A rebel angel

‘Futurity.’ © C A Lovegrove. Image created using Wombo.Art app

The Question Mark
by Muriel Jaeger.
Introduction by Jo Moulton.
British Library Science Fiction Classics, 2019 (1926).

“You are the natural rebel, the Satanist—one of those unfortunates born with inverted instincts. Your necessity is to attack and to suffer. You may not know it, but, whatever your circumstances, you would seek out suffering. […] In no place nor time would you be at home. You are he who goes up and down upon the earth and to and fro on it.” — John Wayland to Guy Martin.

Chapter X, v.

Guy Martin is in a dead-end job in London in the 1920s, disappointed in love and feeling a great ennui for the world he lives in. In a moment of desperation he goes to his room, lies down and wills himself to enter a trance, a kind of akinetic catatonia or coma, which allows his consciousness to withdraw from the world. And then…

And then, after what seems to be an out-of-body experience, he finds himself apparently waking in the 22nd century in a kind of Utopia – literally ‘Nowhere’ – where energy is free, technology is beyond all 20th-century imagining, and labour is not only minimal but optional for many. Introduced to his new way of living by the Wayland family, he believes all is perfect, a socialist dream where all have access to whatever they need or want.

But all is not perfect in this future England, and Guy finds that neither human nature nor society adapt well to an idealised system, and especially a oerson such as himself who has existed in and experienced the Depression of the twenties. What will his reaction be to this growing realisation?

Maurits Cornelis Escher, “Up and Down” (1960)

As Jaeger explained in her Author’s Introduction, “It is that life [which] will be lived in those Nowheres […] that I am in search of.” She explicitly critiqued writers like H G Wells because she didn’t believe in the human characters with which these authors peopled their future societies. I read Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes (1910) many years ago and now see that while Jaeger’s premise is similar to Wells’s – namely that protagonist goes into a coma, only to revive two centuries later – she takes it in a very different direction: less a scientific romance, more an observation of how human nature might change as social conditions adapt to a less hand-to-mouth existence even as technology improves.

Thus society, as she envisages it, has in the 2120s essentially evolved into two classes, the Intellectual and the Normal. The former appears to operate on an entirely rational basis, calmly analytical in its approach and prone to regarding Normals as mildly amusing; the other is prey to its emotions, secretly obsessive in its passions and susceptible to populist or evangelical messages. Guy veers from one camp to the other yet belongs to neither, consequently setting up intimations of what could be psychosis with a return to his out-of-body experience.

Those expecting a Jules Verne type of scientific romance may well be disappointed. True, there are technical wonders such as aerocycles and power-boxes providing limitless energy, but there are also printed newspapers and wheeled automobiles in this visibly green and pleasant land. Brought back to consciousness by Dr Wayland, Guy meets Normals (like the doctor’s wife Agatha and their grown-up children Ena and Terry) as well as Intellectuals such as Ena and Terry’s cousin John – who becomes his principal guide and mentor. Then the reader is treated to a sequence of episodes through which Guy tries to adjust to this Nowhere, with mixed results.

What is he to make of John’s bachelor club? Of Terry’s celebrity status running races in places like the Alps? Of a paradisiacal clinic for “the hopelessly diseased or insane or unsocial” (as John characterises suicides and those convicted of crimes passionnels) called the Euthanasia Palace? Or a charismatic and Messianic millenarianist who attracts expectant crowds to Richmond Hill at dawn on the Last Day?

Jaeger’s debut novel was published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press (a facsimile of Leonard Woolf’s acceptance letter is included as a frontispiece) with little anticipation of its being a huge success. In her introduction Dr Mo Moulton – who’s an authority on Jaeger, her friendship with Dorothy L Sayers and her membership of the Mutual Admiration Society – sets the author and The Question Mark in their literary, social and historical contexts, and establishes the influences that found their way into its pages: Socialism (“fertilised,” writes Jaeger, “by the ideals of Anarchism and Syndicalism”) plus a dash of Theosophy and Spiritualism. Jaeger – and therefore Guy – also shows an evident dislike of what John Wayland identifies as “Poverty and Competition,” themes which re-emerge in the closing pages of the novel.

The Question Mark is undeniably an interesting if imperfect novel of ideas: featuring Guy Martin as an Everyman figure, a representative “guy” playing the role of fish out of water, he’s like a rebel angel confronted by a dichotomy – whether to choose to be a Normal or an Intellectual – while naturally partaking of both states. Yet we feel for him, knowing he can accept neither Ena Wayland’s gauche advances nor John Wayland’s clinical, dispassionate friendship.

Like the evangelical Father Emmanuel who raises expectations of his imminent apotheosis but runs the risk of disappointing his many followers, Guy as the living representative of the twentieth century is liable to fall from the perilous pedestal on which he unwillingly has been placed.

10 Books of Summer 746books.com

The third of my 10 Books of Summer

26 thoughts on “A rebel angel

    1. Wells was one of the authors she took a lead from – like him she had socialist leanings – but she was less inclined to accept that a future socialist world would be perfect (I guess she was thinking, for example, of his 1905 A Modern Utopia which also has a 20th-century protagonist propelled into a utopian society); she’s thus credited with being a pioneer of dystopian fiction. Jaeger also mentions taking her cue from other utopian writers like Edward Bellamy, but I’ve not read those authors. I’d be curious to see what you thought of this, Annabel, if and when you get round to it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I read this back in 2019 and thought it was fascinating – so many interesting concepts and a very thought-provoking read. The BL Science Fiction classics is a really interesting imprint but it looks like it may have stopped, which is a great shame; I suspect people are resistant to the sci fi label, but the ones I’ve read have just been very, very good books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A shame if the BL series has come to an end, we know a lot about US Golden Age SF writers but not the more obscure British ones. I’ll see if the local indie has others in the series, as I think I may have got this from there. By the way, I’ve now read and enjoyed your review!


