Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Christina Alberta's Father (1925)

[Link] Christina Alberta's father is Albert Edward Preemby, ‘a retired laundryman and widower’ who abandons his ‘active interest in the Limpid Stream Laundry upon the death of his wife in the year of grace 1920’ to pursue more esoteric pursuits [1.1.1] Christina Alberta Preemby is not his biological daughter (she is the result of a holiday affair Mrs Preemby conducted in 1899, before she married Mr Preemby) but nonetheless he dotes on her, and she on him. The novel dispatches Mrs Preemby in its very first sentence, which means it can roll up its sleeves and get busy on the main business. And that business is: a study of these two sharply contrasting character-types.

On the one hand we have dreamy, passive, gentle-souled old Albert, and on the other fiercely determined, forward-looking New Woman Christina Alberta. I appreciate that ‘New Woman’ looks like an anachronistic descriptor for a novel published as late as 1925 (it's not a phrase Wells himself uses in this novel). Still, there is something Ann Veronica-ish about Christina Alberta. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells describes Christina Alberta as ‘a much more living figure than Ann Veronica and her morals are far easier’ adding with what reads to me like ruefulness, ‘but times had changed and not a voice was raised against her’ [Autobiography, 401]. So no great scandal to boost sales of this book.

The point is, as a character study, Christina Alberta's Father construes its contrasting male-female dyad through two seemingly quite different narrative premises. And I suppose the question that interests me most about this (strangely neglected, but rather good) late Wells novel is: to what extent can we take these two premises as versions of one another?

So: Christina Alberta's activity and energy is worked, through this novel, down the familiar Wellsian groove of social and gender freedom, with the new twist that this is not conceived of in primarily sexual terms. She is not asexual, and takes lovers easily; but she repudiates marriage and children in the name of a sort of heroic egoism: ‘I have known intelligent girls marry and have children, and when the baby appeared their minds evaporated. They became creatures of instinct, messing about with napkins. I could scream at the thought of it. No, I am an egoist pure and simple. I am Christina Alberta, and her only.’ [3.4.5]

In the novel she has two particularly important male friends (amongst other friends and lovers) both of whom are attracted to her, and one of whom falls in love with her. On the one hand there is the writer Paul Lambone, a kindly and successful but lazy individual (‘he liked her and admired her, and as became his literary line of work, he studied her. And she liked him and trusted him, and showed off a good lot when she was with him’ [1.6.1]), who is drawn by ‘her tremendous go. She was always up to something; she preferred standing to sitting, and she kicked her legs about while she talked to you ... he called her the Last Thing, the Van, the Ultimate Modern Girl, and the Life Force.’ Christina Albert generally goes to Lambone for advice. There is another young man in her life, Robert ‘Bobby’ Roothing, a writer manqué and more of a sentimentalist than Lambert. Bobby finds Christina Alberta fascinating, and at the end of the novel he asks her to marry him. But though she is prepared to sleep with him, she will not marry him: ‘I don't want to marry you, Bobby ... because I don't want to be bound up with anyone's life. I don't want to be a wife. I want to be my free and independent self. I've got to grow. That's it, Bobby. I want to be free to grow’ [3.4.3].

