A question of evolution…
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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!
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.