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A long, lean man with a bony face, who spent his nights roving round the squares of the West End in the company of a notorious gambler and convicted murderer. Few would guess this to be a description of that great figure of the 18th century, Dr Johnson, but it is the portrait painted by Richard Holmes in his revelatory Dr Johnson and Mr Savage (Flamingo Pounds 6.99).

Holmes takes as his theme the unusual friendship that existed in London in the 1730s between the young Dr Johnson and Richard Savage, a poet and playwright whose brilliance was outweighed by the unsteadiness of his character. The Great Cham's biographers have never understood what these two very different men had in common, but Holmes's painstaking reconstruction of their friendship shows the doctor in an entirely new light.

Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th-century feminist writer, would not have approved of the Doctor's attitude to women - he virtually abandoned his first wife. The heroine of her unfinished novel, Maria: or The Wrongs of Woman, now reissued with an introduction by Anne K Mellor (W W Norton Pounds 5.95), is torn from her young baby by her jealous husband and thrown into a madhouse where she meets a man with whom she falls in love. He, too, deserts her,and she is left with the feeling that her only recourse is suicide. It is based loosely on Wollstonecraft's own tragic life, but within it are buried all her revolutionary ideas about a woman's place in society.

Wollstonecraft's words of warning were too late for Emma Hamilton, who was born in 1765 to a blacksmith in Cheshire. As a young teenager, she made her way to London where her beauty soon brought her to the attention of the fashionable demi-monde. But her brilliant career as Lady Hamilton and mistress to Nelson did not assure her of a place in society and she died in 1815 of alcohol poisoning, forgotten by her friends and living in poverty in Calais. Flora Fraser tells her extraordinary story in Beloved Emma: The Life of Emma, Lady Hamilton (Papermac Pounds 9.99).

Karl Miller's mother was abandoned by her husband when Karl was only a baby and he was brought up by his grandmother in the outskirts of Edinburgh. Rebecca's Vest (cPounds 6.99) is partly a "memoir" of those years, but is much more than mere autobiography. The title comes from the heroine of Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe, whose vest is always unbuttoned just a little bit further than was thought to be decorous. Miller, the writer and editor, also goes one level deeper than most regard as safe, as he burrows for the truth about why we behave as we do.

Robert Skidelsky recalls that he had written three histories of the world by the age of 10. His passion for the past has stayed with him and the latest collection of his essays, Interests and Obsessions (Macmillan Pounds 12. 99), reflects the broad range of his canvas. Here we have his thoughts on Beatrice Webb ("Her diary rather than her marriage was the real waste-paper basket of her emotions") alongside his views on the economic decline of Britain ("the longest-running saga in modern history").

"Film-making doesn't mean audiences, festivals, reviews, interviews. It means getting up every day at six o'clock in the morning. It means the cold, the rain, the mud and having to carry heavy lights,"remarks the Polish film director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, in Kieslowski on Kieslowski (Faber Pounds 7.99). This might explain why, aged 53, and having achieved his greatest critical success with the last part of his Three Colours series, Red, released in England this month, he has decided not to make any more films. This edited version of his conversations with Danusia Stock provides a view of the movie studio rather different from that promulgated by Hollywood.

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