Science Fiction Studies

#45 = Volume 15, Part 2 = July 1988

Patrick A. McCarthy

Stapledon's Microcosm of Community

Robert Crossley, ed. Talking Across the World: The Love Letters of Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller, 1913-1919. Hanover & London: New England UP, 1987. xlii + 382pp. $30.00

Few writers of SF have offered more fascinating glimpses into their own lives than Olaf Stapledon. Paul in Last Men in London (1932) and Victor in A Man Divided (1950) are examples of characters who appear to be modeled in part upon Stapledon (although the relationship is not a simple one, as we see when Paul meets a person whom the narrator identifies as "the one colourless but useful creature whom I have chosen as my mouthpiece"-- that is, Olaf Stapledon). Likewise, at least two characters--Pax in Odd John (1935) and Maggie in A Man Divided--are patterned after Agnes Miller Stapledon, Olaf's Australian first cousin whom he married in 1919, after a four and a half year separation during the First World War. For that matter, the marriage of Olaf and Agnes became Olaf's primary model for the ideal of community that recurs in such works as Star Maker (1937) and Odd John. Their relationship is played out most revealingly in the autobiographical interludes of Death into Life (1946), which record epiphanic moments in their life together and conclude with speculations on the future.

The present collection of letters, most of them written while Olaf was serving with the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France (where Paul would meet him in Last Men in London) and Agnes was waiting out the war in Australia, record the development of their relationship over a period of six years. The existence of the letters was known only to Agnes Stapledon until 1983, when ill health forced her to move to a nursing home and her family went through her house to decide which papers should be donated to the University of Liverpool's Sydney Jones Library and which should stay in the hands of Stapledon's heirs. These letters remained with the family until 1984, when Robert Crossley was allowed to open the "two worn suitcases" that contained the letters. The publication of a substantial selection of the correspondence, edited with introduction and notes by Crossley, provides Stapledon's readers with the most extensive primary evidence available about Olaf's relationship to Agnes, his attitude at the time towards the world war, and his speculations on a variety of subjects. Although the letters were written some years before Stapledon's first novel, Last and First Men (1930), they shed light upon his attitudes at a time when he was beginning to think through ideas that are crucial to his fiction.

Readers of Stapledon's fiction will find a good deal of familiar material in these letters. In an early letter (August 1913), Olaf sets forth his fervently-held idea that "the spirit of the [human] race, as a being in itself, lives on" despite the deaths of individual beings, and that "as matter is indestructible, so is spirit, and therefore that the 'soul' of a cell, & of man, and of the race is eternal each in its own character" (p. 19). In March 1914, the speculation turns to intelligent life on other worlds, which Olaf imagines both as "utterly different and incomprehensible" to us and nonetheless involved with some of the problems that are basic to human existence (pp. 32-33). The concept of their union as somehow related to the form of the cosmos-- an idea at the heart of the search for community in Star Maker--appears in November 1915, when Olaf describes a ring he is designing with a small alpha and omega: capitals, he says, would suggest "the divine symbol," but "the small letters, stand for Agnes & Olaf, & joined together they form a sort of little universe, a microcosm, essentially the same & yet different from the great God's Universe" (p. 116). In October 1917, Olaf wonders what it would be like to experience the world through the mind of another being, whether it be Alexander Kerenski, an Aberdeen terrier, or a common fly; here, he introduces a theme of crucial importance in several of his novels (p. 251). There is even a description of an incident that resurfaces in Last Men in London: in a letter dated July 1918, Olaf relates his horror at having mistakenly assumed that a badly wounded soldier was dead and having passed him by for that reason (p. 314). The amount of space Olaf devotes to the incident, his obvious sense of guilt, and the fact that he exaggerated it when he fictionalized the event (in real life, Olaf eventually realized his mistake and picked up the soldier, whereas in the novel, Paul passed him by), suggest the power of this terrible scene over Stapledon's imagination.

Other letters recount Olaf's social and political views: he describes the importance of his W.E.A. lecturing, declares himself a socialist, discusses the various reasons for his decision to join the ambulance unit, opposes conscription (but is tolerant of Agnes's support for a conscription bill in Australia), and wonders what judgment a future age will make upon his generation. Of particular interest for any reader of Star Maker is his description, in a letter dated 16 September 1915, of a cosmic fantasy in which he and Agnes travel throughout the universe and eventually enter directly into the minds of all the sentient creatures in it, in each case recognizing for the first time a fundamental identification with another being (pp. 99-102). Throughout the letters, one characteristic theme is Olaf's sympathy with other people, or even with a lettuce that is pulled from the ground (pp. 89-90) or with his father's bees, whose plight reminds him "of the soldiers of the human hives" (p. 327). This power of sympathy, of seeing things from a different perspective, is one of the most engaging features both of these letters and of Stapledon's fictional works.

I have so far stressed the potential use of these letters in relation to the interpretation of the fiction, but they are valuable for other reasons as well. Having known Agnes Stapledon, I am perhaps prejudiced in this respect, but I find her letters just as interesting as Olaf's, and I agree fully with Crossley's observation that "Agnes's skill as an observer, her expressive range, and her manipulation of tone and voice all undeniably grew as the correspondence went on." The letters reveal her strong character, her growing awareness of war's ugliness, and her inquiring, independent mind. Agnes's responses to the events in Australia, and to her personal situation --having to resist the advances of another would-be lover, an Australian named Jack Armstrong, and facing her father's disapproval of Olaf's pacifist views--have as much intrinsic interest as Olaf's descriptions of the war.

Just as interesting as either mind in isolation is the narrative situation itself: the attempt, almost daily, to carry on a direct, intimate correspondence across the world despite the fact that Olaf's letters were read by a censor and offending passages were cut out, along with whatever he had written on the other side; that whatever either wrote could be lost if the ship carrying it were sunk; and that even under the best of conditions, several weeks would intervene, and several more letters would be written, before the writer could expect a response to anything said in a particular letter. Maintaining the impression of immediacy under these circumstances was difficult; but as Crossley observes, these letters provide us with "a lesson in the power of words to shape realities" since "the writers knew that their correspondence could at least allow their two disembodied voices to approximate a conversation that would link their minds until the world allowed them to join in body as well as spirit."

This, then, is clearly an important book for the study of Olaf Stapledon and his works, but also for other reasons. Those interested in English or American politics during the war, in the Friends' Ambulance Unit, in military censorship (it is interesting to note the strong criticism of the government that was left uncensored), or in the attitudes toward gender and social class developed here will find Talking Across the World a significant collection of letters. It is perhaps significant that the letters' interest for our alien, intruding minds seems to be anticipated by Olaf's declaration that "If all our letters were to be read through on end, alternately yours and mine, what a lot they would tell of all sorts of changes and fluctuations and gradual evolvings that we knew nothing of at the time" (p. 161). This contrast in perspectives might foreshadow the distinction between the way events are understood by their participants and by the narrator from the future in Last and First Men. Like Stapledon's novels, these letters often become self-reflexive commentaries on the situation of the writer and the reader, who in this instance includes not only Agnes and the military censor but us as well. Crossley's introduction is detailed and perceptive, his notes invariably helpful; in editing the letters, he strikes a reasonable balance between the desire to preserve the flavor and integrity of a letter and the need to keep the voluminous correspondence down to a manageable size. In every respect, this volume is a model of editorial tact and dedication. We are fortunate that Agnes Stapledon kept these letters safe over the decades and that Crossley has been allowed to publish such a large selection. Now we can hope that Crossley returns to work on the biography that, I suspect, will become the one essential book on Olaf Stapledon.

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