I was recently obsessed with New York 1926. If you think that rings a bell, it might be because the Jazz Age is the setting for last year’s Fantastic Beasts movie, which I saw, and alone of all Harry Potter things fell in love with. Partly this was because it was about adults facing, sort of, adult problems. But mostly it was because of New York, and 1926. Steams ships and old cars and prohibition bars and detailed clothes and old-fashioned manners. And magic. It was a perfect storm, and when you threw in romance (as one must always do when Eddie Redmayne is playing the diffident lead) then it is impossible to resist.
I immediately wrote a what-happened-next fanfic with my own beasts and peril and of course romance.
But what I really wanted after seeing the movie, was to read more stories about that era, more peril and magic and romance. And as usual, I could not find much that I liked. It was all either too romance – thin plot, characters I disliked as soon as I read the blurb – or too 1926 – misery, terrible working conditions, poverty and inequality and depression and miners’ strikes. JK managed to create something which felt authentic but what absolutely wasn’t, which offered the fantasy view of the past we all crave. LaLaLand tapped into this same yearning for escapism.
So what are the elements of a successful Jazz age fantasy? I mean, what would satisfy me in a story?
Romance. It’s not the point, just a happy side outcome.
Fabulous clothes – of course. These might be flapper dresses and pinstripe trousers and spats – or they might be farmboy bags and floral country dresses and a few vestigial Victorian grandmamas.
Manners, especially male manners. A comedy of manners is always good. Bertie Wooster was an idiot, but a courteous one.
Mystery. This was the golden age of sleuth fiction, still riding the thirty-year wave of the launch of Sherlock Holmes. Mysteries set in posh houses, peopled with the privileged stereotypes of the day, were de rigeur.
Old tech. Phones and gramophones and telegrams and letters written by hand, and typewriters and steam trains. Bakers’ boys and blokes on bikes, and handcarts and horses as well as trams, and the Underground or Le Metropolitain. Old tech! Check out this 1928 footage of New York City.
Prejudice which the author can whisk away with a wave of the Poetic Licence wand. Gay people can have happy endings, black people can take centre stage, female people can do interesting jobs, all is good.
Seek out some Jazz Age stories here:
- The Mummy (1999) rocks that retro vibe, as does Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- In a similar vein is the recent Tutankhamun drama with Sam Neill – leaning more to archaeology in the 1920s than urban life, but still awesome.
- Of course there is The Great Gatsby.
- I cannot fail to mention the later series of Downton Abbey.
- Bertie Wooster existed for about forty years in a time era known only to his creator, PG Wodehouse. In several, Bertie visits New York in what appears to be the 1930s, but might also be the Fifties. Or the Twenties. If you’ve never watched the excellent dramatisation with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, then do!
- Hemingway, basically.
- The Peter Wimsey books of Dorothy L Sayers.
I’ll be back on Saturday with Klingons on the starboard bow – elements of a successful story