Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter

Spoilers ahead!

The ITV production Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, screened on 27 December, turned out to be about as good as I thought it would from the pre-publicity: the acting was generally fine and the locations and costumes were nice.  The weaknesses were in the concept and the script.  The continuity announcer seemed a little excessive when he proclaimed theatrically that it concerned the man who ‘went by the name of Harry Price, Ghost Hunter’, but he set the tone for what followed.  Initially shown conducting a fake séance, Harry mends his ways when a troubled young soldier commits suicide in front of him on his doorstep.   He is later asked to look into a disturbing case: Grace, the wife of up and coming Liberal MP Edward Goodwin, had been found wandering naked in public and is complaining of experiencing delusions, including that of a ghostly boy, in their sprawling home.  If Harry cannot find a plausible explanation for the incidents Grace may be committed to an institution at the insistence of Edward’s party in order to save his political reputation.  The Goodwin family maid Sarah is seconded to assist Harry, much to her displeasure.

The story is probably set in 1920, as near the beginning Harry walks past pedestrians wearing surgical masks, a scene probably designed to evoke the post-war flu pandemic which had finished by the end of 1920.  There is a reference to the Unemployment Insurance Act, which came into existence in the same year.  It is certainly no later than 1922 because the coalition government is mentioned, and Lloyd George’s peacetime coalition was in power until October of that year.  Home Rule for Ireland is referred to, which would make it earlier than the establishment of the Irish Free State, also in 1922.  Harry breaks into a bogus demonstration of mediumship and gives a cold reading to a bereaved mother during which he says she lost her son, presumably in the war, a year or two before.  So far so authentic, though one would expect to see more disabled and destitute war veterans on the streets so soon after the end of hostilities.

The psychical research aspect is sympathetically treated.  The real Price certainly enjoyed his gadgets, and Harry employs a battery of these around Edward’s house.  There are moments which bring to mind cases, notably the writing on the floor which links to the Borley wall writing.  Instances of internal bells sounding when there is nobody to ring them are known in the literature, for example the 1887 Dixon case, reported in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.*  One wonders exactly how using Graphophones would help when there was no automatic method of starting them (notwithstanding which Sarah hears Grace speak on one when she plays it back), and Harry’s explanation to Edward of how he uses his kit seems more appropriate to the modern ghost-hunting period.  Harry forgets to black out the windows when making photographic prints, though he still gets excellent results.

Despite the efforts to provide historical context and authenticity, the whole thing feels routine.  For a start the clichéd unscrupulous (but with a soft heart really) journalist-on-the-lookout-for-a-scoop depiction of Vernon Wall, in reality the Daily Mirror reporter whose articles did much to publicise the Borley Rectory case, seems to be modelled on Ripper Street’s one-eared hack Fred Best.  Sarah takes a standard journey from hostile opposition to what she sees as Harry’s charlatanism, rooted in her mother’s financially disastrous obsession with Spiritualism, to liking him, with the hint of a budding attraction between them by the end.  The bond is cemented when Harry, in a means justifying the ends ploy, feeds her mother a ‘message’ from her dead father to allow her mother to move on.  This is one piece of fraud of which Sarah approves.  To prevent the audience regarding her as an appendage to Harry we learn that she drove an ambulance during the war so is an independently-minded woman fallen on difficult times.  Fortunately for the plot Harry’s wife Cora is dead, having expired in an asylum, a fate that simultaneously renders him sensitive to Grace’s plight, makes the audience sympathetic towards him because of his guilt, indicates his sincerity in what he is now doing, and leaves open the possibility of romance with Sarah.  In reality Price’s wife Constance (Connie) outlived her husband but it wouldn’t have been dramatically advantageous for the fictional Harry to have a wife. 

Edward’s home looks too grand to have been a workhouse, and the photograph of its inmates we see shows only children, suggesting that it was actually an orphanage.  Calling it that though would have been an unwelcome reminder of the 2007 Spanish film The Orphanage with its own complement of ghost children. There is the hint that, despite the suggestion Grace could have heard about the death of a little boy during the workhouse years and hallucinated him in her drugged state, the boy’s ghost she sees is real because Sarah sees him as well, but then Sarah could be suffering a concussion, having banged her head after Edward’s assault.  The door to the unknown is ajar even when the mystery has apparently been wrapped up and a non-paranormal explanation accepted.

