Meanwhile is another country house comedy, like Bealby (1915), although with rather more political stuff and rather less comedy. This time we're in Casa Terragena, a spacious villa on the Italian riviera, Continental home to the super-wealthy Philip Rylands and his wife Cynthia. She is pregnant with the couple's first child.
The Rylands are throwing a fancy house-party to which are invited many people, including: a famous author called Mr. Sempack (‘he writes books. Real books ... Not books you read. Not novels. Not memoirs. Books that are just books. Like Santayana. Or Lowes Dickinson. Or Bertrand Russell’ [1:1]), an American aesthete, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan (who calls Sempack ‘a Utopographer!’ ) and the beautiful, vivacious Lady Catherine, who has something of a crush on Sempack, despite the latter's manifest unpulchritude. Indeed, given that Sempack is patently the Wells figure in this novel, it's interesting how unsparing the author is of his physical appearance: ‘a sprawling person’, old and wrinkled ‘like Pan half changed into an old olive tree of like some weather-worn Terminus’ [1:11]. Although, by golly, the women all seem to adore him.
Anyway: also present are Colonel and Mrs. Bullace (Bullace is ‘a great admirer of Joynson-Hicks. He wants to organise British Fascists. Keep the working man down and save him from agitators and all that. Adores Mussolini’ [1.1]), the host's brother, Geoffry Rylands and Miss Fenimore, who is rather cruelly described by Wells as ‘a demi-Stupid, a Stupid in effect, an acquiescent Stupid’ [1:6]. She is in awe of Sempack, and follows his talk ‘from first to last with an enraptured incomprehension’ [1:12]. There are various others, particularly Lord and Lady Tamar (‘he’s at Geneva, doing things for the League of Nation’ [1:1]) and a young woman called ‘Puppy’ Clarges ‘rude, troublesome, occasionally indecent and she professed to be unchaste’ [1:6].
Not much happens in the novel by way of plot. Book 1 is mostly given over to setting the scene, and describing an evening's dinner party at which Sempack reveals himself to be a brilliant talker, spouting a series of intensely Wellsian ideas: that a ‘Great Age’ is coming, the ‘open conspiracy’ needed to bring it about, and so on. It turns out everybody is wrong about the current social problems in Britain except Sempack:
“The miners are finding life intolerable, the mine-owners are greedy not only for what they have but more; the younger Labour people want to confuse the issue by a general strike and a push for what they call the Social Revolution.”There's a good deal of this sort of thing in Book 2, too.
“What exactly do they mean by that?” asked Lord Tamar.
“Nothing exactly. The Communists have persuaded themselves that social discontent is a creative driving force in itself. It isn’t. Indignation never made a good revolution, and I never heard of a dinner yet, well cooked by a starving cook. All that these troubles can do is to ease or increase the squeeze on the miners and diminish or increase the totally unnecessary tribute to the coal-owners—at the price of an uncertain amount of general disorganisation and waste. My own sympathies are with the miners and I tax my coal bill twenty-five per cent, and send it to them. But I cherish no delusions about that struggle. There is no solution in all that strife and passion. It is just a dog-fight. The minds of people have to be adjusted to new ideas before there is an end to this sweating of men in the darkness. People have to realise that winning coal is a public need and service, like the high road and the post office. A service that has to be paid for and taken care of. Everybody profits by cheap accessible coal. A coal-owner’s royalties are as antiquated as a toll gate. Some day it will be clear to everyone, as it is clear to any properly informed person now, that if the state paid all the costs of exploiting coal in the country and handed the stuff out at prices like—say ten shillings a ton, the stimulation of every sort of production would be so great, the increase, that is, on taxable wealth would be so great, as to yield a profit, a quite big profit, to the whole community. The miners would become a public force like the coastguards or the firemen....”
“You think that is possible?” asked Philip.
