Monday, 18 December 2017

The Way The World Is Going (1928)



It's yet another collection of Wells's occasional journalism on contemporary social and political themes, this time culled from his various (lucrative) newspaper commissions 1927-28. The volume opens with a, to be honest, rather passive-aggressive preface in which Wells gripes about how editors keep mucking about with his copy:
These articles were written for great weekly newspapers upon both sides of the Atlantic, and I note rather than complain that they appeared after suffering a certain amount of mutilation. I expressed my disapproval of such changes as were made, as vividly as possible, but the remedies a writer has are uncertain and tedious and the editorial interference went on to the end. The paragraphs were cut to pieces ; there was a brightly careless excision of phrases and sentences apparently done at the eleventh hour to fit space and there was a frequent insertion of uncongenial cross-heads and headings more satisfactory to the editorial mind.
This is poor form, really. I've written for the papers, and commissioning editors and sub-editors have edited my work. That's their job. Complaining about this tends to be, as the contemporary idiom has it, a dick move. Wells here rather gives the impression of somebody who has decided they are too grand and important a writer to be edited (‘it is amusing to try saying what one has to say in as editor-proof a form as possible. It is like shouting across an intervener at a crowd’; ‘Mercifully, I have removed the emphatic cross-heads in restoring my original text [and restored] quips and quirks, fine phrases and fine qualifications’).  But there you go.

The pieces themselves range from contemporary politics (‘2: What is happening in China? Does it foreshadow a New Sort of Government in the World?’; ‘3: What is Fascism? Whither is it taking Italy?’) to attacks on ‘Baldwinism’ and ‘The Absurdity of British Politics’, to speculations about how technology will change the world (‘15: The Remarkable Vogue of Broadcasting: will it continue?’; ‘12: Changes in the Arts of War. Are Armies needed any longer?’) That last essay contains some hair-raising predictions, actually, ‘the aeroplane gas attack ... trailing land torpedoes, gas-poisoned belts, and zones of sudden flame that would make tanks mere cooking-pots’, by way of arguing the case that war is now too destructive to contemplate and that our only hope for species survival is global disarmament.

In its latter stages the volume moves onto less materialist topics: ‘19: New Light on Mental Life: Mr. J. W. Dunne’s Experiments with Dreaming’ is an interesting account of Wells's friend's ideas, and the final essay is ‘27: Is a Belief in a Spirit World growing? Why many Sensible Men continue to doubt and disregard it. What is Immortality?’ Along the way are various other things, especially a funny but fundamentally point-missing attack-review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, ‘The Silliest Film. Will Machinery Make Robots of Men?’ and an interesting meditation on the direction fiction was going: ‘The Future of the Novel. Difficulties of the Modern Novelist’ (‘In brief, the difference between the modern novel and the novel of the last century is this, that then the drive of political and mercantile events and the acts of their directing personalities scarcely showed above the horizon of the ordinary life, and now they do’ [26]).  It makes, I'd say, a more satisfying whole than some of the other collections of Wellsian occasional pieces, mostly because the quality of the individual essays is higher.

Not for the first time Wells, in predictive mode, gaily offers multiple hostages to fortune. He thinks fascism will ruin Italy and sees no risk of it catching on elsewhere, worries that war between Great Britain and the USA is imminent (‘such a war is being prepared now. What are intelligent people to do about it?’ [14]) and insists democracy is on the way out, confidently insisting that ‘general elections and municipal elections or any sort of popular elections’ will no longer have ‘the slightest importance in the affairs of A.D. 2027’ [4]—we still have a few years before we can test the validity of that prophecy, I know, but as prognosis it's not looking good. Rather worryingly, Wells repeatedly praises the Kuomintang as the very model of what will come to replace the exhausted models of representative democracy: the ‘brain and nervous system’ of New China: ‘the Kuomintang is the most interesting thing by far upon the stage of current events, and the best worth watching and studying’ [2].

What else? Well, he sees no future in commercial air-travel (by 1950, he says, flying ‘will be as fitful, unpunctual, and uncertain’ as it is in 1928: ‘a great majority of air passengers will still be in the air as a rather daring “experience” for the first and last time’ [11]), and thinks radio broadcasting won't catch-on, since gramophone records provide a better quality of sound. He also predicts the introduction of what he calls ‘Companionate Marriages’, halfway between celibacy and full marriage, to enable people to have sex (with birth control) and then either proceed to full marriage or else, provided there are no children, to dissolve the bond by mutual agreement and no legal complexities.

So, no: Wells strike-rate for accurate prophesy is, really, no better in this volume than his previous ones. On the upside, that Alasdair Gray-esque cover art, at the top of this post, is gorgeous.

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 rôle 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.

"Mors Solis" (1905/2017)



[Note: this speculative aggregation consists of two things. As noted in this post, Wells wrote the preface to Gabriel Tarde's science-fiction novel Fragment d'Histoire Future (1896) when it appeared in English translation as Underground Man in 1905. Tarde treats his premise, namely what happens when the sun abruptly stops shining, by turns satirically and spiritually, and though (as you'll see if you check out my earlier post) Wells liked the novel, he also noted, at some length, that he would have handled this premise in a very different way to Tarde. To that end his preface includes 800-words or so of Wellsian prose, sketching how he might have taken things. This post takes those words, adds in a few pieces of filler in the same style, and bodges the whole into a sort-of new Wellsian short. About a third of what follows is the Wellsian ipsissima verba; the rest is me. It's not jolly, but then, a story like ‘The Star’ (1897) shows us Wells wasn't always jolly.]


