’Orrible Murder: Victorian Crime and Passion, by Leonard de Vries (ed.)

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Before there was Jan Bondeson’s column ‘Strange and Sensational Stories from The Illustrated Police News’ (the ‘worst newspaper in England’), which ran for five years in Fortean Times, followed by his book Strange Victoriana (2016), there was Leonard de Vries’s 1974 compilation drawn from that extremely popular penny newspaper.  Here we have a glimpse of what our Victorian forebears read when they had their feet up: an indiscriminate mix of information (of a sort) and entertainment, with the emphasis firmly on the latter, which can be seen as ancestor to today’s tabloids.

The IPN’s editors would have fully subscribed to Lord Northcliffe’s famous maxim ‘Get Me A Murder A Day!’, supplemented by ‘and a generous helping of mayhem and weirdness!’  Murder and other crimes naturally were prominent, but the paper covered a broad variety of themes: suicide, with or without accompanying murder, especially if bizarrely done, for example by self-administered guillotine; domestic abuse, of which there was unfortunately a great deal, child neglect and ill-treatment; executions and corporal punishment; accidents, particularly if involving falls; skeletons, often of people whose corpses were found in forgotten locations many years after they died; and animal cruelty, frequently arising as a result of inebriation.

Animal encounters were not all one-way, and there were examples of animals attacking humans, particularly children: one was killed by a pig, while others were victims of an eagle and a monkey, fortunately escaping injury in each case.  Stories reflected the anxieties of the age, for example women’s powerlessness in domestic arrangements, fears of lawlessness and poverty, a sense of helplessness in the face of insanity’s loss of reason, the ‘uncertainty of human life’ as one article put it, and the constant proximity of death in a world before health and safety.  The paper’s focus was primarily on England, but de Vries includes a sprinkling of foreign items.

The selection here covers only the period 1867-87 (the paper ran between 1864 and 1938), so for some reason the IPN’s extensive coverage of Jack the Ripper has been excluded.  Clearly some of the stories are far-fetched and are to be taken with a large pinch of salt, yet despite the melodramatic subject matter the journalists did have certain standards of accuracy when reporting crime.  The illustrations though often have less to do with reality than does the text (the sea monsters are particularly risible) as they generally sprang purely from the artist’s imagination.

’Orrible Murder’s short articles and news items, illustrated with the original wood engravings, are an enjoyable read despite their macabre nature.  But apart from giving the date of publication there is no further information by the compiler on the stories or the paper itself.  For information on the IPN, and further samples of its brand of Victorian sensation with commentary, the interested reader should refer to Bondeson’s book.  Alternatively one can peruse digitised issues of the original in the British Newspaper Archive.

The Dead Man’s Message: An Occult Romance, by Florence Marryat

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The Dead Man’s Message, Florence Marryat’s 1894 novella, is a treatment in fictional form of her Spiritualist beliefs.  We are introduced to Professor Henry Aldwyn, a man much pleased with his life’s work and self-centred entirely to the detriment of both his grown children by his deceased first wife, and of his young second wife to whom he has been married for two years.  His family comes well after himself in his estimation, and he makes their lives a misery with his selfishness.  His children hate him, and his wife is worn down trying to placate his domestic tyranny.

Dropping off in his comfortable armchair, the professor ‘slept, indeed’ because when he wakes he finds to his consternation he has died and is standing by the empty shell that was his earthly body.  Now he is in a position where he has to confront his past actions and account for them as he is shown how his behaviour has had profound effects on his family, especially his son Gilbert who had run away to sea after a row the day the professor passed over and is, we later learn, in a dire situation.  Because of his self-absorption, Henry is unable to progress beyond the earth sphere and is obliged to witness the lives of those he has left behind.  He is helped by an advanced spirit, John Forest, who accompanies him and shows him how his misspent life has affected his spiritual wellbeing, and emphasises that all which happens is by the will of God, part of a divine plan.  Initially angry and resentful at attitudes he considers betray a lack of respect, what Henry sees gradually fills him with remorse.

Briefly meeting his late father and first wife, Susan (the latter accompanied by two small children who had been stillborn but live and grow in the afterlife), both spirits give him a cool welcome.  Henry had refused to attend his father’s deathbed as he was in the middle of an experiment, while Susan informs him that she has been mated with a more compatible soul, and she will not let him have contact with the children because his grossness would upset them.  She is empowered in a way denied to her while on earth (it is worth bearing in mind that Marryat herself had an unhappy marriage, though she was able to divorce, twice in fact, something many women in a similar position were unable to do).  Henry, finally grasping the enormity of what he has done, with the consequence that no one wants him either here or there, desires to make amends.  That point marks the beginning of his journey of self-understanding and penance which will enable him eventually to proceed to higher levels of the afterlife.

