:1: Dejected Angelosity
The History of Mr Polly is a comedy.
This simple observation about the novel unpacks in some quite complicated ways, actually. But to begin with it's worth reiterating it simply: this is a very funny novel indeed, arguably the funniest Wells ever wrote, a beautiful blend of comic character, comic incident and comic appositeness of phrase. The History of Mr Polly concerns the life of Alfred Polly, a lower-middle-class only-son with an imaginative if not high-powered mind. He is a rather feckless individual prone to passivity and gloom, but inventive and, in the final analysis, brave. The novel starts with him as a miserable middle-aged man, keeping a shop in a small Kentish village, based on Sandgate (where Wells himself lived), called Fishbourne: ‘Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of life—which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours—every blessed neighbour—and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself. “Why did I ever get in this silly Hole?” he said. “Why did I ever?”’ [1:1]. Now: I know I said ‘Fishbourne’ and then quoted text that called the village ‘Foxbourne’. There's a reason for that, and I'll return to it at the very end of this post.
Bear with me.
So: the novel recapitulates Polly's life so far: the inadequacy of his schooling, the paucity of opportunities, his time working as assistant in a draper's shop. Younger Polly daydreams, does his job poorly, muddles along, gets fired, picks up new jobs here and there, gets fired from them. Then his father dies and he inherits £395, a small but reasonably tidy sum in those days. This enables him to do nothing for a while except bicycle about Kent, which suits him. He falls in love with a schoolgirl whom he happens to meet sitting on the wall of her school, and for ten days he comes every day at the same time to the same place to declare his love in florid terms derived from the conceit that he is a chivalric knight, his bike his steed and she a damsel imprisoned by a dragon. The girl is more amused than flattered, and when Polly realises that she has invited her schoolfriends to eavesdrop from behind the wall at his ridiculousness he is genuinely heart-broken. It is on this peculiar sort of rebound that Polly marries his cousin Miriam, though he doesn't love her, nor she him; and he ends up sinking his inheritance in a provincial shop that generates neither money nor contentment.
Then the novel jumps forward fifteen years: Polly is now middle-aged, short, chubby and balding, and so miserable that he resolves to commit suicide. We're back at the starting point.
Polly is a man ‘whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto’ [3.2.]. In the early portions of the novel Polly's Joycean, or Mrs-Gampian, or Mrs-Malapropian linguistic inventiveness, his way with what Wells call ‘epithets’, rather gets in the way of his advancement. People don't understand or trust such a speaker: employers fire him, or won't hire him. But for the reader Polly's Pollyisms are sheer delight. Polly calls his fellow young men ‘Stertoraneous Shovers’ or ‘Smart Juniors’, both phrases expressive of disapprobation. In between jobs, he
went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had the strangest sense of being at home—far more than he had ever been at home before. “Portly capóns,” he used to murmur to himself, under the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval churchman. [History of Mr Polly, 3:2]‘Monuments in the aisles,’ Wells tells us, ‘got a wreath of epithets: “Metrorious urnfuls,” “funererial claims,” “dejected angelosity,” for example’ [3:2]. As his relatives get drunk and chatty at Polly's father's funeral, he mutters to himself about the ‘gowlish gusto’ of these ‘hen-witted gigglers’ [4:5]. Learning to ride his bicycle involves him in what he calls ‘little accidentulous misadventures’ [5:2]. Kissing is ‘oscoolatory exercise’ [5:3]. Polly says ‘anti-separated’ instead of ‘anticipated’ [5:1] and ‘convivial vocificerations’ [6:6] instead of ‘congratulations’. He contradicts the general belief that Kaiser Wilhelm is about to order a German invasion of Britain by insisting that ‘William’s not the Zerxiacious sort.’ [7:6]. He attempts to make the best of his shopkeeper life (‘zealacious commerciality!’ [7:1]), but trade is slow and he quarrels with all but one of his fellow shopkeepers. The exception is Rusper, who keeps an outfitter's shop, and with whom Polly has often heated discussion:
Rusper’s head was the most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would say: “Boil it some more, O’ Man; boil it harder!” or “Six minutes at least,” allusions Rusper could never make head or tail of, and got at last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly’s general eccentricity. For a long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse, but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]Rusper's wife recognises the allusion to Rusper's bald head, tells her husband and provokes a coolness between the two of them. Eventually they fall out, and indeed fall to blows, after Polly accidentally rides his bike through Rusper's stock. A lovely bit of comic writing, this:
Mr. Rusper, with a loud impassioned cry, resembling “Woo kik” more than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle, seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper, entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails. There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another—of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr. Rusper’s mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper’s ear before it occurred to Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn’t bite very hard), while Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub Mr. Polly’s face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn’t from first to last draw blood. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]After this Polly is perfectly friendless for years.
