time and trouble, 36 Hitchcock films have been spliced into 2 minutes and 50 seconds of murderous denouements.

Chekov’s gun is a famous theatrical dictum: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” This is more a warning against dragging in material that isn’t going to be used. But it also returns us to Aeschylus. Until the end is known, until we get to the ever-after, no story can be judged. And art, finally, is judgment. Reality is death. None of us gets out of here alive.

First published in The Telegraph

Pompeii Live, from the British Museum

The hot exhibition ticket in London is the British Museum’s Pompeii show. For the rest of the summer, many dates have only late-evening tickets available. So the expanding reach of cinema experience of live events (previously confined to opera, dance and theatre) is very welcome.

We open to hustle-bustle music, to get us in the mood for our guided exhibition tour, and a crane-shot zooms down on Peter Snow at the front entrance, telling us how exciting this all is. Then another introduction breathlessly itemises the number of people involved in putting the show together. And Neil MacGregor, the Museum director, appears for a third introduction, again stressing numbers. It’s as though they don’t trust their material.

Which is odd, because the material is fabulous. Telly dons abound – Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes – as well as the chef Giorgio Locatelli, who gives a recipe for stuffed dormouse. “Just like rabbit!” he cries. “Use pine-nuts”, he encourages the appalled Peter Snow.

The brilliant Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, enthuses about sewer archaeology to the still-appalled Snow: “The Herculaneum sewers are an absolute joy,” he cries. And it is a joy that he can make us understand why, as he shows the jewels, ceramics, even statues that slipped down the drains.

Bettany Hughes takes over the appalled slot, as Mary Beard looks at a winged phallus windchime. We don’t know what the phallus represented, she makes clear; she lists possibilities, but is good on the great uncertainty that is the past.

Hughes then warns us to avert our gaze as we get to a statue of the god Pan having sex with a goat. (“How do you make love to a goat?” she asks nervously. Very carefully indeed is the obvious, but unspoken reply.)

After a reconstruction of the eruption and the pyroclastic surge that engulfed the two towns in volcanic ash, the final display, a collection of possessions found on the beach at Herculaneum, is heart-breaking: a lantern used as the fleeing crowds stumbled around in the night that descended at midday, a key to a house to which its owners will never return.

Peter Snow, no longer appalled, is now thrilled. “Isn’t it terrible?! What exciting things!” he crows. “An intense human tragedy,” he adds, chuckling over the plaster cast of a couple and their two children in their death-throes.

With gracious restraint, the exhibition’s curator Paul Roberts provides a measured and touching response to this curious empathy-bypass: the tragedy, he explains to Snow and us, enabled those who died so suddenly to live on, to share their lives with us 2,000 years later.

The camera could linger longer on the exhibits, and it would be nice if, every now and again, the talking heads just stopped talking and let us look. But the British Museum’s Pompeii is an extraordinary achievement, a fine combination of scholarship and showmanship.

That it can, via Pompeii Live, reach a wider audience can only be a good thing.

Lucy Moore: Nijinsky

Poor Nijinsky. Poor sad, mad, vanished Nijinsky. His career was astonishingly brief, the trail that was left in his meteoric wake so persistent it is hard to believe he danced for little more than seven years.

He was born in 1889 or 1890, to Polish dancers working in Russia (Nijinsky thought of himself as Polish, but he spoke the language poorly, and spent his life in Russia before moving to France).

His astonishing talent was noted early in his student days at the Imperial Ballet School in St Petersburg, and on graduation he was chosen to partner Mathilde Kschessinskaya, not merely the company’s prima ballerina assoluta, but the tsar’s mistress as well. The newly promoted dancer was also chosen, off-stage, by Prince Lvov, a lover of ballet, and of ballet dancers.

Sergei Diaghilev soon replaced Lvov both in Nijinsky’s bed and by featuring the dancer as his male star in the first season of his Ballets Russes in Paris, in 1909.

In theory the Ballets Russes only borrowed dancers from the Imperial Theatre in their summer holidays. But in 1910, Nijinsky was sacked – perhaps because he was obdurate about an “indecent” costume (it didn’t have shorts over his tights), perhaps because of political manoeuvrings against Diaghilev, perhaps because his partners were not thrilled at the ovations he was getting.

In any case, Diaghilev and Nijinsky embraced the opportunity to create a permanent company in France, away from Imperial oversight. Joined by the talents of Fokine, Benois, Bakst and Stravinsky, the great ballets poured out: The Firebird, Petroushka, Carnaval, Scheherazade.

