How Chaucer’s medieval Wife of Bath was tamed and then liberated in the 21st century

How Chaucer’s medieval Wife of Bath was tamed and then liberated in the 21st century

Marion Turner, University of Oxford

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is one of the most famous characters in English literature. Since appearing in the Canterbury tales in 1387, her tale has been rewritten and adapted by authors from the French philosopher Voltaire in the 18th century to the contemporary author Zadie Smith in 2021.

As I write in my book, there is something about this fictional, five-times-married, medieval woman that has taken hold of so many writers’ imaginations.

Before the Wife of Bath (whose name is Alison), women in literature were princesses, damsels-in distress, nuns and queens – or whores, witches and evil old crones. The principal source for the Wife of Bath is an old prostitute. Chaucer’s character is a middle-aged, mercantile, sexually active woman, who gives us her point of view. While she is an extraordinary figure (for her time), she is also an ordinary woman.

Across time, readers have been fascinated – and often threatened – by her. From scribes who argued against her in the margins of 15th-century manuscripts to censors who burnt ballads about her in the 17th century, there are many examples of her provoking anxiety in readers.

Many modern writers have also been drawn to her. But most of them have not been interested in her (still relevant) concern with discussing rape, domestic abuse, ageism, and the silencing of women (lines 692-696). Nor have they been interested in her humour or her self-awareness. Rather, these aspects of her have caused extreme discomfort and most authors have wanted to punish, ridicule, reduce or tame her in their own adaptations.

Sex, lies and videotapes

In 1972, the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini made a film of the Canterbury Tales. He focused on sex and the body, in a radically skewed interpretation of Chaucer that ignores the principle of variety that underpins the original text. For Pasolini, the Wife of Bath, as an older, sexually-active woman, is an abomination.

In his version, sex with her literally causes her fourth husband’s death. Her fifth husband is sexually uninterested in her. The episode ends with her biting his nose, a symbol of castration.

Out of all of the hundreds of responses to the Wife of Bath across time that I have come across, this one is perhaps the most disturbing, demonstrating extreme discomfort with the idea of a confident, middle-aged woman.

In the same decade, the British author Vera Chapman also created a new version of the Wife of Bath. This female-authored version is notably sympathetic. In Chapman’s novel, Alison is kind and considerate, even refusing advantageous marriage offers if she thinks the man might regret it.

But in order to make the Wife of Bath sympathetic, Chapman also makes her far more conventional. She becomes a damsel in distress, twice saved from rape by the intervention of chivalrous men. Chapman also turns her into a loving mother, giving her several children.

These adaptations show that the kind of woman Chaucer wrote was not seen as a viable heroine in the 1970s – she had to be tamed and made to fit into disturbingly narrow stereotypes.

From Molly Bloom to #Metoo

Somewhat similarly, the poet Ted Hughes celebrates and reduces the Wife of Bath. In his poem, Chaucer, Hughes writes that the poet Sylvia Plath recites the Wife of Bath’s Prologue out of pure enjoyment and love of Chaucer. He tells us that the Wife is Plath’s “favourite character in all literature”.

Both women embody certain positive characteristics – they are articulate, desirable, and confident. However, they also talk endlessly, listened to only by cows. Ultimately, Plath and Alison need to be rescued by a strong man (Hughes himself) as she too becomes a damsel in distress, unable to look after herself, and reliant on male strength and decisiveness.

This desire to reduce the Wife of Bath to something more generic is also evident earlier in the century.

James Joyce’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses is a reincarnation of Alison of Bath, as other critics have noted. However, Joyce’s focus on women as “the flesh that always affirms’” runs counter to the Wife of Bath’s interrogation of the misogynist idea that women are unintellectual. The Wife of Bath’s knowledge of the Bible and skill at argument are not paralleled in Joyce’s version, as he creates a simpler, more stereotyped and essentialised version of womanhood.

In the 21st century, many women writers, including Caroline Bergvall, Patience Agbabi and Jean “Binta” Breeze, have taken on the Wife of Bath and embraced her complexities.

Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden transports her to contemporary north-west London, where she becomes Alvita. Although the text is ostentatiously of the present moment, with its references to #MeToo, Jordan Peterson and Beyoncé, it closely follows Chaucer’s text.

Alvita, like Alison, is complex, neither monstrous nor blameless. Alison’s searing indictments of rape culture, of the power of hate-filled misogynist books, and of the structural silencing of women in her world are re-voiced as Smith emphasises their ongoing relevance in the 21st century.

The history of feminism is not straightforward – some things get worse over time, not better. It is only in very recent years that new adaptations are no longer less progressive than the original. Despite all the attempts to silence and humiliate her, nevertheless, the Wife of Bath persisted and her voice is now louder than ever before.The Conversation

Marion Turner, J.R.R Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New Books January 2023

January seems to have flown by, with Hilary Term now well underway. If the hectic start of term has meant you haven’t kept abreast of all the new books arriving at the library this month, don’t worry – you can find them all on LibraryThing or just catch up with the highlights in this blog post!

This month over 70 new books have arrived, covering subjects from medieval studies to explorations of the modern city, as well as literature and fiction old and new. But did you know we regularly get new films as well? You can browse our latest DVDs and Blu-rays on LibraryThing. And if your laptop doesn’t have a disc drive, all is not lost – we have portable DVD players you can borrow from the enquiry desk.


Cover of David Pearson's Book Ownership in Stuart England. A photo of a library with wood panelling, a fire place, and a wooden table with a book open on it.David Pearson, Book Ownership in Stuart England (2021).

This fascinating study explores who owned books in seventeenth-century England, and which books were in their possession. It’s based on the 2018 Lyell Lectures which Pearson delivered in Oxford, and which you can read about on the Bodleian Libraries Centre for the Study of the Book blog.

Pearson makes clear from the outset that he’s not interested in what people read, much less what they might have thought about what they were reading. Instead, he focuses on the book as object, seeking to establish ‘what books people owned, but also why they owned them‘. One of Pearson’s key arguments is that the evidence for book ownership is much broader than many historians lament, including evidence for women and non-elite individuals owning substantial numbers of books.

To borrow Pearson’s phrasing, this study takes ‘the parachutist, rather than the truffle-hunting, methodology’ (p.7). What that means is, instead of looking at one or two individuals and their books, Pearson takes an incredibly broad view, compiling evidence of book ownership across all levels of society. That breadth is what makes this such an interesting and invaluable book.

Also available as an ebook.

Also by Pearson at the EFL: Provenance research in book history: A handbook (1994)Oxford bookbinding 1500-1640 (2000); English bookbinding styles, 1450-1800: A handbook (2005)Books as history: The importance of books beyond their texts (2008).


Cover for Lauren Elkin's Flaneuse: Women Walk The City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. A line drawing of a nineteenth-century man with a skirt doodled on top.Lauren Elkin, Flaneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London (2017).

The flâneur emerged in nineteenth century cities, especially the Paris of Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac. He was – and substantively remains – a male creation who enjoys a degree of urban freedom that, even today, women can struggle to lay claim to. That’s partly what leads Elkin to champion the radical potential of the flâneuse.

Elkin’s narrative interweaves the flâneuserie, as she terms it, of women writers who have walked the city – from Virginia Woolf to Martha Gellhorn – with her own personal experiences of urban walking. For all of Elkin’s flâneuses, herself included, taking to the streets on foot is a liberating act, enabling women to shift ‘from being looked at to looking‘. 

Ultimately, flânerie for Elkin is about freedom, disruption, and the joy found by walking through the city streets. Through her discussions and reflections, flâneuserie becomes ‘not just a means of traversing the city but a way of life and even a form of ethics‘. As Elkin puts it, in a world where the flâneur is becoming subsumed by the commercialisation and industrialisation he first took to the street in protest against, ‘the flâneuse is the more radical idea’. 


Cover of Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother. Purple background with black and white photo of the sea.Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2021). 

As the subtitle suggests, Lose Your Mother is a journey, in more ways than one. Hartman travelled to Ghana as an academic, researching the slave trade from the other side of the Atlantic. But what started as a scholarly exercise became deeply personal as she searched for her ancestors’ voices, with her narratives morphing into a meditation on identity, loss, and grief.

