English 386 – Contemporary British Fiction
Spring 2006
Lehigh University
Professor Amardeep Singh

Contemporary British Fiction

Contact information:

Amardeep Singh
Email: amsp@lehigh.edu, amardeep@gmail.com
Office: 221 Drown Hall
Office Hours: Wednesday afternoons, appointment recommended

[NOTE: Below is the syllabus and a few selected course notes from my spring 2006 English 386 course. They are meant to give you an idea of what this course was about and some of the topics discussed; they are by no means definitive notes.]


Required Texts in Bookstore

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Pat Barker, Regeneration
Julian Barnes, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
Ian McKewan, Atonement
Sebastian Barry, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
China Miéville, The Scar

Brief Novel Summaries

Excerpt to be made available on Blackboard (bb.lehigh.edu):

“Morpho Eugenia” from A.S. Byatt’s Angels and Insects
This is a longer short story (really a novella). You might want to buy the book (It’s readily available on paperback from Amazon).

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386 -- Spring 2006


Tentative Syllabus

            (Subject to change, but that’s life)

Tuesday 1/17 First day of class/ introduction

1/19     Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
In class: Lecture and discussion of the philosophies of the Enlightenment,Modernity, Romanticism, and the changing role of religion starting in the 19th century.

1/24     Jonathan Strange
In class: Lecture and discussion of the role of magic in British literature.


1/26     Jonathan Strange
Short response paper due: 2 page informal response to the novel.

1/31     Jonathan Strange
2/2       Jonathan Strange

2/ 7      Jonathan Strange
Also read: “Crooked Timber” discussion of the novel, and Susanna Clarke’s response. (online and on Blackboard)
2/9       Jonathan Strange

2/14     Finish Jonathan Strange
Paper Due: on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell (5-7 pages)

2/16     Start Pat Barker, Regeneration
In class: Discussion of World War I


2/21     Regeneration
Also read: poetry by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (available via Blackboard)
2/23     NO CLASS

2/28     Regeneration
3/2       Paper due on Regeneration (4-5 pages; on the war, or on matters related to psychology)


3/14     A.S. Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia,” from Angels & Insects
                        In class: discussion of evolution and literary authorship

3/16     “Morpho Eugenia”

3/21     Julian Barnes, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
                        In class: discussion of postmodernism, British satire
3/23     History of the World

3/28     History of the World
3/30     Ian McKewan, Atonement
                        Also read: short essay by Virginia Woolf (“Modern Fiction”)
                        In class: discussion of “psychological realism”

4/4       Atonement
4/6       Atonement
Paper due: on McKewan, Barnes, or Byatt

4/11     Sebastian Barry, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty
In class: discussion of Irish politics, Irish independence, and the colonial system
4/13     Eneas McNulty

4/18     China Miéville, The Scar
4/20     The Scar


4/25     The Scar
4/27     The Scar

Final papers due (12-15 pages): May 5

Brief Novel Summaries

Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (4 weeks)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a remarkable new book, which was just published last year. It more or less bowled the major critics over, and won quite a number of awards. Clarke imagines early 19th century Britain with a great deal of historical accuracy – it’s the era of high Rationalism, the novels of Jane Austen, and the tumultuous French Revolution. But there’s a twist, and that is that there are still members of British society who claim to be ‘magicians,’ though at the start of the novel there is little in the way of actual magic practiced in Clarke’s England. Clarke imagines an utterly original role for ‘magic’ in everyday life, as a sort of direct extension of the natural world. Through the uniqueness of the world she invents, Clarke’s novel is utterly different from most books in the “science fiction” or “fantasy” genres.

It’s also indisputably a novel meant for adult readers – while some of the pleasures of Jonathan Strange might resemble those of Harry Potter (and we can discuss possible overlaps, if there are any Potter readers in the room), it would be a mistake to think of Susanna Clarke as somehow connected to J.K. Rowling.

This novel brings up an important debate between modern science and pre-modern or ‘non-modern’ ways of thinking (i.e., that might be associated with magic or religion). It’s not that magic is opposed to science in Clarke’s novel; something more complicated is afoot.

There are also interesting references to the key intellectual questions that lead to British modernity in ‘real’ history.

