A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

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Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.


The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.


[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

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)

Sketches of the Impossible: Illustrating the Hollow Earth

(From a paper presented at the C19 conference at Penn State, March 19, 2016.)

Subterranean world. Hollow Earth. The Underground. Or my phrase to evoke all of the above, terra cava.

These words precipitate different mental images for different people, but before the nineteenth century, you would have found an almost universal response in the form of Hell, Hades, Dante’s Inferno. Certainly artistic renderings would reinforce this religious/mythic view.

Athanasius Kircher started to shift this paradigm in the seventeenth century, reinforced by Edmond Halley’s – erroneous – mathematical calculations that the earth must be a series of concentric spheres due to a miscalculation of planetary density. The Royal Society did not revisit the topic, though, and it remained one of the more obscure theories of natural philosophy until an unheard of retired American infantry captain sent out this short pamphlet: “To all the world, I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the Poles…”

John Cleves Symmes Jr, a self-educated trader on the frontiers of St Louis, declared to all the world (that being mostly newspapers and universities in American and Britain) that the earth was hollow and habitable within and just waiting for brave Americans to plant the stars and stripes on entirely new continents. Because Symmes and his theory are relegated to the footnotes of history, it’s easy to dismiss as a minor philosophical fad. But we have the newspapers and magazine articles, novels and serials, to prove otherwise. What Symmes started far outlives his own death in 1829, and a significant part of that success stems from the imagery employed to covey what words could not. Why is this imagery important? Peter Mendelsund, in What We See When We Read, points out that “Visibility can be confused with credibility. Some books seem as though they are presenting us with imagery, but they are actually presenting us with fictional facts… These books predicate their plausibility, and for the reader, their conceivability, on an accretion of details and lore.” (p. 235) This theory of the hollow earth would continue to gain followers, ‘facts’ and stories for decades to come.

Symmes toured the US for years, giving lectures to large audiences with the visual aid of his own globe, showing the world open at the north and south poles. Even before Symmes began his tour, though, one of the first American science fiction novels was in circulation, Symzonia, presenting a map, a cross-section of the earth demonstrating the polar openings and reach of the sun. This is not a dark world lit with the fires of damnation, but one that shines just as brightly as our own. This one map is revolutionary, and will be duplicated in various forms for the next century. We don’t know who Adam Seaborn was, perhaps Symmes himself, more likely not (especially considering the misspelling of Symmes’s name in the title). But we see two worlds here, the second within the first, also open at its Poles, but this world is never explored in the text. The idea of multiple interior worlds was also dropped in favour of a single, hollow sphere by the second-half of the nineteenth century, when hollow earth writing enjoyed a publishing boom.

Unfortunately, Poe did not leave us any images of Arthur Gordon Pym’s Antarctic voyage to a polar opening at the bottom of the world, his narrative falling between Symmes and this later period of popular literary exploration. We have to skip ahead to the most well-known of all terra cava narratives, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. An enduring part of its legacy are the 52 engravings by Edouard Riou, bringing to life the geology and paleantology of Verne’s text, each picture an economy of a thousand words or so. Though not American in origin, it was well known in the US and those images went on to influence the artists illustrating later American terra cava narratives.

This is most clearly seen in an equally lavishly illustrated American text by John Uri Lloyd, Etidorhpa (and if you are wondering about the strange title, that is ‘Aphrodite’ spelt backwards). J Augustus Knapp, Lloyd’s artist, brings the giant mushroom forest from Riou’s engravings into play, dimly lit caverns, large crystalline structures, and scenes of exotic reptiles. Though thematically their narratives could not have been further apart (Lloyd’s novel is a trippy journey through the mind instead of geology), Knapp’s illustrations help to connect readers with a more familiar story. And this is a story deeply in need of familiar space and place; in a 1976 reprint, Neal Wilgus accused Lloyd of using marijuana, ergot and opium to conjure his tale. No one has accused Knapp of anything except good artistry in his interpretation of Lloyd’s prose, and perhaps borrowing a little heavily from Riou.

