PositiveThe New York Review of BooksRather than advance a consistent argument about Dickens’s artistry, Mullan responds to the novelist’s multifariousness with an appealing miscellany of his own ... Some of these feel more random than others: it’s hard to think of Dickens’s obsession with death by drowning, for instance, as a sign of his artfulness, though Mullan has arresting things to say ... Not all Mullan’s attempts to argue for Dickens’s distinctiveness are quite as persuasive. Though he is undoubtedly right to observe how haunted the novels are by intimations of the supernatural, he exaggerates the degree to which this marks them out from their contemporaries ... Mullan comments sensitively on how \'Dickens makes us hear what is repressed,\' but he is hardly alone among Victorian novelists in thus exploiting the unsaid, and it seems odd to include what this book must concede is the least daring side of Dickens’s art among the \'tricks and ploys of the great novelist.\' But Mullan is at his heart a critic of style, and the most rewarding parts of The Artful Dickens are those in which he turns his eye on the various maneuvers by which the novelist’s prose comes alive.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksMarcus aptly compares Bernhardt’s resistance to body shaming with Barbra Streisand’s and Lena Dunham’s, an analogy that loses none of its force from the obvious reversal in the standard of beauty the latter is defying ... Over the course of the century, the habitual rowdiness of theatrical audiences increasingly gave way to respectful silence, but Marcus sensibly questions those who identify such pacification with passivity. Indeed, new protocols of silence and darkness may have encouraged audiences to concentrate more intently on the performance, without being distracted by fellow theatergoers. Though we tend to think that only the Internet has enabled everyone to weigh in as a critic, Marcus demonstrates that individual debates about merit were a part of celebrity culture from the first. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that some of the evidence she uncovers is no more enlightening than the average Amazon rating or Rotten Tomatoes review ... The Drama of Celebrity is premised on a fundamental continuity between Bernhardt’s era and our own, and Marcus is surely right to contend that the star did much to invent what we now recognize as celebrity culture ... But while it may be true, as Marcus suggests, that Bernhardt anticipated virtually every move in the modern celebrity playbook, there’s also something potentially misleading about the decision to treat her career as representative. The technological developments...[that] postdate the actress’s death...[may] have made more of a difference than Marcus allows ... by underestimating how the rapid expansion of mass media in the century since Bernhardt’s death has heightened the illusion of intimacy, she also risks minimizing how politicians in this country and elsewhere have managed to manipulate it.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksNeither woman has exactly suffered from biographical neglect—Rader is not even the first to combine their stories—and his book, which originated as a screenplay, is casually sourced and prone to ascribing thoughts to historical persons without explanation. He also devotes much attention to his subjects’ love lives ... Reveling in such anecdotes and breathlessly cross-cutting between narratives, Playing to the Gods nonetheless succeeds in demonstrating that the two women were essentially competing on different terms.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksHughes defends her approach by calling body parts \'biography’s precision tool,\' but the claim is misleading, especially if one thinks of biography as engaged with the idiosyncrasies of individuals. With the possible exception of the chapter on Fanny Cornforth’s mouth, which brings Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s model and mistress to life by focusing on her voluble talk, her eager appetite, and her apparent capacity for oral sex, the body parts in these Tales of the Flesh have comparatively little to tell us about the distinctiveness of the persons to whom they belonged. Nor do they primarily testify to the erotic life of the Victorians, despite the come-on of Hughes’s title. What they do illuminate—sometimes quite brilliantly—is the wider cultural world in which their owners participated. For all their physical specificity, they are parts of the social body as much, or more, than pieces of individuals.