Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Meanwhile: the Picture of a Lady (1927)

Meanwhile is another country house comedy, like Bealby (1915), although with rather more political stuff and rather less comedy. This time we're in Casa Terragena, a spacious villa on the Italian riviera, Continental home to the super-wealthy Philip Rylands and his wife Cynthia. She is pregnant with the couple's first child.

The Rylands are throwing a fancy house-party to which are invited many people, including: a famous author called Mr. Sempack (‘he writes books. Real books ... Not books you read. Not novels. Not memoirs. Books that are just books. Like Santayana. Or Lowes Dickinson. Or Bertrand Russell’ [1:1]), an American aesthete, Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan (who calls Sempack ‘a Utopographer!’ ) and the beautiful, vivacious Lady Catherine, who has something of a crush on Sempack, despite the latter's manifest unpulchritude. Indeed, given that Sempack is patently the Wells figure in this novel, it's interesting how unsparing the author is of his physical appearance: ‘a sprawling person’, old and wrinkled ‘like Pan half changed into an old olive tree of like some weather-worn Terminus’ [1:11]. Although, by golly, the women all seem to adore him.

Anyway: also present are Colonel and Mrs. Bullace (Bullace is ‘a great admirer of Joynson-Hicks. He wants to organise British Fascists. Keep the working man down and save him from agitators and all that. Adores Mussolini’ [1.1]), the host's brother, Geoffry Rylands and Miss Fenimore, who is rather cruelly described by Wells as ‘a demi-Stupid, a Stupid in effect, an acquiescent Stupid’ [1:6]. She is in awe of Sempack, and follows his talk ‘from first to last with an enraptured incomprehension’ [1:12]. There are various others, particularly Lord and Lady Tamar (‘he’s at Geneva, doing things for the League of Nation’ [1:1]) and a young woman called ‘Puppy’ Clarges ‘rude, troublesome, occasionally indecent and she professed to be unchaste’ [1:6].

Not much happens in the novel by way of plot. Book 1 is mostly given over to setting the scene, and describing an evening's dinner party at which Sempack reveals himself to be a brilliant talker, spouting a series of intensely Wellsian ideas: that a ‘Great Age’ is coming, the ‘open conspiracy’ needed to bring it about, and so on. It turns out everybody is wrong about the current social problems in Britain except Sempack:
“The miners are finding life intolerable, the mine-owners are greedy not only for what they have but more; the younger Labour people want to confuse the issue by a general strike and a push for what they call the Social Revolution.”

“What exactly do they mean by that?” asked Lord Tamar.

“Nothing exactly. The Communists have persuaded themselves that social discontent is a creative driving force in itself. It isn’t. Indignation never made a good revolution, and I never heard of a dinner yet, well cooked by a starving cook. All that these troubles can do is to ease or increase the squeeze on the miners and diminish or increase the totally unnecessary tribute to the coal-owners—at the price of an uncertain amount of general disorganisation and waste. My own sympathies are with the miners and I tax my coal bill twenty-five per cent, and send it to them. But I cherish no delusions about that struggle. There is no solution in all that strife and passion. It is just a dog-fight. The minds of people have to be adjusted to new ideas before there is an end to this sweating of men in the darkness. People have to realise that winning coal is a public need and service, like the high road and the post office. A service that has to be paid for and taken care of. Everybody profits by cheap accessible coal. A coal-owner’s royalties are as antiquated as a toll gate. Some day it will be clear to everyone, as it is clear to any properly informed person now, that if the state paid all the costs of exploiting coal in the country and handed the stuff out at prices like—say ten shillings a ton, the stimulation of every sort of production would be so great, the increase, that is, on taxable wealth would be so great, as to yield a profit, a quite big profit, to the whole community. The miners would become a public force like the coastguards or the firemen....”

“You think that is possible?” asked Philip.

“I know. It’s plain. But it’s not plain to everyone. Facts and possibilities have to be realised. Imaginations have to be lit and kept lit——” [Meanwhile, 1:5, ellipses in original]
There's a good deal of this sort of thing in Book 2, too.

