Reading the History of Popular Fiction Part 2: The Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin, not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (United Kingdom - 1819) (Not finished)

A 1819 publication date is obviously a little early for a book's inclusion in an article called "The Mid-to-Late Nineteenth Century", but it's not a Gothic novel so I'm fitting it in here.

Ivanhoe, like The Castle of Otranto, is set in the 12th century, but trades the more spooky and fantastic trappings of the Gothic for Romantic knights in tournaments, historical intrigues, and bald soap opera. One of the supporting characters is Robin Hood, and a principle character is a Jewish lady in one of the early positive portrayals of a Jew in European gentile literature. The book was very popular, and was part of a long series of books the author wrote about the period, which in turn inspired numerous imitators and led to a boom in historical medieval fiction that's an important part of the lineage that stretches from the heroic epics of the 16th century like Orlando Furioso to the quasi-medieval fantasies of JRR Tolkein and his heirs.

It's also the first book of this project I couldn't get through. I can't tell you if the dialog was historically accurate, but it sounded like the stiff, arch thees and thous and self-satisfied droll of bad Renaissance Faire participants. The story also gets bogged down in numerous long descriptions of landscape and environment and after 100 pages or so I couldn't really tell whether the plot had begun. The idea of plodding through another 400 pages of that stuff kind of made me want to put a hole in my head.

Which was really a shame, because I kind of like books about knights and Robin Hood and political intrigue. Oh, well.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père (France - 1844-1845) *

Dear Lord did I love this book. It's over 1,000 pages, more than twice the length of Ivanhoe, but there was hardly a moment where I was bored or counting the pages to the end.

Monte Cristo's plot is familiar because it's been imitated a thousand times. A sailor named Edmund Dantes is about to marry the love of his life when he is framed for a crime he did not commit, and is locked away in a dank prison. He befriends a fellow prisoner who tells him the secret location of his hidden fortune before he dies. Dantes breaks out of prison by posing as the body of his dead friend, finds the fortune and then reemerges into French society with a new identity, the Count of Monte Cristo, and uses all his wits and money to exact bitter, painstaking revenge on those who wronged him. It's not enough for the Count to kill his enemies, that would be too easy. No, he must utterly destroy them, drive them to madness, poverty and suicide, all the while posing as an innocent, somewhat foppish aristocrat.

In tune with the fetishization of the East that we've previously seen, Dantes is described as having lived in the Eastern world and learned many fantastic there, including the use of various drugs and narcotics. He returns with a young Greek woman (and therefore safely white, though also Eastern by virtue of Greece being part of the Ottoman Empire at the time), a former slave whom he keeps living as in a seraglio with servants and Arabian clothing, and who naturally becomes key to one of his plots.

There are perhaps a few parts that could be excised without really harming anything; the book was published in serialized form as it was written, and one wonders if it might not have gotten tightened up if it had been edited and published all at once. But this is a minor gripe. The Count is a compelling character, and the story keeps you wondering what his next move is going to be, or how he's going to deal with the current crisis.

The figure of the foppish aristocrat with a secret double life is one that has pretty thoroughly entered the public discourse, and we'll see it in everyone from AJ Rafferty (below) to Zorro and Batman. In a sense, Dantes might be seen as one of the first super villains, or at least super anti-heroes. Also the revenge drama, rare at the time, has become a staple of 20th and 21st century fiction, from Ben-Hur to The Stars My Destination to the Parker novels of Richard Stark to Kill Bill.

A Journey to the Interior of the Earth by Jules Verne (France - 1864) (Previously read)

I liked Verne as a kid, found him fun and exciting, but on rereading his books just don't hold up. I've found his plots contrived, his characters one-dimensional and his prose style laughable. But it can't be denied that he's a key figure in the development of science fiction, or "scientific romance" as it became known in the late 19th century. He's certainly the first author to draw a line and say "my work will be based entirely on known scientific theory" and, even when those theories turned out to be wrong, the results were still interesting.

A Journey to the Interior of the Earth is known more popularly as Journey to the Center of the Earth, though the "translation" that usually bears that title is actually a complete rewrite of the French novel and notoriously bad.

Journey is notable for being the first "lost world" novel, where a group of explorers find a strange land populated by prehistoric monsters and plant life. Even just the book's hint, in a couple tantalizing paragraphs, that there were people living in the interior of the Earth gave rise to a whole host of books of lost civilizations.

