Monday, 26 June 2017

Tono-Bungay (1909)

1. Tono-Bloggay

Wells thought highly of this book. Very highly, in fact: in his preface to the 1924 reprint he wrote: ‘the writer is disposed to regard it as the finest and most finished novel upon the accepted lines that he has written or is ever likely to write’. He's right, too: it is indeed a rich and brilliant novel (though ‘upon the accepted lines’ is an interesting modifier, don't you think? Is it there to exempt his SF, I wonder?).

In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells recalls his disagreement with Henry James over what ‘the novel’ should be: ‘James conceived the novel as a symmetrical unity, Wells favoured the discursive tradition of Dickens and Fielding’, is how John Hammond thumbnails their divergence. ‘ I shall never come as near to a deliberate attempt upon The Novel again as I did in Tono-Bungay’ Wells declares, although he does qualify the assertion:
Even Tono-Bungay was not much of a concession to Henry James and his conception of an intensified rendering of feeling and characterization as the proper business of the novelist. It was an indisputable Novel, but it was extensive rather than intensive. That is to say it presented characters only as part of a scene. It was planned as a social panorama in the vein of Balzac. [Experiment in Autobiography, 424]
Later he calls it ‘a novel, as I imagined it, on Dickens-Thackeray lines’ [546]. But I'm going to disagree—not, mind, because I think Wells unworthy of the comparisons with Dickens and Balzac. In this novel, he absolutely is. Tono-Bungay strikes me as a magnificent novel, one of Wells's two or three greatest achievements as a novelist. What I'm trying to do is resist the critical tide that wants to push Wells into the formless, baggily episodic, merely-journalistic ‘school’ of writing, at the other scale of things from James. Tono-Bungay is, remarkably enough, a novel of Balzacian scope and life that is simultaneously a wide-ranging condition-of-England novel, and a tightly focused matrix of theme and symbol à la Henry James. Discussing Kipps (1905), I explored what I took to be Wells's mode of reconciling realist emplotment and convincing mimetic sprawl with symbolic aesthetic unity, in the case of that novel via a linked series of repeated tropes to do with bicycles, language-games, performance and liminal spaces, all linked together under the novel's master trope of ‘the cut’. The result is not, I have to be honest, exactly an intuitive textual pattern (although I do think it is a comprehensible and eloquent one). Tono-Bungay does this same thing on a larger scale, with more coherence and even, I think, more aesthetic polish. I say so despite the fact that this polish is, amongst other things, merdeacious and infernal. But that's the point. That's Wells's point.

The novel itself, this very work about which I am making such large claims, is structured in a fairly straightforward, if rangy, manner. Much of it again reworks Wells's own autobiography, as Love and Mr Lewisham had done, although with some new wrinkles. So: instead of following-through on one version of his life-story, Wells chops up different episodes, characters and even versions of himself (he is, I think, both of the book's two main Ponderevos, as well as several minor characters) and remixes them into a new fictive jam. There's Wells the housekeeper's son and Wells scholarship boy; then there's Wells at his friend Gissing's deathbed in France; and Wells the divorcee; not to mention Wells the man who woke to find himself rich and famous, on the strength of nothing more than attractive strings of words he'd concocted out of his own brain.

Our narrator George Ponderevo grows up the son of a housekeeper at a large Kentish stately home, Bladesover House, and experiences many of the things young H.G. did at Up Park, where his mother was housekeeper (in the Autobiography Wells notes that Tono-Bungay ‘[makes] a little picture of Up Park as “Bladesover”’ and [gives] a glimpse of its life below stairs’ but insists ‘the housekeeper there is not in the least like my mother.’ [33-34]). Young George gets into a fight with a posh boy and is sent away from Bladesover, first of all to his mother's cousin Nicodemus Frapp, a low baker ‘in a back street—a slum rather’ in Chatham, whose grubby family and proselytising evangelical nonconformism Wells satirises. Unable to endure this house, George runs back to Bladesover, in another lift from Wells own life (‘I have told just how that happened in Tono-Bungay and how I waylaid the procession of servants as they were coming up Harting Hill from Harting Church. I appeared among the beeches and bracken on the high bank. “Cooee Mummy,” said I, white-faced and tired, but carrying it off gaily’ [Experiment in Autobiography, 123]; this scene is almost word-for-word in the novel). He is sent away again, this time as apprentice to his uncle Edward Ponderevo, who runs a chemist's shop in ‘Wimblehurst’, which is Wells's version of Midhurst.

Uncle Ponderevo is at the heart of the novel: a larger-than-life charlatan and huckster, living a pinched provincial life but dreaming big dreams. And he is a splendid, almost Dickensian creation: memorable and entertaining and funny and well-drawn. Narrator George, who occupies the notionally H.G. position in much of the novel's fictionalised autobiography, is as character very unlike H.G. (he is shy around women, uncaring of society, a plugger-away and nose-to-the-grindstone sort, almost monklike at times: ‘I like bare things,’ he says at one point; ‘stripped things, plain, austere and continent things, fine lines and cold colours’ [3.3.1]). It is into Uncle Ponderevo that Wells decants all the H.G. ‘whoosh’; his energy and ambition, his grand and sometimes foolishly overreaching imagination, his sociability, vulgarity and appetite.

Things don't go well for Uncle Ponderevo at the beginning, mind you. Debts compel him to sell his shop, apprentice George included, and decamp to London. Young George's perseverance with his studies leads to him winning a ‘Technical Board Scholarship at the Consolidated Technical Schools at South Kensington’ [2.1.2]. For a while Tono-Bungay moves into Love and Mr Lewisham territory, as George, full of promise at South Ken, slips into bad habits, moons over a girl and ends up complicit with a fraud. But here the pseudo-autobiographies part company: Lewisham's experiences with roguish old Mr Chaffery's fake séances lead him into a dead-end low-income life; but George's re-encounter with his uncle—now peddling a patent-medicine called ‘Tono-Bungay’: ‘the secret of vigour’—lead to riches. It's a scam, of course, though a more-or-less legal one, and sales are booming. Uncle Edward employs George at £300 a year in an organisational capacity, freeing himself up to do the things he is good at: dreaming up new scam products to sell, and writing compelling advertisements to dupe the public.

The narrative picks up pace after Tono-Bungay becomes a hit. Penderevo expands his business in a variety of directions and he and his nephew get very wealthy. There's an interlude where George, in an ecstasy of frustrated sexual yearning, marries a beautiful but chilly woman called Marion. It's a bad idea: he sets her up in an expensive house, quickly discovers that he can't stand her, has an affair and divorces her, all within a dozen pages. This brings us to the novel's halfway point where, having traced an upward trajectory, the narrative now shifts the other way: Uncle Ponderevo over-reaches himself. Despite obtaining a title and purchasing an elegant Tudor house called Lady Grove, Ponderevo frets that he's not living life as large as he should. He has an affair with a famous novelist, starts building a hubristically vast new house called Crest Hill (it is never completed), increasingly identifies with Napoleon, and reads-up on what he calls ‘this Overman idee, Nietzsche—all that stuff.’ [3.2.9]. His commercial expansion and investments become more over-reaching and unstable until, inevitably, it all crashes. George has his own unhappy love affair, with a woman called Beatrice. He increasingly distances himself from Tono-Bungay, using his share in the fortune to devote himself to the ultimate rich-man's hobby: designing and flying airplanes.

Finally, after much foreshadowing, the novel reaches its hubris-clobbered-by-nemesis finale. Here Wells is riffing on a number of obvious literary antecedents: Dickens's Merdle (in Little Dorrit, 1855-57), Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn (in Davenport Dunn, A Man of Our Day, 1859) and Trollope's Melmotte (in The Way We Live Now, 1875). I've read all three of these big Victorian novels, as it happens, and they are all iterations of the same basic story—plausible confidence trickster from a dubious social and/or racial background creates a bubble in the world of finance to get rich, buy himself a title, hobnob with aristos (all of whom fall over themselves to be associated with what they assume is the endless fountain of wealth the financier represents). Inevitably the bubble bursts and the speculator dies. The remarkable thing is that I don't know of any counter-representations to this narrative—I mean, Victorian novels in which investment in shares, or financial speculation, is shown as paying off. Without exception, financial speculation is troped as pride-going-before-a-fall in the literature of this period. I can't think of any mainstream Victorian or Edwardian celebrations of enterprise capitalism at all. What puzzles me about this is that it's not as if the Victorian novel doesn't love its hucksters, frauds and scam artists, its Micawbers and Becky Sharps, provided only that they fail. John McCormick describes Uncle Ponderevo as ‘a successful Micawber’ [Castastrophe and Imagination (Longman 1954), 158], which gets at something important. What compromises Ponderevo in Wells's novel is not that he is a confidence man, but that he succeeds.

Having lost their fortune, the Pondervos make a desperate bid to win it back by seizing a quantity of an extremely valuable although radioactive mineral called ‘quap’ that lies loose on an island off the West African Coast. George charters a boat and crew to recover the quap in an episode of hallucinatory horribleness. Rendered increasingly ill by the sheer toxicity of the stuff and the inhospitably tropical environment, George comes close to losing his mind, and even shoots a native dead for no very good reason. Finally the quap is all loaded into their steamer and they set sail for England, but the quap rots through the  keel and the boat sinks in the North Atlantic. George and the crew are rescued, but by the time he gets home again it is all up for Uncle P.. The police are hot on his heels, so George flies him out of the country in one of his experimental planes (actually it's a kind of dirigible-plane hybrid). They make it across the Channel, but Uncle P. is very poorly, and he dies in a Burgundy farmhouse (this scene is based on Wells experiences at the deathbed of his friend, George Gissing, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port). Returning to Britain, George loses Beatrice, and devotes his life to—of all things—designing new models of warship. This ultimate destination for George is looked-forward-to several times in the main body of the book, but it still reads as a rather weird non sequitur for a man who has been trained in chemistry, managed a business and designed planes. Still: that's where the novel ends, with a richly written final chapter envoi called ‘Night and the Open Sea’.

2. ‘If you want to hang out/You got to/Take her out

She don't lie/She don't lie/She don't lie ...’ Wells's working title for the novel was Waste, but in the end he decided to name it after the commodity that makes, at least temporarily, the Ponderevo fortune. He says as much in the book's final chapter:
It is, I see now that I have it all before me, a story of activity and urgency and sterility. I have called it Tono-Bungay, but I had far better have called it Waste ... I think of all the energy I have given to vain things. I think of my industrious scheming with my uncle, of Crest Hill's vast cessation, of his resonant strenuous career.... It is all one spectacle of forces running to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever of trade and money-making and pleasure-seeking. [Tono-Bungay, 4.3.1]
Resisting the urge to call the book Waste was the right thing to do, I think. That title would have put Wells's novel too obviously in the shade of Our Mutual Friend. This isn't to deny that Dickens's late masterpiece is an important antecedent for Wells's novel (obviously it is). It is, though, to say that Tono-Bungay ends up doing something rather different to Dickens.

Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Higgins quote William Cohen's Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life to the effect that ‘polluting or filthy objects’ can ‘become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie’, adding that ‘“Riches” have often been construed as “waste”’ and noting that ‘the reversibility of the poles—wealth and waste, waste and wealth—became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ [‘Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells’, Criticism, 48:4 (2006), 453]. The difference between Dickens and Wells here is that the dust heap in Our Mutual Friend is ultimately productive of something—the novel's various happy endings, John and Bella's coming child, renewed futures, all washed by the rebirthing quasi-baptismal powers of the Thames. Dickens's is a novel with through-flow, as it were. Tono-Bungay purposefully lacks that quality. Nothing is reborn, nothing flows through, the two main characters have no offspring, their waste cannot be recycled and exists only as a floating signifier.

