Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. His research interests include the study of Victorian popular fiction and journalism.
For much of the nineteenth century Britain was the world’s foremost superpower. Having defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, there was no serious rival to British military, industrial, and economic might. Yet by 1885, change was in the air: A newly-unified Germany looked as though it could prove a serious military rival to Britain, while the young United States, emerging from the chaos of the American Civil War, proved a serious contender to British commercial prowess. A series of military setbacks in the colonies, additionally, such as the death of General Gordon in the Sudan at the hands of the Mahdi, made it seem to many people back in Britain that the British Empire was finally entering a period of decline and fall as all other empires throughout history had done. Unsurprisingly, several writers in the 1880s and afterwards began to ponder what life might look like in a post-imperial world, and the sight was not always a pleasing one.
The Tottering Empire
Unsurprisingly, British writers began to ponder the question of what the world would look like after the empire was no more. William Morris’s ‘utopian romance’, News from Nowhere (1888), depicted a future society after the year 2003 when imperialism and capitalism were no more. Yet Morris, a socialist, was an outlier with his ‘utopian’ vision, for the majority of novelists at this point felt no cause for optimism. A correspondent in Reynolds’s News—which had transitioned from being a radical paper to a more liberal one under W.M. Thompson—for example, wrote an article in 1900 titled ‘The Tottering Empire’ and presented a vision of an empire in which capitalism and greed had brought down the world’s greatest empire which might have been a force for good in the world.
Victorian fiction writers imagined various ways in which the world and the British Empire could end—perhaps the capitalist empire would be brought low by an powerful being like Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha: The Return of She, who threatened to use her power to make ‘the nations … beggared … the usurer and the fat merchant tremble’. For other writers, the ‘world’ (that is, society) would end immediately if socialism and Marxism ever gained a foothold in Britain and the United Kingdom made subject to the dominance of a European parliament. This was the argument in Robert Hugh Benson’s novel The Lord of the World (1907) in which, in a future communist Europe, the Antichrist descends eventually and the world ends.
Imagining the End of the World
In any case, the mood from the 1880s onwards, even as the British Empire expanded during the ‘scramble for Africa’, was one of concern that the ‘world’ as they knew it—of British supremacy—might end. The reason for some of this was a concern that Britain was becoming ‘weak’. As Meredith Townsend wrote in 1888 in an article titled ‘Will England Retain India?’ in The Contemporary Review:
… [Liberal thinkers] have themselves asserted that all men are equal, thus barring themselves from pleading any right as conquerors … They have left themselves no arguments to adduce, and it is questionable whether in a few years they will have the inclination to produce any. For, whether for good or for evil, a great change is passing over Englishmen. They have become uncertain of themselves, afraid of their old opinions, doubtful of the true teaching of their own consciences. They doubt if they have any longer any moral right to rule any one, themselves almost included.
Other writers imagined the end of western society in broader terms, envisioning a worldwide ecological disaster that would set human progress back a thousand years or, as in the Purple Cloud, annihilate mankind. Once such writer was Richard Jefferies, who in 1885, one year before Morris’s News from Nowhere, wrote After London, which is a fascinating glimpse into how Great Britain might look after a global environmental apocalypse. Jefferies presents the Britain of After London as a place which has regressed into a medievalised, barbaric place ruled by barons, kings, knights, and in which an underclass of serfs toil for the few.
Richard Jefferies was born in Swindon on 6 November 1848, in a house which is now home to the Richard Jefferies Museum. His parents were of modest means; his father, John Jefferies, had worked in a bookbinders and his mother was the daughter of one of John Jefferies’s manager in the bookbinding firm. The family were of modest means, but they owned a small farm with a cottage (now the aforementioned museum), which the family were always trying to make money with and never quite succeeding. Nevertheless, the rural setting in which Richard Jefferies was raised was where he developed his love of the natural world.
Jefferies’s youthful passion for reading soon led him to discover Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pathfinder (1840), which were two of his favourite books (and available in cheap editions in his formative years during the 1850s). The medievalism of Percy’s Reliques, and the breath-taking descriptions of natural beauty found in Fenimore Cooper’s tale of the American frontier, likely inspired Jefferies’s descriptions of nature in After London.