It is not only the humans he had known who despise Henry.  He had been a biologist who experimented extensively on animals.  Marryat’s anti-vivisection message is conveyed by Henry finding his feet surrounded by the spirits of the animals he has sacrificed in pursuit of his career.  Yet he belatedly realises that in the grand scheme of things his academic achievements count for nothing – an erstwhile colleague who wants to secure Henry’s library makes it clear he does not want Henry’s own publications, that ‘rubbish’ as he terms it.  Henry’s self-esteem is dealt a considerable blow by discovering his scientific ‘friends’, while having been happy to eat his food, actually have a low opinion of his merits as a scholar.

His widow Ethel blossoms and, rather ignoring the normal Victorian proprieties which dictate an extensive period of mourning, only three months after her husband’s death resumes her engagement to her cousin Ned, terminated through a misunderstanding before she met the professor.  She is concerned that her step-daughter Maddy, not a great deal younger than herself, is going off the rails by associating with an unsuitable young man, a symptom of the tainted blood she has inherited from her father (Henry’s negative influence outweighing the more beneficial inheritance from her mother).  The young man in question is a studio photographer, and one day Maddy brings home what appears to be a spirit photograph, with a figure bending over her that Ethel believes is Susan.

This encourages Ethel and Maddy to visit Mrs Blewitt, someone Ethel had known as a child and who now lives locally.  She makes a living as a medium, despite the dangers from the law of such an occupation.  Ethel and Maddy have a sitting with Mrs Blewitt, and Maddy has a further session.  Through her they are able to communicate with Susan in a manner far clearer than is usually the case with mediums – no vague ‘I have someone whose name begins with M, or possibly N’.  As a result of this unambiguous information Maddy and Ethel are convinced of the reality of Spiritualism.  With spirit guidance assisting Maddy and Gilbert, whether conscious (via mediumship) or unconscious (with guardian spirits exerting what influence they can), it is clear the negative effects of Henry’s parenting will be overcome, though he is told that Gilbert will always bear the marks of his terrible experiences at sea for which Henry bears responsibility.  Henry himself undertakes to assist Gilbert, unseen, in his ordeal, with Susan in turn exerting her influence on Henry.  The story begins with the professor stretching his feet comfortably before a blazing fire, but while his path to redemption will be a hard one, at least he can be reassured he will not face blazing fires for eternity.

Marryat’s story has been republished by Victorian Secrets with an introduction by Greta Depledge.  This edition contains a short biographical sketch of Marryat, a chronology of her life, and an essay drawing out themes in the novella, highlighting the efforts by Spiritualists to show that their religion had sound scientific underpinnings while the science establishment poured scorn on their endeavours.  Depledge also discusses the presence of spirit photography and vivisection in the story.  Appendices provide primary sources on the debate over Spiritualism and spirit photography, plus an extract from Marryat’s There is No Death.

Deplege does not have a background in the study of Spiritualism so the sources she draws on are narrow.  Thus for her examination of Spiritualism she relies on Alfred Russel Wallace’s 1896 Miracles and Modern Spiritualism, Janet Oppenheim’s 1985 The Other World and Alex Owen’s 1989 The Darkened Room, plus extracts from Frank Podmore’s 1902 Modern Spiritualism.  Other extracts are from the Lancet, presumably because they were conveniently to hand.  For spirit photography she also utilises William Mumler’s 1875 Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography and for some reason Tom Patterson’s 1965 100 Years of Spirit Photography.  Marryat’s obvious debt to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not considered.  Even so, and while admittedly The Dead Man’s Message is a thinly-clothed sermon, it is good to see it in print.

Scarface, by Armitage Trail

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Scarface is much better known from Paul Muni’s depiction in Howard Hawks’ 1932 film and Al Pacino’s over-the-top performance in Brian De Palma’s 1983 ‘adaptation’ than the 1930 source novel by Armitage Trail (real name Maurice Coons), and with good reason: the writing is frankly terrible.  There is though an energy that despite the creakiness makes it very readable as we follow Tony Guarino’s rise from an 18-year old hustler in Chicago to ‘the greatest of all America’s notorious gang leaders’, followed by the inevitable fall.

