Fantasy origin stories, a child’s view of music, and time-looping murders

Some odds and ends collected over the last week(s), including magical origin stories, music inspired by a child’s music box, and a time-looping game influenced by Groundhog Day.  

This week I’ve been reading…

Tempests and Slaughter, Tamora Pierce (Random House, 2018)

Tempests and Slaughter is a charming book and a thoroughly enjoyable read. It tells the early story of Arram Draper, also known as Numair Salmalín from Pierce’s Immortals series. It follows that well-worn formula of: boy goes to magic school, boy learns to do magic, boy gets into various magical scrapes. This book is not exactly full of surprise and novelty, but Pierce does this formula so well. The magical classes, the teaching masters, and the various deities who pop up in unexpected places make a book that essentially revolves around a school timetable far more exciting and interesting than it should be.

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

It’s been some time since I read Pierce’s Immortals series, so I wasn’t overly invested in the book as a portrayal of Numair’s early years. I was quite happy to read this as a separate fantasy adventure story rather than an origin story. Reading it as such it’s perfectly enjoyable, although an awareness of what’s to come perhaps helps explain the lack of subtlety in some areas, such as the inevitable breakdown in the relationship between Ozorne and Arram.

I did find Tempests and Slaughter a little lacking in areas. There is very little plot. There are a few areas of tension, but these are not resolved within the course of the book and are clearly meant to unfold over the course of the series. I’m particularly interested in seeing how the tension develops surrounding Carthak’s exploitation of slaves. The one, possibly climactic, moment of tension is resolved within a couple of pages. The result is an enjoyable meander through Tamora Pierce’s imagination, but look elsewhere if you like a plot-filled page-turner.

Thank you to Tamora Pierce and Random House via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This week I’ve been listening to…

Sound of Cinema: Father/Daughter (BBC Radio 3, 30 June 2018)

There’s nothing I like better than listening to Sound of Cinema on my morning commute (a 45-minute walk through Milton Keynes parklands). Matthew Sweet provides engaging and intelligent commentary, and the music allows me to drift into my imagination while I enjoy the scenery. I love the unapologetic emotion of film soundtracks, and Sound of Cinema always chooses a good mix of familiar and lesser-known scores. This particular episode revolved around the theme of fathers and daughters, and featured tracks from The Little MermaidInterstellar, and How to Steal a Million. The classic score of the week was the main titles from To Kill a Mockingbird, composed by Elmer Bernstein. Matthew Sweet told us that in the main titles, Bernstein was inspired by the child’s perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird: using piano, vibraphone, and celesta to remind of a music box. He also confined himself to an octave range – the range of a child’s voice.

This week I’ve been playing…

The Sexy Brutale (Cavalier Game Studios and Tequila Works, 2017)

I’m not much of a gamer, so it’s a big deal for me to say that I’ve finally completed my first game – all the way through to the final credits. It should come as no surprise that the game I’ve completed is compelling both in gameplay and narrative. Sexy Brutale is an adventure-puzzle game in which the player is trapped in a mansion where the guests are murdered one by one. The player, in the guise of retired preacher Lafcadio Boone, is trapped in neverending loops, Groundhog Day-style, and can only escape if they can figure out how to prevent each murder from happening.

The Sexy Brutale Artwork

This game has everything – gorgeous visuals, brilliant electro-swing soundtrack, and some very creepy henchmen. The puzzles are challenging enough to be satisfying but not so difficult that I had to cheat (that often). The narrative of each of the individual murders and the overarching mystery of the mansion is cleverly balanced, leading up to a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching finale. The developers say the story-telling style is inspired by immersive theatre, where the story is happening around the audience member, but the audience can also influence the outcome.

Screenshot The Sexy Brutale

It’s fascinating to read about how the game was developed – because the same day is repeated over and over again in different areas of the mansion, the game had to be plotted with pin-point accuracy. Design Director Charles Griffiths said, “It always felt like …‘We can’t go full Groundhog Day’. Because then every piece of music would have to be timed to the second with the actions taking place and every single character’s movement would have to be completely choreographed. That would be tricky to tell the story, that would be tricky to do puzzles, it would tricky to do everything. But it was the cleanest and most exciting form of the idea.” Despite the challenges, they’ve achieved a satisfying, entertaining, and heartfelt game that’s every bit as finely tuned as one of Reginald Sixpence’s clocks.




Quotation of the month – love prose by Julian Barnes

Listening to John Finnemore presenting With Great Pleasure a few years ago, I became convinced of two things. Firstly, John Finnemore and I should be friends. After Souvenir Programme and Cabin Pressure, I was pretty sure of that already. But after listening, I was certain – I mean, really, how many people like PG Wodehouse AND Shakespeare? What are the chances?

