Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Marriage (1912)



1. Preliminary contexts

After the public scandal and personal heartbreak of Wells's affair with Amber Reeves (fictionalised in The New Machiavelli, amongst other books), Wells moved on to a rather different woman: Elizabeth von Arnim, née Mary Annette Beauchamp. She and Wells were lovers 1911-13, or more probably just from 1912-13. In H G Wells in Love, Wells recalls her as ‘a very bright and original little lady’ a successful author in her own right (the ‘Elizabeth’ was the name under which she wrote a string of popular novels, beginning with Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898, which fictionalised her unhappy marriage to the German Count from whom she acquired her surname). Indeed, ‘little’ is the frankly condescending watchword for the whole of Wells's rather truncated account of the affair: ‘The Episode of Little e’. As you can see, Elizabeth doesn't even merit a capital ‘E’. ‘She was incapable of philosophical thought or political ideas,’ Wells says; she had her native Irish ‘passion for absurdity and laughter’ and was ‘insincerely sentimental’ [Wells in Love, 87].

Throughout, Wells's account of the start of the affair is insouciantly self-regarding: ‘I attracted her,’ he says, laconically, adding that ‘she had found love-making with Von Arnim a serious and disagreeable business, but she was aware that it might be far less onerous and more agreeable’, thereby creating the self-serving if false impression that he had been the man to teach her that. He goes on in more-or-less boastful mode: ‘we made love very brightly, but I cannot imagine a relationship more free from passion than ours’. Just a bit of sexy fun, then. ‘We carried on the liaison with an impudent impunity,’ Wells brags. ‘We flitted off abroad and had amusing times in Amsterdam, Bruges, Ypres, Arras, Paris, Locarno, Orta, Florence—and no one was a bit the wiser.’


David Smith's account of the affair is considerably more friction-ful, and therefore rather more plausible, taking as it does evidence from Von Arnim's own fictionalised version of her liaison, as well as her own autobiographical writings and letters. After her marriage irretrievably broke down in the 1890s (the husband himself died in 1910) Von Arnim took a string of lovers, mostly from among her impressive coterie of devoted, younger followers: her children's tutors, Hugh Walpole, even, improbably enough, E M Forster. ‘She attracted and was attracted to younger men’ is how Smith puts it.

Wells met her in 1910 or 1911 and persisted with his advances despite her initial coolness towards him. At the time he was competing for her affections with the (much younger and better looking) C S Stuart, and though he did eventually win her round, or perhaps did eventually wear her down, it was not plain sailing. ‘Eventually (and it is difficult to to say how much Elizabeth resisted, as her fiction usually gives her the better of the situations portrayed) the two older people planned a romantic interlude in Ireland’ [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal, 371]. She seems to have changed her mind and gone off instead to Switzerland on her own: ‘Wells, now very importunate, followed her to Switzerland, after “reproachful” letters and amid scenes “of quite surprising violence”’ (Von Arnim's words in the double-quotation marks). They did become lovers, but, if you believe Von Arnim, it was not the happy-go-lucky fling implied by Wells's account:
The romantic interlude planned in Ireland finally took place in northern Italy, and although Elizabeth [Von Arnim, that is] informed her daughter than ‘his excessively trying behaviour’ broke up the affair, it was an affair conducted at the best of times under difficulty. She liked younger and more adoring men, and did not especially care for the rough and tumble manner in which Wells conducted the early part of his romantic escapades. After this trip they broke off the affair, but remained close friends. [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 372]
Wells version, read in this context, looks like a kind of wishful-nostalgia rather than a true account. When he says things like ‘twice we broke a bed—not very strong beds they were but still we broke them—and it was a cheerful thing to hear Little e explaining in pretty but perfect German why her bed had gone to pieces under her in the night’ it's only too patently a retrospective over-compensation. There's also Wells's anecdote about the two of them reading in the Times a moral letter by Mrs Humphrey Ward ‘denouncing the moral tone of the younger generation’ of writers, and demonstrating their contempt by stripping naked and ‘[making] love all over Mrs Humphrey Ward’: which might have more point in the two of them were writers of the younger generation. They weren't, though: Von Arnim, born in 1866, was the same age as Wells, though she looked younger than her years.



Indeed, if a detail from Von Arnim's fictionalised version of the affair, The Pastor's Wife (1914), is to be believed, when the two of them booked into their hotel together, the hall porter referred to H.G. as ‘Monsieur votre père’, which can't have pleased him. In the novel, Von Arnim says of her fictional version of herself at this juncture: ‘with the easy tactlessness of one who has not yet learned to be afraid, she looked at him and laughed.’ Uh-oh!

Incidentally, here's the Wells of that period (specifically, from April 1914):


At any rate, all this is in a very general way contextual to Wells next big novel, Marriage (1912), and relevant only obliquely, since that book doesn't in any way fictionalise Wells's affair with Von Arnim. I go into all this in detail here partly because I'm entertained by the mild Rashomon-effect of juxtaposing their two accounts, and partly because it became important to Wells to characterise the whole thing as a pleasant bit of fun sandwiched between two much more significant love-affairs: Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. If I'm honest, I suspect it mattered rather more to him in the moment than he later admitted, but since my concern is with Wells's writing and not with his willy I am really only discussing it because Wells so specifically linked it to a decline in the quality of the fiction he wrote 1910-13.
The period in my life between 1910 and 1913 when Little e was my mistress corresponds with several novels that were naturally published a little later than the writing. These are Marriage, The Passionate Friends, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Research Magnificent. None of them are among my best work ... they have less sincerity and depth than anything else that I have written. [H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (ed G P Wells; Faber 1984), 93]
Doesn't that look, even if only a smidgeon, as if Wells is somehow blaming Von Arnim for his dip in quality? Hardly gentlemanly. More to the point: hardly credible.

To return to the novel under discussion: Marriage has a particular role to play in this interregum, functioning as a specific copula between Wells prior deep love for Amber Reeves and his to-come deep love for Rebecca West. It was West's swingeing review of the novel in the shortlived feminist magazine The Freewoman that led to Wells inviting her to meet him, from which developed the second great extra-marital passion of Well's life.


It's quite the hatchet-job, that review. You could do worse than click the link [to pdf] and check it out.



2. Marriage and Kenosis.

The novel isn't as bad as West's review suggests. I'm sure you'd expect me to say as much. The worst to be said of it, I think, is that it feels like a second-thoughts, refried beans, sort of project. Wells's original plans for Ann Veronica (1909) had been for a novel twice as long as the one that was actually published. He had wanted to trace at novel-length his heroine's early life and her falling in love (with, you'll remember Godwin Capes, her tutor in science at Imperial College), and then follow-through with a second half, just as long, detailing the Ann's life as ‘Mrs Godwin Capes’ not as in terms of Anna Karenina-style misery and conflict, but true to the smaller-scale bumps and lumps, the little anticlimaxes and more settled pleasures. In the end he decided that this second half would unbalance the novel, which, I have to say, I think was the right call.

But the idea evidently wouldn't let him go, so he returned to it in Marriage. Marjorie Pope, the daughter of an affluent Edwardian bourgeois family ruled by her crotchety, bumptious father, accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr Magnet: a fortysomethng writer of comic prose, wealthy, balding, earnest (Wells includes several examples of his painfully strenuous ‘wit’). She does this partly under family pressure, and partly because she has run up debts as an undergraduate at ‘Oxbridge’: £50 or so, not much in the larger scheme, but more than she had admitted to her father, and something that preys on her mind.

Wells draws the milieu of upper-middle-class Edwardian summertime life well, and when a plane crashes in the middle of the Pope's lawn it strikes a nice note of romantic disruption. The plane belongs to the super-wealthy Sir Rupert Solomonson (‘he was,’ Wells writes in what must have struck a jaunty note in 1912 but which reads today as heartsinkingly ill-judged, ‘manifestly a Jew, a square-rigged Jew—you have remarked of course that there are square-rigged Jews, whose noses are within bounds, and fore-and-aft Jews, whose noses aren't—with not so much a bullet-head as a round-shot, cropped like the head of a Capuchin monkey’ [123]). The co-pilot is the not-wealthy-at-all-but-very-handsome R.A.G. ‘Rag’ Trafford, a university tutor in science specializing in crystallography. Marjorie falls in love, breaks it off with poor old Magnet, and marries Rag. The first half of the novel ends, as Ann Veronica had done before it, on this high note. Indeed, Ann Veronica herself even has a cameo in Marriage, when, late in the novel, she is part of a dinner party which Marjorie and Trafford also attend—‘Mrs. Godwin Capes, the dark-eyed, quiet-mannered wife of the dramatist, a woman of impulsive speech and long silences, who had subsided from an early romance (Capes had been divorced for her while she was still a mere girl) into a markedly correct and exclusive mother of daughters.’ [417] So that's the after-story of Ann Veronica. A little disappointing, really.

