Wednesday, September 4, 2019
The British Barbarians by Grant Allen
Lampooning English respectability
The British Barbarians, a novel by Grant Allen, was published in 1895. Allen, a science writer, novelist, and essayist, was born in Canada but lived most of his adult life in England. He was an outspoken atheist and proponent of evolution. His devotion to rational science and aversion to religion are both evident in The British Barbarians, an iconoclastic work that pokes fun at British customs of class and respectability. Regrettably, the book begins with one of the most unnecessary and pretentious introductions ever to open a novel, an exercise in self-praise in which Allen trumpets his own self-righteousness and unswerving steadfastness of purpose in the face of critical adversity and editorial censure. After having gotten off on that wrong foot, thankfully the book that follows is much better and often displays a refreshingly irreverent sense of humor.
Philip Christy, a railroad clerk and resident of Brackenhurst, Surrey, is just another common middle-class Englishman overly concerned with elevating his social position. One day he is approached by a stranger, an apparent tourist who inquires where one might find lodgings in the neighborhood. The well-dressed stranger speaks perfect English, but is apparently not from England since he has no knowledge whatsoever of English customs. Despite efforts at polite interrogation, Philip is unable to get the stranger to state from where he hails. The man will only admit to being an “alien” in England. After a couple further meetings, Philip develops a reluctant acquaintance with this apparent foreigner, whose name is revealed to be Bertram Ingledew. While Philip remains suspicious of this stranger, Ingledew forms a close friendship with Philip’s sister Frida, also known by her married name of Mrs. Robert Monteith.
As Philip and Frida educate Bertram on English manners and customs, he proves himself incredibly naive and ignorant as to the ways of society. His utter fish-out-of-water strangeness, however, allows him to view English customs objectively, and he openly and unabashedly criticizes British mores. Though a newcomer to English society, Bertram is a well-traveled man and very knowledgeable about other cultures. Viewing English customs as an anthropologist would, he constantly compares England’s restrictive social norms with the taboos of third-world cultures. Starting small with a critique of England’s confusing coinage and moving on to the unreasonable demands of fashion, Bertram eventually works his way up to hot button topics like religion, sex, and marriage, much to the shock and chagrin of his hosts and their social circle.
Allen’s humorous critiques of English social conventions are quite funny and pointedly insightful, though he does tend to dwell too long on each joke. Since the first half of the novel is so funny, it is all the more disappointing when the second half devolves into a melodramatic romance, one that comes across as strangely commonplace for the Victorian era, even though Bertram is an advocate of women’s liberation and free love. What purports to be a statement of feminine independence feels more like a lovestruck woman blindly following a cult leader.
There is a science fiction element to this novel, which makes it a pioneering work in that genre. I won’t reveal what that entails, but it is pretty obvious from chapter one. The book also includes a rather audacious freethought critique of religion, for which Allen is to be commended. The British Barbarians isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it was cutting edge for 1895. Today, it will mostly appeal to those interested in early science fiction.
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