The crisis of the novel is Polly's attempted suicide. After years of solitary misery and depression he decides to set fire to his shop one Sunday when his wife is at church and afterwards cut his own throat in the cellar. He would thereby put an end to his life and enable Miriam to collect on the insurance. The fire gets started easily enough, but then Polly accidentally drops his shaving razor and, rather than burn to death, runs outside. His burning shop sets fire to his neighbours' properties and, in a sudden access of heroism, Polly rescues Mr Rumbold's deaf old mother, who lives in the upper storeys of Rumbold's shop. He emerges from the whole episode an unlikely hero: his neighbours are openly glad to have got shot of their unprofitable establishments, and able to retrieve their capital via their insurance.
At this the novel shifts gear into its third and final phase: Polly, freed from his suicidal misery by this near-miss, realises he doesn't have merely to endure his life. He can just go off, like Reginald Perrin (indeed, until reading this novel I hadn't grasped how deeply derivative of it David Nobbs's great sequence of TV shows and comic novels from the 1970s were. In some aspects it's almost a straight rewriting).
So: Polly takes a small fraction of his insurance pay-out, leaving his wife the lion's share, and tramps off through the Kentish and Sussex countryside, enjoying a new sense of existential freedom and happiness. He chances upon a country pub by the river called the Potwell Inn, where he decides to have a bit of food and a pint—or as Wells has him put it: ‘“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirloin for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”’ [9:3]. Inside is
the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen, seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight, well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance, good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.Polly takes work at the Potwell, doing odd jobs and manning the ferry, a simple barge-and-punt operation. He settles into what proves an idyllic life, with the only cloud on his horizon Jim, who turns out to be the plump lady's nephew. Jim is a violent bully who extorts money from the Inn and warns Polly away from what he considers his territory. Polly considers going, too; but in the end elects, heroically, to stay. The climax to the novel is Polly's serio-comical battle with Jim: first in the Inn and garden, when the two men fight using sticks and broken bottles, which ends when Polly is able to dunk the (stronger and more aggressive) Jim in the river, whereupon we discover that for all his bluster Jim is deeply aquaphobic. They fight twice more, but Jim is chased away at last (having stolen a quantity of Polly's personal possessions, including his clothes). Polly settles into the arcadian pleasures of life at the Potwell, the plump lady cooking delicious food for him, he useful and busy about the Inn, running the punt that serves as ferry, and altogether delighted by his surroundings.
“My sort,” said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.
She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.
“Law!” she said, her face softening with relief, “I thought you were Jim.”
“I’m never Jim,” said Mr. Polly.
“You’ve got his sort of hat.”
“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar. [History of Mr Polly, 9:3]
The novel's final chapter is a coda: Polly has no regrets about his prior arson, but his conscience bothers him about having abandoned his wife, so he returns to Fishbourne where he discovers her happily running a teashop with her sister, believing herself a widow. It transpires that Jim had drowned in the Medway wearing Polly's clothes, on the evidence of which the authorities had declared the corpse to be Polly's. Miriam recognises Polly of course, but he tells her not to:
“It’s you” she said.The novel ends with Polly, technically dead, perfectly happy in the Potwell, which becomes widely known for the quality of the plump woman's cooking, particularly her omelettes. Indeed so much so that ‘a year or so the inn was known both up and down the river by its new name of “Omlets”.’ In other words, one part of the comedy of this novel is the uncomplicated joy it takes in good food and life's simple, somatic pleasures. Peter Kemp, in his H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape: Biological Imperatives and Imaginative Obsessions (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), sums up the novel pretty well: ‘basically, it is the story of a man leaving a boney woman who is a bad cook for a plump woman who is a good cook, and settling down with his new partner to a life of gastronomic bliss in an inn once called “Potwell”, now rechristened “Omlets”’ [Kemp, 52]. Back, as the phrase goes, to the egg.
