Regular listeners of Hannah’s Bookshelf will know that I like to make my themed shows a bit topical – even if the ‘topical’ bit is a little tenuous or vague sometimes. Given everything that’s happened in UK politics over the last couple of weeks, I thought I might try my hand at a related theme (without being too controversial). Despite all the current uncertainty, there is one thing we know for sure – at some point soon, we’ll be getting a new prime minister. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look on my bookshelf for some of my favourite PMs in literature. You can listen again to the show on the player below, but (as promised) here are the books I talked about this week.
Let me know what you think of my choices!
in Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900 by Florence Dixie (1890)
I started off with a lesser-known, but fascinating, novel. Written in 1890, Dixie’s utopian feminist fantasy tells the story of Gloriana de Lara, a young woman who disguises herself as Hector D’Estrange and rapidly rises through the political ranks to become prime minister. D’Estrange campaigns and secures women’s suffrage (in fact the book hints that (s)he’s secured universal suffrage, as some working class men talk about their support of D’Estrange as well), and campaigns on an egalitarian manifesto. This leads to a landslide victory in a general election, in which ‘D’Estrangeite’ MPs are joined by ‘Irish, Scotch and Welsh Home Rulers’ to form a ‘precarious’ majority in the House of Commons. However, this majority is unsettled by the fact that, should the ‘Nationals’ and ‘Progressists’ combine forces, the D’Estrangeite mandate might be undermined.
And this is exactly what happens. When Prime Minister D’Estrange proposes a bill to ensure the ‘absolute and entire enfranchisement of the women of his country’, the other two parties collude in a plot to have the new prime minister arrested on a false charge. If this collusion between ‘Nationals’ and ‘Progressists’ seems unlikely, the novel explains: these unusual bedfellows, while ‘hating each other cordially, yet hate still more the high-souled, far-reaching, justice-loving principles of Hector D’Estrange’.
If you haven’t already read Dixie’s book, you should definitely check it out – it’s a fascinating piece of early feminist fantasy that has some curious resonances with contemporary politics (and, as I said on the show, some surprising points of similarity with another book on this list).
in The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H.G. Wells (1904)
H.G. Wells’s science fiction novel begins with two scientists – Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood – developing a substance intended to accelerate growth. They call this substance Herakleophorbia IV, but it more commonly goes by the name ‘Food of the Gods’ (and, later, ‘Boomfood’). When the ‘Food’ accidentally finds it way into the food chain, Britain is faced with the challenge of dealing not only with giant plants, insects and rodents, but also with giant children (who, of course, will one day be giant adults). For the purposes of this show, I was interested in the character of Caterham, the politician who emerges as the man who will deal with the growing sense of resentment and fear.
The ostensibly populist Caterham is described in the novel as a ‘demagogue’ and a ‘vote-monster’; he’s a man who panders to and exploits the ‘little people’s’ fear of the giants, in order to secure his own political position. But to the general public, he’s the ‘Giant-Killer’ – the only person taking a stance on the problem. Caterham’s policies to suppress and restrict the ‘Children of the Food’ become increasingly violent (and include prohibitions on movement and reproduction), but the novel continually satirizes him as a man who cares very little about the violent consequences of his policies. Of course, it won’t be long before the people of the UK (specifically London) start to discover just what those violent consequences really are.
As a side note, unlike some of Wells’s other work, The Food of the Gods has never really had a serious film adaptation. The best known film version is Bert I. Gordon’s 1976 adaptation, which focuses only on the ‘nature strikes back’ element of the story (i.e. the giant insects and rodents). Gordon’s film isn’t exactly critically acclaimed, though it does hold the dubious honour of being named ‘Worst Rodent Movie’ in the Golden Turkey Awards. (It beat Night of the Lepus to the title – and if you haven’t seen Night of the Lepus, you really should!)
in Anno Dracula by Kim Newman (1992)
In the absence of any novels featuring werewolf prime ministers – and I really can’t think of any, but please let me know if one exists! – I thought it only fair to include a vampire politician on my list. Newman’s Anno Dracula (the first book and the series) is a dazzling meta-fictional alternate history, featuring more figures from history and literature than it’s possible to name in a two-hour radio show. The first book, set in 1888, sees Dracula (who, in this version of literature/history, has survived his battle with Van Helsing) marry Queen Victoria and subjugating British under a new, fierce, vampiric control. The story follows the investigation of Jack the Ripper, a murderer who has been targetting vampire prostitutes. The Ripper hunt is led by Charles Beauregard (of the Diogenes Club) and Geneviève Dieudonné (a vampire), and is actually a very satisfying mystery tale in itself. But, for today, I was interested in the character of Lord Ruthven, who is appointed as prime minister under Dracula.
Lord Ruthven is the vampire bad guy in John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre‘ (1819), which is often credited as the first piece of vampire fiction in the English language. Attractive, suave but ruthlessly dangerous, Polidori’s Ruthven was the template for literary vampires until Bram Stoker’s Dracula – and, let’s be honest, still pretty much the template for literary vampires after Dracula was published as well. Newman’s version of Ruthven still has these qualities, but Anno Dracula sees Ruthven’s energies directed towards politics, rather than seduction. Newman has described his character as a ‘political survivor, sometimes out of office but always ready to return to power’.
