Tuesday, February 15, 2011

All the rottenness of a thousand years - Richard Jefferies's surprisingly humanist eco-apocalypse

The world of After London, or Wild England is essentially medieval - feudal barons, catapults, serfs, that sort of thing.  Steel-making has been lost, and the Christian Church is oddly stunted.  Antigone is performed at a party, so Sophocles has survived, unlike later English works, which were too long to bother copying out in manuscript – “so many of them were but enlargements of ideas or sentiments which had been expressed in a few words by the classics” (Ch X).  Ha!  Take that, English literature!

By 1885, when the Richard Jefferies's novel was published, the use of the Middle Ages in social criticism was well-established.  In Past and Present (1842), Thomas Carlyle argued for a particular English monastery run by a particular hero-monk as the ideal model for the organization and governance of modern society.  If Carlyle, a devilishly tricky ironist, did not actually advocate a return to the Catholic monastery, he was entirely serious about the value of the model – substitute, perhaps, “factory town” for “monastery” and “industrialist” for “abbot.”  John Ruskin, William Morris, and many more writers developed their own medieval critiques of modern society.

I had assumed that Richard Jefferies, a proto-environmentalist, was working in that tradition, and he is, in the sense that he is working against it.  Life in the New Middle Ages is, it turns out, horrible.  The novel is a demonstration of the power of the ideas of Thomas Hobbes.  Strong men rule their tiny domains, warfare is continual, life is short, ideas and beauty are valued only to the extent that they reinforce power.

The story takes these ides in some fruitful directions, and I won’t pursue them.  Felix, the non-Carlylean hero, embodies a different spirit, a hopeful one.  He values knowledge, he experiments, he explores the giant lake.  The conceit of the fictional book, the manuscript we are reading, is that his work was valuable, worth transmission.  Perhaps a New High Middle Ages is possible.

Jefferies was obviously not comfortable with his own world, since he destroyed London in a sewage explosion, for pity’s sake.

They say the sun is sometimes hidden by the vapour when it is thickest, but I do not see how they can tell this, since they could not enter the cloud, as to breathe it when collected by the wind is immediately fatal.  For all the rottenness of a thousand years and of many hundred millions of human beings is there festering under the stagnant water, which has sunk down into and penetrated the earth, and floated up to the surface the contents of the buried cloacae. (Ch. V)

So modern England is appalling, but neo-medieval England is awful in its own way.  What does Jefferies actually want, what is the fantasy at the heart of the novel?  The spectacular London apocalypse is so interesting that I have ignored the novel’s subtitle.  Tomorrow, Wild England – the best part of the book.


  1. Sometimes medieval critiques go the bright! colorful! tournaments and ladies and noble deeds and artisans and simpler times and The Land! route. Other times they go the Dark Ages and disease and ignorance and brutality and hierarchy and corrupt church route. There are subgenres of each of these, but those are the big ones. Neither, of course, has anything whatsoever to do with the real middle ages.

    I love this stuff!

  2. Okay, I knew I had just seen Jeffries name somewhere: my daughter 152Y hit an overlap with him in her WWI Lit studies, writing about Helen Thomas' autobiography. It looks like WWI poet Edward Thomas wrote a biography of Jeffries. All of this goes beyond my own WWI fumblings, but now I'm curious about not just this book but also his own autobiography. Interesting writer. Good work as always.

  3. Jefferies must be somewhere in between, then. After London credibly feels like the real English Middle Ages, at least the way I understand it.

    He certainly does not revel in the filth - that's all saved for London!

    That's interesting that some of the next generation of poets were fans of Jefferies. If it were not for this strange book, he would really just be known as a nature writer - but that's tomorrow. The novel is, to a large degree, a sort of nature writing fantasy.

  4. This sounds like a great book-I confess I have never heard of the author before

  5. I think you'd like it. Jefferies really does some unusual things in this book - he's not merely ahead of his time. And fortunately, the story and characters and so on are pretty good, too, if not quite first-rate. It's not just all concept, even if the concept is the most interesting part.

    Some day I'll try some of his more traditional nature writing.