Posts Tagged ‘A Journal of the Plague Year’

The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

April 5, 2020

Having been under the weather recently (nothing sinister!) I returned, as I frequently do in such circumstances, to Sherlock Holmes, but this time not to the stories themselves, but to the small collection of books about Holmes that I’ve acquired over the years, and they got me thinking. Is Holmes the only invented, fictional character who has gradually, over the years, built up such a ‘real’ existence? By real existence, I’m referring to the fact that people actually write to him with their problems, asking for help, despite the fact that, even fictionally, he ‘died’ a century ago. And that tourist seek out the mythical 221b Baker Street address, which apparently never existed. Enormous amounts of ‘research’ has been done, attempting to establish when and where each of the cases took place, to iron out supposed discrepancies which are due to Conan Doyle’s carelessness, and so on… even the belief in Santa Claus doesn’t go quite this far! And I have to confess to having been marked for life when at the age of seven I first heard Carleton Hobbs as Holmes on the BBC Home Service, and bought my first collection of stories with a Christmas book token (remember those?).

There are a lot of cracking good yarns in the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and Conan Doyle was careful to weave the cases into the Victorian and Edwardian England setting; novelists have been attempting to convince us of the veracity of their fictions ever since Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I wrote about quite recently.

E J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a very interesting and quite detailed account of the history and development of forensic science and medicine in the nineteenth century, closely linked to the stories; there are fascinating chapters on insects, decay of corpses, poisons, fingerprints and disguise, among other topics, and it’s certainly a useful book to have along side the complete works.

71YSYrG8pbL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Probably the most useful of books is Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook: its very name implies utility. There are brief summaries of all the novels and stories, with links and connections between them, and some analysis, all very helpful reference if, like me, no matter how often you’ve read the stories, small details elude you. There’s an extremely helpful collation of all the ‘biographical’ details about Holmes and Watson which are dotted throughout the canon. There’s also a biography of Conan Doyle if you need one, and a useful chapter on the publishing history.

Most useful are the excellent sections on Victorian context and background, again collating all sorts of useful stuff from throughout the canon, as well as material on crime and punishment and the legal system in England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the analysis of the history of the detective story genre, its conventions and structure are very good. It’s an American production, so there is the occasional solecism about a detail of life in England, but I’ll excuse those. One thing I took away from re-reading this book was the possibly even greater popularity of the stories in the USA, given the nature of the links and connections between the two nations when the stories were first published.

Somewhere I acquired a copy of Michael Hardwick’s The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a curious book: he provides a ‘summary’ of all the stories, with often very lengthy extracts, interspersed with commentary and biographical details about Conan Doyle. He is deliberately careful not to give away story endings… this struck me as weird, given that presumably only an enthusiast would want this book, and they would have read the stories anyway… The biographical information about Conn Doyle was interesting, but it’s not an essential book by any means.

A Sherlock Holmes Compendium, edited by Peter Haining, is another curiosity, definitely not essential to my library. The most interesting thing in it is an often referred-to essay by Ronald Knox on the stories, where he light-heartedly analyses and mocks all sorts of discrepancies between the stories and theories about them.

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Ransom Riggs, is a lightweight and superficial book that looks nice. It purports to offer explanations of various of Holmes’ detective skills but is vague and random (!) with material not always linked to Holmes or particular tales. It’s also stylistically annoying, full of American contractions and solecisms. Can be avoided.

81om2J72RtL._AC_UY218_ML3_    The final book on my list was compiled by Alex Werner for the Museum of London: Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It’s really good and detailed and sumptuously illustrated, too. The complexities of Conan Doyle and his creation are both explored: London is portrayed in detail, both the place and how people lived, with many links to real people from the Holmes era. There’s a wonderful selection of photos from those times, too, as well as illustrations from artists who painted the city. I learned that Conan Doyle was never a Londoner, and that a third of the stories are not set there but in the outer suburbs, so that the picture of London is actually quite an idiosyncratic one.

It’s an excellent contextual companion to the stories, a very full, detailed and atmospheric portrait of a place and an era supported by an impressive amount of research. It’s an early 21st-century vision of Holmes, Conan Doyle and Victorian/Edwardian London, which demonstrates that each generation re-views, re-writes and re-creates the past in a slightly different guise, for its own particular purposes.

81nn3WfQ72L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I have two editions of the canon, both of which I would recommend to any serious enthusiast: now only available second hand are the two volumes published by John Murray many years ago, the Complete Long Stories and Complete Short Stories. They are nice hardbacks, and manageable. The other is the sumptuous and weighty Norton edition on some fifteen years ago in three volumes, edited by Leslie S Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which, as the title suggests, supports the canon with all the extra information and detail a person might want while they are reading, and like all good quality American books, they are beautifully produced. I cannot end this lengthy post without also recommending very highly indeed the audio recordings on the Naxos label of the entire canon by David Timpson: they are superb for listening to in the car.

Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

L0030701 London's dreadful visitation ..., 1665


I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019


One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

John Howell: The Life & Adventures of Alexander Selkirk

October 7, 2017

life_adventures_alexander_selkirk_1301Daniel Defoe‘s novel The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is generally acknowledged to have been the first novel in English. Published in 1719, it is based on and inspired by the sojourn of a Scots sailor and buccaneer, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years voluntarily marooned on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile.

Defoe was also a journalist, and certainly succeeded in making his fictions appear to be factual, as did many writers in those early days of the novel, when this new form was gradually being developed and its potential discovered. A Journal of the Plague Year reads convincingly as an account by someone who lived through the London events of 1665, yet Defoe had not even been born in that year. And Jonathan Swift went out of his way in 1726 to try and lend verisimilitude to the far more outlandish Gulliver’s Travels.

It’s clear that Defoe would have had access to accounts of Selkirk’s stay on the island, which is quite sketchy, but mentioned many of the things that Defoe was skilfully to develop and enhance: the need for shelter, how to feed and clothe himself, fear of strangers landing on the island and capturing him – though, of course, Defoe makes the strangers savages and cannibals rather than mere French or Spanish sailors – and the comfort brought to a solitary man by his faith in God. Defoe’s hero remains on the island for far longer, and is assisted by the shipwreck which provides him with all sorts of useful supplies and equipment that Selkirk never enjoyed; his stay on the island lasts over twenty years, and he eventually gains the companionship of the faithful Friday… you can see how a novelist puts his imagination to good use with his source material.

John Howell, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, thoroughly researched Defoe’s source material, tracing Selkirk’s life and interviewing surviving relatives, as well as mining archives of obscure magazines and other publications; in this relatively short account – an excellent Librivox production – he gives us all the material with a commentary. No aspect of Selkirk is left untouched, and we have clearly laid before us the bare bones from which Defoe worked to produce his masterpiece. If you’ve enjoyed Robinson Crusoe, you may enjoy this…

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

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