At 830 pages with another 153 pages of notes, there is more here than you will ever want (or need) to know about this tormented family. But there are rewards for those who struggle through to its end. Ms Barker's long acquaintance with her material ensures that she comes up with a thoughtful new understanding of Patrick Bront (not so misanthropic or tyrannical as we might suppose), his wastrel son Branwell (more the victim of bad luck than weakness of character), and most especially of Charlotte (whingeing, jealous of Emily's genius, and rather fashion-conscious).
On a rainy night in May 1854 (as Charlotte, incidentally, prepared to marry Arthur Nicholls), Gustave Flaubert and his lover of eight years, Louise Colet, had a blazing row. They never saw each other again. Louise was 44, an established writer and literary hostess; Gustave was 11 years younger and still unknown as a novelist. In Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet - Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse (Penguin Pounds 8.99), Francine du Plessix Gray seeks to resurrect the memory of this alluring woman, who was the model for Madame Bovary. Without her influence and encouragement, du Plessix Gray claims, Flaubert would never have become a great novelist.
Louise was evidently a formidable character, with a string of eminent lovers - among them Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Victor Cousin and Alfred de Musset - and illegitimate children. A friend of George Sand, she was also an advocate of female independence. But Colet - along with other "historical" feminists such as Hannah More and Charlotte Lennox - does not get a mention in Maggie Humm's curious The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (Harvester Wheatsheaf Pounds 11.95). I say curious because of its strange collection of entries - from Anorexia Nervosa ("a feminist gesture") to Writing the Body ("A form of feminist writing sometimes called ecriture feminine, which utilises the rhythms of women's bodies") via Film Noir and Gossip. Somehow one feels it will not make much sense to readers 100 years hence, but it is an interesting reflection on the current state of the sex war.
Mention the name of Galileo and one thinks of Papal fury, pendulums, thermometers and telescopes, but what was the revolutionary scientist and astronomer like as a person? I, for one, had no idea until reading James Reston Jr's Galileo: A Life (Cassell Pounds 9.99), which brings to vivid life this remarkable figure in European history. Born in Pisa in 1564 (the same year as Shakespeare), he turns out to have been a bit of a womaniser and a melancholic, who suffered a mid-life crisis because he was neither rich nor properly appreciated. "I'm always at the service of this or that person," he moaned. "I have to consume many hours of the day - often the best ones - in the service of others."
Unlike Galileo, who worked alone and was often reviled for his unsettling new theories, the composer Erik Satie was fortunate to find himself in the midst of that extraordinary coterie of artistic talent that descended on Paris in the 1910s and 1920s: Cocteau, Ravel, Debussy, Diaghilev, Picasso . . . Robert Orledge's Satie Remembered (Faber Pounds 10.99) is an unusual biography: rather than telling the story of this eccentric but much-loved musician, Orledge brings together a collection of contemporary anecdotes.
A sociable man, Satie yet lived alone and in miserable poverty in lodgings outside Paris. His days were spent walking to and from the lights of the capital, pausing at the cafes along the way to sustain himself with numerous glasses of wine. When he died (of cirrhosis of the liver in 1925, aged 59) his friends were at last able to enter his room; they reported that they felt as if, finally, they had "penetrated his brain".