Thursday, 21 December 2017

The Edinburgh Masks (2017)




[Note: Christmas and the New Year are about to overtake this blog. I'll be back in 2018, but for now I leave you with a short story in the Wellsian manner. I wrote it earlier this year, prompted by Wells's ‘The Temptation of Harringay’ (St. James’s Gazette, 9 February 1895), which was collected in The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents. Harringay is a mediocre artist who paints a devil that magically comes alive, offering him the usual Faustian deal; but, panicked, Harringay paints over his canvas with a thick layer of green. It seemed to me that Wells hadn't followed-through the implications of his premise, so I rewrote the story with an actor rather than a painter, and carried the story on a little way beyond the actual diabolical offer. The result was published in the Edinburgh Festival special-edition of Shoreline of Infinity (an excellent magazine that deserves your support). And now, since it's the time of year for ghost-stories and Gothic-y neo-Victoriana, I thought I'd post it here. Merry Christmas everyone!]


His Iago was no good. Not that the audience seemed to have noticed. Or they noticed but didn’t care. Harringay cared, of course, and now Harringay was sitting beside him in the Theatre Royal’s dressing room extirpating his negro face with cold cream and a rag. ‘Did you eat, old boy?’ Foresman tried. ‘We could pick up a crumb in the King’s Charger.’

‘I ate before the performance,’ said Harringay, coldly. ‘And of course Mrs Harringay is expecting me.’

‘Of course.’

As Harringay rose, Foresman blurted: ‘I’ll perk up the evil, tomorrow, old chap, you know.’ Harringay, walking out, did not reply.

‘And a good evening to you, sir,’ Foresman said, mournfully, to his reflection in the dressing-room mirror. ‘And to you sir a very good evening.’

At the stage door the porter clasped Foresman’s elbow, and then disappeared into his nook. Foresman waited as patiently as he was able, patience not really being his forte. The whole of Edinburgh was hissing him softly, just on the far side of the exit door. The whole city. He called through to the little back room: ‘Macbrie, did Mr Hellespont leave a note concerning the casting of A Way To Pay Old Debts?’

‘Not at all, sir,’ came Macbrie’s voice.

The Ragpicker of Paris? He assuredly mentioned a role in The Ragpicker of Paris last week.’

‘Not that sir.’

‘He may have left a note.’

Macbrie re-emerged, holding a wrapped object the size of a small guitar. ‘No note, sir, though Mr Hellespont did call, left flowers for Miss Gertie.’

‘And that?’

‘This, sir.’

‘And that’s for me?’

‘Yes sir,’ said Macbrie, holding the thing out. ‘I’ve wrapped it in oilcloth against the rain, but will be obliged when you return the cloth, coming in for tomorrow’s performance.’

Foresman almost groaned at the thought of going through the whole sorry charade again tomorrow. For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart—oh, he could weep. Veritably weep! ‘What is it?’

‘Masks,’ said Macbrie.

‘Masks?’

‘Such of smiling, and also of the frowning, masks,’ said Macbrie, ‘as signify the theatrical arts, sir.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Foresman. ‘Are you sure they’re for me?’

‘Individual most particular, directed them to you.’

‘Mr Hellespont?’

‘Not at all, quite different individual,’ said Macbrie.

‘Who?’

‘Didn't leave a name,’ said Macbrie.

‘I don’t understand,’ said Foreman, rubbing his tired eyes. ‘Are they a gift?’

‘Will be appreciative,’ muttered Macbrie, ‘upon the return of the oilcloth on the occasion of you coming in tomorrow, sir.’

Foresman took the parcel, and turned up his collar, and stepped through the stage door into the rain outside. The night sky all geese, the universe mocking his Iago, as he picked his way up the murk of Leith Way to his digs. It took three separate bouts of knocking before Mrs McHoakham opened her door, and he was thoroughly wet by the time he got to his room. He lit a candle. There was but half a shovelful of coal left. He had no desire to haggle with Mrs McHoakham about obtaining more, not so late in the night. Still: he could hardly sit there, shivering wet in the cold. He made what small fire he could in the grate, and scraped off his wet clothes and wrapped a blanket about his shoulders. There was a kneecap sized bit of bread left, and some cheese, hard, and he ate these, and washed it all down with whisky—to warm himself, he said, rather than because he felt maudlin.

He took a look at the masks.

They were, as the porter had said, the masks of comedy and tragedy, carved in dark wood—ebony, perhaps—and linked together with a bar at the back. For display, presumably. There was a curious aspect to their design, for they were carved in such a way as they retained their expressions when inverted. This tromp l’oeil design intrigued Foresman. The creased brow on Tragedy became its woestruck mouth when the pair were turned about, and the laughing raised brows of Comedy performed the same function for that face’s smiling lips. It was a gimmick of course, but quite a cunning one. But who had gifted it to him? He ought to have pressed McBrie on the provenance of the thing. They might be valuable. They were certainly curious. Perhaps he could pawn them?

His Iago had been bad tonight.

Foresman leaned the double mask against the wainscot beside the fireplace and looked down upon the thing. He sipped a little more whisky. From time to time he reached down and turned the connected faces turvy-topsy, and then he looked at them some more. The fire cracked one of its coals with a gunshot sound, and it was as if the mask coughed. When it began to speak he was almost not surprised.

‘Frederick Albert Foresman,’ said the left hand mask—Tragedy. Its voice was bright, for so mournful a face.

‘Moses and Mary!’ exclaimed the actor.

‘Sitting in your chair,’ said the mask, ‘squinting and scowling.’

‘I am drunk,’ said Foresman in a loud voice, as if trying to persuade himself. ‘Or you are possessed by a devil.’

‘A,’ agreed the mask, ‘or the, and you’re not so very drunk.’ Its mouth opened and closed with no splintering of the liquorish-coloured wood. It flowed and folded exactly like skin. The hollowed-out eyes narrowed, and widened. There was something indescribably unnerving about it.

‘No, no,’ said Foresman. ‘I’ve no desire to talk to the devil.’ A twist of the old, old fear, the oldest in fact, of human anxiety in the face of the rivalry of brute nature against human hope, swelled in his abdomen. On a whim he reached down and turned the double-mask about, as if that would silence it. It still spoke, but now it was the right-hand mask, grinning at the cosmic hilarity of it all, out of which the words came.

‘Your whole life has been dedicated to Thespis,’ said the mask, smilingly. ‘You have only ever wanted to be a great actor. And yet your acting is mediocre!’

Foresman reached down and picked up the linked masks, with a half-formed idea of tossing them on the fire. It was burning low now, the meagre supply of coals consuming themselves to nothing.

‘Stay your hand,’ said the mask. ‘I want to make you an offer—a genuine offer. You lack inspirations for your craft, and I can supply those.’ Foresman peered closely at the artefact. Under his fingers it was unimpeachably wood, carved and solid. And yet the mouth moved, and the wood, hard to the touch, had the fluidity of flesh. ‘At the cost of my soul, I suppose?’

‘A bargain must be reciprocal to be a bargain, of course.’

‘Oh I am drunk,’ said Foresman. ‘Drunk on Scottish whisky! Drunk on despair!’

‘And what good is your soul to you,’ the mask asked, ‘in such a predicament?’

‘Do you think I want to go to perdition simply for the acting of a tolerable Iago before a crowd of Scotsmen munching oranges and cracking nuts?’

‘One performance, only?’ the mask said. ‘No. That would be a cheap of me, insulting cheap. I am more generous than that. I offer you seven.’

‘Seven performances?’

‘Complete runs, naturally. If you contract for a twelvemonth as Volpone, then that whole twelvemonth shall be one seventh of my bargain. Seven! The greatest performances in the history of theatre, to be the talk of ages to come wherever the drama is discussed. Seven indubitable masterpiece performances, all for a Chelsea actor’s soul. It's a bargain?’

Perhaps Foresman was not so assiduous about attending church as he ought to be, but that did not mean he had forgotten all his Sunday School teaching. The thought came to him, then, of his long-suffering mother, and her cough like a shovel of gravel being tuned over in her chest, the cough that had increased in frequency from a few times an hour to a few times a minute, and which had gained resonance and penetration as it began spotting her white handkerchiefs red. Some of her devotion to God and goodness had rubbed off even on father, even though it mostly manifested in him as superstition. How could a son resist it? Throw the demonic toy in the flames, before the flames died away entirely—for if the fire died out, he’d be stuck with its yammering all through the night.

Foresman drew it back to toss the thing in. ‘Seven,’ said the mask, again.

And he hesitated.

He put the mask back in his lap, and picked up his whisky tumbler. And this was the thought going through his mind: if I am contracted, on pain of losing my eternal soul, to seven performances, and I only give six, then I cheat the devil of his bargain, and make a mighty reputation for myself at the same time. This thought woke something like childish delight inside him, at his own cunning. Why, he told himself, I could do five great performances, and retire, with two in hand, to be on the safe side! Or I could even—for who is to say I won’t?—I could even agree to this bargain, return to the Royal tomorrow and triumph as Iago and then walk away! Wouldn’t it be worth it, to see the expression on Harringay’s black-painted face? To make Hellespont come crawling back to me with offers of Hamlet and Oedipus and Richard III?

‘How would I accede to this bargain you are offering?’ he asked.

‘Say the word,’ said the mask, turned about now to tragedy. ‘Say yes and it will be sealed.’

‘And you will hold to your part of it?’

‘Such things are governed by a power beyond mine to suborn,’ said the mask. ‘You can trust that I will hold to it, however much I might wish to break it.’

‘Yes,’ said Foresman, and threw the mask in the fire.

The wood took a while to catch, and for several minutes it only smoked an oily-looking black smoke that went straight up the flue. Foresman wondered if the thing was going to scream in pain, or in betrayal, but the faces were fixed now, and silent, and soon enough the flames caught at the wood and the little room became, for a short while at any rate, quite cosy and warm. Foresman finished his whisky, and then betook himself to bed, and he slept a deep sleep, and woke in the morning feeling unsure whether the whole thing had been a waking dream, or even, conceivably, a dreaming dream.

Except that there were fragments of charred wood in the grate. And here, on the windowsill, was Mcbrie’s oilcloth, folded and ready to be returned.

