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.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The History of Mr Polly (1910)



:1: Dejected Angelosity

The History of Mr Polly is a comedy.

This simple observation about the novel unpacks in some quite complicated ways, actually. But to begin with it's worth reiterating it simply: this is a very funny novel indeed, arguably the funniest Wells ever wrote, a beautiful blend of comic character, comic incident and comic appositeness of phrase. The History of Mr Polly concerns the life of Alfred Polly, a lower-middle-class only-son with an imaginative if not high-powered mind. He is a rather feckless individual prone to passivity and gloom, but inventive and, in the final analysis, brave. The novel starts with him as a miserable middle-aged man, keeping a shop in a small Kentish village, based on Sandgate (where Wells himself lived), called Fishbourne: ‘Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of life—which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours—every blessed neighbour—and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself. “Why did I ever get in this silly Hole?” he said. “Why did I ever?”’ [1:1]. Now: I know I said ‘Fishbourne’ and then quoted text that called the village ‘Foxbourne’. There's a reason for that, and I'll return to it at the very end of this post.

Bear with me.

So: the novel recapitulates Polly's life so far: the inadequacy of his schooling, the paucity of opportunities, his time working as assistant in a draper's shop. Polly daydreams, does his job poorly, muddles along, gets fired, picks up new jobs here and there, gets fired from them. Then his father dies and he inherits £395, a small but reasonably tidy sum in those days. This enables him to do nothing for a while except bicycle about Kent, which suits him. He falls in love with a schoolgirl whom he happens to meet sitting on the wall of her school, and for ten days he comes every day at the same time to the same place to declare his love in florid terms derived from the conceit that he is a chivalric knight, his bike his steed and she a damsel imprisoned by a dragon. The girl is more amused than flattered, and when Polly realises that she has invited her schoolfriends to eavesdrop from behind the wall at his ridiculousness he is genuinely heart-broken. It is on this peculiar sort of rebound that Polly marries his cousin Miriam, though he doesn't love her, nor she him; and he ends up sinking his inheritance in a provincial shop that generates neither money nor contentment.

Then the novel jumps forward fifteen years: Polly is now middle-aged, short, chubby and balding, and so miserable that he resolves to commit suicide. We're back at the starting point.

Polly is a man ‘whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto’ [3.2.]. In the early portions of the novel Polly's Joycean, or Mrs-Gampian, or Mrs-Malapropian linguistic inventiveness, his way with what Wells call ‘epithets’, rather gets in the way of his advancement. People don't understand or trust such a speaker: employers fire him, or won't hire him. But for the reader Polly's Pollyisms are sheer delight. Polly calls his fellow young men ‘Stertoraneous Shovers’ or ‘Smart Juniors’, both phrases expressive of disapprobation. In between jobs, he
went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had the strangest sense of being at home—far more than he had ever been at home before. “Portly capóns,” he used to murmur to himself, under the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval churchman. [History of Mr Polly, 3:2]
‘Monuments in the aisles,’ Wells tells us, ‘got a wreath of epithets: “Metrorious urnfuls,” “funererial claims,” “dejected angelosity,” for example’ [3:2]. As his relatives get drunk and chatty at Polly's father's funeral, he mutters to himself about the ‘gowlish gusto’ of these ‘hen-witted gigglers’ [4:5]. Learning to ride his bicycle involves him in what he calls ‘little accidentulous misadventures’ [5:2]. Kissing is ‘oscoolatory exercise’ [5:3]. Polly says ‘anti-separated’ instead of ‘anticipated’ [5:1] and ‘convivial vocificerations’ [6:6] instead of ‘congratulations’. He contradicts the general belief that Kaiser Wilhelm is about to order a German invasion of Britain by insisting that ‘William’s not the Zerxiacious sort.’ [7:6]. He attempts to make the best of his shopkeeper life (‘zealacious commerciality!’ [7:1]), but trade is slow and he quarrels with all but one of his fellow shopkeepers. The exception is Rusper, who keeps an outfitter's shop, and with whom Polly has often heated discussion:
Rusper’s head was the most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would say: “Boil it some more, O’ Man; boil it harder!” or “Six minutes at least,” allusions Rusper could never make head or tail of, and got at last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly’s general eccentricity. For a long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse, but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]
Rusper's wife recognises the allusion to Rusper's bald head, tells her husband and provokes a coolness between the two of them. Eventually they fall out, and indeed fall to blows, after Polly accidentally rides his bike through Rusper's stock. A lovely bit of comic writing, this:
Mr. Rusper, with a loud impassioned cry, resembling “Woo kik” more than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle, seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper, entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails. There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another—of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr. Rusper’s mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper’s ear before it occurred to Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn’t bite very hard), while Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub Mr. Polly’s face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn’t from first to last draw blood. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]
After this Polly is perfectly friendless for years.

