Queen Annie: The Politics of Passion, By Anne Somerset; Sea of Ink, By Richard Welhe (Trs Jamie Bulloch); The Betrayal of Trust, By Susan Hill; Is That a Fish in Your Ear>, By david Bellos; Girl in a Green Gown, By carola Hicks

Paperback reviews of the week

Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, By Anne Somerset

HarperPress £10.99

****

Anne Somerset's scholarly, readable biography demonstrates that the neglected Queen Anne and her reign were remarkable in a number of ways. Though she was pregnant 17 times, none of her children survived infancy, but she ruled over the birth of modern Britain: it became a definitively Protestant nation; the Act of Union in 1707 saw the formation of Great Britain as a political entity; the Duke of Marlborough's victories in the War of the Spanish Succession signalled a new power and prestige; party politics began with the settled division of Whigs and Tories; peace replaced the civil strife of the previous century (no one was executed for treason during her reign, for the first time since Edward I). Anne was involved in all these developments, busying herself in the appointment of ministers, generals and bishops, often battling with politicians and advisers to do so. Not always admirable – she could be duplicitous, irrational, timorous and stubborn – she's nevertheless a sympathetic figure, and one takes her side in her long-running feud with her friend, the Duchess of Marlborough (herself a wonderful character: powerful, witty, but comically spiteful and envious). Somerset has an eye for the telling quote, revealing the mores of the age, such as Buckingham's toadying response when Queen Anne observed that it was a fine day: "Your Majesty must allow me to declare that it is the finest day I ever saw in my life" – or Samuel Pepys's comment (of James II) that getting a wench pregnant and then marrying her is "as if a man should shit in his hat and then clap it on his head".

 

Sea of Ink, By Richard Weihe (Trs by Jamie Bulloch)

Peirene Press £10

*****

Sea of Ink is the real-life story of the 17th-century Chinese painter Bada Shanren, a prince who became an artist when the Ming dynasty was overthrown. Events of great moment – the fall of an emperor, the death of the artist's wife and child – are recounted in a sentence, while the painting of a fish or a landscape is described in loving detail over several pages. The idea seems to be that dedication to art is the most important thing – not as an alternative to real life, but as a way of grasping it. The style is spare but poetic, and sometimes a bit gnomic: the apprentice painter is told by his master that the best ink should "breathe in the light like the feathers of a raven". The book is 110 pages (and 11 of those are pictures), but – much like one of Shanren's paintings – contains far more than its small compass might suggest.

 

The Betrayal of Trust, By Susan Hill

Vintage £7.99

***

The skeleton of a teenage girl is discovered on the moors outside the fictitious cathedral town of Lafferton. It's soon identified as the remains of Harriet Lowther, who disappeared 16 years earlier, and Simon Serailler, detective inspector and part-time artist, is on the case. In addition to being a well-crafted crime novel, this book also explores the themes of caring for those with incurable diseases, euthanasia and the hospice movement (characters include sufferers from dementia, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease). I had mixed feelings about this one: the dialogue often seemed planted in the characters' mouths by the author, Serailler comes straight out of Central Casting and the themes are too obviously foregrounded. But, Hill writes so clearly, and the plot is so well put together, that you can't help gobbling it up.

 

Is That a Fish in your Ear?, By David Bellos

Penguin £8.99

****

"A translation is no substitute for the original," people often say. Yes, it is – that's exactly what it is, David Bellos counters. This is just one of the unthinking orthodoxies Bellos overturns in this thought-provoking look at the theory and practice of translation. It's full of surprising facts and feats: Bellos even finds a context in which Chomsky's famous nonsensical sentence, "Colourless green ideas sleep furiously", makes perfect sense. There's a pleasing combination of the commonsensical and the paradoxical, though sometimes he pushes too far: his point that "free" translations are not free if the translator is under pressure to produce a politically acceptable version seems to me a pun on the word "free", rather than a serious argument. Still, one doesn't have to agree with everything Bellos says to enjoy his erudition and playfulness.

 

Girl in a Green Gown, By Carola Hicks

Vintage £8.99

***

This publication by the late Carola Hicks explores Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini portrait", tracing its history, decoding its significance, examining the influences of every element and asking why it remains so well known today. She does not, however, clear up one thing that has always puzzled me: the fact that, while the woman has a notably swollen belly, some art historians argue she is not pregnant. Hicks says: "Arnolfini's wife may or may not have been pregnant", providing reproductions of other non-pregnant Van Eyck women with bulging tummies. Whatever the truth of that matter, this book will send you back to the National Gallery with much sharper eyes.

Comments