Previous reading recommendations
Reviews British Women Writers 1910-60s: the 'middlebrows' Recent Recommended Reading

Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (2012) I found it hard to put down. Who would have thought laconic and sometimes cryptic journal entries would be such a compelling read.

Ellen Willis, Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (2011): posthumous collection of rock criticism by acclaimed feminist and cultural critic. Worked well for me even though I was relatively unfamiliar with much of the music she was writing about,.

Faye Hammill, Women, Celebrity, and Literary Culture Between the Wars (2007). So nice to read literary criticism by someone who clearly enjoys the works under discussion, rather than seeing them as material to be analysed. Raises lots of intriguing questions about modernity, gender and critical status (and humour and critical cred), what the middlebrow is and what it could do. And very readable!

Paul Shankman, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (2009): the detailed deconstruction of the Freeman-Mead controversy. Shankman is not uncritically hagiographical about Mead and Coming of Age in Samoa (the focus of Freeman's diatribes), but on the whole, she comes out of this a great deal better.Shankman, whose area is also Samoa, is interesting on changes in Samoan society between the time when Mead was working and when Freeman was, and examines the response of Samoans themselves to both anthropologists. It's additioanlly illuminating about the difference between how work is regarded by people in the field and non-experts and how certain works became popular in specific historical contexts, and in particular the role of the media and being media-savvy.

Sue Shephard, The Surprising Life of Constance Spry (2010). This was delightful: popular biography for a general audience, but I didn't spot any significant bloopers in general historical context. Spry was a fascinating figure: I could have wanted more about her early career as health educator, extension college teacher etc. She was very much about daring in flower-arranging and breaking the existing rules, and devastated when the new trend she had pioneering became about setting rules and having competitions. The book undermines assumptions that a woman writing about 'feminine' topics like flowers and gardens and cookery in the 1950s must have been twee and mimsy. Her private life was pretty amazing too, what with living with a man who couldn't get a divorce but taking his name (so common at that period), and having an affair with the cross-dressing female artist Gluck.

Julie-Marie Strange, Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914 (2005). I had been wanting to get round to this for some time, and it was worth the wait. It's very good indeed, with a massive amount of research in a very broad range of material , from working class autobiographies to records of burial boards and cemetaries and poor law unions, very well woven together. The analysis is nuanced and subtle on how people dealt with grief and emotion under harsh conditions and material want, with a lot about the significance of ritual and commemoration. Among other things, it's about the expression of emotions non-verbally and via commemorative and mourning practices.

Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010), partly with a view to background for a future project, and suggested some useful paths to pursue. Full of fascinating stuff, but is the overall thesis just a way for the author to string the beads of things she found intriguing?

Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (2012). A wonderful overview of Rubin's major contributions to thinking about and historicising sexuality, bringing together work from the whole of her career.

Kristin Bluemel (ed), Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain (2011). I am interested in the project of considering early-mid C20th writers who are outside the modernist canon and already among my own favourites.

Rodney Bolt, As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil, the impossible life of Mary Benson (2011). A reasonably competent family biography of the Bensons, centring on Mary - picked out to be trained up as a wife by ambitious clergyman Edward White Benson when she was 13, much more responsive (and apparently consciously physically attracted) to women - really could not fail to be compulsive reading.

Laura Agustin, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (2007). A valuable deconstruction of myths around prostitution and migration and their implications for various governmental and NGO policies.

Jane Shaw, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a Female Messiah and her Followers (2011): really good and readable and extremely fair to a somewhat weird group of people. Such a fascinating story.

Read for review, and recommended: Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex Before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963 (2010); Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Managing the Body: Beauty, Health, and Fitness in Britain 1880-1939 (2010). Am somewhat irked by journals putting reviews up on their own websites that require a subscription or payment to view.

Gratifying to see that a number of Naomi Mitchison's works are being brought back into print by Kennedy and Boyd: so far have read and much enjoyed Anna Comnena (1928) and Vienna Diary (1934), which represent her as (women's) historian and present-day socialist activist.

Judith D Suther, A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist (1997). I got interested in Sage when readingAngels of Anarchy (discussed below). An intriguing figure: even being rather rich and privileged and extremely dedicated to her art didn't prevent her being marginalised, seen as a hanger-on, a figure who must have been influenced by Yves Tanguy (rather than vice versa) etc. Suther takes on board a couple of decades of feminist art criticism, to the benefit of her analysis.

Sean Brady, Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (2005), Excellent. Possibly could engage more with John Tosh's work on late C19th masculinity, but very usefully deconstructs some prevalent beliefs about medico/legal/governmental attitudes towards homosexuality during the period - I'd concur, far more about ignoring and not-mentioning than about constructing deviant identities.

Anne Jordan, Love Well The Hour: The Life of Lady Colin Campbell (1857-1911) (2010). Excellent study of a Victorian upper class woman best remembered for her role in one of the most scandalous divorce cases of her day. Jordan reveals that there was much more to her than that: besides rather standard Victorian lady philanthropy stuff, she wrote in and edited periodicals, and was thus a pioneering woman in journalism, including in the field of art criticism. Also was passionate about various forms of physical activity not perhaps associated with the Victorian lady, e.g. fencing.

Mrs Delany and Her Circle (2009). A lovely book produced in connection with an exhibition:, copiously and beautifully illustrated and with some splendid articlea. Alas, rather too large to be comfortable to read casually.

The Essential Rebecca West: Uncollected Prose (2010). Selected fugitive articles and reviews, some previously unpublished pieces, covering her work from the 20s to the 70s.

Alison Oram, Her Husband was a Woman!: Women's gender-crossing and twentieth century British popular culture (2007). Very highly recommended study which covers a wide range of material on women and gender-crossing in the first half of the C20th

Matt Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885-1914 (2008). Not perhaps quite such radically new territory, but expanding our understanding of male same-sex relationships in the later C19th.

Angels of Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism (2009): excellent: numerous fascinating figures I had not known about, wish I had managed to get to the actual exhibition

Charles Upchurch, Before Wilde: Sex between Men in Britain's Age of Reform (2009). Review to be published, one-word verdict: excellent.

Ana Carden-Coyne, Reconstructing the Body: Classicism, Modernism, and the First World War (2009): review in progress - contains really excellent thought-provoking material.

Carol Dyhouse, Glamour: Women, History, Feminism (2010): a tremendously enjoyable read, full of many wonderful titbits of research into issues of female self-presentation, its changing codes, the changing emphases, the development of all sorts of products and practices. There may be further explorations and analyses to be made but this is a wonderful introduction to a complex topic.

Gwyneth Jones, Imagination/Space: Essays and Talks on Fiction, Feminism, Technology, and Politics (2009). Full of sharp and interesting critical thoughts,

Nina Power, One Dimensional Woman (2009). Good to see a new generation of women writing feminist theory/polemic, grappling with the difficulty of finding a solid feminist footing in today's society, Some excellent and telling points and a good sense of the importance of a historical perspective. From a Zero Books, who seem to specialise in these short works: perhaps a slight feeling that it's aimed at the short-attention-span generation.

Lynn Sacco, Unspeakable: Father-Daughter Incest in American History (2009). Though placed in a broader historical context of changing attitudes, the core of this book deals with responses to the prevalence of vulvo-vaginitis, a genital affliction found in young girls (caused by gonnorhoeal infection). On the basis of horrendously tenuous evidence doctors, social workers, etc, made huge efforts to argue for its non-sexual origin, rather than actual sexual transmission by some male relative or household member. Solid and dense study on a horrifying and depressing subject.

