The Victorian Hugos: 1890

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.

Top image: William Morris art via Kotomi Yamamura

Complaining about award short lists and award juries is a long and honorable tradition among authors. Christopher Priest's recent comments about the 2012 Clarke Award shortlist are, truly, nothing new. Similar complaints, similarly phrased, were aired in the 1950s about the Hugo Awards, and if there had been Hugos in the 1880s, authors would have kvetched about the nominees and called on the judges to resign in disgrace.

But the novel list is generally a solid one, with three should-have-beens, and the list of short story award nominees for 1890 is so deep and so rich that even a Christopher Priest couldn't complain about it.

Novels

The list for the novels is decent but not exceptional, quite the reverse of the short form list. Three good novels are left off the list, and the winner of the Hugo doesn't deserve to be on the list. But that's how it goes, some years, and the Hugo is a popularity contest as much as anything. So...after a very contentious round of voting, the short list for the 1890 novel Hugo would have been: Edwin Arnold's Phra the Phoenician, Thomas Janvier's Aztec Treasure House, William Morris' News From Nowhere, Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column, and H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang's The World's Desire. Donnelly's Caesar's Column would have won the award.

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

Edwin L. Arnold (1857-1953) was a British writer of science fiction and fantasies. He's best known for his Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905), one of the first real Planetary Romances and a likely influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom novels. But Arnold wrote earlier works than Gullivar Jones, and his first, Phra the Phoenician, was not just a popular favorite, but has critical significance as one of the first mainstream novels to portray an immortal's life, and has reasonably been argued as an influence on Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1928). Phra tells the story of a Phoenician trader who lives life repeatedly: in Phoenicia in 1st century B.C., in Roman Britain 400 years later, during the time of Harald Hardraada, in Britain in 1346, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Phra the Phoenician is in that class of novels which are bad but entertaining, similar to but not nearly as fine as Ouida's Under Two Flags. Phra is a hot mess of a novel; Arnold gets the little things (details of dress and events) very right and the big things (characterization, realism) very wrong. But the novel is still readable, even in 2012, has some fine descriptive passages, and Arnold includes the occasional, creepy occult touch, taken from Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Phra the Phoenician is not a good book, but it is almost never boring and can be colorful, and its popularity with both British and American readers would have easily put it on the Hugo short list.

Thomas Janvier (1849-1913) was an American journalist. The Aztec Treasure House was his first novel. It's about the discovery of Colhuacan, a Lost City of the Aztecs, in Mexico and about the imprisonment of the narrator, his involvement in a slave revolt, and his ultimate escape for Colhuacan. Stylistically, The Aztec Treasure House is standard for adventure novels of this time, and even a little dated, though by no means unreadable–just a little stiffer than Haggard or Stevenson.

What sets The Aztec Treasure House apart is Janvier's seriousness. Critically and popularly Aztec Treasure House was seen as working in Haggard's vein, and even as "out-Haggarding Haggard." But that view is critically myopic, as Janvier was working in an already established novelistic mode—Haggard's were only the most popular of the Lost Race novels, not the first of them. (I recommend a look at Jessica Amanda Salmonson's magisterial Lost Race Guide for a glimpse at the wealth of pre-Haggard Lost Race novels).

From the viewpoint of 2012, Aztec Treasure House's most laudable attribute is that Janvier wasn't trying to write an adventure story with an exotic overlay, as Haggard was. Janvier was trying to write an adult novel which combined adventure with history and imagination. Janvier knew Mexican culture and history quite thoroughly — his The Mexican Guide (1886) was the standard travel guide to Mexico of the time — and Aztec Treasure House is literate and knowledgeable and serious as well as colorful and adventurous. The Aztec Treasure House is one of the best Lost Race novels of the 19th century, and if it lacks Haggard's power and innocence it makes up for it in literary skill. The Aztec Treasure House would never win the Hugo–it was only popular and critically lauded, rather than a runaway hit or a critical fetish–but it compliments the short list nicely.

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

William Morris (1834-1896) was a Victorian ubermensch: poet, author, publisher, artist, and designer. He remains best known for his furniture, but he was also of note as an author of imaginative literature. I mentioned his Tale of the House of Wolfings in the 1889 Hugos column as a novel that should have been nominated but wasn't. I think Morris breaks through in 1890. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was enormously popular and influential as a utopia — I have it winning the Hugo in 1888 — but its regimented future was not a hit with everyone. Morris hated Bellamy's mechanized socialism and longed for a future in which humanity lives communistically and in harmony with the earth in rural settings. News From Nowhere, set in Britain in the early 22nd century, after a violent class war, is Morris' attempt at describing such a future. Critics and readers disagreed with his beliefs but loved the book anyhow. Morris' style is smooth and undated, his future and future people quite pleasant, and his ideas intriguing if not wholly credible. As Thomas Disch wrote, News From Nowhere "exhibits all the clarity, grace – and narrative force – of Morris's best wallpaper designs."

