1900 (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

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9780141180830: 1900 (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)

At the turn of the nineteenth century, just like today, many people were terrified -- or thrilled -- by the seemingly unstoppable progress of science, wrestling with questions of sexual identity, and turning away from traditional religions or taking refuge in spiritualism, the paranormal, and "new age" philosophies. This selection of more than 120 writings from the four decades around 1900 brings together newspaper clippings, poetry, pulp fiction, scientific polemic, and sexological speculation, alongside classic texts by Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Wells, Dickens, Ibsen, Ruskin, and Zola. Vividly illuminating both the similarities and the differences between millennial and fin-de-siecle anxieties, this dazzling anthology forces us to look again at the progress we have made (or failed to make) in the last hundred years.

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Review:

"The fin-de-siècle was in fact the true Millennium", Mike Jay and Michael Neve confidently assert, and from the evidence of this full and fascinating collection they may be right. While 1999 pretended to be on the brink of oblivion, with its millennium virus and post modern end of all certainty, summer holidays for 2000 were still being booked. If you want real panic, then go back a century. The late Victorians' anxieties were multiple and strangely familiar: "The future of the human race, the apocalyptic possibilities opened up by science, the crisis of faith, the mass belief in the paranormal, the future role of women, the multicultural 'global village'". Jay and Neve have compiled over 100 snippets that together make a convincing case that fin-de-siècle is more than just a marketing ploy. Some of the pieces are expected--H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species--but others are ingeniously chosen. There are enlightening sections on late 19th-century spiritualism, atheism and the emergent sexology that don't merely go for the obvious--the rise of "the unconscious", for example, predictably draws on Freud, Nietzsche and Charcot, but juxtaposes them neatly with Strindberg, George Du Maurier's Trilby and H.G. Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. Most striking perhaps is the final chapter on "imagining the next century", with scary pieces on "feeble-mindedness" and "lethal chambers for the insane": nevertheless, they're tame compared with what actually transpired. Inevitably, this miscellany of often very short pieces will leave you hungry for more, but that's all to the good. There's a wealth of literature waiting to be explored: let's hope Jay and Neve's inspired collection opens the floodgates. -- Alan Stewart

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