- Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusion of a Very Ordinary Brain (since 1866) by H.G. Wells
Faber, 838 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13330 4
- H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography edited by G.P. Wells
Faber, 253 pp, £8.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 571 13329 0
- The Man with a Nose, and the Other Uncollected Short Stories of H.G. Wells edited by J.R. Hammond
Athlone, 212 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 485 11247 7
The problem for social prophets, it would seem, lies not in getting the future right, which appears not to be too difficult, but in predicting the response which the future will command. ‘A thousand men at a thousand glowing desks, a busy specialist press, will be perpetually sifting, criticising, condensing, and clearing the ground for further speculation.’ So writes H.G. Wells in A Modern Utopia in 1905, neatly envisioning the micro-computer. And there is a lot to be said for the micro-computer. But such ‘glow’ as it possesses is purely literal and mechanical. Indeed, already in Wells’s sentence, any more metaphorical glow pertains to the future and to ‘further speculation’.
In the same Modern Utopia there are beautiful tramways and motorways cut through lovely landscapes, labour-saving inns with no projecting surfaces, windows hermetically sealed because of air-conditioning, wall and floor heating, automatic soap dispensers and dirty-towel chutes. The sense of place and local patriotism has been abolished, and people are expected to travel all over the world, as well-off people did in Britain. ‘The population of Utopia will be a migratory population beyond any earthly precedent ... a people as fluid and tidal as the sea.’ The people will be recorded, by thumb-print, in a central world-registry.
Well, it has nearly all come true, but it does not particularly elate us. Indeed it may even depress us. But neither the expected elation, nor the depression, are reasonable. The truth is plain that, though a limited amount of social planning is necessary for any well-intentioned government, it is essentially foolish to try to plan a whole future way of life – that is to say, to construct a blueprint of what shall make future people happy. It is not in such a fashion that value comes into the world. Value has to come into being in its own way and in its own time, and each time afresh.
Anyway, Utopias in the blueprint sense, as opposed to their employment as satire or moral exemplum, won’t do, and the argument against them was put very satisfactorily by G.K. Chesterton in Heretics. ‘The weakness of all Utopias is this, that they take the greatest difficulty of man and assume it to be overcome, and then give an elaborate account of the overcoming of the small ones. They first assume that no man will want more than his share, and then are very ingenious in explaining whether his share will be delivered by motor-car or balloon.’
The stresses of these two problems, which afflict any prophet, are very visible in Wells. But so is a third problem – the difficulty for a futurologist in knowing what, ethically speaking, he is ‘up to’. A concern with the future is, for one thing, a form of imperialism; and Wells, formed as a writer in the Joe Chamberlain era, was an arch-imperialist – the ‘World-state’ representing, as it were, his Lebensraum. However, what Tono-Bungay deliberately brings home to us is that this was the age, not just of colonial empires, but of shady financial ‘empires’ like those of Whitaker Wright and Terah Hooley. Wells, it seems to me, was haunted by the knowledge that his methods as thinker and prophet as much resembled those of Uncle Edward Ponderevo, promoter of the world-famous patent medicine Tono-Bungay, as they did those of Plato and Marx. For one thing, did he not, just like Uncle Ponderevo, construct his campaigns around slogans? And do not the slogans – ‘the competent receiver’, ‘the Open Conspiracy’ and ‘the socialist world-state’ – have a ghostly likeness to the Tono-Bungay ones: ‘Health, Beauty and Strength’ and ‘Simply a proper regimen to get you in tone’? Again, what, from one point of view, was his stormy association with the Fabian Society but a frustrated ‘take-over’ bid? Beatrice Webb put her finger on this when, soon after her first encounter with Wells, she described him in her Diary as a ‘speculator in ideas’ (the financial overtones being plainly implied). The business scene offers familiar parallels, moreover, to the Webbs’ willingness (which later cost them dear) to use Wells. ‘He is a good instrument for popularising ideas’ was Beatrice Webb’s opportunistic assessment: his ‘loose generalisations’ could be made use of by ‘gradgrinds’ like herself and Sidney.
Now the greatness of Wells, in Tono-Bungay, is that imaginatively he realised this truth. In the admirable scheme of the novel, which depends on the division of himself into George Ponderevo and his Uncle Ted, it is Uncle Ted, creator of an empire based on ‘bottling rubbish for the consumption of foolish, credulous and depressed people’, who most gains our sympathy and is the embodiment of global vision and joyous energy. George’s dedication to the noble ideal of Science always remains problematic and is forced on us mainly by rhetoric, but Uncle Ted is visibly fulfilled and wins his victory over the ‘Cold Mutton Fat’ of provincial pettiness. George’s assessment of him lies at the heart of the novel. His uncle’s strength, he tells himself, lay in a curious persuasion he had the knack of inspiring: ‘a persuasion not so much of his integrity and capacity as of the reciprocal and yielding foolishness of the world. One felt that he was silly and wild, but in some way silly and wild after the fashion of the universe.’ He continues, on Wells’s best wry and realistic note: ‘After all one must live somehow.’
