Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Imposter: a Tale of the Modern Utopia (2017)



[Note: this blog exists primarily as a record of my read-through of Wells's fiction, and the overwhelming majority of its entries are critical meditations occasioned by specific Wellsian titles. But from time to time I blog other things: accounts of books with Wellsian interest not by Wells, as here, or more rarely short pieces of original fiction that stand as sequels to Wellsian titles, as with this example. In the case of the latter kind of text I'm generally working-out something about the source book via fiction rather than criticism, and the stories have no pretensions beyond actualising that mode of speculative engagement. This piece, for instance, is nothing more a brief pendant to Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) and my post thereon. That's all.]



:1:

Cade-Gall took the electric express from Saint Petersburg direct to Zurich. He had been detained by problems with the Baltic seaweed harvest longer than he had wanted—a tangle of variously assigned blame and unresolved technical issues after it was discovered the harvesting equipment had not been assembled correctly. The whole affair had interrupted a retreat in which he and two other samurai had been engaged in mapping new high primes, and speculating upon the mathematics underlying that important phenomenon. No matter! He had resolved it, in time. And now he was due his annual week in the wilderness. So he wasted no time on arrival in Zurich, laced his sandals tighter, shouldered his pack and strode out of the station.

He walked the mountains. He bathed in streams so cold they scalded. He ate frugally from his supplies and supplemented that dried diet with berries and grass-seeds and mushrooms. He sat watching sunsets and pondered questions of strength and will and being. On his sixth day he came to Mount Lucendro, its angular head white as a swan, glowering over the damned-up Lake below. He resolved to test himself by climbing it. The cold intensified sharply with altitude, the air was so thin it became only the ghost of normal air, and the way was sometimes precarious, but he reached the summit in the end and sat, shivering, looking down. The flank of a glacier, like a frozen hurricane. The world below modeled in miniature. The air bright and clean and smelling of nothing at all, smelling only of cold and of sky.

And from there it was a cautious descent that turned, soon enough, into a pleasant amble along the sinusoidal digressions of the downward path, and so into the valley and along the twilight main road of Ariolo right up to the door of the bright-lit Traveller’s Inn. It was good to get inside. An old-style fire was burning heartily in the grate, cracking its knuckles and being superbly generous with its heat and ruddy light.

Cade-Gall dined on olive-bread spread with some of the richest, creamiest butter he had ever tasted, supplemented with a salad of pepperleaves and spinach, and washed down with a fruit cordial. He stretched in his chair and watched the fire, with that mode of physical exhaustion that complements and sharpens the well-being, as having been well-earned. The inn-keeper added another log to the blaze, and the fireplace growled as the new fuel settled; and steam emerged from the cracks in the block of timber, whistling faintly, and then the log seemed to settle itself and go to sleep.

He was not alone in that comfortable chamber. A group of three young women were sitting together on the far side of the room playing three-handed chess, and a knot of mixed citizenry had gathered in a semi-circle about a second samurai who happened to be there—a man of middle-age who was holding forth, almost after the manner of an actor, concerning some intervention he had been obliged to make on behalf of law and order and against the vagaries of a drunken group who were protesting the pulling-down of some ugly building or other. Cade-Hall looked twice and recognised him, and then shook his head—for a samurai will of course never shirk a duty, no matter how much he or she might prefer to retire to bed and sleep away the weariness and the full-stomach.

So he went over to the fellow, and put a hand on his shoulder, and said: Raine.

Raine twitched and shuddered, danced several steps back.

—Cade-Gall, he cried.

—Citizens, Cade-Gall told the small audience. You must forgive my interruption, but I know this man. Though he dresses as a samurai he has no place in our order. He was expelled for failing the standards of chastity. I am sorry to say he has duped you.

—For God’s sake, man, Raine cried, backing further away, his face mimicking the Tragic Mask. I loved her!

The small audience was astounded.

—Raine, said Cade-Gall severely. You dishonour yourself and your former calling by this behaviour. As I am the law embodied in this place, I have no choice but to take action.

At this Raine darted out of the Inn's main entrance, and Cade-Gall went after him. It was no lengthy chase, for he found Raine sitting on a public bench under the stars, a quarter mile away, sobbing openly. From time to time a bright-lit tram would swoosh past in a crescendo-diminuendo of white noise. Cade-Gall sat down beside him.

—She was a rare soul, Raine said, eventually.

—If your use of the past tense means that she has died, Cade-Gall said gravely, then I offer my commiserations.

Raine turned a face blurred with shadow towards him. Dead? Not dead, no. She has not died. Off, gone, run away. Found some other beau. I was a samurai, man! And once you stripped me of that, what was I? A nothing. Why would she stay, to be with a nothing?

—Ask rather, why would you throw everything away on account of this sexual infatuation?

—I fell in love, said Raine, angling his face away. Such things cannot be legislated. I might have waited, if there had been the chance of her being recruited to the order. But your standards are so … damnably … so …

—What you are doing is wrong, said Cade-Gall. Impersonating a samurai? It must stop. I must have your word of honour that it stops. Have you no dignity?

—I was a samurai! You call it impersonation? But how can I merely impersonate, like a bad actor, when I gave so much of my life to that very calling?

—You left the order.

—Expelled!

—Your actions forced you out. You must take responsibility for that. And now you must move on with your life. You cannot live as an imposter. And, and for what? What good does it do you, anyway?

Another tram, a chandelier of brightness on wheels, rolled down the grooves of the street and away. Raine was on his feet. He turned, as if to say something to Cade-Gall, and thought better of it, and hurried away into the shadows.

The moon was a pale and perfectly circular rock. The stars seeped light. There was a freshness and pleasaunce in the night air.

Cade-Gall started back to the Inn, and spent a further twenty minutes on the telephone to the central records bureau, checking Raine’s index card. It seemed that this was not the first time he had been rebuked for impersonating that which he no longer was. Cade-Gall added his report to the database, recommended Raine be contacted and officially warned-off such mummery in the future, recorded that he had decided to take no specific action against him that day, but that he stood ready to be overruled if another samurai thought this leniency ill-advised. And with that he finally took himself to bed.

The morning’s cold shower was followed by an hour-long run alongside the swift flowing river and back up the far shore, followed in its turn by a breakfast of acorn-coffee and pita and goat’s cheese. This quite put the matter out of his mind.


:2:

He ran into Raine again quite by chance, some months later. Cade-Gall’s experience with marine jurisdiction led to him being called to adjudicate a legal dispute at the English Channel. An enterprising citizen had founded a limited company to build a bridge linking Calais and Dover, thus greatly facilitating travel between London and Paris. with the intention of charging a fee for trains to pass over. There was some question to at what monetary rate—or, according to some parties to the suit, if at all—the World State should lease the seabed for the bridge’s struts and foundations. All judges being samurai, any samurai might stand as judge, and Cade-Gall was specifically requested. So he went, and spent a month listening to depositions, reading submissions and consulting with fellow samurai, before he pronounced his judgment and laying-up a copy of the same in Central Records. It was clear, he said, that the World State owned all land. The fact of being under water did not negate that ownership, or else a heavy snowfall would rob the World State of the land on which it fell. But land under a hundred and fifty foot of brine was, of course, not as amenable to development as prime farmland, and therefore he decreed such land be leased at 25% of the standard land value. As with all Modern Utopian legal judgments this was no binding fiat, and could be appealed to another samurai—although absent manifest imbalance in the original judgement, such appeals were unlikely to be upheld. At any rate the bridge builder, and her company, seemed content with it. Plans for construction were laid.

Cade-Gall stayed on for a week or so after his work was completed. He was in a clean, small Inn overlooking the sea, and that was where he heard of a fellow going-about impersonating a samurai. This man had, it seemed, gone into an Art exhibition in Saint-Omer and shut it down on grounds of public indecency. Nobody knew why, or in what way the fellow benefitted from his arbitrary intervention. Certainly there had been nothing indecent about the art. The organisers had not been happy, but of course had not thought to query the authority of an individual they assumed was a samurai. It was only when it came up in casual conversation with another samurai that the deception emerged. He was dressed like a samurai, they said, and his whole demeanour seemed … like one of you.’ Cade-Gall’s name was cross-linked in the central registry as having had dealing with Imposter, and the circumstance was still so rare as to occasion a call to him. So Cade-Gall took the train straight to Saint Omer, where he discovered the fake samurai—who else but Raine?—had done a number of other things: ejected all the houseboats moored along the canal from the town, on no grounds at all (the boats, of course, had gone); requisitioned a museum house from the Old Days to live in, rather than stay in a standard Traveller’s Inn, and several times gathered in public places and restaurants and related tall stories to groups of people: how he had saved a drowning child from a capsizing boat, how he had single-handedly wrestled a bear in Armenia and so enabled a family to flee; how he was involved in research to develop a rocket to fly into space.

The arrival of a real samurai, and the reasons for his coming, went quickly round the town , and Raine fled on the Paris train. Cade-Gall was almost annoyed—he had to meditate for ten minutes in the town square to restore his equanimity. Wouldn’t do to let emotion cloud his actions, of course. But it was provoking. What did Raine think to achieve? Cade-Gall commandeered a plane and flew straight to Paris, arriving over the Central station before his quarry. The flitter overflew the Station zone, where all the various lines ran in parallel to their termini like corduroy, and circled round in a wide arc. Then it hornetted noisily through its descent, threading the Tower of Astronomy and the smaller Eiffel tower—Paris, city of Towers!—to land on the station’s air-platform. Cade-Gall was on the concourse below as the Saint-Omer train pulled in.

Raine saw him immediately, and his expression tumbled. Cade-Gall saw him shift posture, look from side to side as if about to run off. But he changed his mind, and his shoulders dropped. Raine, the only motionless figure, in all the flow of eager citizens disembarking and hurrying onto the concourse. Cade-Gall walked towards him.

—Raine, he said.

Purely by coincidence, just as he spoke a flock of station pigeons thrust themselves into flight, soared and turned close under the vault of the concourse with a noise like sudden rainfall. Cade-Gall’s hand touched Raine’s left elbow. Come along with me.

—Harp and carp, said Raine, distractedly. But he came.

They crossed half the concourse in silence, as people came and went around them. People saw two samurai walking together and thought nothing of it.

—We talked before, Cade-Gall said. I was plain. I expected you to cease your imposture.

At this, Raine snatched his arm out of Cade-Gall’s grip, and stopped walking. And what? he replied, in a loud voice. And do what?

Cade-Gall stopped, and faced him. The murmur of people chatting to one another as they passed. The drip-drip noise of many footsteps on marble, synchronising and syncopating with their own echoes in that cavernous space. The hum of a two-storey electric train pulling away from the platform rose in pitch, then wowed and shifted again as it receded until it blended with the collective coo of the pigeons overhead, perched back on their spars and ledges. Brightness coming through the transparent canopy. The smell of cleanness, and baked bread, and ozone, and somewhere behind it the odour of lavender.

—Do what? Cade-Gall repeated. Raine, you could do anything. You live in a world where literally anything is possible. You could follow any path, travel to any place, be with any partner. We samurai are the ones whose existences are hemmed in by restriction, by the can-not-do, and the must-not-love, and it is a burden we gladly assume. But you? You have literally the entire world before you. You can do anything, and have anything.

—I can have anything except the thing I want.

—To be a samurai?

—I was a samurai, Raine said, fiercely. You expelled me, because I fell in love. Because I fell in love!

—Because you betrayed your oath. Because you broke the rules. Because you showed no discipline, and without discipline the samurai would be nowhere, and without the samurai the whole beautiful World State would fall!

—I drank, often. Alcohol, I mean. I drank, and was reprimanded. I once broke a woman’s arm when trying to prevent her from shouting at some children who were playing by bouncing a ball off her housewall. I was reprimanded for that, but I was still a samurai after that reprimand. But I fell in love …

—I have, of course, checked your index card. I know about your various infractions. The samurai are not hasty, for our judgments must be sound and enduring. You were increasingly demonstrating your unfitness for your elevated role. You cannot complain that you were expelled.

—You will exile me to an island, said Raine, abruptly sulky.

