Book reviews: Inconvenient People | The Silk Road | The Scientists

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Michael Kerrigan reviews the latest releases

Inconvenient People

by Sarah Wise

Bodley Head, £20 * * * *

Charlotte Brontë’s first Mrs Rochester; Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White … Victorian society was stalked by the spectre of the “madwoman in the attic”. And, still more alarmingly, by that of the sane woman branded mad for no other reason than her nervous anxiety, her feisty independence, or her wealth. In fact, this fascinating book makes clear, it was at least as likely to be a man who was “put away”, given that inherited property invariably followed the male line. Unfortunate individuals do seem to have been institutionalised on some deeply dubious grounds in the 19th century – sometimes it was through uncomprehending embarrassment on relations’ part; sometimes cynical calculation. As Wise points out, Foucault’s “age of incarceration” compares quite favourably with a 20th century which routinely locked up unwed mothers without public fuss.

The Silk Road

by Valerie Hansen

OUP, £20 * * * *

The “Silk Road” wasn’t a road as such; neither did it bring East and West together in quite the comfortable way in which it’s been convenient for us to assume. While it’s true that, overall, over centuries, the Silk Road represented a vital commercial and cultural corridor between the two worlds, communication was anything but continuous, and anything but smooth. Hansen’s groundbreaking new history draws on the findings of modern archaeologists working along the route – not least huge numbers of discarded documents, from taxation records to merchants’ inventories and imperial decrees. What she reveals is a record of comparatively small caravans trading locally across the regions: only in a longer historical perspective does a bigger picture emerge.

The Scientists

edited by Andrew Robinson

Thames & Hudson, £24.95 * * * *

An “epic of discovery”, this book is subtitled, and its master-narrative is indeed a story of heroic individuals, battling for enlightenment – hotly resisted by the forces of reaction. The book is arranged thematically, with successive sections on the Universe, Earth, Molecules and Matter, and so forth. From Copernicus to Crick and Watson, from Faraday to Freud: we certainly meet an impressive company of researchers and thinkers here. These people were prepared to follow their curiosity that much further than the rest of us, to look deeper into the nature of things, to ask tougher questions. As these biographical essays make clear, however, these individuals were mostly more complex than the epic frame allows, flawed in interesting, significant, ways.