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Aug 29, 2012

UGC-NET June 2012: Paper II

UGC NET 2012
Paper II

1. To refer to the unresolvable difficulties a text may open up, Derrida makes use of the term :
(A) aporia
(B) difference
(C) erasure
(D) supplement

2. Who, among the following English playwrights, scripted the film Shakespeare in Love?
(A) Harold Pinter
(B) Alan Bennett
(C) Caryl Churchill
(D) Tom Stoppard

3. Arrange the following in the chronological order :
1. Mary Wollstonecraft’sVindication of the Rights of Women
2. Lyrical Ballads
3. French Revolution
4. Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry
(A) 4, 3, 1, 2
(B) 3, 2, 1, 2
(C) 1, 2, 4, 3
(D) 2, 1, 3, 4

Aug 27, 2012

UGC-NET June 2012: Paper III

UGC-NET June 2012
Solved Paper III

1. In Ben Jonson’s Volpone, the animal imagery includes
(a) the fox and the vulture
(b) the fly and the cockroach
(c) the fly, the crow and the raven
(d) the fox, the vulture and the goat

(A) (a) and (b) are correct.
(B) only (d) is correct.
(C) (b) and (d) are correct.
(D) (a) and (c) are correct. 

2. Salman Rushdie’s “Imaginary Homelands” is _______.
(A) a discussion of imperialist assumptions.
(B) an essay that propounds an anti essentialist view of place.
(C) an existential lament on triumphant colonialism.
(D) an orientalist description of his favourite homelands.

Aug 24, 2012

Origins and development of Armory and the Office of Herald

By: John Neitz

Origins and development of Armory and the Office of Herald 
Armory: the art and science of the hereditary system of symbols centered around the shield.

Heraldry: all that which pertains to the office of herald, including the recording, granting, and regulation of armory as well as precedence, state ceremonial, tournaments, diplomacy, genealogy and pedigree, etc.

The early histories of heralds and armory are roughly contemporary but separate stories. Heralds were originally free-lancers who specialized in the running and scoring of tournaments. Early (12th and 13th century) payment records lump them in with minstrels (i.e. they were considered a specialist "sub-class" of minstrels). Heralds were migratory, going from tournament to tournament and had an unsavory reputation in this period (medieval "carnies"). Period romances refer to them as lazy (i.e. "get a real job!"). 

Armory originated in the 12th century in the Anglo-Norman lands and quickly spread to much of Europe. At that time the full face helm came into vogue making it difficult to identify armored men in battle and in tournaments (which were free-for-all melees in this period, far different from the formalized jousts of Elizabethan times). Great lords (and soon thereafter all knights) decorated their shields and surcoats ("coats of arms") with distinctive designs--their "arms".

Heralds became experts at identifying knights by their arms since that was part of the herald’s job as a tourney officiant. The next step was for heralds to start recording arms; they developed armorials-a reference book or roll picturing or describing (blazoning) arms. Since heralds were familiar with arms they were consulted by knights wishing to assume arms. The herald could tell the knight if their desired design conflicted with an established one ("Certes, sir, a red shield with three gold lions passant would look smashing but those arms are already taken by the king of England").

By the fourteenth century, lords began hiring their own private heralds, who added to the lord’s prestige by announcing his name, titles, and boasts as he entered the tournament field. The herald would be given a title derived from his employer’s titles, badges, or mottoes. It became fashionable for the lords to have their heralds wear the lord’s coat of arms (perhaps originally the lord’s own discarded surcoat). By the fifteenth century tabards replaced surcoats as the fashionable garment to wear over armor and correspondingly became the heralds official wear. By the sixteenth century tabards were now out of style for knights (it is said that Henry VII was the last monarch to wear one) but the heralds have retained that garment as the distinctive uniform of their office to this day.

By the fourteenth century there were three levels of herald: king of arms, herald of arms, and pursuivant of arms. A king of arms was the ranking herald for a kingdom or province and are the only people besides royalty and peers who actually get to wear a coronet (only at the sovereign’s coronation, of course). They were originally called kings of heralds, after the medieval custom of naming a "king" for any group, even a "king of beggars" for the senior beggar of a town.

A pursuivant was a junior or apprentice grade of herald. They had (until the late seventeenth century) to wear their tabards "colley-westonward" (i.e. sideways with the sleeves in back and front and the large part draped over the sleeves). There is at least one case during Elizabeth’s reign of a pursuivant being censured for wearing his tabard above his station (i.e. not sideways).

Heralds and The College of Arms
In 1484 Richard III gave the royal heralds a charter incorporating them as the College of Arms and granted them Coldharbour House in London as their headquarters. There was, of course, something of a change of administration a few month’s later and Henry VII gave Coldharbour to someone else, so the College was without an official home until they were granted Derby House in 1555 (the College is still located on this site).

There was some shuffling of positions making up the College for several decades after 1485 but by the Elizabethan period there were 13 officers in ordinary: Garter Principal King of Arms and two provincial kings: Clarenceaux and Norroy (in charge of the south and north halves of England respectively); six heralds: Chester, Lancaster, Richmond, Somerset, Windsor, and York; and four pursuivants: Bluemantle, Portcullis, Rouge Croix, and Rouge Dragon. In addition, there were at various times "officers extraordinary" (i.e. appointed for a special occasion and not on the college roster) such as Rose Pursuivant. There was also Ulster King of Arms for Ireland, but he was not considered part of the College. By the end of Henry VIII’s reign there were no longer any noblemen’s (i.e. non-royal) heralds.

What did heralds do? Trumpet playing was not, and never has been, part of their duties (an inaccurate notion which seems to have originated with Alice in Wonderland illustrations and perpetuated in the movie Anne of a Thousand Days among other sources). When Shakespeare has a line in one his plays such as "Herald, take a trumpet to the top of yon hill..." he intends "trumpet" to mean trumpeter.

Heralds have been messengers since the early days of their existence. When a lord planned to host a tournament, he would send his herald(s) throughout the kingdom (or even throughout Christendom) to put forth a challenge (i.e. invitation). Princes would have their heralds accompany them in battle to help them identify men of both sides by their arms and banners, as well as to parley with the enemy as seen in Henry V.

In heraldry the shield of arms is personal to its owner so he would not have his servants wear it. That is the purpose of badges (a famous example being the crowned tudor rose worn by the Yeomen of the Guard). Heralds are the exception to this rule. They took on the sovereign’s identity by wearing the royal coat of arms (it was treason to harm a herald in his tabard) and were considered the voice of the crown. Royal proclamations were proclaimed by the heralds. Henry VIII often employed heralds to parley with rebels or foreign princes but by Elizabeth’s reign this duty was rarely assigned to heralds. The primary ambassadorial duty during this period was a ceremonial one: that of conferring the Order of the Garter on foreign rulers.

Heralds in the Age of Elizabeth
When an officer died his replacement was usually chosen from the rank below him. So, for instance, if Garter died (being the most senior herald in dignity he was often, but not always, the oldest) his successor would probably be one of the two provincial kings, who in turn would be replaced in his former office by one of the heralds, who would be replaced by a pursuivant (note that the six herald titles were equal in dignity; precedence between their holders was based on their seniority in office. The same holds true between the four pursuivants). The vacant pursuivant office would be an entry level position into the College, which was under the leadership of the Earl Marshal, so officers were usually recommended by him and if acceptable to the crown, appointed by letters patent under the great seal.

There were, of course, exceptions to the typical career path of pursuivant, herald, king of arms. Most officers never became kings of arms because there were only three positions at that level. When Sir Gilbert Dethick died in 1584 there seems to have been some dispute as to who should succeed him as Garter. Robert Cooke, Clarenceaux, was acting Garter for 18 months but Sir Gilbert’s son William (who had been York Herald) was promoted over the provincial kings’ heads to succeed his father (heraldic offices have never been hereditary but there are some cases of heraldic dynasties, probably due to nepotism; a notable example being the Wriothesleys, ancestors of the earls of Southampton).

