The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

The Triumph of Human Empire: Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

by Rosalind Williams

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In the early 1600s, in a haunting tale titled New Atlantis, Sir Francis Bacon imagined the discovery of an uncharted island. This island was home to the descendants of the lost realm of Atlantis, who had organized themselves to seek “the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Bacon’s make-believe island was not an empire in the usual sense, marked by territorial control; instead, it was the center of a vast general expansion of human knowledge and power.               Rosalind Williams uses Bacon’s island as a jumping-off point to explore the overarching historical event of our time: the rise and triumph of human empire, the apotheosis of the modern ambition to increase knowledge and power in order to achieve world domination. Confronting an intensely humanized world was a singular event of consciousness, which Williams explores through the lives and works of three writers of the late nineteenth century: Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson. As the century drew to a close, these writers were unhappy with the direction in which their world seemed to be headed and worried that organized humanity would use knowledge and power for unworthy ends. In response, Williams shows, each engaged in a lifelong quest to make a home in the midst of human empire, to transcend it, and most of all to understand it. They accomplished this first by taking to the water: in life and in art, the transition from land to water offered them release from the condition of human domination. At the same time, each writer transformed his world by exploring the literary boundary between realism and romance. Williams shows how Verne, Morris, and Stevenson experimented with romance and fantasy and how these traditions allowed them to express their growing awareness of the need for a new relationship between humans and Earth.             The Triumph of Human Empire shows that for these writers and their readers romance was an exceptionally powerful way of grappling with the political, technical, and environmental situations of modernity. As environmental consciousness rises in our time, along with evidence that our seeming control over nature is pathological and unpredictable, Williams’s history is one that speaks very much to the present.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226899589
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/30/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Rosalind Williams is the Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is past president of the Society for the History of Technology and the author of several books, most recently, Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change. She lives in Newton, MA.

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The Triumph of Human Empire

Verne, Morris, and Stevenson at the End of the World

By Rosalind Williams

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-89958-9


The Rise of Human Empire

JULES VERNE (1828–1905)

In the spring of 1890, at age sixty-two, Jules Verne was one of the most famous writers in the world. More than a quarter century earlier, with the appearance of Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), he had begun publishing a series of adventure novels under the collective title Extraordinary Journeys: Known and Unknown Worlds. These "scientific novels," or "geographic novels," as he preferred to call them, were a new art form, taking readers to the center of the earth, the North Pole, around the moon, under the sea, and many other thrilling destinations. In the words of one critic, Verne took the novel out of the stale air of the salon and boudoir, opening it up to

air that is free, that is virgin, that has never been breathed before.... You are lifted out of your little corner of terrestrial mud, ... from the mediocrity of closed horizons. You become a citizen of the world in the literal sense of the term. Before you unrolls the scenery of the whole universe. We take possession of the whole earth, the whole firmament.

In 1890 Verne was finishing the thirty-seventh book in the series, Mistress Branican, named for the heroine who gallantly sought her missing explorer-husband. (The story was modeled after the true story of the widow of explorer John Franklin, lost in the Arctic in the 1840s.) Sales of Verne's books were declining, but still he received countless requests for interviews. When the editor of The Youth's Companion, a children's magazine published in Boston, asked him for some memories of his past, Verne agreed to write a brief autobiography.

He produced a graceful sketch, mostly reflecting on his boyhood a half century earlier in Nantes, on the Atlantic coast of France. In the early 1870s, Verne explained, "in order to complete my work," he retired to the provincial city of Amiens, seventy miles north of Paris and forty miles inland from the North Sea on the river Somme. In the years between, he took some real-life voyages in coastal waters off "the west, north, and south of Europe, journeys considerably less extraordinary than those of my stories." At the end of the sketch, he summarized his life's work:

This work [literally "task," tâche] is to portray [literally "paint," peindre] the entire earth, the entire world, under the form of the novel, by imagining adventures particular to each country, by creating characters particular to the environments in which they act.

Verne was keenly aware of the paradox that to complete this task he had limited his own world experience. By the spring of 1890 he had settled into an unadventurous routine in Amiens. He rose before the sun, writing in his austere home office until eleven. He lunched alone, typically bolting down his food as a result of various gastrointestinal ailments. After lunch he took a walk near the cathedral of Amiens to the older quarters of the city, where the Somme branched into a maze of narrow streams and canals around small workshops and market gardens. He limped and used a cane. Four years earlier, his apparently deranged nephew Gaston had shot him in the lower left leg outside the courtyard of his home. The bullet had never been removed, and the wound had never healed properly.

Some days Verne would stop by the City Hall. Two years earlier he had been elected to the city council of Amiens, and he was diligent in tending to his duties. On other days he would take a tram, stopping at a pastry shop to revive himself with milk and cake, and then visit his club. There he spent hours reading newspapers and magazines to keep up with current events, especially those related to geography, science, and invention. Verne headed home around five or six in the evening. Sometimes he would dine there; sometimes he went out for dinner in a hotel or café. Once or twice a week he would attend the theater in the evening. Otherwise he went to bed around eight.

