484. Steampunk Anglophiles

I have come to the conclusion that most steampunk fans are also Anglophiles. That isn’t really surprising, but it puts me in a bit of an odd position, since I am not.

It’s not an aversion to England; I’ve been there several time and it is full of wonderful things. However, I have a disinterest in many of the things Anglophiles find interesting. Downton Abbey bores me silly. I don’t care who lives Upstairs or who lives Downstairs, and I really couldn’t care less about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

One reason for my disaffection with a certain kind of English literature comes from being forced during high school to read Great Expectations. It was enough to put a person off reading altogether. With some exceptions (to be fair, probably quite a few), the recommended cannon of English literature, 1750 to 1900, is a litany of insipid characters, dull plots, uninteresting situations, and tales of a tedious and self-destructive culture. Thank God for Shakespeare and science fiction, or I might be illiterate today.

English history is fascinating, but I found my interest in English literature only on the periphery. First came Robert Louis Stevenson. I’m not talking about Treasure Island, which made him rich and famous. I mean, primarily, Kidnapped, and its almost forgotten sequel David Balfour (also published as Catriona). They are two halves of the same story and form a true classic. Critics see them as children’s books, but together they are the tale of a young man who successfully fights his way to become a morally responsible and honorable adult.

Of course, Kidnapped/Catriona is really a Scottish novel.

As an undergraduate, I studied India, one of England’s major victims. That inoculated me against Kipling style jingoism. My wife’s ancestors were Scottish and that led me into a study of Scottish-English relations — another complicated and ugly story. It also led me to two incredibly talented Scottish authors, Neil Gunn and George Mackay Brown.

Nevertheless, I did find English literature to love — even Victorian/Edwardian English literature to love — but not in the official cannon. First came Sherlock Holmes. I found a copy of the two volume Doubleday version when I was in my twenties and I have read it to shreds. I really need a new copy. That led me to Chesterton’s Father Brown; the real one, not the imposter on PBS.

Through my interest in small boats, I stumbled onto Riddle of the Sands, with two of the most English, most honorable, most fun heroes ever. I also found author John Buchan, who now occupies two feet packed tight on my library shelf. Buchan finally showed me inside the minds of some British imperialists whom I could respect, and even identify with.

Finally, the musical Scrooge led me to the non-musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and they led me to the novella itself. What a revelation. Dickens is wonderful, despite the agony of being force-fed Great Expectations while still too young.

So I ended up with a balanced view of England. England is the origin of our civilization and also the meanest SOB on the block. England both destroyed and preserved the great civilizations of the past wherever they conquered; and that was pretty much everywhere. English literature is both fascinating and as dull as a downstairs maid polishing the silver. England brought modern mechanized civilization and increased poverty to most of the world.

So I came to steampunk from out of left field and it shows in my new steampunk novels.

In The Cost of Empire (written in 2017 and looking for a publisher as we speak) the hero is a farmer/fisherman from the fens who is on the rise as an officer in Her Majesty’s Air Service (dirigibles, of course). He is a defender of the empire, but he begins to have doubts when he comes to know Amir Kalinath, an advocate of Indian independence. I have a long excerpt from the opening chapter scheduled here shortly.

And Like Clockwork, presently more than half finished, is a deeply weird take on Old London. It started out by imagining what would happen if the toy shop in Scrooge (the musical) was real, and it’s proprietor had built those incredible clockwork toys himself. I’ll say no more, since even I am not sure how this one is going to turn out.

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