William Shakespeare is widely regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time and one of the most important and influential people who has ever lived. His written works (plays, sonnets and poems) have been translated into more than 100 languages and these are performed around the world.
There is also an enduring desire to learn more about the man himself. Countless books and articles have been written about Shakespeare’s life. These have been based primarily on the scholarly analysis of his works and the official record associated with him and his family. Shakespeare’s popularity and legacy endures, despite uncertainties in his life story and debate surrounding his authorship and identity.
The life and times of William Shakespeare and his family have also recently been informed by cutting-edge archaeological methods and interdisciplinary technologies at both New Place (his long-since demolished family home) and his burial place at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The evidence gathered from these investigations by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University provides new insights into his interests, attitudes and motivations – and those of his family – and shows how archaeology can provide further tangible evidence. These complement traditional Shakespearean research methods that have been limited to sparse documentary evidence and the study of his works.
Archaeology has the ability to provide a direct connection to an individual through the places and objects associated with them. Past excavations of the Shakespearean-era theatres in London have provided evidence of the places he worked and spent much of his time.
Attributing objects to Shakespeare is difficult, we have his written work of course, his portrait(s) and memorial bust – but all of his known possessions, like those mentioned in his will, no longer exist. A single gold signet ring, inscribed with the initials W S, is thought by some to be the most significant object owned and used by the poet, despite its questionable provenance.
The building itself was lost in the 18th century, but the site and its remains were preserved beneath a garden. Erected in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century prior to Shakespeare’s purchase in 1597, from its inception, it was architecturally striking. One of the largest domestic residences in Stratford, it was the only courtyard-style, open-hall house within the town.
This type of house typified the merchant and elite classes and in purchasing and renovating it to his own vision, Shakespeare inherited the traditions of his ancestors while embracing the latest fashions. The building materials used, its primary structure and later redevelopment can all be used as evidence of the deliberate and carefully considered choices made by him and his family.
Shakespeare focused on the outward appearance of the house, installing a long gallery and other fashionable architectural embellishments as was expected of a well-to-do, aspiring gentleman of the time. Many other medieval features were retained and the hall was likely retained as the showpiece of his home, a place to announce his prosperity, and his rise in status.
It provided a place for him and his immediate and extended family to live, work and entertain. But it was also a place which held local significance and symbolic associations. Intriguingly, its appearance also resembled the courtyard inn theatres of London and elsewhere with which Shakespeare was so familiar, presenting the opportunity to host private performances.
In search of the Bard
Extensive evidence of the personal possessions, diet and the leisure activities of Shakespeare, his family and the inhabitants of New Place were recovered during the archaeological investigations, revolutionising what we understand about his day-to-day life.
An online exhibition, due to be made available in early May 2020, presents 3D-scanned artefacts recovered at the site of New Place. These objects, some of which may have belonged to Shakespeare, have been chosen to characterise the chronological development and activities undertaken at the site.
Open access to these virtual objects will enable the dissemination of these important results and the potential for others to continue the research.
Here lies …
Archaeological evidence recovered from non-invasive investigations at Shakespeare’s burial place has also been used to provide further evidence of his personal and family belief. Multi-frequency Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) was used to investigate the Shakespeare family graves below the chancel of Holy Trinity Church.
A number of legends surrounded Shakespeare’s burial place. Among these were doubts over the presence of a grave, its contents, tales of grave robbing and suggestions of a large family crypt. The work confirmed that individual shallow graves exist beneath the tombstones and that the various members of Shakespeare’s family were not buried in coffins, but in simple shrouds. Analysis concluded that Shakespeare’s grave had been disturbed in the past and that it was likely that his skull had been removed, confirming recorded stories.
These family graves occupy a significant (and expensive) location in Holy Trinity Church. Despite this, the simple nature of Shakespeare’s grave, with no elite trappings or finery and no large family crypt, coupled with his belief that he should not be disturbed, confirm a simple regional practice based on pious religious observance and an affinity with his hometown.
There is still so much we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life, so it’s a safe bet that researchers will continue to investigate what evidence there is. Archaeological techniques can provide quantifiable information that isn’t available through traditional Shakespearean research. But just like other disciplines, interpretation – based on the evidence – will be key to unlocking the mysteries surrounding the life (and death) of the English language’s greatest writer.