Hartman’s writing is haunted by the unknown and the unknowable. She has described the book as being ‘about those losses that haunt us, those ancestors we know but can’t name’. She considers the ‘irreparable violence’ of the slave trade, those who have disappeared from the archives – if they were ever there – and the consequences of that loss for their descendants in the United States as well as those who remain in Africa.

It’s undeniable that Hartman’s moving account demands ‘significant emotional expenditure‘ from its readers. But it is above all an intimate and accessible narrative that unites the academic and the personal in its search for the past.

Also by Hartman at the EFL: Scenes of subjection: Terror, slavery and self-making in nineteenth-century America (1997); Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate histories of riotous black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals (2021) – also new at the EFL this month!


Cover for Yiyun Li's Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. A drawing of a woman sitting reading on a bench, with a tree branch with autumn leaves above her and leaves falling around her.Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (2018).

Li’s Dear Friend is a memoir with a difference. In it, we learn very little of Li’s life, either in China or in America, and she expresses her discomfort with the word ‘I’. (If you saw the December new books blog post, you may remember that Christine Brooke-Rose’s Remake is another new-to-the-EFL memoir which avoids that particular pronoun.)

Instead of narrating the events of Li’s life, Dear Friend is at heart a profoundly thoughtful book. It discusses language at length, including Li’s decision to abandon her native Chinese, not only writing but thinking exclusively in English. Her ruminations on language sit alongside a series of meditations on both reading and writing, as Li reflects on the importance of literature in the wake of her hospitalisations following suicide attempts. Reading was her means of survival, and ‘literature offer[ed] her both recovery and discovery‘.

Above all, Dear Friend is beautifully written – it’s been described as ‘calm, but not soothing, matter-of-fact, yet dreamlike‘. It is a moving exploration of the possibilities and limits of language, and how to cope with the point at which thinking ends and feeling begins.

Also by Li at the EFL: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (2006); Where Reasons End: A Novel (2019).


Cover for Brian Dillon's Objects in This Mirror. The cover is white, with the title and author's name in navy blue italics.Brian Dillon, Objects in This Mirror (2014). 

This collection brings together essays written and published over a decade. Together, the essays explore a huge range of subjects as Dillon seeks to make the most of what the essay form can be and the possibilities it contains.

There’s no real theme that underpins the collected essays; featured topics range from hypochondria and taste to the Dewey decimal system and slapstick. Instead, ‘Dillon’s wide-ranging curiosity is the unifying force‘. As another reviewer said, few writers are ‘more consistently interesting on as wide a range of subjects‘ as Dillon is revealed to be in this collection.

Perhaps the other unifying element is the importance Dillon places on the essay form itself. In interviews, he’s described the ‘conjunction between unlikely topics or unlikely narratives‘ that is uniquely possible in an essay. He has also expressed admiration for, and his desire to continue, the tradition of essay-writing as it’s developed since the seventeenth century. What motivates him – and what is clear from this collection – is ‘a sense that in the essay you can write about absolutely anything‘.

Also by Dillon at the EFL: Essayism (2017); Suppose a Sentence (2021).


Cover for Toni Morrison's Recitatif. The background is an abstract pattern in peach and shades of blue, with the author's name in red and the title in white text.Toni Morrison, Recitatif (2022). 

Originally published in 1983, Recitatif is Morrison’s only short story, and appears in this edition with a new introduction by Zadie Smith. The story follows two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who become inseparable as children at St. Bonaventure’s orphanage, but as fate throws them together as adults differences and tensions emerge between them.

Race and the perception of it are key to the story. One girl is black, and the other is white – but Morrison never tells us which is which. The effect is to shift the story’s focus from the characters’ race to the reader’s perception of racial difference. Smith draws out the implications of this in her introduction, which is well worth reading.

But it’s not just race that separates the two girls as adults. There are socio-economic differences between them, as well as the dividing line of memory. There was a disabled worker at the orphanage, Maggie, and while differing memories of her fate divide Twyla and Roberta as adults, her story can become lost in the reader’s efforts to solve the mystery of racial identity. This is undoubtedly a story that benefits from being read, reread, and reread again.

Many of Morrison’s works are available at the EFL. Find them on SOLO.

Special Collections Spotlight

Welcome to the first Special Collections blog post! I’m Katie, the Senior Library Assistant for Collections.

With all the English Faculty Library rare book collections moving off-site by the time of our Schwartzman Centre move in 2025, we’ve been going through, boxing to archival standard, and admiring our hoard. With over 6000 books in the Rare Books Room alone, there’s a lot to do! We had the idea to use this overview to highlight cool, unique, weird, and otherwise fun stuff in our rare book collections!

Therefore, to make light of the amount of work still ahead of us, I decided to kick these updates off with one of our goofiest holdings – the 1940 edition of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot.

This is the first illustrated edition, which is what drew me to it on the shelf (as well as my childhood love for Macavity the Mystery Cat!). The dustjacket had started to crumble away with time, so after this first photo was taken I jacketed it (with library-grade materials, an easily-reversible process) to support and protect it – we don’t want to lose our handsome cat couple! Illustrated in full by Nicolas Bentley, each poem receives its own full-page illustration, as well as closing with an outline of a cat.

The opening of the poem 'Mr Mistoffelees' on the right page, with a full page illustration on the left. A black cat - Mr Mistoffelees - is pulling a kitten out of a cat, surrounded by six more kittens in various stages of disarray.

‘Mr. Mistoffelees’. Which kitten best expresses how you feel today? I would say I’m the orange one tangled in yarn.

However, it wasn’t just these great illustrations that drew me to this item, but the fact in the back there was a piece of publishing paraphernalia; just a fun extra, or so I thought…

A sheet of faded paper on a black background. 'Faber Book News' is written at the top, and then a description of the cat Morgan who lived outside their publishing house. Instead of writing the word 'cat', a black outline has been drawn.

Page from Faber and Faber’s 1951 Autumn/Winter catalogue, discussing Cat Morgan.

Faded sheet of white paper, with the heading 'Faber Book News' in red, showing the poem 'Cat Morgan introduces himself'.

The poem ‘Cat Morgan introduces himself’.

Despite the pretence, Morgan was, of course, not the author of either work; T.S. Eliot wrote the poem, ‘Cat Morgan Introduces Himself’, while Morley Kennerley, one of the Faber and Faber board members, wrote the introduction upon receipt of the poem, ‘without any thought whatsoever, for I simply haven’t had time’ (The Poems of T.S. Eliot p75), as part of the publishing houses 1951 Autumn/Winter catalogue. This catalogue was the first time this poem was published; it was not incorporated into Practical Cats until 1953. Morgan, a generous cat, also chose not to assert his copyright, (“Morgan’s verses may be reproduced without his permission”), allowing the poem to subsequently be republished in multiple newspapers at the time. To enable this during post-war paper shortages, ‘[Morgan] is sympathetic to the problem of others and has so arranged his natural history that the first and last verses form an entity when printed by themselves”.

However, despite the initial kind waiver of copyright, it’s still rather valuable – and there was no record that the EFL had a copy of Morgan hidden away with his fellow Practical Cats. Just like the real Cat Morgan, it seems to have found its way here with mysterious provenance, but now it’s turned up, we all love it just as much (and have added a note to the record, to acknowledge his fine presence). What other secrets may be hiding away inside the books of the Rare Books Room?

A orange cat, spotted with inky-blue, is dancing on his hind legs. One leg is raised off the floor, and both front paws are over his head in delight. In the background you can see the foot of the conductor, who is copying the cat's dance.

Me, upon finding this cool item! (Actually the main illustration from ‘Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’.)

Unfortunately, while the letter says, ‘Photographs of authors available’, I can’t turn up any pictures of the original Cat Morgan. This elegant outline in the sheet, showing his rich black fur, is the closest we’ll visually get (at least for now), leaving each of us to imagine the finest black cat we can.

