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Dante Among the Machines: Margaret Oliphant’s ‘The Land of Darkness’

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers a curious dystopian story by Queen Victoria’s favourite novelist

The terms ‘dystopian’ and ‘ecology’ both gained currency in the mid-nineteenth century, although ‘dystopia’ has been traced back even earlier. The Victorian era witnessed the emergence of a new genre of science fiction, dystopian literature, which would produce several classic novels of the twentieth century. Victorian writers used this new genre to fashion responses to the dramatic social and technological changes they were living through, chiefly the discovery of Darwinian evolution and the rise of industrialisation in the period. The changing landscape of Victorian Britain played an important part in how authors of early dystopian works addressed questions about what we now call ‘the environment’: in both Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), the crowded smoggy metropolis of contemporary London was refigured in some future age as a wild garden, following some dramatic alteration in the world’s climate. Read the rest of this entry


The 10 Best Saki Stories Everyone Should Read

The best stories by Hector Hugh Munro

The English short-story writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name Saki (a pen name he probably borrowed from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), is one of the wittiest and funniest writers of short fiction in all of English literature – arguably the not-so-missing link between Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse. Yet his work remains less widely read and appreciated than it deserves, in our view. The following ten stories represent, in our opinion, the perfect introduction to the witty and unsettling world of Saki’s short stories. We’ve left out his remarkable 1913 novel When William Came – set a few years in the future when German and Britain had been at war, and Germany had won – as we’ve limited ourselves to Saki’s short fiction here. And Saki’s short fiction is often very short – no more than four or five pages in many cases.

The Lumber-Room’. Possibly Saki’s best-known story, ‘The Lumber-Room’ is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults. Specifically, it is about how one clever but mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities. Nicholas’ clever use of his aunt’s own logic and morality to justify his refusal to rescue her from the rainwater-tank is one of the finest moments in Saki’s fiction. Read the rest of this entry

The Best Katherine Mansfield Short Stories Everyone Should Read

The best stories by Katherine Mansfield

The New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was one of the pioneers of the modernist short story in English, taking her cue from Russian writers like Anton Chekhov. Below we’ve given a brief beginner’s guide to five of Mansfield’s very best short stories, with links to where each of them can be read online.

The Garden Party’. This 1920 story centres on the annual garden party held by the Sheridan family at their home, in New Zealand, Mansfield’s country of birth. One of the Sheridan children, Laura – a young woman on the cusp of adulthood – is looking forward to the party and is keen to become involved in the preparations. However, while the Sheridans are preparing for their party, news arrives that a working-class man who lives in the poorer part of the village has been tragically killed when his horse reared up and threw him from his cart. Laura, filled with sympathy for the dead man and his family, pleads with her mother and siblings to cancel their garden party in light of the tragedy. How can they hold a garden party, with music and guests and laughter, when a family nearby are in mourning for the death of their husband and father? The end of the story poses more questions than it answers, especially concerning Laura’s complex response to the man’s death. We’ve analysed this story, probably Mansfield’s best-known work, in a separate post. Read the rest of this entry