The crisis of the novel is Polly's attempted suicide. After years of solitary misery and depression he decides to set fire to his shop one Sunday when his wife is at church and afterwards cut his own throat in the cellar. He would thereby put an end to his life and enable Miriam to collect on the insurance. The fire gets started easily enough, but then Polly accidentally drops his shaving razor and, rather than burn to death, runs outside. His burning shop sets fire to his neighbours and, in a sudden access of heroism, Polly rescues Mr Rumbold's deaf old mother, who lives in the upper storeys of Rumbold's shop. He emerges from the whole episode an unlikely hero: his neighbours are openly glad to have got shot of their unprofitable establishments, and able to retrieve their capital via their insurance.

At this the novel shifts gear into its third and final phase: Polly, freed from his suicidal misery by this near-miss, realises he doesn't have merely to endure his life. He can just go off, like Reginald Perrin (indeed, until reading this novel I hadn't grasped how deeply derivative of it David Nobbs's great sequence of TV shows and comic novels from the 1970s were. In some aspects it's almost a straight rewriting).

So: Polly takes a small fraction of his insurance pay-out, leaving his wife the lion's share, and tramps off through the Kentish and Sussex countryside, enjoying a new sense of existential freedom and happiness. He chances upon a country pub by the river called the Potwell Inn, where he decides to have a bit of food and a pint—or as Wells has him put it: ‘“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirloin for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”’ [9:3]. Inside is
the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen, seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight, well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance, good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.

My sort,” said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.

She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.

“Law!” she said, her face softening with relief, “I thought you were Jim.”

“I’m never Jim,” said Mr. Polly.

“You’ve got his sort of hat.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar. [History of Mr Polly, 9:3]
Polly takes work at the Potwell, doing odd jobs and manning the ferry, a simple barge-and-punt operation. He settles into what proves an idyllic life, with the only cloud on his horizon Jim, who turns out to be the plump lady's nephew. Jim is a violent bully who extorts money from the Inn and warns Polly away from what he considers his territory. Polly considers going, too; but in the end elects, heroically, to stay. The climax to the novel is Polly's serio-comical battle with Jim: first in the Inn and garden, when the two men fight using sticks and broken bottles, which ends when Polly is able to dunk the (stronger and more aggressive) Jim in the river, whereupon we discover that for all his bluster Jim is deeply aquaphobic. They fight twice more, but Jim is chased away at last (having stolen a quantity of Polly's personal possessions, including his clothes). Polly settles into the arcadian pleasures of life at the Potwell, the plump lady cooking delicious food for him, he useful and busy about the Inn, running the punt that serves as ferry, and altogether delighted by his surroundings.

The novel's final chapter is a coda: Polly has no regrets about his prior arson, but his conscience bothers him about having abandoned his wife, so he returns to Fishbourne where he discovers her happily running a teashop with her sister, believing herself a widow. It transpires that Jim had drowned in the Medway wearing Polly's clothes, on the evidence of which the authorities had declared the corpse to be Polly's. Miriam recognises Polly of course, but he tells her not to:
“It’s you” she said.

“No,” said Mr. Polly very earnestly. “It isn’t. It just looks like me. That’s all.”

“I knew that [drowned] man wasn’t you—all along. I tried to think it was. I tried to think perhaps the water had altered your wrists and feet and the colour of your hair.”

