20 April 2022, The Tablet

Ironic laughter

Ironic laughter

Elizabeth Finch
(JONATHAN CAPE, 192 PP, £16.99)
Tablet bookshop price £15.29 • tel 020 7799 4064

At first, Elizabeth Finch has the straightforward tone of someone unburdening himself of emotional memories, a tone nicely suited to the novel’s portrait of an inspirational teacher who becomes a lifelong influence. As well as her old-fashioned clothes and her tortoiseshell cigarette case, Elizabeth Finch is remembered for her lectures on the miracles and martyrdoms of The Golden Legend in her Culture and Civilisation course. She liked to scrutinise the stories of St Ursula and her virgin followers, St George and St Sebastian, using a mixture of seriousness and satire, looking at the theological meaning behind improbable events. Above all, she was interested in Julian the Apostate, the Roman emperor who renounced Christianity: “The moment when history went wrong”. To her admiring pupils she remains a mystery: was she Jewish, a lesbian, perhaps a fascist? Her career included two out-of-print books, a ­possible broken heart and a retreat into ­reclusiveness after her LRB lecture led to vile attacks in the press on the “Crazy Lady Prof”. A theme of biography versus history is set up.


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