Situating The Beetle within the fin-de-siècle fiction of Gothic Egypt
This chapter analyses the relationship between Marsh’s bestselling novel of Egyptian malevolence, The Beetle: A Mystery (1897), and a subgenre of Gothic Egyptian fiction which developed partially in response to contentious Anglo-Egyptian political relations. Marsh began writing his novel in 1895, the same year General Herbert Kitchener launched his famous and ultimately successful campaign to quell Islamic-nationalist rebellion in northern Sudan, then indirectly under Anglo-Egyptian control. This chapter exposes the links between the novel and colonial politics, placing The Beetle within the context of Anglo-Egyptian and Sudanese conflict, rather than broadly reading it against general imperial concerns. The chapter provides a fuller picture of both the remarkable revival of the Gothic literary mode at the fin de siècle and the society in which this literary phenomenon occurred. The chapter also reveals how Marsh’s text dramatically exceeded Gothic Egyptian genre conventions in its emphasis on pagan as well as colonial monstrosity.
The introduction to the volume sets Richard Marsh in his historical context and argues that our understanding of late-Victorian and Edwardian professional authorship remains incomplete without a consideration of Marsh’s oeuvre. The introduction discusses Marsh as an exemplary professional writer producing topical popular fiction for an expanding middlebrow market. The seeming ephemerality of his literary production meant that its value was not appreciated by twentieth-century critics who were constructing the English literary canon. Marsh’s writing, however, deserves to be reread, as its negotiation of mainstream and counter-hegemonic discourses challenges our assumptions about fin-de-siècle literary culture. His novels and short stories engaged with and contributed to contemporary debates about aesthetic and economic value and interrogated the politics of gender, sexuality, empire and criminality.
This chapter ties Richard Marsh’s Mrs Musgrave – And Her Husband (1895) to the anxiety surrounding the degeneration debate. Simultaneously crime novel, detective novel and Gothic fiction, Mrs Musgrave – And Her Husband mobilises the discourses of eugenics and criminal anthropology as they were articulated by figures such as Francis Galton and Cesare Lombroso. The chapter argues that the novel provides a unique contribution to the debate surrounding hereditary criminality by simultaneously and deliberately validating and critiquing the racist and sexist matrix that arguably informed late-nineteenth-century British culture and society. Unlike much other late-nineteenth-century fiction, the novel employs a pattern where racial and sexual discourses are repeatedly set on course only to be derailed, and derailed only to be brought back on track again.
This collection of essays seeks to question the security of our assumptions about the fin de siècle by exploring the fiction of Richard Marsh, an important but neglected professional author. Richard Bernard Heldmann (1857–1915) began his literary career as a writer of boys’ fiction, but, following a prison sentence for fraud, reinvented himself as ‘Richard Marsh’ in 1888. Marsh was a prolific and popular author of middlebrow genre fiction including Gothic, crime, humour, romance and adventure, whose bestselling Gothic novel The Beetle: A Mystery (1897) outsold Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Building on a burgeoning interest in Marsh’s writing, this collection of essays examines a broad array of Marsh’s genre fictions through the lens of cutting-edge critical theory, including print culture, New Historicism, disability studies, genre theory, New Economic Criticism, gender theory, postcolonial studies, thing theory, psychoanalysis, object relations theory and art history, producing innovative readings not only of Marsh but of the fin-de-siècle period. Marsh emerges here as a versatile contributor to the literary and journalistic culture of his time whose stories of shape-shifting monsters, daring but morally dubious heroes, lip-reading female detectives and objects that come to life helped to shape the genres of fiction with which we are familiar today. Marsh’s fictions reflect contemporary themes and anxieties while often offering unexpected, subversive and even counter-hegemonic takes on dominant narratives of gender, criminality, race and class, unsettling our perceptions of the fin de siècle.
Diamonds and curious collectables in the fin-de-siècle fiction of Richard Marsh
This chapter analyses a selection of Marsh’s diamond fictions in order to show how his curious stones are active in narratives expressing anxieties over masculine mastery of imperial objects and the viability of overseas commodities and global trade. The curiously animate, materially unstable and malevolently metamorphic stones pose questions as to the consequences of the exploitation of Empire. They challenge the expertise of collectors, dealers, and jewellers, indicating the perils of speculation, and of the return of the exotic to the heart of the Empire. The chapter analyses how Marsh’s diamond narratives generate anxiety over a fin-de-siècle market economy and concepts of value, contributing to the fin-de-siècle imaginary an impression of beleaguered masculinity, problematic objects, and an unstable global market.
