The Victorian Hugos: 1891

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.

Science fiction was hardly unknown to writers in 1891, but the voters and Secret Masters of Fandom, I think, might well have asked themselves, "What's wrong with science fiction? The Hugo awards are for ‘work in the field of science fiction or fantasy,' so why is it that fantasy and horror are dominating the Hugo awards ballot?" Such questions are almost always tedious and say more about the questioner than the subject, but it is notable that the best work, not just in this year but in the past several years, has tended to be in fantasy and horror rather than in science fiction. Science fiction seems to have been in the relative doldrums, with Verne's influence waning and American science fiction in particular dominated by juvenile dime novels. The major writers weren't working in science fiction, the best and most popular works of these years weren't science fictional, and the field itself had nebulous and poorly defined borders. Whether they knew it or not, in 1891 fans of science fiction were waiting for George Griffith and H.G. Wells to show up. What they made do with was substantially inferior to what was to come.

Novels

1891's slate had a good mix of old and new, with familiar names like Oscar Wilde standing cheek by jowl with newcomers to the field. There was a vitality to the fantasy and horror, even in years like this one when the finalists were relatively underwhelming, and the awards would have reflected it. (It's never a good sign when the same names dominate awards ballots year after year).

The 1891 Hugo short list for novels would be: M.E. Braddon's Gerard, or the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, F. Marion Crawford's Khaled, George du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson, William Morris' The Story of the Glittering Plain, and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, with Wilde winning the award.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837-1915) was a popular and successful British novelist. She wrote widely–over 70 novels, plus short stories–and her Lady Audley's Secret (1862) remains in print. I've mentioned her before as an also-receiving-votes author in 1888 and 1890. With Gerard, or the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, she breaks through to the short list. A Faustian novel-of-manners, Gerard was one of the last Victorian triple-deckers, the longer, three-part type of novel which dominated the publishing business in Victorian England. The triple-decker, which Braddon had done so well by, fell out of style in the 1890s, and Braddon, ever the skillful professional, responded with shorter novels. Gerard was not well-received by the critics, and modern readers are likely to find it flawed. Its narrative style is the stodgier 1850s approach rather than the sleeker 1890s magazine style. The devil character, Jermyn, changes for the worse. And the romance subplots are tiresome. Braddon was always at her best in letting the bad guys have their way, which is not the case here, or in her shorter, later stories. Nonetheless, Gerard did sell well, and her fans–a substantial number, even 1890–would have gotten her on the ballot.

Francis Marion Crawford (1854-1909) was the son of American parents but was born and mostly raised in Italy and lived there for most of his adult life. He was a popular novelist who is mostly forgotten today; when he is remembered it is for his supernatural and ghost stories, which he turned out for quick cash to support a profligate lifestyle. His "The Upper Berth" (1886) is his best known work–I probably should have included it on the 1886 Hugo short list–but Khaled is his best work. It is a Thousand and One Nights-style tale, about a Muslim genii being forced to endure life as a mortal man and attempting, on pain of eternal damnation, to win the love of a mortal woman.

How you react to Khaled largely depends on your tolerance for the mid-Victorian prose style, which does require some adjustment in order for modern readers to enjoy, and your affection for Arabian Nights-type stories. The former seems to be increasingly difficult for modern readers, and the latter has become rare, not least because of the Orientalism of so many Western iterations of the Arabian Nights. I enjoy them while seeing their flaws, and found Khaled to be a very entertaining (if unserious) spin of Nights. 19th century readers thought even more highly of it–Arabian Nights-style novels and story collections were popular in Britain and America throughout the century. The popularity of the subject combined with the positive critical reception would have earned Khaled a place on the Hugo short list.

Critics generally see George Du Maurier (1834-1896) as Thackeray's only peer among Victorian writer-artists. While best known for Trilby, which we'll see on the 1894 Hugos ballot, Du Maurier had a long association with the popular comic magazine Punch, illustrated numerous serials, was an intimate of Henry James, and wrote widely. Peter Ibbetson was his first novel. About the life of the titular character and his dream travels into the past, Peter Ibbetson was largely dismissed by contemporary critics, one saying that Ibbetson's readers "are unable to understand why so clever an artist should write so poorly." It is thought of more highly by critics now. John Sutherland, the big gun among Victorian academic critics, calls it "remarkable." I tend toward the 19th century critics' view. As Du Maurier himself admitted, Ibbetson is a prolix work. The style is quite different from the slick Punch style (perhaps why contemporary critics panned it), the fantastic content takes a long time to appear, and the life of Ibbetson is less involving than Du Maurier obviously intended. Like Khaled, Ibbetson requires the reader to adjust their mindset to the Victorian style, but this reader, at least, felt the adjustment was not amply rewarded. Nonetheless, Peter Ibbetson was a bestseller, and its popularity with readers, if not the critics, would have put it on the Hugo short list.

