Wells masterpiece of First World War fiction remains, a hundred years later, little short of astonishing. It is a vividly realised, involving, thought-provoking and by the end genuinely moving work of art. And it was, in its day, an extraordinary success. After a string of books that had managed only poor sales and snippy reviews (Wells's last really successful title, commercially speaking, had been 1910's Mr Polly) Mr Britling swept all before it. In the UK it was 1916's bestselling novel (released late in the season it nonetheless went through thirteen editions before year's end). In the US it was the fourth bestselling title of 1916 and, following the US's entry into the war, the number one American bestseller of 1917. [Michael Korda, Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller (NY Barnes & Nobel 2001), 16]—Wells's Autobiography informs us that he earned £20,000 from US sales alone. Reviews were dithyrambic, and no less a figure than Maxim Gorky called it ‘the finest, most courageous, truthful, and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war’ [quoted in David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, 224]. This was a novel that touched people. It still has that power today. You should read it.
I say ‘you should read it’ because, very likely, you haven't. I'll come back in a little while to why a novel that had such a stellar success in its day, one of the undeniable masterpieces by a writer who is, broadly, still being read, has so comprehensively dropped off the radar. What became of Britling? But for now the fact that you likely haven't read it necessitates a little summary.
Britling is a character based quite closely on Wells himself: an internationally successful writer, living a comfortable life in his Essex home, Matching's Easy; married to his second wife, raising a son (Hugh) and two step-children, conducting a discrete affair (his eighth, we're told) with an attractive neighbour. The novel is disposed into three parts. Book the First, entitled ‘Matching's Easy At Ease,’ is a leisurely, immersive and compelling account of the long Edwardian pre-war summer of 1914. A young American, Mr. Direck, visits Mr. Britling to invite him to go on a talking tour of the USA; but he breaks his wrist (Britling, a rubbish driver, crashes his car when Direck is a passenger), ends up staying for several months, and falls in love with Cissie, the sister of the wife of Mr. Britling's secretary, a young man called Teddy. Also in the company is a visiting German student, the young, hyper-correct ultra-Deutsch Herr Heinrich. But even Heinrich has his human side: he takes a squirrel as a pet and sticks loyally by the creature even though it does nothing but bite him; and he falls in love with a local barmaid.
Book the Second, ‘Matching's Easy at War,’ describes the advent of war from the Home-Front perspective. Heinrich, obviously, has to return to Germany; he goes in such a hurry that he leaves many of his possessions in the Britling domicile. Britling's secretary, Teddy, joins up, and though Britling himself is frustrated that he's too old wear a uniform, he is secretly grateful that his beloved son Hugh is too young to conscript. The narrative follows through 1914 and into 1915 with a good deal of specific detail. Teddy is reported missing. Hugh, without consulting his father, lies about his age and joins the army. Britling's elderly Aunt is fatally injured by a bomb dropped by a German Zeppelin: Britling drives to the coast, where she lives, and is present at her rather pitiful death. Then news comes that Teddy is dead (though, in a later twist, this proves mistaken: Teddy comes home again, minus one hand). Hugh writes lengthy, vivid letters home from the trenches. Direck, in an attempt to impress the patriotic Cissie, joins the Canadian army. And finally, in a heartbreaking section of writing, Britling learns that his son Hugh has been killed at the Front. This fatality happens on p.365 of the 433-page novel, and it needs the accumulation of those prior 364 pages to build the necessary momentum to make Hugh's death really tell. It's very affecting, and Britling's grief is written in a convincingly heartfelt manner.
