Holiday Reading: Marks out of Ten 
Thursday, August 30, 2007, 08:21 PM
Sam Bourne: The Last Testament (6.5/10)

Exciting, well paced thriller set in the Middle East. What is the link between an ancient clay tablet and the current peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis? The characterisation and writing are both a bit clunky but Bourne (aka the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland) offers a nuanced and informed take on the political and historical issues at stake.

Daphne Du Maurier: The House on the Strand (7/10)

I very much enjoyed rereading My Cousin Rachel last summer – The House on the Strand (which I read years ago but had completely forgotten) is less successful overall, but still intriguing. The central character, Dick, becomes addicted to a mysterious chemical (manufactured by his old friend Magnus, a research scientist) which takes him back to the fourteenth century where he witnesses a series of (mostly unfortunate) events. The historical section is less compelling than the protagonist’s fraught relationships with his wife Vita and with Magnus.

Edward Bulwer Lytton: The Coming Race (7/10)

Fascinating as a very early (1871) work of SF – the narrator discovers a strange race of advanced humanoids living under the earth – but a bit static as a work of fiction. Rather like Swift’s Houyhnhnms, the powerful and peaceful Vril have sacrificed artistic genius and passion in their quest for order and stability.

Stephen Baxter: Navigator (7.5/10)

The third in Baxter’s strangely compelling ‘Time’s Tapestry’ series, an exploration of how meddlers from the future are trying to change the course of history by sending mysterious ‘prophecies’ and warnings into the past. The second, Conqueror, is still the best so far in my opinion. However Navigator’s depiction of the Reconquista is effective - the distinction drawn between the urbane, tolerant Muslims and the fanatical Christians - or should that be Christianists - is pleasing, if predictable.

Eliza Lynn Linton: The Rebel of the Family (8.5/10)

I’m a great fan of slightly second rate Victorian novelists – writers such as Dinah Craik and Charlotte Yonge offer insights into everyday life which sometimes seem lacking in Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. One of my favourite of these ‘also rans’ is Rhoda Broughton who continued writing well into the twentieth century – indeed her A Fool in her Folly (published in 1920 but set around 1860) can be seen as a harbinger of the current fashion for Neo-Victorianism – here she explicitly states that she is writing about matters which are either too sexy or too humdrum to have been addressed in the Victorian novel proper.

The Rebel of the Family is not a brilliant novel but its flaws and oddnesses are what make it so fascinating. Written by the supposedly conservative social commentator, Eliza Lynn Linton, it doesn’t seem to know whether to sympathise with Perdita, its gawky, rebellious heroine, or condemn her. It is perhaps best known today for its (negative) portrait of a lesbian character, Bell Blount, Man-hating Bell may not be a very attractive character, but the exploits of Perdita’s mercenary and conventional mother and sisters seem calculated to flatter rather than depress the heroine’s wish for an independent career. The novel is still a real page turner and the Broadview Press edition is excellent.
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Double Trouble: Christopher Priest 
Thursday, August 9, 2007, 06:29 PM
My research into doubles (as part of a new project on uncanny allusion) has involved rereading lots of familiar nineteenth-century texts (such as R.L. Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae and Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer’).

But I’ve also been pursuing the Double into the twentieth and twenty first centuries and discovering some excellent contemporary novels in the process, including many by my latest favourite writer, Christopher Priest – sorry, I mean Christopher Priest. For Christopher Priest is plagued by a real life double as well as being the creator of many fascinating fictional examples.

Priest is an underrated writer, partly because his novels are generally, to some degree, science fictional. Thus his latest novel, The Separation (2002), won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award but was otherwise comparatively overlooked. His cool, detached style is reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro while his ingenious, speculative subject matter is closer to David Mitchell.

It is to be hoped that the film version of perhaps the best Priest novel, The Prestige will introduce more readers to his works. The film is good – but the book is even better.

Intriguingly, the spooky doubles which crop in so many of his novels become even more spooky if you read them as a set rather than in isolation. Try reading The Affirmation, The Prestige and then The Separation in quick succession and you’ll see what I mean ….

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AHRC block grants for postgraduates: a missed opportunity? 
Tuesday, July 31, 2007, 08:14 AM
I attended a useful workshop on the AHRC’s proposed new method of postgraduate funding yesterday. Rather than all applications being handled by the AHRC, as at present, 80% of awards will be allocated to institutions as ‘block grants’. Students will apply to these institutions directly rather than go via the AHRC. 20% of awards will still be ‘open’ and will only go to students applying for places at institutions who don’t have these block grants.

An institution can only apply for a block grant (and I think the smallest block will comprise 10 awards) if they have a good track record of attracting successful AHRC applicants. So institutions like my own, Anglia Ruskin, would not be eligible to apply as we get very few research council funded graduate students.

In so far as I understand the new system the changes are unlikely to have much effect on us. We can still hope to attract the odd AHRC funded student through open competition so we won’t be disadvantaged by not having the ‘block grants’.

