There are interesting things in Joan and Peter, but it's a novel that does its best to hide them from the reader beneath an absolutely enormous heap of chaff:—750 apludic pages, Well's longest book yet, and I think I'm right in saying the second longest in his entire oeuvre (only 1926's The World of William Clissold is longer, I think). Worse than the length is the pacing. There's nothing wrong with length in a novel as such, of course; but when it's handled like this it drags. Indeed it draaags. I'll explain what I mean.
We start, in the early 1890s, with the marriage of handsome, well-to-do but rather flibberty Arthur Stublands to beautiful, clever Dolly, followed swiftly by the birth of their son Peter. Dolly, though, has made a mistake. Arthur is a nice enough chap, but she ought to have married her cousin, the vigorous, upright Oswald Sydenham, a man who won the V.C. before he was twenty. The problem is that Oswald is disfigured:
It had been quite typical heroism that had won him the V.C. He had thrown a shell overboard, and it had burst in the air as he threw it and pulped one side of his face. But when [Dolly] married, she had temporarily forgotten Cousin Oswald. She was just carried away by Arthur Stubland's profile, and the wave in his hair, and—life. [Joan and Peter, 1.3]Oswald is ten times the man Arthur is, and he loves Dolly, howsoever hopelessly. And she knows she's picked the wrong guy. And that makes her miserable. But what can she do? She's married now, and has a son. So Oswald takes himself off to pursue British Imperial advantage in central Africa. Meanwhile the Stublands buy a lovely house in the Surrey countryside, and legally adopt a baby girl, the illegitimate daughter of a distant relative: this is Joan.
We're at page 50 of this 750 page novel. What happens next is that Arthur is unfaithful to Dolly, and they fight. But then they make it up and decide to celebrate their renewed rapprochement with a holiday in Italy, leaving babies Peter and Joan at home. In Italy the pleasure-boat they are in overturns. They both drown: first Arthur, then Dolly. It matters in which order they drown, since they have left conflicting instructions as to what should happen to the children in the event of their death. Dolly has appointed Oswald guardian, but Arthur, who dislikes the fellow, for the obvious reasons, has stipulated instead his two suffragette aunts, Phoebe and Phyllis, as guardians, together with another more distant relative, the haughty and elderly Lady Sydenham, only adding Oswald at all as a sort of afterthought concession to his wife's wishes.
Initial reports are that Dolly died first, which actualises Arthur's will: Aunts Phoebe and Phyllis move into the Surrey house and assume responsibility for the kids: Oswald (raging, miserable, keeping despair at bay by constant action) is in darkest Africa and can't be reached. Phoebe and Phyllis believe in a vaguely Rousseauian approach to educating children: which is, to let them run more-or-less feral in the countryside. Lady Sydenham, outraged by the Aunts atheistical socialism, kidnaps the youngsters, has them forceably christened and deposited in a conventional prep school in Windsor (Peter) and a private house (Joan).
The Windsor school is dreadful: the headmaster a pedagogic fraud and inveterate flogger, the other boys bullies and sneaks. Peter runs away. For a time the authorities think he has drowned in the Thames, replicating the fate of his parents: but though the punt he steals goes over the weir he himself escapes and makes his way back to Surrey. By this time new reports from Italy have revealed that Arthur predeceased his wife, so Dolly's will comes into force, relieving the two socialist aunts and Lady Sydenham of the necessity of caring for the children. Lawyers are finally able to contact Oswald in Africa and inform him he is sole guardian of Joan and Peter. He returns to England to look after them.
And now we're at page 250 of this 750 page novel, and the story is (bar some wartime Royal Flying Corps adventuring at the very end) more or less over. The whole tenor of the text slackens and sags as for literally hundreds and hundreds of pages Oswald treks up and down England to find the best schools for his wards. His search is repeatedly frustrated by the novel's Big Theme, viz., that the British education system is in a parlous state.
