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‘Recalled to life’: Bleak House and The Man in Black

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 The Man in Black”

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?”

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”

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”

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”

Authenticity: The pleasures and perils of writing historical fiction

Authenticity. A word that, for a writer of historical fiction can be at one and the same time an inspiration, a labour (whether of love or hate), and the most enormous elephant trap. An inspiration, because if you’re anything like me,  the more you learn about the past, the more fascinating it becomes, and theContinue reading “Authenticity: The pleasures and perils of writing historical fiction”

‘This fatal catastrophe’: The sad life and strange death of Harriet Shelley

Early in the morning of 10th December 1816 a man called John Levesley, a pensioner of the Chelsea Hospital, was making his way to Kensington across Hyde Park when he saw something floating in the waters of the Serpentine. It was the body of a young woman. It looked, he later told the inquest, asContinue reading “‘This fatal catastrophe’: The sad life and strange death of Harriet Shelley”

“The obscure parts of my own nature”: Did Percy Bysshe Shelley suffer from a personality disorder?

You don’t need to know very much about the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley to be aware that he was not just a poetic genius but a dark, tormented and turbulent young man. He left wreckage in his wake and (knowingly or not) caused immense pain to those around him, especially the women who lovedContinue reading ““The obscure parts of my own nature”: Did Percy Bysshe Shelley suffer from a personality disorder?”

Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay

The lives of the Shelleys are incredibly rich material for a novelist. There’s so much we simply don’t know. From what Richard Holmes calls the “two great biographical mysteries” of the assassination attempt in Tremadoc in 1813 and the Shelleys’ adoption and abandonment of a baby in Naples in 1819, to the relationship between Shelley and ClaireContinue reading “Fictionalising 1816: The suicide of Fanny Imlay”

The Devil is in the Detail, or How Not to Write a Regency Novel

If you decide to write a novel set in the Regency you have one real labour of love before you, and that’s to negotiate a veritable minefield of complex etiquette. There were so many rules governing social interaction – particularly between men and women – that it’s very easy to get the details wrong, andContinue reading “The Devil is in the Detail, or How Not to Write a Regency Novel”

A very ‘Romantic’ Rome: following the Shelleys’ travels in Italy

When I was asked to write a piece on places associated with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary, I was really rather spoilt for choice. Did I opt for Lake Geneva, where they spent that fateful summer with Byron and Frankenstein was born? Or the Ligurian coast, where Shelley drowned in a stormContinue reading “A very ‘Romantic’ Rome: following the Shelleys’ travels in Italy”

Dead poets’ notoriety: Fictionalising Byron and the Shelleys

‘Tis strange,—but true; for truth is always strange;Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,How much would novels gain by the exchange!How differently the world would men behold!                                   Don Juan, Canto XIV Nowhere is truth stranger, in fact, than in aspects of Byron’s own life, not least that famous – or infamous – summer ofContinue reading “Dead poets’ notoriety: Fictionalising Byron and the Shelleys”

Joseph Highmore’s ‘conversation piece’ of The Harlowe Family

Many editions of Clarissa have the Joseph Highmore painting on the front cover, and in this post I discuss the significance of the painting, and how it relates to the themes of family, kinship, power and control that the novel explores. Incidentally, for many years the painting was thought to be by William Hogarth, and was entitled simplyContinue reading “Joseph Highmore’s ‘conversation piece’ of The Harlowe Family”

Waking the (un)dead: Myths, monsters, and remaking a classic text

When I published what was then called Murder at Mansfield Park in 2010 I did an interview about it on BBC radio, and I remember the almost breathless awe in the interviewer’s voice as she said, “This is your first novel, and you’re trying to write like Jane Austen?” Amazing though it may sound, that was theContinue reading “Waking the (un)dead: Myths, monsters, and remaking a classic text”

Austen, Dickens and me: The art of literary ventriloquism

I’ve never much liked the word ‘pastiche’ . It always sounds rather condescending to me – as if the meticulous re-evocation of another’s style is some rather inferior form of passing-off.  Personally, I prefer ‘literary ventriloquism’.  The art of catching a recognisable and distinctive voice, just as Dickens describes young Sloppy doing in Our Mutual Friend,Continue reading “Austen, Dickens and me: The art of literary ventriloquism”

Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie

How Mansfield Park got a murderous makeoverAn isolated country house, a family that conceals its passions and rivalries under a veneer of upper-class civility, a charismatic outsider whose arrival brings these tensions into the open, and sparks a train of ultimately disastrous events.  An archetypal Agatha Christie? Surely not Jane Austen? But in fact this is exactly the mise-en-scène at theContinue reading “Jane Austen meets Agatha Christie”

‘The poet’s truth’: Or why it’s the big picture that matters in a Big Picture

This post was written just after the 2013 Oscar announcement Three of the films up for best picture in this year’s Oscars were re-creations of actual historical events, from the 19th century bio-epic Lincoln, to the tracking and capture of Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, to Ben Affleck’s Argo, which dramatized the plan to rescue sixContinue reading “‘The poet’s truth’: Or why it’s the big picture that matters in a Big Picture”

How do you solve a problem like Fanny Price?

“Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park” I doubt there’s another Austen heroine – even another Austen character – who’s inspired more discussion, disagreement and debate down the years than Fanny Price. There was a recent online debate on this very subject entitled ‘Fanny Price, love her orContinue reading “How do you solve a problem like Fanny Price?”

Five literary greats and five great screen adaptations

When the nominations were announced for this year’s Oscars, one of the first things the media noticed was the number of nominees that were based on books. Eleven films shortlisted in the major award categories, and two-thirds of the Best Picture candidates were literary adaptations, including War Horse, The Descendants, and The Help. So with that in mindContinue reading “Five literary greats and five great screen adaptations”

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