That the idea of solar extinction had never occurred to the astronomers of the world can, perhaps, be ascribed to the peculiar nature of faith as it manifests in scientific circles. It is quite different to the old religious and spiritual iterations of belief. The medieval monk trembled always on the very edge of the Great Day of His Wrath, the peasant greeted each dawn as an unlooked for renewal. But then came science, and we saw for the first time in human history that our cosmos had existed for billions of years, and would exist for billions more. Star-gazers determined that galaxies were, by the standard of the human lifetime, eternal. The new faith preached our mortal impermanence as against the permanent solidity of the universe.

A faith only half correct …

The unprecedented increase in sunspot observed across the globe through the winter of 1905-06 was not greatly remarked upon outside the astronomical community; and when the incidence of those unexplained blotches returned to a statistically normal solar deviation in the spring the matter receded to the notes and queries columns of the Harvard Astronomical Review and the Greenwich Sidereal Recorder. None recognised in it a presage of what was to come.

The celestial spectorgaphic observatory on the flanks of the Pico de Orizaba mountain was the first to detect the alterations in colour. A distinct reddening, or intensification of the orange hue, was announced to the world, and reported in the London Times. People treated it as a curio, and nothing more. For after all: how could the sun fail us?

Soon enough, though, it needed no specialist astronomical apparatus to detect the change in the solar hue. A darkening orange-y redness became explicit in daytime, and shadows acquired a strange, greeny-blue glaucous quality; and sunsets spread a richer red-violet in wide bands across the western horizon. Yet even at this late stage the populations of the world were curious rather than afeared, waiting only for the more familiar colouration to reassert itself.

The alteration gathered pace, and red waxed crimson and magenta, purpled like a bruise and turned a blue first bright then murky. The whole world gloomed, indistinct under a violet sky, shadows faintly yellow, finally awoke to its doom. There were riots in France and China. A millennial cult oversaw mass suicides in the United States and in Russia people painted themselves in woad in imitation, or hoped-for propitiation.

Soon enough the sun was seized in a mysterious, chill grip and flickering from hue to hue in the skies of a darkened, amazed and terrified world—images of stupendous majesty and splendour. Human civilisation, all that it had achieved, everything it offered by way of comfort and possibility, became a vista of darkened cities and indistinct, multitudinous, fleeing crowds, of wide country-sides of chill dismay, of beasts silent with the fear of this last eclipse, and bats and night-birds abroad amidst the lost daylight creatures and fluttering perplexed on noiseless wings.

And with insolent suddenness the sun’s light winked out forever. The eons long battle between night and day was abruptly concluded, darkness the victor.

The abrupt sight of the countless stars made visible by this great abdication drove crowds of people lamentingly onto the streets and out upon the darkened fields and hills. Many more hid themselves away in houses and cellars, and huddled beside candles and gas-lights. The removal of its one mighty source of heat and light seemed to stun the weather of the world, and hold the whole poised, pendant over the abyss.

A man ran through the streets, carrying a flaming torch—a tall man, hatless, his high forehead like a shield, running, his coattails flapping like pennants in the breeze, crying ‘it is but an eclipse! Only an eclipse! It will soon pass—the sun will soon return!’ The darkness swallowed his words, and then swallowed him: sprinting away from us, knees high, in a shrinking sphere of glimmering red, until he could be seen no longer.

Climactic systems that had pulsed like a gigantic heart, running on the eons-long alteration of night’s cool and day’s warmth, shuddered and convulsed. The thickening of the sky to stormy masses of cloud hid again the stars; the soughing of a World-wide wind grew to a global gale that drowned out all other sounds.

First little flakes and then the drift and driving of the multiplying snow hurled itself against the dim illumination of lamps, of windows, of street lights lit untimely. In every city of man, such people as dared venture outside did so against the shiver of the cold, the clutching of hands at coats and wraps, the blind hurrying to shelter and the comfort of a fire—the blaze of fires. Here and there were glmpses of the red-lit faces about the fires, the furtive glances at the wind-tormented windows, heads bent to ignore the furious knocking of those other strangers barred out, for, ‘we cannot have everyone in here.’

And then the darkness deepened, and the cries without died away, and then nothing was left but the shift and falling of the incessant snow from roof to ground.

Every now and then the disjointed talk would cease altogether, and in the stillness might be heard the faint yet insistent creeping sound of the snowfall. ‘There is a little food down-stairs,’ one said. ‘The servants must not eat it. We had better lock it upstairs. We may be here—for days.’

Icicles along the eaves and fell clattering like broken glass before the freezing gale.

Bootless now to talk of days passing, of weeks or months—but with each rotation of the dark world the temperature, lacking its diurnal resuscitation, dropped further. Snows fell across the whole world and the coasts of every continent were hemmed now with intricate border of icesheets and icebergs, like the embroidery on a doily. Soon enough it became too cold for snow, and soon enough after that—it came with a suddenness upon the few who still survived—the atmosphere itself began to freeze and fall as huge, blue-white flakes: nitrogen snow and oxygen snow.

Our race behaved just as any single man behaves when death takes him suddenly through some cardiac failure. It felt very queer, it wanted to sit down and alleviate its strange discomfort, it said something stupid or inarticulate, made an odd gesture or so, and then it flickered out. Whole days were wasted in inanity. At eighteen sites around the world there came together the precious combination of organisational determination, a body of human beings—usually a military battalion of company—still ready to be commanded, and the physical resources to seize, or at least to attempt to seize, the moments. At a dozen coal- and gold-mines, determined men and women appropriated stores of food, clothing and technology, delved deeper and sought the planet’s inner heat. A half dozen other sites were chosen because they were defensible: fortresses or warehouses that could be guarded against the desperate crowds outside. In such buildings cellars were excavated into shafts, corridors were hurriedly dug slant downwards. For a week, frantic activity worked as a sedative upon human anxieties; for the labour of cultivation, as the great Voltaire most famously said, distracts us from misery, But it could only ever be a temporary release from terror.

