The Secret of the League
by Ernest Bramah
 

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
originally as —
What Might Have Been:
The Story of a Social War

John Murray: London, 1907
380 pages

 
reprinted several times as —
The Secret of the League
most recently by —
Specular Press: Atlanta, Georgia; 1995

May 2002

  
Between you and the State and the lamp-post

He was in point of fact a policeman, and from a thong on his wrist swung a truncheon, while the butt of a revolver showed at his belt. He wore no number or identifying mark, for it had long since been agreed that it must be objectionable to their finer feelings to treat policemen as though they were — one cannot say convicts, for a sympathetic Home Secretary had already discontinued the numbering of convicts on the ground that it created a state of things "undistinguishable from slavery," though not really slavery — but as though they were railway bridges or district council lamp-posts.

"Treat a man as a dog, and he becomes a dog," had been the invincible argument of the band of humanitarians who had introduced what was known as the "Get-up-when-you-like-and-have-what-you-want" system of prison discipline, and "Treat a man as a lamp-post, and he becomes a lamp-post," had been the logical standpoint of the Amalgamated Union of Policemen and Plain Clothes Detectives.
  

The Secret of the League by Ernest Bramah is kind of an underground oddity of a novel. It's a prophetic-warning novel, science fiction before that term was coined, largely sociopolitical but also with some charming technical extrapolations. Its plot is developed rather patchily, and like most warning novels, was overtaken by real events and didn't come true — or in the long perspective, we may feel that much of it eventually came true after all, and quite unfortunately.

So why is The Secret of the League of interest today, to whom will it appeal? Well, there are fans of thoughtful, observant, and mayhap humorous writing in general, particularly of Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung series of stories, who are curious to see what Bramah did with a more-realistic setting (Britain) and more-contemporary (as of 1907) theme.

Three specialized classes of readers will find tantalizing reading in The Secret of the League:

  • Those interested in the early history of science fiction, or its pre-history if you will.
  • Students of British social and political history in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods.
  • Readers of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — particularly those who have reread that giant novel and become fans of it, and are curious about antecedents and inspirational sources for Rand's novel.

Since I happen to be a member of all these classes, I found The Secret of the League quite fascinating.
  

Technological evolution, historical devolution?

Bramah describes some technological advances which help place his story in 1907's near future. Human flying by means of muscle-powered wing-harnesses is given a plausible and amusing treatment — an idea charmingly developed by Robert A. Heinlein in his Future History story "The Menace from Earth", published in 1957, exactly fifty years after The Secret of the League. Another speculation useful to the plot is the Telescribe, a wireless-telegraphy email terminal, connected to a nationwide network.

On the political front, the issue on which young Winston S. Churchill chose to "cross the floor" from the Conservative Party to the Liberal Party in 1904 was the apparent Tory willingness to abandon Free Trade in favor of Imperial Preference and, naturally, more tax revenue. Always a staunch Imperialist, Churchill nevertheless believed in Free Trade.

The Liberal Party triumph at the polls in 1906 led Bramah to speculate on a further devolution, what a Labour Party triumph would do to British society. With minor transformations into current terminology, the conflicts of capital, unions, trade, social values, and so forth within Edwardian Britain look very like our contemporary issues and struggles. Moving forward, the first Labour Party term in office in 1924, the General Strike of 1926, and Labour's second term from 1929-1935, can have come as little surprise to Bramah. As Churchill said in January 1924 (thinking of Russia and Germany), "The enthronement in office of a Socialist Government will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great States only on the morrow of defeat in war." But with historical perspective we see sadly that many of our worst defeats are self-inflicted, in peacetime.

Some social parallels and predictions presented by Bramah are painfully true, but quite funny. His advertising and political snap-lines are relatives of the sound-bites of today.

Cocoa was approached in a more sober spirit. Soap may blow bubbles of light and airy fancy, pills ricochet from one gay conceit to another, meat extracts gambol with the irresponsible exuberance of bulls in china cups, but cocoa relied upon sincerity and statistics. Kingcup cocoa was the last word of the expert. It won its way into the great heart of the people by driving home the significant fact that it contained .00001 per cent more phosphorus, and .000002 per cent less of something fatty, than any other cocoa in existence.

When the newspaper reader of the period had been confronted by this assertion, in various guises, seventeen thousand times, he had reached a state of mind in which .00001 per cent more phosphorus and .000002 per cent less fat represented the difference between vigorous manhood and drivelling imbecility.
  

Who is Salt?

Anyone who began reading at the first line of Atlas Shrugged"Who is John Galt?" — and followed that indifferent question through its mysterious development to the tremendous conclusion of the novel, must feel his ears prick up at this exchange:

"Is the Home Secretary in a position to tell us who this man Salt is?" was his next enquiry.

The Home Secretary looked frankly puzzled. "Who is Salt?" he replied, innocently enough.

"That is the essential point of my inquiry," replied the comrade. "Salt," he continued, his voice stilling the laughter it had raised, "is the Man behind the Unity League."

The Unity League has been created by "George Salt" to secretly organize a kind of non-union national strike (I won't say here just what kind) against the creeping Socialism in Britain that has accelerated to a headlong descent. — Rand's working title for Atlas Shrugged was The Strike. Aside from the foundational concept of the strike against a command economy, there are much more substantial parallels than characters' names like Salt and Mulch, but discovering these is part of the fun, so I'll leave them to the reader.

Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, like Heinlein's "The Menace from Earth", fifty years after The Secret of the League. Most of the social trends — concerning which Ayn Rand's treatment was lauded or vilified by Socialists and fellow-travelers — were already existent, at least in embryo. It was easily seen in 1957 that the Socialist process was more advanced in Britain, with America perhaps either socially fated or persistently pushed to travel the same route. Rand of course had the benefit of learning from Ludwig von Mises' economic insights.

But not so many were sufficiently prescient in 1907 to see Britain's Socialist progression when such ideas seemed extreme, radical, and unlikely of realization. Many have traced in hindsight Britain's economic decline — and rise of Socialism — to its Pyrrhic victory in World War I. But before the Great War, before the Russian Revolution, and long before the first national victories of the Labour Party, Ernest Bramah saw a darkening future. His character could be talking about the author here:

In a different vein Hampden turned to review the past, and with the chartered freedom of the man who had prophesied it all, he traced in broad lines and with masterly force the course of Conservative ineptitude, Radical pusillanimity, Labour selfishness, and Socialist tyranny. What would be the crowning phase of grab government? History foreshadowed it; common-sense certified it. Before the dark curtain of that last stupendous act the wealth and wisdom, the dignity and responsibility of the nation, stood in paralysed expectancy.
  
A solution, with ingrained Salt?

And Bramah proposed a solution, and that is the story — which I'll not divulge here. The Secret of the League is not too strong economically, and perhaps the greatest weakness of the plot is that Bramah does not really show how the Unity League proselytizers convince and recruit the key members — a vital aspect of Atlas Shrugged.

Minor characters are sketched, but often quite interestingly. Frederick Tantroy is about to violate his minor but trusted position in the League and copy some private papers:

Living in a pretentious, breathless age, drawn into a social circle beside whose feverish artificiality the natural artificiality inseparable from any phase of civilisation stood comparable to a sturdy, healthy tree, badly brought up, neglected, petted, the Honourable Frederick Tantroy had grown to the form of the vacuous pose which he had adopted. Beneath it lay his real character. A moderately honest man would not have played his part, but an utterly weak one could not have played it. It demanded certain qualities not contemptible. There were risks to be taken, and he was prepared to take them, and in their presence his face took on a stronger, even better, look. He bolted the door on the inside, picked up a few sheets of paper form the desktop, and without any sign of nervousness or haste began to do his work.
  

Here is some of the deadpan hilarious discussion during a deputation to the Secretary of State for the Home Department, a speculative caricature of Labour in power:

"The Arden and Avon Valley [Railway] case, which earned the martyrdom of dismissal for William Jukson and ultimately involved forty thousand of us in a now historic strike, simply because that heroic man categorically refused to the doddering Duke of Pentarlington any other title than the honourable appellation of 'Comrade' is doubtless still fresh within your minds. [...]"

Mr. Mulch paused for approbation, which was not stinted, but before he could resume, a passionate little man who had been rising to a more exalted state of fervour with every demand, suddenly hurled himself like a human wedge into the forefront of the proceedings.

"Kumrids!" [Comrades] he exclaimed, breathless from the first, "with your kind permission I would say a few words embodying a suggestion which, though not actually included in the agenda, is quite in 'armony with the subject before us."

"Won't it keep?" suggested a tired delegate hopefully.

"The suggestion is briefly this," continued the little man, far too enthusiastic to notice any interruption, "that as a tribute to William Jukson's sterling determination and as a perpetual reminder of the issues raised, we forthwith add to the banners of the Amalgamated Unions one bearing an allegorical design consisting of two emblematic figures struggling for the possession of a leather portmanteau with the words 'No Surrender!' beneath. The whole might be made obvious to a person of the meanest intelligence by the inscription 'A. and A. V. Ry. Test Case. W. J. upholds the Principles of Social Democracy and Vindicates the People's Rights' running round."

"Why should he be running round?" asked a slow-witted member of the deputation.
  

I hope I have made it clear that despite being a prophetic-warning novel, full of social commentary, and rather thin in the departments of character and plot, The Secret of the League possesses a good deal of witty comment on character-types and social issues that still are with us. Not a thriller, nor deep philosophically, but rather fun to read; especially for the historically-minded and philologists of science fiction.

  

© 2002 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
WHS facilitated this.

Mike Berro's
Ernest Bramah Bibliography

R.W. Franson's
John Galt, Man of Letters
  

  
Britain at Troynovant
British Empire & Commonwealth
history, geography, literature

Coining at Troynovant
quantifying value into commodity;
true coin, false coin, enterprise & economics

Utopias at Troynovant
utopia in power, or dystopia
  


  
Note, February 2004:

Following a bibliographic clue at Wendy McElroy's site, I'm confident that some of Ernest Bramah's inspiration came from Henry S. Salt (1851-1939), English Socialist and a founder of the Humanitarian League (1891-1919). Henry S. Salt wrote on Thoreau and Shelley, promoted vegetarianism, animal rights, prison reform, and other causes.

Most interestingly, it looks as though Bramah found in Henry S. Salt some novelistic inspiration for both sides of his conflict in The Secret of the League.  — RWF
  


 

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