So what is ‘Tono-Bungay’? We're not precisely told. Obviously it is a brand of patent medicine, non-salutary although marketed as a miracle remedium omnium. The early 1900s saw a flurry of social kick-back against the centuries old practice of selling medically inert or actively harmful potions and nostrums to a public anxious about their health. Here, for example, is the June 3, 1905 cover of Collier's (a magazine for which Wells sometimes wrote).

One small part, this, of the wider campaign that led, in 1906, to the better regulation of patent medicines: Congress passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in the US and the appointment in 1908 of the markedly more public-health interventionist Arthur Newsholme as Chief Medical Officer in the UK. It was during this period during that Wells was writing Tono-Bungay, giving the book a topicality for its original readers it can hardly have for us in the 21st-century.

When it comes to the novel's own patent medicine, Wells is deliberately vague. It is ‘HILARITY—Like Mountain Air in the Veins’ according to Uncle Ponderevo's adverts (‘SIMPLY A PROPER REGIMEN TO GET YOU IN TONE... Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner. Are you bored with your Wife?’ [2.3.1]). Tone, then. Ingredients?
“And what is it?” I pressed.

“Well,” said my uncle, and then leant forward and spoke softly under cover of his hand, “It’s nothing more or less than...”

(But here an unfortunate scruple intervenes. After all, Tono-Bungay is still a marketable commodity and in the hands of purchasers, who bought it from—among other vendors—me. No! I am afraid I cannot give it away—)

“You see,” said my uncle in a slow confidential whisper, with eyes very wide and a creased forehead, “it’s nice because of the” (here he mentioned a flavouring matter and an aromatic spirit), “it’s stimulating because of” (here he mentioned two very vivid tonics, one with a marked action on the kidney.) “And the” (here he mentioned two other ingredients) “makes it pretty intoxicating. Cocks their tails. Then there’s” (but I touch on the essential secret.) “And there you are. I got it out of an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch! There you are!” [Tono-Bungay, 2.2.1]
William Kupinse thinks ‘George's refusal to identify the exact formula … suggests something more than his inability to violate trade secrets. Instead, it becomes the absent center of Wells's text, in fact a sort of pharmaceutical mock equivalent to Conrad's “the horror, the horror.”’ [‘Wasted Value: The Serial Logic of H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay’, Novel (1999), 58]. But surely the nature of the stuff is less opaque than that. Clearly, Tono-Bungay is a stimulant, one with certain deleterious consequences for the body, especially the kidneys. It's pretty clear from this that the ‘secret ingredient’ is cocaine—that aggressively stimulating narcotic whose use is nowadays globally proscribed, and yet which is still very widely used.

The early 1900s saw health anxieties about cocaine filtering through into the mainstream. Coca-cola stopped adding cocaine to their drink in 1903, but before that a glass of coca-cola contained about ten milligrams of cocaine; for comparison, a typical ‘line’ of cocaine is 50 mg. And in the later nineteenth-century there had been a wide range of cocaine-based products on the market. Angelo Mariani enjoyed tremendous success from the 1860s onward with his ‘Vin Mariani’, more properly named ‘Vin Tonique Mariani à la Coca du Pérou’ (‘Tonique-o Peruvay’), a mixture of Bordeaux wine and cocaine, 6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine for the home market, 7.2 mg per ounce for the export market—which, since a medium glass of wine contains 5 fluid ounces, must have delivered quite a hit. Ulysses S. Grant claimed he was only able to complete his memoirs by drinking this ‘wine’; Pope Leo XIII endorsed it, Queen Victoria enjoyed a glass or two, and ‘sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi declared that if he had used Vin Mariani when designing the Statue of Liberty he would have made it hundreds of metres high rather than forty-six’ [Tristan Donovan, Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World (Chicago Review Press 2014), 51]. John C Pemberton, the inventor of Coca Cola, actually started his business with an unlicensed rip-off of Vin Mariani, Pemberton's French Wine Coca, which he advertised as a patent medicine rather than a wine, ‘a cure for nerve trouble, dyspepsia, gastroparesis, mental and physical exhaustion, gastric irritability, wasting diseases, constipation, headache, neurasthenia and impotence.’ Only when his home state banned booze did he re-jig the potion to remove the alcohol and so create the brown fizzy drink so globally, er, loved today. There were many other brands:

Some varieties were marketed as ‘Coca Wine’, some as ‘Tonic Wine’, often accompanied by Tono-Bungayish health claims:

It's to this sub-set of the patent medicine class that Tono-Bungay surely belongs. It is, remember, ‘intoxicating’ and stimulating (‘cocks their tails’). Uncle P plagiarised the stuff from ‘“an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch!”’ [2.2.1]. Cocaine use is liable to cock up your tail, of course; and it is also toxic in various ways, not least in its deleterious effect on the kidneys.

Cocaine's addictive and toxic properties were well recognised in the later nineteenth-century, although it continued to have its advocates as an analgesic and stimulant well into the twentieth. Freud used the drug, of course; and Conan Doyle's Sign of Four (1890) famously starts with Holmes shooting-up with the stuff. But Wells was no fan. In the sequel to Experiment in Autobiography, published posthumously as Wells in Love, he recalls his friendship with Sidney Bowkett, an actor and playwright and the prototype for Chitterlow in Kipps. They both set out on writing careers at the same time, Bowkett with plays and Wells with novels, but the former didn't make the success of things the latter did. Why did Bowkett fail? ‘He had learned to sniff cocaine in America’, says Wells sternly, which meant ‘he fell away from the good resolutions’ into ‘a life of incoherent lunges and adventures that was to end at last in morpho-mania and insanity’ [G P Wells (ed), H G Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (Faber 1984), 59]. Kids: just say no.

Reading Tono-Bungay as Columbian Marching Powder opens aspects of the novel to us, I think. Wells's portrait of Uncle Ponderevo, for instance, stresses not only his physical decay, but his weird restlessness and bursts of energy. He never walks or goes, rather he ‘jerks’ and ‘shoots’, and despite being a fat, stocky man (we might say ‘ponder[ev]ous’) he's always fidgeting: ‘he fingered his glasses, fretted with things in his waistcoat pockets or put his hands behind him, looked over our heads, and ever and again rose to his toes and dropped back on his heels’ [1.2.1]. At the height of his success, Wells's narrator describes him thuswise:
[He] plumped up very considerably during the creation of the Tono-Bungay property, but with the increasing excitements that followed that first flotation came dyspepsia and a certain flabbiness and falling away. His abdomen—if the reader will pardon my taking his features in the order of their value—had at first a nice full roundness, but afterwards it lost tone without, however, losing size. He always went as though he was proud of it and would make as much of it as possible. To the last his movements remained quick and sudden, his short firm legs, as he walked, seemed to twinkle rather than display the scissors-stride of common humanity, and he never seemed to have knees, but instead, a dispersed flexibility of limb. ... To make the portrait complete one wants to convey an effect of sudden, quick bursts of movement like the jumps of a Chinese-cracker to indicate that his pose whatever it is, has been preceded and will be followed by a rush. [Tono-Bungay, 3.1.1]
That last detail is the echt coke-head flurry. His decline is hastened by the drug, too: back from getting, and losing, the quap George finds his uncle thoroughly doped-up: ‘he poured something from a medicine bottle into a sticky little wineglass and drank it. I became aware of the presence of drugs, of three or four small bottles before him among his disorder of papers, of a faint elusively familiar odour in the room.’ [4.1.1.] No prizes for guessing what the smell is.

This does matter, I think. I've read a number of accounts of the novel that treat Tono-Bungay as a perfectly empty signifier, a mere vacant commodity. But the notion that this ‘commodity’ has a distinct if deleterious effect on character is central to what the novel is doing. The titular drug is not merely a blank token passed around a system of exchange; it is what poisons the characters out of which the novel construes its narrative. Simon James argues that ‘the novel replaces the Bildungsroman of its narrative model with the art of the advertisement. Commodities such as Tono-Bungay are advertised like virtuous conduct in the traditional Bildungsroman, as a remedy that will cure ills and ensure happiness’ [Maps of Utopia: H G Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture (OUP 2012), 109]. But I don't think this is right. The commodity has a direct effect on conduct, which plays into the novel's inverted Bildung, turning Uncle P.'s cockney brio and genius into a life of incoherent lunges and adventures that ends at last in morpho-mania and insanity.

So: if cocaine is the ingredient that ‘tones’ the flabby, exhausted or dispirited patient, the tono portion of this drug, then what of the bungay? To be bunged up means to be blocked or constipated, of course. One of the side-effects of cocaine use is severe constipation. You see where I'm going with this.

And, really, we're come to one of the main themes of Tono-Bungay as a novel. In one sense Wells is saying: in place of the good and healthful food of yesteryear, modernity gives us this superficially stimulating but fundamentally toxic pseudo-food, one that pretends to health but is in fact an agent of physical, spiritual and societal blockage. When George meets his Uncle again after many years, the effect of having bunged too much tono down his gob is evident in his physique:
It came into my head that he had shrunken very much in size since the Wimblehurst days, that the cannon ball he had swallowed was rather more evident and shameless than it had been, his skin less fresh and the nose between his glasses, which still didn’t quite fit, much redder. And just then he seemed much laxer in his muscles and not quite as alertly quick in his movements. But he evidently wasn’t aware of the degenerative nature of his changes as he sat there, looking suddenly quite little under my eyes. [Tono-Bungay, 2.2.1]
One of the recurring themes of Tono-Bungay is that nothing passes naturally through any more; there is neither catharsis nor any inhabitation of the natural cycle whereby life is a process that passes experience on to posterity. The narrator marries, but has no children (‘Marion had acquired a disgust and dread of maternity,’ we're told [2.3.5]), because nobody is having children in the world of Tono-Bungay:—not the old school English aristocracy, who the novel styles as a mere dead end, like old Lady Drew at Bladesover;—but not the new money men either. Uncle Ponderevo has no children; and, indeed, Crest Hill, the ruinously expensive country house folly that precipitates his end, is described in the novel as ‘a delirium of pinnacles and terraces and arcades and corridors ... [the] empty instinctive building of a childless man.’ [3.2.10]

This individual childlessness scales to the country as a whole. Old England has died out, and left no natural successors. The Jews who buy-up Bladesover when old Lady Drew dies are not presented as the natural succession of a younger generation. On the contrary, says our narrator: ‘to borrow an image from my mineralogical days, these Jews were not so much a new British gentry as “pseudomorphous” after the gentry’ [1.1.3]. This mineralogical conceit, quite apart from being worryingly dehumanising, looks forward to the role played by ‘quap’ in the novel's denouement: something darkly chthonic and radioactive, promising wealth but actually an energetic poison, a malaria or a cancer, that eats through the timbers of the ship of state and sinks it.

3. Food, Sickness and Dante

Tono-Bungay is only a ‘food’ in a very loose sense of the word, of course, and not a ‘food’ with any nutritional merit. I think this explains why young George's first apprenticeship is to the low baker Nicodemius Frapp, who does produce actual food in bread, but in a very unhygienic fashion (‘we had to deal with cockroaches of a smaller, darker variety, and also with bugs of sorts’ [3.4.2]. Frapp ‘let his nails become disagreeable to the fastidious eye; he had no pride in his business nor any initiative’ [1.2.1]). Bread is the Christian staff of life, transformed in church into the very body of Christ, and so spiritually as well as physically sustaining; but Frapp's egregious religiosity is as dirty and unsustaining as his bread. Every Sunday the family ‘met with twenty or thirty other darkened and unclean people, all dressed in dingy colours that would not show the dirt, in a little brick-built chapel equipped with a spavined roarer of a harmonium’. No transubstantiation here: just ugliness and disease:
These obscure, undignified people, a fat woman with asthma, an old Welsh milk-seller with a tumour on his bald head, who was the intellectual leader of the sect, a huge-voiced haberdasher with a big black beard, a white-faced, extraordinarily pregnant woman, his wife, a spectacled rate collector with a bent back. [Tono-Bungay, 1.2.1]
George stresses the irony of such people invoking ‘the strange battered old phrases that were coined ages ago in the seaports of the sun-dry Levant, of balm of Gilead and manna in the desert, of gourds that give shade and water in a thirsty land.’ There is no manna in modernity, he is saying; a fact upon which the empty simulacrum of tono-bungay capitalises.

