The Brand New Victorians

Dickensian and Sherlock. On New Year’s Day, the BBC happily padded out what is becoming a rather extensive canon of recent ventures into adapted Victoriana. The Sherlock special offended a whole bunch of people, but otherwise the trend has seeped into the televisual zeitgeist without much cause for controversy. The particular offences committed by Moffat and co. in ‘The Abominable Bride’ aren’t going to be reiterated here, but whether or not it’s offensive to overly-manipulate a literary text in the name of screen adaptation is.

In this particular instance, it’s the clumsy handling of history which led to the widespread denigration of the episode. For the first time, Moffat’s Sherlock faced accusations of being unfaithful to its source. But what’s interesting is that this comes four series into a project which was initially so popular because it confounded paradigms.

Theoreticians like Linda Hutcherson identify a pervasive cult of ‘fidelity criticism’ regarding adaptations. Adaptations are often held accountable to their source text, and they are expected to ride as faithfully close to the ‘original’ as possible. Moffat’s Sherlock, bursting eccentricallly onto the scene in 2010, didn’t just dispute that opinion: transposing its action to modern-day London, replete with smartphones and social media, it gleefully rebelled against elitist academic tendencies with a defiant spirit.

The premise of the BBC’s Sherlock was to provide itself as a symptom of what Hutcherson, in her book A Theory of Adaptation, describes as a relatively recent postmodern predilection for interrogating the innate regenerative multiplicity of stories. Sherlock, in other words, took a ballsy swipe at outdated critical attitudes, and instead championed a new norm: one in which adaptations manipulate their source so that the new project addresses its own contemporary concerns, as opposed to pilfering something creatively engaging from the exhausted limitations of the context.

So, ironically enough, it’s not even the Sherlock Holmes whom Arthur Conan Doyle first sent out into the world whom people are considering offended, despite the episode’s attempt to return to the Victorian England from whence he originally came. It’s Moffat’s own Sherlock – crystallised in the performative form of Benedict Cumberbatch – who is disserviced, because the kitsch turn of the special feels like a step back from the currentness that made Sherlock so special in the first place.

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Unlike linearly conceived adaptations (2011’s Great Expectations, 2008’s Little Dorrit) which do their best to keep deviations to a minimum, the Victoriana du jour presents brand new stories for old characters. They aren’t all preoccupied with diving into our present, like series one to three of Sherlock; but they are hyper-conscious of distancing themselves from original narratives while maintaining a fickle relationship with their sources. Dickensian intertwines the fates of some of Charles Dickens’s most recognisable personalities (Scrooge, Marley, Havisham, Fagin, Bill Sykes, Nancy), to create an overarching prequel to his major novels. Penny Dreadful, meanwhile, links its characters by genre rather than author: the stalwarts of Gothic literature seminars rear their heads – Victor Frankenstein, Mina Harker, Dorian Gray – amongst a set of entirely new characters, devised to give the series a feeling of novelty while retaining the most macabre aesthetic hallmarks of the Victorian Gothic.

The new Victoriana salvages beloved characters and keeps their spirit alive. But only when it remembers that, today, the past is only important insofar as it can be refashioned for the future