Etidorhpa goes even further than Journey, though, in its illustrative education, using half-page and text cuts to further illustrate events and scientific principles. Lloyd inserts himself into his own fiction, claiming to have received the manuscript from a fellow named Llewelyn Drewry, and includes a facsimile of a letter purported written by I-Am-The-Man-Who-Did-It, the primary narrator. All of this to build upon the veracity of his narrative, and before you get too far into thinking how ridiculous it would be for anyone to perceive Etidorhpa as anything other than a fiction, there were many Spiritualists who did embrace the novel at face value. Lloyd even includes a cross-sectional map of the world to trace the journey, and a map of Kentucky, purporting to show the entrance to this underground spiritual realm, as well as experimental ‘proofs’ for the physical functions of this subterranean world.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar (1892), where Cyrus Durand Chapman provided sumptuous landscapes and spectacular battles, with further contributions from RW Rattray, Leonard Davis and Allen Dogget. Bradshaw’s own prose describes a kingdom with “the enchanted charm of Hindoo (sic) and Greek architecture, together with the thrilling ecstasy of Gothic shrines” in a capital city called Egyplosis. We’re of course seeing here the Western appropriation of the colonized, the irony of this being that the protagonist – an American adventurer and entrepreneur name Lexington White – does go on to conquer and colonize Atvatabar.  Readers are shown what Nathaniel Robert Walker described as “Babylon Electrified” in his article of the same title, exploring oriental and industrial hybridity. Many of the hollow earth narratives from this period employed the same styling, but none were illustrated as thoroughly as Atvatabar. This is a world of ‘spiritual batteries’ and fantastic technology; they can fly, but carry their goddess around on a sedan, and are no match for the daring-do of new King, Lexington White.

The work of Lloyd and Bradshaw is not typical however. Most of the terra cava narratives were limited runs from small presses or self-published for a small group of subscribers (which is actually how Etidorhpa got its start; Lloyd was able to work with Knapp because they were neighbours). If a writer could afford to put just one image into his or her (and yes, there were a few hers) story, a map was the first choice. But rather than travels lines dashed across the surface of a globe, we get cross-cut section of journeys through the earth. Part of the verisimilitude of any travel story is the potential to recreate it. Rather than obfuscate points of origin and entry, these are detailed, promising the allure of an adventure. Like Symzonia, sometimes these maps are the only illustrations we get. I like what Peter Mendelsund said about maps in his study: “Our maps of fictional settings, like our maps of real settings, perform a function. A map that guides us to a wedding reception is not a picture […] but rather, it is a set of guidelines.” (p 232). The guidelines, in this instance, are a reformation of the reader’s thinking about the earth’s structure.

What lends these maps and images the weight of semi-truth is the quality of the unknown. The Earth’s Poles were not reached until the first decade of the twentieth century. And even now it is hard to convince some people that they are there. (The sequel to NAZIS-in-space movie Iron Sky is going to be set beneath Antarctica, a popular theory for the hiding place of the remnants of the Third Reich). Other points of entry are to be found in caves and mountain crevasses. Variations on Symmes’s original theory are found, like this one from The Goddess of Atvatabar, which has a small internal sun rather than refracted light from the outside. This one, from Cresten; Queen of the Toltus, takes a more traditional view.

Symmes’s work was well known enough to not require extensive explanation or illustration. The significance of both of these is that the idea of concentric spheres has been eliminated, and the popular imagination has settled on a single hollow globe with water and lands held to the obverse side, gravity laying somewhere in the middle of the crust. These illustrations in fictions are hardly different from those that appeared in ‘non-fiction’ newspaper and magazine articles; if you see something from a purportedly neutral source, giving simply a report, this plays into Medelsund’s ‘fictional facts’; you’re not sure if the article is right or not, but it might be, and the images mesh with what you’ve seen from other sources; it is a circular proof, but only until explorers can definitively prove one way or another. (Cue Admiral Peary in 1909.)

I would like to take a moment to point out the antithesis of my discussion thus far, and that is the use of illustrations that in no way concern themselves with the setting of a terra cava novel and could by employed in almost any adventure story of the age. These concern themselves instead with characters, with the heroic white males and beautiful native females; they are mirrors for the reader instead of vistas. These could just as easily come from a Rider Haggard or Boy’s Own story. Adventure, intrigue, romance, yes, but specific indicators that this is a hollow earth narrative; not so much. I don’t think it is coincidental that the most remembered terra cava narratives, and the ones that went through multiple printings, were also those most lavishly illustrated with images of the fabulous. To quote Adam Sonstegard’s work Artistic Liberties, “Artists who merely leave characters on the canvas as they have them in print have not done their job; the character must be ‘bettered’ in the exchange.” (p. 11) And the hollow earth topos is a significant character.

