Brave New Worlds before Huxley and Orwell

In this guest blog, Dr Oliver Tearle, a lecturer at the University of Loughborough and founder of the Interesting Literature blog (also on Twitter @InterestingLit), examines the history of dystopian literature. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the noun ‘dystopia’ (defined as ‘an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible’) first turns up in print in 1952, and ‘dystopian’ (in the word’s most common sense, namely ‘of or pertaining to a dystopia’) not until a decade later. But the first citation for the word ‘dystopian’ in the sense of ‘one who advocates or describes a dystopia’ comes from a speech made in the House of Commons by the Victorian philosopher, John Stuart Mill in 1868. ‘Dystopian’, then, was a Victorian coinage. But recently the noun ‘dystopia’ has been traced back to 1747 where it is spelled ‘dustopia’ but is used in clear contrast to ‘utopia’. In short, the whole history of dystopias and the dystopian is still being unravelled and explored. This is particularly true of dystopian literature.

Dystopian fiction has perhaps never been more popular than it is today. In the last decade books and films such as The Hunger Games, The Road, and V for Vendetta have enjoyed huge success, while twentieth-century classics like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale are regularly set as GCSE and A-Level texts in UK schools. Based on this, it would be easy to think that the subgenre of dystopian fiction was less than a century old. But as the word’s complex history reveals, dystopia had entered literature long before Aldous Huxley and George Orwell were writing.

Dystopias are the opposite of utopias – if utopian fiction imagines the best possible world, then dystopian fiction presents us with the worst-case scenario. All literary utopias can be traced back to 1516 and Thomas More’s work of that name, which coined the word ‘utopia’ as a Greek pun meaning both ‘good place’ (eu-topos) and ‘no place’ (u-topos). But it was in the nineteenth century that utopian literature arose as a popular literary form for novelists. Perhaps inevitably, not everyone embraced the optimism which utopian fiction promised: could you build an ideal world, as set out by More in his Utopia? Thus arose dystopian fiction as an alternative – and, to its adherents and practitioners, an altogether more realistic – branch of speculative literature.

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Commentators sometimes simplify this development by saying that, whilst the nineteenth century was dominated by utopian visions of a better future, the twentieth century replaced these overly optimistic will-o’-the-wisps with dystopian versions of a society in the grip of state control and curtailment of individual freedoms. But this is too simple. Although it’s true that the later nineteenth century gave rise to bestselling utopian classics such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which predicted garden city planning and credit cards, and William Morris’s News from Nowhere(1890), there was a chorus of more pessimistic voices being raised by this time. One such voice belonged to Ignatius Donnelly, an American writer whose novel Caesar’s Column, published the same year as Morris’s utopian romance, sold 250,000 copies. And Morris’s novel itself was in part a response to such dystopian, or partly dystopian, works as Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).

Indeed, Erewhon was an important development in speculative fiction. It appeared the same year as a landmark in realist fiction, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and although Erewhon is a work of fantasy rather than realism, the two novels actually share a number of key themes: scientific and technological progress; attitudes to banking and finance; and the role of religion in society. And, like Middlemarch, Butler’s novel weighs up both sides of the issues he discusses and seldom passes explicit judgments on them. Although this novel is often described as utopian fiction, Butler gently satirises every aspect of the utopian world he describes, a world which the narrator accesses after travelling into the outback in New Zealand. In this world – called Erewhon, which is almost ‘nowhere’ (as in utopia, or no-place) backwards – machines have been abolished because they were evolving too quickly and, the Erewhonian people feared, would one day supersede human beings as the dominant force in the world. Although Erewhon is not an out-and-out dystopian novel, others which followed it offered a more starkly negative view of human progress.