References and further reading

  • Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot. Available (in multiple editions) in the library.
  • ‘Cat Morgan Introduces Himself’. Another copy is available at the Weston.
  • The Poems of T.S. Eliot (vol. 2). This includes more information about the history of the real Cat Morgan. The most relevant extracts can be found on pages 75-77. Available in the library.
  • 1940s‘, Faber and Faber website. No direct mentions of Cat Morgan, but discussion of T.S. Eliot’s time at the publishing house on Russell Square.

More Than Just Books – Reader Aids & Info

Hello there! A happy Friday to you all and a warm welcome back to those of you who read the first instalment of this series released back in October. In that first post we focused on all the library tech on offer to our readers, but today we turn our attention to reader aids and information in the hope that those visiting us in Hilary Term and beyond can hit the ground running. Specifically, we’re taking a look at the library’s signage, guides and website (the info); and equipment and furniture (the reader aids). Let’s dive in shall we?


Signage

The signs in our library are a useful way of staying abreast of the latest events and developments relevant to readers, from forthcoming student productions of Shakespeare to details about Bodleian Libraries service updates. But perhaps the most important one to keep an eye on is just outside the main entrance; it shows the opening hours for the week, which are subject to change depending on whether we are in term time or vacation.

Photo of the English Faculty Library main entrance showing the opening hours sign to the right of the automatic door.

Welcome to the English Faculty Library! Don’t forget to check our opening hours sign on your way in.

Many of our signs are displayed on one of four noticeboards or at natural confluence points in the library. You can find the noticeboards in the following locations:

  • Next to the entrance and exit gate.
  • In the computer room, to the left on entering.
  • Next to the Quick Search PCs on the ground floor.
  • Above the Quick Search PC at the top of the stairs.

Directional signs and maps are also displayed throughout the reading rooms to help you navigate our spaces and find the resources you need. At the bottom of the stairs you’ll also find a handy author look-up table, which lists alphabetically a number of noteworthy writers alongside their corresponding shelf mark.

Photo of the author lookup table at the base of the library stairs along with floorplans of the library.

Our author look-up table at the foot of the stairs is a great place to go if you want to browse our collections or research a particular individual.


Guides

A number of useful guides are available from the help desk and next to the Quick Search PCs on the ground floor. Need help placing a hold request? Want to find out more about Bodleian Libraries provision for disabled readers? Looking for the location of an Oxford library? You can find the answers to these questions and many more in our guides.

Photo of library guides at the help desk in the library with three rubber ducks in the background.

Our guides cover a range of topics and are looked after dutifully by a team of rubber ducks.

At the top of the stairs, next to our PCAS machines, you will also find laminated instructions for completing routine tasks such as scanning to email, photocopying, or printing from a personal device.

It doesn’t end there either. We have a wealth of resources available to readers online, including subject and research guides that cater to specific topics and periods of interest to members of the English Faculty. Click on the link below to get started.

Subject Specific Guides – English Language and Literature – Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University


Website

The Bodleian Libraries website is one of the most useful places to go for up-to-date information on library services and resources for all the Bodleian Libraries, including the English Faculty Library. Take a look at the GIF below for a brief overview of the homepage and navigating to the EFL’s webpage. This webpage contains all the information you’ll need to get started in our library, including an introductory video, a virtual tour and links to our floorplans.

A GIF of replaying a mouse navigating the drop down menus of www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk, scrolling to 'Find a library' and selecting 'English Faculty Library' from the options.

www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk is the place to go for lots of useful library information, including important service updates.


Equipment

So now you know where to go for the info, how about the reader aids? Well, the library has a variety of equipment for readers to use onsite and most of it is kept at the Accessibility Hub adjacent to the help desk. Here you will find a foot stool, magnifying glass, reading ruler, laptop stand and acetate overlays. Need to block out the ambient noise of the library? There’s earplugs too!

Photo of the library's accessibility hub, showing bookstands, laptop stands, a foot stool, earplugs, a magnifying glass and coloured acetates.

The majority of our reader aids live at the Accessibility Hub and are free to take away and use in the library – you don’t need to ask!

There are multiple units of more popular equipment, such as bookstands. These are kept both at the Hub and on the gallery balcony by the first floor seating area, meaning you’ll never have to go far or wait long to get one.

Our daylight lamp is the only bit of kit that isn’t kept at the Hub. It’s plugged in with the height-adjustable desk on the first floor at the top of the stairs. Which brings us on neatly to the ergonomic furniture available for use…


Ergonomic furniture

Here we’re referring only to furniture that can be adjusted for different postures. There is of course plenty of different seating across our reading rooms, conducive to different activities, but we won’t go into that here.

On the ground floor, you will find two height adjustable desks, one accompanied by an ergonomic chair in the main reading room and the other in the computer room, topped off with an all-in-one monitor. It is a similar situation on the first floor, where you will find another adjustable table and chair combo at the top of the stairs and another adjustable desk with a monitor just beyond the PCAS machines.


And that’s all for this instalment of More Than Just Books. But before we let you go, a reminder that suggestions for future posts in the series can be sent to efl-enquiries@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

 

 

 

 

Service Update: Hilary Term, 2023

Introduction

A wintry welcome back to you all for the first week of Hilary Term. We hope you had a pleasant break, full of festive frivolity, and are sufficiently layered up for the approaching cold weather. On that note, before we jump in, a reminder that hot drinks can be brought into the library provided they are in a KeepCup. Said hot drinks can be purchased from the Missing Bean Cafe, a 30 second walk away in the St Cross Building.

Opening hours

From Saturday 14th January the library reverted to its term-time opening hours. For the duration of Hilary Term, until Saturday 11th March, the library will be open Monday to Friday, 9:00-19:00, and Saturdays, 10:00-13:00.

Vacation loans

The vast majority of library loans issued over the winter vacation are due back on 17th and 19th January, that’s Tuesday and Thursday of this week! Be sure to renew or return any loans you have with us on time so that everyone can borrow what they need when they need it for the term ahead.

A library refresher

It’s wholly understandable if one or two things about the library have slipped your mind after the holidays, or passed you by entirely during Michaelmas Term. After all, there are lots of resources and services to familiarise yourself with and we are expanding our provision all the time. So, with that said, why not head over to our webpages for a brief recap of what’s on offer? We’ve managed to pack quite a lot into our three-minute welcome video in case you haven’t got much time to spare:

Using the English Faculty Library | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)

And remember, there are lots of ways to get help across the Bodleian Libraries. The last thing we’d want is for you to struggle on silently and staff across all sites work together to maintain a number of dedicated avenues of support. You can find out all about them here:

Ask and support | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)

Of course, when you are in the English Faculty Library, you’ll always be able to find someone to talk to at the help desk. We’re a friendly bunch and we’ll do our best to answer even the hardest of library-related conundrums.

Library training sessions

In-person library training sessions for English students are being timetabled for the term, with details due to be circulated to relevant cohorts ahead of time via email.

Contact us

We warmly invite any of our readers with questions or concerns to contact the library directly using the details on our webpage:

English Faculty Library | Bodleian Libraries (ox.ac.uk)

Best wishes for the term ahead!


Stay up to date with developments at the English Faculty Library by following us on Twitter. Updates affecting the Bodleian Libraries as a whole will be published on the Service updates webpage. Any questions about library service updates can be addressed to efl-enquiries@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

New Books December 2022

2022 may have come to a close, but the new books were flying into the library right up until the last minute! You can find a selection of books which caught our eye below – why not pick up something new for the new year?

As ever, if you’d like to browse all of the EFL’s new books, head on over to LibraryThing.


Cover image for How long til black future month? by N. K. JemisinN. K. Jemisin, How long ’til Black Future Month? (2018).

Jemisin has written a number of works of fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, including three (highly decorated) series: the Dreamblood duology, the Inheritance trilogy, and the Broken Earth trilogy. How long ’til black future month? is her first collection of short stories, and won the Locus award in 2019.

The collection contains 22 stories, and takes its title from an essay Jemisin published on her blog in 2013. Most of the stories were written between 2004 and 2017 and had previously been published, while four are new for this collection. They contain themes of community, revolution, justice and power, and often feature characters on the margins of society. While they all sit under the umbrella of speculative fiction, they are written in a smorgasbord of different styles, from cyberpunk and steam punk to alien invasion and high fantasy.