“I know. It’s plain. But it’s not plain to everyone. Facts and possibilities have to be realised. Imaginations have to be lit and kept lit——” [Meanwhile, 1:5, ellipses in original]
Otherwise only two things ‘happen’ in the novel: one is that the hostess, Cynthia Rylands, discovers her husband Philip in the bathing chalet in flagrante with Puppy Clarges, which naturally upsets her (Puppy flounces back to England, after writing her hostess a note ‘of exceptional brevity: “Sorry,” wrote Miss Clarges. “I’m gone and I won’t worry you again.” “Sorry I got caught,” Miss Clarges remarked to herself, and licked the envelope’ [1:10]). The other is that the 1926 General Strike kicks off, back in Britain. The guests read about it in the newspapers, and earnestly discuss what it means.
Cynthia Rylands, distraught at her husband's betrayal, asks Sempack's advice. In one of the novel's dodgiest moments, Sempack writes her a letter in effect instructing her to forgive her husband's infidelity. He reasons that, of the two available attractive women in the Villa (that is, Lady Catherine and ‘Puppy’), Philip did the right thing by choosing to fuck Puppy. ‘He loves nobody but you. If he had wanted to make love—consider! Lady Catherine here ... but Lady Catherine is an equal, a personality. He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t dream of her. Because that would be a real infringement of you. That would be a real division of love. But on the other hand there was this Miss Clarges, who disavows all the accessories of sex—and is simply sexual’ [1:11]. Sempack assures Cynthia that such sex is nothing for her to worry about: it is just ‘a consoling and refreshing physical release’, ‘such a simple thing’ ‘as healthy a thing physically as breathing mountain air’. I have to say if I tried that line on my wife, she'd beat me on a delicate spot with a meat tenderizer and afterwards divorce me. But it does the trick for Cynthia: with a murmur of ‘my poor little wits!’ she agrees with Sempack that her husband's problem is idleness, not wickedness. Book 1 ends as she persuades him to travel back to England to attend to the family coal-mine holdings, and try to look out for them during the strike.
This whole section is fair gobsmnacking to read today. Given Wells's own relationship with his wife, her complaisant attitude to his philandering and the fact that she died in the same year Meanwhile was published, there's something rather monstrously self-serving in the words Wells puts into Sempack's mouth here: ‘in the fullest sense and to the last possible shade of meaning you are his wife; you are a wife by nature, and the rôle of a wife is not to compete and be jealous, but to understand and serve and by understanding and serving rule’ [1:11]. Pleading thy name is special. It's hard to think oneself into the mindset of a serial philanderer writing such a tissue of exculpation to a wronged wife as his own wronged wife lies dying of cancer. Or maybe, actually, it's perfectly comprehensible, psychologically-speaking. It's just not liable to convince anybody.
A good portion of Book 2 is given over to the letters Philip sends from England reporting on the General Strike. Philip, a wealthy coal-mine owner, never in this novel sounds the least like a wealthy coal-mine owner—doesn't, that is, side with the Conservatives on the side of the protection of private property and the extirpation of Communism. Instead he sounds like ... like H G Wells, actually. The strike is a tragic mistake, the workers' making that mistake honestly and the bosses dishonestly, but only emerging out of this mess into proper socialism will solve it.
The letters are even illustrated by some of Wells's doodly ‘picshuas’ (notionally Philip's ‘picshuas’). I feel a bit scrooge-y saying so, but Wells's delight in his own sub-cartoon visuals scribbles baffles me, rather. Here is his pichsua of Churchill, whom, according to Philip ‘didn’t want to prevent a General Strike’ but rather ‘wanted it to happen so as to distract attention from the plain justice of the case as between miners and coal-owners’. ‘Winston has gone clean off his head,’ says Philip. ‘Winston [is] probably certifiable but no doctors can get near him to do it’ [2:11]:
‘Winston doing Something’. These sketches do, I suppose, remind us that Meanwhile, as well as engaging in serious Wellsian World-State lecturing, aims about a third of the time to be funny. I can't say I found it very funny, but there you go. As a kind of reportage, these passages are interesting: a strong sense is created of the people running around like chicken-lickens yelling that the Communist Revolutionary sky was falling, when in fact nothing of the sort was occurring, together with the inertia of the Prime Minister himself:
‘Trusty old Baldwin keeps on doing nuffin’ (‘Jix’, in the text there, is the authoritarian and quasi-fascist William Joynson-Hicks, who was Home Secretary during the Strike). Here's the actual Baldwin, so you can gauge the accuracy of Wells's likeness.
