Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930)

I assume, though I have no proof, that the seed-idea for this intriguing political fantasia came from Wells's old and long-dead friend George Gissing. You'll remember that in New Grub Street (1891) Alfred Yule, hard-working literary journalist and domestic tyrant, nurses the dream of founding and editing his own literary review. When Alfred's wealthy brother dies, leaving his fortune not to Alfred but to Alfred's daughter Marian, Alfred becomes wincingly ingratiating with the girl. It's a very cleverly written episode, actually: Marian works as his amanuensis and researcher, and Alfred has hitherto been unfailingly strict: pedantic, distant, a martinet for family discipline. But when he thinks he might be able to persuade her to finance his magazine-dream he begins acting oilily out-of-character.

(Marian's inheritance also catches the eye of handsome but unscrupulous writer Jasper Milvain, whom Marian knows and loves. He proposes marriage, for mercenary reasons. This being Gissing it all goes, of course, wrong: Marian's inheritance is bound-up in dead Uncle John's investments, and these crumble when she tries to extract the money. Faced with the prospect of marrying a poor woman, Milvain backs off; and not only does Alfred not get to establish and edit his journal, ophthalmic disease robs him of his sight too. Poor old Marian loses her feller and has to devote herself to nursing her bitter old Dad).

Something like this idea underpins this 1930 novel, although Wells treats it in a profoundly non-Gissing-y manner. His Mr Parham is an unworldly academic historian, conservative and traditionalist, content for much of his life to piddle around in his abstruse little Oxford world:
He had produced several studies—mainly round and about Richelieu and going more deeply into the mind of Richelieu than anyone has ever done before —and given short special courses upon historical themes; he had written a small volume of essays; he was general editor of Fosdyke's popular ‘Philosophy of History’ series, and he would sometimes write reviews upon works of scholarly distinction, reviews that appeared (often shockingly cut and mutilated) in the Empire, the Weekly Philosopher, and the Georgian Review. No one could deal with a new idea struggling to take form and wave it out of existence again more neatly and smilingly than Mr. Parham. And loving history and philosophy as he did, it was a trouble to his mind to feel how completely out of tune was the confusion of current events with anything that one could properly call fine history or fine philosophy. The Great War he realized was History, though very lumpish, brutalized, and unmanageable, and the Conference of Versailles was history also—in further declination. [Parham, 1:1]
After 1919 ‘everything had gone from bad to worse,’ in Parham's judgement. ‘Persons, events, had been deprived of more and more significance. Discordance, a disarray of values, invaded the flow of occurrence’ [1:1]. He befriends a vulgar but extremely wealthy businessman called Sir Bussy Woodcock (this character is a by no means flattering pen-portrait of Wells's friend, Lord Beaverbook). For six years Parham does his best to butter-up Woodcock, and to ingratiate himself into Woodcock's circle of obnoxious rich friends, for his own Alfred-Yulesque reasons:
This dream, which was destined to hold Mr. Parham in resentful vassalage to Sir Bussy through long, long years of hope deferred, was the vision of a distinguished and authoritative weekly paper, with double columns and a restrained title heading, of which Mr. Parham would be the editor. It was to be one of those papers, not vulgarly gross in their circulation, but which influence opinion and direct current history throughout the civilized world. It was to be all that the Spectator, the Saturday Review, the Nation, and the New Statesman have ever been and more. It was to be largely the writing of Mr. Parham and of young men influenced and discovered by him. It was to arraign the whole spectacle of life, its public affairs, its ‘questions,’ its science, art, and literature. It was to be understanding, advisory but always a little aloof. [Parham, 1:2]
Parham accepts an invitation to join Sir Bussy at a series of séances ‘in 97 Buggins Street, in the darker parts of the borough of Wandsworth’, presided over by ‘Mr. Carnac Williams’ [2:3]. These are rather grander occasions than the one satirised in Love and Mr Lewisham three decades earlier. They are popular with the rich and famous, not least because all sorts of impressive and dramatic things go on in them. At one a dead daughter consoles her weeping mother; at another, Saint Catherine manifests and Parham notices ‘a queer sound that grew louder, a slobbering and slopping sound that was difficult to locate. “That's the ectoplasm,” said old Mrs. Mountain, “working”’ [2:3].

