We’re now into the mid-1890s, and readers of science fiction at this time will be forgiven for thinking that they’re being rewarded for years of patience. The Age of the Storyteller, as Roger Lancelyn Green put it, has not yet reached science fiction—H.G. Wells is so far only publishing short stories—but the number of pure science fiction novels being published is much higher than in previous years.
This isn’t reflected in the list of finalists, either for the novel or for the short story, but in the also-rans for the novel. At last, there is a good range of science fiction, from the entertaining to the dull—just like any other genre. Science fiction is coming of age.
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.
This is the first year that the ballot is overwhelmed with voters voting based on popularity and their fondness for certain novels rather than innate quality. Three-fifths of the final list should be different than it is.
The 1894 short list for novels would have been: George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff, H. Rider Haggard’s The People of the Mist, Anthony Hope Hawkins’ The Prisoner of Zenda, Villiers de l’isle Adam’s L’Eve Future, and George du Maurier’s Svengali. After much deliberation, Hawkins would have won the Hugo.
Griffith I covered in 1893. Olga Romanoff is a sequel to his The Angel of the Revolution, my choice for the 1893 Hugo novel award. Olga Romanoff is set in the far future and is about the efforts of the femme fatale Olga, the last of the Romanoffs, to overthrow the Aerians, the master race which rules the world. (As I pointed out here, Olga Romanoff is arguably the first significant female mad scientist in all of literature). As a sequel, Olga Romanoff has everything Angel of the Revolution had, but in greater quantity: more imaginative technology and inventions, more air war, more sentimentality, more energy–and more padding, more High Victorian turgid emotionalism, and a more simplistic world-view. Olga Romanoff is not better than Angel, exactly; it’s more of an outsized version of it. The readers of 1894 loved it, of course, and between Olga Romanoff and Griffith’s The Outlaws of the Air (serialized 1894-1895, which is why it’s not covered here) Griffith was seen–rightly, if only temporarily–as the new star in the firmament of science fiction, Britain’s answer to Jules Verne. But the anti-Americanism of Angel of the Revolution, and the way the U.S. is ignored in Olga Romanoff, meant that none of his books were published in the U.S. in his lifetime and that the American voting bloc would (probably) have ignored him, which is why he wouldn’t have won the Hugo, to my mind.
Haggard I’ve mentioned several times before. People of the Mist is about the quest of Leonard Outram, left almost penniless thanks to his father’s embezzlement and heartbroken due to his fiancée’s abandonment of him, to find his fortune in Africa. Lost Race adventures follow among the People of the Mist, with Leonard winning wealth and love. People of the Mist comes out during Haggard’s peak period, when he seemed not to be able to write a failure. Haggard adroitly balances adventure and romance (with a half-white half-Zulu woman, Juanna, winning Leonard’s heart–more evidence for the argument that Haggard’s racism was of the nuanced rather than simplistic variety). There are enough thrills for those reading for adventure, enough characterization for those who like that sort of thing, and enough Exotic Hero Action (in the form of the African dwarf Otter) for those looking for another Umslopogaas. Some critics at the time called People of the Mist “the best novel he has written since She,” which I think is overly kind, but People of the Mist is certainly prime Haggard and well-deserves its presence on the final ballot.
“Anthony Hope,” nee Anthony Hope Hawkins (1863-1933), was a lawyer until he wrote The Prisoner of Zenda and The Dolly Dialogues (1894). Both were so successful he quit his practice and became a full-time writer. The Prisoner of Zenda is about Rudolf Rassendyll, an indolent Briton, and his involvement with the political machinations in the small European country of Ruritania. Rassendyll helps free the King of Ruritania and restores him to his throne as well as finds love with the Queen of Ruritania. The novel is fast-moving romantic adventure, brisk, insouciant, has one of the great fictional rogues in Rupert Hentzau, and is incapable of taking itself too seriously. The Prisoner of Zenda was fabulously successful–as mentioned, it allowed Hawkins to quit his job–with both readers and critics, and became influential to boot. In the words of John Clute, “Ruritania...is the locus classicus for many similar imaginary lands, governed by petty monarchs with large families, in a very large number of Planetary Romances and Space Operas.” There’s no way a runaway smash like Zenda would not have ended up on the final list for the Hugo novel award, and I think it would have actually won it. (My thinking: Griffith is flawed, Haggard’s too familiar, Villiers is too foreign/arty, and Du Maurier isn’t as fun. Which leaves Zenda).
That said, others (see below) probably deserved being included more than Zenda, and I think Zenda’s win would eventually have become an uncomfortable topic among fans.
Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste, Comte de Villiers de l’Isle Adam (1838-1889) was a French poet, dramatist, novelist, and short story writer. Villiers was well regarded during his lifetime, influencing W.B. Yeats among others, and is now seen as an important figure in the history of French literature. His work is valued for its imagination and its combination of the Romanticism of the early 19th century and the Symbolist movement of the early 20th century. L’Eve Future (a serial in 1883, a novel in 1886, first translated into English in 1894) is about a British nobleman who consults with Thomas Edison regarding the nobleman’s romantic troubles. Edison’s response is to make an “andreide” (android) which is a perfect duplicate of the nobleman’s mistress but lacks her less appealing qualities. For a while they are happy, but matters end tragically.
Clute describes L’Eve Future as “an important contribution to the Symbolist movement, the novel is philosophical, ironic and mockingly contorted.” Bleiler says it is “a remarkable work that deserves more attention than it has received.” Other critics draw comparison to the work of Hoffmann, Gautier, and Poe. I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it. Perhaps it was just the translation I read–with foreign works translation is all-important–but I found it misogynistic, overly-florid, and full of extended monologues and deliberately unreal, theatrical dialogue. Not My Thing At All, but I think voters at the time would have valued its good qualities over its bad ones and put it on the ballot.
George Du Maurier (1834-1896) is little-remembered today, and that just for being the grandfather of Daphne Du Maurier (of Rebecca fame). But in his lifetime George Du Maurier was a notable figure, both for his illustrations for Punch and for his writing. Du Maurier did achieve literary immortality through his creation of the word “Svengali.” Trilby was hugely successful, one of the century’s best-sellers, and “Svengali” entered the English language as a general noun rather than as a proper name. Trilby is about a group of artists in bohemian Paris who fall in love with an artist’s model, the titular Trilby, only to watch her fall into the clutches of the evil musician and mesmerist Svengali. He uses his influence over Tribly to make her into a great singer, but matters end badly for almost everyone.
As with L’Eve Future, I really didn’t like Trilby. This is what I wrote about it in another context:
Trilby is not very good at all. The most damning problem for the book is its rampant anti-Semitism. Although Du Maurier does throw in the occasional kind word for those of “Jewish blood,” most of the novel is filled with derogatory slurs about Jews and being Jewish. And Svengali himself is a rank anti-Semitic stereotype. Even apart from Du Maurier’s hatred of Jews, Trilby has other difficulties. Much of the dialogue is in untranslated French, and slangy French at that, which can be a trial for readers whose French is less than perfect. Du Maurier’s depiction of life in bohemian Paris is romanticized beyond the point of credibility. The tone Du Maurier tries to establish for the book–breezy, slangy, and conversational–grows increasingly affected and strained. Du Maurier attempts to make his characters free spirits, but too many of them are prigs, hamstrung by stolid middle-class Victorian morality. Trilby is far more attractive as a soiled dove than as the reformed, saccharine good girl. And some of the plot twists are, to be kind, hard to credit.
And yet, and yet...Trilby was so successful that there’s no way it wouldn’t have been on the final ballot. There are any number of best-sellers which never made it on to the Hugo ballot, but when a book is as praised by critics and reviewers as it is by readers, as was the case with Trilby, it’s pretty much a shoo-in to make it to the final five.
All that being said, there were three novels published in 1894 which were better, in my view, than The Prisoner of Zenda, L’Eve Future, and Trilby. These three wouldn’t have made it to the final five, but they should have.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Parasite is about a skeptic’s involvement with a psychic femme fatale. The Parasite is an interesting precursor to Doyle’s later involvement with spiritualism; it’s a Doylean psychic fantasy, written as he’s knocking off Sherlock Holmes in “The Final Problem” and after he’s written four of his historical novels. I think The Parasite is more successful as a novel–not as Art, but as a novel–than L’Eve Future.
The Fair Abigail, by German writer Paul Heyse (he won the Nobel in 1910), is one of the more obscure pre-Dracula vampire stories, but I have a sneaking affection for it. The translation I have is florid, but not to the degree of L’Eve Future, and Heyse’s horror effects work well in context. I think The Fair Abigail is better as Art–not as a novel, but Art–than The Prisoner of Zenda.
William Dean Howells’ A Traveler from Altruria is a Utopia, about a visitor to the U.S. from the faraway land of Altruria, and what he finds. Howells uses America as a measuring stick for Altruria, with the U.S. coming up short in every regard. Howells was a skilled writer–one doesn’t attract praise from Henry James without being so–and Altruria reads easily and well. It’s far better than the wretched Trilby both as a novel and as Art.
Also appearing on the ballot: two space operas (John Jacob Astor’s A Journey in Other Worlds and Gustavus Pope’s Journey to Mars), a Journey to the Center of the Earth lift (E. Douglas Fawcett’s Swallowed by an Earthquake), a Lost Race novel (Will Harben’s The Land of the Changing Sun), an oh-those-scary-bioweapon-using-anarchists novel (Gustave Linbach’s The Azrael of Anarchy), and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which is certainly enjoyable but equally certainly not on the level of the finalists listed above.
Something of a disappointing year for short stories, especially after 1893 and 1890. Only one story that is still remembered by non-specialists of fantastika, and two of the five finalists are, to be honest, only better than average. 1893 is one of those strange years in which the novel ballot is stronger than the short form ballot. It happens.
The 1894 Hugo short list for short form fiction is Villiers de l’isle Adam’s “The Torture of Hope,” Paul Heyse’s “Mid-Day Magic,” R. Murray Gilchrist’s “Witch In-Grain,” Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” and Hume Nisbet’s “The Haunted Station.” “The Great God Pan” would have taken home the Hugo.
Villiers I just described, in the novel section. His “The Torture of Hope” is about a victim of the Inquisition who escapes from the dungeons of the Inquisition. [spoilers] No, he doesn’t really. It was all just one last torture, the torture of hope. [/spoilers] “The Torture of Hope” is in the French tradition of the contes cruel, the “cruel story,” cynical and harsh stories about the cruelty of fate and “the horror of being a man.” The contes cruel were predecessors to Grand Guignol, though not nearly as gory. And “The Torture of Hope” is a quintessential conte cruel: savage, merciless, and (despite the predictability of the ending) very effective. It’s a perfect story, in its way, and deserves to be included among the final five.
Paul Heyse I just described, in the novel section. His “Mid-Day Magic” is about a student who takes a vacation at a home in the country and meets a ghost. “Mid-Day Magic” doesn’t have the florid style of The Fair Abigail, instead bearing a slightly stuffy translation. It also takes a while to get to the point. But the ghost, when we finally meet her, isn’t of the frightening variety, but is instead rather appealing, even touching, and makes “Mid-Day Magic” a much different and better story than what we might have expected. (I was put in mind of Quiller-Couch’s superior “A Pair of Hands,” which will undoubtedly be a finalist in 1898).
R. Murray Gilchrist (1868-1917) was a British author and journalist now remembered for his regional work. His The Stone Dragon and Other Tragic Romances (1894) is highly valued by connoisseurs of Victorian horror, and “Witch In-Grain” is the best story from The Stone Dragon. It’s a vignette about a man, his lover, and the witch who seems to come between them. Bleiler put it pithily: “Probably as close to Beardsley in prose as one can get.” It’s lush, sensually told in an archaic (but not unpleasing) manner, and full of unexplained yet true-seeming folklore. An intense story, deserving of inclusion.
Machen I’ve mentioned before. His “The Great God Pan” is about a woman, the subject of a cruel experiment, whose daughter becomes a supernatural femme fatale and terrorizes London. “The Great God Pan” is rightly seen as a classic. It’s not a perfect story; it lacks flow and momentum, Machen’s Stevensonian riff suffers by comparison to the real thing, and his text is dense. But it’s a frightening (in several ways) work, with good visual descriptions, a nice fin-de-siecle feel, and an atmosphere of cosmic horror which prefigures Lovecraft without being too close to HPL’s work. (It was also terribly controversial). “Pan” is a fine, deserving winner of the Hugo for this year.
Hume Nisbet (1849-1921) was a British author, born in Scotland, who was a popular author while living in Australia. His “The Haunted Station” is a nice complement to “The Great God Pan.” “Station” is a traditional Victorian haunted house story–traditional in narration, conception, and execution. Nisbet tells it straight and well-enough that in this year a traditional, well-written haunted house story will stand out from the rest of the nominees and also-rans and sneak on to the final ballot.
Also receiving votes: Robert Barr’s classic revenge story “A Game of Chess” (entertaining if overlong for its purposes); Theron Clark Crawford’s “The Disappearance Syndicate” (Bleiler: “if naive, amusing”); Arthur Machen’s “The Inmost Light” (lesser Machen, but still entertaining); Frank Stockton’s misogynistic, if well-told “The Magic Egg;” H.G. Wells’ fun monster plant story, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid;” and Jerome Field’s overwritten “Aut Diabolus Aut Nihil.”
Top image: Prisoner of Zenda, 1937.