When Charles Dickens died, he had spectacular fame, great wealth and an adoring public. But his personal life was complicated. Separated from his wife and living in a huge country mansion in Kent, the novelist was in the thrall of his young mistress, Ellen Ternan. This is the untold story of Charles Dickens’s final hours and the furore that followed, as the great writer’s family and friends fought over his final wishes.
My new research has uncovered the never-before-explored areas of the great author’s sudden death, and his subsequent burial. While details such as the presence of Ternan at the author’s funeral have already been discovered by Dickensian sleuths, what is new and fresh here is the degree of manoeuvring and negotiations involved in establishing Dickens’s ultimate resting place.
Dickens’s death created an early predicament for his family. Where was he to be buried? Near his home (as he would have wished) or in that great public pantheon, Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (which was clearly against his wishes)?
“The Inimitable” (as he sometimes referred to himself) was one of the most famous celebrities of his time. No other writer is as closely associated with the Victorian period. As the author of such immortal classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol, he was constantly in the public eye. Because of the vivid stories he told, and the causes he championed (including poverty, education, workers’ rights, and the plight of prostitutes), there was great demand for him to represent charities, and appear at public events and visit institutions up and down the country (as well as abroad – particularly in the United States). He moved in the best circles and counted among his friends the top writers, actors, artists and politicians of his day.
Dickens was proud of what he achieved as an author and valued his close association with his public. In 1858 he embarked on a career as a professional reader of his own work and thrilled audiences of thousands with his animated performances. This boost to his career occurred at a time when his marital problems came to a head: he fell in love with Ternan, an 18-year-old actress, and separated from his wife Catherine, with whom he had ten children.
Dickens was careful to keep his love affair private. Documentary evidence of his relationship with Ternan is very scarce indeed. He had wanted to take her with him on a reading tour to America in 1868, and even developed a telegraphic code to communicate to her whether or not she should come. She didn’t, because Dickens felt that he could not protect their privacy.
On Wednesday June 8 1870, the author was working on his novel Edwin Drood in the garden of his country home, Gad’s Hill Place, near Rochester, in Kent. He came inside to have dinner with his sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, and suffered a stroke. The local doctor was summoned and remedies were applied without effect. A telegram was sent to London, to summon John Russell Reynolds, one of the top neurologists in the land. By the following day the author’s condition hadn’t changed and he died at 6.10pm, on June 9.
Accepted wisdom concerning Dickens’s death and burial is drawn from an authorised biography published by John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens. Forster was the author’s closest friend and confidant. He was privy to the most intimate areas of his life, including the time he spent in a blacking (boot polish) warehouse as a young boy (which was a secret, until disclosed by Forster in his book), as well as details of his relationship with Ternan (which were not revealed by Forster, and which remained largely hidden well into the 20th century). Forster sought to protect Dickens’s reputation with the public at all costs.
Last Will and Testament
In his will (reproduced in Forster’s biography), Dickens had left instructions that he should be:
Buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time or place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band, or other such revolting absurdity.
Forster added that Dickens’s preferred place of burial – his Plan A – was “in the small graveyard under Rochester Castle wall, or in the little churches of Cobham or Shorne”, which were all near his country home. However, Forster added: “All these were found to be closed”, by which he meant unavailable.
Plan B was then put into action. Dickens was set to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, at the direction of the Dean and Chapter (the ecclesiastical governing body). They had even dug a grave for the great man. But this plan too was scuppered, in favour of interment in Poets’ Corner, in Westminster Abbey – the resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, and other literary greats.
Forster claims in the biography that the media led the way in agitating for burial in the abbey. He singles out The Times, which, in an article of January 13 1870, “took the lead in suggesting that the only fit resting place for the remains of a man so dear to England was the abbey in which the most illustrious Englishmen are laid”. He added that when the Dean of Westminster, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, asked Forster and members of the Dickens family to initiate what was now Plan C, and bury him in the abbey, it became their “grateful duty to accept that offer”.
The private funeral occurred early in the morning of Tuesday June 14 1870, and was attended by 14 mourners. The grave was then left open for three days so that the public could pay their respects to one of the most famous figures of the age. Details of the authorised version of Dickens’s death and burial were carried by all the major and minor newspapers in the English-speaking world and beyond. Dickens’s estranged wife Catherine received a message of condolence from Queen Victoria, expressing “her deepest regret at the sad news of Charles Dickens’s death”.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
The effect that Dickens’s death had on ordinary people may be appreciated from the reaction of a barrow girl who sold fruits and vegetables in Covent Garden Market. When she heard the news, she is reported to have said: “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The funeral directors
My investigation has revealed, however, how Dickens’s burial in Poets’ Corner was engineered by Forster and Stanley to satisfy their personal aims, rather than the author’s own. While the official story was that it was the “will of the people” to have Dickens buried in the Abbey (and there were articles in The Times to this effect), the reality was that this alteration suited both the biographer and the churchman.
