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Less than a Trauma

Freya Johnston: ‘The Life of the Mind’, 26 May 2022

The Life of the Mind 
by Christine Smallwood.
Europa, 200 pp., £12.99, October 2021, 978 1 78770 345 2
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... Dorothy​ is a badly paid, unenthusiastic adjunct professor of English at an unnamed New York City university. Trained to criticise and evaluate, she pays meticulous attention to herself and her surroundings – to no particular end. The Life of the Mind, Christine Smallwood’s first novel, begins with Dorothy having a miscarriage, and charts her mental and physical state over the next six weeks ...

Among the Rouge-Pots

Freya Johnston: ‘Yellow Book’ Lives, 16 November 2023

Decadent Women: ‘Yellow Book’ Lives 
by Jad Adams.
Reaktion, 388 pp., £20, October, 978 1 78914 789 6
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... The​ first issue of the British periodical the Yellow Book appeared in April 1894, and began by announcing the death of the author. Its lead item was a short story by Henry James in which a celebrated writer, Neil Paraday, is pursued by a crew of souvenir hunters and salon-frequenting harpies. ‘The Death of the Lion’ is narrated in the first person by Paraday’s nameless, self-appointed protector, a journalist sent to poke around in his domestic life ...

No Bottom to Them

Freya Johnston: Pockets, like Novels, 5 December 2019

The Pocket: A Hidden History of Women’s Lives, 1660-1900 
by Barbara Burman and Ariane Fennetaux.
Yale, 264 pp., £35, May 2019, 978 0 300 23907 2
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... Like the novel​ , with whose origins it is contemporary, the pocket is a repository that promises to contain and disburse secrets. Pockets, like novels, can enclose a story about the lost and found. Just as characters in 18th-century fiction are often begged to provide the histories of their lives and adventures, so too they may be talked out of their possessions ...

Miss Joy and Mrs Hayter

Freya Johnston: Anna Letitia Barbauld, 27 September 2018

Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: Poetry, Protest and Economic Crisis 
by E.J. Clery.
Cambridge, 326 pp., £75, June 2017, 978 1 107 18922 5
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... She​ started off with A and ended up at B: born in 1743 as Miss Aikin, Anna Letitia died in 1825 as Mrs Barbauld. Poet, editor, biographer, essayist, pamphleteer and children’s writer, she was once known only for finding ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ improbable. Many of her poems were lost: one survives only in the form of its title, but even that scrap – ‘Verses on the boy who would not say A lest he should be made to say B’ – follows alphabetical order while resisting it ...

Monstrous Offspring

Freya Johnston: The Rabbit-Breeder’s Hoax, 8 October 2020

The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder: Mary Toft and 18th-Century England 
by Karen Harvey.
Oxford, 211 pp., £16.99, January, 978 0 19 873488 8
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... How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed!’ the young Jane Austen exclaimed in a marginal note to Oliver Goldsmith’s History of England. Mary Toft, the notorious 18th-century ‘rabbit breeder’, was undoubtedly very poor. But was she to be pitied? Contemporary accounts of her hoax identified her as ‘poor’ in ways that combined sympathy with contempt ...

Our Jewels, Our Pictures

Freya Johnston: Michael Field’s Diary, 1 June 2023

Chains of Love and Beauty: The Diary of Michael Field 
by Carolyn Dever.
Princeton, 261 pp., £30, July 2022, 978 0 691 20344 7
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... There​ is no entry for Michael Field in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The search function directs you first to ‘Bradley, Katharine Harris’ and then to ‘Cooper, Edith Emma’. Click on the second name, however, and you aren’t taken to a biography of Cooper but back to her aunt, Bradley. These convoluted preliminaries seem appropriate for two women whose identities were entangled in various forms of aspiration, impersonation, interdependence and disguise ...

Marks of Inferiority

Freya Johnston: Wollstonecraft’s Distinction, 4 February 2021

Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion and Politics 
by Sylvana Tomaselli.
Princeton, 230 pp., £25, December 2020, 978 0 691 16903 3
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... Mary Wollstonecraft​ is in many ways ill-suited to the role of the earliest advocate of women’s rights. The term ‘feminism’ and its tradition postdate her by at least half a century; she appears to have intensely disliked most women; and she celebrated qualities of mind that she tended to label ‘masculine’ or ‘manly’. In the works for which she is best known, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), she denounced her own sex as ‘vain inconsiderate dolls’ and satirised men who thought or wrote as if they were female ...

Own your ignorance

Freya Johnston: Samuel Johnson’s Criticism, 25 April 2024

The Literary Criticism of Samuel Johnson: Forms of Artistry and Thought 
by Philip Smallwood.
Cambridge, 219 pp., £85, September 2023, 978 1 009 36999 2
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... Criticism,​ for Samuel Johnson, was female, her votaries for the most part malicious, ineffectual men. In an early issue of the Rambler from 1750, Criticism is presented as ‘the eldest daughter of Labour and of Truth’, charged by the Muses with distinguishing good from bad writing and duty-bound to confer immortality or oblivion. Eventually, worn out, she gives up trying to judge the mixed performances submitted to her inspection and retires, leaving her duties to Time, who ‘passes his sentence at leisure ...

‘I’m coming, my Tetsie!’

Freya Johnston: Samuel Johnson’s Shoes, 9 May 2019

Samuel Johnson 
edited by David Womersley.
Oxford, 1344 pp., £95, May 2018, 978 0 19 960951 2
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... The first time​ Tetty Porter met her future husband, Samuel Johnson, she told her daughter, Lucy, that she had never encountered a more ‘sensible’ man. Most readers assume she was praising Johnson’s sober, rational side; Leslie Stephen, writing in 1878, went so far as to commend Tetty’s penetrative ‘good sense’ for discerning the same quality in Johnson, despite his ‘grotesque appearance ...


John Mullan: Eric Griffiths, 23 May 2019

If Not Critical 
by Eric Griffiths, edited by Freya Johnston.
Oxford, 248 pp., £25, March 2018, 978 0 19 880529 8
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The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry 
by Eric Griffiths.
Oxford, 351 pp., £55, July 2018, 978 0 19 882701 6
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... to describe the intricate working of literary texts, was largely contained in his lectures. Now Freya Johnston, one of his former students, has edited a collection of ten of them, selected from ‘hundreds’. As she explains in her introduction, this was possible because Griffiths, unlike many lecturers, never extemporised, but scripted every word of ...

Bring some Madeira

Thomas Keymer: Thomas Love Peacock, 8 February 2018

Nightmare Abbey 
by Thomas Love Peacock, edited by Nicholas A. Joukovsky.
Cambridge, 297 pp., £84.99, December 2016, 978 1 107 03186 9
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Crotchet Castle 
by Thomas Love Peacock, edited by Freya Johnston and Matthew Bevis.
Cambridge, 328 pp., £79.99, December 2016, 978 1 107 03072 5
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... edition, part of the complete novels now in progress with Cambridge under the editorship of Freya Johnston, Nicholas Joukovsky locates the fictional Nightmare Abbey in Lincolnshire, ‘somewhere near Skegness’. With nothing to see but ‘a long tract of level sea-coast, and a fine monotony of fens and windmills’, the gloom of the setting is ...

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