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Writer’s Study: George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews Orwell’s early novel about the struggles of the writer

Depending on your tastes, you can blame or congratulate George Orwell for Wetherspoons. When Tim Martin founded his chain of British pubs in the late 1970s, he took as his inspiration – a sort of unofficial literary blueprint, if you will – an essay of Orwell’s, ‘The Moon under Water’, published in the London Evening Standard in 1946. To this day, a number of Wetherspoon pubs are named The Moon under Water in honour of Orwell’s think piece, including the one in my hometown, Milton Keynes.

Although principally known for his last two novels about totalitarianism, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, and for his political essays about big questions surrounding nationalism, fascism, and Communism, George Orwell also wrote well about petty poverty, the writer’s life (see his ‘Confessions of a Book Reviewer’, also from 1946), and the English obsession with money, usually with having too little of it. Read the rest of this entry

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Reviewing the Future: Will Self’s The Book of Dave

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a dystopian novel about a new religion

Toxic masculinity. Patriarchy. Incel. Words like these are all over the internet of late, describing a perceived rise in misogynistic behaviours and attitudes among young men growing up in Britain, America, and elsewhere. Coupled with this is the worryingly small percentage of people – women as well as men – who self-identify as ‘feminists’ (just 7% of Britons, according to one survey). Could the utopian dream of gender equality, which appeared to be making some headway as the millennium came into sight, be retreating ever further into the distance?

One novelist who has explored such a question is Will Self. The Book of Dave: A Revelation of the Recent Past and the Distant Future (2006) reflects current anxieties surrounding the role of the father in a postmillennial world, issues pertaining to divorce and child custody, and the clash between altruism and self-interest. Religion, too, is a central theme: The Book of Dave projects the present-day fear and anger of the titular father-protagonist, Dave Rudman, into a future vision of London in which Dave’s ‘Book’ – written with the sole purpose of providing moral instruction for his son – has been taken up as a sacred text by Londoners dwelling in a neomedieval postdiluvian world five centuries hence. Read the rest of this entry

May Sinclair’s Modernist Masterpiece: The Life and Death of Harriett Frean

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle bangs the drum for an undervalued modernist novel

1922 was the annus mirabilis and high point of modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were all published. On 18 May 1922, Joyce and Marcel Proust, two titans of the modernist novel in their respective languages, met at a disastrous dinner in Paris; the two writers spent the meal discussing their ailments, before eventually admitting that they hadn’t read each other’s work. Also present at this historic dinner party were Picasso and Stravinsky. 1922 was the point where a number of modernisms appeared to converge and collectively reach their zenith.

Yet this handful of modernist classics fails to tell the full story. 1922 also saw the publication of another modernist novel by a writer who is far less celebrated than Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, or Mansfield. Yet she was an important figure in the movement and even now she is overlooked in our rush to get to Ulysses and to Virginia Woolf’s mature novels. May Sinclair (1863-1946) was, in fact, the one who first applied the psychological term ‘stream of consciousness’ to the work of one of her modernist contemporaries – another novelist often absent from discussions of modernist fiction, Dorothy Richardson. Sinclair championed the work of the Imagist poets led by Ezra Pound, and even wrote a novel in verse using the Imagist method, The Dark Night. Like much of her work, it is seldom mentioned in surveys of modernist literature. Read the rest of this entry