It's interesting how far Wells locates the root of the problem in middle-class ressentiment about the decline of Britain's international standing—interesting, that is, insofar as I'd assumed the perception of national decline was more a post-WW2 feature of the British political landscape. But Meanwhile is scathing about ‘the unintelligent wealthy people in Great Britain’ They are, it seems:
The majority. On them too for some time the unpleasant realisation that Great Britain is shrinking in world importance has been growing. It seems to have grown with a rush since the coal trade began to look groggy after deflation. Perhaps it has grown too much. But this sort cannot accept it as the others do—clearly. All ideas turn to water and feelings in their minds. This is the sort that disputes the plainest facts if they are disagreeable. It is too horrible an idea for them. So it remains a foreign growth in their minds. Their Empire threatened! Their swagger and privileges going! Their air of patronage to all the rest of the world undermined! They refuse the fact. [Meanwhile, ]As an analysis of the motivation of the reactionary half of British politics over the last hundred years that's hard to beat, I think.
The novel winds itself to a sort of conclusion. Lady Catherine suddenly breaks off her lengthy and not-as-funny-as-Wells-perhaps-thought-it-was pursuit of Sempack, and rushes off to England to join-in the British Fascists and oppose the General Strike. This happens just as Sempack decides he has fallen in love with her: ‘I am in the ridiculous position,’ is how he puts it to Cynthia, ‘of having fallen in love with Lady Catherine; and it isn’t any the less disorganising for being utterly absurd. It has made me, I perceive, absurd’ [2:8]. Back in England Catherine knocks over an unemployed man with her car, killing him, but doesn't stop: ‘she drove on!’ Philip reports in one of his letters: ‘she drove on, because she was a patriotic heroine battling against Bolshevism and all that, for God and King and Fearon-Owen [Wells's fictional British Fascist leader] and the British Gazette, particularly Fearon-Owen and the British Gazette. War is war. Nothing will be done to her’ [2:14].
In Italy Cynthia give sanctuary to Signor Vinciguerra, a liberal Italian leader being hunted by Italian fascists. In Britain the strike collapses. A Northern Irish nurse called Mrs McManus comes to help Cynthia through her labour, and Wells has some sectarian fun with her character. It's not comedy that has aged terribly well, I have to say:
“Almost all my work is done in Italy and the south of France in Catholic families, and I shouldn’t get half of it if I wasn’t known to be a Prodestant out and out,” she explained. “It gives them confidence. ... You can’t make a really thorough nurse out of a Roman Catholic woman. It’s known. There’s holy, devoted women among these Roman Catholic nurses, mind you. I’m not denying it. Some of them are saints, real saints. It is a privilege to meet them. But what you want in a nurse is not a saint; it is a nurse... all that purity of theirs! It takes a Prodestant to wash all over every day,” said Mrs. McManus. “These Catholics—they’d get ideas or something. There’s nuns haven’t washed all over for years. And think all the better of themselves for it.Cynthia gives birth to a son, and her now-penitent husband returns from England to start their life over again.
“And that’s all about it,” said Mrs. McManus, suddenly as if winding up her dissertation. [Meanwhile, 2:13]
It's a strange beast, this novel. If the country-house comedy of Bealby sometime reminded me of a weaker-beer Wodehouse, the country-house comedy of Meanwhile is more like early Aldous Huxley. The balance between humour and earnest disquisition is weighted too heavily in favour of the latter, and the balance is overtipped further by the, well, unfunniness of much of the comedy. But if we set aside my visceral reaction contra the central justification of marital infidelity by which Sempack sways Mrs Ryland, much of this is at least interesting, and as sermonizing for the coming World State goes, it's less indigestible than some other of Wells's books.