Otherwise only two things ‘happen’ in the novel: one is that the hostess, Cynthia Rylands, discovers her husband Philip in the bathing chalet in flagrante with Puppy Clarges, which naturally upsets her (Puppy flounces back to England, after writing her hostess a note ‘of exceptional brevity: “Sorry,” wrote Miss Clarges. “I’m gone and I won’t worry you again.” “Sorry I got caught,” Miss Clarges remarked to herself, and licked the envelope’ [1:10]). The other is that the 1926 General Strike kicks off, back in Britain. The guests read about it in the newspapers, and earnestly discuss what it means.

Cynthia Rylands, distraught at her husband's betrayal, asks Sempack's advice. In one of the novel's dodgiest portions, Sempack writes her a letter in effect instructing her to forgive her husband's infidelity. He tells her that, of the two available attractive women in the Villa (that is, Lady Catherine and ‘Puppy’), Philip did the right thing by choosing to fuck Puppy. ‘He loves nobody but you. If he had wanted to make love—consider! Lady Catherine here ... but Lady Catherine is an equal, a personality. He wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t dream of her. Because that would be a real infringement of you. That would be a real division of love. But on the other hand there was this Miss Clarges, who disavows all the accessories of sex—and is simply sexual’ [1:11]. Sempack assures Cynthia that such sex is nothing for her to worry about: it is just ‘a consoling and refreshing physical release’, ‘such a simple thing’ ‘as healthy a thing physically as breathing mountain air’. I have to say if I tried that line on my wife, she'd beat me on a delicate spot with a meat tenderizer and afterwards divorce me. But it does the trick for Cynthia: with a murmur of ‘my poor little wits!’ she agrees with Sempack that her husband's problem is idleness, not wickedness. Book 1 ends with her persuading him to travel back to England to look out for the family coal-mine holdings during the strike.

This whole section makes for a fairly gobsmnacking read today, actually. Constellate it with Wells's own relationship with his wife, her apparent complaisance to his philandering and the complete blankness of our understanding of her actual feelings or motivations in the matter—plus the fact that she died in the same year Meanwhile was published. Isn't there, in this context especially, something rather monstrously self-serving in the words Wells puts into Sempack's mouth here? ‘In the fullest sense and to the last possible shade of meaning you are his wife; you are a wife by nature, and the rĂ´le of a wife is not to compete and be jealous, but to understand and serve and by understanding and serving rule’ [1:11]. Pleading thy name is special. It's hard to think oneself into the mindset of a serial philanderer writing such a tissue of exculpation to a wronged wife as his own wronged wife lies dying of cancer. Or maybe, actually, it's perfectly comprehensible, psychologically-speaking. It's just not liable to convince anybody.

A good portion of Book 2 is given over to the letters Philip sends from England reporting on the General Strike. It has to be said that Philip, a wealthy coal-mine owner, never in this novel sounds the least like a wealthy coal-mine owner—doesn't, that is, side with the Conservatives on the side of the protection of private property and the extirpation of Communism. Instead he sounds like ... like H G Wells, actually. The strike is a tragic mistake, the workers' making that mistake honestly and the bosses dishonestly. But the only solution is to put such conflict behind us and move into the broad sunlit uplands of Wellsian, global socialism.

The letters are illustrated by some of Wells's doodly ‘picshuas’ (notionally they are Philip's ‘picshuas’ of course). I feel a bit scrooge-y saying so, but Wells's delight in his own sub-cartoon visual scribbles baffles me, rather. Here is his picshua of Churchill, whom, according to Philip ‘didn’t want to prevent a General Strike’ but rather ‘wanted it to happen so as to distract attention from the plain justice of the case as between miners and coal-owners’. ‘Winston has gone clean off his head,’ says Philip. ‘Winston [is] probably certifiable but no doctors can get near him to do it’ [2:11]:

‘Winston doing Something’. These sketches do, I suppose, remind us that Meanwhile, as well as engaging in serious Wellsian World-State lecturing, aims about a third of the time to be a comedy. I can't say I found it very funny, but there you go. As a kind of reportage, these passages are interesting: a strong sense is created of the people running around like chicken-lickens yelling that the Communist Revolutionary sky was falling, when in fact nothing of the sort was true, together with the inertia of the Prime Minister himself:

‘Trusty old Baldwin keeps on doing nuffin’ (‘Jix’, in the text there, is the authoritarian and quasi-fascist William Joynson-Hicks, who was Home Secretary during the Strike). Here's the actual Baldwin, so you can gauge the accuracy of Wells's likeness.

