Republished for the first time in a century
Gerri Kimber wrote: ‘The volume’s excellent introduction by Jeremy Hawthorn offers a welcome addition to the otherwise general paucity of critical material on Bramah. As Hawthorn concludes: “What Might Have Been offers humour, social commentary, political polemic, futuristic prediction, and thriller-type excitement.”‘ 24 November 2017, The Times Literary Supplement
Colin Fisher wrote that What Might Have Been is ‘a well-constructed and delightfully written work that relies as much on its finely delineated character descriptions as its fear of the social abyss or the new technologies proposed by Bramah … There are car chases, dawn bombardments, riots in the streets and perilous flights over storm-filled southern England as the forces of disorder and order battle for the soul and future of the country. There is also, perhaps, love too in the flames of a burning Chelsea home’, 23 November 2017, Vulpes Libris.
What’s it about?
Watch the video, in which we try to decide whether What Might Have Been is an action thriller, science fiction, or political dystopia.
Civil war is brewing in this Edwardian speculative political thriller, between the Conservative resistance and a Labour government inflicting a socialist nightmare on British society. Ernest Bramah’s What Might Have Been (1907), better known as The Secret of the League, is now republished with its 7000 lost words restored and an introduction by Jeremy Hawthorn.
It is 1907 in the Collateral Age in Britain. There is mixed flying above the promenade in Hastings. The telescribe flashes messages instantly to its subscribers, and a recent naval battle has been won by an Englishman’s daring. But civil war is brewing, between the Conservative party of decent tradition and the Labour government inflicting a socialist nightmare on British society. Daily life is about to change in this Edwardian speculative fiction of the near future, and it will not be for the better.
Ernest Bramah’s long-forgotten novel of Conservative resistance to Labour rule has long been celebrated for its vision of a futuristic society and politics, but was quickly bowdlerised of its more savage political satire, and republished in 1909 as The Secret of the League. Bramah mixed hard-hitting social realism and intricate office espionage with riotous political satire, and accurately predicted the invention of the fax machine and the ascendancy of Labour politics. What Might Have Been is a political thriller packed with high adventure, on the roads with a nail-biting Buchanesque car chase, at sea in a battle that C S Forester could have written, and in the air with dramatic rescue missions.
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Read an extract from the Introduction by Jeremy Hawthorn:
‘ …. The political aspects of What Might Have Been have attracted the attention of a number of commentators – John Buchan included – perhaps more interested in the novel’s politics than its literary qualities. In 1940 George Orwell reviewed Bramah’s novel along with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, H. G. Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. His review, entitled ‘Prophesies of Fascism’, found that all of these novels made interesting reading in the light of the rise of fascism in Europe, and he characterised the régime established at the end of Bramah’s novel as one ‘that we should now describe as Fascist’. Orwell asks: ‘Why should a decent and kindly writer like Ernest Bramah find the crushing of the proletariat a pleasant vision?’ and answers his question thus: ‘It is simply the reaction of a struggling class which felt itself menaced not so much in its economic position as in its code of conduct and way of life’ (Orwell 1969, 32). In Bramah’s defence it is worth pointing out that when faced with the reality of fascism, on the evidence of his writing he did not support it. In 1940, the same year that Orwell’s review appeared, Bramah’s Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree was published, and includes the story of one Chang Won who attempts to persuade his emperor of the virtues of his invention – clearly gunpowder – after a dramatic display of its power. The inventor tells the emperor that with this invention he can reduce all other lands to vassal states, ‘and then proclaim your Empire from the Khin-ling range to the barrier of the trackless seas – one Land, one Prince, one Banner! May he who we revere live for a thousand years!’ (Bramah 1940, 84). The ironic echo of the Nazi slogan ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’, propounded by Hitler in a speech in 1935, makes it clear that Bramah was at the close of his life no friend of absolute leaders or of thousand-year Reichs.
There is a widely circulated belief that Orwell admitted that Bramah’s novel had in some way inspired his own Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The normally reliable Aubrey Wilson reports that ‘in his letters Orwell does identify this work as being one the [sic] formative sources for his seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (Wilson 2007, 91). The Wikipedia entry for Bramah repeats this claim, stating that ‘George Orwell acknowledged that Bramah’s book, What Might Have Been, influenced his Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (accessed July 2017). This contention – repeated on the internet in many forms but always without a source – appears to be false. Orwell was an admirer of Bramah’s work, especially his Max Carrados stories, and Bramah wrote to him in a letter on 4 August 1936, thanking him for a review in which he praised these, while politely granting that Orwell’s low opinion of The Wallet of Kai Lung, noted in the same review, was justified (quoted in Wilson 2007, 222). What Might Have Been is, however, a very different sort of work from Nineteen Eighty-Four. While Orwell’s novel presents the reader with the realities of an imagined state in which totalitarianism is dominant throughout, only at the end of What Might Have Been is democracy overthrown. Moreover while Orwell was concerned to depict the horrors of totalitarianism, Bramah was more concerned to depict the chaos and mismanagement of a democratically elected socialist Britain. The nation reverts in ‘Year Collateral 1919’ to a system of paternalistic capitalism rather than the establishment of a dystopic state similar to Orwell’s vision.
At the other end of the political spectrum, there has been some conjecture that Bramah’s novel might have been read by Ayn Rand, given that her right-wing libertarian ideas would have made her sympathetic to its politics. The name of the hero of her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged – John Galt – could, it has been suggested, be read as a half-echo of Bramah’s George Salt. In his book The Ayn Rand Cult (1999) Jeff Walker outlines the similarities between the two books, suggesting that a number of themes from Bramah’s novel are restated in Atlas Shrugged, and he lists many parallel elements in the two works (Walker 1999, 310). But he provides no evidence that Rand had read Bramah’s novel, or even that she was aware of it. …. ‘