Friday 6 January 2017

Going Underground: Literary Adventures in Subterranean Spaces

Although I started out my career exclusively as a Romanticist, I do now occasionally like to venture a little further into the nineteenth century. I’m particularly interested in dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature from the latter part of this period – texts such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), and M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901). My favourite late Victorian writer, though, has to be H. G. Wells. I remember first reading The Time Machine (1895) as a little girl and being utterly terrified of – yet also captivated by – the Morlocks. The ending of the novella still haunts me, and every time I reread it (which is usually every year) I find myself wondering what happens to the Time Traveller after he disappears for the final time at the end of the text.

One area that I’m researching at the moment is the fin de si├Ęcle afterlife of the Romantic ‘Last Man’ theme. Readers in the 1890s seem to have had the same appetite for tales of the Last Man on earth as earlier Romantic audiences, and Wells himself engages with the concept of the Last Man in texts such as The War of the Worlds (1897) and The Sleeper Awakes (1899), as well as in The Time Machine. Just as Romantic Last Man texts often respond to the concerns of their age – focusing on posterity, empire, and originality – so, too, does Wells use the idea of the Last Man to examine contemporary questions of science, class, and colonialism in his work.

This little group of ‘Last Man’ novels by Wells is also united by a shared interest in underground spaces, and this is an idea that I’ve explored in an essay that has just been published in a new collection, Utopias and Dystopias in the Fiction of H. G. Wells and William Morris: Landscape and Space, edited by Emelyne Godfrey. In my essay, ‘“Great safe places down deep”: Subterranean spaces in the early novels of H. G. Wells’, I examine how Wells uses underground settings in his work to explore issues of class and power. He engages with both the old associations of underground spaces – which link the subterranean with the dirty and sunlight-deprived workers of the lower classes – and the new possibilities for progress that building beneath the surface of the earth offers. In Wells’s novels, I argue, the strict dichotomy between ‘above’ and ‘below’ is questioned as groups and species move between the two spaces and prompt shifts in the balance of power.

Of course, there are also plenty of subterranean spaces in Romantic literature, most notably in Gothic fiction. In works by writers such as Horace Walpole, Mrs Radcliffe, and Sophia Lee, underground tunnels and chambers hide all manner of secrets. Often dark, claustrophobic, and labyrinthine, these spaces reflect the fears and oppression of those who inhabit them. In Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Isabella must enter a subterraneous passage beneath the castle in order to escape from the evil Manfred. Her terror at being followed is externalised in her underground surroundings: the doors shake on their rusty hinges as she passes by, and she thinks that she can hear footsteps echoing in the darkness of the passageway behind her. At one point she believes she hears a sigh, and the reader is left wondering whether this is merely the wind moving through the passage, the sound of Manfred in pursuit, or even the voice of the castle itself, which at times seems to live and breathe.

Often, underground spaces are associated explicitly with the (post-)apocalyptic, and this is certainly the case in The War of the Worlds when the artilleryman proposes that humanity should retreat beneath the earth’s surface following the Martian invasion. In the twentieth century, this prospect became all too real as subterranean fallout shelters were constructed the world over in order to provide protection from a possible nuclear attack. Given this link between the apocalyptic and the subterranean, I was interested recently to come across a seemingly rather unremarkable little pamphlet from 1799. The short text advertises itself as a ‘guide for sinners’, and relates the tale of two old men who were supposedly found living underground in Yorkshire. When questioned, these men warned that the end days are upon us; it seems that that the impulse to disappear underground at the threat of apocalypse goes back a very long way indeed!

Utopias and Dystopias in the Fiction of H. G. Wells and William Morris: Landscape and Space, edited by Emelyne Godfrey, is published by Palgrave (£66.99) and can be purchased here.

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