There’s a splendid scene towards the end of The New Machiavelli where the protagonist (and narrator) Richard Remington attends a posh London dinner-party inside a burning house:
“A dinner of all sorts,” said Tarvrille, when he invited me; “everything from Evesham and Gane to Wilkins the author, and Heaven knows what will happen!” I remember that afterwards Tarvrille was accused of having planned the fire to make his dinner a marvel and a memory. It was indeed a wonderful occasion. [New Machiavelli, 4.3.1]You can see ‘Wilkins the author’, Wells’s diminutive alter-ego, making a Hitchcockian cameo there; although he is somewhat supernumerary in a novel that David Smith calls ‘Wells’s most autobiographical’. The critics agree that Remington is the real Wellsian alter-ego in this book, his engagement with politics a parliamentary mirror of Wells’s time with the Fabians, and his affair with the beautiful young Isabel Rivers an iteration of Wells’s affair with Amber Reeves—down to the name of the love object herself, Isambel/r Rives. Anyway: by this point in the novel, Remington, estranged from his wife, has taken Rivers as his mistress, but for the sake of his political career they have agreed to separate, with Rivers marrying a complaisant young admirer called Shoesmith (just as Reeves married the lawyer George Blanco-White). This separation has made Remington profoundly unhappy. But, as an ambitious Tory MP, he goes off to dinner with this selection of Tory bigwigs.
As the dinner proceeds ‘a penetrating and emphatic smell of burning rubber’ alerts the company to the fire; Tarvrille sends his butler to investigate and confirmation comes.
We became aware that Tarvrille’s butler had returned. We tried not to seem to listen.And so they go on with their dinner party as the house goes up around them, not unlike the similar scene in that other great critique of British Imperialism, Carry on Up the Khyber:
“Beg pardon, m’lord,” he said. “The house is on fire, m’lord.”
“Just overhead, m’lord.”
“The maids are throwing water, m’lord, and I’ve telephoned FIRE.”
“No, m’lord, no immediate danger.”
“It’s all right,” said Tarvrille to the table generally. “Go on! It’s not a general conflagration, and the fire brigade won’t be five minutes. Don’t see that it’s our affair. The stuff’s insured. [The New Machiavelli, 4.3.1]
There was a sudden cascade of water by the fireplace, and then absurdly the ceiling began to rain upon us, first at this point and then that …—a new vertical line of blackened water would establish itself and form a spreading pool upon the gleaming cloth. The men nearest would arrange catchment areas of plates and flower bowls. “Draw up!” said Tarvrille, “draw up. That’s the bad end of the table!” He turned to the imperturbable butler. “Take round bath towels,” he said; and presently the men behind us were offering—with inflexible dignity—“Port wine, Sir. Bath towel, Sir!”Inside the burning house the guests enter into an interesting discussion of the hypocrisies of imperial power, moving from that into a debate about the nature of politics as such that critiques the political philosophy of the novel's main character, and therefore of the novel itself. The diners discuss ‘the story of the siege of the Legations in China in the year 1900’:
How the reliefs arrived and the plundering began, how section after section of the International Army was drawn into murder and pillage, how the infection spread upward until the wives of Ministers were busy looting, and the very sentinels stripped and crawled like snakes into the Palace they were set to guard. It did not stop at robbery, men were murdered, women, being plundered, were outraged, children were butchered, strong men had found themselves with arms in a lawless, defenceless city, and this had followed.As Wilkins notes, of course none of the British (or the French, or the Germans, but the novel isn't interested in them) were punished for this looting. They all returned to their respectable lives: “I suppose there’s Pekin-stained police officers, Pekin-stained J. P.‘s—trying petty pilferers in the severest manner,” says Wilkins.
“Respectable ladies addicted to district visiting at home were as bad as any one,” said Panmure. “Glazebrook told me of one—flushed like a woman at a bargain sale, he said—and when he pointed out to her that the silk she’d got was bloodstained, she just said, ‘Oh, bother!’ and threw it aside and went back.”
Nowadays, when we tend to take the hypocrisies of imperialism and the corruptions of power as axiomatic, this of course doesn't surprise us: but Remington, like his dinner companions, is a believer in the civilising mission of the Empire—it's a version of Wells’s own belief in the desirability of the World State refracted through the sensibilities of a fictional character who is a Conservative MP. The group discusses how such things happen, and Wells drops-in a miniaturised short story in the echt Conradian mode:
Some man I didn’t know began to remember things about Mandalay. “It’s queer,” he said, “how people break out at times;” and told his story of an army doctor, brave, public-spirited, and, as it happened, deeply religious, who was caught one evening by the excitement of plundering—and stole and hid, twisted the wrist of a boy until it broke, and was afterwards overcome by wild remorse.Setting this discussion inside a literally burning house, its characters drawling unconcernedly on, is a lovely touch.