It's interesting how far Wells locates the root of the problem in middle-class ressentiment about the decline of Britain's international standing—interesting, that is, insofar as I'd assumed the perception of national decline was more a post-WW2 feature of the British political landscape. But Meanwhile is scathing about ‘the unintelligent wealthy people in Great Britain’ They are, it seems:
The majority. On them too for some time the unpleasant realisation that Great Britain is shrinking in world importance has been growing. It seems to have grown with a rush since the coal trade began to look groggy after deflation. Perhaps it has grown too much. But this sort cannot accept it as the others do—clearly. All ideas turn to water and feelings in their minds. This is the sort that disputes the plainest facts if they are disagreeable. It is too horrible an idea for them. So it remains a foreign growth in their minds. Their Empire threatened! Their swagger and privileges going! Their air of patronage to all the rest of the world undermined! They refuse the fact. [Meanwhile, ]
As an analysis of the motivation of the reactionary half of British politics over the last hundred years that's hard to beat, I think.

The novel winds itself to a sort of conclusion. Lady Catherine suddenly breaks off her drawn-out romantic pursuit of Sempack, and rushes off to England to join-in the British Fascists and oppose the General Strike. This happens just as Sempack decides he has fallen in love with her: ‘I am in the ridiculous position,’ is how he puts it to Cynthia, ‘of having fallen in love with Lady Catherine; and it isn’t any the less disorganising for being utterly absurd. It has made me, I perceive, absurd’ [2:8]. Back in England Catherine knocks over an unemployed man with her car, killing him, but doesn't stop: ‘she drove on!’ Philip reports in one of his letters: ‘she drove on, because she was a patriotic heroine battling against Bolshevism and all that, for God and King and Fearon-Owen [Wells's fictional British Fascist leader] and the British Gazette, particularly Fearon-Owen and the British Gazette. War is war. Nothing will be done to her’ [2:14].

In Italy Cynthia give sanctuary to Signor Vinciguerra, a liberal Italian leader being hunted by Italian fascists. In Britain the strike collapses. A Northern Irish nurse called Mrs McManus comes to help Cynthia through her labour, and Wells has some sectarian fun with her character. It's not comedy that has aged terribly well, I have to say:
“Almost all my work is done in Italy and the south of France in Catholic families, and I shouldn’t get half of it if I wasn’t known to be a Prodestant out and out,” she explained. “It gives them confidence. ... You can’t make a really thorough nurse out of a Roman Catholic woman. It’s known. There’s holy, devoted women among these Roman Catholic nurses, mind you. I’m not denying it. Some of them are saints, real saints. It is a privilege to meet them. But what you want in a nurse is not a saint; it is a nurse... It takes a Prodestant to wash all over every day,” said Mrs. McManus. “These Catholics—they’d get ideas or something. There’s nuns haven’t washed all over for years. And think all the better of themselves for it.

“And that’s all about it,” said Mrs. McManus, suddenly as if winding up her dissertation. [Meanwhile, 2:13]
Cynthia gives birth to a son, and her now-penitent husband returns from England to start their life over again.

It's a strange beast, this novel. If the country-house comedy of Bealby sometime reminded me of a weaker-beer Wodehouse, the country-house comedy of Meanwhile is more like early Aldous Huxley. The balance between humour and earnest disquisition is weighted too heavily in favour of the latter, I fear, and the balance is overtipped further by the, well, unfunniness of much of the comedy. But if we set aside my visceral reaction contra the central justification of marital infidelity by which Sempack sways Mrs Ryland, much of this novel is at least interesting, and as sermonizing for the coming World State goes, it's less indigestible than some other of Wells's books.

