Books: in brief

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Letters from the Palazzo Barbaro, Henry James, Pushkin Press pounds 8. This collection of letters, some published for the first time, reveals that the American literary giant Henry James was no less long-winded in his correspondence than in his fiction. Nevertheless, it paints a vivid and absorbing picture of life in fin de siecle Venice. James would often stay in the majestic and hauntingly beautiful Palazzo Barbaro - the original for the fictional Palazzo Leporelli in The Wings of the Dove - which in 1885 had been saved from ravage and ruin when bought by an American couple, Ariana and Daniel Curtis.

James himself, who first came to Venice in 1869 as a young man of 25, once dreamed of his own pied-a-terre in the city. But he was often the guest of the Curtis family and of the socialite who rented the palace, Isabella Stewart Gardner, along with some of the most influential artists of his generation - the American portrait painter John Singer Sargent and poet Robert Browning, among others.

The notes, written to a variety of subjects, including his brother William, aunt Kate and the Curtis family, reflect James's keen cultural appetite. He is bowled over by the painter Tintoretto, of whom he remarks: "I'd give a good deal to be able to fling down a dozen of his pictures into prose of corresponding force and colour" and "You must see him here at work like a great wholesale decorator to form an idea of his boundless invention". He is alternately affectionate ("your loving nevvy") and mischievous: "I lately came home from a summer of British sea-sides, which are all right if one can choose them vulgar enough, for then they are delightfully full of people one doesn't know (unless one is vulgar oneself, which of course may be)".

This collection is accompanied by three other little-known Venetian treasures from Pushkin Press (all pounds 7). Two of them - Casanova's Return to Venice by Arthur Schnitzler and Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig - mark the bicentenary of the death of that great Latin romancer Casanova, "whose every experience is familiar, whose secrets have all been revealed, whose most intimate chambers have been unlocked," as Zweig writes. Andreas by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, set in 18th-century Venice, concerns a young aristocrat who sets out on a grand tour but loses his innocence amid the city's misty streets and gloomy palaces. Taken together, the foursome provides an accessible introduction to a rich and, until now, largely neglected seam of European literature.

Rachelle Thackray

The Journal of Mrs Pepys: Portrait of a Marriage by Sara George, Review pounds 12.99. Anyone who thinks that the ubiquitous Bridget Jones epitomises an existence turbulent with trials and tribulations should take a look at Elizabeth Pepys's journal. What with plague and pox, nits and lice, abcesses and fluxes and toothache, the great fire of London, rumours of war with the Dutch and cooking over a fire and laundering in a vat, it's a wonder that the poor woman finds a second to put pen to paper.

At the beginning of the book, there is the usual disclaimer stating that all characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental: this is bizarre, as Elizabeth was most definitely a real person, wife of the better-known diarist Samuel Pepys, who figures frequently in her journal, and Sara George must have spent a lot of time on some meticulous research.

Although the Pepyses were a relatively well-set-up household - on the edges of the court so there is plenty of gossip about the notables of the day - it was a rough-and-ready time to live. A coach trip through a dubious part of town meant travelling with a drawn sword at all times. Disciplining the servants took a strong stomach: masters thought little of kicking their servants or locking them in the cellar overnight for a misdemeanour, and Elizabeth is not above a little shaking and ear-boxing when the occasion demands. She finds it hard to stomach bull-baiting in the park ("a rude and nasty pleasure") but is amused by the lunatics in Bedlam. Meanwhile, every other page someone is keeling over with fever, sickness, ruptures, pox and the rest: never a dull moment.

Other problems remain universal. Mr Pepys has a notoriously roving eye, as the neighbours delight in telling poor Elizabeth. His running after other women, including their own servants, and refusing to let his wife spend any money mean that behind closed doors the Pepyses come to blows, after screams and fights and tantrums of all kinds. The minutiae of daily life against the huge events of fire and plague echo the authentic diaries of Pepys but in a far more accessible form; Elizabeth is an attractive creation and this piece of "faction" makes a spirited tale.

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