Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Certain Personal Matters (1897)

A collection, this, of thirty-nine occasional pieces, varying in length from a few hundred to two thousand words, and selected from a much larger body of work published between 1893 and 1896 in various magazines and journals. The volume presents as a series of drolly whimsical bulletins from the life of an idle writer, a fictionalised version of Wells himself: his habits, his work, his likes and dislikes, his wife ‘Euphemia’, his domestic situation and so on. I read it in the edition pictured above; which is to say, not the Lawrence & Bullen 1897 first edition but rather the 1901 ‘cheap’ reprint. As you can see, at some point in the book's history a hungry reader appears to have chewed upon it.

So toothsome a volume has Wells produced! Unwin, publishers of this 1901 reprint, added this little note at the end of it:

Wit and wisdom, then, were considered the selling points. Wells explains how he came to this mode of writing in his Experiment in Autobiography. ‘When I had been at Eastbourne [holidaying, in 1891] for two or three days, I 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].’ That secret is to write short, comical meditations on quotidiana: pipes, umbrellas, flower-pots, cheese, that sort of thing. Wells had tried writing journalism before, ‘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 ‘an article On Staying at the Seaside scribbled on the back of a letter and on its envelope.’ This he sent to his cousin Bertha Williams at Windsor ‘for her to typewrite’. He posted it to the Pall Mall Gazette and received a proof almost by return. ‘I was already busy on a second article,’ Wells recalls, ‘which was also accepted.’ Norman and Jean Mackenzie comment:
Wells had found the knack, at the moment when a whole new market was opening for just this kind of sketch. Even an incomplete list of his output in 1893 shows how quickly he learned to exploit the new situation. At least thirty articles are traceable. Their titles range from ‘Out Banstead Way’, ‘Angels’, ‘The Coal Scuttle’ and ‘Noises of Animals’ to ‘The Art of Being Photographed’ and ‘The Theory of the Perpetual Discomfort of Humanity’ [Norman and Jean Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (Weidenfeld 1973), 95]
By 1893 he was earning £10 a month from these sorts of essays alone; a pretty substantial sum, and one that doesn't include the money also coming in from short stories, reviews and novels.

They are, really, emphemera:— pieces, in David Smith's words, ‘which can be read in half a dozen minutes, but which will pique a reader's attention and ultimately allow him to think, “How true. I have done that myself”, or to make some similar remark.’ Smith goes on to speculate that the essays Wells collected in volume form, as here, are only the iceberg's tip:
Most of Wells's occasional pieces have not been collected, and many have not even been identified as his. Wells did not automatically receive the byline his reputation demanded until after 1896 or so. Some journals had a policy of giving only one byline an issue, no matter how many pieces an author contributed to it ... As a result, many of his early pieces are unknown. It obvious that many early Wells items have been lost. [David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (Yale Univ, Press, 1986), p. 35]
This raises the intriguing possibility that there are various, conceivably a great many, early original Wells works sitting unidentified in the back issues of the Pall Mall Gazette and other such magazines. Wells himself suggests as much in the Experiment in Autobiography ‘I do not now recall the order of the various sketches, dialogues and essays I produced in that opening year of journalism. They came pouring out. Some of the best of them are to be found collected in two books, still to be bought, Certain Personal Matters and Select Conversations with an Uncle. Much of that stuff was good enough to print but not worth reprinting.’ Then again there are Wells scholars who think he's being suspiciously offhand here; and there's plenty of evidence that Wells curated his own output quite carefully. He certainly took pains to reprint what he could, and so extract the maximum income from his labour, which is understandable enough. Robert Philmus and David Hughes have usefully pulled-together some of these uncollected pieces in a volume they called Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction (1975); but there may be a lot more work to do here.

