The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)

‘These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.’ (Dr Moreau, chapter 14)

The main text is a ‘lost narrative’, in this case a written account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, which is found among his papers after his death by his nephew, Charles Edward Prendick, and is now being given to the public ‘for the first time’.

This is a time-honoured old literary convention but it always makes me perk up, as it promises a certain kind of text, an old-fashioned adventure narrative, much as Conan Doyle’s story The Horror of the Heights transcribes the ‘blood-stained notebook’ belonging to a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told through letters and diaries, the kind of textual fragments which also throng the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Shipwrecked

The story is simple enough in outline. Prendick describes how the schooner he’s a passenger on in the South Seas (The Lady Vain) hits a wreck and sinks. He scrambles into a dinghy with two others. After days without food or water, the two sailors he’s with attack each other and fall overboard. It is in this state, alone, half delirious and drifting in an open boat, that he is picked up by another schooner, the Ipecacuanha, and nursed back to health by a passenger on this boat, Montgomery, a former medical student.

The captain of the second boat is a disreputable drunk (John Davis) who argues incessantly with Montgomery and his strange, malformed manservant, not least about Montgomery’s cargo of wild animals – a pack of savage hounds, a caged puma and loads of rabbits.

When they reach their destination, a remote island, the drunken captain unloads Montgomery’s animals into a waiting launch steered by an aloof man who is obviously Montgomery’s boss – but then drunkenly insists that Prendick leave the ship, too. Montgomery refuses to take him, and so the drunk captain gets his men to manhandle Prendick into the boat’s dinghy which he sets adrift. Seeing all this, Montgomery and his boss reluctantly turn around their launch and come back for him.

The captain of the launch now introduces himself as Doctor Moreau. He is a big strong, grey-haired man who makes it quite plain to Prendick that he is an unintended and unwelcome guest, but that they couldn’t leave him to drift and die. Now he accompanies them in the boat which docks at a primitive quayside, where the animals are unloaded by yet more men who are strange and almost animal-like in appearance.

The island

And thus Prendick arrives on the island of Dr Moreau, and slowly realises that the good doctor is practicing vivisection – ‘performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research’ – before going on to make the horrific discovery – that he is operating on men, too.

I picked myself up and stood trembling, my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could it be possible, I thought, that such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky; and suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my own danger. (Chapter 10)

Thus there is a secret at the heart of the island, which involves physical danger, and is potentially horrific – and Wells’s task as storyteller is to share Prendick’s slow unravelling of the secret, and to punctuate the narrative with scenes of jeopardy and horror.

Terror

For example, the day after he’s taken in and given a spare room in the ‘compound’, Prendick finds himself deeply disturbed by the sound of the screams of the puma. Moreau is clearly operating on it, with no anaesthetic, all day long. So Prendick goes for a wander around the island which, of course, is a bad idea, because, once he is in the forest, he becomes alert to strange sounds and snufflings, and realises that any number of horrible, misshapen half-men, are loping around it. In one shocking scene he glimpses one of these half-men go down on all fours to slurp water from a stream – just like an animal!

I read this scene late at night and, as I followed Prendick’s realisation that he is lost at night in a tropical jungle filled with half-human beasts – the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I read on in genuine fear as Prendick blunders through the darkness, realising he is being followed by something he can’t see, but whose inhuman gruntings and snufflings he can hear getting closer and closer.

A twig snapped behind me, and there was a rustle. I turned, and stood facing the dark trees. I could see nothing – or else I could see too much. Every dark form in the dimness had its ominous quality, its peculiar suggestion of alert watchfulness. So I stood for perhaps a minute, and then, with an eye to the trees still, turned westward to cross the headland; and as I moved, one among the lurking shadows moved to follow me.

My heart beat quickly. Presently the broad sweep of a bay to the westward became visible, and I halted again. The noiseless shadow halted a dozen yards from me. A little point of light shone on the further bend of the curve, and the grey sweep of the sandy beach lay faint under the starlight. Perhaps two miles away was that little point of light. To get to the beach I should have to go through the trees where the shadows lurked, and down a bushy slope.

I could see the Thing rather more distinctly now. It was no animal, for it stood erect. At that I opened my mouth to speak, and found a hoarse phlegm choked my voice. I tried again, and shouted, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer. I advanced a step. The Thing did not move, only gathered itself together…

It was some time before I could summon resolution to go down through the trees and bushes upon the flank of the headland to the beach. At last I did it at a run; and as I emerged from the thicket upon the sand, I heard some other body come crashing after me. At that I completely lost my head with fear, and began running along the sand. Forthwith there came the swift patter of soft feet in pursuit. I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace. Some dim, black things about three or four times the size of rabbits went running or hopping up from the beach towards the bushes as I passed.

So long as I live, I shall remember the terror of that chase. I ran near the water’s edge, and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me. Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light. All the night about us was black and still. Splash, splash, came the pursuing feet, nearer and nearer. I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side… (Chapter 9)

Exciting, eh? Note the (generally) short sentences. Aspects of Wells’s prose occasionally betray his Victorian background (‘forthwith’ and other such ornate phraseology) but for the most part you can see how the need to convey heightened sensations and terror force the prose into shorter, pithy sentences, like outbursts of panting.

Chapter titles

Even the titles of each chapter are designed – with their insistent use of ‘the’ to start each one – to convey a sense of primitive and elemental experience.

The Man Who Was Going Nowhere
The Strange Face
The Evil-Looking Boatmen
The Locked Door
The Crying Of The Puma
The Thing In The Forest
The Crying Of The Man
The Hunting Of The Man
The Sayers Of The Law

The wrecking outsider

There must be a generic name for the kind of story in which a stranger, an outsider, blunders into a fairly stable situation or society, misunderstands and disrupts it, and sets off a train of events which lead to its destruction. Happens in loads of science fiction and adventure stories.

This is a classic example. In chapter 10 of this 22-chapter text, Prendick, overcome with panic that Moreau and Montgomery might be about to experiment on him, breaks free of the compound, running away from Montgomery, and finds himself being befriended by the strange – the really strange – motley of vivisected half-humans and hybrids which Moreau has let run loose on the island.

Prendick discovers that there are far more of these mutants, these ‘beast men’, than he’d imagined, maybe hundreds (Moreau later tells him there are some 67, plus a fleet of 60 or so smaller half-animals). And is inducted into their strange religion, led by a deranged Beast-Man prophet, and reinforced by rhythmic chanting and swaying:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Moreau and Montgomery track him down to the village of the beast-men, in order to rescue him but Prendick, in his ignorance and panic – still convinced that they mean to operate on him – yells out to the Beast Men that Moreau and Montgomery are just men like them, that they can be easily overcome and defeated, that they are not gods.

In other words – he plants the seeds of The Revolt of the Beast-Men.

Moreau’s justification

Moreau and Montgomery finally persuade Prendick they mean him no harm by handing over their revolvers to him and saying he can keep them. Reluctantly, he agrees to go back to the compound with them. It is here that Moreau makes his Big Statement, justifying  his work to Predick, mixing together contemporary knowledge about vivisection and evolution, into a horrifically amoral quest to mould and create new species.

‘I wanted – it was the one thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.’

He explains that none of the things Prendick saw in the village of the Beast-Men was human. All of them were animals who Moreau had extensively experimented on to give new craniums, larger brains and, above all, larynxes with which to utter sounds. His amorality, his unflinching heartless willingness to inflict unspeakable pain are meant to horrify us.

And Wells sense the mythic necessity for the story of describing Moreau’s anger and frustration at continually failing to create a man from a beast. No matter how subtle his knife and his anatomical knowledge, something is always lacking. The creatures always relapse, the bestial part reawakens.

Neither Moreau nor Wells names it, but Wells is gesturing towards the idea of a soul, as somehow separating man from the beasts, and therefore incapable of any surgical intervention.

This notion that the beast in the vivisected animals rises especially at nightfall, when they dare to do things they would never do during the day, reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a full-length novel devoted to describing creatures which can only live at night, which was published the year after Moreau, in 1897.

(Interestingly, Wells had already published the factual core of Moreau’s speech as a scientific article about the limits and possibilities of vivisection in the Saturday Review in January, 1895. An example of the close linkage between current scientific debate, and Wells’s scientific ‘fantasies’.)

Blood is spilt

The catastrophe is slow but remorseless in building up. A rabbit-like creature is discovered which has been killed and eaten. Now, eating meat and tasting blood are against ‘the Law’ which Moreau has been at such pains to instil into his monstrous creations.

He, Montgomery and Prendick go armed with revolvers, whip and a big hunting horn to the Valley of the Beast Men, where Moreau blows the horn and assembles the mutants. The Beast-Men listen while Moreau repeats the law about not tasting flesh, and then repeat it like surly retards. But as Moreau pushes his questioning about who has broken the Law and tasted blood, the Leopard-Man betrays his guilt by suddenly bounding at Moreau, pushing him over and fleeing.

This gives rise to a mass hunt, with the howling yowling beast-people chasing alongside the three men, until they corner the Leopard-Man in a thicket. Here Prendick is overcome by the horrible futility and pointlessness of all of it. If Moreau had some noble purpose in mind, was curing some disease, the pain he inflicts might be acceptable. Instead he creates one botched hybrid after another, releasing them onto the island to live lives of pain and fear, plagued by human thoughts, but without human traditions or feelings to contain them.

Prendick shoots the Leopard-Man to put it out of its misery, but this is just the latest in a long line of his mistakes, which are giving the Beast-Men ideas that the men are no the strong gods they have been whipped into believing.

Many had noticed that when Prendick had sought refuge in their camp, he was bleeding, he was hungry, he was weak. Then, when Moreau and Montgomery had him at bay in the sea, he deliberately shouted to the Beast Men that the white men were just men after all, vulnerable and exposed.

All these seeds which the outsider Prendick has sown now finally bear fruit in a Revolt of the Beast-Men.

The crisis

The actual spark is struck when the puma which Moreau has been operating on for six weeks suddenly breaks free. By now it is half-monster enough to be able to tear its fetters out of the wall, fling Prendick aside (breaking his left arm) and rush for the jungle.

Moreau pursues with a revolver. Montgomery and Prendick follow with Montgomery’s loyal servant, M’ling tagging along. They hear shots and crash through the jungle to find the puma shot dead – and Moreau’s dead body next to it!