Forster could conclude the volume he was contemplating in a fitting manner, by having Dickens interred in the national pantheon where so many famous literary figures were buried. He thus ensured that a stream of visitors would make a pilgrimage to Dickens’s grave and spread his reputation far and wide, for posterity.
Stanley could add Dickens to his roll of famous people whose burials he conducted. They included Lord Palmerston, the former UK prime minister, mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschel, missionary and explorer David Livingstone, and Sir Rowland Hill, the postal reformer and originator of the penny post.
The efforts of Forster and Stanley to get Dickens buried exactly where they wanted enhanced the reputations of both men. For each of them, the interment of Dickens in the abbey might be considered the highlight of their careers.
‘Mr Dickens very ill, most urgent’
The new evidence I have found was gathered from libraries, archives and cathedral vaults and prove beyond a doubt that any claims about the Westminster burial being the will of the people are false.
What emerges is an atmosphere of urgency in the Dickens household after the author collapsed. Dickens’s son Charley sent the telegram to the author’s staff in London, requesting urgent medical assistance from the eminent neurologist, John Russell Reynolds:
Go without losing a moment to Russell Reynolds thirty eight Grosvenor St Grosvenor Sqr tell him to come by next train to Higham or Rochester to meet… Beard (Dickens’s physician), at Gadshill … Mr Dickens very ill most urgent.
Dickens’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, who ran his household and cared for his children after the separation from Catherine, was clearly disappointed that the specialist could do nothing for her much-adored brother-in-law. She sent a note to her solicitor with the doctor’s fee: “I enclose Dr Reynolds’ demand (of £20) for his fruitless visit.”
Dean Stanley had met Dickens in 1870, after being introduced by the churchman’s brother-in-law, Frederick Locker, who was a friend of the novelist. Stanley confided to his private journal (now housed in the archives of Westminster Abbey) that he was “much struck” by his conversation with Dickens and appreciated the few opportunities he had to meet the author before he died.
Locker’s memoir also records an interesting conversation he had with Stanley before this 1870 meeting, which sheds light on the Dean’s attitude towards the novelist, his death and funeral. Locker writes about talking to Stanley “of the burials in the abbey” and they discussed the names of some “distinguished people”. Stanley told him there were “certain people” he would be “obliged to refuse” burial, on account of personal antipathies. But his attitude changed when the name of the author “came up” and he said he “should like to meet Dickens”. Then, to “gratify” Stanley’s “pious wish”, Locker asked Dickens and his daughter to dine. Thus even while Dickens was still alive, Stanley privately expressed a desire to bury him.
When the end came, Locker conveyed the news to his brother-in-law on that very day – June 9. The Dean wrote to Locker to say:
Alas! – how soon we have been overtaken by the event which we were anticipating as so distant. I cannot amply thank you for having given me the opportunity of having met Charles Dickens while there was yet time. You will gather from what I have already said that I am quite prepared to raise any proposals about the burial that may be made to me.
The letter is fascinating. On the very day of the famous author’s death, the Dean was already thinking about burial in the Abbey. But there was a catch: Stanley could only entertain such a proposal if it came from the family and executors. He could not act unilaterally.
Locker quickly seized the opportunity hinted at in Stanley’s letter and sent a copy of it to Charley Dickens (the author’s son) on June 10. He wrote in his covering note: “I wish to send you a copy of a letter that I have just received from Dean Stanley and I think it will explain itself. If I can be of any use pray tell me.”
False claims and ambition
Meanwhile, the idea of getting Dickens to Poets’ Corner was growing in Stanley’s imagination. He wrote to his cousin Louisa on Saturday June 11 to say “I never met (Dickens) till this year… And now he is gone … and it is not improbable that I may bury him”. It’s interesting how quickly the plan crystallised in the Dean’s mind. Within the space of 48 hours, he went from hypothetical proposals from the family for burial, to foreseeing a key role for himself in the proceedings.
