A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the category “Other”

A Brief Lecture on Mark Twain: “Cannibalism in the Cars”

There is not a great deal that we can say about Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) that he did not say about himself. The first volume of his autobiography is 743 pages. There are two more to follow. Per his wishes, and in classic Twain style, he ordered that his complete work on himself not be published until a century after his death. So I hope you have some idea by what I mean when I say it is utterly impossible to cover even an iota of Twain’s life, accomplishments and philosophy here in 20 minutes.

It is funny that we find ourselves sitting here today to discuss classics by the likes of Mark Twain. As he put it: ‘’Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read’. But we do still read him, at every level, and continue to enjoy him, because what Twain wrote, his observations of man, religion, politics and society, even over a century later still rings true with us.

But, to start at the beginning, to ensure you leave here with enough information to possibly win a themed pub quiz, Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 under the glow of Halley’s Comet, in the state of Missouri along the Mississippi river, which would play such a pivotal role in his life, even after he settled in New York. He was the sixth of seven children, only four of whom survived into adulthood, and when his father died of pneumonia when he was only 11, young Sam became a printer’s apprentice. In 1851 he went to work for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches. At the age of 18, Sam left Missouri, travelling around the eastern United States and working in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, New York City and Saint Louis. In the evenings he would sit in public libraries, educating himself. ‘Don’t let schooling interfere with your education’ is one of his oft remembered parables.

While travelling to New Orleans on a steamboat, Sam became enthralled with the idea of being a steamboat pilot. He spent more than two years learning two thousand miles of the Mississippi river, its currents and banks and inlets, before earning his license in 1859. This is where we finally get to start calling Sam by the name he is best known by: Mark Twain, ‘mark twain’ being old steamboat slang for a river depth of two fathoms, or 12 feet. This is also the time when Twain confronts one of his first great tragedies, the death of his little brother Henry, whom he had convinced to join him on the river, in 1858 on the steamboat Pennsylvania when it exploded. Twain claims to have foreseen his brother’s death a month earlier in a dream, and this spurred a lifelong interest in parapsychology. Though guilt-ridden, Twain carried on as a steamboat pilot until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1862, when travel along the Mississippi river was greatly hampered.

Though rumoured to have spent two weeks as a Confederate soldier (although Twain would later claim to be a staunch abolitionist) he had little interest in dying for anyone and Twain took off for the unsettled Western frontier, joining his brother Orion in the Nevada territory. Failing as miner of silver, Twain took up work at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he started to write humorous accounts of his travels to the West, and signing them with the nom de plume by which we know him so well.

He moved on to San Francisco, California in 1864 and a year later wrote his first nationally successful story, ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. In 1866 he was sent o Hawaii as a travel report, and in 1867 to the Mediterranean. Initially, Mark Twain’s fame came not from his fiction, but from his comedic accounts of his travels, which were consumed by the American public. When he returned to the United States, the Scroll and Key Society of Yale University made him an honorary member. Twain was not yet 33, but already a nationally renowned writer.

By February of 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon (from a wealthy, liberal family) and settled down in Buffalo, New York, then Hartford, Connecticut, after the couple’s only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria at 19 months. Twain would go on to outlive two of his three daughters, and his wife Olivia, which probably what prompted him to one say: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’ And for all of his humour, Mark Twain was indeed a sad man, who knew a lifetime of sorrows, and is said to have been depressed for much of his later years. He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, right when he said that he would: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” He died within 24 hours of the comet’s closest approach to Earth. The nation mourned his passing, and his surviving daughter placed a twelve foot long (id est: ‘mark twain’) marker at his grave. In his lifetime he championed abolition, suffrage for women, civil rights (going so far as to putting at least two African Americans through university), was an ardent anti-imperialist and anti-vivisectionist, and always with humour did he remind his readers of the many failings of man, god, and the government.

‘Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever.’

Mark Twain’s humour is what he is most remembered for. Among his many quotable quotes (and Twain is perhaps one of the most quoted of any American in history, with several web pages dedicated just to his clever quips) Twain once said ‘Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.’ Comedy has the power to topple the powerful. Humour is a hallmark of American politics, and no one did it better than Mark Twain: ‘The political…morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.’ He had little regard for U.S. politicians, paying them the backhanded compliment that ‘we have the best government money can buy’, and marked that ‘it could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.’ The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor to such comedic luminaries as Tina Fey and George Carlin who frequently target the vagaries and hypocrisies of politics: ‘Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.’ Nothing better embodied this mordant view of American politics than his short story “Cannibalism on the Cars”, in which men stranded on a snow-bound democratically select who it to be eaten.



I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:

“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”

My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,

“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”

I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.


“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.

“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.

“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.

“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.

“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.

“The eternal night – it surely seemed eternal to us – wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.

“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.

“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.

“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.

“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.

“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’

“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’

“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’

“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’

“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’

“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.

“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’

“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’

“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘

“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘

“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘

“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’

“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.

“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.

“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘

“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’

“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’

“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]

“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.

“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.

“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.

“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.

“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”

“Do you mean to tell me that–”

“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”

“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”

“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–”

“Relict of–”

“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”

He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!

I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”

“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”

I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.








Losing Shakespeare: Memories of Lost Culture in Apocalyptic Fictions

The fact is, Shakespeare was not sectarian; he pleaded nobody’s mission, he stated nobody’s cause. He has written with a view to be a mirror of things as they are; and shows the office of the true poet and literary man, which is to re-create the soul of man as God has created it, and human society as man has made it.
George Dawson (1821-1876), Shakespeare and Other Lectures

(Updated from previous post, “A Bard for the End of the World“)

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

This paper is not about Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or life; this is about SHAKESPEARE, the name said and written without any need for introduction or explanation; the noun that invokes a sense of Western civilisation more than all Greek philosophers combined. This is Shakespeare not as subject, but object. To invoke a mental image of the Bard of Avon is to create metaphorical parallels between high art, culture and erudition; one never says ‘Shakespeare is like-‘, but rather ‘Such-and-such is like Shakespeare.’ It is this immovable position as cultural touchstone that makes Shakespeare a reference point for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story, allowing us to measure what has remained and what has been lost. If one were to ask a library search engine to find articles linking the terms ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Apocalypse’, the results would be a hundred different views interpreting the apocalypse through Shakespeare. I aim to invert the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare through the spectre of an apocalypse?

Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the “soul of the age”, and then amended “not of an age, but for all time”.[2] It is in this spirit that I examine Shakespeare as one of the theoretical ‘survivors’ of an end-of-civilisation scenario. Curious about the real life implications of preserving Shakespeare in the event of catastrophe, I reached out to other sources to uncover the lengths to which some have gone to preserve – or pervert – Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Dawson’s quote refers to Shakespeare’s recreation of ‘human society as man has made it’, and in the centuries after Shakespeare, the Bard has become an inseparable part of that society he created.

Authors and filmmakers have devised multiple scenarios in which human existence is pushed to the brink of extinction, but they take their culture – and their Shakespeare – with them. I have narrowed these scenarios down to three categories: The Destroyed World, The Departed World, and the Destroyed Word (indicating not a collapse of life, but of letters). And in each of these I have discovered real-world evidence of similar endeavours to preserve Shakespeare in uncertain and desperate times, which adds credence to the authors’ motivations for mentioning Shakespeare (whether they were conscious of them or not) in their works. Shakespeare and the apocalypse have been linked before, as in R. D. Christofides’s study Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture: “We are still obsessed with apocalypses today. Current cultural and political debates often return to the future of the planet… Humans will destroy Earth. Humans will leave Earth. Humans will be annihilated.”[3] Shakespeare’s tragedies often referenced biblical destruction and salvation; now Shakespeare is an object of human destruction and salvation.

Derrida helped to define this sense of historic preservation in his paper “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, 1995), which Veronica Hollinger brilliantly incorporated into her article “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”: “What suggests this conjunction of fiction and theory is the striking symmetry between the logic of the Derridean archive and science fiction’s… own temporal logic as a future-oriented genre. Each requires an imaginative commitment to a future that recasts the present as the past.”[4] Humans fret about the end of their existence – personally and culturally – and the cultivation of archives, like the squirrel’s cache of nuts, is meant to hold back the creeping winter of extinction. Popular culture and science fiction have conditioned us to believe that one of these seeds to be stored in our cultural archive is Shakespeare.

Destroying the World

“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?”
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[5] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[6] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[7] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

Departing the World

There is another kind of apocalypse, one that does not necessarily present its full horror to readers because the protagonists have been removed from it; it is the refugee’s tale, those that have left earth behind, and Shakespeare is among their last connection to the planet.