Christina Albert is one of the novel's two main characters. But more striking is the way Wells construes the other, the titular father: Albert Edward Preemby himself. His  passive dreaminess becomes, over the course of the novel, stark madness: he loses touch with reality and believes he is an ancient Sumerian king. He had always had, we are told, an interest in esoterica and the mystic East. When his wife was alive, and they were running the laundry together he became
deeply interested in the problem of the pyramids and in the probable history of the lost continent of Atlantis. Mental science also attracted him, and the possibility of increasing will-power very greatly. He would sometimes practise will-power before the looking-glass in his bedroom when Mrs. Preemby was not about. At nights he would sometimes will himself to sleep instead of going to sleep in the usual fashion. He gave a considerable amount of attention to prophecy and eschatology. He developed views of his own about the Day of Judgment that might have led to a breach with the Established Church if Mrs. Preemby had not thought that such a breach would react unfavourably upon the Laundry. As time went on he accumulated a library of upwards of a thousand volumes and a very considerable vocabulary. [Christina Alberta's Father, 1.1.5]
After his wife's death and his retirement from the laundry business, Mr Preemby attends a oujah-board session in Tunbridge Wells and becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of Sargon the Great, the Ancient Sumerian King. Indeed he comes to believe he has been various kings: ‘I was first a chief called Porg,’ he tells his daughter ‘in a city called Kleb in the very beginning of the world, aeons and aeons ago ... Then afterwards I was this Sargon—Sargon the King of Kings. There is very little about him here in the Public Library, in the Encyclopedia Britannica; an upstart who took his name, my name, three thousand years later, an Assyrian fellow is the Sargon they tell about—he got mixed up with the Jews and he besieged Samaria—but I was the original Sargon long before there were Jews or anything of the sort, long before Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And afterwards I was Belshazzar, the last crown prince of the Babylonians, but that is not very clear.’ [1.5.4]. But of all these ‘the figure that stands out in my memory now is Sargon. It is his memories have been returning to me. It is he who has returned in me.’ (The upstart referred to in this passage is Sargon II, who reigned 720-705 BC, and is mentioned in the Bible; the Sargon Mr Preemby believes himself to be the first Sargon, who ruled much earlier, 2340–2284 BC).

Now: Preemby's delusion is a perfectly harmless one; he threatens nobody, and is easily managed by his daughter. For example, he writes letters to King George V (he tells Christina Alberta that ‘the King is a thoroughly good man, thoroughly good; and directly he hears how things are, he will acknowledge Dadda as his feudal superior and place [me] on the throne’) as well as to ‘the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor and the President of the United States and Lenin’ ‘directing them to wait upon him for his instructions’. But his daughter is able to persuade him not to post them ‘till he can have a proper seal made’ [1.6.3]. Otherwise he's neatly dressed, polite, coherent, careful with money—in all other respects sane. ‘He's not a bit crazy,’ is how Christina Alberta puts it to Paul Lambone. ‘He's just possessed by this one grand impossible idea’. Lambone tends to agree: ‘I don't see that a man is insane because he believes he is a King or an Emperor—if some one tells him he is. After all, George V has no other grounds for imagining he is a King. The only difference is that rather more people have told him so.’ [1.6.3]

The problem is not everybody sees it this way. Preemby ends up locked away in the Observation Ward of the Gifford Street Infirmary, which he believes is the Underworld, and surrounded by demons.
The strange soulless atmosphere of the place was but the first instant impression of Sargon. It was followed by a far more vivid and terrible realization, that this place was inhabited by beings who were only at the first glance men. Then as one looked again it became clear that they were not exactly men, they did not look up at his entry as men should, or they showed their awareness of him by queer unnatural movements. Several were in bed; others were dressed in shabby and untidy clothes and either sat on their beds or were seated in chairs about the lower part of the room. One individual only was in motion; a grave-faced young man who was walking with an appearance of concentrated method to and fro in a restricted circle in the far corner of the ward. Another sat and seemed to remove a perpetually recurrent cobweb from his face by a perpetually repeated gesture. Two men were jammed behind the table against the wall, and one, a fleshy lout with a shining pink skin and curling red hair on his bare chest, was making violent gestures, hammering the table with a freckled fist, talking in a voice that rose and sank and occasionally broke into curses, while the other, a sallow-complexioned, cadaverous individual, seemed to be sunken in profound despair. In one of the beds close at hand a young man with a shock of black hair and an expression of fatuous satisfaction, that changed with dramatic suddenness to triumphant fierceness or insinuating lucidity, sat up and gesticulated and composed and recited an interminable poem—something in the manner of Browning. [Christina Alberta's Father, 2.3.1]
This is all very well rendered by Wells (that recurring cobweb is a particularly vivid touch). There's nothing therapeutic happening in this place, where the inmates are merely managed by the gruff Mr Higgs.
Impelled partly by the arm of Mr. Higgs and partly by his natural disposition to please, Sargon got into bed. Mr. Higgs assisted him in a rough brotherly fashion. But before Sargon could pull up the clothes about him Mr. Higgs, glancing over his shoulder, became aware of something that was happening down the room—Sargon could not see what.