In other words, the (cocaine-induced constipation) bungay portion of Tono-Bungay is more than just a piece of marketing nomenclature. It is a marker of the state of the nation as such: Britain a damned-up, bunged-up, shit-impacted land. It's why the final dramatic release of Uncle Ponderevo's apparently endless accumulation is articulated in the novel both in terms of a pseudo-mimetic account of how Ponderevo loses everything—how, that is, the bottom falls out of his world—but with the adventure to the death-named Mordet Island and its vast, literally stinking, poisonous, fundamentally fecal heaps of quap.
At last I saw with my eyes the heaps my imagination had seen for so long, and felt between my fingers again that half-gritty, half soft texture of quap, like sanded moist-sugar mixed with clay in which there stirs something—

One must feel it to understand. [Tono-Bungay, 3.1.4]
This description has the queasily unpleasant quality of somebody playing with their own shit. The texture and noisome smell of the quap is a literally sickening thing: ‘we were all ill, every one of us, so soon as we got to sea, poisoned, I firmly believe, by quap’ [3.4.3]. Later he says ‘the malaria of the quap was already in my blood’ [3.4.4.]. Its very name speaks to its feverishly pathological quality. Hensleigh Wedgwood's Dictionary of English Etymology (1865) gives us this:

Sailing home with a shipful of quap, George increasingly sickens, as does his whole crew. Even the ship itself grows sick, breaks apart and sinks. It's a metaphor of course: in a dozen ways the novel is saying: the whole country is sick, feverish, falling apart. What it needs is a cure. It needs good medicine, but what it gets instead is Tono-Bungay, a fake pill, a mere stimulant that temporarily peps people up but in the longer term makes the feverishness and illness worse. Tono-Bungay is, we might say, the opposite of a pharmakon: not the poison that also cures, but the simulacrum of a cure that actually poisons. Not a philosophically indeterminate concept, but a satirically pointed symbol. Tono-Bungay is one representative example of the ignoble lie on which our modern Republic is founded.

When Uncle Ponderevo goes to high-society feasts in posh London society, it is the conspicuous display that strikes him, not the nutrition of the meal (which says something true about high-society feasts, of course). When George experiments flying heavier-than-air craft, they repeatedly crash (these disasters are all rationes inferiores of Uncle Ponderevo big financial crash), and Wells goes out of his ways to make these events, seemingly unconnected with food as they of course are, into exercises in the disease and perversion of the mouth:
As a matter of fact, it was purely accidental that I came down in the woods ... I explored my face carefully and found unfamiliar contours on the left side. The broken end of a branch had driven right through my cheek, damaging my cheek and teeth and gums, and left a splinter of itself stuck, like an explorer’s fartherest-point flag, in the upper maxillary. [Tono-Bungay, 3.3.4]
Stomatal disease is also the last physical feature of Uncle Ponderevo that the novel gives us: ‘from those slimy, tormented lips above the bristling grey beard came nothing but dreams and disconnected fancies ... he raved ... suddenly, with a start, with a shock, I found that his mouth had fallen open, and that he was dead’ [4.1.7]. Running through the whole novel is a sense of the usual function of mouth, stomach and bowel being blocked, perverted and ruined. Critics talk of Wells adopting the form of a ‘traditional’ Victorian novel to address the concerns of commercial and technological modernity, but I really don't think that's right. The Victorian novel, in all its variety, and whatever else it was doing, was always a text of through-flow, of story going somewhere, of life passing from older to younger generations. Wells's genius in Tono-Bungay, I think, was precisely in repudiating the asethetics and also the ontology of through-flow at every level of the novel's construction. Uncle P dies anxiously quizzing George as to whether science has proved that there is an afterlife (‘You have always been responsible for the science. George. You know better than I do. Is—Is it proved?’). After his death George wanders the streets of the Basque village in which they have ended up, and experiences a sort of anti-revelation:
I slammed the door, and went out into the warm, foggy drizzle of the village street lit by blurred specks of light in great voids of darkness, and never a soul abroad. That warm veil of fog produced an effect of vast seclusion. The very houses by the roadside peered through it as if from another world. The stillness of the night was marked by an occasional remote baying of dogs; all these people kept dogs because of the near neighbourhood of the frontier.


It was one of those rare seasons of relief, when for a little time one walks a little outside of and beside life. I felt as I sometimes feel after the end of a play. I saw the whole business of my uncle’s life as something familiar and completed. It was done, like a play one leaves, like a book one closes. I thought of the push and the promotions, the noise of London, the crowded, various company of people through which our lives had gone, the public meetings, the excitements, the dinners and disputations, and suddenly it appeared to me that none of these things existed.

It came to me like a discovery that none of these things existed.

Before and after I have thought and called life a phantasmagoria, but never have I felt its truth as I did that night.... We had parted; we two who had kept company so long had parted. But there was, I knew, no end to him or me. He had died a dream death, and ended a dream; his pain dream was over. It seemed to me almost as though I had died, too. What did it matter, since it was unreality, all of it, the pain and desire, the beginning and the end? There was no reality except this solitary road, this quite solitary road, along which one went rather puzzled, rather tired.

Part of the fog became a big mastiff that came towards me and stopped and slunk round me, growling, barked gruffly, and shortly and presently became fog again. [Tono-Bungay, 4.1.8]
This, rather than the oblique recipe for Tono-Bungay, is surely the novel's ‘the horror! the horror!’ moment. There is a road, but it comes from nowhere and it's going nowhere. There is a mist that becomes a dog that becomes mist again: canis-nebula; tono-[ne]bungay. Wells's narrator has set his love-life by the impossible star of a Beatrice, and she herself has insisted that they are both dead: ‘let’s trudge through this blotted-out world together for a time,’ she tells him during one of their trysts; ‘You see, dear, the whole world is blotted out—it’s dead and gone, and we’re in this place ... We’re dead. Or all the world is dead. No! We’re dead. No one can see us. We’re shadows’ [3.4.2]. Wells doesn't overplay his Dante allusions, but there are enough of them for us to piece the intertextual reading together: George has descended, with his uncle as his Virgil, into the afterlife: he has worked up the purgatory of his childhood, soared in the paradise of the sky with his aircraft, and explored the of of hell on the death-named Mordet island, where the stinking quap and intensification of descriptions of actual and metaphorical disease is, I think, in play with the stinking, diseased and bloated sinnerscapes of Dante's Eighth Circle (this is, Fraud: cantos 18-29) But George ends, in a Wellsian twist, in Limbo, a place Dante describes as ‘oscura e nebulosa’ [Inferno, 4:10], dark and misty, never to reach his Beatrice, haunted by the Cerberian mastiffs of the Pyreneean peasantry. Unlike Dante's protagonist he will not pass through and out the other side, but will loiter forever at the ruined mouth of the journey. Inferno-Bungay.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

First and Last Things (1908)


We might call this book Philosophical Inwellstigations. What's that? No?

Suit yourself.

The book's four sections—‘Metaphysics’, ‘Of Belief’, ‘Of General Conduct’ and ‘Some Personal Things’—run through a number of theological and philosophical positions, saying nothing very new but at least providing us with a broad sketch of Wells's worldview in 1908. Indeed, as his views changed so did this book. During the First World War Wells experienced a muted sort of quasi-religious conversion,  something recorded fictionally in Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916) and non-fictionally in God the Invisible King (1917). He rewrote portions of First and Last Things to reflect his new hospitality to the divine, publishing this revised edition in 1917:

This ‘Conversion’ didn't last very long, though; and in 1929 Wells put out a new edition of First and Last Things that reverted, more or less, to the 1908 edition.

But you can at least tell from this how close the book sails, even in its original version, to a non-denominational and vaguely socialist-deist religiosity.

This enables Wells to say some engaging and even moving things about faith, loss and love; but the book as a whole is a strange mishmash. As an intervention into metaphysical debates around skepticism and knowledge, epistemology, theology and ethics, First and Last Things is a pretty ropey confection: the sort of thing a clever, widely- but not expertly-read mind might pull together without over-straining itself. There are various holes and fuzzinesses, and overall a distinct tendentiousness of argument.

It looks like I'm criticising Wells when I say that, I know, but I'm really not. The book's tendenz, as it were, is straightforwardly stated: ‘necessarily when one begins an inquiry into the fundamental nature of oneself and one’s mind and its processes,’ Wells says, ‘one is forced into autobiography’ [1:3]. And it is as autobiography, or more specifically as a particular sort of coded autobiography, that First and Last Things makes its most plausible claim upon readers today. Indeed, there's something attractively bonkers about a man styling his own life neither as external narrative nor psychoanalytic inwardness, but instead as a mode of philosophical hermeneutics. Hard to think of anyone else who tried that experiment, certainly.

The resulting memoir is presided over not by Sophia, the Muse of philosophy, but by another female presence. The impetus for the whole project, and its guiding spirit, was Amber Reeves, the brilliant and beautiful young woman (twenty-one years Wells's junior) with whom he had recently started an affair. This is how First and Last Things opens:
Recently I set myself to put down what I believe. I did this with no idea of making a book, but at the suggestion of a friend and to interest a number of friends with whom I was associated. We were all, we found, extremely uncertain in our outlook upon life, about our religious feelings and in our ideas of right and wrong. And yet we reckoned ourselves people of the educated class and some of us talk and lecture and write with considerable confidence. We thought it would be of very great interest to ourselves and each other if we made some sort of frank mutual confession. We arranged to hold a series of meetings in which first one and then another explained the faith, so far as he understood it, that was in him. [First and Last Things, 1:1]
The ‘friend’ mentioned in that second sentence was Reeves, and however much Wells seeks to create the impression of group discussion it was intercourse, verbal and sexual, with Reeves that prompted the writing of this book.

Now, Reeves is a fascinating individual, and one to whom this blog will return, since she was (famously) the prototype for the character of Ann Veronica in the novel of that name, and also (less famously) for Amanda The Research Magnificent. Her affair with Wells was a scandal in its day: her parents, Wells's fellow Fabians, were outraged that he had used the organisation as a front for seducing their daughter. Amber bore him an illegitimate child, named Anna-Jane, a name presumably recording both her mother's fictional identity and Wells's peculiar fondness for the name Jane (remembering he had already persuaded his second wife Amy Catherine to change her name to Jane), then married a man devoted to her called Blanco White, who was for a time complaisant with his wife's continuing adultery with Wells. There was a storm of disapproval, from all sides. In less than two years the affair had flared out.

Margaret Drabble has interesting things to say about the larger lineaments of Reeves' life and career in an essay that is keen, for obvious reasons, to portray her as more than just a girl who had an affair with Wells. That's an understandable, and indeed necessary project, of course, although I'm going to run the risk of reverting to the older masculinist perspective by concentrating on Wells's side of the whole business, and therefore shrinking Reeves back into ‘the woman who slept with H.G.’ But there is, I think, an important point worth making.

