After London, Wild England to give Jefferies’ best known work its full title, is the very definition of a book of two halves The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – After London by Richard Jefferies (1885)(although not literally halves, but parts). It mirrors history and perhaps paved the way for modern science fiction. Richard Jefferies had an interest in catastrophes and nature. He wrote guides to natural history and it is known he found man’s technological progress unsettling. After London, Wild England was published in 1885, two years before he died of tuberculosis and exhaustion.
I read this book for the first time in a free e-book edition with no notes, introduction or any other content aside from the story itself.
Part I is called The Relapse into Barbarism. The world relapse is interesting itself, indicating Jefferies’ opinions on where humanity had come from. These early chapters are all pure description. There is no character or story. Jefferies simply describes the fall of London after some unnamed catastrophe and how the world is now, with primitive tribes, wild animals and nature reclaiming its (rightful?) place. The opening paragraph strikes the reader as melodramatic but attention grabbing. He then proceeds, for the next five chapters, do describe in detail (as if writing a natural history) the forest, the animals, the ‘men of the woods’, invaders and the lake. It takes 30 years for London to revert back to nature and the story’s narrator refers to Londoners as ‘ancients’. But Jefferies is already making political comment in this section, referring to the slave trade and the open market.
This whole section is a cross between a nature guide and previous works of proto- and early science fiction, (Utopia, Erewhon, etc) where nothing actually happens. It is a treatise. It is almost a polite rant. This is how world-building occurred in these early works of science fiction, not by incorporating it within the story, but by simply telling the reader. I found it tedious and un-engaging. It actually tells you nothing about the future.
Part II is called Wild London and is the main story; an actual narrative. It is many years later than the fall and what was England is dominated by an almost medieval feudalism. There is conflict between England, Wales and Ireland (no mention of Europe or the rest of the world, but as there is no communication, whatever caused there to be an ‘after’ London must have affected the rest of the world). There are nobles and servants and tribes of savages and shepherds. Most people are either slaves or retainers. Our protagonist is Sir Felix. He is a learned man, shunned by his peers and very unlike his sporty younger brother. Again, like Shelley’s The Last Man, the hero of the post-apocalyptic landscape is to be a noble. So this is about nobility and wealth. Class and culture. Big science fiction ideas, which clearly reflected the times. As with the best science fiction, the author chooses to set his world in some other when so he can comment on and criticise the ruling classes.
Felix wants to be someone important so he can be the perfect husband for Aurora. So he sets off to make his name with kings. He builds a canoe and heads off on the lake, looking for glory. He has various uninteresting adventures which represent Jefferies’ pessimistic feelings on humanities ability to progress, until he comes across some uninteresting cities at war with each other. However, he fails to take advantage of a favourable situation with the king, displaying hubris, and ends up exiled. After a vision of the devastated London (broken buildings, the outlines of the dead, the blackened earth), he finally finds his purpose. He is a master strategist and (now, unlike when he set off on the quest) a fighter, and after saving the lives of some shepherds, quickly rises to the rank of their Leader, uniting the disparate tribes of barbaric shepherds. This is a war-time position, although the shepherds would prefer him to be king. As the story concludes, he sets off to seek Aurora so he can return her to the land he has made (is it to be a new London?).
The themes are self-evident. Back-to-the land long before Tolkein. Man with no control over his own destiny. The return to medievalism suggests that progress is not possible. In terms of concept-driven fiction, this is proper post-apocalyptic science fiction. The first of its kind (The Last Man being apocalyptic, not post).
Jefferies is a nice writer. The attention to detail in Part I is fine indeed, and while the plot in Part II is flimsy, the characterisation of Felix is true. He has some lovely sentence construction and some interesting detail; the narrator notices doves and wood-pigeons as much as the behaviour of men. And despite all Felix’s adventures being for the love of a woman, there are no female characters to speak of. There is also a hint at racism, as the gipsies are the biggest villains of the piece (savages, alongside the bushmen).
As with The Last Man, this is science fiction of the big idea – a post-apocalypse society without technological progress reduces back to medievalism and barbarism. However, the story itself is a bit dull and leaves the reader wanting more. The devastated London section is the outstanding part of this book, but doesn’t make up for the generally dull story. I feel like Jefferies didn’t have the courage of his convictions and despite his philosophy, ended up just writing a medieval adventure story in an almost fairy tale format, using the future to eliminate any contradictions of history. There are glimpses that some of the ‘old ways’ have survived, but very little of the learning and almost nothing of the technology or cultural progress (Felix owns three rare children’s books describing the life of the ancients). Part I is the true piece of science fiction in terms of ideas, although it is not a narrative. Part II does not deliver on the promise. Simply a romantic adventure for personal glory (although the adventure structure was to become a staple of many and better future science fiction novels). Of course, there are hints of political debate (“men forever trample upon men”) and moments of satire but they are all lost in the forest.