A.S. Byatt, “Morpho Eugenia,” from Angels & Insects

A.S. Byatt is one of England’s best-known writers of historical fiction. Of the writers on this syllabus, she’s the one who’s most strongly associated with the genre – indeed, we could done a whole course just on her novels. But here we’re just going to do a shorter story by Byatt (though it’s not that short), that deals with the tumult in Victorian England following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

The story brings up questions about tradition and modernity, science, class, and of course the changing role of women in public life.

Pat Barker, Regeneration (2 weeks)

Pat Barker’s novel is the first in a ‘trilogy’ of books that are actually pretty closely linked to real historical figures in and around World War I.

The plot turns around the relationship between a soldier and poet named Siegfried Sassoon (who is actually pretty well known), and a psychologist named W.H.R. Rivers. Sassoon is being treated at a mental hospital in Scotland full of young men suffering from traumas from the war.

Alongside the novel, we’ll look at some writings by the real Siegfriend Sassoon, talk about the transformative role of World War I in British life, as well as the new science of psychology (psychoanalysis), which was just coming into its own in the early 1910s and 20s. Homosexuality also plays an interesting and important role in this book, so we’ll talk a bit about what it might have meant to be gay in the 1910s.  

Ian McKewan, Atonement (2 weeks)

            It’s interesting that two novels by women writers in the course have plots that focus around men, while two novels by writers who are men (Ian McKewan and China Mieville) have protagonists who are women. Ian McKewan’s Atonement has a young woman with a very vivid imagination as the protagonist. The main part of the story is set right in the build-up to the Second World War in a wealthy family, though later sections of the story deal with the complex emotions that follow a troubling incident.

            The novel gives us a chance to talk about changing class relations in British society. It also paints an interesting picture of British life just before World War II.

Julian Barnes, The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (2 weeks)

            While most of the novels in this course deal with specific historical eras or events in British history, Julian Barnes History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters  is about history itself. It’s a kind of collage novel, with 10 “and a half” stories that initially don’t seem to relate to one another – on everything from Biblical floods to Papal order involving the execution of animals during the Inquisition. It’s also a very witty (and funny) satire, part of a long British tradition of such writing.

Sebastian Barry, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty

            This is a novel about the problematic relationship between England and Ireland by one of Ireland’s finest novelists. The two countries have histories that are deeply intertwined, and go way back.

            This is a kind of story of the identity conflict that Ireland has struggled with since the 1910s, when the movement to free Ireland from British colonialism peaked. The main character in this story finds himself on the wrong side of that struggle, marked as a collaborator because he fought for the British in World War I. Eneas McNulty’s subsequent wandering around the world remind us of the English role in world politics.

China Miéville, The Scar (2 weeks)

            We’re beginning with a novel that imagines an alternative – fantastic – version of British history, so it seems fitting to end with another such novel.

            But Mieville’s novel breaks nearly all the boundaries of genre, inventing a world that is so original, so wild – and so radically different from anything else out there – that it almost needs a separate space. I put Mieville at the end because his novel best fits what literary scholars refer to as “postmodernism” in fiction, though it’s probably a mistake to try and pigeon-hole Mieville in any way whatsoever.

            As for the plot of the novel, it concerns a woman who leaves the fictional city-state of New Crobuzon by boat (resembles an alternative modern England, where technology has evolved in surprising ways: steam technology dominates, though advanced man-machine and man-animal grafting practices are in effect). Along the way, her boat is attacked by pirates, who take the ship to an alternate utopian/dystopian society. Think Brave New World meets The Matrix.

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386

Spring 2006


Notes on “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and “Modern Fiction”


In these two essays, Woolf is intensely interested in rethinking the nature of “reality,” and directly following that, the problem of how to represent it in fiction. She advocates a psychological and spirit-focused approach to thinking about human character in literature, against an approach to characterization she calls “materialist.” This is important as part of a segue to Ian McKewan’s novel Atonement, which owes a lot to Woolf’s ideas. But it’s also relevant to us in the course more broadly, as we think about the representation of historical periods in contemporary novels.

In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf also wants to look closely at, and reevaluate what it is we think of when we think of reality. She singles out for criticism three writers, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and Thomas Galsworthy, all three of whom were contemporaries who were quite popular and well-respected by critics. H.G. Wells, a pioneer of science fiction, is probably the best-known of the three today – author of The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds.

She starts the essay with a reference to classic literature, which the modern ethos might dismiss as obsolete – merely historical. But even though she clearly advocates embracing the spirit and the reality of modern life, she suggests literature can’t be thought as progressing forwards through history the way science and technology do.