Some of the stories explore the same worlds as her novels, such as ‘Stone Hunger’ which takes place in the same universe as the Broken Earth trilogy. Others provide tantalising glimpses of Jemisin’s ideas, and read ‘like a provacative sketch for a much longer work‘. Across all the fascinating stories in this collection, Jemisin revels in the ‘uncanny moments in which the human integrates with what feels profoundly inhuman‘.

Also by Jemisin at the EFL: the Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17).


Cover for 'Remake' by Christine Brooke-RoseChristine Brooke-Rose, Remake (1996).

Brooke-Rose (1923-2012) was an experimentalist writer who wrote novels, short stories and poems as well as criticism. Her work is often described as ‘playful and difficult’, and Remake is no exception.

Remake is autobiographical in the sense that Brooke-Rose was writing about her own life. But she was extremely resistant to the idea of writing an autobiography, and arguably did not write one: Remake has been described as ‘an autobiographical novel with a difference’ (from the publisher) and even as ‘a kind of antibiography’. Discussing the process of writing Remake, Brooke-Rose talked about struggling with a long list of the ‘facts’ of her life, a list she said ‘even I couldn’t re-read’. Her writing was only really enabled when she found ‘a constraint’ in the form of writing an autobiography containing no personal pronouns and no possessive adjectives.

Remake is ‘more narratively straightforward’ than Brooke-Rose’s more experimental, ‘difficult’ novels. But Brooke-Rose didn’t see difficulty as a bad thing. For her, ‘difficulty [was] the locus of pleasure’, meaning that reading becomes more enjoyable when it makes demands of the reader. Whatever your view on difficulty, Remake is a fascinating third-person fiction capturing ‘not the facts but the content of those facts’ (from the publisher), the textures, feelings, tones and transformations of a life.

Many of Brooke-Rose’s other works are also available at the EFL. You can find them on SOLO.


Cover image of 'Golden Hill' by Francis SpuffordFrancis Spufford, Golden Hill (2016).

Although Golden Hill is Spufford’s first novel, he has previously written in a dizzying array of genres. These include his memoir, The Child That Books Built (available in the library), as well as more experimental work, such as Red Plenty (available on Bodleian PCs) which blends history and real people with fiction.

Spufford has form when it comes to bringing authentic history and gripping stories together – and he does so masterfully well in Golden Hill. Without giving too much away, the novel follows Mr Smith who arrives in mid-eighteenth-century New York with a note for £1,000 that he wants to exchange for cash with a local trader. If Smith is not who he says he is, this would prove ruinous. The story follows Smith as he navigates this New World – and as the city’s inhabitants seek to establish what Mr Smith is hiding.

This is historical fiction underpinned by a huge amount of research, although that research is ‘worn refreshingly lightly‘. Spufford creates a vivid and authentic eighteenth-century world that echoes eighteenth-century novelists such as Sterne, Smollett and the Fieldings. But Spufford never seems weighed down by his eighteenth-century antecedents – nor does he let things like archaic spelling get in the way of what is at the end of the day a marvellous story!

Also by Spufford at the EFL: The Child That Books Built (2002).


Cover image of 'Improvised Explosive Device' by Arji ManuelpillaiArji Manuelpillai, Improvised Explosive Device (2022).

Manuelpillai is a British Sri Lankan poet who hasn’t always been a poet. He has previously rapped with an international touring band and his own band, worked with a children’s theatre company and on various other shows, and taught workshops and multidisciplinary art. All of this has been motivated by what he calls a fascination with people: Improvised Explosive Device is the result of bringing ‘[his] love for poems and people together into one collection‘.

Improvised Explosive Device is Manuelpillai’s first poetry collection, described as a ‘powerful political debut‘. It explores extremist violence, the lives and experiences of people who engage with terrorist groups, and how close we all are to acts of violence. Underpinned by extensive research including conversations with former members of extremist groups and their families as well as academics and sociologists, these are ‘complex, unnerving texts’ chronicling how people turn to violence (from the publisher).

When speaking to people for this collection, Manualpillai has described being inspired by people whose ‘stories were truly unheard’. He sought to listen without interruption or judgement, then capture their stories in his poems. The result is an incredibly powerful collection which ‘will change the way you look at the world’ (from the publisher).


Cover image of 'Imagining Cleopatra: Performing Gender and Power in Early Modern England' by Yasmin ArshadYasmin Arshad, Imagining Cleopatra: Performing gender and power in early modern England (2021).

Cleopatra ‘is one of the most renowned and enduring figures from classical antiquity, yet remains one of its most elusive’ (from Arshad’s Introduction). This study aims to establish not how we perceive Cleopatra today, but how she was imagined and used by early modern English writers and audiences.

Arshad’s key aim is to expand our understanding of the different and multiple early-modern imaginings of Cleopatra, moving beyond both how Shakespeare presented her and how we imagine her today. In particular, she shows how Cleopatra was a model for femininity and motherhood, as well as serving as a vehicle for critiques of and commentary on contemporary political developments at the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts.

Arshad’s work has generally been well-received by critics. Some have pointed out that, although Arshad states she wants to ‘decentre’ Shakespeare from understandings of Cleopatra in early modern England, he in fact frames her analysis, appearing on the first page and forming the subject of the last chapter (from review by Rutter). Others say that, while Arshad’s analysis of gendered imaginings is admirable, her discussion of race lacks depth (from review by Léon Alfar). However, the overall consensus is that Arshad has produced ‘an accomplished and varied scholarly work that provides a necessary and unexpected interpretation of a popular figure’ (from review by Green).

An e-book of the 2019 edition of this work is also available.


Cover image for 'Slammerkin' by Emma DonoghueEmma Donoghue, Slammerkin (2011).

Donoghue is a writer of novels, historical fiction, children’s books and short story collections, as well as works of literary history. In Slammerkin, she draws on the ‘nasty, brutish and short‘ (real) life of Mary Saunders, re-imagining a vivid inner life for Mary based on the merest fragments of historical record.

We know very little of the real Mary except that in 1764, aged sixteen or seventeen, she was hanged for the murder of her mistress. At the time, newspaper accounts said Mary’s crime was motivated by her desire for fine clothing. But Donoghue looks beyond this, to find a child who wants more than drudgery and poverty, whose ‘murderous outburst [is] a reaction to the physical traumas [she] suffered’ (from article by Mulvany).

Perhaps because of Donoghue’s background as a historian, Slammerkin has received a wealth of scholarly attention. Some have found elements of queer theory in Mary’s rejection of chrono-normativity (the heteronormative lifecycle of childhood, marriage, family and death), a refusal to abide by society’s rules that leads to her ultimate end (see article by Mulvany). Others have pointed to Donoghue’s use of historical fiction as a feminist political tool, rediscovering and giving some degree of agency to historical women (see article by O’Callaghan and Young). But Slammerkin is also the gripping and moving story of a young girl who tried to find a world beyond the class and gender boundaries she faces.

Also by Donoghue at the EFL: We are Michael Field (1998); Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins (1999); The Sealed Letter (2012).

New Books November 2022

As ever, lots of new books arrived at the library in November, from novels and poetry to essays and literary criticism. Read on to see a selection of titles which caught our eye this month, or browse all our new books on LibraryThing.

Did you know that November was National Native American Heritage Month in the USA? Fittingly, it coincided with the arrival of a collection of Native Nations poetry at the library, which is one of the titles featured below. You can also explore LibraryThing to see the new books about Native American Literature which have arrived at the EFL recently.


Cover image for How the García girls lost their accents, by Julia Alvarez. A purple background with an orange and yellow luggage tag in the middle, on which the title is written.Julia Alvarez, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (2021).

Originally published in 1991, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents was Alvarez’s first book. The story follows the four García sisters and their parents as they flee the Dominican Republic and start new lives in America.

Intriguingly, Alvarez writes in reverse chronology. The novel opens in the late 1980s with the adult García sisters, proceeding backwards through the family’s move to New York in the 1960s and their struggles to adjust, all the way to the girls’ childhoods in the Dominican Republic. This creates a sense of fragmentation and a lack of cohesion which is underscored by the narrative shifts between the four sisters.

