Wells thought highly of this book. Very highly, in fact: in his preface to the 1924 reprint he wrote: ‘the writer is disposed to regard it as the finest and most finished novel upon the accepted lines that he has written or is ever likely to write’. He's right, too: it is indeed a rich and brilliant novel (though ‘upon the accepted lines’ is an interesting modifier, don't you think? Is it there to exempt his SF, I wonder?).
In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells recalls his disagreement with Henry James over what ‘the novel’ should be: ‘James conceived the novel as a symmetrical unity, Wells favoured the discursive tradition of Dickens and Fielding’, is how John Hammond thumbnails their divergence. ‘ I shall never come as near to a deliberate attempt upon The Novel again as I did in Tono-Bungay’ Wells declares, although he does qualify the assertion:
Even Tono-Bungay was not much of a concession to Henry James and his conception of an intensified rendering of feeling and characterization as the proper business of the novelist. It was an indisputable Novel, but it was extensive rather than intensive. That is to say it presented characters only as part of a scene. It was planned as a social panorama in the vein of Balzac. [Experiment in Autobiography, 424]Later he calls it ‘a novel, as I imagined it, on Dickens-Thackeray lines’ . But I'm going to disagree—not, mind, because I think Wells unworthy of the comparisons with Dickens and Balzac. In this novel, he absolutely is. Tono-Bungay strikes me as a magnificent novel, one of Wells's two or three greatest achievements as a novelist. What I'm trying to do is resist the critical tide that wants to push Wells into the formless, baggily episodic, merely-journalistic ‘school’ of writing, at the other scale of things from James. Tono-Bungay is, remarkably enough, a novel of Balzacian scope and life that is simultaneously a wide-ranging condition-of-England novel, and a tightly focused matrix of theme and symbol à la Henry James. Discussing Kipps (1905), I explored what I took to be Wells's mode of reconciling realist emplotment and convincing mimetic sprawl with symbolic aesthetic unity, in the case of that novel via a linked series of repeated tropes to do with bicycles, language-games, performance and liminal spaces, all linked together under the novel's master trope of ‘the cut’. The result is not, I have to be honest, exactly an intuitive textual pattern (although I do think it is a comprehensible and eloquent one). Tono-Bungay does this same thing on a larger scale, with more coherence and even, I think, more aesthetic polish. I say so despite the fact that this polish is, amongst other things, merdeacious and infernal. But that's the point. That's Wells's point.
The novel itself, this very work about which I am making such large claims, is structured in a fairly straightforward, if rangy, manner. Much of it again reworks Wells's own autobiography, as Love and Mr Lewisham had done, although with some new wrinkles. So: instead of following-through on one version of his life-story, Wells chops up different episodes, characters and even versions of himself (he is, I think, both of the book's two main Ponderevos, as well as several minor characters) and remixes them into a new fictive jam. There's Wells the housekeeper's son and Wells scholarship boy; then there's Wells at his friend Gissing's deathbed in France; and Wells the divorcee; not to mention Wells the man who woke to find himself rich and famous, on the strength of nothing more than attractive strings of words he'd concocted out of his own brain.
Our narrator George Ponderevo grows up the son of a housekeeper at a large Kentish stately home, Bladesover House, and experiences many of the things young H.G. did at Up Park, where his mother was housekeeper (in the Autobiography Wells notes that Tono-Bungay ‘[makes] a little picture of Up Park as “Bladesover”’ and [gives] a glimpse of its life below stairs’ but insists ‘the housekeeper there is not in the least like my mother.’ [33-34]). Young George gets into a fight with a posh boy and is sent away from Bladesover, first of all to his mother's cousin Nicodemus Frapp, a low baker ‘in a back street—a slum rather’ in Chatham, whose grubby family and proselytising evangelical nonconformism Wells satirises. Unable to endure this house, George runs back to Bladesover, in another lift from Wells own life (‘I have told just how that happened in Tono-Bungay and how I waylaid the procession of servants as they were coming up Harting Hill from Harting Church. I appeared among the beeches and bracken on the high bank. “Cooee Mummy,” said I, white-faced and tired, but carrying it off gaily’ [Experiment in Autobiography, 123]; this scene is almost word-for-word in the novel). He is sent away again, this time as apprentice to his uncle Edward Ponderevo, who runs a chemist's shop in ‘Wimblehurst’, which is Wells's version of Midhurst.