It has been claimed that dystopian fiction properly began with Jack London’s 1908 novel The Iron Heel, and that it only really rose up towards the middle of the twentieth century with such works as Brave New World and 1984. But the genre had a rich life prior to this, encompassing not only Erewhon but novels such as Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period (1882), Walter Besant’s The Revolt of Man (1882), and Margaret Oliphant’s short story ‘The Land of Darkness’ (1887), which is set in a hell modelled on Dante’s Infernobut very much shaped by nineteenth-century developments in technology, industry, and urbanisation. Orwell acknowledged the influence of such earlier works as Erewhon and The Iron Heel on his own work, while Oliphant’s story has been described as being closer to Orwell than to Dante.

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Perhaps the most curious of all the nineteenth-century forerunners to the modern dystopian novel is that by Anthony Trollope (caricature, left). Published in 1882, the year of his death, The Fixed Period is set in the year 1980 on the fictional island republic of Britannula. The narrator, the unsubtly named John Neverbend, is president of the island and is trying to pass a bill which will enforce compulsory euthanasia for everyone upon reaching the age of 67. David Lodge recently championed this neglected novel in a piece for The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/dec/14/david-lodge-rereading-anthony-trollope.

In fact, novelists better known for writing more realist works of fiction often contributed to this burgeoning genre. E. M. Forster, celebrated for novels like Howards End and A Passage to India, wrote a short story in 1909 titled ‘The Machine Stops’, set in a dystopian future world in which technology has become the all-powerful force in society, as Butler in Erewhon feared it would. This bleak cautionary tale predicts such modern phenomena as the internet, videoconferencing, and instant messaging. It is a work of fiction but, like Orwell’s 1984, also carries the ring of prophecy.

At its core, dystopian fiction engages with some of the key cultural, moral, and scientific questions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of which we are still asking today: the role of science in the modern world, the moral responsibility we have when developing science and technology, attitudes to euthanasia, humanity’s responsibility for the environment, the distribution of wealth, and the role of religion in a secular society. Dystopian works written over a hundred years ago show our own society reflected back to us – we see our world eerily foreshadowed, and already being warned against.

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H. G. Wells

I’ve recently become interested in recovering this lost, or at least semi-forgotten, tradition, in an attempt to redress the common assumption that dystopian fiction only really began in the early to mid-twentieth century. This endeavour goes hand-in-hand with another online enterprise, my blog Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness, which I founded in 2012 as an attempt to find – and communicate – the obscure and neglected aspects of literary history. And dystopian fiction abounds in such assumptions and misconceptions which belie the more interesting complexity of the genre’s formation: for instance, the terms ‘thought crime’ and ‘thought police’, both made popular by George Orwell in 1984, actually predated his novel and are first found in books from 1934 about Japanese politics. What Orwell set down in the late 1940s was already in the air before, but to a greater and more specific degree than we had perhaps realised. As ever, other writers had got there first. But the most important thing to address about dystopian literature is the little-known and little-studied prehistory of the genre, a prehistory that involves classic Victorian realist novelists such as Trollope and George Eliot, science-fiction pioneers like H. G. Wells, and important twentieth-century writers such as E. M. Forster. And although they are often bleak warnings about a future society, the society we have inherited, they are nevertheless a joy to discover, and to read.

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For the (Literary) Detective in you!

So it’s Monday again and everyone needs a little lift! So we thought we would offer you a light-hearted challenge to kick start your week… who famously praised Shakespeare’s work in the passage below? Extra brownie points for those who can name the text that it originates from too. Good luck! 

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If you too agree with the quote above and are looking for your dose of Shakespeare this month, then check out ‘Henry VI: Three Plays’ soon to be performed at the Oxford Playhouse by the Globe Theatre on Tour. Also, exciting news for subscribers of our recent podcast series, ‘Challenging the Canon’: we will soon be adding an interview with Professor Tiffany Stern on ‘Why should we study Elizabethan Theatre?’ Watch this space!  

 

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A Medieval Mystery: Who Was the Pearl-poet?

In this guest blog, Hannah Ryley, an Oxford DPhil student, explores the anonymity of authorship in the Middle Ages. 