Eibhear Walshe, Kate O'Brien: A Writing Life (2006). A readable biography of this writer whom I have recently been rediscovering (or perhaps properly discovering for the first time, since I read Mary Lavelle many years ago but none of the others I think).

Olga Gershenson and Barbara Penner (eds) Ladies and Gents: Public Toilets and Gender (2009). A bit of a mixed bag - perhaps too wide-rangingly interdisciplinary? - but some really excellent stuff in there on this ever-interesting and relevant topic.

Michael Swanwick, Hope-in-the-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees (2009). A remarkable effort at digging up information on a fascinating and rather cryptic figurre who seems almost not to have wanted to be found.

Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (2007). Some of this was fairly familiar territory, e.g. the problematic constructionist vs essentialist debates on sexuality, but this was a thought-provoking read .

Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy (2009): anyone who sets out to write a short history of anything at all is not going to please all of the people all of the time. I have some issues around what was in and what was out in this volume, but it was well worth reading, even if I don't think it's the whole story. Recommended even if I do have some cavils.

Michael Downing, Shoes Outside the Door (2001) - someone recommended this to me after I'd read The Buddha from Brooklyn - it's a similar sort of story about a Buddhist community going pearshaped and a very engrossing read about how enormously high aspirations can go very very wrong.

Selina Todd, Young Women, Work, and Family in England 1918-1950 (2005). This has understandably been garnering rave reviews. It's an excellent study of young women and employment and its role in the family economy and issues around change and new workplace opportunities and so on during this period, enlivening by the use of memoirs and oral history.

Angela John, Evelyn Sharp: Rebel Woman, 1869-1955 (2009). A pretty good study of a neglected woman activist and writer of the early twentieth century - perhaps the very diversity of her interests and activities has, as so often, led to this neglect. It's a bit of half a duology - John has already written a biography of Sharp's long-term lover and eventual (once his first wife had died) husband the war-correspondent Henry W Nevinson. One thing I would perhaps have liked more of was her relationships with other women in her various networks.

Farah Mendlesohn (ed.), On Joanna Russ (2009) - engaging and readable and thought-provoking: a bit uneven, as usual with edited volumes, but with a high percentage of ones I found stimulating.

Sylvia Kelso, Three Observations, and a Dialogue: Round and About SF (2009) Fascinating insights from someone who comes to sf and fandom and feminism and debates about colonialism and post-colonialism from a perceivedly marginal position in Australia: which is a fruitful place to stand to get some interesting perspectives.

Ursula K Le Guin, Cheek by Jowl: talks and essays on how & why fantasy matters (2009). Some very nice stuff, in particular the long piece on animals in children's literature

H G Cocks, Classified: the secret history of the personal column (2009): not at all bad, if a bit slight, inclined to generalisation about context and somewhat a bit simplistic in characterising various decades (and it does rather do conventional periodisation, but that's one way to slice up the data, after all). He's dug up some interesting stuff, it's an easy read, it's got nice vignettes and anecdotes and there's even some analysis. This isn't just one of those books doing 'look at funny stuff about the past and how weird people used to be'. And it's good to let people know that virtual relationships, or at least relationships not mediated within pre-existing communities and social networks, have a much longer history than people think and are not just a product of the internet. And that a lot of the anxieties about them go back quite a long way.

Penny Summerfield and Corinna Peniston-Bird, Contesting Home Defence: Men, Women and the Home Guard in the Second World War (2007). Very, very good: not just a nuanced and extensively researched insight into a relatively neglected corner of World War II history, but an examination of the role of popular culture in the construction and erosion of memory, gender and the overlooking of women's contribution, etc.

Martha Sherrill, The Buddha from Brooklyn: A Tale of Spiritual Seduction (2000) A disturbing book about how the desire to lead a more spiritually-meaningful life can lead to all sorts of disasters for individuals and communities and the problems arising when a spiritual tradition is imported from somewhere where it has deep cultural roots, to one in which it doesn't, and the misunderstandings and misinterpretations that occur. In addition, interesting on a cult-like development around a female spiritual leader.

Sheila Rowbotham, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (2008). A thick and very readable account of the late Victorian/Edwardian reformer - socialist, pacifist, early environmentalist, and above all, homophile and advocate of reformed intimate relationships.A good solid biography which does a lot of setting in context. Strongly recommended

Susan Sontag, Reborn: early diaries 1947-1964 (2009). Elliptical, sporadic, cryptic, needing quite a bit of editorial intervention by David Rieff (Sontag's son) to contextualise in editing, very much not telling a linear story of her progress from intense teenager to public intellectual - reading lists, comments on books, angst about relationships : surprisingly (perhaps) compelling as a read.

Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet: A personal history, with jigsaws (2009). The nearest thing I've ever come across to G B Stern's delightful 'rag-bag chronicles' in the way it takes random objects and obsessive interests and free associations from these and bits of personal history and anecdote and weaves them together. It's more self-consciously erudite and scholarly than Stern - even when Drabble is describing her own rather random researches into the history of jigsaws and other games and puzzles.Interesting thoughts about the attraction of patterns and apparently pointless time-filling activities.

Kathy Davis, The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders (2007). This is a really excellent book - it's not (what it might have been) a simple celebratory history of a book that grew from a duplicated handout to an international phenomenon. Although it does include the well-researched history of the evolution of OBOS, it does an admirable amount of myth-busting and problematising and is a far richer offering altogether. Among other things Davis's endeavours to situate OBOS in the development of feminist (and other) theorising around the body, making a good case that it did actually have theoretical things to offer about dealing with the actual effects of being embodied in particular ways, as well as its commitment to working from the specifics of individual experience rather than a grand impersonal narrative. Davis's discussion of the migrations of OBOS is fascinating and provocative, where the spirit of the original has been retained but not bogged down by irrelevant specifics. She also strongly emphasises that there are strong local feminist traditions worldwide and a constant to and fro flow of ideas from country to country, as ideas are taken and examined and adapted or transformed. Strongly recommended.

R Proctor and L Schiebinger, eds, Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008). This is a wonderful book - it's not perfect, because the whole subject is just at its beginning and things are only beginning to be thought about and defined. And in a volume of edited essays (pretty interdisciplinary) there are going to be some which resonate more than others. But it opens up new perspectives and vistas and generates 'aha' moments. It is about the opposite of epistemology: instead of how knowledge is constructed, it's about how unknowledge is constructed. So it deals both with the things that people don't know (because they're not looking or their mindset means they can't even see certain things) or that they believe wrong things about. There are several articles which deal with the ways in which 'science' is deployed to confuse scientific findings (e.g. over the risks of smoking, or on environmental issues) and the spurious appeal to 'balance' in the debate as if both sides had equal credence. And, of course, sexism is interwoven - there's the lost history of West Indian herbal abortifacients, and the convoluted knowledge/ignorance around the female orgasm. Some of the articles are dense, and some are a bit dry, but it's exceedingly worthwhile reading

Susan Mann, The Talented Women of the Zhang Family (2007). A wonderfully rich study of the women of a particular family of the C19th Chinese literati class, who, as a result of a local culture in which female learning and cultural activity was valued, and a family tradition of the same, were respected poets, writers and calligraphers. Densely researched, yet presented in a very readable fashion. All sorts of fascinating material about women's lives and the various possibilites and constraints, the impact of the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion, etc etc

Celia Robertson, Who Was Sophie?: The Two Lives of My Grandmother - Poet and Stranger (2008). The fascinating and distubring story, recounted by her granddaughter, of Joan Eason, who as a young woman had her poems published by the Hogarth Press and moved a little in the Woolf circles, became a friend of Naomi Mitchison, but ended up as not quite a bag lady after marriage, emigration to Australia, the break-up of her marriage, return to the UK and a period in mental institutions, estrangement from her family for many years etc. Her long published poem. 'Amber Innocent' is included in full in this volume (at one point she had a huge bonfire of her manuscripts).

