Friday, 6 January 2017

Going Underground: Literary Adventures in Subterranean Spaces

Although I started out my career exclusively as a Romanticist, I do now occasionally like to venture a little further into the nineteenth century. I’m particularly interested in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature from the latter part of this period – texts such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901). My favourite late Victorian writer, though, has to be H. G. Wells. I remember first reading The Time Machine (1895) as a little girl and being utterly terrified of – yet also captivated by – the Morlocks. The ending of the novella still haunts me, and every time I reread it (which is usually every year) I find myself wondering what happens to the Time Traveller after he disappears for the final time at the end of the text.

One area that I’m researching at the moment is the fin de si├Ęcle afterlife of the Romantic ‘Last Man’ theme. Readers in the 1890s seem to have had the same appetite for tales of the Last Man on earth as earlier Romantic audiences, and Wells himself engages with the concept of the Last Man in texts such as The War of the Worlds (1897) and The Sleeper Awakes (1899), as well as in The Time Machine. Just as Romantic Last Man texts often respond to the concerns of their age – focusing on posterity, empire, and originality – so, too, does Wells use the idea of the Last Man to examine contemporary questions of science, class, and colonialism in his work.

This little group of ‘Last Man’ novels by Wells is also united by a shared interest in underground spaces, and this is an idea that I’ve explored in an essay that has just been published in a new collection, Utopias and Dystopias in the Fiction of H. G. Wells and William Morris: Landscape and Space, edited by Emelyne Godfrey. In my essay, ‘“Great safe places down deep”: Subterranean spaces in the early novels of H. G. Wells’, I examine how Wells uses underground settings in his work to explore issues of class and power. He engages with both the old associations of underground spaces – which link the subterranean with the dirty and sunlight-deprived workers of the lower classes – and the new possibilities for progress that building beneath the surface of the earth offers. In Wells’s novels, I argue, the strict dichotomy between ‘above’ and ‘below’ is questioned as groups and species move between the two spaces and prompt shifts in the balance of power.

Of course, there are also plenty of subterranean spaces in Romantic literature, most notably in Gothic fiction. In works by writers such as Horace Walpole, Mrs Radcliffe, and Sophia Lee, underground tunnels and chambers hide all manner of secrets. Often dark, claustrophobic, and labyrinthine, these spaces reflect the fears and oppression of those who inhabit them. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Isabella must enter a subterraneous passage beneath the castle in order to escape from the evil Manfred. Her terror at being followed is externalised in her underground surroundings: the doors shake on their rusty hinges as she passes by, and she thinks that she can hear footsteps echoing in the darkness of the passageway behind her. At one point she believes she hears a sigh, and the reader is left wondering whether this is merely the wind moving through the passage, the sound of Manfred in pursuit, or even the voice of the castle itself, which at times seems to live and breathe.

Often, underground spaces are associated explicitly with the (post-)apocalyptic, and this is certainly the case in The War of the Worlds when the artilleryman proposes that humanity should retreat beneath the earth’s surface following the Martian invasion. In the twentieth century, this prospect became all too real as subterranean fallout shelters were constructed the world over in order to provide protection from a possible nuclear attack. Given this link between the apocalyptic and the subterranean, I was interested recently to come across a seemingly rather unremarkable little pamphlet from 1799. The short text advertises itself as a ‘guide for sinners’, and relates the tale of two old men who were supposedly found living underground in Yorkshire. When questioned, these men warned that the end days are upon us; it seems that that the impulse to disappear underground at the threat of apocalypse goes back a very long way indeed!


Utopias and Dystopias in the Fiction of H. G. Wells and William Morris: Landscape and Space, edited by Emelyne Godfrey, is published by Palgrave (£66.99) and can be purchased here.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Last Man: A Post-Apocalyptic Opera

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my major research interests is Romantic literature that depicts the Last Man on earth following an apocalyptic event - I have previously written about apocalypse in the long eighteenth centurythe growth of the Last Man theme1816 and Byron's 'Darkness', and the context of Mary Shelley's Last Man novel.

The Last Man theme, however, extended far beyond literature, and a number of visual depictions of the Last Man were produced at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The majority of these paintings appear to respond to Thomas Campbell's short poem 'The Last Man' (1823), in which 'skeletons of nations' surround the lonely figure of the Last Man as he watches ships 'drifting with the dead' to shores 'where all was dumb' (you can find the full text of the poem here.) Although these images are all undeniably rather bleak, the poem is nevertheless ultimately very optimistic, with the Last Man retaining his faith in God throughout.

