After London [ By: Richard Jefferies ]by Richard Jefferies
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John Richard Jefferies (6 November 1848 – 14 August 1887) was an English nature writer, noted for his depiction of English rural life in essays, books of natural history, and novels. His childhood on a small Wiltshire farm had a great influence on him and provides the background to all his major works of fiction. After London (1885), an early work of science fiction. For much of his adult life, he suffered from tuberculosis, and his struggles with the illness and with poverty also play a role in his writing.
The situation was much as in After London (1885), where the farming and gardening Baron is again based on James Jefferies: "The whole place was thus falling to decay, while at the same time it seemed to be flowing with milk and honey". One part of the Jefferies family is strikingly missing from the books. In Wood Magic, Bevis and Amaryllis, the hero (or heroine) has no siblings; only After London gives the main character brothers and depicts the imperfect sympathy between them. James and Elizabeth's first child, Ellen, had died young; but Richard had two younger brothers and a younger sister.
After London (1885), can be seen as an early example of "post-apocalyptic fiction": after some sudden and unspecified catastrophe has depopulated England, the countryside reverts to nature, and the few survivors to a quasi-medieval way of life.
The book has two parts. The first, "The Relapse into Barbarism", is the account by some later historian of the fall of civilisation and its consequences, with a loving description of nature reclaiming England: fields becoming overrun by forest, domesticated animals running wild, roads and towns becoming overgrown, the hated London reverting to lake and poisonous swampland. The second part, "Wild England", is largely a straightforward adventure set many years later in the wild landscape and society (here too Jefferies was setting an example for the genre); but the opening section, despite some improbabilities, has been much admired for its rigour and compelling narrative. Critics dissatisfied with the second part often make an exception of chapters 22-4, which go beyond recreation of a medieval world to give a disturbing and surreal description of the site of the fallen city.
Jefferies' interest in catastrophes predates After London: two short unpublished pieces from the 1870s describe social collapse after London is paralysed by freak winter conditions. In the better achieved of these, the narrator is a future historian piecing the story together from surviving accounts. The fantasy of the second part also has a predecessor in a short work, The Rise of Maximin, Emperor of the Occident, serialised in The New Monthly Magazine in 1876, in this case an adventure set in a remote and imaginary past.
Although the society that Jefferies depicts after the fall of London is an unpleasant one, with oppressive petty tyrants at war with each other, and insecurity and injustice for the poor, it still served as an inspiration for William Morris's utopian News from Nowhere (1890). In a letter of 1885, he writes of his reaction to After London: "absurd hopes curled around my heart as I read it."
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