- The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World by Rosalind Williams
By Rosalind Williams. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. Pp. xii+416. $30.
Rosalind Williams describes how “the closing of the world frontier” (p. 7) was experienced and imaginatively transformed by three nineteenth-century writers. Jules Verne, William Morris, and R. L. Stevenson represent for Williams the first generation for whom the conquest of the earth by technological and commercial forces was seen to be inevitable: there would be no more blank spaces on the map, no ways of life beyond the reach of railways, telegraphs, gunboats, and capitalism. This is literary biography, then, but it is also a sort of prehistory of our own moment, at which the anthropogenic powers that came into view in the nineteenth century seem likely to bury us.
Romance as a particular type of narrative mode is central to her account. In romance, she suggests, unseen powers get their due. Thus even while the nineteenth century is often seen as the period of the triumph of the realist novel, an undercurrent of romance exists in which the magical aspects of the world can be represented. In the three writers she surveys this is the disappearing magic of an increasingly disenchanted world, but also the voodoo of industrial capitalism that melts all that is solid into air. Another shared thread is that all three of her authors have a particular relationship—biographical and symbolic—to water. Waterways in this study are at once a significant dimension of individual lives (Morris’s deep love of the Thames; Verne’s relationship with the open sea; Stevenson’s affinity with a series of coasts), a link to older ways of life, and the highway for the commerce that underpins the expansion of human empire.
Such ideas come into clearer focus when we turn to the individual chapters. Verne, for example, represents the sea as a space of heroic adventure, but his work also resounds with echoes of the commerce in slaves that enriched his hometown of Nantes well into the nineteenth century; the flip side of his optimistic tales of the triumph of technology are nightmares of imprisonment and exploitation, of the ship as prison, and the heroic captain as négrier. His ambition to capture the period’s geographical romance is shown to be shadowed with a consciousness of the world’s rapid disenchantment.
Morris is also shown as a conflicted figure: an entrepreneur who distrusted progress, and a rich man who supported revolution, his romances were inspired by his sense of the “wrongness” of his own contemporary society, but also by his trips to Iceland, a country then little changed by the Industrial Revolution. Out of these sources came the future vision of News from Nowhere (1890), which imagines a basis for life other than progress [End Page 760] and economic growth. For Williams, one of Morris’s major legacies is thus to fantasy writing, including the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, a literature in which she sees a transformative and compensatory dimension rather than simple escapism.
Stevenson also appears as a writer who drew inspiration from direct experience of the vanishing frontier. For him, the collapse of Polynesian societies in the face of Western gunboat commerce appeared to be both appalling and inevitable; his late fiction captures some of that sense of horror, while also offering glimpses of cultures on the point of disintegration.
This is a scholarly book by an accomplished historian of science and technology, but clearly also a personal one, composed over some twenty years, and shaped by a love of particular writers. I would like to have seen the intriguing argument about water developed more explicitly (Margaret Cohen’s 2012 book on the novel and the sea is referenced, but probably appeared too late to be fully engaged with here). But even those familiar with these authors will learn from Williams’s powerful account of the spread of “human empire.” This is a rich and nuanced study, and a timely argument for...