Friday 21 December 2012

1816, Byron's 'Darkness', and the end of the world

John Martin's vision of the end of the world, The Last Man (1849)

As someone who spends her days working on a PhD about the Last Man on earth theme in Romantic literature, I’m always interested in predictions of the end of the world and the public reaction to them. From the Nostradamus prophecies and the fear of the Y2K ‘Millennium Bug’, both of which suggested apocalyptic scenarios occurring at the turn of the twenty-first century, to the American radio evangelist Harold Camping’s repeated predictions that the world will end (the last date given being 21 October 2011), it’s fascinating watching the varied responses from society, which range from scorn and ridicule to terror and hysteria, to these predictions of apocalypse.

The latest of these predictions surrounds the Mayan calendar, which ends on 21 December 2012; while scholars of Mayan culture assert that this simply marks the supposed dawning of a new age, many others have identified this date as (yet another) doomsday. Because of the mythical associations of the Mayan civilisation, accompanied by some bizarre internet rumours of extraterrestrial gods and the forthcoming collision of earth with the mysterious planet ‘Nibiru’, this prediction of apocalypse has really captured the world’s imagination. In 2009, the blockbuster film 2012 was released alongside a viral marketing campaign which allowed fans to register for a lottery number to save them from the forthcoming disaster, and in the past three years a number of new-age books and documentaries offering ‘evidence’ that the world will end on 21 December 2012 have appeared. Last month, the illusionist Derren Brown apparently hypnotised someone into believing that a zombie apocalypse had occurred for a two-part special aired on Channel 4, while a recent tongue-in-cheek marketing campaign from Lynx for its latest scent, ‘2012’, suggests that users ‘get it on for the end of the world’, demonstrating that the idea of an imminent apocalypse has well and truly entered popular culture.

Despite NASA assuring the masses that the apocalypse will not occur on this date, there have been various reports in the past few weeks of mounting panic around the world, from the Russians panic-buying survival supplies to Americans purchasing bunkers in which to sit out doomsday.

Apocalypse paranoia is, of course, nothing new, and the date I’m really interested in is 18 July 1816, given by the so-called ‘Bologna prophecy’ as the day on which the world would end. Widely known as ‘the year without a summer’, 1816 was an uncommonly cold and dark year: the coldest on record, before or since, in Western Europe, New England, and Quebec. The gloomy atmospheric conditions were, it later transpired, caused by the 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia which had an impact on global weather systems for three years, leading to food riots and crop failure. British periodicals of the time were fixated with news of the freak weather conditions; the New Monthly Magazine and Universal Register, for example, reported that ‘[t]he cold wet weather throughout the whole of the last month, with the uncommon backward state of vegetation, has given a gloomy appearance to the country’, while the Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany observed that ‘[f]or several months past, the foreign journals have been almost filled with lamentable accounts of the destructive effects produced in most parts of the Continent by the severe and tempestuous weather which has prevailed’. 

Combined with a coincidental increase in sunspot activity in early 1816, these unusual climatic conditions were interpreted by many as a sign of the impending apocalypse, with the most famous prediction of doomsday being the aforementioned Bologna prophecy. Such predictions were widely disputed in the press; the Scots Magazine, for example, printed a substantial article charting the failure in the past of similar predictions to come true and explaining the science behind the sun’s activity. Many people were, however, nonetheless panicked, with a maid servant from Kennington reported to have committed suicide due to her fears about the approaching apocalypse.

Lord Byron, author of 'Darkness'
Spending the summer in Geneva with Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron experienced the gloomy weather first-hand, reporting in a letter to Samuel Rogers dated 29 July 1816 that ‘we have had lately such stupid mists – fogs – rains – and perpetual density’. Between 21 July and 25 August 1816 – that is, just after the passing of the date given by the Bologna prophecy –  Byron wrote ‘Darkness’, a poem about the death of the sun and the demise of humanity.

