This ‘Story of a Simple Soul’ is the first bona-fide masterpiece of Wells's comic-pathetic mimetic mode. Lower-middle-class Kipps is a draper's assistant in Folkestone. His life is going nowhere until it is transformed by an out-of-the-blue inheritance of a house and £26,000, and the bulk of the novel explores his various funny and touching fish-out-of-water experiences as he tries to adjust to being so abruptly rich. The funniest and most touching of these involve his hypergamous desires (one of Anthony Burgess's favourite words, that: hypergamy is ‘bedding a woman from a class superior to one's own’). When still a draper Kipps took a woodcarving class on Thursday nights, and fell deeply and hopelessly in love with the young woman who taught it, the beautiful and refined Helen Walshingham. Now that he is rich, and since Helen happens to be financially distressed, he finds himself in a position to propose marriage. She accepts. Kipps is taken in hand by a small circle of the higher-class Folkestonites, in particular a man called Mr Coote, although there is little they can do to raise the tone of Kipps's exuberantly lower-middle-class speech, manner and being.
Kipps is divided into three ‘books’. Book 1 details Kipps's schooldays and his time as a draper's assistant ending, at Chapter 6 ‘The Unexpected’, with his inheritance. Book 2 follows-through into Kipps's new life of wealth and his betrothal to Helen Walshingham; Book 3 is rather disproportionately shorter than the first two, and ties-up the story as (spoiler!) Kipps, feeling increasingly malapropos and miserable, jilts Helen and instead marries his childhood sweetheart and social equal Ann. He then loses almost all his money (the solicitor who had been handling his financial affairs, Helen's younger brother, has speculated it all away) and sets up a little bookshop with what's left. The novel ends happily, with the Kippses new parents, happier as shopkeepers than they ever were as wealthy types, although there's a sort of double-twist, when money Kipps had foolishly put into a theatrical play turns out unexpectedly to have been a golden investment, and he becomes rich again.
But plot-summary really does nothing to convey the flavour of the novel, and it's that flavour that carries the whole: precisely observed, beautifully written, often genuinely funny, touching, charming. Wells renders not one but two whole social milieux out of a weave of specific detail and incident, and has a marvellous eye for the way incongruity parleys embarrassment into a sort of superposition of hilarity and existential agony. Kipps goes through the novel hideously self-conscious and always overwhelmed by the thought of what other people will think of him. In the first third he is worried what better-bred people will think. In the second two thirds it gets worse: he worries what his new friends will think, what Helen will think and what servants, waiters and so on will think of him.
I'd argue this is one of the most remarkable things about Kipps. Quite apart from how droll the book is, how effectively illustrative it is of the social mores of Edwardian English life, how vivid is its characterisation—all those ‘well-made novel’ qualities over which Wells manifests such impressive control—quite apart from all that is the centrality the novel gives to shyness and boredom. I can't think of a better portrait of shyness and boredom in literature. Indeed, when I think how hugely important both those qualities are in most people's lives (my own early existence for instance) I'm rather boggled by their absence from capital-L Literature. I suppose the general bias towards can-do ‘relatable’ heroes and action adventure drowns all that out. But surely the majority of us are not like that. The young Kipps, pre-legacy, is bored by the endless routine of his job in the draper's shop, but even more bored on the days he doesn't have to work.
On Sundays he was obliged to go to church once, and commonly he went twice, for there was nothing else to do. He sat in the free seats at the back; he was too shy to sing, and not always clever enough to keep his place in the prayer-book, and he rarely listened to the sermon. But he had developed a sort of idea that going to church had a tendency to alleviate life. His aunt wanted to have him confirmed, but he evaded this ceremony for some years.Money ought to alleviate this tedium; but in a way only makes it worse. Kipps's agony at having to make social calls and go to parties, as his fiancée insists he does, is beautifully and painfully rendered. These sections remind me, rather, of Stevie Smith:
In the intervals between services he walked about Folkestone with an air of looking for something. Folkestone was not so interesting on Sundays as on week-days, because the shops were shut. Sometimes the apprentice next above him would condescend to go with him; but when the apprentice next but one above him condescended to go with the apprentice next above him, then Kipps, being habited as yet in ready-made clothes without tails, and unsuitable therefore to appear in such company, went alone ... He would sometimes walk up and down the Leas between twenty and thirty times after supper, desiring much the courage to speak to some other person in the multitude similarly employed. Almost invariably he ended his Sunday footsore.
