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Book Review: “After London” by Richard Jefferies

Maria Longley, GiGL Community Manager

Richard Jefferies’ 1885 novel, After London, opens with a wonderful description of nature recovering after an unspecified disaster has befallen London and created a large lake in the middle of England. Jefferies is probably better known for his writing on natural history than his science fiction; his descriptions of nature’s recovery in After London are delightfully specific and accurate in this early example of post-apocalyptic fiction. How many authors take the time to think through the habitat succession after a disaster?

“Hawthorn bushes sprang up among them, and, protected by the briars and thorns from grazing animals, the suckers of elm-trees rose and flourished. Sapling ashes, oaks, sycamores, and horse-chestnuts, lifted their heads.”

After London is a book of two parts with the bulk of the novel set years after the disaster. The quasi-medieval adventure story follows the young Felix as he heads in search of his fortune across a massive lake in his homemade canoe. As the second son of a nobleman, Felix is driven to find wealth so he can marry his true love. He tries unsuccessfully to join an army, explores the lakes, and ends up finding a home as a leader of nomadic shepherds.

The human elements of the novel haven’t stood the test of time nearly as well as the carefully observed wildlife descriptions, and the society depicted is not a particularly inspiring one. A short interlude; a couple of hallucinogenic chapters where Felix explores a part of the lake that turns out to be the remains of London; is very different to the pastoral feel of most of the novel and is a surreal but interesting digression.

Richard Jefferies had strong links to London. His 1883 work, Nature Near London, more typical of his known works, is a collection of essays based on walks he took during the five years that he lived in Surbiton. In recognition of Jefferies’ influence on nature writing and on London, a Local Nature Reserve in Surbiton was named after the naturalist; The Wood and Richard Jefferies Bird Sanctuary LNR. The Wood was once a large Victorian house with a lake and mixed woodland in the grounds, but is now a public park.

In After London, the fall of civilisation begins in the capital, and while there are many aspects of London I would miss were the city to disappear, I loved the imagining of a wilder England that was hinted at throughout the novel.

After London is freely available on the Project Gutenberg website Thank you to Bill Butcher from eCountability for suggesting this book about the destruction of London to the GiGL team.

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