He felt just the same in the daylight as he had done the previous day, and in all the days that before that one, so he decided that the previous night had been nothing more than hallucination. The first intimation he had that things were different was when he stepped onto the stage for the matinee, striding alongside Barnaby’s foppish Roderigo. His first word, a sblood, got lost somewhere in a strange little hiccough of the diaphragm, but then
If ever I did dream of such a matter, Abhor me
came out with a strange force. And all through the first act he could feel something new in his performance, a magnetic quality that held the audience still and rapt. By the time of the thus do I ever make my fool my purse monologue, it was manifest that something special was occurring in the stage. Foresman could see the whole company who were not on stage gathered in both wings to watch the performance, which was unprecedented. At the play’s end the auditorium was filled with a thunderstorm of applause, with hootings and bravos, and when the cast took their bows he—Freddie Foresman, of Oakley Street London—received a greater volume of accolade even than Harringay. That didn’t make the old boy happy, of course. You could see that because he put on a smiling face, and congratulated Foresman a little too heartily, and shook his hand with a touch too much vigour. But the rest of the cast, and all the stage hands, crowded round him, and they took him off to a local tavern and treated him to beer. ‘Did you see Harry’s hangdog face?’ laughed Barnaby. ‘How he hates to be upstaged!’ ‘He’s waiting to see if you can replicate that marvel in the first evening show,’ was Slattery’s opinion. ‘If you do, old boy, oh he’ll be furious.’

And so it proved. Foresman was even more electric in the evening show. Afterwards he literally hear Harringay grinding his teeth as he shook his hand goodnight.

The following day the rumour was that Harringay and Hellespont had had a falling out. The old Greek had heard something was up and taken the rare step of attending the evening performance, said Slattery. Harringay wanted Foresman dismissed from the company, and Hellespont wasn’t having any of that, so they two had had Words. It did nothing to improve Harringay’s Moor, which only made Foresman’s Iago shine the brighter. By the end of the week there were notices in the paper, and tickets for the remainder of the run were sold out. Unprecedented! And everybody knew it had nothing to do with Harringay’s creaky old Let me not name it to you you chaste stars. You could hear the collective indrawn breath of the audience as Foresman delivered I hate the Moor. It was like a steam whistle.

Hellespont was, suddenly, all over him; treating him to food, arranging for superior digs closer to the theatre, and—mirabile!—offering him leads. Leads! ‘Don’t eh-want to eh-waste you, my boy,’ he said, confidentially, ‘in Ragpicker. Trash, that play. Trash. Eh-we need a classic to eh-show you off, like fine jewel in eh-gold. Hamlet! It is too common a mistake,’ he pronounced, slapping his meaty palm on the table, ‘that eh-Hamlet is cast too old. Eh-fifty, sixty, seventy, eh-absurd! Hamlet is eh-young man’s role.’

It was the first Foresman had heard of any Hamlet run. ‘Here, in Edinburgh?’

‘London!’ howled Hellespont, positively howled, and clapped for more wine to be brought over.

It was all a whirl, and Foresman was carried along with it. It was not until the Saturday of the penultimate week that any thought as to consequences rose up in his brain. It was a chance comment, after yet another storming performance, and Harringay had petulantly left the stage whilst the rest were still taking their bows, and all but he had repaired to the King’s Charger for post-play drinks. It was here that Miss Gertie—very attentive to him, now, when before she hadn’t so much as deigned to notice him in the hallway—made a passing comment about how Freddie must have struck a deal with an old Highland witch to transform his acting so. That was too close to the bone to be comfortable. Slattery mocked her for not being able to distinguish her Highlands and her Lowlands and she retorted that the whole Land of Scots should split their differences and settle upon a Middle-Height-lands. Foresman laughed and quaffed and staggered back to his spacious hotel room, where, without him having to ask, a boy was sent up by Management to light the fire for him. Still the thought chewed at the edges of his mind. Had he struck a deal?

He didn’t have to consider the question. He knew he had.

He consoled himself with the thought that he had contracted for seven famous performances, and had performed but the one. Six in hand! He could Hamlet himself to fame in London, and take a free choice of a follow up role, and then retire—retiring at twenty-six would only cement his reputation as the greatest of the great, surely. And no longer-term harm would be done. He resolved this with himself, and went so far as foolishly to shake his own hand on it, before a mirror, grinning like an idiot, before filling the chamber pot and going to bed. But his night was not peaceful, and dark dreams kept trembling him to the lip of wakefulness before sinking him back down again. In the morning, to the sound of church bells, he washed quickly and dressed perfunctorily and scurried along to a granite church on Lothian road that had a spire like a poignard—chosen only because it was the closest. Here he took a seat at the back, and endured an interminable sermon, and sang hymns where he wasn’t sure of the Scots melody, and prayed when everybody prayed. Afterwards, strolling in the Sunday sunlight, he felt better. He had not, he decided, cut himself off irrevocably from the mercy and the love of God. The church doors were always open to him.

For the time being, at any rate, his inner voice whispered.

For the time being.

Othello came to the end of its run, and Harringay became uncharacteristically drunken at the after-gathering, and made a scene (appropriate for an actor, that, when you came to think of it) publicly accusing Foresman of spying on him in order to steal his (Harringay’s) acting tricks and shifts and so pass himself off as a new Edmund Kean in side-whiskers. He, Harringay, he had performed at a private show for Princess Alexandra! Prince Christian of Denmark himself had commended him, after he (Harringay) had performed Alceste the Misanthrope in the original French, mark you! Then Harringay sat down, and doubled over, and was sick onto his own shins and shoes, and Hellespont had to take him home. Foresman had never felt so elated. If ever his spirits sagged, even for a moment, he reminded himself inwardly that he had six performances in hand—even if he only used a couple of them, he had ample opportunity to establish his reputation as the greatest actor of his epoch. Of all time!

And so he came down to London and began rehearsals for Hamlet, and even in the poky Chancery Lane rooms Hellespont had hired for the read-throughs the magic was palpable. The other players noted it. People treated him with a new respect. The show opened at the Aquarium in Wesminster, recently renamed the Imperial Theatre. Never have reviews so universally dithyrambic appeared in the national press! Never has word-of-mouth spread so quickly! The Times called Foresman’s the definitive Hamlet of the age. Audiences gasped and sighed at his monologues, and wept at his death. He received letters by the satchelful, praising, exhorting, begging for personal meetings. Grown men wrote to say that watching him play had convinced them to reform their lives. Women offered themselves in marriage.

The run made Foresman relatively little money, since wily Hellespont kept him on a flat fee rather than cutting him a percentage. Beforehand the fee had seemed to the young actor princely, but by the end of the run he understood that he had been swindled. Still he had four more charmed performances in hand, retaining the buffer-zone of the seventh unutilised, so there was no need to scrape by. He was firm with Hellespont: no more sharp practice, or he would take himself off to another manager who would treat him better. The Greek made convincing atonement, and together they drew up plans for a lavish production of Taylor’s Ticket-of-Leave Man, with Foresman as Brierly, and Henry Gartside Neville, no less, as Hawksmoor. The deal was a fifty-fifty split of all profits, with Neville paid out of Hellespont’s share. The play opened at the Gaiety, on the Strand, and ran for two years.

It made Foresman rich, which had been the idea. It added to his glory, too. Reviewers declared that his performance translated a creaky old melodrama into high art—never before, said Sir Taylor Brindsley in the London Gazette, had the pathos, humanity and dignity of Brierly’s situation come home to him with such force. Though the groundlings might still applaud and weep as the plot turned its surprises round and about, the more discerning audience member would see, for the first time, that this was a play capable of interrogating the randomness of chance in human affairs, the power of human endurance and the redemptive power of love.

Swept up by his own powers, Foresman proposed marriage to his new sweetheart, beautiful young Marie Delaroche. The ceremony was covered in all the society papers. He bought a Mayfair townhouse, retained three servants and a cook, and settled into a comfortable life.

Long before the run came to an end, Foresman was besieged by theatrical agents propositioning him. His morning mail was equal parts letter from adoring members of the public, and proposals of new productions. Hellespont begged him to continue, but Foresman was wealthy enough now, and shook his head. At this Hellespont begged to be taken on as Foresman’s agent, and to this, to save himself the pettifogging bother of managing himself, or finding another agent for the position, Foresman agreed.

He had three charmed performances in hand, and decided to use only one more of them: for he did not want future histories of the Victorian stage to record that his last rôle on stage had been in a crowd-pleaser like Ticket-of-Leave Man. So he contracted to perform as Pentheus, in a new translation of Euripides Bacchae by a young Irishman called Wilde. Fanny Kemble was persuaded to play Agave, and the play was an immediate critical hit. Foresman had insisted upon an open-ended run, for he had had resolved with himself that this would be his swan song, and there was no urgency about such a thing. Critics loved it, of course. He himself could feel the power he exuded upon the stage—audiences gasped and clutched their hands to their chest. Yet the play was not so successful, financially, as had been the Ticket of Leave Man. It was a bald truth: no matter how good he was in the part, Greek Tragedy was too refined and high a taste for the average London theatre-goer, and the lavishness of the production made it harder than it would otherwise have been to turn a profit. Foresman blamed himself: it had been pride, and the thought that this would be his last show, that had prompted him to spare no expense, and when he called an end to the run, the house two thirds empty for most performances, it was to discover that the entire exercise, so far from being financially advantageous, had cost him somewhere near £1000.

That was provoking, of course. He had his clippings book, and the reviews were as adoring as ever; although perhaps even there a sense was creeping into the critics’ prose that wonders and splendour were routine for an actor such as he. That was the very least that might be expected. They were, he complained to Marie, taking him granted. Him! Marie bowed her head and murmured agreement.

Still—Iago, Hamlet, Briers and Pentheus, out of the seven, still left him two in hand and one to be left over. He could afford to rescue his financial situation with another leading role, and then retire—move into management, to directing other players, writing his memoirs, teaching acting at ten guineas an hour. There were many possibilities. So he played Mathias, in a revival of The Bells; and the papers agreed with impressive unanimity that he had laid the ghost even of Henry Irving’s celebrated performance. He cleared more than £4000 after two years and took Marie on a Continental tour by way of celebration.

Now was the time to call it a day. There was no question about that. Foresman invested a sum of money in a school for actors, and for a while was content. Marie suffered two miscarriages in consecutive years, the second of which put her life in danger for weeks; and afterwards he took a house in the south of France for the winter to help her convalesce. They liked it down there so much they stayed through the following year, and saw in the new century on the Continent. When Foresman returned to London it was to discover that his acting school had so far failed to prosper in his absence as to have become a dead loss. His personal tuition drew some students, but the school as a whole was failing, losing money quarter after quarter, and in 1902 there was nothing to do but close it. It was provoking, but it couldn't be helped.