William Camden was in such high esteem as an antiquary that he entered the College in 1597 as Clarenceaux King of Arms (he was made Richmond Herald for one day for the sake of formality before his appointment as Clarenceaux). This caused some resentment among some of the other officers.

Biographies of the period heralds show some backgrounds they had before being appointed: many had been retainers of either Leicester or Burleigh, which seems to reflect the influence these two had in procuring royal positions for their men. Others had been royal clerks or messengers. Some had been members of the painter-stainers company.

Several heralds were members of the Society of Antiquaries, which often met in Garter’s chambers at the College of Arms. Their genealogical work and collection of old manuscripts went well with the work of the society. Some heralds were able scholars and industrious writers on diverse subjects and had works published in the period, among them John Hart (Chester Herald) who had two books on orthography (spelling) published, William Segar (Norroy, later Garter, and also credited as the painter of some famous portraits of the Queen) whose Booke of Honor and Armes was published in 1590 and Honor, Ciuil and Militarie in 1602, and William Camden, who was highly regarded for his Britannia (although he wrote that before he was made a herald).

Heraldry and the Age of Elizabeth
Tournament officiating, as we have seen, was the primary job of heralds in the early period of heraldry but by Elizabeth’s reign jousting was in its twilight. There were few tournaments outside the annual ones celebrating the Queen’s accession day (jousting checks--the scorecards kept by heralds--are very simplified compared to those from the previous century, which supports the thinking that Elizabethan jousters were not as practiced as their pre-gunpowder ancestors since jousting was no longer a practical skill for war). The heralds, however, zealously kept records of the fees and perquisites due to them on these occasions, such as clouage: ("nailing fee") money due from each jouster for putting his arms up on his lodgings, or gifts and money which a first time jouster had to give them upon his entry to the field. Among the more interesting customs was that any armor dropped on the field belonged to the heralds present, who usually sold it back to the knight who had dropped it (for more on tournaments I highly recommend the book Tudor and Jacobean Tournaments by Paul Young).

During the Elizabethan age, there was an increased emphasis on genealogy in the heralds’ work as the gentry class rose in importance. Wealthy "new men" were eager to prove their gentility and be granted arms. Only persons of gentry class or higher could bear arms so anyone with arms was by definition gentle (the period Latin word for gentleman was "armigero" i.e. one who bears arms) so the heralds were effectively the gatekeepers to the gentry class.This was of course a great money-making opportunity.

Many spurious pedigrees were produced for a fee and heralds were on occasion censured or even imprisoned for granting arms to " base-born" individuals. William Dethick was criticized for making grants to persons who were thought to be too inferior, including Stratford glover John Shakespeare (whose son William had worked with Dethick to obtain the grant for his father and thus become born of gentry).

One of the primary means through which heralds accomplished their task of recording, granting, and correction of arms in the sixteenth century was through "visitations." Starting in 1530, the provincial kings were authorized and commissioned to make visitations of counties in their provinces. They would typically travel to a county in summer (an "heraldic progress" if you will) and it took many years to cover England and Wales (the "home counties" near London were visited more often than the far north or west). The king of arms (or his deputized herald) would set up in an inn or a gentleman’s home and all those in the area who claimed arms were summoned to present proof of gentle status. The herald would record the pedigree and arms for a fee or, if the claimant was found to be not up to standards he was disclaimed: required to sign a statement that he was "no gentleman" and forbidden to bear arms. This was proclaimed throughout the shire-- a harsh fate in this class conscious era.

The importance of maintaining a style appropriate to one’s station continued even unto death. It was de rigeur for the funeral ceremonial of nobles and greater gentry to be arranged by a herald (sort of like a modern wedding consultant). This of course was a great opportunity for income for the heralds, who had to take turns. There was often dispute and even violence between them over funeral turns.

Under the direction of the earl marshal, the heralds arranged (and still arrange) state ceremonial such as coronations and state funerals (Sir Phillip Sydney was given one--a rare honor). Pictures of processions from these events usually portray the heralds taking part (easy to identify by their tabards) bearing the achievements of the deceased: banner, standard, sword, spurs, target (a little shield painted with the arms), gauntlets, helm with crest, etc. Throughout the Sixteenth century, there was an increasing trend on the part of the gentry to copy these great occasions on a smaller scale which led to the hiring of heralds for funerals as described earlier.

Badges and Livery
Badges such as the Dudleys’ bear and/or ragged staff, the Percys’ crescent, the Stanleys’ eagle or eagle’s foot, or the Stafford knot (pictured) were also favorite decorative elements. Remember that arms are personal to the bearer ("this is me") while badges can identify anything or anyone belonging to the bearer ("this is mine"). Badges might decorate any possession and, most importantly, the liveries of the badge owner’s retainers. Note that some large magnates might have many different badges, perhaps used in association with their different manors or maybe arbitrarily. Badges could be a charge from the arms or crest or can be completely different.

Royal badges in the period include the rose, the double (now called Tudor) rose, the fleur de lys of France, the harp of Ireland, the "ER" cypher, and the portcullis, any of which might be "ensigned" (topped) with the crown, as well as the crown itself, and several of the beasts which had served as supporters to the royal arms such as the crowned lion, the dragon, or the greyhound (see the masthead illustration). The crowned falcon on a woodstock (stump) had belonged to Ann Boleyn and was used by Elizabeth to decorate many of her personal possessions. The phoenix and pelican were also symbolically associated with Elizabeth. Although the unicorn might have had some symbolic association with Elizabeth (the Virgin thing), it was the supporter of the Scottish royal arms and so brought to the royal arms of England with the Stuarts, not before.

A word on livery colors: just as badges are not necessarily from the shield, livery colors do not have to match the colors on someone’s shield or even be heraldic colors at all (heraldic colors being, with very few exceptions limited to yellow/gold, white/silver, black, blue, red, green, and, rarely, purple).

There was a trend toward turning badges into crests during this period. Most gentlemen had adopted badges since they were useful identifying marks, but relatively few had crests (a crest is what sits on top of the helmet displayed above the shield on a coat of arms; a crest is not a coat of arms although the word has been mistakenly used in this way in recent years) because their forbearers had never participated in tournaments (crests originally were actually worn on helms at these events). During visitations heralds commonly granted crests to gentlemen who already had shields and usually adapted the gentleman’s existing badge.

Use of Arms in Recreation
Every armigerous character should be familiar with their arms and be able to recite their blazon (description in heraldic language). (See Blazons of the Ancient Paternal Arms of the Peers of England.)

During the Elizabethan period armigers were eager to display their arms which were a visible sign of their gentle status whether those arms were centuries old or had just been granted. The shield (being the central, most important element of the arms) might be pictured alone or with the other elements of the complete armorial achievement: helmet, crest, mantling, motto (and, for peers, supporters). Armorial decoration would be used in as many places as possible and in every conceivable medium. Arms were displayed on or inside houses in stone, carved wood, or stained glass. Burial monuments often displayed the arms of the deceased. They were placed in the upper corner of their portraits (often the means by which we are able to identify the portraits’ subjects centuries later).

The shape of shield on which arms were displayed varied widely from the classic medieval shape to ornate renaissance cartouches. The shape of shield usually has no heraldic significance (i.e. Lord Scrope’s blue field with a gold bend is the same coat no matter what shape it’s painted on). It is a convention, however, for unmarried ladies to display their arms on lozenge (diamond shape) since they did not bear shields in battle (not that men did anymore, either). The Queen was an exception to this as her arms (the arms of England) were never displayed on a lozenge.

A woman did not have arms in her own right (with very few exceptions) but used her father's arms until she was married, at which point she could display her husband’s arms on the dexter half of a shield "impaled" with her paternal arms on the sinister half, as shown in the portrait of Mary Hill, Mistress Mackwilliam, above. (Note that dexter is the left as you look at it; in heraldic terms the dexter is the right side of the knight holding the shield.) This combining of arms is called marshaling.

Another use for marshaling arms by impalement was to show official arms impaled with the office-holder’s personal arms, such as the arms of the See of Canterbury (dexter) impaled with Matthew Parker’s arms in sinister.