The Steam Man of the Prarie by Edward S. Ellis (America - 1868)

This book is one of the few true "dime novels" or "penny dreadfuls" in my list— the cheap, disposable stories that were the pulp fiction of this period. This book is also one of the first science fiction novels written in America, and perhaps the first instance of the "boy genius" meme where the lone genius brilliant inventor is really a child, a meme which would reach its apex in the Tom Swift novels of the early 20th century and continue to be popular in the present in forms like Dexter's Laboratory and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. And finally, it's an early Western, filled with cowboys fighting Indians.

It's also terrible. Steam Man is the story of a hunchbacked teenager who invents a steam-powered robot that he can hook up to a wagon and steer around. It's little more than a motor with legs. Some prospectors come past and decide it's just the thing to haul gold around in the Western territories, and convince the kid to come along with them (no mention of what his parents might think of this). Most of the plot involves dastardly and cartoonish Indians, who want nothing more than to slit their throats and take their gold, and there's lots of lurid descriptions of them dying for their troubles. In the end the heroes blow up the robot's boiler in the midst of the Indians, horribly murdering them all.

The Tachypomp and Other Stories by Edward Paige Mitchell (America - 1874-1881) * (Previously read)
(This out-of-print, public domain book can be found in its entirety at this link.)

This collection of short stories, originally published anonymously in the New York newspaper the Sun, are notable for being the first appearance of a number of science fictional tropes. It has the first instance of a faster-than-light engine, of a biological man with a mechanical brain, of instantaneous matter transportation ("beaming" in Star Trek parlance), and the first depiction of a mechanical time machine (years before Wells' two versions), among other things. It's model of each story exploring a single fantastic notion or theoretical idea is a model of the format science fiction short stories would most often take, especially in the early decades of the 20th century. And, unlike Steam Man, Tachypomp is always charming and entertaining.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (America - First published in the United Kingdom - 1884) * (Previously read)

There's probably not much I need to say about this book, since you've probably read it (and if you haven't, do so, it's great), but I didn't want the nineteenth century to go past without mentioning Twain. Twain pioneered the use of colloquial speech as a prose style, a trick which would ultimately be used by writers like Faulkner, Salinger and so on. Another important thing about Twain and another influential American writer, Stephen Crane, was their reliance on action and dialog to express character, at a time when many authors were using the third person omniscient voice to tell you exactly what kind of person everyone was. In the age of film and television "show, don't tell" has become a cliché, but at this time it was a revolutionary concept, and Twain and Crane showed the way to do it.

She by H. Rider Haggard (United Kingdom - 1887) (Not finished)

Back in 2006, I wrote a review of Haggard's novel King Solomon's Mines, and pretty much everything I said about that book applies to this one as well. This is a very popular, influential fantasy novel about a bunch of white people who are shipwrecked on an African island, where they find the black inhabitants ruled by a beautiful sorcerous, who is, naturally, white. The book is racist, sexist, poorly written, poorly characterized and really poorly everything. I thought maybe, even after suffering through Mines, that I could pull some cool things out of this book, but no, I really couldn't and gave up less than half-way through.

The Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (United Kingdom - 1887-1927) * (Most previously read)

I'm not going to pick out any particular Holmes stories. Holmes has become so deeply ingrained in our collective idea of the mystery story that it's hard to think about what it must have been like when he was new and exciting. The character so defined the detective genre that for decades afterwards mystery stories were written in some way in imitation of or reaction to him (as we'll see). Even today we're given new interpretations of the Holmesian ideal, from the TV show "House, MD" (his name a deliberate play on Holmes), to the Robert Downey, Jr films and the Steven Moffat-helmed TV series.

Holmes is the quintessential figure of 19th century lone genius— mostly self-taught, brilliant from birth, naturally greater than those that surround him, Holmes can pick out a puzzle use nothing but a few salient clues and the power of deductive reasoning. His stories are the perfect little blasts of crime drama, open and shut in a handful of pages, and any one can be read on its own without knowing any of the others. The narrator of most of the stories, Dr. Watson, is the perfect cipher, a man who lives but to tell you about Holmes' astounding feats with rapt, loving attention.

Even if you've never read a sentence of Conan Doyle, you know who Holmes is and how he works. We love Holmes, perhaps because we want to believe in a man who can step into a room, take a look around and coldly and impersonally solve all problems. It's a seductive notion, and one with legs.

Trilby by George Du Maurier (French/British - first published in America - 1894) (Not finished)

Another massively popular late 19th century book that I couldn't get through. Trilby is the story of bohemian artist types living in London, and a beautiful artists model who is spirited away by an evil Jewish hypnotist named Svengali. It's racist, anti-semitic, but mostly its boring as its characters sit around and talk about how amazingly bohemian and cool they all are. Bleh.