A new generation of actors were being celebrated on the London stage, some of them (provokingly enough) in terms that echoed the praise Foresman had enjoyed in his day. It dawned on him slowly that he was yesterday’s man. His name was mentioned with respect, but his fame was a historical curio rather than a living fact. He tried to accept this, and, hiring an amanuensis, devoted a summer to writing his life story. He did not mention the Edinburgh masks, of course. A folk tale, and such an implausible one, could only be harmful his reputation. Quite apart from anything else, he did not want people crediting his electrifying dramatic performances to anything other than his genius as an actor. The book did moderately well. Reviews were respectful rather than enthusiastic. Sales were modest. It didn’t matter. He had never wanted to be an author. And anyway. Did he really believe that the masks were what underwrote his success? Poor, tired and a little drunk, a mere speculative vision in an Edinburgh bedsit. He didn’t even know whom had gifted him the masks—when he had asked, the porter at the theatre had not recalled.

There were whole hours—stretches of continuous time, in the brightness of daylight—when he almost convinced himself that the whole of that business was just a quirk of his youth. A mere fancy. But then twilight would soak into the world, and he gaslights would shine their light, and clouds of birds would mesh with the trees that lined the road and settle for the night, and the simple truth of his bargain reverted to his mind. He had made the deal. He had said ‘yes’.

He wished he had been more acute when it came to striking the bargain. He could, for instance, have insisted upon the right to choose when he would act magnificently, and so intersperse his grand performances with a number of mediocre ones. But that possibility was not open to him now. Marie’s health improved a little, but he himself suffered badly from gout. He took to walking with a stick.

A writer came to interview him for a book, Great Actors of the Nineteenth-Century. ‘And might I ask, sir, why you elected to retire from the stage?’

‘It was,’ Foresman lied, smoothing his moustache between finger and thumb, ‘so as to be better placed to care for my wife.’

Marie was sick again, certainly, although she required little by way of care, for she spent most of her time in bed. Her lungs got worse, and then stabilised, and then worsened again. Foresman took a house in Cannes, overlooking a sea as blue as Marie’s own eyes. Hers was a slow decline, but inexorable; and two years in France all but drained Foresman’s funds. Besides which, Marie was homesick for England. So he sold his Mayfair house and bought a small place in the countryside, near Bagshot. He became a regular communicant at All Saints Church, and prayed to God every night before going to bed, like an earnest schoolboy. He had not gone beyond the pale—he knew it, in his heart, his whole spirit told him. Seven great performances the devil had told him, and he had given the world five, five towering acting roles that transformed people’s lives. He had done it, and cheated the devil of his bargain. It was the glory of God in the end, that was what mattered.

But his life felt thin. He was content, or more-or-less content, but there was a thinness in the days. Life was less vivid nowadays. Perhaps all men felt this, as they grew older. Foresman strode up and down Berkshire lanes in the summer sun, cutting down the tall dandelions with his walking stick as if he were decapitating the enemy. Something missing, some infant voice echoing in his mind, I want, I want.

Marie grew more sick. The medical bills combined with Foresman’s habitual financial improvidence to push him into debt. It wasn’t the debt that sent him back to the stage, though. Or it wasn’t only the debt. He was finding it hard to live as a once-was, a historical footnote. He was only in his fifties! Some of the greatest actors had done their best work at his age. And he had two performances in hand before he reached the seven. He could spare one more.

Hellespont was dead, now, but there were other theatrical agents only too happy to arrange a return of the Great Foresman to the London stage. He chose Macbeth, a play, he felt sure, that would draw an audience. And it was a success, too: a year’s run booked-in, remarkable notices, audiences rapt. And it brought something back into Foresman’s life the thing that he had not been able to put a name to—it was power, the power to hold the crowd’s attention, to manipulate their emotions, to reach into their hearts and wrench the tender muscle.

His Macbeth was a triumph, no question. But the play Macbeth lived up to its malign reputation. Stuttercock, playing Banquo, broke his ankle. Duncan had a stroke. A man died of a heart attack in row seven—died in Act One, but wasn’t discovered dead until Act Four when his companion finally noticed and began shrieking and wailing. The set caught on fire, although the blaze was contained. A motor truck crashed into the foyer, causing two concussions and a shattered collar-bone amongst the exiting crowd. Rumour wandered London wearing his coat of many tongues, and people stayed away. People came to the box office to return their tickets and made a fuss when they did not receive a full refund. Foresman was in his dressing room, having delivered an electrifying performance to a quarter-full auditorium, when the news was delivered to him that Marie had died. They had known earlier, but hadn’t wanted to put him off his stride for the evening show.

He nodded. Of course.

He turned down the offer of a cab and walked his way back to his hotel through the narrow canyons of London’s highways. Down to the Thames to rest his eyes and cool his head, watching the variegated lights upon the river. Through the arches of Waterloo Bridge a hundred points of light, white, and orange, and red, marked the sweep of the Embankment, and above its parapet rose the towers of Westminster, a dead grey block against the starlight. The black river went by with only a rare ripple breaking its silence, passing over its oiled surface like a snake to disturb the reflections of the lights.

He’d been a fool, he saw. It came to him with shattering certainty. His pride had brought him to the very brink—six performances of the seven the Devil had promised him, and though they were great, they mattered no more than and flotsam sweeping down the river in the nighttime. In two decades he would be dead, and in fifty years he would be a footnote in a dusty academic history of the theatre that nobody read, and in a thousand years London itself would be mere ruins. If H G Wells was to be believed, in a hundred thousand years there would not be such creatures as homo sapiens anywhere upon the face of the globe—and yet all that time would pass like an eyeblink for God in his citadel of eternity.

Why had he taken such an absurd risk? Pride, only pride. Had he truly believed that his prancing about on stage in any way magnified the glory of God? Attempting a cheat the Prince of Darkness of his bargain, all the while accruing worldly glory and fame and money for himself? His folly was laid bare to him. It was all pride, absurd pride, dangerous and sinful pride.

There, in the open air beside the great river, Foresman went onto his knees and prayed to God.

The next day he arranged for the cancellation of the run. His manager put up some small objection, but Foresman could see he was secretly relieved. The end was reported on page 3 of Variety, and adverts were taken out at the back of the respectable dailies offering refunds to advance ticket holders. Foresman returned to his Bagshot house, hollow and echoing without Marie. He ought to have been with her when she passed. That fact brought tears to his eyes.

He went into mourning, and was more assiduous in his church attendance, and prayed ever more lengthily each night. But he could at least take comfort from one thought: that though he had come to the brink, he had not stepped over the lip. He had a vision of his own future—brooding over the one great performance that still left in him, but which could only be purchased at the cost of his soul. He saw himself waiting through all the long years of the rest of his life, eating up his own heart in bitterness, obsessing over it, until finally he could take it no longer. Finally he would crack. But of course he would crack, his mind worrying away at the thought of it like a tongue probing a raging tooth—he would fall, and walk the boards again as Agamemnon or Sir Peter Teazle or Tartuffe, to applause and admiration and his own eternal damnation. Like a man addicted to some terrible opium, he would be unable to resist.

How close it had been!

But though the Devil was strong, God was stronger. Foresman turned his back on the theatrical world, repudiated it utterly. The nation was on the brink of war with Germany, and though too old to serve himself, he helped where he could to raise volunteers from the Sunningdale and Ascot parishes. He sold his house and bought a smaller one in the village of Bracknell, resolved to live much more modestly.

He thought about it more and more, and the conclusion was inevitable. It could not be shirked. It was theatre itself that was the problem. The Puritans had been right to ban it! How could it be anything other than a snare of pride, parading yourself before your fellow sinners puffed up in your vanity? Pretending to be someone other than who you were—that is, lying. For what else is acting, in plain language, but the performance of a lie? Foresman had spent decades in that world, and had experienced it at every level, and he knew. Not for nothing was actress practically a synonym for prostitute. Theatre was a gutter art for a gutter age.

He saw then, with a clarity that felt like visionary revelation, what the whole business with the masks had been about. The ways of God are sometimes winding, but they bring the true soul eventually about to redemption—for the Devil had tempted him, and he had dallied with the Devil, thinking to fool him, but had only sunk himself deeper and deeper into pride and misery and spiritual danger. And at the last minute, with only one performance standing between himself and the hot pit of hell, divine grace had touched him.

He arranged to speak with the vicar at All Saints in Ascot—a worthy man called Oldfield, honestly bald of head and bristly of chin, with a courteous manner. ‘Reverend,’ Foresman told him, ‘I have been reflecting on my days as an actor.’

‘As,’ Oldfield said, ingratiatingly, ‘one of the greatest of actors.’

‘That’s it exactly,’ said Foresman. ‘That's exactly it. I have thought about this a good deal, and prayed, and it is clear to me now that all that,’ he gestured behind him with his hand, ‘was—sin.’

‘Come now, my dear Foresman,’ said the vicar. ‘This is no Catholic chapel. Are you really coming to me for confession?’

‘I am speaking less of myself, although of course I know I am a sinner. But I mean the stage itself. The theatre! The Puritans were right to ban it. It is deceit and pride—it is the very performance of deceit and pride. It is the devil’s delight. You don’t ever,’ he added, ‘read of Jesus attending a play, in the New Testament, do you? Or the apostles? They go all over Greece, and write their letters from Corinth and so on. That’s where theatre began, Pagan Greece, but the apostles will have nothing to do with any of that.’ This had seemed to him, when it had occurred to him, sitting alone in his front room, a very powerful and persuasive point, but now that he spoke it aloud to the Reverend it struck him as banal. Oldfield appeared to agree.

‘Come now,’ the vicar said, ‘That Jesus never smoked a cigar, or wore patent leather boots, doesn’t mean that boots and smokes are damned. Some theatre is low and corruptive of morals, of course. But there’s surely nothing intrinsically wicked about the theatre. Why, think of the Mysteries! Or schoolchildren performing a Nativity Play! That’s not …’ Oldfield seemed to lose his thread. ‘I mean, you wouldn’t say that was … ahem. Hem hem!’

Foresman nodded gravely. ‘I’m sure you are correct. I daresay I am—I might say, mine is an overreaction.’ He thought about telling Oldfield about the masks, but it was too foolish and gothic a story to broach now, in a church, in the daylight of a new century. So instead he said: ‘I was in a beastly theatrical dressing room when I heard my wife had passed. I should have been at her side, but I was grubbing for money and popular fame and base glories instead. I’m sure it’s that has poisoned the whole business for me.’

‘Not,’ said Oldfield, looking strangely baffled, ‘on that point, I don’t agree, but—a good deal of modern drama is very injurious to moral health. To moral and spiritual health. No question. A good deal of the Ibsen and Shaw matter is very dangerous. If I had the Lord Chamberlain’s power of veto, I would ban all such things. But Shakespeare is elevating, is he not?’

‘Of course you’re right, Reverend.’

‘Although, now that you raise the matter, Dr Bowdler had a certain insight into Shakespeare. Did he not? There’s a good deal of positive vulgarity, and some active wickedness, in the Bard. Is there not? Mr Foresman, I will confess: before I sat down with you, to talk, today, I had not really thought through this matter. But now that we do talk, I find there is more merit in your position than I had previously considered.’

