Who is Superior? Bulwer-Lytton’s Anxieties About America
Though most infamous, perhaps, for giving the literary world ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) is arguably his most famous novel,one that turns the table on traditional imperialism, and is also, strangely, set in the US (Bulwer-Lytton was British). His uses of imperialistic, utopian and spiritual themes are echoed in nearly all American terra cava novels to follow, and the contemporary reviews of many of these novels used The Coming Race as the standard against which they are measured. It is interesting that Bulwer-Lytton, one of the few hollow earth authors to come from outside the US, would choose to write from an American perspective (even jokingly refers to the narrator’s father’s run for Congress being unsuccessful against his own tailor).
The narrator first introduces himself with some basic biographical information to establish his character and reliability as narrator, the traditional son of a well-to-do, respected family. Though how the narrator comes to this place is explained, it is not the process of a journey, but a quick accident, eliding over the long descriptions of travel often seen in other narratives of this type. Symmesian geography is not being employed, but rather the Vernian semi-porous world of Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
The civilisation (Vril-ya) we meet is utopian, and explained in detail according to Bulwer-Lytton’s own experiences as a Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for the Colonies. Like so many other utopian novels of the time, the Vril-ya society abstains from alcohol and the consumption of meat. Poverty is unknown and the sciences abound, technology being the linchpin of their civilsation. Upon first entering the city Tesh (as our narrator comes to be called, and to whom I mentally append the given name of ‘John’) is introduced to automatons of semi-human form who respond to Vril-ya commands given by the touch of a staff, and lifts – which were a new technology in Bulwer-Lytton’s time (p. 27). The wings of the Vril-ya are not biological, but actually mechanical (p.36) – a feature which may have been inspired by Robert Patlock’s The Life & Adventures of Peter Wilkins, A Cornish Man (1751), which featured mechanical flight on the part of native inhabitants of the South Pole.
From the first moment a member of the Vril-ya race is met, we know that they are rich, and that they are powerful. Tesh describes the first sight of the beautiful creatures which ‘roused that instinct of danger which the sight of a tiger or serpent arouses’ (p. 25), even though this ‘creature’ was also adorned in a tiara of jewels (p. 24), letting the reader know this is no savage. Riches abound everywhere; when Tesh enters the home of his rescuer, even concussed he does not fail to take notice of the ‘Oriental splendour; the walls were tessellated with spars, and metals, and uncut jewels’ (p. 27). This is the wealth of America that Bulwer-Lytton fears, writing as he did in the years following the California gold rush; wealth so abundant that its possessors have little regard for it. Wealth that develops technology. Where European scientists specialised in developing scientific theories, Americans pushed further ahead in technological development.
The description of the appearance of the Vril-ya echoes imperialist language, how they possessed the ‘gravity and quietude of Orientals’ with ‘dark eyes and red man’s colour’ (p. 28). But instead of their non-white appearance being a mark of inferiority, they inspire dread in Tesh (despite their apparent kindness) because he senses that they ‘could have killed me as easily as a man can kill a bird or butterfly’ (p. 29). Our narrator experiences what it is like to be viewed as a lower form of life, when he is on the streets and examined with the curiosity of some ‘rare wild animal’ (p. 31). A mark of the Vril-ya superiority is their disgust at any ‘vehement emotional demonstration’ (p. 34), a parallel to the British ideal of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Tesh is also told that though he is obviously not part of the barbarian tribes existing under the earth, he obviously does not ‘belong to any civilised people’ either (p. 42). He is caught between two worlds, old and new, as Bulwer-Lytton and other Englishmen may have felt. The British empire may have been at its pinnacle in 1871, but the United States was rapidly spreading across the American continent at the same time. The new wealth found in the West allowed Americans to begin reversing the travel of their ancestors, taking boats back to Europe for long tours of history and culture.
American exceptionalism is heavily satirised by Bulwer-Lytton in Tesh’s explanation to the Vril-ya about his origins, ‘to expiate on the present grandeur and prospective pre-eminence of that glorious American Republic’ and its bright future in which ‘the flag of freedom should float over an entire contient, and two hundred millions of intelligent citizens, accustomed from infancy to the daily use of revolvers, should apply to a cowering universe the doctrine of the Patriot Monroe’ (p. 44). The Vril-ya hosts are horrified by everything they hear from Tesh about the US, and make him swear to never repeat this description to anyone. At the same time, Bulwer-Lytton is expressing his own – British – anxiety about Great Britain losing its superior place in the world to the Americans, who are truly the ‘coming race’. Possessed of a military that twice beat the British, and producing some of the most advanced armaments in the world, the U.S. – should it choose to exercise that power – would have threatened British hegemony.
The Vril-ya are endowed with mystical powers via their use of Vril. The breath of a boy on Tesh’s forehead ceases the pain from his concussion and puts him into a restorative sleep (p. 28). On page 35, Tesh refers to the Vril-ya as something like the ‘Peri’ of Middle Eastern myth, beautiful creatures descended from fallen who could be both benevolent and malevolent. The first time he ever witnesses their flying dance, Tesh is overcome with the belief that he has seen some form of witchcraft and panics (p. 36) much like other explorers who have perceived demonic action in the practices of newly encountered races. He is reacting without rationality, which marks him as inferior. ‘The Coming Race – both the title and the book’s ominous concluding phrase – reflects a long-standing interest of Bulwer-Lytton’s, the occult, here given pseudo-scientific dressing, and his somewhat confused cogitations on the theory of evolution’ (Brain Aldiss, ‘Introduction’ to The Coming Race, p. 5-6).
Interestingly, as ridiculous as it may seem to the modern reader, there were many in the nineteenth century who took the novel to be non-fiction, demonstrating the pervasiveness of the belief in interior life, technological advancement and spiritualist powers. Followers of Theosophy embraced the novel and the powerful magic substance of Vril, which become synonymous with life and virility. Marketers used it to christen and sell Bovril in Great Britain, heedless of the warning that Bulwer-Lytton was trying to put across, that the Americans are the Vril-ya and they are coming to supersede the British.
 A reference to the Monroe Doctrine of President James Monroe, who insisted that no further colonial action by European powers should take place in the Americas, and America would stay out of European affairs; a political stance the US maintained for generations.