The Best of Brit Lit From the TLS
Where do novels come from, the Roman tourist invasion, Dickens at 200, and other great reads from the Times Literary Supplement.
The Origin of Novels
The question that writers most dread at public events, we are told at the TLS, is “Where do you get your ideas?” Robert Louis Stevenson lived well before the era of the literary festival and the Q&A session, but if anyone had asked him with reference to his first full-length novel, and still his most celebrated book, Treasure Island, he had an answer ready prepared. It is a tale, John Sutherland reminds us, almost as familiar as that of Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, and the one-legged ship’s cook himself. During a particularly gloomy Scottish summer, Stevenson was inspired by his stepson's fantasy map drawings to produce one of his own, and a seafaring tale to match. He acknowledged various literary forebears, from Ballantyne to Defoe, in the creation of what became Treasure Island. But Sutherland gives the details of another inspiration, which, though it was first revealed in 1900, apparently “has not interested editors of Treasure Island, or Stevenson’s biographers.” Its similarities to RLS’s masterpiece even take in one the most famous scenes in the book, when Jim overhears the crew plotting, while concealed in an apple barrel.
When in Rome
Some 8 million tourists—or “pellegrinos,” as the locals derisively call them— pass through Rome every year. But what do they take away with them when they leave? It’s a question prompted by a new book on the 2,000-year-old history of sightseers invading the Eternal City: When in Rome by Matthew Sturgis. “Much is just plain gone from the Eternal City,” as our reviewer, Clare Pettitt, points out. That “much” includes not only the usual trinkets and stolen bits of sculpture, but also, in the case of one early pilgrim (which is what a “pellegrino” literally is), a “a little strip of linen” that he had lowered into the grave of an early Christian, and that came up “so filled with divine virtue that it weigh[ed] much more than it did before.” It’s a fascinating story about a phenomenon that shows no sign of decline.
Children of Rome
"There is remarkably little good poetry about very small children. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep that does it; for the first few months it’s hard to remember to put out the bins, let alone write poems": the Roman poet Statius, however, wrote "one of his most remarkable poems" about a newborn baby. Statius loved and looked after the boy: "It comes, then, as a rude shock to discover that the baby was not Statius’s son, but his slave." Peter Thonemann casts a fascinating light on children in the Roman Empire and the shifting boundaries of freedom, childhood, and sexuality.
Women at War
"Did women respond differently from men to the challenges of war? Virginia Nicholson draws on memoirs, diaries, and some live interviews with doughty nonagenarians, including her own mother, to tell the story of British women’s contribution to the Second World War, what they did for it, and what it did to and for them." Norma C. Clarke finds mixed messages about femininity, independence, acceptance, and hope in the stories of these women who kept the homes fires burning—as well as driving the buses and working in the factories left vacant by their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.
Dickens at 200
The pioneer of the notion of author as performer, as of so many other literary firsts, Charles Dickens, is the subject of Dinah Birch’s review of two books that herald the onslaught of the novelist’s bicentenary next year. She finds that, although neither biographer “offers startlingly new revelations, their interpretations help to align our sense of Dickens’s inventive force with 21st-century perspectives.”