Devastated, Montgomery lets slip the words, ‘He’s dead’, but the Beast-Men – who have quickly gathered round – ominously begin to repeat this. Prendick, seeing the danger, steps forward and says in his loudest voice that Moreau is not dead, he has merely cast off this body and gone to heaven to watch over them.

Still, the Beast Men fall to muttering among themselves. Only mindless repetition of the Law, combined with terror of ‘the House of Pain’ (Moreau’s laboratory) have kept them in line. With Moreau dead – what next?

Montgomery, Prendick, M’ling and some of the Beasts carry Moreau’s body back to the compound. The beasts leave. The white men burn Moreau’s corpse, and then lock themselves in.

The next thing is that Montgomery gets drunk and tells Prendick the story of his life. Because of some obscure scandal at medical school he was forced to pack in his career and leave London. He drifted around the South Seas. He was taken in by Moreau and has been living on the island for ten years. His only friend is the mutant M’ling.

Montgomery now gets really drunk, pushes Prendick out of the way and staggers across the beach to find M’ling to persuade him to join him in a drink. Prendick watches figures of some Beast-Men emerge from the forest around the stumbling man, apparently joining in with him, and they all go off together, Montgomery singing.

Prendick realises he has to escape the island. He goes back into the compound to search for things he can pack into the launch, planning to set sail the next day. But then he hears shouting. Looking out the windows he sees that someone has built a fire on the beach and the drinking has turned to violence.

Then he hears shots. He runs towards the fire only to discover that a hairy-grey Beast-Man has mortally wounded Montgomery. M’ling has been savaged and killed. Three of the beasts are dead. Montgomery just has time to say ‘Sorry’, before he dies. And, as the sun rises, Prendick looks round the beach and realises that Montgomery and M’ling, in their nihilistic drunkenness, had chopped up the dinghies and set them on fire. The stupid fool must have drunkenly thought that, if he couldn’t go back to ‘civilisation’, then no-one could.

Still dazed by this realisation, Prendick hears bangs and flares. Looking round, he sees the compound alight, flames climbing higher into the dawn sky. All his plans to flee are crushed.

Among the Beast-Men

There follows what is, in a way, the most enthralling part of the story. Prendick decides to take his courage in his hands and marches to the village of the remaining Beast People. With some of their more rebellious members hot dead, the remnant are, initially, cowed by Prendick. But it soon becomes clear that he is hungry, tired and thirsty. By slow degrees, over the course of days and weeks, he loses his rank as Ruling White Man and, step by step, declines until he is little better than one of them.

So in solitude I came round by the ravine of the Beast People, and hiding among the weeds and reeds that separated this crevice from the sea I watched such of them as appeared, trying to judge from their gestures and appearance how the death of Moreau and Montgomery and the destruction of the House of Pain had affected them. I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People. As it was I lost the opportunity, and sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows. (Chapter 20)

Prendick is forced to spend the next ten months among the beasts and during this period, something awful and awe-inspiring happens. Slowly, one by one, he watches as they degrade and decay, reverting to their bestial origins. One by one they forget how to speak, forget how to walk upright, forget about fire, and revert to all the behaviour banned by Moreau’s ‘Laws’ – such as going on all fours and slurping water from streams.

None of them threaten him, but Prendick nonetheless lives in mounting terror.

He keeps a lookout on the horizon. A couple of times he sees what he thinks are sails and lights fires to attract their attention but nobody comes. He makes a series of half-cocked attempts to build a raft, but he is no engineer or handiman.

Finally, one day Prendick sees a dinghy drifting slowly towards the reef. When he swims out to inspect it he finds two well-rotten corpses in it. He tips them out and moors it, fills the empty kegs with fresh water, collects sacksful of fruit – and then pushes off, drifting with the waves, eating and drinking sparingly – in such an abandoned state of mind that he doesn’t really care whether he’s rescued or not. Just to be away from the Island of Beasts is enough.


Degeneration theory

To quote Wikipedia:

Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Only a few years before Moreau, in 1892, the German physician and social critic Max Nordau had written a book – Degeneration – arguing the case that Western civilisation was in irreversible. It struck a nerve and become a surprise bestseller.

This cultural trend sprang to mind, particularly as I read the penultimate chapter of The Island of Dr Moreau – the description of Prendick’s ten months among the Beast-Men which is, in effect, an extended fantasia describing the decline and degeneration of Moreau’s half-men back into a state of complete bestiality.

It is horrible to read Prendick’s vivid descriptions of their slow loss of all mental powers and reversion to crude animal behaviour. It is Nordau’s notion of degeneration given fictional flesh.

But the point is really rammed home when Prendick finds himself eventually rescued by a passing ship, and then returned, eventually, back to England, and back to London.

Here he experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for, as he walks the streets, he cannot see the passersby as people, but only as beasts-in-waiting, each on the verge of that horrible degeneration, such as he saw on the island.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel – and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered ‘Big Thinks’, even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone… (Chapter 22)

Politics

Wells was left-wing from the start, joining the Fabian Society in 1903 and going on to write numerous works promoting socialism.

As early as The Time Machine he gave his fable of the future a political slant by speculating that the two races of sylph-like Eloi and underground ape-like Morlocks might be the remote descendants of the increasingly differentiated classes of his day – a terrifying but logical extrapolation of England 1895, when the nation’s cities seemed to be ever-more starkly divided between a luxury-enjoying bourgeoisie and a degraded, half-bestial proletariat.

The same issue winks out at us from Dr Moreau, though not so centrally as in Time Machine. The first time he discovers the Beast Village, a crevice in volcanic rock into which the pitiful results of Moreau’s vivisection experiments have excavated sordid little alcoves, Predick finds himself comparing the skulking creatures who turn from his gaze, to inhabitants of the worst slums of London.

I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things which had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings. Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar and individual to keep my general impressions of humanity well defined. I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

Yet every now and then the beast would flash out upon me beyond doubt or denial. An ugly-looking man, a hunch-backed human savage to all appearance, squatting in the aperture of one of the dens, would stretch his arms and yawn, showing with startling suddenness scissor-edged incisors and sabre-like canines, keen and brilliant as knives. Or in some narrow pathway, glancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils… (Chapter 15)

Predominantly The Island of Dr Moreau is a horror story. But it also invokes the great political issue of the day. By the 1890s the appalling state of the working classes was on everyone’s lips, in the form of ‘the labour problem’, ‘the employment problem’ or ‘the population problem’, which dominated the newspapers a bit like Brexit does today.

Either side of The Island of Dr Moreau were published countless novels, newspaper articles and factual studies exposing the poverty and squalor at the heart of Britain’s large cities and especially London. The Sherlock Holmes novels revel in it. An entire new genre of lowlife novels, by authors like George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, described it with bitter anger.

Underlying the political issues, though, is the deeper anxiety about individual and cultural degeneration. What if the wealthy, educated élite will, in time, be swamped by the wretched poor? What if we are all just animals lifted beyond out natural sphere and the entire race will, eventually, revert to bestial incomprehension and violence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is all about the moral degeneration of the privileged central character, a narrative which takes the hero to squalid opium dens in the East End and unmentionable depravities. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a really obvious expression of the theme, with the cultivated Dr Jeckyll reverting to the ape-like brute, Hyde. Charles Marlow, narrator of The Heart of Darkness, points out that London, too, was once one of the dark places of the world. And, by implication, it could become so, again.

The final chapter of the Island of Dr Moreau, describing Prendick alone among the decaying Beast-Men, really taps into this anxiety with a biting sense of horror and premonition.

Futility

When you’re a teenager, it’s a common temptation to feel that everything is pointless, futile and stupid. Much science fiction gives that feeling point and definition. If you adopt the Wellsian, materialist perspective, then human beings are just one among millions of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, themselves descended from countless billions of ancestor species, and our planet is itself one among unknown billions filling an infinitely large universe which is an inconceivable 15 billion years old.

The incorporation of these vast and thrilling perspectives into his stories gives Wells ample opportunity to have his narrators or protagonists reflect, at some point, on the pitiful triviality of their own – and by extension – all human lives.

Thus, at the height of the chase of the Leopard-Man, Prendick – watching Montgomery and Moreau lead their pack of mutants across the rocks towards the poor victim – is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrible arbitrary futility of it all.

The Beast People manifested a quite human curiosity about the dead body, and followed it in a thick knot, sniffing and growling at it as the Bull-men dragged it down the beach. I went to the headland and watched the bull-men, black against the evening sky as they carried the weighted dead body out to sea; and like a wave across my mind came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island. Upon the beach among the rocks beneath me were the Ape-man, the Hyena-swine, and several other of the Beast People, standing about Montgomery and Moreau. They were all still intensely excited, and all overflowing with noisy expressions of their loyalty to the Law; yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me, that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had here before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form. The Leopard-man had happened to go under: that was all the difference. Poor brute!

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau – and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been only hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on; and the Things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer, and at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves; the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another; the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In those days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear for Moreau. I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

To a certain kind of mind, or to the mind in a certain mood, these ideas are really powerful, and Wells’ nihilism takes its place in a long line which stretches from Gulliver, revolted by humans at the very end of  his travels, through to the oppressive misanthropy of Wells’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

The way the tale ends with Prendick incapacitated by revulsion on the streets of London, really rams home the horror of what he has witnessed, and imprints his haunted vision of a universal human degeneration into bestial animality.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells (1901)

This is the seventh of Wells’s classic science fiction novels. He had also, by 1901, written over 60 science fiction short stories. Single-handedly he had created a new genre for the English-speaking world, which was quickly taken up and copied.

It wasn’t just that he wrote a lot, it’s that the early books each tackled, described, thought through and realistically presented some of the founding tropes of science fiction – time travel and attack by aliens from another world, being the two outstanding ones – which have been recycled thousands of times since.

The First Men in the Moon is not quite in the same league because it didn’t invent the topic of travelling to the moon – Jules Vernes had written a novel on the same theme thirty years earlier (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865) and in fact a number of fantasies and romances on the subject had been written for centuries (including the version by the 17th century writer Cyrano de Bergerac whose illustrations by Quentin Blake I recently reviewed – Voyages to the Moon and the Sun, based on the Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon, 1657).

