Welcome back to the Victorian Hugo Awards, what I hope will be a semi-regular column in which I award honorary Hugo Awards to the best novels and short stories of the Victorian era.
When I wrote about the slate of nominees for the 1891 Hugo, I undoubtedly sounded underwhelmed and disappointed. If I did, it’s because I was, but unfortunately 1892 is no better. In science fiction, especially, the array of choices leaves a lot to be desired. There are several works that would receive a few scattered votes, but none that would receive or deserve to receive enough votes to place on the short list. I said last time that fans of sf were waiting for George Griffith and H.G. Wells to show up. So are writers of sf. The available role models they have, both texts and other writers, are sub-optimal. Fantasy and horror continue to provide better archetypal texts, better writers to be imitated and influenced by, and more widely recognized tropes and motifs. Readers and writers know about science fiction, and think of it as a separate genre, but based on what was being produced they must have seen it as a genre for juveniles, as opposed to the adult fiction that was fantasy and horror.
A while back the sports columnist Bill Simmons wrote a column in which he described what the trophy for the NBA MVP should look like, from the 40 pound “you‑can‑barely‑hold‑it‑over‑your‑head size, reserved for any monster season in which a future Hall of Famer annihilates his competition and leaves no doubt whatsoever” trophy to the 1 pound platter given solely for the reason that someone needs to win the award. Well, the latter is what the 1892 Hugo award for novels would look like. The short list would consist of Marie Corelli’s The Soul of Lilith, Ignatius Donnelly’s The Golden Bottle, H. Rider Haggard’s Nada the Lily, C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s The New Eden, and Alfred Morris’ Looking Ahead. For lack of anything better, Haggard would take home the Hugo.
Oh god, Marie Corelli. Again. (I covered her in the 1889 and 1886 columns). The Soul of Lilith is about an Arabian occult scientist who keeps the soul of a young girl in suspended animation after her body has died, and uses her soul to research other planets. The Sorrows of Satan is the archetypal Corelli book, and it will appear on the Hugo ballot in 1895, quite possibly as the winner (though facing heavy competition from H.G. Wells), but The Soul of Lilith is possibly the second most archetypal Corelli. The Soul of Lilith has Corelli’s trademarks: it’s over-wrought and turgid, with a lot of her usual self-justification and pious self-righteousness. In 1892 the war between Corelli and the critics was in full swing, and Lilith, like her Silver Domino (1892), can be read as Corelli showing herself a martyr to the critics. Silver Domino was the last straw for Corelli’s publisher, Bentley, and they decided that her demands and the near-universal abuse of the critics weren’t worth her sales, and let her go.
All that being said, The Soul of Lilith has the exotic occult mysticism and romance that Corelli’s fans wanted, and the book sold well. Corelli was compared to Haggard in their lifetimes, and some critics have argued that Corelli was to younger female readers what Haggard was to younger male readers. If that provokes our scorn for their taste, they wouldn’t have cared, and the Hugo voters would have put her #2 on the ballot. Ignatius Donnelly, I covered in the 1890 column. In a way, it’s fitting that Corelli and Donnelly appear on the same ballot. They’re about equal in wretchedness, although Corelli was a much bigger name than Donnelly–if Donnelly is a Mt. McKinley of dung, Corelli is a Mt. Everest. Donnelly’s The Golden Bottle is about a poor farmer, Ephraim, who is given a gold-making bottle by “The Pity of God” and uses his newfound wealth to rescue the poor from poverty and destroy bankers and the evil upper classes. (Unfortunately, It Was All A Dream). To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, The Golden Bottle is a book that should not be put down, but instead be flung aside with great force. It is a manifestation of the uglier sentiments of the American Populist movement, loading the moral and symbolic deck in support of Ephraim and against those he dislikes to a truly stomach-turning degree. There is speechifying instead of dialogue, Donnelly’s ideas are morally and intellectually simplistic, and Ephraim is unpleasantly self-righteous. The Golden Bottle will take two hours from the readers’ life that they won’t get back. But, yet again, and as with Corelli, the book was popular with what would have been a sizeable voting bloc, and I think they would have put The Golden Bottle on to the Hugo short list.