He never read a book; there were none for him to read, and, besides ... he had no taste that way. [Kipps, 49-50]
Into the dark nightHow many of us feel that way! Where are the discussions of shyness as a cultural and personal reality, anyway? Who are the shy heroes of literature? Build that critical and cultural discourse, and maybe Kipps will be recognised as the first great masterpiece of a ubiquitous phenomenon. Towards the end of book 2 Kipps, now rich, and having booked himself into a luxury hotel, is too shy to get himself lunch. The whole scene a masterpiece in the painful comedy of social awkwardness.
Resignedly I go,
I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know,
I do not fear the night above
As I fear the friends below.
He would have liked something to eat very much now, but his inbred terror of the table was very strong. He did at last get by a porter in uniform towards the dining-room, but at the sight of a number of waiters and tables, with remarkable complications of knives and glasses, terror seized him, and he backed out again, with a mumbled remark to the waiter in the doorway about this not being the way. He hovered in the hall and lounge until he thought the presiding porter regarded him with suspicion, and then went up to his room again by the staircase. [Kipps, 312]He decides to go to an outside restaurant instead, but that plan goes no better.
He tried to find a place to suit him soon enough. He tried to remember the sort of things Walshingham [his well-bred brother-in-law to be] had ordered. Before all things he didn't want to go into a place and look like a fool ... He drifted on to a neat window with champagne bottles, a dish of asparagus and a framed menu of a two shilling lunch. He was about to enter, when fortunately he perceived two waiters looking at him over the back screen of the window with a most ironical expression, and he sheered off at once. There was a wonderful smell of hot food half way down Fleet Street and a nice looking Tavern with several doors, but he could not decide which door. His nerve was going under the strain. [Kipps, 313]Of course, if Kipps were nothing more than this sort of endlessly shrinking violet he would get pretty wearing, and more to the point would be too passive and uninteresting to make for a great character. Wells is much cannier than that, threading Kipps's acute, sometimes crippling shyness and embarrassment with strands of a more bumptious, thrusting youthful energy. There are just enough glimpses of this flipabout assertive Kipps (the last thing he says in the novel is: ‘I don't suppose there ever was a chap quite like me before!’—although he does then qualify that with ‘Oo! I dunno’) to ratify Jonathan Frantzen's famous claim, in Purity, that a combination of moral absolutism and a sense of superiority ‘is so often the secret heart of shyness’. The best critical book on this topic that I know is Christopher Ricks's Keats and Embarrassment (Clarendon Press 1984), although it doesn't mention Wells at all. But I'll return to Ricks after a digression on cutting.
It took a long time for Wells to stitch Kipps together. He started writing the first version in 1898 under the working-title The Wealth of Mr. Waddy. According to Harris Wilson, who has examined the complicated MSS held in the Wells Archive of the University of Illinois Urbana: ‘the six-thousand-odd sheets written intermittently over a period of seven years’ contain ‘literally scores of false starts, digressions, and abandoned episodes.’ Part 3 is half the size of Part 1 and a third the size of Part 2, a disproportion that can in part be explained by the fact Wells cut an 11,000-word episode of pretty undiluted political and utopian speculation from this last potion, a reminder that he was working on the final draft of Kipps at the same time as writing Mankind in the Making and A Modern Utopia. ‘Wells, in this episode,’ notes Wilson, ‘slips into the discursive and didactic; his characters are almost forgotten as they expound his own social ideas and criticism’. So we can be glad Wells had the sense to bin the whole lot.