A woman’s paternal arms would not be passed down to her descendants unless she had no brothers. In this case she and all her sisters are heraldic co-heiresses and their children would quarter their mother’s arms with their father’s. The most famous quartered arms have a different story. The royal arms quarter France and England because Edward III wanted to illustrate his dynastic claim to the French throne. The French arms occupy the 1st and 4th quarters (i.e. where the father’s arms would be quartered) because France was considered the more ancient kingdom.

Over many generations some coats could collect many quarterings through marriages to heiresses (each individual coat is still called a quartering even if there are more than four). Even if one is entitled to display a shield with enough quarterings to make it look like an intricate patchwork quilt it is not always advantageous to show them all. Arms are for identification, and patchwork arms are difficult to distinguish from others, especially at a distance. So, the first quartering (the original arms passed down in direct male descent) would often be displayed alone on banners or painted shields used as decorations.

Aug 22, 2012

Colonel Jack

“COLONEL JACK” Daniel Defoe (first published 1722)

As you can see from the heading above, “Something Old” can mean “a venerable and antique classic”, and this is one of those weeks when I will make it mean just that.

Why should I choose to commend a book nearly 300 years old? Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack first appeared in 1722, in the same year that the inspired hack published both Moll Flanders and his fictitious (but convincing) Journal of the Plague Year. This was just three years after his Robinson Crusoe. As in so many early 18th century productions, the title page tells you explicitly what you’re in for. Title pages then were something like modern blurbs.

It runs in full as follows: “The History and Remarkable Life of the Truly Honorable Col. Jacque commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick-Pocket, was Six-and-Twenty years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, married four Wives, and five of them prov’d Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, and is now abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General.”

Complete with original spelling and liberal use of capital letters (and dodgy mathematics about the number of Jack’s wives) this is indeed how the title page reads. And in case you were wondering, “the Chevalier” refers to the Jacobite Stuart claimant to the British throne, “the Old Pretender”, who had attempted to wrest it from those German Hanoverian usurpers just a few years before, in 1715. If Jack “came over” with the Chevalier, it means he was part of the 1715 Jacobite uprising.

But it’s not an obscure antiquarian point that makes me commend this book to you. Having just read this week’s “Something New”, I’m forcibly impressed with the idea that the first-person episodic story of young Enaiatollah Akbari is in a sturdy tradition that goes back at least as far as Defoe.

The modern young Afghani’s story is factual whereas Defoe’s stories were fiction (although Robinson Crusoe did borrow details from the life of the real castaway Alexander Selkirk). Even so, there is that personal confessional style and that loose plotlessness where one damned thing follows another (as in real life), and that driving energy that leads to some form of personal triumph or vindication.

No wonder literary historians have so often placed Defoe in the context of “early capitalism”. He had a basic vision of personal effort and ingenuity overcoming obstacles and perhaps leading to wealth, fame or happiness. Robinson Crusoe converts the desert island to his own uses. Moll Flanders is a whore and a thief who ends up happily married. And, as you can see from the title page, Jack at least attains to some sort of respectability after criminal beginnings.

Of course to modern readers there are details in Defoe’s world-view that are profoundly disturbing. Europeans subduing the world by their own efforts also meant Europeans subduing other non-European people. So roll on slavery, empire and colonialism. Just as Crusoe places his foot on Man Friday’s head, and claims him as a chattel, so is Jack involved in becoming the master of slaves in Virginia. Much academic ink has been spilt in recent times reminding us of the evil of this – and fair enough too. But I still read these early novels with pleasure, partly because of their frank openness about motives and assumptions, even in matters as questionable as these. In that way, they are an un-airbrushed snapshot of a past world.

I could rabbit on with much more about Defoe, especially his habit of scattering dates through his novels, with never a thought for consistent chronology. One wit once added up all the times a protagonist in a Defoe novel made such statements as “I spent ten years working in London” and “I was for nine years a soldier of the line” and so forth. The wit’s conclusion was that if all these statements were true, Defoe’s hero would have to have been about three hundred years old by the novel’s close. As has often been remarked, Defoe has many of the characteristics of an accomplished liar. who could engage the attention and keeps things moving without too much concern for accuracy. But he does engage the attention.

There is one overwhelming question on which I must close – why do I choose Colonel Jack in preference to the much-better-known Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders?

Partly it’s my delight in the specific details of a forgotten world – those details of Jack, as a child, warming his feet at night in the cinders of a workshop’s fire; or Jack as a soldier in old royal Europe.

Partly it’s the greater sympathy I feel for this character – Jack is a bit of a rogue, but not as much of a criminal as Moll Flanders at her worst. Jack does some sober moralising and reflecting, but never becomes as sententious as Robinson Crusoe does.

More than anything, though, it’s the unfamiliarity of the tale. Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are characters known to people who have never actually read the books in which they figure. They have become icons or clichés. With Colonel Jack there is the joy of discovery. I hope I have passed a little of that on.

Note on editions: Like many of Defoe’s works, Colonel Jack has been published in many editions in recent years. The best one I’ve come across is still the one that sits on my shelf – the Oxford University Press one in its “Oxford English Novels” series, with scholarly introduction and notes by Samuel Holt Monk. It was first published in this edition in 1965 and has been reprinted many times since.

Aug 19, 2012


Jane Austen (1775–1817). Perhaps the most beloved of all English novelists. Her work has attracted a wide range of admirers—it has been the subject of innumerable film and television adaptations—and scholars have credited her with developing new techniques for the representation of consciousness. Austen was born in Hampshire, the sixth of seven children. Her father was a clergyman. She grew up in a family of devoted novel readers and showed an early talent for satire and parody. Austen began her first serious literary projects while in her 20s, producing early versions of what would later become Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey. She returned to these works in her 30s, revising them for publication—Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811, Pride and Prejudice in 1813—while also writing three new works: Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion, published posthumously, along with Northanger Abbey, in 1818. She never married, though she did accept one proposal, from a wealthy young man six years her junior, only to think better of her acceptance the next day.

Pat Barker (1943– ). Among the greatest living practitioners of historical fiction, celebrated for the Regeneration trilogy (1991–1995), a series of novels set during the First World War. Born in Yorkshire, Barker was raised by her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother worked in a fish-and-chips shop, and her grandfather, a veteran of World War I, was a laborer. She was educated at the London School of Economics and worked as a teacher before devoting herself to writing. Inspired by a creative writing course with the novelist Angela Carter (1940–1992), Barker began to explore the realities of working-class life, eventually producing such novels as Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984). She turned to historical fiction in Regeneration (1991), a novel focused on the wartime experience of poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). The next two novels in the trilogy are The Eye in the Door (1993) and The Ghost Road (1995), a work that earned her the Booker Prize in 1995 for the best full-length novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth. Barker’s novels are known for their vivid accounts of war and for their interest in issues of class, sexuality, and psychology.

Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855). The author of three novels, she is best known for her first book, Jane Eyre (1847). Jane’s story is, in many ways, autobiographical, based on Brontë’s experiences at school and her later work as a teacher and governess. Brontë was born in Yorkshire, in the town of Haworth. Her father was a clergyman, originally from Ireland; her mother died in 1821, when Charlotte was only 5. There were six children in the family, but only four survived to adulthood. Brontë sought literary fame much more eagerly than her sisters Emily and Anne. All three of the sisters published their works under ambiguous pseudonyms, inadvertently sparking debate about their real identities. Reviewers and readers were especially eager to know if they were male or female—the pseudonyms had left this unclear—with one reviewer arguing that Jane Eyre would be praiseworthy if the work of a man but “odious” if that of a woman. The great success of the novel was almost immediately followed by unimaginable tragedy, as Charlotte suffered the loss of all three of her siblings (Emily, Anne, and brother Branwell) within a period of about nine months. She married her father’s curate in 1854. Weakened by illnesses brought on by pregnancy, she died of tuberculosis less than a year later. During her lifetime, she also published Shirley (1849), a historical novel about the industrial revolution, and Villette (1853), a work based on her experiences (and her passionate love for her teacher) in Brussels.
Emily Brontë (1818–1848). The author of the most unusual and perhaps the most remarkable of all Victorian novels, Wuthering Heights (1847). Along with her surviving sisters, Charlotte and Anne, and her brother Branwell, Emily spent much of her childhood writing. She devoted enormous energy to the creation of an imaginary island called Gondal, continuing work on these stories well into her 20s. Invariably described as the most reclusive of the sisters, the adult Emily spent only two long periods of time away from home: In 1838 and 1839, she worked briefly as a teacher, and in 1842, she attended school with Charlotte in Brussels, an experience she seems to have hated. She died of tuberculosis, which she may have aggravated at her brother’s funeral only a few months earlier. Family members would later recall her emotional intensity, her love of music, and her devotion to animals. She is now regarded as an important Victorian poet as well as a major novelist.