And then, at the next séance ‘the Spirit, which is Will and Power’ comes ‘like a mighty wind, seeking a way’ [2:4]. This entity appears as phosphorescent ectoplasm that coalesces into a body (‘with a shock it came into Mr. Parham's head that he was seeing bones and nerves and blood vessels hurrying to their appointed places in that swimming swirl’ [2:5]): a Byronic-looking figure in a white shirt and knee breeches:
‘You have come from another world?’


They had nothing to say.

‘I come from the Red Planet, the planet of blood and virility,’ said the Visitant ... ‘I am the Master Spirit who tries and who cleanses the souls of men. I am the spirit of Manhood and Dominion and Order. That is why I have come to you from that sterner planet where I rule. This world is falling into darkness and confusion, into doubt, vain experiments, moral strangeness, slackness, failure of effort, evasion of conflict, plenty without toil, security without vigilance. It has lacked guidance. Voices that might have given it guidance have found no form of utterance. Vague and foolish dreams of universal peace tempt the desires of men and weaken their wills. Life is struggle. Life is effort. I have come to rouse men to their forgotten duties. I have come to bring not peace but a sword ... This time it is the English who are my chosen people. In their turn. For they are a great and wonderful people still—for all their inexpressiveness. I have come to England, trembling on the brink of decadence, to raise her and save her and lead her back to effort and glory and mastery.’ [Parham, 2:5]
The Spirit then ‘incorporates’ Mr Parham, who finds he is able to command people with a voice they are powerless to resist.

This is the halfway point of the novel: the second half traces how Mr Parham uses his new charisma to seize political power. Book 3 (‘The Strong Hand At Last’) relates how Parham establishes ‘The Duty Paramount League’. He orates to huge crowds who palpitate at his every word: ‘young men and old men, beautiful women, tall girls like flames and excited elderly persons of every size and shape, all fused in one stupendous enthusiasm ... and every eye in all that swaying mass was fixed on the serene determination of the Master Spirit's face’ [3:1]. The people are disillusioned with representative democracy, and Parham/Master Spirit orchestrates a coup d'etat: ‘England fell into his hands like a ripe fruit’. His shock troops (‘in uniforms of a Cromwellian cut’ [3:2]) storm parliament and install Parham as Lord Paramount. Despite its olde Englande touches, this is really a remarkable anticipation of what Hitler managed in Germany, and what Oswald Mosley came close to doing, closer than we like to think he did, in Britain.

Parham takes charge. Sir Bussy becomes one of his council of ministers, but the boot is now on the other foot, and Parham is cuttingly dismissive of the fellow's vulgarity. The Lord Paramount sweeps away the old order, solves unemployment (‘young men must be taken in hand and trained for other ends. The women can go into munitions. If only on account of unemployment, our great empire needs to take a gallant and aggressive line’). He insists ‘I am no Individualist, I am no Socialist; these are phrases left over by the Nineteenth Century, and little meaning remains in them now. But I say, of him who does not work for his country, neither shall he eat in it, and that he who will not work generously must be made to work hard’ [3:4]. Other policies include luxury taxes (‘wantoning in pleasure cities, lavish entertainments in huge hotels, jazz expenditure, must cease. A special tax on champagne—Yes, a tax on champagne’) and an uptick in military spending. Parham makes a secret treaty with Japan, and declares war on Russia on two fronts. But the USA is not happy, and conflict becomes inevitable. Britain blockades US shipping, and World War 2 breaks out—between Britain and America, and their various allies.

It occupies book 4 of this novel. Parham orders the British navy into action (‘a mighty naval crescent within striking distance of New York’ [4:1]) but the American navy's response is ‘unexpectedly prompt and in unexpected strength’, and Britain does not come out well from the resulting Battle of the North Atlantic. Then the Lord Paramount's house of cards begins to collapse:
Blow upon blow rained upon him after that opening day of calamity. First came the tale of disaster from the battle itself: this great battleship lost, that cruiser on fire, a score of minor craft missing. At first both Britain and America accepted the idea of defeat, so heavy on either side was the list of losses. Then followed the relentless unfolding of consequences. The Dominions, with a harsh regard for their own welfare, were standing out. Canada had practically gone over to the United States and was treating for a permanent bond. South Ireland was of course against him; a republican coup d'état had captured Dublin, and there was already bloody and cruel fighting on the Ulster border; South Africa declared for neutrality, and in some of the more Dutch districts Union Jacks had been destroyed; Bengal was afire, and the council of Indian princes had gone over en bloc from their previous loyalty to a declaration of autonomy. They proposed to make peace with Russia, deport English residents, and relieve the Empire of further responsibility in the peninsula. It was appalling to consider the odds against that now isolated garrison. The European combinations of the Lord Paramount had collapsed like a house of cards. [Parham, 4:2]
In another nicely prescient chapter, aerial war breaks out over Europe: ‘night after night the air of Europe was filled with the whir of gigantic engines and the expectation of bursting bombs. The fighting planes kept each other busy; anti-aircraft guns were a disappointment, and all the great centres of population seethed with apprehensions ... There was a press agitation in London for “Gas masks for everyone”’ [4:3]. There are a few false steps (Wells seems to think that underwater warfare would only be practicable far from the coastlines, where ‘the water is opaque enough to hide our submarines’ [5:6]), but by-and-large it all reads pretty convincingly, even today.