Loosely based on Al Capone’s career, the arc is a busy one, and Trail uses his character to show how organised crime changed in the years before and after the United States’ entry into the First World War, becoming more, well, organised.  Pre-war, through a blend of intelligence, cunning, ruthlessness and audacity Tony builds a reputation after killing gang boss Al Springola for his moll Vyvyan.  Beginning his rise in a gang, he is seemingly headed for the top.

Eventually though he finds the city too hot for him.  Opportunely America has entered the war in Europe, and he decides to hide in the army for a while.  He enjoys military life, ironically finding that, officially sanctioned, he is able to use his talents for organisation and killing legitimately, and he is decorated for bravery.  After he is demobilised he learns he has been listed as dead in the newspapers, and now sporting a long scar which has radically changed his features he finds he is able to reinvent himself as Tony ‘Scarface’ Camonte and resume his career.

First though he kills Vyvyan and her new beau when, on his return, he finds them shacked up, before finding a new gang he feels has potential for career advancement.  What makes him is the opportunity provided by Prohibition, and he grabs it with both hands as he quickly climbs the gang’s ladder to be its head, displaying the same fearlessness he exhibited when facing the Germans.  Trail shows how crime developed from small-scale activity carried out by men in rough clothes and flat caps to being the province of corporations which acted like any other business enterprise, intent on maximising profit and liquidating the competition, albeit in this case physically.  More efficient business practices are accompanied by sophisticated weaponry in the form of machine guns.

As well as writing a rip-roaring, albeit artless, yarn, Trail uses the narrative to excoriate the corruption of politicians and police, including that of Tony’s own brother who rises to become a captain in the police force.  Organised crime is not merely tolerated by politicians and other supposed servants of the people, it is welcomed for the kickbacks it brings.  The problem arises when violence among rivals trying to seize each other’s territory spills over and ordinary citizens and property are threatened.  Only then does the weight of the law fall on them.  As long as their operations are kept within bounds and palms are appropriately greased, officials turn a blind eye.

Tony’s demise is inevitably caused by a dame, but the catalyst turns out to be his sister.  Tony had never told his family he survived the war as he hadn’t wanted his criminal reputation to upset them, so they believe he is dead.  He finds one of his subordinates is, as he thinks, playing around with his sister.  Shooting him, Tony learns his victim had actually married her.  He is put on trial, with his sister, who doesn’t know who he is, as a prosecution witness.

He gets off through a combination of bribery and jury intimidation, but his refusal to sanction any action against his sister before the trial, and his (rejected) offer to pay her generous compensation afterwards, arouses the suspicions of his girlfriend.  To get her revenge for what she thinks is his two-timing behaviour, not knowing of the family connection, she arranges for the police to ambush him by feeding information to both sides.  He is shot by his brother, who assumes Tony’s gun had jammed.  What he does not know is that Tony couldn’t pull the trigger against his own brother, and Scarface takes the secret of his real identity to the grave.

The Cowslip and The Daisy, by Elizabeth Turner

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Pryor Publications’s facsimile edition of Mrs Elizabeth Turner’s 1811 compilation of tales The Cowslip, or, More cautionary stories in verse is headed by a warning from the publisher that ‘The reader needs to keep in mind the different attitude in the disciplining of children at the time this book was first published’.  It is probably the whippings they have in mind.

Here are 30 short stories, in verse, providing pearls of parental wisdom and warning the young reader to be obedient, studious, abstemious, free from envy and well behaved, particularly with siblings, and naturally demonstrate due filial piety – or be punished severely.  Even crying children are best dealt with by use of the rod.  On the other hand, confessions of faults may be met with by forgiveness.

If this seems a hard life for a child, there is the further example of the girl whose mother ‘taught her to bear what’s in vain to regret’.  Yet there are lessons today’s children could learn to their own advantage and that of society, such as honour (two lads break a pane of glass with a ball, own up and offer to pay), the unattractiveness of greed, and the danger of playing with sharp knives.

The Cowslip was a companion volume ‘By the author of that much-admired little work, entitled the DAISY’ (1807), and cunningly verse 28 advertises the earlier book.  Little Eugene thinks a daisy is only a flower, but he is enlightened by his father:

You are right, said papa, with a smile, but you’ll find
The Daisy a book, my boy, too,
Containing short tales for the juvenile mind,
And adapted for children like you.