However, an answer from Charley Dickens wasn’t forthcoming. Stanley waited until the morning of Monday June 13, before seeking another way of making his wishes known to the family. He got in touch with his friend Lord Houghton (formerly Rickard Monckton Milnes – a poet, politician and friend of Dickens), reiterating his preparedness “to receive any proposal for (Dickens’s) burial in the Abbey” and asking Houghton to “act as you think best”.
It was at this point in the proceedings that Forster took charge of the planning. He had been away in Cornwall when Dickens died and it took him two days to reach Gad’s Hill. When he reached Dickens’s country home on Saturday June 11 he was overcome with grief at the death of his friend and clearly unprepared for the suddenness with which the blow was struck. His first thoughts, and those of the immediate family, were to accede to Dickens’s wishes and have him buried close to home. While the official account, in his Life of Dickens, claims that the graveyards in the vicinity of his home were “closed”, an examination of the records of the churches in Cobham and Shorne demonstrate this to be false.
The proposed burial in Rochester Cathedral was not only advanced, but in fact finalised, costed, and invoiced. The Chapter archives demonstrate that a grave was in fact dug in St Mary’s Chapel by the building firm Foord & Sons. The records also show that the Cathedral authorities “believed, as they still believe (after Dickens was buried in the Abbey), that no more fitting or honourable spot for his sepulture could be found than amidst scenes to which he was fondly attached, and amongst those by whom he was personally known as a neighbour and held in such honour”.
These views are reinforced by the claims of Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law, in a letter to a friend:
We should have preferred Rochester Cathedral, and it was a great disappointment to the people there that we had to give way to the larger demand.
Let (Dickens) lie in the Abbey. Where Englishmen gather to review the memorials of the great masters and teachers of their nation, the ashes and the name of the greatest instructor of the nineteenth century should not be absent.
Despite this appeal appearing in the press, Stanley’s private journal records that he still “had received no application from any person in authority”, and so “took no steps” to advance his burial plan.
Stanley’s prayers must have seemed answered, then, when Forster and Charley Dickens appeared at the door of the Deanery on that same day. According to the Dean, after they sat down, Forster said to Stanley: “I imagine the article in the ‘Times’ must have been written with your concurrence?” Stanley replied: “No, I had no concern with it, but at the same time I had given it privately to be understood that I would consent to the interment if it was demanded.” By this Stanley meant the letter he had sent to Locker, which the latter had forwarded to Charley. Stanley of course agreed to the request from Dickens’s representatives for burial in Poets’ Corner. What he refrains from saying is how much he personally was looking forward to officiating at an event of such national significance.
While it’s clear, from the private correspondence I have examined, that Stanley agitated for Dickens’s burial in the abbey, the actions of Forster are harder to trace. He left fewer clues about his intentions and he destroyed all of his working notes for his monumental three volume biography of Dickens. These documents included many letters from the author. Forster used Dickens’s correspondence liberally in his account. In fact, the only source we have for most of the letters from Dickens to Forster are the passages that appear in the biography.
But as well as showing how Forster falsely claimed in his biography that the graveyards near his home were “closed”, my research also reveals how he altered the words of Stanley’s (published) funeral sermon to suit his own version of events. Forster quoted Stanley as saying that Dickens’s grave “would thenceforward be a sacred one with both the New World and the Old, as that of the representative of the literature, not of this island only, but of all who speak our English tongue”. This, however, is a mis-quotation of the sermon, in which Stanley actually said:
Many, many are the feet which have trodden and will tread the consecrated ground around that narrow grave; many, many are the hearts which both in the Old and in the New World are drawn towards it, as towards the resting-place of a dear personal friend; many are the flowers that have been strewed, many the tears shed, by the grateful affection of ‘the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and those that had none to help them’.
Stanley worked with Forster to achieve their common aim. In 1872, when Forster sent Stanley a copy of the first volume of his Life of Dickens, the Dean wrote:
You are very good to speak so warmly of any assistance I may have rendered in carrying out your wishes and the desire of the country on the occasion of the funeral. The recollection of it will always be treasured amongst the most interesting of the various experiences which I have traversed in my official life.
For the ages
My research demonstrates that the official, authorised accounts of the lives and deaths of the rich and famous are open to question and forensic investigation – even long after their histories have been written and accepted as canonical. Celebrity is a manufactured commodity, that depends for its effect on the degree to which the fan (which comes from the word “fanatic”) can be manipulated into believing a particular story about the person whom he or she adores.