As for Certain Personal Matters itself: the volume is ... hmmm. Hmmm is the syllable that most precisely captures the effect it had upon me. Most of the essays here manifest a kind of leaden drollery, sometimes more and sometimes less amusing, more or less forced. To call them dated must appear egregious, because of course they are dated: the mode of living, the small establishment with servants and all the paraphernalia of 1890s life has fallen into the backward and abysm of time. The thing is, plenty of comic writing from this epoch still works. Of course it's always a partial game, recovering the hilarity of a past age. Even the best humorous prose comes down to us foxed, as it were: lines and passages that made contemporaries roar now strike us as musty and unfunny. Dickens's gags sometimes misfire nowadays; but the difference is he still has long stretches that can make me laugh aloud. Jerome K Jerome, whose Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) helped create the vogue for the sort of book Wells writes here, was as fine a writer of comic prose as any in his generation, but not all his stuff still sparks. Some, though, does: the ‘boots’ section in Three Men on the Bummel (1900) may be the single funniest thing written by any Victorian, and there's a reason why Three Men in a Boat (1889) is still read and loved today. The bald fact is that Wells was just not as accomplished a writer of comic prose as was Jerome. A large proportion of Certain Personal Matters is wincing, or actively bumptious, stylistically-speaking:
My old cricketer was seized, he says, some score of years ago now, by sciatica, clutched indeed about the loins thereby, and forcibly withdrawn from the practice of the art; since when a certain predisposition to a corpulent habit has lacked its natural check of exercise, and a broadness almost Dutch has won upon him. Were it not for this, which renders his contours and his receding aspect unseemly, he would be indeed a venerable-looking person, having a profile worthy of a patriarch, tinged though it may be with an unpatriarchal jollity, and a close curly beard like that of King David. He lives by himself in a small cottage outside the village—hating women with an unaccountable detestation—and apparently earns a precarious livelihood, and certainly the sincere aversion of the country side, by umpiring in matches, and playing whist and “Nap” with such as will not be so discreet and economical as to bow before his superior merit. [‘The Veteran Cricketer’]
I mean, I don't want to overstate things. A couple of the later pieces raised a smile, either because Wells manages from time-to-time to make the clockwork of this prose spin without catching, or else, perhaps, by a process of readerly stockholm-syndrome. So for example I rather warmed to ‘The Coal-Scuttle: A Study in Domestic Aesthetics’. It begins:
Euphemia, who loves to have home dainty and delightful, would have no coals if she could dispense with them, much less a coal-scuttle. Indeed, it would seem she would have no fireplace at all, if she had her will. All the summer she is happy, and the fireplace is anything but the place for a fire; the fender has vanished, the fireirons are gone, it is draped and decorated and disguised. So would dear Euphemia drape and disguise the whole iron framework of the world, with that decorative and decent mind of hers, had she but the scope. There are exotic ferns there, spreading their fanlike fronds, and majolica glows and gleams; and fabrics, of which Morris is the actual or spiritual begetter, delight the eye. In summer-time our fireplace is indeed a thing of beauty, but, alas for the solar system! it is not a joy for ever.
The shifts to which the narrator's wife are put to try and hide the fact that she supplies her fire with coal are wittily described, and this paragraph actually made me laugh aloud:
At first she would feign there was no such thing as coal. It was too horrible. Only a Zola would admit it. It was the epoch of concealment. The thing purchased was like a little cupboard on four legs; it might have held any convenient trifle; and there was a shelf upon the top and a book of poetry and a piece of crackled Satsuma. You took a little brass handle and pulled it down, and the front of the little cupboard came forward, and there you found your coal. But a dainty little cupboard can no more entertain black coal and inelegant firewood and keep its daintiness than a mind can entertain black thoughts and yet be sweet. This cabinet became demoralised with amazing quickness; it became incontinent with its corruptions, a hinge got twisted, and after a time it acquired the habit of suddenly, and with an unpleasant oscillatory laughing noise, opening of its own accord and proclaiming its horrid secret to Euphemia's best visitors.
This is funny; something T. Fisher Unwin recognised when they selected it as the essay that would be dignified with a frontispiece illustration.

But moments like this a relatively few.

