The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Violet Flame (1899)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Violet Flame was written by Fred T. Jane (1865-1916), an unusual man. He wrote a number of novels and stories, many of which were science fiction. He was a commercial artist of some note (see: Hartmann the Anarchist). He was also of great help to the British security service MI5 in the years just before WW1. His interest in warships led to the 1898 publication of his Jane's All the World's Fighting Ships, which was the first of the famous Jane’s series of books on military ships and planes.
The Violet Flame begins in London, where the French Professor Mirzarbeau (“something in the astronomer line he was; the untidiest and most disreputable looking little man I have ever set eyes on”) discovers “the violet flame,” which is a form of colored energy which is capable of great destruction. Mirzarbeau also invents some machinery capable of manipulating the Violet Flame. Unfortunately, Mirzarbeau is not just a distasteful roly-poly man. He is also power-hungry and insane. Mirzarbeau initially vaporizes Waterloo Station, in London, and then later an auditorium of witnesses. With these visible demonstrations of his power Mirzarbeau cows the public; because his last name, when broken down into Greek numbers, adds up to 666, Mirzarbeau begins styling himself “The Great Beast.”
Mirzarbeau takes control of England, and the mobs, afraid of being disintegrated by him, support him. He creates a comet made of the Violet Flame and aims it at the Earth, using the threat of it to become ruler of the world. But before that can happen the novel’s narrator, Lester, and Landry Baker, an American heiress who Mirzarbeau lusts after, engineer Mirzarbeau’s death. However, Lester and Landry discover that Mirzarbeau’s comet is still approaching the Earth despite his death. Lester and Landry find and destroy the machine which they believe is attracting the comet, but they soon realize that the machine was actually holding off the comet. And because the solar system is sentient and desires the destruction of humanity, the comet, controlled by the solar system itself, strikes the Earth. Everyone but Lester and Landry are killed, and they begin civilization all over again.
The Violet Flame is a good example of the late-Victorian craze for end-of-the-world novels. These stories, which functioned as a displacement of anxieties about the end of Empire (see: Fin-de-Siècle Unease), ranged from the revenge of nature in Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) to the apocalyptic destruction of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The Violet Flame is in this mode, but differs from its predecessors in a few respects. The novel is set in a future in which a few wealthy financiers and businessmen essentially control the world, to the point where, despite the presence of the traditional governments, war between nations is no longer possible. This does not result in a happier society, however, but in a more gloomy and pessimistic one. The Violet Flame is also one of the first novels to feature a mad scientist whose work threatens to destroy the world. This is a logical development of the scientist figure of contemporary anarchy (see: Anarchists) literature and would become a far more common feature of popular literature in the twentieth century.
The Violet Flame is one of the anarchist novels of the 1890s.
Fred T. Jane’s The Violet Flame: A Story of Armageddon and After (1899) depicts contemporary views and anxieties about science, anarchists and foreign domination. The mad scientist in The Violet Flame, French professor Mirzarbeau, is the embodiment of all these fears....1
The Violet Flame, as an example of mad-scientist apocalyptic fiction in late Victorian Britain, mirrors the contemporary anxieties of political overthrow, either from within or without. The mad scientist, in his roles as foreigner and anarchist, represents these fears. As a foreigner, he symbolizes the rise of foreign powers, in this specific case France, and their challenge to British hegemony in the time of the New Imperialism. His superior scientific knowledge with which he threatens British society and the world mirrors the end of British superiority. Thus, science carries negative connotations in The Violet Flame, working to the disadvantage of Britain in fighting off foreign rivals. Hence, apocalyptic fiction serves as a vehicle to mirror fears of foreign invasion or domination and the decline of Britain and its Empire. Identified as a member of an anarchist group, Mirzarbeau stands for the domestic threat Britain feared at the time. The anarchists, armed with terrible scientific machines and stigmatized as violent terrorists, are depicted as enemies of British society and thus as threats to its stability.2
While no classic, The Violet Flame is quick-moving and entertaining. Jane was no great stylist, but the novel is briskly written, it has some sharp (if barely two-dimensional) characterization, and some unexpected plot twists. Jane’s illustrations for the novel are typically good.
Print: Fred T. Jane, The Violet Flame. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
1 Martin Hermann, A History of Fear: British Apocalyptic Fiction, 1895-2011 (Berlin: epubli, 2015), 42.
2 Hermann, A History of Fear, 48-49.