Remember how Graham Greene divided his output into ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments’? Were we to apply a similar scheme to Wells, Bealby would certainly be one of the latter. Indeed, reading it I was struck how much it had in common with the sorts of country house comic novels we associate with the early Wodehouse. Not that Wells is quite capable of Wodehouse's stylistic sublimity, comedy-wise: but Bealby is certainly a pleasant and amusing read, various comic set-pieces set in and around a stately home called Shonts, all populated by engagingly eccentric set of characters, above and below stairs. Interestingly, 1915 was also the year of the first Jeeves and Wooster story. Just coincidence of course. Or perhaps something in the water.
Arthur Bealby is a thirteen-year-old boy who has grown up below stairs at Shonts, raised by his mother, who works in the kitchens, and by his stepfather, Mr. Darling, one of the estate's gardeners. As the novel opens it is deemed time for young Bealby to start working on his own account, as a steward's boy. He finds the labour both onerous and tedious and he decides he won't do it. ‘“Mother,” he said, “I'm not going to be a steward's boy at the house anyhow, not if you tell me to, not till you're blue in the face. So that's all about it.”’ He is marched before the under-butler, Mr. Mergleson (‘he was an ample man with a large nose, a vast under lip and mutton-chop side whiskers. His voice would have suited a succulent parrot’) who proposes handling the lad's rebellion in the following manner: ‘Just smack ’is ’ed. Smack it rather ’ard.’ So Bealby runs off, and so begins his ‘holiday’, so called because we know from the get-go he's not properly absconding, just playing hooky for a few days.
Meanwhile, Shonts is hosting a weekend party, and posh people are descending on it from all directions.
The week-end visit is a form of entertainment peculiar to Great Britain. It is a thing that could have been possible only in a land essentially aristocratic and mellow, in which even the observance of the Sabbath has become mellow. At every London terminus on a Saturday afternoon the outgoing trains have an unusually large proportion of first-class carriages, and a peculiar abundance of rich-looking dressing-bags provoke the covetous eye. A discreet activity of valets and maids mingles with the stimulated alertness of the porters. One marks celebrities in gay raiment. There is an indefinable air of distinction upon platform and bookstall. [Bealby, 2:1]So the ‘holiday’ is the aristocracy's as well as Bealby's. Among the guests is no lesser luminary than the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, Lord Moggeridge, an individual of austere gruffness, fond of reading Hegel. Moggeridge gets into mildly comic scrapes trying to find himself a nightcap of whisky. His eyebrows, though, frankly defy the laws of physics: he can, it seems, ‘furl or unfurl [them] at will’. Indeed, the eyebrows begin to assume the status almost of characters in their own right; ‘by the end of dinner the Lord Chancellor kept his eyebrows furled only by the most strenuous relaxation of his muscles’; ‘“No,” shouted the Lord Chancellor, losing all self-control and waving his eyebrows about madly’; ‘With his eyebrows spread like the wings of a fighting-cock the Lord Chancellor in five vast noiseless strides had crossed the intervening space and gripped the butler by his collarless shirt.’ It's supposed to be funny, of course, although I wonder if the surreality of the trope distracts us from laughing at it.
Another guest is Captain Douglas: ‘very fair young man ... when he was not blushing too brightly he was rather good-looking’ [2:3]. To his immense embarrassment, Douglas get unjustly blamed for the Lord Chancellor's whisky misadventure:
In one hand [Lord Moggeridge ] held a cut glass decanter of whisky. In the other a capacious tumbler. Under his arm, with that confidence in the unlimited portative power of his arm that nothing could shake, he had tucked the syphon. His soul rested upon the edge of tranquillity like a bird that has escaped the fowler. ... Then something struck him from behind and impelled him forward a couple of paces. He dropped the glass in a hasty attempt to save the syphon.He's innocent though: the mishap was Bealby's fault.
“What in the name of Heavens?” he cried, and found himself alone.
“Captain Douglas!” ... it seemed to Lord Moggeridge, staggering over his broken glass and circling about defensively, that this fearful indignity could come only from Captain Douglas. [Bealby, 2:4]
Anyhow: Bealby runs away, falls in with three young women who are travelling in a caravan, and takes a position as a sort of ad-hoc serving boy. Posh young ladies, these, not gypsies—indeed, one of them, the beautiful young Miss Madeleine Philips, has a sort of romantic understanding with Captain Douglas. Bealby immediately develops a hopeless crush on her. There's a comical interlude on a golf course, and another with a deeply disreputable and dirty old tramp who recruits Bealby to burglary, and wherever he goes Bealby leaves a trail of inadvertent destruction behind him. It's all quite funny and diverting, though never laugh-aloud. Finally Bealby is apprehended by Douglas, who thinks the lad will exonerate him in the eye of the Lord Chancellor. With some difficulty Douglas arranges an interview with the Lord Chancellor in London:
“Perfectly simple, my lord! You imagine that I played practical jokes upon you at Shonts. I didn't. I have a witness. The attack upon you downstairs, the noise in your room ”Humiliated, Douglas leaves in a huff, and sets off for Madeleine Philips for consolation. But on the way he has a conversion experience, realises that he doesn't love Madeleine (‘She relies upon exciting me! She relies upon exciting everyone!—she's just a woman specialized for excitement’) and resolves to give her up. He self-diagnoses his problem as ‘this sex stuff: first I kept it under too tight and now I've let it rip too loose’.
