This post by Jim Harris originally appeared on his blog, Auxiliary Memory.
Goslings by J. D. Beresford, is a 1913 post-apocalyptic novel about a plague that sweeps across the world and kills mainly men. If you follow the link from the book title you can read a 23-part serialization from HiLobrow Books, which is illustrated with period photographs. HiLobrow also has reprinted the novel as a paperback and ebook as part of their Radium Age Science Fiction Series. I listened to the Dreamscape edition from Audible.com that was elegantly read by Matthew Brenher who did a bang-up job narrating the British dialect – just look at this reproduction of the English edition to see how hard it would be for a modern American to read. The book was called A World of Women when first published in America.
Beresford was an admirer of H. G. Wells, and combined fiction with scientific philosophy in Goslings, that is part satire, part adventure, and part speculative science fiction. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic novels that deal with the collapse of society to where only a few individuals are left to rebuild civilization. My favorite is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, and although Goslings is not as fine as that great novel, it does prefigure many of the ideas that Stewart explored in his book. I was totally absorbed in Goslings, which is just 8 hours and 12 minutes long, and addictively stuck with it two days running to finish because I enjoyed it so much. However, like I said, I’m a fan of this SF sub-genre, and a fan of old science fiction, so I’m not sure how modern readers will react to this somewhat quaint intellectual story.
Goslings is a science fiction novel before we had the label of science fiction. There is a long history to post-apocalyptic plague novels, the earliest I know of is Mary Shelley’s The Last Man from 1826. I wrote extensively about plague novels in my review of Earth Abides, but also in my reviews of the British TV shows Survivors, and the classic SF novel The Day of the Triffids. As a kid I loved stories about people stranded on a deserted island like Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and The Mysterious Island. As I grew older and discovered post-apocalyptic novels where most humans were killed by various catastrophes, I loved the idea of rebuilding society from scratch.
J. D. Beresford wrote during the age of passionate socialists who wanted to rebuild the world into a new order, of ardent feminist writers who wrote about female only utopias, and gloom and doom end-of-the-world prophecies. Goslings reflects his thoughts about these topics.
I think the key sentence of Beresford’s philosophy is “It is no longer safe to comfort ourselves with the belief—begotten of our vanity—that the world was necessarily made for man.” Western civilization evolved with the idea that Earth was made by God for humans, but during the Victorian Age, Darwin began teaching a new idea, that humans are animals like all the others, and we have no special place on Earth. It was quite common in the history of Earth for species to disappear, so why not humans. Goslings is about a close call. Like most post-apocalyptic novels, their stories warn us. Beresford did imagine a world without humans, and how cities and the artifacts of man would erode by the onslaught of nature. To give his novel an extra twist, and to make a feminist commentary, he has his survivors to consist mainly of women.
Modern readers will see quite a bit of sexism and even a touch of anti-Semitism in the novel, but it’s not enough to warn you away from reading Goslings. Beresford seems to be saying society has made women more helpless than men, but if given the chance, they will meet the challenges. Beresford also deals with sex to a minor degree—but not like modern novels. Some of the male survivors do act like what you’d imagine in a world of one man to hundreds of women. And some women do attempt to get ahead in such a world by using their bodies instead of their minds. H. G. Wells was a proponent of free love, and Beresford touches on this popular concept of his day too.
Beresford actual spends more time on the allure of religion than that of sex. However, this novel is short, and he explores few ideas in depth. For such an early novel of this type, Beresford touches lightly on many topics that later novels would explore in more detail. Earth Abides focused on the reeducation of humanity, that Beresford only hinted at.
I thoroughly enjoyed Goslings, and while trying to find copies of the original editions on ABE Books I discovered there are many reprints, so it’s not an entirely forgotten novel. My guess is there’s quite of few people like myself reading old science fiction, and resurrecting these forgotten classics. That’s a very limited audience, but it might be growing. It does fill in a gap between H. G. Wells and Amazing Stories. I bought an ebook and audiobook of The Last Man by Mary Shelley and hope to read it soon. I will probably read the other books in the Radium Age Science Fiction series. The reprinting of Goslings goes to the heart of the matter of my favorite subject—what makes a novel become a classic. Ultimately, a classic is a book we remember and keep reading after a very long time. For Goslings, it’s been 101 years.
As to whether Goslings is a successful novel outside the context of its science fictional speculation is hard to say. Beresford does not follow his characters, the Goslings, a middle-class family of four, to their complete fictional conclusion. I wished he had added another hundred pages and wrapped up the stories of George and Blanche, but then Beresford seemed more interested in spending his time speculating about the fate of mankind than finishing the personal stories of some of his characters.
My guess is Beresford started out writing about the Goslings, finished his first draft, and then added the story of Jasper Thrale because he decided he needed a man in his story about a world of women to explain things, and ultimately get things done. I would have found Goslings a more satisfying novel if Blanche had evolved into the Eileen character, and we had followed dad George, and daughter Millie on their individual sexual adventures.
In the end, the reading value of Goslings is for its science fictional speculations. For a short novel, Beresford did touch on many ideas, and I was impressed by what his 1913 mind produced. This is worthwhile for two reasons. It adds to the storehouse of speculation on this subject, and it gives us a view of intellectual discourse of the time, because finally, all speculative science fiction about the future is also an examination of the times it which was written.
JWH – 5/10/14
Many thanks to Jim for turning me on to a classic post-apocalyptic novel that I’d never heard of before. You can read more from him at JamesWHarris.Wordpress.com.