Book Review: “That Inevitable Victorian Thing” by E.K. Johnston (2 of 2)

I applaud you for reading this. You could have just left well enough alone by reading the first part and marking this down as a gentle romantic comedy. But you want to know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.

I breezed past some of the world-building elements of this book in the first part, but now I want to get into the nitty-gritty.

First, as mentioned in H.R.R. Gorman’s review, the Victorian class system is very much intact. Helena and August both have family servants. Now, in keeping with the principle of noblesse oblige, and because Helena and August are good people, they treat their servants well, and they, in turn, are deeply devoted to their employers. Which is all swell, and will be a dynamic familiar to anyone who ever read a Jeeves novel.

But… it’s still a class system. Helena’s servant Fanny is never going to be a member of the ruling class. Which may be fine, as Fanny shows no desire whatsoever to be a member of the ruling class. But I am just saying.

“Okay, Berthold,” you reply. “So there’s a feudal dynamic. Whatever; I’ve watched Downton Abbey. What’s the big deal?”

Nothing… it’s just very Victorian. Which is to be expected since it’s in the title. I’m not arguing that it’s a flaw or that it shouldn’t have been like that. It’s just interesting, especially in light of other things.

Because then you have that hybrid DNA test and dating service which finds promising romantic matches based on a person’s genetic makeup. Did I mention this service is run by the Church of England, which at this point now encompasses all religions practiced in the Empire?

Now, one asks, what reason could there be for wanting to run DNA tests to find good matches? Is there any other term for this type of practice? Why yes, there is, and its origins are also firmly rooted in the Victorian epoch.

To be clear, the gene-matching program in That Inevitable Victorian Thing is purely based on individual choice. There is no compulsion (unless you are actually a member of the Royal Family) to marry certain people based upon it. It’s just a rite of passage. Like getting your driver’s license. Or registering to vote.

Oh, about voting… yes, well, I don’t think that happens here. Now, if you’re a neo-Imperialist, you’re like, “What part of ‘absolute monarchy’ is confusing you, Yankee Doodle? Of course there’s no voting!” (Real die-hards may also be unable to refrain from adding aloud, “And rebellion and treason are forcèd to yield!“)

So, just to recap: we have a strict class hierarchy, a social system predicated upon genetic compatibility and overseen by the Church, and unelected monarchs who rule for life and hold supreme executive power.

Does this sound to you like the setting for an idyllic romance, as I described in the first part? Or does it sound like, I don’t know, nine different dystopias are about to break out all at once?

Of course, the story is the story. If Johnston wants to write a book about a genteel, peaceful, and civilized society governed by absolute monarchy and based on eugenics and class, she can do it. And there’s no unreliable narrator sleight-of-hand going on here, either, trying to make us think it’s one thing when really it’s another. Believe me, I put on my Hildred Castaigne goggles and looked.

Part of the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, everyone in the story is basically good. As Plato himself said, the best form of government is the kind where the best people are in charge. (Well duh, Plato! How much are we paying you again?)

And because everyone is basically good, they can do fine with a form of government which, in the wrong hands, one can easily imagine being used to turn the Empire into a nightmarish hellscape.

Speaking of nightmarish hellscapes, I want to talk a little about how the alternate future of That Inevitable Victorian Thing depicts the United States of America. Not that it depicts it much. The book largely takes place in Canada, with other characters from different parts of the Empire dropping in now and then.

But when something bad shows up, chances are it came from the USA. The USA of this world is the rotten ruin of a failed experiment. It has no culture. Its food is terrible. It is apparently overrun with pirates. When the neo-Victorian ruling élite discusses it at all, it is with a mixture of disgust and pity.

Any one of these elements in the world Johnston has built might seem like a trifling bit of counterfactual history put in just for the sake of being different. But together, they form an unnerving and weird backdrop to the light and pleasantly mild main plot.

