Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'Mobilis in Mobili': A Historical Perspective on Submarines, Swashbuckling and Rodents

Hello, my name is Alys and I like 19th Century trash fiction.

There, it's out in the open. My shameful little secret. They say admitting it's the first step.

“But what do you mean by 19th Century trash?” I hear you cry. Well, what I'm doing there is making a statement about 'high' and 'low' art and I'm being deliberately provocative. After all, tell someone you're reading a comic book, and there is a good chance they will look at you as if you are illiterate scum. Tell someone you're reading a novel by Dumas they will probably nod as if it's the most natural thing in the world. Some of them will even say, “how brave of you”.


As a culture, we seem to have a fear of the weighty tomes produced in the last century. Some people say it's the length that intimidates us, others the diction. I'm going to go out on a limb and say the defining factor is time. Give it a century or two and any old 'trash' can become 'literature'.

My intention here is not to criticise the 'trash', but to mock the people drawing the line. There is nothing inferior about a good comic, just as there is nothing inferior about Dumas. It is very easy to forget that, in Shakespeare's day, theatre was considered 'low' art. It is very easy to forget that 'novel' used to be an insult. The reason we forget is that the establishment appropriates these things because they are good. But some of us refuse to forget that, in their day, these things were scorned as appealing to the lowest common denominator.

And that's just what they do. It's why they are so bloody good. In order to grab attention they are fast paced, rip-roaring good yarns. They have wild adventures and exotic locations. They are full of witty dialogue and cheap laughs. They are immensely enjoyable. And, all too often, they have what the current Literary establishment would consider flaws. All the heroes are handsome and strong willed, all the heroines are beautiful, occasionally feisty and generally prone to fainting. These are not novels for the pompous - if you have a problem with so-called Mary-Sues, I might advise avoiding them. They are escapism. Truth be told, they are trash. But that's not an insult; it's one of the best things about them.

So, from an repentant AA type beginning, I find myself becoming an enabler. It's pretty easy to get hold of 19th Century trash – charity shops and second hand book stores are good sources. Do check and see that they're unabridged, though. If you have an e-reader, there is also the wonderful Project Gutenburg (http://www.gutenberg.org) which will give them to you for free.1

But... well. Before you begin, a couple of warnings.

19th Century trash requires a certain selective cultural blindness. There will be words and attitudes espoused by otherwise progressive authors that make any liberal reader wince. The trick is to whisper again and again, “they didn't know it was wrong.” In time, with willpower, the effect diminishes.

Then there's the problem of science. As we are often assured, hindsight is 20/20, and you would not have known any better then but... well, it can get a little tiresome to be assured that the properties of magnets, or electricity, or steam will lead to this, that or the other in the foreseeable future. Likewise, hearing phrenology and physiology described as 'sciences' without a 'pseudo' prefacing it, can strike one as odd. There will also probably be an endless stream of slightly dubious information underlying the plot. Abandon your pedantry all ye who enter here.

Perhaps from my tone you can tell I consider myself an old hand at this game. Still, it's possible to be taken by surprise.

In line with my addiction, I've just read '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea' (Jules Verne.) I had been meaning to read it for a while and I enjoyed it immensely. It had everything I could have desired: some seriously outlandish science (but check out that Nautilus, man!), more slightly dubious info on marine biology than I could ever hope to use, and the kind of anti-hero who can make girls like me go a little bit silly.

What's more, by the standards of the time, it's really quite enlightened. The narrator laments the greed which has endangered the whale, or that viciousness which clubs innocent sea-cubs. In the latter half of the book, Nemo consistently draws attention to mankind's hypocrisy, cruelty and tyranny. But the good Captain cannot stop man's man Ned Land from spending most of his time killing (or thinking about killing) things, nor the narrator for admiring that very characteristic.

Now, as I've said, I'm a seasoned reader of these things. Just as I did not let the word “endangered!” cloud my enjoyment of Hector de Sainte-Hermaine's tiger hunt in 'The Last Cavalier'. I tried not to get too discouraged when stout Ned shoots a sea otter for sport even though the narrator has admitted that they are practically extinct. And so, of course, I tended to read parts that involved Ned Land – or, indeed, any other human interaction with nature - with a fixed, but wry, smile upon my face. “It's just the time it was written” I reminded myself. “They didn't know any better.”

Then I read this:

“for Nature's creative power is far beyond man's instinct for destruction.”