An anomaly in this fantastic imagery is the decided non-fantastic. George McKesson uses photographs from around Cripple Creek in Colorado in Under Pike’s Peak, taking his influence from the local geology and mining operations. And GW Bell pictures of colonial authorities and native Māori and postcards of New Zealand in Mr Oseba’s Last Discovery. As American consul to New Zealand, Bell was attempting to sell the many benefits of the country, deemed by the inhabitants of the interior world to be the best place on the surface of the earth.

There are no sketches, no fantastical illustrations; and let’s be honest, if one of these men has in fact produced a photograph of a subterranean civilization, we would be having an entirely different conversation. I was perplexed by this until coming across this small display at the Columbus Museum of Art:


“Travel albums became popular in the late nineteenth century, when the tourism industry emerged. During this time, a growing number of photographers documented historic monuments and popular sites, as well as scenes of daily life, hoping to sell them a souvenirs.”

McKesson and Bell weren’t just telling us another hollow earth story; they were annotating – extensively – their travels. Mundane geography becomes fantastic geography just beneath the surface. These photographs don’t elicit the same response as the more imaginative sketches or weird flora and fauna, but in that sense it grounds the narrative in reality, perhaps a little too firmly. Neither book enjoyed great success.

Science in the nineteenth century was about exploring and explaining the unseen. Travel literature inspired the landlocked by showing them what they would never see in person. The individual scrap book became the mass-produced speculative novel. The discovery of iced-in, non-porous Poles, and geologists settling on the liquid magma structure of the earth, put an end to the boom in hollow earth literature, but its imagery can still be found in aspects of popular culture.


“Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery”, or, Symzonia Down Under

Though written and published in New Zealand, Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery (1904) is by the American George W. Bell, who the US Consul to Australia for seven years. It is a terra cava narrative that mixes American social and political philosophies with New Zealand’s environs, which Bleiler calls a ‘piece of real estate promotion’.[1] Throughout the text there are photographs from around New Zealand (identified in the caption, so there is no attempt to pretend these are images from the interior of the earth), which the Index clearly states ‘do not conform strictly to the text’ (p. viii).

‘The Author’ offers ‘A Note’ about his visit to New Zealand in 1903, a colony ‘submerged with socialism’ among other attributes: “I found in the Press, a broad independence; in the people, a sturdy self-reliance; and in the statesmen, a feeling that they were the chosen servants of the public’.[2] Intrigued by what he found in New Zealand (and Bell even dedicates the novel to its people), he sets out to express his Anglo-Saxon pride ‘in a garb of fiction, that I might wrest from the reader the memories of the daily struggle with stubborn facts’ (p. vi). This ‘garb of fiction’ implies a façade for truth in the narrative, and Bells claims to have ‘adopted a style that…would be appreciated for its audacious novelty’ (p. vi), though in reality, Bell is trotting on well worm literary grounds.

The narrative is framed around the posthumously read manuscript of Leo Bergin (a Virginian by birth), bequeathed to Sir Marmaduke, the secondary narrator/editor. Marmaduke opens by saying

This, being a true story, with the slight deviations necessary to the preservation of a due sense of proportion, it is deemed proper to casually introduce the characters on whom we must chiefly rely for the truthfulness or otherwise, of a most romantic adventure. (p. 1)

In other words, the truth of the narrative rests in the judgement of the reader, but the Editor cannot say one way or another if Bergin’s tale is true. Having a past acquaintanceship, the dying Bergin leaves his dying declaration of his visit to “Symmes’ Hole’ (p. 13) to Sir Marmaduke, who declares that ‘Leo Bergin was no dreamer’ (p. 16), and thus his tale must be truth. There are frequent interludes from Marmaduke throughout the text, playing Devil’s advocate and the reader’s own internal monologue as he reflects upon Bergin’s own narrative, speaking at times in the present tense: ‘Let us see what follows, for this is more interesting far, than a courtship’ (p. 28). In other instances Marmaduke abridges portions of the text: ‘Here is a lot of interesting details – interesting if life were not so short – but I’ll have to “boil it down,” for “spice” is the word’ (p. 40).