It doesn't help that Wells presses so hard upon the ‘comic paradox’ pedal. ‘Thoughts on Cheapness and My Aunt Charlotte’ is built around the notion that cheap furniture is better than expensive furniture. There are plenty of statements pitched at a level of sarcastic irony: ‘I dislike most people; in London they get in one's way in the street and fill up railway carriages, and in the country they stare at you—but I hate my friends’ [‘The Trouble of Life’]; polite conversation ‘is the very degradation of speech’ [‘Of Conversation: An Apology’] and so on. It's an interesting question, actually, as to why Wilde's paradoxical epigrams still shine, and Chesterton's still provoke thought, where Wells's just clang dully. ‘Unless it is the face of a fashionable beauty, I know of nothing more absolutely uninteresting than a morning paper.’ Oh my aching sides. Presumably the problem here is not only that Wilde's wit is sharper; it's that Wilde's paradoxes speak to something genuinely significant. Both Wilde and Wells, we might say, lived lives of public sexual clandestineness; but Wilde's wit repeatedly reveals his homosexuality, as a function of his love for the unexpectedness of beauty, where the wit in Certain Personal Matters repeatedly reverts back upon Wells's cover-story—bourgeois domestic conventionality—rather than upon his hidden life of ployamorous sexual incontinence. The Importance of Being Earnest hides its gayness, brilliantly, in plain view. Certain Personal Matters is a volume that only pretends to be personal, offers little certainty, and ultimately doesn't matter. The central paradox of Wilde, that levity is the way to apprehend the most serious matters of life, love and death, doesn't really interest Wells, I think. My sense is that the truth always seemed obvious to Wells, where it always seemed beautifully perverse to Wilde; but where Wilde worked hard to reveal that aspect of himself that he had to keep most secret, and to do so on his own terms—that is, as something wittily and beautifully paradoxical—Wells was four decades away from even the partial revelations of his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), and the sexual stuff collected by his son in H G Wells in Love had to wait for posthumous publication. ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’, was how Wilde put it; and what's enduring about his wit is its dedication to truth.

This, though, is hardly a fair comparison; I mean, who is so witty as Wilde? And sometimes Wells does come closer to the proper apothegmatic style. I liked, for instance: ‘the fundamental and enduring grace of womanhood goes down to the skeleton; you cannot have a pretty face without a pretty skulll’ [‘On the Choice of a Wife’]. Some of his drollery is actual, not ersatz. He achieves a nice alliterative faux-pomposity with the idea that the temperance campaigners of the 1890s will, once alcohol is banned, turn their ire against other stimulant beverages: ‘the Sir Wilfrid Lawson of some near generation may find it his duty and pleasure to make the silvery spray of his wisdom tintinnabulate against the tea-tray’ [‘Of a Book Unwritten’]. That's a sentence worth reading twice; baroque (possibly over baroque) but delightful nonetheless. And there's something fun in the gusto of his animus against the typewriter, using the term both for the machine itself, and for the individual paid to type-up manuscript:
As for a typewriter, you could no more get an essay out of a typewriter than you could play a sonata upon its keys. No essay was ever written with a typewriter yet, nor ever will be. Besides its impossibility, the suggestion implies a brutal disregard of the division of labour by which we live and move and have our being. If the essayist typewrite, the unemployed typewriter, who is commonly a person of superior education and capacity, might take to essays, and where is your living then? One might as reasonably start at once with the Linotype and print one's wit and humour straight away. And taking the invasion of other trades one step further one might, after an attempt to sell one's own newspaper, even get to the pitch of having to read it oneself. No; even essayists must be reasonable. If its mechanical clitter-clatter did not render composition impossible, the typewriter would still be beneath the honour of a literary man. [‘The Writing of Essays’]
Still, it's the exception rather than the rule.