‘Do you really think so?’

‘You have such a detailed knowledge of that world, sir! What do I know, by comparison? I have seen Charley’s Aunt at Windsor! And I fell asleep during the second half. Mr Foresman, would you be prepared to—you see, I convene a group, it would be too grand to call it a committee, and it is quite unofficial, you understand. But it consists of a dozen of the most eminent local citizens, and it is self-tasked with finding ways to preserve public morals. At a time of war, and such a war as our nation is now engaged in, this work is more important than ever. The soldiers at the front can hardly win if the moral fibre of the country they are defending decays!’

‘Happy to, of course,’ said Foresman, feeling a surge of pleasure. This, he thought, might be his path to full atonement. Those long years playing the devil’s game, acting the devil’s very role on the stage, bewitching those audiences—this, surely, was God giving him the chance to make amends. And perhaps it could only be this way? For who was better placed to talk of this matter than him? As the Vicar said, who had a better grounds on which to speak than he? Paul had to be Saul before he could be redeemed, after all.

Foresman spoke to the group. They were, as Oldfield had been, sceptical but the more he spoke the more he could see his point of view taking hold in them. There was something perilous in the snares of the stage, he said. Who amongst them would be happy to see their own children take up the life of strolling players? Who could countenance their daughter on the stage? What horror! ‘If you knew how close to the cliff-edge of perdition—I choose my words carefully—how very close my acting life took me to disaster. I have repudiated all that, most emphatically repudiated it all.’

He won them over. By the meeting’s end it was agreed that Foresman would write a letter, and they would all sign it, and attribute it to the Committee for the Preservation of Public Morals, All Saints Parish in Berkshire, and see it published in the local paper. And why not, the Rev. Oldfield suggested, the national papers too? Foresman felt a sweet sense of freedom as he drafted the letter—as if this were, finally, releasing him from his devil’s pact. Public testimony to his denial of all his theatrical past would be pleasing to God and would help undo some of the damage he had done. And the letter was published, and in the weeks that followed it attracted other letters, some contemptuous of this new puritanism, and rather more than Foresman expected in support of his position. He addressed a larger caucus of Committee for the Preservation of Public Morals in Old Windsor, in which representatives from parishes in Oxfordshire and Surrey attended. And, at Oldfield’s invitation, he stood up one Sunday to speak to the All Saints congregation.

He spoke briefly, to the point, stressed his experience and the insight it gave him into the theatrical world, and spoke as soberly as he could about the moral danger the stage represented. As he spoke he scanned his audience: respectable burghers and gentlemen, respectable ladies in their Sunday best, well-behaved children. Near the back were two men in military uniform, presumably on leave from the front, one handsome, the other blank-faced, odd-looking. Their presence prompted him to remind the congregation of the tremendous sacrifices being made by the warriors of Britain in the trenches of France and Belgium. Surely we have a duty to keep clean and decent the very thing for which they are fighting? He glanced at the soldiers again, and was again struck by something off about one of them. One was a wide-faced, pleasant looking man with a ginger moustache; but the other … well, it looked as though the other had a mathematical equals-sign, =, where his face should be. It must have been a trick of the light, or the result of a battlefield injury, and Foresman did not wish to stare. He drew himself to a conclusion: nobody wanted all theatres closed down! Good, morally healthy entertainment was a boon to the nation. Plays on moral and religious themes. Bowdlerised Shakespeare. But the government had a duty to intervene to clean the augean stables of contemporary drama for the common good.

Afterwards he stood by the main door, Oldfield at his side, and shook the hands of the gentlemen, and kissed the gloved hands of the ladies, as they left. ‘Such wonderful and inspiring words,’ said one man. ‘I had not considered the matter in that light,’ said an elderly lady, ‘but you have quite persuaded me of your argument.’

‘I’m delighted to hear it, madam.’

The vicar wandered off to talk to some of his parishioners Foresman stood by the door, and squinted into the brightness. The trees seemed to be whispering the word refresh. Ravens moved fluidly overhead. There was a strong scent of jasmine. ‘Sir?’ said a voice.

Foresman turned. It was the soldiers: two young officers, in uniform. The strange face of the one was explained now: for he was wearing a medical facial prosthetic, milky-coloured and with two parallel slits, one for the eyes, another for the mouth. It was a curved plate and looked to have been set from bakelite, or some like substance. Foresman wondered why no space was left for the nose, and then checked himself: for perhaps the poor fellow had no nose left. Perhaps he had suffered terrible burns, or a shell-burst. The brave young man deserved respect, not pity. He bowed stiffly, and shook their hands, one after the other.

‘Sir,’ said the fresh-faced lieutenant, the one with the ginger-moustache, ‘I wanted to say how inspiring your address was. I am ashamed to say I have been a habituée of the theatre for many years.’

‘As have I,’ said the masked man, his voice slightly muffled.

Foresman could see the hale fellow was supporting the injured man, discretely but firmly, holding him by the elbow and with his other hand in the small of his back. ‘I have seen the light, though,’ said ginger moustache. ‘I was in the audience for your Macbeth, sir, you know, in London. Perhaps I shouldn’t say so, given what you have just declared in church—but it was magnificent.’

‘Magnificent,’ echoed the masked man.

‘Thank you,’ said Foresman. ‘I am grateful for the compliment. Although all that is behind me now.’

‘Goodbye to all that,’ said the masked man, in an odd tone.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Foresman said.

‘Excuse me for a moment,’ said ginger-moustache. ‘I must catch Mary Hetherington before she leaves. Algy, will you be …?’

‘I’ll be fine,’ said the masked man. ‘Do not disappoint your sweetheart, Walter.’

‘Nonsense, nonsense,’ Walter replied, but gaily.

He went off.

Without his friend’s support, Algy’s posture sagged a little, but he stayed upright. Foresman turned to face him fully. ‘You have come from the war, sir.’

‘I have left it behind,’ said Algy, sagging a little further. ‘Alas it has not left me.’

Foresman could see the fellow’s eyes through the upper slit, and patches of puckered, red-purple skin around each one. It was revolting, and yet compelling, as such things often are. ‘Where were you stationed, if I might ask?’

‘I have been,’ said Algy, bending a little further, ‘all over. All over the place, Mr Foresman.’ The young soldier’s torso was now bent to the side, almost forty-five degrees from his hips. Foresman wondered about offering to help, to prop him up or lift him up straight. But such an offer might be an impertinence. Then the fellow said: ‘it was a wonderful speech you made,’ and all thoughts Foresman had had about aiding the fellow vanished entirely. Flew straight up into the sky and disappeared. He felt the chill go through him. He felt his heart inside his ribs flutter and wow. ‘Thank you,’ he replied, stunned. He fought down the urge to turn and run. To turn and run. But what would be the point in that? Run—where?

There was no help for it now.

‘You have persuaded these people,’ Algy said, leaning his torso further towards the horizontal, a most precarious looking angle. It was remarkable he did not topple over.

‘No,’ said Foresman, in a low voice.

Algy leaned further down, and his torso swung a little forward. His head was now below his belt. ‘It was,’ he said again, ‘a most persuasive performance.’

‘No,’ repeated Foresman, without force. He looked around him. Everybody was looking at him. People standing single, or in groups of two and three, turned to face him; people standing on the gravel path of the church or in amongst the overgrown gravestones. All were looking at him. Nobody was speaking.

Algy twitched, twitched again, and his torso flopped lower—a contortion of which no ordinary human body could be capable. His head was now on a level with his knees.

‘No,’ said Foresman for the third time.

One final twitch and the body was freakishly bent right round, the torso upside-down parallel to the upright legs, an impossible posture, and yet, here it was. Algy lifted his arms. His head was, grotesquely, now below them. Foresman looked again and saw that his shining eyes were clearly visible, but now through the mask’s mouth-slit. ‘It was in a way,’ the mask said, ‘the best performance of all of them, Frederick Albert Foresman. The best of them all.’

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Open Conspiracy (1928)




The Open Conspiracy, subtitled Blue Prints for a World Revolution was published in 1928; a revised and expanded edition came out in 1930 with the additional subtitle A Second Version of This Faith of a Modern Man Made More Explicit and Plain; further revisions and a new edition was published in 1931 under the title What Are We to To with Our Lives?, although the next resissue (in 1933) reverted to its original title.

‘The world,’ says Wells, ‘is undergoing immense changes’, which seems a fair assessment. Nor are these the sorts of changes SF predicted:
These changes have not come upon our world from without. No meteorite from outer space has struck our planet; there have been no overwhelming outbreaks of volcanic violence or strange epidemic diseases; the sun has not flared up to excessive heat or suddenly shrunken to plunge us into Arctic winter. The changes have come through men themselves. [Open Conspiracy, 1]
The main alterations, according to Wells, are (a) ‘the abolition of distance’ which has reconfigured both the actual landscape and the social landscape of work, concentrating economic power in fewer big-business hands; (b) the fact that ‘medical art has attained a new level of efficiency, so that in all the modernizing societies of the world the average life is prolonged, and there is a steady, alarming increase in the world's population’; and (c) alarming advances in military technology.‘War, which was once a comparative slow bickering upon a front, has become war in three dimensions; it gets at the “non-combatant” almost as searchingly as at the combatant, and has acquired weapons of a stupendous cruelty and destructiveness’. Taken together, these changes threaten collective disaster. What’s needed is the titular conspiracy:
… a sort of unpremeditated and unorganized conspiracy, against the fragmentary and insufficient governments and the wide-spread greed, appropriation, clumsiness, and waste that are now going on. But unlike conspiracies in general this widening protest and conspiracy against established things would, by its very nature, go on in the daylight, and it would be willing to accept participation and help from every quarter. It would, in fact, become an ‘Open Conspiracy,’ a necessary, naturally evolved conspiracy, to adjust our dislocated world. [Open Conspiracy, 2]
By the 1933 revision Wells was confidently announcing that his ‘open conspiracy’ was happening all around them: ‘hundreds of thousands of people everywhere are now thinking upon the lines foreshadowed by my Open Conspiracy, not because they had ever heard of the book or phrase, but because that was the way thought was going’. This seems a touch over-optimistic to me, I must say. But not to rain on the Wellsian parade.

The argument is: we must alter human mental attitudes, through persuasion, collective pressure, and most of all through education and activism. The phrase ‘the open conspiracy’, first floated in William Clissold, is here fleshed-out further. And it was a phrase that had some currency for a while (Gerald Heard, who had set up the H. G. Wells Society in 1934 to promote Wells's ideas, changed the society's name to ‘The Open Conspiracy’ in 1935, although by 1936 the society's name had changed again), but it has not worn well. In this old post I suggested that ‘there are four phrases in particular, out of all the many phrases and ideas Wells coined, that have enjoyed the most widespread and enduring afterlife: time machine, League of Nations, atom bomb and the war to end war’, and I think I stand by that. I certainly don't think that ‘The Open Conspiracy’, as a phrase, has any currency at all nowadays.

