The Sorrows of (Not So) Young Werdna

Inevitably this contains several plot spoilers


In criticism we – I – start from where we know and head into new territory. We have a political or critical viewpoint – Marxism, feminism, aesthetics – and apply it to a new text. Or we use a text to explain an idea or an idea to explain a text. (There’s a line somewhere from Mallarmé – shameless name drop – about the folly of saying clearly what the author has said opaquely.) We needn’t reinvent the wheel, of course, we build on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes people haven’t seen the giants, so we get people suggesting that no one has written about Katherine Burdekind or that everything thinks John Wyndham is cosy, when, in fact, he isn’t.

So there I was, trying to write a conference paper on “Random Quest” (1961) by John Wyndham. In fact, as it was for an alternate history conference, the idea was to write about Quest for Love (Ralph Thomas, 1971), based on “Random Quest”, because I need to focus on film. Of course, there have been two television versions, one from the anthology series Out of the Unknown (but lost) and a BBC4 version I’ve yet to see. But I found the film on a well-known video site and bought the DVD at the BFI. The story is identical in both: the scientist Colin Trafford travels between realities thanks to a physics experiment and meets and falls in love with Ottilie Harshom; when he returns to reality and seeks her counterpart.

So, off to do the secondary research and there’s an entry at the SFE, and a review in the Monthly Film Bulletin, but after that, nothing. In fact, there is ridiculously little written on Wyndham and almost nothing on the short stories. I looked at Beth Moore’s doctorate on him, and whilst the story is in the bibliography, there’s no discussion I can find. Useful stuff on the cosy catastrophe debate.

Obviously I turned to Wikipedia, to find this interesting quotation:

Random Quest works well as both a science fiction story and as a love story, and is rightly accounted one of Wyndham’s best. Still, a closer look reveals some dangling ends. (…) What happened to the other Ottilie in the other world? Supposedly the nasty other Colin Trafford came back, to cause her even more heartbreak. Our Colin Trafford is a physicist, he knows what experiment accidentally sent him to the other world. How come he does not even consider repeating that experiment under controlled conditions? (…) And is Belinda Gale truly Ottilie? The other Colin Trafford was a completely different man, with a very different personality, though both Colin Traffords shared the very same childhood and diverged only at 10 or 11. Ottilie and Belinda diverged from each other even before birth, growing up each with a different name, with a different father, in a different country. There is every reason to think that Belinda would be a completely different person. Colin thinking of her as being just a “copy” of another woman from another world might not be the best beginning for a marriage.(…) The film made on the base of the story resolves all these problems, by having the other world’s Ottilie die suddenly of a congenital heart defect of which she was tragically not aware. Thus, Colin Trafford has nothing to seek in that world – the only Ottilie he can still hope to find is the one in our world. And also, whether or not this other Ottilie is the same person that he fell in love with, he must find and warn her to take care of her heart defect, before it kills her, too. Anything else can wait until her life is saved. (…) A film adaptation is not always more logically consistent than the literary original. In this case, it is. (Eugene Stubbs)

However, I can’t seem to find any trace of this source in the copyright library catalogues or on Amazon. We seem to have a false reference (and a wikieditor who largely wrote on alternate history). Very odd.

For a while, I thought that I could focus on the early 1970s film context – I’d stumbled across an article on the woman-in-peril film, wondering if a man – albeit a particle physicist – obsessively searching for a woman would be comparable, but it turned out it wasn’t, or at least not usefully. I thought of the context of Ralph Thomas and got hold of the same director’s Percy’s Progress (and need to get hold of Percy), sex comedies about penis transplants, for a comparison to early 1970s sf by Thomas, but haven’t yet followed through. It felt as if there was enough in comparing the film and its original, with a play on the cosy catastrophe pattern in the film. How convenient it is, after all, that the real world Ottilie is findable and is willing to give the time of day to the single man Trafford.

