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

1895

1895 was a year of endings and beginnings in English literature and beyond:

Endings

The long series of gripping tales and stories spun by master teller Robert Louis Stevenson had ended when he died on the Pacific island of Upolu on December 3rd 1894. He had completed the long short story The Ebb-Tide (1894), but left unfinished Weir of Hermiston, which was published posthumously, as were his 20 Fables and a final volume of verse, Songs of Travel and Other Verses, in 1896.

Two major careers ended in 1895. On 14th February Oscar Wilde‘s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at St James’s Theatre, London, and was an immediate success, a triumph of wit, artifice and stagecraft. Within days the Marquess of Queensberry – outraged by Wilde’s relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas – had accused Wilde of sodomy and begun the nightmareish sequence of events which led to Wilde being put on trial and, on 25 May, being found guilty of seven counts of gross indecency with other men. He received the maximum sentence, 2 years hard labour, emerging from his ordeal a broken man, and dying just three years later he died, aged 46, in exile in Paris.

A backlash began against not only Wilde, whose name was erased from playbills and whose books went underground, but against the whole cult of beauty, the aestheticism which had been a major strand of late Victorian culture. A mood of revulsion set in against the dandyism, the metropolitan decadence of the London literati and artists. The pre-Raphaelites who had sown the seeds of the cult, and some of its leading lights, were to pass away in the next few years:

  • In 1895 William Morris published three minor works while he prepared his beautiful illustrated edition of Chaucer, the Kelmscott Chaucer, which was published the following year. But only a few months later, on October 1896, aged only 61, the great pre-Raphaelite painter, poet, novelist, textile-maker and revolutionary died.
  • In June 1898 the pre-Raphaelite giant Sir Edward Burne-Jones who had designed the woodcuts for his friend Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, himself passed away.
  • From the younger generation, the scandalous caricaturist and illustratorAubrey Beardsley died aged only 25 in June 1898.
  • In 1895 Sir Frederick Leighton, purveyor of sumptuous paintings of the classical past, exhibited one of his enduring masterpieces, ‘Flaming June’, a symphony of colours. In January 1896 he passed away.

Flaming June (1895) by Sir Frederick Leighton

Another literary sex scandal ended a brilliant career in 1895. Thomas Hardy, aged 56, published his last novel, Jude the Obscure. It had begun magazine serialisation in December 1894 and continued through to November 1895 when it was published in book format and met with a storm of abuse for its supposed immorality. ‘Jude the Obscene’ one reviewer called it, and the bishop of Wakefield notoriously claimed to have burned his copy. The fierceness of the criticism which greeted Jude (and had also greeted his earlier masterpiece, Tess of the Durbevilles, 1891) led Hardy to abandon novel writing. The philistine English public had claimed another scalp. He never wrote another novel, though he continued to publish poetry until his death in 1928.

Imperialism 

The mood was changing, swinging away from art for art’s sake and towards the prophets of Imperialism, to Kipling and his epigones. The Jameson Raid (29 December 1895 – 2 January 1896) was a botched raid on Paul Kruger’s Transvaal Republic carried out by a British colonial leader, Leander Starr Jameson, and his Rhodesian and Bechuanaland policemen over the New Year weekend of 1895–96. It was meant to trigger an uprising by British expatriate workers in the Transvaal (known as Uitlanders) and so justify a British military invasion, but failed to do so. Weeks later, in January 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin published a Kiplingesque ballad, Jameson’s Ride, celebrating the entirely illegal and foolish act. Later in the year Austin was appointed Poet Laureate.

Sir Henry Newbolt followed his stirring poem Vita Lampada (‘Play up, play up and play the game!’) with the patriotic collection, Admirals All (1897) featuring the patriotic classic, Drake’s Drum. The new mood was to reach a kind of crescendo in the jingoism of the Boer War years, and then slowly recede to reveal the solid and suburban Edwardian novelists, Wells and Bennett and Galsworthy.

Beginnings

Within months of Stevenson’s death a new voice had emerged to tell stories of the South Seas, of the Far East, and to continue Stevenson’s mordant scepticism about the ‘benefits’ of Empire for native peoples, Joseph Conrad whose first novel, Almayer’s Folly, was published on 29 April 1895 in the midst of the furore surrounding the Wilde trials.

And as the Aestheticism of the 18970s and 1880s came to a climax and was abruptly garrotted, a completely new strain of writing was emerging in the hands of the 28 year-old Herbert George Wells which was to thrive and prosper into the new century. The Time Machine, serialised from January to May 1895 in W.E. Henley’s magazine the New Review, then published in book form in May 1895 – ie exactly contemporary with the Wilde trials – was the first in the long and prolific career of Wells, the godfather of science fiction. He also published ‘The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents’, his first volume of (15) fantasy and science fiction stories. No decadence from Wells, though. Even if the ideas in the science fiction questioned the meaning and endurance of Western ‘civilisation’ (for example in Wells’s classic The War of The Worlds, 1898), they did so using manly chaps as heroes.

