Monday, 27 February 2017

Select Conversations with an Uncle (now Extinct) (1895)

Strictly speaking, the first book Wells published was the drily-titled Text-Book of Biology (1893), which he gorblimeyed out of the teaching notes and set-pieces of Dr William Briggs. Briggs ran a financially successful tutoring company, employing ‘over forty first-class honours men’ (as Wells recalled it in his 1934 Experiment in Autobiography), a team Wells joined in 1890. The business was cramming applicants ‘to the widely sought after London University Matriculation’. Briggs's model was this: he had gone through all the previous University matriculation examination papers, filleted the questions that tended to be repeated from year to year and prepared a ‘hundred or so model answers’ with which his teachers then drilled their students. Briggs hired Wells to run the biology component: ‘I took over and revised a course of thirty correspondence instruction papers and later on expanded them into a small Textbook of Biology (my first published book for which I arranged to charge Briggs four or five hundred hours, I forget which), and I developed an efficient drilling in the practical work to cover about forty hours or so of intensive laboratory work.’ The book was published by the ‘University Correspondence College Press’ in 1893.

That title, incidentally, is Text Book on the front cover, Text-Book on the title page, and Textbook in later reprints. ‘We met the demand for biological tutoring as it had never been met before and if it was a strange sort of biology we taught, that was the fault of the university examinations.’ The whole thing is available online here, and, as you might expect, it makes for dull reading. After Wells became famous the book was reprinted in 1909, as by Wells, ‘revised by J. T. Cunningham’; and it was reprinted yet again in 1932, when Wells was even more famous, with further revisions by W. H. Leigh-Sharpe. But though these present the book as still Wells's, in fact almost all of his writing, and every last one of his original drawings, have been taken out, and the whole book rewritten and re-illustrated. Which gives some sense of the scientific merit of the original edition.

So, no, I'm not going to discuss the Text-Book on this blog. As he was plugging away at the teaching, Wells was starting his career as a writer of shorts, and scrabbling around to sell occasional pieces to venues like the Pall Mall Gazette. He also (the Experiment in Autobiography recalls) collaborated with his ‘old fellow student R. A. Gregory’, who ‘had no ready money at all and I lent him that!’ The two men co-wrote ‘a small but useful cram-book to be called Honours Physiography [1893]

According to Wells ‘we sold [this] outright to a publisher for £20—which we shared, fifty-fifty’ (to give a sense of the value of that Lewisham's annual schoolteacher salary at the beginning of Love and Mr Lewisham is £40).  Honours Physiography is, like the Text-Book of Biology, quite dull stuff, although the final chapter, ‘General Facts of the Distribution of Life in Time and Space’, kindles a small spark in the breast of the reader who knows what Wells will go on to write: ‘it is difficult at first to realize how extremely localized and temporary a thing the whole career of life is, compared with the play of lifeless forces ... From the point of view of the stellar astronomer, life is an entirely local thing, an eddy in one small corner of the immense scheme of Being’ [Honours Physiography, 174-75]. It's not much, but it's something.