Wells includes lengthy dialogues between Oswald and the headmasters he visits, and between Oswald and various other people, anatomizing this situation. He repeatedly quizzes pedagogues on why they teach Latin and Greek instead of engineering and maths and German: ‘a common evasiveness characterized all these head-masters when Oswald demanded the particulars of Peter's curriculum. He wanted to know just the subjects Peter would study and which were to be made the most important, and then when these questions were answered he would demand: “And why do you teach this? What is the particular benefit of that to the boy or the empire?”’ [10.3]
On and on it goes. Once Oswald has located a couple of prep-schools not quite so awful as the others, the children are sent off, and Oswald's search moves on to which public schools will be best for them next:
Eton gave him its river effects and a bright, unforgettable boatman in a coat of wonderful blue; Harrow displayed its view and insisted upon its hill. Physically he liked almost all the schools he saw, except Winchester, which he visited on a rainy day. Almost always there were fine architectural effects; now there was a nucleus of Gothic, now it was time-worn Tudor red brick, now well-proportioned grey Georgian ... But he had set his heart now on getting to the very essentials of this problem; he was resolved to be blinded by no fair appearances, and though these schools looked as firmly rooted and stoutly prosperous as British oaks and as naturally grown as they, though they had an air of discharging a function as necessary as the beating of a heart and as inevitably, he still kept his grip on the idea that they were artificial things of men's contriving, and still pressed his questions: What are you trying to do? What are you doing? How are you doing it? How do you fit in to the imperial scheme of things? [Joan and Peter, 10.3]When one headmaster tries to cow Oswald by quoting Greek at him, Oswald returns by reciting a poem in Swahili. Oswald keeps insisting on the need for a reformed education stressing science and maths and living languages and all the things the Empire needs, and keeps being struck by ‘the educational stagnation of England during those crucial years before the Great War’ [10.6]. On and on it goes; for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages, bludgeoning home Wells's point that the British education system is not fit for purpose. Later, when the children are finally sent to the least-worst secondary schools, Oswald undertakes the whole process over again at tertiary level, visiting both Oxford and Cambridge. Eventually, and with reservations, he decides on the light blue rather than the dark. Even here, though, Wells finds only a more elaborate form of education by rote: ‘into the Cambridge lecture rooms and laboratories went Joan and Peter, notebook in hand, and back to digestion in their studies, and presently they went into examination rooms where they vindicated their claim to have attended to textbook and lecture ... this was their “grind,” Joan and Peter considered, a drill they had to go through’ [11.13] .
While all this is going on, Wells drops-in scenes from the later childhood and adolescence of Joan and Peter, their experiences of school and university. They bicker, quarrel, flirt with other boys and girls, and it's about as diverting as an Edwardian episode of Sweet Valley High. One of the problems the novel has here is that it telegraphs too patently that Joan and Peter are meant to be together, which robs these passages of tension: the various sidebars into the girls who fancy Peter or the boys who fancy Joan are only too evidently going nowhere. Eventually Joan discovers that she and Peter are not blood-relations, such that there is no reason why they couldn't marry. The outbreak of war interrupts this romantic consummation. All the boys from Joan and Peter's circle enlist, including Peter himself. Some of the boys are killed. Peter transfers from the infantry to the Royal Flying Corps.
We're now at page 600 of this 750 page novel
It's at this late stage that the pacing picks up again. The closing stretches of the novel contain some very vividly written scenes of aerial combat: Peter is injured, invalided home, and marries Joan. Then it's back to the front and into an observation balloon, which is in turn shot down. As he parachutes to safety the plane that punctured his balloon returns to finish him off and strafes his legs in mid-air. Will he live or die? Well, I'll tell you: he lives, though badly hurt, and ends the book happy with Joan. The novel itself closes with Oswald reflecting on his experiencing of having raised these kids, and looking forward to working towards a better future for all children: ‘this idea of a League of Nations’ comes to him ‘with the effect of a personal and preferential call.’ [14.10] The last page of the novel is him picking up a pen, readying to do what he can to bring about the World State.