Kitty Hauser, Bloody Old Britain: O.G.S. Crawford and the Archaeology of Modern Life (2008): can see why this book has been so praised by reviewers, because it does that thing of an individual life as insight into elements of the person's social, cultural, intellectual and temporal context rather well.Though I am infuriated by the lack of proper footnotes. I would also have liked a bit more attention to gender issues.

Farah Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy (2008): an intriguing if rather dense read: rather heavier going than Mendlesohn's critical thought in action in her book on Diana Wynne Jones, which I much enjoyed.

So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald (2008) - mostly from the latter part of her life, and from a fairly small number of correspondents. The rather idiosyncratic arrangement by correspondent rather than chronology means we keep circling back to various episodes, which is somehow a bit disconcerting. Also, I thought we could do with rather more editorial annotation. But still well worth reading.

Rebecca West, Woman as Artist and Thinker (2006). A hard to obtain POD edition of some of her uncollected essays (excellent!) and the short story 'Parthenope', a bit of a lost opportunity in terms of making available the uncollected material that is surely out there since it already featured in the 1977 Celebration collection published by Penguin

Cynthia R Daniels, Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction (2006). Nearly bogged down early on in historical theories of male and female contributions to the reproductive process, but it picked up after that and has really interesting things to say about men and reproductive health (though maybe it could have done with a bit more historical grounding than just that synoptic overview of spermatic and ovarian theories of who really makes babies) . Also read and appreciated on the same as yet understudied subject (and less US-ocentric in its take), Michael Thomson, Endowed: Regulating the Male Sexed Body (2006)

Norma Clarke, Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington (2008): This was very very good, and I recommend it (as I do all of Norma Clarke's work) even though Pilkington's life was actually rather depressing. But a wonderful, wonderful picture of a remarkable woman and her times and the circles that she operated in.

Louise Jackson, Women Police: Gender, Welfare and Surveillance in the Twentieth Century (2006). This combines solid research with sophisticated theoretical analysis not just to show how women police gradually came to be accepted as part of the system, but how they negotiated their position over a period during which ideas about and attitudes towards women's capabilities changed radically. Full of good stuff about how women could use ideas of 'the feminine sphere' to carve themselves out a niche, how their 'invisibility' as agents of the law gave them an in to undercover work, etc, etc, etc.

Maria Luddy, Prostitution and Irish Society, 1800-1939 (2008). Read for review. Really excellent on what we can and can't know about this, and the uses made of prostitution as a debating tool in the Irish context.

Winifred Holtby's 1932 Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, recently reissued with a preface by her biographer, Marion Shaw. A wonderful book. It's not just that, being written before Woolf got almost buried under the output of the Woolf + general Bloomsbury industry, it comes over as fresh and reading her without all that accretion barnacling up the work and the life. It also reveals Holtby as a sympathetic and insightful critic able to enter into methods and approaches quite different from her own, perhaps not surprising since Hotlby had been a serious reviewer for a good decad, Full of wonderful insights, not just into VW's work but into literature, criticism, women writers, the relationship of the writer to their historical epoch, etc etc more generally.

Two autobiographies by feminists of my own generation, more or less, Michele Roberts, Paper Houses: A Memoir of the 70s and Beyond (2007) and Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (2007): are very different in their style and the stories they tell, one by a writer (though with some involvement in activism) and one by an academic and activist, but both deal with the excitement of the 'second wave' of feminism and the 'sexual revolution', as well as issues around ageing and changing and finding oneself in different positions at different life stages. Both worth reading.

As usual, caused to rave with enthusiasm by Ronald Hutton, this time with The Druids: A History (2007), which is all that one might expect from him on figures who have become Rorschach blots for a range of different interests, not always complementary, indeed could be diametrically opposed.

Joanna Russ, The Country you have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (2007). Excellent insightful genre criticism informed by a passionate feminism. There are some writers whose criticism one can enjoy even if one has not read/seen/heard the works in question (and has no great desire to in some cases), and Russ is among these, using particular examples as a way in to talking about broader aesthetic and political issues.

Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters (2007). Lots of blissikins, do admit, althouh the latter parts are a bit sad with them all getting older, suffering various forms of disability, and dying (and Nancy's prolonged death is always harrowing), and also getting even crankier as well. But still, well worth the reading.

Katharine Whitehorn, Selective Memory: An Autobiography (2007). Some passages perhaps do echo a little too closely earlier journalistic accounts of e.g. being at Roedean, but on the whole, great stuff from someone who recognises the role of luck and chance and familial and husbandly support in becoming a successful woman journalist at a time before the 'Second Wave' and who does consider that, taken all round, things have improved. Also, portrait of a marriage (to the thriller writer Gavin Lyall) which was both clearly wonderful in ways that are still quite rare in terms of actively supporting her having a career.

Virginia Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (2007) - read with a view to review, noted here as excellent study of ideas and practices about personal and environmental cleanliness, grooming, etc, over a long historical sweep, with lots of anecdotal details.

Clara Greed, Inclusive Urban Design: Public Toilets (2003). Greed is asking the right questions and having the right sort of insights and if anyone ever, finally, wants to do serious historical research on the subject it would be a very good place to start. This study is an exemplar of how attention to some specific, neglected (and in this case, source of jokes), topic can be an enormously productive way into much bigger questions. Like the ways in which being 'gender-neutral' favours men (women's needs are not identical to those of men, but most planners, builders, etc, are men). Like the attitudes towards women in public space and their needs which still inflect the under-provision of public loos and their accessibility if provided - far fewer than those for the other sex, a long tradition of women having to pay to 'spend a penny' even when men don't, the tendency to close them in the evening, etc. Like the attitudes towards men and their bodily needs - 'we need to provide loos or they will foul the streets', combined with attitudes that regard male public conveniences as potentially perilous sites of vandalism and/or cottaging (which may lead to closures of women's conveniences to which these issues do not apply). What comes over is that the person for whom services are (if grudgingly) provided is assumed to be default male, default fit, not suffering from any of the problems of ageing, and not encumbered with either children or heavy burdens (Greed is incisive about the bizarre decision-making that leads to subterranean ladies' and gents' on railway stations, of all places). The whole work embodies a vision of what a truly civilised urban (though not solely urban) environment might look like that took account of the diversity of people's basic physical needs - not just evacuation,

Audacia Ray, Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (2007): neither point and gape at the weirdos, but nor is it completely uncritically 'oooooh the cyberworld is all coooool funnnnn!' Ray maintains a nice positioning of authorial stance between the recognition that yes, online developments have enabled women to explore and enjoy aspects of their sexuality, and a keen apprehension that there are dangers out there. Ray is connected to a tradition of thinking critically about the ways in which female sexuality is constructed within our culture(s), as well as being alive to the possibilities of sexual delight and enjoymen, and Ray is also alive to issues of power and privilege and their imbalances.

Clemence Dane, London has a Garden (1964). An absolutely enchanting combination of personal reminiscence and anecdotal history of Covent Garden by someone clearly quite besotted with the place and its past. Delightful.