Now, we could take this protracted and repeatedly revised and cut-about genesis as evidence of Wells's looseness of aesthetic construction: chucking, as it were, stuff at the wall of the novel and seeing what stuck. In the Experiment in Autobiography Wells says surprisingly little about Kipps, although it does come up briefly in a section titled ‘Whether I Am A Novelist’ that is mostly given over to a more-or-less self-deprecating account of discussions he had with Henry James over the novelist's art. James, says Wells, had high standards for their respective work: ‘he thought of [the Novel] as an Art Form and of novelists as artists of a very special and exalted type’. Wells insists that he always thought of it on the contrary as a mode of communication, of reaching and teaching people. Indeed he reports that James regretted he found himself unable to take Wells's novels ‘in any aesthetic or “literary” relation at all’, and Wells concedes the point:
Tried by Henry James's standards I doubt if any of my novels can be taken in any other fashion. There are flashes and veins of character duly “treated” and living individuals in many of them, but none that satisfy his requirements fully. A lot of Kipps may pass, some of Tono Bungay, Mr. Britling Sees It Through and Joan and Peter and let me add, I have a weakness for Lady Harman and for Theodore Bulpington and—— But I will not run on. These are pleas in extenuation. The main indictment is sound, that I sketch out scenes and individuals, often quite crudely, and resort even to conventional types and symbols, in order to get on to a discussion of relationships. The important point which I tried to argue with Henry James was that the novel of completely consistent characterization arranged beautifully in a story and painted deep and round and solid, no more exhausts the possibilities of the novel, than the art of Velasquez exhausts the possibilities of the painted picture. [Experiment in Autobiography, 414]The case for Kipps is made on the basis of its characterisation; and I've mentioned on this blog before the old academic-critical prejudice that prefers James ‘the artist’ to Wells the journalist and sciencefictioneer. And, as before, I'm going to make the case that the long gestation of Kipps indexes not slapdashness but on the contrary, is evidence of a conscious literary artist honing and perfecting a very tightly constructed work of literary art. Regardless of what Wells himself might say.
This tightness of construction depends upon the deployment of a network of thematic and symbolic patterns and textual structures that underlie what seems, on the surface, to be a peripatetic set of narrative episodes loosely accumulated around the central character of Arthur Kipps himself. There are, I would say, five sets of these symbolic-representation nexuses, and I could write a blog post as long as this one (no! please! I hear you cry) about every one of them. I could for instance talk about the theatrical trope, in which scenes from the vulgar theatre, and Chitterlow's ridiculous play about a Beetle, are artfully juxtaposed with the concept of well-bred society as an endless quasi-dramatic performance, the script of which is too complex and baffling for Kipps to learn; or about the way the bicycle is used to trope class consciousness, mobility and power throughout; or about the way the novel uses carefully mapped-out liminal spaces, from basements and side-doors to the beach itself, from hotels to unbuilt houses, to develop its themes; or on a different level I could talk about the way Wells works with a cleverly understated quasi-Joycean set of language games, in which Kipps's non-RP pronunciation is mirrored in, for instance, the Anagram Tea to which, to Kipps's great terror, he is invited.
This repeated mode of estranging words, of turning them from lucid token of communication into baffling blanks, finds its wonderful apotheosis in the novel's conclusion, in which Kipps who doesn't read books ends up a bookseller, and the narrator of Kipps can boast that his novel about Kipps is for sale in Kipps's shop, and Kipps doesn't even realise this because Kipps never reads.
In each of these four cases I would argue that Wells very carefully positions references and allusions not only to unify the text longitudinally, as it were (that is, from the start of the novel to its end), but also to run them in parallel and connect them; such that each nexus of symbolic representation, in its way, combines collectively to adumbrate an overarching theme about, broadly, restraint, obstruction or artificiality on the one hand, and freedom, flow and motion on the other. In each of case, as with the larger texture of the whole novel, there is such a wealth of incidental detail in novel, so many specific qualia invoked in order to create a sense of verisimilitude, of a thickness of representation in the matter of lived experience, it is striking to think how un-random all these details are. He knew how to write, did Wells.
That said, instead of talking in greater detail about those four I want to spend a little time on a fifth unifying principle: the cut. It may be that ‘cutting’ is the key trope by which the novel provides for its own architectonic wholeness, linking the other four previously mentioned and focussing the main force of what the novel is trying to say. Let me explain what I mean.
In a literal sense cut means severing or slicing something, cutting it in half or cutting it open. The word, of course, has other meanings that are relevant to the story of Kipps. Most obviously, to ‘cut’ someone, socially, is pointedly to refuse to engage with them, to snub them, to perform a sort of social exile upon them because they have, in some way, violated the codes of society. These two main meanings of ‘cut’ are joined by a third, which I'll come to in a little while, and together these three coordinate the symbolic narrative of the novel.
Kipps starts with one of its most iconic moments, as adolescent Kipps and his childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick (literally the girl next door) plight their mutual troth by cutting a sixpenny-piece in two such that each holds half as keepsake of the other (when David Heneker adapted Kipps as hit musical in 1963 he actually renamed it Half a Sixpence). Then early in the novel there are two significant episodes that both involve cuts. First Book 1 chapter 3, at the Woodworking class where Kipps meets and falls in love with his teacher Miss Walshingham, and where, clumsily opening a window, he cuts his wrist.
