Whenever I go back and spend a lot of time reading the ordinary and forgotten literature of past times, I find lots of references to things that the world has forgotten. Things which were ordinary points or cute comments to the contemporary reader become incomprehensible to us today, yes. But what's worse, such digs can go totally unnoticed, fading into the fabric of the story and disappearing without a trace.
Now, for my six-days-a-week podcast, I've been reading a story or poem by Fitz James O'Brien every Monday. He's a wonderful example of the antebellum New York Bohemian writer. He loves Poe. He loves writing about theater, mysteries and crime, drugs, drinking, odd ethnic groups, and odd professions. He is in love with love, but he also wants to have last minute twists. Convention is fought, for progressive good or decadent ill.
Now, think of Doyle (or Watson's!) story, "A Scandal in Bohemia", first published in July of 1891 (and purporting to chronicle events a decade earlier). Yes, it stars Holmes, who is described as having a "Bohemian soul", and features the very King of Bohemia. But I have never seen it mentioned that, like its predecessor novels, and like many of the "Adventures" that followed, "A Scandal in Bohemia" deals with the very topics enjoyed by the old Bohemians. The theater? Irene Adler. Lovers fighting convention? Yup. Crime? Blackmail. Exotic foreigners? A Bohemian and an American. Drug use? Yeppers. And there's more: double and repeated masquerades, explosive devices, large generalities about human nature used to perform small tasks.
It's not just a story; it's a literary declaration of loyalties.
So really, when that famous 1887 literary lunch with the publisher brought both A Study in Scarlet and The Portrait of Dorian Gray into the world, Doyle and Wilde were not such an odd couple as all that. They both were writers who, at least at first, took up the banner of the old Bohemian literary generation, which was considerably prior to their own.
It's as if Kipling had started his career by declaring himself a new Pre-Raphaelite. Which he sorta was, actually; he knew some of them from childhood. His Puck stories owe a lot to them, in a non-drippy way.
Okay, fine. So it's as if somebody from the 1920's had declared himself a Pre-Raphaelite. 🙂