A little tribute to amateurism today. Jess Nevins is a librarian and the author of a 1,200 page Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana along with a huge amount of comic book annotations. A great reader of old-timey clever conceits, Nevins came up with one of his own: the Victorian Hugo Awards, which I would like to call the Victor Hugos.
The actual Hugos are the premier English-language science fiction and fantasy fan award but “[u]nfortunately,” Nevins says in his first column, “they've only been awarded since 1953,” so, a genuine expert, he hands out his own. So far he has novel and short story Hugos awarded for 1885 through 1891. Nevins has to consider not just the quality of the works, but their reception, their popularity and prestige. Along the way, he tells the shadow story of how the genres and audiences coalesce. It is all enormously informative.
I mean, as far as the nominees and winners go, Nevins is making it all up. He has read all of these books and accumulated all of this information. The Victor Hugos are a way to play with what he knows.
The winners so far (novel; short story):
1885: Jules Verne, Mathias Sandorf, Jules Verne; Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”
1886: H. Rider Haggard, She; Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?”
1887: Haggard, Allan Quatermain; Vernon Lee, “Amour Dure”
1888: Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward; Mrs. Riddell, “The Last of Squire Ennismore”
1889: Marie Corelli, Ardath; Mrs. Riddell, “A Terrible Vengeance”
1890: Ignatius Donelly, Caesar’s Column; Guy de Maupassant ,“La Horla”
1891: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray; Henry James, “Sir Edmund Orme”
The mix of obscurities and canonical titans is the first thing that I notice, and more still-famous names appear if I move to the other nominees – Robert Louis Stevenson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Rudyard Kipling, After London (which “would have been the deserving winner”), Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, E. T. A. Hoffmann (works are eligible the year they are published in English), William Morris. And of course dozens of semi-forgotten writers.
Nevins does not hesitate to identify duds – he calls Marie Corelli’s Ardath, about a poet who travels back in time to ancient Babylon to restore his poetic genius, “a bad book with nary a redeeming quality to it; it is self-indulgent to the point of mania, laughable in its attempts at profundity, and an unwitting self-parody.” Corelli was likely the best-selling fiction writer of her time.
He notes injustices, too (ignore that Nevins also creates them). What else came out in 1886, when the laughable She won the Victorian Hugo?
She would have won the 1886 Hugo, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the more deserving of the two. She is a great read, vivid, memorable, and packed with a surprising amount of Haggard's fin-de-siecle pessimism, but there's a reason that Jekyll and Hyde is in the literary canon and She is not. Jekyll and Hyde is better written and more complex symbolically and psychologically. She is good fun; Jekyll and Hyde is good literature.
I have read She and found it close to idiotic. That Nevins is able to mount a reasonable defense of Haggard shows why he is the expert, not I. I would not have the patience. But I still love to learn about some new possibilities to read and the literary oddballs who I will leave to the specialists. The anti-Bellamy dystopia Caesar’s Column sounds unreadable, but I am happy to know that its author Ignatius Donnelly, in an earlier book, “established the modern cult of Atlantis.” Just think, without Donnelly we would have no Aquaman, no Namor the Sub-mariner.
The main lesson, though, is a reminder that many of the very best late Victorian writers turned their attention to ghost stories, weird tales, and stories of the future.
The Victorian Hugos appear irregularly. They look like a lot of work. I always learn a lot from them.