Of course, Wells quickly discovered the serious money was not in textbooks, but journalism and fiction. He had tried various pieces on various outlets without much luck until, holidaying on the south coast in 1891, he ‘hit quite by accident upon the true path to successful freelance journalism’:
I found the hidden secret in a book by J. M. Barrie, called When a Man's Single [1888]. Let me quote the precious words through which I found salvation. “You beginners,” said the sage Rorrison, “seem able to write nothing but your views on politics, and your reflections on art, and your theories of life, which you sometimes even think original. Editors won't have that, because their readers don't want it.... You see this pipe here? Simms saw me mending it with sealing-wax one day, and two days afterwards there was an article about it ... He has had my Chinese umbrella from several points of view in three different papers. When I play on his piano I put scraps of paper on the notes to guide me, and he made his three guineas out of that. Once I challenged him to write an article on a straw that was sticking to the sill of my window, and it was one of the most interesting things he ever did. Then there was the box of old clothes and other odds and ends that he promised to store for me when I changed my rooms. He sold the lot to a hawker for a pair of flower-pots, and wrote an article on the transaction. Subsequently he had another article on the flower-pots; and when I appeared to claim my belongings he got a third article out of that.”
‘For years,’ Wells later recalled, ‘I had been seeking rare and precious topics. Rediscovery of the Unique! Universe Rigid! The more I was rejected the higher my shots had flown. All the time I had been shooting over the target. All I had to do was to lower my aim—and hit.’ He immediately wrote a short comic piece about holidaying by the seaside, and sold it to the Pall Mall Gazette. He began churning out these brief, archly observed journalistic pieces as fast as he could, and soon enough was earning healthy money: in 1894 he cleared £583 17s. 7d. and in 1895 £792 2s. 5d. all from writing—a lot of money back then. It means that Wells's early 1890s bibliography is littered with a superfluity of pieces with titles like ‘Out Banstead Way’, ‘Angels’, ‘The Coal Scuttle’, ‘Noises of Animals’, ‘The Art of Being Photographed’ and ‘The Theory of the Perpetual Discomfort of Humanity’. I talk more about the context and flavour of this 1891-96 period in Wells's career in this post, which discusses his later collection, Some Personal Matters (1896). And this brings us, finally, to Select Conversations with an Uncle.

Wells recalled these years of jobbing journalism in the Autobiography: how he and his wife Jane would write all morning, grab lunch and then ‘prowl out to look for articles’.
This article hunt was a very important business. We sought unlikely places at unlikely times in order to get queer impressions of them. We went to Highgate Cemetery in the afternoon and protested at the conventionality of the monumental mason, or we were gravely critical, with a lapse into enthusiasm in the best art-critic manner, of the Parkes Museum (sanitary science), or we went on a cold windy day to Epping Forest to write “Bleak March in Epping Forest”. We nosed the Bond Street windows and the West End art and picture shows to furbish forth an Uncle I had invented to suit the taste of the Pall Mall Gazette—a tremendous man of the world he was, the sort of man who might live in the Albany. Select Conversations with an Uncle, is the pick of what we got for him.
The book itself was published by John Lane in June 1895, exactly one day before The Time Machine was issued by Heinemann. One day! It's hard nowadays to imagine a writer, especially a new writer, treading on her own toes like this: for who would want to crowd her own market so egregiously? One relevant consideration might be that Lane was cautious about Wells's saleability, and only contracted for a print-run of 650 Uncles; where Heinemann contacted to an initial print run of 10,000 Time Machines, plus a generous advance of £50. Which is about right, of course: Time Machine is an enduring classic, where Select Conversations with an Uncle remains a minor piece of Wellsiana

The hook for these disparate pieces is the aforementioned fictional Wellsian uncle, a worldly-wise old geezer who has returned, wealthy, from South Africa, and who grumpily comments on what has become of English life, dress and manners in his absence. He rails against fashion (‘the fashionable is the foam on the ocean of vulgarity’), slang (‘the essential feature of slang is words misapplied; the essential distinction of a coarse mind from one refined, an inability to appreciate fine distinctions and minor discords’) and cheap reproductions of art hung on domestic walls (‘there is no getting away from these all too popular triumphs. They cover up the walls everywhere. They consume all other art .... this on your walls, deny it though you may, is not art but fashion’). He is made cross by people agitating for women's suffrage and social reform:
Your average humanity I figure as a comfortable person like myself, always trying to sit down and put its legs somewhere out of the way, and being continually stirred up by women in felt hats and short skirts, and haggard men with those beastly, long, insufficient beards, and soulful eyes, and trumpet-headed creatures, and bogles with spectacles and bald heads.
He hates modern music, and men's tailoring, and representative democracy (‘it's no good, George’) and women riding bicycles: ‘a woman in a hurry is one of the most painful sights in the world, for exertion does not become a woman as it does a man.’ None of this is satire as such, since the targets are almost all so trivial; and even in his choler the uncle is too mild and bland a figure to generate any positive comic affect qua characterisation. As the book goes on he becomes engaged, and then married, to an attractive widow—that, rather than his death, is the ‘extinction’ to which the title refers—and the volume fizzles out into two unrelated short stories that Wells never afterwards considered worth reprinting: ‘A Misunderstood Artist’ ‘The Man With a Nose’. The book is dedicated to ‘R.A.C.’, which is something of a puzzle, since Wells doesn't seem to have known anyone of those initials. Maybe it stands for ‘Rather Average Comedy’.