Nijinsky, however, wanted to create a new way of moving, of understanding music, a modernist style for which few were ready. L’après-midi d’un faune scandalised as the faune – Nijinsky himself – mimed masturbation as the curtain fell. Le sacre du printemps, with its insistence on a brutal primitivism, was somehow even more shocking.

What would have happened to Nijinsky’s future work, we have no way of knowing. Nijinsky, at best a social naïf, was “captured” on tour by Romola de Pulszky, a Hungarian groupie. They married, and Diaghilev responded by immediately sacking his greatest dancer.

The First World War found the star interned as an enemy alien, causing untold damage to his always fragile mental state. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, although precisely what that meant has been debated ever since. Certainly he was institutionalised, off and on, until his death in 1950.

The rise and fall has been picked over ever since. We know so much about this most famous dancer, and we know almost nothing. Was Nijinsky by preference homosexual, or heterosexual? (Romola, it has been noted, formed relationships exclusively with women otherwise.) Was Nijinsky a careerist, selecting Lvov and Diaghilev to progress his career, or were they predatory older men who gave an innocent young boy no choice? Was the startlingly modern choreography he produced his own, or did Diaghilev and others, as they later claimed, contribute the bulk?

These questions will never be finally resolved, but that doesn’t stop people asking. There have been a dozen biographies since Richard Buckle’s ground-breaking 1971 book, and while new information has from time to time emerged, by now the well has really run dry, and Lucy Moore merely goes over the well-worn ground.

Nijinsky also shows signs of having been produced in haste (presumably to coincide with the centenary of the famous 1913 performance of Sacre), with repetitions abounding, despite the book’s brevity. More troublingly, to produce a narrative flow, Moore has quarantined many of the controversies in the notes. What she calls “the reality” appears in the main text, only to be contradicted in the notes, which most people, of course, will not read.

Centenary aside, why another book? Seven years of dancing, a quarter-century of madness, a further 75 years of squabbles, legends, mythmaking and unmaking. Surely it is past time to let the poor sad man rest quietly in his grave?

Tanya Harrod: The Last Sane Man

Michael Cardew, one of the great studio potters of the 20th century, was a man of doubleness. He was born into the heart of upper-middle-class establishment Edwardian England – a great-grandfather had been Lord Chancellor, a grandfather the Dean of Winchester, and he was related to soldiers, lawyers and diplomats (and Kim Philby, as well as Montgomery of Alamein). His mother was one of Lewis Carroll’s favourite child-models, his father had known Oscar Wilde.

Living in poverty, working at a craft rather than a profession – these were things that were a matter of pride: as much for what he had given up as for what he had gained. Similarly doubled, he married young and fathered three children, yet while never divorcing, his lifetime of emotional engagement was with a series of young men.

His father had collected slip-decorated pottery made by Edwin Beer Fishley, a noted north Devon craftsman: slipware was, he believed, “warm and kind and generous”, and he learnt to throw from Fishley’s grandson. Even before he left Oxford, he had sought out Bernard Leach, who had just moved into his new home in St Ives. Leach couldn’t pay him, but his youth and enthusiasm won him a place in the new studio, where he met a series of not-yet famous names: Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie, Norah Braden, Shoji Hamada, and William Staite Murray.

Studio pottery in the Twenties was a new movement with a spiritual element, one that Cardew embraced: the making was as important – more important – than the finished product. In 1926, Cardew established his own pottery, in Winchcombe, in Gloucestershire, where he hoped to put his beliefs into practice, creating works of culture as well as of skill, statements of belief as much as clay-based items. Yet here too he was doubleness personified: the idea of pottery for display rather than utility was anathema to him, and yet he was creating a very personal artistic vision. He was searching for the ordinary, even as he was forging a highly individualistic – and privileged – path.

The individualism prodded him to leave the comfortable Cotswolds for a bleak site in north Cornwall, and then, in wartime, to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and later to Nigeria. There too his doubleness was on display: as a colonial servant appalled by the ideas of empire that were being imposed on indigenous populations; as a teacher who, over a quarter of a century in West Africa, failed to establish functioning programmes or train protégés to a level that they would be able to forge their own careers.

One problem was his adherence to the mystic over the practical. It was not until he reached his early fifties that he finally buckled down and studied ceramic technology.

