Ethan Joella teaches English and psychology at the University of Delaware. He is the author of A Little Hope and A Quiet Life. He lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with his wife and two daughters.
The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff was one of my favorite books I read last year, so I jumped at the chance to read Sherriff’s The Hopkins Manuscript, originally published in 1939.
The two books couldn’t be more different from one another. Fortnight is a quiet, sweet novel that focuses on a family’s seaside vacation in England and provides a tender escape for the reader. The Hopkins Manuscript is a work of science fiction with a single main character, the somewhat pompous Edgar Hopkins, who is confronting an unthinkable doomsday scenario. And yet, despite the stark contrast between the two books, and despite the fact that I read very little sci-fi, I could not put this one down.
The reader knows from the book’s framing foreword that Edgar and, in fact, all of Western civilization, have perished. “The Hopkins Manuscript” is a chronicle that Edgar leaves behind for future explorers to explain what the world went through after the earth collided with the moon. In the telling, Edgar, a retired teacher who came into a sizable inheritance, has set up a nice life for himself, buying a parcel of land with a meadow and yew trees in the village of Beadle, seventy miles from London, and becoming a poultry-breeding expert. He is snobbish and self-important, and he overreacts in many of his daily encounters. When he finds out the moon is set to collide with the earth, his initial reaction is to want to boast that, as a member of the British Lunar Society, he knew this fact sooner than the rest of the country. This plot puts so much at stake, and despite Edgar’s quirks and flaws, the reader becomes attached to him: his heartache and uncertainty. Sherriff, who was badly wounded as a soldier in World War I, digs deeply to show how complicated we are as humans, how lonely we can be, and how much we need purpose and community in our daily lives.
The reader learns to ignore Edgar’s bravado and his condescending treatment of others and mourn not only the stately home and chickens he is certain to lose but also the things he never got to have: love, understanding, and fulfillment. We also cheer Edgar on because he adapts to changing circumstances, all the while still craving meaning. Edgar’s ability to keep wanting to move forward is nothing less than extraordinary, and he inspires other characters to do the same. Because it’s clear from the foreword that the planet survives, I couldn’t stop reading to see what destruction the collision would bring, as well as Edgar’s tragic end.
The Hopkins Manuscript is as ambitious as a novel gets. It goes beyond a gripping character study and addresses classism, colonization, racism, and even international political conflict and climate change. It is a cautionary tale of greed and capitalism. It seems so prescient to have been written before World War II ended, and before modern technology and globalization. It manages to give the reader the lovable setting of Fortnight (a British world of train rides and the village vicar and milk man) juxtaposed against a heart-pounding plot that will make the reader think about life and its meaning and what we are here for in this moment. Who are we without our comforts or traditions or history? The Hopkins Manuscript had me looking up facts about the cosmos and European history, challenging me to learn and reflect. David Sedaris says that a good story “would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” We all need that sometimes, and The Hopkins Manuscript delivers such a journey.