In Marriage Wells does what he wanted to do with the earlier novel but couldn't: that is, to carry the novel on for as long again with an account of how ‘Mag and Rag’ fare as a married couple. We get their day-to-day in some detail. He works, she keeps house and spends his money. They have four children. There are no great traumas or dramas, no infidelities or flaming rows, but as the book goes on there grows an increasing sense of dissatisfaction on both sides. Trafford grows moderately rich with a form of synthetic rubber her invents; signing an agreement with Solomonson to use the latter's wealth as investment and, over seven years, leveraging his ingenuity into a commercial success. But Marjorie has bigger plans for him. She wants him to be a great scientist and to use that position to go into politics; she sees herself as a great society hostess, with the ear of statesmen and eminences. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the second half of the novel is the way Wells portrays Marjorie filling her lack of sense of purpose with shopping: fitting out their house, buying herself things, insisting they move to a bigger house and fitting that out too. Matters come to a mild sort of crisis:
This darkling mood of his had only become manifest to her during the last three or four years of their life. Previously, of course, he had been irritable at times. Were they less happy now than they had been in the little house in Chelsea? It had really been a horrible little house. And yet there had been a brightness then—a nearness....

She found her mind wandering away upon a sort of stock-taking expedition. How much of real happiness had she and Trafford had together? They ought by every standard to be so happy....

“Rag,” she said, “something's the matter?”

“Well—yes.”

“The house?”

“Yes—the house.”

Marjorie considered through a little interval.

... “I want to open out. I want you to take your place in the world, the place you deserve.”

“A four-footman place?”

“Oh! the house is only a means.”

He thought upon that. “A means,” he asked, “to what? Look here, Marjorie, what do you think you are up to with me and yourself? What do you see me doing—in the years ahead?”

She gave him a silent and thoughtful profile for a second or so.

“At first I suppose you are going on with your researches.”

“Well?”

“Then——I must tell you what I think of you, Rag. Politics——”

“Good Lord!” [Marriage, 419]
Marjorie's insistence that he has ‘a sort of power’ and ‘could make things noble’ provokes Rag to, in effect, throw in his towel:
“I can't go on with my researches,” he explained. “That's what you don't understand. I'm not able to get back to work. I shall never do any good research again. That's the real trouble, Marjorie, and it makes all the difference. As for politics——I can't touch politics. I despise politics. I think this empire and the monarchy and Lords and Commons and patriotism and social reform and all the rest of it, silly, silly beyond words; temporary, accidental, foolish, a mere stop-gap—like a gipsey's roundabout-421- in a place where one will presently build a house.... You don't help make the house by riding on the roundabout.... There's no clear knowledge—no clear purpose.... Only research matters—and expression perhaps—I suppose expression is a sort of research—until we get that—that sufficient knowledge. And you see, I can't take up my work again. I've lost something....” She waited. “I've got into this stupid struggle for winning money,” he went on, “and I feel like a woman must feel who's made a success of prostitution. I've been prostituted. I feel like some one fallen and diseased.... Business and prostitution; they're the same thing. All business is a sort of prostitution, all prostitution is a sort of business. Why should one sell one's brains any more than one sells one's body?... It's so easy to succeed if one has good brains and cares to do it, and doesn't let one's attention or imagination wander—and it's so degrading. Hopelessly degrading.... I'm sick of this life, Marjorie. I don't want to buy things. I'm sick of buying. I'm at an end. I'm clean at an end. It's exactly as though suddenly in walking through a great house one came on a passage that ended abruptly in a door, which opened—on nothing! Nothing!” “This is a mood,” she whispered to his pause. “It isn't a mood, it's a fact.... I've got nothing ahead, and I don't know how to get back. My life's no good to me any more. I've spent myself.” She looked at him with dismayed eyes. “But,” she said, “this is a mood.” [Marriage, 420-21]
After this, Rag scoots off to Labrador to, in effect, have a long hard think about things: ‘he wanted intensely to think, and London and Marjorie would not let him think. He wanted, he felt, to go away alone and face God, and clear things up in his mind’ [388]. Persuaded by his mother, he takes Marjorie with him, and they hike off together into the Canadian wilderness:
Their journey lasted altogether a month. Never once did they come upon any human being save themselves, though in one place they passed the poles—for the most part overthrown—of an old Indian encampment. But this desolation was by no means lifeless. They saw great quantities of waterbirds, geese, divers, Arctic partridge and the like, they became familiar with the banshee cry of the loon. They lived very largely on geese and partridge. ...

And at last it seemed fit to Trafford to halt and choose his winter quarters. He chose a place on the side of a low, razor-hacked rocky mountain ridge, about fifty feet above the river—which had now dwindled to a thirty-foot stream. His site was near a tributary rivulet that gave convenient water, in a kind of lap that sheltered between two rocky knees, each bearing thickets of willow and balsam. Not a dozen miles away from them now they reckoned was the Height of Land, the low watershed between the waters that go to the Atlantic and those that go to Hudson's Bay. Close beside the site he had chosen a shelf of rock ran out and gave a glimpse up the narrow rocky valley of the Green River's upper waters and a broad prospect of hill and tarn towards the south-east. North and north-east of them the country rose to a line of low crests, with here and there a yellowing patch of last year's snow, and across the valley were slopes covered in places by woods of stunted pine. It had an empty spaciousness of effect; the one continually living thing seemed to be the Green River, hurrying headlong, noisily, perpetually, in an eternal flight from this high desolation. Birds were rare here, and the insects that buzzed and shrilled and tormented among the rocks and willows in the gorge came but sparingly up the slopes to them. [Marriage, 440-42]
They live alone for a while, and talk about things. On a hunting trip Rag's face gets savaged by a wild animal; he falls into a crack in the rocks, badly breaking his leg. Though he urges Marjorie to take their supplies and get home, she retrieves him, lugs him for three days on a makeshift shed to get back to their hut, and nurses him back to health. They discuss metaphysics (‘we ought to partake of immortality,’ Rag argues: ‘I mean we're like the little elements in a magnet; ought not to lie higgledy-piggledy, ought to point the same way, be polarized’ [479]); and Marjorie comes to a conclusion about her own gender responsibility:
My dear, I've been a fool, selfish, ill-trained and greedy. We've both been floundering about, but I've been the mischief of it. Yes, I've been the trouble. Oh, it's had to be so. What are we women—half savages, half pets, unemployed things of greed and desire—and suddenly we want all the rights and respect of souls! I've had your life in my hands from the moment we met together. If I had known.... It isn't that we can make you or guide you—I'm not pretending to be an inspiration—but—but-489- we can release you. We needn't press upon you; we can save you from the instincts and passions that try to waste you altogether on us.... Yes, I'm beginning to understand. Oh, my child, my husband, my man! You talked of your wasted life!... I've been thinking—since first we left the Mersey. I've begun to see what it is to be a woman. For the first time in my life. We're the responsible sex. And we've forgotten it. We think we've done a wonder if we've borne men into the world and smiled a little, but indeed we've got to bear them all our lives.... A woman has to be steadier than a man and more self-sacrificing than a man, because when she plunges she does more harm than a man.... And what does she achieve if she does plunge? Nothing—nothing worth counting. Dresses and carpets and hangings and pretty arrangements, excitements and satisfactions and competition and more excitements. We can't do things. We don't bring things off! And you, you Monster! you Dream! you want to stick your hand out of all that is and make something that isn't, begin to be! That's the man—— [Marriage, 488-89; ellipses all Wells's]
After this, Rag ‘discovers’ a new Marjorie: ‘all the host of Marjories he had known, the shining, delightful, seductive, wilful, perplexing aspects that had so filled her life, gave place altogether for a time to this steady-eyed woman, lean and warm-wrapped with the valiant heart and the frost-roughened skin. What a fine, strong, ruddy thing she was!’ [500] The path from a particularly gendered sort of decadence of consumerism, of over-refined civilisation, to this mutual, and philosophised, strength closes the novel on what Wells, we have to assume, considered a high note (I don't have time to explore all the parallels between this philosophy of strength and fascism, except to note that by 1912 Mussolini had already published La Filosofia della Forza). That which does not kill us, makes our marriage stronger.