There were humorous touches, such as the sinister Liberal party fixer Sir Charles informing Harry that he had been chosen for his ‘particular set of skills’, surely a nod to Taken, though Rafe Spall is a long way from being an action hero.  At a political meeting Edward informs his audience ‘we are all in this together’, as bogus a sentiment then as it is when the Tories use the phrase today.  These moments are quietly done and do not intrude self-consciously on the drama.

What does intrude is that enormous liberties have been taken with the historical Harry Price (who would probably have loved the programme, though his wife might not have been as happy).  For the historian the problem is that public understanding is filtered through media representations.  Does this much matter as it is only entertainment?  After all, naturally Harry here is a non-smoker, in fact nobody smokes; any non-smoking depiction of the period shown on television has to be phoney but we accept this manipulation and it doesn’t dent our enjoyment when we are aware of such anachronisms.  Unfortunately, as much as one would like to think of history as a self-correcting process, there is a real possibility that those who see this will go away with the misapprehension that Price really did make a living as a fake medium until a young solder shot himself on the doorstep, thereby starting Harry’s career as a debunker, and that he really did entrust his chemical analysis to the fake-voodoo practising Albert.

The credits indicate that the programme is based on Neil Spring’s book, and Spring himself claimed in his promotional activities that ‘Tonight a long awaited dream comes true. At 9pm, ITV will air Harry Price: Ghost Hunter, the chilling adaptation of my début novel, The Ghost Hunters.…  As an author, having your work adapted for the screen is an honour, but especially so when it is done to such a high standard as this.’  That’s almost a trading standards issue because apart from sharing some characters (Harry, Sarah and Vernon) it bears no relationship to the book’s plot.  In fact, what all this has to do with Spring is a puzzle.  The script wasn’t written by him but by Jack Lothian, so all Spring has contributed to the ‘adaptation’ is the fictional character Harry Price as a peg, doing things the historical Price never did, and a couple of other characters, one real (Vernon) and one fictional (Sarah), both changed from the novel.  Fortunately for him, Spring is off the hook and Lothian has to take responsibility for the script’s weaknesses.  For me, the worst thing about the programme is that I correctly predicted the identity of the villain before even seeing it, partly because the teaser synopses released by ITV put me in mind of Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight.  I had been half-joking but was confident I was right when Edward gratuitously comments that his father had been a chemist and he had studied it himself.

The key weakness is that the producers want it both ways.  They are trading on the Harry Price connection, which is guaranteed to provide a ready-made audience of Price fans, of which there are a great number even if many do not really know much about the historical character and are now misinformed.  Yet as I have pointed out previously, for all this has to do with the real Price it might as readily have been called Fred Bloggs: Ghost Hunter.  That would have been more honest but offered the ITV publicity department less to work with.  I expect the series the one-off was set up to be the pilot for will be commissioned, but the scriptwriters will have to improve considerably on this effort to bring the plots up to match the rest of the production values.

* See my article. ‘Mr Dixon and the Mysterious Bell Ringing Case of 1887’, The Paranormal Review, Issue 54, April 2010, pp.23-26.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Lexscien: An Opportunity Lost

Lexscien, or to give it its full title Lexscien: Library of Exploratory Science, is best known as the online home of the Society for Psychical Research’s publications – its Proceedings, Journal, and magazine Paranormal Review (plus Paranormal Review’s earlier incarnation The Psi Researcher).  It also carries a number of other publications: the Journal of Parapsychology (which is available free to members of the Parapsychological Association); Research in Parapsychology; the Journal of Scientific Exploration (all issues older than two years are free on the Society for Scientific Exploration’s website); and the European Journal of Parapsychology (which ceased publication in 2010 and for which all issues from 2004 to 2010 are free on its website, with the long-term aim of adding the rest back to its foundation in 1975). Despite being listed as ‘coming soon’, the Institut Métapsychique International’s La Revue Métapsychique seems to be there already.

Also ‘coming soon’ (though ‘soon’ in Lexscien’s world appears to be a somewhat flexible concept because their status has been so designated for rather a long time) are the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International.  As the list of journals suggests, Lexscien works with a range of partners apart from the SPR: the Rhine Research Center; the Parapsychological Association; the Society for Scientific Exploration, and the ex-editors of the European Journal of Parapsychology.  When (or perhaps if) the forthcoming publications appear on Lexscien, the Exceptional Human Experiences Network will join the list (founded by the late Rhea White, it is now run by the Parapsychology Foundation and said to publish the Journal of Exceptional Human Experience and Parapsychology Abstracts International, though the EHEN website looks dormant).  Enquiries to the Parapsychology Foundation to learn more of the timescale for the publications’ inclusion failed to elicit a response.  There are also some books on the site: Frederic Myers’ Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903), Edmund Gurney, Frederic Myers and Frank Podmore’s Phantasms of the Living (1886), and Eugene Osty’s Supernormal Faculties in Man (1923).