Secondly, I realised I had to read something by Julian Barnes. John Finnemore chose a section from A History of the World in 10½ Chapters to be read aloud by Geoffrey Whitehead. Early in the chapter, Julian Barnes points out the clunkiness of love prose compared to love poetry: “[t]here is no genre that answers to the name of love prose. It sounds awkward, almost self-contradictory. Love Prose: A Plodder’s Handbook. Look for it in the carpentry section.” But this claim, as Finnemore points out, follows some of the most exquisite prose about love that has surely ever been written:

“Anyway… she’s asleep, turned away from me on her side. The usual stratagems and repositionings have failed to induce narcosis in me, so I decide to settle myself against the soft zigzag of her body. As I move and start to nestle my shin against a calf whose muscles are loosened by sleep, she senses what I’m doing, and without waking reaches up with her left hand and pulls the hair off her shoulders on the top of her head, leaving me her bare nape to nestle in. Each time she does this I feel a shudder of love at the exactness of this sleeping courtesy. My eyes prickle with tears, and I have to stop myself from waking her up to remind her of my love. At that moment, unconsciously, she’s touched some secret fulcrum of my feelings for her.”

In the weeks and months following the episode, I forgot the name of Julian Barnes and his book. But I never forgot the image he described. The memory of the extract was triggered each time I pulled back my own hair from my own shoulders. It became a Pavlovian response, action and memory inextricably intertwined. When I finally picked up A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, I was oblivious to its significance. Until I came to the chapter in question (Parenthesis). On reading the opening words, “Let me tell you something about her. It’s that middle stretch of the night, when the curtains leak no light…She’s lying on her side, turned away from me.” I was immediately called back to that Pavlovian nape-nestling response. Sure enough, as I turned the page, there again was that extract. After 3 years not searching for it, I had finally found it.

Julian Barnes History of the World

Here’s the BBC page just in case they ever make the episode available again, but in the meantime here’s a version of dubious legality and quality via tumblr.

Quotations from Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (Vintage Books, 2009), pp.225-228.

Weird novels, magical musicals, and forbidden reading

A few selections from the last week(s), featuring an excellent mix of weirdness, magic, and banned books.

This week I’ve been reading:

Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (Jo Fletcher Books, 2018)

The rural town of Rotherweird is quaint, mysterious, and intensely private. Outsiders cannot remain inside the town borders overnight. The town rules itself without concern for or from wider British law. Their suspicion of the unknown extends into the past – no records exist and no history can be taught about the town and wider world prior to 1800.

Rotherweird cover

A few weeks ago, my GPS incorrectly identified my location as on the River Hipper. Curious about the name, I explored the online map, only to find the River Hipper is itself a tributary of the River Rother. After being distracted by testing the names out loud a few times, pleased with their feel and sound, I carried on with my day.

When I picked up Rotherweird, judging it initially by its crowded cover by Leo Nickolls, and saw that it was set on this pleasing River Rother, I knew I had to buy it. For an impulse purchase, I could not have been more satisfied. It’s rare to find a book that blends fantastical imagination, memorable characters, engaging plot, and beautiful, literary writing so successfully. Rotherweird is quirky, funny, and intriguing. I loved the blend of Elizabethan and modern storylines. While so many of the fantasy books I read rely on the world-building and epic, adventurous story-lines for their success, I almost felt Rotherweird could be work without any magic at all, which is not to say that the magical elements aren’t essential to the setting and story-line. Perhaps it’s that the magic is so embedded in the world it doesn’t feel like a fantasy novel, just a novel about a world that happens to have magic in it.

Rotherweird also features my favourite ever (thus far) literary sex scene (names have been removed for the prevention of plot spoilers):

“Only a monk would have described the ensuing hour as a passionate encounter, more a mix of tussle, fumble (mainly [him]), warm embrace (mainly [her]), and occasional laughter. Yet both emerged the better, having discovered a mutual point of suffering in their reservoirs of unspent affection.” p.332.

This week I’ve been listening to:

John Finnemore, My Teenage Diary (BBC Radio 4, broadcast Tuesday 19th June)

My fondness for, no, let’s be honest, obsession with John Finnemore now extends to his 19-year-old self, as expressed in his teenage diary. His diary begins halfway through his gap year before university, when he suddenly panics that he isn’t doing anything with his life. He decides, based on little to no research, that he should teach English as a foreign language in Poland. A few weeks later, with no job, nowhere to stay, and no knowledge of the language, he arrives in Poland. Let the adventures begin. One of the things I love about My Teenage Diary is seeing the burgeoning teenage talent that will become the famous writer, artist or comedian. Finnemore’s diary is no exception: his writing hints at a voice with which we are all familiar. It is very very funny, and endearingly self-deprecating.

