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?
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.
The third of my 10 Books of Summer