This novel from 1901 is surprisingly easy to whip through, considering it was co-written by two heavyweights of English literature, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford (in his earlier guise as Hueffer). Their writing style does not usually allow a fast and snappy read. They were both masters of the elliptical and the oblique, circumlocuting their subject in ever-decreasing circles, until the surrounding emotional atmosphere and social implications have been described so thoroughly that the reader feels intellectually blackmailed to draw their own conclusions about What Has Happened, and make sense of the space deliberately left blank in the centre of the action. Think Henry James, but with more left out.
I published an edition of The Inheritors some years ago, in my Political Future Fictions project, and read it again this week to kick off the next series of podcast scripts catch-ups from Really Like This Book, on newspaper novels (the first podcast was on a short story, so The Inheritors replaces it). The Inheritors is about the power of the press in the Edwardian period, which echoes powerfully in our own mediatised age. It’s a speculation on what would happen if a person from the Fourth Dimension manipulated western finances and politics to bring about society’s ruin. The newspapers and weekly and monthly magazines of the period are crucial, since they are the only way the public, and the markets, are given information. Other technologies exist for information dissemination – the ticker-tape reporting speeches in the House of Commons, and the telegram – but nothing is so powerful as the printed press, and whoever controls and manipulates the press, holds power.
The Conrad-Hueffer elliptical style of writing is well suited to science fiction, since it skates airily past the tricky details the reader doesn’t need to know, while giving the plot-relevant points a fine focus. Granger the impoverished journalist is walking along a country road to visit a friend near Dover, and finds he now has a walking companion, a beautiful and enigmatic young woman who calmly tells him that she is here from the Fourth Dimension to pursue her nefarious plan to bring down western civilisation, and that he won’t be able to do anything to stop her. The reader isn’t told how she gets there, or why she should do such a thing, because that’s not relevant, but instead is invited to observe Granger’s charming masculine response, of laughing at and not believing anything serious that a woman says. Since Granger tells his story as a narrative, he exposes his own fat-headed stupidity in being drawn into the woman’s strategy as her publicity tool.
She engineers a new commission for him, writing a character study of a repellently awful novelist (modelled on Hall Caine), which leads to more newspaper and magazine feature commissions that steadily exploit Granger’s facility for cheap and easy writing, and lead him and his professional reputation away from sound judgement about hard news. Granger ascends the ladder of popular journalism, becoming a biggish name in the political camp that the alien woman wants to bring down. She is in there too, having announced that she is Granger’s sister, and is mysteriously accepted as such by everyone, even Granger who knows that his real sister died years ago, and his aunt who couldn’t care less. She adopts Miss Granger as a paying-guest companion, which repeats the lesson of how corruption begins: by giving easy money to someone in need of it, who then becomes your creature. Granger is obsessed by ‘Miss Granger’ and wants to be with her whenever he can. He is hoist by his own petard when he realises that by having admitted her to a fake family relationship, he is now responsible for her reputation, and assumed to be in a privileged position of knowledge for everything he writes. He also realises, a little too late, that he is now socially unable to persuade her to fall in love with him, which is a good indicator of this young man’s self-absorption and disassociation from every moral value that ought to matter to him.
Miss Granger allows the world to assume that she is the mistress of a very prominent European duke (modelled on King Leopold II, he who pillaged the Belgian Congo), leaving Granger in a very uncomfortable social position. He realises that to the world he apparently colludes with this liaison (since brothers always control their sisters’ actions, right?) while writing popular magazine articles supporting the duke and his cause. To avoid the glances and sideways looks, Granger puts his head in the sand, so he will not see Miss Granger’s ploys. The duke’s aim is to extract large sums from the banks and the British government to build a great railway across his ducal fief of ‘Greenland’ (which stands for the Congo, though you’d think that Conrad and Hueffer could have chosen a better name), thus bringing yet more civilisation to the natives and exploitation opportunities for the whites. Remember who wrote Heart of Darkness in 1899.
Granger senses that something is up, but chooses not to look, and chooses to cling to Miss Granger’s enterprise with the pathetic hope of being able to be near her. He refuses to see how the great financial and political crash of the (new) century is being engineered, bringing down financiers, politicians, investors large and small, and reputations in all directions. And then he accidentally finds himself in a position to stop it all, to make a choice between truth and his personal interests. On the evening that everything come to fruition, he helps the editor of his newspaper – racked by sciatica – to put the paper to bed, by arranging the sub-editing of a late news report about the culmination of the crash, and sending it to the presses. Granger is so preoccupied that – almost too late – he reads the final copy, and realises that he has the power to let the story die, or allow Miss Granger’s machinations to succeed by printing a front-page story on the atrocities in ‘Greenland’ and the role of the British government in financing them.
The genius of this novel in illustrating the power of the press is showing how even if a journalist or an article is ‘only’ one cog in a machine, not responsible for the whole, they must still take responsibility for their own sphere, their own actions. In its day, the Edwardian press was the only public information medium, delivering publicity, swaying public opinion, driving the financial markets, revealing the truth, exposing lies, and giving journalists importance and influence out of all proportion to their intrinsic worth. The weak journalist is the flawed tool, to be exploited ruthlessly.