7th June 1996 at 01:00
She was "a fungus-like growth" according to Alice James; Charlotte Bront was insulted by her remarks on Shirley. She is that paradoxical novelist George Eliot (1819-80): an atheist whose fictions are suffused with spiritual questions; a feminist who first ran off with a married man, and then as soon as he died married a man almost half her age.

Frederick Karl's mammoth George Eliot: A biography (Flamingo Pounds 12. 99) is almost as rich and rewarding a read as her novels. How could such a sensible and understanding woman have fallen into the trap of believing the youthful John Cross could revive her ailing years (only to drive him to despair - he threw himself into the Grand Canal while honeymooning in Venice)?

While George Eliot's novels are still hugely popular, her poetry is almost unknown; even Thomas Hardy's verse (superior to his novels in my opinion) is not widely read these days.

But, as Isobel Armstrong argues in her heavyweight study, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (Routledge Pounds 15.99, it is time for us to look again at what Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Swinburne amp; Co were saying in their poetry: we may well be surprised. This is not a book to read from cover to cover - but to dip into.

So dramatic was the effect of Sigmund Freud's theories that, even 100 years after his adoption of the word "psychoanalysis" in 1896, for Richard Webster to challenge them in a book entitled Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis (Fontana Pounds 9.99) was to risk an outburst of fury. Webster shows that Freud was intrinsically wrong to claim that his ideas and working methods were "scientific", and it was this insistence which led Freud "deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of error".

Not everyone will - or can - accept Webster's thesis, but he writes convincingly and with compelling ease.

When William Manchester began to reconstruct the thought-world which inspired the explorer Ferdinand Magellan to set off to circumnavigate the globe, what he assumed would be a brief tale of ignorance, disease and dirt soon turned into a much richer and more complicated story. He found himself writing a book, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance (Papermac Pounds 12), in which he was forced to admit that,yes, life in the Middle Ages was fraught with plague, drought, war and fear of the forest, and yet it was also illumined by flashes of brilliance - the Gothic cathedrals, the exotic rituals of kingship, the impulses that sent men like Magellan off into the unknown.

After all, it was out of the medieval world that emerged the Renaissance,as John Hale explained brilliantly in his England and the Italian Renaissance (Fontana Pounds 8.99). First published in 1954, it has not been surpassed, being both informative and entertaining. Hale writes with the enthusiasm of someone who has never forgotten that moment when on a crowded and filthy train, he watched "the sullen Swiss dawn open into a radiant Italian morning".

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