Uncle Ponderevo is at the heart of the novel: a larger-than-life charlatan and huckster, living a pinched provincial life but dreaming big dreams. And he is a splendid, almost Dickensian creation: memorable and entertaining and funny and well-drawn. Narrator George, who occupies the notionally H.G. position in much of the novel's fictionalised autobiography, is as character very unlike H.G. (he is shy around women, uncaring of society, a plugger-away and nose-to-the-grindstone sort, almost monklike at times: ‘I like bare things,’ he says at one point; ‘stripped things, plain, austere and continent things, fine lines and cold colours’ [3.3.1]). It is into Uncle Ponderevo that Wells decants all the H.G. ‘whoosh’; his energy and ambition, his grand and sometimes foolishly overreaching imagination, his sociability, vulgarity and appetite.
Things don't go well for Uncle Ponderevo at the beginning, mind you. Debts compel him to sell his shop, apprentice George included, and decamp to London. Young George's perseverance with his studies leads to him winning a ‘Technical Board Scholarship at the Consolidated Technical Schools at South Kensington’ [2.1.2]. For a while Tono-Bungay moves into Love and Mr Lewisham territory, as George, full of promise at South Ken, slips into bad habits, moons over a girl and ends up complicit with a fraud. But here the pseudo-autobiographies part company: Lewisham's experiences with roguish old Mr Chaffery's fake séances lead him into a dead-end low-income life; but George's re-encounter with his uncle—now peddling a patent-medicine called ‘Tono-Bungay’: ‘the secret of vigour’—lead to riches. It's a scam, of course, though a more-or-less legal one, and sales are booming. Uncle Edward employs George at £300 a year in an organisational capacity, freeing himself up to do the things he is good at: dreaming up new scam products to sell, and writing compelling advertisements to dupe the public.
The narrative picks up pace after Tono-Bungay becomes a hit. Penderevo expands his business in a variety of directions and he and his nephew get very wealthy. There's an interlude where George, in an ecstasy of frustrated sexual yearning, marries a beautiful but chilly woman called Marion. It's a bad idea: he sets her up in an expensive house, quickly discovers that he can't stand her, has an affair and divorces her, all within a dozen pages. This brings us to the novel's halfway point where, having traced an upward trajectory, the narrative now shifts the other way: Uncle Ponderevo over-reaches himself. Despite obtaining a title and purchasing an elegant Tudor house called Lady Grove, Ponderevo frets that he's not living life as large as he should. He has an affair with a famous novelist, starts building a hubristically vast new house called Crest Hill (it is never completed), increasingly identifies with Napoleon, and reads-up on what he calls ‘this Overman idee, Nietzsche—all that stuff.’ [3.2.9]. His commercial expansion and investments become more over-reaching and unstable until, inevitably, it all crashes. George has his own unhappy love affair, with a woman called Beatrice. He increasingly distances himself from Tono-Bungay, using his share in the fortune to devote himself to the ultimate rich-man's hobby: designing and flying airplanes.