In an instant the genial authoritativeness of Mr. Higgs gave way to rage. ‘Yaaps, you dirty old devil!’ said Mr. Higgs. ‘You're at it again!’

He quitted Sargon and ran down the room very swiftly. Sargon sat up in bed to see what was happening. Three or four of the other patients did the same. A very dirty old man with a face of extreme misery, who was sitting in a chair, was seized upon and bumped up and down and hit several times with great vigour by Mr. Higgs. Then Mr. Higgs departed and returned, still uttering admonitions, with a pail and a rag.

For Mr. Higgs was not only an attendant on the mentally afflicted but also, on account of economy, the floor-scrubber and general cleaner of the ward. He had been trained in the navy to ideals of a speckless brightness and he scrubbed better than he attended.
What happens in terms of plot is that Bobby Roothby helps ‘Sargon’ escape from this grim loony bin, partly because he's in love with Christina Alberta, and partly (to be fair to him) because he has some sympathy with Sargon himself: World War 1 had taken Bobby ‘through some tiresome campaigning in Mesopotamia and the beleaguerment of Kut to an extremely unsympathetic Turkish prison’ [3.2.1] and he retains an interest in the place, and in Mr Preemby's imaginative identification with it.

Bobby spirits Sargon away on a motorcycle, installs him in a room in Dymchurch and arranges for a reputable doctor, Dr Devizes, to visit him. Out of his conversations with Devizes Preemby regains a degree of his sanity: ‘I am Sargon. Talking to your friend Devizes has cleared my mind greatly. I am Sargon, but in a rather different sense from what I had imagined.’ [3.3.4]. He understands now that he has had an episode of insanity, and that he was detained in a lunatic asylum, rather than passing through the Underworld.
‘I am very greatly drawn to the riddle of madness and asylums. I do not understand why there is madness. It puzzles and distresses me, and Dr. Devizes agrees with me that when a thing puzzles and distresses the mind the thing to do is to gather all the knowledge and ideas one can about it—scientifically. Presently it ceases to distress; it interests and occupies. And when I was in—that Place, I talked to some of those poor creatures. I was very sorry for them. I made them promises to help them when my kingdom came. And now I begin to see what my kingdom is, and the way in which I must enter in to possess it. Perhaps in good time I shall learn and spread knowledge about asylums, and make things better in them so that they will not simply imprison people but help and cure them.

It was Dr. Devizes' idea, I think—or we may have worked it out together—that there is a real and important purpose in madness. It is a sort of simplification, a removal of checks and controls, and a sort of natural experiment. The secret things of the mind are laid bare.’ [Christina Alberta's Father, 3.4.5]
But his health has been broken by his experiences, and he dies before he can do anything with this hard-won wisdom.


Now: here's a thing. Carl Jung, speaking at a Viennese press conference in 1928, talked specifically about Christina Alberta's Father:

[The text is from William MacGuire and R.F.C. Hull (eds), C.G.Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters (Princeton University Press 1977), 42]. Indeed, Jung mentions the novel several times in his writing. ‘Moral, philosophical and religious problems are, on account of their universal validity, the most likely to call for mythological compensation. In [Christina Alberta’s Father] by H G Wells we find a classical type of compensation: Mr Preemby, a midget personality, discovers that he is really Sargon, King of Kings. Happily, the genius of the author rescues poor old Sargon from pathological absurdity, and even gives the reader a chance to appreciate the tragic and eternal meaning in this lamentable affray.’ [Jung, The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious (1928), 284; Collected Works of C G Jung 7:2824]