The first artist to respond to Campbell's poem was John Martin, a painter famous for his love of dramatic - and often apocalyptic - subjects. Martin made several sketches of the Last Man theme in the 1820s, before producing a watercolour in 1832, and then finally an oil painting in 1849. Martin clearly visualises the Last Man as a Christ-like figure, standing high on a cliff with open arms as he surveys the dying sun slowly dimming over a deserted and desolate landscape.


John Martin's watercolour of 1832 © Laing Art Gallery

John Martin's oil painting of 1849 © Walker Art Gallery

The Christian outlook of Campbell's poem is even more apparent in another picture of the Last Man that was based on this text: J. M. W. Turner's 'The Last Man' (1837). In this painting, the Last Man is a tower of strength and faith, kneeling - just in case you missed those comparisons with Christ(!) - in front of a huge, glowing cross.


J. M. W. Turner's 'The Last Man' (1837) © National Gallery of Scotland

Campbell's poem, however, didn't just inspire the art world. In 1826, an operatic scene based on Campbell's text and set to music by William H. Callcott was performed to rave reviews. The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review commended the composer’s choice of poem, observing that the composition ‘is really a work in which genius shews [sic] forth’. Other publications recommended the piece as a ‘pleasure’ to hear, and called it ‘a composition of no ordinary kind’; indeed, this work proved so popular that it was performed again in 1827, 1828, and 1830.

After 1830, though, the opera appears to have been forgotten. When I came across references to it over the course of my research I was always intrigued to know what it would have sounded like, and this summer I was delighted to work with the Waste Paper Opera Company to revive the piece at a conference I was organising. The song was amazing to hear performed, and was both haunting and powerful. Following feedback from the conference delegates, we decided that the piece should be made available for a wider audience to enjoy and started to look for opportunities to perform it in public. 

The perfect opportunity arose in 'FRIGHTFriday', a collaboration between the Ashmolean Museum and The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) that was organised as part of the Being Human festival. The event saw humanities research centred on the theme of 'Hopes and Fears' opened up to the public, with our performance of the apocalyptic 'The Last Man' opera falling very much into the latter category! The darkness of the Still Life gallery at the Ashmolean provided the perfect backdrop for the piece, with the scenes of tables laden with food reminding me of the abandoned meal that Lionel Verney encounters in Mary Shelley's The Last Man as he wanders across Italy in search of fellow survivors.

The score was arranged by James Olden (who also directed the performance), and the producer of the piece was Klara Kofen. Przemyslaw Baranek (baritone), Sarah Farmer (violin), and Paul Zaba (accordion) really brought the opera to life, and the song was complemented by readings of extracts from other contemporary Last Man texts. I now hope to have the piece recorded professionally so that even more people can hear it - watch this space for further news!

You can find out more about the Last Man opera, and the other FRIGHTFriday projects, here.


I introduce the Last Man theme at the start of the performance


Sarah, James, and Paul perform some extracts from Mary Shelley, Byron, and Pitt


Paul accompanies Przemyslaw as he sings Campbell's words


Przemyslaw performs the operatic song, accompanied by Sarah

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

English Outreach: Digitising Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts

Jane Austen's 'History of England' (1790-93)

I have a long-standing interest in academic outreach, and am always pleased to see new projects that engage the public with academic research. Having always enjoyed working with school-aged students, I’m particularly interested in how academics working in the field of English literature can engage Key Stage 4 and 5 (GCSE and A-level) students with research. As part of my current role as a Career Development Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford, I design and deliver academic sessions for students of this age, covering topics such as the Last Man in Romantic literature (of course!), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Gothic, literary theory, and Romantic love poetry.

While lots of academics are carrying out this sort of outreach work, there are very few opportunities for us to get together with each other – and with teachers – to discuss the ways in which we go about providing outreach and to share best practice. It was for this reason that I organised ‘Academics in the Classroom’, a two-day workshop that took place back in August. This workshop brought together over fifty academics, teachers, and professionals from theatres, libraries, and museums across the UK to consider the wealth of English outreach work that is already being carried out and to discuss how we might innovate in the future.