Jill Patton Walsh’s 1982 novella for young adults, The Green Book, follows a small group of colonists fleeing earth before an unidentified disaster destroys it, and they go on to settle on an alien world. Besides their various trials and tribulations, literature is a key subplot, or specifically, the lack thereof, as each person was only permitted to bring one book, and the adults find themselves rapidly losing the memory of their cultural heritage, unable to retell to their children the stories on which they grew up. The Guide laments, “Not one Shakespeare… Among us all, not one”, and they spend the evening trying to recall Hamlet. The Green Book is written for children, readers who probably only know of Shakespeare as a name, but not the works themselves. Walsh, as an adult, knows better, though, and through her story is subtly conditioning children to understand that Shakespeare is important to their lives and is not something to be left behind forever.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy transports the Bard to our neighbouring planet as it is colonised by humans from all over the earth, yet Shakespeare is a cultural constant for all of them. The Odessa troupe travels the planet, putting on plays, including Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and Maya, one of the first settlers on Mars, criticises a young man for preferring the Restoration version of Lear: “Stupid child! We have told the truth tonight, that is what is important!” Keeping alive Shakespeare in his original form is important to Maya and the older settlers, the Shakespeare – unhappy endings and all – from their unhappy Earth. A young, happy Mars may want a happier Shakespeare, but it is a dishonest form of the Bard. For Nirgal, who was born on Mars, Shakespeare is one of his connections to his forbearers’ history. He grows up watching productions of Shakespeare, understanding the language, and yet when he finally visits earth in Blue Mars, an earth drowned by global warming, he find himself in Britain among people very difficult to understand: “Shakespeare’s plays had not prepared him for it.” For Nirgal, coming from another world, he believes the words of Shakespeare, having originated on earth, in England, should be universal. Time and language have moved on, and for the people of a foundering world, there is no time for Shakespeare; he is preserved on Mars now, not just in books but actively on stage.

The colonial ark ship Godspeed in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy also carries Shakespeare with them: “The Bard wrote about star-crossed love, but I doubt he ever realized his works would one day be soaring through the stars” one of the characters notes. Looking over Romeo and Juliet, then looking at a ship-bound populace that reproduces only during an artificially induced ‘season’, the narrator wonders “How can I argue that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really show love to a group of people who have no concept of what  love really is?”[8] To take Shakespeare from one planet to another, to ensure his survival along with humanity’s, is to serve as a reminder of what it means to be human. A copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes a vital clue to the mystery surrounding the ship. Why use Shakespeare? Because what other work would one be certain was to survive removal from earth across three light years?

This is not without parallel in history; Alexis de Tocqueville noted the popularity of Shakespeare across America in the 1830s: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare was brought to the US by colonists a century before, a reminder of their English roots and literary heritage. Similarly, Shakespeare found his way in the hands of British colonials to nearly every continent, shared around, translated, becoming a nearly universal symbol of humanity and the human condition. In the same way, science fiction sends its colonists into space, escaping a dying earth, with copies of the Bard.

Destroying the Word

A third type of apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, but culture as we know it, an apocalypse of art, literature, and history (what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. called “Cultural Literacy”). Dystopias are often examples of this fear, that the past we know might be erased, intentionally or inadvertently, and those treasures we hold up as the prizes of civilisation will fade away. Hollinger brings this to mind in her analysis of The Time Machine, when future humanity has no knowledge or point of reference for the archives contained in the Palace of Green Porcelain: “Only the Time Traveller, a stand-in for the implied late nineteenth-century reader, is present to acknowledge what has been lost of human history and culture.”[9] The reader of these science fiction dystopias in which the words of Shakespeare have lost their meaning.

Perhaps one of the most influential works on twentieth century dystopia is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a story of a highly technological and rigidly controlled society whose inhabitants have no names, only numbers. D-503, the mathematician and engineer, states “Thank goodness…the antediluvian times of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are over.”[10] There is no direct knowledge of Shakespeare beyond his historical, poetic existence; he exists in this world only as an object of contempt. R-13, a ‘poet’ for the OneState who writes death sentences in verse, responds enthusiastically: “Yes, my dear mathematician… We are the happiest of arithmetical means… As you people put it: integrated from zero to infinity, from the cretic to Shakespeare. Right!” (p. 43). There can be no Shakespeare in the OneState because he would fall beyond standard deviation of averaged accomplishment; neither the moron nor the genius can be permitted to live, and so all great literature must be stripped from society to maintain the mean.

In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) it is intended to be the supreme irony that John the Savage, raised in the uncivilised zone of the Reservation, is the only character familiar with Shakespeare’s work. A world without Shakespeare is crushing for him, and no so-called civilisation in which he can tolerate living. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the World State, has read Shakespeare – only as his rank permits, since the Bard is forbidden. Why: “Because it’s old… we haven’t any use for old things here.”[11] Like the colonists aboard Revis’s Godspeed, procreation is controlled by the state, and John’s attempt to share Romeo and Juliet with Helmholtz is a disaster, the latter laughing as he deems the play a “grotesque obscenity” (p. 187) with a “ridiculous, mad” premise (p. 188). When John and Helmholtz question Mond about writing something ‘new’ like Othello, the Controller states that such a production would be impossible to understand in the World State: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (226). Shakespeare is laid upon the sacrificial altar of progress, and with him, all those positive human values and emotions he expressed: love, romance, loyalty, bravery, etc.

The most recognisable imitation of Zamyatin’s We is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Not as far removed from the present as Zamyatin, Shakespeare plays a more recognisable part. Syme, the Newspeak philologist, tells Winston in a (disturbingly) gleeful moment that “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”[12] Orwell is to be bastardised by Big Brother’s regime, turned against himself; not merely lost, but corrupted beyond recognition. Appendix C states that “when the task [of translation] had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed” (p. 256). Which is the more desperate scenario: the Shakespeare lost to catastrophe, or the Shakespeare deliberately perverted? Orwell’s novel carries many messages about resisting the totalitarian state, the state that would morph your very language and thought process, and the use of Shakespeare as an example of this process – writing that should be more well-known than perhaps any other – is a deliberate metaphor for how deep the corruption of language and history goes.

Our history is rife with the banning of Shakespeare, from the Puritans to modern schools and libraries. These dystopias forbidding the reading the reading of his works are hyperboles with more than a grain – perhaps a bushel – of truth. Banning Shakespeare inherently gives Shakespeare cultural (and political) power, because there is no need to forbid something that is not a threat. Hitler knew that banning Shakespeare outright would not be effective, and instead appropriated and Nazi-ised the plays for political ends. Rodney Symington has written an entire book on the subject, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (2005). After Hitler’s ascension to power, a pamphlet called “Shakespeare – A German Writer” appeared, appropriating Shakespeare as a more German writer than English writer, and Hitler himself lifted the ban on performances of Shakespeare during the war.[13]


Modern literature is rife with images of Shakespeare, turning the Bard and his works into pop-culture products, and it is this status of global, popular culture, that inspires these various tales of apocalypse to integrate Shakespeare into their texts as a metaphor for better days. Shakespeare himself grew up in an age of cultural destruction as the reformation swept England. Christofides notes that “Not only did many… Catholic images survive the seal of sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, they also held a firm place in the collective memory of local communities… Most of this iconography was destroyed as part of Reformation decrees to obliterate idolatrous imagery.”[14] Attempted destruction of centuries of cultural icons failed in Shakespeare’s time, and science fiction writers today envision a Shakespeare not so easily erased after all his centuries among us. No one ever suggests saving Jennifer Lee Carrol’s Interred with Their Bones from the ravages of radiation, nor do they invoke Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer as a symbol for lost greatness; but the source must be persevered to ensure that new cultural products inspired by Shakespeare might reknit society. In all of these examples, we never question why Shakespeare is present; to us it seems an obvious artefact. If the authors had elected instead to add, say, the canon of Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer, we would have instantly been flung out of the pretense of fiction and asked ourselves ‘Why in the world would someone take Twilight to another planet, and not The Tempest?’ There is an expectation that in the face of disaster and displacement we will save our most popular cultural icons, an expectation that seems reinforced by the real world examples cited.

Works Cited

Brin, David. The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985).
Christofides, R.M. Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum, 2012).
Heschel, Susanna.  “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013).
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932).
Orwell, George. 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949).
Pinciss, Gerald M. Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012).
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text).
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).