They resolve return to England, with Raf declaring he will give up his research in order to write a book called From Realism to Reality, ‘a huge criticism and cleaning up of the existing methods of formulation, as a preliminary to the wider and freer discussion of those religious and social issues our generation still shrinks from’ [501]. The two of them trek back to the port, and the novel leaves them waiting for the steamer that will return them over the sea to their home.

This final portion of the novel, and its explicit turn to the classic Sublime (as landscape, but also as a kind of activated theology, a religious kenosis: ‘if God chooses to be silent—you must pray to the silence’ says Trafford. ‘If he chooses to live in darkness, you must pray to the night’ [511]) sorts strangely with the book's first two thirds, which are pointedly, even over-determinedly, domestic and bourgeois. But strange is not dispraise in my critical lexicon, and I take it that this is part of what Wells wants to do with the (for want of a better term) traditional lineaments of the novel. Indeed, to refer back to Wells's own assessment, mentioned above, that Marriage represents a decline in his fictional powers: might his 1930s perspective (when H G Wells in Love was written) have have reflected a reaction against his drift through the first half of the nineteen-teens towards, well, God. One of the last images of the novel is this one, as the reborn lovers hurry home again: ‘the snow blazed under the sun, out to sea beyond the ice the water glittered, and it wasn't so much air they breathed as a sort of joyous hunger’ [528].



3. Coda.

That Marriage is one of Wells's longest novels shouldn't surprise us. After all, it is two novels, welded together: a novel of courtship leading up to marriage, and a novel of how a marriage pans out. There's a case to be made for saying that the former of these two archetypes is the major mode of The Novel as such: Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) is still essential in its account of how the novel came into being, as, basically, a bourgeois entertainment that refracted the new economic and social dynamics of emergent capitalist Europe in the 18th- and 19th-centuries via domestic narratives of courtship ending in (the right) marriage. Not all early novels are like this, of course: but Watt frontloads this particular tradition, from Richardson through Austen and into the nineteenth-century, as the major one. The point of the marriage-plot is to allow the artform to address larger social concerns; and indeed Watt specifically praises Defoe (who almost never wrote those sorts of bourgeois courtship stories) precisely because ‘he seems long ago to have called the great bluff of the novel—its suggestion that personal relations really are the be-all and end-all of life; portentous because he, and only he, among the great writers of the past, has presented the struggle for survival in the bleak perspectives which recent history has brought back to a commanding position on the human stage.’ [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 133-34]. But nonetheless Watt considers Austen the first great genius of the form, and she never wrote anything other than bourgeois courtship narratives.

Of earlier writers like Fielding and Smollett Watt argues ‘it cannot be claimed that either completely achieved that interpenetration of plot, character, and emergent moral theme which is found in the highest examples of the art of the novel’ [Watt 15]. It's Austen who transmogrifies her predecessors:
Jane Austen faces more squarely than Defoe, for example, the social and moral problems raised by economic individualism and the middle class quest for improved status; she follows Richardson in basing her novels on marriage and especially on the proper feminine role in the matter; and her ultimate picture of the proper norms of the social system is similar to that of Fielding although its application to the characters and their situation is in general more serious and discriminating. [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 298]
There is a great river of courtship-leading-up-to-marriage novels of course, most of which do not possess Austen's extraordinary technical panache; and the form has its own logic, which boils down to: heroine is on course to marry Mr Wrong, but Mr Right appears in an unexpected manner and she ends up marrying him. Or perhaps, heroine initially believes Mr Right to be Mr Wrong (as with Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy) and only slowly comes to realise her mistake. It's a needful narrative kink to make the story dramatically interesting: the course of true love not running smooth until the end. That's the template Wells applies to the first half of Marriage, with poor old Mr Magnet as Mr Wrong, and Trafford dropping in literally from the sky to bring the narrative back to its proper conclusion. But the second kind of story, novels about married life, are much fewer and further between, and such examples as come to mind—Middlemarch, Anna Karenina and so on—tell stories of unhappy marriages, since a happy marriage lacks conflict, and therefore drama. All happy families are alike, after all. Or so it is reputed.

Indeed, I finished Wells's Marriage wondering if he was the first person ever to do this specific thing: to write a Jane-Austen-y bourgeois courtship narrative and then carry-through on the marriage for as long again as the courtship narrative. There's David Copperfield, with its portrait of David and Dora's married life (but think about it: isn't Copperfield really the courtship-narrative of David and Agnes, with the twist that David happens actually to marry Ms Wrong? Such that Dickens, rather cruelly, has to kill of Dora in order to make it clear that she's a plot-point and not the terminus of David's romantic journey?). On Twitter, my friend and colleague James Smith drew my attention to Pamela, which, provided we take both Parts 1 and Part 2, does exactly what I'm suggesting Wells was the first to do in Marriage: it shows the lead up to the wedding and then follows-through on a happy, rather than a tragically doomed, marriage. I take the point, although the first part of Pamela is a pretty twisted version of the bourgeois courtship narrative, what with all the kidnap, violence, sexual harassment and threats of rape and so on. I don't know: I'm tempted to say that Wells was indeed doing something new in this novel. I could be wrong.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997)



This sort-of sequel to The Time Machine was Wright’s first novel. I remember it creating a small buzz on publication (it won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction for instance) though it’s probably true to say it’s dropped off the collective radar rather since then. That may be because it’s so solidly tied to its decade: written 97, set 99, heavy with the now-passé doomsdayisms of that weird pre-millennial moment—when Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (remember that?) had narrative plausibility as the agent of imminent apocalypse for instance—plus many specific cultural references that, a mere two decades later, now have the lavender scent of the hopelessly out of time.

Still, it’s a shame that it has sunk into the cultural mulch. In many ways it’s a very interesting novel: jauntily and sometimes lyrically written, witty and wry. Although the Wells connection proves something of a feint, in the end. The novel’s premise is that the Wellsian time-machine is real (Wells, we’re told, liaised with Tesla, and developed a working model with one of Tesla’s students, Tatiana Cherenkova) and programmed to appear in Chelsea in 1999. Our narrator, David Lambert, a public-school-educated Cambridge archaeology graduate, intercepts the machine, finding Tatiana’s clothes inside but no Tatiana. He upgrades its 19th-century telemetry with a bit of 90s computer whizzery and jumps to 2500 AD. This leads into the novel’s strongest portion, a 130-page account of Lambert's trek across a future Britain entirely—it seems—depopulated, jungly, flooded and thronged with weird fauna, picking his way through the wreckage of the intervening centuries attempting to decipher the disaster.

Lambert is haunted by the death of his on-off girlfriend Anita, and his broken relationship with his quondam best friend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (not that Charlie Parker, though this novel's ‘Bird’ is also a jazz musician: a long-haired white bloke motorcycle-nut living on his uppers). A large proportion of the novel is devoted to Lambert's exasperatingly interminable recollections of his time with the sexy Anita and the volatile Bird. Anyway: eventually Lambert reaches Scotland and discovers a tribe of racially-black future-Scots, scratching a living farming llamas on the banks of Loch Ness. Here the novel rather abruptly shifts gear into a post-apocalyptic replay of the crucifixion via Macbeth, entertainingly written but a bit random. Lambert survives being nailed to a cross and makes his way back to London by boat. The novel ends with the increasingly sickening Lambert recovering his machine and planning his backward journey.

There are several ways in which this putative Wellsian novel is quite at odds with the spirit of H.G. For example there is the question of class. Wright gives every indication of being really quite posh, and on the level of content but also of tone this doesn't read like a lower-middle-class individual's novel. Another has to do with sex. There's a deal of sex in the book, ingeniously and vividly described, but it's all rather more repellent than is ever the case in sex-positive Bertie ‘I Like Sex, Me’ Wells. For example, early on Lambert attends an orgy in Chelsea:
Soon there was a merry scene: daisy chains, sandwiches, people stacked up like mating toads, woman on all fours, men pumping them at either end, and two or three complaisant slashers delicately inscribing each other with razor blades. The room filled up with the sounds of a milking barn, the semen smell of unripe Brie. [A Scientific Romance, 41]
I really don't mean to sound like a prude, but surely only the most hardened bufophile is going to find the description of ‘people stacked up like mating toads’ erotic. The purpose may not be titillation, of course, though the sheer quantity of the novel given over to a la recherche du bonks perdu with Anita rather suggests otherwise: Lambert addressing his memory-Anita on the subject of a pushbike ride they took together ( ‘A glorious day, you in white shorts with midriff bare ... a saddle with a long leather snout between your legs.’ [188]) or recalling ‘you let me bind you with silk and spray my pearls in your hair. Oh Anita!’ [146] and the like. So hard to write sex well, of course. But the biggest difference between Wright's novel and anything Wells wrote is its most powerful and memorable section: Lambert's trek north and its proto-Atwood, proto-VanderMeer weird nature writing. Wells in his writing is largely uninterested in flora and fauna, and spends little time on describing landscape. But in this portion of A Scientific Romance Wright achieves brilliance by only detailing flora and fauna and landscape. Maybe the whole book would have been better if the Wells connection had been excised completely and a generic own-brand time machine had been deployed.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Great State (1912)



This volume was co-edited by Wells, G R Stirling Taylor (a prominent London barrister and socialist) and the remarkable Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, who, having spent much of the later nineteenth-century as mistress to a string of prominent figures, including the Prince of Wales, Lord Charles Beresford (during which relationship she was shocked to discover that her husband, the Earl of Warwick, had impregnated Lady Beresford), American millionaire Joseph Laycock and various others, settled down somewhat in middle-age to socialist good works. I mean, I say, settled down. She did blackmail George V on his accession in 1910 by threatening to publish the love letters his father, Edward VII, had written to her when he was Prince of Wales—an inarguably commendable enterprise which netted her £64,000, close to seven million in today's money. But broadly speaking by the time she became friendly with Wells she had settled, as I say, into a more respectable middle-age.