Moreover, according to Jung's own account, the genesis of Christina Alberta's Father had been a discussion between Wells and Jung about madness and primitivism. [E. A. Bennet, What Jung Really Said (New York: Schocken Books, 1967), 93]. It was Jung's opinion that the 1920s were witnessing a global craze for prehistoric authenticity, as a return of the pagan repressed into modern machinic life:
‘The unconscious search, by people who are imprisoned in our narrow machine-world, for the other ego, for completion, is also the reason for their flight back to the primitive. One need only remember the tremendous enthusiasm for ancient Egypt at the time when the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered. Thirty or forty years ago he tomb would have been a matter of interest only for a few hundred scholars, and would have left the public at large, who still fond everything Egyptian distasteful, completely indifferent.’ He goes on: ‘again one has only to think of the craze for Negro dances, for the Charleston and jazz—they are all symptoms of the great longing of the mass psyche for this more complete development of the powers immanent within us, which primitives possess to a high degree than we do. All this is still more evident in America. There American millionairesses marry Indian chieftans. That’s just it. We are in a sense cultural cripples.’ [McGuire and Hull, Jung Speaking, 42-43]
One possibility intrigues me, which is that Jung may have confided in Wells during one of these conversations about his own youthful mental dissociation. The state of affairs is summarised by John Kerr:
The romance of Jung’s second self, his ‘Personality No 2’, would later dominate his remarkable memoirs, composed in old age with the assistance of Aniela Jaffé and at the instigation of Pantheon’s Kurt Wolff in one of the great publishing coups of the century. But neither Wolff nor Jung was so simple-minded as to think the world wanted to know exactly who ‘Personality No 2’ was. By Jung’s own account, it all began in childhood – while he was being reprimanded by a neighbour for commandeering the fellow’s rowing boat. As he took the scolding, Jung began to feel that he was really somebody else, somebody who had lived a long time ago, somebody very important. [Kerr, ‘Madnesses’, LRB 17:6 (23 March 1995), 4]
Jung's ‘Personality No 2’ was an feature of his adolescence, and Mr Preemby's alter-ego takes possession of him at the other end of his life, but I wonder if Wells's novel is an attempt at imaginative entry into this Jungian psychological haunting. It has to do with a compensation for the pettiness of the present by an imaginative importation of the magnificent past as incarnated subjectivity, and it becomes, as Jung develops his thought, crucial to his thought more generally.


At any rate, Christina Alberta's Father strikes me as an altogether compelling piece of writing, the best of Wells's 1920s novel by quite a long way. But it has been almost wholly neglected by the critics. A JSTOR search turns up no substantive essays, David C. Smith's otherwise extremely lengthy and detailed biography mentions it only in passing and Vincent Brome's H G Wells: a Biography mentions it not at all. ‘Our limited awareness of H G Wells’s fiction and our exclusion of Wells from the modernist canon, is a liability for any theory of the novel, and a potential embarrassment for literary history,’ says Robert L Caserio, adding ‘we need to reevaluate the range and purport of Wells work’ and go beyond the SF and Tono-Bungay:
What if the Wells of The Undying Fire (1919), or of Christina Alberta’s Father (1925) or of The Bulpington of Blup (1932) has a significance for us, in spites of the accumulations of critical contempt for his ideas and for his alleged lack of literary quality? [Robert L Caserio, ‘The Novel as a Novel Experiment in Statement: the Anticanonicla Example of H G Wells’, in Karen Lawrence (ed), Decolonizing Tradition: New Views of Twentieth-century "British" Literary Canons (University of Illinois Press 1992), 88]
What indeed? But Caserio’s reading (he argues, not terribly persuasively I think, that Christina Alberta’s Father is a reaction to Woolf’s ‘Mr Bennett and Mr Brown’ and D H Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious) dates from the early 1990s, and failed to spark any further critical interest.

This is a larger problem for Wells studies than just this one novel, of course; but I wonder if there's something about this book in particular that has resulted in its being unfairly neglected, as if critics possess some superstitious sense that its madness might rub-off on them. One of the reasons I find Caserio's account of the novel unconvincing is that Lawrence's Fantasia of the Unconscious exists in so patent a relationship to Freud (even as Lawrence attempts to reconfigure Freudianism along Lawrentian lines) where Christina Alberta's Father is so very much more Jungian. But, then, Jungianism has always savoured more of the crank and the loon, compared to Freudianism, especially in the academy.

But the lineaments of Preemby's madness do matter, both to the novel and to the importance of the novel. That is to say, Christina Alberta's Father would be a completely different novel, and a much less interesting one, if Preemby believed himself to be, let's say, Napoleon. The point about Sargon is that, as a figure from the deepest depths of history, he is as much a mythic as a historical individual; and it is the reflorescence of myth in the mundane pettiness of Preemby's life that is so compelling.

