My current interest is the supernatural and fantastic literature of the mid-nineteenth century and especially that which bears some relation to the Crimean War. The Victorian highnoon of the 1850's tolerated no long shadows and, with its wartime government brought down largely by the bad press it received from The Times, the English establisment could not wait to forget the conflict. Of course, novelists are not always of the establishment.

However, it had not been a novelists' war principally because it had been such a journalistically sensational one. There is no recognisable body of Crimean literature as there would be for the Great War to come (despite the Crimea being the first field of modern, mechanised and entrenched warfare). No body perhaps, but there are perceptible strands of a new sensibility in some of the marginal literature of the time. It sometimes manifests itself as extreme alienation, sometimes as an impassioned reclaiming of the place of individual agency and perception in the face of technology and implacaple bureaucracy as in those supernatural stories of Ellen Wood, Dinah Mulock Craik and Mary Elizabeth Braddon written during or immediately following the conflict.

Of especial interest to me is the author of a series of dialogues between an urban recluse and his skeleton-in-the-cupboard called George Whyte-Melville's 'Bones and I' or, The Skeleton at Home. It is a haunted text in many ways but whilst psychoanalytic criticism would claim that all texts are in some way haunted by repressed memory, desire and fear, 'Bones and I' stands out as a self-conscious, faltering excursion into a traumatised mind. It invents for itself a language of metaphor to describe the interior world it discovers. It is writing as exorcism but an exorcism that is doomed by the sheer weight of ghosts who answer the summons.

George Whyte-Melville had been a combatant in the war and went on to contribute to a much overlooked thread of English fiction, the fox-hunting novel (o which Trollope also contributed); an obsessively vital fictional world, at once conservative and democratic, withdrawn and gregarious and, above all, mistrustful of the city.

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Last modified 26 May 2006