Haggard, I’ve mentioned before—several times. Nada the Lily is an all-African novel, about 19th century Zulus, Haggard’s hero Umslopogaas, Chaka, and Chaka’s witch doctor, Mopo. Nada the Lily is the first of Haggard’s Zulu tetralogy, charting the rise and fall of the Zulu empire, and Nada is generally seen as the best of the four, and Haggard’s second-best novel overall. Nada is Haggard in peak form; it has a smooth, assured narration, the rougher edges of She and King Solomon’s Mines are filed off, and in general Haggard is very good at conjuring up a kind of epic/mythic Africa-as-imagined-by-a-white-Victorian-author, in a narrative voice which hasn’t aged much at all. Modern readers may find some things within Nada racist, but Haggard was certainly trying to be progressive and anti-racist. If he has the usual personal limitations of time and place, he at least must be given credit for the attempt. Nada is certainly a fantasy, with prophecies coming true and a kind of magic at work, and Hugo voters would have voted for it in large numbers. The sheer professionalism behind Nada would have put it over the top compared to the other nominees. If Nada the Lily is not an all-time immortal fantasy novel, neither is it an undeserving winner.
C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne (1866-1944) was a British writer who wrote widely in a variety of modes, producing still-remembered books of fantasy (The Lost Continent in 1900), science fiction (Empire of the World in 1910) and secret service/adventure stories (his Major Colt series, collected in The Escape Agents (1910)). In his lifetime he was best known for his nautical “Captain Kettle” stories, which sold nearly as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. He was a skilled and entertaining writer and in no way deserves his current obscurity. The New Eden is about a scientist who leaves a boy and girl on a desert island to see what they shall become. This sort of story, the Mad Scientist Robinsonade, would become more common in the pulps–The New Eden is a relatively early treatment of the theme. It’s possible that it was an influence on Burroughs’ Tarzan. The New Eden isn’t a classic or even a great work of science fiction. Considering the time in which it was written, Hyne is relatively frank about what happens between Adam and Eve, and Hyne certainly thought through the realities and consequences of his premise, but The New Eden has a stiffer, more Victorian narrative style than his magazine work, and this dates the novel. In a better year The New Eden would be an also-ran, but as I’ve said this is a down year for science fiction, and out of a lack of anything better The New Eden gets a nomination for the Hugo.Alfred Morris (?-?) was a British politician. His Looking Ahead is a conservative, anti-socialist, Robinsonade, about a group of seventy people shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean and the society they form. I didn’t find it particularly entertaining or enjoyable, but Morris does have to be respected for the level of detail he puts into both his treatment of life on a deserted island and into Looking Ahead’s future history of a post-breakdown England. Looking Ahead is entirely a minor book, but its politics, and its combination of politics and extrapolation, would have earned it support from a voting bloc.
Three other novels would have received votes. William Alden’s A Lost Soul, about the revival of a Renaissance woman and the romance between the woman and the scientist who revives her, is competently told, and in a commercial style which hasn’t aged. William Bradshaw’s The Goddess of Atvatabar is what Bleiler calls “a curiosity only, but a very amusing, interesting curiosity”–an ambitious (if of its time) Lost Race novel with a lot of detail and a lot of ideas but by an author incapable of expressing his ideas in a more than mediocre way. And Gilbert Collins’ The Great War of 189-, a Future War novel written after the genre had passed its sell-by date, was seriously intended as a warning of the near future–like most Future War novels–and is decent commercial work (it was originally a magazine serial), but is of more interest now than it was at the time it was printed, as it has a number of interesting anticipations of World War One, in much the same way that Morgan Robertson’s The Wreck of the Titan (1898) anticipated the sinking of the Titanic.
As with the novels, 1892 is not a banner year for short stories: a handful of good (not great) works, one above average, and one indisputable classic. There really is no competition in this year, and the non-winners and also-rans are...not forgettable, but not particularly memorable. In all, a bit of a disappointment, 1892. The short list for the 1892 short form would be: Gertrude Atherton’s “Death and the Woman,” A. Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Henry James’ “Owen Wingrave,” and Sir Gilbert Parker’s “The Scarlet Hunter,” Gilman–of course–takes the Hugo.
Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) was a notable American novelist, biographer, folklorist and historian who also won the Légion d’Honneur for her hospital work during WW1. Better known in her lifetime for her mainstream novels, she’s remembered today by specialists for her supernatural stories, which Bleiler nicely describes as “in the manner of Henry James, but more relaxed.” Atherton’s “Death and the Woman” is about a woman sitting a final vigil over her dying husband, and how she deals with the approach of Death. It’s a somber and affecting story, with an excellent portrayal of grief, a mounting sense of tension, and a powerful ending. Atherton isn’t as showy as James but has a better hand at characterization (Atherton likes people better than James does) and “Death and the Woman,” which might be Atherton’s best work, is a resolutely human, and humane, story.
Doyle, of course, is the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the (to my mind superior) Brigadier Gerard history stories. His “Lot No. 249” was part of the boom of late Victorian mummy stories, with the protagonist, a college student, discovering that an acquaintance has been animating a mummy and using it to settle quarrels. “Lot No. 249” is entertaining commercial work, and a good reminder that Doyle was capable of working in more modes than just the detective and the historical. The story isn’t frightening–it’s hard to imagine that even its contemporary readers would have found it so–but it is not particularly dated, and is enjoyable in the way of the better 1890s magazine fiction. (It’s better told than Doyle’s early Sherlock Holmes stories, for example). “Lot No. 249” is not as good as one of the also-rans (see below) but would have received Hugo votes based on Doyle’s popularity.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a novelist, poet, lecturer, artist, and feminist theorist. Today “The Yellow Wallpaper” is usually described as a classic of early feminist writing, and it certainly deserves that status, but it is more than that. It is a genuinely frightening story, about either the mental disintegration of the narrator or her possession by an insane spirit. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is comparable to Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” (1898) in its ambiguity and possibly unreliable narrator, but I’d rank the Gilman above the James, not just because of the lack of narratorial excess–every word in “Wallpaper” is carefully chosen and deployed, which isn’t the case in “Screw”–but because Gilman manages to engage the reader’s sympathies and James does not. “Wallpaper” has not lost its power to terrify, nor does it on multiple readings, and its portrayal of the narrator’s treatment by her husband–based on something Gilman herself went through–remains a powerful feminist statement about how men treat women. “The Yellow Wallpaper” is outstanding work and well deserves to win the 1892 Hugo.
Henry James I’ve mentioned before, in the 1891 column. His “Owen Wingrave” is better than 1891’s “Sir Edmund Orme,” if not as good as “The Turn of the Screw.” About a young man who after extensive training declines to become a soldier, faces horrible pressure from his family, and to prove himself spends a night in a haunted room, “Owen Wingrave” was written during James’ “middle phase,” when he was cranking out professional work at a high rate, but before he wrote the works he’s best remembered for. “Owen Wingrave” is written in the arch, almost sardonic Jamesian style and works out both his themes and the inevitable conclusion in a satisfying manner. James’ popularity and sheer skill puts “Owen Wingrave” on to the short list, although there would have been some controversy over the pick–a number of contemporary critics and readers hated the ending. In a better year “Owen Wingrave” would have been a very good also-ran, but for lack of anything better to pick, it makes it on to the short list.
Sir Gilbert Parker (1862-1933) was a noted Canadian journalist, author, playwright, and politician. Although he is not remembered today, in his time he was a popular and well-respected author, especially for his historical fiction. His most approachable work are his “Pierre” stories, about a wily Canadian half-breed trapper, frontiersman, and anti-hero active in the wilderness of the Canadian frontier in the last half of the twentieth century. “The Scarlet Hunter” is about a quest to find the last herd of wild buffalo on the North American continent, and the strange secluded valley in which they live. Parker’s attempt at a lyrical style in this story takes some getting used to, but the persevering reader will be rewarded with a nice tale of the supernatural (and romance) on the Canadian frontier. I don’t think “The Scarlet Hunter” is as good as “God’s Garrison” (see below)–but “The Scarlet Hunter” met a good reception at the time and would have been put forward as a nominee.
Four also-rans would appear on the Hugo short form ballot. Robert Barr’s “The Doom of London” is a fun destruction-of-London story. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Mines of Falun” (written in 1819, only translated into English in 1892) is an excellent member of Hoffmann’s supernatural fiction badly served by a bland translation. Gilbert Parker’s “God’s Garrison” is a more streamlined, apt story than “The Scarlet Hunter,” and the better for it–it’s my favorite of Parker’s “Pierre” stories, and the superior (I think) to “The Scarlet Hunter.” And Jerome K. Jerome’s “Silhouettes” is a peculiar, dark, disturbing masterpiece which deserves (but wouldn’t have gotten) placement on the ballot above everything except the Gilman.
Top image: Ursula Andress in H. Rider Haggard’s She.