If The Croquet Player (1936) and Star Begotten (1937) are short novels, The Camford Visitation (1937) is a mere novella: barely 70-pages long, and something of a squib. It's set, as you can see from the dark-blue-light-blue colour scheme of its cover art, in a fictional amalgamation of Oxford and Cambridge (‘Camford’, with its slight echo of Catford, doesn't seem to me to have the same effectiveness as a made-up name for this imaginary Uni as does the more traditional ‘Oxbridge’; but maybe that's just me).
The Master of Holy Innocents College is having breakfast with half a dozen fellows and discoursing about universities being bastions of learning that needed protection from ‘the dictatorship of the half-educated’. A mysterious Voice (so capitalised in the novel) joins the conversation: ‘Half-educated? Now how can you measure education and divide it into halves and quarters? What do you mean by education?...’ Since the Voice has no corresponding body, the Master, rather discommoded, has the porters check for hidden microphones and speakers. There are none.
After this, the Voice goes walkabout, or audabout, through the University. It next speaks to a timid English lecturer at Clayfoot College called Trumber, ‘a small, slender, downcast man with exophthalmic eyes behind thick glasses, a bulging forehead, a look of extreme obstinacy about his shoulders’ .
Trumber's subject was English literature, a poorly but earnestly attended course. He dealt in taste and judgment. He was one of those who teach us how to appreciate poetry and prose and when to learn it by heart and recite it and say Oh and Ah! and when to shake one's head at it discouragingly like a bus conductor who is proffered a doubtful coin. He taught how to distinguish what was truly great from what was meritorious and what meretricious. He taught how T. S. Eliot was really it and why Rupert Brooke wasn't. [Camford Visitation, 2]Bit close to the nerve, that summary, I feel *clears throat nervously* ANYWAY Trumber is trying to lecture when he gets heckled by the Voice, and mocked for gathering these students to talk about something so irrelevant as poetry. It demands to know ‘what did [he] mean by it? In relation to biological reality?’ Trumber seeks guidance from Bream, the vicar of St Hippolytus, who writes up his theory as to what is going on (‘some sort of space-time dislocation’) as a book, Extra-Terrestrial Disturbances of Human Mentality. We're told this title ‘has not sold very extensively but it has added greatly to the vicar's prestige’.
Next the Voice questions Scott-Harrowby the Hooker Professor of Latent History (‘But what are you doing on, by, near or over Camford?’ Scott-Harrowby demands, and the Voice replies ‘I happened to pass your planet. I was just strolling about. I looked at it. I found it interesting"’ ) and then Mr Henry Preeder, a temporary assistant reader for the University Press, who has grand dreams of compiling a World Encyclopedia.
Word of the Voice spreads about the town. It is denounced by the Camford Communist Party (‘Some pale pink Utopian ventriloquist seems to have been going about Camford in the favourite role of the common or garden capitalistic Stooge, doing his feeble best to minimize the supreme significance of the class war in history, questioning the omniscience of Marx and the moral ascendency of Stalin’). Finally the Voice makes a lengthy and explanatory speech to the entire University, on Congregation Day, in the Great Hall of University:
I have come out of the deeps beyond space and time to look again at this little planet I have visited since its beginning. I have seen life clambering out of drifting slime towards consciousness and will. I have watched the ascent of your species to the dawn of understanding and the beginnings of power. I care for you, and now I am impatient with you. For I see plainly that I overrated your intelligence, that you have blundered into knowledge and opportunity, and that you do not know how to grasp your knowledge nor how to realize your opportunities. Individually and incidentally you can be bright creatures but collectively you are a feeble folk. Time marches on and you trifle with your lives. You realize neither the dangers nor the possibilities of human life. You fail to organize, you fail to educate. Everywhere the world falls into disorder for the want of the mental leadership such people as you here, pretend to supply...That's the last of it. The final chapter details the various ways the people of Camford explain away the apparition: a dream, a legend, a hallucination, an elaborate practical joke and so on.
Time marches on. The ingenuity of your race, working without coordination or foresight, produces one disconnected invention after another, so that mechanical Power grows in your world like a cancer. In quite a little while now, in a few decades at most, it will be possible for any small body of desperate men to poison your whole atmosphere, sweep your world bare with infections or blow your planet to pieces. You here will do nothing to anticipate and prevent that. When the catastrophe comes maybe it will still find Camford dressed up in its gowns and its Gothic, performing its age-old function of keeping education within limits and obstructing the growth of any controlling intelligence in the world.