William Morris I described in the 1890 article. His The Story of the Glittering Plain is seen by academics as a prose romance, but from inside the fantasy and science fiction kraal we know it as, arguably, the first modern fantasy novel. Glittering Plain is a Norse fantasy about the warrior Hallblithe and his long quest to recover his lady love Hostage. Glittering Plain is the first major fantasy novel about what Tolkien called a "secondary world," a place completely divorced from Earth. Glittering Plain uses neither Faerie or a Lost World, is not influenced by German fairy tales, and draws on Northern European legends and folklore rather than Greek, Egyptian, and Asian myths–all of which were signal departures in fantasy fiction. Wonderfully written, engaging as a reading experience, with sophisticated characterization, Story of the Glittering Plain had no impact on American readers or critics but sold well enough (largely on the basis of Morris' reputation) that it would have received the short list nomination that, in retrospect, it obviously deserved.

But splendid though Story of the Glittering Plain is, and even with its obvious influence on Tolkien, it would not have taken the 1890 Hugo for novels. The Picture of Dorian Grey would have. Its story is well-known by now: the beautiful young man Dorian Grey wishes that his portrait would grow old, rather than he, and so it happens, with Grey's sins showing up on the painting rather than on Grey's face. Like the main characters, Dorian Grey is Decadent, intelligent, witty, and generally fascinating. For all the criticism heaped on it by tight-laced critics–"malodorous" is among the weaker terms applied to it—Dorian Grey had its critical backers, as well as popular support from both American and British voting blocs, and it would have won the Hugo in a landslide.

Four other novels would have received votes. F. Marion Crawford's The Witch of Prague is more flawed than his Khaled, but more serious in intent; E.F. Bleiler said it best when he wrote "this is a novel Marie Corelli might have written had she been more intelligent and a better writer." Florence Dieudonne's Xartella is a Poe-meets-Corelli Egyptian-fantasy-romance that is one of the more unusual (if not completely coherent) fantasies of the era. Lanoe Falconer's Cecila de Noel is an intriguing ghost story in which those who see the ghost are changed permanently; it is ahead of its time in conception and behind the times in presentation. And Chauncey Thomas' The Crystal Button is a techno-utopia of unusual prophetic ability.

Short Stories

Just about anything would be a disappointment following 1890, but 1891, though featuring solid work, lacks the fireworks of the previous year. (There are years in which I sympathize with the Pulitzer judges' recent decision to award no prize at all). The short list for the 1891 short form Hugo would be Ambrose Bierce's "The Death of Halpin Frayser," Ann Crawford's "A Shadow on a Wave," Henry James' "Sir Edmund Orme," E. Nesbit's "The Ebony Frame," and Marcel Schwob's "Arachne." James takes the Hugo.

I've mentioned Bierce several times before. "Halpin Frayser" is another of his classic stories. It's about the titular figure's strange death at the hands of an ambiguous something. The story is a Gothic, of the late 19th century American variety, using a family trauma as its core. Bierce tells the story in his usual lean, naturalistic style, which heightens the creepiness of Frayser's dreams and what happens when his body is found. "Halpin Frayser" may be Bierce's most disturbing story (which is saying something), and while less known than "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" it is the better of the two stories. It also exhibits what in another writer might be called "compassion," something at odds with the general misanthropy of most of Bierce's stories.

Ann Crawford, the Countess von Rabe (1846-?) was an American author related to F. Marion Crawford. I had thought her "A Mystery of the Campagna" was an 1891 story, and was prepared to discuss it here, but I just now discovered that it was published in 1886. Had I known that when I wrote the 1886 Hugo column, I would have put it on the short list there. Same with Rosa Mulholland's "Ghost at the Rath, and same with F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth." That puts them next to Anstey's "Marjory," Bierce's "Can Such Things Be," and Jewett's "The Gray Man," and makes 1886 a strong year for short fantastic fiction, rather than a weak one as I originally wrote. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Ann Crawford wasn't as well-known as her relative F. Marion, but "Campagna" was well-received, and her "A Shadow on a Wave" would undoubtedly have made it on to the 1891 short list. Disclaimer: I haven't read "A Shadow on a Wave;" it's not available online and not easily accessible to me in print. But Brian Stableford called it "delicately ghostly," and critics of the time liked it, with phrases like "impressive and...artistic" and "fine literary style" being thrown about. Even bearing in mind the usual hyperbole of contemporary reviewers, "Shadow" seems to have impressed enough people that it would beat out other stories for placement on the short list.