In making any survey, even the freest and loosest, of modern fiction it is difficult not to take it for granted that the modern practice of the art is somehow an improvement upon the old. With their simple tools and primitive materials, it might be said, Fielding did well and Jane Austen even better, but compare their opportunities with ours! Their masterpieces certainly have a strange air of simplicity. And yet the analogy between literature and the process, to choose an example, of making bicycles scarcely holds good beyond the first glance. It is doubtful whether in the course of the centuries, though we have learnt much about making machines, we have learnt anything about making literature. We do not come to write better; all that can be said to do is to keep moving, now a little in this direction, now in that, but with a circular tendency should the whole course of the track be viewed from a sufficiently lofty pinnacle. It need scarcely be said that we make no claim to stand even momentarily upon that vantage ground; we seem to see ourselves on the flat, in the crown, half blind with dust, and looking back with a sort of envy at those happy warriors whose battle is won and whose achievements wear so serene an air of accomplishment that in our envy we can scarcely refrain from whispering that the prize was not so rare, nor the battle so fierce, as our own. Let the historian of literature decide.

One might think that a modernist would inherently disavow earlier writers as falling short of the mark, but Woolf doesn’t go that route.

            What might be the implications of this for thinking about how writers represent history in their novels?

Woolf’s strongest criticisms come on the second and third pages of her essay, where she talks about how people like Bennett write, and why it falls short for her.

Life escapes [in the writing of people like Bennett]; and perhaps without life nothing else is worth while. It is a confession of vagueness to have to make us of such a figure as this, but we scarcely better the matter by speaking, as critics are prone to do, of reality. Admitting the vagueness which afflicts all criticism of novels, let us hazard the opinion that for us at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek.

Sometimes, being too oriented to the conventions of modern life can distract us from what we should be trying to do in our fiction.

And also, a comment about the ephemerality of the idea of spirit or soul that is at the center of what Woolf is defining as “life”:

Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

In all of this, of course, there is a gender component. Women tend to be the ones who are less secure to begin with in their knowledge, less comfortable with the externally determined, geometric arrangement of knowledge.  (This is of course not always the case. Some men are also placed in this position, and many women think exactly like the dominant men in her stories. But it is a general pattern for Woolf.) But perhaps women have a special vantage point from which to rethink those categories of knowledge, thought, and philosophy. As outsiders, they are in a good position to question received systems of value and knowledge.

In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf argues that there is a split amongst her contemporaries, between writers who were most active before 1910 (the Edwardians, under King Edward VII), and those who became active afterwards (the Georgians, under King George V).

(Note: She herself didn’t become active until the mid-1910s.)

The essay contains one of the most famous lines in all of literary criticism: “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” She’s referring, on the most basic level, to a change in the way novelists create characters, but she’s also possibly referring to human character itself. Is it possible to say that humanity itself changed at a particular moment in time? If so, how could we prove it? Isn’t possible to simply disagree, and say something along the lines of “human character never changes, even if circumstances do”? Do things like modern technology or changes in social organization exert pressure on human nature itself? How deep do socially-induced changes go?

Partly Woolf is marking a change in the class structure of England, and highlighting a movement towards democratization (see the example of the cook on p. 194).

That change in thinking about class is also tied to a new way of thinking about individuality. Even people who don’t seem to be geniuses, who don’t have much going for them in life, are gifted with complex subjective experiences.

“Mrs. Brown,” a fictional middle-aged woman, is one such marginal figure. Woolf feels that the earlier generation of writers was very good at writing around an unfortunate such as a Mrs. Brown. But Woolf feels it’s imperative to try and imagine the way and which a Mrs. Brown would think and feel, how she would see the world. She wants to know not just how she got to be poor and indebted to the Mr. Smith on the train, but also the rest of it.

Some of the writers Woolf names did have sympathy for people like Mrs. Brown, but there is a distinction between sympathy and empathy. Writers like H.G. Wells and John Galsworthy were sympathetic to English working and middle classes, but they weren’t able to really take her character seriously. For those writers, a Mrs. Brown was a symbol for politics.

I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character – not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British empire that the form of the novels, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.

It’s not just that the earlier generation of novelists has been made obsolete. Woolf argues that what they’re doing doesn’t need to be literature. It could just as easily be a political tract or essay. Woolf is trying to apply new clarity to what it is that’s unique about literature. Why write novels? What can you do in novels or poetry that you can’t do in other forms?