Why am I saying these things here to you in Camford? Because I have come to like this breed of mankind. Because you represent the limits of its education. Because you stand both at its head and in its way. You who are assembled here today constitute a typical centre of education. And deliberately you ignore the fact that human life is mental. The essential thing in human life is education, the growth of a common mind and will. If mankind fails it will be through the failure of its teachers, the weakness of its schools, the obstinacy, the wilful obstruction of its universities. Cannot you realize so plain a thing as that? It is appalling that you here are so central and so important to the human future, but you are. Outsiders cannot do anything if you resist. You are too well entrenched. You are feeble in innovation but invincible in resistance. Your littleness here has blocked the education of the English and blighted the educational development of the rest of the world through a century of opportunity, and still your predominance is unchallenged. You—and your sister imitations throughout the world—have monopolized the best of the youth of each generation, because there was nowhere else for it to go for instruction. Monopolized you have, and mistaught and marred. Maybe presently there will be mundane voices to echo mine, and maybe then you may change your note, but will you change your spirit? Can you change the spirit of this place? This old, this weakly lovely place? This dreadful place?
Surely even you for all your elaborately cultivated affectations and self-protections, must know—reluctantly and secretly indeed—but still you know it—that there can be no escape for your world, for all mankind, from the ages of tragic confusion ahead of you, except through so heroic an ordering of knowledge, so valiant a beating out of opinions, such a refreshment of teaching and such an organization of brains as will constitute a real and living world university, head, eyes and purpose for Man. That is the primary need of your species now. It is your world's primary want. It must come now—if it ever is to come. Disintegration and decay wait for no one. They wait for nothing. Plainly before you now—I cannot believe you blind to it for all your refusal to see—is the ultimate frustration of the promise of mankind, defeat and an end. Have you no intimations of the enormity of your default here? Will you make no stir to save knowledge and thought before undisciplined ignorance destroys itself with its own machines? I who go to and fro outside space and time have seen and see. There is no salvation for races that will not save themselves. Half the stars in the sky are the burning rubbish of worlds that might have been. [Camford Visitation, 6]
It's a strange little book, and not a terribly good one. The comedy is thin (though I confess I chuckled a little at the passages quoted from the local Communist party's paper, The Camford Red: less because of their intrinsic hilarity and more out of pleased recognition of how long-lasting that particular style of Dave Spart parody has proved). The characterisation is all caricature, and there is no story to speak off. More, there's an arbitrariness about the Voice's appearance. Its focus on one (well: two) specific British Universities, out of all the universities in the world, is undermotivated, and its jeremaid final speech rather breaks a butterfly upon a wheel.
Nor did the book do well. Although The Croquet Player had been a modest success, The Camford Visitation was a major flop. Methuen, the publisher, went with an ambitious initial print-run of 10,000 copies, but by the end of 1939 they still had 7,800 unsold copies on their hands, 5000 of these unbound. Methuen wanted to remainder the unsold copies, but Wells wasn't having that (he wanted them reissued with new paper covers and sold as a pamphlet at a cut price). In the end the 5000 were pulped and the rest sold off in dribbles. It was barely reviewed, and fell quickly into the backward and abysm of unreputation.
What else? Well, I hate to come across as somebody scrabbling for crumbs here, but it might be possible to advance a more positive reading of this odd little novella. Let's take it as a study of the way people pay too little attention to what is being said, and too much to whom is doing the saying. An eminent member of society, like the Master of a Cambridge college, may be uttering inanities, but we listen to him, because of his position, his status and his fine regalia. A nobody may be speaking world-saving sense, but it does not register with us, because the speaker is a nobody.
Throughout the story the Voice speaks, and its auditors refuse to engage with what it is saying, instead puts all their energy into trying to work out what or who it is. And what's (in a small way) clever about Wells's construction of the tale is that we, as readers, tend to do the same. We become distracted by the ‘mystery’ of what the Voice is, and the really important thing, the content of the Voice's message, gets ignored.
This in turn makes it (like Star Begotten, I think) as much a story about fantastika as an example of it. It's Wells worrying that his reputation as a spinner of tall tales, a science-fictioneer, is somehow getting in the way of his more important prophet-and-messenger message. After all, if we hear a mysterious Voice that speaks round sense, should that very sense convince us? Does a good wine need a bush? Instead of that, though, the dons of Camford debate with themselves whether they are being hoaxed, or hallucinating, or else appearing in a pulp SF yarn.
They speculated in a rather futile fashion about the voice, what it was, whence it came. ‘It must be in space and time,’ said Rexwill, ‘it must be producing material waves in material air or we couldn't hear it.’That retrospective critique of one of Wells's most famous SF fables is a deliberate pointer, I think.
‘A sort of Invisible Man,’ said Trumber. ‘There are a thousand reasons why an Invisible Man is impossible,’ said the scientific Rexwill. ‘Visual purple of the eyes. Food. Dirt. So forth. It's something—subtler than that.’ [Camford Visitation, 2]
Beyond that, the moral of the story is a retread of Wells's earlier story ‘The Last Trump’ (published in Boon, 1915): namely that something absolutely extraordinary happens, and speaks to the world, and people ignore it and try, best as they can, to get on with lives as before. And (as a rather different English writer was to put it the following year) the expensive delicate ship that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky——had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on
And on we go.