So for example she joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1904. She donated generously to socialist causes, opposed World War 1, supported the October Revolution and after the war joined the Labour Party. The song ‘Daisy Daisy’ was written about her. The link from SF's Guvnor H G Wells, through his friend the Countess of Warwick, to HAL singing that song with increasingly machinic ritardando in 2001: A Space Odyssey makes me greatly, and perhaps illogically, happy.

Anyway, not to get distracted: the Countess, Taylor and Wells agreed on the desirability of a book exploring how the evolution of a socialistic State might work, and commissioned various prominent socialists to contribute. ‘A collection of essays by contemporaries actively concerned with various special aspects of progress was proposed,’ is how the preface to the book passive-voices it. This is the result:



Pausing only to remark what a most excellent name ‘L G Chiozza Money’ is for a fiscal economist, let us move on to Wells's contribution to the volume.

He starts by distinguishing between ‘the Normal Social Life’ and ‘the Great State’. The former is what has ‘been the lot of the enormous majority of human beings as far back as history or tradition or the vestiges of material that supply our conceptions of the neolithic period can carry us’ (basically ‘a community in which the greater proportion of the individuals are engaged more or less directly in the cultivation of the land’ [4]). The latter is where Wells wants us all to go. Between the two, however, is a third thing which Wells calls ‘the surplus life’, where trade creates surplus value which a few exploit: ‘all recorded history is in a sense the history of these surplus and supplemental activities of mankind’.
The Normal Social Life flowed on in its immemorial fashion, using no letters, needing no records, leaving no history. Then a little minority, bulking disproportionately in the record, come the trade and sailor, the slave, the landlord and the tax-collector, the townsman and the kind. All written history is the story of a minority and their peculiar and abnormal affairs. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 7-8]
History then is fundamentally anomalous: ‘the Normal Social Life is essentially illiterate and traditional. The Normal Social Life is as mute as the standing crops; it is as seasonal and cyclic as nature herself and reaches towards the future only an intimation of continual repetitions.’

Wells's main thesis is that ‘conservative’ thinkers—he specifically names Chesterton, Belloc and William Morris—romanticise the Normal Social Life, and regard ‘the surplus forces’ as ‘in more or less destructive conflict with it’. But, Wells says, this life was ‘laborious, prolific, illiterate, limited’, and cherry picking moments from the historical record doesn’t change that. ‘It must recede and disappear before methods upon a much larger scale, employing wholesale machinery and involving great economies’ [34]. This is the Great State, founded upon collectivised farms (‘extensive tracts being cultivated on a wholesale scale’ [36]) that will free up collective wealth for collective improvement and enjoyment. Wells lays out his standard Fabian compromise between plutocracy and full Communism, ideas he had already touched on in his Modern Utopia and his various Fabian tracts:
I would like to underline in the most emphatic way that it is possible to have this Great State, essentially socialistic, owning and running the land and all the great public services, sustaining everybody in absolute freedom at a certain minimum of comfort and well-being, and still leaving most of the interests, amusements and adornments of the individual life and all sorts of collective concerns social and political discussion, religious worship, philosophy and the like to the free personal initiatives of entirely unofficial people. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 42-43]
He ends with a little diagram tracing the path out of what, with a tidy piece of typographic delinquency, Wells now appears to call THE NORMAE SOCIAL LIFE.




I trust that's clear.

Floor Games (1911)



This slim volume, together with its 1913 companion piece Little Wars, grew from Wells's game-playing with his two sons, George Philip ‘Gip’ Wells (1901-1985) and Frank Richard Wells (1903-1982), who appear in the book under their initials. The book is illustrated with photographs and drawings, and sketches a number of games that can be played on what Wells calls ‘well lit and airy floors’. The needful? Toy soldiers wooden bricks, boards and planks, and electric railway rolling stock and rails. Off you go!

Floor Games and its companion have an important place in the history of gaming, a pastime which has become very culturally significant. I'm not sure this book in itself has much to say about what gaming was to become, although there is certainly something interesting in all this about the way Wells's imagination worked in a fundamentally modular fashion. I don't say do to denigrate it. On the contrary: he was able to develop hugely complex and intricate models in his writing, and the non-modular or impressionist mode of, say, Henry James or Proust wouldn't not have suited him, any more than they would have enjoyed something as gloriously silly and yet strangely resonant as constructing a Temple Whose Portals Are Guarded By Grotesque Plasticine Monsters.



I'm not much of a gamer, if I'm honest: although when I was a little kid I used to play a game with my two younger sisters that involved building townfuls of houses out of wooden bricks and lego and then moving playpeople in and out, interacting in (howsoever I ransack my memory) now incomprehensible ways. We called this game ‘People’ and it went on for hours. One thing I do remember: my Mum and Nan sitting at a table drinking tea and looking down upon the three of us as another interminable game of ‘People’ was underway. I remember Nan saying ‘why do they like this game so much, do you think?’ and I remember my Mum answering with one word: ‘power’. It wasn't the kind of answer that made any great sense to a ten-year-old, but hindsight tells me: she wasn't wrong.



Thursday, 20 July 2017

The New Machiavelli (1911)


:1:

There’s a splendid scene towards the end of The New Machiavelli where the protagonist (and narrator) Richard Remington attends a posh London dinner-party inside a burning house:
“A dinner of all sorts,” said Tarvrille, when he invited me; “everything from Evesham and Gane to Wilkins the author, and Heaven knows what will happen!” I remember that afterwards Tarvrille was accused of having planned the fire to make his dinner a marvel and a memory. It was indeed a wonderful occasion. [New Machiavelli, 4.3.1]
You can see ‘Wilkins the author’, Wells’s diminutive alter-ego, making a Hitchcockian cameo there; although he is somewhat supernumerary in a novel that David Smith calls ‘Wells’s most autobiographical’. The critics agree that Remington is the real Wellsian alter-ego in this book, his engagement with politics a parliamentary mirror of Wells’s time with the Fabians, and his affair with the beautiful young Isabel Rivers an iteration of Wells’s affair with Amber Reeves—down to the name of the love object herself, Isambel/r Rives. Anyway: by this point in the novel, Remington, estranged from his wife, has taken Rivers as his mistress, but for the sake of his political career they have agreed to separate, with Rivers marrying a complaisant young admirer called Shoesmith (just as Reeves married the lawyer George Blanco-White). This separation has made Remington profoundly unhappy. But, as an ambitious Tory MP, he goes off to dinner with this selection of Tory bigwigs.

As the dinner proceeds ‘a penetrating and emphatic smell of burning rubber’ alerts the company to the fire; Tarvrille sends his butler to investigate and confirmation comes.
We became aware that Tarvrille’s butler had returned. We tried not to seem to listen.

“Beg pardon, m’lord,” he said. “The house is on fire, m’lord.”

“Upstairs, m’lord.”

“Just overhead, m’lord.”

“The maids are throwing water, m’lord, and I’ve telephoned FIRE.”

“No, m’lord, no immediate danger.”

