fiction, research

Fragment of a Regency-era SF story

Doing primary source research sometimes leads to spectacular (or, at least, deeply interesting) finds. In this case, I was looking through an 1809 volume of The lady’s magazine: or entertaining companion for the fair sex, appropriated solely to their use and amusement, as one does, searching for a description of a particular royal estate, and instead I came across… well, a science fiction story.

“Fragment of a Letter to an Inhabitant of a Planet, Remote from the Earth, of a Superior Race of Beings” is purported to be written by a “Eusebia”, who had the idea for it after seeing the funeral procession of Admiral Nelson. The story is from the POV of an alien from another planet who is visiting Earth, unknown to anyone except a local guide. It’s implied that the aliens know about Earth because an angel told them about us weirdo humans, who are mortal and seem to revel in death. (Apparently, despite being aliens, they believe and are affected by Christianity. Oh, 1800s England.)

Reading through the text, it appears that the aliens are immortal and live on a planet that has no death, to the point where they don’t experience seasons, are apparently vegetarian, and don’t sleep. Our unnamed alien narrator — who also has a “subtle vehicle” that lets them go through walls and observe us invisibly — comes to the conclusion that God has made it so that humans have to sleep so as to prepare us for the inevitable horror of permanent death through repetitious mini-deaths… which has unfortunate consequences for our entire understanding of life.

It’s an interesting story, though more for seeing the author do a neat bit of negative-space worldbuilding (telling us about their species/planet through what their narration chooses to highlight and/or be confused by) than for any real plot or message. But… it’s an SF story in a women’s magazine, under a female pseud, during the Regency period. It’s pretty likely that Jane Austen read The Lady’s Magazine — how great is it to imagine Jane sitting around and discussing distant planets with her sister Cassandra, making jokes about what they’d do with their own “subtle vehicles”, wondering what other things would look weird to an alien observer?

If you’d like to read the story yourself, here’s the direct link to the scan, here’s a downloadable PDF of the original printed story, or you can click the “Continue Reading” below for a transcription. It’s a neat bit of SF history that I haven’t seen referenced elsewhere, but let me know if you’ve seen otherwise, or if you know of other Regency SF that could use a light shined on them. Enjoy!


To the EDITOR of the LADY’S MAGAZINE.

SIR

I INCLOSE [sic] an effusion of fancy, written after Lord Nelson’s funeral. I am not sure that the thought is entirely new, but I believe it has never been carried so far, and embodied, as it were.

I had no idea at first of giving it to the public; but a friend, looking over papers with me, persuaded me to send it to you, thinking it might afford some entertainment to your fair readers.

Yours,

EUSEBIA.

April 8, —9.

FRAGMENT of A LETTER

To An

INHABITANT OF A PLANET,

Remote From The EARTH,

Of a superior Race of Beings.

***

FROM THE EARTH.

–I can now give you some of my own observations on the beings who inhabit this very remote planet, you remember with what compassionate accents the celestial cherub elated to us the creation and defection of man; for which defection he was punished by the decree of his justly-incensed creator, with the dissolution of soul and body after a certain period; although the infinite mercy of God provided a remedy, by the stupendous sacrifice of his beloved son taking mortal flesh, and suffering the decreed dissolution, in a most painful manner, that their death might not be eternal. You remember, too, that he said all living creatures in this planet participated in this dissolution, and that even there was a temporary kind of death to man, and every animal, within the space of twenty-four hours, (a period by which they divide their time, and in their language call a day). By the diurnal motion of this planet, they are deprived of the light and warmth, which their sun emits, for eight or ten hours of that time, which is called night. Their globe is then dark and cold: all business ceases, or should cease. The various animals fall into a state of death-like torpidity. Man, for this purpose, has certain chambers in his house, which are sepulchres for the time; and certain smaller receptacles, termed beds, on which he reposes in a horizontal position. At his final dissolution, he is so placed in a coffin, differing from a bed in being less spacious. The bed has an ornamental canopy over it, whilst the coffin is fitted to receive the body, with a lid fastened down, and then carried from the habitations of living, to be deposited in the earth, there to return to it’s [sic] parent dust. — We often reflected, and talked over the unhappy state of those beings, who must not only be in continual dread, but actually suffering a perpetually renewing death. The cherub said—’God in his judgements always remembered mercy;’ and that this dread was mitigated in an astonishing degree. This we could not comprehend; but I have now received a full confirmation of this assertion.