Pryor have not republished The Daisy, or, Cautionary stories in verse, adapted to the ideas of children from four to eight years old, but it can be found in the Internet Archive.  It follows the same format as The Cowslip, with attractive illustrations accompanying verses of an improving kind, displaying middle-class mores to its young readers in a twin-pronged attack showing the benefits of good behaviour and kindness to others while warning of the dangers, or at least disadvantages, of naughtiness.

The values promoted may seem unreasonably restrictive to today’s child (unfortunately), and they do not chime in other ways: it is startling to read about Jacky drowning a cat and being told off for lying about it rather than for animal cruelty, and to learn the method used – string and a brick – which must have come in handy for many a young reader with a yen for experimentation.

The Internet Archive copy of The Daisy is a late Victorian reprint which was issued along with The Cowslip in a series of ‘Illustrated Shilling Series of Forgotten Children’s Books (the books rather than the children), published in 1899-1900.  Even by the end of the nineteenth century the publishers feel that ‘the text, always amusing, is redolent of earlier days’.

In earlier decades The Cowslip was extremely popular, perhaps with parents more than their offspring, as it went through a large number of editions.  The Internet Archive has a copy of the nineteenth edition, published in about 1843, containing the same text but different pictures, updated and of better quality than the woodcuts in the 1811 edition.

The Daisy it would seem was just as popular, and the publisher of the Illustrated Shilling Series notes that it was reprinted up to mid-century.  The paragraph in the same volume advertising the companion reprint of The Cowslip states that Mrs Turner also wrote The Crocus, The Pink and Short Poems, ‘but none had the charm or vogue of The Daisy and The Cowslip’.

Children’s books in good condition rare because of the heavy use they suffered at the hands of their owners, so it is good to see copies preserved and readily available to the modern reader who may benefit from lessons, or some of them at least, designed for their Georgian forebears.

The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot

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George Eliot’s novel The Mill on the Floss was first published by Blackwood and Sons in 1860.  It deals with the fortunes of the Tulliver family, occupants of Dorlcote Mill on the river Floss, exploring the joys and pains of family relationships as it examines complex and intertwined themes of loyalty, forgiveness, class, and social acceptance versus individual self-determination in matters of the heart.  Primarily the novel charts Maggie Tulliver’s difficult relationship with her brother Tom, the complications created by the family’s misfortunes, and the romantic triangle created by Maggie’s relationships with Philip Wakem – detested by Tom through no fault of his own – and Stephen Guest, smooth but without Philip’s depth of character.

The first half chronicles Tom and Maggie’s childhood, Tom’s schooling, where Philip is a fellow pupil, and the loss of the mill and bankruptcy through unwise legal actions by Mr Tulliver.  The mill is bought by Philip’s father, whom Mr Tulliver and Tom unjustly hold responsible for their misfortunes.  The second half revolves around Maggie, her two suitors Philip and Stephen, the latter son of Tom’s later employer.  Philip and Maggie had formed a deep attachment that is constrained by family circumstances, notably Tom’s vehement opposition to the relationship which consequently has to be conducted in secret.  Stephen has an understanding with Maggie’s cousin, Lucy Deane, a good-natured but not deep individual, whose voice is a ‘pretty treble, like the low conversational notes of little birds’.  Stephen is attracted to Maggie, who is torn between reciprocating his feelings and her loyalty to both Lucy and Philip.  Stephen and Maggie commit a foolish act that, while she is blameless, compromises Maggie’s reputation in the eyes of society, but rather than leaving the area she braves the social opprobrium, having nothing of which to be ashamed.

Maggie has an impulsive streak she often regrets, as indicated by the moment when as a child she cuts her hair, and she struggles between sense and sensibility. On several occasions she is referred to as dark-skinned, signifying a wild, uncivilised streak that will run free from the civilising constraints of society.  Her introspection is contrasted with Tom’s lack of a meaningful interior life, and each is shown to have its strengths and weaknesses.  Tom, more pride and prejudice, has little imagination, but he is intensely practical and digs the family out of its financial hole.  Maggie is the more intelligent sibling, but Tom is given the education that would have suited her much more – a drawback of being female in a patriarchal society.