In the British Library there is a medieval manuscript with the shelfmark Cotton Nero A.x. Dull though this shelfmark may sound, this manuscript is at the heart of a mysterious case of unknown authorship of four Middle English poems. The manuscript itself as a whole is very interesting and you can freely browse some digital images, of twelve colourfully illustrated pages, and try to decipher the handwritten texts it contains, here: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/ Moreover, we can learn a great deal from this particular case about the difficulties surrounding the identification of authors in the medieval period more broadly, as we will shortly see.

Within this manuscript are found the poems Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and, perhaps most well-known today – largely thanks to a popular modern-language version of the story by Simon Armitage – Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[1] Although the manuscript was physically handwritten by a scribe, and decorated by an illustrator (known as a ‘limner’ in the Middle Ages), both of whom were probably professionals hired for the task, neither of these people are likely to have been the author of the poems. However, because of similarities in dialect, style, and theme it is thought that a single author – distinct from the scribe or illustrator – was responsible for composing all four poems.

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Pearl, Patience, and Cleanness are all narrative poems concerned with moral questions and religious doctrine. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance, in which Sir Gawain, a loyal knight of King Arthur’s court, takes up the challenge of a beheading game suggested by a stranger, the Green Knight. All four poems can be interpreted as being deeply involved with discussions about Christianity, although there are many other themes and symbols at play in the poems. Stylistically, the use of alliteration and alliterative verse form links these poems, with the poet also using the ‘bob and wheel’ in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The bob and wheel is an ingenious poetic device; the ‘bob’ is a short line that links the ‘wheel’ (a rhyming refrain) to the main alliterative verse. If these poems were indeed written by one person, the author wrote in the late fourteenth-century in Middle English, and the dialect of the four works has been more specifically associated with the North-West Midlands.[2]

Although this poet is without a doubt a ‘great writer you should know’, what is tricky is that he (or perhaps even she) has never been fully identified. Anniina Jokinen plainly states: “Nothing conclusive is known of the author’s identity or biography.”[3] This is quite typical of many medieval authors, about whom records simply have not survived, or where they have survived, are often incomplete or ambiguous. As a result, scholars have often debated – and occasionally conjectured wildly – about the real individuals who may have written various seminal works of medieval English literature. A number of names have been put forward as the authors of the four poems found in Cotton Nero A.x, including ‘Hugo Massey’, ‘John Massey’, and ‘Richard Newton’. However, none of these proposed authors have ever been widely accepted.[4] Yet this mysterious, unsolved case of obscure authorship is not unique; we still do not know the full biographical details of many other authors of medieval literary masterpieces. We will have to be content to refer to this magnificent writer as simply the ‘Pearl-poet’ or the ‘Gawain-poet’, as he has come to be known, and let his poetry speak for itself.

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[1] Simon Armitage, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Faber & Faber, 2009).

[2] H. N. Duggan, ‘Meter, Stanza, Vocabulary, Dialect’ in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds., (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), pp.221-243 (at 240-242).

[3] Anniina Jokinen, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, Luminarium, 28 Jan 2010, accessed 9 Aug 2013, <http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/gawainintro.htm>

[4] Malcolm Andrew, ‘Theories of Authorship’ in A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, eds., (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997), pp.23-34 (28-31).

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Get Wilde

ImageBored on your commute home? You’re in fine company. In The Importance of Being EarnestOscar Wilde wrote, “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read on the train.” You can actually read Wilde’s Life and Confessions as a free eBook here, and see how sensational he really was, or if he was just living by his maxim: “Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” But if your eyes are already tired and strained, you can court controversy by listening to a great podcast by Sophie Duncan on Wilde’s women.

In other news, our new site is going live very very soon! We’ve given it a whole new face, updated all the researchers and authors, and catalogued hundreds of new resources. Make sure you check in soon: follow us on Twitter or Facebook to get more frequent updates.