... “Look here, Miriam,” said Mr. Polly. “I haven’t come back and I’m not coming back. I’m—I’m a Visitant from Another World. You shut up about me and I’ll shut up about myself. I came back because I thought you might be hard up or in trouble or some silly thing like that. Now I see you again—I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied completely. See? I’m going to absquatulate, see? Hey Presto right away.” [History of Mr Polly, 10:2]
The novel ends with Polly, technically dead, perfectly happy in the Potwell, which becomes widely known for the quality of the plump woman's cooking, particularly her omelettes. Indeed so much so that ‘a year or so the inn was known both up and down the river by its new name of “Omlets”.’ In other words, one part of the comedy of this novel is the uncomplicated joy it takes in good food and life's simple, somatic pleasures. Peter Kemp, in his H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape: Biological Imperatives and Imaginative Obsessions (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), sums up the novel pretty well: ‘basically, it is the story of a man leaving a boney woman who is a bad cook for a plump woman who is a good cook, and settling down with his new partner to a life of gastronomic bliss in an inn once called “Potwell”, now rechristened “Omlets”’ [Kemp, 52]. Back, as the phrase goes, to the egg.


:2: Ur-Wisty

The History of Mr Polly is a novel that treats tragic matter in a comic mode. After all, there is (we can agree) nothing intrinsically funny about social deprivation, isolation, depression, arson and attempted suicide. Wells knows this, and invents a side-character, ‘a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a gold pince-nez, and writing for the most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club’, in order to provide the tragic perspective on Polly's life:
This gentleman did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally as “one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for order, commensurate with its complexities.”

“Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dulness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class ... Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned ... every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to avert it.” [History of Mr Polly, 3:3, 7:3]
The purpose of these interjections, basically, is to remind the reader that tragedy is much more a matter of form than content. Everything the gold pince-nez writer says is true, and yet Wells contrives to handle this too-sad-even-for-tragedy stuff as a richly comic resource.

This is a matter, I think, more of character than of incident or style. Stylistically, Mr Polly, though often droll and sometimes laugh-aloud, is not notably original, because Wells very obviously inhabits a fundamentally Dickensian manner in his prose, which gives the novel a slightly second-hand vibe. Occasionally he even stoops to reusing specific Dickensian gags. So for example this, from Chuzzlewit:
Mrs Spottletoe ... had no refuge but in tears. These she shed so plentifully, and so much to the agitation and grief of Mr Spottletoe, that that gentleman, after holding his clenched fist close to Mr Pecksniff’s eyes, as if it were some natural curiosity from the near inspection whereof he was likely to derive high gratification and improvement, and after offering (for no particular reason that anybody could discover) to kick Mr George Chuzzlewit for, and in consideration of, the trifling sum of sixpence, took his wife under his arm and indignantly withdrew. [Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), ch 4]
becomes
Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly’s close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that and, shaking it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace, and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in outward seeming a friend. [History of Mr Polly, 7:5]
But that's all fine. I mean, if you're going to steal, steal from the best: right? And what really makes Mr Polly stand out, I think, and what makes it quite startlingly original in a manner traceable through a main current of 20th-century British comedy, is the characterisation of Polly himself.

So far as I can see, Polly is the first iteration of what went on to become a major English comic ‘type’ or character: the figure of a lower-middle class man, respectable, in many ways dull (certainly living a dull, unexceptional life) but with an incongruously imaginative and inventive idiom indicative of a left-field imagination for which his mundane life simply does not cater. I'm not really talking about ‘the nerd’, here; although that particular stereotype is relevant. In its more common US iteration ‘the nerd’ is less specifically tied to a class identity than is the case with the archetype I'm discussing. A much better analogue would be Peter Cook's comic-sublime E L Wisty.



The crucial things here are the way the (in real-life patrician, public-school-educated) Cook would adopt a nasal, lower-middle-class accent, dress in the habiliments of a kind of slightly-shabby respectability, and deadpan a monologue about a life that mixed the quotidian and the surreal.



It has to do with class in a way peculiarly English, and may therefore be a kind of comedy that doesn't cross borders very well. Cook's influence on the next couple of generations of English comedians means that this ‘type’ occurs and reoccurs. Michael Palin's ‘Mr Pewty’ is a variant, although in this sketch we're being invited to laugh at his inadequacy, which, I think, isn't true of Wisty, or for that matter of Polly:



The problem here is that ‘we’ are more like Pewty than we are like the lecherous upper-middle-class marriage counsellor, and certainly than we are like John Cleese's slightly shadowy cowboy ‘man's man’ character. The balance of laughing at and laughing with isn't quite right in this sketch, I think. It is a little better balanced in Rowan Atkinson's most famous comic creation, although still skewed too far in the former direction.



