I must wear you to death, sweet siss, with my complaints, but it is so comfortable to unburden one's mind," writes Caroline Lennox to her sister Emily in the 1750s. There were four Lennox girls, devoted sisters and, as daughters of the Duke of Richmond, whose fortunes were founded on coal, highly covetable on the marriage market. They were also prolific letter-writers. In Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa and Sarah Lennox 1740-1832 (Vintage pound;8.99), Stella Tillyard has drawn on these thousands of often rather racy letters to create a rich and entertaining portrait of life among the society belles of 18th-century London.
While the Lennox girls were as fluent in French as in English and were avid readers of Voltaire, Sterne and Richardson, they would not have dreamt of "doing it for themselves". Margaret Fuller, who grew up in Massachusetts in the 1820s, was fluent in Latin at the age of six, and she went on to edit the influential American periodical, Dial. Her long essay, "Woman in the Nineteenth Century", made her famous on both sides of the Atlantic because of its radical views on equality between the sexes. But now, she is virtually forgotten, which makes Mary Kelley's edition of her works, The Portable Margaret Fuller (Penguin pound;8.99), a welcome addition to the bookshelves. (An accompanying volume from Penguin, The Portable Graham Greene (pound;8.99), will satisfy Greene enthusiasts as it includes both classics such as The Heart of the Matter and The Third Man as well as little-known articles on Rider Haggard, Frederick Rolfe, Colette, and the text of an address given by Greene in the Kremlin in 1987.) Fuller, who died tragically, aged 40, in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, while on her way home from Rome (from where she had reported on the Italian Revolution of 1848) was a pioneer in the world of ideas. Rebecca Stephens is a pioneer in a rather different sense. In On Top of the World (Pan pound;5.99), she gives a graphic account of her attempt to become the first British woman to climb Everest. Its superb colour photographs of frozen landscapes sent shivers through me: why would anyone volunteer to undergo such physical and mental punishment?
John Blashford-Snell, army colonel, explorer and founder of Raleigh International, which sends young people off into the jungle to "discover themselves" while offering aid to developing countries (see page 3), knows all about endurance against the odds. His autobiography, Something Lost Behind the Ranges (HarperCollins pound;7.99), reads like a Boy's Own adventure story, with Blashford-Snell negotiating mines in the deserts of Dhofar and surviving jaguars, hornets and mosquitoes in the swampy jungles of Panama.
Boy's Own-style adventurers get a raw deal in Edward Said's study of Western attitudes to the East, Orientalism (Penguin pound;8.99). Even Alexander Kinglake, whose Eothen, is a delightfully ironic account of a journey from Belgrade through the Ottoman Empire to Baalbek in 1844, is dismissed as having written "a pathetic catalogue of pompous ethnocentrisms". But, that said, Said's book is a rich read, full of exotic connections and ideas.
Ever since reading Christina Stead's autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children, I have been intrigued to know something of its author. What kind of childhood can she have had to produce such a strange, ferocious book, of which critics like Mary McCarthy have written, "The reader is put in the position of the awestruck children listening in their beds to a night-long family quarrel". Now, at last, we have an illuminating life of the Australian writer in Hazel Rowley's Christina Stead: A Biography (Secker amp; Warburg pound;12.99).