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (United Kingdom - 1896) *

Jules Verne apparently hated H.G. Wells, saying there wasn't any science in his books. Wells certainly cared a lot less about scientific rigor than about the social possibilities of change and progress, and his books are better for it. Though eventually he descended into didactic preaching, at his peak, when he produced books like The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau, no one could touch him as a writer of the scientific romance. At this time, the industrial revolution was causing science and technology to progress faster than ever before, causing massive social, political and economic upheaval, and Wells led the way in using literature to grapple with the hopes and fears that inspired.

He was also just a good writer, and Moreau particularly takes the tools of the Gothics and applies them to make science something genuinely chilling. A man is shipwrecked on an island where Doctor Moreau, exiled from the scientific establishment for his unorthodox methods (an early example of the mad scientist meme), creates a "house of pain" where he takes animals and performs radical surgery on them (without anesthesia) until they approach the look and intelligence of men. Ultimately, the creatures return to savagery, despite Moreau's best efforts to indoctrinate them in a sort of religion of reason, with himself as God and Christ.

Seen as a metaphor for colonialism, it's both a striking rebuke of UK foreign policy at the height of the Victorian era and pretty racist stuff. Seen as a parable of about the fears of technological progress and the onrushing 20th century, it's a good a book as you're likely to find. Seen as a simple horror novel, it's completely successful.

Moreau, like Holmes, and like characters in almost every one of Wells novels from this period, is a 19th century lone genius, a man who can do impossible things with nothing but his own wits and humble resources. This idea of the lone man who needs no help from anyone will persist in popular culture because it is, again, a seductive idea, and one that feeds into our notions of genius as something in-born which, in turn, excuses us from being one. In real life, of course, science is anything but solitary, and even a figure who positioned himself as a real-life lone genius like Thomas Edison in truth had a kind of invention factory in Menlo Park staffed by dozens.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (United Kingdom - 1897) *
Note: Bram Stoker was Irish, but at the time Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.

Another book that shows a maturing of Gothic sensibilities into modern horror, Dracula is compelling, scary, clever, dark and weird. Perhaps the most surprising thing to me about reading it, though, is finding out that Dracula has a mustache. And not some little bat-wing number, either, but a giant Vlad the Impaler handlebar stache— which probably shouldn't be so surprising, since Dracula is based on Vlad, but like all of us, I've been inundated with the popular image of a clean-shaven Count all my life.

There are parts, especially towards the end, where Dracula strains credulity. The three wives are, for example, dispatched a bit too easily, as is, really, the Count himself. But ultimately, Dracula lives up to the hype and even after all its tropes and idioms have been copied and diluted and exploited beyond recognition, it's still a very good vampire novel, interesting for its epistolary format, and a pleasurable read.

The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (United Kingdom - 1899)

When I was a teenager, I had an idea for a character. He would be like Sherlock Holmes but without the moral scruples. An evil, villainous Sherlock Holmes, now wouldn't that be cool?

Needless to say, "evil Sherlock Holmes" has been done before. The most obvious example is Professor Moriarty himself, the Napoleon of Crime who Doyle created as the only man that could bring down the Great Detective. But the idea of Holmes-as-villain has been played out in many, many different permutations (as we'll see in coming installments of this series), one of the first being AJ Rafferty, a "gentleman thief" created by Doyle's own brother-in-law.

Rafferty is not quite as capable as Holmes, and we'll see a more mature example of the Gentleman Thief archetype when we get to Arsène Lupin in the next installment, but Rafferty is perhaps the first, and he is every bit the foppish aristo who charms you to let him stay at your house and then steals the diamonds from next to your bed while you sleep. He is accompanied by a Watson-like cipher, who dutifully documents his every caper and marvels at his every picked lock. One interesting thing about Rafferty is that he doesn't always win; often he'll lose, though admittedly in a dramatic and exciting way. This lends a bit of realism that one fails to get in Holmes, who is almost never wrong and almost never missteps.

Not read:
Charles Dickens

What to say about Charles Dickens? Influential, obviously. Popular, undeniably. Boring, excruciatingly.

Varney the Vampire; or Feast of Blood by James Malcolm Rymer (United Kingdom - 1847)

A "penny dreadful", Varney introduced a lot of vampire tropes we now take for granted, like the two pointy teeth that leave a tell-tale mark on the neck. It was a major influence on Dracula, and through Dracula on popular literature. It's also very long, meandering and poorly written, and so I didn't bother with it.

Comments

What about the westerns and

What about the westerns and other forms of post civil war fiction? Surely there is more to the genesis of that genre than one robot horse?

also, it seems you've left

also, it seems you've left out the rich and varied field of American Exceptionalism such as the mound-builder novels (of which the Book of Mormon is one of the more successful examples) and other stories designed to convince the young men of the east to, ahem, go west.