Prophesy and be damned! Alan Horsman

Anno Domini 2000 or Woman’s Destiny
Julius Vogel (ed Roger Robinson)
Exisle Publishing, $29.95,
ISBN 0908988168

“There is no such thing as a load of old codswallop … the codswallop is always freshly made,” or at least it needs to be if, like Julius Vogel, you are to keep afloat as a promoter of companies not all of which are successful. In 1889, with this talent intact, and not much else, he joins the seers who hope to replicate the phenomenal success of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887, “a socialist romance”, as the catalogue of the General Assembly Library calls it.

Vogel writes what looks like a capitalist counterblast: the elimination of poverty, which Bellamy achieves by “the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation”, is accomplished by agreement among “six of the largest finance houses throughout the globe … to increase the circulating medium and to raise the prices of both products and labour.” To us there may be codswallop in the cooperation but the result is all too familiar. A novel backing such a policy against the command economy would be prescient indeed. But this is only the prologue, set in 1920, and only one of the financiers is female, whereas the novel is to concern 2000 when, the complete success of inflation being assumed, “woman’s destiny is firmly fixed in politics”. For that purpose, everything will depend on how well the author can imagine people and what they do.

Vogel has plenty of the kind of imagination that sets possible facts in the most favourable light. So technological marvels give him no trouble; Roger Robinson in his introduction is right to make an impressive list of them, though Vogel is perhaps given too much credit for their originality. His air-cruisers driven by “revolving fans”, for instance, may be “sixteen years before Richard Pearse”, but already in 1886 Jules Verne’s similar craft in Robur le conquérant has a solid hull and screw propellors; Vogel’s is even old-fashioned, still balloon-like in needing (like some of his companies) to have the “casing … inflated … to aid her buoyancy”. His education system, making “each person more or less an engineer”, seems suggested by Bellamy’s “thorough study of the National industrial system”; the latter’s perfunctory “general intellectual culture” is perfunctorily expanded into “science and art, mathematical and technical requirements”, along with “living languages … easily learnt in a few months”, a characteristic triumph of Vogel’s hope over other people’s experience.

He has some lucky guesses, which can easily look like Disraelian intuition, such as the future prominence of the Churchill family or the imminence of a great war about 1915. But much of the favourable prophecy comes from the author’s own helpless optimism – the “enormous accumulation of reserve funds all over the dominions”, leaving “room for the expenditure of incalculable millions on important works within the Empire”, or the success of one group of those finance houses in preventing the outbreak of that war. His optimism has a modern touch in allowing “those who wished to be idle and State pensioners … to follow their inclination”, in contrast – intentional one would think – to Bellamy’s absolute powers of conscription into the “industrial army”.

Most of these things, however, are on the periphery of the novel’s action, mere pamphleteering compared with the presentation of “woman’s destiny”. The main exception is the fortune of Hilda the heroine from “inexhaustible” gold found in the river-bed after blocking the outlet from Lake Wakatipu (a project not much more fantastic than that of the Agricultural Company from which Vogel and Larnach had hoped to make a fortune in commissions on the sale of land overrun with rabbits).

When applied to people and what they do, the deadpan language of the pamphleteering has overtones that quite escape the author. So the poker-faced adulation of the heroine could serve easily for satire of the politician – her facial expression, for example, “having about it a luminous intelligence, a purity, and a pathos” that seem “to belong to another world”. The action has its overtones too: Hilda rejects matrimony because her life as a politician is “consecrated to objects … inconsistent” with it; two suitors suffer and eventually die in a duel, before the very highest bidder, the Emperor himself, is accepted. Yet as consort, while she may be able to continue to encourage mining – her only action of public benefit, and that with privately inherited wealth from that river-bed – she will hardly have the power of a minister. Even the Emperor accepts ministerial advice, in the only instance presented.

That instance, at first, appears to be chosen to make the principal male politician look ridiculous. The Emperor is refusing a bride, actually because she has red hair but ostensibly because her mother, the President of the United States, insists that “the eldest child, whether son or daughter” shall inherit the throne; he insists his successor should be able to lead his troops in battle, an obviously archaic demand even in Queen Victoria’s time, when nothing of the kind has happened since the Battle of Dettingen in 1743. This could make a kind of comic sense as anachronistic male chauvinism if Vogel carried it through, but the comedy soon turns in quite another direction. The outraged President starts a war by sending all her troops to invade Canada, where they are defeated; the Emperor as military leader easily succeeds in his plan to attack the United States, while the President, captured, suddenly gets engaged to marry the captain of the flagship on which she is a prisoner. She puts President Clinton quite in the shade when asking, “Do you think I ought to send in my resignation?” A story to illustrate the ineptitude of women in their political destiny could scarcely do more.

Of course, Vogel is being drawn into another optimistic forecast, the United States’ rejoining the Empire. But even his heroine (whom he persists in calling a “girl”) is shown in a purely political role only in her support of the Emperor’s reasons for resisting the American marriage. At the climaxes of her career, she behaves as the conventional female, as the girl who marries the boss, and as the villain’s victim, rescued by the hero and crying (as she runs towards him when he appears in the nick of time, disguised with false whiskers), “Help me! Protect me!” The action veers towards illustrating the opinion of the Granville Barker character who says, “Some of ’em want to be kissed and some want to talk politics … but the principle’s the same.”

As a novelist, Vogel is a dangerous man to put in charge of a cause, fiction being so much more difficult than technological forecasting. Much of the forecasting, including the very foundations of his utopia in the work of benign financiers, falls under Winston Churchill’s warning: “A hopeful disposition is not the sole qualification to be a prophet.” As hope has not been enough, either, for the company-promoter, called by his Australian victims a “scampish adventurer”, it is not enough for the novelist trying to promote woman’s destiny in politics. Still, we should remember another warning, from the reviewer in Zealandia in 1889: “Perhaps we look at this book too seriously.” There are not so many hilarious New Zealand novels, whether intentionally or not, that we can afford to neglect this one.

 

Alan Horsman was Donald Collie Professor of English at the University of Otago. He has published widely on Victorian literature.

 

 

 

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