Wells had many love affairs, and many more sexual encounters, but Amber Reeves was something unique in his life: an intelligent, vivacious, pretty and sexually-eager younger woman who evidently flattered Wells's middle-age self-esteem. He certainly fell badly for her. On the one hand this is the stuff of the merest cliché, yet another example of male mid-life-crisis shaggery that, by its very commonplaceness, invites ridicule. Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie (‘Amber Reeves was now the focus for Wells's dreams and desires’) lay out the obvious stuff:
H.G. was now at an age when he could either come to terms with the fact of middle age or defy it by embracing the fantasy of youth. All through his writings he had revealed a profound anxiety about decay and death, and now—in the magic of his relationship with Amber—he hoped to find a means of cheating fate. [The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (Weidenfeld 1973), 250]
On the other hand, there is something particular about this specific Wellsian dalliance that takes it at least a little out of the ordinary. Anthony West's biography of his father (H G Wells: Aspects of a Life) opens with a detailed account of Wells and Reeves together 1908-09, premised on the notion that Wells ‘loved Amber Reeves as fully as he was capable of loving anyone’ and putting significant Wellsian creative store by Wells's ‘pain of losing her’. But what strikes me, in addition to the personal distress which I'm sure Wells suffered (something it's easy to overlook, I think, distracted as we are by the comic-pathetic figure of the middle-aged man yearning after the no-longer-attainable young girl) is the larger quotient of a more social humiliation. His affair with Reeves exposed Wells to a range of personal and public shamings: he was blackballed at his London club, shunned by many in the Fabian Society, and had to sign an ignominious affidavit drawn up by the lawyers of Blanco White (who adopted Wells' and Reeve's daughter as his own) in which he agreed to cease all contact with Reeves and their child. Beatrice Webb sent poisoned pen-letters to prominent Fabians and others saying ‘that the liaison had been a sordid intrigue in which a lecherous married man had exploited the innocence of an inexperienced and badly brought up girl’ and advising people she knew ‘as had daughters between fifteen and twenty’, to keep their girls out of Wells's way [West, 11]. It was all very public and evidently very humiliating. That said, there's a part of me that wonders if, rather than being the price Wells paid for his time with Reeves, all that might not have been the point.

I'll come back to that later. My purpose here is to advance a critical reading of First and Last Things, but I'm well aware that my approach here—which is to read Wells notionally objective account of metaphysics as actually a study of the ontology of self-esteem via sexual satisfaction—might itself be judged merely tendentious. Still, I'm going to give it a go.


Wells grounds his self-styled ‘metaphysics’ in what he calls ‘the world of fact’, something he is disinclined to interrogate too closely.
I do not attempt to define this word fact. Fact expresses for me something in its nature primary and unanalyzable. I start from that. I take as a typical statement of fact that I sit here at my desk writing with a fountain pen on a pad of ruled scribbling paper, that the sunlight falls upon me and throws the shadow of my window mullion across the page, that Peter, my cat, sleeps on the window-seat close at hand. [First and Last Things, 1:3]
So: fact is something as to-hand and graspable as Wells's penis. Sorry, I meant to type pen. As to-hand and graspable as his pen. Later Wells insists: ‘the forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it’ [1:5]—so now the mind is something that goes into the symbolic vagina and extracts the truth, howesoever roughly.

This is grounded in a sense of Wells's own Being, factual and intimate to him, but also important to the cosmos. What is this Being of his? It is physical, and committed to beauty (he dismisses those who spend their lives ‘crushing the impulses and evading the complications that arise out of sex and flying to devotions and simple duties in nunneries and monasteries’ [2:7]). It is ‘strong’ and capable of ‘movement’ [1:9]. It ‘hangs’ between two circular quantities (compared to spotlights) ‘the inner world and the outer world’ [2:4]. It is perhaps ‘a mere tentacle’ but it ‘grows beautiful and powerful’ [2:8]. I think we're beginning to get the idea of what ‘it’ is.

Wells finds himself unimpressed with symbolic logic, denying that ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ exhaust the possibilities of entities.

Hardly original, but fair enough. And we get closer to the nub with this citation of his young lover by name:
There is another infirmity of the mind to which my attention has been called by an able paper read this spring to the Cambridge Moral Science Club by my friend Miss Amber Reeves. ... The current syllogistic logic rests on the assumption that either A is B or it is not B. The practical reality, she contends, is that nothing is permanent; A is always becoming more or less B or ceasing to be more or less B. But it would seem the human mind cannot manage with that. [First and Last Things, 1:8]
Seems a little hard to blame ‘the human mind’ for rejecting the notion that the sun is always becoming more or less the moon, or that this real horse in this-here field is always becoming more or less that unicorn in that old legend, since both propositions are so eminently rejectable. I suppose it's possible we might think this almost modish of Wells. Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols had repudiated ‘being’ in favour of Heraclitean ‘becoming’ as far back as 1888, and Henri Bergson was contemporaneously making a whole career out of just that shift. But this passage is nothing so defensible as Bergsonianism. The real giveaway is the mention of Reeves's name. Wells doesn't mean that A and not-A are always blurring into one another; he means that he and Amber Reeves, when they have sex, are always blurring into one another, and that he approves of this.

I know, I know. I'm being crass. In First and Last Things Wells builds on this foundation of a sort of facticity of becoming (though he doesn't put it in those terms) a broadly Providential ethics: we're all part of something larger, all interconnected with one another, acceptance of our failures as well as our successes the royal road to happiness. He repeats that he can't prove his grounds, and that therefore these are acts of faith. His ‘primary act of faith’, he says, is that the Universe not only has a plan but that he, and I, and you, are all crucial to that plan: ‘I believe in the scheme, in the Project of all things, in the significance of myself and all life’ [2:8]; ‘I assert therefore that I am important in a scheme, that we are all important in that scheme’ [2:1]. He assents to the existence of a sort-of God, though not an anthropomorphic one, so he avoids the conventional divine nomenclature.

From here the book moves into its lengthy third section, sketching out Wellsian ideas of right behaviour, influenced of course by, and in large part developed in terms of, his socialism. This tends more or less interesting, more or less windily digressive; but the moments when Amber Reeves intervenes into Wells's thought are the moments that bring Well back to this sensual and somatic underpinning. For example: he downgrades Justice and Mercy from his account of social interaction (‘Justice and Mercy are indeed not ultimately different in their nature from such other conventions as the rules of a game, the rules of etiquette, forms of address, cab tariffs and standards of all sorts’ [3:24]) preferring to ground social ethics in ‘Modesty and self-submission, love and service [as], in the right system of my beliefs, far more fundamental rightnesses and duties’. This bring Reeves back in to his account:
Now here the friend who has read the first draft of this book falls into something like a dispute with me. She does not, I think, like this dismissal of Justice from a primary place in my scheme of conduct.

“Justice,” she asserts, “is an instinctive craving very nearly akin to the physical craving for equilibrium. Its social importance corresponds. It seeks to keep the individual’s claims in such a position as to conflict as little as possible with those of others. Justice is the root instinct of all social feeling, of all feeling which does not take account of whether we like or dislike individuals, it is the feeling of an orderly position of our Ego towards others, merely considered as others, and of all the Egos merely as Egos towards each other. love cannot be felt towards others as others. Love is the expression of individual suitability and preference, its positive existence in some cases implies its absolute negation in others. Hence Love can never be the essential and root of social feeling, and hence the necessity for the instinct of abstract justice which takes no account of preferences or aversions. And here I may say that all application of the word love to unknown, distant creatures, to mere others, is a perversion and a wasting of the word love, which, taking its origin in sexual and parental preference, always implies a preference of one object to the other. To love everybody is simply not to love at all. And it is just because of the passionate preference instinctively felt for some individuals, that mankind requires the self-regarding and self-respecting passion of justice.” [First and Last Things, 3:25]
Wells responds with an intruguing argument. It's true, he thinks, that talk of loving the whole human race is vapid because impossible (‘to love everybody is not to love at all’). But it is nonetheless the ideal to which we should all strive, and a person who loves two people rather than one person is closer numerically to that ideal: ‘to love two people is surely to love more than to love just one person, and so by way of three and four to a very large number.’ [3:25] As if a man should say: sure, I sleep with my wife and also with my mistress, and from time to time with this or that third or fourth other woman, but them's just my stepping-stones towards total love for all humanity, baby. Who could doubt his reasoning? Well indeed.


This leads me back, as a sort of coda to this post, to the affair out of which First and Last Things was written. Reading the book straight through I was struck that there's something oddly flattening about the vision of social harmony Wells develops. It's not just the lack of dramatic or novelistic specifics, which perhaps limits the force with which Wells can make his points; it's something more, a valorisation of balanced, loving and serviceable connections that we might, almost, call rhizomatic. The words ‘hierarchy’, ‘rank’ and ‘status’ nowhere appear in the book. The ideal world is figured as an equalised collective. Was the relationship between fortysomething Wells and Amber Reeves only a few years out of her teenagerdom really so equal? Could any relationship be so, on such terms? Jane Lewis, in a thoughtful account of the affair, notes that ‘while contemporaries had no trouble in condemning Wells, Reeves posed greater difficulty’ since ‘there is no reason to believe that Reeves did not reach out with gusto for Wells. The affair was one of great passion on both sides.’ She discusses Beatrice Webb's havering over whether to include Reeves in her condemnation of Wells's actions:
Beatrice Webb oscillated between condemnation of Reeves—she described her as a ‘terrible little pagan—vain, egotistical and careless of other people's happiness’ (on the occasion of the 1908 Fabian Summer School), and, after the affair was confirmed, ‘a little heathen’, ‘a little liar . . . superlatively vain’, ‘unscrupulous’—on the one hand, and pity for a young woman seduced on the other. In the end she settled for Amber-as-victim, blaming Wells for having ‘Amber as his demoralized mistress at a time when he was on intimate terms of friendship with her parents.’ [Jane Lewis, ‘Intimate Relations between Men and Women: The Case of H. G. Wells and Amber Pember Reeves’, History Workshop 37 (Spring, 1994), 84-85]
The problem, in other words, is not being sure how the power dynamic ran inside the relationship:
Reeves was young and H. G. Wells could undoubtedly have stopped the affair if he had chosen to do so; instead he apparently relished Reeves treating him as her mentor and calling him ‘Master’ (Ann Veronica treats Capes similarly). But this is insufficient to render Reeves a victim.
I daresay it's possible to overthink this sort of thing, and doubtless Wells, as a, well, man was flattered and excited to have the opportunity to sleep with a woman at once beautiful, young, intelligent and prepared to play at this sort of submission (‘Master’ and so on). It was presumably only a game; certainly it's impossible, reading up on her, to miss how forceful and driven Amber Reeves was in every other aspect of her life. But of course people are entitled to play whatever consensual sexual games they like. Still: the thing that strikes me is how far Wells pushed the public performance of this affair, despite the fact that he must have known—for how could he not?—this would result in scandal and shame. There was after all a traditional template for the conduct of extra-marital dalliances, and it stressed secrecy; Wells and Reeves flouted those conventions, presumably telling themselves they refused to collaborate with hypocrisy. ‘Their relationship,’ in the words of the Mackenzies, ‘was brazenly indiscreet’. And so it followed, as the night the day, that Wells was shunned, expelled, rebuked, threatened with legal action. ‘Some people,’ the Mackenzies note drily, ‘were becoming reluctant about mixing socially with Wells’ [Mackenzies, Life, 255]. The publication of Ann Veronica in October 1909, and the immediate scandal that created, only intensified the situation. In a letter to his friend Violet Paget (who wrote as Vernon Lee) Wells onrunningly gushed: ‘I was & am in love with a girl half my age, we have a quite peculiar & intense mental intimacy, which is the finest & best thing we have had or can have in our lives again—& we have loved one another physically and she is going to bear me a child’. The formless on-rush of this rather foregrounds the sense of just how threatened the relationship was by what the letter acknowledges was the ‘scandal’ it had created. It's as if Wells is in a hurry, here: as if he has to get it all out at once before his feelings are interdicted by society or fate. Wells's past-and-future formulations, especially ‘the finest & best thing we have had or can have in our lives again’, express a sort of quondam et futuris sense that what the two lovers cannot have is, precisely, now.

