When I was a teenager, I often wondered (who hasn’t?) what it would be like to be suddenly transported back in time, and find myself in – shall we say? – Restoration England. Let’s suppose that that despite my uncouth garb and speech I escaped being imprisoned or hanged as a witch and made it to the Royal Society, usually my first port of call in these situations. My immediate goal would be to seek out Robert Hooke or Christopher Wren (Isaac Newton being too irascible), universally curious men who might choose to protect me because of all the interesting things I could teach them about inventions yet to come. What fun I’d have, telling them all about the future! How impressed they would be!
These reveries always ended badly, however, because I realised I couldn’t tell them much at all. I knew that cars and televisions existed, of course, but not how they worked – or not well enough to be any use in helping to build one. Even the less ambitious gadgets – say, bicycles, which Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee introduced to King Arthur’s court in similar circumstances – defeated my feeble ingenuity. In short, I was a useless time traveller, and in most cases it wasn’t long before Hooke’s patience was exhausted and I was committed to Bedlam. (Quite possibly this has actually happened to some people. We may never know.)
A far better game was having someone come from the past to visit my own time, and being able to show them round the twentieth century. Nothing beat the pleasure of reducing Leonardo da Vinci to a gape-mouthed yokel as he clapped eyes on a helicopter that actually worked. Although I knew little about engineering, this time all I had to say was, “Get a load of that.” Such technological glories certainly impressed my guests (not only Leonardo: Francis Bacon and Jane Austen were also very taken), and I liked to think that a little of the stardust rubbed off on me. That at least, was the way my daydreams generally played out, before my attention was drawn back to the logarithms and ox bow lakes of my 1970s classroom.
Why have I shared these revealing details about my teenage psyche? Well, lately I’ve been thinking about “detachability” – that is, the extent to which you can take characters (real or imagined) out of one context and plonk them down in another, and what happens when you try. Time travel is only one way to do this, of course. In these days of mash-ups, crossovers and fan fiction (not that any of these are new inventions), we’re quite used to seeing characters from one storyverse turn up in another. Dickensian, currently showing on BBC television, has people from multiple Dickens novels bumping into each other freely, and I’ve even come across numerous fictions on page and screen in which Dickens himself makes an appearance.
It’s strange, though, how some characters seem to be more detachable than others. In Shakespeare, for example, Falstaff is a supremely detachable character, appearing not only in the Henry IV history plays but also in an Elizabethan domestic comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor – a play cooked up, tradition has it, after Queen Elizabeth demanded a story showing “Falstaff in love”. He was later inserted into stories and plays by several non-Shakespearian hands, too. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a play successfully depicting Hamlet’s scrapes as a student in Wittenberg, or even his courtship of Ophelia. Why is that? Not, presumably, because Hamlet is a less fully realised character than Falstaff. But somehow he’s harder to take out of the context of those unfortunate events in Elsinore.
I once amused myself with the fancy that Peter Pan, Doctor Who and Dracula were all one and the same person. After all, they have a lot in common:
How Academics Spend Their Time
It’s funny how you never see them together, isn’t it? But they’re also all detachable: Peter Pan has become a symbol far beyond Barrie’s novel (you know you’ve made it when you get a Syndrome named after you); the Doctor has wandered through genres and storyverses quite as much as through time and space; Dracula has spawned a brood of fictional avatars large enough to warm even his cold heart. Maybe they’re all dipping into the same archetypal well? Maybe, in fact, detachable characters all have a smack of the archetype?
Who are the other great detachables? Scrooge? Don Quixote? Gulliver, perhaps? They’re a select group – and exclusively male, as far as I can see. For all the famous and vivid female characters in literature, for both children and adults, I can think of none who has had this kind of peripatetic and self-renewing existence, at least outside the realms of legend and mythology. Pippi Longstocking? Jane Eyre? Miss Marple? Anne of Green Gables? Lady Macbeth? They ought to detach, I feel, and be free to appear, not just in sequels but in whole other storyverses. But I can’t think of any examples.
Perhaps, however, you can?
Perhaps, however, you can?