(Talking of discourses which were to dominate the 20th century, unknown to all these authors and artists, the obscure Viennese doctor Sigmund Freud was speculating that his patients’ neuroses were possibly the results of suppressed childhood sexual traumas, and also wondering whether our dreams might reveal the return of these suppressed memories but in concealed and symbolic forms. Both these insights took place in the pivotal year 1895, though he only published his first short papers on the subject the next year, and The Interpretation of Dreams wasn’t published until 1899…)

Art Nouveau

On 1 January 1895 the streets of Paris were plastered by a new poster advertising the play ‘Gismonda’ by Victorien Sardou, featuring Sarah Bernhardt, designed by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. The poster was to crystallise many aspects of the style which came to be known as Art Nouveau.

‘Gismonda’ by Alfons Mucha

In December 1895 German art dealer Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery, the Maison de l’Art Nouveau. Henry van de Velde designed the interior of the gallery, while Louis Comfort Tiffany supplied stained glass. These displays became so strongly associated with the style that the name of his gallery subsequently provided a commonly used term for the entire style.

Business as usual

Through all these changes and shifts in mood other Victorian writers continued their careers, with varying degrees of success:

George Meredith, 65, published The Amazing Marriage.

Henry James, 56, was booed offstage on the opening night, January 5, of his play Guy Domville at London’s St James’s Theatre. As coincidence would have it, the play was taking off after just four weeks to make way for Wilde’s masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde’s nemesis the Marquis of Queensberry had tried to gatecrash the first night in order to denounce Wilde from the audience but Wilde had the police blockade the building. Two historic first nights within a month of each other!

George Bernard Shaw, 39, helped found the London School of Economics which held its first classes in October; he began a three-year stint as drama critic for Frank Harris’s ‘Saturday Review’, and wrote a play, The Man of Destiny.

George Gissing, 38, most famous for New Grub Street, published three novels, Eve’s RansomThe Paying Guest and Sleeping Fires.

Rudyard Kipling, 29, published The Second Jungle Book.

Arthur Symons, 30, published London Nights.

The ever-prolific Henry Rider Haggard, 39, published Joan Haste, Heart of the World and a serious tome on Church and State.

In verse, WB Yeats, 30, published ‘Poems, verse and drama’, the first edition of his collected poems containing ‘The Countess Cathleen’, ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’, ‘The Wanderings of Usheen’ and the poetry collections ‘The Rose’ and ‘Crossways’.

Politics 

Another eminent Victorian’s career came to an end when, in May 1895, William Ewart Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party, resigned as an MP, having resigned as Prime Minister the year before. Tennyson had died in 1892. The politician and the poet for many people embodied the Victorian period, its art and values and politics. Their passing marked a watershed in literature and the broader culture.

A New Mood

Dead or silent were Tennyson, Gladstone and Hardy, masters of long poems, long speeches, long novels. The future belonged to the shorter, pithier tales of Conrad, Wells and Kipling, Bennett and Galsworthy, the Fabians and Edwardians. The new writers, whatever their personal proclivities, were to depict a homely Home Counties version of Englishness, in abreaction both to the metropolitan decadence of Wilde’s circle and to the melodramatic jingoism of Kipling, Austen, Newbolt. Even the cosmopolitan Kipling was to catch the new mood by settling in Sussex and writing innocent children’s stories set among the rolling Downs, Puck of Pook’s Hill.

Nada the Lily by Henry Rider Haggard (1892)

13 August 2012

Nada the Lily is Rider Haggard’s sixth novel. Haggard distinguished between his “Romances” – which included the She and Allan Quatermain series, both featuring a large element of fantasy and the supernatural – and his “Novels”, which are more naturalistic, where the emphasis is more on human relationships than the fantastic.

Blacks The most striking feature of Nada the Lily is that it is set entirely among South African blacks.  An (unnamed) white man only appears in the few pages of the frame narrative where he meets an ancient witch-doctor. I don’t know of any other novels of the time which are set only among blacks, and where the thoughts of black characters good, bad and indifferent are described in great detail.

Tragic romance The last hundred or so pages of the novel describe the love affair between the the mighty warrior Umslopogaas and the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada, which gives the book its title. (It’s true that, early in the book the narrator hints that Nada might have white blood in her, from a Portuguese trader who stayed with the Swazi tribe from whom Mopo’s wife, Mcropha, came.)

Chaka the tyrant But this love story is completely overshadowed by Mopo’s long servitude to the Zulu tyrant, Chaka, and the multiple examples of Chaka’s appalling cruelty and sadism which dominate the first 200 pages. Chaka (nowadays known as Shaka) was a real historical character, founder of the Zulu nation as the predominant military force in south-east Africa, a dominance they held from his kingship (1816-28) until the Zulu wars with the invading British in the late 1870s. Chaka is portrayed as a precursor of Stalin, paranoid and cruel in the extreme, given to ordering the extermination of whole tribes, the casual execution of complete innocents on the slightest pretext. The Wikipedia article on Shaka says some of the legends about Shaka’s cruelty might be colonial and apartheid propaganda; but still says there’s plenty of evidence of the large areas laid waste, of murder, torture, cannibalism carried out under his unhinged edicts:

“After the death of his mother Shaka ordered as a sign of mourning that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.”