He turned dolefully. “I'm tremendously sorry,” he said in answer to the accusation in Miss Walshingham's eyes. “I didn't think it would break like that,”—as if he had expected it to break in some quite different and entirely more satisfactory manner. The boy with the gift of wood-carving having stared at Kipps' face for a moment, became involved in a Laocoon struggle with a giggle.This scene extends, drolly enough, for some time; and characters later in the novel refer back to it. Then the next chapter introduces the actor-dramatist manqué Chitterlow, who, riding his bicycle, literally collides with Kipps, knocking him over and cutting open his trousers: ‘“Here's the back of my trouser leg all tore down,” said Kipps, “and I believe I'm bleeding”.’ . Chitterlow invites Kipps back to his digs ostensibly to sew up this cut, although the cut never gets sewn; and this leads directly to Kipps discovering that he has inherited money. In the second half of the novel these physical cuts are replaced by emotional ones. Having randomly acquired enough money to win Miss Walshingham (because of her financially-straitened circumstances), Kipps struggles to fit into her higher-class circles: his accent is still too common, and his fancy new clothes indices of him trying too hard. Walshingham takes it on herself to ‘educate’ him on these matters; Kipps has come calling wearing a fancy silk hat of which he is particularly proud, and for him the best word to describe the experience is cutting:
“You've cut your wrist,” said one of the girl friends, standing up and pointing. She was a pleasant-faced, greatly freckled girl, with a helpful disposition, and she said “You've cut your wrist,” as brightly as if she had been a trained nurse.
Kipps looked down, and saw a swift line of scarlet rush down his hand. He perceived the other man student regarding this with magnified eyes. “You have cut your wrist,” said Miss Walshingham, and Kipps regarded his damage with greater interest. [Kipps, 74-75]
“And then there's dress,” said Helen, taking up her thread again.She perseveres with this task, to Kipps's continuing, if hidden, distress.
Kipps became pink, but he remained respectfully attentive.
“You don't mind?” she said.
“You mustn't be too—too dressy. It's possible to be over-conventional, over-elaborate. It makes you look like a shop—like a common, well-off person. There's a sort of easiness that is better. A real gentleman looks right, without looking as though he had tried to be right.”
“Jest as though 'e'd put on what came first?” said the pupil, in a faded voice.
“Not exactly that, but a sort of ease.”
Kipps nodded his head intelligently. In his heart he was kicking his silk hat about the room in an ecstasy of disappointment. [Kipps, 243]
She took him in hand in perfect good faith. She told him things about his accent, she told him things about his bearing, about his costume and his way of looking at things. She thrust the blade of her intelligence into the tenderest corners of Kipps' secret vanity, she slashed his most intimate pride to bleeding tatters. [Kipps, 260-61]Poor old cut-up Kipps! It's after this, and with a proleptic glimpse of the direction the story is going, that the narrator reverts to the society meaning of the word ‘cut’, with a finely judged gentle comic irony:
Charitable as one may be, one must admit there are people who do things, impossible things; people who place themselves ‘out of it’ in countless ways; people, moreover, who are by a sort of predestination out of it from the beginning, and against these Society has invented a terrible protection for its Cootery, the Cut. The cut is no joke for anyone. It is excommunication. You may be cut by an individual, you may be cut by a set or you may be—and this is so tragic that beautiful romances have been written about it—‘Cut by the County.’ One figures Coote discharging this last duty and cutting somebody—Coote, erect and pale, never speaking, going past with eyes of pitiless slate, lower jaw protruding a little, face pursed up and cold and stiff. [Kipps, 280-81]‘It never dawned upon Kipps,’ the narrator adds, deadpan, ‘that he would one day have to face this terrible front, to be to Coote not only as one dead, but as one gone more than a stage or so in decay, cut and passed, banned and outcast for ever.’ And as this inevitable catastrophe approaches, Kipps is cut again physically (‘Kipps got up late, cut his chin while shaving, kicked a slipper into his sponge bath and said, “Desh!”’ ). He realises he doesn't love Helen, does love Ann, and in a panic he rushes off to London—he cuts and runs, we might say.