One consequence of this renewed narrative momentum towards the novel's end is that it throws into relief just how turgid the middle bulk of the book has been. It's something underlined, ironically enough, by Wells's very facility in describing flight, the marked contrast of which to the earlier narrative of frustration and blockage and lack of forward-motion is all the more effectively brought out by Wells's stylistic fluency and eye for the telling detail. Just look at this lovely bit of descriptive prose narrating Peter's first solo piloting:
‘Contact, sir,’ said the mechanic. ‘Contact,’ came the pilot's voice from behind. The engine roared, a gale swept backwards, and Peter vibrated like an aspen leaf.That shadow, vaulting the hedge! Lovely writing. And there are many nuggets, of both evocative and also thought-provoking writing, scattered throughout. But it's all smothered by the sheer walrus-blubber bulk of it all. I'm being a little unfair when I say so, I know. I know. There's some interesting stuff in the middle section, from a social-historical point of view, of the nascent state of girls' education, as we see Joan's experiences at her various schools. Still: gah.
The wheels were cleared, the mechanics jumped aside, and Peter was careering across the grass in a series of light leaps, and then his progress became smoother. He did not perceive at first the reason for this sudden steadying of the machine. He found himself tilting upward. He was off the ground. He had been off the ground for some seconds. He looked over the side and saw the grass fifty feet below, and the black shadow of the aeroplane, as if it fled before them, rushing at a hedge, doubling up at the hedge, and starting again in the next field. And up he went. [Joan and Peter, 13.8]
But do you know what? Worse than the pacing and the prolixity is the novel's tone-deafness where its comedy is concerned. Wells was capable of genius-level comic work (Mr Polly, for instance) but that's not what we find here. Here Wells swings and misses at a variety of set-pieces.
You want examples? I have examples. Let's take this scene, from early on in the novel: when Joan and Peter's austerely aristocratic guardian, Lady Charlotte Sydenham, grabs the children in order to have them baptised. Now: immediately before this happens the two five-year-olds discover that five of the house cat's six kittens have been drowned by Groombridge, the Occasional Gardener: ‘dark apprehension came upon Joan's soul. “What you been doing to my kittays?” she asked. “Eh! you got to drown kittens, little Missie,” said old Groombridge. “Else ud be too many of um. But ollays there's one or so kep.”’ [5.5]. Then Lady Charlotte swoops upon the house, spirits the kids to the church, and the christening happens. The vicar, used only to tiny infants or elderly born-agains, can't handle vigorous five-year olds. The children's the nursemaid, Mary, is waiting outside the church.
So things went on quite successfully until the fatal moment when Mr. Wiscott took Peter up in his arms.Wodehouse it ain't. Dear lord, the sheer wincing awfulness of that baby-talk, presented to us as if its tweeness would actually make us laugh. I shudder to read it. Grown-up Joan is still calling Peter ‘Petah’ in the last chapter, too. I know young lovers often indulge in baby-talk with one another, but it needs to be very cautiously handled in fiction, lest the reader experience a markedly nauseated reaction.
“Come along,” he said very pleasantly—not realizing that Peter did not like his Adam's apple.
“He's going to show you the pretty water,” said Mrs. Wiscott.
“Naw!” said Peter sharply and backed as the curate gripped his arm, and then everything seemed to go wrong.
Mr. Wiscott had never handled a sturdy little boy of five before. Peter would have got away if Mrs. Wiscott, abandoning Joan, had not picked him up and handed him neatly to her husband. Then came a breathless struggle on the edge of the font, and upon every one, even upon Lady Charlotte, came a strange sense as though they were engaged in some deed of darkness. The water splashed loudly. It splashed on Peter's face and Peter's abundant voice sent out its S.O.S. call: “Mare-wi!”
