HiLobrow is pleased to present the fifteenth 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.”
FROM SUDBURY TO WYCOMBE
Allie knocked on the Goslings’ door at sunrise the next morning, and Blanche, who had come to bed two hours after her mother and sister, was the only one to respond. She woke with the feeling that she had something important to do, and that the affair was in some way pleasant and inspiring.
Millie was not easily roused. She had slept heavily, and did not approve the suggestion that she should get up and dress herself.
“All right, B., all right!” she mumbled, and cuddled down under the bedclothes like a dormouse into its straw.
“Oh! do get up!” urged Blanche, impatiently, and at last resorted to physical force.
“What is the matter?” snapped Millie, struggling to maintain her hold of the blankets. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”
“Because it’s time to get up, lazy!” said Blanche, continuing the struggle.
“Well, I said I’d get up in a minute.”
“Well, get up then.”
“In a minute.”
“No — now!”
“Oh, bother!” said Millie.
Blanche succeeded at last in obtaining possession of the blankets.
“You’ll wake mother!” was Millie’s last, desperate shaft.
“I’m going to try,” replied Blanche.
Millie sat up in the bed and wondered vaguely where she was. These scenes had often been enacted at Wisteria Grove, and her mind had gone back to those delightful days of peace and security. When full consciousness returned to her, she was half inclined to cry, and more than half inclined to go to sleep again.
Mrs Gosling was quite as difficult.
“What’s the time?” was her first question.
“I don’t know,” said Blanche.
“I’m sure it’s not seven,” murmured Mrs Gosling.
Millie, still sitting on the bed, wondered whether Blanche would let her get to the blankets which were tumbled on the floor a few feet away.
“No, you don’t!” exclaimed Blanche, anticipating the attempt.
Finally she lost her temper and shook her mother vigorously.
At that, Mrs Gosling sat up suddenly and stared at her. “What in ’eaven’s name’s wrong, gel?” she asked. Her instinct told her with absolute certainty that it was still the middle of the night by Wisteria Grove standards.
“Oh! my goodness! I’m going to have my hands full with you two!” broke out Blanche impatiently. Her imagination pictured for her in that instant how great the trouble would be. She would never be able to wake them up….
They took the road before eight o’clock. Aunt May was generous in the matter of eggs and fruit, and she left her many urgent duties to point the way for the inexperienced explorers.
“Get right out as far as you can,” was her parting word of advice.
They did not see Mrs Pollard again. She was still in bed when they set out.
Despite the promise of another cloudless day, none of the three travellers set out in high spirits. To all of them, even to Blanche, it seemed a return to weariness and pain to start out once more pushing that abominable truck. That truck represented all their troubles. It had become associated with all the discomforts they had endured since they left the Putney house. It indicated the paucity of their possessions, and yet it was intolerably heavy to push. After their brief return to the comfort and stability of a home and natural food, this adventuring out into the inhospitable country appeared more hopeless than ever. If they could have gone without the truck, they might, at least, have avoided that feeling of horrible certainty. They might have cheated themselves into the belief that they would return. The truck was the brand of their vagabondage.
Mrs Gosling did not spare her lamentations concerning the hopelessness of their endeavour, and gave it as her opinion that they had been most heartlessly treated by Aunt May.
“Turning out a woman of my age into the roads,” she grumbled. “She might ’ave kept us a day or two, I should ’ave thought. It ain’t as if we were beggars. We could ’ave paid for what we ’ad.”
She had, indeed, made the suggestion and been repulsed. Aunt May had firmly put the offer on one side without explanation. She understood that explanations would be wasted on Mrs Gosling.
Millie was inclined to agree with her mother.
Blanche, at the handle, did not interrupt the statement of their grievances. She was occupied with the problem of the future, trying to think out some plan in her own confused inconsecutive way.
Their progress was tediously slow. Against the combined brake of the truck and Mrs Gosling, they did not average two miles an hour; and even before they came to Pinner it was becoming obvious to the two girls that they might as well let their mother ride on the trolly as allow her to lean her weight upon it as she walked.
They took the road through Wealdstone to avoid the hill and found that they were still in the track of one wing of the foraging army which had preceded them. That first rush of emigrants had ravaged the stores and houses as locusts will ravage a stretch of country. The suburb of regular villas and prim shops had been completely looted. Doors stood open and windows were smashed; the spread of ugly houses lay among the fields like an unwholesome eruption, awaiting the healing process of Nature. Wealdstone also was deserted by humanity. The flood had swept on towards the open country.
