The Tipping Point

John Batchelor

The Tipping Point:

B ritish anxiety in the writers of the 1890s.

1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, was the year in which a number of famous British writers were reflecting a national anxiety. The anxiety was that Britain was losing its position as the most powerful nation in the world.

For most of the nineteenth century British writing could comfortably and confidently reflect the huge scale of the British empire, underpinned by Britain's unrivalled command of the sea. After 1897 that was no longer true. H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (published in serial form in 1897 and in book form in 1898) illustrates this. So does Bram Stoker's Dracula (of the same year). These two texts turn on blood transfusion! The vampires in Stoker's novel subsist on the blood of their victims whom they transform into vampires like themselves and the Martians in H.G.Wells's great fantasy feed themselves on the blood of the living humans whom they capture.

In the Martians' case the whole plot can be seen as an expression of anxiety about the loss of British world power. The Martians, on their dying planet, do to earth what Britain and other European countries had done to the unspoiled territories of Africa and the West Indies, invading and occupying them as fertile worlds in which Europeans can reproduce and flourish. An important rival to British trading interests was Belgium, and the Belgian trade in ivory underlies Joseph Conrad's famous tale, Heart of Darkness (first published in 1899). Here an ivory trader called Kurtz, whose nationality is not specified ('all Europe' has contributed to the making of Kurtz) becomes fatally corrupted by his own actions. The methods by which he controls and subdues the Africans on the Congo include cruelty so appalling that the narrator indicates them obliquely. Kurtz, we are told by the ironic narrator, 'lacked restraint' in the 'gratification of his various lusts.' And Kurtz's last words seem to be his own assessment of the way he has treated the Africans whom he has murdered: 'The horror! The horror!'

The War of the Worlds, Dracula and Heart of Darkness are three texts which display English language writers reflecting on a collapse of world order in the 1890s. In all three of these the security represented by Britain's wealth and imperial power are suddenly severely questioned. There is a very cold wind threatening what since Nelson had been seen as an unassailable sea-power. With the outbreak of war in 1914 that world power would be recognized as irretrievably lost. These writers, and the new audience that they opened up, were shifting the balance of power in the literary market-place.

A further change to the literary scene of the 1890s was the number of new women writers who found an enthusiastic audience. They exercised considerable power in the book trade. 'Ouida' wrote tales of high life, particularly among aristocratic and risk-taking young men of the officer class. A supernatural and somewhat erotic romance, The Sorrows of Satan, by the sensationally successful Marie Correlli, outsold every other book published in my selected year, 1897. So fashionable was Correlli that the Queen had the first edition of every one of her novels delivered to her. The Sorrows of Satan is best understood as supernatural porn, but its impact on the publishing trade opened the door for any number of sensational novels appealing to a middle-class audience. Elinor Glyn's Three Weeks was perhaps the most remarkable work of this kind.

A far more serious and morally responsible writer in this period was the remarkable South African feminist and novelist, Olive Schreiner, whose masterpiece, The Story of an African Farm, is an oddly compelling work. Deep moral seriousness and probing inquiry into the complications within an isolated community make this a powerful a powerful and memorable text. Schreiner was a significant figure on the South African political landscape. She knew most of the major political figures of the day in South Africa, including and especially Cecil Rhodes, with whom she may have been in love for a time. But she was attracted more by his political authority and great wealth than by his identity as a man, it seems, and when she did eventually marry it was to a straightforward and successful entrepreneur, Samuel Cronwright. Cronwright adored her and changed his name to Cronwright-Schreiner in submission to his wife's genius.

1897 is receiving some odd echoes in actual history now. The British Empire, which looked far more impressive than it was in detail, is replaced now by another tipping point which feels considerably more worrying than the shifts and changes taking place then. Another long-lived monarch was accompanied by the illusion of permanence which she conferred on the nation. That late Victorian tipping point is succeeded now by a different and more alarming one. Liberal democracy is ferociously challenged now by the alarming lawlessness of Russia, and also by a US some sectors of which are all too willing to listen to Trump. The world is again a melting pot.

SEE ALSO by John Batchelor:
• The Tipping Point
• Tennyson's Lady of Shalott
• Alice in Lockdown
• Summer's Gardens and The Poets
• Poetry and Crisis: Edward Thomas
• Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and the Current Pandemic

Formerly a Fellow of New College, Oxford, John Batchelor is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Newcastle. His books include biographies of Mervyn Peake (1974), Joseph Conrad (1995), John Ruskin (2000), Ruskin's close friend Lady Trevelyan (2006), and Alfred Tennyson (2012). His other works have included critical studies of H G Wells (1985) and Virginia Woolf (1992).

John is a resident of the village of Kidlington, Oxfordshire, and his book on Rudyard Kipling called 'How the Just so Stories were Made' was published by Yale University Press in May 2021.

To order John's book, click on the book cover below.
– May 2021 — Rudyard Kipling –

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