Susan Pedersen, Eleanor Rathbone and the Politics of Conscience (2004): a really, really good biography: not only masses of research both on Rathbone, her family, her associates, etc, but also on all the various causes she was involved with and their context. And extremely well-written. Makes useful and plausible suggestions beyond what the documentation says (and Rathbone and her long-time companion who survived her did a lot of pruning of the personal record) but doesn't go out into the realms of wild speculation.

Kevin Morgan, Gidon Cohen, and Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991: People of a Special Mould (2005). An excellent study of the actual people who joined the CPGB, their trajectories in doing so and within the Party. It's so good over all (on issues of gender, class, narratives/life stories, generation, etc) that I can even forgive them for getting Stella Browne dead wrong and only giving her about half a sentence.

Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei, Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E. H. Young (2006). Mostly about Young (who I have now started reading, with great admiration and pleasure), but includes h a fair amount on other writers in the area. Mmajor points for mentioning books by Stella Gibbons besides Cold Comfort Farm and and the non-Provincial Lady works by Delafield (among other things). Generally an excellent study of this neglected genre.

Elaine Sisson, Pearse's Patriots: St. Enda's and the Cult of Boyhood (2004). Excellent on Edwardian issues around masculinity, nationalism, purity, boyhood, etc.

Catherine Clay, British Women Writers 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship (2006). I've been waiting for years for someone to look at women's friendship and networks during the first half of the C20th and the studies are finally starting to come along. This one is about (loosely speaking) the circles around the feminist cultural journal Time and Tide, which are fascinating in themselves. Many plus points for dealing with the ambivalences and the rivalry and competition and the bitterness of failed friendships. Also for the ways in which Clay shows the interweaving of work and personal relationships and promoting someone's work interests being about emotional as well as professional bonds, and her examination of the way communicating about writing was central in so many of these relationships. Lots of fascinating thought-provoking stuff in here. It goes a long way towards exploding the pernicious myth that women were shying away from intense friendships because of sexologically induced paranoia over being identified as 'inverted'. This may have created tensions and issues, but it didn't actually stop the relationships themselves. Which were (mostly) fruitful, supportive, nurturing, productive.

Jenna Bailey, Can Any Mother Help Me? Fifty years of friendship through a secret magazine (2007): about one of my own pet interests - pre-internet virtual communities, in this instance a women's correspondence club, not 'secret' (that is a bit silly, but I suspect publisher's hand in title silliness), but consisting of regular budgets of articles by the members that only circulated among that restricted group. Very, very good: my only complaints are, it would have been nice to have even more selections (but length was alas presumably an issue) and I'd have liked, but this is probably a whole different project, some analysis of the dynamics of the group and of the changes over time and life-cycle of what people wrote about, how much, etc (as well as the obvious issues like the responeses to ageing).

M J D Roberts, Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England, 1787-1886 (2004): very good, very solid, very well-argued, full of interesting stuff, if rather dense and thus slow going.

Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (2007). An excellent study, in spite of the somewhat problematic use of the famous disciplining daughters correspondence from The Englishwoman's Domestic Journal, and rather uncritical deployment of the unfortunately Famous Factoid about Victorian Doctors and Hysteria. But points for noticing that female friendship is widely prevalent and mostly positive in the Victorian novel, and that friendship preoccupied women in their letters and diaries. Also for some intriguing suggestions about the pleasures of fashion plates, and girls and their dollies.

Susanne Klausen, Race, Maternity and the Politics of Birth Control in South Africa (2004), which I don't know why I haven't mentioned before, is a splendid work providing a detailed and nuanced account of the development of birth control provision in South Africa. While meticulously located in space and time, this story is clearly situated within the wider international movement for reproductive control, on which it provides an invaluable new perspective. The analysis of the complex interaction of the various forces and interest groups involved with the issue in South Africa is superb.

Sybille Bedford, Quicksands: A Memoir (2005). Includes enough for readers who haven't already read her early memoirs or autobiographically based novels, but not so much that it was to yawn 'been here before'. There is still quite a bit more one would like to know about her, though - it's very much episodic vignettes.

Diana Wallace, Sisters and Rivals in British Women's Fiction, 1914-39 (2000). Excellent, particularly the close analysis of Brittain and Holtby striking off one another in their fiction, though sticking to this narrow period left out some really interesting possibilities - such as a more detailed account of West's configuration of sororal relationships in The Fountain Overflows and sequels, and the relationships between women in The Birds Fall Down. But full of exciting thoughts and ideas.

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford (edited by Peter Y Sussmann, 2006). Wonderful, rivetting, amusing, and moving reading of a long and fascinating life.

Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (forthcoming, 2007). Was fortunate enough to be sent an advance copy of this. Not only is it impeccably scholarly, the writing has real zing - it's a very engaging read. It's an absolute paradigm of how to handle vast amounts of information spanning centuries and a highly diverse range of sources. And it is just so full of fascinating facts and thoughts about the cultural phenomenon of virginity in its various manifestations, and the vast penumbra of meaning that has been raised on the basis of an elusive physical state. Raises all sorts of intriguing further questions. Highly recommended.

Diana Wallace, The Women's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000 (2004). Very well worth the reading, even if I didn't agree with all of her arguments. I am all for books about women writing any genre which are not merely about the very serious and worthy examples but also about the fun playful and escapist ones as well. So here we get Georgette Heyer as well as Sylvia Townsend Warner. And Wallace is very good on how the apparently frivolous historical novel is a way to examine current notions of gender, not just femininity (some interesting discussions of the cross-dressing motif) but also different manifestations of masculinity. I'm not entirely convinced by the way Wallace has organised the material, but this is a cake that it's very, very difficult to cut so that each slice has cherries in it and is the same size, and I'm not sure how one could do it without incurring criticism from some readers. The chapters are both chronological and thematic, meaning that individual writers get discussed in detail in one chapter but only fleetingly mentioned in others. There's a lot of juicy stuff in here, and I strongly recommend the book, in spite of these minor quibbles.

Christopher Hilliard, To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006). An excellent study of how the traditionally non-literary-culture classes engaged with being creative writers. It's not just about the self-consciously 'proletarian literature' movement of the 1930s, though it has some solid work on that - and on the tendency of editors and mentors to want these writers to keep writing dispatches from areas of society not normally found in the novel/short story, rather than extend their range. It's also about writers' circles and the plethora of self-help mags and organisations aimed at helping people not just become writers but, if not make a living by it, at least get paid - so aiming at magazines with fiction, articles, etc. Hilliard works with a range of materials: publishers' records, private papers, records of local writers' circles, autobiographies, and a wide range of periodical publications.

Robertson Davies, Discoveries: Letters 1938-1975 (2002) and For Your Eye Alone: Letters 1976-1995 (1999). Two volumes of what is (one gathers) a relatively small selection from Davies's correspondence, made by his biographer, Judith Skelton Grant. They have the characteristic addictive quality of Davies's writing even when one's disagreeing with what he's actually saying. Lots of stuff about the authorial process, the annoyingness of critics who read stuff into novels, use narrow frameworks of interpretation, or assume that everything is autobiographical, the theatre, universities, education, and administration of same, social change, being Canadian, Jung, and life in general.

Julie Phillips, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2006). Highly recommended. An outstanding biography. All sorts of fascinating stuff there about how a woman who did not conform to prevalent models shaped on 'feminine mystique' type notions tried to understand and negotiate her own individual position, as well as the whole 'making of a writer' aspect. Fuller review here.

