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Richard Jefferies’ ‘Dystopian’ Vision: After London

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle visits a futuristic London that is decidedly medieval

Richard Jefferies, who appears to have been the first person to use the phrase ‘wild life’ to describe the natural world in 1879, is one of England’s greatest ever nature writers. But what is less well-known is that he was also a novelist. If his novels are recalled, it tends to be his book Bevis, a tale featuring a group of young boys who play games and build things and otherwise amuse themselves among the natural world, which is mentioned. Far less celebrated is his work of dystopian fiction, After London, which was published in 1885. The original title of Bevis was going to be After London, suggesting that the two novels have an affinity; but After London offers something starkly different. Ten years before H. G. Wells published his far more famous book The Time Machine, Jefferies was predicting a time in which London had reverted to pre-industrial greenery, much like the London of 802,701 in Wells’s novella has become a vast garden.

After London is set after some great cataclysmic event (an unspecified environmental disaster, such as a flood) that has destroyed the industrial Victorian London that Richard Jefferies knew. As with The Time Machine, the landscape (especially for a nature-lover like Jefferies) appears utopian while the people mark this future world out as a dystopia: although the chimneys and factories of the modern city have vanished to be replaced by idyllic woodland and pasture, the people of this future world have Read the rest of this entry

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The Other H. G. Wells: George Griffith’s Stories of Other Worlds

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle voyages to the many worlds imagined by a forgotten science-fiction pioneer

Victorian science fiction throws out one name: H. G. Wells. So comprehensively has Wells’s name come to dominate, or even define, our understanding of nineteenth-century English science fiction, that his contemporaries and precursors have been lost in the ether or relegated to the status of minor satellites, barely perceptible moons, orbiting Wells’s vast body of work. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, published within three years of each other between 1895 and 1898, have come to be seen as the founding texts of modern science fiction in English.

But such an understanding of the emergence of this new genre in the closing years of the nineteenth century obscures the many contemporaries of Wells whose imagination and inventiveness were similarly remarkable, their stories and novels showcasing the brilliant possibilities of this new publishing phenomenon. Of all of Wells’s forgotten contemporaries, the greatest was perhaps George Griffith, sometimes known as George Chetwynd Griffith-Jones (1857-1906). Read the rest of this entry

The Odyssey: Notes Towards an Analysis of Homer’s Poem

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle revisits Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem that resists our analysis

Of all the epic poems from the classical era, Homer’s Odyssey is the most modern. In ancient Rome, at the court of the Emperor Nero, Petronius parodied its episodic style for his scurrilous and daringly modern ‘novel’ the Satyricon; nearly 2,000 years later, James Joyce used its episodic structure for his scurrilous and daringly modern ‘novel’ Ulysses. There is something novelistic even in Homer’s original poem. Far from being solely a glamorous epic idealising heroes and glorifying war and adventure, Homer’s Odyssey is also about how heroism and adventure often fail to live up to our expectations of them.

I first encountered the story of Odysseus through Tony Robinson’s entertaining retelling of it for children, Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All. The story of Scylla gobbling up Odysseus’ crew terrified me, the tale of plucky Odysseus’ adventure with the Sirens gripped me, and his cunning plan in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus made me realise that Greek heroes weren’t all just brave and strong: they could be clever, too. When I bumped into Tony Robinson, quite by chance, on a cliff in southern England some 25 years later, I wanted to tell him he was the one who’d introduced me to Odysseus. But, unlike the wily hero himself, I bottled it. Still, it was quite apt that we were near the sea at the time. Read the rest of this entry