Frances Burney (1752–1840). One of the most important novelists of the second half of the 18th century and a major influence on later figures, including Jane Austen. Like Austen, Burney grew up in a family of readers and writers. Her father was the author of a four-volume history of music, published in the 1770s and 1780s, and the friend of such literary men as Samuel Johnson. Her mother died in 1762, when Burney was about 10. In her early 20s, she and her family moved into a house once occupied by Isaac Newton, whose observatory had been set up in the attic. Burney published her first novel, Evelina, anonymously in 1778. She followed up on its success with another novel, Cecilia, in 1782. Starting in 1786, she worked as second keeper of the robes to Queen Charlotte, spending much of her time at Windsor Castle. She found the job exhausting and boring and was more than happy to leave it in 1791. Married in 1793 to a refugee from the French Revolution, she had one child, a son. Burney survived breast cancer, living for 30 years after a painful mastectomy, and was preceded in death by both her husband and her son. Along with Evelina and Cecilia, she is best known for another novel, Camilla (1796), and for her journals, which first appeared in print in the 1840s.

A. S. Byatt (1936– ). Rose to fame with Possession (1990), a novel tracing the fortunes of two couples, one from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. In both her fiction and her critical writings, she is fascinated by relationships between past and present. Byatt was born in Yorkshire, and she later attended both Oxford and Cambridge. Aside from Possession, she is best known for Angels and Insects (1992), a book consisting of two stories set in the Victorian Age, and for a series of four novels dealing with the life of Frederica Potter, a character who seems in many ways to resemble Byatt herself. The novels in this series are The Virgin in the Garden (1978), Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996), and A Whistling Woman (2002). Byatt has also published two critical studies of Iris Murdoch and a book on the Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Of particular interest to us is another recent volume, On Histories and Stories (2000), in which she says, “narration is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of blood.” Byatt’s sister is the novelist Margaret Drabble.

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924). A crucial figure in the transition to Modernism, valued for his reflections on the nature of storytelling and his portrayal of European imperialism. Though his parents were both Polish, he was born in the Ukraine and given the name Józef Theodor Konrad Korzeniowski. When he was about 5, his parents were exiled to a remote village in northern Russia, where both of them would die. Conrad went to sea at the age of 16, visiting the West Indies and Venezuela while serving in the French merchant marine. He sought work on British ships in 1878 and became an English subject in 1886. The most important journey of his career came in 1890, when he sailed to the coast of Africa and steamed up the Congo River. This journey would become the basis for his most famous and influential work, Heart of Darkness (1899), which would later serve as the basis for the film Apocalypse Now. Closely associated with other major figures, including Henry James and Ford Madox Ford, Conrad would also publish several other important works of fiction, including Almayer’s Folly (1895); Lord Jim (1900); Nostromo (1904); The Secret Agent (1907), now celebrated as one of the first novels to take up the issue of urban terrorism; and Under Western Eyes (1911).

Charles Dickens (1812–1870). Beyond doubt the central figure in the history of English fiction. He was born in Portsmouth, where his father worked as a clerk in the navy pay office. The family settled in London when he was 10, and his father was arrested and imprisoned for debt about two years later. During this period, the young Dickens worked in a factory, pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking—an experience that left him feeling “utterly neglected and hopeless.” In his late teens and early 20s, Dickens worked as a law clerk and a parliamentary reporter, eventually trying his hand at other sorts of journalism. His first major work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), would transform him into the most popular and successful writer of his age. He would spend the rest of his life as a kind of public icon, making two trips to America and touring, performing public readings from his own works. His experience of celebrity was not always happy, and in 1858, as he separated from his wife and deepened his relationship with a young actress, his behavior became the subject of gossip and scandal. Dickens’s literary career fell into two major phases. In the first half, which took him from 1835 to about 1846, he produced such works as Pickwick, Oliver Twist (1837–1838), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–1839), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841). These works, though brilliant in their own ways, are not best described as novels. In the second half of his career, from 1846 to 1870, Dickens mastered the novel form. Among the works he created in this period are Dombey and Son (1847–1848), Bleak House (1852–1853), Little Dorrit (1857-1857), Great Expectations (1860–1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865).

Margaret Drabble (1939– ). A novelist known for her interest in women’s lives and experiences. Born in Yorkshire, she was educated at Cambridge and enjoyed a brief career as an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. (Her first husband, the actor Clive Swift, starred in the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances.) From 1963 to 1969, Drabble published five novels, including the award-winning The Millstone. It was an impressive beginning, establishing Drabble as a writer in the tradition of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, interested in the pressures confronting ambitious women. Drabble’s later novels include The Needle’s Eye (1972), The Ice Age (1977), and a trilogy focused on the friendship of three women: The Radiant Way (1987), A Natural Curiosity (1989), and The Gates of Ivory (1991). Her critical writings include essays on classic novelists from Jane Austen and Emily Brontë to Thomas Hardy. Drabble is also the editor of the indispensable reference work The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her sister is the novelist A. S. Byatt.

George Eliot (1819–1880). The pseudonym of Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans. Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872) is often described as the greatest of all English novels. Marian Evans was born and grew up in the country, where her father worked as the agent for an aristocratic family. Intensely devout as a young woman, she later came to view the Gospels as “histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction.” After translating two important works of biblical scholarship and serving as assistant editor of the prestigious Westminster Review, she was encouraged to try her hand at fiction by G. H. Lewes, a writer with whom she lived for about 25 years. Her first sketches were submitted anonymously, and she began using her pseudonym in 1858, partly because she feared public exposure of her unconventional relationship with Lewes. Like Charlotte Brontë, she continued to use her pseudonym long after her real identity was well known. About 18 months after Lewes’s death, she chose to marry John Cross, a man 20 years her junior. She died of kidney disease in December of 1880, only a few months after the wedding. Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede (1859), was an enormous popular and critical success, establishing her as a major rival to Dickens. Her later works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), a fictional treatment of her relationship to her brother; Silas Marner (1861); Felix Holt (1866); Middlemarch; and Daniel Deronda (1874–1876).

Henry Fielding (1707–1754). With his great rival, Samuel Richardson, one of the two early masters of the English novel. Born in Somerset and educated at Eton, he had aristocratic connections on his father’s side. Fielding enjoyed great success in two fields, literature and the law. His first significant literary achievements came as a playwright. He had a particular gift for satire, directing most of his barbs at Sir Robert Walpole, the Tory prime minister—but his dramatic career was halted by the Licensing Act of 1737, which imposed strict censorship on most of the theaters in London. Fielding responded to this crisis by preparing for the bar exam and turning his attention to prose fiction. In the early 1740s, he produced two hilarious parodies of Richardson’s Pamela (1740): Shamela (1741) and Joseph Andrews (1742). Joseph Andrews is Fielding’s first great novel, as well as his earliest effort to create what he called a “comic epic in prose.” It paved the way for the even greater achievement of Tom Jones (1749), which contains the first serious reflections on the art of fiction in English. Fielding also served for five years as a magistrate or judge in London, gaining additional fame as the founder of the “Bow Street Runners,” the first modern police force in the city’s history. His younger sister, Sarah, was a successful novelist in her own right, with her most successful work, The Adventures of David Simple, appearing in 1744.

Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939). The author of one of the greatest 20th-century novels, The Good Soldier (1915), and the editor of two influential literary journals. Born Ford Hermann Hueffer, he grew up among artists and intellectuals. His father was a German musicologist; his mother, a painter. His maternal grandfather was the Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. Hueffer wrote his first novel at the age of 18 and later collaborated on two novels with Joseph Conrad. While working as the editor of the English Review, he played a major role in the discovery of such new writers as Ezra Pound, Wyndam Lewis, and D. H. Lawrence. Much later, while living in Paris, he employed the young Ernest Hemingway as a subeditor on the Transatlantic Review. In 1915, after failing to win a divorce from his wife—he was at the time involved in an affair with another woman—he enlisted in the Army, serving through the years of the First World War and nearly dying in the first battle of the Somme. Ford changed his name in 1919, after returning from the war. He spent most of his later years in America, where he served on the faculty of Olivet College, and France, where he died in 1939. His major works of fiction include the Fifth Queen trilogy (1907–1908), a series set during the reign of Henry VIII; The Good Soldier; and the novels of the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–1928).

E. M. Forster (1879–1970). Author of two important modern novels—Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924)—as well as Aspects of the Novel (1927), a major study of the form. Forster was born in London. His father, an architect, died before he reached the age of 2, and he was raised chiefly by his mother, who sometimes referred to him (only half-jokingly) as “the Important One.” He attended Cambridge and joined some of his classmates as a member of the Bloomsbury Group. He traveled widely as a young man, visiting Italy, India, and Egypt. Though not as formally innovative as the novels of Joyce or Woolf, Forster’s books should be credited with updating the tradition of the novel of manners. In Howards End, he explores the relationship among artists, intellectuals, and businessmen, looking for connections among these apparently separate groups. In A Passage to India, he takes on the even more difficult subject of imperialism, suggesting that colonial rule has had dire effects on both Indian and English people alike. Forster wrote the libretto for Benjamin Britten’s opera of Billy Budd (1951) and appeared as a witness for the defense in the 1960 censorship trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Because he refused to allow his books to be made into movies, film versions of A Passage to India (1984), A Room with a View (1985), and Howards End (1992) would have to wait until after his death. Published posthumously was his novel Maurice (written 1910–1913), one of the earliest sympathetic treatments of gay characters and themes.

Henry Green (1905–1973). The pseudonym of Henry Vincent Yorke, author of nine novels and an important member of the generation following Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf. He was born into a very wealthy Midlands family. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he left college to work on the floor of his family’s factory. His experiences during this period were formative, helping to inspire Living (1929), a novel still valued for its close attention to the rhythms of working-class speech. Later in life, Green became an executive in the family firm, often attending to his fiction during lunch hours. His other major works include Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945), a novel set in an Irish castle in the period of the Second World War. Often reclusive during his own lifetime—the most famous photograph of him, taken by Cecil Beaton, shows the back of his head and shoulders—Green has won the admiration of many other writers. Among his most enthusiastic fans are the poet W. H. Auden and the American novelist John Updike.

Graham Greene (1904–1991). Novelist, screenwriter, MI6 agent, and chronicler of Cold War conflicts in such places as Vietnam and Haiti, Greene’s career spans six decades, beginning in the 1920s and ending in the 1970s. The son of a schoolmaster, he had a very difficult childhood and adolescence. At Oxford, he devoted himself to poetry, but negative reviews of his first collection convinced him to try journalism instead. In 1926, at the urging of his future wife, he converted to Catholicism. He disliked being described as a “Catholic novelist” but often centered his stories on feelings of spiritual crisis and guilt. The experience of adultery was an especially compelling subject, occupying Greene in such novels as The End of the Affair (1951) and The Quiet American (1955). It was also a subject he knew firsthand, having separated from his wife and beginning a long affair with a married woman. His love of the movies, and their influence on his fiction, helps to distinguish him from earlier writers. Through the 1930s, he reviewed more than 400 films and, in the 1940s, began writing screenplays, the best of which is the one for The Third Man (directed by Carol Reed and released in 1949). In the 1950s, Greene began writing about other parts of the world, setting novels in Africa, South America, and East Asia. His most important works of fiction include Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940), and The Heart of the Matter (1948).

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). A crucial figure in the transition from Victorian to Modernist fiction, perhaps chiefly important for his use of tragic endings. Born in Dorset, the region he would later make famous as “Wessex,” Hardy was a sickly child. His father was a stonemason, and he was apprenticed to a local architect at the age of 16. He had good teachers at local schools and enjoyed the opportunity to study Latin. He began adult life as a draftsman in London but dreamed of a career as a writer, thinking first of poetry. His first work of fiction appeared in 1871, and after the great success of Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), Hardy was able to give up architecture and devote himself to literature full-time. Many of his novels were originally published in weekly and monthly magazines, and the sexual content of his stories frequently led to protracted disputes with editors and publishers. By the late 1890s, owing to the financial independence he had gained with such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), he could afford to retire from fiction writing and devote himself to poetry once again. Hardy published his poetry through the 1910s and 1920s and is now regarded as a crucial influence on later poets, including Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, and Philip Larkin. His other major novels are The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), and Jude the Obscure (1895).

Henry James (1843–1916). Known later in life as “the Master” and with good reason. One of the two or three most important figures in the history of Anglo-American fiction, James did much to elevate the status of the novel in the period from 1880 to 1910. Though born in New York City, he spent much of his childhood traveling in Europe. He attended Harvard Law School for a year. Drafted into the army during the American Civil War, he was exempted from service because of a medical disability. While living in Paris during the mid-1870s, he became acquainted with some of Europe’s greatest living novelists; his friends in this period included Ivan Turgenev and Gustave Flaubert. James’s first major novels were focused on the “international theme,” taking their American protagonists to England, France, and Italy. Among such works are The American (1877), Daisy Miller (1878), and The Portrait of a Lady (1881), considered by many his greatest novel. James experienced a creative rebirth in the early years of the 20th century, producing three astounding novels—The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904)—all now famous for their close attention to the workings of human consciousness. He lived in England for more than 40 years and became a British citizen in 1915. Recently, he has become the subject of other people’s fiction, taking the lead role in two interesting novels: Colm Tóibin’s The Master (2004) and David Lodge’s Author, Author (2004).

James Joyce (1882–1941). Author of three novels, all Modernist classics. Famous for his depiction of human thought—Joyce is a master of the interior monologue—as well as his experiments with literary form. Born in Dublin, he watched his middle-class Catholic family slide into poverty. After finishing his education at University College, he spent a few months in Paris, returning home after learning that his mother was on the verge of death. In 1904, he left Ireland once and for all, taking his lover, Nora Barnacle, with him. They raised two children together, remaining unmarried until 1931.
Though he spent his adult life on the Continent, settling in such places as Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, Joyce set all his major fiction in Dublin. His first important publication was a collection of stories, Dubliners (1914), and his first novel was the autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Though his early work is justly admired, his reputation now rests chiefly on Ulysses (1922). A remarkable and still-controversial work, it simultaneously upholds and rejects the tradition of novelistic Realism. Not least of the work’s charms is its comedy, for it is not only one of the most challenging novels in the language but also one of the funniest. Joyce’s last major work was Finnegans Wake (1939), in which he practically invented a language of his own. Whether or not the Wake should be described as a novel is an open question. There can be no doubt, however, that it is one of the most inventive works ever published—and a fitting end to a brilliant career.

D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930). One of three writers—the others being James Joyce and Virginia Woolf—whose work is said to mark the appearance of Modernist fiction in England. Lawrence’s father was a miner—he worked in the pits from the age of 10—and his mother, a former schoolteacher. His parents were always at odds, and their troubles seem to have affected their son deeply. At his mother’s urging, Lawrence attended college and became a teacher himself, all the while hoping for a career as a writer. In 1909, he enjoyed his first real success, when Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford Madox Ford) offered to publish his poetry in the English Review. His first major novel, Sons and Lovers (1913), dramatizes the events of his own adolescence, introducing many of the themes—family, work, sexual passion, freedom—that characterize his later fiction. Many of Lawrence’s greatest works were the subject of intense battles with editors, censors, and reviewers. The Rainbow (1915) was banned as obscene, while Women in Love (1920) went three years without finding a publisher. Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) remained controversial as late as 1960, when Penguin Books finally won the right to bring out a British edition. Lawrence’s personal life was no less difficult. He met his future wife, Frieda, in 1912, while she was still married to one of his professors. She would leave her husband and three children for him—though not without considerable difficulty. The couple spent the years of the First World War in England, more or less against their will, but they were able to travel extensively in the 1920s. Through these years, they visited Ceylon, Australia, New Mexico, and Italy, where Lawrence died of tuberculosis at the age of 45.

