My love affair with the giant dish at Jodrell Bank, also known as the Lovell telescope, began decades ago when I first saw the massive white circle looming above the empty winter fields on a visit just after Christmas. The visitor's centre at that time seemed a rudimentary affair of coffee and postcards. But we stayed for hours, standing in the cold, staring at the dish. The sheer scale of the thing and the sinister slow movement of its rotating wheels carved themselves into my memory. The great white disc with its extended proboscis searching the infinite sky stood vertical in winter, peering over the edge of the earth. In summer the creature lay flat on its back, like an exhausted cup, gazing upwards. The great telescope appeared to be watching, and listening; the sounds made by thing, concentrated and subtle, intensified its mystery. I have written a novel, The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge, and a short story, 'The Bellini Madonna', that directly address the astonishment I still feel in relation to the secrets of the universe revealed at Jodrell Bank. The climax of my novel actually takes place beneath the telescope.
The huge uncanny structure towered above the trees. No houses or lights disturbed the white presence that lifted its perfect face toward the heavens. As they drove closer they saw that the dish was supported by two massive watch towers, tall as pylons, and a network of iron girders, forming another curved mass beneath the solid, parabolic circle. Far beneath the dish a small herd of black and white cows grazed on the dark grass. The gigantic shape loomed over the quiet fields, blanched white as a unicorn in the moonlight, its great horn interrogating the stars.
The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge (Bloomsbury, 2010)
If we believe in the Big Bang, and I do, then it seems like common sense to imagine that the ever-expanding universe would be slowing down. But it's not. All the parts of this great mass are flying away from each other at ever increasing speeds. This was the vision I described in The Bellini Madonna.
And then something strange overtook her - a rushing movement, slight, distant, gathering. There in the unguarded deep of the night sky she saw the reeling stars, the pale glow of light that had taken two thousand years to reach her, the massed galaxies and planets, spinning outwards into eternity, hurtling away from the gigantic explosion of creation, the distant binary stars and their attendant planets, moving at fantastic speeds away from the centre, glorious, beautiful, unfettered, hurtling into the vastness of eternity. Her eye caught the whirling moons of Saturn, the miraculous trailing gas of the Crab Nebula, thousands of spinning pulsars, the great streaming winds of particles, belching forth from the mass of exploding stars.
'The Bellini Madonna' is published in When it Changed: Science into Fiction Ed. Geoff Ryman (Comma Press, 2009), pp. 221-233.
Berlin, September 1872. The Duncker brothers, Max and Wolfgang, own a thriving publishing business in the city. Clever, irresponsible Max is as fond of gambling and brothels as the older, wiser Wolfgang is of making a profit. When Max's bad habits get out of hand, Wolfgang sends him to the Spa town of Homburg, to dance attendance upon a celebrity author - the enigmatic Sibyl, also known as George Eliot. As enthralling and intelligent as her books, she soon has Max bewitched. Yet Wolfgang has an ulterior motive: for his brother to consider Sophie von Hahn, daughter of a wealthy family friend, as a potential wife. At first, Max is lured by Sophie's beauty and his affectionate memories of their shared childhood. But Sophie proves to be nothing like the vision of angelic domesticity Max was expecting. Mischievous, willful and daring, Sophie gambles recklessly and rides horses like a man. Both women have Max in thrall - one with her youth and passion, the other with her wisdom and fierce intelligence. Out of his depth, Max finds himself precariously balanced between Sophie and the Sibyl. What's more, Sophie worships the great novelist of questionable morals - and is determined to meet her. A compelling Victorian novel and a playful meditation on the creation of literature, Sophie and the Sibyl balances a tale of courtship and seduction with a fascinating, lively imagining of the writer George Eliot at the end of her boldly unconventional life, and the height of her fame.
'I was transfixed. It's not just the fiendishly clever blending of real-life and fiction' I was completely gripped all the way through. I love Sophie and Max. They are an Eliot hero and heroine but written for now. But most of all of course I love George Eliot, the Sibyl - I'm not sure now that I'll ever be able to read any novel by her in the same way again'
12-14 June. University of Paderborn, Germany
Patricia will be reading and in conversation with Merle Tönnies (Paderborn) at the conference on 13 June.
Monday, 7 October. IWM North (Imperial War Museums) Manchester
The Nature of Antisemitism
This conference will explore the dangerous and harmful phenomenon of antisemitism. Though antisemitism seems a constant feature in European history, the nature of antisemitism has not remained the same. How was Nazi antisemitism different to pre-Nazi antisemitism? How can the persistence of antisemitism in the 21st Century be explained?
Thursday, 26th September. Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts
Literary readings by Patricia Duncker and Lars Iyer at the Culture Lab, Newcastle University.
Saturday, 21st September. The Writers' Centre, Norwich
Do you feel you've got more to learn about the art of writing short-stories? This Masterclass is part workshop, part manuscript consultation and is led by a master stylist; expert novelist and short-story writer Patricia Duncker. An invaluable opportunity to get not only expert advice but also individual feedback on 4000 words of your work.
Monday 6th to Saturday 11th May. Ty Newydd, Wales
Extended Course - for Women
Guest: Francesca Rhydderch. This course is supported by Honno.
Are you beginning to write a book? This course is for writers embarking on a full-length book project: fiction in all genres, for adults or children, autobiography, memoir or travel. Have you completed a substantial section of your book? Or are you still working on your first draft? Are you trying to revise a more polished version and have you run into problems? Do you have a plan that isn't working? Are you stuck? We are here to help with genre, structure, plot, point of view, organisation and advice on how to keep going.
Participants will be selected.
Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd March, Newnham, Cambridge
Literary Archive Event
Saturday at 10.30am: Jenn Ashworth and Patricia Duncker in conversation 'The Deadly Spaces of Women Novelists' Chaired by Dr Pam Hirsch.
This event is sold out but will be filmed and available later on the college website. Please also visit the site if you would like to be added to the waiting list and for further details.
Monday, 14th January. Paderborn university, Germany
Patricia will be Guest Speaker at the University of Paderborn and will be speaking about her own work to the staff and students of the English Department. Dr Merle Tönnies has been teaching her work to one of her contemporary fiction seminars.
All Rights Reserved. Patricia Duncker 2023