Best of Brit Lit
A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: We learn Versailles was a pigsty, Virginia Woolf despised writing articles, and money is very dangerous.
Stinking, Splendid Versailles
Visitors to the palace of the French kings at Versailles see only a part of the pre-revolutionary picture. Behind the classical grandeur were a host of problems familiar to householders then and now, great and small. Reviewing new books about Versailles, John Rogister introduces a TLS tour backstage. Water supply and catering facilities were more pressing concerns than the latest fashion in milk-maid costumes. Temporary kitchens caused fires. A bath was a sex aid rather than a place for mere washing. The fountains alone used more than 150,000 liters per hour. When switched off to save supply, the result was pestilential odor.
Money Makes the (Greek) World Go Round
Money began its life in classical Greece. So did tragedy, and in the view of Richard Seaford this week, the two are inextricably linked. Money destroyed all previous forms of social relationships, reciprocity, redistribution and kinship. It allowed a man to fulfill all his needs alone, promoting predatory isolation, hence the lonely fates of the acquisitive Oedipus and his family. Money was unique in that, unlike food or sex or music, there was no limit to one’s desire for it. The excess against which Greek oracles warned was there in the essence of money. Everyone had within them the curse of Midas. Understanding how the Greeks first learned this truth is for Seaford, president of the Classical Association in Britain and author of Money and the Early Greek Mind, a large part of the reason for studying them at all.
Virginia Woolf’s Disdain for Articles
Virginia Woolf was one of the most distinguished TLS contributors in our 107-year history—though she was famously ambivalent about the task. “Writing articles is like tying up one's brain in neat brown paper parcels. O to fly free in fiction once more!—and then I shall cry, O to tie parcels once more!” This week the fifth volume of her collected essays (1929-32) is reviewed by Clare Harman.
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.