Brush up your Byron

When A Treacherous Likeness was first published I put together a quiz on the young Romantics for the Spectator. Byron may have been mad, bad and dangerous to know, but how’s your knowledge of the rest of the Young Romantics? Are you a connoisseur of Keats, or a specialist on Shelley? Take this light-hearted quiz toContinue reading “Brush up your Byron”

‘Recalled to life’: Bleak House and Tom-All-Alone’s

I’ve always thought that Bleak House is Dickens’ masterpiece – not just a vast panorama of contemporary London, from the highest to the lowest, but a rich compilation of literary genres from social commentary, to psychological drama, to mystery thriller. You can say something similar of most of his novels, of course, but in BleakContinue reading “‘Recalled to life’: Bleak House and Tom-All-Alone’s”

The Gothic novel, then and now

One thing you can say about Gothic –whether you’re a reader or a writer – it’s the gift that keeps on giving – from Hammer to The Hunger to the seemingly endless series Frankenstein remakes. And of course we have the vampire vibe that refuses to die – not just Twilight and True Blood, butContinue reading “The Gothic novel, then and now”

What if Byron and the Shelleys had live tweeted from the Villa Diodati?

It’s one of the most famous – indeed infamous – episodes in English literary history. In the summer of 1816 Lord Byron took a villa on the banks of Lake Geneva. He was attended by his doctor, John William Polidori, and another nearby house was rented by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, with whomContinue reading “What if Byron and the Shelleys had live tweeted from the Villa Diodati?”

Frankenstein: Mary, monster, myth

“When I placed my head upon the pillow, I did not sleep…. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me…. I saw – with shut eyes but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretchedContinue reading “Frankenstein: Mary, monster, myth”

Puffing Pamela: Book hype, 18th-century style

There are quite a few candidates competing for the title of the first novel in English literature. You can make a strong case for Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, or Gulliver’s Travels of 1726, or even – at a push – argue for Sir Philip Sidney’s Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, issued over a hundred years before, but one ofContinue reading “Puffing Pamela: Book hype, 18th-century style”

‘Originally known as’: Famous books and their original titles

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but surely you should be able to judge it by its title? Titles are so definitive, so inseparable from a book’s very soul, that it’s hard to imagine any author leaving it to the last minute – or allowing someone else to decide for themContinue reading “‘Originally known as’: Famous books and their original titles”

Bleak House, Dickens’ masterpiece

I’m sure I’m not the only Dickens fan who’s been both surprised and exhilarated to see how much interest has been generated by his bicentenary. Adaptations, exhibitions, new biographies, special events, and – last October – a poll in the Guardian newspaper asking readers to vote for their favourite novel. The winner, fairly comfortably, was Great Expectations, followed by BleakContinue reading “Bleak House, Dickens’ masterpiece”

It was a dark and stormy night: The strange story of ‘Shelley’s Ghost’

The episode that would later come to be referred to as ‘Shelley’s Ghost’ took place on 26th February 1813, in the midst of a raging storm, when the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was staying at a house called Tan-yr-allt, in Tremadoc on the coast of North Wales. What really happened that night remains a mystery,Continue reading “It was a dark and stormy night: The strange story of ‘Shelley’s Ghost’”

Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa – one of the great masterpieces of European culture

‘O Richardson! In spite of ourselves we play a role in your works, we take part in your conversations, we approve, we blame, we marvel…’ Denis Diderot I’m with Diderot. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa is, without doubt, one of the great masterpieces of European culture. An enormous claim, I admit, but I’m going to do my bestContinue reading “Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa – one of the great masterpieces of European culture”

‘Full fathom five the poet lies’: The death of Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died on 8th July 1822, at the age of 29, when his boat went down in a sudden storm off the coast of the Gulf of Spezia. A dreadful death, dreadfully young, but was it really just a tragic accident, or something far darker and more disturbing? Shelley andContinue reading “‘Full fathom five the poet lies’: The death of Percy Bysshe Shelley”

Jane Austen and the Gothic novel

It’s generally agreed that the first Gothic Novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto of 1764. The first edition of the book claimed it was a translation of a 16th century document found in Naples, and only recently rediscovered in a house belonging to “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. Walpole did later admittedContinue reading “Jane Austen and the Gothic novel”

The Shock and Horror Picture Show: Étienne-Gaspard Robertson and the 19th-century phantasmagoria

The first time I had a sense of what a 19th-century phantasmagoria would really have been like was the Gothic Nightmares show at Tate Britain in 2006, which included not only Fuseli’s iconic Nightmare, but a special darkened room with a slide show projected on the walls, and suitably ghastly sound effects. That experience stayed with me, and whenContinue reading “The Shock and Horror Picture Show: Étienne-Gaspard Robertson and the 19th-century phantasmagoria”