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386

Spring 2006


Discussion Questions – Regeneration 2/28/06

Compare Sassoon’s voice in his memoirs to the personality of Sassoon in the book. Are there differences? What do you make of the way he writes about the war?

            (Note: the passages in italics are not by Sassoon – this excerpt comes from an

            ‘abridged’ volume, and contains comments from editors as well as illustrations

            that Sassoon did not choose.)

In chapter 15, Rivers visits Burns at home, where the patient seems to be generally in better shape than he is at Craiglockhart (he’s able to eat, for instance). Is Burns cured? What continuing symptoms does he have? What do you make of Rivers’ thoughts on pages 183-184?

There are two interesting moments in the argument between Graves and Sassoon on pages 198-199. One is Graves’ contention that Sassoon should return to the front primarily because he signed a contract with the army that ought to be fulfilled. What are their respective positions? Does Sassoon really disagree with Graves on a substantial issue? The other topic (on p. 199) pertains directly to homosexuality, which was still illegal in England at the time. How does the fact of Sassoon’s homosexuality play into the various considerations he is making about when and whether to go back to military service?

            (See also the discussion on p. 204)

More on the causes of shell-shock: p. 222. Does this change your perception of shell-shock or PTSD?

Comparative forms of treatment. In chapter 21, Rivers observes a Dr. Yealland attempting to cure a shell-shocked soldier of muteness through aggressive electroshock therapy. (This is occurring at a different hospital) What do you make of the way Dr. Yealland treats his shell-shock patients?

            On p. 238, Rivers reflects that he may not be so different from Yealland.

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386 – Spring 2006


Notes for 2/16/06
Pat Barker’s Regeneration

This novel is the first in a trilogy that earned Pat Barker the Booker Prize. It’s remarkable because it works with a number of real people, and puts them in fictional situations that might resemble their actual lives and conversations. Many of those people left lots of documentary evidence (Sassoon, for instance, wrote two long memoirs), and Barker works closely with those materials to make her fiction as realistic as possible. It’s a very inventive way of putting together novels (though other people have, in recent years, tried somewhat similar things). It blends history and fiction (imagined and real) in ways that might make orthodox historians a bit nervous, especially since Barker doesn’t announce when she’s deviating from ‘facts’.

            The trilogy is interesting historically because the latter years of World War I was such an interesting moment on three fronts: 1) changes in literature and literary style; 2) the rapid growth in the emerging science of psychology, and 3) the radical transformation of ideas about nationalism, patriotism, and war. World War I was the first war where the human cost dramatically exceeded the actual political goals of the war. Even the winners were deeply decimated and traumatized; it might almost be true to say it was better not to fight at all than to win that kind of war. Modern psychology was first created by Freud and his associates in Vienna, in the late 1800s, and it quickly became a widespread social phenomenon (of great interest to writers in particular), though the medical establishment was slow to accept it. By 1917, many ordinary people had some idea about the importance of dreams and the unconscious. But Freudian psychoanalysis wasn’t widely used as a treatment for condition that was then known as “shell-shock” (affecting tens of thousands of soliders; today we would call it “Post-traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD).

            In terms of writing, the 1910s are the beginning of the modernist moment in literature – and many modernist writers were impacted by the war. None of the three soldier-writers who figure in this book were identified in the movement (they were all stylistically a bit more conservative). But they were popular: Wilfred Owen (who shows up later in the novel) would become one of the most popular war poets ever.


Real people in Barker’s novel

Siegfried Sassoon – decorated soldier and poet of World War I who became famous because he at one point refused to fight. He was also the author of several books of poetry, and two memoir ‘trilogies’. He is best known today for his memoirs rather than his poetry, though his war poetry is worth reading. He was born into a wealthy family of a rather unconventional make-up (for the time) – his father was Jewish and his mother was a Protestant. Despite his first name, Sassoon didn’t have any German blood (his father simply liked Wagner).

Wikipedia: Sassoon's periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by recklessly brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols, and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed "Mad Jack" by his men for his suicidal exploits. Despite having been decorated for bravery, he decided, in 1917, to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas (called "Dick Tiltwood" in the Sherston trilogy). Sassoon's close relationship with Thomas was a tacit admission of his own homosexuality, which he would spend several years attempting to overcome.