That theme of fragmentation looms large. The tension between the García girls’ Dominican and American identities is omnipresent, as they try to understand where they’ve come from and where they belong. It’s this sense of being stuck between one place and another that makes Alvarez’s novel such a powerful exploration of the immigrant experience.


Cover image: When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, edited by Joy Harjo. The top half is a blue and yellow abstract design; the bottom half shows the title in black text on a white background.When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (2020). Eds. Joy Harjo, LeAnne Howe, and Jennifer Elise.

This collection of Native Nations poetry, edited by Joy Harjo – the first Indigenous poet laureate of the United States – has been hailed as ‘nothing less than a landmark’ (from NY Journal of Books review). It features 161 authors, covering more than three centuries (1678-2019) and over 90 nations across what is now the United States.

Many of the works contain themes of nature and the natural world, but they range widely in subject and style. Some address colonialism or healing from the trauma of war, others turn to personal and collective experiences of loss and cultural destruction. The result is a collection which encompasses both light and dark.

The poems are not presented chronologically. They are instead grouped by region, an editorial decision which creates conversations between poems and poets around shared experiences and events. Many reviewers have noted how unusual – and welcome – the anthology is in the way it foregrounds inter-generational community dialogues, ‘decentr[ing] the individual author and his or her accomplishments in favour of supporting an entire community’ (from The Los Angeles Review of Books).

Also new this month: Joy Harjo, How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (2004).

Interested in more? You can browse the EFL’s latest books on Native American Literature on LibraryThing.


Cover image: Black Teacher, by Beryl Gilroy. On a white background, the title is in green text at the top and the author's name in blue text at the bottom. In the middle is a picture of Gilroy.Beryl Gilroy, Black Teacher (2021).

First published in 1976, Black Teacher is the memoir of the first black headteacher in London and quite probably in the country. Born in Guyana, Gilroy was a qualified and experienced teacher when she arrived in England in 1952. But she faced hostility and racism, struggling to find a teaching post for many years.

Black Teacher documents the racism that Gilroy faced from colleagues, pupils and parents, as well as in her daily life. It has been described as a survival strategy, Gilroy’s ‘remedy to living in Britain as a West Indian woman’ (from Guardian review). But above all, Black Teacher is a testament to Gilroy’s achievements as a teacher as she forged her own path, overcoming the barriers she faced in English classrooms to assert her excellence as an educator.

When first published, Black Teacher was criticised for Gilroy’s supposed vanity, and some reviewers asked whether the racial struggles it presents were still relevant (from British Library article). But more recently, it has undergone a critical reappraisal and is now recognised as a lost classic. This edition, introduced by Bernardine Evaristo, certainly emphasises the incredible trail-blazing legacy of Gilroy’s writing, and indeed her life.


Cover image: The Mizzy, by Paul Farley. The cover features a watercolour painting of a tree, with the title and author's name in white text in the middle on the right hand side.Paul Farley, The Mizzy (2019).

Farley, described as ‘one of the leading English poets writing today’ (from the publisher), is the author of a number of poetry collections as well as other varied works. The Mizzy is his latest collection, and in 2019 was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Poetry Award.

The collection takes its title from a nickname for the mistle thrush. While there’s no central underlying theme, birds appear frequently, from the eponymous mistle thrush to robins and starlings. But these birds sit alongside other subjects and themes in a ‘stirring miscellany’, including ruminations on childhood, modernity, and technology (from Guardian review). Even in these, though, birds and nature are not entirely absent; they appear in, for example, the ‘avian shrill’ of a phone that can ‘thrum in your hand like a frightened bird’.

At its heart, this collection is self-aware and vulnerable, engaging with life in its entirety from a philosophical angle. While it is sometimes unnerving and occasionally dark, it remains playful and joyful throughout.

Also by Farley at the EFL: The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You (1998), The Dark Film (2012), The Ice Age (2002), and Tramp in Flames (2006).


Cover image: Close calls with nonsense, by Stephanie Burt. The main image is of a boy leaning over backwards to read a book upside, with the author's name in black text at the top and the title in black text inside a blue box at the bottom.Stephanie Burt, Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry (2009).

Burt is a scholar of post-WWII American poetry, as well as a poet and prolific writer of reviews. This collection brings some of those reviews together alongside longer essays.

The common aim underpinning all of Burt’s writing is to make poetry accessible and appealing to people who may have never encountered poetry, or who had a ‘bad experience’ and swore off poetry for good. With that aim in mind, Close Calls with Nonsense is undoubtedly a success; it has been described as ‘abounding with an excited spirit more common to film and pop music reviews than to literary criticism’ (from Publishers Weekly).

Although Burt has written about the works of a huge range of poets, this collection brings together reviews predominantly focused on American poets (with some exceptions). Burt herself has said she regrets that this was the publisher’s wish, as she would like there to be more dialogue between American and British poets and readers (from PN Review interview). If you would like to contribute to creating and nurturing that dialogue by becoming more familiar with American poetry, this collection is a great place to start!

Also by Burt at the EFL: Randall Jarrell and His Age (2002), The Poem is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (2016), and The Art of the Sonnet (2010).


Cover image: Flannery O'Connor's Radical Reality, edited by Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl Heinz-Westarp. A black-and-white photograph of O'Connor with a blue tinted overlay except for a band across her eyes. The title and editors are in white text at the bottom.Flannery O’Connor’s Radical Reality (2006). Eds. Jan Nordby Gretlund and Karl-Heinz Westarp.

This collection of 14 previously unpublished essays explores the work of Flannery O’Connor, focusing in particular on the influence of the wider world on O’Connor’s writing and how she responded to the issues and debates around her.

O’Connor (1925-1964) wrote two novels and 31 short stories, as well as numerous reviews and commentaries. Her writing is coloured by her experiences living in the American South, her Roman Catholic faith, and her relationships, especially with her mother. Her faith in particular cannot be divorced from her writing, as she often grappled with moral and ethical concerns in her work. But a further, sadly unavoidable influence on O’Connor’s writing was her own ill-health; diagnosed with lupus in 1952, her health progressively worsened until her death aged 39.

While these more personal influences on O’Connor’s writing have been explored elsewhere (for example the special issue of the journal Women’s Studies, vol.51:4 (2022)), this collection aims to place O’Connor and her work within the various social, cultural and political contexts of the time. Many essays explore the significance of contemporary events and debates such as the Cold War or the Civil Rights Movement, and how she both responded to and ‘aesthetically transformed’ them (from Gretlund and Westarp’s Introduction). It is, all-in-all, a fascinating collection exploring O’Connor’s work and the world she lived in.

Interested in O’Connor’s work? A number of her books are available at the EFL, including her two novels Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1950), as well as her Collected Works (1988, ed. Sally Fitzgerald).

Service Update: Winter Vacation, 2022

Introduction

All too quickly, it’s that time of year again where the library begins the transition to its vacation service. Congratulations to all our readers for getting through another busy term. Whether it is your first Michaelmas or last with us, well done! We hope you find the time for a restful break this winter.

Vacation Opening Hours

The library will move to vacation opening hours from 4th December (today!), with a closed period of 23rd December to 2nd January inclusive. Opening hours during the vacation are:

Monday to Friday: 9:00-17:00

Vacation loans

Vacation loans for normal loans started on 28th November and 1st December for short loans. Loans issued from these dates will be due back during the first week of Hilary Term, starting 15th January.

Closure of CSF

The CSF, or Collection Storage Facility, is the complex housing the Bodleian Libraries offsite, closed-stack material. Due to a system upgrade, there will be no deliveries from the CSF on 8th and 9th December.

The last delivery of material will arrive in the afternoon of 7th December. You must place requests for material through SOLO by 10:00 on 7th December to receive material in this delivery.

OffsiteScan will also be unavailable during this time. Readers are encouraged to place stack and scan requests well in advance so that they can be fulfilled prior to the closure.

Deliveries and offsite scans will resume as normal on 12th December.

