I want to tell you about a short story, called Wireless. It was first published in 1902, but don’t let that put you off. The writing is fresh, and enjoyable, and I don’t think a word is wasted.
Of course, the same goes for a lot of good literary stories, so why am I advocating this one? Because each time I read it I understand it differently. Is it science fiction, science fantasy or ghost? I can never make my mind up. Neither can the groups who’ve read and discussed it with me, which is why I’m suggesting you take a look at it, too.
Writing manuals will often suggest that short stories should imply more than they tell. Easy to say, harder to describe the technique that achieves that. Here’s a story that demonstrates one method, beautifully, largely by its use of intertextual detail. That is, references to other arts, and artists, in this case, Keats and three pre-Raphaelite paintings.
The story belongs to a time when its audience might have been expected to know more about the life and poetry of John Keats than we do today, so if you are planning to look it up, here are a few facts to help you on your way:
- John Keats was the eldest child of the manager of a Livery stable, and was orphaned by the age of 14.
- He was apprenticed to an apothecary surgeon, and although he earned his licence, chose to give up that profession and become a poet.
- He suffered from sore throats that developed into TB.
- He was secretly engaged to Fanny Brawne.
- He died, aged 25, in Rome on February 23 1821.
Keats poetry did not receive much notice during his life-time, but by 1902, he was considered one of the foremost English romantic poets by readers, writers, artists and teachers. His poem, The Eve of St Agnes inspired three pre-Raphaelite artists.
The one to the left is, arguably, the most relevent to this story. It’s by Arthur Hughes.
I bumped into an old student the other day, and the next thing she said after, hello, was, ‘I still think about Wireless.’
When someone can say that two years after they read a story it’s got to be telling us something, hasn’t it?
I hope I’ve intrigued you enough to make you wonder why I haven’t mentioned who the author of this story was. I’ve held back deliberately, because for many of us, Rudyard Kipling has been labelled as old-fashioned, and too jingoistic for modern readers.
Well, put aside all thoughts of the Kipling you grew up with. This is something different. Don’t believe me? I dare you to try it, because yes, it is available to read on-line. Though some versions don’t include the prequel poem, KASPAR’S SONG IN ‘VARDA’, and you really do need to look at that first.
If nothing else, this story is a window into another century, and reminds us of how fantastic the early days of communication must have seemed. In other words it does something else that many see as the role of good fiction, reflects the ideas and beliefs of its time.