The Hugo Awards are given to the best science fiction or fantasy works of the previous year. Unfortunately, they've only been awarded since 1953. That's where this column comes in — Jess Nevins will be awarding honorary Hugo Awards to the best novels of the Victorian era... and beyond.
Top image: Illustrations from The Last American.
Five years into this experiment is enough time to begin looking at how science fiction and fantasy are changing. (I'll be relying on my own numbers rather than the Internet Science Fiction Databases's, since the ISFDB, usually outstanding, is, sadly, unreliable when it comes to the Victorian era).
1885: 12 novels and anthologies, 52 short stories.
1886: 30 novels and anthologies, 49 short stories
1887: 30 novels and anthologies, 88 short stories
1888: 50 novels and anthologies, 90 short stories
1889: 43 novels and anthologies, 101 short stories
In five years we've gone from 64 sf/fantasy texts to 144. Qualitatively, the change is much more striking. In 1889 there is enough mainstream science fiction that the Hugo voters wouldn't even consider science fiction dime novels, which would have been considered (and nominated) in 1885 and 1886. Also, it seems as if the last year when you could be confident that you had read everything the genre had to offer was 1886, and even then you would have to do a lot of reading.
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Again, an abundance of worthy novels–in all likelihood, this will be the case going forward–and some noteworthy novels left off the final ballot because of vote-splitting.
After a contentious round or rounds of balloting, the short list for the 1889 Hugo Novel would have been: Walter Besant's The Doubts of Dives, Albert Bleunard's Babylon Electrified, Marie Corelli's Ardath, the Story of a Dead Self, H. Rider Haggard's Allan's Wife and Other Tales, and J.A. Mitchell's The Last American. Corelli's Ardath would have taken the award. (Alas).
Walter Besant was covered in the 1888 column for his The Inner House. His The Doubts of Dives is an identity-exchange novel (a surprisingly popular sub-genre of the Victorian fantastic) in which a rich young Society layabout and a poor scribbler of light verse switch places, with predictable results and a predictable conclusion. The Doubts of Dives has Besant's virtues: charming dialogue, good characterization, and generally strong storytelling.
It's a good read, basically, but it's also a leisurely read. Besant takes his time with matters in the novel, with more of the kind of arch Victorian humor which can be wearing on the modern reader, and the occasional note of conservative politics which jars in an otherwise light-hearted novel. It's not a masterpiece, but an entertaining and assured piece of storytelling which would deserve its nomination.
Albert Bleunard (1852-1905) was a French science writer whose scientific publications (like "Two Fun Physics Experiments") were critically and popularly successful. He also wrote some fiction on the side, though Babylon Electrified was his only novel. Babylon is a Vernean tale about the temporary transformation of Babylon into a modern locale through the use of hydro-electric stations, thermo-solar pyles, and a new all-electric city. (Darn those superstitious natives, they ruin everything in the end). Bleunard isn't well-served by his translator, who like Verne's translators drains much of the life from the novel and replaces it with dry wood and dust.
The English-language version of Babylon Electrified is stiff, and Bleunard, like Verne, has a fatal weakness for the infodump. Nonetheless, the novel is exuberantly imaginative, so scientifically accurate that it could almost be called the Victorian equivalent of hard science fiction, and unusually thoughtful about matters like deforestation, climate change, and the clash between the colonizers and the colonized. Babylon Electrified is Vernean in most of the right ways and some of the wrong ones, but more imaginative in the application of its concepts, more contemplative in its consideration of consequences, and less weighed down with the weltschmertz and Luddite bile that harms Verne's later work. You probably haven't heard of Babylon Electrified before now, and reading it will require patience with its style, but you should read it anyhow.
Marie Corelli...ah, Marie Corelli, the Laurell K. Hamilton of the Victorian era. I mentioned her in the 1886 article. Ardath is about a poet who travels to a Caucasus monastery to ask a magician to restore his lost poetic genius. Time travel follows, then romance in Babylon, and finally a return to the modern era with poetic genius regained. Ardath was Corelli's favorite novel, Oscar Wilde said it "enchanted" him, it sold well (though not by Corelli's inflated standards), and it made her into a celebrity. But the critics hated it. John Sutherland (author of the magisterial Longman's Companion to Victorian Fiction) says of Ardath that "by now, reviews of her fiction were an orchestrated chorus of ridicule and savagery." I think Ardath is a bad book with nary a redeeming quality to it; it is self-indulgent to the point of mania, laughable in its attempts at profundity, and an unwitting self-parody. But the readers of 1889 would have vehemently disagreed with me and would have awarded it the Hugo. I think they would have been wrong to do so–but they would think I was daft for ignoring the virtues they saw in Ardath. So it goes.