“It’s all right,” said Tarvrille to the table generally. “Go on! It’s not a general conflagration, and the fire brigade won’t be five minutes. Don’t see that it’s our affair. The stuff’s insured. [The New Machiavelli, 4.3.1]
And so they go on with their dinner party as the house goes up around them, not unlike the similar scene in that other great critique of British Imperialism, Carry on Up the Khyber:
There was a sudden cascade of water by the fireplace, and then absurdly the ceiling began to rain upon us, first at this point and then that …—a new vertical line of blackened water would establish itself and form a spreading pool upon the gleaming cloth. The men nearest would arrange catchment areas of plates and flower bowls. “Draw up!” said Tarvrille, “draw up. That’s the bad end of the table!” He turned to the imperturbable butler. “Take round bath towels,” he said; and presently the men behind us were offering—with inflexible dignity—“Port wine, Sir. Bath towel, Sir!”
Inside the burning house the guests enter into an interesting discussion of the hypocrisies of imperial power, moving from that into a debate about the nature of politics as such that critiques the political philosophy of the novel's main character, and therefore of the novel itself. The diners discuss ‘the story of the siege of the Legations in China in the year 1900’:
How the reliefs arrived and the plundering began, how section after section of the International Army was drawn into murder and pillage, how the infection spread upward until the wives of Ministers were busy looting, and the very sentinels stripped and crawled like snakes into the Palace they were set to guard. It did not stop at robbery, men were murdered, women, being plundered, were outraged, children were butchered, strong men had found themselves with arms in a lawless, defenceless city, and this had followed.

“Respectable ladies addicted to district visiting at home were as bad as any one,” said Panmure. “Glazebrook told me of one—flushed like a woman at a bargain sale, he said—and when he pointed out to her that the silk she’d got was bloodstained, she just said, ‘Oh, bother!’ and threw it aside and went back.”
As Wilkins notes, of course none of the British (or the French, or the Germans, but the novel isn't interested in them) were punished for this looting. They all returned to their respectable lives: “I suppose there’s Pekin-stained police officers, Pekin-stained J. P.‘s—trying petty pilferers in the severest manner,” says Wilkins.

Nowadays, when we tend to take the hypocrisies of imperialism and the corruptions of power as axiomatic, this of course doesn't surprise us: but Remington, like his dinner companions, is a believer in the civilising mission of the Empire—it's a version of Wells’s own belief in the desirability of the World State refracted through the sensibilities of a fictional character who is a Conservative MP. The group discusses how such things happen, and Wells drops-in a miniaturised short story in the echt Conradian mode:
Some man I didn’t know began to remember things about Mandalay. “It’s queer,” he said, “how people break out at times;” and told his story of an army doctor, brave, public-spirited, and, as it happened, deeply religious, who was caught one evening by the excitement of plundering—and stole and hid, twisted the wrist of a boy until it broke, and was afterwards overcome by wild remorse.
Setting this discussion inside a literally burning house, its characters drawling unconcernedly on, is a lovely touch.

Talk then shifts over to the specific grounds of Remington’s own politics: his popular slogan ‘Love and Fine Thinking’ (I take this to be a 20th-century renewal of the old Arnoldian call for Sweetness and Light), and his specific policy proposals on ‘an Endowment for Motherhood’. But the fact that everybody there knows of his scandalous extra-marital affair, although of course nobody says so in so many words, leads to the conversation turning nasty. The other dinner guests start by baiting the narrator mildly enough: ‘“Ours isn’t the Tory party any more,” said Burshort. “Remington has made it the Obstetric Party.” “That’s good!” said Weston Massinghay, with all his teeth gleaming; “I shall use that against you in the House!”’ But then an unnamed Cambridge don (‘something in his eyes told me he knew Isabel and hated me for it’ Remington says) attacks his slogan:
“Love and fine thinking,” he began, a little thickly, and knocking over a wine-glass with a too easy gesture. “Love and fine thinking. Two things don’t go together. No philosophy worth a damn ever came out of excesses of love. Salt Lake City—Piggott—Ag—Agapemone again—no works to matter.”

Everybody laughed.

“Got to rec’nise these facts,” said my assailant. “Love and fine think’n pretty phrase—attractive. Suitable for p’litical dec’rations. Postcard, Christmas, gilt lets, in a wreath of white flow’s. Not oth’wise valu’ble.”

I made some remark, I forget what, but he overbore me.

“Real things we want are Hate—Hate and coarse think’n. I b’long to the school of Mrs. F’s Aunt—”
Also, as it happens, my favourite Dickens character. But not to interrupt:
“Hate a fool,” said my assailant.

Tarvrille glanced at me. I smiled to conceal the loss of my temper.

“Hate,” said the little man, emphasising his point with a clumsy fist. “Hate’s the driving force. What’s m’rality?—hate of rotten goings on. What’s patriotism?—hate of int’loping foreigners. What’s Radicalism?—hate of lords. What’s Toryism?—hate of disturbance. It’s all hate—hate from top to bottom. Hate of a mess. Remington owned it the other day, said he hated a mu’ll. There you are! If you couldn’t get hate into an election, damn it (hic) people wou’n’t poll. Poll for love!—no’ me!”

He paused, but before any one could speak he had resumed.

“Then this about fine thinking. Like going into a bear pit armed with a tagle—talgent—talgent galv’nometer. Like going to fight a mad dog with Shasepear and the Bible. Fine thinking—what we want is the thickes’ thinking we can get. Thinking that stands up alone.
This nicely encapsulates the principal ways in which The New Machiavelli orients its political philosophy: ideals in tension with reactionary pragmatism. What is politics? Is it a set of practical beliefs about how the world can be made better? Or is it a more-or-less cynical programme of power, galvanising support by stoking hatred and xenophobia? Remington goes into politics inspired by the former point of view and is startled to little his attitude is shared. He looks around the dinner party. These men regard him, and the influential magazine he edits, The Blue Weekly, as important resources in the political game; but they do think of it as a game, and don’t share Remington’s ingenuous belief that it ought to be something more than that. ‘It was an extraordinary revelation to me. … They regarded me and the Blue Weekly as valuable party assets for Toryism, but it was clear they attached no more importance to what were my realities than they did to the remarkable therapeutic claims of Mrs. Eddy. For them the political struggle was a game, whose counters were human hate and human credulity; their real aim was just every one’s aim, the preservation of the class and way of living to which their lives were attuned.’

In this, of course, they are all proper Machiavellians. There are many things we can say about The Prince (1513), but the main argument of the book is that those who wish to succeed in politics must take a pragmatic, rather than an idealistic, perspective. One of the thrusts of Wells’s novel is that the utopian of whichever party-political stripe cannot make headway against these bedded-in pragmatisms of power.

In the aftermath of this dinner party Remington finds his resolve to stay away from the toothsome Isabel failing, and the novel ends with him abandoning wife and political career and instead decamping to Italy with Rivers and their illegitimate child. Which is also where the novel starts—the novel’s two opening sentences are: ‘Since I came to this place I have been very restless, wasting my energies in the futile beginning of ill-conceived books. One does not settle down very readily at two and forty to a new way of living, and I have found myself with the teeming interests of the life I have abandoned still buzzing like a swarm of homeless bees in my head.’ [1.1.1.]

 Remington’s restlessness is one of the keynotes of his character, and is compellingly developed through the whole of this lengthy novel. That throwaway allusion to a beehive—one of several traditional tropes of political philosophy of course—emphasises not order but buzzed-up and potentially destructive vagrancy. Remington’s repeated stress on the need for a new kind of political order, and his genuine hatred (as the Cambridge don accurately notes) of muddle, exist in a neatly rendered dialectical relationship with his own aimless self-destructive and libidinally chaotic energies.

I’ve quoted this dinner party scene from Book 4 at length, here, in order to lay down a couple of key points, but also to give a flavour of the novel as a whole: to give some sense of its rich, detailed, penetrating, often funny tone. It’s a rather mannered style of course: not stilted or reified as yet into the later Wellsian preachiness, but clubbish, digressive, recognisable and parody-able. It also necessarily dilutes its rhetorical and ideological force, as critique, by its discursiveness. The man whose name the narrator doesn’t know, who ‘began to remember things about Mandalay’, and who is presumably Joseph Conrad himself, would make a Heart of Darkness or a Lord Jim out of the anecdote of the army doctor who loses his civilised head and breaks the boy’s wrist. Wells tucks the thought out of the way, into a blink-and-miss-it paragraph, such that the glare of The New Machiavelli’s big wah-wah love story overwhelms it.

And actually this is about more than, as it were, narrative focus. It’s about mode. Conrad mythologises and estranges his material, which gives his Hearts of Darkness and Lords Jim the calibre of fables and thereby ramps-up their affect very considerably. Wells in mundane novelistic mode familiarises and, to a degree, banalises the material. This is a roundabout way of saying that Wells’s science fiction, and especially his shorter, more fabulist pieces (Time Machine, Invisible Man, Moreau and the like), achieve things, and therefore endure in ways that, his ‘realist’ fiction simply cannot. But then that’s exactly what you’d expect me to say.