But you can see that it matters that Mr Bean dresses smartly: not proper posh (Mr Bean in black tie wouldn't work), but a nice-enough jacket and a modest tie. That's part of his persona, as is his strangulated lower-middle-class voice and his various absurd and holy-fool shenanigans.

It has resonance because, I suppose, many people know people like this: I mean, people who, like Polly, would say not ‘I'd like some roast beef and a pint of beer please’ but instead ‘Provinder, cold sirloin for choice, and nut-brown brew and wheaten bread’. Wikipedia has a whole entry under the phrase ‘hail fellow well met’. This old Fast Show sketch is relevant, perhaps.



What's going on here? What was it that Wells—as I say, I think for the first time—was putting his finger on with this character? I wonder if part of the comedy with E L Wisty has to do with the incongruities of class. When Cook's other great comic creation Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling witters on about teaching ravens to fly underwater it chimes with our sense that the British aristocracy are all eccentric inbred loons; but when Wisty drones on about bees and world-domination and tadpoles and the 25-shilling meaning of life it hits a note of, ... well, what? A strange kind of social aspiration, perhaps? Is the larger joke here the notion that a lower-middle-class individual aspires to the sort of unhinged eccentricity we associate with the upper classes?

The broader point here, I think, is that this particular pitiful-comical, mildly-pompous hail-fellow-well-met lower-middle-class ornate-diction person is a distinctly English archetype. I'm not sure there's anything like it, even in Scots, Irish or Welsh culture. It indexes the profoundly uneasy immanence of class in the root and fabric of English identity, the way a person from one social class is shaped by unacted-on hypergradiant forces. This is not the parvenu, a figure with a rather different comic valence. It is that character in which the structures of class as such bend social and therefore personal subjectivity into queer, comical and sometimes oddly dignified shapes.

It finds its formal correlative in the particular school of comic prose that Wells has adapted from Dickens: I mean, the way highfalutin vocabulary and Johnsonian elegance of construction are used, with comic incongruity, to describe lowfalutin (as it were), bumptious, ridiculous or daft things. It's the gap between those two qualities, that space, that The History of Mr Polly so expertly inhabits.

The trajectory Wells takes Polly on, though, ends with him in a paradisical idyll. In the very last chapter of the novel, Polly and the plump woman (who is ultimately promoted by the novel to the status of the fat woman) discuss life and death with an unforced dignity that, here, makes its first appearance in the novel.
Mr. Polly sat beside the fat woman at one of the little green tables at the back of the Potwell Inn, and struggled with the mystery of life. It was one of those evenings, serenely luminous, amply and atmospherically still, when the river bend was at its best. A swan floated against the dark green masses of the further bank, the stream flowed broad and shining to its destiny, with scarce a ripple—except where the reeds came out from the headland—the three poplars rose clear and harmonious against a sky of green and yellow. And it was as if it was all securely within a great warm friendly globe of crystal sky. It was as safe and enclosed and fearless as a child that has still to be born. It was an evening full of the quality of tranquil, unqualified assurance. [History of Mr Polly, 10:3]
Polly confesses his arson to the fat woman, adds that he has abandoned his wife, and tells her that the feared Jim is dead. Then he tries to explain to her the intimations of sublimity aroused in him by the sunset. She struggles to understand:
“You can’t help being fat,” said the fat woman after a pause, trying to get up to his thoughts.

You can’t,” said Mr. Polly.

“It helps and it hinders.”

“Like my upside down way of talking.”
This leads to the novel's final conversational exchange, which is about death:
A deeper strain had come to the fat woman. “You got to die some day,” she said.

“Some things I can’t believe,” said Mr. Polly suddenly, “and one is your being a skeleton....” He pointed his hand towards the neighbour’s hedge. “Look at ’em—against the yellow—and they’re just stingin’ nettles. Nasty weeds—if you count things by their uses. And no help in the life hereafter. But just look at the look of them!”

“It isn’t only looks,” said the fat woman.

“Whenever there’s signs of a good sunset and I’m not too busy,” said Mr. Polly, “I’ll come and sit out here.”