Katherine Watson, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and Their Victims (2004). This is a really excellent study of poisoning in English society throughout the nineteenth century, and shows that the famous cases were nearly all completely atypical of the standard poisoning case. Lots of admirable stuff about the constellation of factors leading to poisonings, the impact of changes in the law, the rise of scientific toxicology, the influence of economic crisis years on statistics of poisoning cases, etc.

Kate Fisher, Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918-1960 (2006). I've been waiting for this for a long time (having read various versions of Fisher's work over the years). The microcosmic counterpart to Hera Cook's magisterial The Long Sexual Revolution (2004): based on oral history work and looking at the complex process of the interactions between gender dynamics within marriage and family limitation.

Rachel Manija Brown, All the fishes come home to roost (2005). A wonderfully vivid evocation of her childhood in an Indian ashram. Harrowing in parts, but also testimony to the power of books and of story.

Farah Mendlesohn, Diana Wynne Jones: Children's Literature and the Fantastic Tradition (2005). Wonderful. Review here.

Sheenagh Pugh, The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context (2005). Perhaps the most satisfactory work I've read so far on fanfic, if only because it's not looking for the Single Unitary Theory of why people write fanfic, and not assuming that there is something Really Strange about people who do. It's a good read in itself and has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say.

Kathryn Hughes, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton (2005). There's a feeling with this book of being in safe hands, with someone who knows not just about all there is to know about her central subjects but is also thoroughly trustworthy about all the contemporary historical factors that were key elements in their lives. I have a strong prejudice in favour of biography-as-a-window-into-social-history anyway, and this is a prime example. Social mobility in the early Victorian era! Suburban development! The evolution of the woman's magazine! The history of cookery books! Etc! All of which are worked into the ongoing narrative so that you can see their relevance, rather than being info-dumped into the text in indigestible lumps. And so admirably readable.

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005). This is an excellent book, subtle and sophisticated in making various theoretical and historiographical arguments, yet full of a real sense of what 'queer' lives were like in London during the period in question. The significant class differences, the changes over time, the variations by area... documented from various personal accounts and also a huge amount of material that ended up in police files, court proceedings, etc. (Now reviewed)

Sheila Fletcher, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttelton's Daughters (2001): this is a lovely group biography of the family of a Victorian aristocrat who was politically active (mainly in educational reform) but not, for his class, very well off. It's almost a real-life Charlotte Yonge novel - though in a rather higher social stratum than she normally depicted. Perhaps I might have liked a bit more more about the life they lived beyond the family, but they were a closely-knit bunch, and as several of them were prolific diarists and letter-writers, there's clearly a huge amount of material to be rendered into readable coherence.

Hannah Arendt, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (1957). Arendt isn't quite writing the biography I would like to read, because she was a philosopher, not a social historian. But I did enjoy it, enjoy and appreciate the book that Arendt did write. It's very very good, and I've marked quite a number of places to return to and consider. Heidi Thomann Tewarson, Rahel Levin Varnhagen: the life and work of a German Jewish intellectual (1998). Perhaps doesn't match up to the Arendt version simply considered as a piece of writing, but it makes Varnhagen's life and career and the broader context of the day ever so much clearer. Now I really, really want a study of the wider circles of women she moved in, who were themselves marginal because they were actresses, or adultresses, or simply women who didn't fit the conventional scheme of things

Pamela Hirsch, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: feminist, artist and rebel (1998). Bodichon is a fascinating if rather neglected figure. I found the biography a bit confusing in places - dodging about chronologically, which it would, I suppose, be difficult not to do when discussing Bodichon's various activities. But otherwise, a very good read.

Penelope Fitzgerald, A House of Air (2005): collected non-fictional writings: reviews, introductions, essays, memoirs, etc. Marvellous: I really must tackle her novels: I loved this, I loved her joint biography of her father and uncles (The Knox Brothers) and her biography of Charlotte Mew.

Deborah Devonshire (Debo Mitford as was), Counting My Chickens: And Other Home Thoughts (2001). A very yummy read. Mostly columns from a huge range of publications she has written for, with a brio and verve that recall her better-known sisters.

Ghada Karmi, In Search of Fatima: A Palestinian Story (2002). A complex and moving memoir of exile and deracination. No easy answers, no simple formulas. Beautifully and vividly written.

Doris Lessing, Time Bites: Views and Reviews (2005). All sorts of fascinating stuff here, along with some rather thin makeweight snippets, and the occasional maddening thing. E.g. I'm not sure I go along with Lessing's assumption that once there was a kind of community-of-educated-readers who had all read the same things and had common ground. But there's lots and lots that I loved, about history, about the need for stories, about oppression, about cults, about biography... etc.

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003). I had an odd experience with this much and justly praised book. About halfway through I stopped, and put it down and went away and read other things for a week or so and wasn't sure I wanted to pick it up again. But I did, and was rivetted as I had not previously been.

Carl Rollyson, To Be A Woman: the Life of Jill Craigie (2005). This was gripping. Craigie comes over as a selfmade woman rejecting her family and her past, moving in intellectual and bohemian circles, getting involved in documentary film when it was very much a boy's game (and having problems in sustaining a career in it for that reason), becoming a historian of the suffrage movement and (probably) saving vast amounts of archival material and memorabilia that would otherwise have vanished, even if she never completed her own huge study of the subject, and marrying Michael Foot. Very much about that generation of women who were stuck in the trough between feminist waves and yet were in some sense feminist, who were transitional figures between the two waves - and Craigie, though she didn't write her book, did rekindle interest in and knowledge of the suffrage movement through radio programmes, plays, articles in the press, etc. Also interesting on politics and power, and women in relation to those. I was sent this for review, and very pleased I was.

William Dalrymple, The White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-century India (2002). While Dalrymple's habit of foreshadowing future events was a bit annoying, this is a densely and lovingly researched study of the period before the Raj as we think we know it, the India of the C18th and early C19th when there was more assimilation and cultural syncretism going on on all sides than was to become the case with the hardening of Imperial attitudes, the rise of Evangelical morality, etc.

Amanda Vickery, The Gentleman's Daughter: Women's Lives in Georgian England (1998), which I have only just managed to get round to reading, and recommend very highly. Full of all sorts of insights not just into its ostensible subject but also fascinating thoughts about history and gender, the public and the private, what women's work actually consists of, class, money, marriage, etc etc etc.

L Timmel Duchamp, The Grand Conversation: Essays (2004) Excellent subtle, sophisticated and thought-provoking essays on feminism and sf.

Just as one wonders whether perhaps there is little new to be said about the Victorians, Seth Koven's Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London (2004)gives us a wonderful piece of social/cultural history, looking at the complex agendas of various Victorian journalists, philanthropists, and social reformers to experience the slums, and explores the fuzzy boundary that was often at stake between concern, voyeurism and sensationalism. Reviewed at rather greater length in the Times Higher Educational Supplement, 18 Feb 2005.

A more narrowly focused study than the Woollacott book mentioned below, Sylvia Martin's Passionate Friends: Mary Fullerton, Mabel Singleton and Miles Franklin (2001) is an intriguing study of three early twentieth century Australian women writers and activists and their complex interrelationships.

Norma Clarke, Dr Johnson's Women. More very readable recuperation of women in the C18th literary scene.

Owen Davies, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (2003). Davies doesn't perhaps have quite Hutton's 'wow!' factor but he's working very much in the same field of exploding assumptions about folk-magic and healing and the people who did this, through meticulous research and exemplary scholarship. Interesting about class and gender and how far they believed it themselves and how far they were scamming their clients.

