Beresford, J D

Tagged: Author

(1873-1947) UK writer. He was the son of a clergyman, and he was crippled in infancy by polio; both facts were influential in forming his worldview. Two of his children, Marc Brandel (1919-1994) and Elizabeth Beresford (1926-    ), became writers of supernatural fiction. A determined but defensive agnosticism normally guides the development of Beresford's futuristic and metaphysical speculations, and the influence of H G Wells – as reflected in his early study, H G Wells (1915; vt H G Wells: A Critical Study 2005) – was important from the beginning, both for Beresford's own version of the older author's "prig" novels in idealistic Bildungsromanen like The Early History of Jacob Stahl (1911), and for his powerful and idiomatic use of the Scientific Romance template, beginning with his first (and most famous) sf novel, The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911; exp vt The Wonder 1917). This biographical account of a freak superchild born out of his time exploits the Evolution of the Superman in a fashion Wells himself never adumbrated, but the recapitulation of the theme in Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930) and Olaf Stapledon's Odd John (1935) demonstrated how naturally it fit into the ironic implications of the Scientific Romance form. The Wonder, unable through the sheer vastness of his Intelligence to empathize with the subnormal-seeming humans around him, communicates rather little but does unambiguously reject Religion – leading, it is strongly implied, to his death at the hands of an enraged, fanatical clergyman. Beresford's closeness to Wells is made clear in H.G. Wells (1915; vt H G Wells: A Critical Study 2005), the first critical study of his mentor's early work.

Beresford's second sf novel, Goslings (1913; vt A World of Women 1913), is the first attempt to depict an all-female society which treats the issue seriously and with a degree of sympathy (see Gender). Many of his early speculative short stories were collected in Nineteen Impressions (coll 1918) and Signs and Wonders (coll 1921). Some are allegories born of religious doubt, such as "A Negligible Experiment" (in Signs and Wonders), in which the impending destruction of Earth is taken as evidence that God has become indifferent to mankind; others are visionary fantasies, such as "The Cage", in which a man is telepathically linked to a prehistoric ancestor for a few seconds; and yet others are studies in abnormal Psychology – an interest which also inspired the non-sf novel Peckover (1934). Revolution (1921; vt Revolution: A Story of the Near Future in England 1921) is a determinedly objective analysis of a Near Future socialist revolution in the UK.

Increasingly, Beresford began to express an interest in the spiritual (or spiritualist) side of concerns like faith-healing; a strong wish-fulfilment infuses a story like The Camberwell Miracle (1933), in which a crippled girl is cured by a faith-healer. Like Arthur Conan Doyle Beresford could adopt either an extremely hard-headed rationalism or a naive mysticism; but like Doyle, the latter became stronger with age. This increased inclination to believe in an almost theological route towards longed-for Utopias marks Beresford's later work in general. "What Dreams May Come ..." (1941) is a powerful novel about a young man drawn into a utopian future he has experienced in his dreams, and then returned, altered in body and mind, to a hopeless messianic quest in the war-torn present. A Common Enemy (1942), reminiscent of the later speculative fiction of H G Wells, shows the destruction of society by natural Disaster as a prelude to utopian reform. Men in the Same Boat (1943) and The Riddle of the Tower (1944), both with Esmé Wynne-Tyson, with whom he lived from 1939, are wartime vision stories, the first depicting the posthumous fates in various Alternate Worlds of seven shipwrecked sailors in a lifeboat, the second following a Future History in which utopian prospects fade and society evolves towards "automatism", resulting in a hivelike social organization in which individuality – and ultimately humanity – are lost.

It may be that the spiritual extremism of his later works was sufficient to obliterate the memory of his early sf; in any case Beresford never achieved the critical acclaim he deserved. He is ripe for rediscovery. [BS/JC]

see also: Biology; Children in SF; Dystopias; Ecology; End of the World; ESP; History of SF; Hive Minds; Politics; Precognition; Psi Powers; Sociology.

John Davys Beresford

born Castor, Northamptonshire: 7 March 1873

died Bath, Somerset: 2 February 1947

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