In this week’s TLS – a note from the History editor
Robert Browning, as Daniel Karlin reminds us this week, was sensitive to criticism, and even more sensitive to criticism of his wife. So when he read a callous remark in Edward FitzGerald’s posthumously published correspondence, he was moved to retaliatory verse. The sonnet he dashed off to the Athenaeum is printed in the final volume of the Ohio/Baylor edition of Browning’s works, though much of the back story is missing from the editorial matter. The question of editors’ obligations to the authors they take on is always a complex one, and never more so, Karlin argues, than in Browning’s case. Browning’s own attitude to scholars who tried to study his work prompts Karlin’s melancholy reflection that “the activity on which I have spent a good part of my career is one which I have every reason to believe the poet thinks impertinent, stupid and (to use his own words) ‘absolutely contemptible’”.
Arthur Conan Doyle, like Browning, was widowed, but his wife’s death was one among several (or millions, if you include those in the First World War) that touched the writer and fostered his interest in spiritualism. Reviewing a new work on Conan Doyle, Jonathan Barnes is taken with the suggestion that he arrived at spiritualism “along the path of science”, convincing himself (as later with the existence of fairies) that life after death was “simply there”.
Donna Tartt has an unusually slow rate of production for a contemporary novelist. Alex Clark reviews her third novel in as many decades, The Goldfinch, a characteristically ambitious exploration of a young man’s reaction to the violent death of his mother, which Clark finds “impressively mysterious . . . a pretend picaresque that refuses to stay on track”.
These gloomy topics might seem appropriate for the time of year when Christians observe the “days of the dead”, and Western children dress up to demand sweeties with menaces. Phil Baker sees in an Encyclopedia of the Gothic the spread of such concerns beyond the confines of “genre” literature or seasonal observance. Gothic, he writes, has “climbed out of the cellar”. It is now “a way of life”.