On the face of it this is quite an impressive roster, albeit duplicating some items freely available elsewhere, but there are drawbacks to the Lexscien site.  The SPR publications constitute by far the most significant element of Lexscien, to the extent that it may be assumed that Lexscien is an arm of the Society.  However, it is a privately-owned service, the owners operating as C-FAR, The Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research.  This is essentially David and Julie Rousseau: David Rousseau is listed on the C-FAR website as ‘Projects Director’ and Julie ‘Development Director’, with the rest of the ‘research team’ being Dr Zofia Weaver, Dr Richard Broughton, Dr Ed May, Adrian Ryan and Mary Rose Barrington.

Strangely Julie and David Rousseau (at the moment – these things have a habit of changing when flagged up) list themselves on the Lexscien page devoted to C-FAR as financial supporters of C-FAR, along with a number of others, as if C-FAR were an entity independent of them.  The organisation is registered at Companies House (Company number 04352039) with Dr David Rousseau as Secretary and Director, and Julie Rousseau as Director.  The company accounts are available to view online but are singularly uninformative and look to the untutored eye more like a tax reduction vehicle than the statements of an organisation actively engaged in anomalies research.  Lexscien is not included as a separate income stream on C-FAR’s annual statements even though appearing on C-FAR’s website as one of its projects.  Nor does income from C-FAR appear in the SPR’s Annual Report and Accounts, at least not as a separate item.  Despite this reciprocal opacity, the SPR’s 2013-14 Annual Report noted that £11,600 had been given to C-FAR to update and upgrade Lexscien.  Perhaps it would have been wise to insist on some kind of open accounting of any monies owed first before handing over such a large sum.  C-FAR may be not-for-profit, as the Lexscien overview states, but that declaration does not seem to have been tested.

SPR members are entitled to free use of Lexscien as part of their Society membership, but generally it is a subscription site, and is not particularly cheap.  There are two types of subscription, affiliate and standard, costing £18 and £85 per annum respectively.  The affiliate rate is available to members of partner organisations who wish to use the rest of the Lexscien site.  This is certainly cheaper than individual subscriptions to those publications it carries that have to be paid for but is still quite expensive.  The Lexscien ‘pricing’ page states that: ‘At least 65% of proceeds are distributed to the participating organisations, and the rest is (sic) used to expand and improve the library.’  However, the FAQ answer to the question ‘Can I choose which organisation benefits from my subscription?’ is more complicated:

 ‘Not directly. C-FAR takes no more than 35% of gross proceeds to cover the cost of running and expanding the library. Half of the remaining 65% is then divided between the organisations in proportion to the number of pages of literature they have put into the library. The other half is divided in proportion to the pages viewed by users. The net proceeds from downloads are passed directly to the organisation that supplied the downloaded material. This means that the supplier of the literature that is used most, benefits most, although everyone gets a share.’

That sounds like quite a lot of money should be heading the SPR’s way as it is by far the largest ‘partner’.  How much remains to be seen.  In the meantime funds are going the other way.  The £11,600 the SPR gave was a useful boost for Lexscien because there had been complaints about its ease of use with newer browsers, and until that point SPR publications only went up to 2008.  However, there is no acknowledgement of the SPR’s grant on the Lexscien home page, nor any reference to grants/donations that might have come from other partners (and if none did the question arises, why only the SPR when improvements to Lexscien benefited all partners?), nor any indication of how far behind other publications are.  Also, the quality of many of the pages is still poor and little, or more likely no, effort has been made to clean up defective scans that introduced noise and which hamper searches of the database.

Bearing in mind how long the SPR update took, and how long the coming soon’ publications have been forthcoming with no appearance yet in sight, it seems that there is little incentive for the owners of Lexscien to expand the content further.  I have suggested to Lexscien’s owners a couple of times that the SPR’s Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures, which were produced as booklets (see appendix below), be added to the online library but did not receive a reply.  Which I suppose is fair enough – in Boston Matrix terms Lexscien is a cash cow and ticks along nicely, and if market growth is low why bother to make the investment?  It is a matter of perspective – by contrast The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals sees its digitisation programme as a mission, and works on a shoestring; I suspect its board would love to be given £11,600, considering the huge amount they do on much less; and Lexscien isn’t expanding, that money was just to stand still.

