HiLobrow is pleased to present the tenth installment of our serialization of J.D. Beresford’s Goslings (also known as A World of Women). New installments will appear each Friday for 23 weeks.
When a plague kills off most of England’s male population, the proper bourgeois Mr. Gosling abandons his family for a life of lechery. His daughters — who have never been permitted to learn self-reliance — in turn escape London for the countryside, where they find meaningful roles in a female-dominated agricultural commune. That is, until the Goslings’ idyll is threatened by their elders’ prejudices about free love!
J.D. Beresford’s friend the poet and novelist Walter de la Mare consulted on Goslings, which was first published in 1913. In May 2013, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful new edition of the book. “A fantastic commentary upon life,” wrote W.L. George in The Bookman (1914). “Mr. Beresford possesses the rare gift of divination,” wrote The Living Age (1916). “It is piece of the most vivid imaginative realism, as well as a challenge to our vaunted civilization.” “At once a postapocalyptic adventure, a comedy of manners, and a tract on sexual and social equality, Goslings is by turns funny, horrifying, and politically stirring,” says Benjamin Kunkel in a blurb for HiLoBooks. “Most remarkable of all may be that it has not yet been recognized as a classic.”
THE MARCH OF THE GOSLINGS
THE SILENT CITY
July came in with temperate heat and occasional showers, ideal weather for the crops; for all the precious growths which must ripen before the famine could be stayed. The sudden stoppage of all imports, and the flight of the great urban population into the country, had demonstrated beyond all question the poverty of England’s resources of food supply, and the demonstration was to prove of value although there was no economist left to theorize. England was once again an independent unit, and no longer a member of a great world-body. Indeed England was being subdivided. The unit of organization was shrinking with amazing rapidity. The necessity for concentration grew with every week that passed, the fluidity of the superfluous labour was being resolved by death from starvation. The women who wandered from one farm to the next died by the way.
In the Putney house, Mrs Gosling and her daughters were faced by the failure of their food supply. The older woman had little initiative. She was a true Londoner. Her training and all the circumstances of her life had narrowed her imaginative grasp till she was only able to comprehend one issue. And as yet her daughters, and more particularly Millie, were so influenced by their mother’s thought that they, also, had shown little evidence of adaptability to the changed conditions.
“We shall ’ave to be careful,” was Mrs Gosling’s first expression of the necessity for looking to the future. She had arranged the bulk of her stores neatly in one room on the second floor, and although a goodly array of tins still faced her she experienced a miserly shrinking from any diminishment of their numbers. Moreover, she had long been without such necessities as flour. Barker and Prince had not dealt in flour.
Returning from her daily inspection one morning in the second week of July, Mrs Gosling decided that something must be done at once. Fear of the plague was almost dead, but fear of invasion by starving women had kept them all close prisoners. That house was a fortress.
“Look ’ere, gels,” said Mrs Gosling when she came downstairs. “Somethin’ ’ll ’ave to be done.”
Blanche looked thoughtful. Her own mind had already begun to work on that great problem of their future. Millie, lazy and indifferent, shrugged her shoulders and replied: “All very well, mother, but what can we do?”
“Well, I been thinking as it’s very likely as things ain’t so bad in some places as they are just about ’ere,” said Mrs Gosling. “We got plenty o’ money left, and it seems to me as two of us ’ad better go out and ’ave a look about, London way. One of us could look after the ’ouse easy enough, now. We ’aven’t ’ardly seen a soul about the past fortnight.”
The suggestion brought a gleam of hope to Blanche. She visualized the London she had known. It might be that in the heart of the town, business had begun again, that shops were open and people at work. It might be that she could find work there. She was longing for the sight and movement of life, after these two awful months of isolation.
“I’m on,” she said briskly. “Me and Millie had better go, mother, we can walk farther. You can lock up after us and you needn’t open the door to anyone. Are you on, Mill?”
“We must make ourselves look a bit more decent first,” said Millie, glancing at the mirror over the mantelpiece.
“Well, of course,” returned Blanche, “we brought one box of clothes with us.”
They spent some minutes in discussing the resources of their wardrobe.
“Come to the worst we could fetch some more things from Wisteria. I don’t suppose anyone has touched ’em,” suggested Blanche.
At the mention of the house in Wisteria Grove, Mrs Gosling sighed noticeably. She was by no means satisfied with the place at Putney, and she could not rid herself of the idea that there must be accessible gas and water in Kilburn, as there had always been.
“Well, you might go up there one day and ’ave a look at the place,” she put in. “It’s quite likely they’ve got things goin’ again up there.”
In less than an hour Blanche and Millie had made themselves presentable. Life had begun to stir again in humanity. The atmosphere of horror which the plague had brought was being lifted. It was as if the dead germs had filled the air with an invisible, impalpable dust, that had exercised a strange power of depression. The spirit of death had hung over the whole world and paralyzed all activity. Now the dust was dispersing. The spirit was withdrawing to the unknown deeps from which it had come.
“It is nice to feel decent again,” said Blanche. She lifted her head and threw back her shoulders.
