Biographies of artists often ignore the interaction with siblings in favour of parent-child bonds, although those parallel life-trajectories, success stories and rivalries can tell us much. Think Dorothy and William Wordsworth; Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë; Alice and Henry James; Margaret Drabble and AS Byatt.
“Families are the soil out of which character grows, and there is no richer compost than the relationship of sisters.” Following Jane Dunn’s account of the sisterly dynamics of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, this is the premise of her engaging study of the three du Maurier sisters – Angela, Daphne and Jeanne – who followed the creative paths of their renowned grandfather, the artist-novelist George, and their actor-manager father Gerald.
Privileged young women in the early years of the 20th century, educated at home and in Paris, they moved among a glamorous set of figures such as Rudolph Valentino, Ivor Novello, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier and Nelly Melba.
What they all did, however, was turn their backs on the parental theatrical world, move to Cornwall, and develop artistic careers.
Daphne’s life story has been told many times, in her memoir and by biographers such as (most authoritatively) Margaret Forster, feminist critics Alison Light, Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik, and novelists Sally Beauman and Justine Picardie. But this book’s strength lies in its account of a trio of lives developing during a period of class and gender upheaval, and the sisters’ response to social change.
By interweaving these unorthodox sisters’ lives, Dunn suggests how restrictive they found conventional gender roles. They fled cosmopolitan London for remote rural regions in order to find artistic independence and explore their sexuality and spirituality – with Angela becoming a High Anglican, Jeanne a Catholic, Daphne an eclectic thinker absorbed by animism and Jungian psychology.
The Revenge of Frankenstein
by Shaun Hutson
The Revenge of Frankenstein is a play-it-straight novelisation of the 1958 Hammer horror film.
Baron Frankenstein escapes execution for his misdeeds in the previous film, with the help of the hunchbacked prison warder Carl, and sets up a hospital in a new town where he harvests organs from the hapless patients in order to continue his experiments. His goal is to transplant Carl’s brain into a new body .... It’s fair to say that this book is not terribly well-written. Hutson has a weakness for pleonasm (“his brain and his intellect”; “inevitable and unavoidable”) and is not averse to cliche (“ungodly hour”; “biting cold”; “not a pretty sight”). But then, this naive, formulaic style is entirely suitable for this classic kitsch tale. It’s impossible to read about Baron Frankenstein without seeing Peter Cushing in the role.
How to Eat Out
by Giles Coren
Chapter One is a funny, lyrical, affectionate 15-page memoir of young Giles eating out en famille at the Gourmet Rendezvous in Finchley Road, north London. The descriptions of the food, the atmosphere, Alan Coren’s attempts to speak restaurant Chinese, and the heroic smoking of the 1970s, are wonderfully well done. I’m afraid the rest of the book did not appeal so much. Giles eats his way around the world, extolling the food he loves and sneering baroquely at the food he doesn’t like. There are snippets of fairly obvious advice: Insist on tap water and don’t fill up on bread before a meal. It’s well-written, in a brazen, look-at-me style, full of comic nastiness (“gang-raped carrots”, “ordurous sandwich”, “urinous juice”, “hell’s own bum boil”). If Martin Amis was a food writer, this is the sort he would be.
The Science of Love and Betrayal
by Robin Dunbar
This utterly fascinating book is an exploration of “the weirdest thing that will ever happen to you” – that is, falling in love. Robin Dunbar’s thesis is that romantic love in some form or other is trans-cultural, and he goes in search of its evolutionary roots.
The book explores the role played by smell in physical attraction (men can tell by the scent, even though they are not aware of it, when a woman is ovulating); analyses the significance of the wording of lonely hearts advertisements; examines the strange phenomenon of religious love for an invisible God; and weighs up the rival benefits, in terms of gene propagation, of males adopting the strategies of either monogamy or philandering.
Dunbar’s quest is to find out why we evolved into a (generally) monogamous species; and the answer he turns up is unsettling. It appears that women are the choosers in our species, and they choose on the basis of which male is likely to offer the best protection for their offspring.