“No,” said Mr. Polly very earnestly. “It isn’t. It just looks like me. That’s all.”
“I knew that [drowned] man wasn’t you—all along. I tried to think it was. I tried to think perhaps the water had altered your wrists and feet and the colour of your hair.”
... “Look here, Miriam,” said Mr. Polly. “I haven’t come back and I’m not coming back. I’m—I’m a Visitant from Another World. You shut up about me and I’ll shut up about myself. I came back because I thought you might be hard up or in trouble or some silly thing like that. Now I see you again—I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied completely. See? I’m going to absquatulate, see? Hey Presto right away.” [History of Mr Polly, 10:2]
The History of Mr Polly is a novel that treats tragic matter in a comic mode. After all, there is (we can agree) nothing intrinsically funny about social deprivation, isolation, depression, arson and attempted suicide. Wells knows this, and invents a side-character, ‘a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a gold pince-nez, and writing for the most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club’, in order to provide the tragic perspective on Polly's life:
This gentleman did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally as “one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for order, commensurate with its complexities.”The purpose of these interjections, basically, is to remind the reader that tragedy is much more a matter of form than content. Everything the gold pince-nez writer says is true, and yet Wells contrives to handle this too-sad-even-for-tragedy stuff as a richly comic resource.
“Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dulness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class ... Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned ... every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to avert it.” [History of Mr Polly, 3:3, 7:3]
This is a matter, I think, more of character than of incident or style. Stylistically, Mr Polly, though often droll and sometimes laugh-aloud, is not notably original, because Wells very obviously inhabits a fundamentally Dickensian manner in his prose, which gives the novel a slightly second-hand vibe. Occasionally he even stoops to reusing specific Dickensian gags. So for example this, from Chuzzlewit:
Mrs Spottletoe ... had no refuge but in tears. These she shed so plentifully, and so much to the agitation and grief of Mr Spottletoe, that that gentleman, after holding his clenched fist close to Mr Pecksniff’s eyes, as if it were some natural curiosity from the near inspection whereof he was likely to derive high gratification and improvement, and after offering (for no particular reason that anybody could discover) to kick Mr George Chuzzlewit for, and in consideration of, the trifling sum of sixpence, took his wife under his arm and indignantly withdrew. [Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), ch 4]becomes
Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly’s close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that and, shaking it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace, and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in outward seeming a friend. [History of Mr Polly, 7:5]But that's all fine. I mean, if you're going to steal, steal from the best: right? And what really makes Mr Polly stand out, I think, and what makes it quite startlingly original in a manner traceable through a main current of 20th-century British comedy, is the characterisation of Polly himself.
So far as I can see, Polly is the first iteration of what went on to become a major English comic ‘type’ or character: the figure of a lower-middle class man, respectable, in many ways dull (certainly living a dull, unexceptional life) but with an incongruously imaginative and inventive idiom indicative of a left-field imagination for which his mundane life simply does not cater. I'm not really talking about ‘the nerd’, here; although that particular stereotype is relevant. In its more common US iteration ‘the nerd’ is less specifically tied to a class identity than is the case with the archetype I'm discussing. A much better analogue would be Peter Cook's comic-sublime E L Wisty.
The crucial things here are the way the (in real-life patrician, public-school-educated) Cook would adopt a nasal, lower-middle-class accent, dress in the habiliments of a kind of slightly-shabby respectability, and deadpan a monologue about a life that mixed the quotidian and the surreal.
It has to do with class in a way peculiarly English, and may therefore be a kind of comedy that doesn't cross borders very well. Cook's influence on the next couple of generations of English comedians means that this ‘type’ occurs and reoccurs. Michael Palin's ‘Mr Pewty’ is a variant, although in this sketch we're being invited to laugh at his inadequacy, which, I think, isn't true of Wisty, or for that matter of Polly:
The problem here is that ‘we’ are more like Pewty than we are like the lecherous upper-middle-class marriage counsellor, and certainly than we are like John Cleese's slightly shadowy cowboy ‘man's man’ character. The balance of laughing at and laughing with isn't quite right in this sketch, I think. It is a little better balanced in Rowan Atkinson's most famous comic creation, although still skewed too far in the former direction.