Looking at the way Lexscien is run, it is a shame the SPR went down this route, effectively ceding control of its own property, but it was a canny move by the C-FAR directors, especially as the source material, for the SPR element at least, was donated by SPR members.  The problem is that even a ring-fenced online library is seen as an asset for the SPR (though unquantifiable) as it acts as an incentive for membership.  It looks like the SPR is locked into an unfavourable deal unless it decides to start again, and given the size of the job, and as David and Julie Rousseau are both SPR Council members, that is an unlikely proposition.  In the meantime other SPR publications such as the Myers Memorial Lectures, the newsletter that preceded The Psi Researcher, and many ad-hoc booklets, languish in limbo.  C-Far may be doing well out of the arrangement with its partners, but can the same be said for the constituency it is supposed to serve?


The following SPR publications would be valuable additions to a properly-conducted online library, but none of which is at present, as far as I am aware, available electronically.  I doubt if this is a comprehensive list but it gives an idea of some of the publications issued by the SPR that exist in limited quantities, largely unavailable to serious researchers interested in the Society’s history and the evolution of the subject.  They are worth preserving in an online SPR archive even where they have been superseded by later research:

The Society for Psychical Research: Its Rise & Progress & a Sketch of its Work, by Edward T. Benett (R. Brimley Johnson, 1903).

Telepathy and Allied Phenomena, by Rosalind Heywood, with a section on quantitative experiments by S. G. Soal (1948).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception, by D. J. West (1953, revised edition 1954).

Trance Mediumship: An Introductory Study of Mrs Piper and Mrs Leonard, by W. H. Salter, revised by Margaret Eastman (1950, revised edition 1962).*

The Society for Psychical Research: An Outline of its History, by W. H. Salter, edited with a new section and a bibliography by Renée Haynes (1970; first published 1948).  The 1948 edition replaced The Society for Psychical Research: What it is, what it has accomplished, why its work is so important, no author, 1945.

SPR Newsletter (36 issues, 1981-91, edited for most of that time by Susan Blackmore).

Tests for Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis: An Introductory Guide, by John L. Randall (n.d.)

Hints on Sitting with Mediums, by E.O, D.P and W.H. S. [Edward Osborn, Denys Parsons and W. H. Salter] (1950; this replaced an earlier leaflet, and was further revised in 1965 by D.P, R.H.T and A.G [Denys Parsons, Robert Thouless and Alan Gauld]).

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by G. W. L. [Guy Lambert] (1955).

‘Spirit’ Photography, by Simeon Edmunds (1965). [The complete text of ‘Spirit’ Photography (1965) was reprinted as part of an issue of the Journal of the London Institute of ’Pataphysics, number 12, February 2016.  It is accompanied by illustrations of photographs taken by some of those Edmunds mentions.]

Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by A.D.C and A.G [A. D. Cornell and Alan Gauld] (1968).

Guide to the Investigation of Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Kindred Phenomena, by Mary Rose Barrington (ed.) (1996).

The Importance of Psychical Research, by John Beloff (1988).

*The first edition of Trance Mediumship (1950) contains three appendices – ‘Personal Control in Trance Sittings’ by C. Drayton Thomas and ‘Telepathy from the Sitter’ by Mrs Kenneth Richmond [Zoë Richmond], plus a reading list.  The 1962 revision replaced all three appendices with a new one written by Margaret Eastman.  Probably between 1965 and 1968 Salter’s 1950 original was reissued and it entirely ignored Eastman’s revisions, reinstating the three original appendices.  Margaret Eastman’s short-lived version is now scarce.  The 1965-8 date for Trance Mediumship is suggested by the fact that the SPR republished its booklets in a uniform design with white gloss card covers during that period: ‘Spirit’ Photography and Hints on Sitting with Mediums in 1965 and Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases in 1968.  Like Trance Mediumship, Tests for Extrasensory Perception was reissued without a date, but contained the text of the 1954 revision.