Mr. Wiscott compressed his lips and held Peter firmly, hushing resolutely, and presently struggled on above a tremendous din towards the sign of the cross.
But Joan had formed her own rash judgments.
She bolted down the aisle and out through the open door, and her voice filled the universe. “They dwounding Petah. They dwounding Petah—like they did the kittays!”
Far away was Mary, but turning towards her amazed.
Joan rushed headlong to her for sanctuary, wild with terror.
“I wanna be kep, Marewi,” she bawled. “I wanna be kep!” [Joan and Peter, 5.7]
I'm toying with the idea of mounting a critical defence of the novel as an embodiment and therefore articulation of blockage and inaction, as well as a representation and critique of those things on a social and pedagogic level. My heart's not really in it though. It's true that Oswald has a recurrent nightmare of life as a kind of apotheosis of the Hideous Obstacle:
a dark forest. And of an endless effort to escape from it. He was one of the captains of a vaguely conceived expedition that was lost in an interminable wilderness of shadows; sometimes it was an expedition of limitless millions, and the black trees and creepers about him went up as high as the sky, and sometimes he alone seemed to be the entire expedition, and the darkness rested on his eyes, and the thorns wounded him, and the great ropes of the creepers slashed his face. He was always struggling to get through this forest to some unknown hope, to some place where there was light, where there was air and freedom, where one could look with brotherly security upon the stars; and this forest which was Life, held him back; it held him with its darkness, it snared him with slime and marshy pitfalls, it entangled him amidst pools and channels of black and blood-red stinking water, it tripped him and bound him with its creepers; evil beasts snared his followers, great serpents put them to flight, inexplicable panics and madnesses threw the long straggling columns into internecine warfare, incredible imbecilities threatened the welfare of the entire expedition. He would find himself examining the loads of an endless string of porters, and this man had flung away bread and loaded his pack with poisonous fungi, and that one had replaced ammunition by rust and rubbish and filth. He would find himself in frantic remonstrance with porters who had flung aside their loads, who were sullenly preparing to desert; or again, the whole multitude would be stricken with some strange disease with the most foul and horrible symptoms, and refuse the doubtful medicines he tendered in his despair; or the ground would suddenly breed an innumerable multitude of white thin voracious leeches that turned red-black as they fed....... which is effective-enough writing in a (deliberately) clogged, cloying sort of manner; although there's something of a problematic in Wells's use of Africa, as in the quoted passage, as an object correlative for nightmarish social quagmire he is urging us to overcome. In 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells is candid in his retrospective assessment: the work ‘starts respectably in large novel form and becomes dialogue only towards the end. It is as shamelessly unfinished as a Gothic cathedral. It was to have been a great novel about Education but it grew so large ...’ [Experiment, 420]. It's almost as though he became pleonastically obstructed in writing his novel about obstruction.
Then far off through the straight bars of the tree stems a light shone, and a great hope sprang up in him. And then the light became red, a wavering red, a sudden hot breeze brought a sound of crackling wood and the soughing of falling trees, spires and flags and agonized phantoms of flame rushed up to the zenith; through the undergrowth a thousand black beasts stampeded, the air was thick with wild flights of moths and humming-birds, and he realized that the forest had caught fire....
That forest fire was always a climax. With it came a burning sensation in loins and back. It made him shout and struggle and fight amidst the black fugitives and the black thickets. Until the twigs and leaves about him were bursting into flames like a Christmas tree that is being lit up. He would awaken in a sweating agony. [Joan and Peter, 9.3. Ellipses in original]
I might almost applaud Wells for his bravery in actualising an aesthetic of blockage and encumbrance so comprehensively. But, having just finished reading Joan and Peter, I find myself bounced out of sympathy with the novel. I may come back for a reassessment when the experience has settled in my imagination somewhat. Get-Oan-With-It and Peter. Joan and Prolix. Hmph.