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George Egerton: The Half-Forgotten Modernist Pioneer

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the pioneering and half-forgotten writer of the modernist short story

A bridegroom waits in the hall, while his bride sobs upstairs in her mother’s arms. Married off to an older man against her wishes, the seventeen-year-old Flo leaves home to take up married life with Philip, her husband. Five years later, she makes the journey she has been putting off ever since she got married: she returns home by train and tells her mother that she leads a miserable life married to the repulsive adulterer Philip, who has recently taken off to Paris with a girl from the Alhambra. What’s more, Flo tells her mother that she blames her for this wretched existence she now leads: her mother failed to prepare her daughter for the realities of men and married life, and she had to find out the hard way. She announces her intention to leave her husband. The next day, having slept in her childhood bed, she departs for the railway station and leaves ‘in the opposite direction’ to begin a new life.

This much constitutes a brief plot summary of ‘Virgin Soil’ (1894), one of George Egerton’s most celebrated short stories. Not that any of them are that celebrated: although Egerton has begun to receive more attention and analysis from literary critics interested in women’s fiction and the history of modernism, she remains a little-known figure in English literature. Read the rest of this entry

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On the Science of Bibliosmia: That Enticing Book Smell

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle ponders the strange pull of bibliosmia by getting his nose literally into a book

‘There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.’ So Ray Bradbury, author of the nightmare dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 about a world where books are burned, dismissed the long-term future of electronic books. And certainly, recent sales figures suggest that the traditional book is holding its own: as Rick Rylance points out in his detailed study of the value of books, Literature and the Public Good (The Literary Agenda), a UK Reading Habits survey conducted in 2015 showed that 71% of respondents didn’t use e-boos at all, and 76% preferred the traditional book to its electronic equivalent. Just 10% preferred e-books, with the remaining 14% presumably neutral. In the same year, sales of e-books dropped by 2.4% in the UK, while print sales, Rylance tells us, rose by 8.4%. In the US, sales of e-books began to tail off in 2013 and haven’t recovered since.

In 2014, while bored on Twitter one lunchtime, I proposed that we call this phenomenon ‘bibliosmia’, after the Greek words for ‘book’ and ‘smell’. Perhaps ‘phenomenon’ is too strong a word for it, but at any rate I soon found that the word was being taken up by others: on the Twitter feed for Steve Wright’s BBC Radio 2 ‘Factoids’ segment, for instance, or in this AbeBooks meme (recently shared by @goodreads on Twitter), or Read the rest of this entry

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