But as they approached Pinner the signs of devastation and desertion began to give way. Here and there women could be seen working in the fields; one or two children scuttled away before the approach of the Goslings and hid in the hedges, children who had evidently grown furtive and suspicious, intimidated by the experiences of the past two months; and when the outlying houses were reached — detached suburban villas, once occupied by relatively wealthy middle-class employers — it was evident that efforts were being made to restore the wreckage of kitchen gardens.
The Goslings had reached the point at which the wave had broken after its great initial energy was spent. Somewhere about this fifteen-mile limit, varying somewhat according to local conditions, the real disintegration of the crowd had begun. As the numerous tokens of the road had shown, a great number of women and children — possibly one-fifth of the whole crowd — had died of starvation and disease before any harbour was reached. From this fifteen-mile circle outwards, an increasing number had been stayed in their flight by the opportunities of obtaining food. Work was urgently demanded for the future, but the determining factor was the present supply of food, and the constriction of immediate supply had decided the question of how great a proportion of the women and children should remain. Here, about Pinner, was more land than the limited number of workers could till, but little of it was arable, and this year there would be almost no harvest of grain.
Vaguely, Blanche realized this. She remembered Aunt May’s advice to keep her eyes open, and looking about her as she walked she found little promise of security in the grass fields and the rare signs of human activity.
Mrs Gosling, eager to find some home at any price, expressed her usual optimistic opinion with regard to the value of money. She saw signs of life again, at last, conditions familiar to her. She thought that they were returning once more to some kind of recognizable civilization, and began, with some renewal of her old vigour, to advise that they should find an hotel or inn and take “a good look round” before going any further.
Millie, heartened by her mother’s belief, was of much the same opinion, and Blanche was summoned from the pole to listen to the proposition.
She shook her head stubbornly.
“I’m not going to argue it out all over again,” she said. “You can just look round and see for yourselves that there’s no food to be got here. We must get further out.”
Mrs Gosling refused to be convinced, and advanced her superior knowledge of the world to support her judgment of the case.
“Oh! very well,” said Blanche, at last. “Come on to the inn and see for yourselves.”
The inn, however, was deserted. All its available supply of food, solid and liquid, had long been exhausted, and the gardenless house had offered no particular attractions as a residence. Houses were cheap in that place, the whole population of Pinner, including children, did not exceed three hundred persons.
They found a woman working in a garden near by, and she, with perhaps unnecessary harshness, warned them that they could not stay in the village. “There’s not enough food for us as it is,” she said, and made some reference to “silly Londoners.”
That was an expression with which the Goslings were to become very familiar in the near future.
The appeal for pity fell on deaf ears. Mrs Gosling learned that she was only one of many thousands who had made the same appeal.
The sun was high in the sky as they trudged out of Pinner on the road towards Northwood. It was then Blanche suggested that her mother should always ride on the trolly, except when they were facing a hill; and after a few weak protestations the suggestion was accepted. The trolly was lightened of various useless articles of furniture — a grudging sacrifice on the part of Mrs Gosling — and the party pushed on at a slightly improved pace.
After her disappointment in Pinner, Mrs Gosling’s interest in life began rapidly to decline. Seated in her truck, she fell into long fits of brooding on the past. She was too old and too stereotyped to change, the future held no hope for her, and as the meaning and purpose of her existence faded, the life forces within her surely and ever more rapidly ebbed. Reality to her became the discomfort of the sun’s heat, the dust of the road, the creak and scream of the trolly wheels. She was incapable of relating herself to the great scheme of life, her consciousness was limited, as it had always been limited, to her immediate surroundings. She saw herself as a woman outrageously used by fate, but to fate she gave no name; the very idea, indeed, was too abstract to be appreciated by her. Blanche, Millie and that horrible truck were all that was left of her world, and in spirit she still moved in the beloved, familiar places of her suburban home.
As the Goslings trudged out into the Chilterns they came into new conditions. Soon they found overcrowding in place of desolation. The harvest was ripening and in a month’s time the demand for labour would almost equal the supply, for the labour offered was quite absurdly unskilled and ten women would be required to perform the work of one man equipped with machines. But at the end of July the surplus of women, almost exclusively Londoners, had no employment and little food, and many were living on grass, nettles, leaves, any green stuff they could boil and eat, together with such scraps of meat and vegetables as they could steal or beg. Their experiments with wild green stuffs often resulted in some form of poisoning, and dysentery and starvation were rapidly increasing the mortality among them. Nevertheless, in Rickmansworth houses were still at a premium, and many of those who camped perforce in fields or by the roadside were too enfeebled by town-life to stand the exposure of the occasional cold, wet nights. The majority of the women in this ring were those who had been too weak to struggle on. They represented the class least fitted to adapt themselves to the new conditions. The stronger and more capable had persisted, and left these congested areas behind them; and it was evident that in a very few months a balance between labour and supply would be struck by the relentless extermination of the weakest by starvation and disease.
