After London

I have just finished reading Richard Jeffries’ novel After London (1885), and I thought I’d put down a few more or less unordered thoughts before I move on and forget about it. It is a book which interested me as one in which the destruction/ruination of London was emblematic (Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Mysterious Kor is another such work). London in After London is largely an absence, though a very important one; the book’s subtitle Wild England, on the surface seems more apt to its content. The main title is worth taking seriously, however, as a summation of the book’s theme.

Plot spoiler: the following paragraph reveals the plot of After London – but the plot isn’t really terribly gripping anyway.

After London is an early apocalyptic novel, set in the future after an unspecified catastrophe has destroyed modern (i.e. nineteenth-century) civilization in Britain and caused massive depopulation. Colossal changes have taken place to the topography of England and a kind of civilization reminiscent of the early Middle Ages now exists round the shores of a large lake which occupies the central part of England. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the eldest son of a nobleman, Felix Aquila, and his quest to make something of himself in order to win the hand of his beloved, Aurora, who happens to be the daughter of the neighbouring nobleman. Fearing that there is no future for him in staying on his father’s estate (which is threatened with confiscation by creditors and/or enemies of his father), Felix first builds himself a canoe and then uses it to go on a journey. Initially, his plan is to enlist with the most powerful of the local kings, but, when this fails, he contents himself with carrying out a journey of exploration around the lake (as if this is at least something to bring back to show in his bid for Aurora). The journey culminates in the discovery (for him at least) of the ruins of old London, which has now become a stinking toxic marsh, fatal to anyone foolish enough to venture into it. Felix himself nearly succumbs to the noxious gasses emanating from the ground and only barely escapes, but not before he has picked up a large diamond and some gold coins, left lying on the ground next to the entirely dissolved corpses of a pair of treasure hunters. Latterly, Felix ends up in the company of a tribe of shepherds, who elect him as their leader on the strength of his skill with the bow and arrow and his learning (only nobles being literate). The novel ends abruptly, with Felix setting off to try to bring back Aurora to his new kingdom.

Richard Jeffries is really, as far as I am informed, at his best as a nature writer and here the plot is really an excuse to explore the imaginative possibility of a truly wild Britain. The first five chapters are devoted entirely to a geographical, topographical and natural historical account of Britain after the apocalypse, including a fascinating account of how the land changed from cultivation to wilderness, starting from year one after cultivation ceased. (The novel begins: “The old men say that their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible”). Later on, a lot of description is devoted to the landscapes through which Felix travels. We learn about the changes in the different kinds of tree along the route between Felix’s castle and that of Aurora; that the ground is always damp under ash trees; and all about the different habitats preferred by the various animals. These are by far the most enjoyable parts of the book, and Jeffries’ precise powers of observing the natural world are surely his greatest strength.

If the plot is a bit of a mcguffin, however, there are other themes at work that make the book interesting. Felix’s quest is one of finding a place in a society which excludes and radically disenfranchises all but a very few. The society Jeffries imagines is rapacious and chaotic: most people are slaves and even for their entirely despotic rulers death is only the throw of a dice away. It is a cross between Italian Renaissance city state politics at its worst and Lord of the Flies. Felix has to find a place within this topsy-turvy world in order to win Aurora. He has to prove his ability to provide her with stability and wealth in a world in which both are nearly impossible to attain to. His need is also personal and psychological, as he is intelligent but unconfident and irresolute. His approach to the king is spurned because the brilliance (or precociousness) of his ideas as a military inventor is interpreted as a joke (or a threat). Without a goal, his journey now takes on the character of a journey of exploration and self-exploration. The journey’s symbolic end point is dead London.

Dead London is granted probably the most haunting descriptions of the whole book. It is the recapitulation of that great theme of the city as moral and literal cess-pit; of the city as the place where moral degradation, overcrowding and physical decay go hand in hand. The ruins of London are toxic, emanating fatal gasses and explosions of flame, generations after the destruction of the city, because all of the filth and the dead bodies of millions of people have not yet completed their decay. The phosphorescent gas that nearly kills Felix is quite literally the result of the putrefaction of human beings. The chemicals released by decay are so powerful that even the standing remains of brickwork crumble into salt at the touch. From our perspective, it is tempting to read back into Jeffries’ eerily prophetic account of a land poisoned for generations our knowledge of nuclear fall out, but Jeffries is explicit that it is the decay of the dead and of the city’s filth which renders the land toxic. London is the black centre of England, and its twin pestilences are filth (read industrial and human pollution) and population (overcrowding, the teeming of human beings).

The England of Felix’s day is under-populated, but it still teems with vicious human life. Felix’s problem is that it is impossible (for more or less anyone) to find a stable place in it. This is why London is emblematic for the book, even while absent from most of it, and why it is the destination of Felix’s journey of self-realisation. London is the disease that still afflicts the society spawned out of its destruction. The underlying anxiety is of a city so crowded that one can find no place in it. This is the modern sense of the impossibility of belonging and the transience of any scrap of belonging that one appears to find. The only belonging Felix finds is with the relatively uncivilized shepherds, and even this is undermined by the absence of Aurora. The novel’s abrupt end cements in place this sense of the impossibility of belonging.

The only retreat is away from the centre and into nature. Felix’s father has found a kind of belonging this way (albeit a threatened one). Felix himself finds solace in nature and the narration of the novel finds its greatest delight in lingering over the detail and profusion of nature. In the end, though, even nature crowds the human being out: the uninhabited forests are so dense as to provide no haven, and we leave Felix hacking his way through hostile forest towards Aurora. Even the forests are London. The alienation of the human in After London is indeed profound: he is alienated from himself, his society and from the entire non-human world.

The book’s attitude to the city is also conflicted. It simultaneously represents the height from which humanity has fallen and its degradation. It is described as a very great city, full of many marvellous things which the savages of Felix’s day cannot even aspire to recreate. Yet it has become what it always in truth was: a filthy marsh. Here Felix nearly loses his life, yet also discovers things of great value (the diamond and gold coins) which have the potential to set him up in the world, if handled wisely. Again, the novel’s unresolved ending leaves these things as being of unclear value.

Aurora is an interesting character. She is portrayed as being as purposeful and resolute as Felix is the opposite of those things, but she has little actual role in the narrative, being much more a motive for Felix’s actions. She finds her solace and purpose in preserving and propagating the old faith of Christianity. Her love for Felix is as steadfast as her faith. Aurora is the true foil to her society (Felix is merely an unsuccessful but reflective player at the game that everyone else is engaged in), and to a society that Jeffries clearly hates and sees as in some ways continuous of the society of his own day. My personal feeling is that the book’s greatest failure is the failure to develop Aurora and her challenge to her world. She is merely an interesting line of development which is not taken up, and the book’s unsatisfying end, leaving the possibility of Aurora’s development as a character up in the air, makes it into a deeply pessimistic book.