      1. I think so too – the titles deserve to be treated with respect, as too often sci fi gets bad press and tacky cover design. Like any kind of fiction, there’s good and bad but to just condemn a type out of hand is a shame. Happy hunting!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. If you do read and review it I’d love to know what you thought, Simon! As for the images, I’m not sure they necessarily reflect Jaeger’s vision, which seems to be all low-rise Art Deco buildings or Neoclassical mansions set in pastoral landscapes. The Escher was my nod to the protagonist’s confused state of mind…

      I read The Sleeper Wakes so many years ago – in a cheap vintage hardback which later fell apart – that I can barely remember many details; I picked it up expecting a vaguely Arthurian theme and am hazy about the middle bits, but I vaguely seem to recall African troops are involved at one stage and that the Sleeper ends up in an aerial dogfight above London.


    1. It’s certainly intriguing, and though it felt a bit episodic when I was reading it, by the conclusion I realised to some extent the points Jaeger was trying to make. At least I think I did! Glad you appreciated the Escher image. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked that this one was in the near enough future that people were recognisable as being still very much like us. And I enjoyed that she showed us her ‘now’ before she took us to the future, so that there wasn’t that feeling of nostalgia for the good old days that sometimes permeates dystopian fiction. I also felt that a lot of the questions she raises are even more pertinent today than they were when she wrote it – enforced idleness caused by mechanisation and so on – and I think she’s very right that the modern divide (in the wealthy countries) is less about rich and poor, and more about people who perceive themselves as “intellectual” and look down on everyone else. Not unflawed, but a perceptive speculation!

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    1. Yes, no nostalgia here! There was a real poignancy to Guy’s final dreams about poverty in London during the Depression of the 20s, wasn’t there? If the aim of socialism was the elimination of poverty and commercial competition (as Jaeger sees it) what it didn’t really eliminate was a future class divide, as represented by the patronising sneering Intellectual who was John and the unsophisticated and emotional Normal, John’s cousin Ena. In today’s UK is that echoed by the Remainer—Brexiter divide? I wonder.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always find the idea of utopia very discomforting. I recall it being discussed in Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven and Tanith Lee’s Biting the Sun. And also Huxley’s Brave New World. Is utopia practically possible? Is it really all that great? Can it last long? Does it consider human diversity? How far can governments go to maintain the ideal? Not feel good reading as far as “utopia” goes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do so agree. The Le Guin showed that any engineered society, particularly one put in place by one or two people, cannot effectively plan for any eventuality, never mind complex multiple consequences arising from their templates – so such utopias are almost certainly liable to fail. Ditto revolutions.

      I do believe it may be possible for well-ordered communities and societies to evolve, but usually within relatively stable isolated environments, but you can never plan for rogue elements upsetting the applecart. I remember that theme from Asimov’s Foundation books, where Hari Seldon’s psychohistory took no account of rogue individuals emerging, as the Mule did.


  4. This one certainly intrigues me both in how its view of the ‘future’ stands vis-a-vis Wells, and also in the intellect/emotion separation, since I’ve just been reading in a different context how this ‘binary’ stands questioned in certain Eastern philosophies which see mind-heart as one entity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think Jaeger may be expressing a worry about that binary divide – how it may be exacerbated in the then distant future – especially as her protagonist ends up deeply disturbed because he retains that mind-heart entity that you point to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Even more interested. I actually took (or rather audited) a MOOC on Korean philosophy over the last few weeks which brought up the concept–maeum in Korean, and also the general questioning of binaries including subject-object in Eastern philosophies. So this book becomes all the more intriguing now.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Now you’ve massively enlightened me – I had no notion of MOOCs, nor of the Korean concept of maeum, and now I’ve a better idea! I think the Intellectual/Normal dichotomy in this novel must therefore point to a deep malaise in Jaeger’s future world. The hippie / mystical / New Age emphasis in the 1970s and 80s was all about this whole mind-body-spirit totality, I seem to recall.


          1. MOOCs are a great way to get introductions to new ideas and indeed topics. My mother does lots, me far less so since I don’t have the best time management skills, but we use Courseera for more intense content and futurelearn for slightly lighter level things, both great and free to use as long as one isn’t looking for a certificate. Futurelearn now has time limits on how long one can access the material but coursera is still flexible. I’ve done a few philosophy and literature courses in the past and a couple on animals. This time I signed on for Kòrean philosophy and another on modern art which seemed interesting and reasonable enough for me to handle time wise.

            The maeum concept was really interesting to me too. I knew the word roughly (korean drama) but not its significance which was interesting to.learn here. So glad you brought up the hippie/ mystical idea of totality. That was something I’d forgotten about when I was looking at these concepts in the course.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Tempting! Though I have a couple of books specifically about the Wall they’re possibly a little out of date now, there is so much research going on, both archaeological and reassessing previous research.


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