THE WASHINGTON POST – “Listen! The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.”
That’s the opening of Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel, After London. In it, we learn that “the passage of an enormous dark body through space” has tilted the Earth’s axis, altered the seas and the climate, and driven England’s population into a frenzied panic.
While “the richer and upper classes made use of their money to escape”, none of the ships in which they took passage was ever heard of again.
Meanwhile, great conflagrations consumed the towns. Domestic animals, crazed by hunger, grew feral.
Any small surviving pockets of humanity quickly reverted to ferocious barbarism.
Once the Thames began to silt up, London itself was doomed. As Jefferies’ unnamed narrator explained, “It is believed that… the waters of the river, unable to find a channel, began to overflow up into the deserted streets, and especially to fill the underground passages and drains.
“These, by the force of the water, were burst up and the houses fell in.”
Soon England’s once-great metropolis lay submerged beneath “a vast stagnant swamp, which no man dare enter, since death would be his inevitable fate.”
Why death? Because decayed human corpses, sewer waste and other pollutants have created a chemical soup that exudes a poisonous yellow vapour. To breathe it for long is fatal.
In fact, the wise shun all the cities once inhabited by “the ancients” because the ruins bring on ague and fever.
In the first five chapters of his book, Jefferies, one of great Victorian nature essayists, surveys the new flora, fauna and geography of this blasted future England.
However, he then shifts gears to depict the feudalistic society that eventually emerged from the ruined land.
His hero, Felix Aquila, is that familiar mainstay of fantasy and science fiction – the sensitive and inquisitive scion of a noble family, who can read the old books and has begun to tinker and invent things.
Still, the impoverished Aquilas and their retainers count on a sturdy stockade and constant vigilance to stay safe.
The men always carry spears or bows to defend themselves against “bushmen”- the vicious, atavistic descendants of criminals and beggars – or even occasional marauders from Wales and Ireland.
In love with the beautiful Aurora, Felix knows that their chances of marrying are slim.
The girl’s father wants her to wed a foppish courtier from the local prince’s inner circle.
So, desperate to gain a fortune and Aurora, Felix constructs a boat in which to explore the immense lake – really an inner sea – that now dominates the centre of England.
Like any slightly bumbling fantasy hero, Felix suffers numerous mishaps and misadventures, which are entertaining enough, but they don’t prepare the reader for the high point of Jefferies’s book: The Dantesque chapters in which the young fortune-seeker unknowingly enters the miasmic swamp that used to be London.
As Felix penetrates increasingly mysterious waters, the wind picks up and he observes maddened flocks of birds and huge schools of fish racing away from the direction he is heading.
Around him the water grows brackish, then utterly black. Looking to the west, he notices that the sun appears “surrounded with a faint blue rim”.
A little later, he sees that the disk had disappeared and “in its place was a billow of blood, for so it looked, a vast upheaved billow of glowing blood surging on the horizon”.
Thirsting for potable water, Felix tramps through mud that leaves glowing, phosphorescent footmarks. He glimpses and stumbles toward an old wall, which crumbles at his touch. Meanwhile the yellow mist around him thickens and he starts to grow delirious.
“Sometimes he fancied that he saw an arm or a limb among the folds of the cloud or an approach to a face; the instant he looked it vanished.” His compass spins wildly; it has been demagnetised.
I’ll stop there, but to find analogues to these brilliantly imagined pages, think of the phantasmagoric final chapters of Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym or the terminal vision of the world’s end in HG Wells’s The Time Machine.
The zone of death around ancient ruins will soon become a familiar science fiction trope, as in Stephen Vincent Benet’s prescient 1937 story of Earth after the Great Burning, By the Waters of Babylon.
In its most intense passages Jefferies’ book even prefigures JG Ballard’s disaster novels, notably the hallucinatory depiction of ecological and psychological breakdown of The Drowned World.
Within five years of the publication of After London, two ripostes to Jefferies’ Dark Ages England rapidly appeared.
In 1887 The Crystal Age, by WH Hudson – later the author of that tragic jungle romance Green Mansions – presented a pastoral future society of Apollonian calm, dignity and long life, almost a proto-Shangri-La. Money, cities, governments and ambition are unknown.
Instead, humankind lives in harmony with nature and the seasons.
Alas, the somewhat obtuse narrator – who has awakened from a sleep of centuries – falls passionately in love with Yoletta.
Simple, clear prose, and some almost ecstatic descriptions of nature make this a surprisingly powerful novel, frequently mysterious and ultimately heartbreaking.
A far more famous book, though, is William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890) in which the hero is transported forward in time to an arts-and-crafts vision of a socialist England, one of agrarian medievalism and marriage.
Despite the didacticism characteristic of Utopian novels, Morris offers an inspiring vision of a peaceful, creative civilisation built on useful work instead of useless toil. My favourite detail: The Houses of Parliament have been repurposed into a storage place for manure.