PETER ACKROYD – THE CASEBOOK OF VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN

frankenstein

This book has sat on my shelves waiting to be read for an absolute age. I think I may have simply forgotten I had it, seeing as most of my bookshelves are double-stacked at best. It’s certainly not the kind of book – or author – I would usually wilfully ignore. On the other hand, it may have been the fact that he was rewriting – and taking a few liberties with – one of my absolute favourite books, which I know so well I could probably recite chunks of it in my sleep. In German. In verse. But this is Peter Ackroyd, an author I normally admire greatly. Surely I should have more faith and trust in his ability to tell a good story?

The first and most fundamental change that Ackroyd makes is to move the bulk of the action to London, although there are forays into continental Europe – in particular the Villa Diodati, and we all know what happened there. His interweaving of fact (there are more Romantic poets in this story than you can shake a stick at) and fiction is both very plausible and very well done. You could almost believe that Frankenstein not only existed, but he gave Mary Shelley the idea for her breakthrough novel.

However, it is the Creature about whom Ackroyd has been at his most mischievous. Rather than being a patchwork of corpses, it is one newly dead poet whom Victor reanimates using what was then cutting edge and revolutionary scientific theories and methods – not to mention relying on some very unscrupulous resurrection men. To say it’s believable is an understatement. You can smell the frying flesh. I somehow prefer this version to poor Igor dropping the intended brain and swapping it for that of a convict.

There are echoes of the original story which Ackroyd uses without changing very much and these fit in beautifully to an otherwise completely different tale. For example, the Creature asking for a mate and Victor’s adamant refusal could have been lifted from the original 1818 text. The ending, however, is totally different and well worth the wait.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is this – why retell an already popular story? Ackroyd’s fiction already has a very distinctive voice and eclectic subject matter, so I find this choice unusual for him. It seems to be a precursor to the recent trend for bestselling authors to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays. Pointless, but I suppose it’s an income.

I can’t not recommend this book. It’s a great story well told and, if you like Shelley’s original novel (which I do) you’ll find a lot to enjoy here. However, it is ultimately not the same story and any further comparisons are unfair to both books. And now, I want Peter Ackroyd to rewrite my other favourite book, Dracula, so I can have a matching pair of monsters.

Conan Doyle – Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle

“I suppose that I am commuting a felony. but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life.”

Originally, I was going to write about the title – I mean, unless you know a fair bit about gemstones, you may be puzzled as to what a blue carbuncle really is. Let me immediately put you out of your misery – it’s a sapphire cut en cabochon and looks something like this:

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No, the thing that has really struck me about this Sherlock Holmes story – from the original collection, the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – is actually just how revolutionary and prescient Holmes is in not handing the villain over to the police. He clearly has an opinion that the role of prisons play and it seems has rather a low opinion of them. Whether or not he is right is a debate that still rages amongst criminologists and penal theorists today, but at the end of the nineteenth century, such opinion was well nigh seditious.

Most prisons are large, cold, unforgiving places, frequently overfilled and understaffed and where – to all intents and purposes – the friends one makes inside depend on how well you fare. It is often said that prisons make criminals; I don’t know if this is true, I haven’t looked at the statistics recently. It is also possible that many of the people who are currently in prison probably shouldn’t be there – although equally and likewise, there are a few people not in prison who probably should be.

In sitting in judgment, Holmes has stated that James Ryder ought not go to prison; the fact that his crime has been discovered by Holmes, and that he has lost both the gem and a good Christmas goose has shown that his crime did not pay, is enough to set him on the straight and narrow for life. But there was another criminal in the mix who was forgotten – Lady Morcar’s made was Ryder’s accomplice, as Holmes states earlier in the story, but nothing is said about her fate. Will she make a second attempt to steal her mistress’s jewels, and will she be more successful without the simpering twit that she ended up with in this adventure?

We are not told, and I think the story loses nothing by this. However, I look forward to the sequel where the emerald bracelet disappears and is found in with the Christmas sprouts.

PROPERTY IS NOT THEFT, IT’S FRAUD

Being a bit of an old anarchist at heart, this has really jolted me – and quite forcefully reminded me of why I thought reading a couple of law books might actually prove interesting. It has, however, put paid to my old joke about why anarchists only drink herbal tea, which may not be a bad thing either.

Let’s explore this premise – found in a textbook on land law – in a bit more detail.

The definition of theft according to Section 1 of the Theft Act 1968 is “the appropriation of property belonging to another with the intent to permanently deprive the owner of it”. It’s quite exact and also requires a specific mental element – one must intend to permanently deprive. To intend to temporarily deprive is borrowing, to intend not to deprive is “oh sorry, I had no idea it was yours”. Simples, yes?

