A Fictive Legacy: R. C. Sherriff’s ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’

Alfie Robinson 12 June 2019
Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons

R. C. Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript is, in theory, incredibly prescient. It is a science fiction novel, and centres around a ‘Cataclysm’ of apocalyptic scale. It was written on the eve of the Second World War, in its own way, an apocalypse. There is something more relatable about this period, the anticipation of violence more accessible to the imagination than violence itself. Images of people hiding under corrugated iron from bombs, or fleeing from an appalling firestorm, are almost too vivid, too extreme, to access in one’s mind, unless they are related at first hand. Our apocalypse, climate change, unfortunately not fictional, is currently of this other premonitory type: distant, but chilling.

Accordingly, The Hopkins Manuscript is not a turgid account of some fictitious disaster. In fact it is quite chaste. It barely conforms to any contemporary conventions of science fiction. Those generic moments of indulgence, where the author gives us reams of pseudo-technical exposition, are kept to a minimum. Much of this is down to the nature of Sherriff’s ‘Cataclysm’ itself: it is comically simple. The pacing of the book is also well measured, the disaster only happens once the reader has made their way through two thirds of its length, and it hardly dwells on the minutiae of the event itself.  The author’s main interest is considering how a disaster would be dealt with, not by toying with made-up institutions and acronyms, but through the perspective of one individual. This individual is ‘Edgar Hopkins’, and his sphere of influence, and imagination, is hopelessly limited.

Most of the conceptual interest of this book lies in its narrator. His professional life before the cataclysm was marked by that kind of marginal achievement which is invariably considered by its holder to be impressive: he tells us that his job was as ‘assistant arithmetic master to Portsea Grammar School’. He adds that it was ‘a post which I held, I think, with distinction’. The attention to detail with that slight ‘I think’ offers a certain false humility to the character at the outset. Certain stock phrases of similarly pseudo-conversational, pseudo-empathetic nature abound. A particular favourite is ‘the reader can well imagine’, usually a prefix for some unbelievably minor concern in the face of the cataclysm.

Indeed, the book’s beautiful irony is that its most ‘science fiction’ moments of exposition are reserved for the narrator’s discussion of his purebred hens, his chief passion:

I was very pleased indeed to find an authoritative article recommending at last the tubular metal perches that I had advocated so persistently for the past seven years. It is my firm conviction that a hen’s laying capacity is undermined by long hours of sleep on a cold perch.

To any reader it is clear that such passages will continue throughout, regardless of calamity, for comic effect. And so they do. After the world has been all but annhilated, the following exchange occurs:

‘A chicken!’ cried Robin. ‘Chicken for dinner tomorrow! Good for you, Uncle!’ I stared at Robin in amazement. The boy could not have hurt me more if he had struck me between the eyes.

There are many reasons beyond comedy that these exchanges occur. One is naturalism: the more that our narrator is concerned with trivialities, the more we are convinced that he is not simply a puppet to be ventriloquised but a human being who is capable of resisting the real ‘world’. The very worst narrative art is distinguished by having no line between the mechanics of plot and the interaction of characters. The Hopkins Manuscript seeks to do precisely the opposite of this: the character of the narrator is so narrow minded that we are constantly aware of the way in which the grander arc is being actively shrunken and occluded by Hopkins.

All of these quirks are deliberate of course and, up to a point, an impressive display of creative technique. There are also deeper points that are made by this narrator. One is the familiar piece of wisdom that human beings are incapable of confronting problems with any sense of proportion. Extraneous matter will take our focus for as long as possible. Consider the fact that Extinction Rebellion protests have been taking place for months now, with no satisfying political result. But, at least, an MP in February tried to get a ban passed on the eating of dog meat. Despite the fact that there is ‘no evidence’ anyone in our country actually eats dog meat, he justified this pathetic whimper of legislation by claiming it would ‘set an example’, to China in particular. With these miserable distractions in hand we get closer and closer to the cliff edge of irreversible damage.

Sherriff’s fictive ‘introduction’ however points us to how we are supposed to interpret the narrator. It hails ‘From the Imperial Research Press, Abyssinia’, and, therefore, The Hopkins Manuscript is to be thought of as a fictional analogue to something like the books of the Loeb Classical Library. It is an historical record that has been reprinted, ‘this popular edition’, but ‘published exactly as it has been written’. Sheriff makes amusing speculations on the kind of matter that would be left behind after the Cataclysm.  With a dearth of complete records, future people will have to make a great deal from very mundane sources indeed: ‘The rectangular column of stone inscribed ‘PECKHAM 3 MILES’ can be seen in the Imperial museum of Afghanistan’.

More importantly the introduction offers a criticism, really from the author’s voice, of the narrator’s writing and outlook: ‘infinitely pathetic in the pitiful little conceits and self esteem of its author’. And wryly, ‘the manuscript […] had survived where millions of books, exposed to the climate, had perished’. The point is that history will not be represented on merit but on raw luck of what survives. In Sherriff’s imagination, the most mediocre and petty document will survive above all else.

Another detail that Sherriff notes is an absence. On the theme of loss, it is very noticeable throughout the text that it is absolutely bereft of literary reference. Only one author – HG Wells – is mentioned in all its three-hundred pages, and there are no recognisable quotations of any kind. This is of course by design, since it creates a sort of poverty of the text, and the reader is left to imagine what much finer things could have been put in Hopkins’ vacuum flask for posterity, and imagine for a moment the entire corpus of all literature reduced to this.

But this concept, a very intriguing idea in itself, starts to come at the expense of the reader. The pettiness of subject matter begins to seep into the writing style itself. Instead of being humoured, one starts to feel robbed by purposefully overcooked metaphors:

the moon’s brilliance faded. It became the colour of an old brown boot as the dusts of the Russian Steppes and the dusts of the plains of America streamed overhead in a vast cascade towards the west – towards the Atlantic and towards the deserts from whence they came.

Again Sherriff observes these features of his narrator’s character to the very end, and it begins to grate just as the overall image of Hopkins becomes increasingly predictable.

The only respite comes at the very end, when the character’s loss of the two youths Pat and Robin forces him to think beyond his own interests, and he, implicitly, dies shortly after finishing writing. The ‘pitiful little conceits’ finally begin to wane in the character’s last moments, and the book does close with an odd pathos, tinged, however, with a sense that Hopkins, and much of humanity, deserves its fate. I cannot enthusiastically recommend this book. Its concept is tripped over by its presentation. But it does make one think about our perspective, our record of ourselves, and how much time we actually have.