The Relapse into Barbarism
A Victorian schoolboy such as Jefferies would likely have grown up with the not altogether unjustified view of the medieval period as one of backwardness. The reader is never sure of the exact year when After London takes place but the novel, narrated by a historian living far in the future, refers to the Victorians as ‘the ancients’. As a result, people’s conception of history has, much like it was during the medieval era, become reliant on oral tradition which is
‘thus handed down from mouth to mouth is for the most part correct’.
There are few written records and, annoyingly for our narrator, however,
‘none of the accounts agree nor can they altogether be reconciled with present facts or with reasonable supposition’.
Humankind in this far-off post-apocalyptic world has therefore become ‘ignorant, rude, and unlettered’. Although modern medieval studies academics would balk at the idea of the medieval era being associated with that of ‘regression’ or ‘backwardness’, Jefferies was therefore using a very ‘Victorian’ view of the medieval past—one which held that the fall of Rome ushered in a dark age in which ‘science’ was forgotten—and he is projecting this on the future (in spite of his childhood love of Percy’s Reliques).
Nature Takes Back Control
Nothing illustrates this ‘relapse into barbarism’ (so the first chapter is titled) as much as Jefferies’s description of the natural world after an apocalyptic event, and it is here that his medievalism and naturalism collide. Modern civilisation broke down, it seems—for the narrator is not certain owing to the paucity of sources—after a major environmental disaster. As Jefferies understood that capitalism and commerce were central to our modern way of life, he asserts that some ancient witnesses (the Victorians) assert that ‘the change’ happened the world over because the sea silted up the entrances to the ports and prevented all forms of global trade. In England there must have been a major flood, for now most of the interior of England is covered in a giant lake, though, just like a medieval chronicler who was often unsure of events, Jefferies’s narrator leaves the reasons vague. Some of the more bizarre reasons given for the change in Jefferies’s future medieval world include the idea that an extra-terrestrial body came too close to the earth and changed its magnetic currents, and altered men’s minds along with it and made them more primitive. Finally, just as medieval chroniclers were wont to do, the priests of earth’s future times believed that the wickedness of the nineteenth century became so bad that god himself resolved to sweep away civilisation.
Civilisation Passes Away
Nature took back control, and civilisation passed away. Many of ‘the ancients’, we are told, left for places unknown. There is still some contact between Britain and mainland Europe via rickety ships but not much. Even travelling within the British Isles is now a dangerous task:
‘the sites of many villages and towns that anciently existed along the rivers, or on the lower lands adjoining, were concealed by the water and the mud it brought with it’
Furthermore, woodland now largely completely covers the island so much that there were few open spaces. Another symbol of nineteenth-century civilization—and of man’s conquest of nature—has also completely disappeared: the railways. As Jeffries states:
‘footpaths were concealed by the second year, but roads could be traced, though as green as the sward, and were still the best for walking, because the tangled wheat and weeds, and, in the meadows, the long grass, caught the feet of those who tried to pass through’.
Man’s Best Friend
Mankind is no longer in control of his environment and, as a corollary of this, humans’ relationship with animals has also changed: cats are no longer the cute domesticated animals that Victorian Londoners would have been familiar with but have become ‘forest cats’ who fly at people’s faces with their claws outstretched, inflicting deep scratches and bites. People’s wounds often get infected and, as there is no medical care, they die soon after. The cats will also prey upon poultry and fowls, thus depleting mankind’s food supply. Man’s other ‘best friends’ have turned savage: After the event, the weaker dogs such as the poodle—‘plentiful among the ancients’—have perished while the bigger, more powerful dogs retreated into the vast forest of England and have become wolf-like and ‘tear and mangle for sheer delight of blood, and will destroy twenty times as many as they can eat, leaving the miserably torn carcasses on the field’. Clearly there are echoes with Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest; only the strongest animals have survived in this new world and, just like mankind, they too have regressed into their former mental state of savagery.