Mr. Amoora Oseba is Bergin’s cabin mate, ‘the finest type of manly beauty… ever beheld’ (p. 22), but also more than a little strange, claiming to come from the city of Eurania in the country of Cavitorus, inhabited by a people called Shadowas (p. 23). In only a few pages Oseba explains the structure of the world, verifying Symmes’s theory and chastising those who did not believe in Symmes. While using Symmes’s theory of the earth’s formation, Oseba cites more recent Arctic exploration for evidence, including the observations of Lt. Adolphus Greely of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (1881-1884) and the diary of Captain George Tyson, survivor of the Polaris Expedition (p.30). Oseba’s lessons in geography are the most didactic seen since Seaborn’s in Symzonia. After years of mingling among the ‘Outeroos’ (residents of the outer earth) Oseba is returning to report to his people, and decides to take Bergin with him. Bergin calls upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet to give credence to his own doubts about Oseba and the Shadowas: ‘There are more things in heaven, and earth, Horatio / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy’ (p. 36). Symmes’s theory is validated once again during Oseba’s presentation of his travels, displaying a true model’ of the earth, complete with a Symmes Hole in the north (p. 56). Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery is among the last of the terra cava narratives (excepting the next section to follow, The Smoky God) to actually employ Symmes’s geography. By the early years of the twentieth century, enough explorers had ventured past Symmes’s proposed latitude of opening that alternative ideas of the hollow earth had to be utilised.

The Shadowas have resided in Cavitorus for 21,000 years (p. 57), exiles from a hostile takeover of their old kingdom on the surface of the world who floated on an iceberg to the interior, finding a fertile – and uninhabited – country to provide new succour (p. 35). This rich land soon led to an over-abundance of population, and controlling measures were put in place. Eugenics plays a significant part in Shadowas culture, where the state is the ‘universal mother’ controlling all procreation (p. 37) so as to turn out ‘the finest type of people mentally, morally and physically, that ever inhabited this planet’ (p. 38). The utopian trope of a perfect people is hereby fulfilled; Bergin describes them on first sight as ‘over-tall and very symmetrical in form, and they move as gracefully as trained actors’ (p. 43). Interestingly, though, they are not white, but ‘slightly bronzed’; though their non-Anglo heritage is not a detriment. What the Shadowas lack, though, are any extremes in emotions, neither ‘gravity’ nor ‘hilarity’ as ‘all passion of the animal has gone’, leaving only serene intellect (p. 43). Marmaduke does not seem to be as enamoured by these cool intellectuals as Bergin, saying that ‘it makes me crawl’ (p. 57). This perception may be influenced by Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril-ya, when the narrator first encounters one of that race: ‘a nameless something in the aspect, tranquil though the expression, and beauteous though the features, roused that instinct of danger which the sight of a tiger or serpent arouses.’[3]

Next to the beautiful people there is the beautiful city with its ‘statues of gold, and other eye-ravishing objects’ (p. 42), and besides the rich apparel of silks, ‘gold was too common, cheap and vulgar’ (p. 44). There is more gold than iron, more platinum than silver, and the gems shine brighter ‘owing to the peculiarities of the light’ (p. 48). Marmaduke only ever mentions in passing that Bergin does indeed go into scientific explanations for many of the phenomena in Cavitorus, but never elaborates on those passages from the narrative.

Bell appears to have borrowed liberally from the Māori in crafting the customs and practices of the Shadowas. This practice of being adopted by the State might be compared to the Māori adoption custom of whāngai, taken to the extreme of recognising the Shadowas as a single family unit. Rather than Christianity, they embrace a polytheism that demonstrates ‘not only hope for the future, but appreciation for the blessings of to-day’ (p. 52). In a moment of ‘conversation’ between author and editor, Bergin says ‘These people evidently made their Gods, for they admit it. I wonder if we made ours?’, to which Marmaduke replies ‘Careful Leo!’ (p. 52). Herbert Spencer is referenced by Marmaduke (pp. 43-4) when the latter is considering a society in which family bonds do not exist, musing on the differences between the perception of what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘custom’. This comes from Spencer’s Man Versus the State.

