Bach, Susanne and Folkert Degenring (eds), Dark Nights, Bright Lights: Night, Darkness, and Illumination in Literature

Susanne Bach and Folkert Degenring (eds), Dark Nights, Bright Lights: Night, Darkness, and Illumination in Literature (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter 2015) viii + 233 pp. £90.99 Hb. ISBN 978-3-11-041510-0

In an essay entitled ‘From Shakespearean Nights to Light Pollution’ in the collection Urban Lighting, Light Pollution and Society (ed. Josiane Meier, Ute Hasenöhrl, Katharina Krause, and Merle Pottharst, 2015), Susanne Bach and Folkert Degenring examined the ambivalent evaluations of light and darkness in Anglophone literature. Using specific literary works ranging from Plato to the present day, Bach and Degenring illustrated that literary explorations and discussions of light (and illumination) and darkness (and night) went beyond usual dichotomous representations of good and evil, or understanding and ignorance, writing ‘the treatment and functionalism of light and darkness in literature is one that is continuing to develop and change, and new connotations continue to emerge’ (63).

Dark Nights, Bright Lights, edited by Bach and Degenring, seems in many good ways an extension of this essay. The book allows its editors the space to bring together literary scholars and delve deeper into the diverse ‘imagery of light and darkness’ (7). Throughout its entirety the book asks and answers some very pertinent questions about the relations between culture, society, language, literature, and artificial lighting technologies. In the introduction, Bach and Degenring ask why literary studies should deal with a subject (light and nocturnal illumination) that could well be left to other disciplines to study. Literature, they answer, ‘predicts, warns, plays with ideas, offers alternatives, challenges, and it can conduct experiments without being bound to the necessarily strict codes of the sciences’ (8). Contributors to this book reinforce this argument by giving careful attention to the ways in which Anglophone literary works symbolically and metaphorically used artificial illumination and darkness to illustrate and represent contemporary urban, social and cultural climate.

The first two essays, by Paul Goetsch and Maria Peker, respectively, study the representations of London nights in late-Victorian literature. In his chapter, Goetsch demonstrates how some writers interpreted the rapid expansion of London and the introduction of artificial lighting as the makings of a dangerous place, while others equated artificial lighting and the well-lit sections of London with their sense of freedom and safety. In the following essay, Maria Peker links the transitions in urban lighting technologies towards the end of the Victorian era – namely from gas to electric lighting – to Bram Stoker’s seminal novel Dracula. Peker’s analysis, by showing that both Dracula and his antagonists, use as their weapons both modern and outdated means of lighting, complicates simplistic interpretations of the story as a conflict between scientific progress and archaism.

In the following essay, Jarmila Mildorf examines one of H G Wells’s lesser-known novels, the 1909 Ann Veronica, and Wells’s use of light and darkness to depict London as a scene of action, and to reflect the eponymous character’s moods and gendered experiences of London. Mildorf’s essay is followed by Richard Leahy’s analysis of Wells and E M Forster, and how the changing literary perceptions of electric lighting were linked to the emergence of corporate capitalism. Both Wells and Forster used electric lighting as a symbol for authoritarian rule; however, as electric lighting became more commonplace and accepted, it began to be represented in positive, exploratory ways ‘as something which could speak symbolically for a sense of humanity’ (88).

In her reading of Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day, Laura E Ludtke considers the female experience of urban space in the novel, and shows how changes in the relationship between night and day due to artificial lighting also resulted in changing the boundaries of public and private spaces. Other essays address Benjamin Britten’s ‘Serenade for Tenor Horns and Strings’ and its associations with themes of the night; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Death Instinct, and their protagonist detectives’ negotiation of the realms of orderly light and chaotic darkness; Charlotte Jones’s play The Dark, and the connections between metaphoric qualities of light and darkness in the play, lighting levels on stage, and the psychology of the characters and the audience; and Terry Pratchett’s popular Discworld novels Feet of Clay and Thud!, and the use of light and darkness to present not just fictional mythologies, but to also defamiliarise the familiar.

The last two chapters deal with light as a form of pollution. Susanne Bach discusses Karen Thompson Walker’s dystopian novel The Age of Miracles, which re-evaluates the biological, ecological, societal, psychological and linguistic issues resulting from a change in Earth’s circadian rhythm. In the last chapter, Folkert Degenring traces the historical development of the term ‘light pollution’ from several different perspectives, and its appearance in literary discourses. While Degenring examines the functional uses of the concept of light pollution in selective literary texts, his analysis presents several strands of enquiry for interdisciplinary research in the future.

The book is a welcome contribution to literary studies. It serves two crucial purposes. First, its broad engagement with varied literary sources and methodological perspectives allows the reader to trace the ambivalences and contradictions in the meanings assigned in literature to (artificial) light and darkness. Conversely, the investigations of the changing nature and meanings of light (and lighting) and darkness help re-theorise many of the conclusions about literary works that have already been drawn by earlier studies. The chronological and thematic organisation of the book also makes it a useful resource for historians of technology. Reading it from the perspective of the history of technology, however, it can be argued that allusions to nineteenth-century literary representations of electricity as a mysterious and magical agency could have added yet another dimension to the analyses of artificial light (and lighting) in this book. Nevertheless, the contributors have succeeded in providing new insights and methodological tools for interdisciplinary research in literature, and the history of science and technology.

Animesh Chatterjee, Leeds Trinity University