I'm being a little harsh on this volume, I know. It's pleasant enough, and if humour about the length gentlemen are wearing their coat-tails this season, or whether piano recitals at dinner parties are so loud nowadays as to crowd out conversation, is unlikely to make a 21st-century reader laugh aloud, then that's to be expected. But there is something too safe about the tone here, a refusal either to enter into, or step aside and critique, the full-throated reactionary roar. It's apprentice work.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Hurry Up Please It's Time-Machines

A few unusual covers and sequels. Here's a Brazilian edition from c. 1930

Not sure what's wrong with Machina do Tempo, title-wise. Perhaps a speaker of Portuguese can enlighten me.

This 1980 novel was written by director George Pal (he of the famous 1960 Time Machine movie, to which this is a sequel) and screenwriter Joe Morhaim. It novelises an idea they'd tried, and failed, to get made into a movie: Christopher Jones, an orphan, is born in the Blitz with no knowledge of his parents and raised in the US. You will be no more surprised than I was to discover that his Dad (of course) is Wells's Time Traveller, and his mother Weena; and that they both died under the 1940 bombs. Christopher builds his own upgraded Time Machine and hurries millions of years into the future where father is helping humanity in a war against giant insects. "He knew then he must follow his father into the frightening worlds of the future," the back-cover blurb tells us: "He must warn them not to return. They must not die...though it meant, perhaps, that he might never live!" The resulting novel is best described by the two words very bad. That said, it does not have the worst cover of any unauthorised sequel to Wells's Time Machine ever published. That honour surely belongs to the following Pablo Gomez opus:

That hurts my eyes. Think what it would do to the Morlocks! That said, Burt Libe's 2005 sequel runs it close, cover-design-wise.

This Bengali translation of the title has a pretty good cover, although the publisher's book-reading yellow smiley logo looks rather out of place in among that angry Morlock mob.

Finally the poster to Robert Lloyd Parry's dramatic adaptation.

A nice design, that; but it also brings out a detail about which the novella is explicit (the diminutive size of the Eloi: four-feet tall). That in turn casts a rather queasy light upon what is implied in Wells' text, and made manifest in many of the sequels: that the Time Traveler has sex with the literally child-sized Weena. Urgh. I'll come back to that in my post on the actual novel, in a few days' time.

The List

I'm going to be writing a literary biography of H G Wells, which will, of course, involve me reading everything he published. A big task, that: for he published a lot (I've read all his SF, and some of his mundane novels, but by no means all; and there are plenty of other things I've never gotten around to). Here, more for my own reference than any other reason, is a list of what I propose to go through over the coming months; I'll blog my jottings in this place as I proceed, although some entries may be nothing more than brief notices. We'll see how it goes. I'll add links from the titles listed here to their respective blog-posts as and when I write them, so that it will eventually (d.v.) function as a kind of index too.

The image at the head of this post is an H M Bateman cartoon of Wells from 1912. I rather like it.

