Sunday, 4 November 2012

Muriel ... and After the Crash

 Further to the previous Sweet Water Grapes, I just read the two shorter middle stories - Muriel and After the Crash - in Maxwell Gray's 1923 collection A Bit of Blue Stone.

Muriel (dated 1923, which makes it probably the author's final work) is rather a static mood piece, repeating the theme of Sweet Water Grapes: disillusionment softened by the promise of continuity. As he sits watching the sunset in a harbour town, a successful politician, Edward Grantham, meditates on his failure to connect emotionally with his daughter Muriel, who has just married. A cold man who has buried in work all his sadness at bereavement, and farmed off the upbringing of his children to his sister-in-law, he regrets the loss of both children: his son William to World War One, and Muriel, who has departed to India with her Civil Service husband.

A colleague, Jack Bennett, tries to talk Grantham out of this mood by telling them that there can be positive outcomes. He tells the story of a young English soldier who escaped from prison camp, made his way to America, and started a new life there. This soldier, like Grantham, was bereaved, but has come back to England with his child. The biographical details mount up - the soldier had a hard father, and was brought up in a rectory by his aunt - until the reader, if not Grantham, knows exactly who it's going to be, and it is. The long-lost William introduces himself, and father and son are reconciled. He hands his baby daughter, who is also called Muriel, to Grantham:
"And the world is still full of beauty," he replied, taking the little figure presented to him with embarrassment mixed with terror and a throb of deep joy.
I'll move on rapidly to After the Crash. In September 2010 - Maxwell Gray .... where London stood - I mentioned having seen a brief Times Literary Supplement review that mentioned A Bit of Blue Stone having a post-apocalyptic story. The story is footnoted "Written about 1908 or 1901, mislaid, and forgotten till now".

After the Crash tells of the visit of Brother Bernard, a pilgrim who has come from The Holy One of Canterbury, and before that from Australia, to seek a tribal leader called the Ancient of Kingston "to gather knowledge of England, and more particularly of those golden days before the Great Trouble that had preceded the downfall of the European civilization".

Arriving, Bernard sees scenery that makes it clear we're in a "where London stood" story:
Far off in the clear and smokeless air a dull blue dome rising above dull grey masses of broken masonry, partly overgrown by bush and creeper, was traced upon the sky. Here and there among the masonry were trees and woods, and towards the east "four grey walls with four grey towers" * stood, as they had already stood after a thousand years before this, unbroken. West of the dome, the grey towers of the abbey, its walls and windows beached and broken here and there, still watched the waters' never-ending flow from behind the battered and half-ruined palace of Westminster that had seen an empire's rise and fall and survived the crash of civilisation.
"And this," mused the pilgrim, contemplating the waste of crumbled brick and mortar and shattered spire, "was London, the London of Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson."

* MG's quotes, an allusion to Tennyon's The Lady of Shalott.
Bernard first meets a savage who "grunts jerkily in a clipped degraded dialect that had some far-off resemblance to Cockney English". After Bernard placates him with a crucifix and "Peace be with you", he directs Bernard to the encampment of the Ancient of Kingston. The Ancient, like Bernard, knows "the beautiful old tongue, the written English", and the two converse. After discussing the church's efforts to bring back civilisation, the Ancient, who is 108, tells how he met in his boyhood a man of 90 who had been born in the Famine following the "Downfall", and who told him of its cause.
"The downfall of Western civilisation was, indeed, caused by socialisms, democracy pushed to a logical conclusion, and its sequence, materialism ... So absorbed were [the ancient English] in money-making they refused to defend their country against invasion ... Moreover the Great Trouble, the anarchy of democracy, was far more acute on the continent than here. State-fed men refused to work or to fight, except among themselves."
Bernard asks the cause of the subsequent international collapse and breakdown of trade and food production.
"They of the century, Brother Bernard, had destroyed authority. They had forgotten God and the needs of the spirit ... The sum of human enjoyment had grown so immense in consequence of innumerable mechanical inventions and scientific discoveries and the enormous amount of wealth and bodily gratification developed by them, the civilised mankind sought its heaven on earth, and ever-growing democracies, grudging that any one man should enjoy more than any other, goaded the craving of material luxury to madness ... Democracy forbade the imposing of religious texts on teachers, or definite religious teaching in schools, people of any religion and no religion being equal. Democracy ... in its revolt against authority and discipline, it threw away every restraint of morality and religion. For pure democracy is the disintegration of humanity, the dissolution of society, the destruction of the atomic cohesion of the race. If you are versed in the science of the Golden Age, you will know that unless atom clings to atom the mass disappears; hence the explosion of society; the vanishing of civilisation."
Bernard, after hearing news of how "John of Kent" is retaking London, including the Tower, from the savages that occupy it, settles to banquet with the clan of the Ancient. He hears how books are being rediscovered; how the chief lady of the clan knows by heart Tennyson's Morte d'Arthur and portions of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron and Shelley; and how the clan are to reinstall as king a young man who is the last descendant of the "Great Empress Queen".