Having thrown his Military Cross into the river Mersey at the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty. Instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer, which was forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP. Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the military authorities decided that he was unfit for service, and sent him to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia ('shell shock').

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, another poet who was eventually to exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, containing Sassoon's handwritten amendments, survives as testimony to the extent of his influence. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen 'Keats and Christ and Elijah'; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen's love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918.

W.H.R. Rivers – Psychiatrist and anthropologist who worked with shell-shocked patients at the Craiglockhart hospital in Scotland during World War I.

Wikipedia: Rivers was born in 1864 in Kent, and studied medicine, later developing an interest in psychology. He taught at the University of Cambridge and joined the university's expedition to the Torres Straits in 1898, subsequently carrying out extensive study of kinship in Melanesia. During the war, he worked at Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he applied techniques of psychoanalysis to British officers suffering from various forms of neurosis brought on by their war experiences. Sassoon came to him in 1917 after publicly refusing to return to his regiment, but was treated with sympathy and given much leeway until he voluntarily returned to France. For Rivers, there was a considerable dilemma involved in "curing" his patients simply in order that they could be sent back to the Western Front to die.

After the war, Rivers published the results of his experimental treatment of patients at Craiglockhart. He remained particularly friendly with Sassoon, who regarded him as a mentor. They shared Socialist sympathies. Rivers died suddenly in the summer of 1922, shortly after being named as a Labour candidate for the 1922 general election.

Robert Graves – Fellow poet, soldier, and (later) novelist. Also a fellow homosexual.

Wikipedia: Graves, born in Wimbledon, England, received his early education at Charterhouse School and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford University. However, the prospect of spending another four years of his life studying Latin and Greek did not appeal to the nineteen-year-old Graves, and with the outbreak of World War I he enlisted almost immediately in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over The Brazier, in 1916, but he later tried to suppress his war poetry. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he received such serious injuries that his family were informed of his death. However, he recovered, at the cost of permanent damage to his lungs, and, after a brief spell back in France, spent the remainder of the war in England, despite his efforts to return to the front.

In 1917, Graves played an important part in saving his fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, from a court-martial after the latter went absent without leave and wrote to his commanding officer denouncing the war. The two officers had become firm friends while serving with the RWF. The intensity of their early relationship is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Graves's Fairies and Fusiliers (1916), which collection contains a plethora of poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a "heavy sexual element" within it, which observation is heavily supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves also encountered Wilfred Owen, whose talent he recognised. Owen attended Graves's wedding to Nancy Nicholson in 1918, presenting him with, as Graves recalled, "a set of twelve Apostle spoons".


Wilfred Owen

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386

Spring 06


Discussion Questions on The Scar (4/18/06)

For the last novel we are in some sense returning to a type of book that resembles our first book, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book is also a kind of historical science fiction novel, imagining a world that bears certain resemblances to our own, but in which there are also major differences. To some extent Miéville is making a commentary on the strangeness of the contemporary real world we live in (and our task is to figure out just what sort of commentary it is). But there is also much in this book that is so strange and alien that it seems impossible to understand it as a social allegory.

A good starting point for thinking about how social allegory works in sci-fi is the old 1960s television show Star Trek. It’s not an accident that Gene Roddenberry came up with the concept of a multi-racial human star-ship, hurtling through space at light speed and encountering frequently unfriendly aliens. It was a time of social upheaval and the civil rights struggle – a time when race-relations were profoundly unsettled in the real America. So in some sense it was a fantasy to imagine that a crew composed of whites, blacks (Lt. Uhura), Asians (Lt. Sulu), and “Vulcans” (Spock) all work together without any visible tension. It’s important that Lieutenant Uhura in particular is completely ‘assimilated’ to the ideals of the Federation. Instead of a racial ‘other’ (or outsider), the real enemy is an alien race – the Klingons.

(But there’s also an ambiguity there – isn’t it possible that the alien Klingons are themselves allegorical stand-ins for real racial others? Some critics of the show have pointed out that the actors who originally played the Klingons were black. So perhaps the show recreates that racial divide (us good guys vs. those bad guys) even as it undoes it.)

That’s Star Trek – it’s pretty easy to play with it. The Scar is going to be much more difficult to solve. But an overriding question to consider as you read is whether and how this book can be read as a social allegory in the vein of my reading of Star Trek. 