Joanne Harris, Q&A, Waterstones Milton Keynes

What a privilege to see the brilliant Joanne Harris live: an opportunity to learn about her inspirations, processes, and love of Norse myths. I love hearing her stories about reading growing up – her mother forbade her from reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror. She was, however, allowed to read myths – these were deemed educational. Surrounded by the dry French books of her academic parents, she took refuge in her local library, only to find that the local librarian was nearly as strict as her mother. Having read every book on the lonely shelf of children’s library books (including reading the book of Norse myths repeatedly – the librarian used to reach for it whenever she saw Joanne Harris coming), she was allowed to progress early, at the age of 10, to adult books. But she was only allowed to borrow one adult library book a month, and she had to choose wisely. If the librarian thought it wasn’t appropriate for her, she would have to return the book to the shelves, and wait for next month. Thus she spent as much time in the library as she could skimming though the pages of forbidden books, before choosing one she knew would be acceptable when the time came to leave. Joanne Harris gleefully explained that as a result, her first book, a horror, she wrote primarily to annoy her mother.

Runemarks  by Joanne Harris.jpg

This week I’ve been watching…

Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin (RSC on tour: Milton Keynes theatre)

Matilda the Musical school

While I go to the theatre as much as I can, it’s rare that I’ll see the same show twice. It was therefore such a treat to see Matilda for the second time, having already seen it once a few years ago at the Cambridge Theatre. It says a lot about the quality of the production already that I would want to see it multiple times. The joy and magic of the production and its music are infectious. The music and lyrics are exceptional, full of Tim Minchin’s unique humour and understanding of the world:
Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.

But the design, oh the design! It’s everything I think a design should be. Practically, we have a backdrop with set pieces brought in, but each set piece matches the overall aesthetic. While each location is in some way clearly marked, it is still theatrical rather than naturalistic. The designs are reliant on the audience’s imaginations to fill in the gaps, but because of the uniting aesthetic, we never once leave the world of the play. And the aesthetic itself is perfectly tuned to appeal to me and people like me (and other people who wish they were Matilda), based on words and blocks of letters, spelling out each location. The library clock has the letters ‘t’, ‘i’, ‘m’ and ‘e’ instead of numbers, Miss Honey’s floor is decorated with ‘home sweet home’. And the set just looks so much fun – swings, slides, pommel horses, and scooters. (We’ll forget about the chokey for now.) Matilda is one of the few shows I’ve seen that I’ve forgotten I was watching a show, and was just completely absorbed in the experience of it. The stagecraft (such as Matilda’s powers) is so well done that even having seen it twice I’m convinced that some of it could only have been achieved with magic.

Matilda the Musical swings

Special mention goes to Pete Brassett’s murder mystery series, the latest installment of which has just been released. Perdition balances dark twists and turns with illuminating rays of wit and humour. A thoroughly enjoyable read all round.

Mock mascots, indistinguishable twins, and a portrait of questionable identity

Since I’m constantly wading through an overwhelming queue of books and thoughts and discoveries to write about, I’ve decided to share some snapshots of my reading week. Enforced deadlines and brevity — the two friends of the over-worked (and over-ambitious).

This week, I’ve been reading…

Jaclyn Moriarty, Becoming Bindy Mackenzie (also known as The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie and The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie, depending on where you read it) (Young Picador, 2006)

bindy mackenzie.jpg

I’m probably a little older than this book’s intended audience, but I still found it completely relevant to my own current dreams and dilemmas. I like to think that’s because Moriarty’s writing is universal, rather than because I haven’t yet developed beyond typical teenage woes. A book full of joy and anxiety, with a dose of adventure and mystery that’s not present in Moriarty’s other Brookfield/Ashbury novels. I read it in a day, and it was the perfect few hours of escapism. I particularly love Moriarty’s scrapbook style, which draws together Bindy’s journal entries, philosophical musings, memos to and from her fellow students, and correspondence to and from the School Board. Easy to read but not at all lacking in depth or inventiveness.

Georgette Heyer, False Colours (Cornerstone, 2011)
Needless to say, not the cover of the 2011 edition.