Online Support

If you are away from the library over the vacation don’t forget the wealth of support available to you remotely online. If you need help or have a query, you can get in touch with us via email or the telephone – the details are on our library webpage. Alternatively, you can speak to a librarian in real-time using the Live Chat service available from the SOLO homepage.

Don’t forget to check out relevant Subject and Research Guides too:

Home – Subject and Research Guides – Oxford LibGuides at Oxford University

Finally, it just remains for us to wish you the very best over the festive period. You’ll have another service update from us in the new year!


Stay up to date with developments at the English Faculty Library by following us on Twitter. Updates affecting the Bodleian Libraries as a whole will be published on the Service updates webpage. Any questions about library services updates can be addressed to efl-enquiries@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.

Midwinter Ghosts: A Short History of Tall Tales

It’s the most wonderful time of the year …

There’ll be scary ghost stories

And tales of the glories

Of Christmases long, long ago …

I’m sure many people will have heard this classic Christmas song many times (and apologies if you now have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day!), but have you ever wondered why – amidst all the jingle bells, carolling, and other accoutrements of the ‘hap-happiest season of all’ – there are scary ghost stories?

A snowman wearing a coat and winter hat, holding a lantern

He doesn’t seem scared! Photo by Myriam Zilles on Unsplash

Although ghouls and general spookiness are now more closely associated with Halloween, there is a very long tradition of indulging in tales of horror during the long winter evenings at this time of year. If you’ve visited the EFL recently, you might have spotted our Beyond A Christmas Carol display, which shows that although Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has undoubtedly become the archetypal Christmas ghost story, it’s not the only one. The display draws a thread through time linking Beowulf to A Christmas Carol and more modern stories and retellings, to show the evolution of mid-winter ghost stories.

Of course, we couldn’t possibly fit everything into a display case (or two), so in this post we’ve taken a more detailed look at the development of the midwinter ghost story. We’ll explore why ghosts are associated with this time of year, how representations of those festive terrors have changed over time, and – in a shameless but perhaps unsurprising plug – some of the spooky-yet-festive books, audio-visual resources, and other material you can find at the EFL.


The Origins of Midwinter Ghosts: Or, Why Did Cromwell Hate Christmas?

There has long been an association between the winter solstice, ghost stories and the supernatural. We’ve already mentioned that, today, we might more readily associate ghosts with Halloween than Christmas, but in fact the two aren’t so far removed as they first appear.

On 31 October and 1 November, the Celts celebrated the festival of Samhain. Taking place halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, this festival marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. It was also believed to be the moment when the barriers between the human world and the world of the gods were at their weakest, meaning spirits could roam the earth and mischievous gods could play tricks on unsuspecting humans. While there is some debate about the exact relationship between Samhain and Halloween, it is generally accepted that Halloween as we know it today has been strongly influenced by the Celtic festival.

So, the idea of changing seasons – and particularly wintertime – as a liminal period between the old and new, when ghosts and spirits could return to earth, has a long history. On a human level, it makes sense: what better way to pass the long, cold nights than sat around the fire imagining what might be lurking out there in the dark? With the rise of the Christian churches and the move towards our modern calendar, the focus shifted from the harvest to Christmastime as marking the end of the year. But the link between winter celebrations and the supernatural remained.

In fact, it likely played a part in Oliver Cromwell’s infamous attempt to ban Christmas in the seventeenth century. The 1644 ban wasn’t only an anti-fun crusade, but also an attempt to purge what Puritans considered a solemn religious occasion of its ‘frivolous’, pagan elements – including ghost stories and the supernatural. Nor was it only the horrors of paganism that Puritans sought to eradicate. The enduring legacy of Catholic ideas of purgatory, even after the Reformation, continued to influence popular stories of ghosts and restless spirits well into the seventeenth century and beyond (Belsey, 2010).

An image of a person sitting on a bench reading a newspaper, with the headline 'Christmas BANNED' and a photo of Father Christmas in the middle of a stop sign

Bad news for Christmas fans in 1644. Original photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the reign of Charles II – the king who brought back partying, after all – Christmas was back. But the damage had been done, and many traditions were lost. It would be another 200-odd years before a prolific Victorian writer would breathe new life, as it were, into the ghosts of midwinter …


The Re-Invention of Christmas Ghosts

That’s not to say that ghost stories disappeared between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, although it’s true they haven’t received much historical attention (Handley, 2007). But it was undoubtedly the Victorians who took the ghost story to new heights. Part of the appeal of ghost stories for the Victorians was the tales’ ability to turn the natural world on its head, thereby challenging the political and cultural assumptions of the day (Smith, 2013).

The most famous Victorian ghost story – perhaps the most famous Christmas ghost story of any period – is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens, who was after all a journalist and campaigner as well as a writer of novels, certainly made the most of the subversive potential of ghost stories. A Christmas Carol is at its heart a social critique aiming to inspire charity and philanthropy during the festive season, with Scrooge coming to see the error of his miserly ways just in time for Christmas!

If you’ve visited the ghost story display at the library, then you’ll know already that A Christmas Carol is but one link in the (clinking) chain of midwinter ghost stories. But it wasn’t the only Victorian ghost story either. Ghost stories were a popular festive genre among both authors and readers. Take the 1870 edition of Routledge’s Christmas Annual, for example: four of the eleven festive stories (all of which you can read online) presented in the volume feature ghosts and seasonal terrors, from ghosts who seek revenge to those who inhabit strange boxes …

A black-and-white line drawing. In the foreground, a thin elderly man steps out of a triangular box. In the background, through an open door a frightened man is sitting up in bed.

Old Dodson escapes from the peculiar three sided box. From Routledge’s Christmas Annual (1870)

Indeed, ghost stories were so prolific that their narrative tropes and style could be satirised to great effect. That’s what Dickens did in another of his festive publications, A Christmas Tree (originally published in Household Words in 1850, the illustrated edition in the Bodleian’s collection dates from 1911 – and you can read it online too!).

This short tale runs through a series of festive reminiscences, beginning with child-like wonder at Christmas delights before turning to ghost stories shared around the fire. The stories presented are stereotypical versions of classic tales, with ghosts for example foretelling death and taking advantage of a temporary seasonal weakening of the walls that separate the living from the dead. By the end, there is a return to the original sense of Christmas joy, though the innocence and child-like nature is gone. The story concludes with a curious reminder of the liminal potential of this time of year and the sense of endings which pervades it:

A colour drawing of a group of people in Victorian-style clothes around the fireplace. An elderly man sits in a chair telling a story, with a crowd of young people gathered round

Ghost stories round the Christmas fire. From A Christmas Tree, by Charles Dickens.

Now, the tree is decorated with bright merriment, and song, and dance, and cheerfulness. And they are welcome. Innocent and welcome be they ever held, beneath the branches of the Christmas Tree, which cast no gloomy shadow! But as it sinks into the ground, I hear a whisper going through the leaves, “This, in commemoration of the law of love and kindness, mercy and compassion. This, in remembrance of Me!”

– from A Christmas Tree, pp.39-40


Modern Christmas Terrors

Even today, we see the enduring legacy of Victorian Christmas traditions – including ghost stories. There have been a huge number of adaptations of A Christmas Carol alone, from TV specials like Doctor Who in 2010 or the perennial classic, and my personal favourite, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). Both can be accessed via Box of Broadcasts (BoB) when you sign in with your Oxford SSO.

Three little ghosts wearing white sheets, standing in a line

Ghosts waiting patiently for their stories to be retold. Photo by Dawn McDonald on Unsplash

But these aren’t the only stories which have had long-lasting appeal. If you’ve had the chance to visit the display in the library, you’ll know that ghost stories have been told and retold countless times and in many different forms. The Anglo-Saxon midwinter tale Beowulf, for example, has been adapted into an animated film (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007) while Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most-ghostly drama, has been adapted on screen (for example by Kenneth Branagh in 2007) and is staged regularly. The recording of the RSC’s 2009 production features in the display in the library.