The fat woman looked at him with eyes in which contentment struggled with some obscure reluctant protest, and at last turned them slowly to the black nettle pagodas against the golden sky.

“I wish we could,” she said.

“I will.”

The fat woman’s voice sank nearly to the inaudible.

“Not always,” she said.

Mr. Polly was some time before he replied. “Come here always when I’m a ghost,” he replied.

“Spoil the place for others,” said the fat woman, abandoning her moral solicitudes for a more congenial point of view.

“Not my sort of ghost wouldn’t,” said Mr. Polly, emerging from another long pause. “I’d be a sort of diaphalous feeling—just mellowish and warmish like....”

They said no more, but sat on in the warm twilight until at last they could scarcely distinguish each other’s faces. They were not so much thinking as lost in a smooth, still quiet of the mind. A bat flitted by.
It's surprisingly touching (perhaps I only mean: I surprised myself by how much it moved me). It picks up on the novel's actual deaths (in particular, the long, mournfully comical account of the funeral of Polly's father that takes up most of Chapter 4), the prospective death of Polly's planned suicide and the larger theme of spiritual death and waste, the deathly experience of low-grade depression, and with a lyric turn manages somehow to repudiate death as such. It's wonderfully done.



:3: Divinely Comedic

In his Structure in Four Novels by H. G. Wells (The Hague: Mouton, 1968) Kenneth B. Newell argues the case, fairly convincingly, that the whole novel is organised around a series of metaphors of digestion and indigestion, persona and social. But I have a different thesis about the ‘structure’ of this novel. I think Wells is playing a game with Dante.

I'll explain what I mean. The novel starts with Polly nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita (‘Mr. Polly’s age was exactly thirty-five years and a half’ [1:2]) and contemplating the gigantic hole that lies before him: ‘“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “’Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”’. Dante opens the Inferno also aged 35, also peering into a gigantic hole:



The most obvious difference between Dante's progress through Hell and Polly's through The History of Mr Polly is that Polly ends up as the ferryman, where Dante encounters Charon, ferryman over the Styx, early on (in canto 3 in fact). We might say that Dante, guided by Virgil, passes deeper and deeper into hell before passing through the other side, where Polly, guided by nobody, slowly emerges out of the misery and ends up in a liminal state of blithe death (as he insists to his estranged wife, or celebrates with the grandmaternal fat woman) ferrying people good and evil across the water.

But I would, I think, go further. I'll stick my neck out to insist that Wells's novel has nine substantive chapters (and one coda) because Dante's hell has nine circles (plus a tenth passage from the centre of the world to the mountain of Purgatory). So Wells's first chapter details Polly's youth, neglected in a useless school, more or less friendless, and then a draper's apprentice (sleeping in ‘a long bleak room with six beds’ [1:3]). It's all waiting for something to happen, and very much a limbo state of affairs—Limbo, of course, being Dante's first circle.




Wells's second chapter tells the story of the dismissal of young Polly's best friend, Parsons, from his position as draper's assistant: not on account of lust, but certainly because that young man is blown-about by the winds of his passion (‘he was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired’ [2:2]) under the influence of which he dresses the draper's shop window according to his own ‘artistic’ ideas of red and black, and then resists when the management try to remove him: ‘for a splendid instant Parsons towered up over the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he went under.’ Like a divine wind, as the kamikaze phrase has it; and career-suicidal, a gesture that anticipates Polly's own actual-suicidal plan later in the book.

In Chapter 3 Polly himself loses his position, and the universe rains and storms upon him: ‘the universe became really disagreeable to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade’ [3:3]. Chapter 4 is ‘Mr Polly an Orphan’, and Polly himself torn between the impulse to hoard his small inheritance as a shopkeeper or spend it thriftlessly as a bicyclist. Chapter 5 which includes Polly's brief love affair with the schoolgirl, starts with Polly wrathfully quarrelling with people on his bicycle (‘had a bit of an argument. I told him he oughtn’t to come out wearing such a dangerous hat—flying at things .... High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. ’I tell you, sir—’ ‘I tell you, sir.’ Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that’s the sort of thing that’s constantly happening you know—on a bicycle’ [5:2]) and ends with him sullenly miserable after he understands the frivolous way in which the schoolgirl considers him: ‘the bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly’s world’ [5:7].

