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216 × 138 × 30 mm
296 pages
45 illustrations, 10 in colour
15 Oct 2018

Darkness A Cultural History Nina Edwards

Darkness divides opinion. Some are frightened of the dark, or at least prefer to avoid it, and there are many who dislike what it appears to stand for. Others are drawn to its strange domain, delighting in its uncertainties, lured by all the associations of folklore and legend, by the call of the mysterious and of the unknown. The history of attitudes to what we cannot quite make out, in all its physical and metaphorical manifestations, challenges the notion that the world is possible to fully comprehend.

Nina Edwards explores darkness as both physical feature and cultural image, through themes of sight, blindness, consciousness, dreams, fear of the dark, night blindness, and the in-between states of dusk or fog, twilight and dawn, the point or period of obscuration and clarification. Taking readers through different historical periods, she interrogates humanity’s various attempts to harness and suppress the dark, from our early use of fire to the later discovery of electricity. She reveals how the idea of darkness pervades art, literature, religion and every aspect of our everyday language.

Darkness: A Cultural History shows us how darkness has fed our imagination. Whether a shifting concept or real physical presence, it always conveys complex meaning.

‘A philosophical undercurrent runs through Nina Edwards’s introduction to this compendious survey of darkness, but the scope and energy are what immediately impress . . . The book is very well written, reminiscent of the work of Alexandra Harris and recognizably a descendant of Sir James Frazer . . . No kind of darkness is excluded from this cultural history – interior, exterior, metaphorical, racial, psychological, even abstract (black humour) – and, inevitably, there is much that is fascinating . . . There is no denying the thoroughness of the author’s researches or her gift for lively – dare one say illuminating – synthesis.’ — Country Life

‘It is apt that such a mesmerising image should accompany the opening chapter of Nina Edwards’s beguiling book, which gallantly aims to subvert common views of darkness, both physical and metaphorical . . . for the most part, Edwards’s approach is considered and engaging as she explores the curious paradoxes and possibilities of ethereal half-shadows and “umbral blackness” . . . Marking Edwards’s latest work to embrace the neglected and the obscure (previous offerings include weeds, buttons and Offal: A Global History), Darkness leaves the reader floating, too – but full of conviction that truth and beauty can still exist, to quote Edward Lear, “when awful darkness and silence reign”.’ — The Spectator

‘As subjects go, darkness would seem a little slippery, but in Darkness: A Cultural History English historian Nina Edwards grasps it with a sure and practised mind, sifting through perceptions for an array of definitions that boil down to one idea: possibility . . . To Edwards, darkness is a thing of richness, universally accessible and transformative, and her passion for the intimacy it allows – a passion buoyed by fluent prose and deep research – expands our understanding, not only of her subject but of its role in our hearts and history.’ — The Australian

‘Nina Edwards, who has previously submitted weeds, buttons and offal to this [cultural history] process, brings a huge range of knowledge, enthusiasm and sensitivity to the subject . . . Edwards presents herself openly as an advocate of the dark “taking its part against the tide of opinion that promotes the light”, but she maintains, sometimes very deftly, a balance and a breadth that are refreshing.’ — Sara Maitland, The Tablet

‘The power of encountering life through a dark or dimly lit lens is very much on trend and Nina Edwards’ Darkness: A Cultural History fits right in, offering a broad sweeping narrative which ventures into the worlds of history, anthropology and science . . . It is a beautifully produced work, in hardback, with colour plates and illustrations that reflect the importance given by the author to darkness in art and poetry. It is the sort of book that makes you want to hold it, caress the cover and turn the pages gently.’ — Methodist Recorder

‘This book throws much light on darkness, about which many are in the dark. In cultural metaphor, darkness implies ignorance and evil as light does for knowledge and good. This interesting book recalls the role of darkness in various contexts: in religion and literature, science and mythology, race and prejudices. This is a fascinating collection of tidbits from humanity's cultural history, as interesting as it is informative . . . Recommended.’ — Choice

‘This is a book the reader can feast on, packed as it is with riches from literature, art and folklore– the fruit, one imagines, of a superhuman research effort . . . She deals with a huge accumulation of material exultantly . . . I will not soon forget Edward’s introduction to Leonardo’s Caricature of a Man with Bushy Hair . . . (There is an accompanying illustration, one of many that enliven and enrich the text.) She plucks out an especially gruesome image from Baudelaire’s poem Une Charogne (“A Carcass”) which is impossible to forget, but which I will leave readers to discover for themselves.’ — Catholic Herald

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Nina Edwards is a freelance writer and the author of On the Button: The Significance of an Ordinary Item (2011), Weeds (Reaktion, 2015), Offal: A Global History (Reaktion, 2013) and Dressed for War: Uniform, Civilian Clothing and Trappings, 1914-1918 (2014). She lives in London.


1 Earth and Fire: How Darkness Came About
2 The Ancients and How Darkness Brought About Everything Else
3 The Art of Darkness
4 Darkly Entertaining
5 Photography, Electricity and the Moving Image
6 The Psychology of Darkness and Sleep
7 Dark Fashion
8 The Darkness Shall Be the Light

Photo Acknowledgements