I read this looking for a romantic escape, which I find Heyer can normally be relied upon to provide. Whether it was my own levels of distraction or the book’s lack of substance, I find I wasn’t engaged as I normally was. Brilliant cast of eccentric characters, and some great mistaken identity escapades. As usual, wonderful Regency detail in both setting and vocabulary. Fun in a predictable way, but less heartwarming than some of her other novels.

This week, I’ve been watching…

Mascots (2016, dir. Christopher Guest)

A mockumentary examining the world of competitive mascotting. Mascottery? Mostly light-hearted but not without the odd dose of painful reality, particularly in the desperately, irrevocably broken marriage of Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle (Zack Woods and Sarah Baker). The word “off-beat” could have been invented for this film, with its mascot routines of slapstick hedgehogs climbing aspirational ladders, oversized plumbers and break-dancing turd, and armadillos doing interpretative dance. I laughed a lot, sometimes in spite of myself.

This week, I’ve learnt…

The “Chandos” portrait of Shakespeare was the first portrait to be acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, in 1856. It feels somewhat appropriate that a portrait of our national poet forms the basis of our national portrait collection.

NPG Chandos
© The National Portrait Gallery

The NPG website entry claims that the sitter is associated with 96 portraits, which is surprising, given that we only have two representations of Shakespeare we can be really confident are of him (one an engraving printed in the First Folio, the other the memorial bust in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon). The Chandos portrait forms the most likely third portrait of him, and it’s certainly the most compelling image, with a hint of a smile, rakish earring, and the knowing eyes gazing at us out of the darkness. What Shakespeare looked like has produced endless consternation and many hundreds of pages. The prevalence of interpretations of Shakespeare’s portraits combined with doubt the authenticity of the original images creates something of a paradox. As Bill Bryson writes in his book on the playwright: “we recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like” (HarperPress, 2007, p.7.).

See also: Tarnya Cooper, Searching for Shakespeare, 2006 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 2 March – 29 May 2006), p.53.

I’ve also had the privilege to be working on the third installment in the Perry Webster murder mystery series, soon to be released by The Book Folks. Stan Jackson is a brilliant and engaging writer, and his creation of a philosophy professor turned private investigator is inspired. His third book is a slice of classic murder mystery with all the style, intrigue and intelligence of an Agatha Christie.


Unfettered imagination: The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is a work of supreme imagination. Michael Andreasen’s writing breaks down boundaries of time, space, and genre to create a multi-faceted jewel of story-telling. In the title story, a sea monster has taken a ship hostage, and is gradually enfolding her in its many-tentacled embrace (you can read an illustrated version of the story in Signature). In these stories we encounter a cannibal admiral, a girl without a head, and a boy who can’t touch the ground.

Andreasen’s stories are paradoxical: surreal but relatable; familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A boy trying to find his family, a young man frustrated by familial expectations, a family saying goodbye to an elderly relative. It just also happens that the boy lives in a post-apocalyptic circus world and is guided by a bear, the young man is caring for his sister who has no head, and the elderly relative is going to be loaded into a crate and dropped into the sea.

One of Andreasen’s many strengths is in his experimentation with voice. How often do you come across a story written in first person plural, or in the form of baptismal rites? Such voices collapse the gap between narrative and reader, and after all, isn’t that what reading is all about?

One of my favourite stories begins as an average school trip: ill-prepared students, absent teachers, sugar overloads, and vomit buckets. Except the subject of your school trip is time travel, and so the lesson features debates about the observer effect, causality, and the scientific rigours of Back to the Future. At the Time Travel Institute, the travellers “go straight to the source: history in its rawest, purest form” (loc 2407). But when the time travel device starts leaking, time telescopes and collapses as students become adults and dinosaur bones grow fleshy. Disaster must be avoided. “‘Will you make sure that I’m not erased?’ they ask again as they tuck one another into bed.”

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover is full of remarkable imagery: a child’s drawing of a grandfather in his wheelchair at the bottom of the sea, an abandoned amusement park, and my favourite, the Saint of Dubious, Possibly Mythical Origin, whose indefinable iconography results in an ever-shifting form. “His past is only lore, existing in the imagination of perhaps a dozen conflicting medieval scrolls and apocrypha. He is not a saint that was, but a saint that might have been, surviving through enough stories that enough people want to believe, which is often all a saint needs to be.” (loc 1602-1608). The only constant is his battle with the Beast, “But here in the pre-bellum moment, Saint of Dubious, Possibly Mythical Origin is at his least confused. He perfectly comprehends the ever-shifting amalgam of his own iconography, the animal barking of his own brain. In this moment, he is the most consistent and real that he will ever be” (1615-1618).

