Quotation of the month – the alchemy of reading in Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon

At 704 pages, Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is quite a commitment for the most dedicated reader. And you might find yourself having to reach for the dictionary every few pages. But just as a pot noodle isn’t as satisfying as the three-course meal you spent hours preparing, Harkaway more than rewards you for the effort you put in. It’s a deeply satisfying novel; complex, intellectual, and surprising. One of my favourite things about it was how ideas about narratives, interpretation, and reading were interweaved throughout the whole text. You can read my full review here, but these are two of my favourite quotations from Gnomon about reading:

“Poetry is a shotgun aimed at our shared experience, hoping to hit enough of the target that we all infer a great bulk of information conveyed as implication and metaphor in an approximately similar war. Making a unity between poet and reader.” loc 4220-4225

Nick Harkaway's Gnomon

“[A] book is not finished until it is read. The writing is not complete until what is said has passed from the physical volume which gives it sensory reality into another mind where it kindles thoughts and impressions: a whole understanding of what it means to be, ignited on foreign soil in an act that is either erotic or imperialistic, but in either case miraculous. We become one another. Ink on paper is the frozen matter of a person, a snapshot of selfhood in fungal spores waiting to be quicked in our borrowed mentation, thought shaping itself in us, of us, to emerge from us.” (loc 4257-4262)

Nick Harkaway, Gnomon (William Heinemann, 2017)


Going off the record about volunteering in archives

I’m very happy that this week I’ve had the opportunity to share my archival experiences in Off the Record: the e-magazine for the New Professionals of the Archives and Records Association. The Section for New Professionals is a fantastic resource. It features articles by archivists on how their careers started, retrospectives on events, and a whole host of interesting archive-related features. I’m thrilled to now count my article among them, even though I must surely be among the newest of the new professionals. So, without further ado: More Experience Required: The Trials and Tribulations of a New Professional.

Unapologetically creative: in search of Mary Shelley in Fiona Sampson’s new biography

To mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, Fiona Sampson sets out to understand the experiences that shaped the mind behind the first science-fiction novel.

The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein

I was so excited to read a biography of Mary Shelley. I first read Frankenstein and The Last Man while at university, and fell completely in love with Shelley’s exquisite writing, complex ideas, and boundless imagination. And yet I knew next to nothing about the woman herself, beyond how she seemed to be defined by her relationship to those around her: daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, friend to Lord Byron, wife to Percy Bysshe Shelley. So my expectations soared when I read in Sampson’s introduction that she hoped to “hugely enlarge” Mary, and bring her into the foreground, so that she might be understood on her own terms.

I enjoyed the biography immensely, it’s beautifully written, well researched, and tangibly evokes the lives of those it considers. But I’m not quite sure that Sampson achieves what she claims she will in her introduction.

Sampson structures the biography around a series of imaginatively detailed vignettes, such as Mary’s birth, or sitting around the fire telling the ghost story that would become Frankenstein. Sampson is open about this structure, calling her work “a freeze-frame biography” (loc 110). She’s also explicit about its potential drawbacks, acknowledging that the vitality of a person cannot truly be understood through a series of stills. Each of these scenes is atmospheric, often intensely visceral, the details almost tangible. Of the elopement of Mary and Percy, Sampson writes: “In the next scene she lies exhausted by seasickness and fear on board a small wooden sailing vessel. The boat is being dwarfed by storm waves that swell under and around it in the moonlight. The time is just before midnight…” (loc 1132-35). But the evocation almost undermines the reality — we have to consciously remind ourselves that we’re not reading a novel, we’re reading a biography.

This freeze-frame structure also means that Sampson picks and chooses the scenes from Mary’s life that most interest her, or that have been deemed most significant by posterity. Of course, biographies are inevitably an exercise in gap-filling; as Hermione Lee writes, “Biographers try to make a coherent narrative out of missing documents as well as existing ones; a whole figure out of body parts.” (Body Parts, p.8). But as a result of all this picking and choosing, I felt Mary Shelley’s voice was marginalised in favour of Sampson’s.