Blanche, if she was unable to grasp the problem which was being so inevitably solved by the forces of natural law, was at least able to recognize clearly enough that she and her two dependents must not linger in the district to which they had now come. Aunt May had warned her that she must push out as far as Amersham at the nearest, but Millie was too tired and footsore to go much further than Rickmansworth that night, and after a fruitless search for shelter they camped out half a mile from the town in the direction of Chorley Wood.
They made some kind of a shield from the weather by emptying and tilting the trolly, and they hid their supply of food behind them at the lowest point of this species of lean-to roof. The two girls had realized that that supply would soon be raided if the fact of its existence were to become known. They had been the object of much scrutiny as they passed, and their appearance of well-being had prompted endless demands for food, from that pitiful crowd of emaciated women and children. It had been a demand quickly put on one side by lying. Their applicants found it only too easy to believe that the Goslings had no food hidden in the truck.
“I hated to refuse some of ’em,” Blanche said as they carefully hid what food was left to them, before turning in for the night, “but what good would our little bit have done among all that lot? It would have been gone in half a jiff.”
“Well, of course,” agreed Millie.
Mrs Gosling had taken little notice of the starving crowd. “We’ve got nothin’ to give you,” was her one form of reply. She might have been dealing with hawkers in Wisteria Grove.
She was curiously apathetic all that afternoon and evening, and raised only the feeblest protestation against the necessity for sleeping in the open air. But she was very restless during the night, her limbs twitched and she moved continually, muttering and sometimes crying out. And as the three women were all huddled together, partly to make the most of their somewhat insufficient lean-to, and partly because they were afraid of the terrors of the open air, both Blanche and Millie were constantly aroused by their mother’s movements. Once they heard her calling urgently for “George.”
“Mother’s odd, isn’t she?” whispered Blanche after one such disturbance. “Do you think she’s going to be ill?”
“Shouldn’t wonder,” muttered Millie. “Who wouldn’t be?”
In the morning Blanche was very careful with their food. For breakfast they ate only part of a tin of condensed beef between them —Mrs Gosling indeed ate hardly anything. The eggs which they had brought from Sudbury they reserved, chiefly because they had neither water nor fire.
They drank from a stream, later, and at midday Blanche and Millie each ate one of the eggs raw. Mrs Gosling refused all food on this occasion. She had been very quiet all the morning, and had made little complaint when she had been forced to walk the many hills which they were now encountering.
Blanche was uneasy and tried to induce her mother to talk. “Do you feel bad, mother?” she asked continually.
“I wish I could get ’ome,” was all the reply she received.
“She’ll be all right when we can get settled somewhere,” grumbled Millie. “If such a time ever comes.”
They came to Amersham in the afternoon. The signs of misery and starvation were here less marked. They were approaching the outer edge of this ring of compression, having passed through the node at Rickmansworth. The faint relief of pressure was evidenced to some extent in the attitude of the people they addressed. It is true that no immediate hope of food and employment were held out to them, but on the one hand Blanche’s inquiries were answered with less acerbity and on the other they were less besieged by importunate demands for charity. Blanche gave an egg to one precocious girl of thirteen or so, who insisted on helping them to push the truck uphill, and she and Millie watched the deft way in which the child broke the shell at one end and sucked out the contents. Their own methods had been both unclean and wasteful.
They turned off the Aylesbury Road, towards High Wycombe late in the afternoon and about a mile from Amersham came to a farm where they made their last inquiry that day.
Blanche saw signs of life in the outbuildings and went to investigate, leaving Millie and her mother to guard the truck. She found three women and a girl of fourteen or so milking. For some minutes she stood watching them, the women, after one glance at her, proceeding with their work without paying her any further attention. But, at last, the eldest of the three rose from her stool with a sigh of relief, picked up her wooden bucket of milk, gave the cow a resounding slap on the side, and then, turning to Blanche, said, “Well, my gal, what’s for you?”
“Will you change two pints of milk for a small tin of tongue?” asked Blanche. It was the first time she had offered any of their precious tinned meats in exchange for other food, but she wanted milk for her mother, who had hardly eaten anything that day.
The two other women and the girl looked round and regarded Blanche with the first signs of interest they had shown.
“Tongue, eh?” said the older woman. “Where from did you get tongue, my gal?”
“London,” replied Blanche tersely.
“When did you leave there?” asked the woman, and then Blanche was engaged in a series of searching questions respecting the country she had passed through.