—I haven’t yet made up my mind, said Cade-Gall. We haven’t made up our mind. But it’s likely. Still, if it happens, you can choose which island, among the various that would be appropriate.

—Better to slay me. To send a samurai to a prison island?

—Not prison, said Cade-Gall, beginning to feel his temper erode. Yet another place where you will be able to do whatever you choose to do. Just like this entire world is a place where you are able to do whatever you choose to do.

—There is but one thing that matters in human life, and I have lost it.

—There are an uncountable number of things that matter in human life, said Cade-Gall. And any and all of them are available to you. Travel. Explore. Invent. Work. Create. Idle, if you choose: loaf and indulge yourself. Or paint, or make music, or build bridges, or start a family, or become an expert sportsman. The whole world is built to make all this easy for you. If there is a blue-devil in your head telling you to be miserable, then you cannot blame it on the samurai. Seize your happiness!

But Raine was not to be mollified.

—Status, he said. That which I had, and which you took from me, and which I shall never have again. Status, and the respect of other people, and human beings looking up to me.

—If it is other people's respect you want, then earn it in some other place than the samurai. Win sporting events and earn it that way. Write a great poem and earn it that way.

—You think I want fame? You are misunderstanding me, and I think you are misunderstanding me on purpose. Mayfly fame? The applause of idiots? Why would I want that? Fame is not status. Only power grants status and only one group in our world possesses power, and you will not readmit to their ranks.

—This is nonsense, said Cade-Gall, reaching out to take Raine by the elbow again to lead him to the exit. Come along with me.

It did not occur to Cade-Gall that Raine would not comply. He was a samurai, and people always did what he told them. But Raine, instead of falling into step, snatched his arm away, took a stride back, and then launched himself rapidly forward, crushing his torso up against Cade-Gall’s. Raine had slipped the skewer from his sleeve as he took his backward step, and coming forward again he braced its handle against the heel of his palm, such that it slid neatly into a slot between the front and back panels of Cade-Gall's leather torso-armour, just under where the thongs were knotted to tie them together. The point went in just below the bottom rib and moved in at a slight upward angle. It popped the balloon of Cade-Gall’s pleural sac and trenched a path through the right lung. A centimetre of the blade’s tip punctured the muscle of his heart.

It was so very and so abruptly painful it almost didn’t feel like pain—not, that is, in any sort way that could be related to earlier experiences of pain. It was a blistering implosion of all the nerve-pathways and his whole upper body. It was unavoidably centred, like acid in the chest, like fire running along all the most tender vesicles of the body, and it did not diminish. Had Cade-Gall wanted to scream he would not have had the breath to do it. The closest he came to that was a flooded gasp of air pushed-out by Raine's momentum in colliding with him, and a tomato-red drool-line from the left side of his mouth. Then Raine stepped smartly backwards a yard or more, holding both his hands up, like a football player, like a base football player who had performed an illegal tackle, or body-check, and was dishonestly performing his innocence for the crowd, and to try to persuade the referee he had done nothing wrong.

Cade-Gall went down hard onto one knee. The motion levered the blade of the knife, still inside his chest, pushing the handle down and pivoting the whole thing against the underside of his bottom rib, thus causing the tip to move in the opposite direction. This sliced up through the cardiac tissue. Great quantities of blood spilled internally from the spasming heart and washed down through his innards. He felt torn wide open inside, as if hands had gripped his viscera and yanked them unstoppably in alternate directions. The circulation through his veins and arteries all but stopped. His vision was dazzled by the pain almost to the point of sunburst, but at the same time the edges of his line-of-sight greyed, shrank, began its withdrawal down its apparent shadow-tunnel.

He could hear the world around him with a new acuteness. He had never heard with such clarity in his life before. It was the sudden silencing of blood-noise in the ears, perhaps. It was a preternatural apprehension of the material world just as he teetered on the edge of leaving it forever, perhaps. Whatever the explanation, he heard the curled trill of the pigeons overhead with bizarre precision and force. He heard the scuff and slide of feet on the concourse floor, and the audible agitation of the crowd. He heard Raine saying do not panic, citizens! I am a samurai, as you can see. Somebody has committed a dreadful crime, and nobody will leave the station until the criminal has been apprehended! Attend to what I say, citizens! He heard gasps and murmurs and one elderly man crying out in distress. He heard a single loud bang, as on a drum, a funeral drum presumably, and there was also a reeling, shivering sensation of pressure sharply applied, and he understood, though belatedly, that he had keeled over and that his forehead had struck the stone slabs of the station floor.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A Modern Utopia (1905)



1: The Utopia itself

Another red book from Wells, as you can see from the first edition cover:—two men on a walking holiday in Switzerland (they're not named in the novel, but are versions of Wells  and his friend Graham Wallas, who were on such a tour when Wells conceived the book) slip, somehow, through some kind of kink in space, to the far edge of the galaxy and onto an exact replica of the Earth, 1905, populated by exactly the same population as our Earth, but a Utopia. The eleven chapters follow the two as they explore this familiar-yet-utterly-different world and society, Wells layering elements of characterisation, backstory and plot with thick slabs of social explanation and infodumping, somewhat after the model, formally speaking, of a parfait. The main character, known only as ‘the Voice’, narrates; his companion, ‘the botanist’, contributes a little to the discussion, but spends much of the novel mooning after an unhappy love-affair back on our Earth, which ended when the woman he loved married another man.

The two stay in a Utopian inn in Switzerland (‘Switz-U-land’ as Wells, disappointingly, omits to call it) and learn about the Utopian conception of freedom, money and property. The whole planet is one State , and everywhere is connected with everywhere via an advanced infrastructure of electric trams, trains, boats and the like. Everyone is guaranteed a basic income, but is free to earn more if they want to. All land is owned by the State but individuals can lease it to build houses, factories and so on. They meet a Utopian dissenter who thinks society should give over and mankind return to a state of Nature, and thereby learn that the Utopian State is perfectly tolerant of recusants. Everyone is vegetarian. Nobody is forced to work, but inducements and rewards mean that productive people enjoy a finer quality of life. We discover what Utopia does with the hopeless cases, decadents and criminals—dumps them on an island somewhere and otherwise leaves them to their own devices—and how sex and having kids are regulated (the former is much freer than in our world, the latter more tightly regulated). It's all very clean and sane and rational and it makes my teeth itch to contemplate it, to be honest. I'm sure that's just me.

Utopian society is divided into four ‘classes’: the Poietic, or makers; the Kinetic, or doers; the Dull and the Base (a different four-fold scheme to the one Wells anticipated in, uh, Anticipations). General global mobility of population has done away with nationalism, and Chapter 11, on ‘Race’, goes some way—though not as far as some critics perhaps suggest—towards repudiating the racism of the earlier Wells: all races are welcome provided they live-up to the Utopian ideal. Dig down into the specifics of Wells's ideal state and things get odder. There are, for instance, no pets: ‘the race of cats and dogs [provide] living fastnesses to which such diseases as plague, influenza, catarrhs and the like, can retreat to sally forth again—[and] must pass ...’ This upsets the botanist, who is fond of dogs. What else? Well, fatties are thin on the ground: the visitors clock ‘one or two fat people—they are all the more noticeable because they are rare’, and there are no baldies at all, since ‘the Utopians have brought a sounder physiological science than ours to bear upon regimen.’ I glance in the mirror at my own pot-belly and bald head, and grin nervously at my reflection. Uh-oh!

The Voice and the botanist travel to London, the former to meet his Utopian self, the latter to seek out the Utopian version of the woman who broke his heart back on Earth. Here, as a kind of conceptual climax to the narrative, Wells describes the ‘samurai’, perhaps the book's most famous invention:—Utopia's ruling caste, a form of ‘voluntary nobility’, ‘open to every physically and mentally healthy adult in the Utopian State who will observe its prescribed austere rule of living’. The person wishing to be a samurai ‘must be in sound health, free from certain foul, avoidable, and demoralising diseases, and in good training. We reject men who are fat, or thin and flabby, or whose nerves are shaky’. Members of this select band undertake to maintain themselves in ‘a state of moral and bodily health and efficiency’: no booze, no cigarettes, a compulsory annual one-week solitary trek through the wilderness. There are various, sometimes rather oddly specific interdictions: the samurai must forebear usury and salesmanship; they can't be actors or singers (‘professional mimicry is not only held to be undignified in a man or woman, but to weaken and corrupt the soul’) and they are not allowed to play cricket, of all things. The reason given for this last restriction is that they must represent the best of the best, and that it would be ‘undignified and unpleasant for the samurai to play conspicuously ill, and impossible for them to play so constantly as to keep hand and eye in training against the man who was fool enough and cheap enough to become an expert’. One can't help feeling that Wells's feelings about his own father, in his time a professional cricketer, are creeping-in here.

What else? Samurai need not be celibate, but they must be chaste, and may only marry other samurai; so if a female or male samurai falls in love with a non-samurai they must leave the order. Otherwise this reiterated stress on self-discipline, cold showers and no grubby beards for the men (‘the samurai must bathe in cold water, and the men must shave every day’) can hardly help but strike the modern reader as the very acme of the earnest socialist faux-ascetic lentil-eating fell-walking cliché. Presumably, it didn't strike contemporaries that way. Indeed the evidence on the latter point all runs the other way. Wells was upfront that he styled the samuari order in part to flatter his fellow Fabians, who liked to fantasise that they could becomes the timoniers of the future socialist world-state. When Beatrice Webb thanked him for giving her a copy of the book, he replied (she noted this in her diary): ‘the chapters on the Samurai will pander to all your worse instincts!’ Another Fabian, Sydney Olivier, reviewed the book gushingly in Fabian News, and also wrote to Wells privately ‘I recognise your trumpeting Angel of the Samurai as my desire for the League of Sane Men’. This ruling elite who, the book says, ‘look like Knights Templars, who bear a name that recalls the swordsmen of Japan’ are, to quote the Independent Review [October 1905] ‘in fact, the Platonic “guardians” born again into an age of electricity and statistics’. The frontispiece to the first edition, by Edmund J Sullivan, illustrates a representative member of ‘the Order of the Samurai’ haughtily spurning various allegorical dangers and temptations.


The judgement that this representation misses heroic dignity by a country mile and lands squarely on the ludicrousness of ill-judged cosplay belongs, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

I'll come back to the samurai in a bit, and in particular to the extent to which Wells addresses the very manifest dangers of concentrating so much power in such an elite (‘all political power vests in the samurai: not only are they the only administrators, lawyers, practising doctors, and public officials of almost all kinds, but they are the only voters’) with only the scantiest of checks and balances. Anyone who breaks the samurai's code is expelled, but expelled (of course) by the samurai. Likewise we're told that ‘every ruler and official is put on his trial every three years’, which sounds like a good idea; until we discover that this trial happens before a jury drawn ‘either from the samurai of his municipal area or from the general catalogue of the samurai’. Which is as if to say: your world will vest supreme political power in the SS, but don't worry! Every three years the SS will decide whether the SS is doing a good job!

Anyhow: the Voice discovers that his Utopian double, his better self, is, of course, a samurai, and the two have lengthy, infodumpy conversations. The botanist, meanwhile, tracks down Mary, the woman he loved and lost on our Earth, and discovers her just as she is getting married to ‘one of the samurai, a dark, strong-faced man.’ The botanist's grief and pique break out so strongly it destabilises the whole utopian vision.
He thrusts me weakly back with his long, white hand. “My God!” he says almost forcibly, “what nonsense all this is! All these dreams! All Utopias! There she is―! Oh, but I have dreamt of her! And now―”

A sob catches him. I am really frightened by this time. I still try to keep between him and these Utopians, and to hide his gestures from them.

“It's different here,” I persist. “It's different here. The emotion you feel has no place in it. It's a scar from the earth—the sore scar of your past―”

“And what are we all but scars? What is life but a scarring? It's you—you who don't understand! Of course we are covered with scars, we live to be scarred, we are scars! We are the scars of the past! These dreams, these childish dreams―!”

He does not need to finish his sentence, he waves an unteachable destructive arm.

My Utopia rocks about me.