Norma Clarke, The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters (2004) An absolutely excellent book on women as writers in the eighteenth century, the different strategies they pursued, the very various places they started and ended up, the role of social status, the increasing emphasis placed on respectability and sexual virtue as the century drew on; organised as several thematic essays focusing on specific women in particular positions, rather than a straight chronological approach. And engages with V Woolf's contention that there was no female writer worth considering between Aphra Behn and Fanny Burney.

Ronald Hutton's Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003) Brilliant (if, as with any volume of collected essays and articles, some items are stronger than others). The essay 'The Making of Myth' should be obligatory reading.

Rani Sircar, Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing out of British India, (2003). A lovely book, full of fascinating details of, insights into, and reflections on, a lost culture. There's a whole chapter on 'Anglo-Indian' cookery, as well as plenty of other mentions of food and foodways in the complex culture/s she grew up in. Unfortunately, so far, to the best of my knowledge, it's only been published in India, but available via

Martha Vicinus, Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928 (2004). A beautifully historically sensitive study of 'erotic friendships between women'. It gets away from the whole 'did they/didn't they' question to look at wider issues of passion, devotion and desire. While Vicinus does essay some categorisation by types of relationship dynamic (husband-wife, mother-daughter, female rake, etc) these aren't closed categories, and in several cases she demonstrates different relationship patterns in the life of a single individual at particular stages. She includes some married women who had important relationships with other women, and doesn't shy away from mentioning significant connections some of her subjects had with men, as friends or partners. Her subjects were all pretty much of the Anglo-American elite (and I think, given the interaction between some of the circles she discusses, mutual influences, etc, it's legitimate to include the two national backgrounds): but documentation is after all an issue for this kind of complex study. I wish, however, it hadn't stopped dead at Radclyffe Hall (this happens far too often). But on the whole it was a joy to read and very thought-stimulating.

Michael P. Farrell, Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work (2001). Intriguing study, grounded in historical examples, of what makes a successful collaborative circle, the role of collaboration in creative production, differences arising from gender, and so forth.

Angela Woollacott, To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity (2001). A fascinating and thoughtful piece of social history, with all sorts of reflections on colonial and national identity, women travelling, women's clubs and support networks, whiteness, class, classlessness, etc. And lots on a huge assortment of individual Australian women.

Jerry White, Campbell Bunk: The Worst Street in North London between the Wars (1986, reissued 2003). A fascinating thick slice of social history: using a range of sources: oral history, newspaper reports, social and economic surveys, records of local government, police and court records, White reconstructs a particular slum at a particular point in history. Rich individual histories are located within the changes in the London housing market, the local employment situation, the impact of wars, etc. His analysis of issues of masculinity and interpersonal violence in this community is masterly.

Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. I stand in awe. Brilliant, and very dense, combining a solid basis of serious archival research with a sophisticated awareness of the kinds of theoretical approach productive for analysing the material discovered.

Alex Owen, A Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern.It's very good: very much about subjectivity, interiority, the making of modern identity, the relationship between the irrational and the discourse of science. Possibly I would have liked a little more on social context.

Grahame Robb, Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century. This was better than I feared it might be: it's a highly readable synthesis of a lot of work that has been done, and its coverage is geographically broad. Perhaps a tad too sanguine about the downside of the situation (blackmail, etc, quite apart from the law itself), especially for the less socially privileged.

Lois Banner's Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle (2003), well written, it's sensitive to the period, Banner doesn't speculate wildly but does hypothesise interpretations and possibilities and how much the evidence will bear. A fascinating story of friendship and free love.

Michael T. Saler's The Avant-Garde in Interwar London: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground (1999), which was excellent in spite of the rather misleading title: it's about a particular strand within the avant-garde of the day which combined aesthetic modernism with ethical ideals about community and bringing art and good design to the people, i.e. a continuation by other means of the kinds of ideas the pre-Great War Arts and Crafts movement was about.

Chandak Sengoopta, Imprint of the Raj: how fingerprinting was born in colonial India (2003). This is a good readable short book about the far from straightforward development of fingerprinting as a criminological technique. Apart from all the stories of the individuals involved, the important role of the Indigo Riots, and so forth, what made me smile about this book was that fingerprinting per se was useless without a sophisticated system of information retrieval (also developed in India), which reminded me of the complexity of the India Office Records registration systems when I worked there.

Hera Cook, The Long Sexual Revolution: English Women, Sex, and Contraception 1800-1975 (2004). Rave, rave, rave. This is a wonderful book which elegantly weaves together a vast range of information from different scholarly fields. I don't think there was a single place in it where I went 'huh?' or 'ye-es: - but...', let alone that all too frequent response 'Yer what??!'. Longer review to come in due course.

Susan Williams, The People's King: The Betrayal and Abdication of the First Modern Monarch (2003). A 'thick' account of the Abdication Crisis: fuller review to come.

Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (1995, edited by Carol Brightman): a wonderful window into a friendship between two women

Georgina Ferry, Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life. The fascinating story of a remarkable women scientist and her milieu, both in science and in humanitarianism and progressive politics.

Pat Conroy, My Losing Season (2002). Never thought I would read a book about basket-ball. But it does vividly convey what it is like to participate in a particular sport as well as analyse that persistent theme of Conroy's fiction, what it means to be a man

The late Carolyn Heilbrun's The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty (1998), and Women's Lives: The View from the Threshold (1999), both thought-provoking.

Amy Bloom, Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (2003). A sensitive study of three groups on the sexual/gender margins.

Kate Millet, Mother Millet (2001).

Mary Laven, Virgins of Venice: Enclosed Lives and Broken Vows in the Renaissance Convent (2002). An engaging study, combining remarkable details of the lives of individuals with sensitive analysis of the meaning of the enclosure and enforced celibacy of women and their relationships with the world beyond convent walls.

David Laskin, Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals (2000): a rivetting account of the lives and loves and marriages of a group of New York intellectuals, associated with the Partisan Review in the 1930s, and over the course of next several decades. Particularly evocative about the women of the group, exceptional female intellectuals at a time when feminism was not an option.

Dennis Altman, Global Sex (2001): perceptive, critical, subtle, immensely well-informed and very lucid about this extremely complex subject. Excellent and thought-provoking.

Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001). Covers an enormous amount of ground and raises a lot of fascinating questions. Strongly agree with Rose's point that what one reader gets out of a particular book at a specific moment in history and at a particular phase of their own life is not necessarily what the academic critic reads into it. He recuperates a huge area of 'hidden history' in the working class struggle for learning and engagement with 'high' cultural forms. Perhaps his obvious fondness for his subjects makes him somewhat hostile to other groups, but this study can be highly recommended.

Kali Israel, Names and Stories: Emilia Dilke and Victorian Culture (1999). A wonderful study of a fascinating woman, a theoretically sophisticated analysis based in deep archival research and understanding of the wider social dynamics of the period. An unusual way to 'do biography' but one which pays off in this case, partly perhaps because Emilia Pattison/Dilke and the other players in her story/ies have been so much written about already, ever since their lifetimes. Marriage, sex, scandal, Victorian feminism: this book has so much I'm surprised it hasn't had wider notice.