Finally, after much foreshadowing, the novel reaches its hubris-clobbered-by-nemesis finale. Here Wells is riffing on a number of obvious literary antecedents: Dickens's Merdle (in Little Dorrit, 1855-57), Charles Lever's Davenport Dunn (in Davenport Dunn, A Man of Our Day, 1859) and Trollope's Melmotte (in The Way We Live Now, 1875). I've read all three of these big Victorian novels, as it happens, and they are all iterations of the same basic story—plausible confidence trickster from a dubious social and/or racial background creates a bubble in the world of finance to get rich, buy himself a title, hobnob with aristos (all of whom fall over themselves to be associated with what they assume is the endless fountain of wealth the financier represents). Inevitably the bubble bursts and the speculator dies. The remarkable thing is that I don't know of any counter-representations to this narrative—I mean, Victorian novels in which investment in shares, or financial speculation, is shown as paying off. Without exception, financial speculation is troped as pride-going-before-a-fall in the literature of this period. I can't think of any mainstream Victorian or Edwardian celebrations of enterprise capitalism at all. What puzzles me about this is that it's not as if the Victorian novel doesn't love its hucksters, frauds and scam artists, its Micawbers and Becky Sharps, provided only that they fail. John McCormick describes Uncle Ponderevo as ‘a successful Micawber’ [Castastrophe and Imagination (Longman 1954), 158], which gets at something important. What compromises Ponderevo in Wells's novel is not that he is a confidence man, but that he succeeds.
Having lost their fortune, the Pondervos make a desperate bid to win it back by seizing a quantity of an extremely valuable although radioactive mineral called ‘quap’ that lies loose on an island off the West African Coast. George charters a boat and crew to recover the quap in an episode of hallucinatory horribleness. Rendered increasingly ill by the sheer toxicity of the stuff and the inhospitably tropical environment, George comes close to losing his mind, and even shoots a native dead for no very good reason. Finally the quap is all loaded into their steamer and they set sail for England, but the quap rots through the keel and the boat sinks in the North Atlantic. George and the crew are rescued, but by the time he gets home again it is all up for Uncle P.. The police are hot on his heels, so George flies him out of the country in one of his experimental planes (actually it's a kind of dirigible-plane hybrid). They make it across the Channel, but Uncle P. is very poorly, and he dies in a Burgundy farmhouse (this scene is based on Wells experiences at the deathbed of his friend, George Gissing, in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port). Returning to Britain, George loses Beatrice, and devotes his life to—of all things—designing new models of warship. This ultimate destination for George is looked-forward-to several times in the main body of the book, but it still reads as a rather weird non sequitur for a man who has been trained in chemistry, managed a business and designed planes. Still: that's where the novel ends, with a richly written final chapter envoi called ‘Night and the Open Sea’.
2. ‘If you want to hang out/You got to/Take her out’
‘She don't lie/She don't lie/She don't lie ...’ Wells's working title for the novel was Waste, but in the end he decided to name it after the commodity that makes, at least temporarily, the Ponderevo fortune. He says as much in the book's final chapter:
It is, I see now that I have it all before me, a story of activity and urgency and sterility. I have called it Tono-Bungay, but I had far better have called it Waste ... I think of all the energy I have given to vain things. I think of my industrious scheming with my uncle, of Crest Hill's vast cessation, of his resonant strenuous career.... It is all one spectacle of forces running to waste, of people who use and do not replace, the story of a country hectic with a wasting aimless fever of trade and money-making and pleasure-seeking. [Tono-Bungay, 4.3.1]Resisting the urge to call the book Waste was the right thing to do, I think. That title would have put Wells's novel too obviously in the shade of Our Mutual Friend. This isn't to deny that Dickens's late masterpiece is an important antecedent for Wells's novel (obviously it is). It is, though, to say that Tono-Bungay ends up doing something rather different to Dickens.
Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Higgins quote William Cohen's Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life to the effect that ‘polluting or filthy objects’ can ‘become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie’, adding that ‘“Riches” have often been construed as “waste”’ and noting that ‘the reversibility of the poles—wealth and waste, waste and wealth—became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ [‘Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells’, Criticism, 48:4 (2006), 453]. The difference between Dickens and Wells here is that the dust heap in Our Mutual Friend is ultimately productive of something—the novel's various happy endings, John and Bella's coming child, renewed futures, all washed by the rebirthing quasi-baptismal powers of the Thames. Dickens's is a novel with through-flow, as it were. Tono-Bungay purposefully lacks that quality. Nothing is reborn, nothing flows through, the two main characters have no offspring, their waste cannot be recycled and exists only as a floating signifier.