In this text, we encounter ideas of a dark atmosphere and growing despair as resources run low and men are compelled to compete for survival. Forced to burn houses as fuel, they resort to cannibalism before beginning to starve to death. When the last two inhabitants of a large city die, killed by their mutual hideousness, the world becomes ‘a lump of death’, without animals, vegetation, wind, sun, a moon, waves, or clouds. In the poem’s final, terrifying line, there is said to be nothing left in the universe but perpetual and all-consuming darkness. The poem was described as ‘any thing but pleasing’ by the Eclectic Review, which predicted that ‘few persons [...] will be inclined to read it twice’. So, as another doomsday passes us by, I give you the ultimate end-of-the-world poem for your reading pleasure: Byron’s ‘Darkness’.

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed,
And men were gathered round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other's face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;
Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour
They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks
Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd,
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd
And twined themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again;--a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought--and that was death,
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails--men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devoured,
Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answered not with a caress--he died.
The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they raked up,
And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died--
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful--was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirred within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd
They slept on the abyss without a surge--
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon their mistress had expir'd before;
The winds were withered in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.

Monday 17 December 2012

'Grasmere 2012'

Back in August, I blogged about my time at the Wordsworth Summer Conference 2012, saying how much I'd enjoyed all of the papers and lectures during my ten-day stay in Grasmere. Twelve of these papers and lectures, as chosen by the conference delegates, are now available in Grasmere 2012: Selected Papers from the Wordsworth Summer Conference, edited by Richard Gravil. I feel really honoured to have my paper, 'The Last Man and Romantic Archaeology', included in the collection, and am very grateful to all of the conference participants who voted for it as one of their favourites.

There are some fantastic papers and lectures included in the book, and I'm looking forward to settling down for an afternoon over the Christmas holidays and reading them again. As always, the work of some really prestigious academics is included alongside papers by postgraduate and early career scholars and, as you will see from the contents below, the topics covered are fascinating.

The book is available in a range of formats: as a paperback, a PDF eBook, and a Kindle eBook. If you're after an eBook version, I'd recommend the PDF over the Kindle version; not only does it feature the thirteen illustrations in full colour, but it also has proper page numbers (and is therefore citeable) and produces substantially more revenue for the Wordsworth Conference Foundation, which in turn pays for postgraduate bursaries for future conferences.

The paperback is £12.95, and is available here
The PDF eBook is £7.95, and is available here
The Kindle eBook is £6.43, and is available here

Full contents:
Heather Glen, '"We are Seven" in the 1790s'
Judyta Frodyma, 'Lowth, Landscape, and the Biblical Echoes in Wordsworth's "Home at Grasmere"'
Pamela Woof, 'Dorothy Wordsworth, Writer: The Middle Years'
Suzanne Stewart, 'A Finely-Tuned Instrument: Dorothy Wordsworth and the Synaesthetic Experience'
Judith W. Page, '"The Lonely Hills": Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth, and the Lakeland Landscape'
Heidi Thomson, 'The Lyric Power of Connection in Wordsworth's "Poem upon the Wye" and Auden's "In Praise of Limestone"'
Anthony John Harding, 'Contempt for the Reading Public? Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the Book Business'
Peter Swaab, 'The Poet and the Poetical Artist: Sara Coleridge as a Critic of Wordsworth'
Paul Whickman, 'From "Laon and Cythna" to "The Revolt of Islam": Shelley's Revisions in Context'
Catherine Redford, 'The Last Man and Romantic Archaeology'
Stacey McDowell, 'Keats's "Ode on Indolence"'
Jason Goldsmith, 'Re-Drawing the Borders of Vision; Or, The Art of Picturesque Travel'

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Review: 'The Annotated Frankenstein'

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
There are certain books that you need multiple editions of. I have six different copies of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, for example, but you’d probably guessed that already. As for that other great work by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, I had always got along quite nicely with three editions: the Penguin edition based on the 1831 text (now in very real danger of falling apart, as this is the edition from which I tend to teach), the Oxford edition based on the 1818 text, and the Bodleian’s Original Frankenstein. When I say got along quite nicely, I mean until the recent publication of The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao: I am now the proud owner of four different editions of the novel. So what’s so great about this new edition?

It’s not cheap (£22.95 / $29.95), and nor is it suitable as a teaching or general reading text. At first glance, this version looks more like a coffee-table edition than a scholarly resource: a large hardback, it’s well bound, full colour, and printed on beautiful quality paper. Filled with illustrations of the manuscript, the first edition, contemporary art, stills from various cinematic adaptations, and portraits of Mary Shelley and her associates, it’s a real joy to browse. However, as the title suggests, this edition is also heavily annotated, and nearly every page features marginal glosses directing us to passages from Milton and the Bible, offering details of manuscript alterations, or giving relevant historical information.

