I’m reading H. G. Wells because of Gustave Flaubert. Salammbô ends with the siege and near-destruction of Carthage. Any number of details evoked the horrific 1870 Siege of Paris, but since Flaubert’s novel was published in 1862 that event was probably not a source for the book. Probably. The siege of Sevastopol, though, during the Crimean War, now that’s a possibility. Don’t miss young officer Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Sketches (1855-6).
So I began casting about for other fiction about the destruction of cities. Thus, London-as-toxic-waste site in After London (1885). Or, London eroded by the passage of eons in The Time Machine (1895). Or, London pulverized by Martians a few years later. I’m pretty sure Wells levels London at least once more, in The World Set Free / The Last War (1914), this time with atomic weapons – or so I guess, since I have just glanced through it at the library.
Then there’s a related path, books leading to more books, exploring exotic North African cities and satirical Utopias, but set that aside. What smashed up 19th century cities am I forgetting? Great fires, perhaps? Plagues? We are so used to our cities and monuments being demolished by cinematic aliens and tidal waves and so on now. Ho hum. I'm trying to recapture the excitement.
Parts of 19th century London, the poorer, cholera-ridden sections, may not have literally been poisonous swamps, but the metaphor was close enough. As economic specialization spread, as wealth concentrated in cities, and as the urban populations exploded, I am guessing that European writers began to see how cities were not just the centers of civilization, but in some ways the weakest parts. No cities, no civilization – I know, an etymological tautology, but I wonder if disasters like the bombardments of Paris and Sevastopol made the fragility of cities more obvious.
London actually comes off fairly well in The War of the Worlds. It’s the suburb of Woking that really gets the business, although they seem to have forgiven their enemies (do click, oh, do). Wells does not destroy London, but instead indulges in the “empty city” fantasy, allowing the hero to wander through an abandoned metropolis. I saw part of a recent Will Smith movie that did the same thing. The idea stretches back to Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), at least. Leafing through the book, looking at chapter II.8., “Dead London,” I see that the scene where the narrator explores a silent, empty London is only a couple of pages long. Too bad – it’s good, but Wells has a story to wind up. And ending in London allows this:
The dome of St. Paul's was dark against the sunrise, and injured, I saw for the first time, by a huge gaping cavity on its western side.
And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned; as I thought of the multitudinous hopes and efforts, the innumerable hosts of lives that had gone to build this human reef, and of the swift and ruthless destruction that had hung over it all; when I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.