For a moment the vision of that great courtyard hangs real. There the Utopians live real about me, going to and fro, and the great archway blazes with sunlight from the green gardens by the riverside. The man who is one of the samurai, and his lady, whom the botanist loved on earth, pass out of sight behind the marble flower-set Triton that spouts coolness in the middle of the place. For a moment I see two working men in green tunics sitting on a marble seat in the shadow of the colonnade, and a sweet little silver-haired old lady, clad all in violet, and carrying a book, comes towards us, and lifts a curious eye at the botanist's gestures. And then―

“Scars of the past! Scars of the past! These fanciful, useless dreams!”

§ 2

There is no jerk, no sound, no hint of material shock. We are in London, and clothed in the fashion of the town. The sullen roar of London fills our ears. I see that I am standing beside an iron seat of poor design in that grey and gawky waste of asphalte—Trafalgar Square, and the botanist, with perplexity in his face, stares from me to a poor, shrivelled, dirt-lined old woman—my God! what a neglected thing she is!—who proffers a box of matches.... [Modern Utopia, 301]
And we're home again. The novel ends with the narrator struck by the comparative ugliness, dirtiness and poverty of our world, although he has a sort of vision ‘a towering figure of flame and colour, standing between earth and sky, with a trumpet in his hands, over there above the Haymarket, against the October glow; and when he sounds, all the samurai, all who are samurai in Utopia, will know themselves and one another...’ Patrick Parrinder thinks this a specific allusion ‘to the ending of Book IX of Plato's Republic, which states that “[the city] is laid up as a pattern in heaven, which he who desires may behold, and beholding may set his own house in order”’ [Parrinder, ‘Utopia and Meta-Utopia in H. G. Wells’, Utopian Studies, 1 (1987), 93-4]. Which may well be true; and which brings me to—


2. The Plato's the Thing/Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of the Utopian-ing

Wells himself thought pretty highly of his own book, all things considered. ‘Although it has never had any great popular sale,’ is how he puts it in the Experiment in Autobiography, ‘A Modern Utopia remains to this day one of the most vital and successful of my books. It is as alive to-day as Mankind in the Making is dead.’ Fair assessment of Mankind, perhaps a touch overgenerous to A Modern Utopia. Not that it's a bad novel, mind. Not at all:
It was the first approach I made to the dialogue form, and I am almost as satisfied with its literary quality as I am with that of The Undying Fire. The trend towards dialogue like the basal notion of the Samurai, marks my debt to Plato. A Modern Utopia, quite as much as that of More, derives frankly from the Republic. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 562]
His contemporaries concurred. The Fabians all loved it. Henry James read it and described himself, with we presume a pinch of Jamesian playfulness, ‘prostrate with admiration’. His brother William was more ingenuous: ‘your virtues and unparalleled and transcendent’, he wrote from the ship that was taking him back to America. ‘In fact you are a jewel and a triumph’. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive: the Independent Review [October 1905] praised the book as an assemblage ‘which neither he nor anyone else had fitted together so ingeniously before’; The Outlook called it ‘a serious and ambitious work challenging comparisons with Plato's Republic [and] More's Utopia’ [29 April 1905]. [Krishan Kumar's excellent Everyman edition of the novel collects together a good spread of these reactions].

The most obviously Platonic feature of Wells's Utopia has been noted: he himself conceded that his samurai are effectively Plato's φύλακας, his ‘guardians’, the main difference being that Plato's ruling caste are selected and educated from youth onwards for their role, where Wells's samurai are self-selecting, provided they reach the exacting standards of the order. Still they fill the same role, and embody the same self-denying severity and absolutism. There are a great many other parallels, some of which may explain the choices Wells makes, as (for instance) the vegetarianism , which surely reflects the vegetarianism of Plato's Kallipolis [Republic 372a-e].

Now this, of course, leaves Wells's social vision open to the sorts of charges that Karl Popper laid at Plato's door in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Earlier I suggested Wells's select samurai were in effect an ur-Hitlerian ᛋᛋ (the Schutz in Schutzstaffel carries the, in this context, perfectly Platonic meaning ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’). We might also call them a sort of Jedi (without the ability to do the magical trickery, of course. A sort of Theist religious faith is part of their order, but they are not allowed High Church smells and bells: ‘the samurai will be forbidden the religion of dramatically lit altars, organ music, and incense,’ says Wells sternly, ‘as distinctly as they are forbidden the love of painted women, or the consolations of brandy.’) It's hard to deny Popper's main point, that there's something profoundly authoritarian about Plato's Republic, and Wells's modern version barely conceals a distinct fault-line between its various perorations to freedom and its many apparatuses of absolute authoritarian control.

The meeting of the Voice and the botanist with the ‘man of Nature’ refusenik in chapter 4 stands as an attempt to inoculate Wells's vision against the notion that it is coercive unanimity. Yet both the Utopian heretic and the global polis from which he is reacting share a deeper ideological commitment to cleanness. They just pursue it in different ways. And cleanness is the book's most consistent fixed idea: actual cleanness of people and rooms and cities; metaphorical cleanness of the body politic. The unclean who are banished to islands—‘about such islands patrol boats will go, there will be no freedoms of boat building, and it may be necessary to have armed guards at the creeks and quays’—are not only the criminals, but the decadent, the cheats, the drunkards. And even as Wells is congratulating himself on his utopians' humane-ness by declaring ‘there would be no killing, no lethal chambers’ he adds ‘’no doubt Utopia will kill all deformed and monstrous and evilly diseased births ...’ That's from Plato too, of course; Republic 460c announces briskly that the offspring of ‘inferior parents’ as well as the ανάπηρον, which is to say, the disabled or handicapped, will be disposed of to keep the larger body-politic whole and hale.

The real fault line in Wells's book has to do with mobility. Not for the first time in Wells's career, the ability to move freely about is the tacit index of utopian desire. His alt-world, with its globe-spanning networks of rapid electric trams and trains, and its happily nomadic population, is one vision of that possibility. Where Thomas More sequestered his utopia on an island against the hostility of the larger world, Wells inverts that model: his whole world is perfect except for ‘the Island of Incurable Cheats’, ‘Islands of Drink’ and so on. But this larger logic of inversion reveals itself as actually, of course, an ideological play. For just as Wells's Utopians zoom here and there with ideal and total mobility, so they are surveilled with an ideal and total surveillance. Every Utopian is assigned ‘a distinct formula, a number or “scientific name,” under which he or she could be docketed’, and every single citizen is included in this database: ‘the record of their movement hither and thither, the entry of various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like’.
These index cards might conceivably be transparent and so contrived as to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little army of attendants would be at work upon this index day and night. From sub-stations constantly engaged in checking back thumb-marks and numbers, an incessant stream of information would come, of births, of deaths, of arrivals at inns, of applications to post-offices for letters, of tickets taken for long journeys, of criminal convictions, marriages, applications for public doles and the like. A filter of offices would sort the stream, and all day and all night for ever a swarm of clerks would go to and fro correcting this central register, and photographing copies of its entries for transmission to the subordinate local stations, in response to their inquiries. So the inventory of the State would watch its every man and the wide world write its history as the fabric of its destiny flowed on. At last, when the citizen died, would come the last entry of all, his age and the cause of his death and the date and place of his cremation, and his card would be taken out and passed on to the universal pedigree, to a place of greater quiet, to the ever-growing galleries of the records of the dead. [Modern Utopia, 180]
Utopia, says Wells, ‘must square itself to the needs of a migratory population, to an endless coming and going, to a people as fluid and tidal as the sea’; and it's a point he clearly considered worth making more than once: ‘such a record is inevitable if a Modern Utopia is to be achieved.’ Inevitable! The mobilization of Utopian liberty is formally defined by the mobilization of the powers of surveillance to limit Utopian liberty. That's Platonic too: the guardians will, ‘by their surveillance forcibly restrain’ the Kallipolitians [Republic 552e], and Plato explicitly calls them ‘watchdogs’. And it might easily lead discussion down that Benthamite, Foucauldian line of the panopticon and its coercive powers. But instead of that I'm going to suggest a key as-it-were point of difference between Wells's novel and Plato's great work.

In Book 5 of The Republic, the discussion of particulars pauses for a moment whilst Glaucon asks Socrates whether all this chatter is pie-in-the-sky, or whether he believes his Republic will actually become a reality. It's a good question, and one of course relevant to Wells's novel too. Socrates answers in two parts. First he reminds his interlocutors that the purpose of their discussion has been not to establish a polis but to define justice [Republic 472b]. To do so requires describing not only the just man but the just state in which the just man might live, and as such, Socrates says, they are talking about the truth (αλήθεια), not merely about a theory (λέξις). We don't have to buy the full-on ‘Realm of Platonic Forms Of Which Our World Is But A Copy’ idea to see that Wells is doing something similar in his Modern Utopia—but with one vital shift of emphasis. This novel is not so much an attempt to define justice, as it is an attempt to actualise the imagination. It is an invitation to us, as readers, to imagine a better world, and it interleaves the strategies of the novel with the strategies of the Fabian tract to that end.

And where the tract-portions of A Modern Utopia are stimulating in either suggestive or irritating ways, the novelistic passages are much better: beautifully written and accomplished and evocative. Perhaps my favourite thing about Wells's Modern Utopia is the way it insinuates the sorts of excitements attendant on a holiday, and especially a holiday in a attractively alien and unfamiliar place, into the drier speculative apprehension of utopian thought. The early chapters are the best on this: the Voice and the botanist walking down out of the alps into clean, well-ordered Utopian towns, and bedding-down in clean, comfortable Utopian inns, all the time thrilled at the myriad open-ended possibilities of the to-come, waiting to be explored on the morrow:
This strange mystery of a world of which I have seen so little as yet—a mountain slope, a twilit road, a traffic of ambiguous vehicles and dim shapes, the window lights of many homes—fills me with curiosities. Figures and incidents come and go, the people we have passed, our landlord, quietly attentive and yet, I feel, with the keenest curiosity peeping from his eyes, the unfamiliar forms of the house parts and furnishings, the unfamiliar courses of the meal. Outside this little bedroom is a world, a whole unimagined world. A thousand million things lie outside in the darkness beyond this lit inn of ours, unthought-of possibilities, overlooked considerations, surprises, riddles, incommensurables, a whole monstrous intricate universe of consequences that I have to do my best to unravel. [Modern Utopia, 41]
It's an invitation to engage Platonic speculations about justice under the aegis of a glorious imaginative openness. And the crisis that propels the two men out of Utopia and back to mundane London is, consequently, an affective, not a rational or conceptual, crisis: a broken heart, a cri de passion, and the botanist's urgent complaint that the non-Utopian sensibility is too crisscrossed with scar-tissue to permit the access to that other imaginative possibility. Issues of social justice, Wells is saying, must come after issues of social affect and social imagination.


3. Money and Irony

So, a coda. Everything I have just said stands, in effect, as an argument against engaging too closely with the minutiae of Wells's Utopian blueprinting. And indeed all that sort of stuff is, by and large, the least interesting aspect of the book, not because Utopianizing is intrinsically uninteresting but because so much of this is simply not original to Wells. On the question of land ownership, A Modern Utopia treads the line between ‘Georgism’ on the one hand, a system, popular with some Radicals and Christian Socialists, in which land continues to be privately owned/managed but is taxed for the benefit of the community, and outright Communism on the other, where private property is abolished altogether. In Wells's book all land is owned by the State, but can be easily obtained by private citizens on 50-year leases. This idea, though, is taken directly from Wells's fellow Fabian Sydney Olivier, who argues for it in Capital and Land (1888). Similarly the Wellsian attitude to private property, which is roughly that ‘strictly personal possessions and shares in business adventures’ will be permitted, but all private property and all debts will end at death, and ‘all land or natural objects or products’, will ‘be the inalienable property of the World State’, has been adopted pretty much whole-cloth out of Graham Wallas, whose Property Under Socialism (1889) argues pretty-much that case.