Eliot highlights the tragedy of able bright girls not being give a decent education because they are not seen as a good investment, while money is wasted on Tom’s when he is unable to take full advantage of it because of his limited intellectual horizons, made to undertake it simply because of his father’s snobbery.  Having to fall on her own resources, Maggie is unable to balance her emotional needs with her feelings of obligation to others, reconciling passion and duty only by suppressing the former.  She is torn between head and heart and eventually sacrifices her own happiness with Philip for the good opinion of her brother, a pointless sacrifice because Tom’s estimation of her is always less than hers of him; and it revolves around Philip, who had no responsibility in the ruin of their father, whose downfall was all his own doing.

Maggie, unable to fulfil her desires and under the influence of Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, denies herself earthly pleasures in her effort to maintain a family harmony that only operates at her expense.  She sees her happiness and that of those around her as mutually exclusive, and her own only attainable by the ‘sacrifice’ of others.  Eliot subtly points out the baleful influence of this book on Maggie, particularly its advice to resist desire and submit humbly; her tragedy is that she willingly constrains her imagination under the book’s influence, thereby cutting off the best in herself.  However, her fear of alienating those she loves by pursuing her own desires is bogus and ultimately masochistic because the high-handed views espoused by Tom – blaming the son for perceived injustice meted by the father – are unfair, but she does not consider them unworthy to be taken seriously.  She refuses to sanction her own self-determination because others would ‘suffer’, ignoring that any suffering would be caused by their own rigidity.  The underlying irony propelling the second half of the novel is that if Maggie had ignored Tom and married Philip, she would not have acted on her attraction to Stephen and would have prevented much pain to herself and others, particularly the blameless Lucy.

However, individuals are not free agents but are constrained by the actions of others, above all family, and here the respective families of Tom and Maggie’s parents are contrasted.  Though financially ruined, Mr Tulliver will not call in a loan from his brother-in-law because of loyalty to his sister.  By contrast, Mrs Tulliver’s married sisters, from unsentimental Dodson stock and considering themselves a cut above the Tullivers, are fiscally prudent but cold-hearted and, while talking positively about family, believe relatives should not expect unearned generosity.  For them, loans are always with interest, and even when Mrs Tulliver is complaining about her effects being sold at auction, nobody offers to buy them back for her.  Mrs Tulliver’s distress at the loss of her possessions through her husband’s imprudent actions in causing his bankruptcy is profound, and she is always made to know her reduced circumstances by her sisters.  Yet the actions of even so ineffectual a person can have far-reaching consequences, as she is the cause of Wakem buying the mill.  Unintentionally, by going to see him and inadvertently giving him the idea, she creates the situation whereby, although she had acted with the best of intentions, her husband is reduced to the position of Wakem’s manager.

Eliot’s major interest is in the maturation of her two main characters; most consideration, excessive one might say and acknowledged to be a structural fault by Eliot herself, is given to Maggie and Tom’s childhood and the ways they cope with adversity.  This leisurely treatment is at the expense of the novel’s rushed, though gripping, ending.  The plot, like the river in flood, accelerates, the water that was so much a part of their lives claims them, Maggie’s sorrows are finally washed away, and she finds the solace of death in the everlasting company of the person she loved above all others.  In the ebb and flow of human actions, much is contingent.  There is a contrast in the novel between the permanence of the river and the ephemerality of the individuals who live on it, but it is a portrait of a changing world, water-driven mills superseded by industrial production.  The Dodsons, for all their complacent satisfaction with their lives, are witnessing the passing of an age.

In her introduction to the 1979 Penguin edition, A S Byatt points out that George Eliot herself had a brother whom she idolised, but who did not reciprocate her affection: when she lived with the married G H Lewes her brother refused to see her, and when she finally married after Lewes’s death he merely sent a polite note of congratulation.  Eliot is working through in fiction her distress at this exclusion, but perhaps also perpetrating a kind of revenge in the depiction of Tom’s unreasonable rigidity.  By spending so long on describing Tom and Maggie’s childhood, Eliot is able to show clearly how Maggie’s fantasy life of sibling love damages her later life by robbing her of her sense of independence in the face of society’s constraints – ones Eliot herself ignored in her own life.

Books on the Terracotta Warriors

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The Terracotta Warriors, by Jane Portal, London: The British Museum Press, 2007.

The Subterranean Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang: The Eighth Wonder of the World, by Wu Xiacong, Beijing: China Travel and Tourism Press, 2005.

