RICHARD JEFFERIES IS GENERALLY KNOWN as the author of The Story of my Heart, not as a pioneer of science fiction. His strange prophetic novel, After London or Wild England is forgotten. It probably makes more sense now than it did when it was first published in 1886.
The nineteenth century had much greater belief in itself than the twentieth has. This confidence seemed amply justified by the rapid strides made in science and technology, and also in social reform. There had never been anything like it before. A genial optimism breathes in the works of Kropotkin and his predecessors. Although it was also a century of the most terrible social injustice, such as we today would be ashamed to allow, it was natural for many to believe that if so much had already been accomplished even more could be done in the future. A whole series of utopian novels were written such as Cabet's Icarie, Bellamy's Looking Backward, and Morris' News from Nowhere. Few of them, except Nowhere, are read nowadays, and the twentieth century has not been prolific in utopian writing. Instead we get the prophecy of doom, Brave New World and 1984.
It is doubtful whether this really shows modern people to be more enlightened than their grandfathers. Nothing has happened in the twentieth century that has not already happened many times before in the world's history. But in the nineteenth century slavery and genocide were carried on "somewhere East of Suez … where there ain't no Ten Commandments". The twentieth century saw these ancient scourges back in Europe again, after a couple of centuries of absence. It has been sufficient to produce a great engulfing wave of cynicism and despair, which may be even more unfortunate in its effects than the optimism of sixty or seventy years ago. A people who have lost faith in the future have none.
Richard Jefferies' book has more in common with such tales as 1984 or The Lord of the Flies than it has with anything in its own age. He begins with a long introduction, describing an England abandoned by its people. He writes as if from the point of view of a descendant of the handful of survivors, a man living in a medieval culture. This scribe has no real idea at all of what kind of catastrophe it was that emptied the land of most of its people. As in the Dark Ages, there is a sense of a great past, now irrevocably lost. There is nothing left but a few ruins, and nearly all the records have perished.
ARTHUR ULOTH's article on "John Rae and the Myths of War" appeared in ANARCHY 23. He has always been fascinated by the sort of literature which speculates about what will follow civilisation.
The scribe concludes that the population had sailed away to the west or south "where the greatest extent of ocean is understood to exist", where "none of our vessels in the present day dare venture", which explains why no word has come back from them, no rumour or news of any sort.
"As for the most part, those who were left behind were ignorant, rude and unlettered, it consequently happened that many of the marvellous things which the ancients did, and the secrets of their science, are known to us by name only … they also sent intelligence to the utmost parts of the earth along wires which were not tubular but solid, and therefore could not transmit sound, and yet the person who received the message could hear and recognise the voice of the sender a thousand miles away. With certain machines worked by fire, they traversed the land swift as the swallow glides through the sky, but of these things not a relic remains to us. What metal-work or wheels or bars of iron were left, and might have given us a clue, were all broken up and melted down for use in other ways when metal became scarce. Mounds of earth are said still to exist in the woods, which originally formed the roads for these machines, but they are now so low, and so covered with thickets, that nothing can be learnt from them; and indeed, though I have heard of their existence, I have never seen one. Great holes were made through the very hills for the passage of the iron chariot, but they are now blocked by the fallen roofs, nor dare anyone explore such parts as may yet be open. Where are the wonderful structures with which the men of those days were lifted to the skies, rising above the clouds? These marvellous things are to us little more than the fables of the giants and of the old gods that walked upon the earth, which were fables even to those whom we call the ancients."
Society has broken down into a little world of villages and small towns. The geography of England has changed considerably. Rivers have silted up, and the ruins of London have blocked the outlet of the Thames, with the result that an inland sea has formed in the basins of the Thames and the Avon, and round this lake of fresh water are a series of viciously squabbling little city-states and petty kingdoms.
The Cymry come down from the West, claiming the land was originally theirs. The Irish also invade. The Gypsies are organised in independent tribes, raiding everybody else, and there are groups of still more primitive people, descendants of the tramps and vagrants of the old society. Every group is against every other.