Still, there is one specific detail that puzzles me, and that's Wells's Utopian money. Not his proposal for a Universal Basic Income—which seems remarkably timely, today, although in fact it goes back at least to Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice (1797). No: I mean the actual currency: his idea that the global currency should be tied not to reserves of gold, but to reserves of energy. The manufacture of energy would be nationalised, or (I suppose) globalised: ‘heating and lighting and the supply of power for domestic and industrial purposes and for urban and inter-urban communications will all be managed electrically from common generating stations’, run by local authorities but all owned by the World State. Wells proposes a currency in which ‘payment would be no longer be in coinage upon the gold basis, but in notes good for so many thousands or millions of units of energy at one or other of the generating stations.’
Every one of those giant local authorities was to be free to issue energy notes against the security of its surplus of saleable available energy, and to make all its contracts for payment in those notes up to a certain maximum defined by the amount of energy produced and disposed of in that locality in the previous year. This power of issue was to be renewed just as rapidly as the notes came in for redemption. In a world without boundaries, with a population largely migratory and emancipated from locality, the price of the energy notes of these various local bodies would constantly tend to be uniform, because employment would constantly shift into the areas where energy was cheap. Accordingly, the price of so many millions of units of energy at any particular moment in coins of the gold currency would be approximately the same throughout the world. [Modern Utopia, 89]
I may be missing something, but I genuinely fail to see how this would be any kind of improvement. The gold standard already provides this form of stability, compared to those currencies who are not pegged to such a underlying value-system (Wells's anxiety that ‘an unexpected spate of gold production, the discovery of a single nugget as big as St. Paul's, let us say—a quite possible thing—would result in a financial earthquake’ seems quite misplaced; surely interruptions in the power supply would be rather more likely than sudden superfluities of gold).

As I await schooling on this matter from somebody more expert on questions of currency economics, I'll jot down a theory to be going on with: I don't think Wells has quite grasped the way money operates as a floating signifier, a medium of exchange and store of value as arbitrary as any semiological social construct. The utility of money resides purely in the conventions of its exchange. The fact that gold is (some trivial exceptions aside) perfectly useless has no effect upon that utility, and replacing tokens predicated upon a useless commodity with tokens predicated upon a useful commodity would have no effect upon the fungibility of the money itself.

I'm guessing here, and my guesswork leads into a segue below, that may not convince you, but I wonder if Wells, not entirely cognizant of theories of monetary exchange, just felt in his gut that backing token-money with a really valuable commodity rather than an arbitrarily scarce one would surely just be a good thing to do. I'm not sure the reasoning goes any deeper than that. Wells's instinct says that his Utopia has no room for the arbitrary, the merely conventional, the floating signifier as opposed to the solidly anchored signified. In a way that's a more worrying misprison of how society works than all the proto-SS samurai gubbins.

Which brings me to my conclusion. Critics bracket A Modern Utopia with 1901's Anticipations and 1903's Mankind in the Making as a sort of trilogy of practical blueprints for Utopia. Which makes sense. But although it is, clearly I think, the best of these three titles, A Modern Utopia still suffers from the wholly unironic manner in which Wells goes about his speculations. Irony is rarely welcome in the habitation of the true-hearted Utopian, of course. Some years ago I was invited to deliver a keynote at the peripatetic Utopiales conference; which was a great honour, and have me the chance to meet some excellent people at the University of Tarragona, that beautiful city. For my lecture I argued for the BBC Children's TV show Teletubbies as a kind of perfection of the utopian ideal, by way of exploring the extent to which Utopia as such involves an element of infantilisation. At the wine reception after my lecture some of the attendees—mostly other academics, these—came over to chat with me about what I'd been saying, and I had some interesting discussions. But other attendees literally blanked me, in some cases turning their backs on me as I went about the room. These, I discovered, were the actual Utopians: people planning real in-the-world Utopian communities, retired businesspeople who had decided to spend their life savings buying up territory and establishing their preferred pantisocratic villages upon them and so on. They assumed I had been mocking them. I hadn't been, but you can see why they might look on me with injured contempt. And to broaden the point: of course irony is a destabilising quality that is bound to be mistrusted by anybody who wishes to establish absolutes and peg improvement to a steady tabulation. I stand by it, though: irony and its handmaiden laughter is very far from an inessential in this matter.

This is what makes A Modern Utopia stand so much taller, as it were, than either of its two predecessors. It is not ironic about its imagined utopia—on the contrary, it is often desperately earnest and micromanagerial about it—but the form of the novel itself is at least playful, almost (whisper it) postmodern, or at least pomo-avant-la-lettre. Wells addresses the reader directly because he wants to recruit her to his larger theme, the necessity of imagining Utopia, as a vivid and lived-in eventuality, before we theorise Utopia. And the positive upshot of that is that A Modern Utopia shimmers with something that bears at least a family resemblance to irony. And that's a good thing. Although I would say that, wouldn't I?

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)



The Food of the Gods has been regarded by some as a minor addition to the canon of Wellsian science fiction. I don't understand why, though: it seems to me to rank with the very best of his writing. Bensington and Redwood, Wells’s existentially myopic scientists, creates ‘Herakleophorbia’, or ‘Boomfood’, a dietary stimulant that provokes giganticism in the creatures that eat it. But the substance escapes into the environment, and the south-east of England is plagued by waves of giant vegetation, wasps, rats and other beasts, including eventually giant human beings. Wells’s account of these events perhaps lacks some of the narrative drive and plangent, tragically-tinged seriousness of War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. But it contains a superb central conceit, some gripping set-pieces, and most of all it has the memorable and eloquent imagination-haunting quality of the best SF. Perhaps this is more of a personal crotchet than I am admitting; for I have always found giants a fascinating, have written giants into my own fiction, and respond to this novel precisely because it does giants so very well.

Of course, Wells was not the first writer to cover that topic. Giants have been part of fairy tales for millennia; and giants play important roles in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865)—two great fantasy novels with which Food of the Gods is in obvious dialogue. But Wells is doing something new. Swift’s aim was, broadly, satirical; and his Brobdignagian giants and Lilliputian miniatures are in part about dramatizing a sense of proportion, man’s proper place in the cosmos. Alice eats a prototype ‘boomfood’ (her magical mushroom) and grows prodigiously, thereby giving Carroll, appropriately for a masterpiece of children’s literature, a metaphor for childhood—that time of life when we literally experience abrupt shootings-up in height. But Wells is doing something else with his central metaphor, besides (that is) using it as a platform for both exciting action and social comedy.

To put it more precisely, Wells’s short novel does something neither Swift nor Carroll manage: it follows through on its concept. Swifts’ giants simply are, a fixed part of his imagined global landscape. Carroll’s Alice experiences childhood’s shifts in scale, but she herself doesn’t grow up—and who would want to leave so wonderful a land as hers behind anyway? But growing up is precisely the theme of The Food of the Gods, what the book is about not just in the individual sense, but in the larger, social sense that Wells anticipated the coming of a proper maturity of humanity. The young giants at the novel’s end are one version of his ‘coming race’, a frequent feature of his speculative writing: the Samurai or Overmen who, he hoped, would move mankind as a species out of its bickering infant-stage into the broad sunlit uplands of his imagined utopian future. To put it another way: if the Alice books are about the childhood of one girl, then Wells’s novel is about the childhood of society as a whole.

This is why the book is structured the way it is, and why so much of it is given over to a slightly bantering comedy-of-class-manners that has, I suppose, not aged particularly well. To be clear: I’d still stand up for some of the comedy in the book (the sections about baby Redwood breaking his playroom, having to be wheeled around in a reinforced invalid chair rather than a pram, and booming ‘ “Dadda” and “Babba”’ at busdrivers and policemen ‘in a sociable democratic way’ still make me laugh, for instance). But for much of the book Wells’s deliberately Dickensian tone, if sometimes droll, is often rather clunkingly. Readers who associate Wells with the more lyrically evocative style of (say) War of the Worlds may find this an impediment to their enjoyment. But it is not gratuitous. On the contrary the style is integral to Wells’s larger project.

This is because the novel is about a world’s transition from small to big, from triviality to greatness. The first portion accordingly not only fills us in on Wells’s pseudo-scientific ‘food’, it also paints a portrait of society as bumbling, incompetently childish world. The littleness of this vision of England parlays naturally into comedy. Even the more able of Wells’s adults engage in childish knockabout—clambering down holes, falling into ponds; and his scientists are as messy with their ‘boomfood’ as any toddler. To begin with there don’t seem to be any properly constituted authorities at all, nobody to take charge of the increasingly alarming situation. Even when ‘government’ gets involved, later on, it takes the form of the pettiness of Caterham, a kind of pigmy demagogue. By contrast, Wells draws the young human giants with a great deal of dignity, and even (by the end) a tonal grandeur compatible with their physical dimensions. Their stature is greater than ours in more than simply physical terms.



The crucial thing about these giants is that they are the future. Here’s Redwood, at the end, watching his giant son and their giant comrades preparing for war: ‘the two giants who were working in the corner began a rhythmic hammering that made a mighty music to the scene … about him were the young giants, huge and beautiful, glittering in their mail.’ By this stage, this Wagnerian tone has entirely replaced the drollery of the earlier sections:
The voice of the giant children spoke to one another, an undertone to that clangorous melody of the smiths. His tide of doubt ebbed. He heard the giant voices, he heard their movements about him still. It was real, more surely it was real—as real as spiteful acts! More real, for these great things, it may be, are the coming things, and the littleness, bestiality, and infirmity of men are the things that go.
That fence-sitting ‘it may be’ aside, this encapsulates the moral of the book; and this is why Wells chooses to tell this story via giants. It is not just that their great size correlates to the ‘greatness’ he anticipates as replacing humanity’s littleness, bestiality, and infirmity—although, obviously, it does. But it is something more. Wells’s giants are unmissable. They are the very obviousness of the positions that seemed to Wells himself perfectly clear and inevitable, despite the fact that most of his contemporaries couldn’t see them: the passing away of the petty old world and the coming of new greatness. This is why his giants, unschooled outsiders though they be, light as-it-were naturally upon progressive ideological positions identical with Wells’s own—young giant Caddles asking with seeming ingenuity why the idle rich have all the money and the poor have to do all the work, for instance; or young Redwood and the giant princess together repudiating (as Wells himself did, in his private life) the restrictions of Edwardian conventional sexual morality. His giants are the enormous truth of things that little people contrive, somehow, to overlook; they are, to employ a cliché, the elephant in the room. They, like the novel in which they appear, are not to be missed.


Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Mankind in the Making (1903)



A good portion of Wells's Experiment in Autobiography concerns his years as a Fabian, which group he joined in 1903, and from which he resigned in 1908. A short period, perhaps, but very important to Wells in lots of ways. He was, at first, enthusiastic: attended meetings and delivered papers on what we would nowadays call collectivisation, the consolidation of private smallholdings into larger nationalised farms and factories. This research, he says, was behind The Food of the Gods (serialized in 1903 and published as a book in 1904), ‘which began with a wild burlesque of the change of scale produced by scientific men and ended in the heroic struggle of the rare new big-scale way of living against the teeming small-scale life of the earth.’ He adds that ‘nobody saw the significance of it’ and ‘it left some of its readers faintly puzzled.’ Maybe fiction was too distracting a mode for these ‘researches’.
The more formal research for the realization of the New Republic was pursued in Mankind in the Making. I was realizing that the correlative of a new republic was a new education and this book is a discursive examination, an all too discursive examination of the formative elements in the social magma. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 559]
The result presents itself as a development of the arguments in Wells's surprise hit Anticipations, although it had markedly less impact than the earlier book, largely I suspect because it is simply not as good. Mankind in the Making is prolix where the first book was tight, underpowered and diffusely distracted by the minutiae of its own argument. The Experiment in Autobiography, with really quite remarkable honesty, characterises this as ‘my style at its worst and my matter at its thinnest, and quoting it makes me feel very sympathetic with those critics who, to put it mildly, restrain their admiration for me.’ It's hard to disagree.

Since this book is sometimes taken as evidence that Wells abandoned eugenics almost as soon as he took it up, it's worth looking into that topic in more detail. It is certainly true that through the Fabians Wells had met and befriended Graham Wallas, and it was in part through discussion and correspondence with him that Wells wrote the individual papers that make up Mankind in the Making; his influence being most pronounced in the earlier chapters.
Chapter 1: The New Republic
Chapter 2: The Problem of the Birth Supply
Chapter 3: Certain Wholesale Aspects of Man-Making
Chapter 4: The Beginning of the Mind and Language
Chapter 5: The Man-Making Forces of the Modern State
Chapter 6: Schooling
Chapter 7: Political and Social Influences
Chapter 8: The Cultivation of the Imagination
Chapter 9: The Organization of Higher Education
Chapter 10: Thought in the Modern State
Chapter 11: The Man's Own Share
Very broadly, Wallas argued that reformers' efforts needed to be directed towards nurture rather than nature: towards education and re-education rather than eugenics and selective breeding. The slackness of Mankind in the Making is in part explicable by the slowness with which Wells integrated these new ideas into his worldview, or perhaps indexes his reluctance fully to accept the case. Although he had himself been a teacher, and although his own career had grown out of education, Wells didn't really have the patience properly to embrace the slowly-slowly gradualist model of social improvement. His writing prefers some sudden lightning-strike that instantly disposes of all the clotted backhistory of inequality and squalor, as happens magically in In the Days of the Comet (1906), or (in a rather different way) in the novel he was working on at the same time as drafting these pieces, The Food of the Gods (1904). And whilst Wallas's influence means that Mankind in the Making does downplay Anticipations's eugenics line, this is not because Wells has turned against the concept. Rather it's because he doesn't think we know enough to be able to apply it effectively.

‘Chapter 2: The Problem of the Birth Supply’ begins by asking, in a manner indicative of a writer keen to sidestep the sentimental reaction sweet little babies tend to evoke in people: ‘how much may we hope, now or at a later time, to improve the supply of that raw material which is perpetually dumped upon our hands?’ Dumped: right. It's almost as if we're not talking about living, breathing human beings.

And that's because, well, we're not. Not really, not according to Mankind in the Making. This is a book that takes it as axiomatic that population is a burden, rather than a resource—what we could call the old Malthusian error. I don't want to derail my discussion here with a lengthy digression, but I think it's fair to say that Malthus's gloomy prophecies of global collapse have not come to pass. It is true, of course, that more people put more strain on resources; but the element missing from Malthus's analysis is that more people also provide the solution to that strain. Only people can solve the problems caused by more people, and a larger population provides a richer supply of that essential problem-solving resource. Wells's simply does not take the force of Ruskin's core insight that the only wealth is life. For him wealth is productivity, money (there are a great many fiduciary specifics in Mankind in the Making) and efficiency. For the purposes of Wells's argument in this book humanity is a mere dead weight to be manipulated, with only the best portions to be ‘made’ into something worthwhile.

Really, Mankind in the Making's question is not whether but how best can eugenics manage the transition from homo sapiens to the Wellsian homo utopiens. His view is that we do not yet have a good enough grasp of all the variables to be sure of achieving desirable ends this way. It's not, to repeat myself, that Wells repudiates eugenics: if we could be ‘clear what points to breed for and what points to breed out’, then we would be entirely justified in doing so; and he endorses the notion that certain hereditary diseases should indeed be ‘bred out’ from the population—for example, he reports disapprovingly that two deaf people were married in Saffron Walden in September 1902, and insists that the New Republic ought not to allow such things [Mankind, 66]. But, he worries that there are just too many variables to mean that we can be sure selective breeding will definitely improve the race.

The book breaks the topic down into: the positive traits beauty, health, capacity, genius and what he calls ‘“energy” or “go”’; and the negative traits criminality and alcoholism. None of these, taking them each in turn, are simple: a criminal may exhibit positive traits such as daring and ingenuity alongside the negative ones of amorality and social delinquency, and to breed out the latter may breed out the former. Not that Wells is advancing a more socially progressive agenda; in on the contrary.
The “perfect” health of a negro may be a quite dissimilar system of reactions to the “perfect health” of a vigorous white; you may blend them only to create an ailing mass of physiological discords. [Mankind, 49]
In some ways this is more racist than anything in Anticipations, since it both assumes that ‘race’ embodies a kind of biological fixity and that miscegenation must degrade the species. ‘The problems of the foreign immigrant and of racial intermarriage loom upon us’ Wells says a little later [Mankind, 67], sounding every inch the reactionary. He adds that the lack of ‘certainty’ means ‘there is nothing for it’ but ‘to leave these things to individual experiment’ for the time being, although ‘prompt and vigorous research’ must perforce be undertaken into these questions. So far from repudiating eugenics, Mankind in the Making calls, with manifest reluctance, for its postponement until such time as science can work out how to prosecute it effectively.
This missing science of heredity, this unworked mine of knowledge on the borderland of biology and anthropology, which for all practical purposes is as unworked now as it was in the days of Plato, is, in simple truth, ten times more important to humanity than all the chemistry and physics, all the technical and industrial science that ever has been or ever will be discovered. [Mankind, 72]
In the meantime, Wells turns his attention to educating the stock we have. He has a number of practical suggestions to this end, not all of which have aged well. First, pre-school: here the young child requires ‘constant loving attention’ which ‘is to be got only from a mother or from some well-affected girl or woman’ (so not, we can take it, from a father or well-affected boy or man). He has a real bee in his bonnet about the evils of adults using baby-talk with their children, a thing which must on no account be permitted: ‘those who are most in the child’s hearing should endeavour to speak—even when they are not addressing the child—deliberately and clearly. All authorities are agreed upon the mischievous effect of what is called “baby talk”.’ He goes on and on about this, with a sternness that seems, to put it mildly, misplaced:
When a child says to its mother, “Me go mome,” it is doing its best to speak English, and its remark should be received without worrying comment; but when a mother says to her child, “Me go mome,” she is simply wasting an opportunity of teaching her child its mother-tongue. One sympathizes with her all too readily, one understands the sweetness to her of these soft, infantile mispronunciations; but, indeed, she ought to understand; it is her primary business to know better than her feelings in this affair. [Mankind, 124]
That's telling them! Wells also had a fixed idea that children do not understand abstractions: ‘counting should be taught be means of small cubes, which the child can arrange and rearrange in groups. It should have at least over a hundred of these cubes—if possible a thousand’. Now I must say that, speaking as the father of two children, I worry that filling my house with thousands of small cubes would result not in the creation of two mathematical geniuses but rather in cubes being scattered everywhere in every room, clogging my vacuum cleaner and causing pain to the naked soles of my feet as I pad blearily downstairs in the morning to make tea. More practically, I doubt Wells's assertion that young children cannot handle abstractions: is there any actual research into child learning that supports this claim?

He is more sensible on schooling, which he thinks should teach the basics of reading and writing, instill espirit de corps and allow pupils to explore extensive libraries to uncover science for themselves. Then again, reasonableness here is never very far away from sheer bug-eyed ranting, as with this attack on the state of national education in the early 1900s.
There grows a fine crop of Quack Schools; schools organized on lines of fantastic extravagance, in which bee-keeping takes the place of Latin, and gardening supersedes mathematics, in which boys play tennis naked to be cured of False Shame ... The subjects of study in these schools come and go like the ravings of a disordered mind; “Greek History” (in an hour or so a week for a term) is followed by “Italian Literature,” and this gives place to the production of a Shakesperian play that ultimately overpowers and disorganizes the whole curriculum. [Mankind, 228-29]
You really do have to think Wells could have found worthier targets for his scorn than nude tennis, surely not a pastime that ever amounted to a national problem (did any actual school ever actually advocate it I wonder?)—and it seems to me that describing a curriculum that follows a history lesson with two lessons on literature as ‘the ravings of a disordered mind’ is more than a little de trop. On the topic of sex education, and perhaps surprisingly, Wells advocates censorship: art and literature should be ‘limited’ to ‘the sphere permissible to the growing youth and “young person”.’ To avoid ambiguity he adds: ‘yes. I am on the side of the Puritans here, unhesitatingly.’ In Chapter 9 ‘The Organization of Higher Education’ Wells proposes fifteen as an age at which inferior children should be syphoned-off ‘into employment suited to their capacity, employment which should not carry with it any considerable possibility of prolific marriage’ [Mankind, 313]. Enjoy your lives as neutered shop-assistants or street-cleaners, kids! The cleverer ones should go into university, and so develop (in Chapter 10) into citizens of the New Republic.

At this point, and in what is, at the very least, a failure in absolute objectivity, Wells launches into a lengthy disquisition on the importance of literature. Great writers are vital, he insists, for the intellectual life of the Republic, and accordingly it is a scandal that writers are compelled to earn money by constantly writing books and articles.
“No book, no income” is practically what the world says to an author, and the needy authors make a pace the independent follow; there is no respect for fine silences, if you cease you are forgotten. The literature of the past hundred years is unparalleled in the world’s history in this feature that the greater portion of it is or has been written under pressure. It was the case with Scott, the case with Dickens, Tennyson, even with Browning, and a host of other great contributors to the edifice. No one who loves Dickens and knows anything of the art he practised but deplores that evil incessant demand that never permitted him to revise his plans, to alter, rearrange and concentrate, that never released him from the obligation to touch dull hearts and penetrate thick skins with obtrusive pathos and violent caricature. [Mankind, 380]
Wells's solution is to subsidize writers to produce as little or as much as they like with a nationally endowed guaranteed income of ‘£800 or £1000’ annually. Wells can hardly pretend to be a neutral party where this proposal is concerned, and the significant quantity of text he gives over to discussing it looks a tad like special pleading. He even acknowledges as much: ‘it may seem to the reader that all this insistence upon the supreme necessity for an organized literature springs merely from the obsession of a writer by his own calling.’ Luckily, though, he has a persuasive rebuttal to such insinuations: ‘but, indeed, that is not so’ [Mankind, 389]. So there we are.

Then, abruptly, Mankind in the Making ends, with a peroration to Youth (‘without the high resolve of youth, without the constant accession of youth, without recuperative power, no sustained forward movement is possible in the world. It is to youth, therefore, that this book is finally addressed, to the adolescents, to the students ...’). Which is to say, Wells believes the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Except the ones from the poorest third of society, obviously.

The point is that this superstructure of specific educational proposals, confected in equal parts of Wells's own experiences growing up (hence: allow clever kids free run of the library), as a teacher himself and from the reading he was doing—it all rests upon an implacable foundation. This reformed pedagogy is not for all; and if there comes a future in which all the citizens of the New Republic do get to play with thousands of wooden math blocks and play decently-clothed tennis, it will be because the ‘people of the Abyss’ have been written out of the equation. Immanent throughout the book is the question about how to handle what Wells calls ‘birth waste’. And what a superbly dismissive phrase that is, to describe what, by Wells's own calculations, amounts to nearly a third of the entire population.

Wells's answer to this problem is certainly not to establish a comprehensive welfare state that can bring everybody up to the necessary level. Mankind in the Making is remarkably Thatcherite-heartless on this score. ‘Philanthropic people,’ says Wells ‘[strive] to meet the birth waste by the very obvious expedients of lying-in hospitals, orphanages and foundling institutions, waifs' homes, Barnardo institutions and the like’. But this merely serves ‘to encourage and stimulate births in just those strata of society where it would seem to be highly reasonable to believe they are least desirable.’ Wells's own estimate is that 30% of the UK population belong to this category, and must be either discouraged or actively prevented from having kids, though on the latter score he notes regretfully that ‘these people are fiercely defensive in such matters as this’ (‘these people’!) and that attempting to intervene is like trying to ‘handle the litter of a she-wolf’. He argues that a minimum standard of housing, nutrition, education and nurture is required if any given child is going to be able to fulfill their potential, but rather than propose (say) that the state guarantee these standards for all he proposes a range of laws to punish delinquent and poverty-stricken parents (‘these will converge to convince these people that to bear children into such an unfavourable atmosphere is an extremely inconvenient and undesirable thing’) and brushes aside the suggestion that this would be in any sense unfair:
It will be urged that these things are likely to bear rather severely on the very poor parent. To which a growing number of people will reply that the parent should not be a parent under circumstances that do not offer a fair prospect of sound child-birth and nurture. It is no good trying to eat our cake and have it; if the parent does not suffer the child will. [Mankind, 106-07]
Hand-in-hand with this is the proposal, important enough in Wells's view to merit italicisation, that ‘it is better in the long run that people whose character and capacity will not render it worth while to employ them at the Minimum Wage should not be employed at all’. Let them starve, it seems. I mean not the writers, obviously; they should receive generous patronage from the State. But all the rest. This class
arrests the development of labour-saving machinery, replaces and throws out of employment superior and socially more valuable labour, enables these half-capables to establish base families of inadequately fed and tended children (which presently collapse upon public and private charity), and so lowers and keeps down the national standard of life. [Mankind, 107]
Tough love indeed. And it is in this way that Wells brings eugenics into his argument by, as it were, the back door. Such legislation will persuade ‘an increasing section of the Abyss’ to ‘contrive to live childless’, in which case they will breed themselves out of the body politic by default: ‘a childless wastrel is a terminating evil.’

It's true that Mankind in the Making doesn't include any of those perorations to pitilessness and steel-hearted genocide that so blot Anticipations; but in a way, by evading this fundamental, the book is. because more evasive, less savoury. At no point in his analysis can Wells conceive of this increasing population as possessing any inherent value. On the contrary: human life is a dangerous inundation. In a truly bizarre image, which Wells nonetheless insists is ‘a permissable picture of human life’, he invites us to ‘[imagine] all our statesmen, our philanthropists and public men, our parties and institutions gathered into one great hall, and into this hall a huge spout, that no man can stop, discharges a baby every eight seconds.’ Stem the ‘unending stream of babies’ or drown civilization. As far as that goes, and despite several times repudiating a Jean-Jacques Rousseau style subordination of life to ‘Nature’, Wells reverts to a pitiless Malthusian Darwinism. What of infant mortality, for example?
A portion of infant and child mortality represents no doubt the lingering and wasteful removal from this world of beings with inherent defects, beings who, for the most part, ought never to have been born, and need not have been born under conditions of greater foresight. [Mankind, 88]
I'm trying to remain objective here, but it is hard. You see, I was myself a defective birth: the result of an injuriously prolonged labour, a forceps delivery and a very ill baby, prone to fits, severely asthmatic and sick. 1960s-era medical science kept me alive. It is clear to me that at pretty much any earlier period in human history I would either have died during birth (killing my mother in the process) or soon after. So it's difficult to read Wells's breathtakingly offhand cruelty of tone here as anything other than a personal affront. But ‘fuck you, Bertie!’ is neither a proper nor objective mode of analysis, so for now perhaps I'd better step away from the keyboard and leave Mankind in the Mistaking for the time being.


Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Sea Lady (1902)



This was first published as a six-part serial in Pearson's Magazine (July to December 1901) and then as a book by Methuen in 1902, in the rather startling tomato-red livery above. The first American edition (New York: Appleton 1902) included eight illustrations by Lewis Baumer, some of which are included in this blogpost.

At just 40,000 words it's a short novel, and the story it tells is not complicated. A mermaid comes ashore at Sandgate, near Folkestone, and is adopted by a wealthy English family, the Buntings, who have a holiday home on the coast there. They cover up her fish-tail with a blanket, put her in a bath chair, recruit a maid to attend to her and name her (since originally she has no name) ‘Doris Thalassia Waters’. The Sea Lady herself, charming, polite and well-spoken, becomes a sort of local star.

The opening chapters are pleasant if lightweight comedy-of-manners stuff, and in the story's early stages a reader could be forgiven for thinking the Sea Lady's function is like that of the angel in The Wonderful Visit (1895), that is, to provide an ingenuous outsider perspective on the absurdities of human life. Read on a little further, though, and we begin to realise that's not what the novel is doing at all (it's really nothing like The Wonderful Visit). The Sea Lady knows all the important things about about human life already, and has neither need nor inclination to explore our world. The denizens of the undersea realm are, we discover, all extremely well-read, on account of the many books that end up on the seabed, lost or discarded or dumped in the ocean or else included in the libraries of shipwrecked liners (how the merpeople learned to read, or how they are able to read in the lower ocean depths where no sunlight reaches and the only illumination is marine phosphorescence, is not explained). No: the Sea Lady has another motive for coming onto the land.


The most obvious thing to say about The Sea Lady is that it is a Silver Fork retelling of Undine (1811), the celebrated fairy tale novella by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte, Baron Fouqué. Wells is perfectly up-front about this:
“You know it’s most extraordinary and exactly like the German story,” said Mrs. Bunting. “Oom—what is it?”

“Undine?”

“Exactly—yes. And it really seems these poor creatures are Immortal, Mr. Melville—at least within limits—creatures born of the elements and resolved into the elements again—and just as it is in the story—there’s always a something—they have no Souls! No Souls at all! Nothing! And the poor child feels it. She feels it dreadfully. But in order to get souls, Mr. Melville, you know they have to come into the world of men. At least so they believe down there. And so she has come to Folkestone. To get a soul.” [Sea Lady, 48]
In Freiherr Fouqué's tale, Undine (the name derives from the Latin for wave, unda) craves a soul, something a mermaid can obtain only by loving and being loved by a mortal man. Accordingly she falls in love with a brave and noble knight called Sir Huldbrand, who also falls for her. When they marry, Undine relinquishes her native immortality and gains her soul. At the same time, she warns Huldbrand that should he ever reject her, or send her away, her possessive and capricious water-spirit uncle Kühleborn will reclaim her and she would be lost to him forever. For a while the two live happily in Huldbrand's castle, far from the sea, keeping the jealous water spirits away by blocking up the castle's fountain. But the Lady Bertalda, who had hoped to marry Huldbrand before he fell in love with Undine, suggests that they all take a boat trip together down the Danube to see Vienna. It's a foolish jaunt. Kühleborn haunts the ship, scares the mariners and steals Bertalda's golden necklace. Huldbrand grows angry at Undine's sorcerous kin and repudiates her, and she slips sorrowfully into the water. Huldbrand returns to his castle broken-hearted, but in time he recovers sufficiently to marry Bertalda. But of course Undine is not dead, and this wedding is a bad idea. On her wedding night Bertalda, discovering a freckle on her perfectly fair neck, orders the fountain uncovered so she can wash it away, and through this aperture Undine is able to enter the castle. ‘Silently Undine threw back her veil, and Huldbrand saw her, fair as on the day he had won her for his bride. As he looked upon her, he knew that he had never loved any one in all the wide world as he loved Undine.’ She kisses him, he dies, and she glides away. At his tomb a spring starts up.


Wells's retelling replaces the slightly cloying tone of Fouqué's 1811 original with a much sprightlier vibe, nicely comic and sharply-observed; and although the tone does undergo something of a shift towards the end of the novel, turning more opaque and haunted it is always witty. The Huldebrand figure is Harry Chatteris, a handsome young man and friend of the Buntings, who is standing as the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the upcoming elections. On a previous trip to America Chatteris had become engaged to a millionaire's daughter, jilted her, caused a scandal, and returned to England via the South Seas. His planned career as an MP is his way of making amends and resuming his place in respectable life; and the same motivation is behind his betrothal to the eminently respectable Adeline Glendower—our story's Bertalda—beautiful, well-bred and with a strong sense of political duty. The Sea Lady is a more worldly-wise Undine than Fouqué's, and despite presenting herself to the Buntings as an innocent in fact she has been, we might say, stalking Chatteris for some time, having first seen him ‘in the South Seas—near Tonga’. This love-triangle is the meat of the story, and its telling mediated through the narrator's cousin Melville (the character named, I presume, as a sort of Moby-Dick joke) who is another friend of the Buntings, and interacts with all three parties.


Chatteris is helpless before the immortal seductive powers of the Sea Lady. He breaks the engagement off with Adeline, causing another scandal. Mrs Bunting, belatedly realising that the Sea Lady is not so innocent as she pretends, throws her out (‘I’ve been very much deceived in you, Miss Waters—very much indeed’). The mermaid, independently wealthy on account of a casket filled with gold, jewels and treasure from the sea, is in no way incommoded by this, and takes a suite for herself and her maid in a nearby hotel. Summoned down from London by Mrs Bunting to try and patch things up, Melville has a long talk with the jilted Adeline. She wants to know what this Sea Lady has that she hasn't. He doesn't spare her feelings: ‘you are austere. You are restrained. Life—for a man like Chatteris—is schooling ...You are too much—the agent general of his duty.’ When she presses him, Melville deploys a metaphor with an interesting authorial-biographical resonance, considering that Wells had very recently built himself a lovely new house and installed his wife in it, whilst reserving to himself the option of going off to have sex with other women.
“You see you have defined things—very clearly. You have made it clear to him what you expect him to be, and what you expect him to do. It is like having built a house in which he is to live. For him, to go to her is like going out of a house, a very fine and dignified house, I admit, into something larger, something adventurous and incalculable. She is—she has an air of being—natural. She is as lax and lawless as the sunset, she is as free and familiar as the wind. She doesn’t—if I may put it in this way—she doesn’t love and respect him when he is this, and disapprove of him highly when he is that; she takes him altogether. She has the quality of the open sky, of the flight of birds, of deep tangled places, she has the quality of the high sea. That I think is what she is for him, she is the Great Outside. You—you have the quality—”

He hesitated.

“Go on,” she insisted. “Let us get the meaning.”

“Of an edifice.” [Sea Lady, 235-36]
This is, perhaps, a little too obviously nudging us to take the story as allegorising, in the figures of the two women, the security of marriage and the excitement of extra-marital sex—from, of course, the point-of-view of the man. The novel does at least prevent its (male) readers from having their erotic-fantasy cake and eating it too. At the story's end, Melville has a lengthy conversation with Chatteris, who talks himself into repudiating his scandalous passion. ‘I want a moral cold bath and I mean to take one,’ he tells Melville. ‘This lax dalliance with dreams and desires must end ... I’ve made my choice. I’ve got to be a man, I’ve got to live a man and die a man and carry the burden of my class and time ... I renounce it. I make my choice. Renunciation! Always—renunciation! That is life for all of us.’ You couldn't call this a triumphant conclusion, exactly. ‘We have desires, only to deny them, senses that we all must starve,’ is Chatteris's rather Beckettian summary of things. ‘We can live only as a part of ourselves.’ A little bleak, but at least clear.

Except that, it turns out it's not. In the story's last twist, Chatteris abruptly breaks his own resolution, goes to the Sea Lady's hotel at midnight and runs off with her, physically carrying her through the lobby and out the front door. ‘And when she see my face,’ the night porter later recalls, ‘she threw her head back laughing at me. As much as to say, got ’im!’ The narrator ponders this:
I stood for a moment conceiving this extraordinary picture. Then a question occurred to me.

“Did he laugh?” I asked.

“Gord bless you, sir, laugh? No!” [Sea Lady, 294-5]
That's the end of Chatteris. They find the Sea Lady's expensive shawl on the beach. Evidently he carried her into the waters and sank beneath the waves to her world and his death. In sum: Chatteris chooses exotic sexual fantasy over respectable marriage and it kills him.

The incongruity between these later, rather earnest conversations and the earlier chapters' more jovial tone of polite comic incongruity may explain why people have tended not to rate The Sea Lady. It wasn't a contemporary success, commercially speaking (although neither was it exactly a flop: there were new UK editions in 1907 and 1910, and a second edition in America 1908) and it isn't much liked by Wellsians today: ‘a poor piece of work’ according to Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie. Wells's son Anthony West calls it ‘his least Wellsian book.’ Paul Kincaid says: ‘the novel was not a success and it is easy to see why. Despite the mermaid, it is not really a full-blooded work of the fantastic, and as a social novel it is thin compared to the other mainstream novels Wells was writing at this time.’ There's something in this, although I wonder if it's possible to redeem the incoherence at the book's heart. Maybe I'm fooling myself.

