Archibald Marshall (1866-1934)
John Howard was on a walking tour somewhere in northern England around the turn of the 19th century. Approaching the foothills of the local fells, he met an old farmer with whom he conversed for a bit. The topics under discussion turned to caves and caverns, of which the local seemed entranced, for he began describing a local cave that he had once ventured into and that seemed endless and unexplored. Since Howard's time was his own, he agreed to accompany the old fellow in a cursory inspection of the attraction. The entrance was one of three in a sandstone cliff. Two of them had been closed by slides but the third was still approachable, so they entered, using Howard's flashlight to find their way. All of a sudden a roar was heard and the oldster yelled a warning and ran for the exit. Howard felt a moment of anxiety during which he dropped and broke his only source of light, but through the murk he espied a faint glow in the distance. Edging his way toward the dim spark, he stumbled several times over intervening objects, rocks and ledges, but soon was able to exit the darkness and enter a sunlit copse. It didn't look familiar to him, or much like the countryside he'd left, but it was a pleasant place, so, being tired and a bit shaky, he sat down under a tree and took a nap. Something perturbed his sleep and he awoke just in time to see another old, short and portly, person running off with his pocket watch. Howard jumped up and gave chase and soon apprehended the malefactor who was dressed like a derelict down on his luck. Feeling sorry for the old fellow, he offered, after requesting the return of his watch, a few shillings to tide him over, but the perpetrator became upset and began raging about who did Howard think he was, anyway! Then he ran off, but soon returned with a policeman who put the cuffs on John and hauled him off to jail in the nearby town, which was named Culbut.
Howard was thrown into a cell, which was a large apartment with hot and cold water, a small library, an easy chair, and a refrigerator full of snacks. The policeman came back after a while and told Howard that Lord Potter had had him arrested for violating local laws concerning homelessness and being a person of low character and trying to give away money under false pretenses. After a splendid dinner served by a sneering waiter, the suspect enjoyed a peaceful night's rest in a comfortable bed. The next morning when he was arraigned before a magistrate, he met a young man named Edward Perry who seemed interested in his case, which could have brought the penalty of a month of hard labor in the coal mines. Perry was an enemy of Lord Potter, and their mutual enmity was sufficient for Edward to argue Howard's case before the court, which resulted in the charges being dropped and Howard being placed under house arrest in the care of Perry and his family who had an estate in the country. Lord Potter left the courtroom angry and vengeful, vowing to get even with the iniquitous derelict.
Living in the comfortable Perry manor, Howard became more acquainted with the local laws and cultural structure. In this country, Upsidonia, the rich classes were often servants, and frequently dressed in rags and rarely took baths, while those that were not as well off were cursed with the ownership of expensive houses, with all the accouterments that went along with them: excellent clothes, good food, leisurely life styles and horses. Businessmen were continually stressed to discover new methods of losing money so as to maintain their social standing. Politicians sought out ways to approve costly and unnecessary infrastructural and developmental projects so as to bankrupt the state. Above all, the more money and property a citizen could give away, the higher his social status and the greater his respect by the general population.
The ramifications of this social attitude were many and various. Library chairs were purposefully made uncomfortable so the patrons wouldn't learn too much, as books were "an odious form of bondage". Maids usually told their mistresses what clothes to wear. The butler (Blother, at the Perrys house) organized the household and made all the decisions pertinent to maintaining it. The general idea seemed to be that giving things away, divesting oneself of excessive materiel, pruning away the cloying paraphernalia of existence, would make a better and happier person; one with unadulterated freedom to live a joyous life unbound with the fetters and irons of nauseating social responsibility and meaningless obligation.
Howard lives with the Perrys long enough to fall in love with daughter Miriam. She reciprocates and they plan a wedding in the near future. Curious about her future companion's history, she's informed that he's from a small village in the Highlands, north of Culbut. Her father is relieved to discover that Howard is fully equipped to begin their married life in a position of reduced circumstances. The fly in the works continues to be Lord Potter who has developed a strong antipathy to John and is determined to have him arrested and/or thrown into the coal mines. Potter is also angry at the Perry's in general. During a recent series of riots in the city, Edward, Miriam's sister has been identified as one of the leaders and instigators of the period of unrest. He's arrested, and sentenced to a month in the mines.
Meanwhile, John is broke and he realizes that he can't return to England and provide a life for Miriam without a lot of money. So he contacts a millionaire in the city who initially was cursed with a gift for making money and offers to take his goldmine shares off his hands for free. The magnate, Bolster, jumps at the chance to redeem himself, and signs over 135,000 lbs. worth of stock to John. So John is all set, except just before they're ready to leave, he finds out that there's been a run on the market and his shares are now worthless, which makes everybody else overjoyed at his good fortune. At the same time Lord Potter has renewed his attack, having obtained a warrant for John's arrest for being a stateless and homeless person who has lied about being from the Highlands. Howard goes for a walk to try to sort out all his difficulties while at the same time the police are on their way to arrest him at the Perry's house. John watches them from behind a tree and realizes that his affairs are about to crumble like a ginger snap. He decides to go hide in the cave until things blow over. He enters and hears a roaring sound and everything goes black. (spoiler ahead)
He wakes up in a hospital with two broken legs and some other damage. The nurse tells him he was caught in a cave-in and rescued by an old farmer who helped dig him out. The book ends with John staring over the hills to the direction of Upsidonia and realizing that it was all an extended dream... or was it?
Well-written and curious, this conceit of reversing the social and monetary values of London society was well done, i thought. By the end of the novel, the various ideas seemed not so far-fetched or as much of a parody as they had at first. Humans are very susceptible to suggestion, especially when young, and warped brains are very hard to re-align. Circumstances in our present-day world could be much worse, after all...