Sampson chooses to focus predominantly on the beginning of Mary’s life. She is aware, again, of the pitfalls of her approach, talking of the potential of “foreshortening”: “the later years of a life — of anyone’s life — do not build a personality, and they don’t go on to affect a future. They are that future. Frankenstein is not unconnected to what comes after it in Mary’s life. On the contrary, it changed her life just as it has changed our cultural imagination. But that’s the thing: Mary’s first novel informs her future; her last does not inform her past” (loc 118). As such, Sampson’s biography spends one single chapter on Mary’s later life (essentially after the death of Percy Shelley). But if we’re “in search” of “the girl who wrote Frankenstein“, isn’t it also valuable to be in search of the woman whose life was informed by the creation of Frankenstein?

The freeze-frame structure also means that time is telescoped. In the first “scene”, before Mary is even born, we have flashed back to examine her parents’ relationship, and flashed forward through the first 10 years of Mary’s life. Perhaps this lack of chronological integrity helps to explain Sampson’s proleptic tendencies: “In the next fourteen months, shockingly, Mary is going to lose both her surviving children…But that’s in the future. For now the party are making fairly rapid progress through France…” (loc 2592-2598). It is unclear to me if such moments were for dramatic effect. They certainly result in jolting the reader out of their immersion in the story. Perhaps Sampson is acknowledging that the form of biography is inherently proleptic. Even if we do not know the details, we know that in the coming pages, Mary will write Frankenstein, she will be widowed, and will eventually die.

Mary Shelley
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1840 (National Portrait Gallery)

Playing with time is just one of the creative liberties Sampson takes with the past. The Mary Shelley of In Search of Mary Shelley feels very much like a construction by someone other than Mary herself. In this narrative, Mary is cast as heroine, her father, husband, and step-sister as unsympathetic villains. Sampson asserts that “Claire…will never once express a whisper of guilt or regret” (loc 2678-80). Talking of Mary’s letters to Percy, Sampson writes of Mary’s self-conscious manipulation of her letters, which are designed to “win” “masculine approval” by “not being intelligent” (loc 1555). One can’t help wondering how we can know for sure. How can we know Claire never spoke an apology to Mary? How can we know for sure that Mary’s letters were manipulative rather than genuine? While Sampson’s position as biographer is one of supreme (if unfounded) authority, she does also occasionally invite readers in to hypothesise with her. Of Godwin’s response to Mary’s birth she writes, “Time stretches out. One imagines a clock ticking. It is the wolf hour. Does he feel tired? Or is he wired by adrenalin? Does he long for a coffee?” (loc 274-279). However, these moments of acknowledged uncertainty are anomalous.

I struggle, too, with the difficulty of liberating Mary from being defined by other people. Sampson fails to pay great attention to Mary outside of her relationship with Percy. Life after his death is at once judged and defended by Sampson as a “slip” into “domestic comfort” and “an end to intellectual and creative stamina” (loc 3800). The BBC Radio Four Book of the Week adaptation of In Search of Mary Shelley is perhaps an illustration of this (although it is worth remembering that Sampson was not responsible for the abridgement). Three out of the five episodes are about Mary’s life while she was in a relationship with Percy. The first episode is about her childhood, and the last episode is about life after Percy’s death. This is despite the fact that 45 years out of Mary’s 53 were spent not in a relationship with Percy. Even that final episode is about Mary’s work editing and publishing Percy’s writing. And this is the problem: it’s difficult to “liberate” Mary from Percy because she defined herself by him, perpetually “chained”, as it were, to him, as Percy wrote of monogamy in his poem ‘Epipsychidion’ (which is, of course, addressed to a woman other than Mary). I agree with Sampson when she writes of the portrait we have of Mary, “The black velvet Mary wears to sit for her Rothwell portrait, seventeen years after Percy’s death, is a statement not only of her grief but also of her continuing identity as Percy’s widow” (loc 3424-3425). And let’s not forget after he died she kept his heart for the rest of her life. It seems Mary would rather actively define herself by her relationship to someone else, than passively be subject to our desires to isolate and examine her.