The novel's final book, ‘The Testament of Matching's Easy’, is its shortest. Learning that Herr Heinrich has also been killed, Britling writes a disconnected but emotionally eloquent letter to the dead boy's parents. This testament grows as he writes it, until it has traced out an unforced and, I would say, genuinely touching evolution—out of the deepest despair of grief, towards a religiously-tinted acceptance of his personal loss, and of the catastrophe of the war: ‘until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end ... Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning’ [3.2.11]. After being up all night writing what started as a letter but ended up as his personal and spiritual testimony, the novel ends with Britling getting up from his desk and looking out through his window:
His lamp was still burning, but for some time he had not been writing by the light of his lamp. Insensibly the day had come and abolished his need for that individual circle of yellow light. Colour had returned to the world, clean pearly colour, clear and definite like the glance of a child or the voice of a girl, and a golden wisp of cloud hung in the sky over the tower of the church. There was a mist upon the pond, a soft grey mist not a yard high. A covey of partridges ran and halted and ran again in the dewy grass outside his garden railings. The partridges were very numerous this year because there had been so little shooting. Beyond in the meadow a hare sat up as still as a stone. A horse neighed. Wave after wave of warmth and light came sweeping before the sunrise across the world of Matching's Easy. It was as if there was nothing but morning and sunrise in the world. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 3.2.12]The highest praise I can give the novel is to say it actually earns this epiphany: that, read in its place, all this comes over as neither cheap nor sentimental.
Mr Britling, the little Briton, the little representative of a little Britain, ‘sees it through’ in the sense that he endures, he survives the trauma and disruption the war throws at him (Look!, as D H Lawrence's end-of-war poetry collection title famously exclaimed, We Have Come Through!)—but in another sense the title means that Britling sees through ‘it’, the mess and pain of phenomenal existence, to something transcendent. The novel, after all, ends on an affirmation of human connection to God. So perhaps we should take the title as asserting the insight bumbling comical Britling finally achieves: as it were, Mr Britling Sees It, Through-And-Through.
Not everyone would agree that Wells manages to pull this off. In Hemingway's first-world-war-set A Farewell to Arms (1929), the 94-year-old Count Greffi is entertaining the novel's protagonist, Frederic Henry, at dinner. You remember the scene:
‘No he doesn't ... he doesn't see through it’ is in part Henry's way of saying: you've got that title wrong, you know. But it's also his say of saying: Wells's novel doesn't provide the through-vision it pretends to. ‘Are you Croyant?’ means ‘are you a believer? Do you have religious faith?’ and Henry's answer is a deliberate deflection. In Hemingway's fiction there is nothing so comforting behind the suffering and the death as a loving God. His characters live by the Hemingway code which is existentially stoic in a way that would disdain the spiritual comfort of a pseudo-Christian deus ex fabula. [Sidebar: why does Count Greffi get the title wrong? So far as I can see Mr Britling has never been translated into Italian, but a French translation appeared in 1917 under the title Monsieur Britling commence à voir clair, ‘Mr Britling begins to see things clearly’; presumably that's the version Greffi read, and the cause of his titular confusion.]
Walter Allen intends nothing disrespectful or diminishing when he describes the Hemingway ethos, his novels's ‘code’, as a style: ‘the code is as much aesthetic as it is ethical,’ according to Allen: ‘insisting upon nothingness Hemingway asserts violently man's dignity in the face of nothingness. Man dies: it is intolerable he should die less than well, with a sense of style; and as a man dies so should he live’ [Allen, Tradition and Dream (1964), 118]. Allen summarises A Farewell To Arms as ‘an attempt to get down to some kind of bedrock in a world that has been stripped of all meaning’ (adding ‘it is Hemingway's triumph that ... he learnt a style from despair’).
But the contrast in the way these two, very different, writers tackle the question of war is instructive, I think. Both are alive to the physical and psychological costs of war, but for Hemingway war is something to be actively engaged, as a test of (there's no way round this, I think) a specific mode of existential, stoical manliness. As against Hemingway's agency, Wells writes about patience. For Wells, war is broadly something to be passively endured, and it is through this endurance, by observation, and then only in a tentative, starting-point way (‘commencer à voir clair’) that insight is achieved. Wells writes a kind of canny anti-style, concealing a good deal of artistry behind his seeming urbanity and discursiveness; and he avoids anything so stoically forbidding as an ethical style. He is more interested in humans as compromised and soft, as messy and struggling to get by. I have to say, that seems to me the less mendacious vision of homo sapiens.