But you can see that it matters that Mr Bean dresses smartly: not proper posh (Mr Bean in black tie wouldn't work), but a nice-enough jacket and a modest tie. That's part of his persona, as is his strangulated lower-middle-class voice and his various absurd and holy-fool shenanigans.
It has resonance because, I suppose, many people know people like this: I mean, people who, like Polly, would say not ‘I'd like some roast beef and a pint of beer please’ but instead ‘Provinder, cold sirloin for choice, and nut-brown brew and wheaten bread’. Wikipedia has a whole entry under the phrase ‘hail fellow well met’. This old Fast Show sketch is relevant, perhaps.
What's going on here? What was it that Wells—as I say, I think for the first time—was putting his finger on with this character? I wonder if part of the comedy with E L Wisty has to do with the incongruities of class. When Cook's other great comic creation Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling witters on about teaching ravens to fly underwater it chimes with our sense that the British aristocracy are all eccentric inbred loons; but when Wisty drones on about bees and world-domination and tadpoles and the 25-shilling meaning of life it hits a note of, ... well, what? A strange kind of social aspiration, perhaps? Is the larger joke here the notion that a lower-middle-class individual aspires to the sort of unhinged eccentricity we associate with the upper classes?
The broader point here, I think, is that this particular pitiful-comical, mildly-pompous hail-fellow-well-met lower-middle-class ornate-diction person is a distinctly English archetype. I'm not sure there's anything like it, even in Scots, Irish or Welsh culture. It indexes the profoundly uneasy immanence of class in the root and fabric of English identity, the way a person from one social class is shaped by unacted-on hypergradiant forces. This is not the parvenu, a figure with a rather different comic valence. It is that character in which the structures of class as such bend social and therefore personal subjectivity into queer, comical and sometimes oddly dignified shapes.
It finds its formal correlative in the particular school of comic prose that Wells has adapted from Dickens: I mean, the way highfalutin vocabulary and Johnsonian elegance of construction are used, with comic incongruity, to describe lowfalutin (as it were), bumptious, ridiculous or daft things. It's the gap between those two qualities, that space, that The History of Mr Polly so expertly inhabits.
The trajectory Wells takes Polly on, though, ends with him in a paradisical idyll. In the very last chapter of the novel, Polly and the plump woman (who is ultimately promoted by the novel to the status of the fat woman) discuss life and death with an unforced dignity that, here, makes its first appearance in the novel.
Mr. Polly sat beside the fat woman at one of the little green tables at the back of the Potwell Inn, and struggled with the mystery of life. It was one of those evenings, serenely luminous, amply and atmospherically still, when the river bend was at its best. A swan floated against the dark green masses of the further bank, the stream flowed broad and shining to its destiny, with scarce a ripple—except where the reeds came out from the headland—the three poplars rose clear and harmonious against a sky of green and yellow. And it was as if it was all securely within a great warm friendly globe of crystal sky. It was as safe and enclosed and fearless as a child that has still to be born. It was an evening full of the quality of tranquil, unqualified assurance. [History of Mr Polly, 10:3]Polly confesses his arson to the fat woman, adds that he has abandoned his wife, and tells her that the feared Jim is dead. Then he tries to explain to her the intimations of sublimity aroused in him by the sunset. She struggles to understand:
“You can’t help being fat,” said the fat woman after a pause, trying to get up to his thoughts.This leads to the novel's final conversational exchange, which is about death:
“You can’t,” said Mr. Polly.
“It helps and it hinders.”
“Like my upside down way of talking.”
A deeper strain had come to the fat woman. “You got to die some day,” she said.It's surprisingly touching (perhaps I only mean: I surprised myself by how much it moved me). It picks up on the novel's actual deaths (in particular, the long, mournfully comical account of the funeral of Polly's father that takes up most of Chapter 4), the prospective death of Polly's planned suicide and the larger theme of spiritual death and waste, the deathly experience of low-grade depression, and with a lyric turn manages somehow to repudiate death as such. It's wonderfully done.