Also, the scientific basis of the story – the mechanism by which the protagonists get to the moon – using some kind of anti-gravity metal – the way it’s discovered and handled, isn’t as persuasive as some of the earlier fantasies. Nonetheless, the story is still compelling because of the thoroughness with which Wells thinks through the practical details – and then because of the avalanche of astounding discoveries which his heroes make once they’ve arrived on the moon, and which keeps the reader on the edge of their seat.

Amateur hour

As usual in Wells, the whole thing is invented by an inspired amateur – the notion of government-sponsored scientific research being still decades away, pioneered by the Manhattan project of the 1940s.

Instead the story is narrated in the first person by a rather disreputable bankrupt, Mr Bedford, who retreats to a bungalow on the Kent coast where he hopes to scribble a best-selling play in order to make a quick buck, but gets into conversation with an eccentric neighbour, Cavor, and gets drawn into the latter’s scientific experiments.

The ‘scientific’ basis is simple, or simple-minded, enough. Cavor points out that we now know the universe is full of rays and waves that act at a distance – light rays, x-rays, electricity and gravity. And we know of materials which block some of these rays – light and electricity and x-rays. So why can’t we create something which blocks the effect of gravity?

Bedford immediately sees the vast amounts of money to be made from such a material in a hundred and one commercial applications:

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres de luxe. (p.27)

So Bedford persuades the rather other-worldly Cavor to take him on as a ‘partner’, and becomes a regular visitor to the latter’s house down the hill (incidentally observing the comic rivalry of the three working class labourers Cavor has working in his various workshops).

An enormous explosion and then a terrific hurricane announce to the narrator that Cavor has indeed succeeded in making the new material. it happened by fluke, when a substance they’d been working on was left to cool and crystallised into the material they now decide to christen ‘cavorite’. (It all takes place on 14 October 1899, as Bedford faithfully records.)

What caused the hurricane is that, as soon as it came into existence, the cavorite blocked the earth’s gravitational pull from working on the air above it. This meant that that air – which normally presses downwards at a pressure of 14 pounds per square inch – ceased doing so, and instead floated freely upwards. This created a column of ’empty air’ directly about the square of cavorite. Into this gravity-less tube rushed all the surrounding air which, on finding itself also liberated from the earth’s gravity, also lost its downward weight and was itself forced upwards by the rest of the surrounding air rushing in. And so on and so on. In a split second the pull of pressurised air into the column of unweighted air created a huge inrush of air from the surroundings, in which everything which was not tied down was immediately dragged towards it at tremendous force.

For the few moments that this happened all the air in the neighbourhood was sucked into the gravity-free tube – which explains the sudden hurricane Cavor and Bedford felt. But then they themselves saw the little sheet of cavorite itself get sucked up by the empty vortex and they both watched it soar up through the column, up, up and – presumably – right out of the earth’s atmosphere… at which point everything returned to normal. ‘By Jove, old chap.’

Bedford and Cavor look at each other. This thing could escape the earth’s atmosphere. It could fulfil man’s oldest dream of leaving earth. But how to steer or control it? Cavor goes off pondering and the next day has come up with a solution: encase the cavorite in steel plates which mask its anti-gravity effect, and only open the plates facing in a certain direction when you want the anti-gravity cavorite to work in that direction.

(You can see why Wells has his narrator, Bedford, continually lament that he didn’t keep notes, didn’t make a record of the process by which cavorite was made, didn’t follow all of Cavor’s abstruse thinking and so on. This is because Well’s idea doesn’t really make practical sense.)

So the pair construct a sphere, with an inner layer made of glass, then covered in warm cavorite paste, then steel divided into plates. (In fact it’s less a sphere than a polyhedron made of flat plates. And the plates are more, in fact, like ‘blinds’ which can be opened and closed. I’ve always found this quite hard to visualise.) Once everything is in place they heat the cavorite paste to securely bind it to the ‘sphere’ and then, as it cools, it assumes the magical properties and – whoosh!

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Hering (1901)

The idea is that to steer the sphere you open a plate in the direction you want gravity to cease working and are repelled away from any nearby object (the earth or moon or sun) which would ordinarily exert the attractive power of gravity. Once in space, close the plates and you’ll be pulled towards the nearest big object. Like the moon.

Bedford climbs into the sphere and Cavor shows him how he’s furnished it – the blankets, some frozen oxygen in cylinders, some food, an electric light and some carbolic acid device to get rid of the carbon dioxide they inhale. But while Bedford is still pondering whether he wants to go, Cavor opens the earthside shutters, the cavorite works and whoosh! they are flying towards the moon.

Wells’s story races at top speed to prevent you from realising what tosh it is, and to enchant you in his narrative spell. Wonder follows wonder. First of all there is weightlessness. Maybe earlier writers had realised that we would be weightless in space but Wells gives a very accurate prophecy of what it feels like, the tingling in the blood and the way everything inside the sphere floats around bumping into everything else.

It was the strangest sensation conceivable, floating thus loosely in space, at first indeed horribly strange, and when the horror passed, not disagreeable at all, exceeding restful; indeed, the nearest thing in earthly experience to it that I know is lying on a very thick, soft feather bed. But the quality of utter detachment and independence! I had not reckoned on things like this. I had expected a violent jerk at starting, a giddy sense of speed. Instead I felt – as if I were disembodied. It was not like the beginning of a journey; it was like the beginning of a dream.

They open some of the plates to see where they’re headed and a) are dazzled by the brightness of the sun and b) looking the other direction, are stunned by the profusion of stars, millions more than you can see through earth’s atmosphere.

Cavor makes last-minute adjustments and they come to land in a vast crater on the moon. Here the reader is bombarded with vivid impressions. It is dark and the ground is covered in soft white stuff which they only slowly realise is not dust but frozen atmosphere. They have arrived just at sunrise over the crater and are astonished to watch the frozen white stuff all around them melt and then evaporate, to form an atmosphere, tingeing the sky blue.

Is it breathable? Cavor performs the ludicrously amateur experiment of opening the manhole which they use to get in and out of the capsule and discovers that – yes, it is thinner than earth’s but the moon’s atmosphere turns out to be perfectly breathable. (No ill effects from sunlight, radiation, burning, toxic gases, nothing! Convenient, eh?)

They climb outside and are astounded to watch small pebbles shiver, pop, put out roots, and then stalks. They are plants and shrubs and strange tree-sized flora, which grows even as they watch. Of course. The moon’s ‘year’ – the length of time it takes the sun to rise and set over the lunar surface – only lasts for 14 earth days. In that fortnight, life forms have to spring, grow, mature, produce their own seed, and decline.

But the thing they are most enraptured with is the low gravity. Only a sixth of the earth’s. Off they go springing and bounding in giant leaps amid the surreally growing and blossoming fruits of the moon. Until  – oops – they both realise they have forgotten where the sphere was and, looking back, see only an immense rustling growing forest of moon flora.

And it is then that they hear an ominous boom boom boom noise from beneath the surface and a grinding as of great gates opening. Not long afterwards they see the first of the Selenites herding a vast slug-like creature with tiny closed eyes and a horrid red mouth which is slurping and munching its way through the foliage, like a farmer herding a monstrous cow.

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Illustration for The First Men In the Moon by E. Herring (1901)

Amazement

Wells’s aim is to amaze, stun, astonish and astound. The basic, foundational trope of a visit to a strange land is reminiscent of any number of late-Victorian yarns – Vernes’ Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), Rider Haggard’s journeys to darkest Africa (She, 1886), or Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger trip to a Lost World (1912) in the remotest Amazon.

But science fiction has the advantage over mere adventure stories in that it can make things up purely to astound, astonish, shock, disgust and amaze the reader.

Because the text is available online, it is searchable, and so I searched and counted no fewer than 415 exclamation marks, as the characters, and the author, continually signal their amazement at their astounding discoveries!!!

Then, for fun, I searched all the instances of the word ‘amazing’.

It comes to me with a certain quality of astonishment that my participation in these amazing adventures of Mr. Cavor was, after all, the outcome of the purest accident.

[Cavor’s workshop] looked like business from cellar to attic – an amazing little place to find in an out-of-the-way village

It was an amazing piece of reasoning. Much as it amazed and exercised me at the time.

And then, sudden, swift, and amazing, came the lunar day.

With a steady assurance, a swift deliberation, these amazing seeds thrust a rootlet downward to the earth and a queer little bundle-like bud into the air.

Cavor panted something about ‘amazing sensations’.

What the Selenites made of this amazing, and to my mind undignified irruption from another planet, I have no means of guessing.

Amazing little corner in the universe – the landing place of men!

… returning after amazing adventures to this world of ours.

There were several amazing forms, with heads reduced to microscopic proportions and blobby bodies.

Amazing and incredible as it may seem, these two creatures, these fantastic men insects, these beings of other world, were presently communicating with Cavor by means of terrestrial speech.

The dictionary definition of to amaze is ‘to cause someone to be extremely surprised’. Synonyms for ‘amaze’ give a sense of the goal of Well’s fantasies (and of the thousands of pulp sci-fi writers who followed him). it is to:

astonish, astound, surprise, bewilder, stun, stagger, flabbergast, nonplus, shock, startle, shake, stop someone in their tracks, stupefy, leave open-mouthed, leave aghast, take someone’s breath away, dumbfound, daze, benumb, perplex, confound, dismay, disconcert, shatter, take aback, jolt, shake up

Taken prisoner

Back in the story our heroes sneak away from the ghastly apparition of the Selenite and realise they are hungry. Not having any provisions from the sphere they are driven by desperation to nibble one of the growing lunar ‘trees’ and Wells gives quite a humorous account of the way that the ‘food’ does them no harm but makes them both very drunk. Through their drunken bickering they are aware of Selenites surrounding them and of some kind of struggle, then it all goes dark.

They wake up with hangovers in a dark cell in handcuffs and shackles. One or two individual Selenites come to see them before they are raised to their feet and led by a posse of Selenites, some of whom are carrying the sharp spiked goads they’d seen one using on get the big fat mooncalf earlier. Our heroes are fascinated and disgusted at the Selenites’ appearance, a kind of giant ant. The shapes of their heads appear to vary, indicating different brain size and probably advanced specialisation of job or function in what they come to realise is the complex Selenite civilisation.

They are taken through caverns measureless to man, past enormous machinery which appears to be pumping out some kind of liquid which glows blue and provides illumination here. Cavor speculates wildly that there may be a whole civilisation here, under the surface of the moon. Maybe networks of caverns descending via tunnels down to some inner sea. Scooped out and developed over thousands of years.

When they come to a narrow plank going out over what appears to be a vast bottomless pit, Bedford rebels. One of the Selenites goads him with the spiky implement and he sees red. He punches the Selenite and is astonished to watch his fist go right through its head and out the other side. They are clearly far less sturdy and strongly made than humans. Before he knows it he is attacking all of them and then grabbing Cavor to make a getaway.

This is actually the turning point of the book, because the rest of the main narrative describes their panic-stricken escape back to the surface of the moon. It is a chase narrative. As you might imagine, it involves climbing up clefts and stumbling into vast caverns and a lot more fighting, with the unpleasant discovery that the Selenites have a sort of crossbow which fires spears.

Nonetheless, triumphing over all these perils our heroes finally blunder out into a huge circular shaft with spiral steps running up along the wall (the kind of thing we’ve all seen in sci-fi and fantasy movies) leading up to the surface. Up it they run, emerging into the lip of a ‘crater’ – and they now understand that the moon’s ‘craters’ are in fact an immense network of circular ‘lids’ which can be retracted to reveal the labyrinth of tunnels created by Selenite civilisation and which allow the Selenites to emerge onto the surface to farm their herds of moon cows.

The sun is visibly waning: some 14 days have passed underground though they haven’t noticed, and is now threatening to set with all that entails in terms of losing the breathable atmosphere. Where is the sphere?

Afflicted by despair as they survey the vast area of lunar foliage, now visibly browning and declining, they pin a handkerchief to a nearby bush and set off to explore in opposite directions, taking vast moon leaps as they go.

Nearing exhaustion and plagued by fear that search parties of very angry Selenites will be out after them, Bedford is on the brink of giving up when he is momentarily dazzled by a shaft of light and realises it is sunlight reflecting off a panel of the sphere. Weeping with relief he bounds over and confirms it’s true. But what of Cavor? He leaps to a nearby peak and shouts Cavor’s name but – as Wells had pointed out from the first (in the kind of scientifically accurate detail which are such a joy of these stories) moon air is a lot thinner than earth air and so sound doesn’t carry very well: even when they’re shouting at each other it sounds like they’re whispering.

He can see the hankie in a bush a few miles away and so leaps over towards it. Here he yells Cavor’s name again, then looks down and sees an archetypal adventure story sight: broken bushes, churned-up soil, all the signs of a struggle. Going down he finds a scrap of paper in which Cavor has hurriedly written that he’s hurt his knee in landing awkwardly in a ditch and can hear the Selenites closing in, any moment they’re going to come, oh my God –

And here his message breaks off and the paper is marked by… a red liquid. Blood!!!!

The Selenites have got him. The crater is closed. All entrance to the interior is blocked off. The sun has almost set. Bedford realises he must save himself. I found his flight back the sphere quite gripping. Wells convincingly describes the sudden drop in temperature as the sun declines, the air grows thin and cold and then the first snowflakes will fall. The temperature will ultimately drop to Absolute Zero and Bedford will freeze to death unless he can make it to the sphere in time. At last he is there. Crawling on hands and knees. Barely strength to reach up to the manhole, Twists. Can’t do it. Twists again. Pulls himself up and is… inside!

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

An exhausted Bedford just about makes it back to the sphere as snow falls, illustration for The First Men In The Moon by Claude Allin Shepperson

Food. Blanket. Warmth. Recovery. Sleep. Wakes rejuvenated. Grasps the grim reality of his situation. Opens the cavorite plates. Silently flies into space. More by luck than judgement he steers a course back to earth.

In an outcome so ludicrous it is like a pantomime, he not only lands back on earth, but he lands back on the south coast of England, barely a few miles from where they took off. On the sea, but conveniently close to a beach which he is then washed up on. Some jolly English chaps are coming down for their morning swim. ‘Crikey, old chap, you look a bit peaky let us take you up to the old hotel.’

Here he tucks into bacon and eggs and is drinking coffee when there’s an explosion and bewilderment outside the door. Some young lad had been hanging round as the chaps took dirty, dishevelled Bedford up to their hotel. He’d looked a bit shifty. The young wretch must have gone back to the sphere, climbed in and opened a plate, making it lift off. Damn and blast! There go Bedford’s dreams of setting up an interplanetary travel agency.

But he still has the gold. Did I mention the gold? Amid their adventures Bedford had realised that the shackles and manacles the Selenites had bound them with were made of gold. He had grabbed a couple of tyre lever-sized gold rods during their breakout. In fact he’d found them handy for fighting their way through the Selenites.

At least he still has them. He is rich.

A coda from Cavor

Wells could have stopped his tale there. Instead, there is a coda which takes up a surprising amount of space, pages 150 to 186 in the Everyman paperback edition.

To the outrage of all common sense, a Dutch electrician and early radio ham, picks up radio messages… from the moon! Yes, Cavor was captured, as Bedford had described: but his captors were kind to him, and, once he’d recovered, they took him on a Cook’s Tour of their vast civilisation. Part of this was learning that there was an apparently infinite variety of types of Selenites and soon Cavor was being introduced to the brainy ones: he could tell they were brainy, because they had very big heads! Big heads and thin skins so he could actually see the brain matter pulsating as they thought their deep thoughts.

Turns out that some of the Selenites are specialists in language and set about teaching Cavor who quickly catches on and starts to teach them English. Thus, within a few weeks, Cavor is communicating with the Selenites who explain how their society works, confirm that the moon is a swiss cheese of underground caverns and passages, that the phosphorescent liquid and much else is produced by immense machinery, that at the centre of the moon there is indeed a vast and tempestuous sea – and much more besides.

These visions of an alien civilisation, as so often, develop a strong flavour of being social criticism of the author’s own civilisation. Cavor discovers that the Selenites breed all the different types of workers in the equivalent of test tubes, distorting all aspects of their bodies and brains to suit them to the work they’re destined for. (Anticipating Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 30 years).

Harsh? Yes, he is a bit disgusted by it and especially by one particular sight of an embryonic Selenite having its forelimbs artificially lengthened to do manual work, but – and here is the Author’s Message –

of course it is really in the end a far more humane proceeding than our earthly method of leaving children to grow into human beings, and then making machines of them.

On another occasion his guides – the preposterously named Phi-oo and Tsi-puff – bring him to a great field of mushrooms being grown for food, where they find all the workers drugged and fast asleep, until they are needed for the harvest when they’ll be woken. Again, the character Cavor becomes a mouthpiece for the Fabian Socialist H.G. Wells:

To drug the worker one does not want and toss him aside is surely far better than to expel him from his factory to wander starving in the streets

Cavor’s tour climaxes with a presentation to the Grand Lunar, Master of the Moon – at which point the book definitely feels more like a lampoon or a parody than a ‘serious’ fantasy, a kind of ludicrous Wizard of Oz vibe.

Except that here it also reaches a kind of height of teenage socialism. Cavor radios back to earth a lengthy version of his interview with the Grand Lunar which begins with harmless stuff about the structure of the earth, why we live on the surface and not underneath like the Selenites, what weather is like in a place with 12 hour days, and so on. Little by little Cavor describes human civilisation, cities and factories and trains, how we do not breed different types of human to perform different tasks, not yet anyway.

But, when asked whether there is a Grand Earthly as there is a Grand Lunar, he finds himself having to explain the idea of ‘nations’ and ’empires’ and, before he realises it, is describing ‘war’. His brutal description of this absurd folly fills the Grand Lunar and the huge entourage of Selenites listening to Cavor’s account with horror.

Yes, wars in which men flock to the flag, train and arm and proudly wear uniforms, before clashing in huge armies designed solely to kill as many of the opponents as possible. As he proceeds, Cavor notes the moans of disappointment and disillusion rising from the crowd and the ‘expression’ on what passes for the Grand Lunar’s face.

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

Cover of Amazing Histories magazine, featuring an illustration of Cavor addressing the Great Lunar

A week later comes the final broadcast we are ever to hear from Cavor. It is a panic-stricken sentence, ‘I was mad to let the Grand Lunar know – ‘… and then a few words attempting to convey the secret of cavorite. Then silence.

Bedford imagines the dismay Cavor’s revelation about the true nature of human beings must have caused among the Selenites, and how the mood turned against Cavor, and how the moon people then realised that he was broadcasting messages to his violent brethren back on earth, with the risk that these psychopaths might return in one of these ‘armies’ and conquer the Selenites.

Gulliver

When I read this as a teenager I was awed by Wells’s profound insight into human nature. Now it reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels, in which the hero also describes human behaviour to the peace-loving King of Brobdingnag, who replies, accurately enough:

‘I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.’

True or not, the point is that, bolted on to the science fantasy, this coda reads very much like a variation on the time-honoured satire on contemporary civilisation and, by extension, of human nature, which goes back before Swift to Thomas More’s Utopia and before that to any number of Roman and Greek authors.


Commentary

There are three obvious features about a Wells novel like this, what he called his ‘fantasy novels’:

1. Fast

It’s fast-moving. Bedford has bumped into Cavor, built the sphere, gone to the moon, watched the desert bloom, been captured and taken below, escaped and fought his way to the surface, found the sphere and escaped, crash-landed on earth and had a hearty breakfast, all in a mere 150 pages (in the Everyman paperback edition I read).

2. Fantastic

The speed prevents you noticing its preposterousness. It’s so fast-moving you don’t notice how quickly you leave the world of Edwardian England, with its pubs and evening strolls along the Downs, completely behind. It only requires ten or so pages from Bedford meeting Cavor, to him thoroughly involving him in his theoretical speculations, and then – whoosh! they’re off to the moon.

It is fast-moving because it is, in a sense, pulp.  Only by moving fast from one astounding moment to the next can it stop you pausing to reflect and thus breaking the spell.

3. Mundanity

But, contradicting a little what I’ve said above, just as important as the speed and fantasy, is its air of mundaneness and normality.

I think it was Tom Shippey in his book about Lord of the Rings who explained that what made the book such a success was the invention of the hobbits. Tolkien had been working on his private-world mythology for decades, inventing languages and complex histories for his elves and dwarves and so on, and had produced quite a few texts narrating whole eras in his legendary Middle Earth. But they were boring and flat.