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We’ve also added some stellar content, already available on Oxford University’s Podcasting site: the new mini-series, “Challenging the Canon”, is now available to download or stream. It’s been really popular so far (which is why it’s first on the homepage!)… and did we mention, like all our other resources, it’s free? If you’ve ever wanted to satisfy your inner 11-year-old and ask, “yes, but why is Dickens worth studying?” or “why is Shakespeare such a big deal?” then try listening to the answers of academic experts who have devoted their careers to exploring a Great Writer.

Speaking of great writers, we’re all about Shakespeare in Oxford. If you didn’t manage to get your fix with Oxford Shakespeare Company’s  The Merry Wives of Windsor, then check out OUDS’s production of The Comedy of Errors at the University Church – finishing tomorrow!comedy-of-errors

Finally, launch yourself into the breach this September with Creation Theatre’s Henry V, in the dramatic setting of the Oxford Castle. Now, away, you mouldy rogue, away! (2 Henry IV (2.4.117))

Henry V

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A Magical Summer in Rhyme

Make the most of the wonderful weather we have been having recently by going on the Oxford Poetry Walk! Enjoy a 70 minute tour around the city with a selection of literary favourites such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde to act as your companions. If you are more of a theatre buff then check out the Globe Theatre on Tour’s production of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ currently being shown at the Bodleian Old Schools Quadrangle. If that doesn’t give you your literary fix then there is the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ hosted in the atmospheric gardens of Wadham College.

In other walks of literary life, things seems to be getting all rather supernatural. This week Potter mastermind J.K Rowling was revealed as using the pen name Robert Galbraith to publicise her new crime novel ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’. To add to the excitement, it came out that this newsworthy detail was uncovered by one of our very own professors here at Oxford, Professor Peter Millican.

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Additionally, the Bodleian Library’s enchanting exhibition ‘Magical Books’ is well underway showcasing works from the legends of Children’s’ Fantasy literature e.g. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien.

For more interesting titbits of literary news, follow Great Writers Inspire on Twitter and Facebook.

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Jane in July!

To round off our week of Austen, we thought we’d let you know about the Oxford Theatre Guild‘s production of Pride and Prejudice, on tonight at Trinity College! All the Oxford Janeites out there should get down to Trinity’s velvety lawns for 7.30pm. Here’s a sneak peak:ImageIn other Austen news, the Guardian’s John Mullen challenged Oxford’s Dr. Paula Byrne by calling Austen’s style “unflinchingly satirical” (if you missed the Telegraph’s original article, you can read it here). What do you think? http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/jul/11/jane-austen-fiction-not-anaesthetic

If you’re still unsure, you can listen to Professor Kathryn Sutherland talk a bit more about Austen on one of the University’s free podcasts! http://writersinspire.org/author/jane-austen

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Gifts to share

It is Shakespeare’s birthday (or thereabouts) and in looking for some gifts to share I came across this article on the BBC News website which discusses a new book ‘William Shakespeare Beyond Doubt’ edited by Professor Stanley Wells and Dr Paul Edmondson both of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which aims to defend the question of authorship. It is a topic which has been discussed on this blog, see Why Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and no doubt will not end the debate.

There are so many wonderful digital resources available for Shakespeare that a simple internet search could result in getting quite lost for days. In a very brief search this morning I found:

Shakespeare Birth Place Trust with lots of information and resources for everyone, including a free course Getting to know Shakespeare.

The RSC has lots of educational material on its website, some free for use in the classroom http://www.rsc.org.uk/education/.

Oxford’s own Bodleian Libraries Sprint for Shakespeare site where you can leaf through the original printed pages of the First Folio, and find cameos from well-known Shakespeare lovers, and from researchers and experts who work on this book.

Open Source Shakespeare attempts to be the best free Web site containing Shakespeare’s complete works. It is intended for scholars, thespians, and Shakespeare lovers of every kind.

And of course you will find a wealth of inspirational resources (ebooks, lectures, short talks and more) on our own http://writersinspire.org/, all of which are free for reuse in education

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