[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Gerald M. Pinciss, Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 158.

[3] R.M. Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum , 2012), pp. xii-xiii.

[4] Veronica Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013), p. 242.

[5] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[6] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[7] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

[8] Beth Revis, A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012), p. 37.

[9] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 244.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 43.

[11] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932), p. 225. All other citations in-text.

[12] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949), p. 47.

[13] Susanna Heschel, “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.

[14] Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse, p. xiii.

The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche

When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).

Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.

To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.

With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.


The First Believers

The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.

Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.

Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.

The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.


Sherlock + Historical Figures

The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.

Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.

Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.

Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.

A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.

Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.

There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.


Sherlock + Fictional Characters

These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that

Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)

This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:

Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.

…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)

Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.

The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts

It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)

Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.

Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.

As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.


Sherlock + Jack

There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?

Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.

Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.

Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:

There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)

Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.



Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.

I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.



  1. As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
  2. There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
  3. Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
  4. For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.

Works Cited

Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)

Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67

Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)

Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)

Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)

Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)

—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)

Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)

Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)

—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)

Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.

Meyer, Nicholas. The Seven-per-cent Solution: Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974)

Picker, Lenny. ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’, Publisher’s Weekly (18 January 2010), pp. 18-9

Saler, Michael. ‘“Clap if You Believe in Sherlock Holmes”: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity, c. 1890 – c. 1940’. The Historical Journal, 46, 3 (2003), pp. 599-621

Siciliano, Sam. The Angel of the Opera (London: Titan Books, 1994)

Starrett, Vincent. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1960)

Stashower, Daniel. The Ectoplasmic Man (London, Titan Books, 1985)

Wellman, Manly Wade and Wade Wellman. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (London: Titan Books, 1975)

E.M. Forster: Aspects of Modernism

Forster Aspects of the NovelEdward Morgan Forster wrote only five published novels in his lifetime, all of them by the age of 45. A sixth, Maurice, about a homosexual relationship, though written in 1913, was not published in 1971, a year after his death, because Forster did not want to publicise his sexual orientation. For producing a relatively small canon of literature, though, Forster is intimately tied to the Modernist movement. I want to focus on two of his texts particularly, A Room with a View and Howards End, and how these incorporate issues of class and philosophy that are reflected in the use of travel, music, and property. As one modern scholar put it, Forster employs a ‘rather donnish technique of incorporating divergent sources’ to display his own broad education through the experiences and dialogue of his characters. It’s Forster’s way of calling out the philistines like the Wilcox family. It’s been discussed before how the high Modernists, in their attempt to find the new, did so with the deliberate attempt to exclude the newly literate masses. Forster’s work certainly required a little more cultural literacy than a penny dreadful, but he was certainly more readable than, say, TS Eliot. I like what Lionel Trilling said in the first comprehensive study of Forster in 1943: ‘E. M. Forster is for me the only living novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something.’


Born in 1879, Forster’s father died of tuberculosis the following year, and he was raised under the heavy influence of his mother and other female relations, who shaped his perception, and later characterisation, of women. When his great-aunt died in 1887, she left Forster an £8000 legacy (worth about half a million pounds today) which allowed him to further his education at Tonbridge school in Kent, then King’s College, Cambridge. It should be noted that one of the benefits of this inheritance was that Forster, like the Schlegels, was never poor and could therefore indulge in writing what might be called ‘high art’ philosophising rather than the construction of ‘popular’ novels because he did not need the money from voluminous sales. At the same time, though, Forster never stopped worrying about the morality of living off of unearned money. While at Cambridge, Forster joined the Apostles, an old and revered discussion society, and many of those members went on to form the Bloomsbury Group, of which Forster became a part. After university, Forster travelled widely through Italy and Greece with his mother, which we can see reflected in his novels, the first half of Room with a View being written during his time in Italy. And in 1905 he worked as a tutor in Germany for a year, giving him even more material for his early novels. Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey and A Room with a View were all well received, but it was the publication of Howards End in 1910 that made him a literary household name. His final and perhaps greatest work, A Passage to India, was published in 1924, after a decade of on and off work, with experiences and influences from working with the Red Cross during the war, and communication with the Bloomsbury Set. From this point on, Forster claims to have lost his creative powers. He knew how to write a novel for a time that no longer existed, so instead dedicated himself to literary theory and criticism, writing the libretto to Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd and publishing collection of short stories and essays. He was president of the Cambridge Humanist society from 1959 until his death.  We see that dedication to Humanism emerge as a theme in his novels. Love and goodness toward others is more important than organised religion to him.


From the outset, both A Room with a View and Howards End are novels about class, and reconciling the shifting class structures in England during this era. The middle classes were on the rise, the poorest class was no longer invisible, out in the fields, and the upper classes could no longer play the role of the noble lord of the manor.

Even travelling abroad is not free of strict British class consciousness in A Room with a View. The Emersons, father and son, are not ‘the right sort’, and the old guests at the Bertolini Pension resent the intrusion of these slightly crude, seemingly ill-mannered gentlemen, who speak of ladies’ ‘stomachs’ (the shock! The horror!) and offer up their rooms to strangers so that they might enjoy a room with a view of the river. The dislike the other pensioners have for them is summed up by Mr. Beebe: ‘Miss Lavish, who represented intellect, was avowedly hostile, and now the Miss Alans, who stood for good breeding, were following. Miss Bartlett, smarting under an obligation [for the exchange of rooms] would scarcely be civil’ (p. 39); the Emersons are disliked for being – apparently – without intellect, without breeding, and not worthy of a debt from their betters. Lucy is our neutral view, trying to discern right from wrong, be it people or actions, as she matures during her trip abroad. In a telling moment she says to her cousin Charlotte, ‘Have you ever noticed that there are some people who do things which are most indelicate and yet as the same time – beautiful?’ This is Forster’s Edwardian liberalism, breaking away from the stiff Victorian inclination to arbitrary propriety above all else, which is Charlotte’s position, when she responds, ‘Are not beauty and delicacy the same thing?’ The lower classes are perceived to be without delicacy, and therefore cannot be beautiful, but Forster begs to differ.

In the character of Cecil Vyce (and like we’re not supposed to read into that surname, both as a clamping tool that might strangle Lucy, and as a sin) the not-very-admirable first fiancé of Lucy, we find the ‘medieval… Like a gothic statue…. he remained in the grip of a certain devil which the modern world knows as self-conscious, and whom the medieval, with dimmer vision, worshipped as asceticism’ (p. 85). Cecil, in his over-lording social position, is old-fashioned, out-dated. The world does not need his class type any longer. That is why it is so telling that the last chapter of the novel is called ‘The end of the Middle Ages’ – Lucy, and England as a whole, are, and should, move beyond that antique philosophy of the medieval lord with his fingers wrapped around the hearts and minds and throats of English civilisation.

It is significant, though that we never see the truly low classes in Room with a View, and in Howards Ends we get only a single, dismissive mention of them: they are ‘unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ Howards End, we are told, ‘deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk’ (p. 38). The Basts must pretend to be gentle, as do the Wilcoxes, but the Emersons, well, they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are, and they are better than the Basts, not just financially, but perhaps because they do not pretend.

In Howards End Forster exposes to us the lie of class mobility via the attainment of metaphysical class. The Schlegels exist in the upper-middle; they are the sympathetic characters that serve as our gateway to the upper class, represented by the Wilcoxes, and the lowest of the middle class, seen in Leonard Bast, who is only a small tragedy away from falling into the chasm. Mr. Bast is doing what the lower echelons in Edwardian England was told to do to improve themselves; read, take in public lectures and concerts, visit museums, go for walks in the country. He tries to engage in poetic discourse with the Schlegel sisters as part of this improvement but is somewhat less than successful. Margaret describes her philosophy of conversation: ‘I don’t believe in suiting my conversation to my company.  One can doubtless hit upon some medium of exchange that seems to do well enough, but it’s no more like the real thing than money is like food.  There’s no nourishment in it. You pass it to the lower classes, and they pass it back to you, and this you call ‘social intercourse’ or ‘mutual endeavour,’ when it’s mutual priggishness if it’s anything.’ And yet none of these help him to avert tragedy, perhaps because, as Forster suggests, Leonard Bast would have been a happier man if he had stayed in the country like his ancestors, working the land, rather than aspiring to the city and a higher economic and cultural status. This echoes the opinion of exclusion that the high Modernists seemed to adopt, why they cultivated their literature into a complex language that could not be consumed by the middling and lower classes.