The Fall of London
Finally, London, the centre of the greatest empire that that the world has ever known, is now completely underwater. A foul, toxic swamp covers the land that was once London which—owing to the masses of noxious coal once burnt in the city—if you breathe the air around it, will kill you. Jeffries was clearly making a point about the harmful effects of smoke pollution on human life and the environment although he was by no means the first to do so. In fact, in England, the first anti-smoke pollution legislation occurred in the medieval era when King Edward I issued a proclamation against the burning of ‘sea coal’ in 1306. A few centuries later, in 1661, John Evelyn published Fumifugium, or The Inconveniencie of the Aer and Smoak of London Dissipated Together with some Remedies Humbly Proposed. And a few decades earlier than Jeffries George W.M. Reynolds made reference in The Mysteries of London (1844–48) to the
‘everlasting cloud [of smog] which even the fresh fan of the morning fails to disperse for a single hour each day!’
Reynolds’s rival author Charles Dickens had earlier drawn attention to the harmful effects of smoke pollution in the opening chapter of Bleak House (1852) when he wrote of how smoke pollution
lower[ed] down from chimney pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full grown flakes…Fog everywhere…in the eyes and throat…cruelly pinching the toes and fingers.
Nevertheless, in the nineteenth century Reynolds, Dickens, and Jeffries’s views of the negative effects of smoke pollution were a minority view. For most Victorians smoke pollution offered a narrative of
‘wealth … in the eyes of the urban workforce who knew from bitter, lived experience that a smokeless chimney signified enforced idleness, hunger, and poverty’.
It was not until the late 1880s—just after Jeffries had published After London—that smoke abatement societiesbegan organising and pushing the issue of pollution to the forefront of political debate. It was in this decade, for example, that the Manchester and Salford Noxious Vapours Abatement Association (MSNVAA) launched a cross-class campaign, in partnership with gas companies, to demand that the town council to cut gas rates and make it affordable to local people.
The disappearance of London is representative of the fall of world trade and commerce and, with it, civilisation. In the place of the old capitalist world a new society had arisen: A neo-medieval feudal society.
Human society in the aftermath
Capitalism has not progressed into a communism like William Morris would have wanted. Instead, like many things in this post-apocalyptic world, things have gone backwards. Society has regressed into feudalism (there are some thinkers today who predict the rise of neo-feudalism, so perhaps Jeffries was ahead of his time).
A clear symbol of this regression—and an equally clear marker of Jeffries’s Victorian medievalism—is that England appears once again to be a Catholic country which celebrates all the old saints days. This would clearly have been a negative point for readers in a country where, as Carol Herringer states,
‘anti–Roman Catholicism was one of the most intense public emotions of the period … so widespread and so accepted that even Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone voiced it’.
Adding to the impression that men have become more gullible and simpler in mind, Jeffries says that they have also become very superstitious and afraid of the demons that allegedly haunt the woods and the spirits that infest the great lake.
Money is meaningless in this new society and people barter with either in kind or in any precious metals they can find such as tin, copper, brass. Instead, the ownership of land is what determines a person’s wealth. Victorian republicans such as George W.M. Reynolds may have looked towards the gradual abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of socialism but Jefferies had a different vision of the future: Monarchy and aristocracy are even more entrenched in the future.
There is a king who rules over a loose confederacy petty dukedoms and fiefdoms, much as existed in Anglo-Saxon England or the Holy Roman Empire. The kingdoms themselves, however, seem to be based more upon those which existed during the Anglo-Saxon period. Each duke has at his service a number of retainers and knights—who are little better than bandits, when all is said—and serfs. Each class owes loyalty to the person above him.
Lords and Serfs
The aristocracy are just as unlettered and ignorant as their serfs and only a select few of the nobles can read and write. Jefferies has little respect for his contrived future medieval nobles whose only entertainments seem to be warlike ones such as jousting, drinking, wrestling, and feasting. This is not to say that, in a far off world, anything of British medieval or modern culture was worth preserving. The English ‘literature’ that circulates is one that is firmly rooted in oral culture although to this there is one exception. Despite his adoration of Percy and his clearly wide knowledge of English literature, Jeffries held classical literature in greater esteem. The plays of Sophocles have survived but those of British writers have not:
‘So many English writers, once famous, had dropped out of knowledge and disappeared. Yet some of the far more ancient Greek and Roman classics remained because they contained depth and originality of ideas’.