So what is ‘Tono-Bungay’? We're not precisely told. Obviously it is a brand of patent medicine, non-salutary although marketed as a miracle remedium omnium. The early 1900s saw a flurry of social kick-back against the centuries old practice of selling medically inert or actively harmful potions and nostrums to a public anxious about their health. Here, for example, is the June 3, 1905 cover of Collier's (a magazine for which Wells sometimes wrote).
One small part, this, of the wider campaign that led, in 1906, to the better regulation of patent medicines: Congress passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in the US and the appointment in 1908 of the markedly more public-health interventionist Arthur Newsholme as Chief Medical Officer in the UK. It was during this period during that Wells was writing Tono-Bungay, giving the book a topicality for its original readers it can hardly have for us in the 21st-century.
When it comes to the novel's own patent medicine, Wells is deliberately vague. It is ‘HILARITY—Like Mountain Air in the Veins’ according to Uncle Ponderevo's adverts (‘SIMPLY A PROPER REGIMEN TO GET YOU IN TONE... Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner. Are you bored with your Wife?’ [2.3.1]). Tone, then. Ingredients?
“And what is it?” I pressed.William Kupinse thinks ‘George's refusal to identify the exact formula … suggests something more than his inability to violate trade secrets. Instead, it becomes the absent center of Wells's text, in fact a sort of pharmaceutical mock equivalent to Conrad's “the horror, the horror.”’ [‘Wasted Value: The Serial Logic of H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay’, Novel (1999), 58]. But surely the nature of the stuff is less opaque than that. Clearly, Tono-Bungay is a stimulant, one with certain deleterious consequences for the body, especially the kidneys. It's pretty clear from this that the ‘secret ingredient’ is cocaine—that aggressively stimulating narcotic whose use is nowadays globally proscribed, and yet which is still very widely used.
“Well,” said my uncle, and then leant forward and spoke softly under cover of his hand, “It’s nothing more or less than...”
(But here an unfortunate scruple intervenes. After all, Tono-Bungay is still a marketable commodity and in the hands of purchasers, who bought it from—among other vendors—me. No! I am afraid I cannot give it away—)
“You see,” said my uncle in a slow confidential whisper, with eyes very wide and a creased forehead, “it’s nice because of the” (here he mentioned a flavouring matter and an aromatic spirit), “it’s stimulating because of” (here he mentioned two very vivid tonics, one with a marked action on the kidney.) “And the” (here he mentioned two other ingredients) “makes it pretty intoxicating. Cocks their tails. Then there’s” (but I touch on the essential secret.) “And there you are. I got it out of an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch! There you are!” [Tono-Bungay, 2.2.1]
The early 1900s saw health anxieties about cocaine filtering through into the mainstream. Coca-cola stopped adding cocaine to their drink in 1903, but before that a glass of coca-cola contained about ten milligrams of cocaine; for comparison, a typical ‘line’ of cocaine is 50 mg. And in the later nineteenth-century there had been a wide range of cocaine-based products on the market. Angelo Mariani enjoyed tremendous success from the 1860s onward with his ‘Vin Mariani’, more properly named ‘Vin Tonique Mariani à la Coca du Pérou’ (‘Tonique-o Peruvay’), a mixture of Bordeaux wine and cocaine, 6 mg of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine for the home market, 7.2 mg per ounce for the export market—which, since a medium glass of wine contains 5 fluid ounces, must have delivered quite a hit. Ulysses S. Grant claimed he was only able to complete his memoirs by drinking this ‘wine’; Pope Leo XIII endorsed it, Queen Victoria enjoyed a glass or two, and ‘sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi declared that if he had used Vin Mariani when designing the Statue of Liberty he would have made it hundreds of metres high rather than forty-six’ [Tristan Donovan, Fizz: How Soda Shook Up the World (Chicago Review Press 2014), 51]. John C Pemberton, the inventor of Coca Cola, actually started his business with an unlicensed rip-off of Vin Mariani, Pemberton's French Wine Coca, which he advertised as a patent medicine rather than a wine, ‘a cure for nerve trouble, dyspepsia, gastroparesis, mental and physical exhaustion, gastric irritability, wasting diseases, constipation, headache, neurasthenia and impotence.’ Only when his home state banned booze did he re-jig the potion to remove the alcohol and so create the brown fizzy drink so globally, er, loved today. There were many other brands:
Some varieties were marketed as ‘Coca Wine’, some as ‘Tonic Wine’, often accompanied by Tono-Bungayish health claims:
It's to this sub-set of the patent medicine class that Tono-Bungay surely belongs. It is, remember, ‘intoxicating’ and stimulating (‘cocks their tails’). Uncle P plagiarised the stuff from ‘“an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch!”’ [2.2.1]. Cocaine use is liable to cock up your tail, of course; and it is also toxic in various ways, not least in its deleterious effect on the kidneys.
