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.]