“Some things I can’t believe,” said Mr. Polly suddenly, “and one is your being a skeleton....” He pointed his hand towards the neighbour’s hedge. “Look at ’em—against the yellow—and they’re just stingin’ nettles. Nasty weeds—if you count things by their uses. And no help in the life hereafter. But just look at the look of them!”
“It isn’t only looks,” said the fat woman.
“Whenever there’s signs of a good sunset and I’m not too busy,” said Mr. Polly, “I’ll come and sit out here.”
The fat woman looked at him with eyes in which contentment struggled with some obscure reluctant protest, and at last turned them slowly to the black nettle pagodas against the golden sky.
“I wish we could,” she said.
The fat woman’s voice sank nearly to the inaudible.
“Not always,” she said.
Mr. Polly was some time before he replied. “Come here always when I’m a ghost,” he replied.
“Spoil the place for others,” said the fat woman, abandoning her moral solicitudes for a more congenial point of view.
“Not my sort of ghost wouldn’t,” said Mr. Polly, emerging from another long pause. “I’d be a sort of diaphalous feeling—just mellowish and warmish like....”
They said no more, but sat on in the warm twilight until at last they could scarcely distinguish each other’s faces. They were not so much thinking as lost in a smooth, still quiet of the mind. A bat flitted by.
:3: Divinely Comedic
In his Structure in Four Novels by H. G. Wells (The Hague: Mouton, 1968) Kenneth B. Newell argues the case, fairly convincingly, that the whole novel is organised around a series of metaphors of digestion and indigestion, persona and social. But I have a different thesis about the ‘structure’ of this novel. I think Wells is playing a game with Dante.
I'll explain what I mean. The novel starts with Polly nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita (‘Mr. Polly’s age was exactly thirty-five years and a half’ [1:2]) and contemplating the gigantic hole that lies before him: ‘“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “’Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”’. Dante opens the Inferno also aged 35, also peering into a gigantic hole:
The most obvious difference between Dante's progress through Hell and Polly's through The History of Mr Polly is that Polly ends up as the ferryman, where Dante encounters Charon, ferryman over the Styx, early on (in canto 3 in fact). We might say that Dante, guided by Virgil, passes deeper and deeper into hell before passing through the other side, where Polly, guided by nobody, slowly emerges out of the misery and ends up in a liminal state of blithe death (as he insists to his estranged wife, or celebrates with the grandmaternal fat woman) ferrying people good and evil across the water.
But I would, I think, go further. I'll stick my neck out to insist that Wells's novel has nine substantive chapters (and one coda) because Dante's hell has nine circles (plus a tenth passage from the centre of the world to the mountain of Purgatory). So Wells's first chapter details Polly's youth, neglected in a useless school, more or less friendless, and then a draper's apprentice (sleeping in ‘a long bleak room with six beds’ [1:3]). It's all waiting for something to happen, and very much a limbo state of affairs—Limbo, of course, being Dante's first circle.
Wells's second chapter tells the story of the dismissal of young Polly's best friend, Parsons, from his position as draper's assistant: not on account of lust, but certainly because that young man is blown-about by the winds of his passion (‘he was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired’ [2:2]) under the influence of which he dresses the draper's shop window according to his own ‘artistic’ ideas of red and black, and then resists when the management try to remove him: ‘for a splendid instant Parsons towered up over the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he went under.’ Like a divine wind, as the kamikaze phrase has it; and career-suicidal, a gesture that anticipates Polly's own actual-suicidal plan later in the book.
In Chapter 3 Polly himself loses his position, and the universe rains and storms upon him: ‘the universe became really disagreeable to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade’ [3:3]. Chapter 4 is ‘Mr Polly an Orphan’, and Polly himself torn between the impulse to hoard his small inheritance as a shopkeeper or spend it thriftlessly as a bicyclist. Chapter 5 which includes Polly's brief love affair with the schoolgirl, starts with Polly wrathfully quarrelling with people on his bicycle (‘had a bit of an argument. I told him he oughtn’t to come out wearing such a dangerous hat—flying at things .... High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. ’I tell you, sir—’ ‘I tell you, sir.’ Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that’s the sort of thing that’s constantly happening you know—on a bicycle’ [5:2]) and ends with him sullenly miserable after he understands the frivolous way in which the schoolgirl considers him: ‘the bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly’s world’ [5:7].
