Muriel Jaeger – The Question Mark (1926)

Although the interwar period is known for the large volume of crime fiction it produced (examples here, here and here), it also saw the publication of some classic works of science fiction. Aldous Huxley penned Brave New World in 1934, and across the pond Orson Welles’ classic War of the Worlds aired on radio in 1938. Preceding both these high watermarks of science fiction is Muriel Jaeger’s 1926 novel The Question Mark, which has recently been re-published by the British Library in their ‘Science Fiction Classics’ series.

Jaeger is not a household name, and certainly a lot less well-known then her good friend Dorothy L. Sayers. The pair studied at Somerville, Oxford together and were both members of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a group of female students with literary ambitions.[1] The Question Mark was Jaeger’s first novel, and it was published by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at their Hogarth Press.

The protagonist of The Question Mark is Guy Martin, a young-ish bank clerk in London. He is of the lower middle class and resentful about it. Along with his generic name, there are few distinguishing features about Guy – Jaeger deliberately keeps descriptions of him generic. Guy has a lingering dissatisfaction in life, which he tries to quench by attending meetings of the Socialist Club. The Club almost allows him to believe in a future in which class boundaries can be transcended, until Marjorie, the girl he has fallen in love with, throws him over in favour of a Tory.[2]

Marjorie’s rejection leads Guy to sink into a stupor; when he wakes up, he is several hundred years into the future. It is later explained that Guy actually died on the night of Marjorie’s rejection, and is the first corpse to be successfully revived by a Dr Wayland. There is then, no chance of Guy returning to the 1920s, or roaming around time and space in the manner of H.G. Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’. Instead, Guy must make the best of his new life in this future version of London.

At first, naturally, all seems much better in the future: London has turned into a pleasant green landscape of rolling hills, and everyone who works has access to a ‘power box’: a device that acts as a portable power source to ‘Anything you want to make go.’[3] There are ‘areocycles’ for short trips through the air, and silent and impossibly fast planes for travel to the continent.[4] Everything runs so smoothly that workers have very little to do, and education is accessible to everyone.

But of course, these initial impressions are shaken before long. Jaeger’s future society no longer has class divisions in the way a 1920s reader would recognise them. Instead, however, the population is divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’. Dr Wayland and his cousin John, who takes Guy under his wing, are both ‘intellectuals’. This means that they do not need to undertake manual labour and are allowed to study and pursue knowledge their entire life.

Dr Wayland, however, married a ‘normal’ woman, Agatha, and as a consequence his children Ena and Terry are also ‘normals’. Because ‘normals’ are denied intellectual development over several generations, they have become highly emotive and impressionable. Ena is twenty years old, but is described as behaving closer to a child in her early teens. She quickly becomes infatuated with Guy, much to the latter’s confusion and disgruntlement.

Towards the end of the book, a religious leader emerges who is able to capture the imagination of thousands of ‘normals’. When this Emmanual predicts the end of the world to be nigh, so many ‘normals’ down tools that the intellectuals have to step in to keep things running. Guy is reminded of a strike in the 1920s:

He remembered how the young assistant-manager at his bank (a post that was practically a sinecure in a certain family) had gone off joyously to take tickets and slam lift-doors on an underground railway along with other numbers of gay young men of the leisured classes who meant to “keep things going until the beggars had had enough of it.” The two situations had a startling similarity in difference.[5]

Jaeger’s point is clear: although traditional social classes are abolished in the future, humanity has still created an artificial boundary that treats one group of people as morally, financially and intellectually superior to the other. When the ‘normals’ refuse to behave according to their allotted tasks, the system does not break down and they are not taken seriously. The religious uprising comes to nothing and things quickly return back to how they were. At the close of the book Guy remains trapped in this future that is fundamentally no better than the past he left behind, ‘heavy with terrible knowledge.’[6]

The Question Mark is no utopia. Instead, Jaeger offers the reader an intellectual exercise in future-building that is quite cynical about humanity’s ability to create a better future for itself. Like all good science fiction, it uses a made-up world to comment on the real one. The Question Mark’s commentary on class differences, social inequality and access to education are just as pertinent in the 2020s as they were when the book was written, nearly a hundred years ago.

[1] Mo Moulton, ‘Introduction’ in Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark (London: British Library, 2019), p. 9

[2] Muriel Jaeger, The Question Mark, p. 33

[3] Ibid., p. 49

[4] Ibid., pp. 91-2

[5] Ibid., p. 171

[6] Ibid., p. 205