An hour came when one of this new crew of miners—in past life a great scientist, director of the Institut de Marseille pour l'Avancement des Sciences and possessor of a number of médailles d'or for his work in chemistry and mathematics—came to the end of his shift digging, digging deeper, digging onwards towards the warmth at the earth's core. He took his turn on the ramparts, guarding the building from assault by desperate survivors. In his right hand he held a stale croissant, and in his left (for he was, as the French say, un gaucher) a pistol.

This gentleman greeted his fellow sentries gruffly, and looked about him. But though the prospect was littered with frozen bodies, this night—and it was always and only ever night—was quieter than usual. He gasped, and thought at first that his subterranean labour had worn out his lungs more severely than usual. He took a bite of pastry, and tried again to draw breath. He puffed like un asthmatique. One of the other sentries noted that it was snowing again. ‘We haven’t seen snow in several days,’ somebody else remarked. Gross flakes fluttered, moth-like, into the cones of the torchlight. The former directeur held out a twice-gloved hand, and observed these strangely blue flakes land upon the fabric of his sleeve. He knew immediately what it meant. Being by nature a frugal and cautious human being, a man to whom waste was distasteful, he finished eating his croissant, and washed it down with a swig of brandy. Then he raised his pistol to his temples, and pulled the trigger.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

The World of William Clissold (1926)



:1:

The World of William Clissold, Wells's longest novel, was first published in three volumes, like an old Victorian triple-decker. And it has some of the vibe of an old Victorian triple-decker, too, although with rather more detailed digressions on philosophy and politics and rather more extramarital sex than your average Mrs Oliphant. It is a novel about an old man trying to make sense of his life. ‘Yesterday,’ runs the opening sentence, ‘I was fifty-nine, and in a year I shall be sixty—“getting on for seventy,” as the unpleasant old phrase goes. I was born in November, 1865, and this is November, 1924’:
In the face of these figures I cannot hide from myself that the greater part of my life has been lived. ...Maybe I have not so much lost endurance as learnt wisdom. And generally my vigour is unimpaired. It is the dates and figures that will not be denied. They show quite plainly that at most only two decades remain for me, and when they are spent my strongest will be a white-faced, rather shrunken, assisted old man—‘wonderful,’ they will say. [1:1]
And they will say how his hair is growing thin. And how, conversely, his novels are growing fat. Indeed, Clissold's life is so very much like H G Wells's life (Wells had turned 60 in 1925) that the author felt moved to add a special ‘preface’ to the novel disavowing autobiographical content, and insisting ‘this is not a roman à cle’ (a typo, perhaps; or else Wells being distracted by the way the French pronounce clef). ‘It would be a great kindness to a no doubt undeserving author if in this instance William Clissold could be treated as William Clissold, and if Mr Wells could be spared the standard charge ... it is a point worth considering in this period of successful personal memoirs that if the author had wanted to write a mental autobiography instead of a novel, there is no conceivable reason why he should not have done so. Clearly he did not want to do so.’



Critics have not believed him, despite the fact that Clissold is a wealthy industrialist rather than a socialist writer. I don't believe him either. Although a couple of the events of Clissold's life are different to those of Wells's, most are not; and there's simply no denying that Clissold ventriloqust-dummies all the Wellsian opinions, often at enormous length, all the way through this novel. So we turn past the dubious preface to:



And we're into the story. Bill Clissold, his mark.

The two main components, tossed salad-like together in the novel's construction, are: Clissold's memory of his infancy, growth to adulthood, professional-life and love-life on the one hand, and on the other Clissold's thoughts on the universe, spun out of conversations he has with famous people, or simply inlaid into the text as a kind of marquetry of myriad little lectures. This latter element blurs into a general discursiveness, unfortunately characteristic of Wells's later style. Not everybody can stick it. And this novel is sometimes slackly garrulous, Still, I enjoyed reading this novel a great deal more than I thought I would. Its discursive components are often stimulating and pointed, and though its narrative line is a little meagre the portraiture—especially the core characterisation of the two brothers, where Wells manages the technically tricky business of rendering them quite different sorts of people who are still recognisably related to one another—is excellent. In other words the balance in the novel is (deliberately) shifted away from narrative and action and towards character and the discursive elaboration of ideas. And that's an interesting authorial strategy, I think.

Interesting isn't necessarily the same as successful, of course, and it's certainly not a style that has caught on. To set Wells's experimental text alongside two more famous examples of the life-novel from the same period, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) is to understand the ways in which Wells's manner simply misses the main wave of modernism. I must say, there are moments in William Clissold that reminded me of Joyce and Proust (and I'd say that it does not overinflate Wells's novel to compare it with those two classics). But the larger differences of approach are more to the point. Joyce dispenses with the Victorian commentator-narrator altogether, and indeed pares his narrative voice down to basically nothing, which leaves only the vividly isolated epiphanic moments out of which the uncreated Stephen is forged in the smithy of the text. On the other hand Proust goes, in a sense, to the other extreme, and pares down the constitutive moments-from-a-life to a very few (going to sleep, eating a cake, a grandmother dying, a party here, a trip to the sea-side there) in order to foreground reflection itself, the multiply-considered and complexly-layered self-engagements out of which the Marcel of the novel is construed. Wells steers a middle course between the two approaches, which is the conventional path; although, to be fair to him, he manages to do so in a way that produces a final result very unlike any conventional novel I have ever read.

