Category Archives: Writers and the written

Weapons of Choice 3: Artificial Nocturnes.

Charles Dickens; the beginning of modern fandom?

The “Dickensian” 19th century is probably where by loose mainstream (not to mention Western, and thus probably predominantly male) definitions, we start to become able to easily recognise cultural and social touchstones as being not too dissimilar to our own.

The everyday stuff; shopping, clothes, streetlamps, street layouts, art galleries, leisure pursuits, newspapers, literature, music etc. could all be considered to be loosely the same. Whilst we might be thrown off by a 15th century Florentine street scene (unless we’ve played a lot of Assassin’s Creed), we can look at a photograph of Christmas shopping in the 1870’s and say “Oh, Oxford Street!” We don’t have any difficulty accepting gaslight gradually morphing into the beginning of municipal electricity usage, the hansom cab, gentlemen in bowler hats, ladies in corsets and crinolines and Jack the Ripper as all having been iconic components of this period.

What's my name? Yeah, it's a byword for poverty, cruelty, deprivation and urban horror. That's how I roll.

What’s my name? Yeah, it’s a byword for poverty, cruelty, deprivation and urban horror. That’s how I roll.

A far as successful British 19th Century writers were concerned Charles Dickens was the commercial equivalent of J. K. Rowling. He was huge, without doubt the most popular novelist of his time and place. There are numerous possible reasons for his overwhelming popularity, but one deciding factor would be the broad nature of his readership. He wrote for everyone, and he did it at a shilling a go.

A nicely produced hardback book could cost up to a guinea, for many that would be a luxury too far. Dickens weekly parts were cheap, plentiful and conformed to a standard that had been popular since the end of the 18th century.

Dickens’s most famous works were serialised, most often appearing in 19 weekly parts bound in powder blue decorated paper and accompanied by illustrated engravings. “Great Expectations” on the other hand was serialised in “All The Year Round” from December 1860 under Dickens’ editorship. Thus for those of us whose purses didn’t run to building a library; periodicals and part publications were the way to go for a regular fix of excitement, romance and adventure.

It’s easiest to envision the illustrated parts as episodes in a TV series. Each one was likely to end with a dilemma or some sort of a cliff-hanger and the readership would wait in eager anticipation to discover the next event in the life of Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby. The only people to get their hands on each installment in a timely fashion would be people living in the larger cities. Copies would be distributed from person to person, read around firesides and gossiped about in cafes and railway carriages. Those who were living abroad during the height of British Imperialism could and did wait months for their prized periodicals to arrive and break the dreadful monotony of Company or Crown service overseas. They weren’t just appreciated and read as entertainment; they were shared and communally devoured as a pure and accessible form of escapism.

Think of me as a DVD box set of the entirety of Farscape...

Think of me as a DVD box set of the entirety of Farscape…

This then appears to be one of the components of a flourishing fandom:  A “readership” that stems from many different walks of life coupled with the shared anticipatory experience of waiting. In addition it also needs the kind of social structure that permits a form of leisurely speculation as to motivations and physical and emotional repercussions on the part of the characters. There must be “gatherings” of followers discussing how Nicholas would get Smike free of Dotheboys Hall.

Nowadays the arena of fandom is incontrovertibly the internet…enough emotional energy has been expended on Tumblr to determine any potential for a relationship between Molly Hooper and Irene Adler, or the possible sexuality of Stiles Stilinski (which incidentally is something the show’s writers don’t even seem to see as an issue…crucially it’s the fans who desire and discuss the boundaries and the labels, who take and own the characters and settings) to power a medium sized Chinese city.

In the mid to late 19th century Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook would have been the after supper fireside or a walk in the park or the parlour in the evening…Dickens, Collins and many of his contemporaries ran a regular circuit of talks, lectures, amateur dramatics and informal gatherings, pretty much the pre-internet equivalent of posting spoilers or hosting a podcast.

The emotional connection of the readership to Dickens’ characters is undeniable, and again the pre-eminence of emotional over “intellectual” appeal seems to bind a group of viewers or readers into a fandom. It’s all about the emotional impact of a narrative; identifiable characters with clear cut motivations facing unusual events in a manner with which we can empathise. It’s one thing to make us think, but if you can make us laugh like drains and sob uncontrollably week after week…you have a fandom.