I found it fascinating to learn about some of the great projects and programmes already taking place, and to hear feedback from teacher colleagues about how academics can best support schools. Our twitter feed, @EnglishOutreach, gives a flavour of some of the discussions that took place, and video recordings of each session are also available to watch on our website. If you’re interested in English outreach, whether as an academic, teacher, student, or another member of the wider English community, please do get in touch with your thoughts! Over the coming months, I’ll be publishing a series of guest blog posts about all aspects of English outreach on the project websiteso if you’re currently participating in any projects – or, indeed, if you’re looking for partners with whom to work – please drop me an email at catherine.redford@hertford.ox.ac.uk.

Manuscript of Chapter 10 from Persuasion
One project that we heard about at the workshop was ‘Digitising Jane Austen’s Fiction Manuscripts’, which is being led by Professor Kathryn Sutherland (University of Oxford). This project – which was highlighted by Dr Lesley Paterson in her talk on public engagement with research – brings together over 1,100 pages of Austen’s manuscripts, published as high-quality digital images on a free-to-use website. These manuscripts, which are located in museums, libraries, and private collections around the world, have previously been accessible to just a handful of scholars, but are now available for anyone with an interest in Austen to enjoy. The images are even encoded to make them fully searchable, meaning that the manuscripts are available for analysis in close detail.

This is a brilliant example of public engagement with research, as the project is simultaneously an invaluable research resource for scholars and of great interest to any general reader of Austen’s books. Professor Sutherland is currently also piloting a transcription tool to be used in schools, which will enable students to engage with the manuscripts in a more interactive way. I regularly run a session for school students on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript, and often see the students in these sessions really relishing the challenge of deciphering an author’s hand and using the manuscripts to learn about the writing process. I'm therefore really interested to see how this pilot goes - I'm sure that it will be very popular with students and teachers alike!

I know from the emails I receive that this blog is read by all sorts of people with an interest in Romanticism, including academics, university students, school students, and other general members of the public. Whatever your background, the digital edition of Austen’s fiction manuscripts is an excellent resource, bringing together manuscripts from around the world that trace Austen’s development as a writer from her teenage years to her final works.


Monday, 23 May 2016

Frankenstein: A New Ballet

Image: © British Library
When I first heard that the Royal Opera House was planning to stage Frankenstein as a ballet I was hugely excited and intrigued, but also a little wary: how would this classic Romantic work – and seminal Gothic masterpiece – translate to dance? Of course, Frankenstein has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times; in the decades following the novel’s publication, it was the inspiration for Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) and H. M. Milner’s The Man and the Monster! Or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1852). More recently, the text has inspired several films, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), I, Frankenstein (2014), and Victor Frankenstein (2015). In 2011, the Royal National Theatre staged an adaptation written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle in which the two lead actors swapped the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature on alternating nights.

As far as I know, though, there’s never been a dance version of Frankenstein, so I was really interested to see how this new adaptation by Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence, would work. I have to admit, I was a bit cynical about how a text that is structured around story-telling and made up a layers of narration could be told without words. Scarlett overcomes this challenge, however, by showing us different perspectives: the creature learns about the world in parallel with the young William, just as in the novel Frankenstein's story of what happens when he returns home is followed by the Creature outlining his experiences during this period.

Walton is completely absent from this adaptation, which is entirely understandable: it would be very difficult to transpose Shelley’s intricate narratorial structure to the stage in its entirety. In other respects, however, Scarlett's production remains more faithful to the text than other recent artistic responses. Act I shows us Frankenstein’s childhood in detail, telling the story of how Elizabeth comes to be a part of the family and grows up alongside Frankenstein. Laura Morera is absolutely stunning as Elizabeth, conveying her character’s tenderness and longing and placing her at the centre of the story.

J. M. W. Turner, 'Mer de Glace' (1803)
The set for this ballet is really beautifully designed – there are lots of little details that really add to the production. The backdrop for Act II appears to have been inspired by Mary Shelley’s contemporary descriptions of the ‘shattered pines’ that were scattered around the landscape that she saw in Switzerland in 1816, and seems to draw on contemporary paintings such as J. M. W. Turner’s ‘Mer de Glace, in the Valley of Chamouni, Switzerland’ (1803). Likewise, the apocalyptic ending (in which Frankenstein dies, but in an unexpected manner… I’ll say no more!) is complemented by a fiery backdrop that is reminiscent of John Martin’s work.

The anatomy theatre in which Frankenstein learns about the human body before reconstructing a dissected cadaver and bringing him back to life was similarly atmospheric, managing to be cold and bleak and yet also full of interesting details such as specimen jars filled with grotesque samples. Contemporary scientific experiments were, of course, often ‘performed’ before the public; Humphry Davy in particular was concerned with how scientific lecturers should present themselves before an audience. It’s therefore entirely appropriate that the anatomy theatre in this ballet becomes a space of performance, with Thomas Whitehead playing an intense and theatrical professor. Like the mesmerised students on stage, the viewers in the audience are drawn into a world of scientific wonder where anything seems possible.

Image: © Royal Opera House
The anatomy theatre also functions as a kind of nightmarish mental space, symbolising Frankenstein’s obsession and torment. Various images are projected onto the walls, from whirling, imprisoning bars to raging lightening as Frankenstein’s work draws to a climax. The skeletons that adorn the set are both spooky and scientific, illustrating how Mary Shelley took the supernatural Gothic conventions of the eighteenth century and transformed them into a new, modern Gothic for the nineteenth century. The sterile and scientific setting of the laboratory is far removed from the traditional crumbling Gothic castle so commonplace in late eighteenth-century literature, but is just as scary. This transformation of Gothic conventions in Mary Shelley’s work is suggested from the beginning of the ballet, which opens with a picture of a fear-inducing skull which is then overlaid with scientific notes and diagrams.

Steven McRae plays a Creature who is about as distant from the Hollywood version as you can get – he’s sensitive, sensual, and longs for companionship (I must admit, I had a little weep in the third Act). McRae uses dance to grant the Creature a voice, demonstrating how he learns social courtesies from little William and longs to experience the romantic love shown by Frankenstein and Elizabeth. His feelings for his creator are intense and erotic, and in the final fight between the pair Frankenstein’s repulsion is countered by the Creature’s attraction: where Frankenstein attempts to hurt and destroy, the Creature seems to embrace. 

Image: © Royal Opera House
Despite Frankenstein’s apparent horror at his creation’s love for him, his own feelings for the
Creature reveal a homoerotic desire at times; Frankenstein straddles the Creature as he attempts to bring him to life, making the moment of birth (and the moment at which the father waits to meet his son) simultaneously a moment of copulation. Just as the Creature occupies peripheral spaces in the novel (hiding out in mountain ranges and peering through windows), so too does McRae’s Creature hide in the shadows on stage, lurking behind trees and flashing before Frankenstein’s eyes during the wedding dance.

If you have tickets for this brilliant production (lucky you!), I hope that you enjoy it – let me know what you think! If you didn’t manage to get tickets, there are a few little videos available on the Royal Opera House website that will give you an idea of what the production was like. This has all the makings of a classic ballet, so I’m sure that it will be performed again in the future.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Journal Lists: Reading Literature in Serial Form

January 1891 issue of All the Year Round
When I teach the likes of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins to my undergraduates, I always encourage them to think about the way in which these texts were originally published: not as weighty tomes, but in serial form. Readers of periodicals such as Master Humphrey’s ClockBentley’s MiscellanyHousehold Words, and All The Year Round would follow stories in instalments over several months, and delighted in writing to the authors to outline their hopes (and fears) for forthcoming episodes.  

Given this publishing history, it’s rather odd that we now read these texts in single-volume form, paying little, if any, attention to the original breaks in the narrative. The same is true when we approach the numerous letters and diaries – both real and fictional – produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; we consume huge chunks at once without a second thought for their chronology in terms of composition or publication.

If, like me, you’ve always fancied having a go at reading one of these texts in the instalments in which it was first produced or published, you’ll be delighted to hear about a recent project called Journal Lists. Set up by Hazel Wilkinson and Will Bowers, this website allows you to receive instalments of a variety of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century works straight to your inbox – and all free of charge.

Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips
In January and February this year, I really enjoyed receiving Byron’s Ravenna Journal day by day, and I can confirm that it really makes a difference to read a text in this way. By consuming a text at a slower pace, the reader has time to dwell on individual entries and consider details that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. I don’t think that I’d have noticed how miserable Byron was about the weather in early January had I not been confronted with his lamentations each and every morning. On 4 January, Byron complained ‘weather bad – bad as England – worse’, while the next day he notes that it’s ‘dripping and dense’. 6 January sees ‘Mist – thaw – slop – rain’, followed on 7 January by ‘rain – mist – snow – drizzle’: you get the picture! Had I read through these entries quickly, I’m not sure that I would have picked up on the length of time for which this bad weather endured, but having to read Byron’s observations daily I found myself getting nearly as fed up with the damp, gloomy conditions as he was!

I’m currently subscribed to John Clare’s The Shepherd’s Calendar, which pings into my inbox on the first of each month, and to William Cobbett’s Rural Rides. Daily issues of The Spectator and instalments of Dickens’s Hard Times are currently going strong. I’m very much looking forward to Mary and Percy Shelley’s Geneva letters, which start on 17 May – I’ve already signed up for this one!

To explore the other texts available for subscription and to find out more about this brilliant project, visit the Journal Lists website. 

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Celebrating International Women's Day with the Romantics

Happy International Women’s Day! I’ve seen quite a few articles today that – quite rightly – highlight the achievements and struggles of contemporary women, but I thought I’d mark the day by putting together a list of some of my favourite literary women from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. So here, in no particular order, are ten women who you should make time to read; why not celebrate International Women’s Day by picking up one of the suggested texts below?


Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Shelley was a pioneer of science fiction, writing Frankenstein (1818) while she was still a teenager. Shelley went on to write numerous novels, short stories, travelogues, letters, journals, and biographies in her lifetime, demonstrating extraordinary range. Her fiction explores the Gothic, the historical, the fantastic, and the futuristic, experimenting with narrative voice and frequently examining gender issues.
Where to start: Frankenstein; The Last Man; Mathilda


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
An advocate of women’s rights, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she argued that women aren’t naturally inferior to men, stressing that their ‘appearance of weakness’ is caused by their lack of education and suggesting that women should ‘share the advantages of education and government with man’.
Where to start: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; Mary: A Fiction; Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark


Felicia Hemans (1793-1835)
Felicia Hemans
Felicia Hemans was the most widely-read female poet in the English-speaking world during the nineteenth century. A writer of letters and prose as well as poetry, Hemans’s work is hugely patriotic, and frequently explores the position of women in the world.
Where to start: ‘The Image in Lava’; England and Spain; ‘The Grave of a Poetess’


Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855)
In her poem 'Why Dorothy Wordsworth is not as Famous as her Brother', Lynn Peters playfully depicts a frustrated Dorothy attempting to compose poetry while being constantly distracted by William’s questions about his laundry and meals. While Dorothy did not become a great poet, her journals present a vivid description of her day-to-day life, and even helped to inspire her brother: William’s famous ‘Daffodils’ is clearly influenced by Dorothy’s diary entry for 15 April 1802 in which she records how she’s seen daffodils that ‘tossed & reeled & danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing’.
Where to start: The Grasmere and Alfoxden Journals


Anna Laetitia Barbauld
Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825)
Anna Laetitia Barbauld was considered one of the great writers of her time, producing poems, essays, and children’s literature. A middle-class Protestant dissenter, Barbauld’s work addressed issues such as religious liberty, gender equality, and the slave trade.
Where to start: ‘Washing Day’; ‘Epistle to William Wilberforce, Esq. on the Rejection of the Bill for Abolishing the Slave Trade’; ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a Poem’



Mary Hays (1759-1843)
Mary Hays was very much influenced by Mary Wollstonecraft, and corresponded with a number of radicals and non-conformists during her lifetime. Drawing on her own experiences, Hays used her novels to consider female desire and class hierarchies. Although Hays’s work was widely criticised at the time for being too radical and unfeminine, she’s now receiving increased critical attention.  
Where to start: Memoirs of Emma Courtney; The Victim of Prejudice


Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)
Mrs Radcliffe was a pioneer of the Gothic novel in the 1790s, using the ‘explained supernatural’ to ultimately attribute earthly causes to seemingly ghostly occurrences. Often interspersing her prose with poetry, Radcliffe’s descriptions of nature engage with the sublime and have a distinctly pictorial quality.
Where to start: The Mysteries of Udolpho; The Italian; The Romance of the Forest


