Cheeky

J.I.M. Stewart

  • H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal by David Smith
    Yale, 634 pp, £18.50, September 1986, ISBN 0 300 03672 8

In the fourth act of Measure for Measure the Provost describes the prisoner Barnardine, whose head, when severed, it is proposed to pass off as Claudio’s, as ‘a man that apprehends death no more dreadfully but as a drunken sleep – careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come: insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal’. David Smith finds most of this description eminently applicable to H.G. Wells (whom he intensely admires) and he adopts its final two words as a subtitle for his biography. What sense Shakespeare attached to them is doubtful. Johnson suggests ‘likely to die in a desperate state’, but Professor Smith seems to view them as equivalent to ‘desperately unreconciled to dying and giving up’. And Wells did, it seems, when celebrating his 70th birthday, tell an audience that ‘he was not yet ready to go.’ ‘He clung to life,’ Professor Smith comments on this, ‘and to his mission to make us and our world better.’ Yet we learn that eight years later Wells appears to have been of another mind, recording of himself: ‘The present writer is in his 79th year; he has lived cheerfully and abundantly. Like Landor he has warmed both hands at the fire of life and now, as it sinks towards a restrictive invalidism, he is ready to depart ... He awaits his end, watching mankind, still keen to find a helpful use for his accumulation of experience in this time of mental confusion, but without that headlong stress to come to conclusions with life, which is a necessary part of the make-up of any normal youngster, male or female.’ Wells, that is to say, still wants to sort us out, but is at the same time perfectly ready to call it a day. Just how he came to be ‘desperately mortal’ surely remains obscure. There is a point in The Island of Dr Moreau – unnoticed by Professor Smith – at which the narrator reveals his state of mind when hunted by the Beast People. He had been ‘too desperate to die’. Whether any light is to be extracted from this, I don’t know.

‘Formidable’ is the best single word to apply to Professor Smith’s book. The notes at the back must run to about a hundred thousand words. A Note on Sources states that ‘more than 3,000 items of published material by Wells, and perhaps as many as 35,000 letters and documents were consulted in various archives in the preparation of the work.’ The information thus acquired Professor Smith is tirelessly eager to pass on to us – at some hazard, I fear, of seeming mercilessly informative at every conceivable opportunity. Thus we learn – for a single slight instance must suffice – that The Invisible Man ‘probably provided the novelist Ralph Ellison, an important black observer of America, with the title for his work Invisible Man (1952)’. Again, although Professor Smith no doubt judges the quality of a scientific or literary work to be much more important than its degree of financial success, he is unremitting in reporting on this front too. The Invisible Man, we are told, ‘was a steady producer of revenue throughout Wells’s life, especially in the US. Every six months a royalty cheque arrived. As late as January 1935 (at the height of the Depression) the cheque was for £42. 17s. 5d.’ A film starring Claude Rains ‘was a modest hit. The Invisible Man certainly brought in visible funds.’

An earlier biographer, Ritchie Calder, has asserted that Wells, although always capable of warmth in his private relationships, particularly with the young, gained a reputation for impatience, querulousness, petulance and ‘spoiled-childishness’ in his public character. Two departures from all amenity are certainly on record. The first of these is the manner of his falling-out with the Fabian Society, and in particular his pillorying in fiction its most prominent members, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Here Wells is on his sociological front, and the entire episode is exhibited in detail (but without notable skill in apologetics) by Professor Smith. The second and perhaps more widely celebrated of these outbreaks, ingeniously and disingenuously given by Wells the guise of a kind of literary frolic, is a would-be lethal attack upon an old friend, Henry James.

The issues here are not altogether simple. It is certain that James had for long held Wells’s fiction in very high regard. He is on record as informing a group of Cambridge undergraduates in 1909 that Kipps was ‘the best novel of the last forty years’. Grateful for various signs of the Master’s approval, Wells developed the hazardous habit of sending him everything he wrote. And invariably James replied, not with the mere ‘twaddle of graciousness’ to which he might have treated a lesser man, but with the careful and severe appraisal of what had been sent to him. Subtle and penetrative though much of this was, there hung about it something irritatingly restrictive and doctrinaire. For James tended to view as totally beyond the pale of art any fiction that appeared to have ideological designs upon the reader. An author (we may say) who permitted his own unmediated speculative persuasions to dominate what purported to be dramatic and personative was thereby betraying the art of the novel. Wells had much literary history on his side in regarding this as too narrow a canon.

And James made another error: this time, one of mere tact. Thinking of Wells as a confrère, he forgot that so eminent a writer had emerged from a servants’ hall and a draper’s shop. Wells, in fact, was vulnerable to the consistently upper-class thrust of James’s assumptions and James’s own fiction, because he had never ‘got over his below-stairs origins’. Such is Leon Edel’s phrase as he addresses himself, in his biography of James, to the vicious if often witty extravaganza of Boon. And Edel sees the entire issue as concretised in a single word: ‘James had called Wells “cheeky” once too often, and Wells now proved his cheekiness. “Your cheek is positively the very sign and stamp of your genius,” Henry James had once said to Wells and in half a hundred letters he had spoken of “your sublime and heroic cheek”, and exploded into “cheeky, cheeky, cheeky” when he praised three of Wells’s utopias.’