:2:

The New Machiavelli is divided, perhaps a little over neatly, into four balanced sections of (except for the last one) four chapters each. The very final section leaves the reader with a sense of deliberate aesthetic incompletion by ending its third chapter en l'air, as Remington consoles the weeping Isabel on the train in which they are fleeing respectable life for an uncertain future together. ‘Book the First: The Making of a Man’ relates Remington's childhood and adolescence in Bromstead; ‘Book the Second: Margaret’ his courtship and marriage and the beginnings of his political career as a Liberal; ‘Book the Third: The Heart of Politics’ his developing career, his shift of allegiance to the Conservatives and the reasons for it together with the estrangement that grows between him and his wife; and finally ‘Book the Fourth: Isabel’ his affair with Rivers, their vacillating attempts to put an end to it and Remington's final sacrifice of his political career and respectability.

This rise and fall narrative puts a particular version of the (brilliant and charismatic) Remington before the reader. And, although I have already quoted David Smith description of this as ‘Wells’s most autobiographical novel’, it is the difference rather than the similarity of the parallel political lives of Remington and Wells that is most striking. Unlike Wells, Remington is the only child of a respectable upper-middle-class family, with a good education, married to a beautiful and wealthy heiress who adores him and has dedicated her life to helping him achieve his political ambitions. Like Wells, Dick's early political awakening is driven by a sense of the preponderance of muddle and mess in the way the world is disposed, and the lack of any effective collective action to impose social order, efficiency and fairness. Remington first finds his political feet in the London circle of Altiora and Oscar Bailey—cruel but vivid caricatures of Beatrice and Sidney Webb—which is another parallel. But the Baileys are Liberals not Fabians, and where Wells's Fabian episode was dominated by his (doomed) attempt to reform and expand the group Remington does not quarrel with the Baileys until the very end of the story, when they take the high moral ground over his affair with Isabel Rivers and spread the scandal. More, the novel contains no equivalent to Shaw, Wells's key Fabian frenemy and an absolutely central figure in his political life of the early 1900s. Remington stands as Liberal candidate for ‘Kinghamstead’ and so enters Parliament, which Wells never did. Remington’s comes to despise the ineffectual posturing of his fellow Liberals, and rethinks his political principles—he comes, in fact, to believe that society must be organised not only with systemic efficiency but with a guiding ethos of ‘the best’, an ideology (in effect, though Wells doesn’t use that word) of the aristos. This in turn turns him to the actual aristocracy, amongst the duffers and dead-wood of which he discerns some figures of genuine value. He joins the Conservative party, resigns his seat and sets up a weekly magazine called The Blue Weekly. All of this, of course, is very far from anything that Wells did or thought.

Beyond his ‘Love and Fine Thinking’ slogan, Remington's ‘big idea’ is an endowment for motherhood: state aid to help women with pregnancy and the early years of childcare, to free mothers from economic dependency on men. That looks commendably progressive, even by 21st-century standards, although Remington's rationale is rather more eugenicist and race-alarmist than a contemporary progressive would be comfortable endorsing.
The birth rate falls and falls most among just the most efficient and active and best adapted classes in the community. The species is recruited from among its failures and from among less civilised aliens … Contemporary civilisations are in effect burning the best of their possible babies in the furnaces that run the machinery. In the United States the native Anglo-American strain has scarcely increased at all since 1830, and in most Western European countries the same is probably true of the ablest and most energetic elements in the community [New Machiavelli, 3.4.5]
Still: it goes over with the electorate. He stands as Conservative candidate for Handitch (‘Liberal majority of 3642 at the last election’) and surprises everyone by winning it.

I don't want, here and now, to re-open that can of Wellsian worms marked ‘Eugenics’ (though it's a topic that can't be separated out from this novel, I'm afraid). But it is clearly not coincidental that Remington's fall is all tied-in with this question of sexual propagation. He and Margaret have no children, although (as Wells did with Amber Reeves) Remington fathers a child on Isabel Rivers, but he is adamant that this is separate to his eugenicist political programme:
We have already a child, and Margaret was childless, and I find myself prone to insist upon that, as if it was a justification. But, indeed, when we became lovers there was small thought of Eugenics between us. Ours was a mutual and not a philoprogenitive passion. Old Nature behind us may have had such purposes with us, but it is not for us to annex her intentions by a moralising afterthought. There isn’t, in fact, any decent justification for us whatever—at that the story must stand. [New Machiavelli, 4.1.1]
The final quarter of the book is very good on the messiness and scrappiness of a life in which strong desire is at odds with both public morality and private resolution: Remington and Rivers talking through the hopelessness of their love, trying to be just friends, failing, resolving on a complete breach, failing there too.

It is less good, I think, on the sheer vehemence of Remington's love rhetoric: the car-alarm insistency and volume of his repeated assertions of the intensity of love he feels for Isabel (‘I love Isabel beyond measure … I’m not in love with her now; I’m raw with love for her. I feel like a man that’s been flayed. I have been flayed’ and so on), not to mention the speeches he puts into Isabel's mouth: ‘our love is the best thing I could ever have had from life. Nothing can ever equal it; nothing could ever equal the beauty and delight you and I have had together. No one could ever know how to love you as I have loved you; no one could ever love me as you have loved me, my king’. King, no less!—when they were lovers, Amber Reeves used to call Wells ‘master’, but in his fictionalisation of the relationship he gives himself this promotion.

All this gives an impression of special pleading, of trying too hard to justify the magnitude of the wreck Remington makes of his life by an equal and opposite magnitude of love and sex. And that strikes me as a false step, really, dramatically speaking. One final divergence between the life-stories of Wells and Remington is that the latter runs off to Italy make a new life with his young lover where the former, after a brief and unsuccessful sojourn in a cottage near Calais, stepped aside, let his young lover marry her Shoesmith and moved on to a string of other young and desirable women. I suspect that The New Machiavelli might have been a stronger novel if the ruin of Remington's political career had not had to occupy a proportionate situation in the book's implicit moral schema to the grandeur of his love. Disproportion here would have been much more dyamic and interesting.

There is what Freud would call a manifest and a latent aspect to Remington's desire to impose order on what he sees as the chaos of society: a superego reaction to a political situation that perpetuates solvable miseries on vast numbers of people, and an Id reaction to do with power and self-aggrandisement. To be clear: Wells doesn't use the Freudian jargon in this novel, although he is centrally interested in the way desire cuts across rational self-interest: ‘I will confess,’ Remington tells us, ‘that deep in my mind there is a belief in a sort of wild rightness about any love that is fraught with beauty, but that eludes me and vanishes again, and is not, I feel, to be put with the real veracities and righteousnesses and virtues in the paddocks and menageries of human reason’ [4.1.1.] Because that's the other salient in the dinner party scene mentioned at the head of this post: our house is on fire. It is on fire as a trope for the clubbish complacency of the ruling elite amongst the dangers of the real world, but it is also on fire with unacknowledged and repressed libidinal drives. St Paul, of course, said it is better to marry than to burn, but Remington's dilemma is that he does both.

I'm certainly not suggesting that The New Machiavelli fails in terms of setting out its political world. On the contrary: the scenes of party organisation, of the campaign trail, a few backstage episodes at the House of Commons and so on, are all engaging and persuasively written. But it is a novel that simply doesn't conceive of politics as a mass phenomenon. So the dramatis personae is a dozen or so influential people in Parliament and journalism, and their influence is reported not shown. Indeed, for all that Remington leaves the on-fire dinner party disgusted that his colleagues regard politics as a game, the novel he narrates never goes further than a modular sense of how power actualises itself in society. The book's second chapter is a splendid account of how the young Remington's interest in politics were kindled by playing with toy people: ‘I dreamt first of states and cities and political things when I was a little boy in knickerbockers’ he says, adding: ‘justice has never been done to bricks and soldiers by those who write about toys … my bricks and soldiers were my perpetual drama’ [1.1.2]. And maybe this is even true. Maybe politics can only ever be a model version of the actual (massive, shifting, rhizomatic, chaotic in the strict sense) protocols of the interpersonal on the largest scale. But the novel doesn't want that to be true: it keeps going, restlessly, after something more authentic than ‘it's all a game’. And the problem with that is that Wells can't square the personal-political circle. That 1960s slogan about the personal being the political is beyond the remit of The New Machiavelli. In its place is a diremption between Remington's vividly rendered personal passions and his more schematic political ideas and praxis. It leaves the novel feeling, somehow, under-realised.

