Richard Jefferies: After London

February 22, 2015

Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways mentioned Richard Jefferies and prompted me to re-read this short novel from 1885; it’s one of those books where, when you reach the end, you think ‘no, you can’t possibly end it here!’ which of course he can, that being any author’s privilege.

Some natural and ecological disaster has devastated Britain at some point in the past; the details are never gone into, but London has vanished into a vast toxic swamp, large tracts of southern England are now a vast inland lake, civilisation has vanished and the population collapsed; small tribes and princelings carve out territories, warring occasionally and ekeing out a meagre existence.

The first section describes nature gradually taking over the land; no people, but wild animals. Then a slight shift in the narrative implies there are still small groups of humans, cemented by references to the ‘olden times’ and ‘the ancients’. Though there are historians, there are few records of the past and little accuracy about what is known; knowledge seems to have been lost very rapidly, though it is still known that the ancients had great knowledge and capabilities… The remaining English are oppressed by the remaining Welsh, Scots and Irish: tyranny and slavery abound in the petty principalities.

Then a story of sorts emerges, with a hero – Felix Aquila – a misfit, a thinker and an explorer, who has a woman to woo and win, too. He is interested in the knowledge of the past, its books and artefacts, in a world where people know little beyond their immediate surroundings, and because groups of people are cut off from each other, there is no global picture of what is known or how things work. This part of the novel has a very convincing mediaeval feel to its atmosphere, and to its pace, too. He travels the inland sea in his dugout canoe through various picaresque adventures, narrow escapes, and making some discoveries. We see various separate settlements and tribes, and their disparate languages which make communication difficult, their customs and different kinds of knowledge. The spookiness of the wastes above the ruins of London, with the toxic atmosphere and slime and total absence of life reveals some astonishing and lyrical description, and this is one of the strengths of this work, the writer’s mastery of language and his ability to create convincing atmosphere.

It’s a very slow-paced read, which matches the pace of the world in which it is set; it hasn’t a specific plot, but the picaresque nature of Felix’ travels enhances the overall feel of the book. It’s a really good example of early post-apocalyptic literature, worthy to stand alongside Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

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