Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.
Muriel Jaeger, known to her friends as ‘Jim’, was a member of the ‘Mutual Admiration Society’, a writing group formed by half a dozen young women at Somerville College, Oxford in 1912, including Dorothy L. Sayers. Jaeger’s own career as a writer, however, was rather less successful; her novels did not, for whatever reason, capture the public fancy, while, according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Jaeger ‘had an extremely combative response to criticism’. And yet, if the British Library reissues of her first two novels are anything to go by, Jaeger’s writing shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, even if it wasn’t actually great science fiction.
Her first novel, The Question Mark (1926), a response to the utopian fiction of an earlier generation, showed a world divided between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘normals’, exploring the potential consequences of such a division. Like many utopian fictions, it lacked much in the way of a plot, but Jaeger’s prose was clean and vigorous, and she was clearly sympathetic to the predicament of women in such a setting.
The Man With Six Senses (1927) is a rather more accomplished work, though it would be stretching things to say it’s truly science fiction. The plot ostensibly focuses on Michael Bristowe, a young man with an extraordinarily well-developed skill as a dowser. Or, rather, he experiences everything around him in a completely different way to the rest of us: the sixth sense of the title. Socially awkward, sickly, with only this ill-defined skill to his name, Bristowe has no idea what to do with himself in a post-war society that valorises soldiers returning from France.
Aware of this, Hilda Torrington, a well-educated young woman, determines to help him, for the simple reason that she believes in his ability, and thinks it may prove of value to society in the future. So far, so good, but Jaeger actually tells the story from the point of view of Ralph Standring, the antithesis of Michael, self-assured, successful, and intent on marrying Hilda, not because he loves her, but because it has always assumed by both his family and hers that they would inevitably do so. But Ralph is disturbed at the changes that university seems to have wrought in Hilda. She treats him as an equal, has views of her own, and wants to discuss his writing with him critically rather than admiringly. She has a flat of her own, a job she likes, working as a secretary for a Mrs Hastings, ‘one of the political women who hoped to be in the next Parliament’ (p. 22), and no inclination to abandon any of this for marriage to Ralph.
Indeed, when Hilda does eventually marry, she chooses Michael, because she believes she should have his child and carry his unusual skills forward into a new generation. It is a calculated decision on her part, rationally considered, a very modern moment. And that, I think, is the key to the novel. While Jaeger may genuinely be interested in exploring the idea of extra-sensory perception and the possibility of a better future for humanity, somehow this recedes into the background as the novel unfolds, even despite Hilda’s devotion to promoting Michael’s abilities. Instead, the reader is treated to the full horror of Ralph’s assumptions about an educated woman’s role in society, as a suitable companion for an educated man, to be interested in his work and not her own. There is something almost comical in his nonplussed response when Hilda finally turns him down, even though it’s perfectly clear all along that Hilda knows precisely what she wants from life.
And that is what makes this novel so fascinating: the crisp, sympathetic and utterly uncompromising portrayal of a young woman determinedly making her own decisions about her life, not as an act of defiance but because she does know what she wants.