Sure, we all talk about the great Victorian novels, but how often do we Steampunks really sit down and read them? We’re all so busy sewing, writing, reading modern Steampunk, larping and making, who’s got the time to read the classics? Well, I do. If you manage to carve out a few hours for a proper novel and a cup of tea, then check over this list to see if you missed any essentials.
1, Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne.
That’s right, I’m on Team Verne. Sorry Wells, but Verne is just more fun. When I first realized that Steampunk was a genre, this was the first book I ever read specifically looking for Steampunk inspiration. I gobbled it up in one breath and was inspired enough to start writing my own Steampunk adventures. This book has it all: fantastic and unique characters, exotic destinations, Victorian social commentary, and enough humor, adventure, and excitement to delight anyone. And for those of you who think, “Oh, I’ve seen the movie. I don’t need to read it,” I will tell you that you’re utterly wrong! First of all, there’s no balloon in the book. Second, I have never seen a decent portrayal of Passepartout in any film or show. And lastly, although one actor has played Phileas with dignity, none have ever truly captured the damn sexy subtlety of his true nature. If you adore gentlemanly adventure like any good Steampunk, and you haven’t read this book, then you are doing yourself a great disservice.
2. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
Don’t take my siding with Verne as an insult to Wells. Even though a great deal of his novels were bridging past the Victorian era, The Time Machine is as much a part of Steampunk lore as goggles and airships. This book has the Dystopian edge that permeates modern Steampunk, and more metaphorical social commentary than you can shake a stick at. While I personally prefer more layered characters, I can say nothing at all against Wells’s skill in storytelling. I would say that the movie (the original, not that weird thing from the 90s) did a better job of portraying the story in the way that it was written, and any movies based on Verne. Even so, this great work deserves to be read.
3. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.
Ah, Wilde… I’ve had a literary crush on the work of Oscar Wilde since I was in my teens. It usually takes me twice as long as normal to finish one of his stories, simply because I keep having to gasp, pause, and re-read every gorgeous line I find … which is usually about every-other one. But wait! you say. Wilde didn’t write about submarines or airship travel, or time machines! No, he didn’t. He wrote of men’s true nature and the murky, shadowed depths of the human soul. In this glorious novel, Wilde explored the dangers of the ego-centered detachment, which the wealthy and the beautiful London aristocrats danced so blindly about. Here in 2014, it can be difficult to get a clear perspective of what life was really like back there. If you want to know the motivations of a Londoner of the time, feel the eerie quiet of an empty life in a grand old house, and taste the terror of one’s own limitless potential in a world of too much freedom, than you will find no better prorate.
4. A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
More than just taking us through wonderfully entertaining stories about murder and mystery, Watson provides another great snapshot of what life was like under the rule of Victoria. From mentioning popular culture (like novels that were once wildly popular but are now unheard of, and which plays, operas, and even fashions were popular at the time) to noting that the sky over London is rather brown today, Watson weaves a tapestry of the time. The way that the two characters relate to their world in the original stories, tells more than you will ever find on Wiki, or in any of the TV shows and movies that have been made from it. Not that there is anything wrong with SherlockBBC. I was simply staggered by the bulk of raw insight that I found in all of the Holmes stories.
5. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
I mean really. How could this book NOT be on any steampunk list? Sure, there’s more fish genus than are at all needed. Sure, Nemo’s past is never truly explored. Sure, Ned can be a bit annoying. But honestly, what would our beloved genre be with this massively inventive, thrillingly adventurous, and truly beautiful work? All I can say is that, as with most of Verne’s works, you must be very careful when selecting a translation to read. The first time I tried to read this book, I couldn’t get more than a few pages in before I got bored. But, I found out later that I had been reading a highly abridged version, with truly awful re-writing. I tried a much more modern translation by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter, and suddenly I couldn’t put the book down! I tell you right now, if you ever tried to read this book and didn’t like it, it was entirely because of the translation. Get a better copy and try it again today!
Well, that my top 5 classic Victorian essentials list. What’s yours? Do you agree with my line up? Did I missing something dreadfully important to the genre? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. And happy reading!