After Anno Dracula, Newman’s series continues with The Bloody Red Baron (set in 1917), Dracula Cha Cha Cha (set in 1959) and Johnny Alucard (a collection of short stories and novellas set in the late 70s and 80s).
The Prime Minister
in The Prime Minister’s Brain by Gillian Cross (1985)
Alright… I have to admit this choice was more for nostalgia than anything else. The unnamed prime minister isn’t really a key character in this book, but I thought it would be fun to talk about anyway. Many children of the 80s (like me) have fond memories of Cross’s first two Demon Headmaster books, and many children of the 90s will remember the BBC TV series and the later titles.
Cross’s 1982 novel The Demon Headmaster introduced the character of Dinah Glass, a girl in foster care who goes to live with the Hunters and starts to attend a new school where something just isn’t right. With the help of her foster brothers (Lloyd and Harvey) and some of their schoolfriends, Dinah discovers that the school’s headmaster has hypnotized all the children as part of his plan to take over the country (or the world). The children form SPLAT (the ‘Society for the Protection of our Lives Against Them’) and set about foiling the headmaster’s plans. The second novel in the series, published in 1985, sees the school under a more benign control, and the pupils engrossed in playing a new computer game called ‘Octopus Dare’. Dinah and the other members of SPLAT join the ‘Octopus Dare’ competition, and our heroine succeeds in winning a place in the national final. But when SPLAT travel to London for the competition – which is being run by a man known only as the Computer Director – Dinah starts to suspect there’s more to ‘Octopus Dare’ than meets the eye.
So, okay, the ‘Prime Minister’s Brain’ is actually a computer, rather than the actual person. And we don’t really see much of the threatened politician in question. But I think this book deserves a mention for its 1985-style ‘hacking’ storyline, and for Dinah’s fantastic questioning of the logic of the attempted plan: ‘But what’s the point? The Prime Minister’s not all-powerful in this country. […] We’re a democracy. The Prime Minister’s not a dictator.’
in A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin (1982)
Mullin’s political thriller is set in the near-future, and begins with the shock result of the (fictional) 1989 general election. As the results begin to be declared, ‘it became clear that something had gone horribly wrong with the almost unanimous prediction of the pundits that the Tory-Social-Democrat Government of National Unity would be re-elected’. Instead, a Labour government, led by Sheffield MP and former steel worker Harry Perkins wins by a landslide. As the first chapter of the book announces: ‘Harry Perkins was going to be quite different from any ever presented to the British electorate.’
As Perkins (who is modelled, in part, on Tony Benn) begins his new role as prime minister, it becomes clear that his manifesto – which includes a withdrawal from the Common Market, import controls, public control of finance, the abolition of the House of Lords, an end to the nuclear deterrent and the dismantling of the ‘newspaper monopolies’ – might have won favour with the electorate, but it’s made him some powerful enemies, including media magnates, MI5 and the US. These enemies (supported by a some who are a little closer to home) begin to conspire to bring Perkins’s premiership to a premature end.
One of the things that really struck me when I was rereading Mullin’s book for the show was the points of comparison between A Very British Coup and Gloriana – both in terms of the unlikely prime ministers and the attempts to discredit and remove them. The books were written over 90 years apart, but it seems the fantasy of a wildly popular, left-wing prime minister who can withstand the slings and arrows of the establishment has been around for a long time.
in The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)
I ended the show with another alternate history book, and another famous figure repurposed for fantasy fiction. My final selection was Gibson and Sterling’s classic steampunk novel, which presents a version of Victorian history in which Charles Babbage was successful in his attempts to build a working difference engine. The book is set in an alternate 1855, and the backstory of this world is revealed gradually throughout the novel. The central characters are Sybil Gerard (the daughter of an executed Luddite rebel), Edward Mallory (an explorer) and Laurence Oliphant (a travel writer with a secret). The stories of our protagonists intertwine around a set of powerful punched cards, the importance of which becomes clear as the novel develops.
For today’s show, though, it’s the political backdrop to the story that interests me. In this version of Britain, Babbage’s invention (in 1824) resulted in a dramatically different political landscape. A new party, the Industrial Radical Party, is formed and led by Lord Byron. The ‘Rads’ defeat the Tory government and the Duke of Wellington in the 1830 general election, and the duke comes to be seen as a traitor to his country. Byron’s Rads are ruthless in their championing of intellectual and scientific development (which, on the surface, seems like quite an attractive prospect), which entails the state suppression of working-class revolutionaries (which doesn’t seem so attractive). While more recent steampunk is associated with the elegance and allure of Victoriana, Gibson and Sterling’s novel is much more focused on the social consequences of catapulting the industrial age into the information age – Byron’s government preside over a society troubled by mass unemployment, increased surveillance and accelerated military development.
And that brought my little look at fictional prime ministers to a close. Let me know if I missed your favourite off my list! (Although, as I mentioned several times on the show, I chose not to talk about House of Cards, so I’ve probably upset all the Francis Urquhart fans out there – sorry!)
To hear more about all these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen again to the show here: