Victorian Popular Fictions 5.1 4 Bulfin


“Fast lapsing back into barbarism”: Social Evolution, the Myth of Progress and the Gothic Past in Late-Victorian Invasion and Catastrophe Fiction

Ailise Bulfin

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While neo-barbarian dystopian futures are typically associated with contemporary popular culture, they were not, in fact, uncommon in late-Victorian popular fiction, especially in the politically charged, future-oriented popular fiction subgenres of invasion fiction and catastrophe fiction. Focusing on a representative tale from each subgenre – George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff (1894) and Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) – this article shows how they made innovative use of the gothic to show the future following a large-scale war or natural disaster as a decline back into an exaggerated version of the barbaric past. Reworking the familiar gothic trope of doomed inheritance, the tales showed nemesis occurring not on an individual or familial level, but on an extensive societal scale in keeping with their sweeping narratives of mass death and its aftermath. In presenting a post-catastrophe relapse to barbarism, the tales were extrapolating from the social evolution theories of Herbert Spencer and Walter Bagehot which, though delineating the forward tendency of western social progress, allowed the fearful corollary that in periods of crisis advanced societies might also regress. While popular fiction’s engagement with theories of biological degeneration has been well researched, engagements with these theories of societal reversion have received less attention. Applying them to invasion and catastrophe fiction elucidates how the tales used their regressive futures to warn hubristic nineteenth-century modernity about its potential comeuppance if it continued to either aggressively militarise or unthinkingly exploit the non-human world, two major negative social tendencies which were the source of considerable contemporary anxiety.



invasion fiction; catastrophe fiction; gothic; social evolution; barbarism; the past; progress; war; natural disaster; ecocriticism


Date of Acceptance: 27 June 2023

Date of Publication: 5 July 2023

Double Blind Peer Reviewed


Recommended Citation:

Bulfin, Ailise. 2023. “‘Fast lapsing back into barbarism’: Social Evolution, the Myth of Progress and the Gothic Past in Late-Victorian Invasion and Catastrophe Fiction.” Victorian Popular Fictions, 5.1: 37-57. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI:

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