Writing to Arnold Bennett in July 1909 Wells said that he had tried to give up Reeves, but that he had ‘under estimated the web of affections and memories that held them together’. His account of the relationship to Bennett is especially interesting, actually: ‘I am extremely happy’ Wells insists, despite ‘violent emotional storms’. We might wonder if he was happy not despite but because of the violent emotional storms; and might even wonder if the public humiliation the affair brought upon Wells might not have been part of the point of the whole thing.

In saying so I may, of course, simply be overthinking things. The motivation could have been much simpler than I'm making out: maybe Wells enjoyed having sex with a willing and beautiful young partner, and in the headrush of the affair he thought he could somehow carry conventional society with him. In wondering about a more counter-intuitive explanation I'm drawing on William Ian Miller's Humiliation and Other Essays on Honour, Social Discomfort and Violence (Cornell Univ Press 1993), a book I think that deserves to be better known. Miller thinks humiliation, shame and embarrassment are ‘the central emotions of everyday social existence’, and that all three are tangled up in complicated ways in our sense of self, of our place in the social nexus and hierarchy. ‘I seek’, says Miller
to carve out a domain for humiliation which is distinct from shame on one side and embarrassment on the other … There is an intimate connection between pretension and humiliation. Humiliation is the emotion we feel when our pretensions are discovered. By taking this view of humiliation I reject masochism or torture as providing the paradigm for humiliation, as some have done. Humiliation inheres in every nook and cranny of the normal. We know it in the myriad little humiliations we frequently suffer or risk suffering in every face-to-face interaction. The humiliation of the perverse, of extremis, of death camps and interrogation rooms, is parasitical on the usual and the familiar, not the other way around. [Miller, 10]
I think this is right. Certainly I don't believe Wells was prompted by masochism in pushing this scandal into the face of the public in the way he did; but I do wonder if he wasn't aware, on some level, with some degree of self-knowledge or other, that his pretensions with regard to Amber Reeves, the idea that he was the ‘Master’, were always already uncovered. Say Reeves was using Wells to gain sexual experience, to make her point in the face of the world, to spend time with one of the world's most famous writers and develop her own writerly ambitions, to establish herself as a woman. Say Wells was conscious of his helplessness in the face of her allure. The public shame, then, becomes an everting of the private humiliation: he is, in a way, boasting about something that flatters his esteem, and attempting to get behind the shame of it on a point of free love principle. This going public, as well as this writing-into-the-world, of his private life is very Wells (Miller argues that ‘how we go about avoiding humiliation is us, is our very character’). There's a common sense aspect to this, I think.

I suppose there is a certain kind of old, rich, ugly man, who, having sex with a young, poor, beautiful girl, thinks nothing more than this is great or hey she must be really into me. But most men, even in the grip of sexual obsession, surely have a touch more self-awareness than that, and Wells was certainly imaginative and insightful enough to make such self-deception untenable. Because, obviously, one of the adjectives in the triad old, rich, ugly is rather more pertinent to the situation our man finds himself in than the other two, such that without it the liaison wouldn't be happening in the first place. I don't mean to hate-on Wells, who by all accounts was charming, not bad-looking (though not markedly handsome, and also short, weak and with a high-pitched cockney voice) and attentive. But presumably he understood that Amber Reeves was with him because he was a celebrity and a wealthy man, in the sense that it's hard to see she would have gone with him if he'd been poor and obscure. Because: well, of course not. And that realisation cannot help but be a little humiliating to the man concerned.

We have, I know, strayed far from a specific reading of First and Last Things, which book has nothing to say about humiliation. That, I think, is my point, or the rump of one: the oddly flattened texture of Wells's personal and (more to the point) interpersonal metaphysics strikes me as a reaction against the actuality of sexual hierarchical game-playing.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

New Worlds For Old (1908)

Later editions carried the subtitle: ‘A Plain Account of Modern Socialism’, which sums up the content of the book pretty well. It was, in its day, both successful and influential, and introduced a whole generation to socialist ideas, converting many. Wells assembled the book out of various occasional and journalistic pieces: the opening nine chapters (‘The Good Will in Man’; ‘The Fundamental Idea of Socialism’; ‘The First Main Generalisation of Socialism’; ‘The Second Main Generalisation of Socialism’; ‘The Spirit of Gain and the Spirit of Service’; ‘Would Socialism Destroy the Home?’ ‘Would Modern Socialism Abolish All Property?’ ‘The Middle-Class Man, the Business Man and Socialism’ and ‘Some Common Objections to Socialism’) first appeared serially in The Grand Magazine (from July 1907 to March 1908). The remaining chapters had appeared in various places and magazines, and chapter 14, ‘Some Arguments Ad Hominem’, was originally a lecture Wells delivered at the City Temple Hall in London, November 1907, under the title ‘Every-Day Life in a Socialist State’

So successful did the book become that its Aladdin-esque title became a shorthand for socialist ambition as such. Here's Leo Bloom, in the ‘Circe’ section of Ulysses, laying out his politics:

A little anachronistic, that, since the novel is supposed to be set in 1904; but what the hey. Many of Bloom's specifics (parks open to the public, for instance) are in Wells's twelfth chapter ‘Administrative Socialism’; and ‘Free Love’ is discussed in chapter ‘Would Socialism Destroy the Home?’

It's not hard to see why the book had such popular appeal: it's written throughout with lively energy and a well-judged range of specific examples. To read it today is to be struck pretty forcably by what ghastliness a couple of centuries of entirely unfettered capitalism had entailed for the majority of the population. So for example, Wells quotes the headmaster of a regular (that is, not a ragged) London school: of his 405 children he notes ‘7.4 % of his boys whose clothing was “the scantiest possible—e.g. one ragged coat buttoned up and practically nothing found beneath it; and boots either absent or represented by a mass of rags tied upon the feet”; of 34.8 per cent. whose “clothing was insufficient to retain animal heat and needed urgent remedy”; of 45.9 per cent, whose clothing was “poor but passable; an old and perhaps ragged suit, with some attempt at proper underclothing—usually of flannelette”; thus leaving only 12.8 per cent. who could, in the broadest sense, be termed “well clad.”’ [1:3] Or take this chart, compiled by visiting nurses from their records of all London schoolchildren in 1906:

Look at those numbers for infants! Heart-sinking stuff. One of Wells's most effective rhetorical strategies is to take the terms on which conservatives attack socialism, and elegantly swap them about. Take ‘socialism will destroy the home!’—yes, but what home? Under ‘Plutocracy’ the majority of homes are hellish: Wells quotes representative samples from eight hundred surveys of Edinburgh homes, all of them variations of this kind of thing:
A filthy, dirty house. The most elementary notions of cleanliness seem disregarded. The father’s earnings are not large, and the house is insanitary, but more might be made of things if there were sobriety and thrift. There does not, however, appear to be great drunkenness, and five small children must be difficult to bring up on the money coming in. There are two women in the house. The eldest child dirty and fleabitten. Housing: seven in two rooms. Evidence from Police, Club, Employer, School-mistress and School Officer. [New Worlds For Old, 6:2]
Socialism destroy the home? Not at all. Socialism is ‘rather the rescue of the home from economic destruction’ [6:3]. Wells does something similar with socialism and ‘free love’ by pointing out how many women, most of them unwilling, are driven to prostitution by economic necessity under the present system. And so it goes on: ‘Socialism is pure Materialism, it seeks only physical well-being’ (‘—just as much as nursing lepers for pity and the love of God is pure materialism that seeks only physical well-being’); ‘Socialism would destroy Incentive and Efficiency’; ‘Socialism is economically unsound’ and so on.

It's all very persuasive, although my saying so will probably not convince the unconverted, since they will (rightly) assume I read this book from a position of pre-existing ideological sympathy with Wells. So instead of pressing that line, I'm going to pick-up the way Wells several times in New Worlds For Old flavours his argument with allusions to his earlier scientific romances. A couple of examples. So here he addresses the ‘but, human nature!’ argument by tucking-in what I assume is a reference to his invading Martians: ‘people talk of Socialism as being a proposal “against human nature;” they would have us believe that this life of anxiety, of parsimony and speculation, of mercenary considerations and forced toil we all lead, is the complete and final expression of the social possibilities of the human soul.’ Not so, says Wells. It is, on the contrary, the avaricious hoarding of wealth and property that is against human nature:
It is not a thing that comes naturally out of the quality of man; it is the result of a blind and complex social growth, of this set of ideas working against that, and of these influences modifying those. The idea of property has run wild and become a choking universal weed. [New Worlds For Old, 5:1]
That can hardly fail to make us think of the Red Weed in War of the Worlds, which in turn makes me wonder if Wells is nudging us towards a reading of that earlier book as a sort of allegory of invading Capital. Or what about this, surely a nod to The Time Machine?
The plain answer is that under our present conditions the Breeding-Getter wins, the man who can hold and keep and reproduce his kind. Aggressive, intensely acquisitive, reproductive people—the ignoble sort of Jew is the very type of it—are the people who will prevail in a social system based on private property and mercantile competition. No creative power, no nobility, no courage can battle against them. And below—in the slums and factories, what will be going on? The survival of a race of stunted toilers, with great resisting power to infection, contagion and fatigue, omnivorous as rats ... [New Worlds for Old, 9:6]
The terminal ellipsis there is Wells's own: one of his rhetorical tics, designed to invite the reader to let his/her imagination expand into the darkly Morlockian spaces he only hints at. And this brings us to one of the book's problematics, that aspect of New Worlds For Old that makes it hard to take today. I'm talking, of course, of Wells's crudely social-Darwinist racism—this passage's ignoble Jew, posited as an explicit threat to social health and harmony. Clearly a book that indulges in this kind of hoogah-boogah arm-waving and hooting (‘if we're not careful Jews will outbreed Gentiles and reduce us all to stunted Morlockian toilers!’) is not something a twenty-first century reader is likely to think of as entirely progressive.