Violent African novels The novel is like this only more so, and for 200 long pages. It cast a cloud of misery and murder over me for the week it took to read. The sadistic cruelty and casual violence found on every page reminded me of other African novels I’ve read –

  • the psychopathic African leader, Sam, at the heart of Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah
  • the sadistic father, Eugene, at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus
  • the psychopathic Idi Amin at the heart of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland
  • the sadism and cruelty taught to child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone described in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s 2005 novel,  Moses, Citizen and Me
  • several books about the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Congo, about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, about the Sudan and Darfur, about the civil wars in Mozambique and Namibia..
  • I might as well mention Heart of Darkness (1899)

Thus, most of the books about Africa I’ve ever read, whether fiction or non-fiction, detail a stupefying level of violence and cruelty, so Nada, extreme though it is, fits right in with what I’ve read elsewhere.

An African Epic However Haggard isn’t detailing Chaka’s psychopathic behaviour for racist reasons (unlike later Boer and apartheid propagandists). The opposite. Haggard is deliberately setting out to write an African epic, a genre which raises its characters to the level of archetypal heroes and is written in a high, unflinching and sombre style. The story of how Umslopogaas is rescued at his birth reminds me of the legend of Moses and even the childermass; the harsh man-to-man combats in the dust and heat of the African veldt remind me over and over of the unforgiving brutality of The Iliad.

Haggard, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by folk tales, ancient myths and legends but, unlike most, his vast output includes attempts to rewrite them or bring them into the modern age: Haggard actually wrote a Viking saga, Eric Brighteyes, and a continuation of the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. To my mind, in Nada, he is consciously striving for an epic oral style to give Homeric dignity to his Zulu protagonists. The long story is told out loud over a succession of evenings by the old witch-doctor, Mopo, to the anonymous white man who takes it down and publishes it. The opening echoes conventions of the epic form:

“You ask me, my father, to tell you the tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women. It is long; but you are here for many nights, and, if I live to tell it, it shall be told. Strengthen your heart, my father, for I have much to say that is sorrowful, and even now, when I think of Nada the tears creep through the horn that shuts out my old eyes from light.”

It doesn’t quite invoke a Muse, but it does justify the purpose and form of the text, it foretells the tragic ending of the tale right at the start, and it uses multiple epithets to build up the heroic stature of the male protagonist, Umslopogaas. The whole text is cast in this style, an imagining by Haggard of the elevated yet also laconic style of a pre-literate, oral people. The deeper you read, the more completely convincing it becomes, and you find yourself entranced, sitting in the gloom of a cramped African hut, listening to the low voice of an eerie old man as he tells his long and tragic tale.

“All that day till the sun grew low we walked round the base of the great Ghost Mountain, following the line of the river. We met no one, but once we came to the ruins of a kraal, and in it lay the broken bones of many men, and with the bones rusty assegais and the remains of ox-hide shields, black and white in colour. Now I examined the shields, and knew from their colour that they had been carried in the hands of those soldiers who, years ago, were sent out by Chaka to seek for Umslopogaas, but who had returned no more.”

 I think it’s a triumph!

Jacket illustration of Nada the Lily

She: A History of Adventure by Henry Rider Haggard (1887)

5 August 2012

She is generally agreed to be one if the classics of imaginative literature and, with over 83 million copies sold in 44 different languages, one of the best-selling books of all time. Extraordinarily popular upon its release, She has never been out of print. (Wikipedia have an interesting list of bestselling books of all time: She is at number eight just behind The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.) It’s been adapted into a movie no fewer than 11 times (compared to the five versions of King Solomon’s Mines.)

Why so popular? Well, it ticks a number of boxes.

Quest It is an adventure quest: prompted by inherited treasure containing a map and a key, a small band of heroes (Cambridge academic Ludwig Holly, his ward the handsome hero Leo, trusty working class retainer Job) set off in search of a long-lost civilisation which allaegedly knows the secret of Eternal Life. Ie the deep structure of the narrative is mythic, archetypal.

Chaps The protagonists are upper-class white men, supremely confident of their values and society. Thousands die, the crew of their ship die, their Arab helper dies, flocks of savages (the cannibalistic Amahaggers) die – but the white men survive and prevail. And we, the readers, partake of that superiority, that invincibility (as in all adventure stories).

Thrills There is a steady stream of adventure, from the melodramatic handing over of the secret chest, through the squall which sinks the dhow off the coast of Africa, the fight to the death between a lion and a crocodile, the battle against the Amahaggar trying to kill and cook their Arab helper, the perilous approach to the Eternal Flame. Haggard knows how to pace his story with regular injections of suspense and adrenaline. Even after all these years it feels like a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie.

