Jessica Allsop, University of Exeter
“Something on which you may exercise your ingenuity”: Curious Collectables in the Fin de Siècle Fiction of Richard Marsh.
That the nineteenth century was the so-called age of objects is testified to by their pivotal role in relation to commodity culture, the modern museum, and the craze for collecting. In literature, things have been read as indicators of imperial and domestic prosperity, and with the rise of the detective novel, as terms in a language to be read. In each of these instances, the object is figured as an inert, co-operative, positive force, subservient to the needs and the will of the individual. Yet, in Marsh’s narratives objects take on a very different role, as active and often uncooperative agents, characterised by impermanence and an opacity that makes them difficult, if not impossible, to read. They negotiate a position in relation to collectors, purchasers, dealers, and even detectives that is unstable and uneasy, and that defies typical models by which the object is understood. Diamonds that change colour and shatter; puzzle boxes that disassemble; pipes that poison, move, and come apart; statues that murder; figurines that appear and disappear; jewellery that comes to life. Rather than reading this as symptomatic of typical fin de siècle models of decline, or straightforward critiques of commercial modernity (for instance, a reaction against mass production or the department store), this paper will suggest that through early modern images of the collection we can read these things as part of a historic model of collection symbolised by the cabinet of curiosities. Just as the cabinet collection conjures up images of the most outlandish, the most exceptional, the mythical, and the hybridised object, Marsh’s things carry something of the curiosity complex. By drawing on a range of short fiction and novels by Marsh, this paper will look to draw out the extraordinary objects that litter his fiction, connecting them to issues of impermanence and identity that characterise Marsh’s particular engagements with things in the age of objects.
Elaine Hartnell-Mottram, Liverpool Hope University
Mahatmas and Mesmerists: A Prosaic Perspective
“So,” I thought to myself, before reading it, “Richard Marsh’s novella, The Mahatma’s Pupil (1893), re-printed by the British Library, no less, is bound to be comparable with the phenomenally successful best-selling Gothic/"Theosophical” novels of Marie Corelli; comparable with titles such as A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), The Soul of Lilith (1892) and Ziska (1897). “After all”, I reasoned, “someone who can write a novel to outsell Dracula (The Beetle, 1897) must surely know a thing or two about writing Gothic fiction.” I was in for a real surprise when I actually read it. The occult passages in The Mahatma’s Pupil degenerate into a decidedly slap-stick kind of comedy.
Marsh certainly knew how to write about Victorian Gothic subjects such as “spirit photography”, Mahatmas and mesmerists. But he wrote about them in an unexpected way. For, at a time of heightened interest in matters such as table-rapping, spiritualism and Theosophy, in a number of books and tales, he employs these phenomena to considerable comic effect. Never moralistic – and generally taking the perspective of the poorly-paid just-about-white-collar working man or woman – Marsh presents all the best-known elements of Gothic fiction but without the “starch”. Meanwhile, the sane and prosaic responses of his characters, to these Gothic elements, is very refreshing after engaging with all the intensity expended upon the paranormal elsewhere in Fin de Siècle fiction.
I love Corelli’s Gothic novels, in which she preaches of the dangers of karmic consequence and inveighs against the immorality of the Fin de Siècle (all the while making sin sound far more exciting that her advocated temperance). But I have also come to love Marsh’s irreverence about such matters. Zlosnik and Horner (2005) ably demonstrate that Gothic narratives frequently include comic elements but Marsh takes this comedy to a new level. He supplies the perfect antidote to the Fin de Siècle mania for the occult.
Sara Lenaghan, Open University
Unstable Stereotypes and Unusual Couplings: Male Characters in Marsh’s Fiction
In this paper I propose to use three of Marsh’s lesser-known texts – Curios, The Seen and the Unseen, and Philip Bennion’s Death – to explore how Marsh portrays the male characters in his fiction. Building on from The Beetle, in which his male characters undoubtedly, at times, display ‘feminine’ or at least ‘unmanly’ characteristics, I will investigate how this is continued in these three texts.
As many fin-de-siecle texts used male doubles, or couples, to demonstrate a variety of male behaviours, as does Marsh. Curios, with its friend/enemy characters of Pugh and Tress, will be particularly important here. I will examine how the characters’ traits and personalities are used to either demonstrate socially acceptable behaviour, or to destabilise it.
These texts deal with crimes, underhand behaviour and the supernatural. By placing his characters either in the unknown or the underbelly of society, Marsh explores male reactions to the unexpected and the darker side of man that Victorian society vilified and tried to hide. However, the gothic that prevailed through fin-de-siecle fiction demonstrates that this behaviour and these reactions could not be suppressed, and needed to break free from their social constraints.
Vicky Margree, University of Brighton
'Something in the City': Risk, Speculation and the New Economic Man in The Datchet Diamonds
With Britain at the end of the 19th century become ‘a nation of share-holders’, the late-Victorians experienced an urgent need to distinguish financial speculation from gambling. An older Victorian discourse of moral condemnation of gambling sat uneasily alongside the imperatives of the new commercial economy. The hero of Marsh’s 1898 Brighton-based crime thriller, The Datchet Diamonds, is representative of the new kind of economic man associated with late-Victorian finance. Neither producer, nor consumer, he is instead a speculator - a man who makes nothing, but seeks to turn wealth into more wealth; who, by embracing risk, stands to make or lose a fortune in a day. This presentation will argue that while Marsh’s text recognises the allure of financial speculation – particularly for the poorly-paid white-collar worker – it also evinces a profound anxiety about speculation and its legitimacy, and in so doing registers some of the ideological faultlines generated by Victorian high capitalism. This narrative structured by chance events and littered with references to luck, accident, probabilities and odds, registers too a sense of precarity associated with the ‘frightening contingencies and shocking reversals which define a capitalist society’ (Jane Moody). One frequently finds in Marsh’s work – and, indeed, in many fictions from the fin de siècle – evidence of fears about imperial and national decline, often emanating from supposedly sexual and / or racial threats issuing from within Victorian society itself, or from outside it in the figure of the foreign interloper. I shall argue that this sense of threatenedness is present in The Datchet Diamonds, but that it is conceived here in primarily economic rather than biological terms, even while the narrative’s attempted solution is moral, and intimately bound up with notions of masculinity and the search to define a gentlemanly capitalist mode.