‘Transformational objects’ and the Gothic fiction of Richard Marsh
This chapter explores the treatment of objects, things, in Marsh’s major Gothic works: The Beetle, The Goddess and The Joss. The increasing popularity in the late nineteenth century of collecting and consuming objects offers a context in which boundaries between people and things become uncertain, with objects seemingly exercising a disturbing agency. Marsh’s texts present mutually transforming encounters between objects and characters that question the stability of identity. The chapter suggests that whilst transgressing boundaries between self and not-self is often explored in critical analysis through mesmerism, a more appropriate conceptual framework for Marsh is provided by object relations psychoanalysis, and specifically Christopher Bollas’s notion of ‘transformational objects’. Developing this notion in relation to Bill Brown’s ‘thing theory’, the chapter identifies Marsh’s objects as ‘transformational things’, encounters with which often lead to terrifying breakdowns of selfhood, conveying a pervasive sense of existential horror and exposing the precariousness of late-nineteenth-century identity.
Marsh’s The Datchet Diamonds (1898) weaves together crime and romance elements with a financial plot concerning stock market speculation. Drawing on New Economic Criticism, this chapter argues that the novel is fascinatingly ambivalent in its treatment of speculation, appearing to condemn it as dishonourable and criminal while surreptitiously endorsing the very risk-taking behaviour on which it relies. The novel’s ‘decent-man-tempted’ protagonist is rendered attractive to readers through his willingness coolly to stare down danger and play the odds, putting him in uncomfortable proximity to the models of criminal masculinity that the text presents. As a crime thriller, The Datchet Diamonds works by soliciting readerly enjoyment of exposure to risk: as such, it reveals the limitations of crime scholarship that has focused too narrowly upon ‘ideologically conservative’ detective fiction, pointing instead to the willingness of readers to identify with transgressor-protagonists, to see laws broken and social hierarchies questioned.
Focusing largely on short stories of the 1890s and 1900s, this essay examines Richard Marsh's many similarities and connections with late-Victorian newspapers, particularly the tabloid press typified by George Purkess's Illustrated Police News. It argues that Marsh used the direct and accessible language of popular journalism to clothe his outlandish sensation fiction in the trappings of believability, while at the same time exploiting the literary possibilities of the news itself, notably in his responses to the infamous Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel in 1888 in stories such as 'The adventure of the phonograph' (Curios, 1898) and 'A member of the Anti-Tobacco League' (Under One Flag, 1906).
Populism, New Humour and the male clerk in Marsh’s Sam Briggs adventures
This chapter situates the adventures of Marsh’s male clerk Sam Briggs (1904–1915) within the context of the ‘New Humour’ of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods, in order to explore the intersections between populism, comedy and mass readership at the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, the chapter examines how Marsh tapped into the burgeoning lower-middle-class literary marketplace by deploying slapstick, satire and farce to interrogate some of the most pressing issues of his day, including the expansion of London and the effects of suburban sprawl, the ambiguous social and economic position of the male clerk, the crisis in masculinity, the contentious debates about evolution and degeneration, the rapid advancements in industry and technology and the profound consequences of the First World War.
Detection, deviance and disability in Richard Marsh’s Judith Lee stories
This essay examines the adventures of Richard Marsh’s female detective and lip-reader Judith Lee (1911–16). The short-story series offers a powerful example of the cross-fertilisation of the genres of detective, Gothic, New-Woman and science fiction through Marsh’s ambivalent construction of his protagonist as a potentially progenerate being with seemingly supernatural communication skills. Lee is a liminal heroine who is simultaneously resistant to and complicit with the normalising taxonomies of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and class commonly associated with detective fiction. However, while the stories’ conformist position as scientifically minded crime fiction is complicated by their apparent tolerance of deviance, Lee’s expertise as a teacher of the deaf undermines counter-hegemonic readings because her profession aims to ‘cure’ a disability, deafness. Lee’s adventures show how popular fiction synthesised disparate discursive frameworks drawing on criminology, eugenics, science, communications technology and psychical research.