But I think this could have been an opportunity not simply to (effectively) maintain the status quo but to recognise the efforts of departments which, when it comes to attracting excellent research students, punch below their weight.

Thus my own department got a 5 in the last RAE but doesn’t attract many postgraduates who are likely to get research council funding because it is a new university and thus lacks kudos. For, despite our rather – ur – forceful poster campaign we aren’t poaching all that many students from Cambridge University, as yet.

If the AHRC could give departments/institutions like ours very small block grants (of say 3 awards) that would help redistribute students better amongst qualified supervisors - at present young and inexperienced supervisors at Russell Group Universities are probably likely to have more, good graduate students than more senior figures at new universities.

I realise that other factors, such as library provision, training and general research environment are important, not just the qualifications of individual supervisors, but still think the AHRC might, perhaps in the future, consider the case for a mild redistribution in favour of the many excellent departments to be found in the new university sector.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Exceeds Expectations?? 
Sunday, July 22, 2007, 11:38 AM


Perhaps the biggest problem with the final Harry Potter book is that it closed down all the possible plot twists and different alternatives – is Snape good or bad? – will Harry live or die? – providing us with the canonical answers to all our questions.

A more specific – and far more avoidable – problem was the introduction of the ‘deathly hallows’ themselves. When there were so many resonant strands she could have tapped into from the six earlier books why did she have to introduce this uncompelling additional complication? (Horcruxes were bad enough.)

Admittedly, when her readers’ collective expectations were so great it was hard to live up to them, let alone exceed them. I think on balance the ending (if not the epilogue) was pretty powerful and effective. But the book did seem to be missing some kind of big surprise or punchline somehow, some truly devastating revelation.

My own pet theory, for example, had focused on the character of Snape. I thought (in defiance even of the Rowling universe’s internal logic, I know) that Snape would turn out to be James Potter under the influence of polyjuice potion. This would account for Dumbledore’s unswerving trust in the sinister Potions Master.

I wasn’t too surprised to be proved wrong, but I was disappointed not to see more of Snape (my favourite character) in the final instalment. I wish Rowling had abandoned the ‘Hallows’ motif in order to spend more time in Hogwarts developing established characters such as Snape, Slughorn and Neville.

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Dorian Gray/Jekyll and Hyde: The Mystery of the Vanishing Body 
Friday, July 13, 2007, 07:11 AM

The Puzzle

I was recently rereading Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and was struck by a little incident which I’d completely forgotten about. After Dorian stabs the portrait painter, Basil Hallward, he enlists the help of an old friend, Alan Campbell, to help dispose of the body.

Campbell is a scientist who had been Dorian’s friend five years ago but now loathes him. However, because Dorian knows about an unspecified secret which would ruin Campbell if it were revealed, the scientist agrees to use a mysterious chemical process to dissolve Basil’s body.

I started wondering why Wilde introduced this episode – why not just have Dorian push Hallward into a river rather than bring in a whole new character at a late stage?

A Clue

Maybe a clue lies in Dorian’s reaction after Campbell’s later suicide:

"As for Alan Campbell, his suicide had been his own act. He had chosen to do it. It was nothing to him."

It is tellingly difficult to disentangle the pronouns here. This draws attention to Dorian’s own culpability in Alan’s suicide despite his attempt to deny any responsibility for the act. It also, within the context of a novel which pivots around a sinister double, suggests that Alan is in some sense a further ‘double’ of Dorian.

A (speculative) Solution

This hint that Campbell is Dorian’s double makes more sense if we think outside the box – or outside the text – about the significance of the mysterious medic. Alan Campbell has a conspicuously Scottish name, he followed the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge and has since made a study of both chemistry and biology: ‘every day he seemed to become more interested in biology, and his name appeared once or twice in some of the scientific reviews, in connection with certain curious experiments’.

With his Scottish antecedents, scientific curiosity, notorious experiments and mysterious secret, Campbell can be seen as a kind of avatar of one of the key sources for Wilde’s novel, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which also deals with a man’s destruction by his malevolent double.

A further clue to such a reading of Campbell’s role is offered by the information that Dorian had been close to him ‘five years before’. Stevenson’s own doppelganger novel was published exactly five years before Wilde’s.

And Finally …

The Picture of Dorian Gray could be seen as Jekyll and Hyde’s evil twin, as its decadent atmosphere and moral uncertainties contrast with Stevenson’s apparently more upright novel. It is therefore significant that Dorian should play Hyde, as it were, picking up again the theme of blackmail which also haunts the earlier text. But if we interpret Alan Campbell as an emblem of the novel rather than simply a reincarnation of Jekyll we might probe the relationship a little further. Wilde’s decadent tale threatens to expose the secrets of its textual ‘double’, and its overt homoeroticism casts a new and more lurid light on the homosocial world of Jekyll and his bachelor friends.

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