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

But — and I write this with a heavy sigh — News From Nowhere would not have won the Hugo. As was the case in 1889 with Marie Corelli's Ardath, the 1890 Hugo would have been won by a lesser work: Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column. Donnelly (1831-1901) was a politician, novelist, and historical theorist. Historically, he's important for his Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), which established the modern cult of Atlantis and influenced countless imaginative works. Caesar's Column, about a future dystopia and revolution followed by the establishment of a small socialist utopia. E.F. Bleiler puts it aptly: "As fiction a mixed bag, sometimes imaginative, sometimes sentimental, unusual in saying to capital and anarchists, a plague on both your houses." Modern readers will find the numerous infodumps and anti-Semitic moments (there are several) boring and distasteful, respectively, and Donnelly's dated style does little to make Caesar's Column worth reading. The nightmarish elements of Donnelly's future are not pleasant, but grueling, and the romance is wholly unconvincing.

And yet, and yet. Caesar's Column is a more realistic view of the future than Bellamy's Looking Backward or Morris' News From Nowhere. Donnelly is shrill in his condemnation of capitalism and anarchism, but not unreasonably so, and some critics have compared his portrayal of the dehumanization of the working classes to Stephen Crane's later, better, and better-known Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. There are moments when Donnelly's thunder does turn into lightning. Most importantly as far as the Hugo is concerned, Caesar's Column was never a hit with the critics, but the public loved it — in December 1890 it was selling 1000 copies a week. Its (unimaginative, crude) populism resonated with the public. Despite its status as the sort of novel one doesn't enjoy reading but is glad to have read, Caesar's Column would have been popular enough with voters, especially the American voting bloc, to win the Hugo.

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

In an ordinary Victorian year anything by H. Rider Haggard would have been a strong contender to win the Hugo. And The World's Desire, his collaboration with poet, novelist, and critic Andrew Lang, is skillfully told. It's about Odysseus' second voyage, after the death of Penelope, when Odysseus meets Helen of Troy and encounters an Egyptian femme fatale before dying. In 1890, Haggard is at his peak, and The World's Desire benefits hugely from the lyrical touch of Lang. Critics admired The World's Desire — rightfully, as it may be the best written of Haggard's work. The public enjoyed it. But The World's Desire was never embraced. It's a gloomy and even death-obsessed novel — I'd almost call it "grim" and "joyless." She was death-obsessed, but it had Ayesha's potent erotic charge in its favor. The World's Desire does not have that, only Odysseus' sorrow and grave-destined fate. I think it was Harlan Ellison who originally said that the grave's a fine and private place, but novels about it don't win Hugo's first place, and so it would be with The World's Desire.

Three other novels would have received a significant number of votes, if not enough to make the short list. F.M. Allan's Brayhard (unread by me) received generally positive reviews on publication, and Jessica Amanda Salmonson calls it "an outrageous & first-rate satiric tale of fantasy & the supernatural." C.C. Dail's Willmoth the Wanderer is a crude, rambling, enthusiastic and unfailingly imaginative guide to Saturn, Venus, and Earth's distant past. I think of it as the Basil Wolverton novel that never was. (I have a lot more affection for it than I perhaps should). And Pedro Antonio de Alarcon's The Strange Friend of Tito Gil is an interesting Spanish fantasy which attracted critical attention on publication.

Short Stories

1890 is an absolute Murderer's Row for award-worthy short stories. 6 classics and a further thirteen stories which would have been finalists in most other years. One can reasonably argue that 1890 was the best year ever for short stories of the fantastic.

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

After what would likely be many, many rounds of balloting, the short list for the 1890 short form Hugo would have been painfully narrowed down to Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Guy de Maupassant's "Le Horla," Sarah Orne Jewett's "In Dark New England Days," Rudyard Kipling's "The Mark of the Beast," and Vernon Lee's "Dionea." My guess is that the voters would have given de Maupassant the Hugo, but I won't complain if anyone argues for any of those others. They are all deserving.

I mentioned Bierce before as a nominee in 1886. His "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is his best-known work and is widely recognized as an American classic. It is Biercean in conception — an Alabaman is about to be hanged by the Union troops, but escapes —or does he? — and in tone and temperament; one can imagine Bierce's sardonic smirk as he wrote it. That "Owl Creek Bridge" has been so widely been anthologized that it is now a cliche is not to be held against it; like "The Monkey's Paw," "Owl Creek Bridge" rewards a clear-eyed rereading by modern readers. Set aside your memories and reread it as an adult–you'll appreciate it far more than you did in school.