In the case of Dickens, two people who had intimate involvement in preserving his reputation for posterity were not doing so for altruistic reasons: there was something in it for each of them. Stanley interred the mortal remains of Dickens in the principal shrine of British artistic greatness. This ensured that his tomb became a site of pilgrimage, where the great and the good would come to pay their respects – including the Prince of Wales, who laid a wreath on Dickens’s grave in 2012, to mark the bicentenary of his birth.
Such public commemorations of this Victorian superstar carry special meaning and mystique for his many fans. This year, on February 7 (the anniversary of his birth), Armando Iannucci (director of the new film adaptation The Personal History of David Copperfield) is scheduled give the toast to “the immortal memory” at a special dinner hosted by the Dickens Fellowship – a worldwide association of admirers. The 150th anniversary of his death will be observed at Westminster Abbey on June 8 2020.
Whether it’s the remembrance of the author’s death or his birth, these public acts symbolise how essential Dickens is to Britain’s national culture. None of this would have been possible, however, had it not been for the involvement of Dickens’s best friend and executor, John Forster. Forster organised the private funeral in Westminster Abbey in accordance with Dickens’s wishes, and ensured that his lover Ellen Ternan could discreetly attend, and that his estranged wife would not. But he is also the man who overruled the expectations of the author for a local burial. Instead, through an act of institutionally sanctioned bodysnatching, the grave in Poets’ Corner bound Dickens forever in the public mind with the ideals of national life and art and provided a fitting conclusion to Forster’s carefully considered, strategically constructed biography. It ends with these words:
Facing the grave, and on its left and right, are the monuments of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dryden, the three immortals who did most to create and settle the language to which Charles Dickens has given another undying name.
Many stories of dying are written to bring an issue or disease to public attention.
For instance, English editor and journalist Ruth Picardie’s description of terminal breast cancer, so poignantly described in Before I say Goodbye, drew attention to the impact of medical negligence, and particularly misdiagnosis, on patients and their families.
American tennis player and social activist Arthur Ashe wrote about his heart disease and subsequent diagnosis and death from AIDS in Days of Grace: A Memoir.
His autobiographical account brought public and political attention to the risks of blood transfusion (he acquired HIV from an infected blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery).
Other accounts of terminal illness lay bare how people navigate uncertainty and healthcare systems, as surgeon Paul Kalanithi did so beautifully in When Breath Becomes Air, his account of dying from lung cancer.
American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak drew people he loved as they were dying; founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, while in great pain, refused pain medication so he could be lucid enough to think clearly about his dying; and author Christopher Hitchens wrote about dying from oesophageal cancer despite increasing symptoms:
I want to stare death in the eye.
Faced with terminal cancer, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, if possible, more prolifically than before.
And Australian author Clive James found dying a mine of new material:
Research shows what dying artists have told us for centuries – creative self-expression is core to their sense of self. So, creativity has therapeutic and existential benefits for the dying and their grieving families.
Creativity provides a buffer against anxiety and negative emotions about death.
Creativity may give voice to our experiences and provide some resilience as we face disintegration. It may also provide agency (an ability to act independently and make our own choices), and a sense of normality.
French doctor Benoit Burucoa wrote art in palliative care allows people to feel physical and emotional relief from dying, and:
[…] to be looked at again and again like someone alive (without which one feels dead before having disappeared).
A way of communicating to loved ones and the public
When someone who is dying creates a work of art or writes a story, this can open up otherwise difficult conversations with people close to them.
But where these works become public, this conversation is also with those they do not know, whose only contact is through that person’s writing, poetry or art.
This public discourse is a means of living while dying, making connections with others, and ultimately, increasing the public’s “death literacy”.
Some people read narratives of dying to gain insight into this mysterious experience, and empathy for those amidst it. Some read it to rehearse their own journeys to come.
But these purpose-oriented explanations miss what is perhaps the most important and unique feature of literature – its delicate, multifaceted capacity to help us become what philosopher Martha Nussbaumdescribed as:
Not everyone, however, has the opportunity for creative self-expression at the end of life. In part, this is because increasingly we die in hospices, hospitals or nursing homes. These are often far removed from the resources, people and spaces that may inspire creative expression.
And in part it is because many people cannot communicate after a stroke or dementia diagnosis, or are delirious, so are incapable of “last words” when they die.