Ian McEwan (1948– ). Major contemporary novelist, likely to be remembered for Atonement (2001). The son of an officer, McEwan has described himself as an “army brat.” He was born in Aldershot and spent parts of his childhood in Tripoli and Singapore. Educated at the Universities of Sussex and East Anglia, he studied creative writing with Malcolm Bradbury (1932–2000) and Angus Wilson (1913–1991). McEwan’s career can be divided into two parts. The early works, including The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), often center on acts of grotesque violence—and help to explain why he was once known as “Ian Macabre.” Recent works, including Atonement and Saturday (2005), show a considerable advance in maturity. In Atonement, McEwan explores the connection between creation and destruction. In Saturday, he considers the relationship between literature and science, taking as his central character a neurosurgeon who admits to disliking fiction. In addition to his nine novels, McEwan has also written screenplays, libretti, and two works for children.

Iris Murdoch (1919–1999). Novelist, philosopher, and folk hero. Her later struggles with Alzheimer’s disease were made famous in bestselling memoirs by her husband, literary critic John Bayley. Bayley’s memoirs were themselves the inspiration for a feature film, titled Iris (2001), in which Murdoch is portrayed (at different stages of life) by two great English actresses, Kate Winslet and Dame Judi Dench. Murdoch was born in Dublin, and although her family moved to London when she was very young, her Irish identity remained important to her. She read “greats” at Oxford, then went on to work for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. In the mid-1950s, she published two works that demonstrate her commitment to different kinds of moral and intellectual inquiry: a critical study of existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and a novel, her first, Under the Net. Popular success and fame came to her a few years later, with the publication of The Bell. Murdoch wrote 20 novels in all, including The Sea, The Sea, for which she received the Booker Prize in 1978. It seems likely that she’ll be remembered as one of the greatest and most important novelists of the postwar period.

Anthony Powell (1905–2000). Important figure in mid-20th-century fiction, known for his 12-volume sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–1975). Powell was born in London, the son of an Army officer, and he was educated at Eton and Oxford. After finishing his degree, he went to work in a publishing house, producing his first novel, Afternoon Men, in 1931. In 1934, he married Lady Violet Georgiana Pakenham, daughter of the fifth earl of Longford, who raised two children with him and enjoyed a literary career of her own. Powell served in the army during the Second World War, working as an intelligence officer and liaison to governments in exile. After leaving the service, he began his ambitious series of novels, publishing the first, A Question of Upbringing, in 1951. The series traces the experiences of Nicholas Jenkins, a character not unlike Powell himself. Named after a painting by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the sequence covers more than 50 years of Jenkins’s life and is now valued chiefly for its witty commentary on upper-class English society.

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823). The most popular of the late-18th-century Gothic novelists. She was born in London and moved to Bath at the age of 8. Her father was in trade, managing a showroom for the pottery firm of Wedgwood and Bentley. She spent a good deal of her youth among wealthy relatives—one childhood playmate was the future mother of Charles Darwin—and married William Radcliffe, a journalist, at the age of 23. She published her first novel, The Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne, about two years later. It is said that her husband encouraged her efforts and that she began writing as a way of diverting herself during evenings when he was away. Radcliffe produced five novels in all, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). She did not invent the form of the Gothic novel—credit for that is usually given to Horace Walpole (1717–1797)—but she dominated the field, almost single-handedly creating an enormous audience for horror stories. Radcliffe stopped writing fiction, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, while still only 33 years old. Another novel, Gaston de Blondeville (1826), was published after her death.

Samuel Richardson (1689–1761). Author of Pamela (1740), a work usually regarded as the first English novel. Richardson was born in Derbyshire, the son of a joiner, but he spent most of his life in London. At age 17, he was apprenticed to a printer. By his early 30s, he was running his own printing business, eventually serving as the official printer to the House of Commons. Richardson now seems a perfect representative of the rising middle class, eager to advance himself financially, socially, and culturally. The turning point in his life is said to have come in 1739, when his fellow printers asked him to write a book of sample letters that could be used as templates by newly literate readers. As he worked on this project, Richardson produced two letters that would become the basis for Pamela. Breaking off the initial project, he shifted all his attention to the new work, which he finished in two months. The book was an enormous success, inspiring dozens of imitations, theatrical adaptations, and parodies—including two by his greatest rival, Henry Fielding. In 1741, Richardson produced his own sequel to Pamela, a work known as Pamela in Her Exalted Condition. He went on to write Clarissa (1747–1749), one of the very few tragic novels in the early English tradition, and Sir Charles Grandison (1753–1754), the only one of his works with a male protagonist. He is most famous for his use of the epistolary form—his stories are told through letters to and from the characters—and his obsessive revisions. Eight different versions of Pamela appeared during his lifetime, and a ninth followed posthumously. He died from complications of a stroke about a month before his 72nd birthday.

Salman Rushdie (1947– ). Arguably the most important British novelist of the last quarter century. Known to most as the author of The Satanic Verses (1988) and the target of a death sentence by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni. Rushdie was born in Bombay and raised in a nonobservant Muslim family. He was educated in England, at Rugby and Cambridge, and earned an M.A. in history. He enjoyed some success with his first novel, Grimus (1975), but it was Midnight’s Children (1981) that established his reputation. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie tells the story of Saleem Sinai, born at midnight on August 15, 1947—the very moment of India’s independence from England. Though known for its exploration of Indian history, the work should also be recognized for its boundless humor and energy. Rushdie’s mastery of the novelistic tradition is evident throughout the work, and even the briefest list of his literary influences would have to include writers from Laurence Sterne to the Latin American magical realists of the 1960s and 1970s. Since Midnight’s Children, Rushdie has published a volume of short stories, a book for children, and six novels, including Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), and Shalimar the Clown (2005).
Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832). Responsible for the enormous popularity of historical fiction, which dominated the English scene through much of the 19th century. Born in Edinburgh, Scott came down with polio while still an infant and suffered from lameness in his right leg throughout the rest of his life. His father was a solicitor; his maternal grandfather, a professor of physiology. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and was admitted to the bar in 1792. Scott’s first literary production was a three-volume collection of traditional ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–1803). He became a famous poet in his own right, achieving great success with The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and The Lady of the Lake (1810), and was offered the laureateship in 1813. He refused the position and soon went on to publish Waverley (1814), the first of his great historical novels. Scott wrote 23 works of fiction in all, including Old Mortality (1816), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819). In such works, he frequently returns to conflicts between traditional and modern ways of life, offering a complex account of historical change. Scott was made a baronet in 1820 and spent much of his later life working almost furiously in an attempt to pay off massive debts. After suffering a series of strokes, he died at Abbotsford, his country house near the River Tweed, at the age of 61.

Zadie Smith (1975– ). One of the most promising young novelists in England, already famous for her panoramic image of a multiracial, multicultural London. Born to an English father (an advertising executive) and a Jamaican mother (a child psychologist), Smith grew up in the North London neighborhood of Willesden. She attended Cambridge, where she began working on her first novel. Circulated in manuscript, the novel’s opening pages set off a bidding war among English publishers. It’s easy to see why. Hilarious and compassionate, traditional in form yet very much of the moment, White Teeth (2000) marked an astonishing debut. In many ways, the novel is the story of two friends—one English, the other Bengali—whose lives and destinies are increasingly intertwined. Smith followed her initial success with The Autograph Man (2002) and On Beauty (2005), a novel informed by her experience as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard. On Beauty is set in the community surrounding an American college, and the central figure is Howard Belsey, a contentious art historian. Smith borrows much of the novel’s structure from Howards End (1910) and credits E. M. Forster as a major influence on her work.