Woman The dominant figure is Ayesha, “She who must be obeyed”, a woman who has discovered the secret of Life and made herself the most beautiful, most wide, most powerful woman in the world, commanding obedience and awe in all who see her. For feminists I’m not sure whether she would represent a truly powerful woman – or is the acme of (controlled) Woman On A Pedestal. Despite her power, Haggard lavishes her with Victorian stereotypes of femininity; all too often she weeps, or flops down or is inconsistent or various other attributes said to be classically ‘female’. Who knows why people buy and enjoy books in such numbers but quite obviously this female power figure is central to the book and so must account for a good deal of its success.

Spirituality Haggard had a lifelong interest in seances, clairvoyance and the afterlife. This taste was to become more common in the last decades of Victoria’s reign and on into the Edwardian decade, and then receive a further boost after the disaster of the Great War. Haggard leaves the young ‘hero’ Leo unconscious and feverish for the last third or more of the book, devoting page after page to pseudo-philosophical discussions between Ayesha and Holly about the meaning of Life, not as strict philosophy but filtered through fiction; she gives Holly a tour of the ruins of the ancient civilisation of Kor and both of them reflect on the passage of time, the wisdom of the ancients, the possibility that our souls are reborn again and again which appears to be the main idea or narrative spur for the entire story. Some of these speculations airily dismiss Christianity or Islam as just the latest forms of the veiled fear and egotism which underlie all religion. Striking that Haggard could get away with such heterodox speculation; that there’d been such a shift to the acceptance of sceptical speculation in the generation since the stifling orthodoxy of even late Dickens in the 1860s. Haggard even sounds like Nietzsche at moments:

“Ah!” she said; “I see—two new religions! I have known so many, and doubtless there have been many more since I knew aught beyond these caves of Kôr. Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of selfishness—this it is that breeds religions. Mark, my Holly, each religion claims the future for its followers; or, at least, the good thereof. The evil is for those benighted ones who will have none of it; seeing the light the true believers worship, as the fishes see the stars, but dimly. The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it.”

Empire In an interesting article in the London Review of Books, historian Linda Colley describes how, up until World War II, Great Britain was held together by histories, narratives and symbols founded on a “sense of British imperial and Protestant destiny”. Rider Haggard’s romances enact these assumptions in fiction; we know the white hunter will triumph because he and the civilisation he represents just is superior. Though the heroes often have to escape the boredom of civilised society, they take it with them in their minds, in their definitions of civilised and savage, in their ideas of justice, mercy and fair play, which they act on throughout the narratives. Rider Haggard’s books are Romances, for children, because these values are never challenged. Occasional comments about white men’s greed or corruption make no impact because we know they don’t apply to our white men, our heroes. The prose is clear and calm and confident. Conrad’s work is Literature because these “Western values” are tested to destruction in stories which focus on their crisis, and in a style which is itself stricken and overwrought.

End of Empire That said, the dominant strain in She is about the passing, the fading, the death of empires. Ayesha lives among the millenia-old ruins of an ancient civilisation, one which, she and Holly speculate, might have predated and given birth to Egyptian culture. At the heart of the book is an imaginative vision of the mutability of all things, combined with a vague and poetic hope of eternal life in the form of eternal rebirth. Very fin-de-siecle, and designed to appeal to spiritually-minded adolescents of all ages. It’s striking that critics often point out the same thing in Kipling: even as he celebrates Empire he feels for its brittleness, its evanescence, as in Recessional.

Style The Quatermain books deal with concrete things, guns and animals and native battles. The style of She feels noticeably softer, wordier, more purple. The text, from the introduction onwards, is driven by a more misty, grandiose vision, and this is the enduring impression the book leaves:

“Behold the lot of man,” said the veiled Ayesha, as she drew the winding sheets back over the dead lovers, speaking in a solemn, thrilling voice, which accorded well with the dream that I had dreamed: “to the tomb, and to the forgetfulness that hides the tomb, must we all come at last! Ay, even I who live so long. Even for me, oh Holly, thousands upon thousands of years hence; thousands of years after you hast gone through the gate and been lost in the mists, a day will dawn whereon I shall die, and be even as thou art and these are. And then what will it avail that I have lived a little longer, holding off death by the knowledge that I have wrung from Nature, since at last I too must die? What is a span of ten thousand years, or ten times ten thousand years, in the history of time? It is as naught—it is as the mists that roll up in the sunlight; it fleeth away like an hour of sleep or a breath of the Eternal Spirit. Behold the lot of man! Certainly it shall overtake us, and we shall sleep. Certainly, too, we shall awake and live again, and again shall sleep, and so on and on, through periods, spaces, and times, from æon unto æon, till the world is dead, and the worlds beyond the world are dead, and naught liveth but the Spirit that is Life. But for us twain and for these dead ones shall the end of ends be Life, or shall it be Death? As yet Death is but Life’s Night, but out of the night is the Morrow born again, and doth again beget the Night. Only when Day and Night, and Life and Death, are ended and swallowed up in that from which they came, what shall be our fate, oh Holly? Who can see so far? Not even I!”