To have seen so far into himself as Wells did in Tono-Bungay was a great achievement, but not one that he could afterwards sustain, and the note of disorganisation in his career must relate to this. Chesterton caught this note nicely when he called Wells a born reactionary – that is to say, a reactor from things. ‘Whenever I met him, he seemed to me coming from somewhere, rather than going anywhere. He always had been a Liberal, or had been a Fabian, or had been a friend of Henry James or Bernard Shaw. And he was so often nearly right, that his movements irritated me like the sight of somebody’s hat being perpetually washed up by the sea and never touching the shore.’ To this I would join a feeling, fed by his Experiment in Autobiography and his newly-published confessions H.G. Wells in Love, that he was fertile in self-criticism, but that – except in Tono-Bungay – the self-criticism never caught up with him; it was hardly ever to hand when it was needed. In H.G. Wells in Love (the title is supplied by his son G.P. Wells) he remarks, apropros of his famous affair with Amber Reeves: ‘Voluminous explanations flowed from me – and the more voluminous an explanation is, the less it explains.’ It is a very true remark and pinpoints the prevailing weakness in his autobiographical writings. Page after page, with fatal and increasing fluency as Experiment proceeds, he explains – only to have to admit that, in fact, nothing has been explained. He is not, as an autobiographer, able to make something creative out of the spectacle of his mature self.
The contrast between these later chapters and the opening ones is sharp. The book will always be remembered for its account of his family and youth, which is not only vivid and touching in itself but also a most powerful piece of social vision (deserving to be compared with Sartre’s Les Mots). It is all seen, mastered and made sense of in terms of social change: his mother, the queenly housekeeper of Up Park, long-suffering, pious and royalty-loving but ultimately defeated by life; his father, the unsuccessful gardener and failed shopkeeper, a financial innocent with ‘a mind of unappeasable freshness’, who begins to teach himself algebra and geometry in his seventies; and the marvellous, irrepressible young H.G. himself, the refugee from the draper’s counter, with his head full of a ‘loose headlong panorama of all history, science and literature’, born just late enough to hook himself, by his own efforts, into an education.
Nothing in the rest of Experiment is, as writing, anywhere near as good as this. We can see how self-criticism both works and does not work in the book, in its handling of his relationship with his wife Jane. With this remarkable woman, with whom he eloped, deserting his first wife, in 1893, he managed to establish a joke-relationship which stood the strains of the whole of their married life, though for a large part of it he was simply not there and, with her consent, was living with one mistress or another. Her part in this relationship was represented by charades and improvised entertainments, in which she was a brilliantly inventive performer and to which she roped in weekend guests (Roger Fry once played a skeleton, and Charlie Chaplin played Noah). His part was represented by little comic-strip sketches or ‘picshuas’, which accumulated in hundreds and became, he writes, ‘a sort of burlesque diary of our lives’. With deliberate structural intent he illustrated the Experiment with a succession of these ‘picshuas’, as symbol of his and her capacity for self-mockery, and they are in fact very engaging. The trouble is, study them as you will, they do not seem in detail to tell you very much; they function, really, as no more than a generalised gesture towards a self-criticism that may, or may not, actually have been present. Thus there are vast gaps in Wells’s autobiography. I do not think he was just romancing in depicting Jane as a serene, amused and loyal partner, genuinely free from sexual jealousy: this is the picture given also by others, including Wells’s son Anthony West. It is just that there is so much more that one would like to know about her, and would need to be told if the autobiography were to be really satisfying.
As for H.G. Wells in Love, it consists of two unequal portions. First there is a long ‘Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography’, subtitled ‘On Loves and the Lover-Shadow’ and recounting his love-affairs with Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Odette Keun, Moura Budberg and others. It was definitely intended for publication (posthumously simply because of the libel dangers), and Wells wanted it to be bound up with Experiment in Autobiography and The Book of Catherine Wells, ‘so all the main masses of my experience and reactions will fall into proportion’. (Faber’s have done the next best thing by reprinting the Introduction to The Book of Catherine Wells in H.G. Wells in Love and reissuing the Experiment.) Appended to this comes a section of stop-presses, and postscripts to the ‘Postscript’, plus a concluding ‘Note on Fate and Individuality’. G.P. Wells, in his valuable but self-effacing introduction, explains that he has included a note on ‘The Suicidal Mood’, written by Wells in May 1935 in a moment of despondency and which, after much vacillation, he decided should not be published. It was a wise decision to disobey him, as the piece is rather attractive, arguing, with much rationalistic good sense, that he was normally ‘quite incapable of suicide’, and that if some day he should happen to commit it, it would ‘express nothing’ and be no more than an ‘incident of senility’. The only large excision made by G.P. Wells is of his father’s account of his quarrel with Odette Keun over her usufruct of a villa in France.
