how is it possible to love fictional characters this much and also have people always been this way?
like, did queen elizabeth lie in bed late sometimes thinking ‘VERILY I CANNOT EVEN FOR MERCUTIO HATH SLAIN ME WITH FEELS’
was caesar like ‘ET TU ODYSSEUS’
sometimes i wonder
oh my GOD
the answer is yes they did. there’s a lot of research about the highly emotional reactions to the first novels widely available in print.
here’s a thing; the printing press was invented in 1450 and whilst it was revolutionary it wasn’t very good. but then it got better over time and by the 16th century there were publications, novels, scientific journals, folios, pamphlets and newspapers all over Europe. at first most were educational or theological, or reprints of classical works.
however, novels gained in popularity, as basically what most people wanted was to read for pleasure. they became salacious, extremely dramatic, with tragic heroines and doomed love and flawed heroes (see classical literature, only more extreme.) books in the form of letters were common. sensationalism was par the course and apparently used to teach moral lessons. there was also a lot of erotica floating around.
but here’s the thing: due to the greater availability of literature and the rise of comfy furniture (i shit you not this is an actual historical fact, the 16th and 17th century was when beds and chairs got comfy) people started reading novels for pleasure, women especially. as these novels were highly emotional, they too became…highly emotional. there are loads of contemporary reports of young women especially fainting, having hysterics, or crying fits lasting for days due to the death of a character or their otp’s doomed love. they became insensible over books and characters, and were very vocal about it. men weren’t immune-there’s a long letter a middle-aged man wrote to the author of his favourite work basically saying that the novel is too sad, he can’t handle all his feels, if they don’t get together he won’t be able to go on, and his heart is already broken at the heroine’s tragic state (IIRC ehh).
conservatives at the time were seriously worried about the effects of literature on people’s mental health, and thought it damaging to both morals and society. so basically yes it is exactly like what happens on tumblr when we cry over attractive British men, only my historical theory (get me) is that their emotions were even more intense, as they hadn’t had a life of sensationalist media to numb the pain for them beforehand in the same way we do, nor did they have the giant group therapy session that is tumblr.
(don’t even get me started on the classical/early medieval dudes and their boners for the Iliad i will be here all week. suffice to say, the members of the Byzantine court used Homeric puns instead of talking normally to each other if someone who hand’t studied the classics was in the room. they had dickish fandom in-jokes. boom.)
I needed to know this.
See, we’re all just the current steps in a time-honored tradition! (And this post is good to read along with Affectingly’s post this week about old-school-fandom-and-history-and-stuff.
Ancient Iliad fandom is intense
Alexander the Great and and his boyfriend totally RPed Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander shipped that hard. (It’s possible that this story is apocryphal, but that would just mean that ancient historians were writing RPS about Alexander and Hephaestion RPing Iliad slash and honestly that’s just as good).
And then there’s this gem from Plato:
“Very different was the reward of the true love of Achilles towards his lover Patroclus – his lover and not his love (the notion that Patroclus was the beloved one is a foolish error into which Aeschylus has fallen, for Achilles was surely the fairer of the two, fairer also than all the other heroes; and, as Homer informs us, he was still beardless, and younger far)” – Symposium
That’s right: 4th Century BCE arguments about who topped. Nihil novi sub sole my friends.
More on this glorious subject from people who know way more than I do
Man I love this post.
And to add my personal favourite story: after reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in the 18th century, Elizabeth Echlin decided that she was NOT HAPPY with the ending and basically wrote her own fix-it fic. No-one dies and Lovelace (the villain) was totally reformed and became a super nice guy. It’s completely OOC and incredibly poorly written and it’s beautiful.
Also, so many women fell in love with the villain, Lovelace, and wrote to Richardson about it, that he kept adding new bits with each edition to highlight what a hideous person Lovelace was. So it’s almost unsurprising that reading novels in this period was actually considered dangerous because it gave women unrealistic ideas about men and made them easier prey for rakes.
Basically, “I want my own Christian Grey” has been a thing for hundreds of years.
Also a thing with fix-it/everyone lives AUs: at various points in time but especially in the mid 1800s-early 1900s (aka roughly Victorian though there were periods of this earlier as well) a huge thing was to “fix” Shakespeare (as well as most theater/novels) to be in line with current morality. Good characters live, bad characters are terribly punished – but not, you know, grusomely, because what would the ladies think? So you have like, productions of King Lear where Cordelia lives and so do Regan and Goneril, but they’re VERY SORRY.