But phraseology aside, we need to decide whether we think the idea itself has merit: the notion that governments can't be trusted to take the world in the right direction and that people not only should but realistically can organise to steer history. At the end of the volume Wells sums-up:
At the utmost seven broad principles may be stated as defining the Open Conspiracy and holding it together. And it is possible even of these, one, the seventh, may be, if not too restrictive, at least unnecessary. To the writer it seems unavoidable because it is so intimately associated with that continual dying out of tradition upon which our hopes for an unencumbered and expanding human future rest.

(1) The complete assertion, practical as well as theoretical, of the provisional nature of existing governments and of our acquiescence in them;

(2) The resolve to minimize by all available means the conflicts of these governments, their militant use of individuals and property, and their interferences with the establishment of a world economic system;

(3) The determination to replace private, local or national ownership of at least credit, transport, and staple production by a responsible world directorate serving the common ends of the race;

(4) The practical recognition of the necessity for world biological controls, for example, of population and disease;

(5) The support of a minimum standard of individual freedom and welfare in the world; and

(6) The supreme duty of subordinating the personal career to the creation of a world directorate capable of these tasks and to the general advancement of human knowledge, capacity, and power;

(7) The admission therewith that our immortality is conditional and lies in the race and not in our individual selves. [Open Conspiracy, 14]
We might respond to this by saying: it did not happen. We might go further and say that it was naïve of Wells ever to think these were realistic aims. I certainly think it's problematic, looking at that wish-list, to take the line argued by Michael Sherborne [in H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (2010) 286] that Wells's campaign here provided ‘a boost for a civil society realized today by bodies such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International’. I don't say so to deny the importance of pressure groups in contemporary political life. On the contrary, there's a reasonable argument that such groups dominate the polity nowadays. But, surely, the most influential are not the ones that undertake the Wellsian (or Greenpacific, or Amnesty-Internationalist) line of publicity and education—(Wells considered ‘two of the main activities of the Open Conspiracy’ to be ‘its propaganda of confidence in the possible world commonweal’ and its organisation of systematic resistance to ‘to militant and competitive imperialism and nationalism’ [15]—publicity and rallies, in other words)—but rather the ones, like the NRA in America and the Arms Industries globally, who directly channel the largest quantities of cash, often clandestinely, to sitting government officials. And though that's clearly not what Wells has in mind here it's surely an eventuality a modicum of common sense might have anticipated.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Book of Catherine Wells (1928)



Amy Catherine Robbins, who had become the second Mrs Wells in 1895 (and who had adopted the name ‘Jane’ at Wells's prompting, for reasons that remain opaque) died in October 1927. She had been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer in the spring of that year, and her health declined very rapidly. Wells returned from Europe to be with her and was present at her death.

Wells decided to curate a memorial volume. Back in the mid 1890s Catherine had been his sometime collaborator, nosing out ideas for short articles and newspaper pieces and helping him realise them, and whilst the bulk of the resulting saleable pieces were written by Wells, she herself sometimes sketched out and wrote up these light-hearted pieces herself. Writing wasn't a career she developed any further than these few sketches, instead devoting herself to being Wells's homemaker and companion, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities and often (as with 1920's The Outline of History) acting as secretary, amanuensis and researcher.

The Book of Catherine Wells is a collection of some of her writing from the 1890s, with a seven-page introduction by Wells himself (the intro was later collected in H G Wells in Love). The preface gives us an interesting if inevitably partial view of the dynamic that had for three decades sustained marriage between these, on the face of it, rather incompatible human beings.
What is more difficult to tell is our slow discovery of the profoundest temperamental differences between us and of the problems these differences created for us. Fundamental to my wife's nature was a passion for happiness and lovely things. She was before everything else gentle and sweet. She worshipped beauty. For her, beauty was something very definite, a precious jewel to be discovered and treasured. For me beauty is incidental, so surely a part of things that one need not be directly concerned about it. I am a far less stable creature than she was, with a driving quality that bold my instabilities together. I have more drive than strength, and little patience. I am hasty and incompetent about much of the detailed business of life because I put too large a proportion of my available will and energy into issues that domniate me.
You notice how a sweet, if rather patronising, compliment to Catherine morphs into a lengthy and slyly-self-serving compliment to H.G. by H.G., poorly camouflaged as self-criticism (it's like the joke about the job-interview question: ‘... and what do you consider your greatest weakness?’ ‘My perfectionism’). To be fair to Wells, he was usually aware of the manifold ways his self-awareness led him towards narcissistic self-regard; the question is how far this preface is able to balance out Wellsian self-criticism with its more particular business, praise for his dead wife:
We had to work out our common problems very largely by the light nature had given us. And I am appalled to reflect how much of the patience, courage and sacrifice of our compromises came from her. Never once do I remember her romancing a situation into false issues. We had two important things in our favour, first that we had a common detestation not only of falsehood but of falsity, and secondly, that we had the sincerest affection and respect for each other. There again the feat was hers. It was an easy thing for me to keep my faith in her sense of fair play and perfect generosity. She never told a lie. To the end I would have taken her word against all other witnesses in the world. But she managed to sustain her belief that I was worth living for, and that was a harder task, while I made my way through a tangle of moods and impulses that were quite outside her instinctive sympathy. She stuck to me so sturdily that in the end I stuck to myself. I do not know what I should have been without her. She stabilized my life. She gave it a home and dignity. She preserved its continuity.
David C Smith, Wells's biographer, finds this passage genuinely moving. After he quotes it, the stiff upper lip of his generally level-headed and unemotional biography wobbles for a moment: ‘his words seem to me to convey better than any others the extraordinary relationship of Bits and Bins—of Bertie and Jane—of H.G. and Amy Catherine,’ he gushes, adding:
Their friends who received the book understood its message clearly. It was not an apology, for none was needed. What it was in a manly way is simply a farewell—Vale, to the dearest person he had ever known. [Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 388 ]
That, I have to say, is not really how I read the quoted passage. Wells's performance of a rather mannered abjection of personality strikes me as more calculated than that. He is saying that Catherine was solid, a home-maker and refuge, the dependable plinth upon which the statue to Wells's mercurial genius could be positioned the better for the world to see it. Describing one's wife as ‘sturdy’ is hardly a flattering thing to do, after all; and Wells's claim that his ‘moods and impulses’ were ‘quite outside’ her ability to sympathise is really quite insulting when you come to think about it. Smith may think that no apology was required from Wells to Catherine, but that's not really for him to say, now, is it. The only people really able to judge the degree of apology needful here are both dead. But we can at least sat that one of them was clearly wronged and the other was clearly the wronger. The ethical gradient of that fact makes Wells's ‘oh I've been a mad, impetuous, sexy fool, but she loved me!’ act a little grating, frankly.

I may be being unfair. The truth, of course, is that we don't know. We don't know how Amy Catherine felt about being so often cuckqueaned. We know that she was aware of most, if not perhaps of all, of her husband's affairs, and she certainly knew about the most significant relationships: Amy Reeves and Rebecca West in particular. According to Mary Hunter Austin, who was staying with them at the time, Wells announced that West was pregnant with his child at dinner, before guests; and Jane Wells's response was a calm remark that ‘Rebecca would need help dealing with the consequences’. This intrigues me: was it ‘Jane’ tacitly boasting of her own superior organisational competency, as against West's scatty boho immaturity? Or was it a different sort of boast, before guests, a way of asserting how cool and collected she was, even in the teeth of so startling a pronouncement? Or was it, maybe, exactly what it appears to be: a neutral judgement by a woman who simply doesn't care that her husband has impregnated another woman? Practically, and in the semi-public arena of their large group of friends, Catherine certainly condoned Wells's adultery; accepted it, perhaps, as the price to be paid for her materially comfortable existence and for being part of her genius husband's life. What we cannot know is how she felt about it, what emotional contortions she put herself to in order to achieve that outward equanimity.

Indeed, it's very hard even to speculate about this without taking sides. Smith certainly does: from his moist-eyed tribute to Wells's ‘manly’ refusal to apologise quoted above, to blaming Amy Catherine for her husband's cheating. If the two had been ‘more sexually compatible’, he says, or more precisely ‘if she had been willing to accept his needs more completely’ then perhaps his multiple infidelities (‘these events’) ‘might not have taken place’ [Smith, 212-13]. Blaming the wife for her husband's infidelity is hardly a very becoming thing to do—I'm put in mind (though it strays from relevance to Wells) of the way Trump's supporters used Bill Clinton's cheating as a stick to beat Hillary with in the 2016 election—and this assertion is Smith at his most hypothetical. Was this why Wells strayed? Where the sexual incompatibility of H.G. and Catherine is concerned, we only have Wells's side of things, recorded in H G Wells in Love. He says the problem manifested early in their marriage, and attributes the incompatibility to the fact that he was still infatuated with his first wife, Isabel. That's certainly possible, at least at the beginning; but presumably it doesn't explain the following more-than-thirty years. Besides which, Wells' is not the testimony of a disinterested party in this situation.

Conceivably Catherine was wholly untroubled by H G shagging other women. Maybe she minded, but kept it to herself; or perhaps more probably minded at first, but got used to it with time (human beings can get used to anything, in time). Maybe she hated it with a passion, and nagged and ranted and wept in private, but maintained the public façade for her own reasons. That last looks less likely to me, although I also don't get the sense that the two of them agreed on a mutually open relationship. I presume that ‘we had a common detestation not only of falsehood but of falsity’ means: we didn't lie directly to another, but also didn't maintain any of the polite fictions by which some couples paper over their emotional cracks. It looks more admirable than it is, though, that claim. The rationale ‘cheating on your partner is fine so long as you don't lie about it’ inadvertently tangles itself in its own ethical nets. After all, the reason lying is bad in the first place is because it's a kind of infidelity (an unfaithfulness to the truth, an untrustworthiness—fidēs means confidence and trust as well as faith). The ethical maths of ‘this negative thing, cheating on my wife, is cancelled out by this positive thing, telling her the truth about it’ is, simply, a misunderstanding of the logic of the human heart. Adulterers who confess do so to make themselves feel better, not to make their partners feel better. If you're going to cheat, you should at least have the courage to lie about it. You've already transgressed; have the residual decency at least to own that fact.

