The Welsh horror fiction author Arthur Machen turns 150 this week. Machen, an influential figure in the budding supernatural fiction scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is best known for his novella “The Great God Pan,” and for accidentally proliferating a legend about angels protecting the British army at the Battle of Mons in World War I.
The Ransom Center houses an extensive collection of items pertaining to the author, comprising 20 archival boxes of material. The Machen collection features handwritten drafts, page proofs with Machen’s notes, correspondence with family and friends including A. E. Waite and Oliver Stonor, and miscellaneous ephemera. Additionally, the Center’s Arthur Machen literary photography collection contains portraits of the author and his residences.
Machen’s accomplishments in fantasy and supernatural fiction inspired the admiration—and multiple pastiches—of a later generation of authors. “The Great God Pan” drew praise from such giants of the genre as H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. King credited it as the inspiration for his own novella N, proclaiming “Pan” to be “one of the best horror stories ever written, maybe the best in the English language.” Lovecraft, a contemporary of Machen’s, lauded “The Great God Pan” in his 1926 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” saying: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.”
The many who praised Machen often compared his writing to that of his American predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter to a fan, which resides in the Ransom Center’s Poe collection, Machen addresses the sentiment with humility: “A good many people have compared my work with that of Poe… This was an immense compliment to me—but quite an undeserved one.” But Machen was also quick to differentiate his writing from Poe’s. He continues, “[Poe’s] terrors are as distinct as possible,” whereas Machen’s own are “vague, irrational, something like the broken recollections of a nightmare.”
Indeed, Machen’s style is of a uniquely Welsh variety. His works frequently cite those of his fellow countrymen, including George Herbert, who published a book of religious poems in 1633. The storied and ominously beautiful Welsh landscape is a frequent setting for Machen’s writing, particularly his childhood home in Monmouthshire, a county in southeastern Wales of significance to Celtic, Roman, and medieval history. In a letter housed at the Ransom Center, Machen describes his obsession with the eerie scenery behind the rectory where he lived: “From the windows one looked across a strangely beautiful country to the forest of Wentwood, above the valley of the Usk. Beneath this forest, on the slope of the hill there is a lonely house called Bertholly, and to my eyes and imagination this house was a symbol of awe and mystery and dread.”
Machen paints a similar picture—one “written to fit Bertholly”—in the opening scene of “The Great God Pan,” which describes the view from a rogue surgeon’s unsettling house-turned-laboratory: “A sweet breath came from the great wood on the hillside above, and with it, at intervals, the soft murmuring call of the wild doves. Below, in the long lovely valley, the river wound in and out between the lonely hills.”
150 years later, Machen’s influence lives on. Stephen King novels are widely read, having sold 350 million copies worldwide. Supernatural horror dramas permeate popular culture, with successful television series like American Horror Story capitalizing on themes prominent in Machen’s own works. Were he to witness many of horror fiction’s modern incarnations, Machen might detect a familiar scene, reminiscent of the lonely house called Bertholly situated in the misty hills of Monmouthshire.
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Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.
Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!
True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.
In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”
Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.
I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen. I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.
1) A BOOK
Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]
The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.
2) A MAP
“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.
Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.
3) A MANUSCRIPT
Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.
Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:
In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.
He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.
Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.
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The Harry Ransom Center welcomes Jed Perl, art critic for The New Republic, and Peter Kayafas, Director of the Eakins Press Foundation, to discuss their work on Magicians and Charlatans: Essays on Art and Culture and the way that artists, writers, and publishers have responded to the digital age. The discussion takes place Thursday, February 7, at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. A book signing will follow.
In Magicians and Charlatans, Perl distinguishes between artists he considers magicians—people who seek to create great art—and charlatans—who are merely seeking fame or profit. Perl does not shy away from making controversial assertions. In his reprinted 2002 essay on Gerhard Richter, he dismisses Richter’s retrospective as “a hymn to deracination, a visual moan.” He laments the commercialization of art, the age of Warholism, and the new “market-driven art world.” Perl offers praise for Meyer Schapiro, Lincoln Kirstein, and the eighteenth-century French painter, Jean-Siméon Chardin.
Perl’s book, published in October by the Eakins Press Foundation, has received praise from The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal. Perl has been an art critic at The New Republic for two decades, and has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He is currently working on the first full-length biography of Alexander Calder.
English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, gives a reading tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with Ransom Center staff about his interests and work.
In these two videos, Crace reflects on writing advice he took to heart early in his career and how one of his favorite authors, T. H. White, adopted a life of learning to deal with depression. These videos exemplify Crace’s understanding of the emotional value of the physical and how he uses this connection in his writing.
Jim Crace’s Writing Advice
“I found myself writing more directly and more convincingly about my mum through scissors than I would’ve done if I’d written about her emotionally…”
Jim Crace on T. H. White’s Materials at the Ransom Center
“…Once you’ve learned to parse medieval German verbs, you can learn to plow. And once you’ve mastered plowing, you can set your attentions towards knitting. And once you’ve learned to knit, you can discover how to make dough rise. And that was basically his [T. H. White’s] method of dealing with this deep depression he had all of his life…”
English writer Jim Crace, currently a visiting professor at The University of Texas at Austin Michener Center for Writers, will give a reading this Thursday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m. in the Avaya Auditorium, ACE 2.302. Crace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, and on a previous visit to Austin he spoke with the Ransom Center about his interests and work.
In these two videos, Crace discusses how painting coastal watercolors sparks his imagination, and shares several original drawings of imaginary places. These videos illuminate the inspiration Crace draws from places he created as a child, both real and fictional.
Jim Crace on Painting
“All of my novels, without exception, I think, are landscape novels… and I think that landscape is almost a character in all of my novels. So these things are important to me.”
Jim Crace’s Childhood Maps and the Narrative of Travel
“I used to love looking at atlases. It seemed to me that implicit in every map I looked at on every page was a narrative of travel, an armchair story that you could imagine yourself going around this coastline or traveling up that river or crossing those mountains.”
Novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has a new novel out today.
San Miguel (Viking, 2012) is a historical novel about three women’s lives on a windswept island off the California coast. Boyle is the author of 23 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker.
Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.
Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.
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