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The Time Machine: Notes Towards an Analysis of Wells’s Novella

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the lasting appeal of H. G. Wells’s first great ‘scientific romance’

In some ways, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) is a ‘timeless’ text: it continues to enjoy huge popularity (as witnessed by big film adaptations in 1960 and 2002, as well as the fact that the novel itself has never been out of print and is available in a range of editions), it continues to exert a considerable influence on the literature and cinema produced since, and its very narrative structure – with much of the action of the novel taking place in a time that hasn’t happened yet, the year 802,701 – in a sense absenting it from its own context. But an analysis of Wells’s novella that sees it floating completely free of its 1890s context, much as the Time Traveller himself succeeds in leaving his late Victorian world behind, risks overlooking the extent to which The Time Machine is a novella deeply rooted in late nineteenth-century concerns. These concerns are neatly covered in Roger Luckhurst’s introduction to the recent Oxford edition of the novella, The Time Machine (Oxford World’s Classics).

In an interview published in 1899, Wells outlined his reasons for being so concerned with the future of mankind:

Why should four-fifths of the fiction of today be concerned with times that can never come again, while the future is scarcely speculated upon? At present we are almost helpless in the grip of circumstances, and I think we ought to strive to shape our destinies. Changes that directly affect the human race are taking place every day, but they are passed over unobserved. Read the rest of this entry

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The Joys of a Regional Poem: The Oxford Book of Local Verses

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads The Oxford Book of Local Verses, chosen by John Holloway

In the small seaside town of Bideford in Devon, you can find this three-line epitaph adorning the gravestone of a woman named Mary Sexton:

Here lies the body of Mary Sexton,
Who pleased many a man, but never vex’d one,
Not like the woman who lies under the next stone.

The verse expands, each line getting longer as the sentence reaches its venomous tip, the rhymes of Sexton’s name getting more and more Byronic and absurd. Behind the triplet there is a story, though precisely what the story is, the verse is content to hint at rather than state: in what capacity did Mary ‘please many a man’? Is it fortuitous that her name contains ‘Sex’? Who is the woman lying in the neighbouring grave? One is tempted to suspect a family plot of both kinds: was there some sort of sibling rivalry at work here? Read the rest of this entry

The Fascinating World of Authorisms: Words Created by Writers

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads Paul Dickson’s Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers

All words have to start somewhere, of course. But many of them are of anonymous authorship. The small amount of success I’ve had in getting the word ‘bibliosmia’ into general circulation has demonstrated that, even if a word has a clear origin and originator, this is soon of less consequence than the usefulness of the word itself. Yet some words do have clear origins and clear creators. Sometimes, a famous word was also coined by a famous person. And it’s of little surprise that writers have been especially proficient at coining new words.

Paul Dickson’s Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers, is the kind of book that was bound to get written eventually, and in a way it’s surprising that it took until 2014 for someone to do so. Dickson offers, if you like, a lexicon with a difference, running the whole gamut of author-coined words and phrases from ‘A man got to do what he got to do’ through to ‘zombification’. There’s also an epilogue and an appendix, which sees Dickson addressing the far-from-simple question of how many words and phrases Shakespeare, often considered the master neologist of the English language, actually coined. He gets the credit for a vast number, but Read the rest of this entry