This larger Hemingway/Wells contrast is important, I think, not just where this novel is concerned, but in terms of the literature of war as a whole. In the Iliad and Henry V and The Red Badge of Courage war is the arena of individual and collective action. Even so sophisticated a representation as War and Peace takes it for granted that war is the environment in which the agency of the characters succeeds or is thwarted. Wells's focus on the domestic front enables him to swap that entirely about. There is nothing the characters he is writing about can do: Britling's desire to act is frustrated by his age. Here he is at his London club, grumbling among his friends that the War Office won't even consider them for service.
The prevailing topic in the smoking-room upstairs was the inability of the War Office to deal with the flood of recruits that was pouring in, and its hostility to any such volunteering as Mr. Britling had in mind. Quite a number of members wanted to volunteer; there was much talk of their fitness; ‘I'm fifty-four,’ said one, ‘and I could do my twenty-five miles in marching kit far better than half those boys of nineteen.’ ... Afterwards in other conversations Mr. Britling reverted to more modest ambitions.The novel's second half expertly details a situation in which there is nothing to be done, and everything to be endured, and the only way ‘through’ is patience and spiritual openness. One of the potentially most interesting things about the book is the portrait of the western front it gives us, through Hugh's lengthy letters to his father, in which war itself becomes wholly characterised by the passivity of the soldiers waging it. That reflects the nature of trench warfare itself, of course; and after the First World War it became one of the tropes of the representation of war. But I'm trying to think of another work earlier than Wells's that does the same thing. I'm not sure there is one.
‘Is there no clerical work, no minor administrative work, a man might be used for?’ he asked.
‘Any old dug-out,’ said the man with the thin face, ‘any old doddering Colonel Newcome, is preferred to you in that matter...’
Mr. Britling emerged from his club about half-past three with his mind rather dishevelled and with his private determination to do something promptly for his country's needs blunted by a perplexing ‘How?’ His search for doors and ways where no doors and ways existed went on with a gathering sense of futility. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 2.2.1]
At one point, Wells portrays PTSD, or something like it (again, surely this is the first novel to include such a thing). Britling's friend Captain Carmine returns home on leave. Britling is shocked to see that ‘Carmine's face showed nothing of the excitement and patriotic satisfaction that would have seemed natural to Mr. Britling. He was white and jaded, as if he had not slept for many nights’ [2.2.4]. It is only after a while that Carmine is able to explain himself to his friend:
It was only when they sat together in the barn court out of the way of Mrs. Britling and the children that Captain Carmine was able to explain his listless bearing and jaded appearance. He was suffering from a bad nervous shock. He had hardly taken over his command before one of his men had been killed—and killed in a manner that had left a scar upon his mind.This focus on passivity as the tenor of war runs, I'd argue, through the whole novel: reaction is prioritised over action, waiting and enduring trump doing and overcoming, the passions of the historical moment, the patriotism and urgency and mania for analysis and so on (Britling shocks himself by the unexpected ‘strength and passion of his own belligerent opinions’ [1.5.13] once war starts), are revealed as iterations of the root of the word passion:—that is, passivity. Wells is especially skilful in the way he inverts the valences of character-in-action. Mr Britling is a writer, but as the war gets going he spends all his time not actively writing but passively reading (reading the newspapers, reading the letters he gets from Hugh). He is engaged in an affair, but rather than actively pursuing Mrs. Harrowdean or, as he thinks he ought, actively breaking it off, he just passively lets it fizzle out. He is rich enough to own a car, and drives it around, but the comedy of these scenes stress his incompetence as diriger; in a sense he doesn't drive the car, the car drives him.