But then again: maybe not. As I note above, we just don't know how Catherine felt about H.G.'s sexual incontinence. Maybe she was fine with it so long as she knew about it: there are certainly people in the world who would feel that way about a partner's infidelity. Though I have to say that's not the sense I get of Catherine's personality, from reading about her. She comes across, though forceful in her way, as an individual rather swept up by the sheer energy of her husband.

It seems she did not enjoy having sex with him very much (because he was rubbish in bed? because she just didn't fancy him? because she was gay, or asexual? who knows). There's no evidence of her sleeping with anybody else. Of course, who knows what she got up to (her husband was away a lot, after all); but I wonder if ‘I would have taken her word against all other witnesses in the world’ means, actually, ‘she told me she was never unfaithful to me and I believed her’.

And I suspect I am less enamoured of Wells's preface here than Smith is in part because it carries with it the whiff of all that higamous-hogamous bullshit. Wells's advocacy of freeing humanity's erotic energies from Victorian prudery and oppression was a fine and, in its way, even a noble thing; and that he lived as well as wrote this new sexual ethos, that he walked the walk as well as talking the talk, is at least consistent. But there's something diminishing, it seems to me, in the way it actually panned out in his life: not a sexual liberation so much as a kind of semi-licensed serial bigamy, in which Wells found the thrill of sexual novelty with a string of younger women whilst also positioning his wife as a kind of mother confessor, to whom he could always return and unburden himself. What's wrong with this picture? I don't know. I suppose it's the way it suggests the ways in which he wasn't walking the walk as well as talking the talk—the way, in other words, that his own psyche remained striated by a fundamentally Victorian sexual guilt that needed the absolution of a maternal, home-making, dependable woman to clear Wells's conscience, such that could once again range out into the world of sexual dalliance. And that's a little ... I don't know: contemptible is probably too strong. But at least we can say: it's not what he's actually preaching from the pulpit.

I suppose I wonder if, despite his repeated infidelities, monogamy was closer to the truth of Wells. Even when he is performing ‘honesty in confession’ , in H G Wells in Love, he opens with: ‘I was never a great amorist, though I have loved several people very deeply’. Which is as if to say: I may have been a polygamist, but I have, at least in my own sense of myself, been a monogamous polygamist. It's no good simply denying this, pointing Wells to the evidence of his really quite wide-ranging promiscuity (Anthony West thinks he slept with six to eight women a year throughout his adult life, which would mean he was unfaithful to Catherine with over 200 people)—Wells's sentiment is a statement of emotional self-perception, not notches on the bedpost. For the same reason, we're entitled to disregard the kind of justification we find sometimes in Wells fiction: as, for example, when Sempack in Meanwhile (1927) goes on and on about how sex is just ‘a consoling and refreshing physical release’, ‘such a simple thing’ ‘as healthy a thing physically as breathing mountain air’ and so on. If that's all sex was that we wouldn't get so worked up about it. More to the point, if that's all sex was, then it wouldn't matter so much to Wells. (We could point out the obvious thing: if that's all sex was to him, a trivial matter, then why couldn't he breath that air with his wife? Why did it need all these other women?)

As Adam Phillips says in his intermittently interesting though oddly elliptical book on the subject: ‘the opposite of monogamy is not just promiscuity, but the absence or the impossibility of relationship itself. Indeed, one reason monogamy is so important to us is because we are so terrorised by what we imagine are the alternatives to it ... in other words, we do not know whether we want monogamy, but we do know that we fear excess: an excess of company, an excess of solitude’ [Adam Phillips, Monogamy (Faber 1996), 98]. So it is that the real polygamist's boast is always actually I was never a great amorist—rather I have loved a few select people very deeply. And another of Phillips' main theses is also peculiarly relevant here. Death inevitably forces us to think of mortality, of our own death and therefore of the possible alternatives to that fate; and although it might not seem entirely intuitive there's a psychological logic that leads on to the contemplation of monogamy:
Not everyone believes in monogamy, but everyone lives as though they do. Everyone is aware of lying or wanting to tell the truth when loyalty or infidelity are at stake. Everyone thinks of themselves as betraying or betrayed. Everyone feels jealous or guilty, and suffers the anguish of their preferences. No one has ever been excluded from feeling left out. And everyone is obsessed by what they are excluded from. Believing in monogamy, in other words, is no unlike believing in God. [Phillips, Monogamy, 1]
Which throws a slightly different light on this preface: Catherine's ‘detestation of falsehood and falsity’ becomes: she is truth. Her sturdiness, stability, the home she provided, become, perhaps, a different ein feste burg ist unser Gott sort of refuge. To be clear: I'm not suggesting Catherine was, in any sense, Wells's god. That would just be common-or-garden idolatry, and wouldn't, I think, describe the dynamic of their relationship at all. But I am suggesting that the idea of monogamy with Woman figured, for Wells, as the form of the divine in his life, even as he repeatedly fell short of it. God the Invisible Queen, we might say, even if his behaviour and her reticence means that she figures in most accounts only as the invisible cuckquean.

The Way The World Is Going (1928)



It's yet another collection of Wells's occasional journalism on contemporary social and political themes, this time culled from his various (lucrative) newspaper commissions 1927-28. The volume opens with a, to be honest, rather passive-aggressive preface in which Wells gripes about how editors keep mucking about with his copy:
These articles were written for great weekly newspapers upon both sides of the Atlantic, and I note rather than complain that they appeared after suffering a certain amount of mutilation. I expressed my disapproval of such changes as were made, as vividly as possible, but the remedies a writer has are uncertain and tedious and the editorial interference went on to the end. The paragraphs were cut to pieces ; there was a brightly careless excision of phrases and sentences apparently done at the eleventh hour to fit space and there was a frequent insertion of uncongenial cross-heads and headings more satisfactory to the editorial mind.
This is poor form, really. I've written for the papers, and commissioning editors and sub-editors have edited my work. That's their job. Complaining about this tends to be, as the contemporary idiom has it, a dick move. Wells here rather gives the impression of somebody who has decided they are too grand and important a writer to be edited (‘it is amusing to try saying what one has to say in as editor-proof a form as possible. It is like shouting across an intervener at a crowd’; ‘Mercifully, I have removed the emphatic cross-heads in restoring my original text [and restored] quips and quirks, fine phrases and fine qualifications’).  But there you go.

The pieces themselves range from contemporary politics (‘2: What is happening in China? Does it foreshadow a New Sort of Government in the World?’; ‘3: What is Fascism? Whither is it taking Italy?’) to attacks on ‘Baldwinism’ and ‘The Absurdity of British Politics’, to speculations about how technology will change the world (‘15: The Remarkable Vogue of Broadcasting: will it continue?’; ‘12: Changes in the Arts of War. Are Armies needed any longer?’) That last essay contains some hair-raising predictions, actually, ‘the aeroplane gas attack ... trailing land torpedoes, gas-poisoned belts, and zones of sudden flame that would make tanks mere cooking-pots’, by way of arguing the case that war is now too destructive to contemplate and that our only hope for species survival is global disarmament.

In its latter stages the volume moves onto less materialist topics: ‘19: New Light on Mental Life: Mr. J. W. Dunne’s Experiments with Dreaming’ is an interesting account of Wells's friend's ideas, and the final essay is ‘27: Is a Belief in a Spirit World growing? Why many Sensible Men continue to doubt and disregard it. What is Immortality?’ Along the way are various other things, especially a funny but fundamentally point-missing attack-review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, ‘The Silliest Film. Will Machinery Make Robots of Men?’ and an interesting meditation on the direction fiction was going: ‘The Future of the Novel. Difficulties of the Modern Novelist’ (‘In brief, the difference between the modern novel and the novel of the last century is this, that then the drive of political and mercantile events and the acts of their directing personalities scarcely showed above the horizon of the ordinary life, and now they do’ [26]).  It makes, I'd say, a more satisfying whole than some of the other collections of Wellsian occasional pieces, mostly because the quality of the individual essays is higher.

Not for the first time Wells, in predictive mode, gaily offers multiple hostages to fortune. He thinks fascism will ruin Italy and sees no risk of it catching on elsewhere, worries that war between Great Britain and the USA is imminent (‘such a war is being prepared now. What are intelligent people to do about it?’ [14]) and insists democracy is on the way out, confidently insisting that ‘general elections and municipal elections or any sort of popular elections’ will no longer have ‘the slightest importance in the affairs of A.D. 2027’ [4]—we still have a few years before we can test the validity of that prophecy, I know, but as prognosis it's not looking good. Rather worryingly, Wells repeatedly praises the Kuomintang as the very model of what will come to replace the exhausted models of representative democracy: the ‘brain and nervous system’ of New China: ‘the Kuomintang is the most interesting thing by far upon the stage of current events, and the best worth watching and studying’ [2].

What else? Well, he sees no future in commercial air-travel (by 1950, he says, flying ‘will be as fitful, unpunctual, and uncertain’ as it is in 1928: ‘a great majority of air passengers will still be in the air as a rather daring “experience” for the first and last time’ [11]), and thinks radio broadcasting won't catch-on, since gramophone records provide a better quality of sound. He also predicts the introduction of what he calls ‘Companionate Marriages’, halfway between celibacy and full marriage, to enable people to have sex (with birth control) and then either proceed to full marriage or else, provided there are no children, to dissolve the bond by mutual agreement and no legal complexities.

So, no: Wells strike-rate for accurate prophesy is, really, no better in this volume than his previous ones. On the upside, that Alasdair Gray-esque cover art, at the top of this post, is gorgeous.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)



Dedicated ‘to the immortal memory of CANDIDE’ and sporting, as you can see, by far the most repulsive cover art of any Wells title, Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is less a conte philosophique than a squib fantastique. (You can click that image to embiggen it, incidentally; but dear God, why would you want to?)

Wells's title-page subtitle lays out the story, in eighteenth-century manner and with rather exasperating whimsy: ‘Being the Story of a Gentleman of Culture and Refinement who suffered Shipwreck and saw no Human Beings other than Cruel and Savage Cannibals for several years. How he beheld Megatheria alive and made some notes of their Habits. How he became a Sacred Lunatic. How he did at last escape in a Strange Manner from the Horror and Barbarities of Rampole Island in time to fight in the Great War, and how afterwards he came near returning to that Island for ever. With much Amusing and Edifying Matter concerning Manners, Customs, Beliefs, Warfare, Crime, and a Storm at Sea. Concluding with some Reflections upon Life in General and upon these Present Times in Particular.’



Not for the first time (I might mention 1924's The Dream or the visions of God at the end of 1919's The Undying Fire and 1917's The Soul of a Bishop; I also feel that Christina Alberta's Father is relevant), Wells frames a fantastical fable as a dream-vision or psychotic interlude. It's a deliberately frustrating, odd little novel really; but since we're well into the territory of unread, unheard-of Wells now, titles the reading of which has fallen into the backward and abysm of utter obscurity, a little summary of the story is probably in order.