Surprisingly, I haven't mentioned Henry James before now, except in comparison to Sarah Orne Jewett. James (1843-1916) is one of the most important writers of 19th century American fiction, even though he was primarily an expatriate with far more sympathy for Europe and Great Britain than for America. By 1890 he was well-known and well-respected and viewed both critically and popularly as one of the best writers working. Most of his work is in the realist mode, but James wrote a number of supernatural short stories, most famously "The Turn of the Screw" (which we'll see on the 1898 ballot). "Sir Edmund Orme" is the first of James' stories written during his middle, "mature" period, and can be seen in some ways as an anticipation of "Turn of the Screw:" realistic detail leading to a suspension of disbelief in an ambiguously supernatural situation, albeit this time involving the beneficent ghost of an old suitor rather than the evil ghost of servants. I was left cold by the story, but I'm in the minority. I'll let E.F. Bleiler describe "Orme:" "preoccupation with the psychological trivia of a societal setting; intense, highly skilled concentration on narrative viewpoint and structural features; weak supernaturalism arising out an emotional situation defined by societal tabus; anile, verbose surface texture." Given the critical reception of the story, and James' position, I think he would have taken home the Hugo for "Orme."

Edith Nesbit (1858-1924) is primarily known to us now as a very popular writer of children's books, including the "Railway Children" and "Treasure Seekers" series. But she wrote a number of supernatural stories, including the shudderific "Man-Size in Marble" (which will appear on the 1893 ballot). Nesbit's "The Ebony Frame," in which the narrator forsakes his flesh lover for one in paining, has a predictable plot–such predictability is one of Nesbit's flaws as a writer of the supernatural. But "The Ebony Frame" is worth reading for its execution rather than its conception–critics called it "clever," and the story is persuasively told. If the female ghost lacks the staying power of one of Theophile Gautier's or Vernon Lee's creations, and if "The Ebony Frame" as a whole lacks the viciousness of "Man-Size in Marble," the modern reader can nonetheless understand the protagonist's attraction to the ghost, and enjoy the way in which Nesbit works out the protagonist's seduction (alternatively, his descent into madness).

The French Schwob (1857-1905) was a writer noted for his scholarship and his short stories. Dismissed in his lifetime but given growing credit throughout the twentieth century, Schwob was one of the late Victorian masters of the conte cruel, the stories about the cruelty of fate. Schwob was excellent at working his research and knowledge of the past into fiction, so that the historical figures of his Vies Imaginaires (1896) come entirely to life. Arachne is one of Schwob's earlier fantastic stories, and the influence of the Decadents is heavily felt here. The great Vincent O'Sullivan, a major Decadent himself, would later backhand Schwob as "derivative" and a writer who "had to be started by something he admired;" one can see O'Sullivan's point, at least as far as "Arachne" is concerned, but the story is nonetheless an excellent example of short Decadent horror. If it lacks the potency of Schwob's later work, "Arachne" is nonetheless good enough at what it does to appear on the Hugo short list.

The story coming into sixth place in the voting, and therefore not enough to place on the short list, is Rudyard Kipling's "The Recrudescence of Imray," a slick work with more of the racial and imperial ambiguity of 1890's "The Mark of the Beast." Other stories receiving votes: M.E. Braddon's "The Ghost's Name" and Arthur Machen's "Jocelyn's Escape," both unread by me; Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Giant Wistaria," professional but not much more; Quiller-Couch's "Doubles and Quits," here for style more than substance; and Jerome K. Jerome's "The New Utopia," on the ballot for ideas more than execution.

For Further Reading

Braddon's Gerard, or the World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Crawford's Khaled

Du Maurier's Peter Ibbetson

Morris' Story of the Glittering Plain

Wilde's Picture of Dorian Grey

Bierce's "Death of Halpin Frayser"

James' "Sir Edmund Orme"

Nesbit's "The Ebony Frame"

Schwob's "Arachne"

Top image: Dorian Grey's picture/RC Merchant's Flickr