H. Rider Haggard I've mentioned before. By 1889 he had become a professional writer as well as a compulsive one, and during this year had begun cranking out shorter works to accompany his longer ones. If the critics were generally unsympathetic to him, not just for his moments of plagiarism (most likely unconscious) but also his supposed bloodthirstiness, the fans continued to love him, as did some significant other writers like Andrew Lang and Matthew Arnold. Allan's Wife has one novella, "Allan's Wife," and three shorter stories. Only "Allan's Wife" is fantastic in content. "Allan's Wife" continues Haggard's run of excellence which would continue through 1892, when his nine-year-old son died. "Allan's Wife" lacks the eroticism of She and the Lost Race exotica of King Solomon's Mines, but it's more smoothly told than either-Haggard's hitting his stride as a writer. Indaba-zimbi, the witch-doctor, is perhaps Haggard's most successful African character (yes, even more than Umslopogaas). The figure of Hendrika is an interesting precursor to Tarzan. And the novel succeeds in movingly describing the romance between Allan and Stella and her eventual death. "Allan's Wife" is a fine novella that deserves its place on the short list.
J.A. Mitchell (1845-1918) was a New York journalist, artist, and writer who founded Life Magazine and was its first editor-in-chief. The Last American was his first science fiction novel. The Last American is set in the 30th century and tells the story of a Persian expedition to the ruins of New York City and their discovery of America's history and downfall (darn those immigrants!) and of the last three living Americans.
I rather enjoyed The Last American. Yes, it's got a very Victorian racism in its portrayal of the Persians and the effect of unchecked immigration (not coincidentally, The Last American was popular with American readers), and, yes, the Victorian humor and silly names grate after a while. But the novel is also bracingly misanthropic toward Americans and American culture. It's pessimistic, sure, but it's also got a light narrative style which isn't at odds with the novel's bitterness, but instead nicely enhances it. And Mitchell doesn't force us to stay too long in his world. At three volumes The Last American would be a tedious bore, but at its current length it is only as long as it needs to be.
The story of the Hugo ballot doesn't end there. Three more novels from this year need to be discussed.
The first is C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne's Beneath Your Very Boots. Hyne would later become famous for his sea stories, especially those of "Captain Kettle" (reportedly as famous at his peak as Sherlock Holmes). Beneath Your Very Boots was his first novel. It's a Lost Race novel, heavily influenced by Bulwer-Lytton but told with Hyne's usual skill. Boots was very popular with British readers and critics but made no impact in the United States–I couldn't even find a review for it in an American paper. I'm guessing British fans would have voted heavily for it, but the lack of American voters would have kept it off the ballot short list.
Similarly, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court came out this year, and while it was popular with a segment of American readers (though not a bestseller) the British hated it. Oh, did they hate it. They hated it even more than the French hated Twain after his famous bon mot (French critic, sneering at American's lack of heritage: "Let the American point to his grandfather, if he can find him." Twain: "Let the Frenchman point to his father, if he can find him"). Twain's British publisher even asked Twain for permission to remove certain inflammatory passages. My guess is that American fandom would have voted for Connecticut Yankee but the British would not, which would have kept it off the ballot short list.
(Such things never happen In Our Enlightened Time, of course. Heavens, no).
There's one final novel from 1889 that would have received few votes but which in retrospect is a major publication from this year: William Morris' Tale of the House of Wolfings. Tale didn't get much critical or popular attention on either side of the Atlantic, and it was seen as a difficult novel to read even in 1889 (and much more so now), but Tale, like Morris' The Story of the Glittering Plain (which I'll cover in the 1891 Hugos article), was enormously influential on Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and was a dry run for Glittering Plain, the first modern fantasy novel. Wolfings has its flaws, but I think it's an absorbing, lyrical work that will reward the effort modern readers put into it.
A return to abundance after a disappointing 1888. Seven stories could have made the short list, with a further six likely receiving a fair number of votes. My guess at the short list for the 1889 Hugo ballot for short works: Mrs. Alfred Baldwin's "The Weird of the Walfords," Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A Gentle Ghost," Vernon Lee's "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers," W.C Morrow's "His Unconquerable Enemy," and Mrs. J.H. Riddell's "A Terrible Vengeance." The winner would have been "A Terrible Vengeance."
Mrs. Alfred Baldwin (1845-1925), née Louisa Macdonald, was one of the four Macdonald Sisters. Louisa married Alfred Baldwin, an industrial, and became a writer and poet as well as a friend to a number of the Pre-Raphaelites, including William Morris. (She was also the mother of future Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin). Alice was the mother of Rudyard Kipling, Georgiana married Edward Burne-Jones, and Agnes married Edward Poynter, the president of the Royal Academy. Baldwin's reputation, never critically high, has fallen since her death, and now she's mostly known for her supernatural stories. In my Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about her "The Empty Picture Frame," which may be Baldwin's best-known story, but I think "The Weird of the Walfords" is significantly better. "Walfords" is about the last of the Walfords, who tries to avoid a family curse by destroying the bed in which his ancestors died, only to find that some fates are not so easily ducked. Baldwin avoids the cliches and coincidence of much of her short fiction but employs her skill at characterization to good use, and the gathering sense of oncoming doom is, I think, effectively wrought.
Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) was what the critics call a "regional" writer, because she focused primarily on life in New England. Freeman was popular in her lifetime both financially and critically, but her reputation has dwindled and now she is remembered for only a few of her stories and for possibly being one of the lesbian writers of the era. (It's not known if Freeman had a sexual relationship with her closest friend and roommate of twenty years, but some of Freeman's short stories have a fairly clear lesbian subtext to them). I think this is a shame, since at her best Freeman was quite good indeed. Freeman channeled the loss of her sister into the writing of "A Gentle Ghost," in which a family and an orphan child, both haunted by ghosts, find a kind of peace with each other. "A Gentle Ghost" is the first of four stories in which Freeman puts her dead daughter, and the gentlest. "A Gentle Ghost" isn't frightening so much as sad and bittersweet. There's no terror in the story, just the pain of loss and a sentimental (in the best way), healing resolution.
Vernon Lee I mentioned in the 1887 column. "The Virgin of the Seven Daggers," a florid and exuberant tale of Don Juan's wooing of an entombed princess and his afterlife fate, is entirely unlike Lee's horror stories. That's Lee, though–she seems never to have been content to master one mode, but kept shifting into others. As John Clute nicely puts it, "In the shorter fictions of her youth it is possible to discern hints of something like greatness. It seems that she herself could not allow these hints to flourish." But, as Clute goes on to say, "This is our misfortune. Our good luck rests in the passages of wisdom that remain, which haunt us." Lee is a superb writer, and if "Virgin" is just a light-hearted adventure (albeit with what Clute calls her characteristic "intense erudition with a mesmeric sense of place"), it's one splendidly told.
Morrow I mentioned in the 1887 article. "His Unconquerable Enemy" is a personal favorite: a gory tale of horror and humor so dark it is fuligin, the color darker than black. "Enemy" is about Neranya, the favorite of a sultan, whose affection turns to hate after the sultan punishes him, and how Neranya eventually avenges himself upon the sultan. "Enemy" is a contes cruel (cruel story), the cynical and harsh French stories which were the precursors to the Grand Guignol. "Enemy" is disturbing, cruel, and sardonic. Morrow tells it in a deadpan style, but I imagine he was grinning maliciously as he wrote it. It's fun, if you've the stomach for it.
Riddell I mentioned in the 1888 article. "A Terrible Vengeance" is both ghost story and murder mystery: a teasing vixen is murdered and takes ghostly revenge upon her murderer. Some of Riddell's contemporaries, like Rosa Mulholland (who we'll see in the 1891 article), wrote stories set in unsentimental universes where bad things happen to both good and bad people and punishment drops as the gentle rain from heaven upon the just and the unjust alike. "A Terrible Vengeance" takes a more traditional approach. Well-told, with especially good characterization, some small, chilling details, and an authorial savaging of every character–the murdered woman was no innocent even if she did not deserve to be murdered–"A Terrible Vengeance" would be a deserving winner of the short form Hugo.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a reading copy of Theo Gift's "Number Two, Melrose Square" and Léopold von Sacher-Masoch's "The Gravedigger's Daughter," else either of them might have supplanted Baldwin or even Freeman. Gift wrote some good horror in the Poe vein, and "Number Two, Melrose Square" was well-reviewed as a Poe-style haunted house. Von Sacher-Masoch—yes, the very same gentleman "masochism" was named after–put his fetish for dominant, cruel women into the story of a woman who takes revenge on an unfaithful lover. It, too, got some good reviews.
Other stories receiving votes: Edward Bellamy's "To Whom This May Come" (traveler discovers island of telepaths–E.F. Bleiler thought much more highly of this story than I did); Ambrose Bierce's "The Spook House" (an enjoyable vignette, but not to be given serious consideration beyond the moment of reading); Howard Fielding's "The Automatic Bridget" (amusing trifle about a robotic maid); Lucy Hooper's "Carnivorine" (precursor to Little Shop of Horrors which would have fit wonderfully in Weird Tales thirty years later); and Andrew Lang's "Prince Prigio" and Oscar Wilde's "The Birthday of the Infanta," both fairy tales.
Besant's The Doubts of Dives
Bleunard's Babylon Electrified
Haggard's Allan's Wife
Mitchell's The Last American
Baldwin's "The Weird of the Walfords"
Freeman's "A Gentle Ghost"
Lee's "A Virgin of the Seven Daggers"
Morrow's "His Unconquerable Enemy"