SPR Study Guides

These were originally issued in 1980 in plain white paper covers, and were later reissued in stiff coloured card covers.  Series editors were Francis Hitching and Hilary Evans.  An extensive list of guides was envisaged but the costs of the project proved controversial and only the first five seem to have been issued (and there is some doubt about the second as no copies at all are extant as far as I can tell):

1 PSI in the laboratory: 12 Crucial Findings, by Francis Hitching.

2 Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology, by Michael Thalbourne.**

3 Apparitions, by Andrew MacKenzie.

4 Books on the Paranormal: An Introductory Guide, by Nicholas Clark-Lowes.

5 Reincarnation, by David Christie-Murray.

**I have not seen a copy and it may have been dropped as the first edition of Michael A. Thalbourne’s A Glossary of Terms Used in Parapsychology was published by Heinemann as part of its SPR centenary series in 1982.  On the other hand so was Andrew MacKenzie’s Hauntings and Apparitions, and his study guide was definitely published.

The Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lectures

Conviction of Survival: Two Discourses in Memory of F. W. H. Myers (The First Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Oliver Lodge (1929).

Beneath the Threshold (The Second Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by T. W. Mitchell (1931).

Supernormal Aspects of Energy and Matter (The Third Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Eugène Osty (1933).

The Meaning of ‘Survival’ (The Fourth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Whately Carington (1935).

Supernormal Faculty and the Structure of the Mind (The Fifth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. A. Mace (1937).

Psychical Research and Theology (The Sixth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. R. Matthews (1940).

Apparitions (The Seventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by G. N. M. Tyrrell (1942).

Psychical Research: Where Do We Stand? (The Eighth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Mrs W. H. Salter [Helen Verrall] (1945).

The Experimental Situation in Psychical Research (The Ninth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by S. G. Soal (1947).

Telepathy and Human Personality (The Tenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by J. B. Rhine (1950).

Psychical Research Past and Present (The Eleventh Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Robert H. Thouless (1952).

The Influence of Psychic Phenomena on My Philosophy (The Twelfth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Garbriel Marcel (1955).

Personal Identity and Survival (The Thirteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by C. D. Broad (1958).

The Neurophysiological Aspects of Hallucinations and Illusory Experience (The Fourteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by W. Grey Walter (1960).

Unconscious and Paranormal Factors in Healing and Recovery (The Fifteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Emilio Servadio (1963).

Survival : A Reconsideration (The Sixteenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by E. Garth Moore (1966).

Psychology and Psychical Research (The Seventeenth Frederic W. H. Myers Memorial Lecture), by Cyril Burt (1968).

The Psychical Experiences series published by G. Bell & Sons

In 1937-9, G. Bell published a series of books based on the files of the SPR.  These are out of print and would be worth having in an online library.  This may not be a complete list:

Hypnosis: Its Meaning and Practice, by Eric Cuddon (1938, revised 1957).

Some Cases of Prediction: A Study, by Edith Lyttelton (1937).

Evidence of Identity, by Kenneth Richmond (1939).

Evidence of Purpose, by Zoë Richmond (1938).

Ghosts and Apparitions, by W. H. Salter (1938).

Evidence of Personal Survival from Cross Correspondences, by H. F. Saltmarsh (1938).

Foreknowledge, by H. F. Saltmarsh (1938).

(Appendix revised and updated 19 May 2016.)

Thursday, 10 December 2015

How Others See Us - Or At Least Our Novels

Middlemarch: So good I bought it twice

Lists of the allegedly best British novels crop up from time to time but the most recent poll (7 December 2015) gives us ‘The 100 greatest British novels’ as seen by foreign critics.  Jane Ciabattari, who contributes to BBC Culture, asked critics ‘from Australia to Zimbabwe’, but not the UK, to nominate their favourite British novel.  According to the BBC Culture article, she polled 82 critics, but it seems more likely that that was the number who responded.  The terms of reference were specific.  As Ciabattari puts it: ‘This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) – novels only, by British authors (which means no James Joyce).’

That seems reasonable, and there is a little about the critics as well:

‘The critics we polled live and work all over the world, from the United States and continental Europe to Australia, Africa, Asia, India and the Middle East. Some of the critics we invited to participate are regular book reviewers or editors at newspapers, magazines or literary blogs – Lev Grossman (Time), Mary Ann Gwinn (Seattle Times), Ainehi Edoro (Brittle Paper), Mark Medley (Toronto Globe and Mail), Fintan O’Toole (The Irish Times), Stephen Romei and Geordie Williamson (The Australian), Sam Sacks (The Wall Street Journal) and Claiborne Smith (Kirkus Reviews).  Others are literary scholars, including Terry Castle, Morris Dickstein, Michael Gorra, Carsten Jensen, Amitava Kumar, Rohan Maitzen, Geoffrey O’Brien, Nilanjana Roy and Benjamin Taylor. Each who participated submitted a list of 10 British novels, with their pick for the greatest novel receiving 10 points. The points were added up to produce the final list.  The critics named 228 novels in all. These are the top 100.’