I think the problem is that the portrait feels so curated, with such imaginative painting of scenes, sections of life removed and glossed over, that it does not feel authentic. That’s not to say this is not a valuable exercise, but the result is more evocative than it is informative, and may offer as much insight into Sampson as it does to Mary Shelley. Sampson’s tendency to assert certainty where there is none means that no matter how well researched, In Search of Mary Shelley feels more of a creative exercise than an academic one. This saddens me, because I agreed so whole-heartedly with Sampson’s assessment in her introduction that “Mary does not need fictionalising. She deserves better than imaginative reconstruction: she deserves to be listened to” (loc 86). Perhaps Sampson has listened to Mary Shelley. It’s simply that each of us in listening to the same person will interpret the facts in their own individual way.

Sometimes the expectations you bring to a text define it far more rigidly than the text deserves. Remember James Thurber’s story about the woman who reads Macbeth as a murder mystery? I came to this, quite simply, hoping to learn more about Mary Shelley. I find myself unable to be sure of whether that expectation has been fulfilled. I know a few more facts of her life, and those of the people she encountered. I know a little more about life in the 19th century. But I am reluctant to trust in the character Sampson has created. My ideal biography would probably be extracts from letters and novels with heavily footnoted commentary. It might be quite dry. But I’d at least know what I was reading was attempting authenticity. This isn’t that type of biography, but Sampson doesn’t apologise for that, and while I was frustrated by In Search of Mary Shelley, I can’t help but admire its brilliance.

Favourite quotation:
“If we can think of Mary’s life as a series of portraits, this one is nothing like a painting fixed in oils. It reminds me of the flicker of a video installation: the grainy black-and-white bleached by wilful exposure into near-invisibility, its jerkiness reproducing the apprentice technologies of the very earliest films. We can barely distinguish between the figures themselves and the markings of the wall on to which they’re projected. Nothing is certain; everything keeps changing.” (loc 1509-1515)

Fiona Sampson, In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl who wrote Frankenstein (Profile Books, 2018)

Thank you to Fiona Sampson and Profile Books via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Discovery of the month – an unfortunate incident with a cushion brush

Having worked with the accident record books of Wolverton Railway Works for a good few months, I’m no stranger to some quite traumatic incidents. I would not want to make light of any accident or injury, but: every so often you come across something memorable. And it gives me a little bit of joy to know it has been recorded for posterity.

On the 12th June 1909, a 25-year-old gentleman had the following unfortunate accident:

wwo-19-orchitis incident.jpg
A traumatic incident recorded in WWO/19, Milton Keynes Museum

To be clear, yes that does read: “Whilst brushing cushions in a compartment, he struck his testicles with the head of cushion brush.” One can only hope he recovered swiftly from his traumatic orchitis. Given that I’m sharing this more than 100 years later, I’m not sure his dignity could have recovered as quickly.

Quotation of the month – Matt Haig on reading to stay alive

Reasons to Stay Alive came along at the perfect moment for me. Not only did it move me towards a new stage of recovery from my depression, it did so in a language that felt completely personal to me. For Haig, reading was a vital part of his recovery, and as such his book is liberally sprinkled with quotations from the literary greats. Emily Dickinson seems to be a particular favourite, and the fact that the words “hope is the thing with feathers” pop so frequently into my head when I’m in need of an emotional boost is entirely thanks to Haig. To read a book that was not only about hope in the midst of the darkness of depression, but also about the power of words and reading, made me feel that Haig had tailored this book just for me. And I know I’m not alone in feeling that.

Matt Haig Reasons to Stay Alive
Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive

“‘The object of art is to give life a shape,’ said Shakespeare. And my life – and my mess of a mind – needed shape. I had ‘lost the plot’. There was no linear narrative of me. There was just mess and chaos. So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered. Films. TV dramas. And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to me to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’. One cliché attached to bookish people is that they are lonely, but for me books were my way out of being lonely. If you are the type of person who thinks too much about stuff then there is nothing lonelier in the world than being surrounded by a load of people on a different wavelength. In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand (as a kid that had been my most common nightmare). Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind. And because it was only a few months before that I had lost the point of words, and stories, and even language, I was determined never to feel like that again. I fed and I fed and I fed. I used to sit with the bedside lamp on, reading for about two hours after Andrea had gone to sleep, until my eyes were dry and sore, always seeking and never quite finding, but with that feeling of being tantalisingly close.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Canongate Books, 2015), p.136.


