Unknown countries (6) : After London

Posted by Ken Edwards on Friday, January 29, 2010 Under: writing

This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

I’d heard of Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London, or Wild England for a while before I got round to reading it. Given that this is meant to be one of the great ur-texts of the English Catastrophe tradition – it is granddaddy, whether authors or readers are aware of it or not, to Ballard’s The Drowned World, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and recent popular TV series or movies such as Survivors or 28 Days Later – tracking down a copy was surprisingly hard.

The only edition I could find was published by The Echo Library, an outfit that has seized on the digital revolution to market print-on-demand paperback reprints of out-of-copyright classics. 

A word first on this edition, for which the word execrable is scarcely adeqate. It might be expected (though the book wasn’t especially cheap) that frills like a scholarly introduction would be skipped. What I wasn’t prepared for was an exceedingly ugly, functional, generic text-only cover, and inside, a text that had clearly been downloaded from the Gutenberg Project or a similar online source and dumped on the page unedited in Times Roman. Thus, page numbers remain centred at the top of each page (even on title pages), margins are narrow and the text measure uncomfortably wide, and no attempt has been made to convert generic quote marks to smart quotes, double hyphens to en or em dashes, nor to correct the occasion glitches that creep into any scanned text. Even _italics_ are left in plain-text unformatted mode. Horrible.

The book deserves better. Richard Jefferies, born to a farming family in Wiltshire in 1848, wrote extensively on rural life and the natural world. His last novel, Amaryllis at the Fair, is set on a farm and has an unusual, episodic structure.

After London is also unusual. It falls into two parts. The first, “The Relapse into Barbarism”, is by far the better, being an extraordinary account and description, purportedly written in the far future, of an England that has been hit by an unexplained catastrophe. As I’ve already mentioned, the mysterious disaster that befalls the nation is, like the unidentified city, a staple of many later fantastic narratives. In addition to the novels and films mentioned above, I am reminded of Peter Greenaway’s early feature-length film The Falls, which consists of case studies of the inheritors of a future world devastated by a “Violent Unknown Event” – which has had magical consequences. And outside of the English corpus, there is of course Tarkovsky’s Stalker, with its forbidden “Zone”, patrolled by armed guards, where again a mysterious catastrophe has taken place that is never explained, but which renders the landscape – devastated and returned to nature – into a site of possibly supernatural or extra-natural power.

The post-apocalyptic England described in the thirty pages of “The Relapse into Barbarism” has something of the feel of the Zone, in that it is a site of human devastation reclaimed by nature; while the treatment, an imagined encyclopaedia entry of the future, has affinities with the mode of Peter Greenaway’s film. Five chapters describe in loving detail the “Great Forest” to which southern England has returned, the wildlife in it, the feral humans that inhabit it, the “invaders” who have attempted to re-establish a rudimentary civilisation – and “The Lake”: the great inundation that has evidently overwhelmed London as well as other major towns and cities. Whether this disaster is natural or man-made is not here explained.

After this scene-setting, the second and longer part of the novel, “Wild England”, is initially a bit of a let-down. It is the narrative of Sir Felix, eldest son of Baron Aquila, one of the war-lords in post-apocalyptic, feudal England. His siblings are eager hunter-killers, but he is a bit bookish. Unfortunately, no books are being currently written, and few survive from the past. 

Disappointed in love, Felix determines to set forth and explore the world. To this end, he builds his own canoe with sails and ventures onto the Lake. He is captured by the brutal army of another war-lord, a king whom he tries to impress with his erudition and technical know-how. He narrowly evades execution and escapes to regain his vessel and sail on.

Here’s where it gets interesting again. Asleep at the tiller, he finds himself on awakening in an immense expanse, far from any sight of land. The wind has failed. Paddling the canoe, he reaches and passes a series of islands, and then encounters a faint yellow mist, and the water starts to turn black. He lands on a black shore in a red sunset. He is in a nightmarish world of skeletal remains of beings and buildings turned to salt on a reddish ground covering that is “liquid, unctuous and slimy, like a thick oil”. Black coins lie scattered. “The deserted and utterly extinct city of London was under his feet,” is the conclusion Felix arrives at. Here, all is poison, and he must escape if he is not to succumb to it. It’s not unlike the Mordor of Tolkien’s imagination: a Hell in which “Ghastly beings haunted the site of so many crimes, shapeless monsters, hovering by night, and weaving a fearful dance.”

Leaving phosphoric footmarks behind him, Felix manages to escape, once again regaining control of his canoe.

In the remainder of the narrative, he encounters a tribe of forest dwellers, and uses his technological know-how to improve their defences against rival tribes. They want to make him their king. Fearing the imprisonment that this dubious honour entails, he departs hurriedly, making his way westward through the forest where he hopes to be reunited with his lady love.

Jefferies’ writing varies wildly in quality. Describing the natural world – the behaviour of ducks on the great Lake, the sights and sounds of the forest – it has a magical quality. But when he turns to human relations, or needs to move the narrative on, it becomes perfunctory at best. I get the peculiar sense of an experimental writer trying to get out from under the literary conventions of the novel, but not knowing how to, lacking the context for it.

The dialogue is particularly dismal. England may have reverted to barbarism, but it isn’t really clear why it’s also reverted to the locutions of Maloryesque cod-mediaevalism: “And pray, sir knave”, and the like, is how these folk address each other. It’s not surprising that Jefferies only sustains dialogic episodes for so long before hurriedly advancing the narrative again, almost as though this were the treatment for a film, rather than a novel. Perhaps he was a scriptwriter before his time. The jump-cut would have suited him. 

In between his early years in Wiltshire and his latter ones in Sussex, Jefferies lived for a while, and attempted to earn a living from his writing, in two suburbs of London: Surbiton and Eltham. I don’t know what bad experiences he had there, but he sure does take his revenge on the metropolis. The nightmare world of the former London, with its crumbling relics, ghostly fires and apparitions, is unforgettable. Nowhere does the novel explain exactly what crimes have caused such dire punishment, although there’s a strong hint that pursuit of wealth has something to do with it.

In conclusion, the book is an oddity. It would be inaccurate to describe it as a neglected classic. It is certainly neglected, but it has deep flaws. Yet it also contains the seed of much to come in the field of apocalyptic literature and drama, not to mention today's ecological concerns. To what extent it has had a direct effect on future writers and film-makers, as opposed to working as a folk memory or contributing to the zeitgeist in indirect ways, I wouldn’t like to say.

Next episode – J Sheridan Le Fanu: Uncle Silas

In : writing 

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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at http://www.kenedwardsonline.co.uk