The First Emperor’s Warriors, by Arthur Cotterell, London: The Emperor’s Warriors Exhibition Ltd., 1987.


The discovery in 1974 of the amazing terracotta army of Qin Shi Huang, unifier of China in 221 BC and its first emperor, has generated a sizeable literature.  Finds were made at the foot of Mount Li, at Xian in Shaanxi province, by peasants digging a well, and subsequent excavations have unearthed about 8,000 life-sized figures buried near the emperor’s mausoleum, ready for over two thousand years to do battle in the afterlife on his behalf.  A museum dedicated to the warriors opened in 1979, though the complex is still being excavated.  Below are details of several books dealing with the terracotta army and other features of Qin Shi Huang’s astonishing project.  While providing information in greater or lesser detail, what unites them is the photographs of these iconic objects, and they are essentially photography books with supporting text.


The Terracotta Warriors, by Jane Portal

Jane Portal’s 2007 book was published by the British Museum Press to tie in the with the museum’s 2007-8 exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army.  She begins by briefly discussing the historical background of the period and the emperor’s life.  After conquering and unifying the provinces of China he built the first Great Wall, though not the one which exists today, and inaugurated a road-building programme to help with unification of his extensive domain.  Construction of the tomb complex had begun as soon as he became king of Qin state in 246 BC but plans expanded in scope once he became emperor.  The work was unfinished when he died in 210 BC.

Portal discusses the finding of the pits, of which there was no previous record, although bits of pottery had been dug up by farmers for many years.  As the complex is reckoned to cover some 50 sq. km. and the figures were probably made in secret, the fact that knowledge of the army was lost is not as surprising as it sounds.  The pits containing the warriors are located to the east of the tomb itself, in which direction the conquered states lay, as if they were prepared as a symbolic form of defence for the emperor.  The figures were not randomly assigned:  pit 1 housed the main army, about 6,000 figures; pit 2 cavalry and war chariots as well as infantry; pit 3 was the command post with senior officers; a fourth pit was empty, presumably because of the emperor’s death.

The superbly modelled figures were painted, and though much of this colouring was lost on exposure to the air after excavation, enough remains to provide a sense of how they would have originally looked.  They were formed by mass production with individual details supplied afterwards by hand, allowing great variety of the basic forms.  Originally they carried real weapons, but many were looted and burned in the disorder following the emperor’s death, an act which resulted in a great deal of damage to the figures.

Portal also covers excavations in other areas of the site, including the finding of human skeletons, some with severed limbs suggesting sacrifice, bronze non-military chariots and horses, and hundreds of sets of armour made from limestone.  A pit with figures of bureaucrats was later discovered, as were grooms acrobats and strongmen, all designed to serve the emperor’s needs in the afterlife.  Musicians accompanied by water birds were possibly a double act to entertain the court, and a bronze crane is shown.  The quality of the warriors and other figures is such that they provide a wealth of details about life at the time.  The tomb itself has not yet been excavated but judging by a description written a century after it was built one suspects that it will outdo the rest in extravagance.

Following the introduction is a set of attractive photographs of some of the figures, with close-ups of interesting details.  They were taken against a black background, apart from a few of them in situ in the pits.  Accompanied by paragraph-length captions, they illustrate the different types, from generals (bigger than the other soldiers), archers, cavalry and charioteers, horses – chariot and cavalry – and of course infantrymen.  One of the curious sets of limestone armour is shown, impractical in real warfare and therefore probably designed to represent armour in the afterlife.

The photographs by John Williams and Saul Peckham are elegant but the text is too general for any other than a casual reader.  While the book makes a useful introduction to these remarkable products, more information on the social and particularly economic context which enabled such large-scale enterprise to be undertaken, and what happened after Qin Shi Huang’s death, would have been useful.


The Subterranean Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang: The Eighth Wonder of the World, by Wu Xiacong

The Terracotta army is sometimes referred to as the ‘Eighth wonder of the ancient world’, which is fine, but the tag ‘The eighth wonder of the world’, apparently said by French premier Jacques Chirac in 1978, has already been taken – by King Kong.  Portal’s book is small format, whereas these large pages display Guo Youmin’s photographs to more spectacular effect.  Written by Wu Xiacong and published in 2005 by the China Travel and Tourism Press (so officially sanctioned), it also has much more information, on Qin Shi Huang’s life, the politics of the period in which he lived (though the diplomatic and military campaigns leading to unification, which happened over a very short period, are skated over), the figures and the culture which produced them.  The dynasty fell quickly after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and the reasons for the upheavals, mentioned only in passing by Portal, are discussed in greater depth.  Chief among these were his punitive laws and the liberal use of corvée labour in his schemes, and the incompetence of the new administration.

