The Man With Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger
British Library Science Fiction Classics, pb, £6.17
Reviews by John C. Adams
When I received The Man With Six Senses by Muriel Jaeger and read the back cover, I saw we had both studied at Somerville College, Oxford. I was keen to dive in at that point. Jaeger was born in 1892, so she was one of the first women to be awarded a degree there. She was a close friend of fellow Somervillian Dorothy L Sayers. Jaeger has recently been picked up in essays and articles about less famous women writers from the college, so her name is started to percolate through to a new generation of readers.
As I started reading, I was all ready to enter a world of science fiction from almost a century ago as the book was first published in 1927. I was also intrigued about what exactly ‘literary science fiction’ would feel like as this is the description provided by the book’s publishers. Plus Jaeger’s first novel had been published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
Hilda Torrington has recently graduated from Cambridge and taken a job with one of the emerging number of women MPs as an assistant. She loves her independent life in London and has no interest in marrying the young man picked out for her by her family, successful writer Ralph Standring. Instead, she picks up hopeless stray Michael Bristowe. She devotes her scant free time to his cause in an increasingly obsessive manner. Michael’s challenge is to be extraordinarily sensitive to people and objects. It’s as much a curse as a talent, but it enables him to see things such as objects in peoples’ pockets, to identify where a body has been buried and to attempt to earn a living from working out where oil is located.
As Michael’s health fails and his powers recede in the face of physical weakness, Hilda despairs of securing his legacy for posterity. The commercial world is not kind to him, and his uncompromising personality doesn’t help him in dealing with journalists. Finally, she is forced into desperate measures to prevent the gift from dying with him.
Although I was all primed for a science-fiction story, as the novel progressed, I was left to conclude that brief references to Michael’s gift were the sole reason that the label had been applied. Jaeger’s better-known story The Question Mark was set two hundred years into the future, so it is possible that the categorisation of her work carried over into this book as well, with its slender mention of psychic skills that aren’t ever really explained or examined more thoroughly. It is set entirely in our world, in what is very recognisably the Britain of the 1920s. It is a very finely written work of realism, but the speculative elements are minimal.
The whole story, which is short and really quite simple, is told via the point of view of Ralph Standring. This provides distance from Michael’s strange abilities and would under other circumstances, present the opportunity for these powers to be assessed objectively. However, Ralph’s love of Hilda makes him increasingly unreliable as a narrator who states openly that he wishes Michael didn’t exist. As a literary novel about the challenges presented to minorities, including a well-educated woman like Hilda and a man such as Michael who is sensitive emotionally and prone to ill health and for whom the socially approved model of masculinity as embodied by Ralph is a cross to bear, this is an excellent tale.
Ralph’s lack of fairness and objectivity, his presumptuous assumption of the exclusive right to the only correct opinion on any subject, are subtly presented over 191 pages. Time and again, I found myself reflecting upon how swiftly the patriarchy steps forward even today to talk down minorities and shush them into silence. I was struck by how painfully ever-present this must have felt a century ago, and by how important this book is as a portrait of where the feminist struggle had reached in 1927.
Notwithstanding its minimal speculative content, I enjoyed this book immensely.