Well, this kind of misty pseudo-spiritualism is not to my taste. But it obviously was to the 83 million or more people who’ve bought it and the scores of millions more who must have borrowed and read it.

Out of ten For this reason I found She a bit hard going and liked it less than the three or four Allan Quatermain stories I read previously. Put simply, they are more full of derring-do. They generally have two heroes, Quatermain and the super-manly Henry Curtis, plus the noble blacks who feature in each AQ adventure. She focuses on the figure of Ayesha and the dialogues between her and Holly, on tours of the ancient ruins and wonder at the mutability of time. It’s more about awe than action.

‘She’ – poster for the 1965 Hammer production

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales by Henry Rider Haggard (1889)

29 July 2012

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales is a collection of stories by Henry Rider Haggard about his African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain. The title story is by far the longest, describing Allan’s childhood, upbringing in Africa, and meeting with his wife, and is accompanied by three genuinely short stories, Hunter Quartermain’s Story, A Tale of Three Lions, and Long Odds. They were published separately in magazines in the first flush of Haggard’s success, then collected in this volume.

Allan’s Wife (1889) is a moving account of Quatermain’s sad English childhood (when his mother and three siblings die of fever his father emigrates to South Africa), robust African upbringing, and the adventures which lead to his marriage. Unlike Kipling’s often forced and exhausting knowledgeableness, Haggard’s familiarity with guns and hunting, the South African landscape, and the customs and language of Zulus, Masai, Boers etc comes over clearly and convincingly. Apart from the main narrative arc about Quatermain’s meeting, wooing and wedding his wife, Stella, there are two striking features:

The African medicine man, Indaba-zimbi, accompanies Quatermain from early in his adventures and establishes himself as a voice of ancestral African wisdom, giving good advice and performing miraculous magic at key moments. Their first meeting at a competition with his rival to draw down lightning from an electrical storm is pretty dramatic. Repeatedly he says you white men are clever, but you don’t know everything. Thus, as in all the Quatermain stories, a black African is a key figure, representing wisdom, dignity, cunning and endurance.

The baboon lady Key to the plot is the notion that Allan’s wife-to-be, Stella, and her father, years earlier, had rescued a woman, Hendrika, who’d been captured as a baby and brought up by baboons and who, as a result, had extraordinary climbing skills and could communicate with the baboons (rather like Mowgli the man-cub can communicate with wolves and all the other jungle animals in the Jungle Books). This unexpectedly turns out to be the trigger for the crisis of the story, when she and her baboon army kidnap Stella and take her off to a cave in the hills.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that, even here, there is a Lost World since Stella and her father, deep in inaccessible Africa, have reinhabited mysterious marble houses which they found abandoned by some previous, highly sophisticated, culture. In fact, though short, Allan’s Wife, packs in a load of the tropes and types of incident which made Haggard’s reputation.

Illustration of Quatermain finding his wife in the cave

Maiwa’s revenge, or The War of The Little Hand by Henry Rider Haggard (1888)

28 July 2012

Maiwa’s Revenge is the third Allan Quatermain novel (in order of writing), and an innovation in the series in that is a) short b) set within a frame narrative – Quatermain is on a shoot at his Yorkshire home with friends and, after bagging three woodcock in flight is persuaded to tell the story of how he bagged three elephants on one hunt. This anecdote leads on to a bigger story which Quatermain tells in the first person in the same fast-moving conversational style as the previous books.

Once again, as in KSM and AQ, the core of the story is the white man bringing war and slaughter to an African kingdom. Quatermain decides to go hunting into the interior of Natal. He pushes on into uncharted territory in pursuit of buffalo, and then is charged by a rhinoceros, only just escaping. On the basis of this feat local villagers ask if he can rid them of three giant elephants which are eating their crop. Again, Quatermain manages to kill all three, though only after some dicey moments. As his natives are cutting the ivory tusks from the dead elephants, a statuesque native girl appears. This is Maiwa and she explains that the area is ruled by the Matuku tribe, led by the wicked Wambe, who lord it over their neighbour tribe, the Butiana, led by the timorous king Nala. Maiwa was coerced into leaving her native Butiana to go and be married to Wambe, since when he has beaten her and then, when her baby by the king was eighteen months old, he brutally killed it by putting it in the “thing that bites”, a steel lion trap. the baby’s hand was severed and Maiwa has kept it ever since as a gruesome spur to revenge.