Both Joyce and Proust, of course, are self-consciously experimenting in the literary treatment of semi-autobiographical fiction; but then so is William Clissold. Wells subtitles it ‘A Novel at a New Angle’, and its novelty is more than the rather gimmicky disposition of a prefatory note before the copyright and title pages. Colin Wilson—hardly the most level-headed of commentators, of course, but still—thought William Clissold ‘as bold an experimental novel as Ulysses and, in its own way, as successful’ [quoted in Nicholas Tredell, The Novels of Colin Wilson (Vision/Barnes & Noble 1982), 40] He may have a point.

So, the new angle is more than simply the fitting together of equal parts narrative and disquisition to form one complete novel. It's also that this novel includes amongst its fictional characters a great many real 1920s people, most of them friends of Wells's, whose appearances in the book range from mentions to brief cameos to whole, extended scenes. It is the admixture of the two modes, one fictional and one non-fictional, that had characterised Wells's entire career into a single emulsion. Formally this means fictive narrative and discursive sections woven together, but on the level of representation it means playing quite sophisticated games by which fictional characters interact with real people, by way of exploring the solidity, or otherwise, of the ego. And the ego matters to Wells because, I think, he apprehends it as one of the obstacles to people-just-getting-along-ness necessary for his peaceful utopian World State.

So, not only is Clissold's life based on Wells's life, Wells himself also appears: as ‘a distant relative of mine, Wells, who had employed many religious expressions in a book called God, the Invisible King’ [1:13], which work gets discussed at a party (amongst whose guests is also Carl Jung). More knowingly, Clissold makes reference to ‘my distant cousin Wells—if a character may for once turn on his creator and be frank about him—has written frequently and abundantly of the supreme necessity of education’ [5:14] which knocks at least a couple of bricks out of the fourth wall.

There are other intertextual games being played too, and many real people have walk-on parts in the stort. I'll come back to them. But first, since this is a novel almost nobody nowadays has read, I suppose a little summary is needful.


:2:

So: at the start of Book 1 ‘The Frame of the Picture’ elderly William Clissold is sitting in his London apartment, readying himself to travel to his much more congenial Provençal house, where his lover Clementina is waiting for him. He beguiles the time before his departure by writing the opening chapters of his life-story, and summarising the kind of person he is (‘metaphysically I have never been able to get very far beyond Schopenhauer's phrase: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Life to me as to him ... is a spectacle, a show, with a drive in it’ [1:6]). He chats about the time he met Jung, and about a supper he recently enjoyed with his old friend Sir Rupert York, fossil-expert and director of the Natural History Museum—this latter a portrait of Wells's old friend, who had helped him with the Outline of History, Sir Ray Lankester. Why Jung gets to appear in the novel in propria persona where York is fictionalised under this wars-of-the-roses switchabout moniker is a question to which the answer is, perhaps, not immediately clear. I suppose it has to do with the larger theme of the novel: the relationship of fiction to history. I'll come back to that. Finally Clissold takes the train to the south of France, and describes his very congenial-sounding set-up there. Otherwise nothing very much happens in Book 1, although it does set-up the terms on which the story proceeds.

Book 2 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—My Father and the Flow of Things’ tells the story of the early youth and upbringing of the two Clissold boys: William and his brother Dickon. Their childhood is overshadowed by the disgrace and suicide of their businessman father, Richard Clissold. Richard, in the words of one of the boys' governesses, was ‘very, very, very rich’ (‘always with three “verys,” and the last one stressed’ [2:1]); but ‘having been found guilty of falsifying the books of London and Imperial Enterprises and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude’ he ‘committed suicide and died in the passage behind the court just after he had left the dock. He had swallowed a small capsule containing poison which he had concealed in the lining of his waistcoat.’

Their mother takes the now orphaned boys to Montpellier where they live, poor in comparison to their earlier wealth ‘but not impossibly poor’ [2:3]. Then Mrs Clissold remarries: a wealthy London solicitor called Walpole Stent: ‘a tall, shy, thoughtful, knickerbockered man with a very large forehead’ [2:3]. The boys go to Dulwich College and afterwards to London University to study science, and on reaching adulthood they discard their stepfather's surname and become again Clissolds. It is one of Wells's conceits through the novel that there is something wild about the Clissolds not present in the many, other-surnamed branches of their family, and William purports to find ‘a strong suggestion of the predatory animal’ about his brother and himself [2:5].

William trains as a geologist, and passes through a socialist phase and out the other side. Indeed, Book 2 contains, as an avocado does its indigestible stone, a huge excursus on the inadequacy of Marxism as Clissold understands it. William calls Marx ‘the maggot, so to speak, at the core of my decayed socialism’ [2:8] and a great stretch of the novel is given over to a purported ‘Psycho-Analysis of Karl Marx’:
It is for the pyscho-analyst to lay bare the subtler processes in the evolution of this dream of a Proletarian saviour. Everybody nowadays knows that giant, in May-day cartoons and Communist pamphlets and wherever romantic Communism expresses itself by pictures, presenting indeed no known sort of worker, but betraying very clearly in its vast biceps, its colossal proportions, its small head and the hammer of Thor in its mighty grip, the suppressed cravings of the restricted Intellectual for an immense virility. [2:8]
30 pages of this are followed by a 30-page summary economic history of humankind from 3000 BC to the present, which winds its way back towards the downfall of Clissold senior, caught up (William argues) in the ‘credit whirlpool’ and global financial ‘confusion’ that money has become.

John Clute, no fan of the Clissold, appropriates the useful term from SF criticism ‘infodumping’ to critique Wells's novel. ‘The longest and most unrelenting of his mouthpiece narratives’ is what he calls it, in which ‘chapter-long seemingly interminable Infodumps, designed to present Wells's well-argued economic and political convictions, mock any pretext to storytelling’ [‘Wells, H G’, Encylopedia of Science Fiction] . That's a little harsh, I think; although this hard-to-digest chunk of anti-Marxian ranting (plus some of the slabs about education in book 5) come closest to supporting his case.