Millie was preening herself before the glass.
“Well, I’m sure you ’ave made yourselves look smart,” said their mother with a touch of pride. “They were good girls,” she reflected, “if there had been more than a bit of temper shown lately. But, then, who could have helped themselves? It had been a terrible time.”
The July sun was shining brilliantly as the two young women, presentable enough to attend morning service at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Kilburn, set out to exhibit their charms and to buy food in the dead city.
They crossed Putney Bridge and made their way towards Hammersmith.
The air was miraculously clear. The detail of the streets was so sharp and bright that it was as if they saw with wonderfully renewed and sensitive eyes. The phenomenon produced a sense of exhilaration. They were conscious of quickened emotion, of a sensation of physical well-being.
“Isn’t it clean?” said Blanche.
“H’m! Funny!” returned Millie. “Like those photographs of foreign places.”
Under their feet was an accumulation of sharp, dry dust, detritus of stone, asphalt and steel. In corners where the fugitive rubbish had found refuge from the driving wind, the dust had accumulated in flat mounds, broken by scraps of paper or the torn flag of some rain-soaked poster that gave an untidy air of human refuse. Across the open way of certain roads the dust lay in a waved pattern of nearly parallel lines, like the ridged sand of the foreshore.
For some time they kept to the pavements from force of habit.
“I say, Mill, don’t you feel adventurous?” asked Blanche.
Millie looked dissatisfied. “It’s so lonely, B.,” was her expression of feeling.
“Never had London all to myself before,” said Blanche.
Near Hammersmith Broadway they saw a tram standing on the rails. Its thin tentacle still clung to the overhead wire that had once given it life, as if it waited there patiently hoping for a renewal of the exhilarating current.
Almost unconsciously Blanche and Millie quickened their pace. Perhaps this was the outermost dying ripple of life, the furthest outpost of the new activity that was springing up in central London.
But the tram was guarded by something that in the hot, still air seemed to surround it with an almost visible mist.
“Eugh!” ejaculated Millie and shrank back. “Don’t go, Blanche. It’s awful!”
Blanche’s hand also had leapt to her face, but she took a few steps forward and peered into the sunlit case of steel and glass. She saw a heap of clothes about the framework of a grotesquely jointed scarecrow, and the gleam of something round, smooth and white.
She screamed faintly, and a filthy dog crept, with a thin yelp, from under the seat and came to the door of the tram. For a moment it stood there with an air that was half placatory, wrinkling its nose and feebly raising a stump of propitiatory tail, then, with another protesting yelp, it crept back, furtive and ashamed, to its unlawful meat.
The two girls, handkerchief to nose, hurried by breathless, with bent heads. A little past Hammersmith Broadway they had their first sight of human life. Two gaunt faces looked out at them from an upper window. Blanche waved her hand, but the women in the house, half-wondering, half-fearful, at the strange sight of these two fancifully dressed girls, shook their heads and drew back. Doubtless there was some secret hoard of food in that house and the inmates feared the demands of charity.
“Well, we aren’t quite the last, anyway,” commented Blanche.
“What were they afraid of?” asked Millie.
“Thought we wanted to cadge, I expect,” suggested Blanche.
“Mean things,” was her sister’s comment.
“Well! We weren’t so over-anxious to have visitors,” Blanche reminded her.
“We didn’t want their beastly food,” complained the affronted Millie.
The shops in Hammersmith did not offer much inducement to exploration. Some were still closely shuttered, others presented goods that offered no temptation, such as hardware; but the majority had already been pillaged and devastated. Most of that work had been done in the early days of the plague when panic had reigned, and many men were left to lead the raids on the preserves of food.
Only one great line of shuttered fronts induced the two girls to pause.
“No need to go to Wisteria for clothes,” suggested Blanche.
“How could we get in?” asked Millie.
“Oh! get in some way easy enough.”
“It’s stealing,” said Millie, and thought of her raid on the Kilburn tobacconist’s.
“You can’t steal from dead people,” explained Blanche; “besides, who’ll have the things if we don’t?”
“I suppose it’d be all right,” hesitated Millie, obviously tempted.
“Well, of course,” returned Blanche and paused. “I say, Mill,” she burst out suddenly. “There’s all the West-end to choose from. Come on!”
For a time they walked more quickly.
In Kensington High Street they had an adventure.
They saw a woman decked in gorgeous silks, strung and studded with jewels from head to foot. She walked with a slow and flaunting step, gesticulating, and talking. Every now and again she would pause and draw herself up with an affectation of immense dignity, finger the ropes of jewels at her breast, and make a slow gesture with her hands.
“She’s mad,” whispered Blanche, and the two girls, terrified and trembling, hastily took refuge in a great square cave full of litter and refuse that had once been a grocer’s shop.
