BOOKS: The middle classes didn't hide the legs of their pianos beneath doilies, or weep over images of motherhood

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The Independent Culture
Flatland

by Edwin A Abbott

Penguin pounds 5.99

A minor masterpiece of late Victorian eccentricity, is related by an inhabitant of a two-dimensional world, where everything has length and breadth but no height. In this geometrically orthodox society, status is determined by number of sides and moral character by acuteness of angle (the more acute, the more degenerate); women are mere straight lines. Our narrator, a genial square, is jerked out of his complacent existence when he receives a visitation from - inconceivable! - a sphere. Part mathematical treatise, part social satire, part vivacious fantasy, has echoes of both Alice in Wonderland and Gulliver's Travels; good to see it made more widely available.

Strangers

by Emma Tennant

Vintage pounds 6.99

The subtitle is "A Family Romance", a term borrowed from psychoanalysis, referring to the fantasies that we spin around our families. So, this is a narrative of Tennant's own glamorous, aristocratic family; but how much of it is history, how much her own weaving, is impossible to tell. The opening chapters revolve around her grandmother, Pamela, Lady Glenconner, and great aunt, Margot Asquith, wife of the prime minister; and they read like a conventional Edwardian country house romance - statesmen and poets chatting over the dinner-table, a maid-servant adoring the young heir, a brittle idyll about to be shattered by war, etc etc. As it moves towards the present, the story becomes more concrete and individual, but it still relies heavily on what you might call Tatler appeal - the fascination of the idle rich and their emotional entanglements.

The Telling

by Miranda Seymour

Picador pounds 6.99

In 1939, Laura Riding and Robert Graves visited Schuyler and Katherine Jackson at their home in Pennsylvania; within two months, Graves had been packed off to England, Riding and Schuyler Jackson had set up house together, and Katherine had been confined to a mental hospital. This fictionalised account, by one of Graves's biographers, takes the point of view of the supposedly mad wife (you could put it in a little sub-genre with Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea). Seymour is not an inventive writer - sentences often drop into cliche, and she has invented an episode of childhood sexual abuse, surely the most over-used fictional device of the last decade. But it's such a gripping story that it easily survives.

The Catastrophist

by Ronan Bennett

Review pounds 6.99

Like Giles Foden's The Last King of Scotland, Bennett uses the dilemmas of a well-intentioned white man in chaotic post-colonial Africa and the pull of a charismatic leader to make a point about moral commitment. But where Foden's protagonist found himself sucked in by Idi Amin, the failure of Bennett's narrator is seen in his resistance to the attraction of Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic Congolese leader who was murdered in 1961. Ultimately, Bennett makes his moral conflicts too simple; but they are beautifully dramatised, and he writes with admirable sharpness and control.

Pleasure Wars

by Peter Gay

Fontana pounds 9.99

The overriding purpose of Gay's Bourgeois Experience sequence has been to demonstrate how stale and false are our pictures of Victorian life. The middle classes didn't all hide the legs of their pianos beneath doilies or weep over images of motherhood. Living in an age of rapid innovation, they were less rigid, less conformist than we imagine. This fifth and final volume, on taste and culture, confronts the caricatures of the bourgeois put about by artists like Flaubert. As before, he is heroically erudite and wide-ranging. R H

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