The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

A question of evolution…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Michael Bristowe is a young man with a strange talent – he can sense physical objects even when they are out of sight. It’s rather like the way dowsers can sense water underground only much more powerful. But is it a gift or a curse? It sets him apart from the rest of humanity leaving him as a perpetual outsider, and he has found no way to put it to practical use. But then he meets Hilda, a determined, highly educated young woman who becomes fascinated by his power and helps him to develop it so that he becomes ever more accurate but also more sensitive to all the things that remain unsensed by those around him. Our narrator is Ralph Standring, whose desire to marry Hilda draws him reluctantly into Michael’s life. From the beginning the story has a sense of impending doom – Ralph is leaving England for a long journey, and tells us that he’s writing the history of his knowledge of Michael partly because Hilda has asked him to but mainly as a form of catharsis, to help him work through his experiences…

As in her earlier novel, The Question Mark, and in the best tradition of early science fiction, Jaeger uses her story to examine concerns of her contemporary society. First published in 1920, she draws attention to the generation of men who came back from war to find themselves jobless in a society that had no place for them. She shows how people who are different from the norm are treated, especially when their difference is something others don’t fully understand and are therefore apprehensive about. She touches on questions of class and snobbery, and the increasing decline of the old rich, a process which the war had sped up. Mostly, though, her focus is on the place of women in society; specifically, the new breed of university educated women of whom Jaeger was herself one, and of men’s reaction to them.

All of which makes it sound like a weighty tome indeed, which is highly misleading since it’s actually a very entertaining, well written short novel, thought-provoking and dark at points, but with a delightful strain of wicked humour running through it to lift the tone. Ralph, our narrator, is unconsciously self-revealing as a rather pompous, self-important snob of the first degree, who is quite happy for Hilda to be educated, but purely because he thinks it will be pleasant to have a wife who can provide intelligent conversation when he comes home in the evenings. The humour is so subtle it took me a while to realise what she was doing and I may not have caught it at all if I hadn’t read her earlier book and known that the snobbery and prejudices of Ralph were certainly not an indication of Jaeger’s own viewpoints. Though I frequently wanted to slap him, I grew very fond of poor Ralph as a representative of a class and gender that was already feeling its foundations begin to quiver.

Hilda is a bit of an enigma to the reader because she’s a complete enigma to Ralph. Educated he can accept, but rationality is not a feminine trait in his mind. The emotional responses in their relationship are all on his side, and he feels this is all wrong. Hilda’s lack of enthusiasm at the idea of marriage must surely be merely a sign that she hasn’t yet fully matured. He doesn’t share her fascination with Michael’s abilities: she sees Michael as a possible further step on the evolutionary ladder, someone to be nurtured and helped; Ralph, on the other hand, finds him rather repellent, not just because of his strangeness, but because he breaches the social conventions that are so important to conservative Ralph. Plus he does get in the way of Ralph’s wooing!

Muriel Jaeger

In Michael, Jaeger shows us the psychological effects on a sensitive nature of being different in a world that values conformity above all else. In this society, a man is judged primarily by his earning potential unless he’s fortunate enough to be rich – nothing much changes, eh? Michael’s abilities are hard to market, but leave him psychologically incapable of taking up any kind of normal employment. It’s very well done – convincing and not overplayed. Jaeger seems to be questioning if humanity can continue to evolve at all in a world where difference is shunned.

The book includes a short introduction by Mike Ashley, putting it into the context of other books of the time examining similar questions. It also includes an essay at the end, extracted from Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists by Susan J. Leonardi, who analyses the book from a feminist perspective. I often find academic literary analysis destroys the magic for me, and so it began to be in this case, so I only read the first few pages before deciding not to continue. But from the bit I read it looked interesting, perceptive and well written so I’m sure others will find it a real bonus.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and am only sorry that Jaeger wasn’t more prolific in the science fiction field. I believe she wrote another couple, though, and have my fingers crossed that the British Library may add them to their collection in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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41 thoughts on “The Man with Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger

  1. I really like it when a science fiction novel can tell a good story, and still make us think about who we are as a people, and what our society is like, FictionFan. I’m especially drawn to the character of Hilda; it sounds as though she’s a bit of a – is misfit the word? – herself, and it’s interesting the way the other characters react to her. I can see how this story kept your interest. All that and wit, too!

