Thursday, August 23, 2012

In which I enjoy the Victorian Hugo Awards

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.


  1. This is seriously brilliant, but I think part of what makes it so amazing is what light it sheds on the contemporary Hugo awards. If, as you cite, an "idiotic" book is chosen over an established classic... that injustice happens all too often in award circles. It's nice to see Nevins can adjust for this factor. Thank you, thank you for sharing this.

  2. great idea ,Id picked the james de mille for 1888 a strange manuscript found in a copper cylinder a blueprint for a few books that followed in the years after ,all the best stu

  3. I see. The De Mille is an early Lost World novel. I hadn't heard of it. Nevins doesn't mention it - I wonder why? I am sure he could give you a reason!

    Biblibio - Nevins's formulation is often "X would have won, Y should have won." His "should"s are partly retrospective, partly his own judgment.

    As fan awards go, the actual Hugos are frankly pretty good. It attract some serious fans. They did not just give J. K. Rowling the award every year, for example.

  4. That reminds me, I must read some more Marie Corelli. I thoroughly enjoyed the last one. Her "redeeming quality" is that she's a damn good sentence-for-sentence writer - and frankly, her extraordinary egotism is quite amusing. (I have one on my shelf called, I think, The Mighty Atom - which seems violently anti-science).

  5. Your piece on Corelli's Sorrows of Satan was completely convincing. Her books and life are clearly filled with all kinds of bad ideas, but this is hardly unique for a novelist. Ordinary, rather. Like she will be, in this regard, worse than Balzac.

    Mrs. Riddell and Vernon Lee also sound like they would be worth investigating, even if neither of them inspired characters in Mapp and Lucia.

    1. Vernon Lee's Hauntings is an extraordinary collection of eerie fantasy short stories. Fantasy stories usually about art or the arts, with an erudite knowledge of classical culture.

      Give it a go, Tom!

  6. Oh what a wonderful idea and website! Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  7. This is great - someone should do retrospeculative lists for all the great literary awards. Who would win the 1777 Prix Goncourt? (I'm pulling for Vivant Denon...).

  8. Vernon Lee it is, then. All right.

    I suppose the Goncourt brothers would have to recuse themselves from the Prix Goncourt.

    The retrospeculation has a lot of possibilities. For example, the question is not does Goethe get a Nobel, but when. Does Shakespeare get one, or does he die too soon? How does the committee track down the author of Egil's Saga or The Song of Roland, or can they give multiple prizes to Anonymous?

    1. Let's say that the prize was awarded every five years on January first, starting with 1519 to celebrate Charles V becoming Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain, etc.; and let's assume that it was funded by Spain with all the money coming from the conquest of America, so it would be the Noble Prize. And let's pretend judges had access to the whole world of literature published at the time. What would it would look like?

      Well for the XVI Century kinda like this:

      1519: Gil Vicente
      1524: Niccolo Machiavelli
      1529: Ludovico Ariosto
      1534: Erasmus of Rotterdam
      1539: Juan Boscan
      1544: Teofilo Folengo (Merlin Cocaius)
      1549: Francois Rabelais
      1554: Pietro Aretino
      1559: Maurice Scève/Joachim Du Bellay, ex-aequo
      1564: Etienne Jodele
      1569: In Absentia to the Author of Lazarillo de Tormes.
      1574:Pierre Ronsard
      1579: Luis Camoes
      1584: Jan Kochanowski
      1589: Michel de Montaigne
      1594: Torquato Tasso
      1599: Edmund Spenser

  9. What fun this site is! I'll have to find an evening to read the whole thing soon.

    I just this past week read "The Demon Pope" by Richard Garnett, so I had to take a peek at the 1888 and see if it made the shortlist, and it did. I completely agree with his assessment of it, too--charming and fun and hasn't aged a bit. And in the manner typical of armchair judges everywhere (which of course involves not having read all the books/stories in question), I must declare that Garnett was robbed.

  10. Can there be a special award for John Ballou Newbrough's OAHSPE?

    Donnelly also wrote "The Great Cryptogram," which started the fashion for books on the coded messages that Bacon put into Shakespeare's plays. It's a huge, nutty book; I've actually read it...

  11. I came across the Victor Hugos a while ago - maybe around 1888 - but then I went back and zipped through the rest.

    I hope you write up the Garnett book.

    Wow, we owe a lot to Donnelly. I mean that to sound ambiguous. My college Shakespeare teacher was married to a more famous Shakespeare expert. She said this was a routine part of life, letters from people who had found new coded messages.

    Looked up OAHSPE - yes, special category, yes. Although I'm not sure it is typical Hugo voter material. Maybe it should get a special 1882 Nebula Award.

  12. One thing that is fun about the humblehappiness list of award winners, given that he has abandoned the fantasy novel fan award conceit but is otherwise not cheating, is how many of the all-time great literary achievements of the 16th century are in fact fantasy "novels," fantasy more or less as we define it now.

    I mean, Orlando Furioso would sweep the Renaissance Hugos. It would be a historic blowout.

  13. I'll look into this website. Sounds interesting. I've been reading some of the past Hugo winners lately. The farther back you go the more of a mixed bag they become, but generally speaking you are right about them as indicators of quality.

    I'm not convinced that they would have picked She over Jekyll and Hyde. You (and I) are right about She. It's fun, but really.....

  14. I just counted - I've read 18 Hugo-winning novels and 11 Nebulas (several won both). They map out English-language science fiction history surprisingly well.

    But: I have not read a winner, or, I think, any other science fiction or fantasy novel published in the last 20 years or so. Things may well have changed.

    No, John Crowley counts as fantasy. I have read him. I should try something else.