Discovery of the month: war-time adverts

There’s something glorious about old advertising: their dated language, their occasionally inappropriate gender stereotyping, their excitement at things we take completely for granted. Perhaps more than other documents they can make us feel that “[t]he past is a foreign country” (L. P. Hartley). Looking through the Wolverton Railway Works collection at Milton Keynes Museum, I found an excellent selection of adverts from the Second World War. Here are a few from ‘Industrial Welfare and Personnel Management: the Journal of the Industrial Welfare Society’ (1944).  This single magazine contains no fewer than four adverts for moisturising creams—the accident record books of the Works show that industrial dermatitis was a huge problem.


Music and Safety Advert2
Music and Safety: “Workers are cheered and stimulated, and the pulse of their industry is quickened…” (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)
Glamaband Headwear Advert small
Safe and Chic: Glamaband (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)
Swivel Respirator Frame Advert small
Prototype for Bane: the Swivel Respirator Frame (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/128)


For more about the Wolverton Railway Works collection at Milton Keynes Museum, visit Adventures in Archives:
Part One: Milton Keynes Museum
Part Two: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
Part Three: What’s the Point?

Worthy and unsettling successor to a classic: Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

Gabriel Utterson witnessed the downfall and death of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seven years ago. When a man claiming to be Jekyll arrives in London, Utterson’s life is turned upside down. Everything from his inheritance to his sanity is threatened by Jekyll’s apparent return from the dead. Utterson sets out to find the truth: “If he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek.”

Anthony O'Neill Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek

I often get quite protective of my favourite novels when they are rewritten by contemporary authors. P. D. James’s “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice — Pemberley —for instance, is a fun but slightly incongruous return to characters I know and love. It’s enjoyable, but not something I’d ever consider a true successor to the original. Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek, however, not only convincingly reimagines Stevenson’s novel, but it does so in such a way that expands on and enhances the original. A dialogue is established between the two, so that each enriches the other.

O’Neill’s writing puts us very convincingly in the world of Victorian London. Everything from the setting, style, and even narrative structure is reminiscent of Stevenson. The novel starts as a Gothic romp in Victorian London (with a jaunt to Edinburgh, Stevenson’s hometown, which I particularly appreciated). But it quickly unravels. As Utterson fights to prove the new Jekyll is an impostor, he is assailed by doubts. The Gothic romp becomes a deeply unsettling portrayal of a deteriorating mind; a study of madness and obsession.

Since Utterson can’t tell if he can trust anyone, including himself, he becomes an unreliable narrator. The readers are left not knowing what is real and what is not. This is particularly effective as any so-called “liberties” taken with the original novella can be undermined depending on which version of the facts you choose to believe. Nothing is certain.

A only 133 pages, you race through it, barely able to pause for breath. A dark and discomforting tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, this is also an excellent read in its own right.

Favourite quotation: “Hyde is concealed deep within Dr Jekyll, and safely imprisoned at that. He is a scoundrel and a malefactor, true, but no more evil or dangerous than all the other scoundrels and malefactors that today lie hidden in this very court. For whom among you does not harbour his own Mr Hyde?…Who does not daily, hourly, suppress the urges of his horrible Hyde?…[W]hile you have every reason to deliver a verdict on Mr Hyde, you can no more condemn Dr Jekyll than you can condemn yourselves. We are all Jekylls, yea, but equally we are all Hydes.” (loc 769-781)

Anthony O’Neill, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (Black & White Publishing, 2017)

Thank you to Anthony O’Neill and Black & White Publishing via NetGalley for a copy in an exchange for an honest review.


The ultimate surveillance nightmare – Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a vlogger, and has found fame telling millions of followers about the intricacies of his ordinary life. He keeps nothing from his adoring public. Then MindCast offer him the opportunity to broadcast his thoughts 24 hours a day. A small operation, a tiny chip in his brain, and he will be the most famous person on the planet. How could he say no?

Broadcast by Liam Brown.jpg

Broadcast is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of the dangers of our social media-obsessed society. The world Brown describes is just one small step away from our own. In fact, MindCast is the next logical step in our social media journey — not even a short step away, but a shortcut to instant gratification.

