Playful allusion and undiscerning critics

Mark Gatiss started the year with a lovely bit of Sherlockian snark. Faced with criticism that the show was getting rather too action packed, he answered with a poem titled "To An Undiscerning Critic". It was not so much the argument of the poem which got me, but the title had me musing weakly on the delights of reference and appropriation as I lay dying on the sofa after unwittingly having contracted a vicious bug over the holidays. I am better now.

The first thing I did when I got to the NLS this afternoon was call up Vincent Starret's 1937 publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 poem. Starret, the originator of the lines
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.
published the reprint as just one folded sheet of paper (quality paper, though) because he had come across it in Lincoln Springfield's "Some Picquant People" (1924), could not find it anywhere else1, and did not think the world should be deprived of it.
To An Undiscerning Critic

Sure there are times when one cries with acidity,
'Where are the limits of human stupidity?'
Here is a critic who says as a platitude
That I am guilty because 'in ingratitude
Sherlock, the sleuth-hound, with motives ulterior,
Sneers at Poe's Dupin as very "inferior."'
Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,
That the created is not the creator?
As the creator I've praised to satiety
Poe's Monsieur ...
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Reading in dark times

I am starting to fear the news.

Europe is scrambling rightwards. The Middle East is caught between the fire of Daesh and the hot place of tyrants and their supporters. Russia is gleefully making the most of it. The world is overheating, and people seem intent on stoking the flames. I went to bed confident that Brexit would never happen, and had an unpleasant morning trying to drink enough coffee to wake me up enough to make the whole thing go away. I was innocently drinking a cocktail when my phone informed me that not only had Theresa May become Prime Minister in the UK, she had appointed Boris Johnson as her Foreign Secretary. A man whose main achievement is a colour no orange would dream of aspiring to is moments from getting his fingers on the big red button that signals a global Apocalypse. And a vicious rhetoric of hate has become mainstream: Bashing foreigners or anyone who might conceivably be foreign, homosexuals and women as somehow subhuman, or just plain shooting black men, seems to be about to become elevated to the national sport of several self-proclaimed liberal democracies. I have been rooting for a woman who is so far to the right of my politics I can barely see her. And that failed. If things deteriorate in France, the heads of state behind the UN Security Council are likely to be Donald Trump, Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

There are consequently three ...
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The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I love this book.
I have a weakness for Victorians, footnotes full of fascinating facts, a particular style of drawing, geeky in-jokes, and mathematical genius. When I first came across Ada Lovelace -- the Origin I was smitten. And so I have remained.

The opening story of the book;
an early version available here.
It is the perfect marriage of science and literature, academic irreverence, odd asides, style, verve, panache, erudition and cats.

Ideally I would just show you page after page of the comic, say "isn't it wonderful" and then send you off with one of my copies and don't come back until you've read it (this is generally my strategy offline), but I suspect I might get in trouble if I were to simply reproduce the entire book here. And so I am left trying to spell it all out in words.1

Ada, Countess of Lovelace, creator of the first computer program and originator of the idea that you can use an analytical engine for something other than numbers, mathematical daughter of Lord Byron, eccentric gambler, and generally cool cookie, makes a stellar protagonist. If she has somehow escaped your notice, you are not alone, but you should still remedy that immediately. Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine (but not quite builder of either), enemy of street music, friend of all the cool Victorians and yet somehow still weirdly socially tone deaf when sciencing, likewise. I will confess, however, that ...
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Tolkien reading day

Today is Tolkien reading day.

"What?" I can hear you ask, "Isn't every day Tolkien reading day?" and I concede that you may have a point. But it is the way of our people to set aside some days of the year for things of great importance.

Tolkien reading day has been celebrated for over a decade (ah, the murky depths of time), with the date of 25th of March chosen because it is the date of the Fall of Barad-Dûr and the downfall of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, which seems as good a date to celebrate as any. All the more so this year, perhaps, as the Tolkien Society's theme for this year's reading day is "Life, Death and Immortality", in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien fought and (unlike many others) lived.

It is hard to escape Tolkien's connection to war writing. Gandalf's "You shall not pass!" aside, the creation of the world started during the First World War, and the trilogy was published shortly after the end of the Second. And when Tolkien writes that
as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.1
it becomes all the harder to discount the Great War as ...
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Umberto Eco & why he is wonderful

And on the advice of Marsilius, who had taken a liking to me, they decided to place me under the direction of a learned Franciscan, Brother William of Baskerville, about to undertake a mission that would lead him to famous cities and ancient abbeys.
This is where Umberto Eco caught me. I was 11 or 12 and had struggled through the introduction and the beginning of Adso's story, but Baskerville was a name which resonated.

In some ways, I was far too young when I first encountered Eco. The library in my home town had just moved, and the grown-up section was no longer separated from the children's section with an impassable barrier (or a terrifying staircase, as the case may be). I had seized the opportunity to read Sherlock Holmes (and Wodehouse and Dickens). And then, The Name of the Rose.