Then a few days before the conference I stumbled across something. I’d googled Ottilie, figuring it was – by the story’s definition – a rare name and someone may have discussed it. It’s a female version of Otto, and there are two key earlier exemplars.

First, a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson:

“To Ottilie”

You remember,
I suppose,
How the August sun arose,
And how his face
Woke to trill and carolette
All the cages that were set
About the place.

In the tender morning light
All around lay strange and bright
And still and sweet,
And the gray doves unafraid
Went their morning promenade
Along the street.

I’ve yet to find any commentary on this poem – and it’s not even in the Collected Poems  of 1950, being apparently first published (or collected) in 1918. I’m not convinced that this will be of any use.

More interesting, however, is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities, 1809), a novel about a middle-aged couple, Eduard and Charlotte, on their second marriages, who are building a new house and feel that it needs a third party to complete it and a fourth for balance. Eduard reckons they should invite his old mucker and Charlotte’s old flame, the Captain (who is called Otto, it seems), and she suggests they should invite Ottilie, who she had once match made for Eduard. The house guests arrive, there is much talk and a certain amount of shenanigans (what the Penguin editor, R.J. Hollingdale, calls “Georgie Porgie”) and before you know it Charlotte has a baby called Otto, Otto drowns in the lake with Ottilie and Ottilie starves to death.

Given that Ottilie dies, according to one article I read at the end of book one (of two), and the alternate Ottilie does too, this felt suggestive. But did John Wyndham read this novel?

Um, next question.

Eventually, David Ketterer will finish and publish the biography, with an index entry for
Wyndham, reading, influence of Goethe
Or I could see if I can go through all the letters and see if he writes to Walter Gillings or John Carnell, saying, “Guys…”

I have to say I’m unperturbed, but I can see that it would bother people.

Of course, what I’d forgotten is in the story Ottilie doesn’t die, that’s a Brucie bonus for the film. So I also need to find if the script writer read the novel…

The Elective Affinities of the novel is a theory in chemistry that suggests that when a certain two chemicals [AB] are brought together with another two chemicals [CD], then A will join with D and C with B. A is Eduard, B is Charlotte, C is the Captain and D is Ottilie. They couldn’t help themselves. It was the chemistry what done it.

An early science-fiction novel, then.

It also has a useful definition of romantic comedy:

In comedy marriage is depicted as the final goal of desires whose fulfilment is postponed and hindered for the duration of several acts, and the instant it is achieved the curtain falls and that moment of satisfaction reverberates in us.

Somewhere, also in Goethe (although for some reason I thought it was Henry James) is the line “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.”

Ah, Stoppard, who wrote a play called The Real Thing (1982) and whose 1809 set Arcadia (1993) may have been inspired by Elective Affinities.

Small world.

It also turns out that Walter Benjamin wrote an article, “Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften”, which I’m hoping is in one of the volumes of selected writings, but a visit to another library will be needed for that. I’d say that this was going too far away from Wyndham, but what I’ve read on the article has been suggestive so far.

I think this is heading into new territory.




  • Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings 1913-1926. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1996.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Elective Affinities, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. London: Penguin,  1969.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Elective Affinities: A Novel, translated by David Constantine. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics,  1999.
  • Hutchings, Peter. “‘I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill’: The ‘Women in Peril’ Thriller in 1970s British Film and Television,” Visual Culture in Britain, 10(1) (2009): 53-69.
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis. Collected Poems, edited by Janet Adam Smith. London: Hart-Davis, 1950.
  • Stoppard, Tom.  Arcadia. London: Faber, 1993.
  • Stubbs, Eugene. “The Role of the Improbable,” in Barbara Katz, Love Themes in Detective, Science Fiction and War.
  • Wilson III, Raymond J. “Gardens in Stoppard, Austen, and Goethe,” Analecta Husserliana 78 (2003): 59–66.
  • Wymer, Rowland. “How ‘Safe’ is John Wyndham? A Closer Look at His Work, With Particular Reference to The Chrysalids,Foundation 55 (1992): 25-36.



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