Friday Five: 15 Awesome Victorians
Friday, August 26, 2011
Ah, the Victorians. Without them, we wouldn't have sewers, terraced homes, the vote, uncomfortable piercings or most BBC miniseries. The era has never been more popular, with steampunk on the ascent like a chrome-girded, pistol-packing, heavily-corseted, goggle-wearing, largely-inaccurate zeppelin.
When it comes to discussing Victoriana, there's no better guest than Jonathan Green, creator of the Ulysses Quicksilver adventures. Pax Britannia is the world's longest-running steampunk series, and besides awing us with swash, buckle, time travel and the occasional cyber-squid, Mr. Green has always impressed us with his historical knowledge (a mention of Professor Richard Owen in Unnatural History won us over immediately).
Without further ado, here are our individual picks for the five finest Victorians - real, imaginary and all things in-between... The Victorians didn't have blogs, but if they did, they'd be the finest blogs ever (and mildly pornographic). And they'd undoubtedly leave comments about who we missed off our list.
Sir Richard Owen - The man who gave the world the word 'dinosaur', thereby naming a diverse group of animals that has captured the imaginations of 5 year-old boys and geeks ever since. Biologist, comparative anatomist and palaeontologist, he was often cast as the villain to Charles Darwin's hero; and yet this is the man who gave us the Natural History Museum. But never mind all that - he effectively invented dinosaurs!
H. G. Wells/The Time Traveller - I'm being a bit sneaky here but the way The Time Machine is written, you could quite easily believe that Wells himself was the Time Traveller. Many of Herbert George's ideas have become staples of modern science-fiction and have particularly inspired the Steampunk genre. Cavorite, Selenites, time travel... the man was a creative powerhouse!
Spring-Heeled Jack - A character of English folklore? Urban Legend? Apparition? Alien? Or sex pest? Who was he really? It's likely we will never know - but that's what makes him such an intriguing character and persistent presence in the national psyche.
Count Dracula - Effectively, the vampire primogenitor. Not sure if he really counts as a Victorian but he certainly sought to bring his Machiavellian plans to fruition during Queen Victoria's reign. The Dracula I'm a fan of isn't Christopher Lee's Hammer Horror version, but the Count from Stoker's original, combined with Gary Oldman's interpretation of him and Kim Newman's development of the character in Anno Dracula and beyond.
Queen Victoria - I mean the woman has a whole historical period named after her and one that saw unprecedented technological, cultural and social changes. One of our longest reigning monarchs, who ruled when the British Empire was at its height, she was as much a force of nature as anything else. God save the Queen!
Jack the Ripper
Doctor Henry Jekyll/Mr Edward Hyde
Jon Green and I became friends over our mutual love of Richard Owen (he’s central to that dissertation I’m apparently working on). Just for the sake of fun and argument, then, I find myself forced to choose Owen’s great antagonist, TH Huxley, for my list. In addition to his most famous role as Darwin’s bulldog, the man who went to the mat again and again to fight for Darwinian evolution, Huxley was hugely responsible for creating our modern conception of professional, vocational scientists. He’s the person who defined the laboratory as a professional space and graduate degrees as essential professional qualifications. Also Huxley was an entirely self-made man, smart as all get-out, had a wicked sense of humor, and was a serious stone-cold fox.
Modernly, probably your first experience with the Victorians comes from watching adaptations of A Christmas Carol as a kid. (My money’s on the George C. Scott version.) It’s also probably everyone’s first exposure to Charles Dickens, and with it Victorian ideas about sin and redemption. But of course the heart of the story is ol’ Ebenezer Scrooge himself, the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner who learns that, as long as there’s breath in your body, you still have time to make a difference. Also: the turkey as big as me. (Yum.)
William Gladstone, the greatest wizard to ever battle the Czech Empire; wielder of the staff that summoned lightning to bring down the walls of Prague. Okay, I’m thinking of the Gladstone of Jonathan Straud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. But the real Gladstone was just as extraordinary. He began his career as a Tory toady in a rotten borough; by the end of his incredibly long life he’d been PM four times and essentially the architect of some of the greatest liberal reforms of the English political story. Also, he read something close to eight million books over his life and chopped down trees for fun. And all he really wanted was to be left alone with his Horace.
