Once you look at the titles of these books, you perhaps begin to get an idea of why they've earned their place in the current pantheon of great writings. In this corner there are Dr. Jekyll and his shadowy partner, Mr. Hyde. Here also is Stevenson's Treasure Island, the Africa of H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's India. It was during the reign of Queen Victoria that a stammering school teacher had the idea of a girl falling down a rabbit hole into a satiric parody of the world around her. It was the best and worst of times. In other words, it was during the British 19th century that most of the greatest works of fantasy and adventure literature were written.
This is one those literary legacies that manages to be all but forgotten while casting a shadow so large that the great majority will have little choice but to go through their lives never completely knowing that modern entertainment exists both under and within it. It is one of the most amazing truths of history that the shape and form of the current popular genres were forged and molded by a small coterie of artists, working separately for the most part, but with something like an actual network made up of letters of correspondence and critique. It's a phenomenon that can occur on occasions. The original Romantic Movement is the prime example, while the 20th century Modernists are the most recent.
The real curious part however is that the works of these authors was able to go on to have any kind of major impact at all across both times and cultures. No one seems to have intended for anything to get so big. At the same time, it's what happened, regardless of what any of them hoped would become of their works. In addition to being well told stories, there is something in or about a book like King Solomon's Mines, or Huck Finn, that also enables them acts as methods of literary transmission and inheritance. Their quality is such that they are able to establish a tradition or standards for other artists to learn, grow, and find their own voices from.
Another curiosity about Victorian Romanticism is that it was able to make the transition to the Edwardian Age without missing a beat, and with no discernible alterations in it's stylistic or storytelling methods, or in its choices of subject matter. For all intents and purposes, the Edwardian Era seems, for a time at least, to be more like a continuation rather than a break with the past. It would take the disillusionment of the First World War to create an actual break between past and present. The irony is that while the Great War may have caused the Victorian strain of Romanticism to go out of fashion, it couldn't erase the hold it had on the imaginations of many of its inheritors. The most famous of these was J.R.R. Tolkien, and his works on Middle Earth owe a great deal to his grounding in the kind of reading material that was later consigned to the nursery by the time he was a graduate student at Oxford University. While Tolkien is the most famous example of a modern author taking inspiration from Victorian Adventure and Fantasy genres, it would be a mistake to believe his was the only one. History is littered with the names of forgotten inheritors.
I have to thank another forgotten author, Roger Lancelyn Green for pointing all this out to me, even if he wasn't exactly around to do it. While the author in question may have passed away in October of 1987, his textual voice can still find ways of remaining far from silent. He was most notable in life as the author of a popular set of children's anthologies revolving around the various mythic cycles of both Norse, classical Greco-Roman, and English/Arthurian cultures. In addition to this, Green was also a surprisingly capable scholar of Victorian Fantasy, and the men and women who created it. One of them is A.E.W. Mason.
In 1952, Green published a biography of Mason. So far as I can tell, it remains the sole book in existence to tackle this author, and the nature of the books that made him famous, at least for a time. In setting out the life of his subject, Green is also giving his readers as good a snapshot of not just a time long vanished. Instead, the biographer is trying to present an atmosphere or idea of the literary climate in which Mason worked and traveled in. It is precisely the atmosphere of this climate that stands out so well in the biography. A perfect example of what I mean is shown by Green on the first page of his book:
"As in the case of his novels, when one thinks of A.E.W. Mason one thinks first of the swift, breathless, joyous rush of adventures: Mason as an actor; Mason as a struggling journalist leaping suddenly into fame with his second novel; Mason the traveler exploring the Sudan; Morocco, Spain, taking swift, eager journeys to South America, South Africa, India, Burma, Ceylon and Australia; Mason in his yacht coasting the Scillies, crossing the Bay, tacking up the Seine to Rouen or threading the canals of Holland; Mason the mountaineer spending his Easter vacation from Oxford on the fells above Wastdale, and later going year after year to climb in the Alps - the Col du Geant, Mont Blanc (sixteen hours on the Brenva Ridge); Mason the member of Parliament; Mason the Secret Service Agent in Spain and Mexico during the first World War...(7)"
The overall impression is of a passage that reads like something from a pulp novel. It also might be the whole point. In this one paragraph, Green has given his readers an insight into both the kind of larger than life personality that Mason possessed, as well as the tone and style of the kind of novels that made him famous. On the very first page the reader finds himself in a realm that is close to that of someone like Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jack London. It's a world where sometimes an adventure can still be found on the high-seas, and there are still unexplored corners that remain on the map. This is the literary climate that produces films like King Kong or Lawrence of Arabia. It is a product of the very same Romantics going all the way back to Dickensian England. While it's true this was all before Mason's time, the fact remains that it is this particular style and genre of writing that has left the defining imaginative impact on Green's subject. In that sense, the entire biography is an examination of literary survivals and revivals.
Green outlines the purpose of his biography as follows: "to tell the story of A.E. W. Mason as completely as possible, in his own words whenever they existed in letters, in odd passages from his books, and in a rare introduction or interview - following Graham Balfour's dictum that 'all biography would be autobiography if it could'. I have tried also to describe the genesis of each of his books, plays or films, with a word or two of the contemporary reaction - reviews of the day or letters from his friends - and to offer a critical estimate of the whole body of his literary achievement (8)".
My own goals are a bit less ambitious. For me, this post is really a form of literary excavation with the hope of rediscovery as it's goal. It is Green's book on Mason as both an author and as a person that I wish to examine here. While the subject of Green's biography is not a household word like Tolkien or Rowling, Mason still provides a good jumping off point into the exploration of a greater literary landscape.