:1:

Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is disposed into four parts. In the first section, Arnold Blettsworthy narrates his birth into a respectable and ancient Wilsthire/Sussex family: Blettsworthy holdings are recorded in the Domesday Book ‘and Blettsworthy's Bank is one of the last of the outstanding private banks in these days of amalgamation’ [1:1]. His mother dies when he is five, and his father goes abroad, leaving him to the care of an Uncle and Aunt in Cheltenham, but his upbringing is ideally happy, and Wells aims at a Candide-esque tone. Of Arnold's fictional Oxford college, we're told ‘my life at Lattmeer confirmed my faith in the civilisation of the universe’; and here's his assessment of the Boer war, in which conflict his father dies (not heroically, but via a tragicomical misunderstanding):
That Boer War left no scars upon my boyish mind. It was certainly the most civilised war in all history, fought with restraint and frequent chivalry, a white man's war, which ended in mutual respect and a general shaking of hands. Most of us must be orphaned sooner or later, and to have had a father one had long forgotten dying, as we supposed, a hero's death in a fair fight, was as satisfactory a way of realising that customary bereavement as I can imagine. [Mr. Blettsworthy, 1:3]
This whole first book, really, is an exercise in this tone Wells is aiming for: something drier and more English than Voltaire's often surprisingly fruity irony, but pointed and subversive and sometimes properly funny. Blettsworthy falls in love with a woman called Olive Slaughter, who ‘kissed with such eagerness and caressed me so tenderly that only my sense of her perfect innocence restrained the ardour of my responses’ [1.4]; and again Wells deftly but cleverly allows us to intuit Olive's perfectly natural appetites and the obliviousness of Arnold's priggish restraint (‘I talked between our kisses of the high aims to which our passions were to be consecrated, and all my thoughts surrounded her with protective possessiveness, as though I was a church dedicated to her and she was the holy altar therein. And so to kissing again’).

Blettsworthy invests £3000 in the business of his friend, Lyulph Graves. But Lyulph embezzles the money and seduces Olive Slaughter. When Blettsworthy chances upon the two of them in bed together he goes out of his mind with jealousy: ‘my memories [of this period] are extraordinarily irregular; now clear and detailed and as sharp as though they came from yesterday instead of a third of a lifetime ago; now foggy, distorted and uncertain, and now interrupted by gaps of the completest obliteration’ [1:5]. In a state of distraction he gets drunk in the Spread Eagle pub in Thame, cycles off towards Amersham, and is knocked off his bicycle by a tradesman's van. Then again, though I say so, it seems he isn't, somehow:
To that point I remember simply and clearly, and then I vanish completely out of my own memory. Probably I went over and was hit by the van. There is no record. Certainly I was stunned. But it is queer I do not remember anything up to the instant of being stunned. The light goes out, so to speak, while I am still only just coming into touch with the wheels and side of the van. [1:6]
At any rate, the next thing is Arnold's family solicitor Ferndyke advising him that a world tour is just the thing to take his mind off his broken heart.

This brings us to Book 2: ‘Mr. Blettsworthy put out to Sea’, in which our hero embarks for Rio de Janeiro aboard a tramp steamer called the Golden Lion. It's a long, dull voyage. He swaps books with the Engineer, to pass the time: lending him Dostoevsky (‘Dustyovsky's interesting in a way,’ is the Engineer's judgement. ‘I've figured out the roubles and kopeks in Dustyovsky in shillings and pence. Some of the stuff was twice as dear as in London and some of it not half’) and receiving in return Co-operative Dairies in Denmark, with Statistical Charts and Diagrams and Robinson's Functional Diseases of the Lower Bowel. The Engineer is unimpressed by Arnold's lack of perseverance with these volumes: ‘you skip everything. You've what I should call the mind of a butterfly’ [2:7].

The Captain of the Golden Lion, though, is both disreputable and incompetent. When the ship begins to sink off the South American coast and the crew all clear off in a lifeboat, the Captain locks Blettsworthy in a cabin to die, acting, it seems from pure malicious animosity. By the time Arnold has broken through the cabin door he is alone on the sinking boat.

It takes a long time for the boat to founder, and after a period of despair Blettsworthy begins to talk to himself. Is life nothing but a joke? A ‘Sell’ (that is, a trick, a swindle)? ‘“But the Sell,” I argued, “is of our own making. The Sell is in ourselves. The Nature of Things has neither promised nor cheated. It is just that we have misunderstood it. This death-bed on a sinking ship is merely the end of over-confidence. Destiny has always been harder and sterner than we have seen fit to recognise. Life is a sillier, softer child than its parentage justifies”’ [2:13].  His biggest worry is not drowning, so much as the pain associated by being eaten by sharks. But instead of dying, two individuals come aboard:
They were naked men of a dusky buff colour; they had extraordinarily hard faces, unpleasantly tattooed, and their black hair was drawn harshly back. They leant upon tall spears and they stared at me with inexpressive eyes. Both were chewing slowly and steadily with their heavy jaws. [2:17]
They take the narrator prisoner. Book 3 ‘tells how Mr. Blettsworthy found himself among the Savages of Rampole Island’. The island itself is made of some kind of crystal (‘though I have sought it since in museums in order to give it a name, I have never seen anything like it. It resembled a clearish blue purple glass, but with large patches of a more ruddy hue, verging on rosy pink’ [3:1]) and its natives worship an unforgiving Mother Deity:
a jutting mass of rock in the shape of a woman with staring eyes and an open mouth; a splintered pinnacle of rock rose above her like an upraised arm and hand brandishing a club; the eyes had been rimmed with white and the threat of the mouth had been enhanced by white and red paint, suggesting teeth and oozing blood. It was very hard and bright and ugly in the morning sunshine. This, I was to learn, was the Great Goddess welcoming her slaves. The savages stopped the canoe abreast of her and raised their paddles aloft in salutation. The forward paddler held up a fish, an exceptionally big one. Another savage leant back towards me, lifted my head by the hair as if to introduce me to the divinity, and then threw me back among the rest of the catch. [3:1]
The tribe are cannibals and make their drumskins out of human hide, but as they are about to sacrifice Blettsworthy to their goddess he begins, without understanding why, to rave and sing (‘quite unwittingly I did what was best for myself’) and so becomes adopted as the tribe's ‘sacred lunatic’. He strolls about unmolested, wearing the skin of a gigantic ground sloth (which species ‘still survives upon Rampole Island’) and carrying a phallic staff—‘a staff of hard dark wood obscenely carved and decorated’ [3:2] (ram, pole, you see)—uttering oracles and occupying the status of the sort of talisman James Frazer wrote so much about: ‘when I am fat and well the tribe prospers; do I ail and its fortunes decline’.

Years pass; long enough for him to learn the native tongue, although he doesn't really remember the passing of time. The two main leaders in the tribe, Blettsworthy aside, are ‘Chit the soothsayer’ and ‘Ardam the warrior’. Their tribe lives in a coastal gorge from which the people are forbidden to leave; above are the uplands, also inhabited; and throughout Blettsworthy's time on the island the war drums beat in prelude to a great battle between the gorge-dwellers and the uplanders, to Ardam's savage satisfaction.

By this point, however, something has shifted in the tone of the whole. The drily precise ironic Voltaire voice of Book 1 has, by this stage in proceedings, become a cruder sarcasm, the novel engaging in some none-too-subtle satire on the mores of early 20th-century England. At the festival of the Great Goddess ‘youths and maidens would exhibit themselves and dance together’, but ‘any of the young people who succumbed to the obvious suggestions of these gatherings would be unobtrusively withdrawn from the assembly for the administration of the Reproof amidst the reprobation of their friends and relatives. It became indelicate to refer to them thereafter. In this way the coarser cravings of the community were allayed under the mask of a superficial gaiety.’ Wells goes on:
But that was merely one way of providing for the baser needs of the tribe. A multitude of other traps awaited the unobservant, the unlucky or the recalcitrant, and secured a permanent edible class for the comfort and support of the higher ranks in the social pyramid. There was for example a strict taboo upon all climbing or indeed upon all talk of climbing towards the sunlight of the uplands. In this gorge these folks were born and for the greater part of them, except for those who went out for the sea fishing, life was lived from beginning to end in the gorge. It was a long, narrow world that varied in width from perhaps a hundred yards to three miles at the widest part, and above certain rapids and a great cascade was the frontier of murderous enemies. The uplands were supposed to be wastes of incalculable danger and measureless evil for the ordinary human being. Only men of exceptional magic powers might ascend there. The light, the vivid fringe of green, were insidious temptations to be banished from speech and thought. To speak of them, even to whisper to untrustworthy ears, was to come within reach of the Reproof. And so well were these restrictions sustained that I am convinced a large proportion of our tribal population went from the cradle to the cooking pot without ever dreaming of the possibility of any other sort of life. [Blettsworthy, 3:3]
‘Permanent edible class’, as a description of the proletariat, is a small touch of genius; but otherwise I wonder if this isn't all a little obvious in its ridicule?

Life among the ‘savages’ is hemmed about with all manner of taboos and rituals, and the getting of wives is a particularly difficult and dangerous business, with the most powerful males reserving all the best women to themselves. Blettsworthy, aware that transgression would lead to his death, lives a celibate life for several years. But then he rescues a young girl called Wena from drowning, and the two become lovers, sneaking away to an remote cave to have sex. Since Wena belongs to Ardam, this is very dangerous, but Blettsworthy and Wena have fallen in love, so they decides to run away and hide together in the cave. As he flees, Ardam shoots Blettsworthy with an arrow in the shoulder, and, staggering onwards, he abruptly ... wakes up.

This is the twist. Book 4: Blettsworthy regains consciousness in Brooklyn Heights, New York City. He has been experiencing a prolonged feverish hallucination, under the care of psychiatrist Dr Minchett (‘Chit’), and married to a woman called Rowena (‘Wena’):
‘What is the matter with my shoulder?" I asked.

‘That was hurt when you were knocked down by the taxi-auto,’ said Wena.

‘Taxi-auto? An arrow.’

‘No. A taxi-auto. I dragged you out of the gutter.’ I ran my fingers through my hair. [Blettsworthy, 4:1]
The cave is his apartment he shares with Rowena in New York; the gorge is formed by the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Blettsworthy rescued Wena some years before from an attempted suicide, when she tried to drown herself in the Hudson.