Cocaine's addictive and toxic properties were well recognised in the later nineteenth-century, although it continued to have its advocates as an analgesic and stimulant well into the twentieth. Freud used the drug, of course; and Conan Doyle's Sign of Four (1890) famously starts with Holmes shooting-up with the stuff. But Wells was no fan. In the sequel to Experiment in Autobiography, published posthumously as Wells in Love, he recalls his friendship with Sidney Bowkett, an actor and playwright and the prototype for Chitterlow in Kipps. They both set out on writing careers at the same time, Bowkett with plays and Wells with novels, but the former didn't make the success of things the latter did. Why did Bowkett fail? ‘He had learned to sniff cocaine in America’, says Wells sternly, which meant ‘he fell away from the good resolutions’ into ‘a life of incoherent lunges and adventures that was to end at last in morpho-mania and insanity’ [G P Wells (ed), H G Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (Faber 1984), 59]. Kids: just say no.
Reading Tono-Bungay as Columbian Marching Powder opens aspects of the novel to us, I think. Wells's portrait of Uncle Ponderevo, for instance, stresses not only his physical decay, but his weird restlessness and bursts of energy. He never walks or goes, rather he ‘jerks’ and ‘shoots’, and despite being a fat, stocky man (we might say ‘ponder[ev]ous’) he's always fidgeting: ‘he fingered his glasses, fretted with things in his waistcoat pockets or put his hands behind him, looked over our heads, and ever and again rose to his toes and dropped back on his heels’ [1.2.1]. At the height of his success, Wells's narrator describes him thuswise:
[He] plumped up very considerably during the creation of the Tono-Bungay property, but with the increasing excitements that followed that first flotation came dyspepsia and a certain flabbiness and falling away. His abdomen—if the reader will pardon my taking his features in the order of their value—had at first a nice full roundness, but afterwards it lost tone without, however, losing size. He always went as though he was proud of it and would make as much of it as possible. To the last his movements remained quick and sudden, his short firm legs, as he walked, seemed to twinkle rather than display the scissors-stride of common humanity, and he never seemed to have knees, but instead, a dispersed flexibility of limb. ... To make the portrait complete one wants to convey an effect of sudden, quick bursts of movement like the jumps of a Chinese-cracker to indicate that his pose whatever it is, has been preceded and will be followed by a rush. [Tono-Bungay, 3.1.1]That last detail is the echt coke-head flurry. His decline is hastened by the drug, too: back from getting, and losing, the quap George finds his uncle thoroughly doped-up: ‘he poured something from a medicine bottle into a sticky little wineglass and drank it. I became aware of the presence of drugs, of three or four small bottles before him among his disorder of papers, of a faint elusively familiar odour in the room.’ [4.1.1.] No prizes for guessing what the smell is.