Then, after the scene in the London hotel where he is too shy to arrange for his own lunch mentioned above, he comes to an understanding about his own desires. Instead of tying the knot with Helen he cuts it: jilts her and elopes with Ann. All this cutting reaches a kind of climax in the Book 3, after Kipps has married Ann, and just before he discovers he has lost all his money. Kipps goes for a walk in the rain wearing an elaborate macintosh and leggings, but by the time he gets into town the rainclouds have dispersed and the sun is shining brightly: ‘the right thing for such a day as this was a light overcoat and an umbrella’ and the various promenaders, to Kipps's huge embarrassment, look at him oddly. Then he chances upon Coote: his former chaperon into higher society now outraged at Kipps's desertion of Helen, a man whose very name is a variant on the word ‘cut’.
He already felt the most abject and propitiatory of social outcasts when he came upon Coote, and Coote finished him. He passed within a yard of Coote. Coote was coming along towards the Leas, and when Kipps saw him his legs hesitated about their office and he seemed to himself to stagger about all over the footpath. At the sight of him Coote started visibly. Then a sort of rigor vitae passed through his frame, his jaw protruded and errant bubbles of air seemed to escape and run about beneath his loose skin. (Seemed I say—I am perfectly well aware that there is really connective tissue in Coote as in all of us to prevent anything of the sort.) His eyes fixed themselves on the horizon and glazed. As he went by Kipps could hear his even, resolute breathing. He went by, and Kipps staggered on into a universe of dead cats and dust heaps, rind and ashes—cut! Cut! [Kipps, 429]This reiterated physical and metaphorical cutting is the novel's way of driving home Kipps's disconnection from the corpus civile, at least as that latter quantity is defined by the hidebound old-fashioned pettiness of provincial English respectability. That Kipps is, in some existential, if comico-pathetic, way cut-off from his various dreams is the larger logic of the book. It's why working in a draper's is the ‘right’ way for Wells to start his character's journey,. After all: what does a draper's shop do, except is cut up cloth to sell?
What strikes me as really remarkable is the way this thematic of ‘cutting’ is so sedulously connected by Wells to the other nexuses of semantic-symbolic unity in the novel—so: Kipps's first encounter with the bicycle is when Chitterlow collides with him, cutting his trouser and leg; and the way the Anagram Tea consists of ‘cutting up’ and rearranging words (and the way Kipps himself is cut-up by the experience of it); and the way the landscape is sliced-through or cut-up in ways that actualise the narrative. Even Chitterlow's theatrical ambitions connect to this: for when he has wealth Kipps invests in Chitterlow's absurd play (not because he believes it will succeed but because he thinks he owes Chitterlow for alerting him to the fact of his inheritance). The twist is that right at the end of the novel the play becomes a huge hit, generating enormous amounts of money from which Kipps can then take his cut.
This may appear to you strained, but I stand by it. Quite apart from anything else, it speaks to Wells's decision to change the name of his protagonist from ‘Waddy’ to ‘Kipps’. Now you might believe, as I myself once did, that this name is an Anagram Tea version of [Dic]k[en]s' Pip, since Great Expectations is the ur-novel of the doomed attempt by a good-hearted lower-class lad to turn himself into a gentleman. But I now suggest a different derivation. Kip, kipp or kyppe (plural kips) means ‘the untanned hide of a young or small beast, such as a calf, lamb, or young goat’, and also ‘the leather made from such hide; kip leather’. That is to say it means a fabric that has been literally cut from the body of a young beast. Kip, the young draper's assistant, is named for an artefact of cutting.
There's more to say here, and it brings back the Christopher Ricks book on Keats I mention above. Because, of course, ‘cut’ has another meaning—an indecent one—a meaning also important to this novel: for it is, of course, an old English word for ‘vagina’, the part of the human body that is a sort of cut in the flesh (as opposed to the bulbous extrusion of the male genitals). In Twelfth Night Malvolio picks up the forged-letter he believes to have been written by his mistress Olivia, and declares: ‘by my life, this is my lady's hand: these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's, and thus she makes her great P’. It's not sophisticated humour, although that doesn't mean it isn't funny; and cut at least avoids the sheer aggressive unpleasantness of the word's modern derivative, cunt.
