Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 1-2) The Next Generation, by John Francis Maguire: Feminism and steampunk in 1871

I have been on the lookout for this book for over ten years, since first coming across John Clute's description of it in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. John Francis Maguire was an Irish Liberal MP of the mid-nineteenth century, representing the Munster constituencies of Dungarvan (1852-65) and Cork City (from 1865 till his death in 1872). He also founded the Cork Examiner, a daily newspaper which is still going strong (though recently rebranded the Irish Examiner in order to broaden its appeal). He also published several non-fiction books, on Pope Pius IX, the Irish in America, and Father Mathew; this is his only novel, published in 1871, the year before his death, in three volumes totalling slightly under a thousand pages. (Those pages are not long - here is a sample.)

The story is set in 1891 (with a discreet framing narrative in 1895). There is a railway tunnel between Dover and Calais, thought the beastly French are not honouring their obligations about the internal lighting. Privately owned steam-powered balloons are becoming a traffic problem in London's skies. New weaponry includes artillery with a range of dozens of miles, and special bullets that explode inside Chinese people. Incidentally Britain has just conquered China. So far, so steampunky.

But at the core of the book, women have had the vote and access to the professions of law and medicine for almost twenty years (incidentally, the best women doctors are Jewish). By 1891 they make up over 20% of all MPs - by 1895, after the story ends, almost 25%. (By contrast, in our timeline, the first British election at which women won more than 20% of the seats in the House of Commons was the most recent one, in 2010.) Ireland has Home Rule, with a royal prince as viceroy - this in a book published four years before Parnell won his first election - and the Irish, and British Catholics generally, are loyal subjects of the Crown, gleefully joining in the conquest of China. The House of Commons also has a few elected representatives from India, though we never see any of them and none are named (and the viceroy of India is not royal). Maguire was an early adopter on both women's suffrage and Home Rule.

This may sound rather promising, but I have to admit that The Next Generation doesn't quite deliver on its promise. The core plot, such as it is, concerns the rather gentle romantic and political travails of Grace O'Donnell, a young, clever and beautiful Irish MP who is appointed as the (liberal) government's Chief Whip in order to counteract the success of the young, clever and beautiful English MP who is the (mildly Tory) opposition Chief Whip. The description of new technology is almost entirely concentrated in some throwaway remarks at the start of the first chapter of volume III. The plot ignores all these technological advances for the sake of mild-mannered political machination, lengthy parliamentary debate, and romance. The most exciting moment is when the two Chief Whips, paired together for a rowing competition in the middle of volume II, save two children from drowning.

My father, who read this book in 1954 when he was 26, commented "This is certainly not a great novel - the plot is hardly more than a series of loosely connected episodes, the characters are nearly all unrelievedly good or irredeemably bad, and there is the usual Victorian archness about relations between the sexes." I would add that it massively fails, as you would expect a well-meaning Victorian liberal politician's novel to fail, on class and race. There is a particularly awful chapter featuring a parliamentary debate on weaning the Chinese off opium - breathtakingly arrogant in conception given the history of that particular issue; the arguments put forward are partly a cut-and-paste from the Irish temperance movement, combined with the White Man's Burden in civilising our Chinese brethren. It's all very instructive.

Well, I hear you ask, how can I get hold of this amazing book? As I said at the start, I had been looking for it for ages - the first two volumes are available on various free online and print-on-demand sites, but I could not find the third volume and anyway don't much like on-line reading except for very short books. However, I was delighted to find that iTunes in its wisdom is offering all three, decently formatted, for quite a reasonable price - Vol I, Vol II and Vol III. Some smart publisher could do quite well by publishing an abridged version (the text is long since in the public domain) with up-to-date illustrations. Happy to advise on that; my consultancy rates are quite reasonable!
Tags: bookblog 2014, world: ireland

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