The man had been guarding a tunnel, and he had been knocked down by one train when crossing the line behind another. So it was that the bomb of Sarajevo killed its first victim in Essex. Captain Carmine had found the body. He had found the body in a cloudy moonlight; he had almost fallen over it; and his sensations and emotions had been eminently disagreeable. He had had to drag the body—it was very dreadfully mangled—off the permanent way, the damaged, almost severed head had twisted about very horribly in the uncertain light, and afterwards he had found his sleeves saturated with blood. He had not noted this at the time, and when he had discovered it he had been sick. He had thought the whole thing more horrible and hateful than any nightmare, but he had succeeded in behaving with a sufficient practicality to set an example to his men. Since this had happened he had not had an hour of dreamless sleep. [Mr Britling Sees It Through, 2.2.4]
More grandly, he goes from a person full of self-importance, speaking bombastically about what England ‘must’ do, the ways in which Germany must be fought and how the continent must be rearranged after England has won its victory, to an individual whose self-importance has been completely scooped out, struggling to express himself on a purely individual level. I could take it further: the novel moves Britling from thesis, his pompous (active) certainty that he knows the answer to everything, through the antithesis of his heartbroken (passive) belief that he knows nothing, to a kind of synthesis, very specifically rendered in the novel in fragmentary form, that he is at the shattered beginning of a new comprehension. That fragmentariness becomes an increasingly prominent part of the book in its third portion. Indeed, two pages from the end the printed novel gives way (‘the last sheet of Mr. Britling's manuscript,’ says the narrator, ‘may be more conveniently given in facsimile than described’) and we get:
This characterisation of Britling is, of course, central to the project as a whole. John Batchelor argues that ‘written with more detachment, this novel would be a study of a figure whose self-centredness verges on the brutal, but by tricking Mr Britling out with comic attributes—his odd clothes and general untidiness, the games he invents, the rather heavily conscious unconventionality of his household’s manners, his hair-raising inability to drive his car—Wells works hard to enlist the reader’s sympathy.’ He goes on to note that this this strategy failed to convince one John Batchelor, announcing with a rather splendid high-handedness: ‘personally, I withhold my sympathy’ (he does add an at least: ‘ … until Hugh Britling is killed in the war’) [John Batchelor, H G Wells (Cambridge Univ Press 1985), 110]. Whilst this doesn't actively misrepresent the lineaments of the novel, I suppose, although it does seem to me to miss something very important about what Wells is doing.
The petty ludicrousness of Britling (based on an impressive un-self-forgiving, clear-sighting assessment by Wells of his own various petty ludicrousnesses) is not just a strategy to nudge the reader into liking the character despite his egoism. More importantly it's a calculated inversion of the traditional attributes of the warrior. Instead of tragic dignity and nobility Wells stresses how contingent and quotidian and more importantly how silly ordinary life actually is. Silly is the quality of existence in war or peace, with the difference that silliness is broadly funny in peacetime and broadly heartbreaking in war. Nobody in this novel dies a heroic warrior's death: Hugh's best friend at the front, known as ‘Ortheris’, gets his legs blown off by a shell, and then sits (of necessity, since he now has no legs on which to stand) laughing and joking with Hugh about his predicament. He says he's thirsty, and as Hugh gets out his water bottle, he dies: ‘“And I'm done!” And then—then he just looked discontented and miserable and died—right off’ (Hugh's letter goes on: ‘I couldn't believe he was dead ... I began to cry. Like a baby. I kept on with the water-bottle at his teeth long after I was convinced he was dead’). Hugh himself is shot in the head by a freak shot that happens to pass through a tiny ‘loop’ in the trench defences. Herr Heinrich is taken prisoner on the (German) Eastern front, and dies when a fight breaks out between some German and some Croatian prisoners. Captain Carmine's man, as we've seen, is knocked over by a train. It's all deliberately inconsequential, and all the more affecting for that. War, Wells is saying, is not a plan, or a purpose, or any kind of agency. It is randomness and endurance and passivity.
From passivity to passion and back again. Passion has a Christian-religious meaning, of course, although it's not one people nowadays necessarily realise. We talk of Christ's passion not because the experience of being crucified was one of intense feelings or strong beliefs, but because it involved God's willing acceptance of an agonizing passivity. Theologically speaking there is no force in the whole cosmos capable of compelling God to endure torture and death; theologically speaking, God is not just an agent, he is the agent, he embodies the primary and complete agency. And yet God accepted the passivity of being nailed to the cross, and the redemption entailed by that sacrifice is the chief mystery of the Christian faith.