It's important to grasp how often ‘the Jew’ figured as a straightforward rebus for Plutocracy in the early socialist movement, and also, I'm sorry to say, in some corners of the modern Labour Party too. Wells says repeatedly in New Worlds For Old that there are only two options: Socialism, and Plutocracy (what later socialists came to call capitalism). The opposition of ‘Plutocracy and Socialism’, he insists, ‘is the supreme social and political fact in the world at the present time’ [8:1]. Personifying this opposition as a Jew facing-off against a Gentile Worker (or if one wanted more incendiary propaganda, against a Gentile Woman) was one of the ways the struggle was urged upon the broader population. It has remained a persistent, if often subterranean, strand in leftist thinking, right up to the present day, although nowadays the convention is to deprecate Zionists rather than Jews as such. This is, of course, contentious ground and I don't want to misrepresent it by only skating over its surface, any more than I want to suggest that New Worlds For Old is primarily anti-Semitic in the thrust of its argument. It isn't; the anti-Semitism is mentioned in passing. But that is precisely the point: because it's the fact that this only needs a passing mention that reveals the ways in which the society and culture out of which the book was written had internalised so comprehensive an ideological animus against the Semite that it could be invoked with the merest nod. Here's Bryan Cheyette:
The Phoenicians, as Joyce learnt from Bérard, were a mercantile Hebrew-speaking people who were commonly perceived as ancient equivalents of the contemporary Jewish bourgeoisie. Such ‘parallels between contemporaneity and antiquity’, as Eliot argued in his review of Ulysses began to be exploited as early as Gustave Flaubert’s Salammbo (1850) … Wells’s New Worlds for Old (London 1908) and The Outline of History (London 1920) both make a popularly held parallel between the historic semitic Phoenicians and the contemporary British-Jewish plutocracy. [Bryan Cheyette, Constructions of 'the Jew' in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge Univ. Press 1993), 259]
Cheyette goes on: ‘the destruction of Carthage, a “semitic” city in Wells’s terms, is implicitly referred to throughout The Waste Land and, according to Empson, is at the heart of Ezra Pound’s understanding of the “unity” of Eliot’s poem. ... Pound had written that “London has just escaped, from the First World War, but it is certain to be destroyed in the next one, because it is in the hands of international financiers. The very place of it will be sown with salt, as Carthage was, and forgotten by men; or it will be sown with salt”. The “purgation” of Phlebas … is, according to this reading, also implicated in the cleansing of the Carthaginian “Judaic father” who all-pervading materialism and “semitic” confusion had brought about the downfall of European civilization.’ This is what Wells says in New Worlds for Old:
Which is the better master—the democratic State or a “combine” of millionaires? Which will give the best social atmosphere for one’s children to breathe—a Plutocracy or a Socialism? That is the real question to which the middle-class man should address himself. No doubt to many minds a Plutocracy presents many attractions. ... for the masses, they will be fed with a sort of careless vigour and considerable economy from the Chicago stockyards, and by agricultural produce trusts, big breweries, fresh-water companies, and the like; they will be organized industrially and carefully controlled. They will crowd to see the motor-car races, the aeroplane competitions. It will be a world rich in contrasts and not without its gleam of pure adventure. ... But there are countervailing considerations. There is, it is said, a tendency in Plutocracies either to become unprogressive, unenterprising and stagnantly autocratic, or to develop states of stress and discontent, and so drift towards Cæsarism. The latter was the fate of the Roman Republic, and may perhaps be the destiny of the budding young Plutocracy of America. But the developing British Plutocracy, like the Carthaginian, will be largely Semitic in blood, and like the Carthaginian may resist these insurgent tendencies. [8:1]
In other words—or not other words, but these actual words—who shall be master, the democratic State or a “combine” of Semitic millionaires? Which would you prefer: rule by Socialism, or rule by the Jew? Wells really does present the options as being as zero-sum as that.

This sense that the old Gentile aristocracy was being squeezed out by a more aggressive and fundamentally Jewish plutocracy crops up repeatedly in the novels Wells was writing through these years. It's there at the beginning of Tono Bungay (1909), where the narrator recalls, with a kind of complicated nostalgia, growing up in ‘Bladesover House’, formerly under the command of the elderly English Lady Drew, but now ‘let furnished to Sir Reuben Lichtenstein ... since old Lady Drew died’.
To borrow an image from my mineralogical days, these Jews were not so much a new British gentry as “pseudomorphous” after the gentry. They are a very clever people, the Jews, but not clever enough to suppress their cleverness. [Tono-Bungay, 1:3]
To which the only response is: ‘yikes!’ And not in a good way. And now I'm wondering if putting the title of Wells's book into the mouth of Ulysses' Jewish protagonist wasn't yet another example of sinuous Joycean irony.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The War in the Air (1908)


Bert Smallways, whose name might perhaps strike us as just a touch too Dickensianly over-determined for this particular story, is a bicycle-repairman in Kent in the 19-teens. He lives in a place called Bun Hill. Now, I wondered if this was supposed to be a version of Biggin Hill, but the epilogue reveals that it's hard by Crystal Palace, so it must be a fictionalised version of Forest Hill—which gives the novel a nicely personal resonance for me, since as a nipper I attended Eliot Bank Primary School, which is in Forest Hill. Anyway, not to get distracted: Bun Hill used to be a sleepy village until it was swallowed by the expansion of London. The novel, which is in three main acts, starts with some passages about the pace of this change: Bun Hill residents complaining about how things ain't what they used to be.
Old Smallways would sit over the fire mumbling of the greatness of other days, of old Sir Peter, who drove his coach to Brighton and back in eight-and-twenty hours, of old Sir Peter’s white top-hats, of Lady Bone, who never set foot to ground except to walk in the garden, of the great, prize-fights at Crawley. He talked of pink and pig-skin breeches, of foxes at Ring’s Bottom, where now the County Council pauper lunatics were enclosed, of Lady Bone’s chintzes and crinolines. Nobody heeded him. The world had thrown up a new type of gentleman altogether—a gentleman of most ungentlemanly energy, a gentleman in dusty oilskins and motor goggles and a wonderful cap, a stink-making gentleman, a swift, high-class badger, who fled perpetually along high roads from the dust and stink he perpetually made. And his lady, as they were able to see her at Bun Hill, was a weather-bitten goddess, as free from refinement as a gipsy—not so much dressed as packed for transit at a high velocity. [War in the Air, 1:1]
This, we might say, is the coming of the horizontal machines. The coming of the vertical machines remains to be told. Unlike Old Smallways, young Bert, as a representative of the coming generation, is properly excited by the newer technologies:
Bert grew up, filled with ideals of speed and enterprise, and became, so far as he became anything, a kind of bicycle engineer of the let’s-have-a-look-at-it and enamel chipping variety. Even a road-racer, geared to a hundred and twenty, failed to satisfy him, and for a time he pined in vain at twenty miles an hour along roads that were continually more dusty and more crowded with mechanical traffic. But at last his savings accumulated, and his chance came. The hire-purchase system bridged a financial gap, and one bright and memorable Sunday morning he wheeled his new possession through the shop into the road, got on to it with the advice and assistance of Grubb, and teuf-teuffed off into the haze of the traffic-tortured high road, to add himself as one more voluntary public danger to the amenities of the south of England. [War in the Air, 1:1]
The first portion of the novel is a sort of motor-bicycle Kipps; Bert and his brother Tom run a repair shop, take their girlfriends for a jaunt in the countryside, and are blithely unconcerned by the increasing threat of war with Germany, reported with increasing hysteria by the press. This is a technologically pepped-up 19teens, with not only motorbikes and cars but a global network of monorail trains and lots of excitement about the possibilities of heavier-than-air flight. This latter development seems to face insuperable difficulties, until a bumptious fellow called Butteridge manages it, flying all around Britain in his new craft (‘something in the nature of a bee or wasp ... in the middle was a long rounded body like the body of a moth, and on this Mr. Butteridge could be seen sitting astride, much as a man bestrides a horse’) and announcing his name with a megaphone. Then he dismantles his machine and hides the parts, informing the world ‘my name’s Butteridge. B-U-T-T-E-R-I-D-G-E. Get that right. I’m an Imperial Englishman. I’ll talk to you all to-morrow.’ [1:5] Despite his protestations of Englishness, his plan is actually to sell his invention to whichever government offers the most money.

This first portion of the novel ends, after Bert and Tom take their girlfriends out for a spin in the country, with a beautifully written description of Bert's motorbike catching fire. I'll come back to this scene in a bit; but in terms of the plot, losing so expensive a thing as a motorbike has dire consequences for Bert and Tom. The two lose the lease on their shop. They try their luck as buskers, singing comic songs on the beach at Dymchurch.

The Kippsy social-comedy tone of this first portion is very nicely handled. And the transition from this phase of Wells's story to the next, a more rarified inhabitation of modes of narrative Sublime, is occasioned with a little flourish of farce. On the beach Bert sees a balloon descend in distress; inside it is the portly Butteridge and his inamorata, a matronly blonde lady who has fainted, or otherwise fallen ill. Bert is one of several people who rushes to the basket, helps Butteridge pass the unconscious lady out, and accidentally falls into the basket as Butteridge tumbles accidentally out: ‘the balloon, released from the twenty-five stone or so of Mr. Butteridge and his lady, was rushing up into the sky at the pace of a racing motor-car. “My crikey!” said Bert; “here’s a go!”’

The second portion of the book, from chapter 3 onwards (of eleven) shifts tone towards something much more thoughtful, often elegiac, threaded with lyric moments of this kind:
Bert Smallways was a vulgar little creature, the sort of pert, limited soul that the old civilisation of the early twentieth century produced by the million in every country of the world. He had lived all his life in narrow streets, and between mean houses he could not look over, and in a narrow circle of ideas from which there was no escape. He thought the whole duty of man was to be smarter than his fellows, get his hands, as he put it, “on the dibs,” and have a good time. He was, in fact, the sort of man who had made England and America what they were. The luck had been against him so far, but that was by the way. He was a mere aggressive and acquisitive individual with no sense of the State, no habitual loyalty, no devotion, no code of honour, no code even of courage. Now by a curious accident he found himself lifted out of his marvellous modern world for a time, out of all the rush and confused appeals of it, and floating like a thing dead and disembodied between sea and sky. It was as if Heaven was experimenting with him, had picked him out as a sample from the English millions, to look at him more nearly, and to see what was happening to the soul of man. But what Heaven made of him in that case I cannot profess to imagine, for I have long since abandoned all theories about the ideals and satisfactions of Heaven.

To be alone in a balloon at a height of fourteen or fifteen thousand feet—and to that height Bert Smallways presently rose—is like nothing else in human experience. It is one of the supreme things possible to man. No flying machine can ever better it. It is to pass extraordinarily out of human things. It is to be still and alone to an unprecedented degree. It is solitude without the suggestion of intervention; it is calm without a single irrelevant murmur. It is to see the sky. No sound reaches one of all the roar and jar of humanity, the air is clear and sweet beyond the thought of defilement. No bird, no insect comes so high. No wind blows ever in a balloon, no breeze rustles, for it moves with the wind and is itself a part of the atmosphere. Once started, it does not rock nor sway; you cannot feel whether it rises or falls. Bert felt acutely cold, but he wasn’t mountain-sick; he put on the coat and overcoat and gloves Butteridge had discarded, and sat very still for a long, time, overawed by the new-found quiet of the world. Above him was the light, translucent, billowing globe of shining brown oiled silk and the blazing sunlight and the great deep blue dome of the sky. [War in the Air, 3:1]
Bert is blown, helplessly, through the skies, across the channel and Continental Europe. He eventually comes down over a German airfield, and is immediately hustled aboard the flagship of the huge German zeppelin fleet by its hotheaded commander Prince Karl Albert. Larger than life, this Prince: ‘to many he seemed Nietzsche’s Overman revealed. He was big and blond and virile, and splendidly non-moral’ [4:1]. Karl Albert believes Bert to be Betteridge, whom he has apparently been expecting, and whose blueprints he proposes to buy. The Germans realise their mistake soon enough, but by then the fleet is airborne and on its way to attack New York.

Wells distinguishes the pretext for this attack (‘relations were strained between Germany and the United States because of the intense exasperation of a tariff conflict and the ambiguous attitude of the former power towards the Monroe Doctrine’) from the real reason:
The real deciding cause, it is now known, was the perfecting of the Pforzheim engine by Germany and the consequent possibility of a rapid and entirely practicable airship. At that time Germany was by far the most efficient power in the world, better organised for swift and secret action, better equipped with the resources of modern science, and with her official and administrative classes at a higher level of education and training ... in the history of progress it seemed she held the decisive weapon. Now she might strike and conquer—before the others had anything but experiments in the air.