Possibly one of the most familiar examples of this would be the reaction to the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, the final part of which was published (in “Master Humphrey’s Clock”) in February 1841. This from the inestimable Victorian Calendar:


“Countless tears are shed across Britain at the death of dear Little Nell.  Her passing takes place in the newly published final chapters of Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop. The final scene is as famous – or infamous – as anything in Victorian literature:

‘She was dead. No sleep so beautiful and calm, so free from trace of pain, so fair to look upon. She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who has lived and suffered death … Dear, gentle, patient, noble Nell was dead.’

Dickens had struggled mightily: “I am breaking my heart over this story,” he told a friend. Dozens of readers wrote him begging that Nell be allowed to live. His close friend Macready, England’s greatest actor, after reading the final pages, wrote the author, “I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain.” It seemed everyone was grief-stricken. Lord Jeffrey, one of the nation’s leading judges, was found openly weeping by a friend, “I’m a great goose to have given way so, but I couldn’t help it.” The Irish champion, Daniel O’Connell threw his copy across the room, more in disgust than grief, claiming Dickens “had not sufficient talent to maintain Nell’s adventures… so he killed her.” When English ships reached American ports, people stood on the dock shouting, “Is Little Nell dead?” Sales of Dickens’ struggling journal Master Humphrey’s Clock rose to 100,000, many of them soon tear-stained.

For early Victorians, the open expression of grief was not anything to be ashamed of. By the latter stages of the century, however, the reaction had set in. Fitzjames Stephens wrote that “so many foolish tears had been shed” over Nell.”

"Poor Nell...Too...Many...Feels."The Editor, London Illustrated News, Feb. 1841

“Poor Nell…Too…Many…Feels.”
The Editor, London Illustrated News, Feb. 1841

The parallels between reader response here and reader response to the death of Dumbledore (just as an example) aren’t much of a stretch. It’s doubtful that anyone who developed a favourite Dickens’ character ever again rested entirely easy until the last page was turned and the finale reached still breathing. Charles Dickens, Ladies and Gentlemen; The Victorian Joss Whedon.

In 1841 I could have quoted her death scene to any of Mr Dickens’ multitude of readers and would have received a response probably very similar to the one I’d get if I was on Tumblr and said “I am a Leaf on The Wind.”

I would not be popular.

I would get this...The Black Spot of the interwebs,

I would get this…The Black Spot of the interwebs,

Next up Sherlock Holmes; the fandom that will not die even if you chuck it off a waterfall…and my problem with the concept of “quality”.  Actually my problem with quality should be pretty self-evident, but hey…

“All it is…is a stopped watch…”

Ray Bradbury has died. Everybody has to I suppose. I understand that’s the theory. There are some people I wish were exempt from this theory, and I exert probably rather meaningless effort into keeping them alive in my head in the infantile hope that maybe this means they will remain alive in real life. There’s probably a rather damning definition of egotism in there somewhere.

In this case, however egotistical and deluded that makes me, I really wish it had worked in the case of Ray Bradbury.

I remember lying awake at night as a child and thinking how odd it was that one day I would know what it feels like to die, to just stop. I did a lot of lying awake as a child. I couldn’t breathe lying down, and on top of that I was afraid of being buried alive and waking up in a coffin. Again; saved by books, although to be fair if I hadn’t read Poe it’s possible I would have had more mainstream terrors, like slugs, or girls, or whatever it is that real boys fear.

Look into my eyes, pay no attention to the dinosaur over my left shoulder, there’s nothing to see there.

In 1962, Mr. Bradbury wrote “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” He wrote a lot of books actually, some of them; “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” are more famous, possibly rightly so, I don’t know.

I know that this book is mine.

I read “Something Wicked…” as a child, and I had that rare feeling that you get with some books where you have to keep stopping because otherwise you will explode, the delirious feeling that you have to yell out loud with the sheer joy and excitement at being recognized across a vast distance by someone you have never met.

He wrote this:

“The stuff of nightmare is their plain bread. They butter it with pain. They set their clocks by deathwatch beetles, and thrive the centuries. They were the men with the leather-ribbon whips who sweated up the Pyramids seasoning it with other people’s salt and other people’s cracked hearts. They coursed Europe on the White Horses of the Plague. They whispered to Caesar that he was mortal, then sold daggers at half-price in the grand March sale. Some must have been lazing clowns, foot props for emperors, princes, and epileptic popes. Then out on the road, Gypsies in time, their populations grew as the world grew, spread, and there was more delicious variety of pain to thrive on. The train put wheels under them and here they run down the log road out of the Gothic and baroque; look at their wagons and coaches, the carving like medieval shrines, all of it stuff once drawn by horses, mules, or, maybe, men.” 

