The Angel of the Revolution – George Chetwynd Griffith

I don’t read science fiction but I confess to having a soft spot for futuristic fiction. To me, the difference is that science fiction is often full of spaceships, distant planets & weird aliens & I find futuristic fiction more interesting because it’s often rooted in the everyday. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale & The Hopkins Manuscript by R C Sherriff are my favourite examples.

The Angel of the Revolution is in a similar vein to these novels. Published in 1893 but set in the early 20th century, it’s the story of a young man who invents an airship & of the secret, revolutionary society that he joins in their mission to take over the world. I read Catherine Pope’s review on her blog & was intrigued. Catherine is the publisher of Victorian Secrets & I’m always interested in the books they publish – 19th century novels that have slipped under the radar.

Richard Arnold is an impoverished inventor who has created an airship that he believes could change the world. Unfortunately, he’s down to his last pennies & has no way of getting his invention to his notice of the establishment. He meets Colston (really a Russian called Mazanoff) & is introduced by him to the Brotherhood, an organization of Socialists from all over Europe, working to defeat Capitalism. Also known as the Terrorists, the Inner Circle of this organization is immensely powerful. Their influence is widespread & they can arrange for the murder of their enemies with ease. The Brotherhood are interested in Arnold’s invention & he is invited to join the Inner Circle. Arnold is immediately attracted to one member of the Inner Circle – Natasha, daughter of the mysterious Master of the Brotherhood, Natas. Natasha, the Angel of the title, is beautiful, resourceful & a crack shot.

Arnold’s airship can fly at incredible speed & uses a powerful air rifle-type missile as its armoury. The Brotherhood soon commissions him to build a fleet of airships as Europe descends into war. Russia is seen as the great enemy, a land of tyrants & several of the Inner Circle bear the scars of Russian justice. Arnold & Colston use the airship to rescue Natasha & Radna, another member of the Inner Circle, when they are imprisoned in Russia & about to be sent to Siberia. They also use the airship’s firepower to destroy the Russian fort at Kronstadt. There’s even a King Solomon’s Mines-like interlude where Arnold & the crew head for darkest Africa to locate a missing explorer, Louis Holt. They find him in Aeria, a paradise hitherto unknown to man but the perfect hidden base for the airship fleet as the Brotherhood’s plans mature.

There’s certainly no lack of action in The Angel of the Revolution. Sometimes Griffith feels compelled to give us a few pages of politics, complete with updates on the war so far complete with leading articles from the Times. The narrative drags in places as the relentless details of the war are explained in great detail. Apart from that, the story zips along at a great pace. This edition includes original illustrations & I was amused to see that the airship, Ariel, is indeed an air ship. It’s a three-masted sailing ship, pure white, sailing through the air. Interestingly the aerial navy is organised just like the seagoing navy, British, of course. The fleet has its admirals & captains & a crew member even says “Ay-ay, sir”. The Brotherhood may be Socialists but they believe in hierarchy all the same. The Brotherhood are all-powerful & Arnold overcomes any scruples he may originally have had about his involvement with a violent secret society very quickly. He becomes an ardent member & his love for Natasha is also a great influence.

The Brotherhood watch & wait as Europe descends into total war, only coming in to save Britain from starvation at the price of dominance of the new world order, a “despotism of peace“. The result is a Socialist utopia. All property to be owned by the State, any income not earned by work to be shared out among all people. Inherited income to be taxed prohibitively. Laws would be simplified so there would be no need for rapacious lawyers (Dickens would have approved).

The story is set in the Europe of Griffith’s day & the warfare is also traditional, except for the intervention of the airships which spread terror wherever they go. Griffith was very much ahead of his time in describing the airships, apart from their quaint appearance. Air warfare of the kind he imagined wouldn’t really be possible until the 1930s. His story is a combination of the speculative novel of the future & the suspenseful thriller of his own day.

It’s also a curiously Anglocentric view of the world. Even the Russian members of the Brotherhood think that the British way is best. The women are beautiful cyphers, apart from Natasha, the decorative reasons for the men to fight & defeat their enemies. Far from the motivation of the Brotherhood being the desire for  the creation of a new, better world, all the impetus comes from Natas’s desire for personal revenge against the Russian Tsar for the treatment meted out to himself & his family.

The Angel of the Revolution is a curiosity but a fascinating look at the future from a late 19th century point of view. The Victorian Secrets edition has an informative Introduction, copious notes & other related material including some contemporary reviews. The reviewers’ opinions seems to have ranged from those who thought the book tedious to those who loved it. I fall somewhere between the two extremes but I did enjoy reading it very much.

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