Leila Rupp, A Desired Past: a short history of same-sex relations in America (1999): a very useful overview of the shifts in the conceptualisation of same-sex desire and homoerotic identities in the United States. Emphasis on the historically constructed nature of possibilities and identities

Yvonne Kapp, Time Will Tell: A Memoir (2003), a wonderful piece of autobiography which covers a number of my areas of interest: British bohemia, women in communism/on the left, women and sexual identity/orientation in the early C20th, saving archives against the odds, the joys of biographical research: in the context of an amazing and fascinating life.

Wendy Doniger, The Bedtrick: Tales of Sex & Masquerade (2000): a dense and multidimensional study of this widespread narrative trope.Also read the companion volume, Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India (1999).

Something of a chagrining admission: I have only just read Gail Bederman's Manliness and Civilisation (1995) (on my to-read list for a long time) which I recommend very highly: a wonderful, illuminating, thought-provoking study. However, it was worth waiting until I had my own copy so I could note for future reference particularly good points and passages.

Rebecca West, Survivors in Mexico (2003). Vintage West (unlike The Sentinel, ) and very welcome, even if it does come to an abrupt and unresolved stop (but could she ever have repeated the magnificent conclusion of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942)?). All praise to Bernard Schweizer for his painstaking job of constructing this out of unfinished drafts and revisions.

Jill Gardiner, From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club, 1945-85 (2003). An extremely readable slice of hidden social history; lesbian subculture in London, focussing on the Chelsea club which figured in the film, The Killing of Sister George (1968).

Better to Have Loved: the life of Judith Merril (2002). Something of a fix-up of autobiographical essays by Merril (probably best known as writer of science fiction and anthologist) with additional material culled from her correspondence by her granddaughter, but a compelling account of this figure from the forgotten generation of feminism.

Maria DiBattista, Fast-Talking Dames (2001). A wonderful book about that brief moment in Hollywood when screwball comedy rewarded women characters for being smart and witty. Makes one want to rush out and see the movies she describes.

The Journals of Mary Butts edited by Natalie Blondel (2002). Fascinating reading of the thoughts and reactions of an intriguing individual, during a period of considerable interest to me, 1916-1937. All sorts of unexpected connections. Also recommended, Blondel's biography of her, Mary Butts: Scenes from the Life (1998).

Alison Lurie, Boys and Girls Forever (2003). In the absence of a new Lurie novel, much as I would like one, I'm quite happy to make do with these wonderful essays on children's literature and its authors. (And on a similar topic, recommend Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built: a life in reading (2002)

Bernard Schweizer, Rebecca West: Heroism, Rebellion and the Female Epic, (2002). A rivetting study of one of my all-time favourite authors, which gives due weight to the enduring quality of West's feminism, by someone who has painstakingly reconstructed her late, unpublished, book on Mexico, scheduled to appear shortly.

Caroline Zilboorg, The Masks of Mary Renault (2001). While taking a biographical approach, uses the insights of queer theory in a subtle and convincing way to explore this complex woman and her writing.

Judith Flanders, A Circle of Sisters: Alice Kipling, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Agnes Poynter and Louisa Baldwin (2001) A group biography which is both fascinating social history and almost a post-Victorian Victorian novel.

Elizabeth Wilson, Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts (2002). More wide-ranging in time and space than Nicholson's book (see below) and more theoreticallly informed. But still very readable. Extremely good on women and bohemia, and also addresses questions of politics and spirituality. My only regret is this book was not even longer.

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (1977 - just republished). A delightful and compelling group biography of the author's father and brothers (and a certain amount about the rest of the family). Not only were they all, in some degree, eccentric, the forms of their eccentricity differed widely. The reader learns a good deal about naval cryptography in the First World War and the worlds of interwar Anglo-Catholic communities and Catholic converts, as well as the politics of Punch, which Fitzgerald's father wrote for and eventually edited. (My only complaint is that I would have liked a little more speculation about the emotional/sexual tendencies of this fascinating crew, and that G. B. Stern, a great friend of Fr Ronald Knox, and her writing about him - he was clearly a powerful influence in her own conversion - do not figure).

Angus McLaren, Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (2002). The latest from the author of Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr Neil Cream (1993), The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930 (1997), and numerous others. Enough said.

Virginia Nicholson, Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (2002).A very enjoyable read about this hard to pin down but definitely significant socially grouping/mindset. Although some of the contextual material could be better, and it would have been nice to have had some attention paid to political affiliations and activities(e.g. what could possibly have been the attraction of Fascism to certain bohemians? and the intriguing way Naomi Mitchison split herself into 2 sister-characters, a politician's wife and a bohemian artist, in We Have Been Warned (1935)), still worth reading.

Lisa Z Sigel, Governing Pleasures: pornography and social change in England, 1815-1914. This is a wonderful study which pays close attention to the questions of the production, distribution and consumption of pornography, as well as what constituted 'pornography' in nineteenth and early twentieth century England. One of a number of studies which are demonstrating how specifically constructed within particular periods in time definitions and representations of the 'obscene' are. See also, for example, Linda Williams' classic work Hard Core: power, pleasure, and the "frenzy of the visible" (1989, expanded edition, 1999).

I can't imagine why I didn't put this one in earlier: A Susan Williams, Ladies of Influence (2000, paperback 2001). A wonderful study of seven women in interwar Britain who enjoyed the privileges and the influence available to the political and social elite (to which they belonged either by birth or by marriage). And they were all very different in their aims and impact, ranging from the Tory hostess Lady Londonderry who developed a tender friendship with Labour leader Ramsay Macdonald, to the radical anti-racist and patron of the arts Nancy Cunard. Extremely readable.

Rather off my usual track, as I am not terribly well-up in the history of early modern science, but this probably makes me the intended reader for John Henry's Knowledge is Power: How Magic, the Government and an Apocalyptic Vision inspired Francis Bacon to create Modern Science (2002). This is a short and very readable account of the rather murky origins of the 'Scientific Revolution' and a fascinating, if not entirely likeable, character.

Joy Dixon, Divine Feminine: Theosophy and Feminism in England (2001). A wonderful, dense, and enlightening book, not only for its helpful account of the internal politics of the Theosophical Society and its offshoots, but by demonstrating how important this alternative spiritual system was in late C19th and early C20th Britain. She makes a strong case that far from being (as it is often perceived) a haunt of right-wingers and even fascist sympathisers, at least in the earlier (Besant) years it had a strong appeal to socialists, feminists and 'progressives' and that there were in fact various forms of social action emerging from it. Also suggests that the ideas associated with theosophy had a broad appeal well beyond those formally affiliated.

Lucy Bland, Banishing the Beast: Feminism, Sex and Morality. This classic work is now back in print from Tauris Parke, London, 2002. Review (of original 1995 Penguin edition, with slightly different title, but nothing else changed).

Jane Jordan, Josephine Butler, John Murray, 2001. At last a modern biography of this hugely important nineteenth century woman. As with any biography, sometimes there are things and aspects one would like more of, but this is a remarkable picture of a complex woman and her family.

June Hannam and Karen Hunt, Socialist Women: Britain, 1880s-1920s, Routledge, 2002. An excellent and important study which gets beyond the previous marginalisation of these women in both histories of labour and socialism and histories of feminism and the suffrage movement. Subtle and nuanced, it avoids the simplistic telling of the already well-known stories of a relatively few women within this group, while using the stories and experiences of individual women involved in socialism to illuminate the problems experienced. Makes it clear that putting women into the history of socialism is not a question of adding a chapter on 'women' or dropping a few names, but of thinking more closely about the gendering of politics and the sex-role assumptions even of political groups which consciously set out to recruit both men and women and to promote an egalitarian agenda.