What has happened is this: five years previously Blettsworthy had been discovered, alone upon the foundering Golden Lion, by ‘the steam yacht Smithson, collecting various scientific data in the South Atlantic and Tierra del Fuego’. ‘You went for them with a hatchet,’ Dr Minchett reports. ‘You were—to make no bones about it—stark, staring mad’ [4:2]. The crew humour him until they can get him back to New York, when he is committed to the Quinn Mental Clinic in Yonkers. Two years of treatment and he is released, whereupon he rescues and marries Rowena. A bout of fever has reverted him to his previous dissociated state.

All the various events of Rampole Island map onto the real world: as he says to Michett, ‘for, after all, what was Rampole Island, doctor? It was only the real world looming through the mists of my illusions’ [4:2]. And that includes the war drums: for World War 1 has commenced. His old solicitor Ferdyke comes to America to see him, and his stories about the sacrifices England is making in the fight against Germany inspire Blettsworthy to enlist in the British Army as a private. Rowena moves to England with him, and they have a child whilst he is still in basic training; but soon enough he's called up and goes to the front. He survives a gas attack, and advances with his company over No Man's Land (‘I fell over a dead body alive with maggots; my knee went into the soft horror’) declaring: ‘Rampole Island was sanity to this—a mere half-way house to reality’ [4:8]. Then:
For a moment there were five soldiers moving forward and an officer waving an arm beside them. Then something seemed to drop out of nothingness among them and flash blindingly with an immense stunning detonation.

Something wet hit me. The five men had vanished. There was nothing there but a black source of unfolding smoke and dust. But all about me were bloody rags, fragments of accoutrements and quivering lumps of torn flesh that still for a moment or so moved as if they were alive. I stopped aghast. My knees seemed to lose their strength. I staggered, and then I was physically sick. [Blettsworthy, 4:8]
He has lost a leg and is invalided home. Recovering in hospital in Rickmansworth he finds himself on the ward with Lyulph Graves, whose face has been smashed by a shell and whose head is covered all over in bandages except for one eye. Blettsworthy forgives him his former trespasses, and the two men become friends again, even going into post-war partnership in Graves's advertising and marketing business.

The novel ends with Blettsworthy fitted with a new mechanical leg, ‘a middle-aged, outwardly contented figure. Wife and children, this pleasant home we have made at Chislehurst, the business I must attend to if our comforts are to be ample, friends and acquaintances, exercises and amusements’ [4:13]. But he is haunted by his memories of Rampole Island: ‘I managed to carry on with business and kept touch with practical things throughout. But to fall asleep, to sit alone, to walk with an unoccupied mind, was presently to pass right out of England completely into that familiar gorge of reverie. I would find myself talking aloud to the Islanders and snatch myself back to my real surroundings by a great effort I would exclaim suddenly’ [4:13]. The last beat of the story is presented as a door out of this torment: Graves persuades Blettsworthy to help him write ‘The Prospectus of Mankind—Unlimited’ [4:14], and devote his energies to the coming of the World State.


:2:

The final book is, I have to say, quite the disappointment. It's not that its badly handled on its own terms (Wells proves yet again that he can write really vivid battle scenes). It's that its incongruity operates not only on the obvious level of content—so I awoke and behold it was a dream! always runs the risk of anticlimax—but more debilitatingly on the level of tone. Gone is the expertly pastiched Voltaire-level irony; in its place is a deal of earnestness and outrage at the horrors of the world. Don't get me wrong: the world is undeniably full of horrors. But the world through which this novel's dedicatee, Candide, moved was as full of horrors as any First World War battlefield. The point is how best to represent those horrors, how to make art out of them; not merely to register the fact of them, but to project and tailor them in such a way as to give readers a point of conceptual leverage. To browbeat your audience with miseries will tend, actually, to have a politically sedative effect. It's easy to convince people the world is shitty; it's much harder to inspire them to try to make it less shitty. The genius touch of Candide as a novel is the way its galvanically light comedy supplies, as it were, a series of expertly placed electric shocks to our complacency.

Presumably Wells thinks in Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island he is steering a Candide-ish story towards an il faut cultiver notre jardin conclusion. But cultivating your garden and agitating for a World State are, radically, different activities. They are both projects to make the world better, it's true; but Voltaire's localised scope is a specific rebuke to the grandiosity that informs things like Wells's World-Statism. And actually it's not a question of scale (you might cultivate your garden with a bit of judicious weeding and pruning; but for Voltaire the phrase meant working his huge estate at Ferney, within sight of Mont Blanc: draining marshes; bringing unused land back under the plough; planting fruit trees and vines; raising livestock and establishing a stud farm; abolishing feudal dues; setting-up estate industries such as silk weaving and pocket-watch manufacture; staging cultural festivals and theatrical performances; and rebuilding the parish church)—it's not, to repeat myself, a question of scale but of focus. That's the way in which Wells's novel falls short of the limpid precision of Candide. And arguably, outside the confines of this novel, it was the way in which his larger political ambitions fell short of attainment.

I don't, incidentally, think that Wells strayed from the Candideian path by mistake or through any failing of artistic control; I think he knew perfectly well what he was doing. Part 1 and 2 adopt the Voltaire voice, rendering the world as it is (or as it was) accurately enough for the irony to bite; but Part 3, on Rampole Island, quite deliberately abandons this approach, instead renders our world as grotesque phantasmagoria, exaggerating real-world biases and absurdities into freak-show versions of themselves. The game here is quite different: not the eloquent beauty of inflected innuendoes which is the currency of irony, but the simpler pleasures of preposterousness. The former invites us to engage our interpretive intelligences in the service of a kind of tactfulness of insight, the latter simply projects exaggerations onto the big screen for us to goggle at. It's not coincidental that the first two parts of this novel often made me smile, where the later sections—didn't. And then there's Part 4, which abandons comedy altogether for a more direct exaggerated mimesis, the second wrongfooting tonal shift in this 300-page novel.

But I don't mean to be too dismissive. Although I can't argue that Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island really works as a novel, it is nonetheless doing some interesting, and some rather strange, things, and that means that it is, quite often, interestingly strange, or strangely interesting. It is (for instance) playing quite complicated games with narratorial reliability and unreliability. The ‘simple’ model of true reality vs. false vision is that Blettsworthy lives in the truly real world, and that his experiences on Rampole Island are all falsely hallucinated. But the novel messes with that simply binary in quite intricate ways.

Take for example the van that knocks Blettsworthy from his bike in Oxfordshire at the end of part 1, which has become a taxi-cab that knocked Blettsworthy over in New York City, such that Rowena can pick him out of the gutter. These are not separate incidents, they are the same incident under the aegis of different valences of narratorial trustworthiness. The holy lunatic of Rampole Island stands, sequentially, between an ultra-English, respectable Blettsworthy and a New York Blettsworthy who has married a woman whose sex life was so chaotic and shameful that she tried to kill herself. That characters from the former life appear in the latter world prevents us from merely bracketing one, or other, of these two Blettworthii as fantasies on a par with the Rampole Island Blettsworthy, and that means that it becomes hard-to-impossible to square the book as a whole. The later Blettsworthy enlists in the army as a private soldier; the former is scion to one of the most ancient of English families and wealthy to boot, and would surely join as an officer. The irony of tone that can describe the Boer War as certainly ‘the most civilised war in all history’ tangles with an, as it were, different, formal mode of irony. The result is a novel carefully constructed so as to deny the reader the satisfaction of getting all its components to line-up neatly. I like that.

And I also like the extra layer of textual tricksiness that Wells builds-in. Because it seems to me designedly an intertextual game that Blettsworthy's sojourn on Rampole Island has so many commonalities with the unnamed Time Traveller's holiday in 802,701. The difference is that the latter spends time in the broad sunny uplands amongst the Eloi where the former spends his time trapped down in the gorge with the cannibalistic Morlocks; but that only makes it the same story from two different perspectives. In The Time Machine the protagonist has a relationship with a beautiful female aboriginal called Weena whom he rescues from drowning; in Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island the protagonist has a relationship with a beautiful female aboriginal called Wena whom he rescues from drowning. The Eloi in The Time Machine live under the baleful gaze of the giant face of the sphinx, which functions as a gateway to the nether realm; the Rampole Islanders of Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, as we have seen, worship a rock formation that has the form of a merciless goddess's face.

More substantively, both novels are commentaries upon the non-teleological nature of evolution, as liable to devolve forms into barbarism as evolve them into civilisation. That's what the Morlocks and Eloi, and especially the later forms the traveller sees, show in Time Machine; and that's also a point Wells makes quite forcefully in this novel. Blettsworthy is intrigued by the megatheria, the Giant Sloths, that still survive on the island, and says:
The struggle for life can terminate in the triumph of types unfit to live, types merely successfully most noxious. In nature a relative survival of the rotten and dying is possible. And these Megatheria which have made large areas of South America a dreary desert, have passed and are passing away—even on Rampole Island now and then, one more of them ceases to crawl and lies lax and presently swells and decomposes. So that so far from Evolution being necessarily a strenuous upward progress to more life and yet more life, it might become, it could and did evidently in this case become, a graceless drift towards a dead end. [Blettsworthy, 3:5]
Is there a little self-reference buried in there, amongst the notional sense of those words, I wonder? ‘crawls and lies lax and presently swells and decomposes’ ‘presently ... Wells .... composes’? Might the whole novel be an exercise in postmodern intertextuality avant la lettre?

A fable about how an ordinary person becomes trapped in a hallucinatory phantasmagoria which turns out to be a commentary upon the insanity of a world willing to wage World War 1 and fit humanity into the cruel procrustean beds of capitalism and sexual prudery is one thing. But it does seem to me that a fable about how a writer of celebrated fantasies becomes caught in a feedback loop defined by one of his most famous works is quite a different thing. Is that what we're dealing with here? I'm not sure.

I do, however, take the clue from the protagonist's name—blett means ripe, or over-ripe; so this is a character worthy of ripeness, and so by implication that he is in some sense unripe or green. I suppose he deserves the global ripenesses that Wells's promised World State will bring him, though; he is blets worthy. So there's that. Or is the idea more like Edgar's hard-won wisdom regarding the importance of ripeness, that Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. That's possible, and possibly even wise, although it had always seemed to me to prize a sort of stoic passivity of endurance over a more can-do up-and-at-em attitude. One reason Blettsworthy forgives his Graves and recommences friendship with him is that he admires his Edgarian stoicism. ‘He [Graves] agreed with me essentially, and differed from me profoundly. The world was Rampole Island, yes, and civilisation a dream, and then he went off without even taking breath to discuss how we could make that dream a reality. He was a Stoic just as much as I was a Stoic, but never in anyone else have I met with such an aggressive Stoicism’ [4.12]. Stoicism isn't a particularly Voltaireian virtue of course; but perhaps that's just to reiterate what I've already suggested: that this novel, though it starts in the spirit of Candide, soon leaves that influence far behind.