A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 68.
Are you a steampunk fan? Wait. Don’t answer yet. Are you a steampunk fan who loves elephants? Hold on. One more question. Are you a steampunk fan who loves elephants and old travel narratives with just enough dusting of a plot to qualify for a novel, plus you have a fascination with what colonial types thought of the Indian subcontinent, as unfiltered through modern sensibilities? Yes? Well, have I got the book for you.
Well, part of a book, anyway. The Demon Of Cawnpore is actually half of a Jules Verne novel called The Steam House that’s been cut in two as part of the Fitzroy Edition of Verne’s works, a series of English-language versions of Verne’s books that began appearing in 1958. At a mere 174 pages, Demon doesn’t suggest a tome so massive that it had to be cut in half, but I suspect the hidden agenda of the Fitzroy project is to make Verne look as friendly and approachable to young readers as possible, and to lure readers of The Mysterious Island and Journey To The Center Of The Earth ever onward through approachably sized editions of, say, The Begum’s Fortune and Tribulations Of A Chinaman In China.
My own experience with Verne is pretty limited. I remember approaching 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea as an excited fourth-grader, only to find out that I was, pardon the nearly unavoidable pun, in a little over my head. Determined to make it through, I created a plan to read a chapter a day until reaching the end while still making time for Encyclopedia Brown or whatever else I was into at the time. This eventually led to me keeping the book out for four straight weeks and earning some unkind remarks from my school librarian for taking so long. (Because you really want to discourage kids from reading the classics, right?) With time, I adjusted to Verne’s translator’s approximation of his late-19th-century French prose, and came to appreciate the book. But the ending baffled me. I never understood quite what teed Captain Nemo off so much, or why our hero had to leave him in the end. I just assumed it was something about history or adulthood I didn’t yet get, and I moved on.
I didn’t really think about Nemo or the Nautilus all that much until they showed up in Alan Moore’s League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vendetta against the British Empire intact. Where 20,000 Leagues simply references Nemo’s grudge against colonial powers, The Mysterious Island—which I have not read—fills in the details, revealing Nemo as an Indian price who lost his family in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. (Incidentally, Nemo began life as a vengeful Pole, but had his origin changed at the suggestion of Verne’s editor, Pierre-Jules Hetzel, so as not to piss off France’s Russian allies.) Published in 1880, 10 years after 20,000 Leagues, The Steam House takes place in an India still reeling from that rebellion, one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of India under British rule, and a period in which both sides committed their share of atrocities.
Those seeking to learn more about it, however, will have to look elsewhere than The Demon Of Cawnpore, whose introduction helpfully informs readers that while Verne devoted a chapter to the uprising, that chapter has been “omitted in the present edition as holding up the story and lacking in interest.” How thoughtful. Who wants context, anyway? Still, the ghosts of the then-recent past are unavoidable in The Demon Of Cawnpore. While much of the book is little but an excuse for Verne to describe whatever interests him along the path from Calcutta to the Himalayas, two entwined quests for revenge roll out in the background of the journey.
One involves Colonel Munro, one of the passengers in the Steam House, the name given the giant elephant and the comfortable dwellings it pulls behind it at speeds upward of 25 miles per hour. A Nemo from the other side of the conflict, Munro wants vengeance for the family he lost during the siege of Cawnpore, the city now known as Kanpur. The man most responsible for that loss: Nana Sahib, a real-life historical figure who initially sided with the British in 1857, then switched to the rebel side. A few victories—and a few massacres that included women and children—later, Nana Sahib disappeared after Kanpur fell again to the British. He passed immediately into folklore, becoming an outlaw hero to some and an ever-lurking boogeyman to others. He’s alive and well here—the novel is also known as The End Of Nana Sahib—living outside the law and seeking his own revenge, a plan that involves keeping a close watch on Colonel Munro.
The atrocities of Kanpur tie the men together. Munro blames Nana Sahib for a massacre that saw “children and women, dead or alive […] flung into a well,” a well that British soldiers found “charged to the brim with corpses” and “still reeking” when they arrived. British reprisals opted for a different sort of brutality, at least in Verne’s account. One of the Steam House’s passengers recalls the orders given at the time:
The house and rooms in which the massacre took place are not to be cleansed by the fellow-countrymen of the victims. The officer is to understand that every drop of innocent blood is to be removed by the tongues of the mutineers condemned to die. After having heard the sentence of death, each man is to be conducted to the place of the massacre, and forced to cleanse a portion of the floors. Care must be taken to render the task as repulsive as possible to the religious sentiments of the condemned men; and the lash, if necessary, must not be spared.
The bad news? You’ve been sentenced to death. The even worse news? You’ll be spending your final hours cleaning up the blood of women and children with your tongue.
It isn’t really clear how Verne feels about all this. It doesn’t help that I’m working from only half a novel, since having the whole story tends to be helpful when talking about themes and issues and whatnot. (For the record, the second part, published as Tigers And Traitors, isn’t in the big box of paperbacks.) While Colonel Munro spends a lot of time sulking, the other Steam House passengers are mostly fixated on bagging the biggest tiger, and they’re depressed at spending so much time traveling through tiger-free country. Is this satire? For that matter, is the whole setup satire? This is a book, after all, that finds a bunch of Westerners building a giant steam elephant and then attaching whole houses to them—19th-century HVAC systems and all—to travel through India without leaving the comfort of their virtual living rooms unless absolutely necessary. Is there a better stand-in for the colonial adventure? And does the whole system start to fall apart in the novel’s second half?
If only the book were as compelling as that image. Instead, Verne offers a lot of detailed travelogue material that might be handy should any readers find themselves transported back to late-19th-century India while still in possession of this book. Here’s our narrator describing the can’t-miss sights of Kolkata shortly before his departure:
I had gazed at the vice-regal palace opposite the Spencer Hotel; admired the curious buildings on the Chowringhi Road, and the Town Hall, dedicated to the memory of the great men of our time; studied in detail the interesting mosque of Hougly; gone over the harbour crowded by the finest vessels of the English Merchant service; made the acquaintance of the “adjutants,” those singular birds known by a variety of names, whose vacation it is to act as scavengers and preserve the city in a perfectly salubrious condition. And all this being accomplished, I had now nothing to do but take my departure.
It’s seldom dull, but Verne sometimes seemed to have Trojan-horsed travel writing into his novel, particularly since the episodes that advance the plot break with the first-person narration to describe what’s going on with Nana Sahib, then politely fade back to our men in the Steam House.
The Demon Of Cawnpore ends with the Steam House making it to the Himalayas, and Nana Sahib up to no good. I suspect it doesn’t end well for the bad guy, but I don’t know that I’ll be finding out anytime soon. This book left me with an image of Westerners surrounding themselves in luxury, dropping modern technology into a metal shell fashioned after a creature borrowed from a subjugated land, which they travel across while robbing it of its wildlife and waiting for a chance to continue an ever-bloodier cycle of revenge. That’s plenty to think about for now.
Treasure Of The Black Falcon, by John Coleman Burroughs
“On the cold, early morning of September 3, 1947, the giant submarine Ellen Stuart, her engines idling, her propeller stationary, sank quietly into the black, unknown depths of the North Atlantic—carrying thirteen men and a girl upon one of the oldest quests in the world.”
The Avengers: The Passing Of Gloria Munday, by John Garforth
“John Steed’s racing triumph at Le Mans in 1929 was a fantasy, and he forgot about it as he stamped on the brakes and hauled the massive Speed Six over to the right-hand side of the road.”