It was the invention of the down-to-earth, small, beer-drinking, pipe-smoking, no-nonsense, common-sensical hobbits which gave him a vehicle to take the reader into his world. We are introduced to the hobbits first and thoroughly identify with their idealised pastoral English life – before the first hints of other-worldly menace ever appear.

This explains why Lord of the Rings is regularly voted the greatest novel of the 20th century, while I’ve never met anyone who managed to complete The Silmarillion, another of Tolkien’s epics, describing a different era in Middle Earth’s history, but which lacks hobbits and, therefore, all charm and – crucially – representatives of the ordinary reader; imaginative vectors allowing us to enter into his imaginative world.

It’s an overlooked element of Wells that his best books also require this dichotomy – the interlocking of two opposites, the fantastic and the mundane.

We all know about the fantastical in his books, for example the idea that Martians launch an attack on earth or a man invents a time machine and travels to the distant future. Those are certainly the ideas at the core of the books. But when you actually read the texts what comes across almost as powerfully is the very mundane details of the places where this all happens – that the Martians land in Dorking and head towards London across the humdrum landscape of Surrey, blasting well known landmarks on their way (which is why there is a striking sculpture of a ‘Martian’ in Dorking town centre).

Wells himself was well aware of doing this:

For the writer of fantastic stories to help the reader play the game properly he must help him, in every possible unobtrusive way, to domesticate the impossible hypothesis. (Quoted in the critical afterword to the Everyman edition)

And one mark of this is the way the people who witness and generally write up the narratives are always very ordinary, everyday chaps, who are often a bit confused, puzzled, don’t quite follow what’s going on, miss important details, don’t quite follow the scientific whatchamacallit, and, in their bumbling innocence, stand in as a kind of stylised representative of the innocent reader.

They are all Dr Watsons to a succession of fierce, eccentric or visionary Holmeses, respectively:

  • 1895 The Time Machine – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – first person narrative by shipwrecked sailor Edward Prendick
  • 1897 The Invisible Man – (third person narrator)
  • 1898 The War of the Worlds – first person unnamed narrator
  • 1899 When the Sleeper Wakes – Graham, the eponymous sleeper
  • 1901 The First Men in the Moon – first person narrative by Mr Bedford
  • 1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – third person narrative
  • 1906 In The Days of the Comet – unnamed first person narrator
  • 1908 The War in the Air – featuring Bert and Tom Smallways
  • 1914 The World Set Free – third person narrator

Making this list shows that this isn’t exactly a hard-and-fast rule, but that most of the most effective fantasies are told in the first person by someone undergoing the adventure themselves.

It goes some way to explaining why of the early stories The Invisible Man stands out as particularly unlikeable and negative: it is one of the few not told by a more or less reasonable chap, who we’re meant to identify with.

As a footnote, this helps explain the presence of the three working class men who Cavor employs in his lab, in the earlier pages of the book. They are each jealous of each other’s specialisms, argue and often down tools to go off to the pub and argue some more and so perform the function of the rude mechanicals in Shakespeare, offering comic interludes but also throwing into relief the more serious activities of their middle class superiors. Anchoring them to a humorous everyday reality.

This also explains why Bedford, at an early stage, after he’s had an argument with Cavor, goes off for an epic walk across Kent, enjoying the countryside, stopping for lunch in a pub, chatting with the local yokels while he puffs on his pipe. All designed to embed the wild fantasy in a comfortable, relaxing coat of verisimilitude.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927-9)

Following in the footsteps of Jules Vernes, and of his own Professor Challenger science adventure stories, in this short, late novel Conan Doyle recounts the tale of eminent marine scientist Dr Maracot, sensible leading man Cyrus Headley, and gung-ho American engineer Bill Scanlan, as they set sail for the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean, and then descend to explore it in an ingenious diving bell.

But no sooner have they arrived at the very edge of the deepest sea trench in the world and seen a few weird fish, than disaster strikes in the shape of a monster lobster which crawls all over the diving box and then – quelle horreur! – snips the hawser which connects it to the expedition boat. Down and down and down the bell plummets, into the bottomless abyss of the deepest trench in the seas. And what do they find there?

You’ll have to read it to find out 🙂

Science

Interestingly, the bathysphere or diving bell which is at the centre of the yarn, was only just being deployed in real life. The world pioneering one was designed by American engineer Otis Barton in 1928-9, and first used by the naturalist William Beebe in 1930-34. So Conan Doyle was bang up to date with contemporary technology in this field.

Lineage

The Maracot Deep was serialised in The Strand magazine from October 1927 to February 1928, then continued as The Lord of the Dark Face in April and May 1929, i.e. right at the end of Conan Doyle’s long adventurous life. Jules Verne with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and certainly H.G. Wells and maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs had done this sort of thing before.

But reading it wakes numerous echoes of later films or TV shows where voyagers fall into the hands of an alien and more scientifically advanced race, where they are initially made to feel welcome until…

In fact it does feel like a late work in that Conan Doyle doesn’t really develop either story or characters. The five brief chapters of the part one barely get us to the underwater city, a scrape with a deep sea monster and the discovery of their own ship, wrecked in a hurricane shortly after they were set adrift – and our heroes have returned to civilisation and safety.

Spiritualism

The last two chapters (of seven) were written and published a year after the main body and are clearly and clumsily bolted onto the original story. In them the narrator hilariously say, ‘I forget if I have said before that the Professor was a world-famed specialist on Comparative Religions and ancient primitive beliefs.’ This comes in handy when the three adventurers meet none other than the Devil himself! who turns out to have had a personal hand in the destruction of Atlantis (which is what – to give the plot away – is what they discover all those miles down).

This turn of events is ludicrous but, as always, in Doyle’s sensible, lucid and clearly imagined prose, it has a strange persuasiveness. It has the same plausibility as a Hollywood movie. You know it’s rubbish but, for the hour or so that you watch it, you let yourself be impressed by the special affects, the acting, the directing. You submit to the thrall of the story.


Related links

Tales of Unease by Arthur Conan Doyle

Variety

Conan Doyle packed an amazing variety of activities into one life (1859-1930): doctor, author, sea voyager, played cricket for the MCC, enlisted age 40 to serve in the Boer War, public campaigner against miscarriages of justice, bombarded the Ministry of Defence with technical and strategic innovations during the Boer War and Great War, and devoted his later years and sizable fortune to promoting Spiritualism.

His writing output was similarly prodigious and varied: novels, short stories, articles, essays, reviews, poetry, plays, and in genres like history, detective, horror, melodrama, science fiction. What unites them all is the easy confidence of his style.

I prefer these stories of fantasy and the bizarre to the Sherlock Holmes tales, because Conan Doyle is less trapped by the iron format of ‘puzzle  – investigation – explanation’ which constricts the detective stories. Doyle’s imagination is set free to roam widely.

The result is short tales of horror, fantasy, of the macabre, alive with vivid descriptions – melodramatic moments – nightmare scenes of the bizarre or grotesque – each one a little twilight zone.

Qualities

They move at great speed. Mises-en-scenes are quickly set up with comprehensive descriptions of places and peoples, and then we are plunged into the action.

They are very vivid because a) the tales themselves are melodramatic ie designed to purvey extreme moments b) Conan Doyle has a great gift for the telling image. The detail of the undergraduate’s room lined with Egyptological specimens. The colour of the setting sun on the great Northern ice packs. The flicker of the candlelight in the Roman catacomb.

They are uncanny because they begin so solidly in the dull workaday before beginning to blur the boundaries. Because the characters of predominantly stuffy, bluff Edwardian types who would never be suspected of frivolity. What is so Conan Doyle about them is the comfiness of the original settings – the educated class, public school chaps, the world of Edwardian normality, pipe and clubs. So when the impossible occurs, we have already bought into the fictional world; their very bluffness lends credibility when the situation turns bizarre and extraordinary.

For example, the outlandish story of Sosra, the Egyptian who discovered the secret of immortality, is made credible (within the fiction) by the slow, detailed build-up of the character of Vansittart Smith, the mundane but steady Egyptologist, the typically bluff Victorian chap who narrates it. Because he is so reliable and believable, we suspend disbelief for the duration of the brief, fantastical story, which so clearly isn’t.

I’ve seen John Wyndham’s science fiction novels described as ‘cosy catastrophes’. Something similar with Conan Doyle whose prose never loses the calm confidence of a sturdy Victorian gentleman. Almost every story features cigars and a bottle of fine wine in front of a roaring fire: as readers we enjoy two levels of pleasure: the thrill of the often pretty hokey plot (although some of them do rise to a level of genuine hair-raising uncanniness) and the permanent bass note of the reassuring, unimaginative, pre-twentieth century worldview.

It was ten o’clock on a bright spring night, and Abercrombie Smith lay back in his arm-chair, his feet upon the fender, and his briar-root pipe between his lips. In a similar chair, and equally at his ease, there lounged on the other side of the fireplace his old school friend Jephro Hastie. Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men – men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust.

No matter how grim the ostensible plots, all Conan Doyle’s oeuvre is fundamentally innocent, child-like, deeply comforting and reassuring.

Papers, fragments and accounts

The earliest novels (Defore, 1720s) used the forms of diaries, journals and, of course, letters, so there is nothing new in these short stories, 150 years later, using the same strategy – the tales frequently masquerade as journals, accounts, newspaper reports and so on. But there is something specific to horror stories of this period in using the fragment. Remember that the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886 ie one year before Holmes appears) climaxes with the letter from the doomed Jeckyll.

  • ‘The following account was found among the papers of Dr James Hardcastle.’
  • ‘The Horror of the Heights which includes the manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong Fragment’
  • And such is the narrative of Abercrombie Smith as to the singular events which occurred in Old College, Oxford, in the spring of ’84.

A story basing itself on one of these forms has multiple purposes:

  • It adds authority and credibility; it lends the lustre of another (albeit fictional) name to validate the narrative.
  • It allows the text to be short and pithy, as diaries, journals and letters generally are, and to focus only on key moments.
  • It gets right inside the mind of the protagonist without limiting the narrative to a first person account. In other words, it allows the author to combine first person and 3rd person points of view, often itself part of the drama, often revealing the true state of affairs which lies behind all the weird occurrences (as in Jeckyll).
  • Precisely by being fragments, they can often end melodramatically, as in the last entry in Joyce-Armstrong’s until-then sober and careful account, which are words of horror scribbled in pencil and splashed with blood!

