Archibald Marshall wrote extensively for the humorous magazine Punch, and in writing a comic fantasy novel he consciously followed in the footsteps of one of Punch’s most famous regular contributors, F. Anstey. Anstey’s usual narrative strategy was to disturb the sternly prim world of the Victorian middle class with the anarchic activity of a single magical entity, but in the same year that Marshall published Upsidonia, Anstey reversed that strategy in In Brief Authority (1915), which takes an English family into a rather sinister fairyland, equipping his customary amiable comedy with a sharper edge.
Marshall does likewise. Beneath the steady stream of jokes that stem from the fundamental absurdity of Upsidonian culture, there is an authentic satirical edge constantly reminding readers that it is the good opinion of others rather than mere material wealth that allows people to be happy, and that possession of the latter without the former cannot do any good.
This is not the whole of the argument, however. In his scathingly acidic portrait of Lord Potter, Marshall informs readers that those who strive too strenuously for respectability become cynical, conscienceless, and cruel. The overweening pride of the “dirty set” is funny because it is ludicrous, but its farcical quality emphasizes that the altogether unfunny ludicrousness of the Lord Potters of the world is no laughing matter. Howard’s initial conviction that the Upsidonians must be hypocritical or self-deluding can hardly help but seduce the agreement of the reader; his ultimate conclusion that they are not might persuade the reader to be more aware of the hypocrisies and delusions that afflict the contemporary obsessively materialistic society.
These submerged arguments save Upsidonia from seeming unduly dated to modern readers. Its politics are out of date (and might always have seemed opaque to American readers unacquainted with the arcana of the English parliamentary system), but its economics are not. Upsidonia might be regarded as the perfect incarnation of the Protestant work ethic, which stresses the virtues of hard work and asceticism. By glorifying production and vilifying consumption, the Upsidonian way of life is a far purer kind of capitalism than the tawdrier kind based on mere greed. All utopias are satires to some extent, and the utopian ambitions of this particular satire demand a certain respect. The inhabitants of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) also had a healthy contempt for gold that was not employed for some utilitarian purpose.
The lost race featured in James De Mille’s A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder (1888), which also exhibits a dramatic inversion of conventional values, links contempt for wealth and comfort to an infatuation with darkness and death. Marshall’s Upsidonians are more sensible than that. They enjoy life, but they contrive to do so without the spur of avarice and are therefore largely free from the curse of envy—except for the likes of Lord Potter, for whom the envy of others is a very precious thing. In 1915, with the effects of the war beginning to bite and rationing a real possibility, it was desirable—if not necessary—to remind English people that privation need not be a barrier to the enjoyment of life, and that a descent into relative poverty might involve real gains in the esteem of one’s peers. Upsidonia was an ingeniously artful means to that end.