Although we're never in any doubt that Preemby is by conventional lights delusional (and even Preemby himself comes to understand this), he is nonetheless living a small-beer life underpinned and elevated by ancient mythic echoes exactly as Leo Bloom is doing in Ulysses. Wells makes a number of little gestures in this symbolic, rather than clinically psychopathological, direction: so before he is committed to the asylum Preemby lives on ‘Midgard’ street; he reveals himself to the world, finds himself mocked and persecuted, travels through the land of the dead (that is, the lunatic asylum) and reemerges just like Odin, and Christ (Christina's own name gestures to this, as does Lambone's surname).

And the point of this superposition of mythic and mundane is, as in Ulysses, transcendent rather than satirical: by way of suggesting the splendour hidden in the ordinary rather than (as it might be) Rape-of-the-Lockishly sneering at how far ordinary life falls short of its legendary antecedents. Though its title character suffers, Christina Alberta's Father is a novel interested in joy rather than tragedy, and not just because Wells has written it as a comedy.

Clearly, we can say, this novel is in one sense a midrash upon King Lear; but Preemby is so mild-mannered, pleasant and polite a Lear that none of the cosmic anguish of that play comes through in the novelisation (nor, of course, does Wells's Cordelia die). If I wanted to wax fanciful with the novel's names, I might suggest that just as ‘Christina’ feminises Christ, so Albert/Alberta remixes Wells's own first name (‘Bertie’) as the all-Bert (just as Odin is the all-father), or conceivably as a mix-up of Lear and Bert. We could certainly call the novel Happy King Lear, I think. The difference is that Shakespeare's most famous madman is a king who goes mad believing himself to be a king—it's a kind of conceptual short-circuit that burns-out his wits and drives him frantic. What saves Preemby is that he is not, in terms of external status in the world, a king; such that when he comes to believe himself a king he expands into a new mode of ontological royalty.

In his 1906 book on Dickens, Chesterton contrasts the different modes of democratic art practised by Dickens and Walter Scott, and counterintuively insists that royalist-Tory Scott was the greater democrat. It's one of my favourite passages of Chesterton actually (I've blogged about it before) so I make no apology for quoting it at length, not least because I think it goes a long way to explaining what makes Christina Alberta's Father such an interesting work:
Of all these nineteenth-century writers there is none, in the noblest sense, more democratic than Walter Scott. As this may be disputed, and as it is relevant, I will expand the remark. There are two rooted spiritual realities out of which grow all kinds of democratic conception or sentiment of human equality. There are two things in which all men are manifestly and unmistakably equal. They are not equally clever or equally muscular or equally fat, as the sages of the modern reaction (with piercing insight) perceive. But this is a spiritual certainty, that all men are tragic. And this, again, is an equally sublime spiritual certainty, that all men are comic. No special and private sorrow can be so dreadful as the fact of having to die. And no freak or deformity can be so funny as the mere fact of having two legs. Every man is important if he loses his life; and every man is funny if he loses his hat, and has to run after it. And the universal test everywhere of whether a thing is popular, of the people, is whether it employs vigorously these extremes of the tragic and the comic. Shelley, for instance, was an aristocrat, if ever there was one in this world. He was a Republican, but he was not a democrat: in his poetry there is every perfect quality except this pungent and popular stab. For the tragic and the comic you must go, say, to Burns, a poor man. And all over the world, the folk literature, the popular literature, is the same. It consists of very dignified sorrow and very undignified fun. Its sad tales are of broken hearts; its happy tales are of broken heads.

These, I say, are two roots of democratic reality. But they have in more civilised literature, a more civilised embodiment of form. In literature such as that of the nineteenth century the two elements appear somewhat thus. Tragedy becomes a profound sense of human dignity. The other and jollier element becomes a delighted sense of human variety. The first supports equality by saying that all men are equally sublime. The second supports equality by observing that all men are equally interesting.