Now she has fled Wambe’s kraal and come to Quatermain with her tale of woe, carrying a message from a white man, John Every, who Wambe has held prisoner for seven years. In every way, then, Quatermain is incentivised and justified in leading a Butiana attack on Wambe’s heavily defended camp, against overwhelming odds, and attack he does! It is a glorious goulash of imperial cliches:

Thoughts Once again a white man entering an African kingdom brings war and death on a large scale. In all three narratives Quatermain’s arrival prompts civil war and the eventual triumph of his (White) side.  Haggard always makes sure the wars are elaborately justified; that they are righting egregious wrongs: the cruel tyrant Twala is not the rightful king; the cruel queen Sorais is trying to murder her sister; the cruel tyrant Wambe is, er, a cruel tyrant.

1. Forget the sexism or the (surprisingly mild) racism, the repeated message of Haggard’s books is that the White Man is justified in intervening in native affairs, in fighting small colonial wars to establish Peace and Security, to set his choice of king or queen upon the throne to ensure the territory becomes safe for White hunting and trading.

2. And the second message is in the medium itself: his prose is amazingly supple and fluid for the time; compare and contrast with the denser, slower style of literary writers such as Hardy or Conrad or Henry James. Haggard’s prose style itself conveys the attitude of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and thrills and excitement, especially in fast-moving battle scenes. Generations of boys must have been inspired to go off to Britain’s umpteen small colonial wars their heads full of Haggard’s thrilling, vivid descriptions.

“There too on the wall stood Maiwa, a white garment streaming from her shoulders, an assegai in her hand, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing. Above all the din of battle I could catch the tones of her clear voice as she urged the soldiers on to victory. But victory was not yet. Wambe’s soldiers gathered themselves together, and bore our men back by the sheer weight of numbers. They began to give, then once more they rallied, and the fight hung doubtfully.

“‘Slay, you war-whelps,’ cried Maiwa from the wall. ‘Are you afraid, you women, you chicken-hearted women! Strike home, or die like dogs! What—you give way! Follow me, children of Nala.’ And with one long cry she leapt from the wall as leaps a stricken antelope, and holding the spear poised rushed right into the thickest of the fray.

“The warriors saw her, and raised such a shout that it echoed like thunder against the mountains. They massed together, and following the flutter of her white robe crashed into the dense heart of the foe. Down went the Matuku before them like trees before a whirlwind. Nothing could stand in the face of such a rush as that. It was as the rush of a torrent bursting its banks. All along their line swept the wild desperate charge; and there, straight in the forefront of the battle, still waved the white robe of Maiwa.”

As a 21st century adult I am conflicted; the pleasure of the text derives from the schoolboy mentality it embodies and enforces; the battle scenes are thrilling; the stakes are black and white. But since Haggard’s innocent times we’ve had over a century of grotesque wars, starting with the Boer War and going rapidly downhill thereafter. If you stop to consider the bloodshed at the core of all of these stories, the grown-up in you can’t help but be appalled.

Illustration of Allan Quatermain (centre) following bearers carrying ivory down to the coast at the triumphal conclusion of ‘Maiwa’s Revenge’

The Joy of Sets or, the Allan Quatermain stories

26 July 2012

What is better than a series of novels which lets you follow the adventures of one or more protagonists over time and space, watching them age and change, and letting you link up scattered incidents to create a fulfilling alternative universe? In our time I’m aware of the Harry Potter series, the Mortal Engines series, the Twilight series, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and there must be hundreds of others, especially if you include detective series like Ian Rankin’s Rebus series or the VI Warshawski series.

After his debut in King Solomon’s Mines (1885), Rider Haggard’s African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain went on to feature in over a dozen novels and short stories. There’s a close parallel with Sherlock Holmes who made his first appearance in the novella A Study In Scarlet in 1887 and went on to appear in three further novels and fifty-six short stories. Holmes’s last appearance was in a 1927 short story, The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place, his publishing history thus spanning 40 years; while Quatermain’s last appearance was also in 1927, in Allan and the Ice-gods, pipping Holmes with a career of 42 years.

As with another series I’m exploring, James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, the new reader to Quatermain faces a bit of a conundrum – whether to read the stories in the order they were published in order to experience the author’s changing style and skill – or in the fictional chronology of the character’s life.

The excellent Wikipedia article lists the AQ stories by order of events in the hero’s life, with publication dates in brackets, helping you organise whichever option you choose.

Date            Text
1817                 Birth of Allan Quatermain

1835–1838   Marie (1912)
1842–1843  “Allan’s Wife”, title story in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1854–1856   Child of Storm (1913)
1858                “A Tale of Three Lions”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1859                Maiwa’s Revenge: or, The War of the Little Hand (1888)
1868               “Hunter Quatermain’s Story”, in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1869               “Long Odds”, included in the collection Allan’s Wife (1887)
1870               The Holy Flower (1915)
1871                Heu-heu: or, The Monster (1924)
1872                She and Allan (1920)
1873               The Treasure of the Lake (1926)
1874               The Ivory Child (1916)
1879               Finished (1917)
1879               “Magepa the Buck”, included in the collection Smith and the Pharaohs (1920)
1880               King Solomon’s Mines (1885)
1882               The Ancient Allan (1920)
1883               Allan and the Ice-gods (1927)
1884–1885 Allan Quatermain (1887)

18 June 85   Death of Allan Quatermain

But whichever option you choose you’ll have a problem trying to track down editions of these old books. As usual with older literature (and music), Haggard’s one or two greatest hits (King Solomon’s Mines and She) are available in countless editions, cheap or scholarly, but wander a few feet from the common highway and you are among thorns. There does appear to be one uniform edition of the complete Quatermain novels, by a small publisher, the Leonaur press, though a little pricey. You can, however, download them as Kindle texts from Amazon, or from the excellent Project Gutenberg Rider Haggard site.

