Allan Reeth, Arnold Bennett, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ford Madox Hueffer, G.H. Davies, George Chesney, H.G. Wells, Henry James, John Buchan, John Galsworthy, Joseph Conrad, Kate Macdonald, Richard Bleiler, Robert Cole, Samuel Barton, Una L. Silberrad
This was a review essay I wrote for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol 26, issue 1, 2015, of the three-volume Political Future Fiction: Speculative and Counter-Factual Politics in Edwardian Fiction under the general editorship of Kate Macdonald:
Strictly speaking, the Edwardian Age extended from the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 until the death of Edward VII in May 1910; more loosely, the term is applied to the first decade of the twentieth century. If we are feeling particularly generous we might stretch the term out until the start of World War I. Politically, it was a period marked by a gradual liberation from the narrowest social and moral strictures of the Victorian Age, increased agitation for women’s rights, and a slow improvement in the lot and the aspirations of the working and lower middle classes. All of which are recognisable in the work of that archetypal Edwardian novelist, H.G. Wells, for instance in Kipps (1905), Ann Veronica (1909) and The History of Mr Polly (1910). How such ideas and developments translate into the six novels collected here is, of course, open to question. We might, for instance, accept that five of the six do count as Edwardian, with a little fudging around the edges, though a work from 1888 clearly does not. But then, there is little consistency in what these three volumes contain. Five of the books are British, one is American. Three books are unequivocally set in the future (though in one case a future indistinguishable from the author’s present), but two are contemporary and one is set in the recent past. They are all political, though in very different ways; but all fiction is, to some degree or other, political. I’m not even totally convinced that they are all fiction; John Buchan’s novel is a polemical argument with a light dusting of fiction to make it palatable.
The editors of the individual volumes all make ritual remarks about how under-rated these novels were in their own day, how they deserve to be better known today. Yet that isn’t actually the case. A couple of the novels are straight forwardly bad, and would, I am sure, have been seen as such at the time (this was, let us not forget, the period when writers as varied as Arnold Bennett, Henry James and John Galsworthy were in their pomp). Others were quite widely read; Buchan’s A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906) went through multiple impressions right up to the 1940s. And it is difficult to argue that The Inheritors (1901) by Joseph Conrad and Ford M. Hueffer (before he changed his name to Ford Madox Ford) is forgotten when it was republished by Liverpool University Press as recently as 1999, and a critical edition is due from Cambridge University Press in 2014.
Given all that, it is hard to identify any single coherent thread that binds these various works together. Even the supporting matter varies from volume to volume. The most profuse material is in Volume 1, ‘The Empire of the Future’ edited by Richard Bleiler. Here, alongside The Battle of the Swash and the Capture of Canada (1888) by Samuel Barton and The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 (1900) by Robert Cole, we find separate introductions to each of the novels, extracts from the Canadian edition of The Battle of the Swash which differed from the US original, contemporary reviews of both books (along with essays by Cole), and a concluding discussion essay. There is not quite as much in Volume 3, ‘Speculative Fiction and Imperialism in Africa’ edited by Stephen Donovan, though alongside The Inheritors by Conrad and Hueffer and A Lodge in the Wilderness by Buchan there is a general introduction and a selection of contemporary reviews of the two books. By contrast, Volume 2, ‘Fictions of a Feminist Future’ edited by Kate Macdonald, seems almost Spartan. Alongside Legions of the Dawn (1908) by Allan Reeth and The Affairs of John Bolsover (1911) by Una L. Silberrad, there is simply a general introduction and a Commentary on the Texts. Though, to be fair, this may be because neither of these books attracted much attention at the time, and Reeth in particular appears to be an enigma. Reeth is apparently a pseudonym of G.H. Davies, but other than the name nothing else is known about Davies, not the sex, nor the nationality.
Macdonald’s selection is curious; since she cites numerous other feminist utopias of the period, she might well have chosen other works to include here. She dismisses most of the alternatives as turgidly Victorian or as overexcited tracts; given that Reeth’s Legions of the Dawn is hardly the best novel presented here, one shudders to imagine what those others must be like. The Reeth is interesting more as an historical curiosity than for what it does. It is a role reversal novel in which two Victorian men (the novel is mostly set in the 1880s) happen upon a gynarchy that has been secretly established by British and American women in a remote part of Africa. As such it anticipates by seven years Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), though in other respects it doesn’t really stand up against the later work. The men are required to wear skirt-like robes and are permitted to play only a decorative role in the society of ‘Sah’, and an inordinate proportion of the novel is given over to their sense of discomfort and awkwardness in wearing these gowns. Curiously, Reeth does not complete the role reversal by allowing the women to wear trousers, since that would presumably have offended against Edwardian propriety. In fact, most of the women we meet are in the military, and hence wear a rather ridiculous breastplate when they go to war against the local natives (the colonialist attitudes in the work compare interestingly with Buchan’s novel). As one might expect, the dice are loaded: the women of Sah are invariably found to be brave in battle and wise in government. The men of Sah, meanwhile, are repeatedly described as ‘ninnies’, gossipy, giggly, and obsessed with the decorative nature of their gowns, and yet our robust Victorian adventurers both seem to find this idleness convivial. The resultant novel feels rather clumsily contrived, though that hardly makes it unique in this company.