Daniel Orrells, University of Warwick
'Philip Bennion's Death: The Renaissance, Curiosity and the Aesthetics of Criminality'
Graeme Pedlingham, University of Sussex
'Something was going from me - the capacity, as it were, to be myself': Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and the ‘Transformational Object’
In this paper I seek to explore the vexed and vexing status of the horrific titular entity of Richard Marsh’s, relatively overlooked, work The Beetle (1897) in relation to the innovative theory of the ‘transformational object’ as conceived by psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas (building upon work of DW Winnicott).
In keeping with this theory I will be examining the status of the ‘beetle’, or more precisely the experience of encountering this creature-object (the psychoanalytic 'object' defined as something external to which a subject relates), not as the meeting of self and object as discrete entities but as a process that ‘transforms’ the self through this encounter. The condition of the ‘object’ is unsettled in Marsh’s work, becoming an active and often malevolent force capable of shaping the self, rather than a passive entity that exists outside the boundaries of individual identity. Whilst for Bollas the 'transformational object' is sought through desire for transformation here it is both sought and feared, it insists and insinuates upon its subjects, encapsulating the interplay of desire and disgust at the heart of Marsh's horror.
By extension, as much as the ‘beetle’ serves to enact this ‘transformational’ function, so the text itself calls for a similar engagement from the reader: disturbing its own form and unity to produce an uncanny transformation.
This paper will look to explore both of these aspects. It also situates The Beetle very much in its historical moment, particularly in relation to psychoanalysis, in which questions over the interaction of self and the external world are beginning to emerge alongside questions regarding the concept of the ‘self’ in general. These are questions that object relations theory in psychoanalysis is heavily invested in and emerges out of, and are also questions that Marsh engages with in an original and deeply unsettling way.
Minna Vuohelainen, Edge Hill University
'Few authors had a wider public than Mr Richard Marsh': Richard Marsh, the Strand Magazine and the Serial Short Story
Although now best remembered for his long gothic fiction, particularly his urban gothic novel The Beetle: A Mystery (1897), Richard Marsh was an extremely prolific professional author of a range of long and short popular fiction in the genres of romance, adventure, gothic, crime and humour. Marsh’s literary production is prodigious, averaging some 250,000 words annually and totalling 76 volumes and some three hundred short stories between 1888 and 1915. This paper explores Marsh’s professional practice, focusing in particular on his periodical production. The fiction papers of the period, most notably the Strand Magazine, provided substantial chunks of fiction relatively cheaply to literate lower-middle-class workers gathered in urban centres. The demands of these readers ushered in the golden age of the short story, ideally suited as a literary format to the increasing real income, limited educational opportunities, and fragmented leisure patterns of the newly literate classes.
Although most critics have focused on Marsh’s volume-form fiction, Marsh’s career was intimately connected to the periodical market, where he published prolifically in short and serial formats. Marsh was a skilful manipulator of the emerging short story form, building up his reputation with the turn-of-the-century public through short stories published in weekly and monthly fiction papers and regional newspapers. This paper focuses on Marsh’s deployment of the serial short story, a particularly innovative development of the period pioneered by Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand from 1891. Halfway between the serial novel and the unconnected short story, the serial short story simultaneously created continuity and produced a self-contained reading experience that could be completed in one sitting, even on public transport; it also made it possible for busy readers to miss an instalment without losing the plot. The paper offers a case study of Marsh’s most popular short story series in the Strand, neither of which has received sustained critical attention: ‘The Adventures of Sam Briggs’ (1904-15), a series of 23 comic stories featuring a lower-middle-class junior clerk; and ‘The Adventures of Judith Lee’ (1911-16), a series of 22 detective stories starring a lip-reading, multi-lingual female investigator in possession of martial arts skills. The paper interrogates Marsh’s use of genre in catering for an increasingly diverse readership in a fragmented literary marketplace and seeks to highlight his success as a professional author of a range of genre fiction.
Julian Wolfreys, Loughborough University
'Come Again? Richard Marsh between Babylon and the New Jerusalem or, Messianic London'
While the 'city of dreadful night' of The Beetle is, arguably Marsh's most familiar nocturnal cityscape, London presents itself in other ways in his fiction. Particularly notable in this regard is the city as site of revenant messianicity in A Second Coming. In this paper, I want to explore what might happen if we reorient our understanding of Marsh away from the world of fin de siècle gothic or the teller of popular horror tales meant for mass consumption, to seeing him as being a visionary artist, and therefore part of a very English tradition of cultural representation. Placing him between Blake on the one hand and various writers of subsequent generations such as Charles Williams and Mervyn Peake, how might we then begin to read Marsh differently? How does Marsh's representation of the city serve that purpose, and to what extent does the London of Marsh's fiction depart from the conventions of early twentieth-century mapping and representation?