Later in life he wrote a magisterial summation of his career and beliefs, Pioneer Pottery, which won many admirers, and more than a handful of acolytes, who surrounded him in his new role of performer-magus, as he toured university campuses abroad, preaching his ideas of the intellectual’s pastoral life and demonstrating his throwing skills. Yet his “technological romanticism” demanded primitive living conditions, and an extreme level of deprivation for himself and his family and admirers: a failure to accept those living conditions was understood as a triple failure: of intelligence, of will, and of artistry.

Tanya Harrod, with an encyclopedic knowledge of craft, has spent a decade immersed in her subject’s life, and her command is obvious. Quiet, gentle and elegantly written, The Last Sane Man nevertheless pulls no punches. Cardew left a lifetime trail of damage behind him, among family, friends and students. He was, as Harrod shows, hugely personally charismatic yet was selfish, self-absorbed and had the egotistical pleasured self-regard of a toddler.

But at the end of the day, there is his pottery. An amalgam of historical influences (particularly in the early days Byzantine and Greek), of north Devon slipware, of Ghanaian shapes and Eastern brushstrokes, his work is never to be mistaken for that of any other potter.

Cardew’s idiosyncrasies as a teacher, as well as the austerity of his vision, ensured that he could not be followed. His work has therefore often been elided in histories of the craft. It is good to be reminded in this fine biography precisely how good it really was.

Robert Hughes: The art critic with a dash of the streetfighter

The passing of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes within days of each other feels like the death of the Titans. Both were masters of the epigrammatic put-down, but while Vidal presented himself as the last aristocrat, Hughes’s image was that of a street-brawler, a thug. (His love of motorbikes, and his penchant for being photographed in leather jackets added to the persona.)

The Shock of the New, his television series and book, which traced modernism from the Impressionists to Andy Warhol, made him the only art critic even non-specialists might have heard of. But it was not the subject matter, it was how he approached it: he had no patience with restraint, or charm. He admired artists who wrestled, as he did, with questions of purpose, of ethics, of art as morality – and it was expressed in a hold-on-to-your-hats, take-no-prisoners style.

Hughes loved – liking was too sterile for him – such artists as Lucian Freud: Freud, he wrote, “takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer”. Hughes, too, demanded active engagement. If you weren’t willing to fight it out, he wasn’t interested. This made him thrilling to read. It was exhilarating to watch him lash out, devastating the wastrels and slackers. An essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat was entitled “Requiem for a Featherweight”, while Julian Schnabel’s work – or was it Schnabel himself? – was dismissed as a Sylvester Stallone-like “lurching display of oily pectorals”.

This was enormous fun. It could also be destructive. The positive was that Hughes cared, deeply, passionately, and he was able to make his readers care too. Cézanne was his hero, the artist who created an art based on “the idea that doubt could be heroic”. Doubt is heroic, but Hughes had none himself. And in a way that corrupted him, because instead of writing great criticism to enable his readers to see better, to understand better, he began to write criticism to enable his readers to see that Robert Hughes was right.

Being a critic nowadays, he once said, was more “like being a piano-player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs”. This remark was both very funny and very revealing. For since when did critics have any “control” over the “action”? It is artists who have always been in control. A critic is merely a facilitator. A great critic – and Hughes on form was a very great critic indeed – is just like the man in the petrol-station who cleans the car’s windscreen. At his best, Hughes knew this. Curiosity in an artist was what he loved, and no one described better the work of artists who ventured, failed, who tried again and, in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, succeeded in failing better. As they did, Hughes was standing right there, making sure we could see it happen.

Early modernism, the art of the early 19th century, was filled with “ebullience, idealism, confidence”, and those qualities were what Hughes’s own writing conveyed so vividly. He had little interest in theory, which made him a welcome (if secret) relief to specialists, and a joy and delight to the general art-lover. Yet he had no tolerance at all for the un-nuanced – or, as he would have described it bluntly, the ignorant. You could trust your gut response, he told us, but only if your gut had been fed for decades, as his had, on a steady diet of looking at, and thinking about, art.

It might be that Hughes, Australian-born but a US resident for much of his adult life, found his perfect subject in American Visions, which starts when “the New World really was new”, at least to its conquerors and settlers, then goes on to explore the usually overlooked genre of social-utopian folk-art in the early 19th century, and yet ends, in bitterness for Hughes, with Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ of 1987.