This also may have had some influence on me:

“When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they!–when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?” 

He wrote in wrenchingly elegant style about the passing of time, the nature of life, the importance of paying attention, love (both having it and not having it) and most poignantly of loss. He told me that it isn’t fair that we get old, and it often isn’t fair that we are young first and that nevertheless there is always a fierce joy to being that is almost certainly lacking from the opposite. He also, (it has to be pointed out because I find it hard to shut up), managed to cram all of these concepts into a howling, lurching, gleefully frightening story of evil carnivals, eternal darkness, death, destruction and and the cast iron fact that no matter how young and small you are, no matter how old and weak; there is always hope, and you can always fight.

These are great and wonderful things to tell a seven year old boy who can’t breathe and is afraid of being buried alive. This greatness is not to be underestimated.

He also wrote this:

” If I run, he thought, what will happen? Is Death important? No. Everything that happens before Death is what counts. And we’ve done fine tonight. Even Death can’t spoil it.” 

This; this continues to help on the nights when I’m still afraid of being buried alive, and also on the nights when I’m far more afraid of waking up and finding that people I love have gone.

Natalie Fisher, whom if I had my way would live forever and two extra days (just in case one of them was rainy and she didn’t want to wear a hat), said I should write blog posts on books that changed my life. I just did that, and I wish I hadn’t had to.

RIP Ray Bradbury

RIP Ray Bradbury.

Thank You Katie West

“Book collecting is an obsession, an occupation, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it. Those who do not do it, think of it as a cousin of stamp collecting, a sister of the trophy cabinet, bastard of a sound bank account and a weak mind.”

— Jeanette Winterson

Necrophilia for Beginners: Part One

As bookdealers, most of us are necrophiles; to be any good at this job you need to have a deep and abiding love for dead things.

Dead people especially, but also dead cities, dead languages, dead habits and long dead obsessions. I personally am deeply in love with many dead people; Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft, Anais Nin, William Hope Hodgson, Erasmus, Pauline Reage,Charles Darwin, John Wilmot Earl of Rochester, Byron, Shelley and Dr. John William Polidori.

To name but a few.

I know one bookdealer who is madly and passionately in love with a long dead French balloonist and another who goes wobbly at the mention of Moina Mathers.

This is John William Polidori:

He doesn't look anything like Timothy Spall

He didn’t live very long (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821), but he did quite a lot. He graduated as a doctor of medicicine from Edinburgh University at the age of 19, and the very next year in 1816 he became personal travelling physician to none other than the notoriously delicious Lord Byron, the world’s biggest rockstar before there were any rockstars.

So one day he’s the young, gifted son of an exiled Italian scholar, the next day he’s touring Europe as the travelling companion of a man more famous than Jesus, more notorious than Lucifer and a good deal more likely to pull than either of them.

One of the reasons I love John Polidori is because he was very young, very smart and it all went straight to his head. He was tremendously fallible (which is why he is continuously portrayed as either an easily manipulated man muppet, a girly whining fop consumed by jealousy or  a cunning little manipulator; Renfield to Byron’s Dracula), he made frequent social faux pas, he argued with Shelley (which is almost a dictionary definition of pointless), he reckoned he was in with a chance with just about every woman within a ten mile radius of Lake Como, couldn’t hold his drink (which in the company of Byron and his cronies was definitely a serious handicap), couldn’t shoot straight, couldn’t write straight and certainly couldn’t swim the Hellespont.

There he was sitting having after dinner conversation with Mary Shelley, Byron, John Cam Hobhouse, Percy Shelleyand all the social moths who inevitably gathered wherever Byron lit, and he just wasn’t rock and roll. It would be like me hanging out with Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Janis Joplin trying to impress them with a couple of crap guitar riffs and story about how I once got really, really stoned.

This is Byron:

Not in the least bit cool...


The 19th Century's answer to Justin Bieber...


Except he's younger and better dressed...

But John William Polidori, for all his faults, his youth, his argumentative whininess and his inability to understand that standing next a genius doesn’t naturally mean you will become one, contributed at least one massively important thing to culture, pop, high or otherwise…


Presenting, for the very first time...

Which became this:

Throw your hands in the air, make some noise!

And this:

Because you're worth it...

and, unaccountably, eventually, this:

No, really, it's man-glitter!

More to follow…

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