Anyway: Book 3, ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Essence of Dickon’ carries on the story of William's brother: a man ‘canine where I was feline’, a ‘stout tweed-wearing man’. Forceful, ‘Nordic’ and large [3:1]. Dickon makes it big in advertising, and meets many of the famous names from 1920s retail and media: Harry Gordon Selfridge and Lord Northcliffe have cameos, amongst others. Dickon innovates in his field, going from ‘hoardings and magazine-covers’ to ‘sky-signs’ and ‘smoke-writing on the blue’ [3:5]. William, meanwhile, moves rapidly upwards through the industrial firm of Romer, Steinhart, Crest & Co, first as a minerologist, later as a director. Both men marry: Dickon to Minnie,  and William to Clara. Since William's marriage is a failure he confesses ‘a certain chagrin’ that his brother's marriage ‘was heartily successful, ostentatiously successful’ [3:8]. Both men father children.

William, separates from his unfaithful wife but is unable to divorce on a technicality, and so has what is strictly-speaking-but-not-really an affair with a woman called Sirrie Evans. They cohabit. His more socially-conventional brother ostracizes him for this; but then Sirrie dies and William is accepted back into his brother's bosom. By now it's World War 1, and William does important work in the Ministry of Munitions and becomes a public figure of repute and influence. Dickon, despite being fifty, joins the army (he becomes what they nowadays call a logistics officer) and ends up with a baronetcy. This book spends some time on the war, and rather more on the missed opportunities of the post-war reconstruction period. Both brothers conclude that a ‘new sort of man is wanted’ to populate a reformed and harmonious world [3:15], with Dickon believing such a being could be engendered by harnassing the powers of advertising: ‘time for the man-midwife ... the propagandist, the advertiser, to set about his task, and bring the new order into the world’ [3:15]. Book 3 ends with a rather well-drawn portrait of the wealthy ex-pats who congregate on the French riviera.

Book 4 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Tangle of Desires’ occupies itself with the I-love-you-love-my-only-truelove of William's complicated erotic life. First there is the unhappy marriage with Clara (a woman of ‘inevitable unchastity’ [4:6] it seems) who eventually runs off with a painter called Peter Weston. Then there is William's co-habitation with Sirrie Evans (they can't marry because Clissold's divorce, though desired by both parties, hits legal snags). Sirrie makes him happy, but she dies in 1905, I think of TB (it's not spelled out exactly). After that William has an affair with a famous and rather heartless actress called Helen. This relationship doesn't work because, basically, she is too good-looking, ‘wonderful and mystical’, ‘beautiful and lovely for me as no human being has ever been’ [4:12] and he feels inadequate beside her (‘it was impossible for me to have been a worthy lover of Helen’). This section concludes with Clementina Campbell, a close portrait of Odette Keun, Wells's partner 1924-1933, who the novel presents, for all her flaws and indeed in part because of them, as Clissold's final and ideal love. Clementina is a young woman of Scotch-Greek pedigree (Keun herself was half Dutch and half Italian/Greek) and Clissold says of her: ‘Scotch heredity and Greek heredity do not mix; they make a sort of human Macedonia, a melange of hostile and incompatible districts in the soul. Clementina is in streaks beautifully logical and clear-headed, and in streaks incoherently but all too expressively passionate; she is acutely artistic and rigidly Philistine’ [4:14]

The final two books contain much less by way of narrative. Book 5 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—The Next Phase’ is almost exclusively given-over to developing Wells's idea of a global ‘open conspiracy’: eminent men and women (but mostly men), business leaders, politicians, scientists, intellectuals and writers coming together to conspire, in full view, to establish a ‘World Republic’: ‘The world republic is going to be as different from any former state as, let us say, an automobile from a peasant's cart,’ promises Clissold. ‘Its horse-power will be in its body. There need be no visible animal, no emperor nor president at all; and no parliament of mankind devoted to the betterment of human life’ [5:4]. This was the first time Wells explicitly wrote up this idea of the ‘open conspiracy’, although it went on to become a dominant notion in his later writings.

Book 5 includes a walk-on part for David Lubin, and a cameo for F. A, Sanderson, and spends about as long on proposing educational as international-political reforms. It also contains a long chapter repudiating racism. Well, sort-of repudiating racism: all races, says Clissold-Wells, are equally worthy of the citizenship of his World Republic. Except maybe the Negro. But even then: ‘The negro is the hardest case. But the negro has hardly ever had a dog's chance of getting civilised in considerable numbers, and yet his race has produced brilliant musicians, writers, and men of scientific distinction ... I refuse to consider even the black patches of the world as a gangrene in the body of mankind or shut any kind of men out of a possible citizenship’ [5:12], which is a pretty racist way of being anti-racist, to be honest. Not to get sidetracked, but I think the problem here is that Wells still believes race is a meaningful way of categorising human beings when, as it happens, race is not a meaningful way of categorising human beings. So he says: ‘it is foolish to deny the variety of human types. There are strains with an earlier maturity, a shorter span of years, quicker, more vivid sensibilities, less inhibitory, less enduring ... a great range of susceptibility to particular shocks and diseases and stresses’ [5:12] when in fact not a single one of those characteristics correlates to ‘race’ as the term has been understood (that is to say, these things of course do differ between individuals, and sometimes between cultures, but in no other way). But still: it's fair to say that 1920s Wells is both considerably less racist than most people of that time, and rather less racist than earlier Wells.

