Inspiration is the key!
In yesterday’s post “Richard Marsh’s “The Beetle”: Interview with Dr. Victoria Margree (Part 1)“, we found out more about Richard Marsh and his novel “The Beetle”, published in 1897. Thanks to Dr. Victoria Margree, researcher at the University of Brighton, we discovered some aspects of this book and its author. This time, we’ll talk other fictional works by Marsh, its categorisation, and recent rediscovery.
Q. Are there parallels to be drawn between ‘The Beetle’ and other works of fiction by R. Marsh?
A. It seems likely that the very topicality of The Beetle that made it such a popular success at the turn of the century, also accounts for its waning popularity later on in the 20th century. Marsh was a journalist and a prolific writer of popular fiction and he very much had his finger on the pulse of fin de siecle popular anxieties and preoccupations. This also, by the way, goes some way towards answering your question about the elements of the novel that have led it to find favour once again more recently. Much work in cultural studies today sees the Victorian fin de siecle as a particularly interesting period, poised as it is on the brink of a waning Victorianism and the modernity of a new century. Its a time when people were acutely aware of being at the end of an epoch, and were looking forward to what was to replace Victorianism with often commingled apprehension and hopefulness. In The Beetle, both this ambivalence and all of the most significant fin de siecle obsessions and fantasies are there: the New Woman, the bad immigrant / foreign invader, the urban destitute and the spectre of class unrest, gender ambiguity and confusion. As such I think it spoke to contemporary concerns, and to concerns which perhaps remained culturally significant for the first few decades of the twentieth century but perhaps diminished in importance after that. Furthermore, I guess, and as my colleague on the Marsh project Minna Vuohelainen says in an article (link at end), the beetle-creature is ugly and hideous and therefore less appealing than the vampire as a figure. Perhaps this helps account for why it was Dracula rather than the Beetle that got taken up by cinema from the 1960s (something that is enormously significant in explaining the success of Dracula in the late 20th century and into the 21st).
Q. Could ‘The Beetle’ be filed under the ‘science-fiction’ category, to some extents? Why is it mostly categorised as ‘gothic’ then?
A. Yes, it would be possible to consider The Beetle under the label ‘science fiction’ and I believe the scholar Rhys Garnet has done just this in a book collection. One of The Beetle’s central characters, and narrators, is gentleman-scientist Sidney Atherton, who is developing what we probably call ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in an attempt to safeguard Western civilisation from its ‘enemies’. Through the Atherton character, but also through the amateur-detective Augustus Champnell, Marsh often pits the Beetle’s mysterious supernatural powers against the power of modern science, but in a manner that doesn’t always suggest the superiority of modern science (see especially the ending). But I think I’d still say the ‘gothic’ label is more revealing: just read the opening narrative with its depiction of a dark and menacing (a gothicised) suburban London, and its fearful homoerotic paranoid fantasy about encounter with an abhuman other!
Although Marsh published across, and drew upon, numerous genres of popular fiction (gothic, science-fiction, crime, detective-fiction, romance, comedy) one can see tropes and concerns repeating themselves across his output. For example there’s often a sympathy in evidence for the lower middle-class London worker, who finds himself/herself in exploitative and precarious working conditions (this may well reflect that this constituency was a key part of Marsh’s readership). There’s often a foreign/possibly supernatural invader; a character who becomes detective in order to penetrate a mystery; a young woman who sets herself in the face of convention.
Q. In your opinion, which elements present in ‘The Beetle’ favoured a new-found interest in it in recent years?
A. I’ve already said that I think its the very topicality of Marsh’s fiction - its engagement with fin de siecle anxieties - that makes it of so much interest today. As Minna Vuohelainen, again, says, cultural studies scholars are interested in the ways that popular fictions can help us to understand mainstream ideas and structures of perception. But I also think that Marsh is a particularly interesting figure who was sometimes writing against the grain of some strands of mainstream fin de siecle cultural discourse, and one of the goals of the symposium at the University of Brighton in July is to explore how Marsh’s fiction might actually unsettle what we think we know about fin de siecle culture (for example, one of my colleagues has worked on how Marsh sometimes contests racist and eugenist discourses). And finally, I think Marsh’s fictions warrant rereading today for the simple reason that they are often very gripping pageturners!
Once again, many thanks to Dr. Margree for sharing her views and all these information with the Bright Old Oak. It’s really important to treasure all Literature, even the authors and books not everyone is familiar with.
A quick reminder, “Richard Marsh: re-reading the fin de siècle“,a one-day symposium, takes place at the University of Brighton on 20th July 2012.
And, in case you’re interested in reading more about Richard Marsh, you can start by downloading a FREE copy of “The Beetle” here for your Amazon Kindle.