One the other hand, the Wilcox family is crude and uncultured as well, caring little for music and literature, and yet they have risen to the top of the social ladder via industry. But what is industry and success without soul, without compassion, without a bit of culture and education? All the same, Mrs. Wilcox the first is described as ‘not intellectual, not even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she had greatness’. The sisters’ German cousin calls her ‘keine Dame’ – not a lady, because Mrs. Wilcox calls on the Schlegel sisters in London rather than waiting to be called upon. The poor woman is horribly out of place at the Schlegel sisters’ luncheon, unable to keep up with or contribute to the conversation: ‘Clever talk alarmed her… it was the social counterpart of a motor car…and she was a wisp of hay, a flower’.  Why does Forster imbue her with a higher sensibility and morality than the rest of her family? Of course, is she is representative of the traditional landed gentlelady (remember, Howards End is hers) of the Victorian, bucolic past, Mrs. Wilcox’s sudden death represents the passing of the old order.

The concluding conflict between Leonard Bast and Charles Wilcox reveals how legal relations between the classes have changed. Charles sees nothing wrong with his actions, bullying Leonard into heart failure in his attempt to play the role of the noble aristocrat wronged by a member of the lower classes. When asked by the police to give an account of his actions, he thinks it’s because he’s the most important witness, never imagining that it is because he’s to be held responsible. That Charles is sent down for manslaughter is a shock to him and his family. The upper echelons are no longer immune to the rule of law applied across the classes. Money is no protection from prosecution.

The question of Forster’s novel is ‘Who will inherit Howards End?’ The American literary critic Lionell Trilling expressed this as ‘Who will inherit England?’ With the class system in a state of flux, who was it who would rise to the top of the heap: The materialists and industrialists? The idealists of the leisure class? The lower middle classes clinging to the bottom rung and attempting to climb? In the end, we have an amalgamation of inheritors of Howards End/England: The property passes from the materialist to the idealist, the offspring of the idealist and the lower-middle strivers.


Travel is intrinsically related to class in this England (after all, don’t forget that one can travel first, second or third class). Begun in 1902 while in Italy, A Room with a View underwent several revisions before its final publication, changing drastically as Forster matured as an author. While in an Italian pensione, Forster complained ‘I wish I didn’t see everything with this horrible foreground of enthusiastic ladies, but it is impossible to get away from it.’ He felt repressed by the independent, middle-aged female tourist, must as we see Lucy being repressed. Forster’s very first piece of published fiction (with dates varying from 1902 to 1904 on when it actually appeared) is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek short story called ‘The Story of a Panic’, about escaping from the tourist world.

Though A Room with a View spends less than half of its pages in Italy, the effects of the travel experience occupy the whole of the novel. Lucy Honeychurch is developing from a girl who parrots the views and opinions of those around her because she does not know any better, into a young woman capable of holding her own individual thoughts, separate from English society. ‘Travel broadens the mind’ as they say. But there are growing pains to this for Lucy, as she is suddenly isolated by the secrets she must keep; being rescued by George Emerson from the square, the kiss she shares with him later, and feelings of attraction that must be suppressed. She is forced to negotiate the effects of her expanded psyche on her own. She needs to find her own room in the world, to find her own view, despite the variety of ways in which she has been indoctrinated by her cousin Charlotte Bartlett. She is socially and sexually naive, and her time in Italy is a deflowering of sorts, a sexual and intellectual awakening, and George Emerson is her shepherd, first, in retrieving Lucy from the murder in the square, a violent penetration of her psyche and sensibilities, and again when he kisses her amid the violets.

Travel also represents a means of escape; when Lucy breaks her engagement with Cecil, but is not prepared to accept her feelings for George, she proposes running away to Greece with the Miss Alans. Running overseas is a method of escaping social ‘blundering’ or a ‘muddle’, just as Helen in the next book runs to the Continent to hide from society. Travel is a method of both avoiding being seen, or to be seen doing those very upper class things such as taking in Italian art, and appreciating the Giottos according to popular thought. As much as Lucy learns about herself, we learn about the many species of English ‘tourist’, an apparently dirty word, but only to other English tourists, staying in English pensions and in this, Forster is being deliberately ironic. Everyone wants to experience the ‘real’ culture, yet are so repulsed by the natives that they hold themselves above them, staying in hotels run by British natives. What we also learn about travel is that it is the practice of the middle classes without the ties of espousement, to travel. No one in the Pensione Bertolini is married, and we are led to believe that once Lucy marries Cecil the Vyce that will be the end of her travelling days. But with George she flees overseas once more, to the Pension, defying not one but two social standards.

In Howards End, travel reveals the character of the individual, or at the very least, the desire to travel. The Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes first meet in Germany, on what is described as an ‘awful expedition’ to the Cathedral in Speyer. Perhaps the awfulness of this trip should have warned them off further intercourse with each other. Leonard Bast does not have the means to travel beyond London, but influenced by his books, takes an evening to go walking in the countryside – which turns out to be a miserable experience, revealing the difference between literature and reality. Where Lucy and other tourists wandered the world with their trusty Baedeker travel guides, Leonard is instead influenced by the works of others who have already done the travelling. He attempt to recreate their experiences in his own small way, just as Lucy tries to retrace the trails outlined in Baedeker’s guide to Florence. In both cases, reality fails to live up to expectation.

I don’t mean to imply that we should call all English travel abroad a futile exercise in cultural enlightenment, and I think neither does Forster. His portrayal of the traveller in his novels is more like a reaction against the haughty, close-minded British tourist, but not against the act of travel itself. Forster’s own experiences in Germany emerge in the portrayal of the Schlegel family and their relations. Germany is Helen’s chosen place of exile during her pregnancy, and though we, the reader, never see it, we are told about it in loving, musical detail.  We are also confronted with the growing dislike and distrust of Germany in Howards End, as the stirrings of war were already about. Early in the novel, Aunt Juley is quick to reassure her nieces that even though their father was German, she considers his offspring to be ‘English to the backbone.’

And just like travel, music is another mark of class and culture in Forster’s work.


It’s not commonly known that E.M. Forster was a pianist in his own right, playing duets with Oscar Browning, briefly his tutor at King’s college. Composer Benjamin Britten called Forster ‘our most musical novelist’, and the two became good friends. On Forster’s eightieth-birthday, Britten wrote a tribute to Forster’s ability to express music in his literature, especially the Fifth Symphony moment in Howards End: ‘it shows a most sensitive reaction to music and allows the novelist to make some perceptive observations about Beethoven’. A mark of the modernists was there interest in all of the arts, and Forster’s integration of it into his work was mirrored by others later on, such as D.H. Lawrence’s infatuation with the works of Wagner in Women in Love. To Forster, ‘music seems to be more real than anything, and to survive when the rest of civilisation decays’ (E.M.F. C.A. III 159). We can only hypothesise how he would feel about Justin Bieber.

We see music play in the background of both of these novels, influencing and bringing together characters. In Room with a View, Lucy Honeychurch is an accomplished pianist, who is deeply moved by her own playing, and compares the psychological effects that different composers have on the psyche. Forster admits to not having the words necessary to define how one feels about music: ‘Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy… And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory… Victory of what and over what – that is more than the words of daily life can tell us. But that the sonatas of Beethoven are written tragic no one can gainsay; yet they can triumph or despair as the player decides, and Lucy decided that they should triumph’ (p. 32). The piano that Lucy plays in the Pension is a stand in for the one Forster himself played at the Albergo Bonciani during his own stay in Italy, a piano he remarked as being ‘rather good’. Lucy’s time at the piano in the Bertolini is sensually described: ‘Like every great performer, she was intoxicated by the mere feel of the notes: they were fingers caressing her own; and by touch, not by sound alone, did she come to her desire.’ One would almost call this passage an obscene metaphor for orgasm, but reflect the sentiments of a writer who is intimately familiar with the nature of music. It is her passion for the music of Beethoven that first attracts the attention of Mr. Beebe, our sympathetic, refined, liberal clergyman, prophetically stating ‘If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting – both for us and for her.’  Music unites like-minded souls. When Lucy decides to go out in the evening unaccompanied, Mr. Beebe puts it down to ‘too much Beethoven’, over-stimulating Lucy and making her reckless.