This does matter, I think. I've read a number of accounts of the novel that treat Tono-Bungay as a perfectly empty signifier, a mere vacant commodity. But the notion that this ‘commodity’ has a distinct if deleterious effect on character is central to what the novel is doing. The titular drug is not merely a blank token passed around a system of exchange; it is what poisons the characters out of which the novel construes its narrative. Simon James argues that ‘the novel replaces the Bildungsroman of its narrative model with the art of the advertisement. Commodities such as Tono-Bungay are advertised like virtuous conduct in the traditional Bildungsroman, as a remedy that will cure ills and ensure happiness’ [Maps of Utopia: H G Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture (OUP 2012), 109]. But I don't think this is right. The commodity has a direct effect on conduct, which plays into the novel's inverted Bildung, turning Uncle P.'s cockney brio and genius into a life of incoherent lunges and adventures that ends at last in morpho-mania and insanity.
So: if cocaine is the ingredient that ‘tones’ the flabby, exhausted or dispirited patient, the tono portion of this drug, then what of the bungay? To be bunged up means to be blocked or constipated, of course. One of the side-effects of cocaine use is severe constipation. You see where I'm going with this.
And, really, we're come to one of the main themes of Tono-Bungay as a novel. In one sense Wells is saying: in place of the good and healthful food of yesteryear, modernity gives us this superficially stimulating but fundamentally toxic pseudo-food, one that pretends to health but is in fact an agent of physical, spiritual and societal blockage. When George meets his Uncle again after many years, the effect of having bunged too much tono down his gob is evident in his physique:
It came into my head that he had shrunken very much in size since the Wimblehurst days, that the cannon ball he had swallowed was rather more evident and shameless than it had been, his skin less fresh and the nose between his glasses, which still didn’t quite fit, much redder. And just then he seemed much laxer in his muscles and not quite as alertly quick in his movements. But he evidently wasn’t aware of the degenerative nature of his changes as he sat there, looking suddenly quite little under my eyes. [Tono-Bungay, 2.2.1]One of the recurring themes of Tono-Bungay is that nothing passes naturally through any more; there is neither catharsis nor any inhabitation of the natural cycle whereby life is a process that passes experience on to posterity. The narrator marries, but has no children (‘Marion had acquired a disgust and dread of maternity,’ we're told [2.3.5]), because nobody is having children in the world of Tono-Bungay:—not the old school English aristocracy, who the novel styles as a mere dead end, like old Lady Drew at Bladesover;—but not the new money men either. Uncle Ponderevo has no children; and, indeed, Crest Hill, the ruinously expensive country house folly that precipitates his end, is described in the novel as ‘a delirium of pinnacles and terraces and arcades and corridors ... [the] empty instinctive building of a childless man.’ [3.2.10]
This individual childlessness scales to the country as a whole. Old England has died out, and left no natural successors. The Jews who buy-up Bladesover when old Lady Drew dies are not presented as the natural succession of a younger generation. On the contrary, says our narrator: ‘to borrow an image from my mineralogical days, these Jews were not so much a new British gentry as “pseudomorphous” after the gentry’ [1.1.3]. This mineralogical conceit, quite apart from being worryingly dehumanising, looks forward to the role played by ‘quap’ in the novel's denouement: something darkly chthonic and radioactive, promising wealth but actually an energetic poison, a malaria or a cancer, that eats through the timbers of the ship of state and sinks it.