Laurence Sterne (1713–1768). Author of Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), a brilliant and often salacious challenge to emerging notions of novelistic Realism. One of the most innovative writers in the English tradition and an inspiration to later writers from James Joyce to Salman Rushdie. Sterne was born in Ireland, where his father was serving in the army. He was sent to school in Yorkshire, the family’s home region, at the age of 10 and eventually earned both a B.A. and an M.A. from Cambridge. He became a clergyman and obtained a reasonably good living, once again in Yorkshire, marrying a few years later. The union was unhappy, and Sterne is known to have had a number of affairs. He published the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy in 1759, enjoying immediate and enormous success with the book. He took full advantage of his celebrity, posing for a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds and appearing at court. Later volumes appeared in bunches: four in 1761; two more in 1765; another, the last to be published, in 1767. It is not certain that Sterne intended to conclude the book with the ninth volume, though American literary critic Wayne Booth made a convincing argument in support of that proposition. In addition to Tristram Shandy, Sterne also published A Sentimental Journey (1768), a work based on his two tours of the Continent. In an episode he would have enjoyed, his body was stolen from its grave and sold for use in an anatomy class at Cambridge—where the professor recognized the body as Sterne’s and had it returned for reburial.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863). Major rival to Dickens—their disagreements were both personal and professional—and author of Vanity Fair (1847–1848), the first great example of the Victorian multiplot novel. Thackeray was born in Calcutta, where his father worked for the East India Company and later collected taxes. After his father’s death in 1815, he was sent to live in England. Along the way, while the ship was in port at St. Helena, the future novelist caught a glimpse of Napoleon in exile. He left Cambridge without taking his degree, largely because of a financial crisis brought on by gambling. His family life was also marked by disappointment. After only four years of marriage, his wife suffered a complete mental breakdown. In 1842, she was placed in an institution, where she lived for another 50 years. Thackeray never remarried and seems to have devoted himself to the care of his two surviving daughters, one of whom became a novelist in her own right. He began his literary career in the 1830s, working as both editor and writer, eventually producing his best work for Punch. His real breakthrough came with Vanity Fair, a work that he also illustrated. Billed as a “novel without a hero,” Vanity Fair challenges almost every dominant social value, including marriage and motherhood, imaging a fictional world in which anyone can be the object of both ridicule and sympathy. Thackeray’s major works of fiction include The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844, revised 1856), later made into a film by Stanley Kubrick (1975); The History of Pendennis (1848–1850); The History of Henry Esmond (1852); and The Newcomes (1853–1855). He died on Christmas Eve, at the age of 52.

Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966). With Henry Green and Graham Greene, a key figure in the middle decades of the 20th century; he first gained fame for his darkly comic novels but is now best known for a more serious work, Brideshead Revisited (1945). The son of an editor and publisher, Waugh was born in London. He was educated at Oxford, where he entered into what one of his biographers has called a homosexual phase. After leaving college, Waugh worked as a schoolteacher and considered becoming a carpenter before beginning his literary career in the late 1920s. Married in 1928 and divorced a little over a year later—his wife had committed adultery—Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. His early works of fiction include Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), and A Handful of Dust (1934). During the war, he served in the Royal Marines, beginning work on Brideshead after breaking his leg in parachute training. Brideshead announced a new seriousness of purpose, portraying an aristocratic family’s return to its Catholic faith. In his later years, Waugh grew increasingly conservative, especially in religious matters, often protesting the reforms enacted by the Second Vatican Council. He seldom attended mass in this period but did go to church on Easter Sunday, 1966. Later that same day, he passed away, the victim of a massive heart attack. He was 62 years old.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Twentieth-century novelist, essayist, and publisher, perhaps most famous for her experiments with stream-of-consciousness narration. She was born in London, where she grew up in a house full of books. Starting at age 6, she was subjected to repeated sexual abuse by her stepbrother. She lost her mother in 1895 and her father, the writer Leslie Stephen, about a decade later. After their father’s death, she and her three siblings moved to Bloomsbury, a then unfashionable neighborhood, where they began to assemble the community of intellectuals and artists later known as the Bloomsbury Group. The group’s members included novelist E. M. Forster, economist John Maynard Keynes, and writer Leonard Woolf, whom Virginia married in 1912. Leonard Woolf was a famously devoted husband, working with Virginia to found the Hogarth Press and helping her to cope with episodes of depression. Virginia Woolf’s initial publications were book reviews—these began to appear in 1905—and she produced her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915. Her work is generally said to become more ambitious, and more experimental, with the publication of Jacob’s Room in 1922. Her major works of fiction include Mrs. Dalloway (1925); To the Lighthouse (1927), which contains a moving portrait of her parents; Orlando (1928); and The Waves (1931). Her remarkable intellectual productivity is now, unfortunately, overshadowed by images of her mental instability. Although it is true that she took her own life, drowning herself in the River Ouse, it is also true that in her lifetime she published 9 novels, wrote 400 essays, and filled 30 volumes of a diary. Once regarded as somewhat less substantial than her contemporaries, she now stands alongside James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence as a major figure in British Modernism and one of the greatest of all English novelists.

Aug 15, 2012

The People of the Abyss: London

“THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS” by Jack London (first published 1903) 

Reading a new novel about street-people and bums reminds me of a famous documentary book with subject matter that is at least in the same ball-park.

I’m always fascinated to find a book that gives a vivid snapshot of a past age, even if it comes through the medium of a defective writer. The People of the Abyss is such a book and Jack London was such a writer. 

A little background. Rough-diamond sailor and self-taught journalist Jack London (1876-1916) was one of the huge best-sellers of his own day, churning out short stories, short novels and magazine articles by the yard in the twenty years before his death. Working-class readers in particular liked him for the crude vigour of his tales and their no-nonsense pace. They also loved his occasional jabs at bosses and exploitative capitalists. It was easy to mistake him for the socialist which he professed to be in his earlier years and Lenin was said to be one of his fans. One of his novels, a dystopian fiction called The Iron Heel, has sometimes been cited as a “prediction” of Fascism, controlled by the boss class.

But there was a much darker side to the man. Jack London bought into the “scientific” racist mythology of his day, so that his sympathy for poor white toilers was partly based on the premise that they shouldn’t be treated as “inferior” races were. He also believed fervently in the Social Darwinist notion that life was a struggle in which only the fit deserved to survive. Small wonder that his best-known works (most often read by adolescents) are the tooth-and-claw stories about wolves, White Fang and Call of the Wild, followed by a story with a Nietszchean superman hero, The Sea Wolf. 

The only full-length biography of him that I’ve read, Alex Kershaw’s Jack London: a Life (1999), is as positive about London as it can possibly be, but it cannot disguise the man’s huge and overbearing ego. Like so many sturdy American individualists, London’s individualism tipped rapidly over into complete self-regard. A dabbler in narcotics, he died aged 40, a very rich man with a big Californian estate earned from his own writing, and basically despising all those lesser human beings who did not have his talent to make it rich. He had long since abandoned socialism. I see him as the spiritual ancestor of somebody like Hunter S.Thompson, who started out as the anarchic anti-authoritarian individualist (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas etc.) and ended up rich, paranoid and drug-addled before taking his own life on his own country estate. American individualists play at bucking the system in order to better enrich themselves from it. What’s more American than a self-made millionaire?

Having just done a hatchet-job on Jack London, why am I here recommending one of his books? Because it is well-written, for all its moments of flaky philosophising; and because it sticks in the mind. That’s why.

The People of the Abyss is Jack London’s account of the worst of the London slums and the time he spent there, dressed as and living as one of the slum-dwellers. Jack London copied Jacob Riis, who had just made a personal exploration of New York’s slums for the book How the Other Half Lives. Much later, Jack London was copied by George Orwell, who had read The People of the Abyss and who made similar explorations for Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

The book begins with Jack London hiring shabby clothes to plunge into the abyss, and he tells us that every so often when he was challenged by one of the locals (presumably because of his American accent) he would claim to be a “beached” sailor.

