Thursday, 23 February 2012

Andrew Lang: a sampler

Andrew Lang, from Century magazine,
Volume 47, Issue 3 (January, 1894)
Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog, in a recent post on Dragon Rats in Oxford, provided a news link to a good Scotsman appreciation of the largely forgotten work of the Selkirk-born writer and critic Andrew Lang (1844-1912): see Andrew Lang: the life and times of a prolific talent (Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman, 30 January 2012).

Andrew Lang is best known for his academic works on folklore and anthropology (notably his compilations of fairy tales as Andrew Lang's Fairy Books).

Author Edmund Gosse wrote of Lang that "no other such combination of poet, scholar and journalist has been known in Fleet Street". Lang had published slim volumes of poetry already, as well as academic books on comparative mythology and translations of Homer and Aristotle before his 40th birthday.
By the time of his death in 1912, his name could be found on 249 individual books and his collected journalism would run to thousands of articles. No wonder that some people suggested that "Andrew Lang" did not exist, and was a pseudonym used by a cabal of different authors from different genres.

But as I mentioned previously, he continues to surprise by the breadth of his works: his The Mark of Cain, for instance, brings a university don detective into a murder mystery with science-fictional elements. Kelly's article continues with pointers to other works written or co-written by Lang.

Although Lang is still remembered for one series of books, his other attempts are significant. He collaborated with Rider Haggard on a novel called The World’s Desire, which was the biggest failure of its day, and rather more successfully with AEW Mason on a novel called Parson Kelly. Lang’s biographer, the writer Roger Lancellyn Green, makes the brave claim that his antiromantic children’s book about an insufferably brilliant young man who does not believe in magic, Prince Prigio, ought to be ranked alongside Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland.

One minute Lang would be inventing the genre of popular history (with such books as The Voices of Jeanne d’Arc, Pickle the Spy and James VI and the Gowrie Conspiracy), the next he would be writing critical studies of contemporaries (Alfred Tennyson, The Puzzle of Dickens’ Last Plot), then debunking people who believed that Bacon wrote Shakespeare, then writing some of the greatest works in the much-scorned genre of “belles-lettres” (Does Ridicule Kill?, New And Old Letters To Dead Authors). In between, he would continue to write academic works on spiritualism, totemism, Homeric epic and early French romantic poetry, spliced with works on his passions of golf, cricket and angling. No wonder some people hated him.
there is one book by him which I will re-read, on account of its sheer oddness and ingenuity. Old Friends was written in 1890 and has a dazzling premise: if literature really did describe the world rather than invent it, why should characters be restricted to their own books? ... It is the beginning of crossover literature, which reaches its heights with works such as Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Christine Brooke-Rose’s Textermination, and its pulp incarnation in Pride And Prejudice And Zombies and Android Karenina

Checking out some of these titles: The World's Desire (Gutenberg #2763) is an erudite sword & sandal fantasy novel continuing the adventures of Ulysses when he returns from his "second unsung journey" to find Penelope dead, so goes off on new wanderings to Egypt.  Parson Kelly (Gutenberg #38684 - sometimes titled Parson Kelley) is a picaresque historical novel set against the events of the Jacobite "Atterbury Plot" of 1722.

Prince Prigio is a literary comic fairy tale, telling of the adventures of a prince who has been given the fairy gift of being "too clever" and brought up by his sceptical mother not to believe in magic. He is nevertheless thrown by circumstances into magical adventures. I've skimmed, and this one is rather good: see for a scan of the nicely illustrated 1889 edition. It has a Shrek-like flavour, being set in the world of pre-existing fairy tales: the sceptical Prince Prigio's family ancestors include Cinderella, the Marquis de Carabas of Puss in Boots, and "Madame La Belle au Bois-dormant".

Then there are the works of popular history; these are not lowbrow exposition. The Voices of Jeanne d’Arc is an essay in a larger work on historical mysteries, The Valet's tragedy, and other studies (Gutenberg #2073). Lang describes them as "studies in secret history". Pickle the Spy or, The incognito of Prince Charles (Gutenberg #6807) is a study of "Pickle", the chief spy for Prince Charles Edward Stuart after 1750, who Lang identifies as the Scottish Jacobite Alestair Ruadh MacDonnell. James VI and the Gowrie Conspiracy (Internet Archive jamesviandgowri01langgoog) is a detailed attempt to unravel the events of the "Gowrie conspiracy" of 1600, when a visit by James VI to the house of John Ruthven, 3rd Earl of Gowrie, ended with Ruthven and his brother killed. Did they die in a failed attempt to kidnap James? Or did James invent the kidnap story as cover for his retinue assassinating the brothers? We don't know.

Old Friends is, as Kelly says, an early example of crossover fiction. It's a compilation of parodic essays, in the form of letters between fictional characters, that originally appeared in the St. James's Gazette. As Lang writes in the introduction:

Every fancy which dwells much with the unborn and immortal characters of Fiction must ask itself, Did the persons in contemporary novels never meet? In so little a world their paths must often have crossed, their orbits must have intersected, though we hear nothing about the adventure from the accredited narrators. In historical fiction authors make their people meet real men and women of history—Louis XI., Lazarus, Mary Queen of Scots, General Webbe, Moses, the Man in the Iron Mask, Marie Antoinette; the list is endless. But novelists, in spite of Mr. Thackeray's advice to Alexandre Dumas, and of his own example in "Rebecca and Rowena," have not introduced each other's characters.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that despite reading a deal of Victorian fiction, I didn't know who half of these characters corresponding were. Treat this, if you like, as a puzzle to identify these people (who are not all fictional). The answers are hyperlinked.
The Internet Archive (search creator:"Lang, Andrew, 1844-1912") has 889 hits for works by Andrew Lang.

- Ray

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