In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Mary Shelley’s misunderstood parable and founding text of science fiction
Frankenstein is one of a handful of nineteenth-century fictional creations that went truly global and became ingrained in the popular consciousness. Along with Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Mary Shelley’s character has flown free of the text which spawned it: Frankenstein has become synonymous with biological experimentation, the creation of hybrid ‘monsters’, and the perils of playing God. The Oxford English Dictionary includes the prefix ‘Franken-’, used to denote nouns implying genetic modification, most famously ‘Frankenfoods’. The OED also records ‘Frankenstein’ itself, in extended use, as both a noun and a verb.
2018 marks the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s first and most successful novel, written when she was just a teenager and published when Shelley was 20 years old. This fact is often repeated, but it’s worth stopping to reflect on the astounding precocity of the novel’s author. Dickens was 24 when his first novel appeared, and he was touted as a prodigy. Try naming another novel written by a teenager which has attained the status of a classic. Now try naming one that, arguably, spawned a whole new genre in English literature. There was, and in some ways is, nothing else quite like it. Frankenstein is not just a founding text but a foundling text. Read the rest of this entry
Previously, we’ve picked the best of Virginia Woolf’s novels and non-fiction works, but she was also a fine writer of very short stories. Although Woolf didn’t write a great amount of short fiction, a number of her short stories are classic examples of early twentieth-century modernism. All five stories are included in The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics), which is a treasure-trove of very short modernist fiction by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
‘The Mark on the Wall’. In this short story, the narrator tells us about a mark she noticed on the wall; what follows is, essentially, is eight pages of stream of consciousness as we follow the narrator’s thoughts, memories, and daydreams. The mark on the wall is jumping-off-point, but the ‘life’ of the story resides in what goes on in the narrator’s mind: Woolf is telling us that the material world is not everything, since there is an almost spiritual delight in the life of the mind which conventional fiction seldom takes into account. The rock group Modest Mouse took their band name from a phrase in this story. Read the rest of this entry
‘Tell me not here, it needs not saying’ is one of the most famous poems from A. E. Housman’s second volume, Last Poems (1922). In this poem, which comes near the end of the collection, Housman reflects on his relationship with nature, before concluding that, although nature does not care or even know about him, he feels a close bond with it.
Tell me not here, it needs not saying,
What tune the enchantress plays
In aftermaths of soft September
Or under blanching mays,
For she and I were long acquainted
And I knew all her ways.
On russet floors, by waters idle,
The pine lets fall its cone;
The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing
In leafy dells alone;
And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn
Hearts that have lost their own. Read the rest of this entry