Particularly she must strike America, swiftly, because there, if anywhere, lay the chance of an aerial rival. It was known that America possessed a flying-machine of considerable practical value, developed out of the Wright model; but it was not supposed that the Washington War Office had made any wholesale attempts to create an aerial navy. It was necessary to strike before they could do so. [War in the Air, 3:1]
And so Bert watches, an unwilling passenger, as the Germans wreck New York from the skies: ‘a great crash and uproar, the breaking down of the Brooklyn Bridge ... the bursting of bombs in Wall Street and the City Hall. New York as a whole could do nothing, could understand nothing’ [6:1]. The city surrenders, but its citizens mount guerrilla resistance regardless and the Germans find that, however good a zeppelin fleet is at destroying things, it is ill-suited to occupying territory. The dirigibles prove vulnerable to small-arm fire, and the Germans are forced to retreat to Niagara Falls, evicting the local population and building a German airbase. At this point a huge Asian airforce arrives, attempting their own invasion of America. The Asiatic air fleet is also zeppelin-based, although they have the advantage of additional fighters planes called ‘Niais’: each ‘a one-man machine, built very lightly of steel and cane and chemical silk, with a transverse engine, and a flapping sidewing; the aeronaut carried a gun firing explosive bullets loaded with oxygen, and in addition, and true to the best tradition of Japan, a sword’ [8:1]. I've no idea where Wells found this name, by the way. ニアイス (niaisu) means ‘near miss’ in Japanese, but is it likely Wells knew that? He would have known that niais is French for a sot or a simpleton, but it's hard to see the relevance of that.

Anyway, the Japanese crush the Germans, suffering heavy losses themselves. Prince Karl Albert's flagship is destroyed and Bert ends up on Goat Island in the middle of Niagara Falls, stranded because the tourist bridge has been destroyed. He discovers that the Prince and another surviving German officer, both badly wounded, are also marooned on the island. Using his bicycle repairman superpowers, Bert starts to fix one of the crashed Japanese niais; but the Germans high-handedly cache all supplies of food and try to put him on half rations by way of controlling him, and relations break down. Bert runs off, and chances upon a discarded gun from the air-battle in the undergrowth. After hiding out for a while, hunger brings him back to the Germans:
He advanced upon his antagonist with his gun levelled, some foolish fancy of “hands up” in his mind. The Prince became aware of him, the yawning mouth shut like a trap and he stood stiffly up. Bert stopped, silent. For a moment the two regarded one another.Had the Prince been a wise man he would, I suppose, have dodged behind the tree. Instead, he gave vent to a shout, and raised pistol and sword. At that, like an automaton, Bert pulled his trigger.

It was his first experience of an oxygen-containing bullet. A great flame spurted from the middle of the Prince, a blinding flare, and there came a thud like the firing of a gun. Something hot and wet struck Bert’s face. Then through a whirl of blinding smoke and steam he saw limbs and a collapsing, burst body fling themselves to earth. [War in the Air, 9:8]
The other fellow runs off in a panic and later drowns. Bert, once he gets over his shock and distress, mends the Japanese ornithopter, pilots it across the water into New York State and so escapes.

Which brings us to the last, briefest portion of the novel. Returning to the outside world, Bert discovers that aerial warfare has broken out globally. The big cities are all smashed and burned, civilisation has mostly broken down and the ‘Purple Death’ is sweeping through the population. He also discovers that Betteridge died of an apoplexy on Dymchurch beach soon after losing his balloon; but, luckily, Bert still has a copy of the blueprints about his person. These he manages to deliver to the President of the United States. He then finds his way back to Britain through a world ruined and depopulated by war and disease and is eventually reunited with his girlfriend Edna. Bert's story peters-out into post-apocalyptic quotidiana: ‘at times came robbers and thieves, at times came diseases among the beasts and shortness of food, once the country was worried by a pack of boar-hounds he helped to kill; he went through many inconsecutive, irrelevant adventures’ [11:5]

The Epilogue is set thirty-years later. An old man and a young boy chase a chicken through overgrown Bun Hill towards the ruins of the Crystal Palace. ‘In face and expression he was curiously like that old Thomas Smallways who had once been coachman to Sir Peter Bone, and this was just as it should be, for he was Tom Smallways the son, who formerly kept the little green-grocer’s shop under the straddle of the mono-rail viaduct in the High Street of Bun Hill. But now there were no green-grocer’s shops, and Tom was living in one of the derelict villas hard by that unoccupied building site that had been and was still the scene of his daily horticulture.’ He regales the youngster with stories of the ‘bicycles and moty-bicycles’ and ‘all sorts of whirly things’ of his youth. All gone now. The new Old Tom (if you see what I mean) and his people are in a worse way than their pre-Industrial Revolution ancestors, ignorant of all but the most basic living practices: so for example, ‘they had lost any idea of making textiles, they could hardly make up clothes when they had material, and they were forced to plunder the continually dwindling supplies of the ruins about them for cover.’ He tells the boy of the wonders and terrors of the old world, and the lad finds it hard to believe, or even understand. On the topic of the whys and wherefores of the war that has extirpated global civilisation, the novel gives Old Tom the last word: ‘“You can say what you like,” he said. “It didn’t ought ever to ’ave begun.”’ And that's where Wells leaves us.


There's a sort of double-meaning in the title of Wells's novel. On the one hand it is simply descriptive, since this is indeed a book imagining what war might look like if it involved aircraft. On the other hand, though, it is a book that finds war simply to be, in the air, like a pestilence. Its murderous belligerence is an affliction that humankind can't escape. The young lad at the novel's end, baffled as to how humanity could have thrown away the splendours Old Tom was describing asks: ‘but why didn’t they end the War?’ Old Tom replies:
“Obstinacy. Everybody was getting ’urt, but everybody was ’urtin’ and everybody was ’igh-spirited and patriotic, and so they smeshed up things instead. They jes’ went on smeshin’. And afterwards they jes’ got desp’rite and savige.”

“It ought to ’ave ended,” said the little boy.

“It didn’t ought to ’ave begun,” said old Tom, “But people was proud. People was la-dy-da-ish and uppish and proud. Too much meat and drink they ’ad. Give in—not them! And after a bit nobody arst ’em to give in. Nobody arst ’em....”

He sucked his old gums thoughtfully, and his gaze strayed away across the valley to where the shattered glass of the Crystal Palace glittered in the sun. A dim large sense of waste and irrevocable lost opportunities pervaded his mind. [War in the Air, ‘Epilogue’]
Earlier in the novel Bert, marooned on Goat Island with Prince Karl Albert and the other German, ought to have been able to get along with them. They could have pooled their resources. Instead they ended up trying to kill one another. ‘War’s a silly gaim,’ is Bert's conclusion afterwards. ‘We common people—we were fools. We thought those big people knew what they were up to—and they didn’t. Look at that chap! ’E ’ad all Germany be’ind ’im, and what ’as ’e made of it? Smeshin’ and blunderin’ and destroyin’, and there ’e ’is! Jest a mess of blood and boots and things! Jest an ’orrid splash! Prince Karl Albert!’ [9:9]. The closest Bert comes to deeper analysis of this inglorious conflict is regretting that he didn't speak German, and the Germans had barely any English, as if what we had here (to adapt Cool Hand Luke's celebrated analysis) is a failure to communicate: ‘it’s jest not knowing German does it. You can’t explain’. But, really, there's a darker moral in The War in the Air: it's in us, and we can't help ourselves. We breathe it in like air.

What has prevented global destruction hitherto, says the narrator, is partly luck, ‘sustained good fortune’ [10:1], and partly the relative effectiveness of terrestrial defences against terrestrial attack, a balance built up slowly over millennia. But, The War in the Air says, as for the first of these, luck doesn't last forever; and as for the second, aerial warfare completely alters the parameters of conflict. Nowhere is safe from, and no defences can be erected against, destruction raining out of the clear sky. War is a fiery conflagration that cannot be quenched, and a Purple Death to which there is no cure. Well, to be fair: of these two governing tropes, the Purple Death is introduced only at the end, and feels like an afterthought. But the fire trope runs rights through. So for example: the episode at the end of Chapter 2, where Bert, Edna, Tom and Tom's girl picnic in the countryside, functions as a small-scale comic anticipatory version of what is to come. The four lovebirds are having so much fun they are as oblivious to the newspaper placards warning of war as they are of the fragility of the machines on which they rely. Here they are hurrying to get home before it gets dark, and they need the motorbike's dodgy headlamp:
Bert was anxious to get as far as possible before he lit—or attempted to light, for the issue was a doubtful one—his lamps, and they had scorched past a number of cyclists, and by a four-wheeled motor-car of the old style lamed by a deflated tyre. Some dust had penetrated Bert’s horn, and the result was a curious, amusing, wheezing sound had got into his “honk, honk.” For the sake of merriment and glory he was making this sound as much as possible, and Edna was in fits of laughter in the trailer. They made a sort of rushing cheerfulness along the road that affected their fellow travellers variously, according to their temperaments. She did notice a good lot of bluish, evil-smelling smoke coming from about the bearings between his feet, but she thought this was one of the natural concomitants of motor-traction, and troubled no more about it, until abruptly it burst into a little yellow-tipped flame.

“Bert!” she screamed. [War in the Air, 2:2]
Bert stops, but can't prevent the flame spreading through the entire mechanism. A crowd gathers, and they try and smother the conflagration with a tarpaulin, ‘there was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished.’ But then the tarpaulin catches fire: ‘it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.’ The result is a wreck, ‘the mixed ironwork and ashes of his vanished motor-bicycle’. It foreshadows, in miniature, the global conflagration that the rest of the novel delineates. When the German fleet first reaches New York the narration pauses:
It was so great, and in its collective effect so pacifically magnificent, that to make war upon it seemed incongruous beyond measure, like laying siege to the National Gallery or attacking respectable people in an hotel dining-room with battle-axe and mail. It was in its entirety so large, so complex, so delicately immense, that to bring it to the issue of warfare was like driving a crowbar into the mechanism of a clock. [War in the Air, 6:2]
New York is a complex and delicate mechanism, and War is a crowbar that smashes it up double-quick time. The rapid collapse of civilisation under the pressure of the new aerial war—rather improbably rapidly, it struck me as I read—is the extrapolation of this principle to the world as a whole.

As far as that goes, Wells's metaphor reveals his preconceptions about society as such. In saying so I don't mean to twit Wells for not foreseeing how actual aerial warfare was to go. He was by no means alone in thinking that mass bombing would mean the end of civilisation—as late as the 1930s many people predicted a new war would mean the end of the world on those grounds alone. Which is to say, the consensus tended to overestimate how destructive such assault would be. In September 1941 the chief of the air staff, Charles Portal, promised the UK government total victory over Germany by bombing alone in six months, if only the war effort could be diverted towards the production of 4000 extra bombers. His plan was: 43 selected German industrial centres, totalling fifteen million inhabitants, were each to be heavily bombed six times in succession, ‘in order to exhaust their capacity for recovery’. Churchill, though, rejected Portal’s plan, arguing that ‘the effects of bombing, both physical and moral, are greatly exaggerated’, and warning against the fundamental unreliability of any calculations that did not include the variable of the enemy’s reaction. He was right, as subsequent events demonstrated. After their ‘success’ (if we can use such a word for a crime against a humanity) in obliterating Hamburg, Bomber Command moved on to the attempted annihilation of Berlin. By the time these raids were launched, though, the Germans had reacted to the previous attacks by setting up more and better defences, new searchlights, night fighters with radar, spotters on the ground to guide fighters to their targets, many more anti-aircraft guns and other things. The result was massive loss of aircrew and planes for Bomber Command, and the survival of Berlin as a city. Only much later in the war, when Germany was exhausted, stretched thin and losing, were Bomber Command able to repeat their earlier ‘success’ with the total destruction of Dresden. [Richard Overy lays all this out in his The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 (Allen Lane 2013)]

Wells's imagined aerial craft are considerably more vulnerable than were the RAF's real-life bombers. Indeed, the German zeppelins are so flammable that no naked flames are allowed on board, and the crew are forbidden from even carrying matches about their person (one crewmember who has absentmindedly forgotten this rule and brought some matches with him onto the craft, is hanged mid-flight by Prince Albert as an example to the others). Wells's dirigibles are ‘absolutely gas tight and filled with hydrogen’. We're reminded ‘ultimately that made a highly explosive mixture, but,’ the narration adds, a little lamely ‘in all these matters risks must be taken and guarded against.’ [3:5] Hard to see how to guard against the massed ranks of determined enemies firing explosive bullets right into your gasbag; and, indeed, The War in the Air is full of exploding and burning zeppelins.