As with his short stories, the essays in Certain Personal Matter that have, as it were, legs are the ones that do more than comically rib the platitudes of bourgeois living. They are the ones that engage the ideational or metaphorical resonances of science fiction. You'd expect me to say so, I know, but it's true. The account of the odd little creatures visible under magnification in ‘Through a Microscope’ is diverting enough, but the essay really only strikes home at its end, with this anticipation of the opening image from the following year's War of the Worlds:
And all the time these creatures are living their vigorous, fussy little lives; in this drop of water they are being watched by a creature of whose presence they do not dream, who can wipe them all out of existence with a stroke of his thumb, and who is withal as finite, and sometimes as fussy and unreasonably energetic, as themselves. He sees them, and they do not see him, because he has senses they do not possess, because he is too incredibly vast and strange to come, save as an overwhelming catastrophe, into their lives. Even so, it may be, the dabbler himself is being curiously observed.... The dabbler is good enough to say that the suggestion is inconceivable. I can imagine a decent amœba saying the same thing. [‘Through a Microscope’]
A Martian chill hovers over this which lifts it out of the ordinary. I hate to be pompous, but this does the Nietzschean ‘look into the abyss and the abyss looks into you’ all the more effectively for being comical. And the stand-out piece in the whole volume is Wells's speculative ‘Of a Book Unwritten’, a reworking of an earlier piece called ‘Man of the Year Million’. Here Wells cast the notion as excerpts from The Necessary Characters of the Man of the Remote Future deduced from the Existing Stream of Tendency ‘by one Professor Holzkopf, presumably Professor at Weissnichtwo’. Yes, alright: ‘Professor Lumberhead of the University of Dunno’ is a creaky-enough joke. But the speculations themselves are glorious:
Then what is not needed disappears. What use is there for external ears, nose, and brow ridges now? The two latter once protected the eye from injury in conflict and in falls, but in these days we keep on our legs, and at peace. Directing his thoughts in this way, the reader may presently conjure up a dim, strange vision of the latter-day face: “Eyes large, lustrous, beautiful, soulful; above them, no longer separated by rugged brow ridges, is the top of the head, a glistening, hairless dome, terete and beautiful; no craggy nose rises to disturb by its unmeaning shadows the symmetry of that calm face, no vestigial ears project; the mouth is a small, perfectly round aperture, toothless and gumless, jawless, unanimal, no futile emotions disturbing its roundness as it lies, like the harvest moon or the evening star, in the wide firmament of face.” Such is the face the Professor beholds in the future. ... A man who could not only leave his dinner to be cooked, but also leave it to be masticated and digested, would have vast social advantages over his food-digesting fellow. This is, let me remind you here, the calmest, most passionless, and scientific working out of the future forms of things from the data of the present. ... Is there any absolute impossibility in supposing man to be destined for a similar change; to imagine him no longer dining, with unwieldy paraphernalia of servants and plates, upon food queerly dyed and distorted, but nourishing himself in elegant simplicity by immersion in a tub of nutritive fluid?

“There grows upon the impatient imagination a building, a dome of crystal, across the translucent surface of which flushes of the most glorious and pure prismatic colours pass and fade and change. In the centre of this transparent chameleon-tinted dome is a circular white marble basin filled with some clear, mobile, amber liquid, and in this plunge and float strange beings. Are they birds? They are the descendants of man—at dinner. Watch them as they hop on their hands—a method of progression advocated already by Bjornsen—about the pure white marble floor. Great hands they have, enormous brains, soft, liquid, soulful eyes. Their whole muscular system, their legs, their abdomens, are shrivelled to nothing, a dangling, degraded pendant to their minds ... The animals and plants die away before men, except such as he preserves for his food or delight, or such as maintain a precarious footing about him as commensals and parasites. These vermin and pests must succumb sooner or later to his untiring inventiveness and incessantly growing discipline. When he learns (the chemists are doubtless getting towards the secret now) to do the work of chlorophyll without the plant, then his necessity for other animals and plants upon the earth will disappear. Sooner or later, where there is no power of resistance and no necessity, there comes extinction. In the last days man will be alone on the earth, and his food will be won by the chemist from the dead rocks and the sunlight.

