The Remarkable, the Quirky and the Delightful, or, Why I Love the TLS
4 August 2011

The postal strike has left me with a backlog of issues, and I wonder if I will ever do them justice. I started chronologically, but soon gave up on that, preferring to read new issues as they come in, then work my way back from there. This is hardly a chore. I do eye the pile warily, knowing how much reading there will be in every issue, but every time I pick up a copy I remember, all over again, why I love the TLS. 

Novelist Anne Isabella Ritchie

Connections between the Thackeray, Stephen, and Ritchie families provide the meat in a remarkable lead review, by Charlotte Mitchell (July 15, 2011). The central character of the three books discussed is not W.M. Thackeray, but his daughter Anne Isabella Ritchie who, at the age of 40, married her 23-year-old cousin Richmond Ritchie – at which point her (sympathetic) brother-in-law Leslie Stephen made the comment that “Women are not allowed to do such unusual things without criticism.”

More to the literary point, Ritchie was a novelist in her own right, praised by Henry James as “a woman of genius.” When she died in 1919, Virginia Woolf, who was her niece, wrote that each of Ritchie’s novels “was indisputably the work of a writer of genius.” Mitchell goes on to make a case for Ritchie’s literary influence on Woolf’s own fiction and for Ritchie’s place in the history of the novel.

The world-weary poet and essayist Hugo Williams devotes his “Freelance" column in the same issue to the literary party, and especially the TLS party:

There is a coldness to parties; they can easily take the place of friendships as you get older, so that you are no longer friends but part of the scenery that turns up at such things.

One of the perils of the party is having to introduce people whose names you have forgotten; another is running into people you have known all your literary life:

After a certain period of time, say forty years, I think we should be allowed to admit that we no longer know somebody we used to know and be permitted to go back to the beginning and start again, I’ve known some people for so long without speaking to them and we’ve all changed so much in the interim that we need to be re-introduced. ”Amanda, this used to be Hugo Williams. Hugo, can you guess who this used to be?”

Authors will of course not have read one another’s books.

One gradually learns that this doesn’t matter and that once you have established that someone is a writer you should always go ahead and compliment them on their work because they will never want to challenge such a precious moment. In fact, if my own experience is anything to go by, it will make their day.

Frankly, it’s a relief when I find a TLS article on a subject of little interest to me, even if I have learned that it will interest me after all, once I get going. I am now at the point of hoping, half-heartedly, that I might find an entire issue boring just so that I might finally catch up.

It was in this disreputable frame of mind that I picked up the July 29th issue last night. As usual, I began at the back, a practice I recommend; I read recently (but where?) that there are approximately 61% of us who do this. Not for us the advance preparation of a table of contents, no; ours the path of discovery.

Which is how I happened upon the NB column, in which columnist J.C. pokes fun at books with some claim on our attention even if they will not, I imagine, be reviewed in the pages of the TLS. A collection of essays on Alliteration in Culture includes a piece on “Inaugural Addresses,” in which one Helena Halmari analyses the ways in which US presidents use alliteration in their speeches. J.C. reminds us it was the immortal Spiro Agnew, Vice President to Lyndon Johnson, who popularized the device with “Nattering nabobs of negatisivism” and “Hopeless hysterical hypchondriacs of history.”

J.C. cannot resist quoting tongue-twisters from another essay in this collection, and neither can I:

One never tires of “I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m a pheasant plucker’s mate, and I’m only plucking pheasants ‘cos the pheasant plucker’s late.”

The Dutch example is quoted in the original:

Al seen potvis in een pispot pist, heb je een pispot vol met potvis pis.

Linda Leith


More Articles