“Have I any guarantee?”
“It's the steward's boy from Shonts. Your man outside knows him ...”
The Captain opened a door. Bealby found himself bundled into the presence of two celebrated men.
“Tell him,” said Captain Douglas. “And look sharp about it.” ...
“Well,” began Bealby after one accumulating pause, “it was 'im told me to do it. 'E said you go in there.”
The Captain would have interrupted but the Lord Chancellor restrained him by a magnificent gesture of the hand holding the watch.
“He told you to do it!” he said. “I knew he did. Now listen! He told you practically to go in and do anything you could.”
“Yessir.” Woe took possession of Bealby. [Bealby, 8:7]
Young Bealby is delivered back to Shonts where he promises his mother he is willing to ‘’ave another go’ at a life of domestic service. And that's where the novel ends.
The whole light-hearted exercise, represents a particular sort of fantasy: a fantasy of escape as temporariness. Bealby doesn't, as Mr Polly manages to do, get clean away. Indeed, the fort-da there-and-back-again structure of the book is saying something rather different about escape as fantasy than that earlier (and, I have to say, much superior) novel. The kernel of the story is the same autobiographical circumstance that Wells had fictionalised in Tono-Bungay: since he did not fit-in at Up Park where his mother was housekeeper, she tried various strategies for disposing of him, without success. The fourth such attempt was apprenticing the young Wells as a draper's assistant in Southsea, but he hated the position and soon enough ran away, returning again to Up Park:
I do not remember now the exact order of events in my liberation ... At any rate I got up early one Sunday morning and started off without breakfast to walk the seventeen miles to Up Park and proclaim to my mother that things had become intolerable and this drapery experiment had to end. I think that was the first intimation the poor little lady had of my crisis.It's a minor plot point in Tono-Bungay, but in Bealby it structures the entire novel. Like Blandings, Shonts figures microcosmically, but there's a more pointedly familiar or, indeed, oedipal drama underlying the escape and return. Bealby leaves his mother for, first, three young women one of whom, Madeleine Philips, he falls ‘in love’ with; and gets to know Douglas, who is his competitor for the affections of Madelaine. This little oedipal conflict is styled as playful, and it is written in an actually funny way. But from here Bealby goes on to encounter the symbolically diabolical father-figure of the old Tramp. Here's our lad's first sight of him, at night, by firelight:
I have told just how that happened in Tono Bungay and how I waylaid the procession of servants as they were coming up Harting Hill from Harting Church. I appeared among the beeches and bracken on the high bank. “Cooee Mummy,” said I, white-faced and tired, but carrying it off gaily.
The bad shilling back again! [Experiment in Autobiography, 4:1]
Bealby had never seen a human countenance lit from behind by a flickering red flame. The effect he found remarkable rather than pleasing. It gave him the most active and unstable countenance Bealby had ever seen. The nose seemed to be in active oscillation between Pug and Roman, the eyes jumped out of black caves and then went back into them, the more permanent features appeared to be a vast triangle of neck and chin. The tramp would have impressed Bealby as altogether inhuman if it had not been for the smell of cooking he diffused. There were onions in it and turnips and pepper— mouth-watering constituents, testimonials to virtue. He was making a stew in an old can that he had slung on a cross stick over a brisk fire of twigs that he was constantly replenishing. [Bealby, 6.2]The tramp proves as wicked as he looks: takes Bealby's poor store of money, and cajoles him, like Sikes with Oliver, into housebreaking. He is, in other words, the very embodiment of the Bad Father; and what's interesting about the way Wells writes this scene is how true he is to Bealby's vacillation over the merits of his new companion: ‘at first Bealby felt as though a ferocious beast lurked in the tramp and peeped out through the fallen hank of hair and might leap out upon him, and sometimes he felt the tramp was large and fine and gay and amusing, more particularly when he lifted his voice and his bristling chin. And ever and again the talker became a nasty creature and a disgusting creature, and his red-lit face was an ugly creeping approach that made Bealby recoil.’ This as-it-were lower oedipal nightmare is mirrored by the book's upper-class frame, and the pseudopaternal disapproval the Lord Chancellor expresses towards Captain Douglas. In both cases the hostility cannot be placated or defused, and both pseudosons run off—in Bealby's case, literally into the arms of his mother.