London is heavily bombed. Sir Bussy is killed. Public morale collapses, and defeat seems inevitable. But though things are going badly, Parham is unyielding: ‘“This is far more than a war between Britain and America,” said the Lord Paramount. “Or any war. It is a struggle for the soul of man.’ [5:1].

Parham decides the only road to victory involves him gassing his enemies on a huge scale, and insists that supplies of a new nerve agent, ‘Gas L’, be readied. This is a gas that kills in an especially tortuous way, that lingers in the air for weeks, and against which the regular gas-mask is useless (only ‘a sort of sub-aerial diver's helmet’ is any protection): ‘Think of the moral effect of it,’ Parham's advisers tell him. ‘Paris or Berlin, a dead city, dead from men to rats, and nobody daring to go in to clean it up. After such a sample the world would howl for peace at any price whatever.’)

But Camelford, the industrialist who manufactures Gas L, refuses to play ball. The Lord Protector decides to storm his factory, and flies down to Devon. In a surreal final episode, we discover that the seabed has been raised beyond Land's End to provide a new and well-guarded promontory upon which Camelford's factory is situated, this new territory being given the ancient name Lyonesse. Parham's plan is to gas the establishment, killing all inside it. He is worried that otherwise Camelford will blow-up the facilities to prevent it falling into government hands. But when Parham moves in with his men, all suited-up, they discover that Camelford has developed an anti-gas that renders Gas L  perfectly inert, such that Parham's assault is easily overpowered. Camelford subjects the frustrated Parham to a long monologue, telling him his political power-over logic is a thing of the past. A new collective age is coming, ‘a new dawn. Men of no nation. Men without traditions. Men who look forward and not back. Men who have realized the will and the intelligence that we obey and possess in common. Our race has to organize the whole world now, a field for this creative energy that flows through and uses and guides us’ [5:7].

It turns out Camelford has been brewing-up a new gas, of which Gas L was just a preliminary experiment: ‘a vapour to enter into blood and nerve and brain and clean the mind of man as it has never been cleaned before. It will allow his brain, so clogged and stifled still by old rubbish, so poisoned and cramped and crippled, to free itself from all that holds it back now from apprehending and willing to the utmost limits of its possibility’. This in turn will lead to ‘a new world quite different from the world to which your mind is adapted. A world beyond your dreaming!’ [5:7]. He reveals that the new land of Lyonesse was not artificially raised after all; it just emerged, apparently because the Earth itself had decided it was time to make the ‘strange minerals’ necessary for this new gas, previously hidden in the sea-bed, accessible to mankind.

Then—the inevitable, deflating twist: Parham wakes up. Not for the first time, Wells has written an I awoke; and behold! it was a dream story. Parham is still at the séance, he and Sir Bussy having both nodded off. Mr. Carnac Williams is exposed as a faker, and the evening breaks up. But there's a second twist: it seems that both Parham and Sir Bussy had dreamt the same dream, from their respective perspectives, so something uncanny had been going on after all.

The envoi is that Sir Bussy, startled out of complacency by the vision of war he has just dreamt, declares he will fund the magazine, with the intention of making the world a better place. But as Parham's hopes leap up, they are immediately crushed: he doesn't want Parham to edit it, or be involved at all ‘“I wasn't thinking of you ... I'll have to do it with the right sort of fellows,” said Sir Bussy, speaking slowly. “It would be up against every damned thing you are.”’ [5:9] For poor old Parham the whole experience has been a bust: ‘a paper—a great paper, financed by Sir Bussy! And not to be his! A paper against him! Six years wasted! Slights! Humiliations! Irritations! Tailors' bills!’

The US first-edition cover, there (at the top of the post is the UK first-edition, with art by David Low).