Dianne Purkiss, Troublesome Things: A History of Fairies and Fairy Stories, Penguin 2001. An extraordinary and compelling read. Must look out for more of her work.

Sarah Bakewell, The Smart: the Story of Margaret Caroline Rudd and the Unfortunate Perreau Brothers, Chatto, 2001: a study of a notorious web of sexuality and conspiracy in C18th London by a former colleague of mine at the Wellcome Library which has been very well received by reviewers.

Elizabeth Reis (ed), American Sexual Histories, Blackwell, 2000. A useful anthology of primary and secondary source material from the colonial period to the present.

Alison Oram and Annmarie Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and sex between women in Britain from 1780 to 1970, Routledge, 2001. Covers an immense range of material from medical treatises, legal proceedings, oral history, and fiction. A massive task of selection - there is a lot more material out there, but this moves what's generally available well on from the usual suspects.

Lara Marks, Sexual Chemistry: The Story of the Contraceptive Pill , Yale University Press, 2001. A solidly and extensively researched book which demonstrates the truly international (rather than simply North American) story of the Pill. Also reinstates female agency, from the significant roles of Katherine McCormick and Margaret Sanger in its early developmental stages to the women who demanded it. Another example of her ability (cf Metropolitan Maternity, which is apparently, shock, horror, out of print already) to collate a range of information in an enlightening fashion.

Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951, Manchester University Press (1999). A fascinating study from the Witchcraft Statute of 1736 (which removed the penalties for being a witch and penalised 'pretenses to such arts and powers', to its repeal in 1951 (and concurrent modification of the Vagrancy Law as applied to fortune-tellers). A useful complement to Hutton's Triumph of the Moon.

Laura Doan, Fashioning Sapphism: The origins of a modern English lesbian culture, Columbia University Press, 2001. A splendidly nuanced study of a range of issues around perceptions of female-female relationships and self-presentations in the early decades of the twentieth century, and their relations to wider questions of modernity and modernism. Redeems sexology and the sexologists from the unfair stigma they have often received and demonstrates the creative and dynamic ways women could work with their ideas to fashion identities. Explores the intricacies of the reception of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and its prosecution, to undermine the assumptions of a monolithic homophobic reaction.

Heather Creaton, Victorian Diaries, Mitchell Beazley, 2001. 'A collection of ordinary diary entries from a cross section of classes and lifestyles showing the essentials of the Victorians' daily reality: their family concerns, medical conditions and education. Included in the book are entries from an actor, a schoolboy, a Countess and an engraver.' From the author of the equally recommended Sources for the History of London, 1939-45, British Records Association, 1998.

Peter Gordon and David Doughan, Dictionary of British Women's Organisations, 1825-1960, Frank Cass Woburn Publishing, 2001. Covers a vast range of the diverse ways in which women have come together for a variety of purposes, philanthropic, social, sporting, political... and more. One of those reference books it's hard to stop browsing in.

Katharine Cockin, Women and Theatre in the Age of Suffrage: The Pioneer Players, Palgrave, 2001. 'An interdisciplinary approach to women's involvement in theatre during the British women's suffrage movement.... tests the claim that the Pioneer Players was a women's theatre and investigates... the Pioneer Players' relationship to the women's suffrage movement, to feminism and to women's writing.'

Chandak Sengoopta, Otto Weininger, University of Chicago Press, 2000. Don't know why I didn't mention this earlier. Weininger, who committed suicide aged 23 after publishing the enormously influential Sex and Character in 1903, is an often neglected figure in studies of ideas around sex and gender at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, yet at the time his ideas were probably more widely discussed than those of Freud. A solidly contextualised study of this controversial figure.

Ellen Jordan, The Women's Movement and Women's Employment in Nineteenth Century Britain, Routledge (Routledge Research in Gender and History), 2000. A great study of the entry of middle class women into forms of employment other than teaching (usually as a governess) or needlework during the Victorian era. Jordan demonstrates that it was not (as often argued) a case of the demands of the economy inevitably sucking women out of the domestic sphere and into clerical posts, the Post Office, newly professionalised teaching and nursing, medicine, librarianship, and a range of other 'professions for women'. In fact it was the result of pressure and campaigning by the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women which brought about an ideological change and encouraged employers in a variety of sectors to take a chance on employing 'ladies'. Jordan's terrific articles on women pharmacists and the lady-clerks at the Prudential Insurance Co were a foretaste of this extensively researched and theoretically sophisticated monograph.

Roger Davidson, Dangerous Liaisons: A Social History of Venereal Disease in Twentieth-Century Scotland, Rodopi, 2000. Highly recommended. A meticulous study of disease in its social context, and of interest generally (i.e. not just to Scottish or medical historians). Illuminates wider questions about attitudes towards disease and deviance and on VD control in C20th Britain.

Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in Britain, 1860-1914 , Routledge, 1999. Gets away from the usual concentration on the Contagious Diseases Acts to consider the broader strategies taken against the 'Great Social Evil'.

Shani D'Cruze, Crimes of Outrage: Sex, violence and Victorian working women, UCL Press, 1998. A richly researched and excitingly theorised study.

Patrica Hollis, Jennie Lee: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1997. Deeply researched and well-written biography of a woman committed to socialism but by no means a feminist - does not gloss over the contradictions and the complexities of a woman who had a notable political career, in fact, several, both independent and being wife to Nye Bevan.

Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford University Press, 1999. A wide-ranging, dense, rich, extremely scholarly account of the complex and tangled roots of Wicca. An engrossing read.

Louise A. Jackson, Child Sexual Abuse in Victorian England , Routledge, 2000. A sensitive and historically nuanced account of a complex and difficult subject.

Cheryl Law, Suffrage and Power, IB Tauris, 1998: strongly and convincingly contests the thesis that feminism withered after the grant of the limited suffrage in 1918, showing that not only was the campaign to extend the vote to all women over 21 kept up, the energies which had gone into the suffrage movement were directed to a myriad different causes of benefit to women.

John Lucas, The Radical Twenties: Writing, Politics and Culture, Five Leaves Publications, 1997. Though Lucas sometimes relies rather uncritically on Graves and Hodges, The Long Weekend (which, though good on the ambience of the time, is decidedly cavalier with checkable facts such as dates) this is a very attractive re-reading of the 1920s, putting back the radical trends. A valuable reminder of the serious commitment to causes of figures such as Nancy Cunard, whose literary avatars tend to appear as depoliticised sirens.

Sue Morgan, A Passion for Purity, University of Bristol, Department of Theology & Religious Studies, 1999. A wonderfully subtle study of late Victorian social purity reformer Ellice Hopkins.

Bonnie Kime Scott, Refiguring Modernism: The Women of 1928 and Refiguring Modernism : Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes, Indian University Press, 1995. Dense and exciting re-insertion of women into the narratives of modernism. As a long-time Rebecca West fan I particularly liked her placing of West (and lesser-known figures of her circle) within this story.

Marion Shaw, The Clear Stream: A life of Winifred Holtby, Virago, 1999, rescues this important figure from her role as supporting character to Vera Brittain. While the thematic, rather than chronological, arrangement perhaps fails to convey the way that the strands of Holtby's life must have been interwoven and constantly impinging upon one another in her day to day existence, this is a valuable study.

Selected Letters of Rebecca West Bonnie Kime Scott (Editor): apart from some quibble with the footnoting (occasionally these seem to annotate unnecessarily, or else don't explain things one would like elucidated) my only complaint about this is that it is not much longer!

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Last modified 9 September 2013