Best of Brit Lit
A weekly look at great reads by the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: Elizabeth Taylor the novelist, a brief history of locavores, and Rimbaud’s prolific Latin verse.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Last Secret
The best known Elizabeth Taylor was one of Mary Pickford's most successful heirs—in money-earning as well as queenly status. But for some TLS readers, the top Elizabeth Taylor is an early 20th-century British novelist and short-story writer, often compared to Barbara Pym and with a Jane Austen reputation for sharp, prim observation. A new biography by Nicola Beauman has somewhat changed that image, detailing membership of the Communist Party and a lengthy passionate affair with an handsome party man. Her surviving relatives are not amused.
Is it Fresh?
The locavore—the word for a person who eats local produce in line with a keen political conviction against supermarkets and carbon emissions—is an increasingly popular American addition to the English lexicon. But until the last century almost everyone in the world lived primarily from local food, grown within 50 miles of where they lived. The concept of “fresh” as different from other food took on a different level of meaning when refrigeration separated “the site of production from the sight of consumers.”
Fridges, as Jon Garvie describes in the TLS, posed immediately “difficult, potentially lethal questions of age and origin.” Eggs in cold storage hatched a new language to answer modern needs, the timely subject of Susanne Freidberg’s Fresh, a history that runs from Upton Sinclair’s Chicago meat-packing yards to the global-warming impact of the French colonial haricot vert.
Rimbaud Great Latin Verse
Arthur Rimbaud is one of many poets who looks different in his “complete works” than in his slim volumes. Gallimard's new Pléiade edition, the third since 1946, is especially notable for accentuating Latin verse, including a Communion ode to the son of Napoleon III, and downplaying the better known obscenities of “The Drunken Boat.”
Surprisingly to some of his fans, the bohemian author of “The Arsehole Sonnet” published far more Latin verse in his lifetime than French—though editors normally push this back to an appendix if they publish it at all. Because the text of “Le Bateau Ivre” originated only from a copy made by Verlaine, it is published now in even smaller type than other scatological classics.
The critic Graham Robb in the TLS this week considers that last change from the normal rules “a curious act of editorial ostentation.”
The Man Who Stood Up to Orwell
Norman Collins was a broadcasting pioneer, a BBC and commercial TV executive, a publisher of George Orwell, and a novelist himself. His London Belongs to Me (1945), a sprawling story of life in a London lodging house, has more scenes of food-hoarding than food-growing, but all recollections of austerity life are attractive to readers these days. Condensed milk is a key weapon on the wartime home front in a novel which D.J. Taylor characterizes as the highest point reached by “the middlebrow panorama of capital life.” To read the new Penguin edition today is not only to smell the rancid linoleum and bacon but to sense a thousand TV soap operas in the making.
Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement. He was editor of The Times of London from 1992-2002. He writes about ancient and modern literature and is the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.