The Best of Brit Lit

A look at great reads from the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. This week: a look at new books on sexism, couples, and marriage; the untold story of Lenin's lost years before he came to power; and a history of London’s counterculture heyday.

Barbie Feminism

The verbal repertoire of the Barbie doll is an unusual point of reference for a review in the Times Literary Supplement. So the pink plastic icon’s 1992 rendition of "Math class is tough" makes a particularly telling appearance this week in Terri Apter’s discussion of three books on sexism, the secret lives of couples, and one woman’s restored belief in marriage.

Apparently some ingenious psychologists, cited in Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, have discovered that women perform less well in math tests if they are wearing bathing costumes than if they are wearing street clothes, concluding that concerns about bodily appearance can interfere with female intellectual activity even in the privacy of a dressing room. Kate Figes, in Couples: The Truth, considers the bonds of secrecy in married lives that make divorces such a volcanic information source. Meanwhile, the question of whether there can there ever be a "good husband" is posed by Elizabeth Gilbert in her personal story, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. The Hmong women of Vietnam, when asked for their own response, find it one of the funniest suggestions they have ever heard.

Lenin’s Rise

Perhaps Lenin was a good husband, at least by the standards of nomadic revolutionaries touring Europe for a safe place in which to plot. Helen Rappaport has written a "dramatic and atmospheric portrait," Lesley Chamberlain says, of "a rather inconsequential-looking man with his dowdy wife" in the years before power.

Conspirator: Lenin in Exile could have been the beginning of a great tragedy, says Chamberlain, if his cause had been a noble one. Instead, the grim story ends today with the closure of Lenin museums all around Europe. The Bolshevik leader probably caught his eventually fatal syphilis in his exile years in Paris—but only, it is argued, after his wife fell ill.

What Happened to Cool London?

For the radical counterculturalists of the '60s, Marxist-Leninism was an optional interest while sexual experimentation was compulsory. Robert Irwin reviews London Calling, a history of London by Barry Miles seen through the eyes of the Rolling Stones, Richard Neville, Julie Felix, Oz and International Times rather than the politicians of their day.

This does not stop the TLS critic from likening the book to Lewis Namier’s analysis of who was who in the capital of the British Empire at the accession of George III, complaining that too much emphasis by Miles on unusually dressed music personalities and frequently undressed parties in Chelsea obscures the larger ideological, political, and cultural questions. The cumulative effect, he argues, is to make the counterculture seem shallower than it actually was.

Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.