Monday, 22 January 2018

Brynhild (1937)

A full-length novel, in amongst Wells's various essays in the novella form, Brynhild is, I'm sorry to say, a misfire. You can see from the verso to the title page how Methuen were hoping to pitch it:

As, in other words, a comedy. But this falls very short of the comic brilliance of Mr Polly. It's a sludgy and underwhelming performance, and far from Wells's finest hour.

The scene is set in the world of 1930s Literary London, with some real and other fictional, roman-a-clef literary figures mentioned, or carrying spears in the background (my knowledge of this world isn't sufficiently fine grained to be sure of identifying all the pseudonymous figures I'm afraid), all arrayed around the story's two main figures: Rowland Palace and his wife Brynhild.

Rowland is a small, pompous man, the author of Bent Oars (‘it excited the American colony in Paris, and percolated thence to New York, Chicago and the intellectual west’ [2]), The Supple Willow Wand (about a Chinese woman) and other works of prose and poetry. At Lady Burnish's May Day Festival one year he is persuaded to wear the fancy dress costume of a Bard, complete with artificial bay-wreath and cardboard lyre. But when the photos appear in the newspaper he looks ludicrous and foolish, not at all the dignified Great Author he considers himself.

This shakes him. He had previously believed his business was to be true to himself in life as in art. Now he decides being true is a mug's game, and that what he needs is a PR agent to sell a reputationally advantageous simulacrum of himself to press and public. He hires the P T Barnum-y figure of Cloote to act in this regard. Cloote makes grand promises about advertising and promotion and otherwise shaping a great public figure for Rowland, especially across the pond: ‘your name must become a byword for literary excellence in America. There's no success without it. A byword—you have to be. There you must be, with the Bible and Shakespeare’ [87]. Though he has qualms, Rowland goes along with the plan, and over the course of the novel he becomes a false version of himself for the benefit of the media. By the end of the novel he is, despite his meretriciousness, being talked of as a Nobel Prize contender. Did I say despite his meretriciousness? Wells's satire suggests: because of his meretriciousness.

Brynhild is twelve years her husband's junior, ‘tall, slender and shapely ... a fair-haired young woman with a broad serene face and kind brown eyes’ [12]. The incident with the photos, and her husband's over-reaction, takes her the exact opposite way. As Rowland moves to create an elaborate façade, she goes in the other direction, deciding that she needs to stop being such such a prig and instead to get in touch with her true self and her genuine needs. This leads, via some dinner party and an increasing sense of the falseness of her husband's search for public reputation, into the arms of a younger, handsomer writer called Alfred Bunter. ‘He's just come up with a rush,’ is how Palace's publisher (who hasn't actually read him, even though he publishes him) describes Bunter: ‘“Raw expressiveness” is on the blurb’ [68]. Bryn, as the novel calls her, finds herself drawn to Bunter, although not on account of his writing, which, it seems, is ‘turgid’
She read Mr Bunter for two hours. It was an extremely turgid story about hampered and defeated people. ‘Turgid’ was the word for it. They lived in London as well as in the country; The Cramped Village, it seemed, was not a place, but life. They paralysed each other. Dreams tormented them from above and lusts and savage passions from below. ... The style was rough and yet stimulating and—?—the word was: patchy. In places it gobbles, in places it boomed, and then—it soared. [121]
But Bryn is on her journey. She becomes intimate with Bunter. He, in turn, confesses his secret to her: he's actually Mr David Lewis, a pharmaceutical chemist from Birmingham. When the remains of the real Alfred Bunter, who had just started on a literary career, were discovered in a Birmingham canal Lewis assumed his identity and continues his career. He knows his own books aren't very good: ‘they pretend to be saying a lot and getting down to the real red core in things—and they don't. I write those books in intervals of dodging my past and preserving my incognito’ [191]. But he was desperate to escape his former life.

There are other secrets: he is bigamously married and fathered an illegitimate child during the war. His brother-in-law, a cocaine addict, blackmailed him, and then died by falling down a disused coal-mine shaft,; something Bunter/Lewis insists was an accident. Eventually his cover is blown, and he runs away to Cardiff, but not before sleeping with Brynhild, at her instigation.

Bryn returns to her husband pregnant from this assignation, and with a new flush of life, telling Rowland that she has decided her role in life is to be a mother to a great brood of children. Rowland, startled, has to agree. This is the final phase in the story. ‘I thought your attentions to me were getting just a trifle trivial,’ she tells him:
‘I wanted something of my own—really my own. I wanted a role of my own’ ...

Silly old Rowly, she thought, gulling and gullible Rowly, and yet in a way tolerable and likeable Rowly. Substantial. Materially substantial. Smelling slightly of soap and tobacco. Married—extraordinarily married to her, about whom he would never know anything at all, about whom he didn't want to know anything at all. Married. And at the same time she was escaping—going away from all that had held her paralysed for seven years—to something profoundly her own, profoundly her secret in its essence and profoundly real. [Brynhild, 267-8]
This perhaps isn't as straightforwardly reactionary a conclusion as it looks. Wells's point is not that a woman can only find fulfillment in motherhood; it's that what has been lacking in Brynhild's life was deceit. She had been inhumanely honest and true. Now she's doing something secret and dishonest, entirely for herself, and that has made into an actual human being. ‘She had become real,’ is her own assessment. ‘Her priggishness had been reft from her. She was a cheat now—like everybody. She was a humbug—like everybody. She was a secret behind a façade. And altogether human. She had grown up at last’ [269].

But, taken in the round, the novel is not much cop. The comedy is entirely limited to some weak-tea dialogue, the literary satire is underpowered and the revelations about Bunter's true identity too melodramatic. Wells has done this sort of thing before, better: wittier and more incisive ‘You must not harp,’ Cloote tells Rowland Palace, ‘too much on one aspect of a writer's quality’.
‘Gissing, for instance, was handicapped by his irony; they called him depressing. Chesterton was pigeon-holed as paradoxical even when he was doing his simple utmost to speak plainly; Wells was pinned down by his being always linked with ‘The Future of—this or that.’ (But Wells at best was a discursive intractable writer with no real sense of dignity. A man is not called ‘H.G.’ by all his friends for nothing).’ [Brynhild, 79]
Whatevs, H.G.

1 comment:

  1. Here's Cloote on Wells's friend Joseph Conrad (by the time this novel was published, dead more than a decade): ‘Beautiful but abstruse writer ... such richness. Turns the simplest ideas into mysteries. Adds a complication of life on every page. Says nothing in a kind of literary agony. Most effective. Novelettes ennobled. Platitudes—with a passionate patina. The gnome, the fairy changeling who ran away to sea and was scared by a ship. You'd think he was above their [his American audience's] heads. But that's what got them. They don't respect you if they understand you. They don't like being told what they think they know.’ [87-88]

    Not an entirely flattering assessment, that.