Late last month the Washington Post reported that a passing asteroid would whiz unusually close to Earth. Luckily for us, “NASA was quick to reassure people that the asteroid, which is estimated to be between 11 feet (about 3.5 meters) and 28 feet (8.5 meters) in diameter, wouldn’t end life like we know it on our planet,” according to the article. Suppose, however, that a much larger celestial object, say the moon, crashes into the Earth. What then?
The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains frighteningly relevant
This is the scenario of RC Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript (1939), recently reprinted by Scribner. From its first pages we learn that more than eight centuries have passed since the “Cataclysm” and that Europe, especially England, has been left a barren wasteland. For years, however, archaeologists from the Royal Society of Abyssinia have searched for artifacts to help “rebuild the lost glory of the ‘white man’.” small vacuum-packed flask, inside which is a handwritten account of life in a small village called Beadle during the days leading up to the lunar catastrophe. To Addis Ababa scholars hungry for knowledge of the past, the “Hopkins Manuscript” turns out to be “a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the growing gloom of a dying England ” but – unfortunately – “endlessly pathetic in the pitiful little presumptions and self-esteem of its author.
Those last few sentences are, in fact, an apt description of the novel’s narrator, the elder Edgar Hopkins. A former schoolteacher who, thanks to a small inheritance, was able to retire to the countryside, Hopkins is vain, envious of others, accustomed to domestic comforts and totally self-centered. His main interests in his life are raising prize chickens and extolling “the effect of water-heated tubular metal perches on the laying ability of hens”. He represents, almost in caricature, the traditional “Little Englishman” in its most provincial form.
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Is Sherriff’s book, then, a satirical version of the end of the world, a precursor to, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)? It may almost sound like it, but overall the humor of its pleasant first half more closely resembles that of George and Weedon Grossmith’s Victorian bestseller, “The Diary of a Stranger” (1892).
Consider, for example, Hopkins’ description of his uncle Henry, who, before retiring from the Office of Works, ‘had done much to add dignity and decorum to the public spaces of London, and it was through his untiring efforts that the hands they pointed to at Hyde Park Public Services had short sleeves and white cuffs painted onto their bare wrists. This is definitely worthy of Grossmith’s immortal Mr. Pooter. Equally good is the pen portrait of Uncle Henry’s wife Rose, who may have grown stout in her later years but still “possessed the best collection in England of old colored prints of stagecoaches which had overturned in snowdrifts”.
Hopkins, a graduate of Winchester School and Cambridge University, complies with his neighbors in Beadle. Yet it is clear that for Sherriff these workers constitute some of the most admirable English ‘types’. Here are faithful aged servants, a kindly vicar, salt-of-the-earth peasants, a boisterous village cricket team, the surly pub owner Fox and Hounds, a handsome Etonian named Robin and his blonde older sister Pat, and benevolent aristocrats. . All of them face the impending lunar catastrophe with quiet courage and trust in God. Even when Hopkins makes the end of the world all about himself, he recognizes what he is missing out on:
“Often, during the past seven terrible years, have I … relived the last hour of happiness I was ever to know on this earth: that quiet walk to the village – my quiet talk with Mr Flidale, the courier, at his cottage near at the bridge – a moment’s pause to watch the boys play football on the lawn – the sounds of the country, the smell of the hay – the leisurely stroll home & chatting with old Barlow at my gate; the last hour of the my life – the last hour in which I would know the meaning of rest.
Having learned at a closed meeting of the British Lunar Society that the moon will strike the Earth on May 3, 1946, Hopkins pledged secrecy to prevent nationwide panic. Like a terminally ill patient, he agonizes over the knowledge that his life will end in seven months, five months, a few weeks, tomorrow. He can’t believe it:
“I felt a deep and exultant conviction that the world would survive – that the human race, purified of a common peril, would emerge with all its petty jealousy and senseless strife forgotten. Instead of destroying us, the moon would free us forever from greed, cruelty and war, frightening us into eternal gratitude.
Of course, it’s ironic that he talks about “petty jealousy” and “senseless conflict.” I won’t say more about what happens in the novel, but, as Major Jagger ominously insists, “Do you imagine that one cataclysm – or a hundred cataclysms – could change human nature?” In the end, the real cause of Britain’s disintegration and complete destruction is not at all what the reader expects.
A look at the post-apocalyptic world imagined in the novel ‘After London’
RC Sherriff (1896-1975) was seriously wounded in the First World War and first came to prominence as the author of the celebrated anti-war work ‘Journey’s End’ (1928). Besides novels and dramas, he gained fame as a screenwriter of such films as “The Invisible Man” (1933) and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939). In “The Hopkins Manuscript,” he is shown to be as adept at description as he is at dialogue. As the moon got closer and closer, “the dark brown sky grew wild and bright: across its dirty brown came a blood-red stripe: swelling and pulsing until the whole sky was filled with it. The skies seemed to heave and bleed like the shattered lung of a dying giant.
Writers of fiction about life after a global pandemic, climate catastrophe, or nuclear war usually envision a return to barbarism and savagery. In Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (1980), England is literally bombed back into the Middle Ages; in “After London” (1885) by Richard Jefferies there are feudal courts, surrounded by a wild and menacing nature; and in JD Beresford’s “Goslings” (1913), nearly all the men die in an epidemic, but the surviving women establish sisterly cooperative farms. The second half of “The Hopkins Manuscript” initially seems much more optimistic than all of these. Sherriff seems to have taken William Morris’s pastoral, utopian-socialist novel News From Nowhere (1890) to heart, as its rural survivors are soon establishing small communities based on bartering and crafts. “The destruction of the big combines and chain stores had brought individuality back to English life,” he writes. “It was a blissful experience walking along the high street – hearing the sound of the hammer and the strike of the carpenter.” Could a renewed and better world really be in the making?
Alas, there are two catastrophes in “The Hopkins Manuscript” and moonshot demonstrates the lesser one.
‘A World of Women’ imagines just that. First published in 1913, it is strangely relevant.
When Sherriff’s novel was first published, it warned England of its complacency before the storm of all-out war with fascist Germany. The sheriff also appears to have recognized that war would usher in the end of the British Empire, already in its long twilight. For today’s readers, many elements of the novel will bring to mind our recent experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, ultra-nationalist politics, widespread religious fanaticism, the global climate crisis, and senseless and brutal wars of attrition around the globe. In short, “The Hopkins Manuscript” doesn’t simply – or simplistically – imagine what some have called a “welcoming catastrophe.” It remains a relevant cautionary tale.
Scribner. 400 pp. Paperback, $18
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