Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Sherlock Holmes in context - new publication!

I am very pleased to have published my chapter on revisioning Sherlock Holmes through the character of Mrs Hudson, in a new book just published in the Palgrave Crime Files series. The book is edited by Sam Naidu and is called Sherlock Holmes in Context.  I have just received my contributor's copy of the book.  Here is a picture of the cover image, featuring the iconic fashion accessories we have come to associate with the Sherlock Holmes character:

Palgrave's summary of the book describes it as follows:   

"This book of interdisciplinary essays serves to situate the original Sherlock Holmes, and his various adaptations, in a contemporary cultural context. This collection is prompted by three main and related questions: firstly, why is Sherlock Holmes such an enduring and ubiquitous cultural icon; secondly, why is it that Sherlock Holmes, nearly 130 years after his birth, is enjoying such a spectacular renaissance; and, thirdly, what sort of communities, imagined or otherwise, have arisen around this figure since the most recent resurrections of Sherlock Holmes by popular media?  Covering various media and genres (TV, film, literature, theatre) and scholarly approaches, this comprehensive collection offers cogent answers to these questions."

My chapter is entitled "I, Too, Mourn the Loss": Mrs. Hudson and the Absence of Sherlock Holmes.  This is a synopsis I wrote of the chapter, which can be found on the Springer website:

"This chapter examines the representation of Mrs. Hudson in selected episodes of Sherlock and the 2011 short story “The Adventure of the Concert Pianist” by Margaret Maron, focusing particularly on the questions raised by the representation of ageing female characters, agency, and detection in popular culture. Drawing on a range of critical approaches, the analysis focuses on the similarities and contrasts offered by the two texts, and reflects on the implications for the depiction of Mrs. Hudson in contemporary reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes. The chapter concludes that, despite energetic attempts to revitalize Mrs. Hudson’s character, especially by Maron, the issue of Mrs. Hudson’s representation, and the trivialization of ageing femininity in popular culture, remains pertinent."

The entire book - Sherlock Holmes in Context - is really interesting, and a must-read for anyone interested in the many manifestations of Sherlock Holmes and our continued fascination with this figure.

In writing this chapter, I enjoyed having the opportunity to write about Margaret Maron's brilliant short story “The Adventure of the Concert Pianist”, and to have been able to explore at some length the gender-political dimensions of the character of Mrs Hudson and her representation.  I was particularly interested in exploring ideas of femininity, ageing, and detection in both Maron and the BBC series Sherlock.  

In fact, Series Four of Sherlock almost seemed to incorporate a response to my critique in the chapter!  It certainly attempted to reimagine Mrs Hudson as a much more "badass" character.  Although my criticism still stands:  the producers may have attempted to "sex up" Mrs Hudson, but that reimagining did specifically not include taking a lead in detection. The domain of detection remained resolutely male.  Margaret Maron's short story seeks to challenge the ways in which the definition of detection embodied by Sherlock Holmes serves to marginalise female characters and issues of ageing.

Little Hattie tries to read the chapter #catsofacademia

I also taught Maron's story for the first time this year on my Crime Fiction module, which went really well and made for some interesting discussions in the seminar about the perspectives and angles used by various writers in reworking Sherlock Holmes' character or Conan Doyle's stories. 

My research into the figure of Mrs Hudson in Maron's story and Sherlock first saw the light of day three years ago.  Yesterday was three years ago to the date that I gave the paper that my chapter eventually was based on.  I gave that paper at the highly successful New Directions in Sherlock conference at UCL, organised by the two brilliant Sherlock specialists, Dr Tom Ue and Dr Emily Garside.  The conference was immensely interesting, as you can see from the programme here and here, and was attended by 300 delegates.  The conference even caught the eye of the newspaper The Times. The paper featured an article about the conference the day after it was held, with the title of "
‘Loungers and idlers’ meet for 100 lessons on Sherlock Holmes".

Three years later, my paper has finally appeared in print which is very satisfying.  I have previously published on contemporary literary reworkings of Sherlock Holmes, in an article for a special issue on Conan Doyle by the journal Oscholars. I am hoping to do more work in the future on Sherlock Holmes reimaginings.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Dystopian fiction revisited

About a year ago,  I published a chapter in a book examining dystopian fiction.  The book was edited by Louisa Mackay Demerjian and called The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future .  

