“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.”
The plants, the trees, the fields, and the flowers are the main characters in the first section of Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel After London; Or, Wild England. Post-civilization, post-industrial, post-apocalypse London has been buried beneath the waters of an enormous lake, and the plants have taken back the surrounding land.
During this first chapter—titled The Great Forest—it was the presence of plants rather than the absence of man that was noteable. With few exceptions, the deeds of men were written in passive voice, while the plants were active, taking back roads, morphing fields to forest, and clearly signaling that the age of man has ended and the age of plants begun.
In chapter two—titled Wild Animals—the beasts of field and forest take center stage. Which pigs, cows, and horses have survived? What tides of rats and mice have swept across the remnants of humanity? What dogs are left and how have they adapted? You are going to find out in a level of detail to befit a survival guide for the time and place. For roughly 50 pages Jefferies continues on this note, an obvious enthusiast whom you won’t be surprised to hear was a nature writer.
I had not read a summary of After London beforehand; I did not know that this section was ever going to end. But end it did. Thank pod, I thought as I finally turned the page to find a story about the Felix whose name had been dropped several times throughout those first chapters. If I had known, I might have relaxed and attempted to re-set the rhythm of my reading to the leisurely plod that would continue for the rest of the book. But, for me, the hardest part about reading classics is generally the pace. A child of generation A.D.D., I am used to something a lot more brisk than the novels written during the 19th century.
Still, if I had been Jefferies’ editor, I would have asked him to cut those first 50 pages and to weave the natural details he found important into the remaining text. Jefferies’ writing is at its best when he combines his love for botanical detail with action, and more of the same would have benefited the text enormously. Take this passage from Felix’s journey across the great lake:
“The yellow spark of a glowworm shining by a bush made him set his teeth; trifling and well known as it was, the light suddenly seen thrilled him with the terror of the unexpected. Strange rushings sounded among the fern, as if the wings of a demon brushed it as he travelled. Felix knew that they were caused by rabbits hastening off, or a boar bounding away, yet they increased the feverish excitement with which he was burdened. Though dark beneath the firs, it was not like the darkness of the beeches; these trees did not form a perfect canopy overhead everywhere. In places he could see where a streak of moonlight came aslant through an opening and reached the ground.”
In 1851 the population of London was 2.7 million; by 1901 it had reached 6,6 million people (source). The 1800s were a time of dramatic change in England. According to London Online “In 1800 there were no railways, no cabs, no buses, no telegrams, no telephones, no gas, no electric-light, no ‘penny post’, and no new Metropolitan Police. In 1900 all of the above existed.” Amidst this change was Jefferies, a writer who could imagine a change even more dramatic, perhaps a change that he, as a nature lover, fantasized about as new technologicy rose up and continued to push back the ecosystem that so fascinated him.
Despite this, the conflict that Jefferies sets up is not one of man versus technology. As Mike White from The Finch and Pea points out in his delightful series about the history of apocalyptic literature: “Unlike later novels in the genre, the tension between city and rural life is not focused on technology. For example, industrialization isn’t explicitly blamed for London’s corruption. Technology, as a means to abuse nature, didn’t cause society’s downfall. Technology rather is a matter of intelligence versus stupidity: Felix, implausibly, gains some traction in his world by going around and pointing out obvious ideas that the closed-minded people in this society never thought of. It’s a very naive take on technological progress; for the last 100,000 years, humans have always pushed the bleeding edge of technology. The Felixes of the world always have fierce competitors.”
As Mike mentions, technology versus man—with technology as villain—is prevalent in later post-apocalyptic lit. This is often a superstitious and anti-science point of view, and I was glad to find out that it didn’t begin with Jefferies, though it would have been an easy conflict for a naturalist to write.
Prejudice in After London
A timeline of events from the UK in 1885 mentions that it was the year when women were first allowed to take the entrance exam for Oxford University. All woman over the age of 21 would not get the right to vote in England until 1928. Considering the misogyny rampant at the time, Jefferies does surprisingly well in his portrayal of women. Though Felix talks about “possessing” his love interest Aurora (it’s mutual), she is not your stereotypical female. Though we don’t come to know her well, we do know that she is bookish and intelligent. The only trope-y element to her character is her obsession with religion, something that makes her a picture of goodness and purity and caretaking female charity. Otherwise this is a world populated by men; I do not recall another female character.