However, when Lucy needs to fit into the sedateness of near-married life, she plays Schumann in her attempt to fit into the Vyse household, but her unhappiness with the direction her life is taking comes through in the music: ‘The melody rose, unprofitably magical; it was resumed broken, not marching once from the cradle to the grave. The sadness of the incomplete – the sadness that is often life, but should never be Art – throbbed in its disjected phrases…’ When Cecil Vyse asks his fiancé to play the garden piece from Wagner opera Parsifal, Lucy refuses at first, only consenting when she sees George Emerson had joined their company. But she does it badly. She plays to appease Cecil, to deny her emotional connection to George, but in her poor playing, betrays her feelings to the rest of us. Wagner’s Parsifal also relates to the events in the garden in Italy, when Lucy fell into George’s presence among the violets, ‘as one who had fallen from heaven’, just as Parsifal falls into the magic garden in Act 2, scene 2, and finds himself surrounded by flower maidens. But as Parsifal rejects the advances of the women, Lucy rejects George.

It is at a public performance of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony that the Schlegel sisters meet Leonard Bast. Beethoven is our linking musician between these texts, proving the ambiance of pivotal scenes. Leonard Bast is also a pianist, albeit a poor one. His lower-class spirit cannot rise to the occasion as Lucy Honeychurch’s comfortable middleclass status allows. This concert scene in the novel reflected much of Forster’s views about the public concert movement, including the distaste for concern programmes, those pieces of prose to accompany orchestrations, which Forster finds remove the listener’s ability to imagine the scene for themselves. This echoes the same sentiment he had about too much scholarship: ‘Study teaches us everything about the book except the central thing.’ Helen imagines goblins marching across the universe, and would have been robbed of this imaginative effort with a programme instructing her as to what she should be imagining.

Music also becomes a means of describing setting, as it does during the Schlegel’s luncheon in chapter 9 of Howards End: ‘The course of the Oder [river] is like music… The part by the landing-stages is in B-minor…but the lower down things get extremely mixed. There is a stodgy theme in several keys at once, meaning mud-banks, and another for the navigable canal, and the exit into the Baltic is in C sharp major, pianissimo’ (p. 64). This use of musical description, however, relies upon a reader to have some familiarity with musical scales and terminology. The Basts among Forster’s readers might have pretended to understand, and the Wilcoxes among them would not have bothered to try.


Where one lives, the very possession of property, is perhaps the most substantial indicator of class.  The name ‘Howards End’ is the title of the novel, putting the property above all elese in the novel. Forster himself spent most of childhood at a country house called ‘Rooksnest’ in Hertfordshire, which would become the model for Howards End. Because his mother failed to renew the lease, due to her own hesitancy of deciding whether it was truly where they wanted to remain,  they lost the home they loved, and Forster was introduced to the unhappy task of house-hunting, which we see the Schlegel family, on the verge of losing their childhood home, emulating. But in losing their ‘Rooksnest’ they gain Howards End. Undoubtedly the frustrations we see Margaret enduring in trying to locate a home that is just suitable to the income and lifestyle of her family is a mirror of what Forster endured with his mother. Some people have described the novel as a drawn out house-hunt. The destruction of traditional houses in London like the one in which the Schlegel’s live, in favour of large, modern flats, is one of Forster’s laments, as is the encroachment of the city as it spreads to suburban housing. The Schlegels are losing their home because property prices are climbing steadily, and what their comfortable income would once afford them is no longer sufficient. When Margaret asks Henry Wilcox to assist her in finding a house, she opines that women are mesmerized by houses, that they are alive. There is much description of the homes in this novel, their layout, their quirks and interior design. The very first page is Helen’s letter describing Howards End to Margaret. Helen rather humorously remarks to her cousin that ‘the Wilcoxes collect houses as your Victor collects tadpoles.’ (chpt 19) And just as much as the house itself, there is the property within the house: ‘The Age of Property holds bitter moments even for a proprietor.  When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous, and Margaret now lay awake at nights wondering where, where on earth they and all their belongings would be deposited in September next.’ Compare this with the description of poor Leonard Bast’s basement residence: ‘It was an amorous and not unpleasant little hole when the curtains were drawn, and the lights turned on… But it struck that shallow makeshift note that is often heard in the modern dwelling place. It had been too easily gained, and could be relinquished easily.’

Lucy Honeychurch’s house, Windy Corner, has the interesting distinction of appearing to be the ‘remnants of an indigenous aristocracy’ (106), thus giving the Honeychurch family greater standing among new-comers drifting in from London than they might otherwise have expected. Never mind that the entire district is only a few decades old. The district is nearly perfect but for the condition of the ‘ugly little villas’ that mar the view of Summer Street’s Alpine village appearance, which irritates the neighbours, who want to maintain their highly artificial facade. The cottages are described as being ‘acquired’ by Sir Harry Otway the same day that Cecil ‘acquired’ Lucy, an obvious allusion to her personhood being just another piece of property.  When Mr. Emerson comes to occupy one, and the humour Cecil derives from offering him this ugly residence on a lark, is indicative of Emerson’s lower class standing. They are described by the owner as being an awkward size, ‘too large for the peasant class, and too small for anyone the least like ourselves.’ This implication that there are two classes, we’, with money and possessions too numerous to fit in a simple villa, and the peasants, who could not afford nor fill the small space. So, Mr. Emerson is not a peasant, but nor is he in anyway, the ‘least like’ the others.


Forster himself, though privileged, stood at what Lionell Trilling called ‘the liberal tradition, that loose body of middle-class opinion which includes such ideas as progress, collectivism and humanitarianism’ (EMF CA II 126). All of Forster’s novels reflect the ideal of liberal political thinking as moral thinking. None of the conservative characters in his novels have much in the way of redeeming value. For Forster, to be in possession of a liberal philosophy is the highest attainment of ‘class’.

There are conflicting philosophies in A Room with a View, from the conservative, traditional views of the Victorian world, to the liberal Edwardian questioning of everything, seeking the new and rejecting the old. The Emersons are the embodiment of this, scandalously irreligious, among other things. George Emerson appears to us a lost soul, upset that he cannot make the pieces of the universe fit together properly. Perhaps Forster felt the same way? George, unbaptised, revelling in his naked swim in the Sacred Lake (perhaps a baptism just as significant), taking liberties with Lucy, tormenting himself over the nature of the universe, is the embodiment of the pagan, free from Christian drudgery. He ‘shall go back to the earth untouched’ (188) by the silly rituals of the church and live a life of sunshine in the wilderness. He leaves an interrogative mark in the room with a view he cedes to Charlotte Bennett, and she asks the obvious: ‘What does it mean?’ Charlotte, in her limited world view, can only ask about the meaning of the image; George is questioning the whole of the universe. This is quite the existential crisis George is confronting.

It is Mr. Emerson, though, George’s father, who must rescue Lucy from her Greek departure with his words of wisdom and cast her back onto the path that leads to his son: ‘I taught him to trust in love… When love comes, that is reality… Passion does not blind. No. Passion is sanity…’ (186-7). Lucy recognises Mr. Emerson as a profoundly religious man, just in a way that differs from the clergyman. Mr. Emerson exposes the problem of ‘muddles’ in life. Muddles are not the large confusions in life; they are the small ones that cause us to stumble. They are caused not by the spontaneous reactions to life, but the pretended ones, the contrived responses that confuse the desires of the heart with the expectations of society. Lucy has gotten herself into a muddle by fighting her feelings for George because she has been conditioned to think him ‘the wrong sort’. And to Forster, muddling love is the worst sort of sin.

And certainly, Forster means to through us off balance in the sudden shift of personal relations between Lucy and her elders at the end of the novel. Her cousin, Miss Bartlett, whom we first thought to be an agent meant to keep Lucy from fulfilling her heartfelt desire to wed George Emerson, was perhaps secretly acting (even unknown to herself) to push Lucy into her awakening. And our seemingly good clergyman, Mr. Beebe, always so tolerant, is enraged at Lucy’s engagement to George. (It is also probably no coincidence that the less ‘personable’ clergyman is called Mr. Eager, who is ever so eager to share what he knows and gossip about others.) Forster is reminding us that people are not always what they seem, and their expressed philosophies not as rigid as they seem.

