Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses is a mostly forgotten piece of fascinating early 20th century science fiction recently brought back to the fore by the British Library. A first person narrative looking back at a set of events surrounding one man, he finds that he is telling a different story than the one others might wish..
Our narrator is Ralph. Writer and academic, he was expected by his family to marry a young woman named Hilda, educated and from a rather good family. On the surface, he finds this acceptable, not feeling for her a passionate love but finding her acceptable and interesting, even seeming overall pleased with her academic interests. He writes of this past fact in a mostly detached fashion, and the reader knows that another man is going to come into play before long, based upon his commentary.
That man is Michael Bristowe. He seems nervous, detached at times, and quite possibly has a supernatural ability to sense and understand various things others can’t. At the beginning, these range from basic water divining to detecting murders under the ground, although his abilities quickly develop beyond this with training.
When Michael finds the place where a murdered woman’s body has been disposed of, he becomes something of a celebrity. He gives interviews, and even attempts to aid the police in finding a missing girl. These incidents start to lead to his downfall as he develops an increasing taste for the fame and the money that comes with this attention. These, combined with difficulty finding a profitable use for his abilities mean he is increasingly reliant on Hilda for both attention and basic sustenance.
Neither are developments Ralph approves of, and while he claims to not have seen Michael as a romantic rival at the time, he also grows increasingly jealous of Hilda’s devotion to Ralph, and what Ralph sees as a need for nuptials between himself and the young woman.
As time goes on Hilda grows increasingly obsessed with Michael, even as Ralph grows both more jealous and more distant from them. He attempts multiple times to help Michael, if only for Hilda’s sake, with a fairly universally negative result. Twice he helps with attempts to get Michael work related to his abilities, once with a mining company and another with an oil concern. Both fail, due to Michael’s abilities being far less reliable or useful than the technological means available in the early 20th century.
Indeed, while his abilities come in handy once or twice, it is quickly apparent to the reader that they are not of great practical use. They are unreliable and cause the young man as much harm as good, and have little practical application. While they are often impressive in their own way, characters other than Hilda are quick to note that Michael is less impressive than she thinks he is. The young woman’s obsession with Michael clearly is slowly destroying her in comparison to her past when she was educating herself and making a difference, while having at best a distant interest in Ralph.
By the end of the book a great deal is being made of the importance of passing on traits which have proven useless, particularly by Hilda. This streak of sudden eugenic desire is not supported by Ralph, who finds the idea disturbing. Indeed, while it may relate to his jealousy of Michael, the idea of her marrying solely to produce a “superior” child is downright disgusting to him. A reader in the modern day who picks up on the disturbing racial implications in this idea can find themselves siding with Ralph in the matter, particularly when he makes it quite clear he would rather she fall in love with a man other than himself before marrying Michael solely for the purpose of reproduction.
Ralph has come to see Hilda’s devotion to Michael and the idea of his superiority as a new kind of humanistic religion, and is very disapproving. He expresses a secular, yet less rational, reasoning to be used. It is an interesting concept, and a very nice push against fanaticism. At the same time the possibility that his own frustrated desires have come into play is hard to deny, which leaves Ralph as hardly perfect or desirable.
A feminist interpretation of this book, a man’s obsession with a woman who was destroyed by her obsession with another man, is all too easy to make. The fact that Ralph, the narrator, is uncomfortably obsessed with Hilda raises questions about this, and his general support for educated women in concept, if not fact, helps lend the entire story a number of interpretations.
I should note that after the text of the novel itself comes a piece written by Susan J. Leonardi that presents a lot of thought on a feminist interpretation of the novel, and is very interesting and well worth a read. It is far from the only way to interpret the book, and indeed its support for Hilda’s decision unintentionally endorses eugenics in a fashion, yet is nonetheless well thought-out and interesting. Definitely worth including in the volume, though absolutely not to be read before the novel itself.
The cover design is by one Jason Anscomb, and the imagery is serviceable enough, an illustration of a plant through a microscope. It does not illustrate a particular scene in the book, yet the ability to see inside objects and substances is well represented by it.
Overall this is an extremely enjoyable book, one that is easy to recommend. A forgotten piece of early 20th century science fiction might be interesting on its own, but the added factors of it being a lost piece of feminist fiction, and for that matter an almost forgotten woman author working in that field so early, makes it an exceptional piece for study. Yet even merely as a 1927 novel it is interesting and engaging.
(British Library Press 2020)