The woman passed their hiding-place in her stately progress westward without giving any sign that she was conscious of their presence. When she was nearly opposite to them she made one of her stately pauses. “Queen of all the Earth,” they heard her say, “Queen and Empress. Queen of the Earth.” Her hand went up to her head and touched a strange collection of jewels pinned in her hair, of tiaras and brooches that flashed brighter than the high lights of the brilliant sun. One carelessly fastened brooch fell and she pushed it aside with her foot. “You understand,” she said in her high, wavering voice, “you understand, Queen and Empress, Queen of the Earth.”
They heard the refrain of her gratified ambition repeated as she moved slowly away.
A long submerged memory rose to the threshold of Millie’s mind. “Thieving slut,” she murmured.
As they came nearer to representative London the signs of deserted traffic were more numerous. By the Albert Memorial they saw an overturned motor-bus which had smashed into the park railings, and a little further on were two more buses, one standing decently at the curb, the other sprawling across the middle of the road. The wheels of both were axle deep in the dust which had blown against them, and out of the dust a few weak threads of grass were sprouting. There were other vehicles, too, cabs, lorries and carts: not a great number altogether, but even the fifty or so which the girls saw between Kensington and Knightsbridge offered sufficient testimony to the awful rapidity with which the plague had spread. For it seems probable that in the majority of cases the drivers of these deserted vehicles must have been attacked by the first agonizing pains at the base of the skull while they were actually employed in driving their machines. There were few skeletons to be seen. The lull which intervened between the first unmistakable symptoms of the plague and the oncoming of the paralysis had given men time to obey their instinct to die in seclusion, the old instinct so little altered by civilization. Those vestiges of humanity which remained had, for the most part, been cleansed by the processes of Nature, but twice the girls disturbed a horrible cloud of blue flies which rose with an angry buzzing so loud that the girls screamed and ran, leaving the scavengers to swoop eagerly back upon their carrion. Doubtless the thing in the Hammersmith tram had been the body of a woman, recently dead from starvation. Even from the houses there was now little exhalation.
In Knightsbridge, a little past the top of Sloane Street, Blanche and Millie came to a shop which diverted them from their exploration for a time. Most of the huge rolling shutters had been pulled down and secured, but one had stopped half way, and, beyond, the great plate-glass windows were uncovered. One of ten million tragedies had descended swiftly to interrupt the closing of that immense place, and some combination of circumstances had followed to prevent the completion of the work. The imaginative might stop to speculate on the mystery of that half-closed shutter; the two Goslings stopped to admire the wonders behind the glass.
For a time the desolation and silence of London were forgotten. In imagination Blanche and Millie were once again units in the vast crowd of antagonists striving valiantly to win some prize in the great competition between the boast of wealth and the pathetic endeavour of make-believe.
They stayed to gaze at the “creations” behind the windows, at dummies draped in costly fabrics such as they had only dreamed of wearing. The silks, satins and velvets were whitened now with the thin snow of dust that had fallen upon them, but to Blanche and Millie they appeared still as wonders of beauty.
For a minute or two they criticized the models. They spoke at first in low voices, for the deep stillness of London held them in unconscious awe, but as they became lost in the fascination of their subject they forgot their fear. And then they looked at one another a little guiltily.
“No harm in seeing if the door’s locked, anyway,” said Blanche.
Millie looked over her shoulder and saw no movement in the frozen streets, save the sweep of one exploring swallow. Even the sparrows had deserted the streets. She did not reply in words, but signified her agreement of thought by a movement towards the entrance.
The swing doors were not fastened, and they entered stealthily.
They began with the touch of appraising fingers, wandering from room to room. But most of the rooms on the ground floor were darkened by the drawn shutters, and no glow of light came in response to the clicking of the electric switches that they experimented with with persistent futility. So they adventured into the clearly lit rooms upstairs and experienced a fallacious sense of security in the knowledge that they were on the floor above the street.
Fingering gave place to still closer inspection. They lifted the models from the stands and shook them out. They held up gorgeous robes in front of their own suburban dresses and admired each other and themselves in the numerous cheval glasses.
“Oh! bother!” exclaimed Blanche at last, “I’m going to try on.”
“Oh! B.,” expostulated the more timid Millie.
“Well! why to goodness not?” asked her elder sister. “Who’s to be any the wiser?”
“Seems wrong, somehow,” replied Millie, unable to shake off the conventions which had so long served her as conscience.
“Well, I am,” said Blanche, and retired into a little side room to divest herself of her own dress. She had always shared a bedroom with her sister, and they observed few modesties before each other, but Blanche was mentally incapable of changing her dress in the broad avenues of that extensive show-room. It is true that the tall casement windows were wide open and the place was completely overlooked by the massive buildings opposite, but even if the windows had been screened she would not have changed her skirt in the publicity of that open place, though every human being in the world were dead.
When she emerged from her dressing-room she was transformed indeed. She went over to her still hesitating sister.
“Do me up, Mill,” she said.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. So far, we have published Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’s The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and J.D. Beresford’s Goslings. Forthcoming: E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
READ HERE AT HILOBROW: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “The Moon Men” | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss”
READ: HiLobrow’s previous serialized novels, both original works: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic) and Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda. We also publish original stories and comics.