Other new titles in this lavish and carefully researched collection include Gimini Salgido's expose of The Elizabethan Underworld (first published in 1977), which fills in the background to Shakespeare's vagabonds and jolly jesters, and Pamela Horn's The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant, a fascinating peep behind those starched crinolines and polished brass fetters.
The biographer Claire Tomalin has a penchant for resurrecting forgotten figures and her latest book Mrs Jordan's Profession (Penguin #163;8.99) is no exception. It began as a study of actresses in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the story of Dora Jordan gripped her imagination and demanded a book to itself. In the 1790s and 1800s Mrs Jordan was Mrs Siddons's great stage rival - but she was also mistress to the future William IV, producing 10 children for him, even while continuing to appear nightly. When he became king, he dropped her, and she died alone and in penury in France in 1816. A truly tragic tale, told with insight and sympathy.
Balzac also died a debtor having made huge amounts of money from his novels (he wrote more than 100) but then squandering it all on a lavish lifestyle. He grew up poor, unhappy and abandoned by his mother, writing later that, "After a childhood like mine you must either believe in a glorious evening or throw yourself in the river". Graham Robb's Balzac (Papermac #163;10), the first biography in English for more than 50 years,provides a detailed and engaging portrait of this extravagant character. He once, for example, gave a dinner for his friends consisting entirely of onions: onion soup, onion juice, onion fritters. Not surprisingly, his guests were all violently ill two hours later.
The Paris described by Balzac is full of bustle, intrigue, luxury and grime. For Gertrude Stein it was "peaceful and exciting", according to the characteristically limpid reminiscences collected in Paris France (Peter Owen #163;9.95), first published in 1940 on the day that the Germans took over the French capital. Her impressions are filled with apricot conserve, French politics, the thin arms and sturdy legs of French women and, of course, the Cafe Anglais.
When Margot Asquith's memoirs were first published in 1920, they caused a sensation because of their unbridled comments about people in the public eye. Now reissued in an abridged edition as The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (Weidenfeld amp; Nicolson #163;12.99), they seem less shocking but are still a fascinating read. Here she is on Winston Churchill's mother: "She had a forehead like a panther's and great wild eyes that looked through you . . . Had Lady Randolph Churchill been like her face, she could have governed the world."
The first performances of Shostakovich's early music were met with boos and hisses: at the time he was working as a cinema pianist to support his mother and sisters and it is not to be wondered at that the audiences found the First Piano Trio rather an odd accompaniment to the latest silent movie. He went on to write music specially for the cinema, creating such fabulous suites as The Gadfly and King Lear. Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (Faber #163;12. 99) by Elizabeth Wilson is not so much a life,more an oral history of Russia from 1906 to 1975 as seen through the eyes of the composer's family and friends.