When he writes out of what he saw and experienced, he is brilliantly vivid. He gives sharp accounts of the “pegs” and “spikes” (the workhouses and dosshouses) and their inmates. He hates the general unsanitary filth that he sees everywhere – the book’s most disgusting moment is his description of vagrants finding food by plunging their hands into a pile of greasy scraps which have been thrown out, half-eaten, from a hospital ward. Like Orwell, Jack London can be quite fastidious. He is also splendidly scornful of the laws which punish vagrants for sleeping in public places, and he gives an account of men doomed to spend the night walking the streets because the police would hustle them on if they dared to sleep in doorways. His accounts of over-crowding are heart-rending, as are his tales of despairing workers attempting suicide and then being prosecuted for the attempt.

Regrettably, he sometimes mounts the soapbox and tells rather than shows, contenting himself with quoting statistics, law-reports and other people’s accounts of such things as lead-poisoning in factories, comparative wages etc. Most unusually for personal reportage of this sort, there are few revealing anecdotes about things he did himself, or meaningful encounters with other individuals. To me, it suggests that Jack London, the American, did not insinuate himself among the Cockney poor as fully as he had hoped to. He does, after all, have a return ticket. When he goes down to Kent to pick hops with down-and-outs, he tells us he didn’t have to live on the starvation wages they were paid, as he had extra money sewn in the lining of his coat. It is also odd to find him having so little to say about prostitution.

Most of the time, Jack London’s moral perspective is an honourable outrage that such spirit-crushing poverty should exist, although there are times when his own peculiar personal agenda pops up. The odd phrase tells us that, as an American, he regards English poverty as infinitely inferior to the American variety. The lowest American wages, he reminds us, are higher than the lowest British wages. Being in London at the time of King Edward VII’s coronation, he can make easy irony out of the contrast between Britain’s imperial splendour and its domestic squalor (Chapter 12 “Coronation Day”). He clearly believes that the most virile and enterprising of Britain’s poor have left for the colonies, so that those remaining are the irredeemable dregs (Chapter 15 “The Sea Wife”) – a theme, by the way, that was later taken up by the popular English novelist Nevil Shute after he had decided to settle in Australia. Then there is a peculiar passage like the following, in which Jack London compares American tramps with Cockney tramps:

“They [American tramps] were all cheerful, facing things with a pluck which is their chief characteristic and which seems never to desert them, withal they were cursing the country with lurid metaphors quite refreshing after a month of unimaginative monotonous Cockney swearing. The Cockney has one oath, and one oath only, the most indecent in the language, which he uses on any and every occasion. Far different is the luminous and varied Western swearing, which runs to blasphemy rather than indecency. And after all, since men will swear, I think I prefer blasphemy to indecency; there is an audacity about it, an adventurousness and defiance that is better than sheer filthiness.”

Jack London was probably onto something here. Americans (and Australians and the Irish) do tend to be better at cussing than Cockneys, though it is equally possible that Jack London was merely reacting to Cockneys saying “F***” at everything whereas Americans would say “Jesus H. Christ”.

Jack London’s ideas for remedying the poverty he witnesses are vague and nebulous. In this respect, The People of the Abyss is very like Thoreau’s Walden – so brilliant when it reports and describes what is actually in front of the author; so unconvincing when the author imagines he is constructing an overall scheme or philosophy.

One chap Jack London quotes hits things perfectly on the head, however. He has an insight which is very similar to George Orwell’s insight as he saw a wretched woman having to unblock a drain in a famous passage in The Road to Wigan Pier.

The chap Jack London quotes says “What is not good enough for you is not good enough for other men, and there’s an end of it.”

Amen to that. And amen to Jack London who, for all his sins, did write at least this book with his heart in the right place.
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Aug 13, 2012


“SHROUD” John Banville (first published 2002)
“GOOD FAITH” Jane Smiley (first published 2003) 
The new novel I looked at this week, Ian Wedde’s The Catastrophe, could reasonably be called satire because its story points to a trend or fashion in the modern world, in part ridicules it and in part admonishes it. But, although it has some light moments, it is not the sort of satire that’s designed to get laughs. Its admonitions have a strongly moral edge. Isn’t satire meant to mend our morals, after all?

For this reason, and this reason alone, it has something in common with two very different good novels I enjoyed reading in the first decade of this century.

Irish novelist John Banville’s Shroud is definitely no comedy, but it does take apart one element of modern thought and lets us see how corrosive it is. This is a moral lesson.

Its main character Axel Vander is an ageing, cynical, world-weary postmodernist literary critic who earns a comfortable living in American universities by teaching the gullible that there is no such thing as the ego, that personality is a delusion, that “the author is dead” and similar deconstructionist dogma.

Then one day Vander gets a nasty shock. A young Irish researcher Cass Cleave has been looking through yellowing files of Second World War-era newspapers from Vander’s native Belgium. She has discovered the opinions that Vander published as a young man. Working for the collaborationist press during Belgium’s occupation by the Nazis, Vander had written pro-Nazi, anti-Jewish criticism. The credibility of his later post-war career would, of course, have evaporated if this had ever been known. Cass Cleave asks Vander if he would like to meet her in Turin to talk this discovery over.

The novel’s initial premise echoes the notorious factual case of the prominent deconstructionist critic Paul de Man, who was posthumously discovered to have had just such a collaborationist background. Naturally Banville does allow us some directly satirical moments. Part of the novel is written in the fussy, pedantic, self-justifying voice of Vander himself. We are allowed to reflect that verbal obfuscation, denial of personality (and personal responsibility) and theories which say an author’s opinions are all irrelevant to the texts the author produces – all are very convenient for people who have something to hide. They are keystones of deconstructionism.

But Shroud goes well beyond satire. In an extraordinary whammy, Banville introduces a plot element that forces us to reassess our reaction to Vander and his motives. By setting the story in Turin, Banville symbolically makes the novel an interrogation of the very concepts of truth and authenticity. (Turin is the home of the shroud which is venerated as an authentic image of Christ but could well be a fake.) He writes convincingly enough to make such an interrogation credible.

One warning about this novel, which I am recommending strongly. Do NOT go on line and read the New York Times review of it. The reviewer praised the novel highly, but also managed to completely ruin it by giving away the crucial twist. This is as mischievous as giving away the culprit in a whodunit.

Much brisker and more direct is the satire of the American novelist Jane Smiley in her Good Faith. Although first published in 2003, it is set in the 1980s and is in part a polemic against the “greed is good” acquisitiveness of that decade.

In upstate rural New York the narrator, Joe Stratford is a reasonably successful real estate agent. He makes fair profits, wheels and deals a little bit, and has to perform such mercy work as coaxing a neurotic builder into actually letting go of the houses he’s built on commission.

Enter smooth-talking developer and deal-spinner Marcus Burns, who says he knows everything about finance-gearing and tax dodging. He used to work for the tax department and declares he hates paying taxes. Marcus is able to dazzle and charm everyone – the city fathers, the local building authority, the builder, the banker and especially Joe. Marcus has this huge property development that’s supposed to attract big-city interest. Marcus is going to make everybody a billion, just so long as they invest with him. Naturally everyone begs to scramble aboard.

You can see where this is going and how the satire is loaded. The irresponsible individual (who hates taxes) is set against the common good. The whole concept of “good faith” – supposedly the cornerstone to all fair bargaining – is undermined in a culture where “the deal” is the Holy Grail, substituting for love, loyalty, family and social concern. Acquisitiveness corrupts and raw unregulated capitalism kills. The message travels far beyond the 1980s.

In case this sound too simplistic and obvious as a piece of satire, there are two things about Good Faith that make it first-rate.

One is the utterly convincing male voice that this woman novelist has created for her narrator Joe. We feel sympathy for the guy even as he staggers from one bad decision to the next.

The other is Jane Smiley’s admirably clear prose, which makes vivid and interesting those precise details of real estate bargaining that would have been tedious in other hands.

The satire of Good Faith is grounded in close observation of reality.
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