De Maupassant (1850-1893) is one of the great French masters of the short story form. Critically discounted during his lifetime and immediately afterward because the majority of his work was shorter rather than longer–a contemporary French critic wrote that he was "an almost irreproachable writer in a literary form that is not irreproachable"–the world has more recently embraced him and now values him properly. De Maupassant is especially honored for his tales of the supernatural, of which "The Horla" is arguably his best. Written in 1885, revised in 1886, revised again and published in 1887, but available in English only in 1890 (hence its appearance here), "The Horla" is one of the very best horror tales of the 19th century. It's about a man haunted by an invisible creature and its effects on the man. Or, alternatively, about a man slowly going insane. Or both. Hallucinogenic, ambiguous, with an unreliable narrator and a lunatic intensity–de Maupassant rightfully felt that readers would question his sanity after the story was published—"The Horla" is a superior work of art. If de Maupassant would receive some votes because of his stature as a serious writer who dabbled in the fantastic–not that Hugo or Nebula or World Fantasy voters would ever do that, heavens no–"The Horla" would deserves the Hugo all the same.

Jewett I've mentioned before; I have her as a finalist in 1886 and 1887. As in those years, her work here is outstanding. "In Dark New England Days" is a splendid regional horror story about the theft of an inheritance and the resulting curse called down upon the family of the suspected thief. Calling Jewett a "regional writer" is, as I've said before, damning with faint praise, but in this case I'm using "regional" as short-hand for her identification with and use of a specific region: New England, specifically Maine, and the natives. It's obvious in her precise use of local dialect and her descriptions of scenery–everything breezily called "local color"—but it's as true, if less obvious, in what she called the "imaginative realism" of the story, reflecting the insane genius loci of Maine. If Stephen King writes Hammer horror about Maine, its natives, and its innate character, Jewett writes David Lynchian weird stories about Maine. "In Dark England Days" may not be her best, but it's better than just about everyone else, and can stand proud even among this prestigious crew.

The Victorian Hugos: 1890

In 1890 Kipling (1865-1936) was not yet the Poet Laureate of Empire. He was only 25, not yet married and not yet undergone his nervous breakdown. His most famous work was ahead of him. But he had already published The Phantom Rickshaw, a good collection of supernatural material, and was writing furiously as an up-and-coming young writer. He produced some very good work during this period, including "The Mark of the Beast." "Beast," about what happens when a drunk Briton puts his cigar out on a statue of Hanuman, was more widely known decades ago than today. But it has recently been the subject of increased critical attention, which is fitting, because it's not only his best work of horror but is (perhaps surprisingly) a rather savage critique of Empire. Quite the reverse of the stereotype of Kipling as an unthinking jingoist, he was often ambiguous and even in his portrayal of Empire and the costs it demanded. "Beast" describes some of the horrors of India, but quite forcefully makes the point that many of those horrors were British.

I've raved about Vernon Lee before — I mentioned her as a should-have-been-nominated in 1885 and as the winner in 1886. Her "Dionea" is somewhat more difficult reading than "Amour Dure" or "The Phantom Lover"–more complex, almost obscure in its telling–but is as rewarding as both of those stories, if only fractionally less so than "Amour Dure." In "Dionea" a child washed ashore in Italy turns out to be an avatar of Dione, the mother of Aphrodite, and an absolute disaster for anyone who comes into contact with her. (Goddesses are not meant to be viewed too closely; unhappy are the helpmeets of heaven). Dionea is another of Lee's devastating, coolly indifferent femmes fatale, but like Wodehouse Lee never grows tiresome even when she's doing the same thing over and over–it's her variations on the theme, not the theme itself, that are of interest.

A whopping thirteen stories would have received votes and likely provoked debate. Mary Elizabeth Braddon's "His Oldest Friends" — unread by me — is well-regarded by current critics. Mary Cholmondeley's "Let Loose" is a curiously neglected vampire story. Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Ring of Thoth" is one of the best mummy stories of the century. Thomas Hardy's "Barbara of the House of Grebe" is morbid, only borderline fantastic, but Hardy would have received votes simply because of his name. The fairy tales of German author Wilhelm Hauff, published in English only in 1890, are some of the best fairy tales in any language. Vernon Lee's "A Wicked Voice" is not quite as good as "Dionea" but still excellent. Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan" is wonderful and a classic, but it was so shocking to British sensibilities that it would have lost votes because of its content. Richard Marsh's "A Set of Chessmen" is a good horror story, but not to the level of the opening of his The Beetle. W.C. Morrow's "A Story Told By The Sea" is a typically Morrow-esque (which is to say, Biercean, sardonic and darkly humored) sea tale of cannibalism. Arthur Quiller-Couch's "Old Aeson" and "Psyche" are both horror with more of an edge than much of his work. Olive Schreiner's "In a Far-Off World" is an imaginative and nicely brutal work of science fantasy. And Thomas Russell Sullivan's "The Lost Rembrandt," though overlong for its purposes, has a great deal of period detail.

Links:

Arnold's Phra the Phoenician

Janvier's Aztec Treasure House

Morris' News From Nowhere

Donnelly's Caesar's Column

Haggard and Lang's The World's Desire

Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

Maupassant's "The Horla"

Jewett's "In Dark New England Days"

Kipling's "The Mark of the Beast"

Lee's "Dionea"