The stories

Conan Doyle wrote some 120 short stories, as well as the 56 Holmes stories, and numerous novels, plays and pamphlets. This selection of 15 tales was made by David Stuart Davies, a specialist in this genre and this period, who has compiled a number of similar selections for the bargain Wordsworth imprint.

The Ring of Thoth (1890) An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.

The Lord of Château Noir (1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.

The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.

The Case of Lady Sannox (1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.

The Brazilian Cat (1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.

The Brown Hand (1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.

The Horror of the Heights (1913) Brilliant account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.

The Terror of Blue John Gap (1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.

The Captain of the Polestar (1890) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice.

How It Happened (1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!

Playing with Fire (1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!

The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!

Lot No.249 (1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.

The Los Amigos Fiasco (1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.

The Nightmare Room (1921) By far the most overwritten piece in which a room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which  beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249

Contemporary illustration for Lot No.249


Related links

Arthur Conan Doyle versus John le Carré

As I read through the Sherlock Holmes stories, I was struck by the bluff, hearty, unshakeable confidence of Conan Doyle’s narratorial voice. And, particularly when I read the espionage stories (Bruce-Partington, His Last Bow), I thought of his descendant John le Carré, whose voice, tone and milieu couldn’t be more different – a world of jaded, disillusioned, cynical, overgrown public schoolboys – and I found myself comparing their oeuvres.

Arthur Conan Doyle John le Carré
Background

  • Establishment
  • Public School
  • Professional (doctor)
  • Volunteer in Boer & Great War
  • Patriot
Background

  • Establishment
  • Public school
  • Professional (diplomat)
  • Worked for military, Foreign Office, MI6
  • Sceptical patriot
Values

  • Believer
  • Entirely endorsed the values of his time ie the supremacy of:
  • The British Empire, of British values, of Anglo-Saxon blood, of white men
  • Strong clear morality, decency
  • Patriarchy ie rule by men and chastity of women, recompensing the fairer sex with Chivalry
 Values

  • Disillusioned unbeliever
  • Bitterly questions Imperial values, seen as ambiguous, devalued, empty
  • Sad acceptance of the end of Empire. The Russia House is about the Americans taking over
  • Amoral or morally unsure
  • Sexually explicit, women as betrayers, completely post-patriarchy, -chivalry etc. Eg Anne the betrayer wife
Character of texts

  • Clear-cut problems solved neatly, restoring the status quo
  • Settings Romantic and cinematic
  • Characters unambiguously good or bad
  • Holmes imposes clarity and justice according to firm white man’s morality
Character of texts

  • Complex, sometimes insoluble problems eg Arab-Israeli conflict of Little Drummer Girl
  • Settings shabby, sordid rundown
  • Characters obscure, complex, conflicted
  • Lying and deceit and duplicity is the core subject of the spy books where no-one can be trusted epitomised by the Cambridge spy, Haydon
Heroes

  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Professor Challenger
  • Conan Doyle’s heroes are the best in the world, always triumph, unshakably confident in their own abilities and purpose.
Anti-heroes

  • Alec Leamas
  • George Smiley
  • Le Carré’s anti-heroes are unglamorous, shabby, obscure men, cynical about their own cause, who often fail.
Foreign travel

  • has shown him that white men’s rule is best, ensuring the rule of law and morality in USA and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, India or South Africa
  • bolsters his values and his superb confidence
Foreign travel

  • has shown him the irrelevance of British Empire public school values in a complex Cold War world, packed with independence movements trying to get free of Imperialism or tyrannised by Soviets
  • has undermined his values leading to jaded cynicism, leading to the comprehensive betrayal of Magnus Pym

Le Carré’s novels embody the disillusionment of the British private school class, trained by institutions brought to perfection in the late-Victorian period to churn out unthinkingly loyal, white, patriarchal believers in cricket and fair play sent out to rule vast areas of Africa or India. The classics-and-rugger education continues to this day but in a post-Great War, post-Second War, post-Empire world, delivering these fresh-faced neophytes to a world much larger, more complex, and less manageable, less fitting into the pukka mental system, than conceivable by the Victorians. A world we no longer even pretend to control, where these Victorian values seem ludicrously out of date, redundant, irrelevant.

Hence the recurring milieu, the recurring setting of le Carré’s fiction is the club full of sozzled embittered middle-aged public school men, disillusioned public school types scattered around the higher echelons of the Army, the Foreign Office, MI6 or London’s clubland, huddling together for warmth and reassurance, to bolster their failing belief in themselves and their outworn values, kidding themselves that the British still run things or matter, that men are superior, that white men are most superior of all, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The Honourable Schoolboy in particular I found hard to read because of the way the white men got drunk and played schoolboy pranks in the Hong Kong press club, childishly reinforcing their own values and worldview, utterly regardless of the hundreds of millions of Asians living their lives just beyond the compound.

In contrast to all this, the main appeal of Conan Doyle as man and writer is his wonderful, unbreakable confidence – evinced in the hymn to bachelorhood which is the friendship of Holmes and Watson, but which extends to the settings of almost everything he wrote. Despite the killings and brutality in the stories and even in his histories of the Boer War and Congo, all Conan Doyle’s fictions bring you back to tea and crumpets by the fire, a white Anglo-Saxon mastery of the world which is demonstrated by the calm confidence of his prose style.

Le Carré, writing 50 years later (first novel 1961), is completely disillusioned, cynical and scathing about the very public school values he was raised in (but which he can’t escape). The pleasure to be had from his texts is the pleasure of soaking yourself in fictions which have very thoroughly worked out the implications of this hegemonic failure, this moral collapse.

The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)

Being the second set of a dozen short stories which appeared in The Strand magazine December 1892 – November 1893, and took Holmes to still greater fame.

Holmes and Freud (England versus Europe)

In the Adventure of the Yellow Face Holmes tells Grant Munro:

‘…my friend and I have listened to a good many strange secrets in this room, and … have had the good fortune to bring peace to many troubled souls.’

which makes me think straightaway of Freud: Sherlock and Sigmund both being freelance consultants hired to solve puzzles which more traditional doctors/policemen cannot treat. Freud’s fearless and epoch-making investigations of the psyche and its origins in sex and violence couldn’t make be a bigger contrast with Conan Doyle’s cosy crimes – a bit of horse-stealing or treasure-finding or bank-robbing or counterfeiting all sorted in time to be home at Mrs Hudson’s for tea and crumpets. They may both clearly date from the same fin-de-siècle culture with its fascination for the decadent, for the criminal and transgressive, but Holmes is jolly good chap English nursery games compared to the terrifying investigations Freud made and which embarrass our culture to this day.

Compare the English writers of the day (Stevenson, Kipling, Wells, Conan Doyle, Haggard) and their ripping tales of derring-do, or Wilde’s sparkling fairy tales, with the psychological depth of Europeans like Freud, Chekhov, Maupassant or Mallarmé, Ibsen or Strindberg. Compare Elgar to Mahler. Or Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s dark-eyed Arthurian maidens to the sophisticated psychology of Klimt or Munch.

The return of the repressed

In Freud it is repressed drives and instincts which return in dreams and neurotic symptoms. In Holmes it is peoples’ past lives which catch up with them, so often from adventures abroad: the Australian convict, the black America child, the rival soldiers during the Indian Mutiny. Abroad is seen as more primitive, primal, a place where men commit crimes and make huge fortunes, a place where more instinctive drives can flourish. Upon returning to Blighty, names must be changed and past liberties repressed, hushed, silenced. Half of these cases aren’t about crimes at all, they’re about people petrified their squeaky clean Anglo reputations will be damaged.

Cornucopiousness

Again, Conan Doyle uses the old technique of making throwaway references to numerous other cases to build up the sense of Holmes’s vast achievements and far-flung fame. Watson breezily refers to: the Tarleton murders, the case of Vamberry the wine merchant, the adventure of the old Russian woman, the singular affair of the aliminium crutch, Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife (in The Musgrave Ritual, p.97) or the adventure of the Second Stain and the adventure of the Tired Captain (in The Naval Treaty, 199).

This has the effect of making Holmes seem famous even as his real-life fame increased, a kind of echo.

The stories

  • Silver Blaze – clients: none. The prizewinning racehorse goes missing and it turns out was being led into the moor to be hobbled by its own trainer John Straker who owed money to support a fancy woman. King’s Pyland, Devon.
  • “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (Omitted from English editions because it eals with adultery! This story is in His Last Bow in American editions of the canon) Client: Susan Cushing.
  • The Adventure of the Yellow Face – client: Grant Munro. A strange yellow face at the window of the cottage across the fields and his wife mysteriously disappearing. It is to see her black child from her first, American, husband. Norbury, south London.
  • The Adventure of the Stockbroker’s Clerk – client: Hall Pycroft is puzzled to be offered a job in Birmingham days after accepting one in London. He goes and meets the badly disguised same man who interview him in London. Holmes realises they’ve decoyed Pycroft so the crooked brother can go take his place at a big merchant bank in the City. Indeed, they see in the papers that a massive robbery was foiled though the interviewer had murdered the bank’s nightwatchman. In a melodramatic twist the Birmingham brother tries to hang himself.
  • The Adventure of the Gloria ScottHolmes’s first case – client: Victor Trevor was a friend of the generally anti-social Holmes at college and invited him to his home in the Norfolk Broads where he met old Trevor a landowner and JP. It emerges OT has been living in fear and Victor tells him about a good-for-nothing chav named Hudson who came to stay and terrorised the household. Old Trevor dies of apoplexy after receiving a letter from an old colleague, Beddoes, Hudson has gone to stay with. In a letter to his son he explains he and Beddoes were convicts involved in the mutiny on the prison ship Gloria Scott which is blown up. They are picked up and taken on to Australia, make their fortunes, change their names and return to decent lives in Britain. But Hudson knows the true story and returns to haunt them.
  • The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual – client: Reginald Musgrave. An old family tradition turns out to be disguised instructions as to how to find King Charles I’s crown. Musgrave’s butler had realised as much but, having gained entry to the cellar where it was, had the heavy stone flagstone slammed shut on him by the wronged housemaid who fled. Hurlstone.
  • The Adventure of the Reigate Squires – clients: none. Recovering from a big case, Holmes and Watson go for a rest cure near Reigate where a spate of burglaries climax in the murder of the butler to the Cunninghams, found with a tear of paper in his hand. Holmes is able to show there was no burglary, and the Cunninghams murdered their own servant who had discovered it was they who’d burgled their neighbour Major Acton in an effort to settle a land dispute between them. They try to strangle Holmes but are arrested on the spot.
  • The Adventure of the Crooked Man – client: Major Murphy. ‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he. Colonel Barclay is heard arguing with his wife in a locked room at his villa near Aldershot, there is a piercing scream, and he is found dead. Goes back 30 years to the Indian Mutiny when he and handsome Henry Wood, in the same regiment, were both in love with Nancy. The town was besieged. Barclay arranged for handsome Henry to go for help but betrayed him into the hands of the waiting mutineers who horribly tortured him and sold him into slavery. Thirty years later the twisted wreck Wood reappears, along with the scampering mongoose he does tricks with, and his mere appearance gives Barclay a fatal heart attack.
  • The Adventure of the Resident Patient – client: Arguably Dr Percy Trevelyan (Trevelyan was sent to Sherlock Holmes by Mr. Blessington). Trevelyan is a poor doctor whom a mysterious man approaches and offers to invest in his career; he sets him up in rooms and all he wants is 3/4 of the doctor’s income in return. After years of success Trevelyan is visited by a Russian count and his son; while he consults the father the son goes snooping, then both disappear. The next day, surprisingly, they return. It turns out to be an elaborate scam by the great Worthingden bank robbers – climaxes with Blessington apparently committing suicide, as usual all the signs of a great horror and fear on  his face. Harley Street, London.
  • The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter – client: Mr. Melas. First mention and appearance of Mycroft Holmes, fat and slothful and founder member of the Diogenes Club for the terminally anti-social. Mr Melas was kidnapped by a creepy small man with pointy moustache and scary giggle, taken in a sealed coach to a house in grounds where he has to translate for a walking skeleton of a man his face bound with bandages. He is dropped back on Wandsworth Common. He goes to the police then Mycroft. Someone replies to a newspaper advert revealing the house is in Beckenham, south London, where they arrive to find the two baddies and the woman they’re holding hostage long gone, and the skinny man and Mr Melas dying in a sealed room with a charcoal fire.
  • The Adventure of the Naval Treaty – client: Percy Phelps is a promising young diplomat asked by his uncle the Foreign Secretary to copy out a naval treaty with Italy. He leaves  his room to go get coffee and is talking to the commissionaire when the bell in his room rings, he returns to the room to find the treaty gone. Panic and a mental collapse, he returns to the family home in Woking where he is nursed by his sweetheart for 10 weeks until Holmes arrives. Turns out it was the fiancee’s brother who is in debt due to gambling on the Stock Exchange. Holmes confronts him as he removes the treaty from where he’d hidden it in the sick man’s room.
  • The Final Problem – clients: none. Holmes appears in Watson’s rooms saying he has finally uncovered the mastermind behind most of London’s crimes, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Moriarty. He will die happy if he has eliminated Moriarty. He describes a vivid encounter where the two cleverest men in England realise they are set on collision course. If he can just stay safe till the following Monday, the trap will be sprung, Moriarty and his accomplices arrested. So Holmes flees with Watson to the Continent and moves about. But at a walk near the Reichenbach Falls Watson is called back to the hotel by what turns out to be a fake medical emergency, leaving Moriarty to trap Holmes on the cul-de-sac path to the Falls. Here he allows him, conveniently, to write a last message to Watson, before the two fight and both fall into the raging waters.

Moriarty

Some fatefulness in Conan Doyle’s intentions, or some magic in his touch, that even when he tries to get rid of Holmes as an albatross round his neck, tired and fed up with the character, he comes up with an out-of-the-blue, jimmy-rigged plot contraption of an evil mastermind of crime to provide a fitting end to his master detective, even then he hits fictional gold and Moriarty – in reality little more than a plot device – has himself become a fictional icon.

Read the stories

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes', 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of ‘The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes’, 1894 (Wikimedia Commons)

Novels

A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The first two Holmes novellas, first published in magazines then in book form, weren’t particularly successful. But the editor of The Strand magazine, George Newnes, saw the potential and commissioned Conan Doyle to write 12 short stories using the Holmes and Watson characters, publishing one a month from July 1891 to June 1892. It was these monthly instalments which began Holmes’s rise to global fame.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia – client: The King of Bohemia calls to say he is engaged to an eligible aristocrat but has had an affair with Irene Adler who has photos of them together. Holmes disguises himself as a groom to get the lie of the land, visits her and arranges an elaborate ruse whereby a fire cracker is thrown into the living room and her startled glance at the wall shows Holmes where the safe is. But the next day when he calls to claim them, she has decamped. She is always The Woman
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League – client: Jabez Wilson. Jabez is invited to join a league established by an American philanthropist; he is paid to go sit in a room and transcribe the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an elaborate ruse to get access to his cellar and tunnel into the bank next door.
  • A Case of Identity – client: Mary Sutherland a quiet legatee of a will becomes engaged to Hosmer Angel at a dance but he mysteriously disappears. Turns out it is none other than her mother’s young second husband trying to swindle her out of her inheritance.
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery – client: Alice Turner. In Herefordshire a landowner has been murdered by Boscombe pool and his son found bloodied and with the weapon. Eventually the richer neighbouring landowner reveals the back story where one was a bandit and one a security guard in Australia. The bandit, John Turner, came back to Blighty to go straight but was haunted by the blackmailing McCarthy who was determined to marry his son to Turner’s daughter, Alice.
  • The Five Orange Pips – client: John Openshaw, his uncle Elias returned from the States in the 1860s but has been nervous since receiving an envelope containing 5 orange pips, becoming drunk and paranoid until he is found dead in a pool. Then his brother receives a letter containing five orange pips and instructions to leave ‘the papers’ on the sundial… It is leaders of the Ku Klux Klan coming and going to Britain on sailing ships, posting threats and murdering the unfortunate recipients of the pips.
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip – client: Mrs. St. Clair. She glimpses her husband at the window of an opium den, runs upstairs, there is no-one but a raddled addict. The addict is her husband, ashamed to be a City beggar.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – no client. A goose contains a vast blue jewel. It was stolen by James Ryder in league with a serving girl to the Countess of Morcar, smuggled across London then, in a panic, stuffed down the crop of one of his sister’s geese at her goose farm in Brixton, but then the wrong goose is despatched in a job lot to a pub where it is bought by a man who, drunk, is beset by toughs and drops the goose, which is rescued by a hotel commissionaire who brings it to Holmes!
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band – client: Miss Helen Stoner. Impoverished Dr. Roylott forces Helen Stoner, an heiress, to move into a particular bedroom of his heavily mortgaged ancestral home, Stoke Moran where her sister had mysteriously died, her last words being, ‘The speckled band’. It is a poisonous snake brought back by Roylott from India.
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb – client: Victor Hatherley. Victor is hired by a German-speaking man to fix a powerful hydraulic device in the country. He quickly realises it is not mining but counterfeiting equipment and makes his escape with the help of a sweet anguished lady but not before the swinish German has hacked off his thumb with a cleaver! He makes his way to Watson who brings him to Holmes…
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor – client: Lord Robert St. Simon marries Miss Hatty Doran of San Francisco in a very high society wedding but she disappears from the wedding breakfast. Holmes establishes she has been contacted by her first, American, husband, long thought to be dead and has returned to him.
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet – client: Alexander Holder of Streatham, a banker, brings home a priceless coronet but awakes in the night to find his son wrestling with it, half of it snapped off and stolen, his son refuses to say more and is charged. Holmes to the rescue!
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches – client: Violet Hunter is mysteriously offered a job at very high pay to be a governess, to have her hair cut, wear a blue dress and sit in a window just so every day. She realises there is a locked wing of the house and suspects someone is incarcerated there, and asks Holmes’s advice…

The Sherlock Universe

From the get-go Conan Doyle deploys the simple strategy of having Dr Watson refer to innumerable cases which Holmes has investigated, most of them never written up in his case notes or stories. He mentions that in 1887 Holmes was involved in the Adventure of the Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the loss of the Sophy Anderson, the adventures of the Grice Patersons, the Camberwell Poisoning, the Tankerville Club Scandal and so on. In The Speckled Band he says that Holmes was involved in some 70 cases between 1882 and the time of writing (1891).

This multiplicity, this cornucopia of events and cases creates a universe around the adventures which are actually reported which helps to give them plausibility and also continually reinforces the sense of Holmes’s fame and superhuman abilities. It is also attractive to a certain type of mentality, a certain type of fan, who loves immersing themselves in the minutiae of the fictional universe – a mentality which in our day extends to a vast range of adaptation and merchandising – the Robert Downey Jnr movies, the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series, the new books and stories, the books about the historical background and wider context, quiz books, the board games and mugs and t-shirts and top trumps sets etc etc.

Literature and quotations

Early on in A Study Watson humorously summarises Holmes’s fields of knowledge and says ‘Literature: Nil’. In fact this is extensively refuted in the texts themselves where Holmes is very given to sententiously quoting from a wide range of literary sources:

  • In A Study he quotes Boileau: ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’. The very last words of the novella are a quote from Horace: ‘Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo / Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplor in arca.’
  • Almost the last words of Sign of Four are a quote from Goethe: ‘Schade dass die Natur nur EINEN Mensch aus Dir schuf / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.’
  • In Boscombe Valley, when bored, Holmes pulls out his pocket Petrarch.
  • In A Case of Identity he quotes the Persian poet Hafiz.
  • In the Red-Headed League he quotes Flaubert writing to George Sand.
  • In the Noble Bachelor he quotes Thoreau.

Apart from Watson getting it wrong, I think these literary quotations demonstrate two aspects of the texts:

  1. Their sententiousness: Holmes is an extremely didactic character. On one level the stories consist of Holmes endlessly lecturing, teaching and scolding Watson.
  2. Their multitextuality: they are made up of numerous other texts: newspaper reports and adverts, notes, police reports, Holmes’s own files and records, and so on. The stories are pieced together, stitched together like puzzles made of fragments of other texts.