The well digging is sketched in, and the initial excavations leading to the realisation that here was a dig of international importance; it is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  There is a description of how the imperial complex would have looked: it comprises some 400 pits and tombs and possibly 700,000 labourers were engaged in its construction.  Some 50,00 artefacts had been found at the time of writing, including a large number of surviving bronze weapons.  There was already a tradition of terracotta sculpture in China on which the artisans engaged at Xian could build and Wu describes the various methods used to create the enormous variety of faces.  As remarkable as the terracotta objects are en masse, equally magnificent are two chariots, drivers and horses in bronze.  Combined, the variety of the figures and their accoutrements were intended to form a miniature replica of the empire.  As the emphasis on war suggests, this was an unsettled time.  Wu notes that findings at the site have assisted in a fuller understanding of texts on warfare written at the time, and have modified received opinion about how war was waged.

The effect this reminder of China’s distant past has had on the modern state is readily apparent.  As founder of a ‘unified, multi-nationality empire under a central government’, one can readily understand why his image is popular with the Chinese government today, and the terracotta army provides more functions than expressions of archaeological interest and national prestige.  According to Wu, Qin Shi Huang is to the Chinese what Napoleon is to the French, one suspects with all the ambivalence that accolade entails.

Where the British Museum book concentrated largely on studio photographs of individual figures against a black background, those in The Subterranean Army are mostly taken in the pits, mixing wider shots with close-ups of the figures, as well as horses and chariots, and details of faces and dress.  There are record shots of the site before excavation began and of the work itself, showing just what bad shape the figures were in, and what a significant achievement the restoration has been.  Details of the three main pits and of the figures are accompanied by a large selection of images, and plans demonstrating how the various types of personnel were laid out.  Archers photographed just after excavation are (literally) vivid reminders of how brightly coloured and realistic the models originally were.  And there are photographs of the exhibition halls built to accommodate the figures in their trenches, a far cry from a rural landscape in which a few farmers got together to dig a well.


The First Emperor’s Warriors, by Arthur Cotterell

Arthur Cotterell’s book was published in 1987 by the Emperor’s Warriors Exhibition Ltd and was also produced with the assistance of the Chinese authorities, who provided the images.  As it appeared earlier than the other books, there is less information on the terracotta army itself (the pits were still being restored) but it is still informative and heavily illustrated.  However, some of the pictures taken in the pits have an unattractive cast.

The setting of the cultural context within which the emperor lived is outlined, though Cotterell includes the (erroneous) cliché that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made artefact that can be seen from space.  He refers to ancestor worship and China’s geographical isolation as factors in the construction of the emperor’s image as the greatest ruler who had ever lived.  A description of the terracotta army is linked to an account of the military history of the period and how the Qin operated in battle.

There is much more about the complicated and brutal events which brought the Qin dynasty to power, and about the emperor and the character of his reign, than there is in the other two books.  Cotterell highlights his superstitious character and obsession with immortality, his paranoia caused by assassination attempts, but above all his authoritarianism which unified the country and enabled the building of the tomb complex but indirectly led to the fall of the dynasty after a mere 15 years, to be replaced by that of the Han.


There is one curiosity of possibly Fortean significance in the story of Qin Shi Huang: Portal quotes Han-dynasty commentator Sima Qian as saying, a hundred years later, that in the mausoleum, ‘The candles were made of whale oil to ensure their burning for the longest possible time.’  Similarly, Cotterell quotes the same passage, and concludes ‘Lamps using whale oil were installed to burn for a long time.’  Wu also quotes this passage, with one critical difference.  He says ‘Candles made from the fat of mermaids were lighted to burn forever.’  Two key questions arise from this startling fact: were mermaids caught by the ancient Chinese solely for their oil, or was it extracted as a by-product; and how did Portal and Cotterell both manage such a significant mistranslation?