As much as I loved the creativity of these stories, I felt I was left never quite knowing where I stood. We are dropped into the middle of scenarios and often lifted out of them as abruptly. There are no explanations or backstories. For me this created further paradox: the sheer joy of unlimited imagination conflicting with the need for tangible explanations. In the story of the elderly relative, for instance, a family prepares to say goodbye to a man reaching the end of his life. He is about to be “crated”, that’s to say, he’s about to be loaded into a crate and dropped into the sea. It’s a beautiful story, full of arresting imagery and real human anguish, shame, and sadness. It’s a story of family and memory and it’s delightfully odd. But I couldn’t help feeling like I was missing something. Was crating a metaphor? For the isolation of the elderly? The need to ship our relatives off to a care home when they become burdensome? A very literal exploration of “sleeping with the fishes”? Asking myself these questions, I’ve made far more sense of this story than many of the others. In one of my favourite stories we meet a collection of saints, in some form of afterlife. There are overarching questions: why have the saints been gathered together? where are they? what is the voice they collectively hear? But such questions are never addressed. The answers to the questions seem less important than simply observing the characters – until we’re not, and we’re on to the next story. Instead of these stories ending with a full stop or a sigh of revelation, they seem to end on a comma. They just stop. I was left feeling unsatisfied.

Perhaps though, I was looking for the wrong thing from these stories. Perhaps it is not important to “get” something, or interpret, or explain. They are simply quirky, often macabre, flights of fancy. Enjoy being surprised. Enjoy the unexpected. Don’t look for explanations, just enjoy the questions. They’ll stay with you far longer than the answers will.

Favourite quotation:
“Before receiving the tongue of flame, Saint Tongue of Flame never had much of a gift for oratory. Imagine then how disappointed he must have felt when that same artlessness followed him into his evangelical career. True, the tongue of flame had allowed him to proselytize to all peoples in all languages, but it had failed to imbue upon him the requisite oratorical charisma to ensnare the hearts and minds of men in the crook of his fervor…The last of the Pictish tribes had evicted him at spear-point, and the Saracens had found him too tiresome to bother beheading.” (loc 1557-1562)

Michael Andreasen, The Sea Beast Takes a Lover (Head of Zeus, 2018)

Thank you to Michael Andreasen and Head of Zeus via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Quotation of the month – every man is an island

When selecting quotations for this blog, I tend to select quotations about books and reading. It gives me a vague sense of purpose; a theme with which to constrain myself. This quotation isn’t strictly about reading, but it is about communication, and how we can never be truly sure we understand one another. And it blows me away every time I read it.

It makes me think, of course, of John Donne’s Meditations. But also of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the efforts of the academy in Lagado to minimise errors in interpretation by using physical objects in place of words. It even reminds me of that old philosophical chestnut of how we interpret colour — do we each see the same shade of blue, or have we simply learned to call our disparate perceptions of one shade “blue”?

Aldous Huxley The Doors of Perception

“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.”

Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (Penguin, 1973), p.13.

Discovery of the month – it’s always in the last place you’d look

The item I’ve chosen this month is a collection of forms, correspondence, and reports, regarding the compensation given to staff who had been injured at work. It’s from the Wolverton Railway Works collection housed at Milton Keynes Museum; a collection with which I’ve become quite familiar.

This item is grouped into various collections of papers from the 1930s and 1940s related to, for instance, industrial dermatitis and prostheses. But I was interested in this item not for its contents, but for its cannibalisation of other records. Groups of papers have been clipped together, and, seemingly to increase stability, some sturdy pieces of card are used as backing material. But these pieces of card have their own stories.

Plywood Testing WWO120edit
Plywood Test Report found amongst compensation records (WWO/120, Milton Keynes Museum)

Looking through records about skin conditions, and then suddenly finding an air raid sign reminded me of how unpredictable people (and archives) can be. It reminds me of how book binders would reuse Medieval manuscript fragments (see Eric Kwakkel’s excellent posts on this topic). Once the parchment is deemed no longer useful, it is recycled for its sturdiness inside the bindings of other books. While those manuscript fragments have acquired the status of treasure for us, hundreds of years ago, they were nothing more than scraps. WWO/120 contains rather more mundane examples. But it’s remarkable to think that if these hadn’t been repurposed, they might not have been kept at all. It brought home to me how things can be found in the most unexpected places. If you want to know about plywood, look in the medical records, obviously.

Air Raid Sign WWO120
Air Raid Precaution sign reused in compensation papers (WWO/120, Milton Keynes Museum)

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.