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.
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.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.
‘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]
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.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.
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]
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.
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.