I descended on the northern part of this planet, soon after their day began to dawn, in the midst of that division of their annual revolution round the sun, which they call winter, when the whole of the vegetable world is in a state of death; trees bare, stripped not only of their fruit, but even of their foliage; not a flower to be seen, or scarce a herb, so that the whole face of the country presents a dreary prospect, of which it is impossible to give. you, who enjoy an ever-springing verdure, any idea.

The spot of my descent was a capital city in the quarter called Europe. In these cities an immense number of houses are crowded together, including a large circumference of some miles, totally depriving themselves of every pleasure, and even comfort of fresh air, gardens to walk in, or produce vegetables; by this means destroying their health and shortening their lives. I found the principal streets lined with warriors in a military garb, and the windows of the houses crowded with spectators in anxious expectation. My conductor, who possesses intuitive knowlege, informed me they were waiting for a grand funeral procession of a deceased hero, who had fallen nobly in defence of his country. For these unhappy beings, add to their unhappy lot, by their perpetual quarrels, and wars with their fellow-mortals, by which they destroy each other, and bring on a speedier dissolution than they would otherwise undergo by the actual progress of nature. I remarked that though there was a general appearance of concern for the departed hero, yet no countenance expressed either horror, or any melancholy reflection, as I expected that it might soon be their own turn to be carried to the silent receptacle appointed for them. They were, in general, habited in suble [sic] color, which is worn as a mark of grief, but so ornamented, that since I have had time to observe, even for their nearest and dearest relatives and friends, they enjoy a secret vanity in it’s [sic] elegance and becomingness, not only amongst their females, who have been defined ‘animals fond of dress,’ but even the other sex, who are supposed to have stronger minds.

On this particular occasion, I observed small parties sitting round tables, diverting themselves with throwing pieces of painted paper down, and taking them up again. I was informed this was playing at cards, and that, as they were obliged to assemble in those houses very early, to arrive without crowd or tumult, and to procure good places at the windows, this was to kill the time. ‘What!’ said I, ‘is not their time sufficiently short; and if it is to play, which their eagerly-busy looks and gestures contradict, is this mourning for their departed hero?’ My conductor smiled. The procession in time arrived. The deceased was in a coffin richly ornamented with gold (which is esteemed a most precious metal with these mortals, and for which many rush into the very jaws of death). The coffin was placed on a triumphal car, and emblems of dignity were carried before it, and it was attended by many great officers. —Is there then a pomp in death, which renders it less terrible. My conductor again smiled.

I wished to see how they submitted to the daily death, and how their inferior funerals were performed. To the first I was soon an eye-witness; for, before this great man had been committed to the earth, with all the circumstances of pomp and solemn music, the day had died, and they were obliged to substitute an artificial day, by the light of torches and tapers, which create a glare that weakens the sight, and brings on a premature old age: for my conductor told me, that many, particularly in great cities, reversed the order of their Creator; lived in the night, and died in the day, which, like all disobedience, brought on it’s [sic] own punishment.

I then visited their sepulchral chambers, as my subtle vehicle could easily pervade the walls of their habitations. I found many of them highly ornamented, according to the rank of their owners; the beds made soft with the plumage of birds, and warm with the fleece of the sheep; so that they retire to their repose, as they term it, with the utmost satisfaction, instead of dread, as I expected. In truth, merciful Providence has decreed it to be a necessary refreshment to their exhausted spirits and bodies; and when, through any cause of indisposition, it is, denied to them, they fly to medicine to procure this neccessary [sic] death.

I afterwards saw the ceremony of various funerals of various ranks: sometimes the relatives appeared in sorrow for a short time; but strangers, who happen to be passing, and even those who are called friends of the deceased, look on with more unconcern than the immortal beings who have no dread of suffering dissolution. Various causes produce this unconcern; and it is no doubt partly owing to the mercy of the Almighty, that his creatures’ sufferings should be lessened: and by their being permitted to inflict death on the animal creation to sustain their own lives; so that they have death always present to their view. The tenderest among them sit down to feast on the mangled limbs, or even the whole carcase of an animal; and the most delicate pride themselves in dissecting them with a grace. The art of making them palatable is a science which requires much study and skill, as well as labor and time. There are artists on purpose; every family keeps one of an inferior degree, if they can afford it; and there are books which professedly treat of it. In short, these beings have not a clear conception of happiness unconnected with [death].

***

[Citation: Eusebia, “Fragment of a Letter to an Inhabitant of a Planet”. National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection (Library of Congress). The Lady’s Magazine: Or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to Their Use And Amusement. London: Printed for Robinson and Roberts. v. 40 (1809), pgs 164-167. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433081685855&view=image&seq=178]

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