The fin-de-siècle and Oscar Wilde

We’ve seen how The Sign of Four was commissioned by the same publisher who commissioned The Picture of Dorian Gray, an indication of how close the London literary scene was, and of the finances underlying the creation of short dramatic stories. But Holmes also has a lot in common with Wilde’s aristocratic protagonists, Lord Henry Wotton or Lord Arthur Saville. It’s true he is not an exquisite fainéant, a dandy, an aesthete. But he does display plenty of aristocratic disdain for convention, effortless superiority over the laughable bourgeois police detectives, a lordly indifference to how he is perceived, sang-froid and indifference to personal danger. He suffers from aristocratic ennui which drives the Wildean hero into dangerous moral territory:

‘My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.’ (cf ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’ from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

And he is much given to paradoxes: all his detective work reveals the strange and telling in the apparently innocent and mundane, and vice versa, and sometimes he summarises his attitude in witty paradoxes worthy of Wilde:

‘It is, of course, a trifle, but nothing is so important as trifles.’

London the cesspool of Empire

One of the many appealing things about the stories is how Doyle capitalises on London’s position as heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known to bring in characters with stories from all over the world:

  • The Red-Headed league claims to have been set up by an American millionaire
  • In Boscombe the two fathers made their money in the colonies, in Victoria state, Australia
  • The Five Orange pips is about the long reach of the sinister Ku Klux Klan from the American South
  • In the Speckled Band the ill-fated Dr. Grimesby Roylott has brought his snakes back from his time in India
  • The Noble Bachelor marries the daughter of an American who made his pile in the California Gold Rush

and so it goes on, creating a particularly quaint and dated vision of the world when half the map was painted red and the world was run by Anglo-Saxon chaps.

Women

If the chaps are, for the most part, noble Anglo-Saxons, then the women are even more dated, fixed in amber from that period, as saintly, innocent, virginal helpmeets and dutiful daughters and damsels in distress. The image of the concerned and helpless young lady, flushed and panting, caught in a hapless plight and requiring help from Holmes the Master-Male, repeats again and again. Any grown-up would be repelled by this stereotyping, but Holmes isn’t for grown-ups.

Read the stories

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Novels

A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)

The second Sherlock Holmes novel opens with the great man injecting himself with cocaine, a ‘seven per cent solution’, to stave off crushing boredom. Watson received his Afghan campaign wound in the shoulder in the first novel; in this one the wound has mysteriously moved to his leg (as it is in the first BBC TV episodes). Hmmm, inconsistencies. In this one Watson meets young Mary Morstan and they fall instantly in love.

London, cesspool of Empire

One of the many pleasures of these books is Conan Doyle’s evocative descriptions of a long-lost London.

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghostlike in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light — sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all humankind, they flitted from the gloom into the light and so back into the gloom once more. (Chapter 4)

Reminds me of the foggy cityscapes of Vaughan Williams’ 2nd (London) Symphony, with its use of market cries and the jingle of harnesses of waiting horses. (Scherzo from Vaughan Williams’ Second Symphony)

‘Wordsworth Road,’ said my companion. ‘Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.’ We had indeed reached a questionable and forbidding neighbourhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public-houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas, each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new, staring brick buildings — the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country. (Chapter 4)

Even its most vivid depictors have rarely loved London. It inspires horrified fascination.

Multitextuality

The text is itself built from other texts, pretending to be a narrative account created by and in the voice of Dr Watson, which also includes newspaper reports, adverts, scribbled notes and messages, offers of reward and, of course, a True Account or Backstory which explains the bizarre goings-on in the present or foreground of the plot.

Plot and story

Plot  1888 Miss Mary Morstan arrives at 221b Baker Street. Tells a preliminary backstory: her father, Captain Arthur, disappeared abruptly in 1878; since 1882 she has received a pearl ear-ring in a box once a year. Now she has received an invitation to meet a stranger at the Lyceum. Holmes discovers one Major Sholto knew Morstan out in India and died in 1882. Holmes and Watson accompany her to the rendezvous, meet a servant who takes them to a dingy house in Brixton (again with Brixton, scene of the murder in A Study in Scarlet) where lives the dilettante Thaddeus Sholto. He explains his father and Morstan were in cahoots about a treasure from India, Morstan visited Sholto, they had a violent argument and Morstan dropped dead of heart failure. Sholto buried the body and the treasure. One day he received a letter form abroad and became a bag of nerves. He was about to reveal the whereabouts of the hidden treasure to Thaddeus and his brother Bartholomew when a face appears at the window and Sholto also drops dead. Holmes and Watson and Mary and Thaddeus set off to the brother’s mansion in Norbury only to find him dead, in a sealed room!!

Two chases

Chase 1 Bloodhound Toby leads H&W from Pondicherry House to the Oval, to a Thames cruiser for hire but the baddies have got away. H&W advertise for its whereabouts but are foxed.

Chase 2 Eventually tracking it down, H&W hire the fastest police launch on the river and give high speed pursuit to the Aurora as it heads from London Bridge downriver, finally overtaking it near Plumstead Marshes.

This high-speed boat chase reminded me of Dickens, in particular:

  • the exciting three-chapter-long pursuit of Lizzy Hexam’s father, the corpse-fisher, in Our Mutual Friend, in among the boats and wherries and tugs and cruisers moored around the Pool of London
  • the climax of Great Expectations where Pip is trying to get Magwitch safely out of England aboard a hired boat, but is pursued by a police boat
  • also of the strange death of Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, the wicked chandler who ends pursued downriver by the police, falls into the river and drowns, to be washed up on a muddy bank not dissimilar to the muddy shore of Plumstead Marshes where Jonathan Small gets his peg leg stuck, until lassooed free by Holmes & Watson

The strange story of Jonathan Small

The one legged man, Small, was in cahoots with three Indians who, during the Indian Mutiny, murdered a rajah’s servant and stole the treasure of Agra. they hid the treasure but were then arrested and convicted to penal servitude on the distant Andeman Islands. Here Sholto and Mary’s father both supervised prisoners. They discovered the secret of the treasure, dug it up and stole it for themselves but lived in fear of ‘the Four’.

Victorian womanhood

She was seated by the open window, dressed in some sort of white diaphanous material, with a little touch of scarlet at the neck and waist. The soft light of a shaded lamp fell upon her as she leaned back in the basket chair, playing over her sweet grave face, and tinting with a dull, metallic sparkle the rich coils of her luxuriant hair. One white arm and hand drooped over the side of the chair, and her whole pose and figure spoke of an absorbing melancholy. At the sound of my footfall she sprang to her feet, however, and a bright flush of surprise and of pleasure coloured her pale cheeks. (Chapter 11)

How pre-Raphaelite. Like a painting by Millais.

Victorian love

“The treasure is lost,” said Miss Morstan calmly.
As I listened to the words and realized what they meant, a great shadow seemed to pass from my soul. I did not know how this Agra treasure had weighed me down until now that it was finally removed. It was selfish, no doubt, disloyal, wrong, but I could realize nothing save that the golden barrier was gone from between us.
“Thank God!” I spoke from my very heart.
She looked at me with a quick, questioning smile.
“Why do you say that?” she asked.
“Because you are within my reach again,” I said, taking her hand. She did not withdraw it. “Because I love you, Mary, as truly as ever a man loved a woman. Because this treasure, these riches, sealed my lips. Now that they are gone I can tell you how I love you. That is why I said, ‘Thank God.’ ”
“Then I say ‘Thank God,’ too,” she whispered as I drew her to my side.
Whoever had lost a treasure, I knew that night that I had gained one. (Chapter 11)

Oscar Wilde

The Sign of Four was commissioned at a dinner hosted by Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the Langham Hotel in London on 30 August 1889. Stoddart wanted to produce an English version of the magazine. Also present was Oscar Wilde who, as a result, contributed The Picture of Dorian Gray to the July 1890 issue. Amazing times! And an indication that döppelgangers were in the air. Jeckyll and Hyde (1886), Dracula (1897), London was a place where unparalleled refinement and luxury coexisted with what the Victorians termed the most squalid vice, certainly with starving children, mass prostitution, opium dens and drunken violence. The Holmes novels and stories capitalise on this fin-de-siècle sense of corruption and depravity, contrasting high luxury and deepest sin at the extremes with the homely middle way of Holmes and Watson’s happy, well-educated bourgeois lifestyle. Whatever else happens they’ll come home to tea and scones served by Mrs Hudson.

The neatness of cheap art

The book ends as it began with a bored Holmes reaching for the consolation of his cocaine.

 “The division seems rather unfair,” I remarked. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there still remains the cocaine-bottle.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it. (Chapter 12)

Full text of The Sign of Four on the Literature.com website

'The Sign of the Four" in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)

‘The Sign of the Four” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890) (Wikimedia Commons)

Novels

A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)

3 September 2012

As well as being the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic (April 15) and the death of Scott of the Antarctic (March 29), 2012 is also the centenary of the publication of The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The novel was published in instalments from April to November 1912 in The Strand magazine before being published in book form.

The plot is simple enough. Journalist Edward Malone is persuaded to join an expedition led by the intimidating Professor Challenger, along with Lord John Roxton and the sceptical Professor Summerlee, to a volcanic plateau deep in the Amazon forest where, to their amazement, dinosaurs still live, along with a race of primitive ape-men who capture our heros, and more modern native Indians who help release them. There are thrills and spills a-plenty.

What I’d forgotten was the book’s humour. No fewer than 6 of the 16 chapters are taken up with the Wellsian comedy of Malone’s forlorn love affair with the fickle Gladys, and the rambunctious character of prof Challenger, always ready to use physical violence at the slightest provocation. The book ends on a broad comic note as the returning Malone discovers the fickle Gladys has gone and married a solicitor’s clerk in  his absence.

The theme of dinosaurs living on into the modern world had been invented by Jules Vernes in Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864), an extraordinary act of imaginative innovation. But Conan Doyle’s 1912 treatment seems to have been the one which opened the floodgates.

To date there have been seven film or TV versions and six radio or audio adaptations.  I like this jacket cover for its figure of a screaming damsel. There are no women on the expedition. She has been added – as women were added to the film versions – for purely pulp or sensationalist reasons.

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