Love Lies Bleeding, by Edmund Crispin

Love Lies Bleeding cvr

Where detective novels often start off with a single murder, then during the investigation there is another, Edmund Crispin’s 1948 effort begins slowly before producing two murders the same night, one of a man named Love, with a third, and nearly a couple more, later on.  The setting is Castrevenford School, a traditional establishment near Warwick, and the unfortunate victims were both teachers.  Fortunately for justice, Oxford professor of English and amateur sleuth Gervase Fen has been invited to the school’s speech day to hand out prizes so is on hand when the two bodies are discovered the night before.  Additionally a cupboard in the chemistry lab has been broken into and poison stolen, and a pupil at the nearby girls’ school has disappeared after behaving oddly.  Fen noses around, uses his astonishing intuition and powers of deduction, and discovers that the events are related to the finding of a lost Shakespeare play, Love’s Labour’s Won, and some letters possibly by the Bard himself.

The presiding police officer, superintendent Stagge, is out of his depth and grateful to have such a sharp mind as Fen’s to help.  Stagge is respectful towards Fen and remarkably tolerant of his habit of withholding key information, which at one point puts Fen and a girl in danger of their lives, saved only by the heroic efforts of the elderly bloodhound brought along to find her.  Naturally those he interviews are all happy to help, instead of telling him to sling his hook.  It would be easy to categorise this as a ‘cosy’, but there is a harder edge.  One of the corpses is found with a bullet hole through his eye, the bullet lodged (improbably as he was shot from close range) within his skull.  The scene where Gervaise is assisting the injured schoolgirl while being stalked by an assassin generates a real sense of tension.

The plot is intricate, but the lengthy explanation at the end is laborious and not particularly easy to follow, as if Crispin is in thrall to his own ingenuity and must milk it completely for the reader’s benefit.  He may have been aware of this himself.  At one point he breaks the fourth wall when a young admirer tells him she has followed all his cases.  ‘“Ha!” Fen exclaimed, much pleased.  “That’s more than Crispin’s readers manage to do!”’  Towards the end of the book Fen is determined to explain the plot of a detective novel he is writing and the headmaster counters by saying that the events he has just finished investigating – and about which the reader has just finished reading – would make a more suitable novel, ‘“Simenonish, with lots of psychology, to please the high-brow critics…””  Fen is dismissive, saying ‘“no one could possibly make a detective story out of them”’; apart from Edmund Crispin of course, though Fen is a long way from Maigret.  Still, Crispin is good at delineating character, able to sketch his supporting cast deftly while occasionally straying towards affectionate caricature.

Also most un-Simenonish is the humour.  At times the book is very funny, particularly a farcical car chase in which Fen desperately tries to stop the murderer as he careens up and down a country road in his Hispano-Suiza doggedly pursued by Stagge and the headmaster.  Fen and his companions repeatedly push Fen’s car across the road but succeed only in holding up Stagge, while the latter becomes increasingly frenzied at the delays.  One scene entails the destruction of a bible to leave a paper trail through darkening woods, and progress is measured by where they have reached in its various books; anybody with strong religious beliefs is going to cringe, which may have been Crispin’s mischievous intent.

Crispin is spot-on in writing about school speech days.  As a parent who has attended such proceedings at an independent school I find his characterisation of uncomfortable parents, and boys terrified their parents will embarrass them, is accurate.  It is entirely plausible that a headmaster would consider murders on the premises to be an utter bore, detracting from the smooth running of the establishment and creating the unpleasant possibility that parents might want to remove their offspring.  Crispin seems to be settling some scores against the British educational establishment.

While the perpetrators are eventually unmasked, sadly the play is lost in a fire, though on the evidence of the fragment saved it was terrible.  The writing might be by Shakespeare, but as Crispin hints, there is much scope for controversy among the academic community.  Meanwhile Stagge colludes in larceny by handing Fen a small miniature of a young man, perhaps Shakespeare himself, which had been found with the manuscript, on the grounds that Fen is a more worthy recipient than a distant relative of the deceased finder.  How Fen would be able to explain the provenance of such a valuable object later is a mystery in itself, and at a stroke the link with Shakespeare has been severed which must cast doubt on Fen’s scholarly credentials.

The writing is erudite and elegant, with a nice line in metaphor; in this ordered hierarchical world Fen is the lovechild of Margery Allingham and P G Wodehouse.  Crispin takes the reader on a nostalgic trip to a time when it was entirely acceptable for a combined cadet force to keep a .38 gun, live ammunition and a silencer in an unlocked cupboard in a hut, guarded solely by an elderly ex-soldier with a severe stomach complaint, without so much as a murmur of criticism from the local constabulary.  What times they were.

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