A sort of Protestantism and Catholicism also survive, but intellectual, religious and artistic life is very restricted. One gets no sense, as one does with medieval Europe, of the great world stretching out all round, even if unexplored. There are no Marco Polos. The Channel is very nearly the limit of this claustrophobic little universe.
Society is based on serfdom and slavery. Although the overwhelmingly powerful Thought Police are absent, social control is just as tight, since everyone spies on and distrusts his neighbour. "Seen thus from below, the whole society appeared rotten and corrupted, coarse to the last degree, animated only by the lowest motives … As himself of noble birth Felix had hitherto seen things only from the point of view
of his own class. Now he associated with grooms, he began to see society from their point of view, and recognised how feebly it was held together by brute force, intrigue, cord and axe, and woman's flattery. But a push seemed needed to overthrow it. Yet it was quite secure, nevertheless, as there was none to give that push, and if any such plot had been formed, those very slaves who suffered the most would have been the very men to give information, and to torture the plotters."
The first part of the book gives a long description of the growth of the forests, and the reconquest by the wild animals, or by the feral strains that have developed from the domestic animals run wild. In our time every animal that is not domesticated is in immediate or ultimate danger of extinction, but in Wild England it is man who is only just holding his own. This section of the book is rather long, proportionately to the rest, and I think that the writer probably preferred to tell of animals and their doings rather than of men. Which is not surprising.
The second half of the novel is devoted to the adventures of Felix Aquila, the son of an aristocrat who is out of favour at court. He is a frustrated young man, indeed a remarkably modern type of hero, with little in common with the fine upstanding young Englishmen of Victorian popular fiction. He may be considered an honest self-portrait of the author, for he has the same introversion, love of solitude and nature, and a certain inability to cope with society as it is.
Yet, neurotic, lacking in self-assurance, inclined to delusions of persecution though he is, he is not an "anti-hero". One can not only sympathise with him, one can also to some extent identify, in a way that one cannot, unless one is highly masochistic, with Winston Smith, or the persecuted schoolboy in The Lord of the Flies. For despite his neuroticism he is capable of taking action, and of achieving things, once he is able to escape from the constriction of the world in which he has been brought up.
He collects such old books and documents as have survived from the previous civilisation, but his intellectual pursuits are out of place in a society of barbarian noblemen. He is skilled with the bow, but the sword is the weapon of his class. The bow is the arm of the commoner, and so is despised. Finally he sets out on the Great Lake, in a small outrigger canoe that he has built himself, to seek his fortune.
The Lake is one of the characters of the story. We see it in all its moods. Its sweet water, its currents, its storms, its shores, its sandbanks, its wild life are all minutely described. One almost wishes the holocaust would come, so that it will be possible to sail upon the waters of this beautiful inland sea.
Felix's efforts to take service under one of the petty kinglets comes to a disastrous end when he incurs the jealousy of a powerful baron, and he flees from mankind, out into the widest part of the Lake, coming at last to a strange land.
Gradually the tree-covered, bird-haunted islands, among which he has been sailing, give way to barren and uninhabited sand-banks. As he goes further eastwards a yellow vapour closes in around him, and the water, formerly so pure, is now flecked with floating scum. Eventually he lands on a bank of black sand. The atmosphere is now hot and oppressive, and the water has acquired a dark colour, unknown elsewhere on the Lake, and an offensive odour that prevents drinking, so he turns inland in the hope of finding a spring. The whole land is covered with vapour.
"The sun had not sunk, but had disappeared as a disk. In its place was a billow of blood, for so it looked, a vast upheaved billow of glowing blood surging on the horizon. Over it flickered a tint of palest blue, like that seen in fire. The black waves reflected the glow, and the yellow vapour around was suffused with it … In the level plain the desolation was yet more marked; there was not a grassblade or a plant; the surface was hard, black and burned, resembling iron, and indeed in places it resounded to his feet, though he supposed that the echo came from hollow passages beneath."
He stumbles, as he thinks, upon a skeleton.