That's not to say it's a failure. Indeed I think it is to the book's credit that it makes no attempt to be a Trollopian exercise à la Pallisers. Instead it wrestles boldly with the need to constellate the rational and the irrational as political realities in a way that almost amounts to genuine self-criticism. Wells himself, from Food of the Gods onwards, is prone to a kind of exasperated insistence that his socialist alternative is so gigantically obviously better than the status quo. Remington deploys exactly that image with regard to the gigantic obviousness of his eugenicism:
Every improvement is provisional except the improvement of the race, and it became more and more doubtful to me if we were improving the race at all! Splendid and beautiful and courageous people must come together and have children, women with their fine senses and glorious devotion must be freed from the net that compels them to be celibate, compels them to be childless and useless, or to bear children ignobly to men whom need and ignorance and the treacherous pressure of circumstances have forced upon them. We all know that, and so few dare even to whisper it for fear that they should seem, in seeking to save the family, to threaten its existence. It is as if a party of pigmies in a not too capacious room had been joined by a carnivorous giant—and decided to go on living happily by cutting him dead. [New Machiavelli, 3.4.5.]
But the real giant in the room is the inevitability that Remington's illicit love-affair would destroy him. And the book does some interesting things with its metaphors of giganticism, as with this splendid description of the Empire itself:
“The British Empire,” I said, “is like some of those early vertebrated monsters, the Brontosaurus and the Atlantosaurus and such-like; it sacrifices intellect to character; its backbone, that is to say,—especially in the visceral region—is bigger than its cranium. It’s no accident that things are so. We’ve worked for backbone. We brag about backbone, and if the joints are anchylosed so much the better.” [New Machiavelli, 3.2.1]
The unnamed Cambridge don is right. Love and fine thinking serve a politician less effectively than hate and no thinking at all: than instinct and just spinal reaction. That sub-rational level is the one the novel is most effective at realising. When Remington tries to argue that the sexual hypocrisy of Britain in 1911 is a practically disadvantageous to the nation and the Empire he really starts to flail. Sp he rants at his friend Britten at the end: ‘“we have got to be public to the uttermost now—I mean it—until every corner of our world knows this story, knows it fully, adds it to the Parnell story and the Ashton Dean story and the Carmel story and the Witterslea story, and all the other stories that have picked man after man out of English public life, the men with active imaginations, the men of strong initiative. To think this tottering old-woman ridden Empire should dare to waste a man on such a score!”’ [4.3.1] A man who is offered either great political power or fantastic sex with a beautiful young mistress and mounts into a towering rage that he can't have both is unlikely to come across as especially endearing; nor does the attempt to rationalise this doubled appetite of Id by suggesting that it is the rest of us who are really losing out convince. It doesn't help that, having cited the most famous nineteenth-century example of an able politician brought low by a love-affair in Parnell, the best Wells can do by way of adducing additional examples is three made-up names.

Not that you blame him for having a go. The novel knows. Remington is living in a burning house, but he is himself the fire: ‘You know that physical passion that burns like a fire—ends clean,’ he tells Britten. ‘I’m going for love, Britten—if I sinned for passion. I’m going, Britten’ [4.3.1.] and ‘a letter Margaret wrote me within a week of our flight’ cuts the chase. His wife knows him, even as he has abandoned her:
There’s this difference that has always been between us, that you like nakedness and wildness, and I, clothing and restraint. It goes through everything. You are always talking of order and system, and the splendid dream of the order that might replace the muddled system you hate, but by a sort of instinct you seem to want to break the law. I’ve watched you so closely. Now I want to obey laws, to make sacrifices, to follow rules. I don’t want to make, but I do want to keep. You are at once makers and rebels, you and Isabel too. You’re bad people—criminal people, I feel, and yet full of something the world must have. You’re so much better than me, and so much viler. It may be there is no making without destruction, but it seems to me sometimes that it is nothing but an instinct for lawlessness that drives you. You remind me—do you remember?—of that time we went from Naples to Vesuvius, and walked over the hot new lava there. Do you remember how tired I was? I know it disappointed you that I was tired. One walked there in spite of the heat because there was a crust; like custom, like law. But directly a crust forms on things, you are restless to break down to the fire again. You talk of beauty, both of you, as something terrible, mysterious, imperative. Your beauty is something altogether different from anything I know or feel. It has pain in it. Yet you always speak as though it was something I ought to feel and am dishonest not to feel. My beauty is a quiet thing. You have always laughed at my feeling for old-fashioned chintz and blue china and Sheraton. But I like all these familiar used things. My beauty is still beauty, and yours, is excitement. I know nothing of the fascination of the fire, or why one should go deliberately out of all the decent fine things of life to run dangers and be singed and tormented and destroyed. [New Machiavelli, 4.3.5]
It's this that, ultimately, makes The New Machiavelli a novel less about politics than about the psychological obstacles to the individual engagement in politics.

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)



‘The enterprise of Messrs. T. Nelson & Sons,’ says Wells in the introduction to this volume ‘and the friendly accommodation of Messrs. Macmillan render possible this collection in one cover of all the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.’ A Best Of, then. ‘Except for the two series of linked incidents that make up the bulk of the book called Tales of Space and Time,’ Wells clarifies ‘no short story of mine of the slightest merit is excluded from this volume’. What, no ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’? Bertie, are you mad? Anyway: here, for reference (my reference I mean: of course you don't care) are the stories making up the collection, together with their places and dates of original publication.
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (Pall Mall Budget, 12 July 1894)
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 18 September 1895)
‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (The New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896)
‘The Obliterated Man’ (New Budget, 15 August 1895 as ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’)
‘The Plattner Story’ (The New Review, April 1896)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, December 1896)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
‘A Vision of Judgment’ (Butterfly, September 1899)
‘Jimmy Goggles the God’ (The Graphic, December 1898)
‘Miss Winchelsea's Heart’ (The Queen, October 1898)
‘A Dream of Armageddon’ (Black and White, May/June 1901)
‘The Valley of Spiders’ (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
‘The New Accelerator’ (The Strand, December 1901)
‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (The Strand, April 1903)
‘The Magic Shop’ (The Strand, June 1903)
‘The Empire of the Ants’ (The Strand, December 1905)
‘The Door in the Wall’ (The Daily Chronicle, 14 July 1906)
‘The Country of the Blind’ (The Strand, April 1904)
‘The Beautiful Suit’ (Colliers, 10 April 1909)
Because I've already discussed most of these stories in the posts dedicated to the collections in which they first appeared (here, here and here) I shall limit myself to a few brief observations on the title story, which made its first collected-in-a-book appearance in this vol. Then I'll say something more general about Wells and the form.



The frontispiece, there, illustrates a scene from ‘The Country of the Blind’. I'm sure you know the tale. Nuñez, attempting the ascent of the hitherto unconquered (and fictional) Mount Parascotopetl in Ecuador, falls down the far side in to an inaccessible though fertile valley entirely populated by blind people. Wells provides back-story rationalisation as to how this blind community came to be, although he really doesn't need to. The fable runs beautifully along its lines without all that sort of scaffolding.

Anyway: Nuñez goes about reciting the old Erasmian proverb ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’ and assumes he will rule this place. But the locals not only refuse to acknowledge that he is sensorially superior to them, they have no concept of sight at all and assume he is mad. Nuñez,though frustrated, realises he has to make the best of his situation, since the surrounding mountains render escape impossible. So he tries to fit in, whilst continuing to insist to the people there that he can see.

He falls in love with a girl, Medina-Saroté, but the village elders disapprove of his marriage because they consider his obsession with sight idiotic and delusional. The village doctor proposes removing Nuñez's eyes, reasoning they are diseased in some way that is affecting his brain, and, because he loves Medina-Saroté, Nuñez agrees; but on the morning of the operation he sneaks off, hoping to find a way over the impassable mountains to the outside world.

Wells published two versions of this ending: in the original version (as printed in this volume) Wells leaves his protagonist high in the mountains at nightfall, his fate uncertain, but, as I read it, probably dying. A revised and augmented 1939 version of the story alters this: Nuñez sees an impending rock slide, cannot convince the villagers of the danger they are in, and flees the valley together with Medina-Saroté in tow just before the avalanche wipes the whole place out. They make it to the outside world, marry and have four children, all sighted, but Medina-Saroté refuses the medical attention that might restore her sight. She believes her husband's insistence that the world around her is wonderful, but insists that it would be terrible to see it.