King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

20 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard, age 29, was on a train journey with his brother. He was back in England after a five years’ sojourn in South Africa and the two were discussing the merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, still wildly popular after its publication in 1883. Henry says, “Oh there’s nothing special about the book, really.” His brother says, “Well I bet you five bob you can’t write something better.” So Henry sat down and wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 12 weeks, for a bet. It was published in 1887 by Cassels, the same firm who had published Treasure Island, and has gone on to become one of the great classics of adventure fiction, and one of the great bestsellers, of all time.

Reading King Solomon’s Mines in 2012 is rewarding on a number of levels:

Identifying with the hero At the simplest level it’s a boy’s own adventure, full of thrills and spills designed to test and exercise and reassure the white adolescent male reader: the men are strong and heroic; they survive extreme physical tests; they triumph against overwhelming odds; some natives are trustworthy unto death; others are cruel savages who must be tamed; there are no white women (‘petticoats’ as Haggard calls them) to distract our heroes; though there are plenty of ‘preposessing’ and scantily clad African maidens! There is treasure beyond counting! Vicariously, the reader experiences all these excitements, and triumphs and lives.

It is fiction at its most primitive: total identification with the Hero Who Overcomes.

The gang Except there isn’t just one hero; it is about a gang with attractive attributes distributed among them. Thus the (male) reader can choose whether to identify with Quatermain, experienced, self-deprecating; Henry Curtis, a lion of man, the pick of the white race, a heroic Englishman; Captain Good, a comedy figure, running to fat, wearing his comedy eyeglass, eternally fussing about his clothes and with a weakness for the fairer sex; or the brave and physically superb Zulu, Umbopa. For some reason the combination of the plucky with the comic, and the idea of a small group of heroes,  reminds me of Tintin (and also because the plot hinges on our heroes impressing the natives by predicting a solar eclipse, as Tintin does in ‘Prisoners of the Sun‘).

The Plot On board ship to Durban, South Africa, Quatermain, an ageing but hardy African hunter, is introduced to a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis and his ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the route, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer. And so the three team up and set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and the striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot. You can read the book, free, on Project Gutenberg.

Tone and humour The text isn’t as dated as you’d expect. It is kept fresh by the rhythm and pacing of Haggard’s plot, moving confidently from one tense action scene to another. And it is written in an open, serviceable prose, very unlike the clotted Latinate phrasing of ‘literary’ authors of the time. The prose is frequently adorned with hilariously over-the-top poetic descriptions of the African scenery or 5th form thoughts about the meaning of Life. And Haggard’s  good humour (English and self-deprecating and often schoolboyish) comes through in every line:

       I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them… All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind – for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me – while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping.

       ‘Curtis,’ I said to Sir Henry, ‘I am in a condition of pitiable funk.’

Not as racist as expected Haggard’s attitude to Africans is noticeably sympathetic. Early on he says he’s met plenty of blacks who are true gentlemen and plenty of whites who are not – and many overtly heroic deeds are performed by Kaffirs and blacks. One black servant dies very nobly saving Good from a rampaging elephant. And Umbopa the Zulu grows in regal stature throughout the book. When the adventurers come among the lost people of Kikuana land the black natives are highly differentiated; the king Twala may be a sadistic tyrant, the crone Gagoola an uncanny witch, but the maidens who attend them are courteous and beautiful and other leading Kikuaners like Ignosi are honest and valiant. The point is Haggard depicts blacks as variegated individuals, nothing like the appalling racism found among, say, the Boers of the same time and place.

Imperialism of the imagination Nonetheless, whatever Quatermain’s sympathy for and admiration of native Africans, it is crystal clear that the white Englishmen have an innate superiority over all natives, all women and indeed all other white men. White Englishmen just are naturally superior, why else would the British Empire be the greatest the world had ever seen? Reading this as a white Englishman it is hard to resist the repeated signals in the text as to my superiority. I can smile at its naivety but it still tugs at my imagination. The text flatters me. I can well imagine all women and non-white people finding this pretty tedious, if not offensive. The inscription to the sequel, Allan Quatermain, says it all:

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain — the state and dignity of English gentlemen.