“And—one may learn the full reason in that explicit and painfully right book, the Data of Ethics—the irrational fellowship of man will give place to an intellectual co-operation, and emotion fall within the scheme of reason. Undoubtedly it is a long time yet, but a long time is nothing in the face of eternity, and every man who dares think of these things must look eternity in the face.” Then the earth is ever radiating away heat into space, the Professor reminds us. And so at last comes a vision of earthly cherubim, hopping heads, great unemotional intelligences, and little hearts, fighting together perforce and fiercely against the cold that grips them tighter and tighter. For the world is cooling—slowly and inevitably it grows colder as the years roll by. “We must imagine these creatures,” says the Professor, “in galleries and laboratories deep down in the bowels of the earth. The whole world will be snow-covered and piled with ice; all animals, all vegetation vanished, except this last branch of the tree of life. The last men have gone even deeper, following the diminishing heat of the planet, and vast metallic shafts and ventilators make way for the air they need.” [‘Of a Book Unwritten’]
Again, it's clear from whence Wells drew his ideas about the appears of his soon-to-be-published Martian invaders.

It might look paradoxical, or perhaps merely self-serving, of me to insist that the best of this collection of Wells's drollery is its science fiction. But the connection is less arbitrary than you might think. As I argued in my account of The Stolen Bacillus and Other Stories (1895), the science fiction novum necessarily embodies a metaphorical logic, and structurally speaking all metaphors entail an unexpected, illuminating and delightful leap from one element to another. Metonymy is different; it works according to logical connections from one thing to another (Jakobson's original distinction between metaphor and metonymy was predicated upon his observation that children we would now describe as being ‘on the asperger's spectrum’ could follow the sequential progression of metonyms but found the sudden leaps of metaphors baffling). The best SF always does more than simply extrapolate logically from the present into the future; it leaps, according to some quasi-poetic expressive logic, in a new and (sense-of-) wonderful direction: the apeman's bone suddenly transforms into a spaceship; the Asimovian sun sets after a thousand years of daylight to reveal, quite unexpectedly, stars. And this formal structure is precisely that of the joke: that knight's-move shape, that draws the reader, or listener, so far by metonymic connection and then, abruptly, takes her in an unexpected, quasi-metaphorical direction. Formally speaking (and setting aside the matter of content, where the connection is much more tenuous)—formally speaking, Jokes and SF have a great deal in common. Wells was skillful enough at the former to make himself a lot of money; but his real genius was in the latter.


  1. "But a dainty little cupboard can no more entertain black coal and inelegant firewood and keep its daintiness than a mind can entertain black thoughts and yet be sweet. [...] it acquired the habit of suddenly, and with an unpleasant oscillatory laughing noise, opening of its own accord and proclaiming its horrid secret to Euphemia's best visitors."

    That is 100% Freudian. Was it direct influence or common Victorianism?

    1. I'd have to say the latter: Wells's engagement with Freud is a feature of the 1920s and 30s, so far as I know; the two did correspond, and Wells met Freud when the latter fled to London in 1939 (on fact Wells organized a campaign to grant Freud British nationality before he died, something that would have required a special act of parliament for "fast track" nationality; it would probably have happened, too, except that Freud died, as 'as a stateless refugee, or enemy alien', before it could be managed). But I don't know of anything that suggests Wells was reading Freud in the 1890s.

  2. The "sketch" genre was extraordinarily dominant in England at this moment -- you mention Jerome K Jerome, but Kenneth Grahme did a lot of this kind of thing, and A C Benson produced it by the truckload. Not to mention Chesterton's columns. How did it become such a vogue?

    1. I know! Rising literacy levels, and cheapening publication, and the long aftermath of abolishing stamp-duty all played a part I suppose; and the rise of a commuting nation, especially in the south east. But I don't know that it's ever been studied. And the related question still bugs me: why do these sorts of pieces read as so much less funny that the comic fiction of the period?