You might also have spotted in the display a journal article telling a ‘real’ ghost story. The article is from the 1931 volume of Notes & Queries (vol.160), and it tells the story of a ghostly encounter first published in 1731 in which ‘a Gentleman of unexceptional honour and veracity’ encounters an ‘Apparition’ near Perth, Scotland. You can read the whole article online or – when it’s not on display – find it in the library. It’s fascinating to think that, nearly 300 years after the supposed encounter, we’re still telling this ghost story!

Of course alongside these retellings, there are also new ghost stories to be found. One particularly prolific early twentieth century author of ghost stories was M. R. James, who started telling stories to friends gathered together on Christmas Eve. While not all of his tales take place during the festive season, the significance of the moment at which ghost stories were shared – namely, Christmastime – looms large.

In fact, James’s stories continue to be closely associated with Christmas. They were the inspiration behind many episodes of the BBC’s long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas (which you can watch on BoB with your SSO), and have featured in television Christmas schedules as recently as last year with Mark Gatiss’s adaptation of The Mezzotint (BBC, 2021; again, accessible via BoB).

Cover image: The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. A purple background with the author's name at the top in gold text, and the title in the middle and bottom in silver textThese classics tales of ghostly horror sit alongside more subtle modern iterations of the relationship between midwinter and the supernatural. Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence is a great example, with the climactic battles between Light and Dark taking place around the solstice. In the second book, The Dark Is Rising (1973), events take place in the days and weeks around Christmas, while in the fourth book, The Grey King (1975), the focus is the midsummer solstice. In other words, the point of greatest supernatural potential is the change between seasons – whether midsummer or midwinter.


The Long (After) Life of Ghosts

It’s clear that people have been telling ghost stories on cold winter nights since time immemorial. It’s equally clear that we show no sign of stopping! From the pagan tales and supernatural beliefs that motivated Cromwell to ban Christmas, to the Victorian zeal for rediscovering Christmas traditions, as well as more recent stories, ghosts’ predilection for this time of year is undeniable.

If you’d like to find out more about ghost stories, have a look at the resources below – they’re all either available in the library or online with your Oxford SSO. And don’t forget to visit the display in the library if you get the chance!


Resources and further reading

Texts

‘A Scotch Ghost-Story of the Eighteenth Century’, in Notes & Queries, CLX (7 Feb 1931), pp.97-98.

Cooper, Susan, The Dark Is Rising Sequence. Omnibus edition stored offsite ; all five books available in the Bodleian Reading Rooms as Electronic Legal Deposit items ; and The Grey King (1975) available in the library.

Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol: A ghost story of Christmas (2015).

Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Tree (1911).

Routledge, Edmund, Routledge’s Christmas Annual (1870).

Swanton, Michael, Beowulf (1997). Also available as an e-book.

Audio-visual

‘A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Mezzotint’, 22:30 24/12/2021, BBC2 England, 30 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]

BBC, ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, 1971-1978 and 2005-present. (BoB playlist)

Branagh, Kenneth (dir.), Hamlet (2007).

‘Doctor Who, A Christmas Carol’, 20:00 30/11/2014, BBC3, 60 mins. [accessed 28 Nov 2022]

Zemeckis, Robert (dir.), Beowulf (2007).

Secondary material

Belsey, Catherine, ‘Shakespeare’s Sad Tale for Winter: Hamlet and the Tradition of Fireside Ghost Stories’, in Shakespeare Quarterly, 61:1 (2010), pp.1-27.

Briggs, Julia, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London, 1977).

Clery, E. J., The rise of supernatural fiction 1762-1800 (Cambridge, 1995).

Handley, Sasha, Visions of an unseen world: Ghost beliefs and ghost stories in eighteenth-century England (London, 2007).

Johnston, Derek, ‘Landscape, season and identity in Ghost Story for Christmas’, in Journal of Popular Television, 6:1 (2018), pp.105-118.

Smith, Andrew, The Ghost Story, 1840-1920: A Cultural History (Manchester, 2013).

Websites and articles 

Carnegie Museum of Natural History, The History of Holiday Ghost Stories. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Samhain’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, September 5, 2022. URL. [accessed 28 Nov 2022].

Fantasy and Science Fiction at the EFL

You’ll have (hopefully!) seen that we recently posted our new book round-up for October on the blog. But those aren’t the only books that arrived at the library – far from it! A number of fantasy and science fiction books also made their EFL debuts last month. Here you’ll find a few highlights that showcase the breadth of these new books, as well as some of their similarities.

The selections below range in style from high fantasy to dystopian future, incorporating visions of war, social breakdown, and eco-terrorism. But like all good science fiction and fantasy, although these books explore new worlds and possible futures they also speak to the issues and challenges we face today.

The main issue: climate crisis. All these writers are exploring what a world ravaged by climate change might look like, and how – or even if – humanity can respond. While some are more hopeful than others, they all ultimately ask the question: what if it’s too late to change our future?

Interested in finding out more? These books barely scratch the surface of the EFL’s collection! You can browse our newest fantasy and science fiction books on LibraryThing (as ever, you can also have a look at all our new books if you’d prefer) and remember to keep an eye on the new books display in the library too. Or read on for helpful pointers about some of the reference guides, films and other resources at the EFL, as well as a reminder of last year’s Fantasy Fiction: Scattered Seeds virtual display …


The Books

Cover image: N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth SeasonN. K. Jemisin, The Broken Earth Trilogy: The Fifth Season (2015), The Obelisk Gate (2016), and The Stone Sky (2017)

Each year, the Hugo Award is presented to the best science fiction or fantasy work published in the preceding calendar year. With The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin became the first African American writer to win the prize, the first author to win three years in a row, and the first to win for each book in a trilogy. It’s easy to see why!

The story is set in a supercontinent called Stillness, home to many races and species. Among them are orogenes who have the power to control energy, meaning they can, for example, prevent earthquakes and manipulate temperatures. Because of their power, the orogenes are feared and misunderstood, often persecuted and even murdered. But now, Stillness is experiencing what is known as the ‘Fifth Season’, a period of immense climate catastrophe which comes around every few centuries. Huge clouds of ash darken the sky, civilisations collapse, and resources are scarce. Across the trilogy, we follow three orogene women who must ultimately decide: does the apocalypse offer a chance to fix what is broken and build a new world, or is destroying what is corrupt once and for all the only option left?

Throughout the trilogy Jemisin holds a mirror to our world, reflecting racial and religious intolerance as well as climate change and environmental issues. But it cannot be denied that The Broken Earth series is a masterful and gripping adventure story too!  


Cover image: Octavia Butler's Parable of the SowerOctavia E. Butler, Earthseed series: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)

Butler (1947-2006) wrote 11 novels in total, including Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). Together these two novels form the Earthseed series.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future (beginning in the far-off year 2024!), they lay bare the dangers and potential consequences of climate change, social inequality, and religious extremism. In Parable of the Sower, faced with the breakdown of society, one girl tries to find a different way to live, establishing her own religion and setting up a new community. In Parable of the Talents, Butler explores how this new community comes into conflict with the right-wing fundamentalist Christians and populist politicians who dominate the political landscape.

Although she was writing in the 1990s, Butler’s vision remains an all-too-plausible future. She describes a world in which basic commodities like water have become scarce and unaffordable luxuries, where physical walls separate rich from poor (or rather, just-surviving from destitute), and where a populist president rises to power with the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Taken as a whole, the Earthseed series not only exposes the dangers that could yet lie in our future, but proposes alternative philosophical and religious solutions to them.

There are many books by Butler at the EFL. You can browse them on SOLO.


Cover image: Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup GirlPaolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (2010)

The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi’s first novel and in 2010 it won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. The story is set in the twenty-second century, in a world that is fighting environmental collapse and where corporate bioterrorism is rife.

In a break from common science fiction templates, Bacigalupi does not locate his narrative in America or the west. Instead, the action takes place in Bangkok, where rising water levels are just-about kept at bay against a backdrop of isolationist policies in Thailand aimed at avoiding the worst of the dystopian excesses that have taken root elsewhere. That includes a ban on ‘New People’, genetically modified humans created to obey and serve – like Emiko, the ‘windup girl’ of the title, who has been abandoned in Bangkok by the Japanese businessman who bought her, leaving her with no choice but to work in a brothel and try to avoid the authorities.