The Schlegel sisters and their set of privileged amateur philosophers engage in much philosophising about the nature of the world, and how to improve it. The Wilcoxes have no use for philosophy, unless it relates to the amassing of wealth. We see two competing philosophies between Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox: ‘Only Connect’ versus ‘Concentrate!’ ‘Only connect!’ That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer’ (p. 159). This is Forster’s sermon, based upon his liberal, Bloomsbury philosophies. And in the end of the novel, we find that for better or worse, some connections have been made, while others have been forever severed. Margaret declines a Christmas gift from Mrs. Wilcox because she already has ‘all that money can buy. I want more people, but no more things’ (p. 68). DH Lawrence once – mistakenly – criticised Forster for the ‘nearly deadly mistake glorifying those business people in Howards End. Business is no good.’ But Forster was attempting to reconcile a truth he always struggled with in his life: That business had provided him with the money and lifestyle he – and most of the others in the Bloomsbury set – enjoyed. Lawrence, who never enjoyed the privilege of inheritance, could only see the machines of capitalism as a social evil.

The difference between these two aspects of the upper-classes, the materialist and the idealist, is best expressed in a single sentence about Charles Wilcox and Tibby Schlegel: ‘They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood’ (p. 264). This difference between them is reflected in their perception of work and wealth. ‘Unlike Charles, Tibby had money enough; his ancestors had earned it for him… His was leisure without sympathy… Tibby gave all the praise to himself, and so despised the struggling and submerged. Hense the absurdity of the interview; the gulf between them was economic as well as spiritual’ (pp. 264-5). Charles and Tibby cannot connect, not with each other, not even with others like them. They are part of the old order, and the new British society is passing them by.

Forster’s makes several observations about the unfairness of the treatment between the sexes: ‘The barrier of sex, though decreasing among the civilized, is still high, and higher on the side of women’ (p. 55). Relationships between men and women are noticeably changing, but not rapidly. Margaret explains to Mrs. Wilcox (who is not inclined to agree or disagree, having no opinions of her own): ‘Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have always been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may.’ (p. 66) This is surely an argument that would have made Forster’s mother proud. There is still mostly medieval inequality for women, though, especially for their apparent trespasses of social mores. When Margaret confronts Henry about Helen’s condition, she brings up his own past infidelity: ‘Only say to yourself, What Helen has done, I’ve done’ (p. 263). When Henry tries to argue that the cases are different, Margaret retorts that if the cases are different, it is only that society has made things worse for Helen because of her sex: ‘You have betrayed Mrs Wilcox, Helen only herself. You remain in society, Helen can’t. You have had only pleasure, she may die’ (p. 263). It is amazing how lightly Forster treads upon the ultimate faux pas in Western society, accepting the moment and immediately moving on from it. There is no time for the reader to be shocked, and Margaret, rather than excluding her sister as a Wilcox would, instead dedicates her life to her sister and coming child. This really is a monumental shift in societal expectation.

Lasting Influences

Elizabeth Bowen was profoundly influenced by her discovery of EM Forster’s work when she was young, and there are definite echoes of Where Angels Fear to Tread to be found in her seminal work The Death of the Heart, as well as the echo of inanimate psychology: remember Margaret’s conversation with Henry in chapter 13, bringing up one of Helen’s philosophies: ‘some rubbish about furniture. Helen says it alone endures while men and houses perish, and that in the end the world will be a desert of chairs and sofas… rolling through infinity with no one to sit upon them.’ (pp. 137-8). You will see this sentiment of talking furniture again.

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway we see heavy traces of poor Leonard Bast in her doomed Septimus Smith, both members of the lower classes made into the guinea pigs of their so-called betters. Woolf was a great admirer of Forster, and valued his critiques of her work.

We can ask ourselves where there is no more; why did Forster cease to write novels after A Passage to India. He himself claimed that it was because his creativity had dried up. Maybe it was that the world had changed too much for him to grasp. For the most part, high modernism was controlled by a small, elite group, whose views of what the world could and should be were no longer tenable after the Second World War. Forster resigned himself to being an academic and a critic, at which he was still very successful. Aspects of the Novel is still widely read 85 years later.

The British Literary Pilgrimage

Arthur was here. Maybe. And lots of tourists. Definitely.

Arthur was here.

British myth and British tourism have merged to create the modern British pilgrimage, one that unites the literary with the monetary for tourists from all over the world.

Zachary Beckstead discussed the pilgrimage in terms of its psychological fulfillment:

‘[P]ilgrimages entail movement directed at sites that are considered by communities and individuals to be sacred sites that are supported and sanctified by tradition. These places have been transformed by human and (asserted) supernatural intervention, and contain a form of charisma and power to the perspective of the pilgrim because of their association with… sacrifice (i.e., battlefields), beauty, and/or with some other social virtue (e.g. creativity, honor, celebrity).’[1]

There are three figures of popular literary myth that have corporeal centres of tourism that exert influence on the traveler, and on the continued publication of associated literature: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Sherlock Holmes.

King Arthur has hundreds of tomes dedicated to his legend, and that of his associates (Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot, Morgan le Fay, etc.), starting with medieval histories to plots from the Romantics and genre-specific novels in the last hundred years. To capture this myth, and connect it to the real world, Arthurian devotes can visit Glastonbury Tor, said to be Arthur’s burial place, and the Shropshire countryside, where ancient ruins have been designated the foundations of Camelot by modern residents, drawing in tourist dollars. ‘The Magical History Tour’ offers to take tourists from Arthur’s birthplace at Tintagel Castle (Cornwall) to Dover Castle, resting place of Sir Gawain’s head.

The problem with locating sites for Arthurian pilgrimage is the change of place names, allowing multiple locations to lay claim to legendary places. During the reign of King Henry II an abbey at Glastonbury was identified as the resting place of Arthur and Guinevere. Camelot could have been located in Winchester (according to Sir Thomas Malory), Colchester, or Cadbury Castle in Somerset; Camlan, the site of Arthur’s fatal last battle, could be the Salisbury Plain (again, according to Malory), or Hadrian’s Wall, or Slaughterbridge in Cornwall.[2] Historically, many of these places likely fulfilled a need for local prominence; in the case of Glastonbury, drawing in religious pilgrims, even though Arthur was never sainted. There are few ancient cities and villages in Britain that do not claim some attachment to Arthurian lore.

Moving only a few centuries into the future, Robin Hood, the honourable thief, has a definitive place for tourists in the still extant Sherwood Forest. Biographers and literary imitators are forced to maintain this geography because the legend it too firmly set in Nottinghamshire. There is now a Visitor Centre located by what is known as the ‘Great Oak’, an enormous tree reputed to be a meeting place for Robin and his merry band, and Nottingham Castle is open to those looking for remnants of the villainous sheriff. There is a tourist website that helps Robin Hood pilgrims parse every detail from the region:

‘A visit to Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest is an experience… The stories of the legend have been passed down from generation to generation, embellished and questioned… but the stories tally so well with findings of caves in Nottingham Castle and the other major landmarks, that there can never really be any doubt – and whilst some say he was in other parts of the Country, he spent most of his time in the Forests of Nottinghamshire.’[3]

Now, moving several hundred years into the future, we come to the modern myth of Sherlock Holmes, whose place of residence did not exist until decades after his creation. While there was indeed a Baker Street at the end of the Nineteenth century, 221 Baker Street was constructed until the 1930s when the Abbey National Building Society took up residence at 219-229 Baker Street. A full-time secretary was employed to answer the letters received by the Society addressed to Sherlock Holmes. The Sherlock Holmes Museum, located next to Abbey National, was finally assigned the address 221b Baker Street on 27 March 1990; consumer demand led to the creation of this Sherlockian shrine, immortalized one of the blue plaques typically reserved for historical sites in Great Britain.

A pilgrimage to 221b Baker Street will cost adults £10, children only £8, and devotion can be paid 364 days a year.[4] Considering the cost of a ticket to Jerusalem or Mecca, this seems fairly reasonable. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was so real, it demanded a change in the topos of London to accommodate him. In terms of Beckstead’s pilgrimage to a place of ‘social virtue’, Sherlock Holmes must surely fulfill the claims of creativity, honor, and celebrity. Though being a thousand years younger than Arthur, Sherlock can boast ten-times the number of pastiches. All the world is open to hosting a Holmesian mystery, but there is only one place on earth to which Sherlock must return.

All three of these historical/mythical figures thrive today in literature, film and television, embracing geographic legend, spurring pilgrimages of ‘social virtue’. There is no telling how many of these literary pilgrims will then draw upon the legendary topography to create their own contributions to the myths.

[1] Zachary Beckstead, ‘Crossing Thresholds: Movements As A Means of Transformation’, The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Psychology, ed. Jaan Valsiner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 713.