3. Food, Sickness and Dante
Tono-Bungay is only a ‘food’ in a very loose sense of the word, of course, and not a ‘food’ with any nutritional merit. I think this explains why young George's first apprenticeship is to the low baker Nicodemius Frapp, who does produce actual food in bread, but in a very unhygienic fashion (‘we had to deal with cockroaches of a smaller, darker variety, and also with bugs of sorts’ [3.4.2]. Frapp ‘let his nails become disagreeable to the fastidious eye; he had no pride in his business nor any initiative’ [1.2.1]). Bread is the Christian staff of life, transformed in church into the very body of Christ, and so spiritually as well as physically sustaining; but Frapp's egregious religiosity is as dirty and unsustaining as his bread. Every Sunday the family ‘met with twenty or thirty other darkened and unclean people, all dressed in dingy colours that would not show the dirt, in a little brick-built chapel equipped with a spavined roarer of a harmonium’. No transubstantiation here: just ugliness and disease:
These obscure, undignified people, a fat woman with asthma, an old Welsh milk-seller with a tumour on his bald head, who was the intellectual leader of the sect, a huge-voiced haberdasher with a big black beard, a white-faced, extraordinarily pregnant woman, his wife, a spectacled rate collector with a bent back. [Tono-Bungay, 1.2.1]George stresses the irony of such people invoking ‘the strange battered old phrases that were coined ages ago in the seaports of the sun-dry Levant, of balm of Gilead and manna in the desert, of gourds that give shade and water in a thirsty land.’ There is no manna in modernity, he is saying; a fact upon which the empty simulacrum of tono-bungay capitalises.
In other words, the (cocaine-induced constipation) bungay portion of Tono-Bungay is more than just a piece of marketing nomenclature. It is a marker of the state of the nation as such: Britain a damned-up, bunged-up, shit-impacted land. It's why the final dramatic release of Uncle Ponderevo's apparently endless accumulation is articulated in the novel both in terms of a pseudo-mimetic account of how Ponderevo loses everything—how, that is, the bottom falls out of his world—but with the adventure to the death-named Mordet Island and its vast, literally stinking, poisonous, fundamentally fecal heaps of quap.
At last I saw with my eyes the heaps my imagination had seen for so long, and felt between my fingers again that half-gritty, half soft texture of quap, like sanded moist-sugar mixed with clay in which there stirs something—This description has the queasily unpleasant quality of somebody playing with their own shit. The texture and noisome smell of the quap is a literally sickening thing: ‘we were all ill, every one of us, so soon as we got to sea, poisoned, I firmly believe, by quap’ [3.4.3]. Later he says ‘the malaria of the quap was already in my blood’ [3.4.4.]. Its very name speaks to its feverishly pathological quality. Hensleigh Wedgwood's Dictionary of English Etymology (1865) gives us this:
One must feel it to understand. [Tono-Bungay, 3.1.4]
Sailing home with a shipful of quap, George increasingly sickens, as does his whole crew. Even the ship itself grows sick, breaks apart and sinks. It's a metaphor of course: in a dozen ways the novel is saying: the whole country is sick, feverish, falling apart. What it needs is a cure. It needs good medicine, but what it gets instead is Tono-Bungay, a fake pill, a mere stimulant that temporarily peps people up but in the longer term makes the feverishness and illness worse. Tono-Bungay is, we might say, the opposite of a pharmakon: not the poison that also cures, but the simulacrum of a cure that actually poisons. Not a philosophically indeterminate concept, but a satirically pointed symbol. Tono-Bungay is one representative example of the ignoble lie on which our modern Republic is founded.