Kipps, as novel, is about a young man caught between the choice of two beautiful women, and it ends with him choosing one, marrying her and fathering a child. So it is, in one unavoidable sense, a novel about sex. But Kipps himself is, as per the code of lower-middle-class respectability, enormously inhibited about sexual matters. Although, at the top of this post, I describe the Kipps/Helen narrative as a drama of hypergamy, ‘bedding a woman from a class superior to one's own’, there is nothing of the bedroom whatsoever in Kipp's yearning after the beautiful Helen. They never kiss; they are rarely even alone together. She is in his eyes more angel than fleshly woman, and the longer their engagement goes on, and the closer Kipps comes to his actual wedding night, the more alarmed he becomes at the prospect. When, as a prelude to jilting her, he runs off to London and stays in the Royal Grand he is prudishly outraged by the ladies' evening attire in the dining room.
He felt he was getting on. He leant back after his soup, a man of the world, and then slowly brought his eyes around to the ladies in evening dress on his right....Staring at the flesh these women are displaying ‘he found a waiter regarding him and blushed deeply. He did not look again for some time, and became confused about his knife and fork over the fish.’ Fish. Ah, OK. ‘His ears became violently red’. This awkwardness, the specifically erotic component of Kipps's vast shyness, is a piece of reportage, reflecting the actual sexual mores of the ‘respectable’ lower middle classes of 1905. It's more than that, though, in the pattern of the novel. It connects with the mystery of Kipps's mother. We gather, without it ever being spelled out in so many words, that young Kipps is raised by his elderly uncle and aunt because his mother (whom he, and we, never meet) had him illegitimately. Conceivably, connecting to the novel's thematic nexuses, she was an actress, which is to say prostitute; somebody living in the liminal spaces of polite society, someone who made her living with her cut. The novel's opening two paragraphs contain, really, all we are told about her:
He couldn't have thought it!
They were scorchers. Jest a bit of black velvet over the shoulders!
He looked again. One of them was laughing with a glass of wine half raised—wicked-looking woman she was—the other, the black velvet one, was eating bits of bread with nervous quickness and talking fast. [Kipps, 341-42; ellipsis in original]
Until he was nearly arrived at adolescence it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he was under the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other boys. Yet he had vague memories of a somewhere else that was not New Romney—of a dim room, a window looking down on white buildings—and of a some one else who talked to forgotten people, and who was his mother. He could not recall her features very distinctly, but he remembered with extreme definition a white dress she wore, with a pattern of little sprigs of flowers and little bows of ribbon upon it, and a girdle of straight-ribbed white ribbon about the waist. Linked with this, he knew not how, were clouded half-obliterated recollections of scenes in which there was weeping, weeping in which he was inscrutably moved to join. Some terrible tall man with a loud voice played a part in these scenes, and either before or after them there were impressions of looking for interminable periods out of the windows of railway trains in the company of these two people....The two ellipses, there, are in the original, indicating—what? Uncertainty? Hesitancy? As in David Copperfield (manifestly an important influence on Wells writing in mundane mode) the sexually alluring young mother is removed from the narrative early on, having been present just long enough to imprint one taboo erotic ideal on the straight male protagonist, which he then spends the rest of the novel working out, through a diremption of desire towards two objects, one pure and elevated and unsexy, the other closer to his own nature and sexy. [It's pretty much the same erotic dynamic as the one I discuss in my account of Love and Mr Lewisham] Perhaps the cut that haunts the cut-and-flayed Kipps throughout his life is the primal cut, the one that made him. A ‘Dolly Varden hat’ is a perfectly respectable style of lady's headwear, named for Dickens's blameless Barnaby Rudge heroine and very popular in the nineteenth-century; but ‘Dolly Varden’ was also cockney rhyming slang for ‘Covent Garden’, famous in the Victorian era for its prostitutes. According to Partridge ‘kip’ was also slang for a brothel.