I loved this most when it was talking about the philosophy of surveillance and celebrity culture, especially the celebrity of the everyday. The consequences of the chip, such as David not being able to use passwords and PINs, not even being able to think negatively about a restaurant without risking being sued, are extremely well thought-out. The anxiety this provokes is hugely convincing.

A number of reviews I’ve read have focused on how unsympathetic David is. While he’s certainly not someone I can immediately imagine being friends with, I didn’t find this in any way a barrier to my enjoyment of the novel. David’s character — vapid, self-obsessed, often thoughtless — was believable if not likeable. He barely thinks about the consequences of having the chip implanted: the decision is made apparently on a whim, spurred on by his competitive nature and desire for fame, but this was completely in-line with his character.

The last quarter of the novel is more dramatic and action-based, which I personally found less appealing. I wish too, that Alice’s role and character in the latter part of the novel had been explored further. That said the ending is tremendously unsettling and a worthy conclusion to well-executed book with a fascinating concept.

Liam Brown, Broadcast (Legend Press, 2017)

Thank you to Liam Brown and Legend Press via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Magic ordinary and extraordinary: The Toy Makers by Robert Dinsdale

Cathy Wray, 15 years old and newly pregnant. Fearful of losing her baby, she runs away from her family, responding to a job advert in the newspaper: “Are you lost? Are you afraid? Are you a child at heart?” This is Cathy’s introduction to Papa Jack’s Emporium, a place where lost souls gather to experience the spectacular magic of Papa Jack’s toys. She meets the intimidating Papa Jack, the charismatic Kaspar, and his long-suffering brother, Emil. We follow their fortunes over the course of 50 years: births, marriages, war, bankruptcy, and magic.

The Toy Makers Robert Dinsdale
Cover by the hugely talented Laura Barrett

Despite the fact the story covers such a long period of time, the plot never stumbles. Hours passed as I was reading without me realising, and even when it reached the small hours of the morning, I could not stop. I wish I could put my finger on what makes this book so brilliant. The writing is gorgeous, vivid, and visual. The narrator often acts as a guide, inviting us in to explore the labyrinth of the emporium, the minds of the characters. It seems redundant to say the characters are well developed. They weren’t characters to me. They were real people, with all the hopes and dreams, fears and foibles of real people. I shared in their pain, their uncertainties, their unexpected joys.

Robert Dinsdale’s story-telling has a peculiar magic. Reading his writing it is as though the words fade away to reveal the scenes he describes, played out in front of you. Inanimate toys are wound up, and they stand to attention. But what is this peculiar magic that makes toys act beyond the expectations of their mechanisms? The magic that makes Dinsdale’s words reach out, take your hand, and drag you along with the story? It feels like his writing, just like his toy soldiers, is alive.

The book succeeds because its foundation is a study of human life, and watching four generations of a family succeed and fail. It’s also a book about nostalgia, sentimental but never mawkish. It’s about how toys can make us feel like children again, and the trials of one family trying to bring some joy into a troubled world. But it’s also about magic. The ordinary magic of love and hope, and the extraordinary magic of what might happen if, just if, a toy were to one day come to life.

Favourite quotation, the wisdom of Papa Jack:
“But can a toy come to life? My dear…it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”

Robert Dinsdale, The Toy Makers (Penguin Random House, 2018)

Thank you to Robert Dinsdale and Penguin Random House via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Quotation of the month – John Wilkins on the vice of liberally quoting

I’m aware there is a certain irony in choosing as my quotation of the week a quotation that warns against quoting. But I think there is sufficient substance in Wilkins’ advice to justify sharing it here. I came across this in a notebook, clearly written before I started systematically writing exactly where I was quoting from. As such I have no idea where I found this quotation, but I’m sure it resonated with me as a scholar of English literature trying not to rely too heavily in my essays on the thoughts and ideas of others. I haven’t read all of Wilkins’ Ecclesiastes, but it sounds like an interesting read, calling for, as did many 17th-century works, simplicity and authenticity in speech and writing.

“To stuffe a Sermon with citations of Authors, and the witty sayings of others is to make a feast of vinegar and pepper, which may be very delightful being used moderately as sauces, but must needs be very improper and offensive to be fed upon such as diet.” – John Wilkins, Ecclesiastes (1646)