Thursday 8 January 2009

The Mythopeoic Nineties

There's a programme coming up on Radio 4 in which Gyles Brandreth (titter ye not - he's actually very bright) explores the sources of inspiration, and the social and artistic connections, of five writers who were active in London in the 1880s and 1890s, all of whom created fictional characters so hauntingly memorable that they have something of the power of myth about them (hence the programme's rather silly title, Five Meet to Make Up Myths). The authors he considers are Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie and Bram Stoker. To that list of myth makers of the period could be added H.G. Wells, Kipling and Rider Haggard, at least. Even Henry James and Conrad came as near to myth-making as they ever did in the 1890s, with The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness. My question is, what was it about that period that made it such uniquely fertile ground for fictional archetypes and (near) myths? I guess it was a period of supreme confidence in storytelling, but that is not a sufficient explanation. Was it something to do with the contents of the subconscious forcing themselves to the surface (and, in Vienna, being 'scientificallly' codified)? Whatever it was, it gave rise to a quite extraordinary crop of characters and scenarios that have long outlived their origins and inhabit a realm far removed from the common run of fictional creations: Sherlock Holmes, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dorian Grey, Peter Pan, Dracula... And there is a darkness (and a doubleness?) about all of them.
Any thoughts?


  1. That is interesting. There could be a bit of Freudianism in there, with characters that personify aspects of the psyche. Holmes is pure reason, Mr Hyde is the id. Dracula is obviously about sex. Peter Pan and Dorien Gray are connected by fear of ageing etc.

    It's as if those elements of the psyche, being revealed, needed some archetypal characters to come along and fill the space. Since then, no further characters have needed to replace them and subsequent fictional characers are only Holmes-like, Peter Pan-like etc.

  2. Someone - Elberry perhaps - had a post recently on a similar topic. The point is that a culture's most potent myths have to be written in advance, so to speak. The example used was Homer. A statement of the obvious, one might think, except that by the time of its decline and fall the idea is that a culture has lost the energy to make any myths at all.

    So one could say that all your examples prefigure modernism or, if you like, the birth of the modern world. Right place, right time, so they become myths. The argument is a little shaky, though, since plenty of other mythic figures have arisen since the 1890s: Batman, Tom and Jerry, the other Homer (Mr Simpson) and the avenging Man With No Name (cowboys, the Western).

    So I'd say that the 1890s are the period in which the modern world started to be born. Ahem, a rather painful and protracted birth to judge from subsequent events. Too bad that Conrad's The Secret Agent just misses your period.

  3. Simple dear Watson, blame the plush red velvet interiors and suppressed nookie.