In this democratic aspect of the interest and variety of all men, there is, of course, no democrat so great as Dickens. But in the other matter, in the idea of the dignity of all men, I repeat that there is no democrat so great as Scott. This fact, which is the moral and enduring magnificence of Scott, has been astonishingly overlooked. His rich and dramatic effects are gained in almost every case by some grotesque or beggarly figure rising into a human pride and rhetoric. The common man, in the sense of the paltry man, becomes the common man in the sense of the universal man. He declares his humanity. For the meanest of all the modernities has been the notion that the heroic is an oddity or variation, and that the things that unite us are merely flat or foul. The common things are terrible and startling, death, for instance, and first love: the things that are common are the things that are not commonplace. Into such high and central passions the comic Scott character will suddenly rise. Remember the firm and almost stately answer of the preposterous Nicol Jarvie when Helen Macgregor seeks to browbeat him into condoning lawlessness and breaking his bourgeois decency. That speech is a great monument of the middle class. Molière made M. Jourdain talk prose; but Scott made him talk poetry. Think of the rising and rousing voice of the dull and gluttonous Athelstane when he answers and overwhelms De Bracy. Think of the proud appeal of the old beggar in the Antiquary when he rebukes the duellists. Scott was fond of describing kings in disguise. But all his characters are kings in disguise. He was, with all his errors, profoundly possessed with the old religious conception, the only possible democratic basis, the idea that man himself is a king in disguise. [Chesterton, Charles Dickens, 10]
Chesterton makes that last pronouncement because he is a Christian, of course; but Wells, even as he moved out of his God the Invisible King stage of professed and idiosyncratic religious belief, is also profoundly engaged by the fundamental dignity of even the most overlooked and neglected of human beings. The point of this novel, in other words, is that Preemby is a king not despite being (in Jung's crual but accurate phrase) a ‘midget personality’, but because of it: that we are all great-souled and royal no matter how unprepossessing our exteriors.

As he nears the end Preemby tries to put it into words: ‘I was telling Dr. Devizes—I told him, that since he was Sargon and King just as much as me and that almost anyone might become Sargon and King, then it wasn't a case for palaces and thrones any longer ... and that the real thing was to be just a kingly person and work with all the other kingly persons in the world to make the world worthy of our high descent. Anyone who wakes up to that becomes a kingly person. We can be active kings even if we remain kings incognito. One can be a laundryman like I was when I was just Preemby, and think of nothing but the profits and needs and vanities and fears of a little laundryman—and how dull it was!—or one can be a king, the descendant of ten thousand kings, the joint heir to the inheritance of all human affairs, the lord of the generations still unborn—who happens to be living in exile as a laundryman’ [3.3.5].

Put it this way: we might think that what made Herman Poole Blount into Sun Ra was that Sun Ra happened to be a musical genius; but Sun Ra himself believed, and had Wells lived into the 1960s he would surely have agreed with him in this, that he was an interplanetary solar being by virtue of his humanity, not his talent. His talent was just the means by which he attempted to communicate this (to him, obvious) spiritual truth to the world.

In that sense, I think, Christina Alberta, by asserting the royal prerogative of her self-belief is performing the same (scare quotes) ‘madness’ as her father, and (Wells wants us to conclude) it's a thoroughly wholesome and healthily self-asserting madness, whatever society says. We are all kings and queens, after all. Who can argue with that?

1 comment:

  1. One can be a laundryman like I was when I was just Preemby, and think of nothing but the profits and needs and vanities and fears of a little laundryman—and how dull it was!—or one can be a king, the descendant of ten thousand kings, the joint heir to the inheritance of all human affairs, the lord of the generations still unborn—who happens to be living in exile as a laundryman.

    That's quite extraordinary. It reminds me of an Arthur Machen short story in which someone living a dull suburban existence wakes up to his true nature and identity, which is of course a vaguely Arthurian nobility with Anglo-Catholic overtones (or possibly Anglo-Catholic nobility with Arthurian overtones). It's meant to convey a sense of wonder and possibility - as if to say, this is what the world is like - even now, even here! - but of course our new-minted nobleman is only one of the people who were living those drab suburban lives on the Holloway Road, and Machen's unreflective elitism means that he doesn't take much notice of the rest. It gets a bit Fast Show... So I went to the local history library, and it turns out that I'm the owner of a lovely little castle, just outside Ludlow. Which is nice.

    Anyway, I wouldn't have thought that a properly democratic version of that resolution was possible, let alone that Wells would be the one to write it. You live and learn.