Aka all your problematic faves are redeemed and Everyone Lives! AUs for every protag.
Slightly tangential but I wanted to add my own favorite account of Chinese fandom to this~ I don’t know how many people here have heard of the Chinese novel A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦), but it is, arguably, the most famous Chinese novel ever written (There are four Chinese novel classics and A Dream of Red Mansions is considered the top of that list). It was written during the Qing dynasty by 曹雪芹, but became a banned book due to its critique of societal institutions and pro-democracy themes. As a result, the original ending of the book was lost and only the first 80 chapters remained. There are quite a few versions of how the current ending of the book came to be, but one of them is basically about how He Shen, one of Emperor Qian Long’s most powerful advisers, was such a super-fan of the book, he hired two writers to archive and reform the novel from the few remaining manuscripts there were. In order to convince the Emperor to remove the ban on the book, he had the writers essentially write a fanfiction ending to the book that would mitigate the anti-establishment themes. However, He Shen thought that the first version of the ending was too tragic (even though the whole book is basically a tragedy) so he had the writers go back and write a happier ending for him (the current final 40 chapters). He then presented the book to the Emperor and successfully convinced him to remove the ban on the book.
According to incomplete estimates, A Dream of Red Mansions spawned over 20 spin offs, retellings, and alternate versions (in the form of operas, plays, etc.) during the Qing Dynasty alone.
In 1979, fans (albeit academic ones) started publishing a bi-monthly journal dedicated to analysis (read: meta) on A Dream of Red Mansions. In fact, the novel’s fandom is so vast and qualified and rooted in academics of Chinese literature that there is an entire field of study (beginning in the Qing dynasty) of just this one novel, called 红学. Think of it as Shakespearean studies, but only on one play. This field of study has schools of thought and specific specializations (as in: Psych analyses, Economics analyses, Historical analyses, etc.) that span pretty much every academic field anyone can think of.
(That being said, I’ve read A Dream of Red Mansions and can honestly say that I’ve never read its peer in either English or Chinese. If for nothing else, read it because you would never otherwise believe that a man from the Qing dynasty could write such a heart-breakingly feminist novel with such a diverse cast of female characters given all the bitching and moaning we hear from male content-creators nowadays)
the beauty of archival research *sigh*
i went to a building that is a “fan recreation” of one of the buildings from Hongloumeng and my like bitter, angry, never smiled once 78yo male teacher was like squeeing and giggling and kept sitting down and fanning himself and posed dramatically for photos
this guy was like the voldemort of staff, a man of legendary terror-inspiring mien. swooning.
A more recent example of fandom in history is the original Sherlock Holmes fan base! It’s one of the earliest coherent models we have that closely represents the fandoms of modern media.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s first two Sherlock Holmes novels weren’t hugely popular, but when he began to write stories for The Strand magazine involving Sherlock Holmes, the public basically went absolutely mental. He used to get fan mail – predominantly from women, apparently – addressed directly to Sherlock Holmes, some women even offering to be his housekeeper.
He eventually got so fed up of writing stories about a character he didn’t really like (he considered Sherlock Holmes to be an irritating distraction from his ambition to write historical fiction, once saying “he takes my mind from better things”) that he took measures to end the series once and for all. First, he raised his fee for writing the stories to an extortionate amount, hoping that the magazine would refuse to pay it and fire him. However, there was such a demand for new Sherlock Holmes stories that the magazine just agreed to pay his ridiculous fee. So, he killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 in the Reichenbach Falls, and when he did that, shit hit the fan. People reportedly placed Sherlock Holmes obituaries in newspapers. Many of them cancelled their subscription to The Strand, and wrote angry letters to Arthur Conan Doyle explaining how he’d broken their heart. To fill the gap left by the death of their bb, some people wrote fan fiction and shared it in literary groups and book clubs.
Conan Doyle caved to pressure in 1901 and wrote Hound of the Baskervilles, partly because the fan fervour never really died down, and partly because cash dollah. You know how fans lobbied for the return of Firefly, and ended up getting Serenity made? The original Sherlock Holmes fans totally got there first.