Now, Section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006 is a bit more complicated as it’s in a few parts but for the purpose of this exercise, we can state that a person commits fraud if they dishonestly make a false representation and intend to make a gain for himself or to cause loss for another. It’s fairly specific, but there’s plenty of room to manoeuvre in terms of what constitutes a false representation, what constitutes a gain or a loss and so on. There are few things that lawyers like more than vague wording in a statute.

Right, so let’s now apply these definitions to property. For property to be theft, ownership of anything must include an intention to deprive everyone else of that object – be it land, a car, a cup of herbal tea – permanently. The anarchists seem to have the right idea, but I think the slogan is wrong. Property itself is not theft, but non-communal ownership may be – if property was owned in common, nobody could be permanently deprived of it, and so theft could not be committed. On the other hand, it’s not such a catchy slogan.

So why – according to my land law textbook – would property be fraud?

As an example, let’s say I own my house. That statement gives the impression that I am lady and mistress of all I survey and I can do what I like with it as an absolute right, but that’s simply not the case. I am subject to planning laws, building regulations, rights of way, access and light and if I have a mortgage, the bank may want a say in things as well. It all erodes the concept that I “own” my property. It’s a misrepresentation. It would only be fraud, though, if that misrepresentation was knowingly made with the intention to cause loss to another or for me to gain at their expense. This, I think, is where the premise falls down. Who gains? Certainly not the owner of the property. In which case – assuming we hold that the property owner has made a loss because they do not “own” their house – who has made the representation that they do? I cannot see how this works, at an individual or a social level.

There is a way to cut through this particular Gordian knot, and that is to say that any form of ownership which makes a profit from another is morally questionable – this would give justification to penalising unscrupulous landlords and people who have more than one home. Let’s face it, you can only live in one at a time, can’t you? I doubt this will satisfy the anarchists though. Perhaps they should stick with the old slogan after all. It’s definitely got a ring to it.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

I sorted out some of my bookshelves a while ago and was mortified to discover that for reasons best known to myself, I’ve got four copies of Dracula. One of them looks like this:

dracula-old

I’ve got very fond memories of this particular book. It’s the first one I remember buying myself and is the copy I think I have read most often. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember if there are any differences between this edition and any of the others (I expect the Penguin Classics edition has more extensive footnotes and addenda) but if pushed, this would be the copy I keep.

I like the bold cover design, the dramatic colours and the typography; I’m less keen on the fact that it looks like it’s travelled halfway round the world with me, but since it has I suppose that’s what I should expect. The story itself is exactly the same as it is in every other edition, but this was my first and it’s very special to me.

Although that might change if I ever get my hands on a signed first edition…

A NOTABLE WOMAN: THE DIARIES OF JEAN LUCEY PRATT

Jean Pratt isn’t anybody famous. She isn’t a film star, a writer or blockbusters or even married to a wealthy man. Quite the opposite in fact – a spinster, she ran a bookshop near Beaconsfield and kept cats. She also kept a diary, pretty regularly, from 1928 until her death in the late 1970s. As a document of social history, it’s a pretty fascinating read, and fortunately for me, fairly easy and quick to get through.

Jean herself, however, is very much the product of a forgotten era. Born into privileged middle class (her father was a successful architect), she was privately educated and went to university to study architecture, but didn’t fulfil her promise. The deaths of her father and maternal uncle ensured that she had a sufficient independent income allowing Jean to drift from daydream to daydream. It took the realities of the Second World War to force her into the workplace – which only served to demonstrate how detached she was from the real world. She was bright, she was educated, but didn’t have a shred of common sense.

She calls these her “romantic journals” and she certainly seems to lurch from imagined love affair to imagined love affair. In a girl of fourteen it would all be faintly amusing – and probably the stuff of a thousand Mills & Boons – but given that Jean continues this line through her thirties and forties, it quickly becomes embarrassing. She doesn’t seem to realise that she increasingly resembles a desperate middle aged woman. This is the main reason the book had such mixed reviews – readers seemed to love the social history but tended to find Jean a silly, conceited old woman with no idea of how people lived outside her cloistered little bubble.

Unfortunately, for a significant proportion of the population at that time, life was very much like that – the middle class seemed completely unaware of how the working classes lived, and the upper classes were an echelon only to be fantasised and gossiped about. Royalty were another world entirely. But they were the ones who had the leisure to write the letters and journals that social historians rely on – so no wonder it’s all a bit skewed.

Am I pleased I’ve read this book? I am, actually. It’s been an easy, enjoyable read on the train home from work. Could it have been a bit shorter? Probably, but it is only one sixth of Jean’s total output so perhaps I ought to feel grateful it’s the length it is. Would I recommend it? Probably no, even though I already know who I’m going to pass it on to. I can’t see many people reaching the end of it without wanting to throttle our not so humble narrator, to be honest.