The first sentence sounds comprehensively global, but we are not given a breakdown by region.  The set of names, if representative, answers one question I had, but poses another.  A concern had been that critics would have been reading the books in translation, which raises the issue of availability, the danger that only selected titles have been translated into that particular critic’s language and skewing the sample in favour of a narrow range of classic titles; that is aside from the possibility that the evaluation of a book is affected by the competence of the translation.  That was not the case, as judging by the names listed they would generally have been reading the books in English.  The fact that they were though creates an anglophone bias; there is no indication here of how many respondents primarily spoke a language other than English.  How many of them were German, French, Italian, or Igbo for that matter?  How big was the Latin American contingent?  This is a selection of mostly English-speaking critics (and some academics), probably those who could respond to Ciabattari’s invitation emailed in English.

Considering the statistically dubious start, the resulting 100 titles are generally familiar, with a few surprises thrown in.  Middlemarch comes out on top, and I can see why a group of foreign critics would consider it a quintessentially English novel (Daniel Deronda is also present further down).  Middlemarch won by a ‘landslide’, with 42% of the critics including it.  That and numerous others sound the sorts of books that appear in university English literature courses, probably where a lot of these were read.

Female authors are well represented throughout and take the top three slots, Virginia Woolf punching above her weight at numbers two and three with To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway respectively.  I like both those enormously, but if you locked me in a room and threatened me with death if I didn’t name the writer of the second and third greatest British novels, I can’t imagine Woolf would immediately spring to mind.  The Waves and Orlando also make the list.  Naturally the Victorians are heavily represented, particularly in the top half, with Dickens (Great Expectations, Bleak House and David Copperfield) in the top ten, along with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair.  Dickens also has Dombey and Son, not normally considered one of his finest, on the list.  Austen appears four times, otherwise the pre-Victorians are fairly sparse –  Frankenstein (in the top ten), The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Clarissa, Gulliver’s Travels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe.

Some of the entries one suspects are better known from their film adaptations and that may have led them to be top of mind (Atonement, Never Let Me Go – not even Ishiguro’s best, let alone in the top 100 British novels – and The Buddha of Suburbia stand out in that respect).  The presence of The Remains of the Day compensates for Never Let Me Go.  There are some curious choices, including for my money the tedious Under the Volcano, and recent books that have not had the chance to establish a consensus on their value (four date from 2011-12).  Jeanette Winterson and Zadie Smith both appear twice – does that make them among the most significant British novelists who have ever lived, and will their reputations stand the test of time?  Some plumb the depths of obscurity, such as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth.  On the other hand it is nice to see titles which deserve to be better known, such as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, Henry Green’s Loving and (Dublin born) Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.

Anyway, what criteria do you use to decide on how ‘great’ something is?  Is it how it moves you, how it lingers in the memory, was it something that stayed with you from a formative period, was it influential on the literature that followed (in which case how does one assess fairly recent novels?); is how much it has been written about by previous critics a useful guide, or the extent to which it has captured the zeitgeist, how ‘real’ it seems, how ingenious the plot, how subtle the characterisation, how fresh its view of the world….  Taking all these potential elements of greatness into account the value of such a list must be dubious, but if it sparks discussion, and encourages readers to try something they hadn’t thought about before, it has to be worthwhile.

Of course I went through and totted up the ones I had read, and was a little embarrassed at how many I have yet to get round to, and there were more than a couple of which I had never even heard.  We can grouse about novels we deem less worthy included at the expense of writers who have been omitted or underrepresented, or about writers who are represented by what we consider to be the wrong book(s), and there are a few of all those in this list, but it is still an interesting snapshot of what springs to mind when critics put their collective feet up with a cup of coffee and jot down what at that moment they think are their top (however defined) British novels.  Sometimes it helps to have an outsider’s perspective to refresh our own.  With all its flaws they have nominated a collection of novels to be proud of, as well as a timely incentive to pull my finger out and cross a few more off my list of those books I really should get round to reading.