I suppose it’s important to set some guidelines on this investigation, otherwise the logical answer to the beginning of imaginal, erm, preoccupation (aka fandom) would be mainstream religion. On first impression it ticks all the boxes, consisting of both canon (eg: Old and New Testaments) and head-canon(eg: The Rapture). Additionally it’s based on a book or a series of writings; it has intensely complicated character interactions and often a persistent landscape and terminology with which it is relatively easy to familiarize yourself and thus immerse oneself into.
It’s not really what I’m after though, much as I’d love to visit religious people and ask them who they were shipping right now (“David and Jonathan? Cardinal, doesn’t that contravene some fairly major…oh ok, no harm no foul…”), and much as I’d love to see large devotional gatherings featuring Goliath and Jezebel cosplay…it’s probably just going to end up as an unplanned diversion into what I find really funny. So, no.
It’s also not the same if the people are real. I’ve always thought of Byron as a good candidate for the first major modern fan obsession. Women fainted, flushed and palpitated in his presence, men took up defensive postures and waxed Hectoral about what they’d do if he so much as looked at them (whilst secretly hoping he didn’t because the man did not mess about…or secretly hoping he did, because the man had something of a reputation for…messing about), and in general the reputation far exceeded the reality. His poetry transcended good or bad and ended up forever graven onto the hearts and souls of those who read it. Young women would gather in firelight and read each other passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and The Corsair. Many bosoms were heaved in his general direction, there was much bodice ripping, and in the case of poor Caroline Lamb at least, a detrimental degree of preoccupation with what he did, to whom and where.
He also unwittingly created two very closely related gothic horror fandoms by inviting everyone to write horror stories at the Villa Diodati during the non-existent summer of 1816. The modern view of the vampire and the monstrous creation of Victor Frankenstein were both conceived on that evening…to the same father. (Cue lightning and crashing organ chords).
In many ways, however close Childe Harold may have been to Byron himself and however closely he skimmed the misty borders of actually becoming a work of fiction in his own right, he doesn’t really qualify.
What’s the next candidate then?
There’s the Penny Dreadful craze of the 1830-40’s where stuff like “Sawney Bean” and “ Sweeney Todd” were selling like hot pies and everybody was desperate for the next instalment of “Varney The Vampire.” There’s “The Great Moon Hoax.” Of 1835 where fictional accounts of life on the moon observed from a fictional observatory in South Africa through a fictional super powerful telescope were passed off as genuine factual news by the New York Sun (a tradition of fabrication carried proudly into the 21st Century by Fox News as far as I can tell). It’s awesome, but something of a flash in the pan more akin to Orson Welles’s “War of The Worlds” broadcast than anything enduring, although people did go to parties as Martian bat-men, and there were drinks named in honour of this great step forward in cosmic exploration.
But what I’m really looking for is the point at which reading a story became wanting to live within that story for a large enough proportion of its audience to make them want to change aspects of their “real” lives in order to move closer to their desires.
So, here he is, the one, the only, the heavily bearded , frequently haunted perfectionist best mate of Wilkie Collins: Charles Dickens…
Which is a thing I’ll be rattling on about in a little while, along with the first true modern fan-dom; Sherlock Holmes. In the meantime it’s adventure time as I’m off to The Boston International Book Fair for a week or so. My next post will be about what’s happening in newly re-Obama’d America and what’s on show at the fair. Any questions or queries are welcome, if you’re coming to the fair and you’d like a guided tour just give me a shout and please feel free to do the same if you have any questions about book collecting, the trade, or in fact anything.