A little on Miéville. Miéville is a youngish writer – perhaps the youngest of the authors we’ve looked at. His books have just been coming out over the past five years, which also makes him among the most ‘contemporary’ of our contemporary authors.

From Wikipedia: His first novel, King Rat, was nominated for both an International Horror Guild and Bram Stoker awards. Perdido Street Station won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards. His third, The Scar, was nominated for the 2003 Hugo, Arthur C. Clarke and World Fantasy awards. His fourth novel, Iron Council, won the 2005 Arthur C. Clarke Award and was nominated for the 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy awards.

Though he’s mostly been read in the science fiction world, he’s had an impact on other readers as well. His books are full of ideas (some of them allegorical) that relate to modern science, economics, and cultural difference. On science, there is the question of the Remade, which is probably Miéville’s most original concept (it also shows up in another of his novels, Perdido Street Station). This book is also interested in the way in which different cultures interact with each other. You’ll see references here to differences in language and customs as the main characters wander around the far-flung regions of the earth.

The core of the book will involve a unique community called “Armada,” which is a fleet of ships that are essentially all lashed together to form a floating city. It’s an alternate society – a kind of nightmarish, anarchist Atlantis – and one of the themes Miéville raises is whether and how we can imagine a social order that is totally different from the one we currently have. Normally, we speak of these alternate realities as utopias – places where the problems that afflict us in the real world are magically resolved (think again of the happy family of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek). In some sense all science fiction is utopian. But in this case, the actual experience of life on Armada in Miéville’s novel, it seems hard to think of the utopian world as a better place. It might even be that Armada is not a positive utopia, but a negative dystopia – an alternate reality where everything that works in our real world is broken.

Plot and Discussion Questions

Who is Bellis Coldwine? Where is she from and where is she going at the start of the novel?

What are some of the identifiable features of Miéville’s world as you understand it thus far?

How would you compare the technology of the world in Miéville’s novel to modern/ industrial technology in the real world? Around when would you ‘date’ this book?

            What is ‘New Crobuzon’? What are some of the other nations or nationalities

            mentioned in the book?

            What languages does Bellis speak?


Who else is on the ship with Bellis Coldwine?

            Whose voice is in italics on pages 16-18?

            Describe the Remade (who are first discussed on page 28). What is the idea

            behind the Remade? Can we relate it to social issues in our own contemporary


            How are we introduced to Tanner Sack? How much do we know about the

            operation that has turned him into a Remade?

            What hints do we get about why people get turned into Remade?

The Cray (Salkrikaltor)

            Describe the Cray as a species – p. 43.


            The floating city is first physically described on p. 75. It’s not exactly a thing of

            beauty. Is this going to be a dystopic hell or a utopic heaven?

Contemporary British Fiction

English 386

Spring 06


Notes on The Scar 4/19/06

Scars and scarring

The actual meaning of the title won’t be revealed until fairly late in the book, but in the interim Mieville introduces a number of passages where scars and scarring are themes. Can they be tied together?

1. A rather unusual pairing between a human (Shekel) and a remade (Angevine):

p. 212: Heal me, he thought, not understanding what he thought, hoping for a reconfiguration. There was a caustic pain as he peeled off a clot of old life and exposed himself open and unsure to her, to new air. Breathing fast again. His feelings welled out and bled together (their festering ceased) and they began to resolve, to heal in a new form, to scar.

2. Scabmettlers:

p. 151: ‘The liquid’s an infusion that slows coagulation. It allows them to shape the armor . . .Each warrior perfects his own pattern of cuts. That’s part of their skill. Quickmoving men cut themselves and direct the blood so as to leave their joints free, and they pare off excess armor. Slow, powerful ones coat themselves in scab until they’re as clumsy and heavily armored as constructs.

3. The process of remaking Tanner Sack isn’t a simple matter of giving him gills. What else does the surgeon (or “chirugeon”) do? (pp. 167-169)

p. 171: “You’ll be tender, Mr. Sack,” he had said. “And even when you’re well, I want to warn you: some of the cuts I’ve made, some of the wounds, they may heal hard. They might scar. In that case, I want you not to be downhearted or disappointed. Scars are not injuries, Tanner Sack. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

Why does Tanner Sack want to be Remade? Why might his relationship to the sea be important? How do things change once he witnesses an attack by sea monsters?