Jane Eyre. No adaptation has ever really done our Jane justice; her shyness often translates as insularity and her anger not at all. But what makes Jane Eyre one of the most compelling characters in all literature is her extraordinary strength and profound sense of self. She’s also completely Victorian: an unloved orphan, sent to waste away at some horror-show of a boarding school where she instead grows strong and healthy and uniquely self-possessed. Although people mostly remember Jane Eyre for its love story, that represents less than a third of the novel – which is actually about Jane’s relationship with God. And there’s nothing more Victorian than worrying about one’s relationship with God.
Hey, isn’t it nice how London doesn’t smell like shit? And that drinking water from the tap doesn’t kill you? Well, that certainly wasn’t the case until Sir Joseph Bazalgette got involved. In August of 1858, a particularly hot and dry summer, the river Thames – essentially London’s only sewer, and an open one at that – became so befouled with human waste that the city was nearly unlivable. As part of the response to the "Great Stink," Bazalgatte oversaw the creation of 1,100 miles of underground tunnels to move waste out of London. Not only did the river begin the long process of recovering from 2,000 years as a public toilet, but improved access to potable water also helped end London’s last major cholera epidemic. Oh, and the Victoria Embankment? Built in part to hide the sewer works. Now London is clean(er) and prettier. So raise a glass to Ol’ Joe tonight.
William Buckland - Geologist, priest, professor, adventurer, fellow of the Royal Society, founder of the Geological Society of London, Dean of Westminster and 18th level vorpal loon. Buckland trained his horse to smell out rocks. He built a table from dinosaur poop. He had a pet bear (which would wander the hallowed halls of Oxford in academic robes). A dedicated zoophage, Buckland was determined to taste every mammal, threw notorious dinner parties ("More mole, anyone?") and once (infamously) devoured the desiccated heart of Louis XIV of France. The Very Reverend Doctor William Buckland DD FRS is my favorite figure in any time period of history - he's better than fiction.
Passepartout - The acrobatic valet of Phileas Fogg suffers an undeservedly bad reputation. It is Passepartout that rescues the girl, punches the bad guys and generally saves the day. Alas, as the manservant, the spoils (and the foxy princess) get passed along to the boss. To me, Passepartout will always be the agile Cantinflas, perplexed by David Niven's increasingly ridiculous instructions regarding the temperature of his bath water.
Arthur Machen - My favorite stories from this Welsh horror writer were all published in the late Victorian era. "The Great God Pan" (1894) was criticised for its sexual content and its decadence (and promptly sold like hotcakes). "The White People" (1904) (but written in 1899, so ha!) was praised by Lovecraft as Machen's "subtlest" and "greatest" story. "Machen is a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author—and I must read everything of his.” - HPL to Frank Belknap Long, 1923.
Allan Quatermain - The finest hunter in the British Empire. Although H. Rider Haggard wrote a score of Quatermain adventures, my favorite is the aging explorer's final mission in Allan Quatermain (1887). By this point in his storied career, Quatermain has realised that he can't stand a) life in England, b) a life of leisure and c) life without his son (recently deceased). He gamely teeters off on one final exploit, helping his manly-man friends score womanly-woman mates and found a (white) African kingdom far from the insufferable comforts of civilisation.
Benjamin Disraeli - Given my own political leanings, choosing the father of modern conservatism feels a little dubious, but the 1st Earl of Beaconsfield was awesome. Disraeli had a properly scandalous youth (with both financial and romantic entanglements), a literary career pretty much based on hype and sarcasm, and an incredibly lengthy life in politics built of out of cunning, oratorical skills, rare charm and the occasional burst of genuine passion. He was an imperialist, a statesman, a genius and an occasional radical - really, whatever worked at the time. Disraeli also became the hero to many a young Jewish boy (like me) with his scathing retort to a parliamentary detractor, "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon."
BUT, most importantly, Disraeli was Gladstone's arch-rival. So as long as Anne argues for the axe-happy hooker-poker, I'll have to champion his nemesis...
(P.S. I still think the Romans were better.)