Wells supplies the ‘Postscript’ with a guiding theme, that of the ‘Lover-Shadow’, defined in a sketchily Jungian way as ‘a vague various protean but very real presence side by side with the persona’. In his own case, he says with a certain insight, ‘the Lover-Shadow in feminine form was always a little on the brave and noble side, because, I suppose, of that lurking infantilism to which I owe the breadth and simplicity of my outlook on life.’ However, the Lover-Shadow was never to become ‘a sought-after saint or divinity’ for him, nor a problem for study: she was merely to be ‘a lovely, wise and generous person wholly devoted to him’. As things turned out, the Lover-Shadow seems to have given as good as she got, and Wells’s love-life, as indeed we knew already, is full of the sound of thwacks, of gangings-up and of lawyers’ letters. There is some mildly diverting detail, as when Wells and Elizabeth von Arnim, enraged by a letter to the Times from Mrs Humphry Ward denouncing the moral tone of the younger generation (as typified, a prescient touch, by Rebecca West), strip themselves under the trees and ‘make love all over Mrs Humphry Ward’. There is also some interest in comparing Wells’s version of events with those we have been given by others. Anthony West, in H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life, is ironical about Wells’s edifying account (followed by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie) of his ‘hard decision’ to leave the house he had built for himself in France. The truth, says West, is that Odette Keun had chucked him out. (Keun, it does strike one, was a real hell-raiser: Anthony West, however, though as an adolescent he was made to suffer a good deal by her and her sexual exhibitionism, is oddly favourable to her, describing her as ‘earnest and idealistic’.)
The thought occurs to one that, though Wells, it cannot be denied, created a fair amount of havoc in the course of his love-life, it was not of the most fatal kind, and there are other apparently more worthy men (I am thinking of J.R. Ackerley’s father) whose sexual career was more disastrous to others. But when one considers the ‘Postscript’ as writing, it has to be said that it is not different from, and no better than, the later parts of Experiment in Autobiography. It suffers from the same weaknesses: wordiness, aimlessness, a sort of baffled quality.
What is lacking, too, or at least is in shorter supply, is geniality. Much hangs on this point. The zestful, facetious, burlesque or comic-strip quality in the early Wells – as you find it, say, in ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ or the opening of The First Men on the Moon – is essential to his achievement. It is what is recognisable and endearing in the early stories, not thought worth reprinting by Wells, which have been gathered together (with three later ones) in The Man with a Nose, and the Other Uncollected Short Stories (though the editor’s remark that these stories ‘contain much that will bear comparison with Wells at his best’ seems stretching things a bit – there are no masterpieces among them). One can say of this burlesque quality that it is a large ingredient in all that is best and has any claim to greatness in Wells’s writing, and also that it indicates a limitation. It is significant that it was this quality that D.H. Lawrence, who was very conscious of the fineness of Tono-Bungay, ultimately resented. He wrote to Blanche Jennings in March 1909:
you must, must read Tono-Bungay. Now knock down my perky beak by calmly replying that you have read Tono-Bungay ... it is the best novel I have read for – oh, how long? But it makes me so sad. If you knew what a weight of sadness Wells pours into your heart as you read him – Oh, Mon Dieu! He is a terrible pessimist. But Weh mir, he is, on the whole, so true. One has a bitter little struggle with one’s heart of faith – in the ultimate goodness of things. One thing Wells lacks – the subtle soul of sympathy of a true artist. He rigidly scorns all mysticism; he believes there is something in aestheticism – he doesn’t know what; but he doesn’t do his people justice. To be sure George Ponderevo’s uncle is a little bladder, but Wells need not scoff at the little fellow’s feelings when he is stirred to the full depths of his soul. Everybody is great at some time or other – and has dignity, I am sure, pure dignity. But only one or two of Wells’ people have even a touch of sincerity and dignity – the rest are bladders.
It is a just criticism, it seems to me, and suggests why Lawrence is the greater writer. We see it again if we compare Wells’s Love and Mr Lewisham with Lawrence’s Mr Noon (I am speaking of the first part, published some years ago in Phoenix II). It is striking how Wells feels compelled to scant his hero’s dignity and show him as tormented by comic social humiliations in a way that Wells himself had never been. Lawrence’s geniality, his playfulness and facetiousness that are in no way at the expense of his working-class hero, show up finely beside it. We are reminded of the essential optimism of the Modernist movement in fiction. It is the fictional traditionalists Wells and Bennett who are the true pessimists – the sign of this being, as Lawrence perceived, the defensiveness of their facetiousness and mockery.