The Victorian Hugos: 1887

The Hugo Awards are given to the best science fiction or fantasy works of the previous year. Unfortunately, they've only been awarded since 1953. That's where this column comes in — Jess Nevins will be awarding honorary Hugo Awards to the best novels of the Victorian era... and beyond.

Before listing the novels and stories, a reminder of my ground rules: I'm only covering works that were published in English during the year in question. That's why I didn't include Jules Verne's Robur le Conquérant (a.k.a. The Clipper of the Clouds/Robur the Conqueror) in the 1886 column (because it was only published in English in 1887) and why I'm not including J.-H. Rosny aîné's splendid "Les Xipehus" in this column (not published in English until 1978).

You can read about which works won Victorian Hugos in previous years here.

Novels

After 1886 and its too-many-good-novels award difficulties, 1887 would have been seen as a disappointment. Five novels would have appeared on the ballot, but only two of them would have deserved to be there. The Hugo short list for 1887 novels would have been Florence Carpenter Dieudonne's Rondah; or, Thirty-Three Years in a Star, H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quatermain, W.H. Hudson's A Crystal Age, "Hyder Ragged"'s King Solomon's Wives, and Jules Verne's Robur the Conqueror. Allan Quatermain would have won the award.

Florence Carpenter Dieudonne (1850-1927) was a homemaker who wrote a substantial amount of poetry and two unusual works of science fiction: Rondah, and Xartella (1891). It's hard to say that Dieudonne is a good writer, exactly. Her style is wordy (to say the least), overwrought, full of irrelevant digressions, and reflects a poor notion of how human beings actually speak to each other. But the ideas...my goodness, Rondah's got enough ideas for at least three normal novels. Rondah is about a quartet who go into space via a mountain filled with clockwork explosives. They land on another planet filled with benevolent flying bird people. Later they give way to malicious elves, and the humans return to Earth via a comet. They have an encounter with a demon and then meet a giant who has shaped human civilization. Rondah's not a good novel, but it's got more imagination and energy than many of its contemporaries, and the reader often forgives Dieudonne's amateurish style in exchange for the exuberance of her imagination. I can think of some modern equivalents which did get award nominations, which is why I think Rondah would have been nominated.

The Victorian Hugos: 1887

I trust you, Dear Reader, know about Haggard and have read Allan Quatermain, and so will not be surprised at its appearance here or the idea that it would have won the Hugo in 1887. Allan Quatermain is my favorite of Haggard's Africa novels. I think he tried to send off Quatermain in high style, and succeeded. Haggard wrote the novel more carefully than he did King Solomon's Mines or She. Allan Quatermain is better than both: Haggard included as much first-hand knowledge of Africa as possible, brought in the great warrior Umslopogaas (and sent him off in a classic "kingly fray"), expanded on his (for the time) progressive racial attitudes, his then-shocking notion that the distance between the English and the native Africans was much smaller than the English liked to think, and his disapproval of the English destruction of native African folkways. Allan Quatermain is highly entertaining, and if it's not in the canon of Great Literature it's in the canon of kick-ass Victorian novels. It may not be as well-written as A Crystal Age, but it's far, far more enjoyable. (British fans would have been upset She was on the 1886 ballot through American piracy, rather than the 1887 ballot, and rightfully so, but if She and Allan Quatermain had both appeared on the 1887 they may well have split the vote, leaving Hudson or Verne as the winner).

Hudson (1841-1922) was a naturalist, what critic John Sutherland calls a "laureate of the English countryside." Hudson is best known for his Green Mansions (1904), with its Tarzan-as-a-naive-girl Rima. Less well-known is Hudson's A Crystal Age, a utopia in which the modern protagonist wakes in the future and discovers that 10,000 years have passed, humanity has dwindled in numbers, and civilization is now communal, harsh, asexual, and modeled on bees. That Hudson wrote long-form prose rather than for the popular periodicals is obvious in his style, which though smooth and assured is hardly brisk, but A Crystal Age is full of acute observations of nature and the occasionally evocative phrase. Until Green Mansions Hudson was more popular with other writers than the public, but the utopia of A Crystal Age, which the modern reader would view as a dystopia, was attractive to contemporary readers, and nobody would have objected to the presence of A Crystal Age on the Hugo finalist list.

