Welcome to a Whistle-stop History of Fanfiction. Love it or loath it, many of us nerds know about fanfiction. It’s a huge part of modern fandom that ranges all the way from 200 word flash fiction to epic multi-chapter novels, but when did fanfiction start being part of the way we view fandom, and what is the driving force behind it? In this series of articles I’m going dive into the world of fanfic; looking into its history and the idea that fanfiction springs from a predominantly female and queer part of fandom.
First things first, let’s just establish what fanfiction is:
Fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc.”
That’s pretty simple. I think we can agree that this is what we understand fanfiction to be. No trickery here. Right, let’s move on.
A lot of people would say that fanfiction starts appearing during the 1960s with the rise of fandom, which is something I will discuss in the next section of this little expedition. But for now I want to focus on the idea that fanfiction was being produced well before the 60s, in fact well before the word “fan” was even in common usage.
The idea for these articles came into being when a friend of mine told me about Jane Austen’s niece, Fanny, writing continuations of her aunt’s books to send to her and to be circulated within the family. Indeed, it seems to be the case that many of the Austen family were writing short pieces and letters about Misters Darcy and Knightly. However, as much as I researched, it seems that, because these stories were kept privately within the family, we know very little about them, and may never have the actual pieces. But the idea that the Austen Family were so enamoured with Jane’s work that they wrote themselves more of it to keep the stories going, is rather a wonderful thought. It sparked in me a need for deeper investigation and led to something even more interesting.
In the British Library there is a series of manuscripts known as “Brontë Juvenilia.” These manuscripts, written by the Brontë sisters while they were in their teens, tell the story of the fictional land of Glass Town and later Angria and Gondal. That’s all well and good, but what has this got to do with fanfiction, I hear you ask. Well, the hero of these stories was the Duke of Wellington, fighting a fantastical version of Napoleon. Brontë Juvenilia is possibly the first example of AU fanfiction.
And not only this, but literary scholars have theorised for decades that the dark anti-heroes of both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are very heavily based on Lord Byron, and Jane and Cathy are in many ways versions of their respective creators. So, never fear fic writers, one day your self-insertion fic could be on the English syllabus for poor school kids everywhere.
Well, many writers have written about historical figures, but what makes these different is that they aren’t simply writing historical fiction, retelling the facts; they are writing new stories with characters—nay people—who already exist.
This leads us beautifully to E.W. Hornung, creator of the Raffles books, and brother-in-law to Arthur Conan-Doyle. Hornung and Doyle were not the closest of brothers-in-law. In fact, Hornung’s books are something of a parody of the Sherlock Holmes series. His anti-hero, A. J. Raffles, is a gentleman thief who no detective can catch and often can be found speaking on the matter of “the detective of Baker Street” and how he has outsmarted him.
So is this fanfiction of Holmes? Possibly, though I think it’s more of a reimaging. What is more interesting is that Raffles, and his constant companion Bunny, are cast in the same moulds as Hornung’s great friends Oscar Wilde and Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Although never explicitly stated in the text, Raffles and Bunny are clearly more than friends, and Hornung’s statement of their origin, and his constant support of his many gay friends, leaves little doubt that had these books been written in a more liberal time, we would be reading the adventures of queer and dapper thieves running around London. Factor in the grounded speculation that Hornung was himself gay, or possibly bisexual, and you have a pretty solid case for the defence.
For me, and many others, the Raffles stories are the queer recreation of Sherlock Holmes, created by someone who had to repress his own sexuality, but wished to champion the bravery of his friends. Fantastic to read, and wonderful to see, these stories are what in these modern times could easily be seen as Holmes “slash fic,” kept in print for generations to come.
With Hornung, the Brontës, and the Austen family, there is one thing that is very clear; they each had a desire to tell stories for themselves as fans, stories that gave them more, because what they were being given wasn’t quite enough. In the case of the Austen family, it was a need for continuation, the feeling of “it can’t stop there!” The Brontës wanted to write but were unsure of how to create characters of their own and so borrowed from others—something that many legitimate, published authors have been doing for centuries—and they used fanfiction as a way to practice their skills. And with Hornung, it seems to be a need to see people like himself and his friends represented in fiction, to see queer—if not explicitly stated—relationships, and versions of characters who looked and felt like himself.
If we go back to the definition of fanfiction—fiction written by a fan, and featuring characters from, a particular TV series, film, etc—I think we can all agree that all of these pieces come under that umbrella, and that fanfiction is much more than meets the eye.
Coming Soon: In part two, we will be delving into the exciting world of fanfiction during the 1960s and 70s, and how television changed fandom forever.