There is actually a strong anti-imperialism in Bell’s novel. The missionaries to China are heavily criticised for their conceited approach, while the Chinese are praised for being ‘industrious and frugal’ (p. 63). When asked if they are ‘and inferior race’, Oseba responds that they are only ‘different’ (p. 68). Bell’s experiences around the globe, and his involvement in international politics lent to him a broader perspective of the world than his home-bound contemporaries. The achievements of continental Europe are attributed to its geography, ‘a garden and nursery for the most active, sturdy, intelligent, and emotional of all peoples on the globe’ (p. 67), who are prone to warring with each other over pretensions of superiority. The hypocrisy of European armies and European Christianity – ‘Thou shalt not kill’ – is highlighted in Oseba’s presentation to his people, to the great consternation of the audience (p. 69). The British Isles are hailed as ‘he best suited for the development of the ideal man…. And, having been peopled by sturdy tribes, all the suggestive hopes of Nature have been realised’ (p. 72). Though discounting on one page the idea of superiority and inferiority among race, on the next Bell still champions the Anglo-Saxon, beneficiary of good geography. Despite Bell’s message of anti-imperialism and sympathy for China and Japan, he champions Great Britain for its ‘conquests in the arts of peace’ (p. 73), planting the great colonies of America, Canada, “Australasia”, and “saving” India and Africa from themselves (p. 76). As for the United States, it is ‘the noblest country ever given by God to his children’ (p. 87) according to Oseba. This invocation of ‘God’ stands in direct contrast to the earlier statements about the Shadowas being polytheistic. For all the praise heaped upon America, Oseba also highlights its flaws, quoting Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ (p. 91). Labelled as ‘scenes’, ‘First “Discovery”’, ‘The British Isles Discovered’, ‘America “Discovered”’, and ‘Australasia Discovered’, these chapters quote population figures, land mass, industry, and their perceived traits of these regions. Bell writes reportage like the diplomat that he was. This large portion of the narrative is given over not to an examination of Cavitorus and its utopia, but the supposed ‘alien’ perspective of the earth; Mr. Oseba is an alter ego for Bell.

It turns out that Oseba has been touring the earth’s surface looking for a place where the Shadowas might establish a colony. China is rejected for its lack of ‘varieties’, Japan for its lack of space, Europe for its militarism, Britain for being nothing more than ‘a park for her nobles’, Africa for having ‘the black plague’, America for being ‘owned by the trusts’ and controlled by ‘party bosses’, and Australia for joining the Commonwealth (pp. 106-7). What does this leave for the Shadowas? New Zealand. Or, ‘Zelania’ in the Shadowas language (p. 107), and this is Oseba’s ‘last discovery’. How wonderful is New Zealand? Marmaduke relates the entire eight-page poem Bergin wrote in tribute. Oseba’s relation of New Zealand’s wonders fills the next 117 pages, or, the rest of the narrative. The true utopia, then, is not Cavatorus, but New Zealand/Zelania:

The State gives nothing. There is humiliating charity nowhere, but elevating justice everywhere. The State puts a man on a farm, loans him money, helps him uphill, and then demands that he pay the Hercules. It will loan him a spade – not to lean upon or to pawn, but to dig with – and he must keep it bright and pay for its use.

The idea in Zelania, my children, is to have no lords and no paupers – that all men shall be producers, and not vagrants; tax-payers, and not tax-eaters – and that every citizen shall become a sturdy democrat, who will honorably strive as a stock-holder in a paying concern. (p. 155)

The Māori are described as ‘a fine race of romantic savages’ (p. 130) who are ‘intellectually… superior to any other tames savage’ (p. 131), thus making them seem, to readers, rather pleasant native neighbours to have, who won’t kill you and eat your family. Bell even includes a picture of a ‘Maori Beauty’ to entice his male audience should words not suffice. New Zealand’s ‘Lands for Settlement Act’ (footnoted on page 153) is seen as a great achievement in ‘State landlordism’ that results in ‘few grievances and fewer scandals’ (p. 154).