It's one of Wells's best known, and best, stories, all spun out of a premise both simple to the point of obviousness and elegantly wonderful in its novelty: ‘in the Country of the Blind would the One-Eyed Man really be king? Wouldn't an entire country of blind people have adapted to their blindness, such that sight wouldn't be such a biggie? Maybe they wouldn't even believe there was such a thing as sight’ and so on.  Not that it's a flawless piece. The ending's ambiguity speaks to a degree of uncertainty about the dramatic conception (Patrick Parrinder's analysis of the MS reveals a buried third ending, where Nuñez simply returns to the valley, which points to a writer barely able to make up his mind) and the worldbuilding of the story has never struck me as watertight. So for instance: the inhabitants of the valley think the birds are angels, since they can hear them flying about but can't touch them—but surely they'd get their hands on dead and injured birds from time to time, trap them in their homes and apprehend them, and realise they were just another sort of animal, no? But it wouldn't do to be too nitpicky here. This isn't realism, after all. This is a fictional version of Plato's allegory of the cave. As such it works well, although I'd say which of the two endings Wells came up with for this story you prefer will tell us something about your attitude to Plato's famous myth.

What I mean is: the way Plato tells it, the prisoner who escapes the cave, sees real sunlight and returns to tell his other encaved captives, has seen something both real and manifestly superior to everybody else. And in real life it sometimes is true that the person who insists s/he has seen truth and is shunned by the mass consensus for his/her pains has indeed seen truth. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred that person is not a visionary who has pierced the veil of maya, but is rather a nutter, somebody the balance of whose mind is disturbed. A hallucinator, attention-seeker or major loon. It seems to me the population of Blind Country are right to shun Nuñez's tyrannical ambitions, and certainly are better suited to their niche living that he. The original version of the story implies as much. But the avalanche conclusion steps back to the original Platonic notion: in the later version of the story Nuñez does have something the Blind Countrypeople lack, a true vision, and Wells bends the story to prove his point. Me, I prefer the latter of my two readings of Plato's allegory, and therefore the earlier ending. Your mileage may vary.



In the preface to the 1911 Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells notes that ‘the task of selection and revision’ entailed by this volume brought home to him ‘with something of the effect of discovery’ that
I was once an industrious writer of short stories, and that I am no longer anything of the kind. I have not written one now for quite a long time, and in the past five or six years I have made scarcely one a year. The bulk of the fifty or sixty tales from which this present three-and-thirty have been chosen dates from the last century. This edition is more definitive than I supposed when first I arranged for it. In the presence of so conclusive an ebb and cessation an almost obituary manner seems justifiable.
He goes on to speculate as to why he has, in effect, stopped writing short stories. Such writing used to come to him as easily as leaves to the tree:
I find it a little difficult to disentangle the causes that have restricted the flow of these inventions. It has happened, I remark, to others as well as to myself, and in spite of the kindliest encouragement to continue from editors and readers. There was a time when life bubbled with short stories; they were always coming to the surface of my mind, and it is no deliberate change of will that has thus restricted my production. ... I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.
he inserts a potted recent history of the form: the 1890s were ‘a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer’ with great work being produced almost continually by a whole tribe of short-story writers (‘Barrie, Stevenson, Frank-Harris; Max Beerbohm; Henry James; George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d'Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Marriott Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs and Joseph Conrad’), all led by Kipling: ‘Mr. Kipling had made his astonishing advent with a series of little blue-grey books, whose covers opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East’. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted. At any rate, Wells thinks that's all passed away now:
I do not think the present decade can produce any parallel to this list, or what is more remarkable, that the later achievements in this field of any of the survivors from that time, with the sole exception of Joseph Conrad, can compare with the work they did before 1900.
There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to whether Wells is right in his larger literary-historical diagnosis; but it can't be denied that it describes his own career as a short story writer. Despite being one of the true masters of the form, the inspiration of Borges and generations of SF authors, and despite the fact that some of his most enduring literary achievements are to be found amongst his shorts, he wrote no more of them. Why not?

It's not a question that admits of straightforward answer, I fear. He himself blames the figure he calls ‘the à priori critic’:
Just as nowadays he goes about declaring that the work of such-and-such a dramatist is all very amusing and delightful, but “it isn't a Play,” so we' had a great deal of talk about the short story, and found ourselves measured by all kinds of arbitrary standards. There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so. It was either Mr. Edward Garnett or Mr. George Moore in a violently anti-Kipling mood who invented the distinction between the short story and the anecdote. The short story was Maupassant; the anecdote was damnable. It was a quite infernal comment in its way, because it permitted no defence. Fools caught it up and used it freely. Nothing is so destructive in a field of artistic effort as a stock term of abuse. Anyone could say of any short story, “A mere anecdote,” just as anyone can say “Incoherent!” of any novel or of any sonata that isn't studiously monotonous. The recession of enthusiasm for this compact, amusing form is closely associated in my mind with that discouraging imputation. One felt hopelessly open to a paralysing and unanswerable charge, and one's ease and happiness in the garden of one's fancies was more and more marred by the dread of it. It crept into one's mind, a distress as vague and inexpugnable as a sea fog on a spring morning.
In comes the fog, it seems.

Still: fog, though Wells deplores it, may be part of the unique strength of the short story as a distinct form. In saying so I'm drawing on Timothy Clark's rather brilliant essay ‘Not Seeing the Short Story: A Blind Phenomenology of Reading’, which appeared as part of the Oxford Literary Review's special issue on ‘The Blind Short Story’ in 2004. Clark makes the case for the short story as a specifically blind mode of art, arguing that ‘what I propose to call, non-pejoratively, the “blindness” of the short-story revisits the issue of the form's relation to realism’. A long quotation from Middlemarch demonstrates George Eliot's commitment to as whole a sight as possible. The short story, by contrast, is necessarily determined by its pseudo-poetic brevity:
[Eliot's] passage of character analysis lasts several pages. However, were such a series of paragraphs as that about Lydgate to appear in a short story, might the mechanics of its realism not be more likely to echo back on itself, revealing its tautological basis? This element of the literary, that it actually conjures up what it seems merely to re-present as already there, is something this forms mere brevity—its lack of concretizing context—makes less ignorable. The short story, as they say, is more ‘poetic’. Eliot's effect of subtlety seems to escape this merely self-validating quality through its integration into earlier and later passages of the text. Without that, the kinship between the general ‘human truths’ of such a realist text and the kind of effects of ‘truth’ at work in a horoscope would be clearer. This lack of the trompe-l'oeil effects of a lengthy context constitutes what may be called the relative blindness of the short story. [Clark, ‘Not Seeing the Short StoryOxford Literary Review 26 (2004), 8]
Clark goes on to develop a larger phenomenology of blindness and reading, and whilst there's not space to get into all that here, it is, I think, worth drawing out one other point he makes. Metaphors of seeing, according to Clark, pervade short story theory. He finds a remarkable ‘predominance of countervailing metaphors of sight, of the striving to “see” a text whole, the flash of revelation etc’ in the way critics write about the short story form, and quotes one such critic:
‘Visual metaphors’, writes Dominic Head, ‘abound in short story theory, a fact which underlies the “spatial” aspect of the genre, but which also obscures the illusory nature of this aspect.’ The illusion lies in the fact that the visual pattern is constructed from out of the necessarily temporal movement of reading, its working through both memory and anticipation to achieve a seeming ‘overview’ of the text as a whole. Visual metaphors, he argues, often focusing the whole text through some crucial epiphanic moment of ‘insight’—itself usually described as if it were an instance of the miracle of the restoration of sight—repress the heterogeneity and ‘openness’ of a story. [Clark, 9; he is quoting Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10]
This all seems to me interesting in several ways, and although Clark doesn't might have some bearing on Wells's own praxis. Blindness either as a total state, as in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (or cast by the individual out upon the community in the short novel The Invisible Man), or else as a partial restriction or limitation of vision is a recurring theme in Wells's short stories: ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, ‘The Crystal Egg’ and many others. Conceivably Wells's increasing dissatisfaction with the short story mode correlated to that belief, which increasingly gripped him as the 1920s and 1920s went on, that he ought to be aiming at a kind of whole sight. His next novel, Marriage (1912), is a positively Eliotian exercise in comprehensive vision, in concretizing context and sheer length—getting on for 600 pages in the first edition (Joan and Peter from 1918 is nearly 800).

No question but it's a shame. Wells blindness was prodigiously more eloquent and resonant than his attempts as clear-sightedness. But he didn't think so, and drew a line under his short story writing. The short story form is the enclosed valley of ‘The Country of the Blind’; it is the sightless but blessed inhabitants of that valley. And the truth of Wells's later career is that he could not rest content in that place, but had to engineer a gigantic rock-fall and the opening of a new breach in the surrounding mountains to be able to scramble back to Realism.