The sixth chapter introduces a step-change in Polly's misery, as he immures himself in the coffin of his marriage to Miriam, and of his shop, and settles in the City of Dis-, or Fis-, hbourne. This brings us to circles seven and eight, and the novel's seventh and eighth chapters, where Polly is at his most tormented, and Dante's ‘Plain of Fire’, ‘Wood of Suicides’ and varieties of Fraud in ‘Maleboge’ find fictional equivalent in Polly's planned arson, suicide and insurance fraud.
This leads to what is perhaps the most interesting of Wells's games with Dante: the ninth circle, home to those who have betrayed their family, their country, their guests and benefactors and worst of all those who have betrayed their lord, culminating in Satan, trapped in a huge block of ice in the very middle of the Earth.
In Wells's Chapter 9, Polly actualises his own happy ending by, in effect, betraying his marriage vows and abdicating all his responsibilities. Now: this is a redemptive rather than damnable strategy, Wells says, provided only Polly is prepared to encounter his diabolic alter-ego, Jim. There's no question as to Jim's nature. The Plump Woman (his aunt, or great-aunt, I'm not sure) relates what Jim said to her, after he returned from his first stint in the Reformatory for theft and truancy: ‘him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a viper than a human boy. ... “All right, Aunt Flo,” he says, “They’ve Reformed me,” he says, “and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you.”’ [9:5]. Jim hurts the Plump Woman, steals her money, and tries his best to scare Polly away:
Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye. He spat between his teeth and wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist ...The serpentine quality, the cavernous mouth (Dante's Satan's is big enough to stuff the whole of Judas's body in), the red eye, even the slobber running down his chin (‘... and down each chin/both tears and bloody slobber slowly ran.’ Inferno 34:53-4): all very reminiscent of Dante's Satan.
“If you don’t clear out?”
“Gaw!” said Uncle Jim. “You’d better. ’Ere!”
He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.
“What won’t I do?” he said. “Once I start in on you.”
He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. “I’ll make a mess of you,” he said in his hoarse whisper. “I’ll do you—injuries. I’ll ’urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ’urt you in ’orrible ways—’orrible, ugly ways....” [History of Mr Polly, 9:6]
The Inferno not only puts Satan at the very middle of the world, in the lowest circle of hell, it ensures that Dante and Virgil's path runs right past him. It's the text's way of saying that sin cannot be avoided in this life of ours; we cannot just keep our heads down and hope Satan won't notice us. On the contrary, we have to be brave and confront Satan, push on through, go right past him, for only by doing this can we make our way to Purgatory and so to Paradise. Likewise Mr Polly, though he contemplates running away, conscious as he is of Jim's superior strength and pugilistic experience, resolves to face up to the challenge. He defeats the adversary, who then dies—as Satan dies forever in the middle of the way between earth and heaven, so Jim drowns in the mid-way, or Medway, river. Having faced down and won, Polly emerges in the tenth chapter to contemplate the beauties of the sky, in the passage quoted above, just as Dante emerges at the end of the Inferno, ‘e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.’
I'm not saying Polly is a one-to-one mapping of Dante's Inferno onto the novel mode, although I appreciate it may appear I have been arguing exactly that case. So let me put it another, indeed in a more upside-down, way. In the first edition (and some later editions too) Wells's chapter starts with Polly miserable in ‘Foxbourne’. Then we get the backstory to his life, before returning to the town, which Wells now calls ‘Fishbourne’. You remember, of course: I mentioned this at the head of the post. It was, presumably, a simple slip, but I think it an expressive one. The fox, predatory and sly, appearing like a flame in a field, speaks to Polly the arsonist and fraud. The fish, on the other hand, speaks to the river, to water and the baptismal renewal as well as the styxian transition into death which Polly comes to oversee. This is the larger thematic trajectory of The History of Mr Polly: from the frozen, prospectless chill of his youth (‘he meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded Polly’s mind’ [2:3]), through the blazing fire of his arson attempt that burns down the whole village, finally to the river where he becomes ferryman and finds happiness. This, of course, exactly reverses the passage through Dante's Hell, which goes from Styx to mid-journey fire to deepest circles of frozen gloom. And the other thing about Dante's Inferno?
It's a comedy.