Monday, 11 January 2016

Detachable People - Catherine Butler

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?


Nick Green said...

Yup. I did all that. (Still do). Isaac Newton is all right once you get to know him. Just don't mention Albert.

I wonder if Mary Poppins is a detachable female character? She seems a strong contender.

I did write a book once where the protagonist was a supporting character detached from an abortive novel. She was the only good thing about the abandoned story, and transferred well into an entirely new setting. It probably happens quite a lot to characters in draft.

Katherine Langrish said...

Nick, that's brilliant. I want to see Mary Poppins in the Tardis. She would soon sort out all those broken-backed storylines and sentimental tosh about the Byronic Wandering Man of Sorrows they've turned the Doctor into. I can see Mary Poppins as an ideal Doctor.

Catherine Butler said...

Mary Poppins - yes, quite possibly. There's The Simpsons' Shary Bobbins, for starters. (And "in another place" someone also mentioned appearances for Alice, Dorothy and Wendy in some graphic novels.)

Catherine Butler said...

Katherine, come to think of it, Missy looks a bit like Mary Poppins...

Emma Barnes said...

Alice (In Wonderland) surely.

Also Jane Austen's characters (and Jane Austen herself) has been widely used by other authors in sequels, detective versions etc.

Not to mention fairytale characters - there have been many, many versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty et all, not just the Disney versions.

Catherine Butler said...

Alice, yes. I wondered about Murder in Pemberley, or whatever it was called. A straight sequel might not be enough of a detachment from the original context to count, but that was also a change of genre, so I can see that. Fairytale characters certainly: I rather bundled them (in my mind at least) with mythical and legendary figures.

Anonymous said...

Ooh! I do love a Venn diagram. A very interesting post.

Nick Green said...

@Katherine Mary Poppins as the Doctor gets my vote! Bursting into song at every turn!

A spoonful of gold dust helps a cyberman fall down!
Reversing the polarity will soon inverse your frown!
With a just a clove of garlic, watch me now repel this Dalek
And a vampire with some damp wire – no, the other way around!

Anonymous said...

A bit of time travel might have proved a good move for Becky Sharp at the end of Vanity Fair.

Stroppy Author said...

*Love* those rhymes, Nick!
Yes, I think it's possible if they are the right archetype. And that would mean there will be female characters who are detachable even if they haven't actually been detached. Baba Yaga springs to mind anyway. Sheherazade? We could do this!

My series Vampire Dawn was a bit like playing the meetings-with-dead-people game, with the huge advantage of being paid to do it. I picked historical figures, decided they were vampires and had them live into the 21st century. Got to play with Pasteur, Guillotin, etc as living (but old) characters - great fun.

Josh Lacey said...

Very interesting. Alice (from Wonderland) and Dorothy (from Oz) are both recognisable enough that they pop up quite often in other stories, but they don't hold the centre of the story in the same way as Dr Who, Bond, Holmes, etc. Perhaps there needs to be an emptiness at the heart of the character for them to be so inhabitable by other actors and applicable to other stories?

Also: is there any reason why Dr Who hasn't been played by a woman? Or has he/she?

Nick Green said...

One more:

With a phone box of sonicky tools
You can break Newtonian rules
They won’t trust their own eyes!
When your Tardis is primed
To go back in time.

Let’s go back in time
Back to primeval slime
Let’s go back in time
Time rotors groaning
Back when photons dispersed
Back through the universe
Oh, let’s go back in time!

Catherine Butler said...

Excellent stuff!

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you one and all for such a great morning read!

C.J.Busby said...

I clicked to comment with the Mary Poppins suggestion only to find I'd been beaten. She obviously is one that we instantly recognise would work anywhere. (I love the idea of her as the doctor, and you're right, MIssy is definitely a bit Mary Poppins...) I can also imagine the White Witch finding her way into a few other universes or times (maybe because C.S. Lewis did exactly that in The Magician's Nephew, so we already know what mayhem she would cause in Victorian London...)

Jeff Gill said...

Death. Obviously Death a completely an archetype and so completely detachable but Death has regularly been turned into a great character. My favourites are in Terry Pratchett's novels, Marcus Zuzak's The Book Thief and Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Death is usually portrayed as male, but in Gaiman's Sandman Death of the Endless is a lovely, compassionate young goth woman.