Perhaps most obviously, it is also because most of us are not artists, musicians, writers, poets or philosophers. We will not come up with elegant prose in our final days and weeks, and lack the skill to paint inspiring or intensely beautiful pictures.
But this does not mean we cannot tell a story, using whatever genre we wish, that captures or at least provides a glimpse of our experience of dying – our fears, goals, hopes and preferences.
[…] there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book.
Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.
Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.
Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.
Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.
Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.
But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.
Understanding the world
The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.
As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.
Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.
Emerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.
The inevitable and universal nature of death has made it a popular topic of children’s literature. While death has appeared in these stories for centuries, death in young adult novels has become much darker and more complex.
The recent controversy over Netflix’s adaptation of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which depicts the aftermath of teen suicide, shows that dealing with death in kids’ fiction can be fraught. While some defended the show’s graphic depiction of suicide, others argued it was gratuitous and dangerous.
This raises the question of whether children’s literature and young adult fiction is still a safe place to discuss death. At the recent Emerging Writer’s Festival panel, Sex, Death and YA, young adult literature was celebrated for exploring such complex themes. While there may be a trend toward darker themes in literature written for a young adult audience, there is still room for hope.
Putting death on the page
When early works of children’s literature broached the topic of death, it was usually to show how the protagonist copes in the aftermath of the death of a family member or friend. In many of these early works, depictions of death were softened for the reader, occurring outside the text. For instance, Mary’s parents in The Secret Garden (1911) die “off page”, which acts as a plot device to facilitate Mary’s arrival at Mistlethwaite Manor, where she discovers the secret garden. Charlotte’s Web (1952) softens the blow by making the characters non-human – in this case a spider.
Modern young adult novels are different. These texts not only depict young adult protagonists dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s death, but also the trauma of witnessing it. Such as in the case of The Outsiders (1967), when the 14-year-old protagonist Ponyboy is present when his best friend Johnny dies in hospital and when Dally, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, is killed by the police.
In recent years, young adult novels have featured their protagonists doing the killing. The characters in books such as Harry Potter (1997), The Hunger Games (2008) and Tomorrow When the War Began (1993), struggle not only with the inevitability of death and the pain of losing loved ones, but also with the guilt and ethical dilemma of having to kill to survive.
Life after death
There has recently been an influx of novels that present death from the perspective of the protagonist. These novels show characters who are terminally ill, presenting a rarely explored viewpoint in young adult novels – the perspective of dying. In books such as Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender (2005), Jenny Downham’s Before I Die (2007) and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (2012) the protagonist portrays the fear and pain of dying, the challenge of accepting one’s own mortality and the guilt of leaving their loved ones to cope after their death.
Other recent novels come from the perspective of someone who is already dead. They speak to the reader, and sometimes even their own friends and family, from beyond the grave, such as in Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall (2010) and, although technically not a young adult novel, in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which has been widely read by young people.
In the beginning of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why it is made clear that the protagonist, Hannah Baker, has taken her own life. As the novel continues, Hannah’s story and the reasons for her actions are disclosed through a series of tapes, 13 in total, all recorded before her death.
The Netflix series also demonstrates the shift of how death is portrayed to an adolescent audience. While Asher’s novel leaves the method of Hannah’s suicide largely undisclosed, the series, released ten years after the book, portrays the suicide in excruciating detail.
Talking about death
There are many children’s picture books, such as The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, and Harry & Hopper written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, that talk about death to help parents discuss the concept with young children, possibly for the first time. When talking to kids about loss and grief the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel recommends the use of “storybooks” to explain death, stating that, “It is important to recognise children’s feelings and speak with them honestly and directly about death and grief”.
Why is the honest and direct depiction of death in young adult novels often so controversial? Perhaps it comes from a desire to shelter young readers from topics such as war, terrorism, and human mortality – topics that young adult readers not only read about in the news and on social media, but experience. Or perhaps it is because depicting death is seen to be void of hope. But possibly the idea of hope has also shifted, away from a fairytale notion of happily ever after and towards a reality that acknowledges the existence of darkness and light.
There is little research on the possible benefits of discussing death with young people. For those who are yet to be affected by the death of a loved one, reading about it from the perspective of another young adult can offer a way of building resilience. For those readers who have experienced the death of a family member or friend, being able to read about the experiences of others can offer consolation. Death is an indisputable part of adolescent lives, and books can provide a place for them to reflect on its influence on life.