He knew, though he could not remember that he had ever been told, that a certain faded, wistful face, that looked at him from a plush and gilt framed daguerreotype above the mantel of the "sitting-room," was the face of his mother. But that knowledge did not touch his dim memories with any elucidation. In that photograph she was a girlish figure, leaning against a photographer's stile, and with all the self-conscious shrinking natural to that position. She had curly hair and a face far younger and prettier than any other mother in his experience. She swung a Dolly Varden hat by the string, and looked with obedient respectful eyes on the photographer-gentleman who had commanded the pose. She was very slight and pretty. But the phantom mother that haunted his memory so elusively was not like that, though he could not remember how she differed. Perhaps she was older, or a little less shrinking, or, it may be, only dressed in a different way.... [Kipps, 3-4]
It's doubtless dangerous to burrow too far down these sorts of rabbit holes. But we can at least agree that sex, in this novel, is simultaneously surface-unspeakable and a palpable below-the-surface force (as it is in a great many 19th- and early 20th century novels, of course). This aspect of the writing is magnified by the fact that Kipps is an unusually sexually immature and shy protagonist. The mere sight of naked shoulders makes his ears burn red. Only in the very last pages, as Kipps holds his new-born son in his trembling arms, does the narrator feel licensed to say: ‘the once rabbit-like soul that had been so amazed by the discovery of “chubes” in the human interior and so shocked by the sight of a woman's shoulder-blades ... was at last facing the greater realities.’ [Kipps, 464]. For most of the novel even the most oblique intimation of matters sexual make him blush fiercely.
I think we can say of Wells what Christopher Ricks says of Keats: ‘Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment’, which state Ricks defines as ‘constrained feeling or manner arising from bashfulness or timidity’ [Ricks, 1, 3]. As with Keats, there is I think something peculiarly English about Wells's apprehension of shyness and embarrassment (Ricks wonders ‘is embarrassment not only a nineteenth-century sentiment but a narrowly English one?’); and two of the larger points about Ricks's argument seem to me to apply particularly well to Wells's Kipps—that this is art that challenges the reader to experience embarrassment, and that the root of this shyness is less social than sexual. For Ricks it is a great strength of Keats that he is
one of the very few erotic poets who have come at embarrassment from a different angle of necessity: from the wish to pass directly through—not to bypass (however principled and perceptive the by passing)—the hotly disconcerting, the potentially ludicrous, distasteful, or blush-inducing. [Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (1984), 68]One of Ricks's key comparisons is the never-embarrassed suavity of Byron. There are plenty of blushes in Don Juan, Ricks notes, but ‘they never work upon us, as Keats's do, by implicating us in the hot tinglings of sensation; they are always seen from outside ...The limpidity and lucidity of Byron's style act as a cordon sanitaire against contagious embarrassment’ [Ricks, 83]. I'm struck that, mutatis mutandis, we could make a similar distinction between Wells and his friend Henry James. James sees an obliquity, and a complexity, in human sexual affairs, and in his novels such things very rarely run smooth; but we are never embarrassed on behalf of James's characters, I think. Like Byron, although in a different manner, the sheer suavity of his style acts as a cordon sanitaire against such blushing and cringing. Not so Wells: for him the path to his novel's core lies right through those embarrassments. He makes the most of them, and he makes his readers feel them, and he does both things brilliantly. Sexual desire is complex, I think; or it is often so; but embarrassment shares the epithet that characterises Kipps's soul in the subtitle Wells chose for his novel: it is simple.
So where are we? Kipps, whose name encodes having been cut. Kipps who is literally repeatedly cut in the novel, and whose whole social trajectory bends towards the metaphorical cut of higher-society exile. Kipps, whose love life stays true to the cut sixpence he shares with his childhood sweetheart. Kipps whose shyness and embarrassment, in this story of love, marriage, sex and childbirth, is haunted by the ‘cut’ of womanhood. Kipps the novel that took eight years to write, including many reworkings and many passages cut from the draft—most particularly the cutting out of an 11,000 word ‘Masterman’ episode from Part 3. Which is to say, Kipps the novel whose final form carries (in the reduced and chopped-about disproportion of Part 3) the evidence that it has been cut. It is, after all, worth remembering that whilst working on Kipps Wells was also writing A Modern Utopia, in which the vision of utopian possibility ends when ‘the botanist’ meets once again the woman who broke his heart and reverts to the painful truth of things, in which having been cut and its corollary is the very essence of our being-in-the-world: ‘what are we all but scars?,’ he cries, as the two of them tumble back into mundaneness. ‘What is life but a scarring? It's you—you who don't understand! Of course we are covered with scars, we live to be scarred, we are scars! We are the scars of the past!’ [Wells, A Modern Utopia, 301]. Cut to—
An unsigned article in the Saturday Review for 22 April 1905, almost certainly written by Wells, begins: ‘Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia. We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?’ The American novelist of first rank must be Henry James, of course. Rosamund Bartlett notes that:
a year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”. [‘Tolstoy Translated’, FT 8th August 2014]I can't prove Wells had Tolstoy on his mind writing Kipps, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely. What is Kipps, after all, except a lower-class, more respectable and sexually continent Pierre? (presumably it is the very blinding obviousness of this observation that has kept it out of the criticism, for I don't know any critics who make this point). Obviously Kipps's inheritance is not wealth on the same sort of scale as Pierre's, and obviously Kipps doesn't live through anything as traumatic as the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. But then again, Tolstoy's interest in Pierre is less to do with the specific nature of those sorts of externals and more with—precisely—the simplicity of his soul, which is delineated via the complex there-and-back-again of his reaction to his personal change in fortunes. It's stating the obvious to note that that's also what Kipps, as a novel, is interested in.