So: what to make of this odd fable? David C Smith [Desperately Mortal, 298] thinks it is a novel about ‘the failure of contemporary education to prepare anyone for [the] pressure’ of running a country; but this seems an unlikely take to me. Education is, of course, one of Wells's perennial themes, but even he would baulk at suggesting that being Senior Tutor at ‘St Simon's College, Oxford’ (which is Parham's position) is in any sense supposed to prepare an individual for the remote offchance that he will become Lord Paramount of the Entire British Empire. No: clearly this is a novel in some sense ‘about’ fascism, written between the rise of Mussolini in Italy and the to-come rise of Hitler in Germany. W. Warren Wagar thinks it ‘a Chaplinesque parody of fascism’ [‘Letters From Our Father’, Science Fiction Studies, 25:3 (1998), 530], which is in the ball-park. But I wonder if the novel is rather too complicit in what it represents to function as parody.

Wells has taken at face value Mussolini's political evocation of ancient Rome, and treats that as the core of fascism, ignoring both the mechanistic-futurist Marinetti element in the ideology, but also establishing a false dichotomy between the Italian/Ancient Roman (and English/Cromwellian-Arthurian) historically driven mass movement and the kind of mass-movement Wells wants to see: a future World State collectivisation that will sublate and so dismiss all history in an magical reflex of collective willpower. But (of course) this latter thing is very much more operative in fascism than nostalgic appeals to romanticised History. Hitler certainly made propaganda mileage out of both recent German past (Frederick the Great) and a remoter, mistier Germanic or Nordic mythic history. But he managed much more, practically speaking, by invoking German Volksgemeinschaft: Hitleran fascism was much more a mobilization of Deutsche Geist, and much more, I'm sorry to say, Wellsian, actually. To look again at Camelford's words, already quoted (that the future belongs to ‘men who have realized the will and the intelligence that we obey and possess in common. Our race has to organize the whole world now’) is to be struck by how alarmingly they anticipate Hitleran ideology.

I should add, I don't think it's meaningful to call Wells straightforwardly a fascist. Still: the question of how large is the central pane in the Venn diagram juxtaposing ‘Liberal Socialist’ and ‘Fascist’ at this period is both important and tricky to answer. I've touched on it before on this blog, and will return to it through the 1930s. A good, nuanced account of this debateable land is Philip Coupland's ‘H. G. Wells's “Liberal Fascism”’ [Journal of Contemporary History, 35:4 (2000), 541-558], which reads Wells's political evolution in terms of what Coupland calls his ‘praxis of desire’:
The praxis of desire is necessarily a dynamic thing, evolving in response to changes in the political forces, theories and contingencies of the moment. Thus while, as Warren Wagar's penetrating analysis of Wells's ‘Open Conspiracy’ [W. Warren Wagar, H.G. Wells and the World State (New Haven, CT 1961), 164-205] has shown, many aspects of Wells's thinking in this area long predated the 1930s, I would suggest that at the same time Wells was additionally and significantly influenced by the new political forces which appeared to be coming to dominance in the early 1930s. In this respect he was not alone: in Britain during this period sections of the Labour Party departed both to the ‘left’—the ILP—and the ‘right’—Mosley's New Party and then BUF. Prominent intellectuals of the Labour movement, including Wells's old Fabian colleagues Sydney and Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw, and younger Labour figures including Sir Stafford Cripps and G.D.H. Cole, either embraced the authoritarian road to socialism or proposed the radical reform of parliamentary democracy. Labour intellectuals George Catlin and Raymond Postgate saw the need for, respectively, ‘a voluntary aristocracy of asceticism’ and ‘an organization of storm-troopers or ironsides’ as essential for their party in the new conditions. [Coupland, 541-2]
Of course, to say that Wells's socialism was not out of line with (many of) his contemporaries is not to justify it in any larger sense. In The Autocracy of Mr Parham there is some comedy at the notion that a politely courteous Englishman could ever adopt the preposterous hyper-masculine posturing of Mussolini:—as when his followers elide ‘Duty Paramount’, the name of Parham's political organisation, with Il Duce.
The League, someone said, was to be the Fascisti of Britain. There were loud cries of ‘British Fascisti’ and ‘The English Duce’ (variously pronounced). Young Englishmen, hitherto slack and aimless, stood up and saluted Fascist fashion and took on something of the stiff, stern dignity of Roman camerieri as they did so.

‘And who is he?’ cried a penetrating voice. ‘What is his name? He is our leader. Our Deuce! We will follow him.’

