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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hopkins Manuscript

R.C. Sherriff

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To purchase The Hopkins Manuscript

Title: The Hopkins Manuscript
Author: R.C. Sherriff
Genre: Novel
Written: 1939
Length: 385 pages
Availability: The Hopkins Manuscript - US
The Hopkins Manuscript - UK
The Hopkins Manuscript - Canada
Le manuscrit Hopkins - France
Der Mond fällt auf Europa - Deutschland
from: Bookshop.org (US)

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Our Assessment:

B : too simplistic in parts, but holds up quite well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Republic . 27/9/1939 James Orrick
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/7/1939 L.M.Field
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/1/2023 A.Nevala-Lee
The Sunday Times . 26/3/1939 Ralph Straus
Time . 31/7/1939 .
The Times . 31/3/1939 J.S.
The Times . 25/2/2021 A.H.Murray
The Washington Post . 2/2/2023 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "The portrait of Edgar Hopkins as he reveals himself is a masterpiece. No satire could equal the irony of his own bare explanation of his motives. And not once during the fantastic events he lives through does he act or think out of character. (...) What follows is like a bitter parody of actuality, fading to a swift and most un-Wellsian end." - James Orrick, The New Republic

  • "The novel is long, but its hold on the reader is never lost. It has humor and charm, variety and suspense. Its people are real, and while its plot is utterly fantastic, much of truth and of wisdom has often been conveyed under the guise of a fairy tale." - Louise Maunsell Field, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)his wonderful novel should powerfully resonate with readers whose consciences are troubled by inequality and climate change. (...) Sherriff’s warning that authoritarian leaders will use any crisis to advance their goals is disturbingly relevant today. Thanks to wealth and geography, a privileged minority can insulate itself from the worst for a long time, but not forever." - Alec Nevala-Lee, The New York Times Book Review

  • "I do not think that Mr. Sherriff has invented anything that has not been suggested in the books before. What he has done is to invest his theme at once with an exciting uncertainty -- all the while you are eager to discover what exactly will be happening next -- and with the simple human touch necessary to carry conviction. (...) It is a vivid record, all the more piquant to us for the implied satire in the background. Much is left to the imagination, but with Edgar playing guide that was inevitable. Indeed, it is only the narrow limits of his vision which make possible any intimacy at all." - Ralph Straus, The Sunday Times

  • "Told in Edgar Hopkins' subdued commuter's style, this demi-Wellsian Downfall of the West packs a clammy warning." - Time

  • "Mr. Sherriff follows the principle of comedy that the grave should somewhere touch on the ridiculous (...) The wonders themselves are well handled (.....) Mr. Sherriff's insistence on Hopkins's innocent vanity becomes at times a trifle tedious, but it cannot seriously detract from an ingenious novel." - J.S., The Times

  • "RC Sherriff's novel, like all great speculative fiction, rests not on its plausibility, but on the glimpses it shows us of our own face. The novel's framing device is fabulous. (...) The book crackles with juxtapositions of the everyday and the extraordinary. (...) At the book's core lies the message that the real enemy is not the moon; it is ourselves. The nationalism and militarism of the age filter through not before the crash, but spoiler alert after it, after two fragile years of recovery." - Andrew Hunter Murray, The Times

  • "In The Hopkins Manuscript, he shows he is as adept at description as at dialogue. (...) For readers today, many elements in the novel will call to mind our own recent experiences with the coronavirus pandemic, ultranationalist politics, widespread religious fanaticism, the global climate crisis and senseless, brutal wars of attrition around the world. In short, The Hopkins Manuscript doesn’t simply -- or simplistically — envision what some have called a “cozy catastrophe.” It remains a relevant cautionary tale." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Hopkins Manuscript opens with a Foreword 'From The Imperial Research Press, Addis Ababa', written nearly a thousand years after Great Britain's: "last wretched inhabitants starved to death amid the ruins of their once noble cities". The manuscript of the title is one discovered by the Royal Society of Abyssinia -- a rare surviving record from the times of the: "final, tragic days of London", as first:

Every printed book, every vestige of art surviving from Western Europe, was systematically hunted out and destroyed. The damp climate of England completed this work of destruction in the seven hundred years that followed
       So readers come to the story proper with some idea of what is to come -- mankind surviving, but the folks on the British isles and indeed all of 'Western civilization' not faring all too well.
       Turning to the manuscript itself then, its narrator, Edgar Hopkins, also immediately makes clear that things did not go well: he writes from a London reduced to some seven hundred inhabitants, and the end is nigh, Hopkins noting: "I must write my story, plainly and simply, while I have the strength and sufficient light to see by".
       It is the time after the ominously-named Cataclysm, and Hopkins recounts the events leading up to it and after, beginning his story some seven years earlier. At the time he was: "a bachelor aged forty-seven, of set habits and comfortable circumstances". He was retired and happily pursued his hobby of poultry breeding, living deep in the Hampshire countryside, in the tiny village of Beadle. It is an isolated locale:
We were at the end of the valley, and no road climbed the downs beyond. No traffic passed our way, and the village was immune from the disturbing influences of travellers.
       Occasionally he ventures down to London -- including to meetings of the British Lunar Society, which he had become a member of. When he is summoned to a special meeting in October, he worries for all the wrong reasons why it has been called -- learning there that the moon's orbit is decaying, and that in some seven months time it will likely crash to earth, or perhaps glance off it; in either case, the future of the earth may be in question. Cataclysm indeed !
       Hopkins and the other members are asked not to share the information, and so for a while he must live with the burden of knowing of likely impending doom by himself. He carries on surprisingly well, telling himself that: "I must do my duty by carrying on exactly as if nothing had happened". Indeed, he is very much the 'carry-on' type under every circumstance, as Sherriff presents him as a rather (or rather extremely) self-important person who has a tendency to focus on minor personal affronts while avoiding the bigger picture.
       It's a while before the authorities have to acknowledge publicly what the world is facing, but at some point it becomes rather obvious that the moon is getting closer. (Somewhat disappointingly, Sherriff doesn't devote much space to what surely would be an impressive spectacle, of an ever-larger moon whishing closer and closer by .....) Some preparations are made, such as the digging of 'dugouts', shelters from come what may, with even Beadle building one for the hundred or so local souls, with Hopkins doing his part to help. Hopkins also befriends the young niece and nephew of neighbor Colonel Parker, nineteen-year-old Oxford-student Pat and her younger brother, Etonian Robin.
       About midway through the novel we come to the fateful day -- which Hopkins chooses to face by himself, at home, rather than crammed in with the other village-folk in the dugout. The science of this fiction is unfortunately rather weak: whether glancing blow or full-on hit, the moon falling out of orbit would have a devastating impact on earth. Sherriff tries for an explanation of sorts why things don't turn out quite so badly, but it's not very convincing.
       In any case, the damage wrought is terrible -- but in his isolated spot, Hopkins fares quite well. As do his neighbors, the Parkers -- at least the young ones. Pat and Robin move in with Hopkins, and they begin to rebuild their little world.
       Typically, among Hopkins' complaints about what has happened, is his outrage that a huge ocean liner has washed up in his backyard:
This lovely meadow had been the pride and joy of my life, and here, sprawled upon it like a drunken giant, crushing and obliterating my life's work, lay somebody else's property -- without my permission, without a word of apology ! Of my poultry house there was not a sign -- of my cherished pullets not a feather ....
       If his priorities are sometimes misguided, his carry-on and stiff-upper-lip spirit do help in allowing for a return to some sense of normalcy, with all the necessary adjustments.
       For all the destruction, England has fared reasonably well. Eventually Hopkins and the kids make contact with others, and the nearby town begins to be rebuilt. A new world order seems to be settling in well enough .....
       It is only in the aftermath that the real disaster strikers. Politics and national interests begin to clash, and eventually a world war breaks out. (Sherriff was writing in 1939 .....) And, as we have been warned from the beginning, things do not go well.
       It's a clever twist, to have mankind survive a natural catastrophe of the highest order, only then to blow survival through petty national-level infighting. Particularly galling and frustratingly amusing is the reason why the British are so gung-ho -- a desperate insistence on preserving the outrage that was Empire, as one of the geographic consequences of the moon-fall-out was that it:
blocked our sea routes and isolated the British Isles from its Colonies and Dominions. Unless we have free passage across the moon to the Atlantic and Mediterranean, Britain is doomed.
       Readers have been prepared for how bad it gets, as the story comes full circle and Hopkins, close to death, completes his tale in a practically empty London, what little food he has left kept hanging: "in a sack from the electric light pendant -- the only means of protecting it from the rats".
       Sherriff's choice of narrator and guide is a large part of what makes the story, as Hopkins' limitations and self-absorption make for an amusingly semi-distanced perspective on the true horror of much that goes on. Sherriff dips in that well a bit too often along the way, Hopkins' obliviousness and priorities occasionally getting somewhat tiresome, but on the whole it works.
       The point Sherriff makes, that geopolitics and human nature pose a greater threat to humanity's survival than even the largest-scale natural disaster, is made a bit obviously, but still resonates -- and must have packed quite the punch when the novel came out in 1939. The science of the fiction seems laughable by contemporary standards, but on the whole The Hopkins Manuscript holds up quite well, and makes for an appealing read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 February 2024

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The Hopkins Manuscript: Reviews: R.C. Sherriff: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Robert Cedric Sherriff lived 1896 to 1975.

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© 2024 the complete review

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