As usual, however, the hobos, nomadic tribes, and the “bushmen” (hunter gatherers who live in the woods) get the short end of the representational stick. Many of the subcultures Jefferies describes in this new world are an obvious rehashing of stereotypes—some of which are still prevalent today. But despite our narrators faux-feudal birth culture and hierarchical upbringing, he manages to see the error in his class prejudice in an encounter with a kind slave.
“He had eaten at a slave’s table, and sat with him face to face. Theory and practice are often strangely at variance. He felt it an important moment; he felt that he was himself, as it were, on the balance; should he adhere to the ancient prejudice, the ancient exclusiveness of his class, or should he boldly follow the dictate of his mind? He chose the latter, and extended his hand to the servant as he rose to say goodbye. The act was significant; it recognised man as distinct from class.”
Some modern SFF still hasn’t succeeded in imagining a future without such prejudice, and I was happy to find such progressive thinking in Jefferies work. The second hardest thing about reading the classics is the sexism. (And racism. And classism. Et al.)
How did Jefferies’ world end?
“He had stumbled into that midst of that dreadful place, of which he had heard many a tradition: how the earth was poison, the water poison, the air poison, the very light of heaven, falling through such an atmosphere, poison.”
Jefferies doesn’t tell, but his narrator does speculate. Some believe the Earth’s orbit had changed. Some believed God had finally come home, seen what a mess humans were making of the planet, and wiped the slate clean (though not clean enough, eh?). Another theory mentioned a famine that drove most of the population out of England in search of food. Or maybe it had something to do with “an enormous dark body passing through space.” File under: “or something.”
The why is not the point. The resulting landscape, lake, and cultures that have sprung up around the water are. But Jefferies does give the reader one chapter of truly metal descriptions of the water and land on the former site of London proper.
“Ghastly beings haunted the site of so many crimes, shapeless monsters, hovering by night, and weaving a fearful dance. Frequently they caught fire, as it seemed, and burned as they flew or floating in the air.”
During this section of the book, I reread passages just for the joy of it, just so I could watch the flames roll across this broken, desolate landscape one more time.
Felix, our narrator, is a depressed, anti-social bookish type with few friends, but mad archery skills. His lover, Aurora, is a bit too good for him where feudal status is concerned, and this has Felix feeling even shittier than usual. His brother Oliver, a strapping muscle man type who excels at sports and fighting, helps him build a canoe and, after we have heard all the detail about the shape of the walls surrounding their village and the build of the houses that we can stand, Felix sails off into the sunset to explore and figure out how to gain the money and status that will win Aurora’s father’s approval of their marriage.
It is a coming-of-age story, what the lit kids call a bildungsroman, and as Felix explores neighboring lands and meets people he becomes more sure of himself. By being proudly himself and, as mentioned above, sharing his technological ideas and skill with the bow, he manages to find his place in the world—or so we assume. The novel ends as he slips quietly into the forest, in hopes of finding Aurora and bringing her back to the place where he has come into his own.
When boiled down to its elements, the story sounds exciting—a journey, a forbidden love affair, two brothers, a fiery gaseous pit where London once lay—but I had to force myself to finish. In part due to pacing I couldn’t get used to, in part due to an overabundance of detail completely irrelevant to the plot. I did not need to know the name of every tree that Felix passes. After London is an important book in the history of post-apocalyptic literature, but it is not an important book, nor would I call it capital-L literature. Neither the marks of a master wordsmith or storyteller nor the depth of a book that will not let the reader go for weeks afterward are present.
So you don’t have to go back and scroll through my really fucking long list of all the apocalyptic books ever written, a reminder of the apocalypses published pre-1900:
1722: Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe
1805: Le Dernier Homme by Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville (English: The Last Man, generally regarded as the very first)
1826: The Last Man by Mary Shelley
1839: The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion by Edgar Allen Poe (short story)
1843: The New Adam and Eve by Nathaniel Hawthorne
1885: After London by Richard Jefferies
Despite the mediocrity of the work, Jefferies is one of the founding fathers of the post-apocalyptic genre. Most notably, his tale inspired William Morris to write News From Nowhere (published in 1890) “perhaps the greatest pastoral utopia ever written.” (source)
Perhaps, the post-apocalyptic crowd are the wrong bunch for this story. Pete Marchetto has this final word in its defense: “…if you want post-apocalyptic fiction, forget it. This is one for those who like Victorian drama, who like musings upon nature and the environment, and for them this is a gem they will, most likely, given all the post-apocalyptic build-up, never read.”