I encountered the town of Leatherhead first in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897). It is one of a dozen or so English place names that meant nothing to me as a young reader. As an adult, armed with an atlas–and now in a world filled with nerds nice enough to make maps like the one below–I can trace the movements of the narrator as he survives against all odds in the collapse of his civilization.
As distant as I was to the real places that Wells enjoins with his alien invasion, any close reader of The War of the Worlds will feel the inch-by-inch journey of the refugees on the road. Curiosity at the landing of the Martians is slain by bloodshed, and then the reality sinks in: England, the seat of the greatest civilization on the planet, a nation of such ingenuity and culture and military might that it has retained its domination over the world for centuries, is reduced to ash and clay in the casual rural genocide.
What I didn’t know about The War of the Worlds was that it was working a science fiction angle into the form of an invasion tale that caught on in the late 19th century after George Tomkyns Chesney’s, The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer (1871). While this evocative little book isn’t terribly well written, it seems to have struck at the heart of England’s (and later Europe and America’s) fear of being caught as a superpower in complacency. The Battle of Dorking describes the inch-by-inch defeat of England by an unnamed Germanic country, beginning with the utter destruction of the fleet to the hillside showdown in Surrey. In “On Stories,” Lewis critiqued The War of the Worlds for getting lost in the minutiae of the escape from the Martians in Surrey, and certainly the Dorking tale could have benefited from Lewis’ advice.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that in Chesney the ground zero of The Other Power’s invasion is Dorking, Surrey, while in Wells the Martian invasion begins across the hills in Woking, Surrey. And in each of the invasion tales the characters interact with Leatherhead. There is little doubt that Wells is centring in on Surrey to evoke Chesney’s story, but Wells’ message undercuts Chesney’s ideology at the core. While both Chesney and Wells wrote with morals in mind, Wells’ skill and imaginative scope have meant that his early experiments in “scientific romance” are with us still today.
I and one porter had the long, timbered platform of Leatherhead station to ourselves. It was getting just dark enough for the smoke of an engine to glow red on the underside with the reflection of the furnace. The hills beyond the Dorking Valley were of a blue so intense as to be nearly violet and the sky was green with frost. My ears tingled with the cold. The glorious week end of reading was before me. Turning to the bookstall, I picked out an Everyman in a dirty jacket, Phantastes, a faerie Romance, George MacDonald. Then the train came in. I can still remember the voice of the porter calling out the village names Saxon and sweet as a nut—”Bookham, Effingham, Horsley train.” That evening I began to read my new book (Surprised by Joy XI).
It was there at Leatherhead in Surrey that Lewis tracks the beginning of his spiritual defeat: “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading,” (SBJ XII). When it comes to his atheism being overcome by God, Lewis talks about “traps everywhere,” “fine nets and stratagems,” and being “annihilated” or “assailed” by his unscrupulous opponent, only being given a momentary “retreat” and the occasional “defence.” “Dangers lie in wait for him on every side” (SBJ XIV). Lewis uses other images for God in his conversion story–angler, hunter, chess master, storyteller–but the military imagery is resonant. “God closed in on me,” Lewis says, using a metaphor that works for most of his pictures of God in the memoir.
“In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in,” Lewis says (SBJ XIV); “I have come to give myself up” Pilgrim John says in The Pilgrim’s Regress (IX.4). As we think of the religious terms of death and surrender in Lewis’ memoir, we must remember their rootedness in everyday life: surrender is, after all, a military metaphor.
And as think of the central role of Leatherhead and Surrey in The War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking, I cannot help but think of Surprised by Joy as an invasion tale in the pattern of Chesney and Wells. Slowly, inch by inch, the Enemy finds his way into the heart of the empire, breaking down defences and revealing the invaded land’s heart to the world. As England’s defences were destroyed in Chesney’s Euro-invasion and Wells’ attack from outer space, so every barrier of resistance is lost in Lewis’ battle against the call of God.
Now, you must at this moment object: Brenton, are you suggesting that Lewis didn’t find Phantastes at Leatherhead station? Is Lewis bending his narrative into place to match a theme in cultural memory?
Lewis really did connect Leatherhead and the area to an important part of his life. Here is a 1929 letter to his best friend, just a year or so before his conversion to theism.
We arrived back from Sussex to day and travelled within a couple of miles of Bookham, all up the Dorking valley which I know so well. It very nearly made me weep, I got such a rich poignant whiff of memory from the old days–Phantastes, Bleheris, Dymer, Papillon, T. Edens Osborne all jumbled up. But as you know, one has the secret of these memories now and knows how to extract the spiritual sweet without falling into mere desire and regret (c. 22 Apr 1929 letter to Arthur Greeves).
Lewis has a whole series of moments like this in 1929 to 1931, each renewed encounter with a book or place or friend setting up the conversion narrative that we have in Surprised by Joy. I am not suggesting that Lewis was bending the narrative; it is more likely that the idea of telling his conversion story as a (softened) invasion tale emerged naturally from his own life of reading. The Leatherhead-Surrey connection is coincidental on one level, but is the kind of literary link that Lewis makes consistently in his life.
It is similar with H.G. Wells. The War of the Worlds is clearly patterned after The Battle of Dorking, both in genre (invasion narrative) and in the act of subtly parodying Chesney’s message. But Wells really actually lived in Woking, ground zero of the Martian landing. Like Lewis, Wells had spent his days hiking the Surrey hills, and once wrote to a friend about a new story he was publishing “in which I completely wreck and sack Woking–killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways” (see Phil Klass’ piece here).
There is in H.G. Well’s work both the real-life connection and the echo that shapes the tale. Coincidence? Perhaps, but this is the kind of coincidence that is central to writers that are so intertextually rich, and provides another background for reading C.S. Lewis’ famous conversion story in Surprised by Joy.