‘My father,’ Anthony West speculates in Aspects of a Life, ‘wrote the book to get something off his chest that he had not been able to admit to himself, or discuss with Jane,’ which puts in play the notion that what makes this an uncharacteristic Wellsian novel is that, this time round, Wells himself wasn't sure what he was doing. He wrote it during the period when he and his wife were negotiating, in person and by letter, the terms on which Wells was to be permitted, or licensed, to pursue sexual relations with other women. West calls this ‘their private treaty’, and he thinks The Sea Lady records his buried sense that such freedom ‘might have hidden costs’ [West, Aspects, 259]. That seems a likely, if perhaps rather over-obvious, thing to say. I think part of the distinctiveness of The Sea Lady as a novel is the way it resists simple decoding, and that this is also part of its unlikeableness. It is a fable that has to do with sex, certainly, but in a frustratingly oblique way—an obliqueness to do with more than simply the restrictions of Edwardian propriety on what can and can't be said in a novel. We might say it's about desire itself as obliqueness.

Wells's own account of the genesis of the novel tries to make it sound more straightforward than, I think, the finished product ends-up being. The germ of the tale was an encounter with a teenager called May Nisbet, the illegitimate daughter of Wells's journalist-friend E F Nisbet. When Nisbet died unexpectedly Wells (always financially generous to his friends) paid May’s school fees, told her to call him ‘Uncle Bertie’ and invited her to his Sandhgate house for holidays. In H G Wells in Love (1984) Wells recalls her as ‘a gawky and rather sullen girl’ of ‘fifteen or sixteen’ who did not attract him, until
... one day upon the beach at Sandgate she came down towards me wearing a close-fitting bathing dress; instantly she seemed the quintessence of sunlit youth to me, and I was overwhelmed with a rush of physical desire.
He adds ‘I never gratified that physical desire’, although he seems to have at least tried it on (‘I made love to May Nisbet but quite vaguely and inconclusively’ is how he puts it; made love, of course, in the old nineteenth-century sense, somewhere between ‘courting’ and ‘propositioning’: ‘hitting on’ may be the nearest contemporary equivalent). At any rate, the implication is that the force of this thwarted desire lies behind his portrait of the disruptive energies of the Sea Lady herself. I don’t think it distorts the novel to trace its tonal knight’s-move in terms of these two modes of apprehending sexual desire. Sex can be simple fun, a straightforward pleasure. Sex may be an unreciprocated or impossible yearning. It might even suddenly transition from one to the other, from comedy to transcendental mooning-about. That's surely what we have, in the shape of this novel.

I have to say the comedy is often pretty good. There are moments of almost Wildean wit (Adeline is exasperated that her betrothed doesn't seem to know his own mind, and Melville replies: ‘for a man to know his own mind is to have exhausted one of the chief interests in life’. Which is nicely epigrammatic). And I liked the proto-Wodehousian exchange Melville has with one of Chatteris's aunts, Lady Poynting Mallow, who thinks the solution to the scandal would be for Chatteris simply to marry the Sea Lady. Melville points out several times that she is a mermaid, but Lady Poynting Mallow is unmoved, and indeed thinks it might even advantage Chatteris's political career to have such a wife, since his political opponent ‘makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables’. Wells manages some excellent comic business with Melville's uncertainty as to whether this respectable lady is simply too polite to accept the most obvious objection, the Sea Lady's vaginalessness, or whether she genuinely does not understand how married love works. “You understand clearly,” he repeats, yet again, “she is a properly constituted mermaid, with a real physical tail?”
“Well?” said Lady Poynting Mallow.

“I think that such a marriage would be impossible.”

“Why?”

My cousin played round the question. “She’s an immortal, for example, with a past.”

“Simply makes her more interesting.”

Melville tried to enter into her point of view. “You think,” he said, “she would go to London for him, and marry at St. George’s, Hanover Square, and pay for a mansion in Park Lane and visit just anywhere he liked?”

“That’s precisely what she would do. Just now, with a Court that is waking up—”

“She doesn’t even mean to marry him; it doesn’t enter into her code.”

“The hussy! What does she mean?”

My cousin made a gesture seaward. “That!” he said. “She’s a mermaid.”

“What?”

“Out there.”

“Where?”

“There!”

Lady Poynting Mallow scanned the sea as if it were some curious new object. “It’s an amphibious outlook for the family,” she said after reflection. “But even then—if she doesn’t care for society and it makes Harry happy—and perhaps after they are tired of—rusticating——”

“I don’t think you fully realise that she is a mermaid,” said Melville; “and Chatteris, you know, breathes air.”

“That is a difficulty,” admitted Lady Poynting Mallow, and studied the sunlit offing for a space. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be managed for all that,” she considered after a pause ... “He could have a yacht and a diving bell,” she suggested; “if she wanted him to visit her people.”

“They are pagan demigods, I believe, and live in some mythological way in the Mediterranean.”

“Dear Harry’s a pagan himself—so that doesn’t matter, and as for being mythological—all good families are. He could even wear a diving dress if one could be found to suit him.”

“I don’t think that anything of the sort is possible for a moment.”

“Simply because you’ve never been a woman in love,” said Lady Poynting Mallow with an air of vast experience. “If it’s sea water she wants it would be quite easy to fit up a tank wherever they lived, and she could easily have a bath chair like a sitz bath on wheels.Really, Mr. Milvain——”

“Melville.”

“Mr. Melville, I don’t see where your ‘impossible’ comes in.” [Sea Lady, 252-56]
The joke here, at the risk of being reductive, is that Melville thinks ‘like a man’, of marriage as the licensing of sexual intercourse, where Lady Poynting Mallow thinks ‘like a woman’ in terms of social alliance and advantage. We might say that this novel takes its part in that rich tradition of English sex-comedy from Malvolio's letter in Twelfth Night to Carry On; the comic tradition that believes it absolutely hilarious that everybody thinks about sex all the time but nobody is allowed actually to talk about it. That same tradition that believes all communication is double entrendres and all physical action slapstick, because all innocent communication and ordinary behaviour is continually bothered and troubled by bawdy communication and lewd behaviour. I don't mean to sound condescending when I say this: a lot of this stuff is very funny indeed, it's the culture I have grown up in and has shaped who I am. Wells's big joke is the old one about mermaids: I mean, isn't it funny? Don't you think? That these iconic representatives of female sexual allure have fish-tails instead of spreadable legs and fish-scales instead of penetrable genitalia? I mean, what would a red-blooded male even do with such a being? Is that funny? I have to say I'm not sure. It's built, of course, upon an older misogynistic libel that women's vaginas exude an unpleasant fishy odour. Generations of schoolboys have read the footnote explaining Hamlet's joke about Polonius being a ‘fishmonger’ and sniggered at the reference to prostitution. I'm being a little stilted, here, I know; but it's not from prudishness, so much as an uncertainty how far the actual mechanics of sexual intercourse between a man and a mermaid are relevant to The Sea Lady as a novel. It's not that I think the comedy of the novel somehow ‘above’ this consideration. It's just that, well: it's hardly very original, is it?



René Magritte's L'Invention Collective (1934), there, of course. No: on balance I think the big joke of The Sea Lady is not that everybody thinks about sex but nobody is allowed to talk openly about it; I think the joke is the rather different one that everybody thinks about sex all the time, but nobody is actually allowed to have it. All we can ever do is access symbols for sex, stand-ins for sex, with the twist that actual sex (as, for example, between handsome Chatteris and beautiful Adeline) becomes itself only a sort of stand-in for sex, a mere symbol, a sex that doesn't satisfy the yearning that wanting-to-have-sex represents. The Sea Lady is about that search for the other kind of sex, the sex that isn't actual in-the-world sex. A Lacanian would say that the discomforting revelation around which this novel is structured, and which has unendeared it to so many, is the truth that the objet petit a simply doesn't correspond to the grand a, which is The Real, and which it supposedly represents. We repeatedly apprehend the former and in doing so repeatedly fail to apprehend the latter.  Chatteris frets, in his conversation with Melville, over why exactly he is so ready to throw over Adeline and go after the Sea Lady. The latter is beautiful, yes, but then so is the former!
Why should her smile be so sweet to me, why should her voice move me! Why her’s and not Adeline’s? Adeline has straight eyes and clear eyes and fine eyes, and all the difference there can be, what is it? An infinitesimal curving of the lid, an infinitesimal difference in the lashes—and it shatters everything—in this way. Who could measure the difference, who could tell the quality that makes me swim in the sound of her voice. The difference? After all, it’s a visible thing, it’s a material thing! It’s in my eyes.” [Sea Lady, 273]
This is an acute insight into desire as such (after all, why do we fall so completely for this one person, when this other person, and so many other people beside them, differ in appearance and personality only by infinitesimals?). It's also another of the book's big jokes. Because all this angels-on-a-pinhead worrying away at infinitesimal curvings of eyelids, and infinitesimal differences in eyelashes, very obviously, dances around the most patent difference between the two women, Adeline and the Sea Lady: that one has a vagina and the other doesn't. One might have thought that had some bearing on which of the two possessed more sexual allure. Except that The Sea Lady in effect advances the counter-intuitive thesis that actually men find women without vaginas more attractive than women with.

That's also part of the Carry-On-style joke, of course. When Bernard Bresslaw puts on a dress, other men suddenly find him immensely alluring, begin chucking him under his chin and propositioning him and so on. We can take this as funny one way, in that these men are clearly stupid, or rather than their lust has made them blind to the reality of things (a related joke is the concept of ‘beer goggles’): ha ha, look what idiots these men are! Can they not see this is not an attractive woman but on the contrary a big ugly man in a dress? Ha ha they must be idiots not to notice such an obvious thing! But we can take it as funny in a rather different way, too: the joke might be, look at these Englishmen, they pretend to desire women but in fact are all homosexuals, and need only the flimsiest and most patent of excuses to reveal their true nature! This is the big joke behind Some Like It Hot (1959), of course, and especially its lovely final line (‘Well, nobody's perfect!’) Indeed, the way that line works, capping-off that whole wonderful final scene in the speedboat, is to reveal that the joke's been on Jack Lemmon's character all along. It is Joe E. Brown's Osgood Fielding III in effect saying: ‘has it really taken you this long to understand that I'm gay? Do I really have to spell it out for you so blatantly?’

In some ways The Sea Lady is really quite Some Like It Hot-esque. As if to say: which of these women would you rather have sex with, Marilyn Monroe or Jack Lemmon? I should warn you that one of them doesn't have a vagina. The answer, as clickbit headlines like to put it, may surprise you. Then again, there are differences too. Some Like It Hot commits to its idea that the stuff it's about is funny stuff throughout. A Sea Lady loses its lightness somewhere around the two-thirds mark, and grows more portentous the closer it gets to its end. Jack Lemmon heads out to sea on a rousing punchline; Harry Chatteris heads out to sea to drown, and the final paragraphs of the novel manage the same sort of doleful music, and use the same imagery (and conceivably even were an actual inspiration for) the famous final paragraph of The Great Gatsby:
For the tailpiece to that, let us put that policeman who in the small hours before dawn came upon the wrap the Sea Lady had been wearing just as the tide overtook it. It was not the sort of garment low people sometimes throw away—it was a soft and costly wrap. I seem to see him perplexed and dubious, wrap in charge over his arm and lantern in hand, scanning first the white beach and black bushes behind him and then staring out to sea. It was the inexplicable abandonment of a thoroughly comfortable and desirable thing.

“What were people up to?” one figures him asking, this simple citizen of a plain and observed world. “What do such things mean?

“To throw away such an excellent wrap!”

In all the southward heaven there were only a planet and the sinking moon, and from his feet a path of quivering light must have started and run up to the extreme dark edge before him of the sky. Ever and again the darkness east and west of that glory would be lit by a momentary gleam of phosphorescence; and far out the lights of ships were shining bright and yellow. Across its shimmer a black fishing smack was gliding out of mystery into mystery. Dungeness shone from the west a pin-point of red light, and in the east the tireless glare of that great beacon on Gris-nez wheeled athwart the sky and vanished and came again.