Women One stereotype which is conspicuous by its absence is there are no white women at all in the book. Scantily clad African women, yes, but no ‘petticoats’, as Haggard puts it. Presumably this reflected the physical reality of the time – reading Kipling’s frontier stories, there was continual warfare with native tribes and the Zulu Wars in South Africa had only just ended. It’s dangerous frontier territory.

But it’s striking how all the screen versions of KSM do include women, as love interest and as ‘terror-prompts’ ie woman cornered by fierce beast/dinosaur/native who has to be rescued by gallant white hero. What does the addition of the Woman In Peril cliche – not necessary in 1885 but indispensable from the 1920s onwards, up to and including Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones – tell us about the 20th century, and about us?

King Solomon’s Influence The biggest obstacle to reading the text is the fact that I seemed to have read or seen so much of it before. This book has been copied in scores of other novels, films, TV dramas and comics. What must have been extraordinary incidents to its original audience have been worn smooth by over a century of assimilation. Just one example, the treasure chamber is entered by a massive rising & descending stone door; while our heroes are distracted by the chests full of treasure, the wicked crone Gagool triggers the lowering mechanism in order to trap them; she stabs the (prepossessing) serving maid who has accompanied them to the chamber and makes to escape but the dying maiden grabs her foot and so the crone tries desperately to wriggle free even as the vast doorway slowly descends until it gruesomely (and noisily) squashes her to a pulp.

In how many films and TV dramas have you seen a mechanical doorway inexorably descending as a protagonist tries to slip under it to safety? Was this the first time this trope, this meme, this cliche, was ever used?

Stereotypes One of the great pleasures of reading King Solomon’s Mines is in savouring the gorgeous tapestry of cliches and stereotypes. The whole text is built of cliches. Possibly the text could be represented visually as sets of overlapping boxes or diagrams, each containing a plot or character device. They’re like jigsaw pieces laid out at the start of the text, which are then dovetailed together as the plot unravels, with satisfying clicks. Everything about it seems familiar:

  • the brave band of adventurers
  • the Quest to an Unknown Land
  • the plucky native assistants who one by one are picked off in mishaps
  • our heroes almost dying in the desert ie pushed to the limits of human endurance
  • their sudden arrival in a land of plenty and marvels
  • the mysterious carvings on the mysterious road
  • the way they fool the tall, strong blacks who suddenly surround them that they are gods ‘come from the stars’
  • the cruel leader of the lost tribe (Twala) who suspects they are ordinary men after all

On and on it goes, every element seeming familiar as if from a dream, and in fact from hundreds of films, TV series, comics which I consumed avidly as a boy. If Haggard really is the source of these scores and scores of climactic scenes and sensational scenarios, then he’s one of the most influential writers of all time, his adventure memes a permanent part of the pulp imagination of all of us.

Conclusion There are so many superficial reasons for objecting to King Solomon’s Mines (the casual racism, the sexism, the violence) that there is, ultimately, no point objecting. Either you buy into the conventions of a genre or you don’t. If you know you’re going to see an adventure movie, don’t be upset if it features strong heroes, cowardly baddies, damsels in distress in exotic foreign locations populated by unreliable locals. The interest is in feeling Haggard shape and develop the stories, stereotypes and cliches which were to help form the popular imagination of our culture. Without Allan Quatermain – no Indiana Jones.

Illustration of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925)

17 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) virtually invented the late-Victorian ripping yarn. His most famous books are King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) and She but he wrote over 70 novels, 14 or so featuring the action hero, Allan Quatermain.

Haggard was one of 10 children born to a Jewish barrister living in Norfolk. Considered a duffer he was sent to Africa in 1875, aged 18, to make his fortune, his parents scraping him a job as assistant to the secretary to the governor of Natal. He was not only present in Pretoria in April 1877 when the British annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, it was Haggard himself who raised the Union flag and read out much of the proclamation when the official in charge lost his voice.

In 1880 he married and in 1882 returned to England to settle in Norfolk and study law. He didn’t like it, and moved to Hammersmith in 1885 to concentrate on his writing. His first book, King Solomon’s Mines, was an immediate bestseller and he never looked back.

KSM introduces the hero Allan Quatermain, a slight but hardy African hunter, who meets a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis, and ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the way there, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer, and so the three set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and a striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot.

Haggard joined a select band of 1880s authors who were pioneering short, punchy fiction with gripping characters and sensational plots, often set in the exotic lands opened up by Imperial conquests. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island had appeared in 1883 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, was to make his debut a few years later in A Study In Scarlet (1887), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, exotic in location if not gripping in plot (1888).

Portrait photo of Henry Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard fans point out that without Allan Quatermain there’d have been no Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), although the films of Haggard’s novels have been mostly poor. There are film versions of KSM starring Paul Robeson (1937), Stewart Granger (1950), Richard Chamberlain (1985) and Patrick Swayze (2004), and numerous spin-offs including The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003) where Quatermain is played by an ageing Sean Connery, and bastardisations, eg the Michael Douglas movies Romancing The Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). All of these films feature women as love interests. The original novels do not.

%d bloggers like this: