Hardcover, 320 pagesBorrowed from the Eaton Collection
Published 1927 (originally 1901)
Read January 2015
This novel was originally published in 1901, but the edition in the Eaton Collection is a 1927 republication that's obviously undergone some updating, as there's a ship named after the German president from 1919 to 1925... but on the other hand, the English characters are very friendly to the Germans given how recent the Great War is, making me think it pretty unlikely there was that much updating.
This book starts out kind of all right at best. Terrorists approach the British government, demanding funds to build a better world. Their threats and justifications feel very George Griffith, actually: "We are lovers of peace, and of brotherhood, and of the human family, and our earnest desire is for the welfare and prosperity of all men. But we know, being acquainted with this world’s history, that it is in the blood and tears of the few that the happiness of the many must find its foundation. Many will suffer that many more may enjoy." This is contrasted with the opinions of an old socialist revolutionary, though, who says violence is not the answer: "It is by enlightenment, not by force, that society must be reshaped. We build, and unbuild, and build again, and each building excels the other." Unlike with Griffith, it's clear where Fletcher wants you to side.
The government doesn't accede to the threats, of course, and a chemical bomb causes a significant chuck of London centered on Trafalgar Square to simply disappear. People panic, and in the end the government surrenders. The book turns all weird at this point: the protagonists are kidnapped by De Reineville, a mysterious French scientist who is actually a servant (or member) of an ancient telepathic gestalt! But the gestalt is undone surprisingly easily when a German ship accidentally collides with De Reineville’s yacht, then the Germans bombard the mysterious island, and basically just win right then.
Ostensibly the protagonist is Henry Graham, a foppish rising politician, but the novel suddenly becomes awesome exactly three-quarters of the way through, when the best friend of Graham's love interest takes over the novel. Like, literally: not only does she avoid taking De Reineville's poison when no one else does and not only does she start telling German naval captains what to do, but the novel goes from being in the third person omniscient to the first person from her perspective. Her opinion on Graham sums up the tone of the shift: “he [Graham] is not exactly the sort of person one would turn to for guidance if one were suddenly placed in a deep intellectual hole.” She's like one of those bossy women from a P. G. Wodehouse novel that Wooster is in danger of marrying, and it's so much fun. I don't know why Fletcher did this-- perhaps he was getting as bored as I was-- but it's amazing that he did. If the whole novel had been written this way, I'm convinced it would be a classic.
Of course, London is rebuilt, and unlike in some of these kind of novels, apparently exactly the same as it was before; those who want violent change are very much in the wrong here. The novel ends with some ridiculous praise of the resoluteness of the British people and the British Empire:
For here, where London the Marvelous was for a brief moment crushed and staggered, in the heart of the world—here, where the four lions crouch at the feet of the hero of the sea—within the circle of a released carrier-pigeon’s first flight, all the strength and power of the Empire is comprised. From within that circle, as by invisible wires, go the bonds of Empire—ever widening, ever being strengthened. This is life—to hear the world’s wild heart beating close to your ear, to feel its fierce, keen, but always purposeful pulsation throbbing beneath your touch. Are these streets, stretching away from you as the spokes of a wheel stretch away from the hub, commonplace of aspect and dingy of color? But they are the haunts of the moles who go on scraping persistently and patiently until they have fashioned a kingdom and thrown out high towers above it. This is the very prospective of Empire and Government—when you gaze along yonder street your glance goes past the historic buildings which flank it to things and scenes far beyond, to wide stretches of continent, to lonely islands, to little scraps of land where the national flag floats undaunted. Heart of the world!—there is not a stone about it, new or old, that does not cry out its pæan of praise to the life that throbs and palpitates about it.