Which is, I think, the point. After all, the real Victorian world, which we often see with rose-colored sentimentality, had its unnerving and weird side too. But the real Victorians, who read books like Jane Eyre without thinking of what you might call the Wide Sargasso Sea perspective, were probably oblivious to the unnerving and weird aspects of their society. So is everyone, in every society.

To read That Inevitable Victorian Thing is to get a vague sense of what it would have been like to read a Victorian novel as a Victorian, and not as a modern looking back at the literature of a bygone era. In that regard, while it’s probably not for everybody, it is a fascinating literary experiment.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

9 Comments

  1. Ooh, I like your take on it. I think I like your take better than mine, as this makes a lot of literary sense. I was a bit too literal in my interpretation!

  2. Ooooh I am looking forward listening to this. The sample on Audio Audible and your very witty incisive review have made this a must! (roll on the 29th March when my next Audible credit turns up!)

  3. Hi Berthold.
    History and Socio- Political nerd warning….Force 10
    I listened to and thoroughly enjoyed the book. Audio book narrators have an art and skilled set all of their own; Katherine Kellgren brought everyone alive.

    E K Johnson’s world in which ‘That Inevitable Victorian Thing’ was set fascinated me at the onset, although she did answer some readers’ question in her epilogue I was still wondering ‘How did we get here’. The issue being that for approximately five centuries Royalty and Parliament had been struggling for the Control and by Victoria’s time despite the deference paid to the Monarch Parliament and the Government ruled the roost, with the Church of England tending to side with more conservative governments. I like a nice alternative history but for it to work it needs some basis of possible facts, not just one either; History is a composite.

    I thus went back to the ‘Big Ruckus’ – the series of Wars which plagued these isles throughout a large part of the 17th Century. So, just suppose Charles I came out on top with Cromwell & Co being at the business end of the axe. And just suppose Charles having had such a narrow squeak and being a religious fellow decided this was a sign from God to ditch the Devine Right of Kings. While those Parliamentarians who did not end up being axed or imprisoned gave out with a collective ‘Phew’. Both sides decided to work on this, because if there was one thing they agreed on ‘We can’t trust the French Government…Our Queen’s OK, but not Paris’. Therefore what did evolve was something in rickety way parallel to the US system. The Monarch /President ruled, took care of foreign affairs, and overall policy, while Parliament – Congress/Senate attended to the day-to-day nitty gritty of The Nation. Yeah that would fit. And since everyone was still religious and not trusting The Enlightenment (French y’know), The Church had a say in Technical Stuff, because you had to move with the times. Yep that would fit the narrative. And explains why we never get to read about Parliament.

    In the UK, there is still a tendency to deference in a large portion of the population to The Monarch, and this filters down the Class System (Yep. Still alive), so the responses by the servants and the relationships did not seem as odd to me as it might to an American reader. Being of a jaundiced opinion on Humanity’s tendency to racism I felt the mixing of races was a bit of a stretch, but it was a nice stretch and thus bought into it.
    I have a feeling Johnson’s representation of the USA, either by intent or unconsciously was a warning as to where things could go under the current rise of the Extreme Right. A failure of America to evolve into the USA was certainly a possibility as witnessed by The Civil War, whether it would have been a collection of semi-third world nations is another matter, that would have depended on if there was in Johnson’s world the wave of immigration from Europe. To be honest I could not imagine the successful slave revolt on the American mainland, wishful thinking, interesting one though (sure would annoy the heck out of any current day White Supremacists)

    Those points aside I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The alternative snippets from various Monarchs eased the narrative along. The chromosome issues was a great twist. The Coming of Age LGBT issue handled with great sensitivity. As for the final arrangement…Scandalous? Actually rather Victorian; Charles Dickens and George Sands to name but two were involved in such. Historically common amongst royalty and as long as everyone was mature about it, it usually worked surprisingly well; ironically not so in these ‘enlightened’ days of ours.
    I’ll will be listening to this again. It does beg a Part II when the characters are older and the question of producing children arises (I have my own ideas)
    OK…done being nerdy…..

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