Anyway, we're nearing the end of this long and winding read. Book 6 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Venus as Evening Star’ is an elongated meditation on the differences between men and women, taking in love and sex and leaning hard on what Clissold sees as the dangerous mendacity of ‘romanticism’ (in a love-affair, rather than the literary movement, sense of the word). Really the point of this book is as a peroration to honesty in love and the demystification of sex. ‘I know,’ says Clissold-Wells ‘that my insistence in this book upon a completely normal sexual life for an energetic man is a breach of literary decorum. I shall be called over-sexed, when indeed I am merely normally sexed and only abnormally outspoken’, which is nicely put. (He goes on: ‘but our literary standards derive from schools and universities that have sheltered almost to the present day the dishonest and inwardly unclean chastity of mediaeval romanticism ... I decline to follow these monkish usages and put a fig-leaf upon my account of myself’ [6:1]). He insists that, of the four major relationships in his life, the one that comes closes to this erotic honesty and companionship is the one he is presently in. Clissold's narrative ends with him in Provence, writing, and apparently coming to the decision that he shall propose to Clemantina. The last paragraphs are in the future tense:
In a few moments now she will be standing in my door way, doubtful of her reception. She will look gravely at me for an instant and then smile softly when she sees I have turned my chair away from my table. For that means the morning's writing is over.

There will be a moment of mutual scrutiny, for she will realise immediately that something has changed, and as for me, I shall be diffident, I know not why.

‘Do I interrupt?’ she will ask according to our custom.

And I shall say—What shall I say? [6:13]
That's the last of William Clissold. All that remains of Wells's novel is a coda written by Richard Clissold: ‘and there my brother ceased to write and never wrote again. ... He was killed in an automobile accident upon the narrow road leading from the gorge of the Loup to Thorenc on April 24th, 1926. Miss [Clemantina] Campbell, who was with him in his car, was killed at the same time. This was perhaps only a day, or a day or two, after the unfinished passage was left.’


:3:

So there you have it: a whale of a novel: impressive, surprisingly agile considering its bulk, but also containing a high proportion of blubber. It's fair to say that contemporaries really weren't sure what to make of it. There were some respectful reviews (The Rotarian, Dec 1926, said ‘this novel is the most important and interesting which the much-productive Mr. Wells has written’), but also some rather more mixed ones. John Maynard Keynes, reviewing the novel for The New Republic, called the main character ‘a great achievement’, but thought the themes ‘not all treated equally well’ and judged the whole an ‘omnium gatherum’, not ‘a work of art’ [New Republic, 1 Feb 1927]. D H Lawrence was less conciliatory in the English Review calling it ‘simply not good enough to be called a novel’, and A.A.M. Thomson went so far in the direction of mockery as to publish book length parody The World of Billiam Wissol in 1927. Nor was the work a particular commercial success. The three volumes were published in separately, one a month: September-November 1926. The first volume sold out and went quickly to a second edition, but the same did not happen for the second and third volumes (so the edition I read, photographed at the top of this post, is a bibliographical curio: the first third of it is a second impression, the remaining two thirds are first edition).

You can sort of see why people were nonplussed. It is a great chunk of a book, no question about it. But although I found the third volume in particular a fair slog to traverse, and although Clissold himself, with the sheer relentless of his opinionating, grows increasingly grating as the book goes on ... nonetheless, I came away from the whole admiring rather than otherwise.

And one point is worth making before I get onto more abstruse theorising. Whatever else is the going on this novel, it showcases some of Wells's very best prose, just on a technical level. Here's a rainy day in London from the very beginning, and as sharp, memorable and vivid as piece of descriptive writing as any Wells ever made:
Outside it is not so much day as a saturated piece of dingy time, a stretch of chewed and damp and dirty fourth dimension between two nights. It rains fitfully, now in fine clouds, now in hysterical downpours, now in phases of drizzling undecided intermission; and the shops are lit and there are lights in the windows. There is a sort of grey discoloration filtering down from above that I suppose one must admit to be daylight. Wet omnibuses, wet taxicabs and automobiles splash and blunder by. There are a few reluctant foot passengers under wet umbrellas. Everything shines greasily with the rain like the backs of rolling porpoises. [William Clissold, 1.1]
Lovely writing, and there's lots of similar stuff to be mined from the experience of reading the novel. Not all the descriptions have aged equally well of course (I'm old enough, reading Wells's description of the British Museum Reading-Room as ‘a place that always suggests the interior of a gasometer to me’ [2:8] to remember both the old BL Reading Room and gasometers, but younger readers are liable just to be baffled). But when he wants to, Wells can write in a supremely evocative manner. The worst you can say of this, a description of a day in his Provençal house, is that maybe it's a little soft-edged, just the slightest whiff of sentimentality. But vivid, though:
In the early morning the stream-beds and valleys between the crests and ridges are filled with very sharp restricted banks of white mist, and then a conical hill some five or six miles away from here becomes an island of romance. All day long there is a quiet soft change in the features of this scene, hillsides hold the sunlight for a time and then fade away, spurs and summits grow from insignificance to prominence as the sun searches them out on its daily round. Towards sundown Mougins upon its ridge six miles away will at times shine out with such a brightness that I think of Bunyan's Celestial City. Everywhere at this time of year there are rubbish fires burning, and their bright down-feathers of white smoke expand and unroll and dissolve away continually and are continually renewed. Ever and again an absurd little single-track railway asserts itself by an acute long nose of white steam that burrows hurriedly across the bluish greens and greys and hangs for a time and fades like an unimportant memory.