In terms of their treatment of their serfs, the aristocracy are savages and no paternalistic ideas exist among them. Just like it happened in medieval England, people can either be born a serf or can be made a serf for the punishment of a crime or debt. The serfs have no protection in law and can be executed at will by the nobles or, if they get old and sick, are left to die by the roadside.
‘The slave was less than the dog’
as Jeffries put it, and—unlike in the medieval era—there is no prospect of social advancement: ‘as men were born, so they lived; they could not advance.’
Outside of this social structure are merchants, though these are few in number because of the collapse of global trade and the novel speaks only briefly of them. Beyond the small feudal communities are the bushmen who live in the forest. These people are the descendants of the Victorian idle poor and criminal classes who terrorised members of respectable society in the nineteenth century. They are true savages: ‘depraved, and without shame, clad in sheepskins chiefly, if clad at all’ and at other times they are described as ‘the human vermin of the woods’. An almost pre-historic mode of living which recalls the ‘barbarians’ who lived on the fringes of the Roman world, the bushmen have regressed further back than medieval times. At times, however, and just as happened in early modern Europe, the nobles hire these bushmen to act as private armies.
Felix Aquila: The True Knight
In this world of barbarism only man carries the torch of civilization inside of him: Felix Aquila. The principal protagonist, he is the son of a fairly poor nobleman who disdains participation in the medieval merriments and pastimes of his social class. Instead, Felix is more at home poring over the foisty and charred remains of old history books that have existed since the ancients’ times.
Another thing which sets Felix apart from his own caste is the fact that he is kind to the serfs. Although he retains an attitude of snobbery over them—at one point calling them ‘brutes’—he nevertheless questions the benignity and stability of a society which mistreats its lower classes:
[Felix] began to see society from their point of view, and recognised how feebly [society] was held together by brute force, intrigue, cord and axe, and woman’s flattery. But a push seemed needed to overthrow it. Yet it was quite secure, nevertheless, as there was none to give that push … Felix had never dreamed that common and illiterate men such as these grooms and retainers could have any conception of reasons of state’.
The slaves may be poor but this, in Felix’s view, is no reason to give them political rights. Jeffries was a (small ‘c’) conservative and the year before Jeffries published After London the Representation of the People Act (1884) had been passed. This Act, which significantly swelled the ranks of the electorate by around 6 million (while clearing up much of the mess of the Reform Act of 1867), is the likely target of Jeffries’ sneering attitude towards giving poorer people political rights. This Act, of course, enfranchised all male householders and lodgers—it now did not matter thereafter whether one was a property owner or not. In an era when socialism was on the rise among the left in Britain and elsewhere—for in 1884 the Social Democratic Federation had adopted a socialist constitution—Jeffries considered it preposterous that ‘high principles and abstract theories’ could make any headway with the masses.
And Felix, apart from occasionally treating the slaves whom he meets with a bit of kindness, never seeks to ameliorate their condition. As the quote above shows, he is content with the manner in which society is ordered. Indeed, Felix has other problems: he wants to marry a lady named Aurora who is the daughter of a higher-ranking nobleman. But, as in medieval times, high-born women will only be married off to suitors who can advance their father’s status: Felix is therefore forbidden to marry Aurora because his noble branch are relatively poor.
Felix therefore decides to become a futuristic equivalent of an errant knight and seek his fortune. He begins by building a boat so that he can travel to the other side of the great lake. Once over on the other side he enlists in one of the king’s wars. Yet even in this does he distinguish himself from his fellow nobleman. Having participated in a successful battle, he looks around to witness the aftermath and notices that soldiers of all ranks have begun to participate in plunder and disapproves of it. His career as a knight does not last long, however, for Felix draws the ire of the king and is forced to flee—a journey which will take him into what was once London. Coming near to certain death after wading through the poisonous swamp that now covers the old city, Felix emerges from it unharmed yet disillusioned with the social system.