The world had seemed inexhaustibly large when Verne started writing the extraordinary journeys, but by the early 1890s it was rapidly shrinking. The blank expanse on the map of Africa that inspired Five Weeks in a Balloon had been filled in. After publication of Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), a series of travelers had reproduced or beaten that record. Polar expeditions were approaching the invisible points at the top and bottom of the globe. In the fall of 1889, Verne had written to his editor that "I have not yet finished my life's work, which is to depict the whole world." By guarding his time and energy, he still hoped to do this, but he could not prevent the rapid depletion of the unexplored. In the spring of 1890 Jules Verne was running out of time and space.


In the spring of 1890 William Morris, who had turned fifty-six toward the end of March, was also a famous writer, but primarily for work done decades earlier. In the 1870s his long narrative poems The Life and Death of Jason (1867) and especially The Earthly Paradise (1868–70) had made him one of the most-read authors in Britain. The poetry he had produced since then, much of it translations of Icelandic sagas, had not been nearly so popular. He enjoyed more commercial and artistic success from the firm he founded in the 1860s that produced carpets, fabrics, furniture, wallpaper, and other domestic goods featuring motifs from the natural world of rural England.

Like Verne, around his sixtieth birthday Morris was asked by a magazine editor for an autobiographical sketch. In his case the request came from the editor of the socialist journal Justice, who was especially interested in the motivations for Morris's conversion to socialism in the early 1880s. Like Verne, Morris used the occasion to declare his own life's work. "Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things," he wrote, "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation." In a positive direction, he was driven by "a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past mankind." For Morris, poetry and decorative arts were primary ways of recovering beauty and meaning when modern civilization was rapidly destroying both.

William Morris resided in London, with his wife Jane and two daughters, in a three-story Georgian brick townhouse on the Thames in Hammersmith, at the western edge of the metropolis. They also rented a large, damp, two-story, stone farmhouse near the village of Kelmscott, far upstream on the Thames. Morris regarded the seventeenth-century manor and village as the embodiment of everything modern civilization was not: human life organized around honest labor, a supportive community, and the beauty and fullness of earthly life.

In April 1890 Morris decided to get out of the city to spend the Easter holiday at Kelmscott Manor. Jane was unwell and did not make the trip, so Morris set out with his two daughters, Jane (usually called Jenny), age twenty-nine, and May, a year younger. Jenny had suffered from epilepsy since she was fifteen. Her parents were constantly concerned about her, especially because she had recently suffered other illnesses.

Jenny, May, and their father walked from their London home to the Hammersmith stop on the Underground. They took the Metropolitan Line (which had just converted from steam to electrical power) to Paddington Station, where they boarded a train heading west to Oxford. There they changed to another train bound for the village of Lechlade, three miles west of Kelmscott. At the Lechlade station they were met by a man working for Morris who drove them to the manor in a small horse-drawn cart called a trap. In accordance with Morris's socialist convictions, the driver was dressed in ordinary clothes, not in livery (a kind of uniform for male servants, still common then as a sign of subservience).

As usual Morris found pleasure and calm there. On April 5, the day before Easter Sunday, Morris wrote his wife to report: "So far so good: Jenny has been quite well & very happy." He told his wife about the pigeons at the house, the herons on the river, the state of the flowers ("daffy's gone"). He did some thinking about talks he was scheduled to deliver to socialist groups in Liverpool immediately after his return. Internal quarrels had been tearing apart the various factions: Morris realized that the group he had founded would soon be expelled from the main party.

He distracted himself by working on two writing projects. One was a "utopian romance," as he called it, titled News from Nowhere, already being published in serial form in a socialist journal. Morris worked on the final chapters, which tell of a journey up the Thames from Hammersmith to Kelmscott Manor as it might be experienced in the twenty-second century. He also worked on a story set not in imagined time but in imagined space, a deceptive, troubled "glittering plain" on a nameless island in a nameless ocean. This story would be published some months later—the first fantasy tale published by Kelmscott Press, an enterprise Morris had begun the previous fall.

By 1890 William Morris, like Jules Verne, was coming to terms with the realization that he would not complete his life's task. Verne could not write fast enough to keep ahead of modern civilization as it devoured the geographical unknown. Despite his seemingly inexhaustible energy and creativity, Morris was concluding that neither poetry, nor romance, nor the decorative arts, nor socialism could do much to keep modern civilization from devouring the beauties of the earth and the historical record of past humankind.


In the spring of 1890 Robert Louis Stevenson was only thirty-nine years old, but he too was a famous author. He had spent his boyhood and youth in Scotland, where he had been educated in the family profession of engineering. Later he migrated southward to England and France to pursue his own ambition to be a writer. These migrations led to others, longer and more arduous, most notably his three-week journey across the Atlantic and North America to northern California, in pursuit of the American woman he loved, Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne.

Louis (as his family and friends called him) had always been frail: the transatlantic, transcontinental odyssey nearly killed him. After arriving in San Francisco, he suffered from lung hemorrhages. He assumed he suffered from tuberculosis, at a time when the diagnosis of "consumption" meant at best the life of an invalid. Louis and Fanny were married in Oakland, and thereafter their lives were organized around the primary mission of keeping him alive. They moved around Britain, Europe, and the United States seeking a healthful place for him, which at that time was understood to be either the mountains or the sea.