[2] Mike Dixon-Kennedy, Arthurian Myth & Legend (London: Brockhampton Press, 1995), pp. 59-60

[3] ‘Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest’, <http://www.robinhoodtourism.co.uk/robin_hood.htm&gt;

[4] <http://www.sherlock-holmes.co.uk/&gt;

A Bard for the End of the World

The Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men brought to light a little known piece of WWII history, the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) program to save Europe’s cultural heritage from Hitler and Russian treasure hunters. In the midst of a technological war, the salvage of paintings and statuary became a cause worthy of men’s lives. Why? Because art has influence and meaning in human life, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end, from microscopic bacterium to the earth-shattering bomb.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[2] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[3] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

Lest we consider this purely fictional imagining, I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[4] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.


[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[3] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[4] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

Jules Verne’s Scientific [Lack of] Imagination

Interestingly, some of the most famous terra cava novels did not emerge from the country which spawned the idea, but from Europe, further emphasising the influence that European literature had on the new United States. Subsequent novels about journeys to the interior of the world would not be compared to Symzonia, but to these imported novels. Verne’s application of hard science, technology, the first-person narrative and the exploring spirit would all be seen in many subsequent hollow earth novels in one fashion or another.

Symmes, though Poe, would also go on to influence Jules Verne, who arguably penned the most well-known of all terra cava novels, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). Ironically, though, Journey never references Symmes and does not make use of his geography, and it is in The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (1866) that a – dismissive – comment about Symmes finally appears:

“Finally, it has been asserted in our own time that there was an immense opening at the poles, from which came the Northern Lights, and through which one could reach the inside of the earth; since in the hollow sphere two planets, Pluto and Proserpine, were said to move, and the air was luminous in consequence of the strong pressure it felt.”
“That has been maintained?” asked Altamont.
“Yes, it has been written about seriously. Captain Symmes, a countryman of ours, proposed to Sir Humphry Davy, Humboldt, and Arago, to undertake the voyage! But they declined.”
“And they did well.”
“I think so. Whatever it may be, you see, my friends, that the imagination has busied itself about the Pole, and that sooner or later we must come to the reality.”

From this exchange, we see that Verne was familiar with at least Symmes’s ‘Circular No. 1’ and its invocation of Davy and Humboldt. (Verne is mistaken, however, in having a British character refer to Symmes as ‘a countryman of ours’.) He is chastising those who have allowed ‘imagination’ to control their views of the Polar regions, and suggesting that ‘reality’ – i.e. reason – must be asserted. Verne does not give his own reasons for doubting the theory, though, and does make any attempt to explain to readers why they should not follow Symmes into a Polar opening. But part of Verne’s firm reliance on demonstrable science meant avoiding speculation; because he was not any more familiar with the geography of the Poles, he could not allow imagination to take him very far.

This Realist inclination on Verne’s part influenced his approach to Edgar Allen Poe, one of his great influences. In 1897 Verne tried to finish Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, penning a sequel called The Sphinx of the Ice Fields. But where Poe had cast his character into the current of a waiting maelstrom of a Symmes Hole in the Antarctic, Verne, ever true to his desire of conveying knowable science, merely has Pym’s body found on a loadstone mountain. Standish accuses Verne’s effort of being ‘far from the spooky subterranean cosmos inhabited by Poe.’[1] As a terra cava novel and as a sequel to Poe, The Sphinx is a failure. Verne was not capable of allowing his imagination move beyond known sciences and into the speculative realms imagined by Symmes and Poe.


[1] Standish, Hollow Earth, p. 113.


“From Earth’s Center”, The Repackaging of History and Economics

S. Byron Welcome’s novel From Earth’s Center (1895), subtitled ‘A Polar Gateway Message’, is a terra cava utopia set up with the found/delivered manuscript frame. Welcome was a resident of Los Angeles and opened the novel in the same city with the arrival of a messenger from inside the earth. Though one might mistake Welcome for being the ‘I’ in the Prologue, it is actually a character introduced by the primary narrator later, a Frank Hutchens who was meant to be on the expedition to the Arctic but dropped out at the last minute. The expedition was planned by Hutchens’s close friend (and the primary narrator) Ralph Spencer, described as ‘young, energetic and very ambitious’, a man who ‘loved America’s free institutions, and gloried in the nation’s liberality and prosperity’.[1] From the outset, this is to be a patriotic narrative of American potential. Spencer sends the proof of his discovery and authenticates his manuscript via the messenger, Mr. Reubin, who claims to hail from ‘the inner world’ (p. 4), marvels at sunsets as ‘remarkable phenomenon’ and brings with him a fortune in silver and diamonds (p. 7). Reubin takes Spencer to the airship he used to transport – or ‘smuggle’, to paraphrase Spencer (p. 8) – these goods that would normally have been subjected to a tariff to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars; but Spencer assures readers that ‘this man belonged to a nation too far advanced in the arts to be hampered by a protective tariff’ (p. 7). This barb is directly aimed at the American Custom House and the taxes they extract from created wealth. Hutchens decides to publish Spencer’s unedited “Message” as a book, rather than broadcasting the new of his discovery to the world, and assures the reader that he can ‘vouch for his [Spencer’s] absolute veracity’ (p. 9).

Spencer, in the company of two friends, Ricardo Flemming and Owen Redcliffe, commission and ship to go explore the Arctic in 1890 in a quest for glory and to ease their own ennui, as well as to test ‘Professor Symmes’ theory’ (p. 17), which proves quite correct when they are pulled through a Symmes Hole and into Centralia. To their great fortune, English is the native language and Christianity the only religion, both brought by a ship of English explorers in the fourteenth century (p. 30). More than anything, Centralia has perfected their technology and political systems to create an enviable utopia of perfect people in a setting that seamlessly merges the industrial and the pastoral. Nothing emphasises this point more than the gardens with their every-blooming flowers, coated in a special varnish: ‘It is in a sense artificial, being a combined product of man’s ingenuity and nature’s bounty – a triumph in the science of cultivation’ (p. 32). While in many ways Centralia is similar to the United States, it is their economy, based upon the theories of Henry George, which allows them to surpass the former. George’s proposals, and the French Physiocrat political-economists of the eighteenth century, influence a great deal of the narrative. The Physiocrats espoused the belief that the wealth of a nature was derived from the value of its land and agriculture rather than gold and trade, which Adam Smith later countered with his Wealth of Nations (1776).

The most prominent feature of Welcome’s narrative is that it’s hardly a narrative at all, but a treatise on the political ideology of Henry George and his proposal for a single tax system on land use. George published Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth: The Remedy in 1879, attempting to explain the cyclical nature of industrial markets and the perpetuation of poverty despite technological development and the wealth created by the industrial revolution. He was particularly concerned with land values, and how land speculation rose prices faster than wage labour could compensate for, thus depressing the economy and the serve of that land:

Take…some hard-headed business man, who has no theories, but knows how to make money. Say to him: “Here is a little village; in ten years it will be a great city – in ten years the railroad will have taken the place of the stage coach, the electric light of the candle; it will abound with all the machinery and improvements that so enormously multiply the effective power of labor…”
And if, under such circumstance, you take his advice, you need do nothing more. You may sit down and smoke your pipe… you may go up in a balloon, or down a hole in the ground; and without doing one stroke of work, without adding one iota to the wealth of the community, in ten years you will be rich! In the new city you may have a luxurious mansion; but among its public buildings will be an almshouse.[2]


George’s solution to this scenario is to introduce a single tax on the value of privately held land, a tax high enough to abolish all other taxes. The purpose is to force the land holders to use their property in the most productive way possible, offering jobs and creating wealth. All of George’s proposals are put to the gedankenexperiment that is Welcome’s novel. In discussing this novel, it is necessary to leave out a great deal of the long passages about taxes and land-use, which often overpower the narrative, but the following, from a member of the inner world, reads quite similarly to the quote from George:

If your parents own land in America, it is evident that private ownership in land is there recognized; and where that institution exists, land rents are higher than they would be under a natural order of things; and, since rent, interest and wages must all be aid out of production, the more there is paid out in rent, the less there is left with which to pay interest and wages. So, you see, labor and capital are robbed by the landlord system in two ways; first, rents are unnaturally high; and, second, the rent proper is taken by the landlord – a drone – instead of all the people. (p. 222)

This is nearly the whole of George’s argument, distilled down into one illuminating paragraph for readers, though George himself is never given any credit. Perhaps it was meant to prevent any prejudice on the reader’s part from influencing their view of the narrative. But the very last line of the novel calls America ‘the land of “progress and poverty!”’ (p. 274), reinforcing George’s thesis.