I picture the interrogation of his lantern going out for a little way, a stain of faint pink curiosity upon the mysterious vast serenity of night. [Sea Lady, 299-300]
This isn't funny, obviously. It's poignant, with a kind of low-key plangency,and aims for a sort of numinousness (as does Fitzgerald at the end of Gatsby). It is saying that the incongruity and opacity of sexual desire is a haunting rather than a comical thing. It's also forcing the larger shape of the novel, formally speaking, into something like the opposite of a joke. A joke tells an ordinary story until the very end when it jolts into a hilarious punchline; this novel spends most of its time being funny, only to jolt at the end into something unfunny. It's unexpected, but more than that it's unexpected in an unexpected way.

In the run-up to writing The Sea Lady Wells was reading Henry James's collection of short stories The Soft Side (1900). We know this because he was annoyed enough by a negative review of that volume in The Morning Post write a letter to the editor, defending his friend's work. The story he particularly selects for praise is ‘The Great Good Place’:
His review cuts me the more keenly because “The Great Good Place”, concerning which story he uses this phrase, “a succession of incoherent remarks and its drift quite unascertainable”, has been a source of particular delight to me. I have read and re-read it many times. It seems to me to be just one of those happy, perfect things that come to reward the good artist for many laborious, not quite perfect days. And then—your reviewer's voice is heard. I cannot imagine the lack of imagination that fails to see that restful place Mr James has so happily invented. [‘To the Editor of the Morning Post’, 12 October 190; Smith (ed) Correspondence of H G Wells: Volume 1, 1880-1903 (London: Pickering and Chatto 1998), 362-63]
That Wells, author of ‘The Door in the Wall’ and many other things in that vein, found this Jamesian story so very resonant shouldn't surprise us. It's a fantasy in which an under-pressure London writer, George Dane, escapes via a visionary journey to a practical sort of paradise, obliquely told and not without its own flavour of sadness. The fantasy ‘great good place’ to which James's hero goes is not only much more like an luxury country-club or resort than a magical paradise, it is also exclusively male. The haven is a place where men can be with other men. For a closeted gay man, like James, such a sanctuary would have a particular sort of appeal. That is to say, James's story is a dream of escaping the pressures of mundane life that imagines such release as, in effect, a coming out of the closet. Might Wells's Sea Lady embody some similar veiled wish to enjoy sex without the complications of (whisper it) women altogether?



Well, I don't know. And you're not convinced, I can see. It's likely this hinted-at Queer reading of Wells's novel (which stands, I concede, on much less confident ground than the Queer reading of James's ‘The Great Good Place’) is, at least in part, an attempt by me to smooth out some of the misogynist wrinkles in The Sea Lady's representation of women. A fool's task, I daresay. Nonetheless, there are issues with the way the novel handles its gender politics. I don't want to sound too preachy, here, or to lose sight of the fact that the novel is a comedy. Still, the Sea Lady herself is quite straightforwardly a femme fatale, a danger seductress whose capricious irruption into the settled world of the Buntings and their circle results in disruption, scandal and death. Chatteris proves perfectly helpless in the face of her overwhelming erotic power.

Think again about the incident which Wells says prompted the novel: teenage May Nisbet coming out of the sea in her tight-fitting bathing costume. Quite apart from just how, well, icky this image is—a 35-year-old father-of-two lusting so brazenly over a fifteen-year-old girl—there is the question of its mendacity: I mean the way Wells deliberately inverts the power dynamic of the encounter when he writes it up. In The Sea Lady the woman is the one who has all the power.  I suppose we could say that in order to convey how potent was the effect this ‘overwhelming rush of physical desire’ was for Wells, he styles the encounter as one where the man is helpless before the overwhelming power of the woman. But I very much doubt it felt that way to young May Nisbet, still a child, financially dependent on Wells, trying to enjoy a summer holiday in the aftermath of her father's death, having this older man panting all over her. And Wells, had he thought about the situation for a moment, would surely have realised that.

This fiction by which men in effect blame women for the fact that they (the men) find the women sexually attractive is a particularly ancient one, deeply toxic and still prevalent today. It is the logic that says: the onus is on women to cover themselves up, to remove themselves from public spaces, to avoid flaunting themselves, because the fact that men desire women sexually is always the women's fault. It styles the object of desire as not only dangerous, even fatally so—as in this novel—but also somehow damaged, broken, or even monstrous. That last statement might look a little counter-intuitive, but it speaks to a common feature of the way such women get parlayed into culture: the spider-woman, the femme-fatale, Poison Ivy, the Undine who can kill with a single kiss. Beautiful and monstrous. Jacqueline Rose discusses this in her Sexuality in the Field of Vision (Verso 1986). When a sexually alluring female is introduced into a story, Rose notes, ‘the woman is by definition troubled because the category of female sexuality has already been constituted as disturbance at this level of narrative form.’ This in turn reflects back upon the (straight male) experience of being shaken by an unexpectedly powerful desire, of the kind Wells was registering with his vision of young May Nisbet. As Rose puts it:
As if desire lights upon its object, finds itself disarmed and then punishes the woman for the upset produced. Only a woman whose charm leaves the onlooker’s own identity intact can escape the weight of a condemnation which has been decided almost before the question has been put. [Rose, 116]
The monstrosity of the Sea Lady is physically manifested in her fishy tail, which has to be covered up, but on another level it is, as-it-were existentially, something much more predatory and morbid. And a touch of that ‘I blame you for the effect you have on me’ pathology seeps into the structure of the novel as such, sours much of the humour, and leaves an odd taste in the mouth. If Wells wasn't sure what he was writing, it may have been because it wasn't something he wanted to acknowledge.

But I don't want to leave things on this rather censorious note. I said earlier that The Sea Lady is not much liked by Wellsians. There is, however, a notable exception: the critic John Clute, who thinks very highly of the book indeed.
What is remarkable about this short novel is not the story as such, but its telling. Structurally it is the most complex thing Wells ever wrote, certainly the only novel Wells ever wrote to directly confirm our understanding that he did, indeed, read Henry James. Everything in the book is as it were perused by men and women in the process of being interviewed, after the fact, by The Sea Lady’s actual implied author, a first-person writer not dissimilar to Wells himself, who does not himself appear in the text until page eighty-three, when the Club Story frame of the tale finally becomes clear … up to this point in the text, we have been reading material the implied author had garnered, after this encounter, and has presented to us as more or less connected narrative. [But] from this point, the Club Story frame opens into a series of Jamesian conversations between the narrator and his second cousin Melville, who is a friend of the bewildered Buntings and who … never actually witnesses the mermaid whose story he recounts. [Clute, Pardon This Intrusion (2006), 123]
This is so insightful a reading I am compelled to forgive Clute the split-infinitive in his second sentence. He concludes ‘it is clear that Wells uses the Club Story here not to enforce witness, but to abscond.’ That’s surely right.

It also brings-in a second (after Fouqué's, I mean) textual influence, one I suspect though I can't prove. Earlier I quoted from Wells's letter to The Morning Post defending James's short fiction; and at this point the two men were good friends. Wells must have read James's 1901 novel The Sacred Fount, and presumably did so immediately prior to writing The Sea Lady. Perhaps the oddest of James's novels, The Sacred Fount is narrated by an unnamed individual who, staying as a guest at the stately home Newmarch, becomes obsessed by the idea that some of the other guests are have been rejuvenated by occult means. Formerly dull Gilbert Long is much wittier and more lively than he used to be; Mrs. Brissenden looks much younger than her husband although in fact she’s ten years older. He begins to spin a theory that boils down to, but (it being James) is never expressed in precisely these terms, that these two are renewing their vitality by feeding, vampire-like, from the “sacred fount” of their sexual partners' energy. He goes around the party trying to identify who the respective sexual partners might be, modifies and complexifies his theory, discusses it with the poet Ford Obert—a name I’ve always assumed combined two of James’s friends, Ford Madox Ford and ‘Bert’ Wells—and the novel ends in a long, baffling conversation at midnight between Mrs. Brissenden in which she rebukes him for the foolishness of his theories. “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!”

It is a work that left contemporaries nonplussed (Edith Wharton said of it ‘I could cry over the ruins of such a talent!’) and has intrigued and infuriated critics. One problem with it is that the narrator makes such a huge and complicated matter out of something so obvious: that people enjoy sex. Rebecca West famously said the book ‘records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.’ [Rebecca West, Henry James (1916), 107-08]. It's a novel that achieves the remarkable feat of leaving the reader unsure whether it's saying something deep and elusive, or obvious and banal. At any rate, it does seem to me to be doing similar things to Wells's novel, not in terms of style, or tone, or even form, but just so far as talking about sex as a hidden force or power, via an oblique and un-fleshed-out fabulation: a kind of vampirism in the James, the mermaid femme fatale in the Wells. But it is also, in a way, another version of ‘The Great Good Place’. James's Newmarch is a wonderful haven whose appeal is grounded in its very boringness. Indeed, we might want to read the narrator's crazy theorising as his way of passing the otherwise leisurely and understimulating days.
The day, as it developed, was large and hot, an unstinted splendour of summer; excursions, exercise, organised amusement were things admirably spared us; life became a mere arrested ramble or stimulated lounge, and we profited to the full by the noble freedom of Newmarch, that overarching ease which in nothing was so marked as in the tolerance of talk. The air of the place itself, in such conditions, left one's powers with a sense of play; if one wanted something to play at one simply played at being there. I did this myself. [Sacred Fount, ch 6]
But that's not quite right, either. Like The Sea Lady, The Sacred Fount styles sex not so much a secret hidden in plain view, as it is something that must elude not secrecy but simplicity if it is to continue as a pleasure. The idea that there was any depth to the novel is one James himself always denied: ‘that jeu d’esprit was an accident pure and simple,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton [9 August 1901], ‘and not even an intellectual one; you do it too much honour. It was a mere trade-accident, tout au plus—an incident of technics.’ Technical complexity, as Clute notes, is also part of the narratological game Wells in playing in The Sea Lady. All this surface busy-ness, and opacity beneath. An Undine, properly speaking, should sport amongst the undae, the waves, on the surface; but Wells's mermaid comes from much deeper than that.
“You have that beautiful greenery-blue shimmer I suppose,” said Miss Glendower, “that one catches sometimes ever so faintly in aquaria——”

“One lives deeper than that,” said the Sea Lady. “Everything is phosphorescent, you know, a mile or so down, and it’s like—I hardly know. As towns look at night—only brighter. Like piers and things like that.” [Sea Lady, 66]
This literalised depth is cancelled out by the depthless, that is, timeless, existence the Sea Lady lives: ‘there are no nights and days, you know,’ she says ‘No time nor anything of that sort.’ This observation puzzles simple-minded Mrs Bunting: ‘but how do you tell when it’s Sunday?’ The merfolk don't, of course, since they don't worship God, and this leads to an embarrassed hiatus in the conversation which Adeline, in an attempt to change the subject, only makes worse:
Miss Glendower, perceiving that she had been a trifle urgent, tried to cover her error by expressing a general impression.

“I can’t see it,” she said, with a gesture that asked for sympathy. “One wants to see it, one wants to be it. One needs to be born a mer-child.”

“A mer-child?” asked the Sea Lady.

“Yes— Don’t you call your little ones——?”

What little ones?” asked the Sea Lady.

She regarded them for a moment with a frank wonder, the undying wonder of the Immortals at that perpetual decay and death and replacement which is the gist of human life. Then at the expression of their faces she seemed to recollect. “Of course,” she said, and then with a transition that made pursuit difficult, she agreed with Adeline. “It is different,” she said. [Sea Lady, 68-69]
There are no children in the timeless undersea, and no sex, since sex is the means by which mortality engages time to overcome itself. Of course this means that the flat opacity of the Sea Lady's impregnable sexual allure is thrown all the more starkly into relief. But perhaps we're missing the obvious. Return to Fouqué's original Undine: what that mermaid was looking for in the first instance wasn't sex, or even love, but a soul. Wells's Sea Lady has come looking for the same thing. However handsome he is Chatteris is not her object, so much as her means to that end. James's narrator in The Sacred Fount tries to make the reality of social and sexual interaction fit his increasingly complex grid, and keeps failing because he is missing something key. Just so, Wells's puzzling novel frustrates the reader. We're all missing something obvious, but maybe it's not sex, but soul; not fifteen-year-old girls coming out of the sea in close-fitting bathing suits so much as the oceanic feeling itself. That elusive something ...