King Solomon's Wives...ugh. "Hyder Ragged" was the pseudonym of Sir Henry Biron (1863-1940), an attorney. For some reason Biron felt possessed to write a novel-length parody of King Solomon's Mines in the style of the British humorous magazines like Punch, with puns (some clever, some horrible), silly names, and extravagant over-exaggeration substituting for the elements of worth in Haggard's original. I was going to write "imagine Douglas Adams writing a Tolkien parody," but we already have that: the National Lampoon Bored of the Rings. Now imagine Bored of the Rings being so popular with readers that it lands on the Hugo finalist list. That's what King Solomon's Wives is, and why it's here, and why I wrote "ugh" at the start of this paragraph. But at least the Victorian Hugo writers would not have made the Thraxas mistake and actually handed Biron the award.

You all know about Jules Verne, of course. Robur the Conqueror (known to the British as The Clipper of the Clouds) is not as well known as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Verne's top-line work, and for good reason: Robur is good light entertainment, but nothing more–20,000 Leagues minus the best parts, perhaps. Robur has never been well-served by translators, Robur himself is far more opaque and one-dimensional than Nemo, the heavier-than-air-versus-lighter-than-air argument which motivates the novel is a dead issue for modern readers, and apart from the Robur's travelogue not much happens in the novel. Robur was more popular with British readers than American, and on the strength of the British vote would have made it to the finalist list, but nothing more.

Other novels receiving votes: Sir William Clowes' The Great Naval War of 1887, a Future War novel, written near the end of the Future War craze, about the coming naval war between Great Britain and France (unread by me: Bleiler describes it as "sincere, but unexceptional); Alfred Schofield's Travels in the Interior, an entertaining Victorian young adult Fantastic Voyage; John De Morgan's He, a Haggard pastiche, popular at the time, tedious now; and Anna Dodd's The Republic of the Future, a well-written, imaginative utopia/dystopia which wouldn't have made the Hugo short list because of its deeply conservative politics, although it is more deserving of award consideration than King Solomon's Wives.

Short Stories

The situation for short works in 1887 is the opposite of that for novels: too many good stories are competing for five spots, and at least one of those left in the Also Receiving Votes category is now seen as a classic Victorian horror story. 1887 is in the middle of what Roger Lancelyn Green called "the Age of the Storyteller," and many talented writers were producing excellent work in this year. It's a good year, indeed, when Mrs. Molesworth, one of the better Victorian authors of fantastic short stories, can only make the Also Receiving Votes category, is what I'm saying.

The Hugo short list for 1887 short works would have been Edgar Fawcett's "Douglas Duane," Sarah Orne Jewett's "The Landscape Chamber," Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure," W.C. Morrow's "The Surgeon's Experiment," and Oscar Wilde's "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime."

Fawcett (1847-1904) was an American author of Society novels, but is now remembered as one of the major American science fiction authors of the pre-H.G. Wells years. "Douglas Duane" is one of his better stories, a take on the mad scientist tale involving the scientific transference of personality, a love triangle, and murder. Fawcett's style is significantly more dated than the others on the list; his work hearkens back to the 1860s and 1870s rather than the brisk magazine style of the 1890s. For that reason "Douglas Duane" is, if not difficult, than last welcoming to modern readers than the other works on the short list. And, although I'm in the critical minority on this, I don't believe Fawcett combines the Society aspects of the story with the mad scientist plot as well as might be hoped. But Fawcett was a professional writer and "Douglas Duane" is well-thought-out and well-written by the standards of previous decades.