Bernard assures the Ancient in return that "English hearts are beating still" in the old colonial lands, if not so much in England, and on that hopeful note settles down to sleep, thinking "Had the English been prepared, they might have saved a civilisation".

This is an extraordinary story for Maxwell Gray having made such a radical experiment in genre writing, but it is overtly polemical. As I've said before, in the preceding couple of decades, MG's works had been giving away signs of her becoming increasingly grumpy and reactionary ...
"Now Art is god, and Pleasure, and the Beautiful is master
Of soul and sense and life; let us worship these!" we cried;
But the old bright gods are dead, as the Christ, so our disaster
Is that nought is left to paint but our hearts unsatisfied.
"Ourselves are gods," we laughed—" are gods in might and glory;
The universe asks vainly for something that is higher
Or holier than the human in nature or in story;
So man himself is god, and his good fulfilled desire."
- The Cry of the Nineteenth Century, 1890 (poem)

this very enlightened, hypercivilised day at the close of the century, a day so perfectly informed, so thoroughly schooled, as to have lost faith in virtue, honour, and truth; in decency, authority, and government; so surfeited with fairy tales of science, and rich in the long result of time, as to believe in nothing—save only steam, bacteria, natural selection, natural appetites, money and ghosts.
- The House of Hidden Treasure, 1899
... and After the Crash turns the tap full on.

Even if the story were not killed by this overload of authoritarian anti-modern polemic, After the Crash is not very good science fiction. A plus point is the plausibility of the Church as a uniting factor and preserver of knowledge; this at least has a Canticle of Leibowitz flavour. But the language is faux-mediaeval (there are expressions such as "Nay, brother" and "Not so, Lord"), as is the culture; this isn't a believable post-apocalyptic society derived from early-1900s Londoners. OK, I wouldn't expect Riddley Walker or A Scientific Romance, from Maxwell Gray, but the characters' lack of relict cultural fixtures, after less than two centuries, is a sign of the author not exploring the scenario in any historically or linguistically realistic way. There's no sign even that the narrator is Australian.

It's interesting to see a long-established mainstream author try her hand at SF; and I'm always interested in stories where Macaulay's "New Zealander" makes an appearance, of which this is a late example. After the Crash is also a good example of apocalyptic imaginings as a mirror of the author's own anxieties and dissatisfactions with the world. As such, it's a powerful expression of MG's fears about the collapse of civilisation through war and the rise of socialism. But the idea of the its recovery taking the form of an idealised feudal English court is a bit, and the story for me was very disappointing overall, and not a creditable late work for Maxwell Gray.

The Times Literary Supplement for May 24th 1923 mentioned the story briefly, noting the central problem: that the collapse of civilisation, portrayed as starting in the very early years of the 20th century, hadn't actually happened.
"The Crash" ... looks far into the future and pictures England sunk again in primitive existence as the result of a terrible revolution; "the battered and half-ruined Palace of Westminster" is almost the only relic of today. It is a careful short study, but scarcely carries conviction, for its gloom is at variance with the facts of history.
Addendum 29th July 2013: I've posted a scan at After the Crash (1923).

- Ray


  1. I can't decide which is greater in me: impatience with the heavy polemic burden or admiration for the foray so far outside her own fictional territory.

    Presumably the second resulted from the first.

  2. I agree. Even though I can see areas where a better writer might have improved the SF concept - for example, realistic portrayal of dialects, and having inherited fixtures of the lost early-1900s civilisation (e.g. tribespeople with ceremonial top hats) - it still is an amazing genre jump for a writer so late in her career.

  3. Written in 1908-10 but not published until 1923. She is more than cognizant then of the Great War and its terrors and also, I suspect, the Russian Revolution yet she published it intact. However, I think Russia was still in the throes of civil war and famine, correct me if I'm wrong, so didn't pose such a socialist threat as it might later.

    What was most interesting to me was that her fears and language mirror in many ways the fears and language of the Romney Rupublicans. On the other hand, Romney represents a plutocracy (with elements of theocracy; Mormon theocracy, but theocracy all the same) and not the old landed aristocracy of England. Land. Now there is an interesting subject. The new Russian "aristocracy" is almost entirely plutocracy vs Tolstoy era land meisters. If only the world wasn't so strange.

  4. The story does mention the Russian Revolution ...

    "The Russians, having overthrown their government, annihilated the Imperial Family, killed and imprisoned most of the nobility, and destroyed all property in land, were soon compelled by the famine that resulted ..."

    ... but it's so prescient that it rather smells of being spliced in later.

    > her fears and language mirror

    It's a classic 'patrician conservative' view: a horror of what the working classes will get up to unless managed by some oligarchy (in the world of her novels, one based on land-owning families rather than the mega-rich). Her earlier The World-Mender is a very explicit statement of the same.

    Then again, her social-political views occasionally jump in directions hard to categorise, as in the Christian-socialist-feudal mix of the East African "Brothersland" colony postulated in the 1906 The Great Refusal.