Best of Brit Lit

Great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a slew of revisionist history books, the suffragettes on hunger strike, and great social lessons from slugs.

Not a Real Queen?

When the Queen of England began her reign in 1953, her countrymen declared a new Elizabethan Age. The first one had been such a success that the age of Shakespeare, the Church of England, and the Spanish Armada were seen almost as the start of our history, under the rule of the woman known as Elizabeth the First—our first lady, first monarch, first everything. This left only the problem of the woman who had been actually the first ruling queen of England, Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary, burner of heretics and wife of a Spanish king. So Mary appeared in the history books as the forgettable “Mary Tudor.” Revisionism is now the fashion, however. A new set of books, reviewed in the TLS this week, looks more admiringly on Mary the First. The historian Judith M. Richards argues that the burnings of 300 Protestant dissidents should not be seen “through modern eyes.”

The Hunger Artist

This remarkable front cover of the TLS is by a painter who created a new political theater almost as Elizabeth had done. Marion Wallace-Dunlop was a painter, little known now, who challenged early 20th-century images of women in her actions even more than in her art, pioneering the public hunger strike as a weapon for her fellow suffragettes. It is a hundred years ago since she took the first step in that new and soon to be much-imitated form of protest, one that would be more dramatic than anything she could achieve on canvas. Her painting of her sister, Constance, from 1892, is, nonetheless, a potent and disturbing portrait of fear.

The Perfection of Slugs

A book called The Social Amoebae sounds like a guide to avoiding the wrong people at parties. But the work of John Tyler Bonner, the grand old man of slime-mold research, draws more serious sociological lessons from the behavior of his subjects. When a slug is encouraged to slime its way down a narrow cul-de-sac, how does it beat a retreat? Not by moving backward, it seems, but by moving the cells in its head to its rear end. It is all, it seems, about the maintenance of cellular leadership and power.

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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.