"Another glance, however, showed that it was merely the impression of one, the actual bones had long since disappeared. The ribs, the skull and limbs were drawn on the black ground in white lines as if it had been done with a broad piece of chalk …"
"Presently a white object appeared ahead, and on coming to it he found it was a wall, white as snow, with some kind of crystal. He touched it, when the wall fell immediately, with a crushing sound as if pulverised, and disappeared in a vast cavern at his feet."
He finds his way back to his boat, following his own footmarks, which glow with a phosphorescent light, and, although almost overcome by the fumes, he succeeds in escaping alive from this deadly region.
"He had penetrated into the midst of that dreadful place, of which be had heard many a tradition: how the earth was poison, the water poison, the air poison, the very light of heaven, falling through such an atmosphere, poison … The earth on which he walked, the black earth, leaving phosphoric footmarks behind him, was composed of the mouldered bodies of millions of men who had passed away in the centuries during which the city existed …" The bones he had seen were those of a treasure seeker who had stayed in the area too long.
The rest of the story is something of an anti-climax after this. Felix sails southward across the Lake and encounters a race of shepherds, among whom he rises to pre-eminence on account of his skill in archery, which was not appreciated among his own people. Here he is able to carve out for himself a kingdom, though of a more democratic kind than most. The shepherds have some elements of the Noble Savage in them. They are the least vicious people in the book. Yet one gets the feeling that the writer's powers of invention began to fail him at this point.
I am inclined to a belief that may seem mystical to some, namely that people are able to get a glimpse every now and then of the future, since time, as a series of consecutive instants of equal duration, is a convenience for purposes of measurement rather than a reality. What has happened is still going on somewhere. What is to happen is already happening now. J. B. Priestley's fantasy, The Doomsday Men, written just before the Second World War, contains the description of the explosion of a device of terrific power in a tower situated in the desert of the American South-West. A distorted glimpse of the first experiment with an atomic bomb, or just a lucky guess?
Jefferies was thinking of the London of the Industrial Revolution, the city of the pea-soup fog. Yet sometimes he seems to describe even more deadly things.
"Upon the surface of the water there was a greenish yellow oil, to touch which was death to any creature; it was the very essence of corruption. Sometimes it floated before the wind, and fragments became attached to reeds or flags far from the place itself. If a moorhen or duck chanced to rub the reed, and but one drop stuck to its feather, it forthwith died." On reading this my first thought was of radioactive waste.
In the social sphere Jefferies foresaw the class divisions of nineteenth century English society hardening into apartheid. The slaves occupy completely separate towns from those inhabited by their masters. There is a description of the horror of his hero, when he finds that he has inadvertently sat down to share a meal with a man of the slave class. He manages however to overcome his repugnance, and even to shake hands with the man on leaving the house. Except that slaves and masters are all of one colour it might be modern South Africa.
This strange book has not the compulsive power of 1984. Yet it wears better than many other prophecies, and could still come true. Orwell's book already seems a little dated; a future totalitarian society would more likely resemble A Brave New World. Wells' War in the Air, though it gives a fairly good compressed summary of World Wars I and II, and probably III, is dated by its technology. The air-ship never became the decisive weapon that Wells thought it would. But the sub-medieval society Jefferies describes could still come into being, indeed it is the most likely sort of society to do so after an atomic war, unless all life were obliterated.
EARTH ABIDES by George R. Stewart, published in this country by Gollancz in 1950 and reprinted as a paperback several times since, is a long and competent novel in which an obscure airborne microbe wipes out mankind, all but a few individuals here and there. They are left (in the United States) with the vast storehouse and superstructure of modern civilisation from which to supply themselves with food, clothes, and tools. Otherwise they start life afresh from zero: no government, nothing in the way of constraints and restraints. The hero is a research graduate in a not very useful branch of science, but he can think usefully and ends by becoming a sort of god for the community he has organised. The story does not end as anarchists would like it to end, but for every reader it provides a constant supply of stimulation and a sort of permanent quiz based on such questions as: How would you tackle this problem? What would you do in these circumstances? The author writes with a Defoe-like verisimilitude, and a fascinating wealth of ecological detail.