The presence of these notes as a marginal commentary gives the impression that we are reading the copy of Frankenstein owned by the editors, filled with decades’ worth of scribbled observations made by Wolfson and Levao. Yes, some of the notes are rather obvious for those of us who have read and re-read the novel countless times (the Miltonic allusions, for example, come as no surprise!), but others offer genuinely interesting flashes of insight which have certainly enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the text. As such, this edition should prove to be useful for both first-time students of the novel and dedicated fans alike; there’s something here for everyone.

Based on the 1818 text, The Annotated Frankenstein also reprints Mary Shelley’s introduction (supplemented by some great pictures) alongside a selection of revised passages, as well as providing an engaging general introduction by the editors. No matter how many editions of Frankenstein you currently own, you should make room for this one on your bookshelf.

The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, published by Harvard University Press, is out now.

Sunday 28 October 2012

'In Our Time': Romantic topics from the archives

While a lot of the programmes broadcast on BBC Radio 4 are only available to listen to again for 7 days, the 'In Our Time' archive is available indefinitely, and there's some really interesting stuff there for Romanticists if you're willing to trawl through the back catalogue. Covering variously authors, texts, themes, and events, each programme is a 45-minute discussion between Melvyn Bragg and a panel of three experts, and can provide a nice introduction to a topic with which you are unfamiliar. Even better, the webpage for each programme often features a short list of further reading which can be pretty useful.

Intrigued? Well, I've done all the hard work for you, and listed below a selection of programmes which are of interest to Romanticists, with some topics covering the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more generally. The title of each programme is hyperlinked and will take you straight to the relevant 'listen again' page. You can either stream episodes or download them and listen to them where and when you want. Happy listening!

Romanticism: Key Topics, Texts, and People

The Romantics
A discussion of the ideals, exponents, and legacy of Romanticism.
Panel: Rosemary Ashton, Jonathan Bate, and Nicholas Roe.
First broadcast: 12 October 2000

The Later Romantics
An examination of the poetry, tragedy, and idealism of Byron, Shelley, and Keats.
Panel: Jonathan Bate, Jennifer Wallace, and Robert Woof.
First broadcast: 15 April 2004

Manuscript of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
A discussion of Byron's poem as both a snapshot of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century and an insight into the political and intellectual concerns of its author.
Panel: Jonathan Bate, Emily Bernhard Jackson, and Jane Stabler.
First broadcast: 6 January 2011

Lyrical Ballads
A discussion of the groundbreaking text by Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Panel: Jonathan Bate, Judith Hawley, and Peter Swaab.
First broadcast: 8 March 2012

The Prelude
Discussion of The Prelude, one of the greatest long poems in the English language.
Panel: Rosemary Ashton, Stephen Gill, and Emma Mason.
First broadcast: 22 November 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft
A discussion of the life and ideas of the pioneering British Enlightenment thinker Mary Wollstonecraft.
Panel: John Mullan, Karen O'Brien, and Barbara Taylor.
First broadcast: 31 Dec 2009

William Hazlitt
A discussion of the life and works of the great essayist William Hazlitt.
Panel: Jonathan Bate, Anthony Grayling, and Uttara Natarajan.
First broadcast: 8 April 2010

Edmund Burke
Discussion of the eighteenth-century philosopher, politician, and writer Edmund Burke.
Panel: Richard Bourke, John Keane, and Karen O'Brien.
First broadcast: 3 June 2010

A discussion of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, the great German polymath.
Panel: Tim Blanning, Sarah Colvin, and W. Daniel Wilson.
First broadcast: 6 April 2006

An examination of the origins and significance of the eighteenth-century Gothic movement.
Panel: Chris Baldick, Emma Clery, and A. N. Wilson.
First broadcast: 4 January 2001

The Sublime
An exploration of the transcendental idea that took hold on the Age of Enlightenment.
Panel: Peter de Bolla, Annie Janowitz, and Janet Todd.
First broadcast: 12 February 2004

An examination of the ideas behind the eighteenth-century literary cult of sensibility.
Panel: Hermione Lee, John Mullan, and Claire Tomalin.
First broadcast: 3 January 2002

Contextual Topics

The Peterloo Massacre
An examination of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, a defining moment of its age.
Panel: Jeremy Black, Clive Emsley, and Sarah Richardson.
First broadcast: 15 December 2005

The Industrial Revolution
A discussion of the influence of the Industrial Revolution.
Panel: Lawrence Goldman, Emma Griffin, and Jane Humphries.
First broadcast: 30 December 2010

The French Revolution's Reign of Terror
A discussion of how the French Revolution descended into extremes of violence.
Panel: Tim Blanning, Mike Broers, and Rebecca Spang.
First broadcast: 26 May 2005

Other broadcasts which might be of interest:

Early Geology
Enclosures of the 18th Century
The French Revolution's Legacy
The Grand Tour

Sunday 21 October 2012

Keats, Wollstonecraft, and the Gothic: A Bumper Month for Romanticism Fans!

This month saw the publication of what is probably the most important book published all year for Romanticists: Nicholas Roe's superb John Keats: A New Life. Roe has previously published widely on Romanticism, including the monographs John Keats and the Culture of Dissent and Wordsworth and Coleridge: The Radical Years, and the excellent biography of Leigh Hunt, Fiery Heart. In John Keats: A New Life, Roe again demonstrates his great skill as a biographer, combining extensive and pain-staking scholarly research with a talent for story-telling which brings the details of Keats's biography to life.

Roe's Keats is not delicate and tragic, but a passionate figure who, Roe convincingly argues, was an opium addict, writing some of his best-loved poems while under the influence of this drug. Published by Yale University Press, John Keats: A New Life has an RRP of £25, but is currently available on Amazon for £18.29. A Kindle edition is also available for £16.46. Whether you're a dedicated fan of Keats or merely a casual admirer of his poetry, I really can't recommend this book highly enough.

If you couldn't make it along to Professor Sharon Ruston's lecture on Mary Wollstonecraft given to The Royal Society last month, you'll be pleased to know that a video and an audio recording of the talk have been put up on the society's website. In the lecture, Ruston argues that Wollstonecraft used her knowledge of contemporary science for a political purpose. Referring in particular to William Smellie's Philosophy of Natural History, Ruston makes a strong case for Wollstonecraft having been inspired by her reading of a number of works on natural history at the time that she was writing her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). At just under an hour long, this lecture is lively and engaging, and well worth making the time to listen to.

Villa Diodati: The property rented by Lord Byron during the summer of 1816
Finally, fans of the Gothic should take a look at the range of programmes which are part of the  'Gothic Imagination' series currently running on BBC Radio 4. The two-part adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula which was the Classic Serial this week was well produced and very gripping, so I'm looking forward to the first installment of the next two-parter in the series, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is due to be broadcast on Sunday 28 October at 15.00. Both adaptations will be available to listen to again on the website.

Also part of this series was a 90-minute adaptation of the 1984 play by Howard Brenton, 'Bloody Poetry', which tells the story of Percy and Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and John Polidori in Geneva during the summer months of 1816. This was another great production on the whole, capturing the youth and passion of the circle of friends during that dark and gloomy summer. It's only available on 'Listen Again' for another 6 days, so catch it while you can!

Monday 24 September 2012

Free eBooks for Romanticists

This might not be the most fashionable thing to say in academic circles, but I love my Kindle. Not only is it hugely convenient for travel (much smaller and lighter than a nineteenth-century tome when you're out and about) but it also means that you never unexpectedly run out of things to read. Many a time have I been stuck at Didcot Parkway station on a cold winter's night waiting for my delayed connection, only to finish my print book and so have no option but to read a coffee-stained copy of Metro cover to cover. Three times. With a Kindle, such scenarios are, thankfully, a thing of the past.

The other great thing about Kindles is that you can get some pretty obscure stuff for them. Take Mary Shelley's novel The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck. There is no affordable print copy of this book available; the cheapest you'll get it for is around £20 for a print-on-demand facsimile of the first edition. On the Kindle, however, you can buy Mary Shelley's collected works for the very affordable sum of £1.28. Even better, some books for the Kindle are completely free! There are disadvantages to using these versions, of course. With free books, it's often not clear which edition you're getting (the 1818 or 1831 Frankenstein, for example), and there are no notes, but this is comparable with any cheap print edition such as those produced by Wordsworth Classics or Penguin Popular Classics.

Although these free editions are no good for serious academic purposes, they're great if you're just after a good read for a journey. I've listed below a selection of some of the best free Romantic-period eBooks available from Amazon for Kindle. Even if you don't have a Kindle, you can download the app for Android phone/tablet, iPad, iPhone, PC, or Mac for free. All the titles I've listed are hyperlinked, so they'll take you straight to the relevant page ready for downloading.

A word of warning: I've downloaded a fair few of these free editions myself, and while I've never had any problems with novels, I've found that poetry is often poorly formatted. Sometimes lines are missing or line breaks are incorrect; at other times, line breaks aren't indicated at all, which makes the poetry virtually unreadable. For this reason, I've only listed prose below. Enjoy!

Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma, Persuasion, Lady Susan

Fanny Burney

William Cobbett
Rural Rides, Cottage Economy

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Biographia Literaria

Thomas De Quincey
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, The English Mail-Coach and Joan of Arc, Miscellaneous Essays, Biographical Essays

William Godwin
Caleb Williams Or Things as They Are, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman

William Hazlitt
Table Talk: Essays on Men and Manners, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, The Spirit of the Age, Lectures on the English Poets, Liber Amoris

James Hogg
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Matthew Lewis
The Monk

Thomas Love Peacock
Nightmare Abbey, Headlong Hall, Crotchet Castle, Gryll Grange

Ann Radcliffe
The Mysteries of Udolpho, A Sicilian Romance

Clara Reeve
The Old English Baron

Mary Shelley
Frankenstein, The Last Man, Mathilda, Proserpine and Midas

Mary Wollstonecraft
Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Letters on Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, Maria, Or the Wrongs of Woman, Mary: A Fiction

Monday 17 September 2012

New web resources for Romanticists

I've recently discovered two great new web resources for Romanticists: the Great Writers Inspire project from the University of Oxford and the Romantic Heirs network.

Stephen Duck (1705-1756): An early 'peasant poet'
Great Writers Inspire
The Great Writers Inspire blog covers English Literature from Beowulf to the present day, and aims to offer a 'substantial collection of literary themed learning resources available for global reuse'. It is completely free to use, and offers materials which will be of interest to students, teachers, and non-specialists alike. The site features a range of resources, including video podcasts and transcriptions of lectures from world-leading specialists, essays, eBooks, and pictures, and can be explored by author or by theme.

Of particular interest to Romanticists are sections on Jane Austen, William Blake, and Eighteenth-century labouring-class writing. There is so much to explore on the site, but real highlights include a video/audio podcast of Kathryn Sutherland talking about Austen's manuscripts, an essay by Kate O'Connor about 'The Anonymous Jane Austen', a video/audio introduction to Blake's poetry, painting, and engraving by David Fallon, and a pdf transcript of a lecture about Blake and London by Peter Ackroyd.

Also of interest is a video/audio lecture on Stephen Duck by Jennifer Batt; Duck was an early 'peasant poet', and is essential reading for anyone interested in later, Romantic labouring-class poetry. The selection of eBooks available on the site really is fantastic; there are far too many of interest to list here, so it's well worth taking the time to have a look through and see what's on offer.

Romantic Heirs
The recently-created Romantic Heirs network is an exciting new project edited by Fern Merrills and Liam Firth from the University of Sheffield. The site is primarily designed for postgraduate research students and early career researchers interested in the many legacies and receptions of Romanticism, although the editors also welcome submissions and suggestions from those at all stages of education. As the project develops, the site will include videos, papers, podcasts, blogs, and teaching materials, as well as calls for papers and conference announcements, and so should prove to be really useful for anyone with an interest in this area.

Romantic Heirs is currently looking for postgraduates and early career researchers to submit blog posts on all things Romantic; a post should be around 250-800 words and could be a review, a short paper, a report on public engagement activities, a diary piece, or a poem or piece of prose. The editors particularly welcome posts written in a style that is accessible to audiences outside of academia. See the Romantic Heirs website for more details.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Byron's copy of 'Frankenstein' discovered

There has been some exciting news for the world of Romanticism announced today: Lord Byron's personal copy of Frankenstein, inscribed by Mary Shelley, has been discovered hidden away in a family library. The book had remained, untouched, on a top shelf in the library of Lord Jay for fifty years, and was only found when his grandson was sorting through some political papers and happened to come across it.

The inscription, which reads 'To Lord Byron from the author', was verified as being in Mary Shelley's hand by Richard Ovenden of Oxford's Bodleian Library, and the book will now be auctioned. It is expected to fetch £400,000. The volume will be on public display at Peter Harrington's premises (100 Fulham Road, Chelsea) for one week from Wednesday 26 September 2012 along with a selection of contemporary literary artefacts. Let's hope that this treasure is purchased by a research library rather than falling into the hands of a private collector.

For the full news story, please see the Huffington Post.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Last Man

This post is about a theme which some people are surprised even existed in early nineteenth-century literature: the Last Man on earth. Quite a few Last Men have appeared in popular culture over the last decade; think Snowman/Jimmy in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), Will Smith as Robert Neville in the 2007 film adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, and the Last Man-type figures in recent post-apocalyptic works such as Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road (adapted for cinema in 2009) and the 2010 film The Book of Eli.

Responding as they do to distinctly modern issues such as the rapid advancement of science, weapons of mass destruction, and the impact of human activity on the ecosystem, these recent books and films are very much a product of twenty-first century anxieties about the fragility of humankind's existence. It might come as a shock, then, to discover that the Last Man does not have his origins in the twentieth century, or even in the late nineteenth century, but in literature written over two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

John Martin, The Last Man (1849)
In the short period between 1806 and the mid-1830s, the Last Man theme emerged, flourished, was mocked, and then died down (for seventy-odd years, at least) as quickly as it had appeared. The first Last Man text proper to appear in English was the 1806 translation of Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville's 1805 novel Le Dernier Homme. This was followed in 1816 with Lord Byron's poem 'Darkness', and in 1823 Thomas Campbell published his own poetic interpretation of the theme, 'The Last Man'.

There was some controversy when this last poem was published as to whether Campbell or Byron had thought of the Last Man theme first; this ignited the reading public's imagination, and the literary journals of the time were filled with comments and articles speculating about the origins of the theme and asking whose was the last Last Man. 1826 saw a flood of Last Man texts hit the market as the theme reached its peak in popularity: these included Mary Shelley's novel The Last Man, Thomas Hood's satirical poem 'The Last Man', the anonymous Blackwood's tale 'The Last Man', and the anonymous poem 'The City of the Dead'.

In this year, John Martin produced a study of the Last Man theme, which he later reproduced first as a watercolour, then as an oil painting (see picture above). As more 'Last Men' were produced, however, so the genre became increasingly farcical, and the Last Man texts which followed over the next few years tended to be either mocking in tone or wearily derivative.

For readers new to the Romantic Last Man theme, I would recommend Shelley's novel as a good starting point. The story opens in 1818, when two friends visiting Naples discover some fragments of writing in the hidden cave of the Cumaean Sibyl. When translated, these fragments reveal the story of the Last Man on earth, Lionel Verney, and his tale makes up the novel proper.

His story starts in the year 2073, when England is a republic and people travel by hot air balloon, although other than these developments little else appears to have changed since the nineteenth century. Lionel explains how, after growing up in poverty with his sister, Perdita, he befriends the children of the former king, Adrian and Idris, and their acquaintance Lord Raymond. Lionel and Idris marry, as do Raymond and Perdita, and the group of friends live in harmony while Raymond rules the country as Lord Protector. Their idealistic lives are soon disturbed, however, by emotional betrayal, war, and then a devastating plague which sweeps across the globe destroying all in its path. Lionel and some of his friends initially survive, travelling across Europe with a group of fellow survivors, encountering false prophets, terrifying portents, and deserted cities as they go. After most of the travellers are killed by the plague, an accident wipes out the rest, and Lionel is left alone on earth as the Last Man.

Like a lot of Last Man literature (Atwood's Oryx and Crake included) , this isn't sci fi, so you'll be disappointed if that's what you expect. It is, however, a fantastic story which, especially in the second and third volumes, will keep you on the edge of your seat. I was hugely taken aback when I first read this novel as an undergraduate; I'd loved Frankenstein, but The Last Man seemed to me stranger, full of layers and intricacies which played on my mind for weeks after I'd read it and encouraged me to seek out some other Romantic Last Man texts. Nearly ten years later, I'm now writing up my PhD on this subject, and I am as passionate about these texts as ever.

I hope that this blog post inspires you to look at Shelley's novel if you haven't read it before, or to reread it if you've come across it in the past. Morton D. Paley has produced an excellent edition for OUP, but if you can afford it I'd strongly recommend Anne McWhir's edition for Broadview, which adds several other contemporary Last Man texts within its appendices. Please do let me know what you think!

Sunday 19 August 2012

Editing Robert Burns website

The University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns Studies recently  launched the first phase of its new website for the AHRC-funded project 'Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century'. The project will see the production of a new multi-volume edition of Burns's work, to be published by OUP, expected to take upwards of fifteen years to produce.

The  team behind this project seem keen to engage Burns scholars (and fans) in the editorial process, with the website featuring a blog which will be used explain editorial decisions, ask for responses, and perhaps even request information. This is definitely one to bookmark; it should be fascinating to see this project unfold as the first volumes are prepared for publication.

'Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century' is by no means only for serious Burns scholars. On the contrary, I think that this website could prove to be a valuable teaching resource. In my experience, students can be rather scared of Burns - at least initially - but there is plenty on this website that could be used to engage them and make Burns more accessible.

The site features a video archive that currently features a short film of Dr Kirsteen McCue speaking to Tam Cowan about the scholarly importance of Burns, and which I'm sure will be added to in the coming months and years. Another great feature of this website is its 'Song and Music' section, which aims to celebrate Burns as one of the most prolific songwriters and song collectors of all time.

Volumes two and three of the new edition seek to address this aspect of Burns's scholarly significance, and this will be enhanced by the commissioning of some new recordings of Burns's songs. In time (recording is due to start later in 2012), these will be made available for free download on the website, but in the meantime there are four recordings of Burns's songs performed by Kirsten Easdale and Gregor Lowry available to download for free which certainly bring Burns's words to life.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Wordsworth Summer Conference 2012

I've just returned from the 41st Wordsworth Summer Conference, a ten day annual event held in Grasmere. I had a fantastic time there attending papers, lectures, workshops, and excursions, as well as presenting my own paper - 'The Last Man and Romantic Archaeology' - and am very grateful to both the Wordsworth Conference Foundation and the University of Bristol's Churchill Fund for providing me with generous bursaries.

The quality of the papers and lectures was consistently high, but real highlights for me were Heather Glen (Cambridge) on Wordsworth's  'We are Seven' in the 1790s, Paula Feldman (University of South Carolina) on new poems by Mary Tighe, Oliver Clarkson (Durham) on 'The Mists and Winds of Michael', and Emily Stanback (CUNY) on 'Wordsworth's Admonishment and the Aesthetic of Human Difference'. Richard Gravil will once again be putting together of collection of the most popular papers and lectures of the conference, and I'll be posting a link to that on this blog once it's available. In the meantime, the 2011 conference proceedings can be purchased here in e-book format and here in paperback.

Every afternoon, as the fell walkers set out with their waterproofs and walking boots, I pulled on my pink wellies and opted for the decidedly less physical excursions on the minibus! As well as visiting Dove Cottage (by candlelight, a wonderful experience), it was also great to be able to explore two of Wordsworth's lesser-known former houses: Allan Bank (left) and Rydal Mount.

Allan Bank in particular was very interesting; I'd never been before, as it has only been open to the public for a few months following a fire at the property in March 2011. Wordsworth lived here with his family between 1808 and 1811, although it wasn't his favourite residence by any stretch of the imagination: he referred to it as a 'temple of abomination' when it was built! At the moment, much of the house remains undecorated, and a number of rooms are used as creative arts spaces. The National Trust - the owners of the property - are inviting feedback from the public concerning the future of the house, asking whether it should be restored or left as it is. I would definitely recommend visits to all three properties to visitors to the Lake District, as they all have something very different to offer.

A blog about the Summer Conference would not be complete without a couple of pictures of the badgers which visited the grounds of the hotel every evening - definitely one of my favourite things about my stay in the Lake District!