In other words, the point of Wells's novels is not the invincibility of these new war-machines (quite the reverse, in fact); it is, on the contrary, on the immense fragility of the cities over which they fly. This in turn speaks to an assumption about society as such that underlies War in the Air and other books by Wells. Recall Jean-François Lyotard's thesis that Modernism involved a shift from ‘the idea that society forms an organic whole’, to a new conception, in which ‘the theoretical and even material model is no longer the living organism’ but that of the machine, what Lyotard calls a ‘cybernetic’ logic regarding which the ‘systemtheorie is technocratic, even cynical’ [Lyotard, Postmodern Condition (1979), 11]. Lyotard's focus is on the way efficiency replaces harmony as the social salient. That's part of Wells's tacit critique too: the systematic ruthlessness of the German social order, as he portrays it in this book, for instance. But he's more focused in this novel on the comparative fragility of a machinic society. The older organic society might absorb shocks which would, Wells says, shatter the newer machinic one. Put it this way: had Bert taken Edna out for their picnic in a pony and trap, it's highly unlikely the pony would have caught fire on the way home.

It is one of the deliberate ironies of the novel that the machines that come to smash this newly cybernetic society, to ‘drive their crowbars into the mechanism of this clock’ in Wells phrase, are all described with organic similes. The zeppelins are repeatedly compared to fish (‘the fish-like shoal of great airships hovering light and sunlit above, filling the sky, seemed equally remote from the ugly forcefulness of war’ [6:1]), sometimes to monsters, or birds, usually in ways that put placid conceptual distance between them and the catastrophe of which they are the authors. ‘There the monsters hung, large and wonderful in the evening light, serenely regardless of the occasional rocket explosions and flashing shell-bursts in the lower air.’ [6:1]
It was deep twilight now, a tranquil blue-skyed evening; everything rose out from the splashes of light upon the ground into dim translucent tall masses; within the cavities of the airships small inspecting lamps glowed like cloud-veiled stars, and made them seem marvellously unsubstantial. Each airship had its name in black letters on white on either flank, and forward the Imperial eagle sprawled, an overwhelming bird in the dimness. [War in the Air, 4.2]
Smaller aircraft are compared to insects, bats and smaller birds: the Japanese niaias fly on ‘curiously curved, flexible side wings, more like bent butterfly’s wings than anything else ... and they had a long humming-bird tail. At the forward corner of the wings were hooks, rather like the claws of a bat’ [8:2], Butteridge's new model flying machine is repeatedly described as insectoid, possessing:
something in the nature of a bee or wasp. Parts of the apparatus were spinning very rapidly, and gave one a hazy effect of transparent wings; but parts, including two peculiarly curved “wing-cases”—if one may borrow a figure from the flying beetles—remained expanded stiffly.... The wasp-like resemblance was increased by the fact that the apparatus flew with a deep booming hum, exactly the sound made by a wasp at a windowpane. [War in the Air, 1:5]
Less ornithopter, then, than vespathopter, or perhaps scarabothopter. The Kipps-like specific social detail of the first portion of the novel gives way, in its latter sections, into some splendidly inventive descriptions of these great monsters of the sky. My favourite of all of them may be this line: ‘the Asiatic airship hovering like a huge house roof without walls above the Suspension Bridge’ [8:5], a sort of ur-version of Douglas Adams's ‘the spaceship hung in the sky in exactly the way a brick doesn't’. It lends the careful specificity of Wells's descriptions of the aerial warfare a mythical overlay that adds a nice resonance to the text.

And, indeed, this suggests another way of reading this catastrophic story. Brian Aldiss's widely-quoted thumbnail of SF itself, ‘hubris clobbered by nemesis’, in part derives from his thesis that the genre begins with Frankenstein, that foundational story of science as overreaching that will inevitably be punished by Providence. We can take The War in the Air as another iteration of this venerable and, in SF, well-nigh ubiquitous theme. But there's a wrinkle: mankind's hubris is addressed in this book as a specifically vertical thing. It's why it's a German fleet that occupies most of the narrative centre-field: the point about Prince Karl Albert as ‘Nietzsche’s Overman revealed’ is no mere throwaway reference. The air is the over-space that literalises the stance of the overman. We might consider Wells's novel a version of the Tower of Babel myth: Wells's people blaspheme by intruding upon the highest spaces, as Babel's builders did. Think of Bert Smallway's most common expostulation: ‘Gaw!’—his repeated ejaculation in the face of both terror and astonishment—and the way it mangles the name of God into a cockney incoherence. Or, more substantively, think of the old-fashioned hubris of Karl Albert, who pretends as overman to be a god: his airship is adorned inside with what Wells, sarcastically enough, calls ‘the great picture by Siegfried Schmalz of the War God, that terrible, trampling figure with the viking helmet and the scarlet cloak, wading through destruction, sword in hand, which had so strong a resemblance to Karl Albert, the prince it was painted to please’ [4:9]. Schmalz is exactly the right fictional artist's name for this kind of thing, of course, and the novel is pretty unforgiving of its presumption. The Germans are fond of singing Luther's “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” as they go into battle, but Bert, broken when he discovers the corpse of his friend on Goat island, is permitted a more sincere invocation of the deity: ‘“O God! I carn’ stand this,” he said, and crept back from the rocks to the grass and crouched down ... “I done,” he said, “The world’s all rot, and there ain’t no sense in it. The night’s coming...”’ [9:3] He's not wrong.

The mouthfeel of this novel is strikingly elegiac; striking in the sense that, I suppose, I opened the book expecting it to be about ... I don't know: escape. Freedom. Slipping the surly bonds of earth, all that. But at pretty much every point in this novel Wells pointedly avoids the cliché that the ability to fly is in any sense liberating. Of course, if that's a cliché now (‘Let Us Celebrate The Freedom of Flight!’ et al), it was less so in 1908, before flight had become a social ubiquity. But that only makes Wells's prescience on this matter all the more remarkable. He could have written a novel about a hero pilot or a hero inventor-aviator, or even a regular Smallways-type hero who is set free from his restrictive life by the marvellous possibilities of flying. But he did not do this. Bert, in The War in the Air, is a passive, unwilling passenger throughout; a helpless onlooker caught up in the aerial battles, terrified and constantly disadvantaged. The people who think flight will liberate their ambitions, like Prince Karl Albert, are shown to be profoundly wrong. This new aerial technology does not free mankind; on the contrary it destroys us. Flight, so far from connoting freedom, is shown to be, in effect, death. It is, I think, a wholly unprecedented approach to the subject (the earlier chapters of Richard Hallion's Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age from Antiquity to the First World War (OUP 2003) seem to support my sense of this). It's not that Wells is immune to the beauties of the high sky; on the contrary War in the Air is filled with lyrical and evocative writing about that experience, some of which is quoted in this blogpost. That lyric beauty shades elegaic, though. Skip forward ten years, and bring in a very different sort of writer, and here's ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ (1919) to stand as an unofficial gloss on Wells's novel.
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
The stroke of echt Yeatsian genius here, I'd say, is the word ‘tumult’ in that gorgeous twelfth line. Of course tumult means, primarily, ‘violent commotion or agitation’, the sort of thing in which dogfighting pilots might engage. But the word is from the Latin tumultus (‘an uproar; bustle, violent commotion, disturbance, war’) which in turn derives from the same root (tumeō, ‘I swell’) as tumulus (‘a heap of earth, mound, hill, knoll, hillock; a barrow, grave, tumulus’). It's as if the line drove to this tumult in the clouds, with extraordinarily elegant economy, superposes the war that has led the airman into the sky with the grave death has prepared for him, whilst at the same time mimicking the piled-up tumulus of the clouds themselves, a sort of external correlative of both states. Very high up, in the sky; and very far down (impossible to go further down, really) in the grave, focused together into the same thing. The beauty of Yeats's short poem is its unillusioned lyric elegiacism; and when Wells's novel passes beyond the ground-based Kipps-style humorous bathos of its first section, that's the mode it inhabits too. It really is a remarkable piece of fiction.


A brief coda, that follows on from that last point. We're likely to think of our hero Bert as a fictionalised version of Bertie Wells, another iteration of his perennial fictionalised autobiographical small-man-having-big-adventures figure, like Lewisham and Kipps. But it's possible Wells had a different Bert in mind as inspiration. This one, in fact:

Designer and flier of both lighter-than-air and heavier-than-air craft, Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the most famous aeronauts of his day. Wells's ‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (1903) makes admiring reference to Santos-Dumont's skill as an aviator, and when My Airships (above) was published in English in 1904 it became a best-seller. Wells took several details in his own imagined air combats, I think, from Santos-Dumont's chapter on ‘The Airship at War’, including the destructive possibilities of possessing the sky and the ability of the airship to rise above the range of ground-based gunfire (the chapter ends by referring to ’the unique maritime advantage of the air-ship’ [Santos-Dumont, 316], which Wells also touches on). Let's take Wells's Bert as an ironic English version of this great Brazilian Bert, an individual from the small ways of Bun Hill rather than the grander sounding sainted mountain of Alberto's surname. And this small nominal inversion speaks to a larger antithesis to the project outlined in My Airships. Because, as Robert Macfarlane notes
Santos-Dumont was a technological utopian, and his aeronautical dream was, despite his carefully cultivated aristocratic hauteur, a democratic one. He did not patent any of the blueprints for his machines, as he felt that they ought to be publicly available. According to Hoffman, he saw the flying machine ‘as a chariot of peace, bringing estranged cultures into contact with one another’.
Wells, clearly, saw the potential of this new technology quite otherwise. If I say subsequent events tended to prove the Englishman more correct in this than the Brazilian, I am only agreeing with Santos-Dumont's own later opinion, when guilt at the (important) role he had played in developing this new technology overwhelmed him.
The effects of the war on Santos-Dumont were profound. In the early 1920s, he lobbied most of the governments of Europe to demilitarise flying machines. Subsequently he lapsed into depression, holding himself ‘personally responsible for every fatality caused by a flying machine’, whether civilian or military. To punish himself, he ‘read as much as he could about the gory details of the deaths’. A friend, the writer Martin du Gard, noted in 1926 that ‘he now believes that he is more infamous than the devil. A feeling of repentance invades him, and leaves him in a flood of tears.’ He was depressed for most of the 1920s, checking himself into various European sanatoria. One day he ‘glued feathers to his arms, and strapped on wings powered by a small motor in a backpack’ – only the intervention of a nurse stopped him from jumping out of a window. By the end of 1928, he felt well enough to return to Brazil ... Four years later, in the middle of the Brazilian civil war, during which government planes bombed rebel positions, he hanged himself from a hook on his bathroom door in a hotel in São Paulo. Symbolic to the last, he used for a noose two bright red ties from his flying days in Paris.
Poor fellow.