            Usually means magic-making, miracle making, or conjuring.

            ‘Thauma’: Greek for wonder or miracle

            ‘Mato’: Greek for making (same root word as ‘automatic’)

Alongside things like surgery, there are frequent references to thaumaturgy in this book. As in Jonathan Strange, magic doesn’t have any kind of special status in this book, but is a mysterious science alongside the other mysterious sciences that are practiced.

No particular question. I’m just generally wondering if you have thoughts about Mieville’s relationship to scientific (especially biological) jargon.

            “Tintinnabulum” is a Latin word that means bell.

            “Hemophage” is a Greek word for blood-sucker (it is used to describe Brucolac,

            the Vampire).

Kind of a speculative question

On page 202, it’s revealed that the Lovers (who run this part of Armada) are after a certain book by an Anophelii (mosquito-man) writer named Kruach Aum. The book is in a language called High Kettai, which only Bellis can read. She translates the book, and realizes that the Lovers must be trying to raise an Avanc, a kind of mythical Superwhale, which no one else has ever succeeded in doing.

Whales do show up in one of the “Interlude” sections (pp. 194-196).

Just as a speculative question, why whales? Why are animals like whales important in the human psychological conception of the sea (and perhaps of the earth itself)?

Some quotes from Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick):

On the sea: Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

On the sea: [T]hese are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.


On the whale: "All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it."

On Moby-Dick: "Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and all hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!"

Contemporary British Fiction

Spring 2006


Notes for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Day 2

1. What are the rules of Faerie enchantment in this book? Normally in fairy tales there is some kind of limit on when and where Faeries/Demons can ‘possess’ a person. In some stories, you can only be taken when you’re sleeping (think of the terrible/brilliant contemporary ‘fairy tale’ called The Nightmare on Elm Street) or, in a more contemporary setting, when you’ve watched a certain ‘possessed’ video (The Ring).

            There are also usually safeguards that keep the secret of the Faerie’s or Demon’s existence somewhat protected; people that aren’t possessed tend not to believe in the Faerie because they never actually witness anything magical happening. 

But what about this book? What are the rules governing the way Stephen Black interacts with the man with the thistle-down hair? How did he come to be enchanted by the Faerie, and how might he one day be released? Also, how does the Faerie announce his presence, and what is the mechanism by which Stephen Black is drawn into the ‘Other Lands’ every night? See for instance what happens on p. 171.

Relatedly: why can’t Lady Pole or Stephen Black tell anyone about their possession?

The ‘rules’ of fairy tales have been studied in depth by literary theorists, especially the Russian structuralist Vladimir Propp, who classified 31 distinct elements (which he called “narratemes”) that define the narrative logic of fairy tales. Every fairy tale has some combination of some number of the 31 functions (see attached list).

Do you see moments in the story that seem to correspond to any of these 31 functions?

2. Small question: Is Vinculus a real (“practical”) magician? Consider his encounter with Childermass on 202-203. What might it mean if there are really more than two magicians in England?

3. Ancients and Moderns. I’m interested in the different ways in which magic is placed into dialogue with modern science, medicine, and technology in Clarke’s story. As I mentioned earlier, the early 1800s is a key moment of transformation in British society – really the beginning of what we could think of as the modern era, when science is unquestionably dominant (and religious institutions no longer get to say definitively what is true and legal and what is not).

            In Clarke’s novel magic seems to be somewhere between a ‘modern’ science and ‘traditional’ folk art – and is sometimes both at once.

            Consider Mr. Norrell’s response to Sir Walter Pole on p. 177, in the discussion of Late Pole’s mysterious illness:

“But it is precisely that circumstance which makes me dso certain that I cannot help you. Magic and medicine are not always so distinct from one another as you seem to imagine. Their spheres often overlap. An illness may have both a medical cure and a magical one. If her ladyship were truly ill or if, god forbid!, she were to die again, then certainly there is magic to cure or restore her. But forgive me, Sir Walter, what you have described seems more a spiritual ailment than a physical one and as such belongs neither to magic nor medicine.” (177)

Also consider the footnote on the following page, on Magic and the Church.

And then the discussion of “modern magic” on p. 220, just after Jonathan Strange has decided he wants to be a magician:

Henry said, ‘But if you are going to take up a profession – and I cannot see why you should want one at all, now that you have come into your property – surely you can chuse something better than magic! It has no practical application.’

