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What the critics liked

Caroline Norton’s life “plays out like a Victorian sensation novel”, says Katie Rosseinsky in the Evening Standard. Born in 1808, the subject of Antonia Fraser’s new biography, The Case of the Married Woman (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25), was the granddaughter of the playwright Richard Sheridan. From adolescence, she was “praised for her quick wit, charm and beauty” – she and her two sisters were known as the Three Graces – and was publishing poetry by the age of 17.

In 1827 she married a Tory MP, George Norton. They had three children in five years, but the marriage quickly disintegrated. Norton subjected his wife to “vicious attacks, verbal and physical”, but she was unprotected by the law – as Fraser puts it, “a man had a right to treat his own property as he wished”. In April 1836 Norton took the children from Caroline, refusing to let her visit them. He “inflicts vengeance, as bitterly as he can”, she wrote.

The key theme of Fraser’s book is “rage – hers and Caroline’s – that women in those days had no rights over their children”, says Roger Lewis in the Telegraph. Nor was Caroline permitted to own anything; her property and inheritance legally belonged to her husband. A woman “is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men”, she wrote to her friend Mary Shelley. But her relentless campaigning led to the reforming Infant Custody Bill of 1839, and she successfully lobbied for the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, “which at last permitted divorce”.

There have been other books about Caroline Norton, says Daisy Goodwin in The Sunday Times, but Fraser’s is the “first to emphasise what a modern figure she is”. She is portrayed “not as a hapless victim, but as a working mother and bestselling writer who refused to submit to… the patriarchy”. Her “bloodymindedness” improved the lot of other women. Fraser is “right to call her a 19th-century heroine”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo, narrated by Penelope Wilton.

Elizabeth Macneal’s bestselling debut, The Doll Factory, was one of the most impressive historical novels of 2019, says Nick Rennison in The Sunday Times. Her second novel, Circus of Wonders (Picador £14.99), “is an equally satisfying exploration of some of the odder corners of Victorian life”. Its heroine, “country girl” Nell, is “speckled” with birthmarks that make her a curiosity. When the flamboyant owner of a visiting circus, Jasper Jupiter, recognises her potential to help his ailing livelihood, he persuades her father to sell her for £20.

Transformed into an “intrepid aerialist”, she becomes the star of the show, resented by Jasper and obsessively adored by his brother, Toby. Macneal explores what it means to exert power over another individual, says Suzi Feay in The Guardian. The performers – Stella the bearded woman, Brunette the sickly giantess, Peggy the dwarf and the rest – are “exploited by their egotistical ringmaster”, but he has also given them “opportunities to shine in a world that shuns them as objects of fear and revulsion”. Macneal has a keen eye and writes with an easy charm, says Allan Massie in The Scotsman. The circus and its cast of damaged but resilient characters “are vividly and persuasively presented”.

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by Tuppence Middleton.

Vintage fiction: The Wind in the Willows 

Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic is probably most famous for a single line, said Charles McGrath in The New York Times in 2009, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half as much worth doing as simply messing around in boats.” But the boating adventures, “charming as they are”, are the least of “what makes the book so singular”.

The Wind in the Willows is a children’s book, that, “unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grown-ups; instead, it parodies the grown-up world”. The adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter and Toad – “anarchy incarnate” – revolve around the canary-coloured caravan, Toad’s car-wrecking antics, the climactic battle with the stoats and weasels of Wild Wood, and even a vision of Pan himself, “taking a break from his piping”.

This a tale steeped in nostalgia, said Robert McCrum in The Guardian in 2014, “inspired by a father’s obsessive love for his only son”. It evolved from bedtime stories and letters to Alastair, nicknamed “Mouse”. A “troubled” boy, he killed himself aged 19, while at Oxford. Indeed, these stories were “so personal” that Grahame “never intended to publish his material”.

The book’s initial reception, on publication in 1908, was mixed. The Times felt that “as a contribution to natural history, the work is negligible”. Beatrix Potter famously took exception to Toad’s physical characteristics. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!” AA Milne considered it his favourite book, but it wasn’t until his popular 1929 stage adaptation, Toad of Toad Hall, that it became established as an “evergreen classic”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo, narrated by Alan Bennett.