“You can have the milk if you’ve anything to put it in,” said the woman at last, and Blanche went to fetch the tongue and the two bottles that they had had from Aunt May.
The bottles had to be scalded, a precaution that had not occurred to Blanche, and one of the other women was sent to carry out the operation.
“Well, your tale don’t tell us much,” said the woman of the farm, “but we always pass the news here, now. Where are you going to sleep to-night?”
Blanche shrugged her shoulders.
“You can sleep here in the outhouses, if you’ve a mind to,” said the woman, “but I warn you we get a crowd. Silly Londoners like yourself for the most part, but we find a use for ’em somehow, though I’d give the lot for three labourers.”
She paused and twisted her mouth on one side reflectively. “Ah! well,” she went on with a sigh, “no use grieving over them that’s gone; all I was goin’ to say was, if you sleep here you’d better keep an eye on what food you’ve got with you. My lot’ll have it before you can say knife, if they get half a chance.”
“It isn’t us girls, me and my sister,” explained Blanche. “It’s my mother. She’s bad, I’m afraid. If she could sleep in your kitchen…? She wouldn’t steal anything.”
After a short hesitation the woman consented.
Yet neither the glory of being once more within the four walls of a house, nor the refreshment of the milk which she drank readily enough, seemed appreciably to rouse Mrs Gosling’s spirits.
The woman of the farm, a kindly enough creature, plied the old lady with questions, but received few and confused answers in reply. Mrs Gosling seemed dazed and stupid. “A touch of the sun,” the farmer’s widow thought.
“The sun’s been cruel strong the past week,” she said, “but she’ll be all right in a day or two, get her to shelter.”
“Ah! that’s the trouble,” said Blanche.
That night the farmer’s widow said no more on that subject. She allowed the three Goslings to sleep in an upstair room, in which there was one small bed for the mother, and the two girls slept on the floor. Exchanging confidence for confidence, they brought their truck into the kitchen; and then the farmer’s widow proceeded to lock up for the night, an elaborate business, which included the fastening of all ground-floor windows and shutters.
“It’s a thievin’ crowd we’ve got about here,” she explained, “and you can’t blame them or anyone when there ain’t enough food to go round. But we have to be careful for ’em. Let ’em go their own way and they’d eat up everything in a week and then starve. It looks like your being hard on ’em, but it’s for their own good. There’s some, of course,” she went on, “as you have got to get shut of. Only yesterday I had to send one of ’em packing. A Jew woman she was, called ’erself Mrs Isaacson or something. She was a caution.”
Blanche wondered idly if this were the same Mrs Isaacson who had stayed too long with Aunt May.
The woman of the farm roused the Goslings at sunrise, and she, like Aunt May, had a brisk, practical, morning manner.
She gave the travellers no more food, but when they were nearly ready to take the road again she gave them one valuable piece of information.
“If I was you,” she said, “I’d make through Wycombe straight along the road here, and go up over the hill to Marlow. Mind you, they won’t let every one stop there. But you look two healthy gals enough and it’s getting on towards harvest when there’ll be work as you can do.”
“Marlow?” repeated Blanche, fixing the name in her memory.
The farmer’s widow nodded. “There’s a man there,” she said. “A queer sort, by all accounts. Not like Sam Evans, the butcher at Wycombe, he ain’t. Seems as this Marlow chap don’t have no truck with gals, except setting ’em to work. However, time’ll show. He may change his mind yet.”
They had some difficulty with Mrs Gosling. She refused feebly to leave the house. “I ain’t fit to go out,” she complained, and when they insisted she asked if they were going home.
“Best say ‘yes,’” whispered the woman of the farm. “The sun’s got to her head a bit. She’ll be all right when you get her to Marlow.”
Blanche accepted the suggestion, and by this subterfuge Mrs Gosling was persuaded into the truck. The girl found the ruins of an umbrella, which they rigged up to protect her from the sun.
Blanche and Millie were quite convinced now that their mother was suffering from a slight attack of sunstroke.
Both the girls were still footsore, and one of Millie’s boots had worn into a hole, but they had a definite objective at last, and only some ten or twelve miles to travel before reaching it.
“We shall be there by midday,” said Blanche, hopefully.
Unconsciously, every one was using a new measure of time.
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: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, serialized between January and April 2012; Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), serialized between March and June 2012; Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, serialized between April and July 2012; H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, serialized between March and August 2012; Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized between May and September 2012; William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized between June and December 2012; J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, serialized between September 2012 and May 2013; E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, serialized between March 2013 and July 2013. ; and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, serialized between March and August 2013.
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.