The moon falls to Earth in a 1939 novel that remains chillingly 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, which is estimated at 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 the article. Suppose, though, a much larger celestial object — say, the moon — were to crash into Earth. What then?

This is the scenario of R.C. Sherriff’s novel “The Hopkins Manuscript” (1939), recently reissued by Scribner. From its opening pages we learn that more than eight centuries have gone by since “the Cataclysm” and that Europe, particularly England, has been left a barren wasteland. For years, however, archaeologists of the Royal Society of Abyssinia have been seeking artifacts to help “reconstruct the lost glory of the ‘white man.’” During one expedition to what was once London, a young scientist, out gathering brushwood, 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 catastrophe. To the scholars of Addis Ababa, hungry for knowledge of the past, the “Hopkins Manuscript” turns out be “a thin, lonely cry of anguish from the gathering darkness of a dying England” but — unfortunately — “infinitely pathetic in the pitiful little conceits and self-esteem of its author.”

Those last phrases are, in fact, an apt description of the novel’s narrator, the middle-aged Edgar Hopkins. A former schoolmaster who, because of a small inheritance, has been able to retire to the country, Hopkins is vain, envious of others, accustomed to his domestic comforts and utterly self-centered. His main interests in life are breeding prizewinning chickens and extolling “the effect of water-heated tubular metal perches upon a hen’s laying capacity.” He represents, almost in caricature, the traditional “little Englander” at his most provincial.

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Is Sherriff’s book, then, a satirical take on the end of the world, a forerunner of, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” (1963)? It can almost seem so, yet overall the humor of its leisurely first half more closely resembles that of George and Weedon Grossmith’s dryly comic Victorian bestseller, “The Diary of a Nobody” (1892).

Consider, for example, Hopkins’s description of his Uncle Henry, who, before retirement from the Office of Works, “had done much to add dignity and decorum to the public spaces of London, and it was through his untiring endeavors that the hands which pointed to the public conveniences in Hyde Park had a short length of sleeve and white cuffs painted onto their naked wrists.” That’s definitely worthy of the Grossmiths’ immortal Mr. Pooter. Just as good is the pen portrait of Uncle Henry’s wife, Rose, who may have grown stout in recent years but still “possessed the finest collection in England of old colored prints of stagecoaches that had overturned in snowdrifts.”

Hopkins, a graduate of Winchester school and Cambridge University, condescends to his neighbors in Beadle. Yet it is clear that for Sherriff these working people constitute some of the most admirable English “types.” Here are faithful, elderly retainers, a kindly vicar, salt-of-the-earth farmers, a boisterous village cricket team, the gruff owner of the Fox and Hounds pub, a handsome Etonian named Robin and his older, fair-haired sister Pat, and benevolent aristocrats. All of them confront the coming lunar catastrophe with quiet courage and trust in God. Even when Hopkins makes the end of the world all about himself, he nonetheless recognizes what he is losing:

“Often, in the past seven dreadful years, I have … lived again the last hour of happiness that I ever was to know upon this earth: that peaceful stroll to the village — my quiet chat with Mr. Flidale, the carrier, in his cottage by the bridge — a moment’s pause to watch the boys at football on the green — the country sounds, the smell of the hay — the peaceful stroll home and chat with old Barlow at my gate; the last hour of my life — the last hour in which I was to know the meaning of repose.”

Having learned at a closed-door meeting of the British Lunar Society that the moon will strike the Earth on May 3, 1946, Hopkins has been pledged to secrecy to prevent nationwide panic. Like a patient suffering from a terminal illness, he agonizes over the knowledge that his life will be over in seven months, five months, a few weeks, tomorrow. He cannot quite believe it:

“I felt a deep, exultant conviction that the world would survive — that the human race, purified by a common danger, would emerge with all its petty jealousy and senseless strife forgotten. Instead of destroying us, the moon would deliver us forever from greed and cruelty and war by frightening us into an everlasting thankfulness.”

Of course, it’s ironic that he should be talking about “petty jealousy” and “senseless strife.” I’ll say no more about what happens in the novel, but, as the ominous Major Jagger insists, “Do you imagine a cataclysm — or a hundred cataclysms — can change human nature?” In the end, the true cause of Britain’s disintegration and complete destruction isn’t at all what the reader expects.

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R.C. Sherriff (1896-1975) was severely wounded in World War I and first gained fame as the author of the celebrated antiwar play “Journey’s End” (1928). Besides novels and dramas, he became best known as the screenwriter for such films as “The Invisible Man” (1933) and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939). In “The Hopkins Manuscript,” he shows he is as adept at description as at dialogue. As the moon approaches ever closer, “the dingy brown sky became wild and luminous: through its dirty brownness came a blood-red streak: swelling and pulsating until the whole sky was filled by it. The heavens seemed to pant and bleed like the shattered lung of a dying giant.”

Writers of fiction about life following 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 Richard Jefferies’s “After London” (1885), feudal courts exist, surrounded by menacing wilderness; and in J.D. Beresford’s “Goslings” (1913), nearly all men die from a plague, but the surviving women establish sisterly cooperative farms. The second half of “The Hopkins Manuscript” initially seems far more upbeat than any of these. Sherriff appears to have taken to heart William Morris’s pastoral, utopian-socialist novel, “News From Nowhere” (1890), for his rural survivors are soon establishing small communities based on barter and handicrafts. “The destruction of the big combines and chain stores had brought individuality back to English life,” he writes. “It was a happy experience to walk down the main street — to hear the ring of the hammer and the hack of the wood-worker.” Could a renewed and better world actually be in the making?

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

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When Sherriff’s novel was first published, it alerted England to its complacency before the storm of total war with fascist Germany. Sherriff also seems to have recognized that war would usher in the end of the British Empire, already in its long twilight. For readers today, many elements in the novel will call to mind our own recent experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, ultranationalist politics, widespread religious fanaticism, the global climate crisis and senseless, brutal wars of attrition around the world. In short, “The Hopkins Manuscript” doesn’t simply — or simplistically — envision what some have called a “cozy catastrophe.” It remains a relevant cautionary tale.

Scribner. 400 pp. Paperback, $18

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