Haldanian Postscript. To a large extent Bealby is a straightforward roman-à-clef: Captain Douglas, for instance, is Wells's friend, the experimental aviator J W Dunne; and the Lord Chancellor character is based on the actual Lord Chancellor of the time, Richard Burdon Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane. The fictional character shares with Lord Haldane a passion for Hegel, though there's no sanction for the former's eyebrows in the blameless forehead of the latter. See for yourself:
Almost Shatneresque. By the time of publication Wells decided officially to disavow this Haldanian caricature. After all, the country was at war and Haldane's army reforms were proving genuinely crucial to national survival (‘As Secretary of War between 1905-1912,’ Warwick Funnell and Michele Chwastiak note, ‘Haldane had a singular influence on the British Army prior to World War 1. Some historians have referred to Haldane as the greatest army reformer in British history, surpassing even the attainments of Lord Cardwell in the early 1870s’ [Funnell and Chwastiak, Accounting at War: The Politics of Military Finance (Routledge 2015), 64]). So when Bealby went to press it included the following prefatory note:
An irresistible impulse made me give a leading part in this story to a Lord Chancellor who delighted in Hegel. I fought against it, in vain. Well I knew that there was in the world a Lord Chancellor who read Hegel and was in no other respect like my Lord Chancellor. No one who knows the real man will for a moment imagine that my figure is meant for him, physically, temperamentally they are absolutely unlike. But there is always that provincial fool who "reads behind the lines" and who is always detecting ‘portraits’ and ‘caricatures’ in innocently creative work. Him, I warn. You may say, ‘But why not take out the figure, alter it, make it Lord Chief Justice for example, give it some other mental habit than the Hegelian?’ That shows you know nothing of the art of fiction. I would rather be burnt alive than omit a little jest I have made about the Great Seal, and what other mental habit can compare with the rich Hegelian style? Who would read Bergson for comfort in the small hours? I would as soon dine on a boiled vegetable marrow, washed down with iced barley water. But Hegelian fills the mouth and warms the mind; it is as good as cursing. And things being so let me dedicate this book frankly and with affection and gratitude to that real Lord Chancellor who not only reads Hegel but who gave this country an army to be proud of, fit and ready when the moment came, who sought steadfastly to blend German thoroughness with our careless English fairness and who has suffered much foolish abuse and unreasonable criticism therefor in these wild patriotic times.This jocular disingenuity isn't going to convince anybody of course, but presumably its business it plausible-deniability rather than persuasion. And in the Experiment in Autobiography, with Haldane five years dead, Wells takes the gloves off:
Haldane was a self-indulgent man, with a large white face and an urbane voice that carried his words as it were on a salver, so that they seemed good even when they were not so. The ‘Souls,’ the Balfour set, in a moment of vulgarity had nicknamed him ‘Tubby.’ He was a copious worker in a lawyer-like way and an abundant—and to my mind entirely empty—philosopher after the German pattern. He had a cluster of academic distinctions which similar philosophers had awarded him. I used to watch him at our gatherings and wonder what sustained him. I think he floated on strange compensatory clouds of his own exhalation. He rejoiced visibly in the large smooth movements of his mind. Mostly he was very busy on his immediate activities; his case, his exposition, his reply, his lecture, and it was probably rare for him to drop down to self-scrutiny. When other men lie awake in the small hours and experience self-knowledge, remorse and the harsher aspects of life, crying out aloud and leaping up to pace their rooms, Haldane I am sure communed quite serenely with that bladder of nothingness, the Absolute, until he fell asleep again. [Experiment in Autobiography, 9.9]Then again, he concedes Haldane's forensic and organisational genius:
It is generally admitted that it was his reform of the army in 1905 which made possible the prompt dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914. His intelligence was certainly better trained and more abundant than that of any of the British professional military authorities, and he might have done great service during the actual struggle. But in a moment of enthusiasm for Teutonic metaphysics he had declared that Germany was his ‘spiritual home’ and Northcliffe, in an access of spy mania, hunted him from office at the outbreak of the war. It was a great disappointment for him, for he was acutely conscious of strategic capacity. But measured against such brains as those of Kitchener and French, almost anyone might be forgiven an acute consciousness of strategic capacity. I will not speculate about what might have happened if we had had Haldane as war-director instead of the fuddled dullness of Kitchener, the small-army cleverness of French, Haig's mediocrity and the stolid professionalism of the army people throughout.Since Haldane's genius was, by all accounts, organisational rather than strategic, it's hard to see what difference he might have made once the war actually got underway. But I dilate upon all this in order to be able to conclude this blogpost on an unsubstantiated hypothesis: that whatever else is going on Bealby as a novel, it is also a sort of private joke between Wells and Haldane in which the Hegelian Absolute is bodied forth as ignorant young boy—BE-ALL-BE—who floats through the world as passive as a balloon, who ‘wanders’ (the title of chapter 3) only to return. The point here, insofar as there was one, had to do with the rigorous particularity of Wells's imagination, novelistic and political, contrasted with the rigorous abstraction of Haldane's. ‘How was this undeniably big brain concerned with change and the incessant general problem of mankind?’ Wells wonders in the Experiment in Autobiography; ‘was Lord Haldane really touched by it at all? I do not think that between contemporary practicality and the Absolute there was any intermediate level at which the mind of Haldane halted to ask himself what he was doing with the world. His mind was unquickened by any serious knowledge of biology or cosmology [or] science.’