And maybe that is the clue. Hughes was, ultimately, an American in spirit, searching for that lost sense of manifest destiny, reading the art world as a morality tale, a replication of the fall of man, chafing restlessly as art stopped being about heroic struggle and became instead an entry to the market for buying and selling commodities. He yearned to recreate that “American power to make things up as you go along”.

He was, in fact, the 20th century’s Huck Finn, the great American archetype, who, at the end of his adventures, bids his readers farewell: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Hughes of the thuggish put-down never mattered. Instead it is the Hughes who is constantly searching for new worlds, the writer who through his lucid, lambent prose carries us, oh so joyously, with him, who will survive, and be treasured.

Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2012

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”.

Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped. Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three-storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died).

The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes.

There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust.

The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large.

The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

Belinda Jack: The Woman Reader

At the beginning of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf made a case for a “Room of One’s Own” for all women, without which they could not become writers.

Near the end of the century, Doris Lessing focused on readers. Libraries, she said, were the most democratic of institutions: there, no one can tell you what to read, or how to read, or what to think about what you have read.

In reality, both notions are utopian: people have always been told what, when and how to read, and libraries enforce this through acquisitions policies, whom they admit and when. For literacy is dangerous to those with power. Anything written down is beyond the control of its creators: reading is interpretation.

How we think about reading is also open to interpretation. Both men and women have historically been painted with books. For men, it indicated professional status, or scholarship, or a religious vocation; for women, the interpretative range is wider. Images of the Virgin Mary reading at the Annunciation began to appear in northern Europe in the 15th century. Three centuries later, a Rococo painting showed a woman reader in a reverie, one hand on her book, the other vanishing under her skirts – reading is no longer about devotion, or even mental stimulation, but suggests a worrying sexual self-sufficiency.

Belinda Jack sets herself the task of charting this vast subject, from early cave paintings (handprints establish that women as well as men were involved in their creation) through the classical world, when the literacy of women cast reflected glory on the wealth of their menfolk, and the Middle Ages, where reading revolved for the most part around religious communities and the courts.

The 16th century brought together improved technology, which reduced the price of books, more widespread education, which increased the number of readers, the Protestant Reformation, which encouraged individual Bible study without the mediation of a priest, and the rise of the middle classes. With the subsequent increase in literacy came, naturally, an increase in attempts to control reading, with the appearance of conduct books, telling women how to be good wives and mothers. By the 17th century, miscellanies, where women copied out their favourite passages, give us, for the first time, hard evidence of what was being read, rather than what ought to have been read. In the 19th and 20th centuries, novels became renowned – and denigrated – as women’s reading, and arguments for and against raged in the press and private correspondence, giving us an insight into readers’ responses.

As a subject, women’s reading is vast, yet it is also intensely private, and it has left little trace for most of history. Even in recent centuries, when readers’ views survive in diaries and letters, the narrow focus on reading is a slippery thing. And so Jack constantly finds herself sliding away from reading, ending up discussing writing, where she looks at the books women authors may have read, or education, concentrating on the books students were told they should read. Sometimes, no reading is involved at all: when the collection of one 17th-century bibliophile was sold, her books were found to have most of their pages uncut – she collected, but did not read.

And while for the most part Jack uses a bland, neutral language, her prejudices, when they peek out, can be startling: writers, she writes, “cash in” on women’s interests – in this case it is fashion she is discussing, but had it been art, or music, would she have chosen the same denigratory verb? Her views on what constitutes good reading are equally forthright. The 12th-century oral tradition, she tells us, was “full of redundant stylistic repetitions – rhymes, clichés and ornate but meaningless flourishes”. Really? Repetitions and flourishes like Homer’s “wine-dark sea”? Surely oral devices are different to written ones, not inferior to them. But no, for she goes on: Dickens, apparently, wrote for “chambermaids” rather than the “educated”.

With this division between high and low, or even middlebrow, it is perhaps not surprising that Jack disregards the power and reach of 18th-century circulating libraries, and barely mentions magazines, with only a single line on Addison and Steele’s widely read Tatler. In her discussion on the 19th century there is nothing on Gothic novels nor their successors, sensation fiction, supposedly a women’s genre, and just one lonely mention of penny dreadfuls and working-class Sunday newspapers.

