England’s Dreaming #7 – Steampunk Sherlock vs Jack the Ripper and Spring Heeled Jack. On Mars.

So over the last couple of weeks I’ve been writing a lot of posts about British folklore, and most of them have been to do with the ancient stuff – King Arthur, fairies, tales lost in the fog of myth and mystery. And then something reminded me that there’s a whole other vein of story to be tapped.

That something was the BBC’s latest retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s fantastic. Well written, great cast, deservedly got the ratings. What’s particularly good about it is how successfully it updated the trappings of the characters, who are best known as being shrouded in smog and surrounded by horse-drawn carriages. It helps that some of the original characterisation has contemporary parallels – the modern Doctor Watson just got back from serving in Afghanistan – so did the original.

Because unlike, say, King Arthur, the ‘folklore’ and culture that developed in the Victorian era comes from a world that’s both alien and similar to our own. It’s not really folklore – when we think of the ‘legendary’ aspects of the Victorian era, they tend to be based on published novels (Sherlock Holmes, the science fiction of HG Wells, Dracula) or historic events (Jack the Ripper, the Industrial Revolution). Somehow though they’ve all coalesced into one, an imaginary London that never existed but still has a folkloric vibe of its own. You can’t help thinking that, somehow, Sherlock Holmes should have been involved in the Jack the Ripper investigation.

It’s also modern folklore – the Victorian era is when the modern world began; the Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first expo, and the Industrial Revolution was effectively the driving force behind the world we have today. These technological advances have spawned a mystique all of their own – steampunk is based around the idea that contemporary technology hit its tipping point in the 1800s, with steam-powered cars and brass computers. Suddenly figures like Charles Babbage become not only notable inventors, but modern heroes; this is particularly starting to happen with Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ – the fact that the first computer ‘programmer’ was a woman makes her a strikingly modern figure and a feminist icon.

This isn’t all that surprising – it seems like an age away to us, and it was, but Sherlock Holmes was interested in the latest crime-fighting techniques (finger printing, forensics), and Jack the Ripper is known as the first modern serial killer – in Alan Moore’s frankly terrifying graphic novel From Hell (don’t bother with the movie), he puts forward the suggestion that the Ripper murders in 1888 gave birth to the 20th century – given how blood-soaked that century ended up, and how the Edwardian era seems to be the calm before the inevitable storm of World War I, it’s hard not to see his point.

(Maybe that’s why the era is so alien and so similar at the same time – it was wiped out by an apocalyptic event that remade the world…)

Even the out-and-out weirdness had that contemporary feel – Spring Heeled Jack was a Victorian bogeyman, a scary figure that belched fire and could leap from the ground to rooftops. In another time he’d be a demon or an elf or something – in the 1830’s he’s wearing a helmet and a manufactured cloak and metallic claws. He may be from the Otherland, but they’ve obviously gone a bit steampunk.

(I swear I once read there was a Spring Heeled Jack sighting very close to where I live. I wish I could track down the reference…)

And then we have Dracula, stalking the streets of London and Whitby, fear of the outsider and issues with sex personified. And the Martians of HG Wells, ambivalance towards imperialism stomping through Woking bringing with them the end of an age. Again, contemporary fears, again figures you feel as though exist in the same world. Alan Moore got good mileage out of this in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but it’s just part of the wider stereotypical Victorian era. It’s probably not folklore in the strictest sense, but maybe, in another hundred years it will be, the creation myth for the 20th/21st centuries.

So basically… Watch Sherlock!


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