The willing acceptance of enforced passivity is the wisdom that Britling learns; and the novel's climactic reference—addressed by Britling to Herr Heinrich's parents—to ‘Our sons who have shown us God ...’ [3.2.11; ellipses in original] is an open-ended gesture towards Christ's filial passion and sacrifice as the medium of divine revelation. In his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells describes Mr Britling Sees It Through as a novel about ‘the passionate desire to find some immediate reassurance amidst that whirlwind of disaster’ [Wells, Autobiography, 573]; and that use of ‘passionate’ is not, I think, merely adventitious.
I wonder if the thoroughness as well as the scope of Wells's anatomy of passivity (of passion) in this novel is one reason why it has fallen off the larger radar. There's an interesting essay by James Campbell [‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’, New Literary History, 30:1 (1999), 203-215] that discusses the critical culture that has grown up, especially after the impact of Paul Fussell's very influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), by which so many subsequent ‘readings’ of First World War literature have oriented themselves. By way of a critique, in point of fact, of Fussell. Campbell argues that ‘an aesthetic criterion of realism and an ethical criterion of a humanism of passivity’ combine in the critical discourse ‘to create an ideology of what I term “combat gnosticism”’. Campbell is, I think, correct when he argues that ‘such an ideology has served both to limit severely the canon of texts that mainstream First World War criticism has seen as legitimate war writing and has simultaneously promoted war literature's status as a discrete body of work with almost no relation to non-war writing’.
The critical tradition that I identify as mainstream and dominant is one that equates the term “war” with the term “combat.” As a result, what it legitimates as war literature is produced exclusively by combat experience; the knowledge of combat is a prerequisite for the production of a literary text that adequately deals with war. This is what I mean by combat gnosticism: a construction that gives us war experience as a kind of gnosis, a secret knowledge which only an initiated elite knows. Only men (there is, of course, a tacit gender exclusion operating here) who have actively engaged in combat have access to certain experiences that are productive of, perhaps even constitutive of, an arcane knowledge. Furthermore, mere military status does not signify initiation, but only status as a combatant. It is not the label of “soldier” that is privileged so much as the label of “warrior” [Campbell, 203-04]Campbell is well aware of the limitations of this approach, and although his essay is concerned with war poets we could extend it to devise a reading of the reception of Britling: a text that falls foul of the tacit critical consensus by, very specifically, not being a combat novel, or more precisely by extending the definition of combat, and combat trauma, far beyond the front line. It is, we could say, a resolutely non-gnostic novel.
And there is perhaps a larger point, too. We are, I suspect, broadly out of favour with passion in the sense Wells's novel so artfully construes it. Nowadays we're more likely to say: ‘let's see action’. Today's favoured mode of narrative art is cinema and TV, and these two prize agency, motion, engagement, characters doing things. ‘Action!’ cry its directors as they initiate yet another scene. They don't cry ‘passion!’. Hemingway is a great and unflinching writer of action; and that is both his glory and the ground of his limitation. Wells's openness to passion enables him to go further, at least in this book. In this (alas, overlong) post on Endo's great novel Silence I discuss this question in some detail. And it seems to me a great strength of Wells's novel that, like Endo (which is to say, of course, long before Endo) it can explore in such depth, and with such emotional sophistication and penetration, how passivity is actually our existential idiom. I don't mean to split hairs, but I'd argue this is not a novel about ‘the pity of war’ so much as it is a novel about war as an arena for compassion. Our sons die for us, but the paradox of that passion is that such dying leads back to life, hope and redemption. That quality, in its complexly inwoven senses of fellow-feeling and charity grounded in a shared sense of passivity, is what Mr Britling, ultimately, sees, through the fog of war. It's what ultimately comes clear.