After I'd read it, I stopped, blinked and read it again.

Nope, it was still there. That assertion, no matter what we do to nature, it can always repair itself. Verne's narrator states it as a matter of simple fact, as if it were obvious. Such innocence. Such naïvety.

And I, in my 21st Century way, had been quite cheerfully assigning the label of 'arrogant bloody Victorians' (well, okay, Verne was French and, Victoria only came to the throne in... oh, you know what I mean!) Essentially, I had condemned them as being wilfully wrong-headed and ignorant rather than just lacking the dubious benefit of my experience (over fishing, mass extinction, climate change.)

Essentially, I had become the kind of person that I hate.

Because I get so annoyed when people start talking about the past as though it's not only a foreign country, but another planet. I get fed up of wannabe historians describing all life before the Industrial Revolution as an endless stream of fear, sickness and poverty. Fed up of descriptions of the whole populace huddled around meagre fires in leaking hovels or draughty castles, dressed in rags and warding off starvation with a few handfuls of barley. Fed up of the idea that for whole centuries everyone was mad with superstitious fear and terrified of being burned for saying one wrong word. I'm fed up with people telling me life in the past was so totally different that we can have no conception of the inner life of our ancestors. In short, I'm fed up with stories of Poor Starving Peasants.

Because I read. And the thing is, when you read the literature of these people, hear what survives of their stories and their songs, look at their public buildings (mostly churches, I admit), they stop looking like poor, miserable waifs hanging on for the Enlightenment (and failing that, the Renaissance). They strike you as people, just like you and me, making the most of their time on this planet and asking the kind of questions we would ask about morality, religion and sex.

Still, it's easy to forget how much your environment shapes your assumptions. Still, it's easy to be taken by surprise.

Another thing I've read recently is the reissued first volume of 'The Pan Book of Horror Stories' (2010, Pan Books, first published 1959.)

Horror is another one of my things, and it was another brilliant read. It also illustrates my point perfectly. Most of the stories in there are still so fresh, so contemporary, that it seems implausible they were written over fifty years ago and many of them are earlier than that. One of my favourites was Hazel Heard's Lovecraftian The Horror in the Museum.

By this point, I had forgotten the age of the book, had forgotten the relative age of the story. This, to me, was set in the bustling metropolis of the early 21st Century. The characters were people I might know, the tone was contemporary, ironic, powerful. Then, once again, it happens:

“Rogers had once boasted that – for 'certain reasons' as he said – no mice or insects ever came near the place. That was very curious yet it seemed to be true.”

What? No mice? I should bloody hope not.

Now, I've not been sheltered as far as rodents are concerned. I've known of plenty of people who have mice in their lofts, or rats in their compost heaps, but, correct me if I'm wrong, is it not commonly accepted that most people no longer have rodents living in their wall space? Is not the Tom and Jerry style mouse hole a thing of the past?

The past. Yes.

We share so much common ground but, who, now, would think of mentioning that, “Oh by the way, I live in a rodent free house.” And who, two hundred, a hundred, even sixty years ago, would have bothered to comment upon a few mice. No, it is their absence - “very curious yet it seemed to be true.”

It doesn't occur to us to question our assumptions until someone faces us with something like that, something that seems to be an outright contradiction of good sense – not from the standpoint of bigotry or morality but of normality. Of expectation, even.

Because things have changed, and they continue to change. A couple of weeks ago Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of 'The Independent' described Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame as “despotic and deluded” on Twitter. As he included the necessary @, Kagame was able to reply and did so. In text speak.

In 1999, who could have predicted this? Text speak was a thing known only to those with mobile phones, and the internet was not even that prevalent (at least in my social milieu). Anyway, we were all far too worried that the Millennium bug was going to destroy computers forever to be thinking about such advanced communications technology. That was only twelve years ago. Yet when we think about it, don't we think of ourselves as the same people? Our world as, essentially, the same? Doesn't some part of us insist that nothing has really changed?

But it has done, and society with it. Rather more scary is the thought that, if we succeed in not wiping ourselves out, it will continue to change and that all the vaunted cultural assumptions we have will lose their force. “It was 21st Century” they will whisper. “They didn't know any better.” Perhaps Jules Verne was being more insightful than he knew. It is only by abandoning society and all its trappings that we can see its constructs as beliefs rather than truths. And it is only Captain Nemo who can turn his mirror upon humanity and show us what we are.
1Local copyright laws permitting...

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