‘Doochy!’ someone corrected.

Cries and confusion, and then out of it all the words, ‘Duty Paramount! The Master Paramount! Paramount!’ growing to a great shout, a vast vocal upheaval. [Parham, 3:1]
‘Deuce’ (which means, amongst other things, secondary thing, the devil and a piece of excrement, this latter also being the slang meaning of ‘doochy’) is nice. But then again, what makes this all funny, in the novel's terms, is the incongruity between pencil-neck Parham and these grand dreams. It's not the dreams as such. Those dreams, Wells thinks, do touch on something vital and true: the decadence and entangling bureaucracy of democratic process must be swept aside, and the Will or Collective Vitality of the race be allowed to realise itself. And this latter vision, even so late as 1930, is still trailing in its wake a variety of ghastlinesses (‘finance being so largely Jews,’ says Parham's deputy Gerson, by way of explaining how militarism will reboot and refresh the economy ‘... and at bottom a Jew is always afraid of a soldier’ [3:6]).

Even as late as 1936, in The Anatomy of Frustration [p.275] Wells was praising Fascism for being free of ‘democratic taint’ and the ‘elderly methods of parliamentary democracy’—although to be fair to him, he also criticised it for being infected with the ‘poison of nationalism’. But this isn't much of a fig-leaf, really. Coupland appositely quotes a contemporary [Geoffrey Gorer, Nobody Talks Politics: A Satire with an Appendix on Our Political Intelligentsia (London 1935), 199]: ‘Mr Wells thinks that he hates fascism; he is horror-struck as any liberal at its brutality, its barbarism, its philistinism, its illogicality and its narrow nationalism; but he puts all the blame on the last quality; if it was only international it wouldn't really be so bad.’ Well, quite.

In one sense the problem here is the old Wellsian one: he sees where we are, right now; and he has strong ideas about the version of social and political sanity he wants us all to get to; but the path from here to there is not clearly drawn. Indeed, if there is an ironic redemption to the satirical extrapolation of The Autocracy of Mr. Parham it is in the contrast between the novel's two modes of bringing about the desired future: Parham, inspired by his Martian spirit, wins power by more-or-less traditional means: campaigning, addressing crowds of followers orchestrating a coup d'etat and so on. Camelford, though, has his magic gas which will, when inhaled, cut the gordian knot altogether and bring an In The Days of the Comet-style rewiring of the human brain itself. This latter strategy is, in effect, a tacit acknowledgement that the obstacle to Wells's World State is human nature as such. Absent a reinvention of what it means to be a human being, we're not getting to our flawless World State any time soon.


  1. Another great and insightful post. It's many years since I read this book (for various reasons I have two copies) which I acquired originally both for its being a late Wells but also for David Low's wonderful illustrations. Incidentally, you may be interested to see what Low must have based his vision of the naval battle on...

    1. That's wonderful! Thank you for the link.

  2. I knew nothing about - had never heard of - this book, and wasn't primed for the and it was all a dream! twist. So I took the central fantasia straight, and it struck me as the work of somebody who was acquainted with sf but had lost faith in it. Ectoplasmic possession (or something that looks like it) and universally lethal nerve gases can both be envisaged as sfnal plot devices, but both in one book? And that's not to mention the 100% effective nerve gas antidote, or the Days of the Comet anti-nerve gas, or the weird Lyonesse plot twist... It's sf written by someone who's forgotten how to do it properly - and/or how to care about doing it properly.

    Now, the fact that it is all a dream has to qualify this judgment - and there is a sense of Wells having fun with a bit of phantasmagoric and then, and then yarning. But I still wonder if Wells's feelings about sf were embittered at this stage - as if it was a dream that he was struggling to wake up from - and if we're seeing a bit of that here. I'm reminded of Shaw's theory that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It as a compendium of audience-pleasing cliche, with the title half-intended to convey his contempt for the public - "as you like it".

    1. Hah! I hadn't heard that theory about As You Like It but I do *clears throat* like it. And you're right about this novel: it's a strange mishmash, as if HGW is deliberately chucking stuff in with a view to making the finished product as lumpy as possible. If I wanted to make a defence I'd mumble something about how Wells is trying to take an unrealistic individual who idolises the historical and mythical past of his country, and show how impossible and ungainly it would be for those mythic resonances to reappear, as they would have to, under the logic of science rather than magic ("Lyonesse" now a chemical weapons factory and so on). But my heart wouldn't really be in it.