When Uncle Ponderevo goes to high-society feasts in posh London society, it is the conspicuous display that strikes him, not the nutrition of the meal (which says something true about high-society feasts, of course). When George experiments flying heavier-than-air craft, they repeatedly crash (these disasters are all rationes inferiores of Uncle Ponderevo big financial crash), and Wells goes out of his ways to make these events, seemingly unconnected with food as they of course are, into exercises in the disease and perversion of the mouth:
As a matter of fact, it was purely accidental that I came down in the woods ... I explored my face carefully and found unfamiliar contours on the left side. The broken end of a branch had driven right through my cheek, damaging my cheek and teeth and gums, and left a splinter of itself stuck, like an explorer’s fartherest-point flag, in the upper maxillary. [Tono-Bungay, 3.3.4]Stomatal disease is also the last physical feature of Uncle Ponderevo that the novel gives us: ‘from those slimy, tormented lips above the bristling grey beard came nothing but dreams and disconnected fancies ... he raved ... suddenly, with a start, with a shock, I found that his mouth had fallen open, and that he was dead’ [4.1.7]. Running through the whole novel is a sense of the usual function of mouth, stomach and bowel being blocked, perverted and ruined. Critics talk of Wells adopting the form of a ‘traditional’ Victorian novel to address the concerns of commercial and technological modernity, but I really don't think that's right. The Victorian novel, in all its variety, and whatever else it was doing, was always a text of through-flow, of story going somewhere, of life passing from older to younger generations. Wells's genius in Tono-Bungay, I think, was precisely in repudiating the asethetics and also the ontology of through-flow at every level of the novel's construction. Uncle P dies anxiously quizzing George as to whether science has proved that there is an afterlife (‘You have always been responsible for the science. George. You know better than I do. Is—Is it proved?’). After his death George wanders the streets of the Basque village in which they have ended up, and experiences a sort of anti-revelation:
I slammed the door, and went out into the warm, foggy drizzle of the village street lit by blurred specks of light in great voids of darkness, and never a soul abroad. That warm veil of fog produced an effect of vast seclusion. The very houses by the roadside peered through it as if from another world. The stillness of the night was marked by an occasional remote baying of dogs; all these people kept dogs because of the near neighbourhood of the frontier.This, rather than the oblique recipe for Tono-Bungay, is surely the novel's ‘the horror! the horror!’ moment. There is a road, but it comes from nowhere and it's going nowhere. There is a mist that becomes a dog that becomes mist again: canis-nebula; tono-[ne]bungay. Wells's narrator has set his love-life by the impossible star of a Beatrice, and she herself has insisted that they are both dead: ‘let’s trudge through this blotted-out world together for a time,’ she tells him during one of their trysts; ‘You see, dear, the whole world is blotted out—it’s dead and gone, and we’re in this place ... We’re dead. Or all the world is dead. No! We’re dead. No one can see us. We’re shadows’ [3.4.2]. Wells doesn't overplay his Dante allusions, but there are enough of them for us to piece the intertextual reading together: George has descended, with his uncle as his Virgil, into the afterlife: he has worked up the purgatory of his childhood, soared in the paradise of the sky with his aircraft, and explored the of of hell on the death-named Mordet island, where the stinking quap and intensification of descriptions of actual and metaphorical disease is, I think, in play with the stinking, diseased and bloated sinnerscapes of Dante's Eighth Circle (this is, Fraud: cantos 18-29) But George ends, in a Wellsian twist, in Limbo, a place Dante describes as ‘oscura e nebulosa’ [Inferno, 4:10], dark and misty, never to reach his Beatrice, haunted by the Cerberian mastiffs of the Pyreneean peasantry. Unlike Dante's protagonist he will not pass through and out the other side, but will loiter forever at the ruined mouth of the journey. Inferno-Bungay.
It was one of those rare seasons of relief, when for a little time one walks a little outside of and beside life. I felt as I sometimes feel after the end of a play. I saw the whole business of my uncle’s life as something familiar and completed. It was done, like a play one leaves, like a book one closes. I thought of the push and the promotions, the noise of London, the crowded, various company of people through which our lives had gone, the public meetings, the excitements, the dinners and disputations, and suddenly it appeared to me that none of these things existed.
It came to me like a discovery that none of these things existed.
Before and after I have thought and called life a phantasmagoria, but never have I felt its truth as I did that night.... We had parted; we two who had kept company so long had parted. But there was, I knew, no end to him or me. He had died a dream death, and ended a dream; his pain dream was over. It seemed to me almost as though I had died, too. What did it matter, since it was unreality, all of it, the pain and desire, the beginning and the end? There was no reality except this solitary road, this quite solitary road, along which one went rather puzzled, rather tired.
Part of the fog became a big mastiff that came towards me and stopped and slunk round me, growling, barked gruffly, and shortly and presently became fog again. [Tono-Bungay, 4.1.8]