There are some science fiction stories that you read, enjoy, but when you encounter them again months or years later, you don’t remember them until you have nearly completed re-reading them. Richard Cowper’s “The Hertford Manuscript” is one of those tales for me.
I think that I read it for the first time in the fall of 1976, shortly after my mother, oldest sister, and I had moved to southwest Washington some months after my parents’ divorce was finalized. My subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had lapsed not long before we moved, but I had been happy to discover that the public library in our new home town subscribed to the magazine. A couple times a month I spent a couple hours at the library reading the magazine, and I am fairly certain I read the October issue, which contained “The Hertford Manuscript” on one of those visits.
I definitely read the story a subsequent time when I bought the paperback of Donald Wolheim’s anothology, The 1977 Annual World’s Best SF a couple years later at the used bookstore. And since I re-read stories in that collection off and on over the next seven or eight years, I probably read it again several times.
Each time I’ve read the story, I began to suspect that the story was going to be a Lovecraftian tale, even with the hints in a completely different direction. And then each time there’s a point where I say to my self, “Oh! I think I remember this story…” Including when I re-read it this week.
The tale starts slow. Our narrator, Francis Decressie, tells of us of his eccentric Great Aunt Victoria, whose husband died in World War I, leaving her to run a rare books business, which she excelled at for many years. She occasionally told slightly scandalous stories of her youth when she was acquainted with H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. When his Great Aunt dies, her will bequeaths on him a 17th Century Registry—specifically a list of the admissions, discharges, and deaths of patients at a Franciscan Charity Hostel/Hospital in London.
In addition to the ordinary 17th century pages covered with small columns of very compact writing, are a number of pages that don’t match the others. The paper is just as old, but it is clearly manufactured using more modern methods, and the handwriting is very different than the rest of the register. And it appears to be a journal.
The narrator then reproduces the journal, and we find ourselves following Dr Robert Pensley, an acquaintance of H.G. Wells, as he recounts how, having completed his journey into the far future, meeting the Eloi and escaping the Morlocks to return to his own time and recount his findings to some friends, had undertaken a journey into the distant past. Except one of the quartz crystals in the mechanism of the machine breaks (he attributes this to damage inflicted by the Morlocks), trapping Pensley in 1665 England—right when the Plague is ravaging the land.
Pensley must find a jeweler or lens maker to create a replacement crystal, and has to deal with all of the problems of a nation in panic over an illness they do not understand. There are increasingly amusing attempts by Pensley to convince various authorities that the illness is spread by fleas on the rats. The lens-maker has difficulty tracking down a large enough piece of quartz, and various other things go wrong over the course of the tale.
The story ends with a few pages of the narrator explaining how he tried to prove that the pages were a hoax, but experts all agree the book has not be taken apart and restitched since the late 1600s, and he does find various bits and pieces of obscure historical evidence to back up some of the minor details the journal recounts.
And that’s it. The story ends with a philosophical observation about tragedy by the narrator.
The tale told in the enclosed journal was very engaging. The descriptions of the time traveler’s experiences in the mid-1600s pull you right into the tale. Cowper’s attention to historical detail is something that is seen in many of his other works, and serves him quite well here. The framing story is written in the style of a 19th century novel, evoking Dickens and Anthony Trollope and even a bit of Bram Stoker. Which is a little out of place given that the narrator is living in the late 20th Century, but is a nice homage to Wells.
As a kind of sequel to The Time Machine the story works well enough. The framing sequence is not quite as good as the time traveler’s journal. Especially the ending, which I found a little flat. I wanted more. I’m not sure how, exactly, but rather than leaving me wondering what happened next, it felt like he left out something.
So it was enjoyable, but not a mind-boggling revelation. Still, each time I read it, I recognize certain minor details that stuck with me, and have resonated with some of the ideas I’ve tried my hand at in my own stories. Every story we read doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. Sometimes merely good is good enough.