I praised Jewett in the last column. "The Landscape Chamber" is a minor work by Jewett, but typically fine: lovely descriptions of the Maine landscape, skillful creation of mood, knowing presentation of rural personalities, deep empathy for the tragedy of the rural poor, and, as with several of Jewett's other stories, an ambiguity which allows the work to be taken as supernatural or not, depending on the reader's choice. I think the story is supernatural; Jewett's contemporary readers and critics were divided on the subject. But everyone thought the story quite good, and it would have appeared on the final ballot.

"The Landscape Chamber," as good as it is, would not have won the Hugo. Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure" would have, in a runaway. I mentioned Lee last time–Brian Stableford has a typically excellent overview of her life and work here. About love, Renaissance Italy, a gullible narrator and an alluring (dead) woman, "Amour Dure" is one of the dozen best horror stories of the 19th century, and Medea da Carpi is one of the great femmes fatale of all time. (I like Jim Rockhill and the late great John Eatman's essay here.) Sometimes Hugo voters have trouble recognizing a classic when it's been presented to them, but not, I think, with "Amour Dure."

W.C. Morrow (1852-1923) was an associate of Ambrose Bierce and a San Franciscan writer who became known as one of the founding fathers of American Decadence. Morrow's best work is sardonic, cruel (in the conte cruel sense), and darkly humorous. His "The Surgeon's Experiment," which became better known as "The Monster Maker," is not his best. It's a gruesome tale of a modern Frankenstein and his more-than-willing victim. But it lacks Morrow's decadence, his twisted sense of humor, and his more sensual and impressionistic touches, and everything else that leads people to (favorably) compare Morrow to Bierce. Honestly, I'm not sure I'd have even guessed this was Morrow's work if I didn't already know. That said, "The Surgeon's Experiment" is entertaining, if too long for what it's trying to do. But it would have made it on to the Hugo short list because of the controversy surrounding it: when the story appeared in the newspaper The Argonaut it caused dozens of people to cancel their subscriptions to the Argonaut, and Morrow became more in/famous than he'd ever been.

(It has also been compellingly argued, by Guillaume Apollinaire and Darrell Schweitzer among others, that "The Surgeon's Experiment" was highly influential on H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. "Moreau" = "Morrow," and Wells is known to have thought highly of "The Surgeon's Experiment." I think Apollinaire and Schweitzer have it right).

The Victorian Hugos: 1887

I'm going to assume everyone reading this already knows about Oscar Wilde. What some of you might not know is that in addition to his plays he wrote a number of short stories of the fantastic. His "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" is one of his earlier works, written years after he'd become familiar to Londoners as a dandy but only a few months after he'd begun regularly publishing fiction. It's about what Lord Arthur Savile does when told by a palm-reader that his destiny is to commit murder. As one might expect with a Wildean tale, "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" is cool and funny, full of wit and epigrams in the Wilde style while also, in the titular character, anticipating Dorian Gray. If "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" isn't the equal of "Amour Dure," it's still wonderful reading.

Other stories that would have received votes: Lillie Devereux Blake's "A Divided Republic," a near-future American Lysistrata whose conviction outstrips its artistry; Wilkie Collins' "Mr. Percy and the Prophet," quite minor Collins of indifferent quality, written when he was in poor health-but it was by Wilkie Collins, so it would have received votes; Lafcadio Hearn's "The Legend of Tchi-Niu" and "The Return of Yen-Tchin-King," both entertaining but neither as well told as Hearn's later work; Mrs. Molesworth's "The Story of the Rippling Train," competent but not exceptional by Molesworth's standards; Frank Stockton's "The Griffin and the Minor Canon," a typically professional work by Stockton that's just barely good enough to make the ballot's short list; and Oscar Wilde's "Canterville Ghost," wonderfully Wildean but also bearing a distasteful and hypocritical American protagonist who would ensure that the story got few votes from American voters.

Read The Books:

Haggard's Allan Quatermain

Hudson's A Crystal Age

Verne's Robur the Conqueror/The Clipper of the Clouds

Fawcett's "Douglas Duane"

Jewett's "The Landscape Chamber"

Vernon Lee's "Amour Dure"

W.C. Morrow's "The Surgeon's Experiment"/"The Monster Maker"

Wilde's "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"