With themes of climate change, ecology, and environmental destruction, Bacigalupi deftly explores issues of gender, race and corporate greed without suggesting that humanity will somehow magically solve our tendencies towards intolerance, selfishness and cruelty. In this captivating debut, Bacigalupi has undoubtedly created ‘a realistic plunge into a plausible future’ (from Travelfish review).

Also by Bacigalupi at the EFL: The Water Knife (2016).


Cover image: Jeff Vandermeer's Hummingbird SalamanderJeff Vandermeer, Hummingbird Salamander (2021)

Hummingbird Salamander follows ‘Jane Smith’ (not her real name), a cybersecurity guard and suburban mom in the American Pacific Northwest who one day receives a mysterious package containing a key, an address, and the number seven. She pieces together the clues to find a taxidermy hummingbird, which leads her deep into the dark worlds of eco-terrorism and wildlife trafficking and propels her towards a realisation of the extent of humanity’s exploitation of our planet.

Vandermeer’s setting is intriguing too. While clearly set in the future, initially that future doesn’t seem too remote. There are mentions of climate refugees and unusually intense storms but, much like Jane, we’ve become desensitised to the crisis that these events portend. It’s only as the story progresses and Jane’s quest becomes more urgent that we fully grasp the scale and inevitability of the climate crisis hurtling towards us.

Undeniably Jane is not a sympathetic character. She is selfish and single-minded, and her often-inexplicable decisions frequently put innocent people and those she loves in danger. But at the same time, her story is fascinating and engrossing, and the question it poses – whether we have realised too late the enormity of the disaster we face – should give us all pause.  

Also by Vandermeer at the EFL: Wonderbook: An Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (2013). Illustrated by Jeremy Zerfoss.


Cover image: Omar El Akkad's American WarOmar El Akkad, American War (2018)

American War is set in the late twenty-first century and concerns the events of the Second American Civil War. The root cause of the conflict is climate breakdown: while most of the USA has outlawed fossil fuels, some southern states refuse and attempt to secede from the union. However, the Civil War itself is only one aspect of the narrative.

The story is an allegorical reflection of America’s meddling in other countries’ affairs, and an exploration of how war and trauma lead to extremism and terrorism. By considering the circumstances in which extremism emerges El Akkad aims not to inspire sympathy for terrorists, but to facilitate an understanding of how ordinary people can be dehumanised and radicalised by conflict.

This central message is intriguing, yet its universalising aspects are arguably carried too far into the narrative itself. Many reviewers have observed that the story doesn’t seem very rooted in its American South setting, and that the main character, Sarat, appears neither very American nor very naunced (from the Guardian’s review and The Atlantic’s review). Even so, set against a backdrop of climate change and the horrors of war, American War is a chilling cautionary tale extrapolated from the Middle East of today to the America of fifty years hence. 


Cover image: Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140 (2018)

It’s a common image in disaster movies as much as science fiction: the world is crumbling, and New York stands (or falls) as a totemic symbol of either catastrophe or resilience. As overused and omnipresent as this trope can be – not least for the unfortunate New Yorkers who seem to have fallen victim to every apocalypse-level event imaginable – Robinson succeeds in putting a new spin on it.

In the year 2140, sea levels have risen 50 feet, leaving huge swathes of New York underwater. But it’s not only an inhospitable climate that twenty-second century New Yorkers face. The world Robinson creates is a consequence of (and continues to suffer under) our current financial systems and rampant toxic capitalism, of which climate change is but a symptom. Nevertheless, people have not abandoned the city, though admittedly they’ve retreated from the lower floors of buildings! Robinson focuses on the inhabitants of one skyscraper and how they both cope with the new world order and ultimately seek to change it.

The potential for change in Robinson’s narrative should not be understated. While many books (including many of the selections here) present a dystopian vision of a climate-ravaged future, Robinson keeps his narrative tinged with optimism, underpinned by a fundamental belief in people’s ability to come together. As one reviewer said, ‘beneath its anger at toxic capitalism and its despair over inadequate environmental measures is the thread of hope that somehow, maybe, we might yet balance the boat enough to make it through the ruins’ (from NPR review).  

Also by Robinson at the EFL: The Ministry for the Future (2020).


Hungry for more?

If you’d like to learn more about fantasy and science fiction literature, there’s plenty of resources available at the EFL, including a wealth of reference material, films and online databases.

The reference material available includes books such as:

  • The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (2012). Available online and in the library.
  • The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003). Available online and in the library.
  • Richard Mathews, Fantasy: the liberation of imagination (2011). Available online and in the library.
  • Patrick Parrinder, Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition, and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia (2000). Available in the library.
Cover images, clockwise from top left: The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature; The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction; Learning from Other Worlds by Patrick Parrinder; and Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination by Richard Mathews

Clockwise from top left: The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature; The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction; Learning from Other Worlds by Patrick Parrinder; and Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination by Richard Mathews


Beyond Books

Although books are great (obviously!) maybe you’re interested in fantasy and science fiction on film and TV? There are loads of online resources and databases available through the library. Some are freely available, such as films you can watch free on the BFI player, but you can get access to even more with your Oxford Single Sign-On (SSO).

Through Box of Broadcasts (BoB, also known as Learning On Screen), for example, you can access over 2 million TV and radio broadcasts from channels including BBC One, Two and Four, Channel 4, Film4, and ten foreign language channels. You can find a range of fantasy and science fiction programmes here, from the classic 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds and the first episode of Doctor Who (‘An Unearthly Child’, 1963) to documentaries such as 2014’s Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction. Bear in mind that these programmes are available for educational purposes, and do look over the BoB terms and conditions if you want to use any of the material in your work.  

Homepages for Box of Broadcasts (top) and Kanopy (bottom)

Homepages for Box of Broadcasts (top) and Kanopy (bottom)

Another site you have access to with your Oxford SSO is Kanopy. Kanopy have partnered with libraries and universities to provide ‘thoughtful entertainment … with no fees and no commercials’, for everyone ‘from film scholars to casual viewers’ (from Kanopy’s website). There’s an enormous range of films available, from early- and mid-twentieth-century films like Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) to cult classics such as Donnie Darko (2001) and more recent offerings like No Men Beyond This Point (2015), a mockumentary which explores a world where men are no longer needed for reproduction and face extinction.

These resources – and all the other databases you can access through the library – can be found on the Bodleian’s Databases A-Z page. If browsing all 1,700 databases at once is a little too much, try filtering by subject – you could narrow it down to databases relating to English or Film Studies for example.

A screenshot of the Databases A-Z page filtered for databases relating to English, with a red circle in the top left highlighting the drop-down menu to filter by subject

The Databases A-Z list, filtered to show databases relating to English


Scattered Seeds

Did you catch the Fantasy Fiction: Scattered Seeds virtual display in January? Written by last year’s EFL Graduate Trainee, it’s a deep-dive blog post exploring the growth and transformations of the fantasy genre from ‘Scattered Seeds’ and ‘Classic Roots’ to ‘Branching Out’.

It begins with The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a short tale dating from Middle Egypt (2040 – 1782 BCE) and arguably the world’s oldest work of fantasy. You can read the story online or find it at the Sackler Library. From that original seed of the genre, we jump to more scattered ones with the advent of mainstream film and TV in the twentieth century. In fact, one of the oldest examples of fantasy on screen is the 1924 film The Thief of Baghdad, which is available in the EFL’s film collection. The blog post also includes a discussion of fantasy in gaming, from videogames like The Witcher to table-top RPGs such as Dungeons & Dragons.


And finally …

What I hope this (very long!) post has shown is that there is huge variety in fantasy and science fiction, from books through films and TV to gaming, and that there is an enormous wealth of resources available at the EFL.

All of these works are incredible stories full of adventure and often not a little magic. But whether they look to the future or new imagined worlds, the best of the genre also say something about the world we live in today. They prompt us to think about our choices and the consequences of our decisions, to recognise and perhaps change our prejudices and preconceptions; more than anything, they inspire us to creativity and to see the world – and ourselves – in a different light.