The notion that there is anything Tolstoyan in Wells's writing has, I suppose, gone out of fashion; but the fact that it used to be in fashion—that there used to be a time when books like Marinita Davis's A Study of Tolstoi and H.G. Wells as Educators (Stanford 1929) could be published with, as it were, a straight face—suggests that there is at least something in the comparison. At any rate, and despite the obvious differences in tone between Tolstyan epic dignity and Wellsian social comedy, I'd stand by the idea that Kipps is a Tolstoyan novel.
John Bayley talks about the ‘dynamic absurdity’ of Tolstoy's Pierre (distinguishing this from ‘the merely passive absurdity’ of the novel's non-Russian characters), and it's a good way of describing Kipps too. Like Kipps, Pierre works hard to fit himself into a system which can never be home for him, and one of the saving graces of his simplicity is that, on some level, he always knows this (think of the scene where Pierre is inducted into the Masons, and how awkwardly that goes—at the ceremony ‘a childlike smile of embarrassment, doubt and self-derision appeared on Pierre's face against his will’). But there's a larger Tolstoyan point which bears on Kipps as a novel. Bayley asks: ‘what are the elements of antagonism, as Tolstoy sees it, between French and Russians?’ And he answers:
The Russians represent a family; the French, by contrast, represent a system—the terrible it which Pierre becomes aware of when the Frenchmen whom he thinks he has got to know during his captivity are suddenly revealed as automata, controlled by some impersonal force which is pressing him towards destruction, a force which overrides humanity. [Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel (Chatto 1966), 136]This is a terrific insight, I think, and one that opens the whole of War and Peace to us. And it shines a light into Kipps too, I'd argue. The higher society into which Kipps is thrust is repeatedly characterised by Wells, often hilariously, as a fractal web of abstruse and counter-intuitive rules and conventions. Kipps hopes to navigate it with the help of Mr Coote, and also by poring over books with titles like ‘Manners and Rules of Good Society, by a Member of the Aristocracy’ (‘TWENTY-FIRST EDITION’) and ‘that admirable classic, The Art of Conversing.’ But of course Kipps struggles with these cryptic mazes of systemised behaviour.
Kipps returned with these to his seat, placed the two before him, opened the latter with a sigh and flattened it under his hand. Then with knitted brows he began to read onward from a mark, his lips moving. ... Kipps rubbed his fingers through his hair with an expression of some perplexity and went back to the beginning. [Kipps, 209]The novel's comedy styles its hero's erotic dilemma this way: as the choice between an arbitrary and artificial system of rules and conventions—Helen—and the quasi-familial closeness of the girl-next-door and Kipps's own social class—Ann. Class in this novel is troped as family: Kipps's closest ally, beyond his actual blood relative uncle and aunt, is Sid, the brother of the woman he marries. It is Sid who finds Kipps wandering hungry through the streets of London because he is too shy to dare the rebarbative systemised rituals of expensive restaurants, invites him home and feeds him mutton. The book rewards spontaneity (like Kipps giving Chitterlow £2000) and deprecates all unspontaneous, regulated and systemised modes of living. We could say, in Tolstoyan mode, that Kipps is Russian, where the world of Helen, Coote and their ilk is French.
That's also a problem, perhaps. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something quite intensely small-c conservative about Kipps's social message. Dickens's Pip is hardly happy after being remade a gentleman, but Great Expectations at least leaves him a gentleman, and permits him to make the best of things. Wells does the fort-da thing with Kipps's social mobility: sends him up only to return him back to where he started, and the novel's end strongly implies: he's better off where he is. But then Wells's radical ideology went hand in hand with some really quite small-c conservative attitudes. That's not uncommon amongst the political left, I'd say. It's also a pretty Tolystoyan combination of attitudes.