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    • I like older science fiction for that – I don’t think modern fantasy says nearly as much about the real world, though since I read so little of it I may be doing it an injustice. Hilda was fun, mostly because poor Ralph was so baffled by her – I couldn’t help wondering if she was really the right woman for him! 😉

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  2. I think I would like this author, as The Question Mark looked interesting too when you reviewed it a few months ago. Speculative Fiction is not one of my go-to genres, but it sounds as though this still has a grounding in reality and poses interesting questions without being too heavy handed. I need to start getting into the various Brittish Library series, as they all look good.

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    • I like older science and speculative fiction but am not often keen on contemporary stuff. The older writers definitely used it as a vehicle to talk about the concerns of their own society, and as a result there’s very little actual science in them. Newer authors seem to expect their readers to have PhDs in quantum physics! I love the BL series, as you know – there are some that have been duds for me, but the vast majority have been winners across all the genres!

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  3. How splendid to find a five-star read to end the work week! This one sounds intriguing, though I don’t believe I’ve ever read any of this author’s works. Whew, we made it to another weekend, FF — hope yours is wonderful!

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    • I’d never heard of her at all till the BL started re-issuing her books – so many great authors who’ve simply been forgotten over the years. Thanks, Debbie – hope you had a good one too! 😀

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    • Sadly this is one I read before the slump began as are most of my reviews at the moment – I have a huge backlog! I hope you enjoy The Question Mark when you get to it – it’s probably more traditionally science fiction than this one, where the “science” aspects were really pretty minor…

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  4. It’s quite sad how relevant this book still sounds, isn’t it? A man who can’t earn a decent living-why bother? Sigh…I’m not sure that opinion will ever change, but I have hope that our differences will slowly become more and more celebrated (or, at least tolerated!) as our society continues, rather than the other way around.

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    • Ha! I fear after the last couple of weeks of idiots on all sides vandalising our cities, attacking our police officers and gaily spreading a virus that they know will kill old people but don’t care, I’ve about given up hope for the current generation of youth! They seem considerably more selfish and intolerant than any previous generation… and I suspect they still measure a person’s worth by their monetary value… *stomps off bitterly* 😂

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  5. It sounds like excellent writing for her to be critiquing attitudes towards educated women whilst still prompting some empathy for the men who had those attitudes – this was already on my radar but your review has made me much more keen to read it!

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    • I loved the way she made Ralph look like a pompous snob but also showed that he was just a product of his society, so that the reader could still like him, most of the time! I do hope you enjoy it when you get to it – she’s been one of the hidden gems of the BL collections for me. 😀

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    • I do think she’s as thoughtful a writer as most of the ones from her era who are still remembered – not sure why she should have been so forgotten. Maybe she just wasn’t prolific enough to get established in the public consciousness…

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    • I don’t completely know what it is – some analyses work fine for me, like the intros to the Oxford World’s Classics series, and others don’t. I think it depends on whether the analyser has an “agenda”, and feminist analysts in particular very much do! As soon as they pigeon-hole a book as feminist, it diminishes it in my opinion – no-one ever pigeonholes a man’s books as masculinist. To me, Jaeger would work just as much for male readers, most of whom even today would be turned off by a feminist label, and while I agree it is undoubtedly mocking gender stereotypes, that doesn’t mean it has to be seen purely through a feminist lens. John Wyndham says just as much about gender roles in The Day of the Triffids but because he’s a man no-one pigeonholes him as a “feminist writer”…

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  6. The characters sounds like an intriguing bunch. It also seems like a clever – and entertaining – way of discussing our accesment of people who one way or another don’t live up to the norm.

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  7. I’m attracted to this story as much because of the human elements as the SciFi ones. I like your reading of the characters and themes. I had a look at a few other reviews too and they were often caught up with reacting to the character as presented rather than having the wider perspective you do. This is one I’ll prompt the library to consider purchasing!

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    • That’s what I like about older sci-fi – it really is just a vehicle to look at humanity from a different angle A lot of newer SF is more about the science and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it doesn’t interest me so much. Yes, I was intrigued by some of the other reviewers’ reactions, but I did wonder if I hadn’t read another of her books if I’d have realised that Ralph wasn’t representing her own views…

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