Happy Birthday Arthur Conan Doyle! My Imaginary Brooklyn hunted down this old cover and illustration from The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard. Yes that’s Napoleon, Gerard is one of his (fictional) officers. If you’re a Flashman fan you need to read this book (George MacDonald Fraser wrote the intro to our edition and was heavily influenced by it).
One is brought to the conclusion that Chekhov, whose family had been serfs till the Emancipation and who knew the life of the lower classes, is here contradicting deliberately the Tolstoyan idealization and the Turgenevian idylizing of the peasantry, as, in his stories about religion, he is confronting Dostoevsky’s saints with something more degraded or prosaic. It is a picture, in general, of a feudal society attempting to modernize itself, but still in a state of transition that is considerably less than half-baked. One of the strongest impressions, in fact, conveyed by the whole of Chekov’s works is that, although the old order is petering out, there is not very much to build on for a sound democratic and up-to-date Russia. And yet there is just barely a note of hope.
—Edmund Wilson on Anton Chekhov, in his introduction to his selection of Chekhov’s later short stories, Peasants and Other Stories, which, incidentally, was the first book ever published by NYRB Classics.
Voltaire in Love still stands as a portrait of the French Enlightenment as it really was, with intrigue and idealism in strange but fizzy solution.Why did Nancy Mitford have the insight into the nature of French intellectual life denied to so many others? Many English people live for a long time in France, and though they often love it, they rarely ‘get it’ in quite this way. It may be significant that all of the Mitford girls had to go elsewhere to find an identity. Aristocrats raised aristocratically, they ‘took’ better elsewhere than in England: Unity pitifully and horribly in Germany, Jessica in America. France saved Nancy, much the best pure writer of the sisters. She grasped, and sets out here in exquisite detail, the other side of the constant vendettas and intrigues of Parisian life. She saw the workings of a society rooted in a set of manners designed, at whatever cost in truthfulness, on making other people feel comfortable and valued, a set of manners based on compliments and what the English call ‘affectations.’
—Adam Gopnik, from his introduction to Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love, which went on sale on November 6th. Mitford was born on this day in 1904 at 1 Graham Place, Belgravia, London, and was the eldest of the notorious Mitford sisters.
Yesterday was Jan Morris’s birthday, and to wish her well we’re excerpting the first fews paragraphs of her book, Conundrum. We have also just released Hav, which combines for the first time two of her pieces, Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmidons.
“I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life.
I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always like it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.
What triggered so bizarre a thought I have long forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age of Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine—for of course the weather was much better in those days, summers were really summers, and I seldom seem to remember it actually raining at all.
More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child. I had a boy’s body. I wore boy’s clothes. It is true that my mother had wished me to be a daughter, but I was never treated as one. It is true that gushing visitors sometimes assembled me into their fox furs and lavender sachets to murmur that, with curly hair like mine, I should have been born a girl. As the youngest of three brothers, in a family soon to be fatherless, I was doubtless indulged. I was not, however, generally thought effeminate. At kindergarten I was not derided. In the street I was not stared at. If I had announced my self-discovery beneath the piano, my family might not have been shocked (Virginia Woolf’s androgynous Orlando was already in the house) but would certainly have been astonished.”