On the other hand, Silberrad’s The Affairs of John Bolsover is, structurally, one of the most interesting novels here, and one is tempted to wonder why it hasn’t remained better known. Actually, it is quite easy to see why it has never set the literary world alight. It is supposedly set in 1960, yet the world we see, in terms of clothing, technology, customs, social mores and so forth is indistinguishable from the world of 1910. It is supposedly a cry for feminism emerging from the suffragist movement, yet it proclaims that votes for women will not be achieved until 1950, and then in only a very limited form. And it is supposedly a mystery story with a surprise in the very last chapter; yet the twist is pretty obvious from the first chapter. Even so, there is something in the way the story is told that feels fresh and engaging. It begins in a dense London fog when a journalist bumps into a woman who looks exactly like Conservative Prime Minister John Bolsover. Sensing a story, the journalist begins to dig into Bolsover’s past, and the novel is made up of key moments in Bolsover’s life. We see the duplicitous role he plays in securing women’s suffrage, his ambiguous part in a society scandal, his diplomatic efforts to avoid a European war; but the interesting thing is that these are arranged from the most recent to the earliest, a backwards structure that I suspect would have been more surprising to the original reader than the revelation of Bolsover’s sex.
The sad thing is that Silberrad seems incapable of imagining the future as anything different from the present, which is also the case in Cole’s strange extravaganza, The Struggle for Empire. Indeed, working through these volumes it sometimes takes an effort of will to recall that other contemporary writers, such as H.G. Wells, were perfectly capable of inventing dramatically different futures. Cole’s novel, for instance, involves aliens and spectacular space battles, and yet the world of two centuries hence still has the costumes and stultifying moral codes of the late Victorian era. In the novel, London is not only the capital of the world, but it has spread its empire throughout the solar system and on to the stars beyond (rather endearingly, Neptune turns out to be a place of parks and town houses indistinguishable from the London of 1900). Unfortunately, our expansion of empire to other star systems has brought us into contact with an alien race and war ensues. Our confident sailors set off in their space fleet (throughout, Cole uses naval analogies for both the ships and the battle tactics, which seems to have been something of a novelty for stories of war in space), but they are defeated in the depths of interstellar space, defeated again around Neptune, and again at the last line of defence around the Moon. Only at the very last moment does a scientist discover a means to neutralise the enemy weapons, and the British Empire sets out triumphantly to colonise the enemy star system. It’s an odd, rather crude novel, full of enthusiasm if not much skill, and though Bleiler insists that we read it along with other critiques of empire, such as The War of the Worlds (1898), or even The Inheritors, it seems to me that it is best regarded as an early outlier of the space operas that would come along in another twenty or thirty years.
Cole’s companion in Volume 1 seems even more out of place in this collection. The Battle of the Swash by Samuel Barton is the only American novel included, and both its date (1888) and its subject matter align it more closely with the future war stories that began to appear around 1870 than with any of the Edwardian fictions otherwise published here. Prussian militarism, and the wars with Denmark, Austria and France that led to the unification of Germany, alarmed other European powers, particularly Britain, whose military supremacy was now challenged for the first time in half a century. As a result we began to get alarmist stories, such as George Chesney’s ‘The Battle of Dorking’ (1871), which urged greater military preparedness. But as an arms race began to develop, similar stories appeared not only in Britain, but in France, Germany and the United States. Barton’s The Battle of the Swash fits into this pattern precisely. He was alarmed that America’s maritime defences had not been kept up since the Civil War, so he wrote a fable in which a British fleet sweeps up to New York, facing no more than hastily cobbled together defences. Of course, America wins in the end, and in the peace settlement annexes Canada, but it is a story in which polemical purpose far outweighs any literary merit, and though it is undoubtedly a political work, far more so than Cole’s novel, its concerns and approach place it far outside the pattern of the other five novels.
The four novels gathered in the first two volumes are populist, polemical, simplistic and, the construction of Silberrad’s novel aside, do not really aspire to be serious literature. Simply in terms of literary merit, the two novels in the last volume are way above the rest; though that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not also polemical. That is certainly the intent of Buchan’s A Lodge in the Wilderness. In the General Election of 1906, Arthur Balfour’s Conservative Government was wiped out in a landslide. This paved the way for the Liberal Government of, first, Campbell-Bannerman then, after Campbell-Bannerman died in April 1908, Herbert Asquith. This was one of the great reforming governments of the twentieth century, introducing old age pensions, unemployment benefit, and other measures to improve the lot of the population. Such reforms, one suspects, would not have gone down well with John Buchan who has one character propose, without objection, that the poorest and weakest members of society should be eliminated. But what exercised him most was the fact that opposition to Empire was a major impetus behind the Liberal victory. His novel, which seems to have been written very quickly in response to the election, was meant to lay out the philosophical virtue of Empire. It takes the form of a gathering of Conservative, Imperialist aristocrats at a luxurious lodge in East Africa, where they spend their holiday debating the benefits and organisation of the British Empire under the chairmanship of their host, an unmistakeable avatar of Cecil Rhodes. Every character in the novel has a readily identifiable real-life doppelganger, and it is this alone that seems to qualify the novel as in some way fantastic. However, it is clearly set in this world at a specific time just after the election, and it makes repeated reference to real figures and current events, so I have great difficulty in seeing it as fantastic; indeed, since the vast majority of the book consists of dialogues about Empire, I have some difficulty in seeing it as fiction. The ideas espoused are as right wing as we would expect of Buchan; it is repeated several times, for instance, that the peoples of Africa will not be fit to rule themselves for centuries, if ever. The book is a paean of praise to Empire and to the inherent superiority of the Nordic races, but it doesn’t really tell a story. Something of the dullness of the book might be suggested by the fact that this novel contains many times more typographical errors (phrases repeated, extraneous words inserted or omitted, etc) than the whole of the rest of these three volumes put together.
In contrast, The Inheritors by Conrad and Hueffer (primarily Hueffer, Conrad suggested that he wrote no more than 2,000 words of the whole) is beautifully written, unfailingly entertaining, and proposes that Empire will be the source of Britain’s doom. It tells of an aspiring writer who encounters a cold but alluring woman who claims to be from the Fourth Dimension. The idea of the Fourth Dimension is probably taken from The Time Machine (1895), since both Conrad and Hueffer knew Wells, but they don’t really seem fully to understand the concept which is muddled throughout the book. I think, in the end, all they really want to say is that she is from the future. The writer finds himself taken on to produce a series of interviews with various figures allied with an Imperial scheme in Greenland, but the more he comes to understand the scheme the more he realises that the woman, now masquerading as his sister, is somehow manipulating events. The scheme turns out to be the product of an alliance between an honourable and trusted politician, Churchill (based on Balfour, though I find it strange that they should have picked this name since the prominent Conservative politician Randolph Churchill had died only a few years before), and a devious foreign aristocrat, de Mersch (based on King Leopold of Belgium, responsible for many atrocities in the Congo). The woman’s aim is to build the scheme up, through our narrator’s articles, and then bring it down at the last minute in a way that destroys all trust in politicians and paves the way for her cohorts from the Fourth Dimension to inherit the world. As a critique of Imperialism, it is a pale shadow of, for instance, The War of the Worlds or Conrad’s own Heart of Darkness (1899); as a work of the fantastic it is tentative, not fully thought through, yet it stands out within these volumes as not only the best written of the novels but also the one most thoroughly and most subtly engaged with the political process.
Political Future Fiction is a strange, and not always satisfactory, enterprise. Artistically, the editors could well have picked many better works from the Edwardian era. In terms of their engagement with the future: two of the novels are specifically about the present, one is set in the past, and of the three that do look to the future, one imagines that the world of 50 years hence will be indistinguishable from the world of the present. They are not, therefore, works that engage with ideas of the future, though other writers of the period were demonstrating that change over time is something that can be well portrayed in fiction. As for politics, that is a fuzzy term than can be used to mean all sorts of things in the context of fiction, from polemic and satire to an examination of the workings of political bodies, or it can just as easily relate to unspoken assumptions about how the world of the fiction works. Both Barton and Buchan go for polemic, while Conrad and Hueffer consider how systems work and how they might be undermined. Silberrad is making a satirical point that political institutions will work exactly the same regardless of the sex of whoever is at their head; I imagine that Reeth’s role-reversal is meant to suggest exactly the same point, though Reeth gives us little information about how these political institutions actually work. As for Cole’s novel, the idea of Empire is there in the background, as it is in the Buchan and in the Conrad and Hueffer, but it is unexamined, unquestioned. Britain is simply the greatest power in the world at the point the novel was written, so it is simply assumed that its power will increase to master the universe, and there is no point in questioning that. Other than the Conrad and Hueffer, and possibly the Silberrad, these are not really novels you’d want to read for their own qualities, time hasn’t been kind to them. Whether they are worth reading for a light they might shine upon the political ideas of Edwardian England, that is a less clear-cut question, though I can think of other books from the period that have survived better and that would do the job better.