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.

1 comment:

  1. Might it be R. A. G. (Gregory)? Or a misprint for same?