Perhaps this is because the book is, essentially, about upper-class women. In the 19th century, Jack’s representative readers are Jane Austen, the journalist Harriet Martineau, Lady Louisa Stuart, and the wife of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle. To drive her class bias home, she adds that women were able to find employment “principally” as teachers, actors and writers – overlooking the millions of female servants, agricultural labourers and factory workers.

Yet these women too read, if not as often or as widely as their upper-class sisters. Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle, wrote: “I have made a world of my own: for which nobody, I hope, will blame me, since it is in every one’s power to do the like.” It was indeed within their power, although that power was limited by social expectations. My great-grandmother, an immigrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, arrived with a “ladies’ prayer book”: on the right-hand pages were the Hebrew prayers; on the left were, not translations, but explanations, to suit lesser female minds. Facing the prayer for the dead it said, simply, “Here you cry.”

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

“I think people marry far too much; it is such a lottery after all, and to a poor woman a very doubtful happiness.” So wrote Queen Victoria, and reading Kate Summerscale’s extraordinary dissection of a failed marriage, it is hard to argue.

In 1850, Isabella Robinson, a bored and restless married woman of 37, met 27-year-old Edward Lane at the Edinburgh home of his mother-in-law. While Isabella’s businessman husband Henry was absent, Lane saw a friendship between his wife and Isabella develop. Isabella, however, read his polite attentions as suppressed passion, which she brooded over in her diary.

When Robinson’s work took his family south, Isabella developed crushes on other young men, but her marriage jogged on. Then Lane qualified as a doctor and set up a practice near Farnham, where he offered the fashionable “water-cure”.

Isabella became a patient, even while recognising that all he had to offer her was “cool friendship”. Then at some point Lane made overtures, although whether the pair crossed the line to outright adultery will never be known. At the same time, Henry discovered that Isabella had been giving money to the recipients of her crushes and the family decamped to Boulogne. Soon after, Isabella developed diphtheria and rambled in periods of delirium. What she said is unknown, but it led Henry to her journal, and as soon as she recovered he collected their children, her papers and left.

At this date marriages could be dissolved only by an act of parliament, unaffordable for all but a tiny minority. But two years later, in 1858, everything changed: a new act made divorce a possibility if adultery were proved against the woman, and Henry’s was the 11th petition lodged under the new law.

Isabella’s defence was that, since keeping a diary of such explicitness was madness, then she must have been insane: the diary merely recorded what her counsel claimed were lunatic fancies. Lane, with his reputation on the line, agreed. Isabella, he swore, had merely been a friend of his wife and, later, a patient.

Summerscale is fascinatingly forensic, parsing the various witnesses’ statements as she did in her earlier The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, turning the did-they-didn’t-they question into the best kind of detective story. She astutely notices Isabella’s resemblance to Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s notorious novel of the previous year, which has come to embody the fate of the unfulfilled woman longing for life to be an unending romantic novel.

There are perhaps too few reminders that we are, ultimately, hearing Isabella’s story, based on her journal, with nothing equivalent to give Henry’s view of events. Summerscale’s description of Henry as “uneducated, narrow-minded, harsh-tempered, selfish, proud”, is, in reality, not hers but Isabella’s. Even the fact that Henry had a mistress and illegitimate children appears to derive from Isabella alone, for they were never mentioned in court. Perhaps they never existed?

And while Isabella claimed that Henry was rapacious, a more interesting story may be lurking under the surface. Isabella had about £400 a year, while initially Henry earned significantly more, making them rich. Their move to Edinburgh, however, suggests an attempt to reduce expenditure, especially when coupled with the fact that they employed only four servants. Their subsequent relocation to Boulogne would then indicate an even more extreme financial retrenchment: the French town was a resort for the genteelly down-on-their-luck.

As with so much of this case, superficially obvious, and even in Summerscale’s expert hands so mysterious, we may never know. After the event, Lane wrote, “There is so much… recklessness about truth in general… that no partial account of anything is to be trusted.”

Summerscale is too original a writer to quote Tolstoy’s “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but she follows his lead, detailing the specific unhappinesses, and mapping the way these miseries spread and infected everyone they touched.

That she manages to make the end surprising shows her literary dexterity. Had I been a judge at the Robinson trial, I would have found Isabella guilty for offences against literature: “I dipped my pen but too often in the fairy ink of poesy”, she wrote to herself.

Summerscale triumphantly avoids fairy ink and poesy both, producing a gripping account of the destruction of a marriage.