During a bitterly cold winter at Saranac Lake, in upstate New York, an American publisher offered Stevenson a commission to write letters about a South Seas cruise. Stevenson and his wife hoped the warm climate would improve his health more than the frigid one had. Consequently, on a June morning in 1888 they sailed out the Golden Gate of San Francisco, on board the Casco, a chartered yacht, headed for the Marquesas. After visiting them and other island groups, including Hawaii, Stevenson discovered that

gratitude and habit were beginning to attach me to the islands; I had gained a competency of strength, I had made friends; I had learned new interests; the time of my voyages had passed like days in fairyland; and I decided to remain.

When he wrote this at the end of 1889, his plan was to resettle in England and spend winters in the South Pacific. He surveyed the islands offering regular mail service and decided that Upolu, the main island of the Samoan group, would be his winter home. The Casco arrived at the harbor of Apia, on Upolu, on December 7, 1889. Within weeks Stevenson purchased a 314-acre estate there and made arrangements to clear the land and build a house.

At Easter 1890 Louis and Fanny were in Sydney, Australia, on their way back to England. On April 10 Stevenson sent a two-sentence cablegram to one of his closest friends there: "Return Islands four months. Home September." Why the abrupt change of plans? Louis had caught cold in Sydney, leading to a recurrence of lung hemorrhages. Besides being in no shape for extended travel, he was embroiled in a political dispute and did not want to desert the lists he had just entered. A self-righteous Presbyterian minister had published a nasty pamphlet attacking Father Damien, a flawed but selfless priest to lepers in Hawaii. Louis wrote an open letter in response, defending Father Damien and denouncing the minister for hypocrisy. He went on to condemn the whole destructive tide of Western religion, weapons, and money swamping the island world of Polynesia.

Louis and Fanny returned to the warm waters of the South Pacific. Fanny managed to book three passages on a trading vessel, the Janet Nichol; Louis was carried on board rolled up in a blanket. His health slowly improved as they sailed to New Zealand and back to Samoa. On May Day he was able to join Fanny to ride horseback to check on the land-clearing and house-building on Upolu. Then they reboarded the Janet Nichol to visit other Polynesian islands.

By fall 1890 Stevenson realized he would never return to Britain. He and Fanny settled in a small wooden house in the hills while their permanent residence was being finished. When American historian Henry Adams visited him there, he wrote a friend in astonishment: "Imagine a man so thin and emaciated that he looked like a bundle of sticks in a bag, with a head and eyes morbidly intelligent and restless," dressed in "very dirty striped cotton pyjamas" and mismatched stockings.

Stevenson spent hours bushwhacking, writing a friend that "nothing is so interesting as weeding, clearing and path-making." In November, as he was clearing a path through the woods, an idea for a story "just shot through me like a bullet in one of my moments of awe, alone in that tragic jungle." The idea became a short story, "The Beach of Falesá." It was a new kind of romance, a tough romance about what he lamented as the "unjust (yet I can see the inevitable) extinction of the Polynesian Islanders by our shabby civilisation." In the South Seas Robert Louis Stevenson made it his life's task to bear witness to the island world of Polynesia as it approached extinction.


For today's reader, the world in which these three writers lived is recognizably modern. Verne, settled in a provincial city of sixty-four thousand, was well connected to robust communication networks that informed him about contemporary science, exploration, and engineering through museums, libraries, learned societies, and clubs. William Morris took subways and trains for getaway trips to the country, where he exchanged daily letters with his wife and returned to make a speaking tour covering many miles and reaching large audiences. Stevenson planned to spend half the year in the South Seas and half in England, confident that communication networks would allow him to continue publishing for a global audience.

If this world seems familiar to us, for Verne, Morris, and Stevenson it was startlingly new. When Verne sketched boyhood memories for the children's magazine, he reflected that since he was born in 1828:

I have seen the birth of phosphorus matches, fake collars, cuffs, letter paper, stamps, pants with free legs, the overcoat, the opera-hat, the ankle boot, the metric system, steamboats on the Loire, called "inexplosible" because they blew up a little less often than the others, omnibuses, railways, tramways, gas, electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph! I am of the generation between these two geniuses, [George] Stephenson [inventor of the steam locomotive] and [Thomas] Edison!


Excerpted from The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface: An Event of Consciousness
1: The Rise of Human Empire
Part One
Jules Verne
2. Life on the Loire
3. The Empire of Paris
4. Inventing the Geographic Romance
5. The End of the World
Part Two
William Morris
6. Life on the Thames
7. Pilgrimage to a Holy Land
8. A River of Fire
9. From Romance to Fantasy
Part Three
Robert Louis Stevenson
10. Romantic Engineering and Engineering Romance
11. Two Voyages: Inland Waterways and High Seas
12. Worlds of Wonder and Problematic Shores
13. The Romance of Destiny
14. A Rolling Apocalypse

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