The Triumph of Human Empire begins in the spring of 1890. Its first chapter describes where Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson were that April, what they were and thinking, and where they thought they were heading in their work and otherwise. This post explains why the book sets out this way and where the path ends up leading.
I began to be curious about who was where in the spring of 1890 many springs ago, when I was researching the poet Émile Verhaeren. Although he was from the Flemish-speaking area of northern Belgium, Verhaeren wrote in French, and his poetry was a huge hit among avant-garde readers and artists all over Europe in the 1890s. His best-known work laments the fate of Flanders in the age of industrialization, with striking titles (in English translation The Tentacular Cities, The Hallucinated Countryside, and The Illusory Villages) and powerful symbolism.
Verhaeren felt that to write about Flanders he had to leave it, in order to gain perspective from distance. In the 1880s he took many long trips around western Europe and the United Kingdom. He was often lonely and unhappy, but he said that these trips were necessary as his “instrument de rêve,” which could be translated “tool of dream” or more better “instrument of imagination.” In springtime he usually spent several months in London. In 1890 he did this with a much lighter heart than usual. Over the winter he had fallen in love with Marthe Massin, a painter from Brussels. In April 1890 he wrote to her in London she was with him as “a protective and secret presence,” enabling him to shun “la vie des bars” and instead to write the poetry that would make his reputation. (They married the next year.)
This tale of love and art linking London and Brussels reminded me that Joseph Conrad, aka Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, was in the same North Sea region about the same time, getting ready to take the voyage that would later inspire his novelette Heart of Darkness. When I looked up the details, I discovered that in April 1890, as Verhaeren was leaving Belgium for London, Conrad was heading to Brussels where he would be given command of the vessel that would take him up the Congo. Although he actually sailed from Bordeaux, in the novelette Conrad imaginatively makes the estuary of the Thames the place where the journey begins in a glowing sunset, and Brussels the place where it ends in a murky lie.
In this continuing exercise of free association, I then thought about the utopian romance News from Nowhere, by William Morris, which also tells the story of a river journey that begins on the Thames at London. Morris’s story moves in the opposite direction, not to the heart of darkness but to that of summer, as his protagonist takes a small boat trip upstream to the hay harvest in Oxfordshire. In the spring of 1890 Morris was writing News from Nowhere at the same time he was in real life going up the Thames from London—by railroad–to spend the Easter holiday at Kelmscott Manor, his beloved getaway place on the “baby Thames” west of Oxford.
By this time I had started researching Jules Verne, so I checked his whereabouts around Easter 1890. He was living a quiet life in Amiens, a provincial city in northern France, writing methodically and taking daily walks to his club to take notes from books and journals there to draw upon in writing his “extraordinary voyages.” If Verhaeren used travel to stimulate his art, Verne did just the opposite. He chose a life of strong routine and limited mobility in order to complete the books that would take his readers around the world, under its seas and lands, and into space.
As for Robert Louis Stevenson, I had long ago read his first commercially published work, An Inland Voyage, so I knew he had explored the region between Brussels and Amiens in the 1870s in a canoeing trip with a college chum on canals and rivers there. By the spring of 1890, Stevenson was far away, in the South Seas, where he had sailed with his extended family for the previous two years. At Easter 1890 Stevenson was building a house on Samoa so he could spend northern winters there. He was planning to return to England for some time to make arrangements for this new life, when suddenly (for reasons described in the book) he decided to remain in the South Seas for several more months. By the fall of 1890 he realized he would never return to the North Sea region that Verhaeren, Conrad, Morris, and Verne had all made their primary habitat.
You may ask, and should ask–so what? Answering this question will take more room than I can squeeze into this post, but here is a brief preview. Asking how writers and other artists intersect with each other, especially in cities, is a standard way of connecting place and literature. But if you track individual writers like migratory animals, and observe where their tracks cross over time, you may see intersections in space that are less obvious.
By tracing the spring migrations of Verne, Morris, and Stevenson in 1890, I became more conscious of the patterns of their ongoing grazings over the planet’s lands and waters. These patterns are in four dimensions: three in space and also in time. Some involve near-daily commutes to work; others were weekly or monthly getaways; still others were less frequent pilgrimages to places of special meaning. They integrate in measurable rhythms, arising as they do from ever-changing mixtures of biological needs, as these writers sought healing, refuge, warmth, cold, stimulation, relaxation, and inspiration.
In this respect these writers are no different from anyone else, except that they are more aware of their mobilities and unusually skilled at expressing how they happen and why they matter. Tracking them in the spring of 1890 weaves together literary history, history of technology, and environmental history into a single web. It reveals writers as migratory animals who are responding to warmer, longer days, embedded in patterns of earthly life much larger than their own.