A short history of women, and women’s rights, makes it into Mr. Oseba’s address to his people, from the wooing of women ‘with a bludgeon’ (p. 182) to the growth of civilisation via ‘the emancipation of women’: ‘How can a mother, with the feeling of inferiority, a feeling of subdued dependence, with no courage nor conscious individuality, bring forth brave, independent, high-minded offspring? Only by emancipated mothers can full-statured men be reared’ (p. 184). Women in New Zealand were granted voting rights in the 1893 Electoral Bill (though they would not be eligible for legislative seats for decades), the first country to do so in the British Empire or America. Bell makes this part of his tribute to the country: ‘in Zelania, women are “people”… and liberty and social rights are not limited to any particular cut of the garments’ (p. 185).

New Zealand’s labour history and other footnotes – presumably added by Marmaduke as editor – fill out the ‘evidence’ of New Zealand’s utopic existence. They benefit from speaking English, which grew in usage throughout the nineteenth century as ‘the “polite” language of the “civilised” world’ (p. 194), and benevolently teach this to Māori (p. 194). The Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1900 is referenced (p. 203), as is the Employment Liability Act (1882), The Workers Compensation for Accident, 1900, Act (p. 204), the Government Accident Insurance Act of 1899 (p. 205), and the Old Age Pension act of 1898 (p. 212), all making New Zealand seem a worker’s paradise for any man. If any such thing exists in Cavitorus, Mr. Oseba never mentions it.

There is no closing to the narrative from Marmaduke, no conclusion. He relates Bergin’s own relations of Oseba’s speech up until the last page. How the Shadowas act upon Oseba’s report is never revealed; how Bergin returns to the surface world, or what he did in Cavitorus, is never elaborated upon; Marmaduke never offers further commentary on what he learns in Bergin’s manuscript. The existence of a lost race living in the hollow earth, accessible from the Poles, is of little consequence in comparison to the existence of New Zealand. The abrupt conclusion makes it seem as if Bell was operating under a word constraint from the publisher, or perhaps instruction to offer no deviation from the glories of New Zealand in the latter half of the text.

[1] Bleiler, Science Fiction, p. 48.

[2] George W. Bell, Mr. Oseba’s Last Discovery (Wellington, NZ: The New Zealand Times Co., 1904), p. v. All other references cited in text from this edition.

[3] Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race, p. 12.

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.

Scholars of the Terra Cava

In the nineteenth century, one would be hard pressed to find a scholarly article on the hollow earth, such things left to the amateur natural philosopher, spiritualist, and dreamer; the twentieth century – benefiting from the perspective of a known world distinctly lacking access to the terra cava – gave rise to the literary and historical scholar writing about the products of hollow earth theory. Different scholars have differing ideas about the meaning of the underground in literature. The historian Rosalind Williams proposes that ‘narratives about underground worlds have provided a prophetic view into our environmental future. Subterranean surroundings, whether real or imaginary, furnish a model of an artificial environment from which nature has been effectively banished.’[1] Few individuals have attempted to analyse the hollow earth, and many of the works are either incredibly broad or non-academic: Walter Kafton-Minkel did one of the first surveys in 1989 with Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth; Everett F. Bleiler’s science fiction catalogue, Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990), provides a more extensive summary of the known terra cava fictions and includes a few words about his thoughts on the story; Peter Fitting published an anthology with excerpts from several works, Subterranean Worlds: A Critical Anthology (2004); and David Standish wrote the decidedly non-academic survey, Hollow Earth: The Long and Curious History of Imagining Strange Lands, Fantastic Creatures, Advanced Civilizations, and Marvelous Machines Below the Earth’s Surface in 2006, only briefly summarising a few of the many terra cava narratives from the fin de siècle. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2011) in its latest edition (available only online) also provides some information about hollow earth novels, but not extensive analysis, and some entries are incomplete or erroneous; such as ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, which identifies the inhabitants as all living underground in ‘Susepnded Animation’; the underground portions of the world are petrified remains of the dead, and the surface population very much alive.[2] The enrty for ‘Moore, M. Louise’ identifies the land visitied in Al-Modad as Al-Modad, which is actually the name of the protragonist.[3] In 2012 an edited collection of essays about the hollow earth, Between Science and Fiction: The Hollow Earth as Concept and Conceit, was published in Berlin, but this focuses almost entirely on European terra cava narratives, less in number compared to their American counterparts. No one has conducted a thorough examination of the dozens of hollow earth writings published in the United States in the nineteenth century and what they reveal about American culture, religion, and politics at that time.