            ‘Oh, but I think you are wrong!’ said Mr. Redmond. ‘There is that gentleman in London who confounds the French by sending them illusions! I forget his name. What is it that he calls his theory? Modern magic?’ (220)

And there is another reference to Mr. Norrell’s “modern” magic on p. 246.

Obvious question: Contrast Jonathan Strange’s way of doing magic to Mr. Norrell’s.

It’s worth keeping in mind that the word “modern” might mean different things to different people. And it is not necessarily the case that everyone living at a given time would claim that “modern” ways are really the best. One of the early places where the word “modern” was contested was the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns,” which started in France in the 1690s, and then spread to England, where it was still in some sense in motion in the early 1700s. (See attached handout from Wikipedia)

Source: Wikipedia

The quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (French: querelle des Anciens et des Modernes) was a literary and artistic quarrel that heated up in the early 1690s and shook the Académie française. It opposed two sides:

·         the Ancients (Anciens), led by Boileau, who supported the merits of the ancient writers and contended that a writer could do no better than imitate the great examples that had been fixed for all time. By constraining his choice of subjects to those drawn from the literature of Antiquity, Jean Racine showed himself as much one of the Ancients, as his restriction of his tragedies to the classical unities derived by the neoclassicists from Aristotle's Poetics: the unities of place, of time—a single day— and of action.

·         the Moderns (Modernes), had opened fire first, in Fontenelle's Digression sur les anciens et les modernes (1688), in which he took the Modern side, pressing the argument that modern scholarship allowed modern man to surpass the ancients in knowledge. The Moderns were ably represented by Perrault, who supported the merits of the authors of the century of Louis XIV and expressed (in L'Age de Louis XIV) the Moderns' stance in a nutshell:

La docte Antiquité dans toute sa dureée

A l'égal de nos jours ne fut point éclairée."

"Learned Antiquity, through all its extent, Was never enlightened to equal our times"

In the opening years of the next century Marivaux was to show himself truly a Modern in establishing quite a new genre of theatre, unknown to the Ancients, of sentimental comedy (comédie larmoyante) in which the impending tragedy was resolved at the end, amind reconciliations and floods of tears.

The Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns was a cover, often a witty one, for deeper opposed views. The very idea of Progress was under attack on the one side, and Authority on the other. The new antiquarian interests led to critical reassessment of the products of Antiquity that would eventually bring Scripture itself under the magnifying glass of some Moderns. The attack on authority in literary criticism had analogues in the rise of scientific inquiry, and the Moderns' challenge to authority in literature foreshadowed and later extension of challenging inquiry in systems of politics as well as religion.

In contemporary Britain, the quarrel was taken less seriously. Sir William Temple argued against the Modern position in his essay "On Ancient and Modern Learning" (where he incidentally provided the first English formulation of the commonplace that we see more only because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants). Temple's essay prompted a small flurry of responses. Among others, two men who took the side opposing Temple were Richard Bently (classicist and editor) and William Wotton (critic).

Additionally (and this is not in the Wikipedia article), the Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns was parodied by the writer Jonathan Swift, in “The Battle of the Books.” He read the Ancients not just as the received wisdom, but as also tied specifically to books – primary texts – while the Moderns are “critics,” people who write articles, debate, and analyze, without contributing anything substantial of their own. One of the parables he used to illustrate his beliefs was as follows:

The combat in the "Battle" is interrupted by the interpolated allegory of the spider and the bee. A spider, "swollen up to the first Magnitude, by the Destruction of infinite Numbers of Flies" resides like a castle holder above a top shelf, and a bee, flying from the natural world and drawn by curiosity, wrecks the spider's web. The spider curses the bee for clumsiness and for wrecking the work of one who is his better. The spider says that his web is his home, a stately manor, while the bee is a vagrant who goes anywhere in nature without any concern for reputation. The bee answers that he is doing the bidding of nature, aiding in the fields, while the spider's castle is merely what was drawn from its own body, which has "a good plentiful Store of Dirt and Poison." This allegory was already somewhat old before Swift employed it, and it is a digression within the Battle proper. However, it also illustrates the theme of the whole work. The bee is like the ancients and like authors: it gathers its materials from nature and sings its drone song in the fields. The spider is like the moderns and like critics: it kills the weak and then spins its web (books of criticism) from the taint of its own body digesting the viscera.