Select Conversations with an Uncle (1895)
The Time Machine (1895)
The Wonderful Visit (1895)
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895) [short stories]
The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)
The Wheels of Chance (1896)
The Plattner Story and Others (1897) [short stories]
The Invisible Man (1897)
Certain Personal Matters (1897)
The War of the Worlds (1898)
When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)
Tales of Space and Time (1899) [short stories]

Love and Mr Lewisham (1900)
The First Men in the Moon (1901)
Anticipations (1901) [non-fiction]
The Sea Lady (1902)
Mankind in the Making (1903) [non-fiction]
The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)
A Modern Utopia (1905)
Kipps (1905)
In the Days of the Comet (1906)
The Future in America (1906) [non-fiction]
This Misery of Boots (1907) [non-fiction]
Will Socialism Destroy the Home? (1907) [non-fiction]
The War in the Air (1908)
New Worlds for Old (1908) [non-fiction]
First and Last Things (1908) [non-fiction]
Tono-Bungay (1909)
Ann Veronica (1909)
The History of Mr Polly (1910)
The Sleeper Awakes (1910) [revised edition of When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)]

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)
Floor Games (1911) [non-fiction]
The Great State (1912) [non-fiction]
Marriage (1912)
Little Wars (1913) [non-fiction]
The Passionate Friends (1913)
An Englishman Looks at the World (1914) [non-fiction]
The War and Socialism (1914) [non-fiction]
The War That Will End War (1914) [non-fiction]
Boon (1915)
Bealby: A Holiday (1915)
The Research Magnificent (1915)
The Peace of the World (1915) [non-fiction]
What is Coming? (1916) [non-fiction]
Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916)
The Elements of Reconstruction (1916) [non-fiction]
God the Invisible King (1917) [non-fiction]
The Soul of a Bishop (1917)
War and the Future (a.k.a. Italy, France and Britain at War) (1917) [non-fiction]
Introduction to Swinnerton's ‘Nocturne’ (1917) [non-fiction]
In the Fourth Year (1918) [non-fiction]
Joan and Peter: The Story of an Education (1918)
The Undying Fire (1919)

The Outline of History (1920) [non-fiction]
Russia in the Shadows (1921) [non-fiction]
The Salvaging of Civilization (1921) [non-fiction]
The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)
A Short History of the World (1922) (New and Rev Ed. 1946) [non-fiction]
Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922) [non-fiction]
Men Like Gods (1923)
Tales of Wonder (1923) [short stories]
Tales of Life and Adventure (1923) [short stories]
Socialism and the Scientific Motive (1923) [non-fiction]
The Dream (1924)
A Year of Prophesying (1925) [non-fiction]
The Story of a Great Schoolmaster: Being a Plain Account of the Life and Ideas of Sanderson of Oundle (1924) [non-fiction]
Christina Alberta's Father (1925)
The World of William Clissold (1926)
Meanwhile (1927)
Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
The Way the World is Going (1928) [non-fiction]
The Book of Catherine Wells (1928) [non-fiction]
The Open Conspiracy (1928) [non-fiction]

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930)
The Science of Life (1930) – with Julian S. Huxley and G. P. Wells [non-fiction]
The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) [non-fiction]
The Bulpington of Blup (1932)
After Democracy (1932) [non-fiction]
The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
Experiment in Autobiography (1934) [non-fiction]
The New America: The New World (1935) [non-fiction]
The Croquet Player (1936)
The Anatomy of Frustration (1936) [non-fiction]
Star Begotten (1937)
Brynhild (1937)
The Camford Visitation (1937)
The Brothers (1938)
Apropos of Dolores (1938)
World Brain (1938) [non-fiction]
The Holy Terror (1939)
The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939) [non-fiction]
Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939) [non-fiction]

The New World Order (1940) [non-fiction]
Babes in the Darkling Wood (1940)
All Aboard for Ararat (1940)
The Rights of Man (1940) [non-fiction]
The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940) [non-fiction]
You Can't Be Too Careful (1941)
The Conquest of Time (1942) [non-fiction]
Modern Russian and English Revolutionaries (1942) – with Lev Uspensky [non-fiction]
Crux Ansata: An Indictment of the Roman Catholic Church (1943) [non-fiction]
'42 to '44: A Contemporary Memoir (1944) [non-fiction]
Reshaping Man's Heritage (1944) – with J. B. S. Haldane, Julian S. Huxley [non-fiction]
The Happy Turning (1945) [non-fiction]
Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) [non-fiction]