The sixth chapter introduces a step-change in Polly's misery, as he immures himself in the coffin of his marriage to Miriam, and of his shop, and settles in the City of Dis-, or Fis-, hbourne. This brings us to circles seven and eight, and the novel's seventh and eighth chapters, where Polly is at his most tormented, and Dante's ‘Plain of Fire’, ‘Wood of Suicides’ and varieties of Fraud in ‘Maleboge’ find fictional equivalent in Polly's planned arson, suicide and insurance fraud.

This leads to what is perhaps the most interesting of Wells's games with Dante: the ninth circle, home to those who have betrayed their family, their country, their guests and benefactors and worst of all those who have betrayed their lord, culminating in Satan, trapped in a huge block of ice in the very middle of the Earth.

In Wells's Chapter 9, Polly actualises his own happy ending by, in effect, betraying his marriage vows and abdicating all his responsibilities. Now: this is a redemptive rather than damnable strategy, Wells says, provided only Polly is prepared to encounter his diabolic alter-ego, Jim. There's no question as to Jim's nature. The Plump Woman (his aunt, or great-aunt, I'm not sure) relates what Jim said to her, after he returned from his first stint in the Reformatory for theft and truancy: ‘him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a viper than a human boy. ... “All right, Aunt Flo,” he says, “They’ve Reformed me,” he says, “and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you.”’ [9:5]. Jim hurts the Plump Woman, steals her money, and tries his best to scare Polly away:
Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye. He spat between his teeth and wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist ...

“If you don’t clear out?”

“Yes.”

“Gaw!” said Uncle Jim. “You’d better. ’Ere!”

He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.

“What won’t I do?” he said. “Once I start in on you.”

He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. “I’ll make a mess of you,” he said in his hoarse whisper. “I’ll do you—injuries. I’ll ’urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ’urt you in ’orrible ways—’orrible, ugly ways....” [History of Mr Polly, 9:6]
The serpentine quality, the cavernous mouth (Dante's Satan's is big enough to stuff the whole of Judas's body in), the red eye, even the slobber running down his chin (‘... and down each chin/both tears and bloody slobber slowly ran.’ Inferno 34:53-4): all very reminiscent of Dante's Satan.

The Inferno not only puts Satan at the very middle of the world, in the lowest circle of hell, it ensures that Dante and Virgil's path runs right past him. It's the text's way of saying that sin cannot be avoided in this life of ours; we cannot just keep our heads down and hope Satan won't notice us. On the contrary, we have to be brave and confront Satan, push on through, go right past him, for only by doing this can we make our way to Purgatory and so to Paradise. Likewise Mr Polly, though he contemplates running away, conscious as he is of Jim's superior strength and pugilistic experience, resolves to face up to the challenge. He defeats the adversary, who then dies—as Satan dies forever in the middle of the way between earth and heaven, so Jim drowns in the mid-way, or Medway, river. Having faced down and won, Polly emerges in the tenth chapter to contemplate the beauties of the sky, in the passage quoted above, just as Dante emerges at the end of the Inferno, ‘e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.’

I'm not saying Polly is a one-to-one mapping of Dante's Inferno onto the novel mode, although I appreciate it may appear I have been arguing exactly that case. So let me put it another, indeed in a more upside-down, way. In the first edition (and some later editions too) Wells's chapter starts with Polly miserable in ‘Foxbourne’. Then we get the backstory to his life, before returning to the town, which Wells now calls ‘Fishbourne’. You remember, of course: I mentioned this at the head of the post. It was, presumably, a simple slip, but I think it an expressive one. The fox, predatory and sly, appearing like a flame in a field, speaks to Polly the arsonist and fraud. The fish, on the other hand, speaks to the river, to water and the baptismal renewal as well as the styxian transition into death which Polly comes to oversee. This is the larger thematic trajectory of The History of Mr Polly: from the frozen, prospectless chill of his youth (‘he meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded Polly’s mind’ [2:3]), through the blazing fire of his arson attempt that burns down the whole village, finally to the river where he becomes ferryman and finds happiness. This, of course, exactly reverses the passage through Dante's Hell, which goes from Styx to mid-journey fire to deepest circles of frozen gloom. And the other thing about Dante's Inferno?

It's a comedy.