Almost always the sky above this land is a pure clear blue or delicately streaked with filmy cloud, and the sunlight is a benediction. Sundown brings a glow of warm contentment. Then presently the nearer houses lose strength, and faint and die and become white ghosts in the twilight. Amidst the darkling scattered lights appear. [William Clissold, 1:15]
His more arresting images are often drawn from science or (you'd expect me to say this, I know) from science fiction. The novel flirts with Freud at various places, but Clissold's own preferred image for mental life's conscious and subconscious processes is not one I've ever seen used anywhere else:
The inhabitants of Venus, if there are any inhabitants upon that steamy planet, see no sun in their sky. There is, the astronomers suppose, a complete cloud shell between its surface and outer space. Life beneath that canopy must be life in the hot twilight of a tropical forest; daybreak must be a mere rosy or orange brightening of the grey, and night a darkling into blackness. But perhaps there are storms there, and then on some rare occasion that flocculent, dense welkin may be rent and swept aside, and the stars may shine or the naked sun blaze down upon the tossing, waving jungle. A thousand things, faintly suspected, dimly apprehended hitherto, must be revealed for a little while, stark and plain. [William Clissold, 1:8]
I think that's a pretty arresting image, myself. It might be interesting to explore further the notion of the subconscious as a kind of Burroughsian jungle Pulp-SF Venus, actually (Wells uses Venus because one of his main points is the importance of the erotic life to the rest of the life of the mind).

Later Wells mentions Gabriel Tarde's Fragment d'histoire future, which is interesting for several reasons: Tarde's novel was published in 1896, and since Clissold shows that Wells read it, I wonder if Tarde's subterranean utopia influenced those passages in 1898's War of the Worlds in which the artilleryman dreams of an underground utopian refuge from the Martian invaders. In Tarde's book the death of the sun drives humanity underground for warmth, and there they (we) collectively decide to remake society on the basis of music, art and kind of ‘interspiritual’ telepathy.



When Wells brings the novel into William Clissold it is to describe the despair that afflicted his main character, and Wells himself, in the economic depression of the early 1920s, as hopes of reconstruction and lasting world peace died. What's interesting is that Wells entirely omits reference to the later, utopian portions of Tarde's novel:
There is a book of Tarde's called Fragment d'histoire future. It describes the unexpected extinction of the sun. A sudden extinction, like a gas-light being turned off. It is springtime in France, the almond blossom has come, the birds are nesting, people are going afield, when the catastrophe occurs. The sun rises already shorn of its radiance, cools to a red orb at midday, is dulled to a sullen coppery glow, and a snowstorm that grows thicker and thicker fills the air, driven before a cold and devastating wind. The young elder leaves, the almond petals whirl past and are forgotten. Everyone is presently in flight for shelter and searching frantically under cover for fuel. The icicles gather along the eaves and fall clattering like broken glass before the freezing gale. The plants bud no more, the birds sing no more, a great darkness comes upon the world. Naturally those who have fuel cling to the fuel. The quicker-witted start for the coal-mines and begin to burrow down towards the central heat.

In much the same fashion did the hope of Reconstruction vanish from the sky. Peace conditions had returned and the phase of ready borrowing was at an end. The golden sun of credit veiled its countenance. A heavy ground swell in the European currencies gave place to a storm. The States had over-borrowed and mankind was collectively in debt. [William Clissold, 3:13]
The sciencefictional, just as much as the utopian, still interpenetrates Well's mimemtic mode, even so late as 1926. The question is: which is the truth, and which the fable?


:4:

Wells's Experiment in Autobiography is surprisingly dismissive of The World of William Clissold: it ‘has a rambling manner’, Wells says, and although he qualifies this judgement (‘it seems to ramble more than it actually does’) he does insist that the point of the book is its least narrative, most directly andragogic portion: the ‘Open Conspiracy’ stuff in Book 5. Wells calls this the novel's ‘gist, to which, after four Books mostly of preparatory novel writing to get the Clissold brothers alive, I came in Book Five’: the ‘possibility of bringing the diffused creative forces of the world into efficient co-operation as an “Open Conspiracy.”’ [Autobiography, 635]

The novel's epigraph is Heraclitus's πάντα ῥεῖ (Wells prints this as παντα ῥει). It's a flow that has several valences for the novel, and, although Wells doesn't use this specific image, what his Open Conspiracy is trying to do is find a way of both controlling and harnassing that massive flow, after the manner of hydroelectric dam.

One main version of the flow is the catastrophe of unregulated capitalism, in which money is so huge and so fluid it washes away human lives and happiness on an epic scale (Clissold's father's suicide is one tangible example of this); Wells describes traders in the City ‘superficial consequences’ caught in ‘a swirl ... upon a deep flood of changes beyond their understanding’ [2:14]. Money flows, as the economists insist it must; but Wells things this flow inevitably becomes the kind of inundation that washes human happiness away. The fatuities and hypocrisies of romantic love are, Clissold insists, such another flow, eroding the stability of relationships. Life itself, of course, is the fundamental, the res that ῥει, the thing that flows; and finally that flows inevitably away, as the novel's very last paragraph records.



But I don't think the novel is as formally shapeless, or fluid, as Wells's ‘rambling’ implies. I think that, not for the first time, he is engaging in a little playful misdirection.

Let me try putting it this way. There are two quite different as-it-were ‘modes of approach’ running parallel through this dual-project (that is, the dual project of telling a fictional story about fictional characters and of advancing a real-world discursive account of politics, education and future-planning including real-life people). We're likely to think of each of these two elements in linear ways: that is, to think of the metonymic succession of events that make up a linear narrative on the one hand, and the metonymic succession of points that make up a linear argument on the other. That is, no question, at play in The World of William Clissold. But there's a parallel mode in which the novel advances both its fictional and its argumentative agenda that's not linear: via metaphorical (rather than metonymic) images and intensities. This in turn is linked to the way childhood ‘sets’ moments for us, that then overdetermines certain adult experiences (but not others) as epiphanies, spots of time, transcendences. This is something both Proust and Joyce understood, and their novels both describe that epiphanic process and embody it. It is a standard undergraduate exercise to take the first babytalk chapter of Portrait of the Artist and draw out how its elements (storytelling, wetness and incontinence, anger, birds, green) are remixed and rung through the changes in the rest of the novel. I'd argue that The World of William Clissold does something similar, on a larger scale and in perhaps a more intricate way.

