English and Drama blog

On literature and theatre collections from the 16th century to the present day

23 July 2012

A monstrous creature of the beetle tribe...


A horrific shape-shifting Egyptian Beetle; blackmail; mesmeric powers; blurred gender boundaries;  weapons of mass destruction; the challenge of the New Woman; a gentleman detective; and a train crash…

One of the great joys of curating Writing Britain has been the discovery and rediscovery of books either long forgotten, or never previously encountered.

And one of the strangest – and by far the most enjoyable - of these has been Richard Marsh’s The Beetle.
As the list above suggests, the book is one of the strangest to feature in our exhibition; and when it comes to a check-list of fin de siècle fears, The Beetle really does have it all.

In the novel, Robert Holt is a clerk who discovers the awful realities of being ‘out of a situation’- a risk that lurks close to the surface of the precarious existence of the many other ‘clerk’ texts that we feature in Writing Britain (from the foolish Mr Pooter, to the honourable – if put-upon- Robert Thorne in Shan Bullock’s eponymous novel).

Losing even the meagre comforts of his class, Holt is transformed into a ‘penniless, homeless tramp’. Ejected from a doss-house, he heads towards the west London suburbs where endlessly repeated rows of housing herald disorientating effects. In one anonymous villa, Holt discovers the horrific shape-shifting Egyptian Beetle, who penetrates the suburban security of the English middle classes with mesmeric powers. The Beetle represents the threat of the foreign ‘other’. The independent Miss Lindon, who attempts to overcome the creature, personifies the challenge of the New Woman for late Victorian gender relations.

The Beetle was first published in volume form in 1897, the same year as another Gothic horror novel featured in Writing Britain: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As Minna Vuohelainen shows, reviewers praised The Beetle over Stoker’s (now) more famous work (‘Mr. Bram Stoker’s effort of the imagination was not easy to beat, but Mr. Marsh has, so to speak, out-Heroded Herod’), and for many years, The Beetle outsold Stoker’s classic.

Although neglected for many years since, The Beetle is reappearing on Undergraduate syllabi as a new generation of lecturers discovers the work, and succumbs to its mesmeric powers. The Beetle has been republished in recent years, and is available as part of the British Library’s digitized 19th Century books. Last Friday, Dr Victoria Margree of the University of Brighton organized a one day symposium on Marsh’s oeuvre- which is also, slowly, coming back into print. For a full check list of Marsh’s works, see the extremely helpful Research guide prepared by Minna Vuohelainen; and if you only read one tale of shape-shifting, gender-bending, fin de siècle Gothic horror this summer…make sure it’s The Beetle.


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