A collection of essays by the London Review of Books co-founder, who has been its sole editor since 1992.
Throughout, Wilmers (The Eitingons: A Twentieth-Century Story, 2010) provides astute characterizations of exceptional women, especially writers like Jean Rhys and Joan Didion. There are few personal essays from the acclaimed editor, who came of age during the feminist movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but one example is the brief opening piece, “I Was Dilapidated” (1972), about her struggles with motherhood. “I got depressed,” she writes, “because instead of maternal goodness welling up inside me, the situation seemed to open up new areas of badness in my character.” Most of her essays since then—the final piece, about poet Marianne Moore and her relationship with her prickly mother, was published in 2015—demonstrate Wilmers’ occasionally supercilious yet irresistible seduction with the work at hand, plunging readers into long, involved pieces about writers’ lives, motivations, and peccadilloes. As John Lanchester, who first met her as an editorial assistant in 1987, notes in his ginger introduction, Wilmers is a ferocious reviewer, as shown in her more general essays on the art of writing obituaries (“Civis Britannicus Fuit”), Pears, the “venerable English soap” (“Next to Godliness”), or her own writerly craft (“The Language of Novel Reviewing”). Though the daily work of editing the LRB got in the way of the author’s own writing (a fate most editors will understand), it is in her coverage of women that she truly shines—e.g., “Death and the Maiden,” her look at two books on the life of Alice James, sister to William and Henry (“being a James was a complicated business”). Another notable essay is “Hagiography,” Wilmers’ disapproving yet generous take on Rhys’ last years as delineated by the novelist’s friend David Plante. While the author’s subjects are mostly British and of a certain age, others dear to her heart include Patty Hearst and Freud, which should broaden her reading audience.
Insightful essays for literary-minded readers.