The Huxley comparison could perhaps be explored a little further. Walter Allen talks about how Huxley in the early 1920s managed to be ‘fresh’; ‘gay and charming as well as witty’. A novel like Crome Yellow works, as Allen says, somewhat in the manner of Thomas Love Peacock, and though nobody reads Peacock any more (if it comes to that, nobody reads Huxley any more, Brave New World excepted) there is merit in his form of light novelised issue-based text, working a spectrum of political or philosophical positions through a range of variegated characters. It's what that other Thomas, Mann, does in Der Zauberberg (1924) after all, although Mann's novel is enormous and solemn and therefore turgid, where early Huxley, and this kind of Wells novel too, at least aims at a degree of sprightliness. But Allen is right, I think, to trace a shift in Huxley's intellectual-debate-novels:
In Those Barren Leaves (1925) the cloven hoof of the serious Huxley, the Huxley who is often hard put to it to distinguish between seriousness and solemnity, is plainly visible ... The characters become caricatures, lath-and-paper dummies with gramophones in the bellies, existing as it were in a perpetual brains-trust session indulging more and more in what are in fact detachable essays. [Allen, Tradition and Dream (Penguin 1965) 65-66]
This could hardly be bettered as a description of Wells's later fiction. Meanwhile is still light and lively enough to be readable, although it probably does go on rather longer than it needs to (the first edition runs to 320 pages). There's a real problem, though, with the interchangeability of the characters where the Wellsian multi-lecture is concerned: Sempack, Philip, even Cynthia all at various points crank up their Wellsian gramophone in their lath-and-paper torsos. I think Wells is aware of this, too. That subtitle, with its unmissable glance at his former friend Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. A picture is not a portrait, and still less is a pichsua. And Cynthia Rylands falls far short of Isabel-Archerhood.


  1. "...it's less indigestible than some other of Wells's books."

    I don't know. It's the first Wells book you've written about that sounds frankly dire, if only in its pointlessness. (Well, pointless other than Wells's need to extrude some novel-like verbiage in 1927 that he could get paid for.)

    1. I'm probably being too hard on it, in this post: I wouldn't describe the experience of reading it as 'dire' by any means. But I suppose it is harder to make the case for this as a novel that 'had' to exist ... which is, I think, what you're saying.

  2. Many novels 'don't have' to exist and are still enjoyable -- those by P.G. Wodehouse, for instance. Here, the overall impression I got from you is that on the whole I, or any other reader, would probably have a better time with any decent Wodehouse novel than with MEANWHILE.

    In any case, I'm enjoying what you're doing here with this overview of Wells's entire output. One of its values is that with the Wells prose extract you pick out -- and you're an experienced, professional writer of narrative prose, who has a real idea of how such prose has to work -- you've demonstrated that Wells was often an adept, superior writer. I've often thought this, recalling the likes of MOREAU or, for a very specific instance, the brief passage in WAR OF THE WORLDS where the narrator describes his first glimpse of a Martian flying machine moving through the sky in the distance. You've confirmed it.

    In fact, let me commit ignorant heresy. Nobody ever says it, but for instance in Henry James's two acclaimed, late novels, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE -- which _is_ great -- and THE AMBASSADORS the writing is circuitously baggy and non-vivid in many places where matters would have been improved by the prose being vividly non-circuitous. Sure, James dictated those books. But I've also tried earlier James, like PRINCESS CASAMASSIMA, and figuratively thrown that book across the room after a few pages because it was obvious that James is endlessly 'clearing his throat'-- writing or talking -- that is, vamping -- till he figures out what, if anything, he wants to say. Furthermore, in CASAMASSIMA in particular he clearly had no idea about how reality worked, so it's all waffle.

    In short, in the contest of Wells vs. James -- or life vs art, as Wells liked to frame it -- I consider Wells generally the better creator of good fiction in terms of sentences qua sentences and paragraphs qua paragraphs. Yes, I'm a 21st century modern where the cinematically vivid is valorized by all readers, and sentence fetishism by literary ones. Nevertheless, when Wells's writing is at its best -- combining his imagination with his prose skills -- you can see why, for instance, Orwell made his comment that Wells had done more to create the lived social reality of the British of Orwell's time than any other writer.

    All this said, Wells was a facile writer and he wrote a lot of appalling, baggy claptrap, too. But when his prose is at its best, it's very good.