Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Melbourne, 12 August 2992

Henry Crocker Marriott Watson wrote a number of novels during the late nineteenth century in the utopian genre. He was born in Tasmania in 1835, but lived mainly in Victoria where he was ordained as a clergyman. His first novel was Erchomenon, or the republic of materialism (1879). Eutopia is set six hundred years in the future in which everyone lives in cities, there is a religion of humanity based on Auguste Comte (1798-1857), and children are raised by women other than their natural mother.

In 1890, Watson wrote The decline and fall of the British Empire or, The witch's cavern. The novel is set in the future and begins with “A letter of explanation”, dated, “Melbourne, 12 August 2992” by William Furley. Furley’s letter sets the scene for the narrative of his experiences.

In the world of 2992 British civilisation survives most strongly in Australia, which is now an independent republic with an elected president. The continent has been developed extensively and is a garden spot, with Eyreton as a new inland capital. Trade flourishes extensively with China, which provides raw materials in exchange for Australian manufactures. While Furley does not describe material culture extensively, there are electric land cars and fairly fast air transportation.

Having finished his education in 2988 Furley decides to travel, first visiting Tasmania and then Africa where the population shows signs of racial mixture. Along with his fiancee and Professor Fowler, a historian, he next visits England, the home of the British people. England has gone primitive. Population has decreased enormously, with London consisting of some twenty thousand people who live amid ruins, and with little evidence of the high civilisation of a thousand years earlier. Wolves range through the land and are a particular menace in the north. The land is ruled by Prince Albert, and rank is still important, despite the overall shabby, neo-primitive nature of the culture.

As the travellers wander about they find that Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament have completely vanished. One of the causes for the degeneration of England was a change in the Gulf Stream, which with the opening of the Panama Canal altered its course and now flows into the Pacific.

As Furley wanders about he sees a large white hare which he follows down into a great cavern where he meets the witch, or Sibyl, as she is sometimes called. She shows him visions and gives him a ring to protect him. He then awakens along with certain of his Australian friends and companions in London of the 1890s.

The heart of the book consists of Furley’s experiences and observations in the collapsing late nineteenth century world. He obtains a job as a journalist on the London Express and sees much of the contemporary misery. While admitting that society is in a bad way, the author takes a conservative position on political economy and religion. When a speaker at a public meeting states the socialist interpretation of history with recommendations for improvement, Furley stands forth and addresses the meeting in reply. His rejoinder to the thesis that capitalists are parasites is that wealth was really created by the capitalists through hard toil. As remedies for the nation’s ills he recommends hard work, thrift, and temperance. England collapses. Strikes break out. In a short time a mammoth demonstration ushers in the Great Revolution. The Sibyl shows Furley spot scenes of the future debacle. Eventually, the better people leave England, migrating to the colonies.

Furley awakens back in his own era. He declares that when Australia becomes overpopulated, he and his fiancee will return to England to repopulate and recivilise it. The author’s point of view is a mixture of social democracy, laissez faire capitalism, and limited reform.