But much as I was awash in a sea of references that I could not hope to catch, the description of Brother William gave me one of my first conscious experiences of literary allusion (tall, thin, with penetrating eyes and a beaky nose!), and once it was pointed out that the man could solve mysteries, I was safely on firm ground. With that as my guideline, I could observe (and absorb) references to people and places I had never heard of (yet), and with them a feeling of complexity and depth that I think I've been looking for in books ever since. The plethora of ...
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The Abominable Bride

Being at heart a Holmesian, and by education a Victorianist, I was looking forward to the Sherlock special with trepidation and delight. Here be SPOILERS GALORE but in short: I am generally happy with "The Abominable Bride". It is not a purist's Holmes; for that Gatiss and Moffat are too fond of the plethora of other adaptations. But that is one of its strengths.
I read on the internet that people are confused. I find this claim somewhat baffling, as to me it seemed perfectly straight-forward: It seemed to begin as a retelling of Gatiss/Moffat Sherlock set back in the Victorian period. Throughout the first part, however, there were numerous indications that that was not the case, increasing in frequency as the episode progresses. The first, and probably least immediately obvious, is the beautiful Chekov's gun of Holmes' conversation with Watson early on,
Holmes: "The stage is set. The curtain rises. We are ready to begin. Sometimes, to solve a new case, one must first solve another."
Watson: "We have a case then? A new one?"
Holmes: "An old case. Very old. I shall have to go deep."
Watson: "Into what?"
Holmes: "Myself.",
which neatly summarises the basic structure of the episode: Everything but the scenes on the plane take place in Sherlock's drug-fuelled imagination, which draws on elements from the universe constructed by Gatiss & Moffat in order to construct an imaginary Victorian setting in which he can try to work out how Moriarty might ...
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Reading intersectionally

Two years ago, I had a long, hard look at how, and who, I read. I was rather disappointed. Reading is at the heart of my identity, both in that I am, to my core, someone who reads, but also in that the books I have read have had a major impact on how I see the world. Alongside this, I have identified as a feminist since I was a kid. Finding out that I fairly consistently read only 20% women was therefore both surprising and dismaying. To make matters worse, the same percentages were present both in my library as a whole and in my list of books to read. Clearly something needed doing.

Last year, at this time, I had spent a year reading 50% women, an experiment which would have been a tremendous success, were it not for the fact that nearly all the women (and men, for that matter) on my list were distinctly of the white & Western persuasion. I resolved to do better.

I decided to keep reading 50% women while also reading 50% non-western authors. I limited "non-western" to the world outside of Europe & the Americas, and likewise excluded authors of Western descent (so no Coetzee, Camus or Kipling in this group).1 The purpose was to break out of my rather insular way of reading. I believe in literature as a political agent, and the choice to have my world described and shaped almost exclusively by Western European voices is one ...
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Terry Pratchett & why he is wonderful

Yesterday, a sad man decided that the best way for him to look serious and important was to step on what looked like too much fun. But who cares about him. I thought I'd tell you #whyIloveTerry Pratchett.

The Discworld is balanced on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of The Great A'Tuin, a giant turtle moving slowly through space: There may seem to be little room for realism on the Disc. If you are imaginatively impaired, you may think it therefore follows that there is little of worth there. But literature can be at its truest when it is most honest about lying, and the fantastic setting is used as a space for the meeting of incompatible narratives, a collision of contradictory ways of thinking, which serve to give our patterns of thought a good shake. All while being delightfully funny. As is often the case in these situations, the cure for not seeing the point of Pratchett might be to read some Pratchett.

Stereotypes and narrative patterns form our expectations: certain things appear natural in one context, but not in another. The lazy attitude to such patterns would be to reinforce them by conforming to them: For a story to seem believable, the storyteller needs to follow the rules governing what seems plausible in a given context (hello, Hollywood). Bringing two incompatible patterns together, however, puts them both in play, thereby not only creating something new but also providing a ...
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The Iliad

The Almeida theatre, is currently fulfilling all my dreams. Spectacularly. Unfortunately, they are doing it at a remove of 1450 km. Inspired by the origins of theatre in the Great Dionysia, they are setting up a series of great Greek plays with some devastatingly great actors. The Oresteia, Medea, Bakkhai, and no less than three of Aristophanes' comedies! And a whole lot of related events, one of which caught my eye just as it was beginning: a live reading of The Iliad.

I had more or less resigned myself to the horror of missing out on all of this, what with the 1450 km and all, so when I found out technology could magick them away I seized the opportunity with both hands, and did not put it down for 16 hours. Tor was a little surprised to have to sit through a bloody battle at dinner, and I confess I was possibly not in the right frame of mind to appreciate the funeral games of Patroclus (my heart says Patroclos, but English is a weird language) at one in the morning, but otherwise it was quite wonderful.

Dionysos and the stuff of legends.

I love The Iliad. Have done since I first read it, high on Greek mythology; and I got to love it even more when I revisited it at university, in a more scholarly setting and in the context of other ancient Greek literature. I will admit, however, that I love some bits of The Iliad more ...
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The narrative significance of Dickens' death

Part of the gloriously unfinished “Dickens' Dream” by Robert William Buss (Dickens Museum).
[Edwin Drood] is, after all, not such a fragment as it looks. In itself it is really complete. If it pauses in mid-story, it is exactly at the point where the stop, if inevitable, could best occur. (“Literature: The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” The Athenaeum, 1870)
I suspect that anyone who knows the history of frantic speculation that accompanies Dickens' unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood would be surprised to hear it described as “not such a fragment as it looks” and “really complete”. However, the anonymous writer in The Athenaeum is not entirely alone: 120+ years later, in “Who Cares Who Killed Edwin Drood?, or on the Whole I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia” (1996) Gerhard Joseph writes that
there is not, nor need there be, any more. Whatever Dickens’s intention may have been had he lived to write further, the fact that the last extant chapter of Drood is the last thing in both his art and his life encourages us not merely to speculate about what might have come textually thereafter . . . but it also allows us to make meaning of both Dickens’s novel and life as if what we have up to the end of chapter 22 is all there imaginatively is; it allows us to read that chapter as an ending of a finished manuscript rather than as the exact middle it has been for most previous readers. (Joseph 170)
He ...
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