James is frequently unhappy in his excursions into colloquial or demotic English (which he is given to isolating within quotation marks) and here is an instance. ‘Cheek’ may mean ‘pretentiousness’ as it does in the chapter entitled ‘Scholastic’ in The New Machiavelli. Or it may signify – more specifically – insolence offered to a social superior, and in the mid-19th century a common soldier could be flogged for it. James would have been wise to find another word for what he is distinguishing as prominent among Wells’s endowments. ‘Spunk’ is a possible candidate. Professor Smith writes very temperately about the Boon fracas. But his eventual verdict is trenchant, if also a little gnomic: ‘Although the conventional wisdom is that [Wells] lost the battle of purpose to Henry James, that is a very superficial judgment, and one, incidentally, that needs new thought from many sources.’

There is, in fact, quite a lot of old thought available on the ‘battle of purpose’, including that of Wells himself. ‘To you,’ Wells wrote to James, ‘literature, like painting, is an end, to me literature, like architecture, is a means, it has a use.’ The analogies here are dubious, as James didn’t fail to point out. But that the utile and the dulce ought to blend in fiction is a doctrine of very sufficient antiquity, as is the contention that fiction should not only teach and delight but also move and urge to action. What may be charged against most of Wells’s later novels is that the dulce tends to drain away and the utile to flood in as the narrative advances.

The last notable exception to this is The History of Mr Polly, which was published in 1910. Its lower-class ambience is that from which Wells himself has broken free into one of wider horizons. But Polly himself, in whom the whole burden of the book’s feeling is contained, remains within those earlier confines to an effect of marvellously objective creation. Wells, looking back on his own shop-boy drudgery, declared that ‘the life then offered me was a hideous insult to my possibilities.’ Polly would be incapable of this: what he has carried from his own underprivileged background is a perpetual liability to small bewilderments. When we learn that ‘at the back of his mind was the completest realisation of his powerlessness to resist the gigantic social forces he had set in motion,’ and understand that he is thus describing the shibboleths and quiddities attending his plebeian wedding, we know that we are still securely in contact with his own scale of things. Later in the book, indeed, an authorial voice does briefly speak, but with an ingenious obliqueness, in the person of ‘a certain high-browed gentleman ... wearing a golden pince-nez’, who produces in the beautiful library of the Climax Club a paper on what he calls ‘social problems’, which we may see as applicable to Polly if we will. It is a paper, Wells tells us, written ‘in a bloodless but at times, I think one must admit, an extremely illuminating manner’. We are not told that Polly comes across this Fabian thesis. Polly’s avid and random reading is of what he can get hold of cheap, including Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan, Waterton’s Wanderings in South America, the novels of Joseph Conrad and the plays of Shakespeare.

Professor Smith is loyally encomiastic over nearly all of Wells’s fiction. But his prime devotion is to the Wells of the ‘mission’, and I confess to being left wondering whether this aboundingly prosaic enthusiast does not here have hold of the right end of the stick. Kipps and The History of Mr Polly are superb – but do they not fall well within the category of light fiction, after all? Was H.G. Wells when still alive, and does he now remain, more important as a ‘thinker’, as the bearer of an urgent message on how civilisation may yet be saved if only the right efforts be made in time, than, for all his abundant talent, he could have become among those dedicated to ‘art’ as conceived by Henry James?

In the aftermath of Boon James had told Wells – very famously – that ‘Art makes life.’ Within eight months Henry James was dead. H.G. Wells survived to see Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed by atomic bombs, and by then had written Mind at the End of its Tether. At the deepest level of his being, the cheeky counter-jumper and inveterate amorist (Yale’s dust-jacket promises ‘the fullest treatment’ of ‘Wells and women – his two wives, six long-term liaisons, and associations with many others’) was a resolved pessimist. The close of his first book, The Time Machine, declares the fact in its vision of the eventual yielding of our globe to the sword of Entropy. More remarkably, the Time Traveller, as he contemplates the delightful but futile Eloi aeons earlier, reflects that ‘the human intellect ... had committed suicide’ as the consequence of having achieved a kind of utopia, ‘a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword’.

It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism ... There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.

Considerations such as these are at least not to be charged with a facile optimism. We are in fact being told that the success of a Samurai, an Open Conspiracy, or of any other programme for sorting out human muddle, may ultimately lead only to torpidity and decay; and it can be maintained that something of this sombre persuasion is present as a perceptible shadow over almost all Wells’s fiction. His son Anthony West has asserted his father’s belief, or at least suspicion, ‘that in the long run all human effort was futile.’ Yet Wells was as clear as was the poet of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ about what, in the face of ultimate inevitable defeat, manhood requires of us. ‘The human intellect’ and the sciences it has forged must stand fast and fight as they may.

‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.’ If, at the close of the 1920s, Francis Bacon himself, and not a squeaky little man with no back to his head, had walked into the 1917 Club in Gerrard Street, my own unlicked generation then frequenting the place could not have been more awed. Now I find myself asking whether, in the field of hortatory prose broadly regarded, there is any name that stands more securely than that of Herbert George Wells between those of Thomas Carlyle and George Orwell.