In a 2013 Monthly essay Eric Beecher warned of a looming “civic catastrophe” for Australia if the decline of newspapers continued as it had been in the preceding years. The Australian’s report on a Fairfax plan to dump print and go digital-only, as yet unimplemented but convincingly detailed in the leaked 2013 document prepared by management consultancy firm Bain & Co, suggest that such a move is, if not a certainty, highly probable in the foreseeable future.
News Corp’s only substantial competitor in the print journalism sector may be on the brink of giving up the ghost, as has long been speculated even by its natural supporters such as Beecher. If it does, hundreds more jobs will go, along with the many hundreds of experienced, skilled journalists and editors already shown the door by the company.
All of this comes in the wake of the UK Independent’s announcement last week of a move to exclusively digital publication. As with Fairfax, calamitous declines in print circulation at the Indy – a poster title for innovation and editorial independence in days long gone – have made such a move entirely rational from the financial perspective of its Russian proprietor.
Many newspapers in the US have made the transition from print to digital, in the hope of fixing the broken business models of the analogue age.
Many of us have already given up on newspapers, and won’t miss print if indeed it dies out as a mass media platform. We access our news on iPads, or mobile phones, or laptops, and find ourselves turning actual, real pages to read our journalism only in those rare – and becoming rarer all the time – situations where there is no internet access.
And by those digital means of communication and sharing we have access to more news and journalism than any previous generation ever did. I read more news, not less, because of the online revolution.
Also, I read the news from the UK, the US, indeed from wherever in the world I choose, just as easily as I could once buy the print edition of The Guardian in my old home town of Glasgow. More easily, since I don’t even have to leave the house to enter the globalised public sphere of fact-based content available to me and every other human being on the planet with access to an internet connection and a networked device.
My problem now is not that of accessing quality journalism – as many pessimists predicted it would become as a result of news industry turmoil – but how to filter and sift the vast quantity of journalism which is available to me from around the globe on an hourly and daily basis, so that I can manage the flow of useful information and make some sense of the world.
Fairfax’s newspapers may be dying, then, like those of The Independent and other companies which through bad management and poor decision-making blew the digital challenge. But news and journalism thrive as never before.
Returning to Beecher’s dire warnings of “civic catastrophe”, will we miss newspapers when they finally disappear?
Someone once cheekily speculated that, on current circulation trends, the death of newspapers would come sometime in the first quarter of 2034. Personally, I believe that print will survive as a niche medium, like vinyl records, for as long as there is a demand for the tactility of words stamped on dead trees. And for a long time yet there will be those who refuse to join the online era, or who cannot for various reasons.
And there will be content for which, for one reason or another, online dissemination is not optimal, or which does not need the internet to circulate. Print continues to expand in media markets such as India and many African countries, where digital infrastructure and online culture remain underdeveloped. Paper has its place, and will keep it for a while yet.
And as long as the resources and professional values required for what we think of as “quality” journalism make the transition to digital platforms, then we have little to fear from the death of newspapers in themselves.
It was Rupert Murdoch who declared something to the effect that “we are not in the business of printing words on dead trees”. Content is king, and newsprint is just a carrier medium, now passing into history like hot metal presses and lithographs before it. Journalistic content can be produced to just as high an editorial standard online as off, and the fetishisation of print misses the point.
The real concern about the future of Fairfax and other dysfunctional former print behemoths – as articulated by Beecher in his 2013 essay – is that in their rush to maximise profits they abandon this thing we call “quality” journalism, and the journalists required to produce it, to the detriment of the diversity and independence of Australia’s political culture.
New digital entrants such as the Guardian Australia, Daily Mail Australia and The Conversation, or local editions of Gawker and Buzzfeed, are picking up some of the slack created by an already hollowed-out Fairfax. But the domination of News Corp’s titles in the Australian news media environment can only become more pronounced if Fairfax’s decline continues to the point where its print titles disappear entirely.
The Murdoch empire has invested more, and adapted better to the digital challenge than its main competitor. It deserves credit for that. But it cannot be in the interests of Australian democracy that any private proprietor – left, right or neutral – should be so editorially dominant as News will become if Fairfax disappears as a significant news producer.
The death of Fairfax as a serious producer of journalism, should that outcome transpire, will undoubtedly leave a gap in the Australian public sphere; what we might call a “diversity deficit”. A major question for Australian civil society in the coming years will be how to fill that gap and ensure the survival of healthy media pluralism.