Consider the following, from a newspaper ninety years after Symmes’s announcement, from a society formed to prove the earth is hollow:

‘It is time for action – not a time for mere talking. But the earth is hollow and our investigations will soon prove it. The poles so long sought are but phantoms. There are openings at the northern and southern extremities. In the interior of the earth are vast continents, oceans, mountains and rivers. Vegetables and animal life is evident in this new world, and it is possibly peopled by races yet unknown to the dwellers upon the earth’s exterior.’[4]

Though there are no scientific papers supporting Symmes’s theory, this newspaper article is an example of popular science in the United States influencing public thought and cultural products. Support for Symmes’s model of the earth isn’t to be found in searches of scientific journals, but in newspapers, independently published tracts by non-scientists, and fictional narratives.

Symzona, A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, The Goddess of Atvatabar and more, when they appear in an academic analysis, are often referred to in terms that remove the story from realist connotations and examine them in satiric terms. While many of them employ some form of social commentary or political view meant to reflect back on the reader, that does not automatically make them parodies. Parodies tend to emerge later in a genre’s existence, after its tropes have been established. The pre-nineteenth century terra cava narratives were immersed in social satire, and this is where so many literary theorists misstep in their assessment of nineteenth century terra cava; just because the most well-known hollow earth books before this period were written in the vein of Swift and Voltaire does not mean that those which came later were intended to be interpreted in the same way; American authors tended to take a different narrative approach. Because the idea of a hollow or porous world being inhabited appears to be a ridiculous premise in the twenty-first century, it is easier to paint these novels with the wide brush of parody rather than to enter into the mind-set of contemporary writers and readers who viewed portions of the world as still unknown, and holding the possibility of rich surprises.

[1] Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), p. 4.

[2] John Clute, ‘Orcutt, Emma Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/orcutt_emma_louise&gt; Accessed 10/11/2014.

[3] John Clute, ‘Moore, M Louise’, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction <http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_m_louise>  Accessed 10/11/2014.

[4] Anon., ‘Going to Look for a Big Hole at the Top of the World’, Marion Daily Mirror, Vol. XVI, No. 229 (25 April 1908), p. 9.

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.

Current Research in Speculative Fiction (CRSF) 2013 – The Day After

How does one describe the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference? Zombies and Aliens and Witches, oh my! A day of graduate students introducing their various fields of research into science fiction, fantasy, and horror is like visiting an academic theme park. Have you ever wondered how Martian economics works? How environmental catastrophes lead to a rewriting of history? How the masculine imagery of the technological is turning the human into the feminine? What about the connected history of vampires and zombies over the last 150 years as expressions of our own phobias? Have you ever genuinely considered how we structure the language of sf to build a world in our minds? Science fiction, fantasy and horror is all around us, has always been with us, but we rarely seem to give it a proper academic forum for expression.

And of course there are the plenary speakers to spice the mix. Dr. Peter Wright of Edge Hill University gave a talk on cinematic enunciations of literary cognitive estrangement… i.e. how to we take the written word – or sometimes, what is not written – and translate it into an effective audio/visual medium. Two-time Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Pat Cadigan then regaled us with her thoughts about science fiction and the future (and just so everyone can rest easy, there will neither be an ‘imperial Earth’ ruling over the Solar System anytime soon, nor will there be an apocalypse).

But the best part of this day is the meeting of new academics and the exchange of ideas. ‘Can I facebook stalk you?’ is not sinister, but a desire to know more about your research and what you are publishing. Every year I leave with new ideas and new sources for my research, and every year I am more proud to have worked on the conference. Even when I am no longer a postgrad, I look forward to being able to come back and listen to the papers from up and coming researchers. We love what we do, and we love talking to others who share that passion for investigating what has long been pushed to the margins of academia.

CRSF 2013 CfP

CRSF 2013 CfP

Information about the up-coming Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference at the University of Liverpool, entering it’s third year: http://currentresearchinspeculativefiction.blogspot.co.uk/

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