Only a very good historian would be able to identify the myriad of names used in the narrative as a variety of historical figures. The purpose of these borrowings is to highlight the potential of economic speculations; rather than providing an index or post-script, Welcome builds his list of sources and information into the characters. Ralph Spencer’s own name is likely taken from the British polymath Herbert Spencer, who famously said of government, ‘the interference of man in external nature often destroys the just balance, and produces greater evils than those to be remedied, so the attempt to regulate all the actions of a community by legislation, will entail little else but misery and confusion.’[3] Spencer almost mentions that his ‘twice-removed grandfather…was a great student of political economy’ (p. 18), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781) one of the prominent Physiocrats of the age. Spencer’s friend Ricardo Fleming derives his name from the British economist David Ricardo (1772-1823). The third American, Owen Redcliffe, described by Spencer as ‘a philosopher’ (p. 13) may have derived his name from the Welsh social reformer and utopianist Robert Owen. The great Centralian economist that formed the basis of their society, Quesney, was inspired by the Physiocrat François Quesnay (1694-1774). Identifying the origin of Spencer’s love interest, Celia Lathrop, is also purely speculative, but she may have been inspired by American social reformer Julia Lathrop (1858-1932), who worked at Hull House in Chicago in the 1890s. The Centralian father of ‘Universal Evolution’, Decanto (p. 86), is an obvious parallel to Darwin. A Centralian inventor, ‘Rufus Gilchrist’, introduced direct coal-to-electricity that removed the steam engine process (p. 98), and name possibly derived from the British Gilchrist cousins, who developed a method to remove phosphorous from iron for the manufacture of steel.

Records reveal Welcome was active in promoting George’s ideas in and around Los Angeles and knew the man personally; Welcome’s only other written contributions seems to be newspaper articles arguing for a single tax system, From Earth’s Center being his only foray into fiction.


[1] S. Byron Welcome, From Earth’s Center; A Polar Gateway Message (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1895), p. 5. All other references cited in text from this edition.

[2] George Henry, Progress and Poverty: And Inquiry Into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Robert Schalenbach Foundation, 1935), pp. 293-4.

[3] Herbert Spencer, The Proper Sphere of Government: A Reprint of a Series of Letters, Originally Published in “The Nonconformist” (London: W. Brittain, 1843), p. 5.

“The Man Who Fell Through the Earth”, or, Not Quite What it Seems

Having won a Mullen Research Fellowship to the Eaton Science Fiction Archives at the University of California Riverside, the tackling of previously unearthed hollow world novels is my three week mission. The first I was excited about because its title had not previously appeared on any list of terra cava novels I’ve seen… and for good reason.

Carolyn Wells (1862-1842) was an American mystery writer, and The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919) is the second in her Pennington Wise (aka ‘Penny Wise’) psychic detective series. Of course, with a title like this, how could I refuse, thinking it must somehow relate to my research?

The narrative opens from the perspective of a New York City lawyer, who suspects that his neighbor, a prominent banker, has been murdered, yet he can find neither body or suspect. This looks like a case for the great psychic detective Pennington Wise and his plucky gypsy sidekick Zizi!

So where is the man who falls through the earth? Ah, he comes into our story out of nowhere, a psych patient at Bellevue hospital found floating (nearly naked) in the East River with apparent amnesia. As part of his own investigation into things, our lawyer narrator goes to visit the patient, in case he is related to the victim or the suspect, and he has quite an interesting tale to tell:

“You see,” he said, fixing me with his queer-looking eyes, “I fell through the earth.”

“You what?”

“I did. I fell through the earth, and it was a long, long fall.”

“Well, yes, eight thousand miles, I’m told.”

“Oh, no,” and he was almost pettish, “I didn’t fall through the middle of it.”

“Oh,” and I paused for further enlightenment.

“It was this way. I remember it perfectly, you know. I was somewhere – somewhere up North-“


“I don’t know – I don’t know.” He shook his head uncertainly. “but I know it was up North where it’s always cold.”

Perhaps the man had been an Arctic explorer.

“Iceland?” I said. “Greenland?”

“Maybe,” and he looked uninterested. “But,” here he brightened a little, “anyway, I fell through the earth. I fell in there, wherever it was, and came on down, down through the earth till I came out at the other end.”

“You mean, you fell through a section or segment of the globe? As if, say, you fell in at London and came out at the Cape of Good Hope!”

“That’s the idea! Only I fell out here in New York.”

“And you fell in?”

“That’s what I can’t remember, only it was ‘way up North – somewhere.” (p. 113-4)

So far, it has some interesting hallmarks of a hollow earth novel, so I kept reading. The narrative moves back and forth between trying to the solver the murder of the banker, uncovering ‘The Link’ and figuring out the identity of our amnesiac patient who claims to have fallen through the earth. At least the tale is certainly better written than some others that I’ve read.

To make a long blog post shorter, I will get to the obvious conclusion: despite using ideas that have previously appeared in other American hollow earth novels, Wells has a far simpler explanation for our conundrum:

“I was in the middle of the street, but it seemed the middle of a howling blizzard, and as I took a step – I went down an open manhole into the sewer.

“This I distinctly remember – the street cleaners were working there, shoveling the snow into the sewer. They had no business to leave the manhole open and unguarded, but that black squall was so sudden and terrific, no one could see or know anything for the time being.

“However, I knew perfectly well, as I fell in, (250) what had happened, but then – and I remember this too – I fell and fell – down, down – it seemed for miles; I was whirled dizzily about – but still I fell – on and on – interminable. I felt my consciousness going – at first abnormally acute, my senses became dulled, and I had only a sensation of falling – ever falling – through the earth!”

Yep. No hollow earth, no holes in the poles or vast chasms, just an open sewer grate. Certainly nothing the Symmes or his followers ever proposed: The Sewer Grate Theory of Concentric Spheres.

Oh (spoilers here) and in a flurry of rapid mystery solving: the patient’s name is Amory Manning, he works for the Secret Service, and yes, he did kill the Banker but only because he was selling secrets to The Enemy (aka Germany) via information stolen by ‘The Link’ transmitted across telegraph lines. He also gets to marry the Banker’s niece despite killing her uncle because he was a traitor, so three cheers for truth, justice and the American way triumphing in the end. But there is no such thing as a hollow earth.

Reconsidering William Amos Miller, the Blind Writer

William Amos Miller at TypewriterIn a previous post I accused William Amos Miller, author of The Sovereign Guide: A Tale of Eden, of being disingenuous about his disabilities (both blindness and deafness) in order to drum up sale for his novel. A reader was kind enough to point me in the direction of some contemporary articles verifying Miller’s story, and proving me wrong:

The Remarkable Achievement of William Miller, Blind and Deaf

Autobiographical Sketch of William Amos Miller

What is very interesting is that the first article, published in the Los Angeles Herald (20 September 1903) got a few things wrong, which prompted Miller to write a correction of his life for The Silent Worker which appeared in April of 1904. Miller managed to attain some minor celebrity for himself, not as a writer of any particular work, but by virtue of being a blind and deaf man labouring in the field of letters, as well as engineering and craftwork. Appearing in The Sunday Supplement of the Los Angeles Herald, Miller is recorded as being a ‘devout Catholic’ and writer of a book of poetry,[1] which is, unfortunately, not true on either count. In the piece Miller wrote of himself, he asserts that his first published novel ‘A Tale of Eden’ (rather than The Sovereign Guide) ‘has had an extensive sale’ and that the mistaken impression of poetic Catholicness comes from Miller using some epigraphs from another blind poet (and school fellow of his) Richard T. O’Malley: ‘I am not a poet, and rarely ever sham verses even for my own use… I have published no works on Catholicity, though, on a scale, I may have assisted such publications.’[2] Miller never mentions the Los Angeles Herald or its mistakes. The Sovereign Guide itself is a story of pilgrimage by an unnamed narrator through the interior of the earth, which is the source of the biblical Eden. Miller’s treatment of Eden and church history strays wildly from contemporary Catholic beliefs, and had the author of the Herald column actually read The Sovereign Guide, he would not have mistaken Miller for aught else but a Protestant with strong connections to Spiritualism.

[1] J. Freeman Cook, ‘Remarkable Achievements of William Miller, Blind and Deaf’, Los Angeles Herald Sunday Supplement (20 September 1903), p. 2

[2] William Amos Miller, ‘Autobiographical Sketch of William Amos Miller; The Deaf-Blind Story Writer of Los Angeles’, The Silent Worker (vol. 16, no. 7), p. 107.

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