Discussions of dystopian fiction seemed timely then, touching as they did on some difficult but compelling contemporary questions.  Little did I realise at the time how much more urgent these investigations into the nature and function of dystopia would be a year on.  Since the publication of the book, things have changed in the world, to such an extent that the most problematic and painful issues treated in dystopian works seemed fast on the way to becoming daily reality now.  First and foremost, through Trump and Brexit.

The description of The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future on the publisher's page commented on the intensity of interest in, and current popularity of, dystopian fiction.  It stated two central questions that lay behind our various investigations in the book of dystopian writing:

 "Dystopia, as a genre, reflects our greatest fears of what the future might bring, based on analysis of the present. This book connects traditional dystopian works with their contexts and compares these with contemporary versions. It centers around two main questions: Why is dystopia so popular now? And, why is dystopia so popular with young adult audiences?

Reflecting current academic and popular interests, several chapters in The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future explored aspects of dystopian works by Margaret Atwood and The Hunger Games. Having researched Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for my PhD (which I was awarded in 1995 by University of Warwick), I have long been an admirer of Atwood's experimentation with the dystopian genre.  Her contributions to the dystopian genre since then have been equally compelling, with her Maddaddam trilogy.

Indeed, in a recent New York Times article, on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump, Margaret Atwood discusses writing her novel and the reflections that went into that process.  She recounts how, "Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established orders could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lightning. “It can’t happen here” could not be depended on: Anything could happen anywhere, given the circumstances."

For The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future, however, my chapter didn't examine work by Atwood.  Instead, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore the work by Kirsty Murray, an author whose fascinating work has preoccupied me for years now since I first discovered it when looking for children's literature material on the Irish Famine and the 'forgotten orphans' - child migrants sent to Australia.  You can read more about child migrants here.  This new endeavour felt really important to me, as little critical material existed on this text by Murray, and I felt it richly deserved to be examined in detail and linked to the wider developments within this specific literary genre.  

This chapter gave me a chance to draw further critical and student attention to the YA dystopian novel Vulture's Gate written by the prolific Australian author Kirsty Murray.  You can read more about her work on her author website .   As a postcolonial critic, I was also curious to see the ways in which a postcolonial literary context would shape and change dystopian fiction.

My chapter, "Last Girl Alive": Kirsty Murray's Dystopian YA Novel Vulture's Gate, examined the ways in which this novel explored a possible future created through environmental destruction, centring around gender and the erasure of girls and women. This compelling subject was enhanced by Murray's detailed portrayal of the Australian landscape, establishing a sense of the cultural context and specificity of her dystopian vision in the novel.  My chapter furthermore investigated the representation of gender in the novel, a topic often at the heart of dystopian social conflict, but enhanced in Vulture's Gate by Murray's sensitive portrayals and ability to create complex and compelling literary characters who get under your skin, and whose voices and lives you can't forget.

Since the publication of The Age of Dystopia: One Genre, Our Fears and Our Future, much has happened in the world politically which has made readers, myself included, question whether dystopian fiction really is a "fantasy" genre - given the often uncanny, frequently disturbing or downright frightening, parallels we can observe between the fictional material and our contemporary world.  The recent election of the American President and the vote for Brexit in the UK have only furthered the sense of unreality and foreboding.

According to recent press reports, these recent political developments have led to an increased interest in dystopian novels such as George Orwell's 1984 and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale I hope that readers keen on reading dystopian fiction will also explore works outside the established "canon", in order to gain a deeper understanding of dystopian work, and the links between our present and future which they explore.    

Fear of the future and what it might bring is a part of daily life now which dystopian fiction magnifies and distorts in its confrontation with the limitations of language and literary form in conveying those fears.  But, importantly, as in the case of Kirsty Murray's novel Vulture's Gate, dystopian fiction can also help to engender a sense of hope, an aspect also commented on by Atwood in her article - an uplifting open ending - a dimension which seems more compelling than ever.