I've already gone on far too long, I know: and your patience, dear reader, was exhausted long ago—or else I'd go into this in much greater detail. I do think the sixfold structure of the novel, and a sixfold pattern of repeated images and moments of conceptual intensity, disclose on closer analysis a deliberate, quasi-crystalline design in this only superficially rambling novel (Wells keeps coming back to crystalline images in the novel, actually). But I don't have the space to develop a comprehensive reading of that here. I will, though, give one example of what I think is going on in this novel, to try and wrap-up my larger argument.

So, in Book 1 Clissold says that ‘things are first seen and heard and felt in childhood, and our minds file these early impressions as key-pictures and refer the later ones to them’. This means our childhood images are ‘continually refreshed’ where ‘later experiences are no longer used as new points of reference’ [1:3]. To illustrate what he means, he tells us that he has very seen ‘autumnal horse-chestnut leaves reflected in brown water and the branches of a horse-chestnut tree coming down close to that still mirror’ hundreds of times; but only one memory of this scene really lives in him, and it's the time he first saw it, as a kid:
I was in the old punt on the great pond at Mowbray. The silvery sheet of water had that convex effect one always got there upon a day of absolute calm. It was like a very smooth broad buckler. I think that effect of curvature must have been due to the way the reeds and bushes shaded the edges, or perhaps to some trick in the angle of the reflection of the pines up the slope. Far away against a background of dark bushes, some of them still deep green and some a rusty red, floated a little squadron of motionless swans, the old bird marvellously tranquillised since his days of terrifying aggression in the early summer. Even the ducks and the friendly attendant dab-chick among the lily leaves were silent. Everything was so still that I remember being startled by the sudden ‘plop’ of a falling husk into the crystalline water behind me. [William Clissold, 1:8]
A spot-of-time indeed: beautifully written. The way the pond's surface appears slightly convex is an especially vivid touch, I think; not least because it figures as the symbolic emblematisation of the narrator's ego-identity. I'm reminded of the way Golding's Free Fall uses that image of the young Sammy in the middle of a round, with a spread of possible paths lying before him, except that Golding's purpose it to externalise freedom of choice, where Wells's (I think) is to metaphorize the solidity of ego as such, shield-like and poised, yet actually made of a fluid, flowing medium.

Whilst he is on his punt, in the middle of this optical illusion, this Escher curved mirror of the self, everything about young Clissold holds. The silence and stillness becomes explicitly transcendental (‘it is as if the whole world paused. It is as if God was present’ [1:8]). But young Clissold is distracted by the beauty of some forget-me-nots amongst the rushes growing at the edge of the pond. He rolls up his trousers and wades into the rushes to seize some of the flowers:
I waded into the water and mud until my knickerbockers, in spite of all the tucking up I gave them, were soaked. And I picked handfuls of these the loveliest of all English wild-flowers.

Then suddenly came horror, the unqualified horror of childhood. My legs were streaming with blood. The sharp blades of the sedge leaves had cut them in a score of places. Fresh gouts of blood gathered thickly along the cuts, and then darted a bright red ribbon down my wet and muddy skin. ‘Oh! Oh!’ I cried in profound dismay, struggling and splashing back to the bank and still holding my forget-me-nots with both hands.

Still do I remember most vividly my astonishment at the treachery of that golden, flushed, and sapphire-eyed day. [William Clissold, 1:8]
This is not ‘narrative’ in the fullest sense; instead it's an almost imagist rebus for transcendent-stillness followed by the painful impingement of the outside world. As long as he sits in the middle of his magical convex lake of selfhood Clissold is safe, but as soon as he goes searching for beauty outside himself he encounters laceration and trauma. In miniature, this little memory establishes the paradigm for the whole of the novel.

That egoism is a problem, though: I mean, in terms of making Wells's ambitious fictional edifice palatable to actual readers. I found much to admire in the triple-decker, but I also Clissold himself, with his unceasing on-pushing narrative voice, got more on my nerves the longer I spent with him. There's an element of the subjective in such a reaction, I know; and it's possible that (given how close Clissold's voice is to Wells's voice) that I was registering not this one fictional character in this one novel, but Wells himself over the many many books of his I've read this year. Many many many. Except that it's not just me. One of the most swingeing reviews the novel received appeared in Blackfriars Magazine [Nov 1926], and identified Clissold himself as the problem. ‘With a touch of the Max Beerbohm genius,’ said the rather snide reviewer, ‘J.B.R.’, ‘Mr. Wells may yet turn his Clissold into the best Devil in fiction. It is inconceivable that Clissold's pontifical stupidities are going to end within the short space of a third volume. A hero cannot die in his own autobiography—not even at the end of a third tedious volume.’ Miaow!
Clissold needs only that and a silk hat to finish him off into a first-rate Devil. Already he is almost as omniscient, as malicious, as cunning even, as Mr. Wells himself.
My problem is not, as J.B.R.'s problem manifestly is in this review, that Wells shows insufficient reverence to priests and politicians. I could care less, as the phrase goes, on that score. But it is hard to deny the sense of relief I felt at laying down the final volume and knowing that I didn't have to spend any more time in the orbit of William Clissold's elderly ego. Well, until I pick up the next H G Wells book to read, I suppose.

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?