The Moon Falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains eerily relevant


Late last month, The Washington Post reported that a passing asteroid would whiz unusually close to Earth. Fortunately for us, “NASA was quick to reassure people that the asteroid, estimated to be between 11 feet (about 3.5 meters) and 28 feet (8.5 meters) across, would not end life as we know it on our planet,” according to to the article. Suppose, however, that a much larger celestial object—say, the Moon—is to crash into Earth. What then?

This is the script for RC Sherriff’s novel The Hopkins Manuscript (1939), recently reissued by Scribner. From its introductory pages we learn that more than eight centuries have passed since the “Cataclysm” and that Europe, especially England, has remained a barren wasteland. For years, however, archaeologists from the Royal Society of Abyssinia have been searching for artifacts that would help “reconstruct the lost glory of the ‘white man’.” During an expedition to what used to be London, a young scientist, collecting brush, unearths a small vacuum flask, inside which is a handwritten account of life in a small village called Beadle during the days leading up to the lunar disaster. To scholars in Addis Ababa, hungry for knowledge of the past, the “Hopkins Manuscript” proved to be “a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the growing gloom of a dying England”, but – alas – “infinitely miserable in the poor little conceit and self-respect of its author.”

Those last phrases are actually an apt description of the novel’s narrator, the middle-aged Edgar Hopkins. A former teacher who managed to retire to the countryside due to a small inheritance, Hopkins is vain, envious of others, accustomed to the comforts of home and extremely self-centered. His main interests in life are raising prize-winning chickens and extolling “the effects of water-heated tubular metal coops on the laying ability of hens.” He represents, almost caricaturally, the traditional “little Englishman” in his most provincial form.

Review: ‘Riddley Walker,’ by Russell Hoban

So, is Sherriff’s book a satirical look at the end of the world, a forerunner of, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963)? It may almost seem so, but overall the humor of its leisurely first half is more like that of George and Weedon Grossmith’s dry Victorian bestseller, The Diary of a Nobody (1892).

Consider, for example, Hopkins’ description of his uncle Henry, who, before his retirement from the Office of Works, “had done much to add dignity and decency to the public spaces of London, and through his untiring efforts the hands which were shown for public conveniences in Hyde Park had are short sleeves and white cuffs painted on the bare wrists.” It is definitely worthy of the immortal Mr. Pooter Grossmiths. Equally good is the pencil portrait of Uncle Henry’s wife, Rose, who may have grown older in recent years but still “possesses the finest collection in England of old colored prints of stagecoaches that have capsized in snowdrifts.”

Hopkins, a graduate of Winchester School and Cambridge University, is condescending to his neighbors in Beadle. Still, it’s clear that for Sherriff, these working people represent some of England’s most wonderful “types”. There are the faithful, elderly servants, the kindly vicar, the tilling farmers, the boisterous village cricket team, the gruff landlord of the Fox and Hounds pub, the handsome Etonian named Robin and his fair-haired elder sister Pat, and the benevolent aristocrats. They all face the impending lunar catastrophe with quiet courage and trust in God. Even when Hopkins ends the world himself, he still realizes what he’s losing:

“Often, during the past seven dreadful years, I have relived the last hour of happiness I was ever to know on this earth: that quiet walk to the village—my quiet conversation with Mr. Flidale, the carrier, in his cottage by the bridge—a short pause to watch a boy at football on the green — country sounds, the smell of hay — a quiet walk home and a chat with old Barlow at my door; the last hour of my life — the last hour in which I should have known the meaning of rest.”

After learning at a closed meeting of the British Lunar Society that the moon would hit Earth on May 3, 1946, Hopkins pledged to secrecy to prevent nationwide panic. Like a patient suffering from an incurable disease, he agonizes over the knowledge that his life will end in seven months, five months, a few weeks, tomorrow. He can’t quite believe it:

“I felt a deep, joyful conviction that the world would survive—that the human race, purified by the common danger, would emerge with all its petty jealousies and senseless quarrels forgotten. Instead of destroying us, the moon would free us forever from greed, cruelty, and war by scaring us into eternal gratitude.”

Of course, it is ironic that he should speak of “petty jealousy” and “pointless quarreling.” I won’t say more about what happens in the novel, but, as the ominous Major Jagger insists, “Do you imagine that a cataclysm—or a hundred cataclysms—can change human nature?” In the end, the real cause of the disintegration and complete destruction of Britain is not at all what the reader expects.

A view of the post-apocalyptic world imagined in the novel ‘After London’

RC Sherriff (1896-1975) was seriously wounded in the First World War, and gained fame as the author of the celebrated anti-war drama “Journey’s End” (1928). In addition to novels and plays, he became best known as the screenwriter of films such as “The Invisible Man” (1933) and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939). In “The Hopkins Manuscript” he shows that he is as adept at description as he is at dialogue. As the moon drew nearer and nearer, “the dirty brown sky became wild and brilliant: through its dirty brown a blood-red streak broke: it swelled and pulsated until it filled the whole sky. The heavens seemed gasping and bleeding like the burst lungs of a dying giant.”

Writers of fiction about life after a global pandemic, climate catastrophe or nuclear war usually imagine a return to barbarism and savagery. In Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), England is literally bombed back into the Dark Ages; in “After London” (1885) by Richard Jefferies there are feudal manors surrounded by threatening wilderness; and in JD Beresford’s “Goslings” (1913), almost all the men die of the plague, but the surviving women establish sister cooperative farms. The second half of the “Hopkins Manuscript” initially seems far more optimistic than either of these. Sherriff seems to have taken William Morris’s pastoral, utopian-socialist novel, News From Nowhere (1890) to heart, as his rural survivors soon establish small communities based on barter and handicrafts. “The destruction of large factories and chain stores brought individuality back into English life,” he writes. “It was a happy experience to walk down the main street – to hear the clang of the hammer and the crash of the carpenter.” Can a renewed and better world actually be created?

Alas, there are two catastrophes in the “Hopkins Manuscript,” and the impact of the moon proves the lesser one.

‘Woman’s World’ imagines just that. First published in 1913, it is eerily relevant.

When Sherriff’s novel was first published, it warned England against its complacency in the face of the storm of total war with fascist Germany. Sherriff also seems to have realized that the war would bring the end of the British Empire, already in its long twilight. For today’s readers, many elements in the novel will bring to mind our recent experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, ultra-nationalist politics, widespread religious fanaticism, the global climate crisis, and senseless, brutal wars of attrition around the world. In short, “The Hopkins Manuscript” does not simply—or simplistically—imagine what some have called a “pleasant disaster.” It remains a relevant cautionary tale.

Scribner. 400 pages Paperback, $18

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