However, while wandering an uninhabited part of southern England, he meets a race of simple nomadic shepherds. They view him in an almost godlike way after they learn that he has passed through the swamp and survived and his status in this regard is further enhanced when he helps them to defeat a small platoon of murderous bushmen. Soon Felix begins to envision himself as their rightful ruler—and they are equally grateful to Felix when he consents to be their king. The shepherds’ minds are blank slates upon which Felix can inscribe the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ (the Victorians) and perhaps even build society anew. This is exactly what Felix begins. He convinces them to abandon their nomadic way of life and their superstitious ways and build a walled town to live in. The act of building a protected and secure place to live simply endears the shepherds to him even further. Civilization advances further when a herb garden is planted, meaning that the former shepherds can always be guaranteed something to eat, and the herb garden in turn gives rise to effective medical treatment as they use herbs to cure ailments. Industrial revolutions generally succeed agricultural revolutions. As rumour spreads across the country of this wonderful new ‘civilisation’, Felix draws others and the ranks of what is now his kingdom are increased. The light of civilization is beginning to shine again.
Clearly the message for Victorian readers, then, is that it is possible for societies to fall—they have in the past and they will do in the future. Yet even if British civilisation falls there can still be hope that one day it will rise again one day—only the light of rationalism and, in Jeffries’s view, all things anti-medievalist can ensure this.
 ‘The Tottering Empire’, Reynolds News, July 1900, cited in Stephen Basdeo, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020), 181.
 H. Rider Haggard [online], Ayesha: The Return of She, accessed 27 March 2022, available at: https://gutenberg.org/files/5228/5228-h/5228-h.htm
 Meredith Townsend, ‘Will England Retain India?’ The Contemporary Review, 53 (1888), 811 cited in Michael Kramp, ‘Richard Jefferies’s After London; or Wild England and the Limits of Liberal Colonialism: Reinscribing Hegemonic Masculinity’, English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, 62: 2 (2019), 244–64 (244).
 Richard Jefferies, After London and Amaryllis at the Fair, ed. by Ernest Rhys (London: Everyman, 1939), 12.
 Jefferies, 14.
 Jefferies, 16.
 Jefferies, 14
 Jefferies, 16.
 See David Perry and Matthew Gabriele, The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (New York: Harper Collins, 2021).
 See Kevin L. Morris, The Image of the Middle Ages in Romantic and Victorian Literature, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2019).
 Jefferies, 32.
 Jefferies, 10.
 Jefferies, 5.
 Jefferies, 4, 16, 17.
 Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘Old King Coal’, Victorian Web, accessed 21 February 2023.
 George W.M. Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, 4 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1844–48), I, 2.
 Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London: Bradbury and Evans, 1853), 1.
 Stephen Mosley, The Chimney of the World: A History of Smoke Pollution in Victorian and Edwardian Manchester (London: Routledge, 2013), 114.
 See Joel Kotkin, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (London: Encounter, 2020).
 Carol Herringer, ‘Catholicism and Anti-Catholicism’, Oxford Bibliographies (2019), accessed 21 February 2023.
 Jeffries, After London, 29, 75.
 Jeffries, After London, 94.
 The Seventh-Century Anglo-Saxon Oath of Fealty, for example, reads thus: By the Lord before whom this sanctuary is holy, I will to N. be true and faithful, and love all which he loves and shun all which he shuns, according to the laws of God and the order of the world. Nor will I ever with will or action, through word or deed, do anything which is unpleasing to him, on condition that he will hold to me as I shall deserve it, and that he will perform everything as it was in our agreement when I submitted myself to him and chose his will.
 Jeffries, After London, 27.
 Jeffries, After London, 26, 95, 129.
 Jeffries, After London, 18, 19.
 Jeffries, After London, 29.
 Michael P. Spiedel, Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior Styles from Trajan’s Column to Icelandic Sagas (London: Routledge, 2004), 175.
 Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or criminalisation? The state, border communities and crime in early modern Europe’, Global Crime, 9: 1–2 (2008), 35–51.
 Jeffries, After London, 41, 97.
 Jeffries, After London, 140.
 Stephen Basdeo and Mya Driver, Victorian England’s Best-Selling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022), 138–39.
 Angelo Calfo and Stephen Basdeo, ‘Politics in the “Age of Equipoise” ’, English Rebels and Revolutionaries, ed. by Stephen Basdeo (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2022), 201.
 Jeffries, After London, 140.
 Jeffries, After London, 139.
Categories: literature, novels
Interesting view of the evolution of society. Much appove.