Jane Austen
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
One of the most widely-read writers in English, Jane Austen is still beloved by scholars, the casual reading public, and dedicated ‘Janeites’ alike. A bold experimenter with free indirect speech, Austen produced works loaded with social commentary that interrogates the position of women in society. Recent feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial approaches to Austen’s work have opened up the novels in new ways, and her work continues to be adapted frequently for film and television.
Where to start: Pride and Prejudice; Emma; Persuasion


Elizabeth Hands (1746-1815)
Elizabeth Hands was a labouring-class poet in the eighteenth century. Little is known about her life, but it’s believed that she worked as a domestic servant. Her work is intelligent and satirical, addressing ideas of social status, literature, and domesticity.
Where to start: ‘A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper’; ‘A Poem, on the Supposition of the Book Having Been Published and Read’; ‘Written, Originally Extempore, on Seeing a Mad Heifer’


Charlotte Smith
Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)
Charlotte Smith was a key Romantic writer, helping to shape the concerns and conventions of the period. A reviver of the sonnet, Smith experimented with form in her poetry and explored both the Gothic and sentimentality in her novels. She was also the author of four children’s books. Recent scholarship has shown that Smith particularly influenced William Wordsworth.
Where to start: Elegiac Sonnets; ‘Beachy Head’

Monday, 1 February 2016

Imagining the Apocalypse in the Long Eighteenth Century

John Martin's 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' (1822)
In last month’s blog post, I mentioned that I was in the process of organising a conference around the theme of ‘Imagining Apocalypse’. I’m pleased to announce that the Call for Papers has now been released, and any academics with an interest in depictions of apocalypse across the long eighteenth century are warmly encouraged to submit a paper. Further details can be found here.

As I’m keen to open out academic research to non-academics, we’re planning to end the conference with a fantastic event that I’m hoping will be enjoyed by a wider audience: a staging of William H. Callcott’s opera The Last Man, which was written in 1826. Based on Thomas Campbell’s poem of the same name, this opera received rave reviews at the time – and was performed again in 1827, 1828, and 1830 – but has subsequently been forgotten. Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of the Last Man theme in Romantic literature, so I’m hugely excited about reviving this opera. We plan to record the event in order to make it available to a wider range of people; do look out for further details of that on this blog over the coming months!

Frontispiece to A Revealed Knowledge
Although my own personal research interests lie in Last Man literature, there was lots going on over the course of the long eighteenth century (roughly 1660-1830) when it came to ideas of apocalypse. Many people responded to the French Revolution by thinking about it in apocalyptic terms, and the growth of cities such as London was frequently explored with apocalyptic imagery. Richard Brothers – a radical protestant and Calvinist – depicted London as the sinful city of Revelation in his A Revealed Knowledge of the Prophecies and Times (1794), describing how ‘her streets are full of prostitutes, and many of her houses are full of crimes; it is for such exceeding wickedness that St John spiritually calls London [in Revelation] by the name of Sodom’.

The summer of 1816 – otherwise known as the Year Without a Summer – was also filled with apocalyptic anxiety as people speculated that the gloomy weather heralded the end of the world. Indeed, the April 1816 edition of the Literary Panorama led with a headline that warned ‘The End of the World! The End of the World!’. This was the summer in which Lord Byron wrote his famous poem ‘Darkness’: a text that imagines the death of the sun and the subsequent demise of humanity.

Joanna Southcott
Millenarial cults were, unsurprisingly, flourishing at this time. The self-proclaimed prophetess Joanna Southcott gained a following of 100,000 by 1808 due to her supposed ability to see visions of the forthcoming New Jerusalem, with this cult achieving a second climax in 1814 when Southcott suffered a hysterical pregnancy and claimed that she would give birth to the son of God. In 1826, Mary Shelley examined the dangers of such cults in her novel The Last Man, in which a charlatan in Paris sets himself up as a prophet and recruits numerous followers as a terrible plague sweeps the globe.

We’ll be exploring all of these ideas and more at the ‘Imagining Apocalypse’ conference. In the meantime, here's an article that I recently wrote for The Conversation about how the theme of survival has dominated this year’s Oscar nominations; it seems that our interest in post-apocalypse, the Last Man, and living on against the odds continues!