Talk then shifts over to the specific grounds of Remington’s own politics: his popular slogan ‘Love and Fine Thinking’ (I take this to be a 20th-century renewal of the old Arnoldian call for Sweetness and Light), and his specific policy proposals on ‘an Endowment for Motherhood’. But the fact that everybody there knows of his scandalous extra-marital affair, although of course nobody says so in so many words, leads to the conversation turning nasty. The other dinner guests start by baiting the narrator mildly enough: ‘“Ours isn’t the Tory party any more,” said Burshort. “Remington has made it the Obstetric Party.” “That’s good!” said Weston Massinghay, with all his teeth gleaming; “I shall use that against you in the House!”’ But then an unnamed Cambridge don (‘something in his eyes told me he knew Isabel and hated me for it’ Remington says) attacks his slogan:
“Love and fine thinking,” he began, a little thickly, and knocking over a wine-glass with a too easy gesture. “Love and fine thinking. Two things don’t go together. No philosophy worth a damn ever came out of excesses of love. Salt Lake City—Piggott—Ag—Agapemone again—no works to matter.”Also, as it happens, my favourite Dickens character. But not to interrupt:
“Got to rec’nise these facts,” said my assailant. “Love and fine think’n pretty phrase—attractive. Suitable for p’litical dec’rations. Postcard, Christmas, gilt lets, in a wreath of white flow’s. Not oth’wise valu’ble.”
I made some remark, I forget what, but he overbore me.
“Real things we want are Hate—Hate and coarse think’n. I b’long to the school of Mrs. F’s Aunt—”
“Hate a fool,” said my assailant.This nicely encapsulates the principal ways in which The New Machiavelli orients its political philosophy: ideals in tension with reactionary pragmatism. What is politics? Is it a set of practical beliefs about how the world can be made better? Or is it a more-or-less cynical programme of power, galvanising support by stoking hatred and xenophobia? Remington goes into politics inspired by the former point of view and is startled to discover how little his attitude is shared. These men at the dinner party regard him, and the influential magazine he edits, The Blue Weekly, as resources in the political game. More, they do think of it as a game, and don’t share Remington’s ingenuous belief that it ought to be something more than that. ‘It was an extraordinary revelation to me. … They regarded me and the Blue Weekly as valuable party assets for Toryism, but it was clear they attached no more importance to what were my realities than they did to the remarkable therapeutic claims of Mrs. Eddy. For them the political struggle was a game, whose counters were human hate and human credulity; their real aim was just every one’s aim, the preservation of the class and way of living to which their lives were attuned.’
Tarvrille glanced at me. I smiled to conceal the loss of my temper.
“Hate,” said the little man, emphasising his point with a clumsy fist. “Hate’s the driving force. What’s m’rality?—hate of rotten goings on. What’s patriotism?—hate of int’loping foreigners. What’s Radicalism?—hate of lords. What’s Toryism?—hate of disturbance. It’s all hate—hate from top to bottom. Hate of a mess. Remington owned it the other day, said he hated a mu’ll. There you are! If you couldn’t get hate into an election, damn it (hic) people wou’n’t poll. Poll for love!—no’ me!”
He paused, but before any one could speak he had resumed.
“Then this about fine thinking. Like going into a bear pit armed with a tagle—talgent—talgent galv’nometer. Like going to fight a mad dog with Shasepear and the Bible. Fine thinking—what we want is the thickes’ thinking we can get. Thinking that stands up alone.
In this, of course, they are all proper Machiavellians. There are many things we can say about The Prince (1513), but the main argument of the book is that those who wish to succeed in politics must take a pragmatic, rather than an idealistic, perspective. One of the thrusts of Wells’s novel is that the utopian of whichever party-political stripe cannot make headway against these bedded-in pragmatisms of power.
In the aftermath of this dinner party Remington finds his resolve to stay away from the toothsome Isabel failing, and the novel ends with him abandoning wife and political career and instead decamping to Italy with Rivers and their illegitimate child. Which is also where the novel starts—the novel’s two opening sentences are: ‘Since I came to this place I have been very restless, wasting my energies in the futile beginning of ill-conceived books. One does not settle down very readily at two and forty to a new way of living, and I have found myself with the teeming interests of the life I have abandoned still buzzing like a swarm of homeless bees in my head.’ [1.1.1.]
Remington’s restlessness is one of the keynotes of his character, and is compellingly developed through the whole of this lengthy novel. That throwaway allusion to a beehive—one of several traditional tropes of political philosophy of course—emphasises not order but buzzed-up and potentially destructive vagrancy. Remington’s repeated stress on the need for a new kind of political order, and his genuine hatred (as the Cambridge don accurately notes) of muddle, exist in a neatly rendered dialectical relationship with his own aimless self-destructive and libidinally chaotic energies.
I’ve quoted this dinner party scene from Book 4 at length, here, in order to lay down a couple of key points, but also to give a flavour of the novel as a whole: to give some sense of its rich, detailed, penetrating, often funny tone. It’s a rather mannered style of course: not stilted or reified as yet into the later Wellsian preachiness, but clubbish, digressive, recognisable and parody-able. It also necessarily dilutes its rhetorical and ideological force, as critique, by its discursiveness. The man whose name the narrator doesn’t know, who ‘began to remember things about Mandalay’, and who is presumably Joseph Conrad himself, would make a Heart of Darkness or a Lord Jim out of the anecdote of the army doctor who loses his civilised head and breaks the boy’s wrist. Wells tucks the thought out of the way, into a blink-and-miss-it paragraph, such that the glare of The New Machiavelli’s big wah-wah love story overwhelms it.
And actually this is about more than, as it were, narrative focus. It’s about mode. Conrad mythologises and estranges his material, which gives his Hearts of Darkness and Lords Jim the calibre of fables and thereby ramps-up their affect very considerably. Wells in mundane novelistic mode familiarises and, to a degree, banalises the material. This is a roundabout way of saying that Wells’s science fiction, and especially his shorter, more fabulist pieces (Time Machine, Invisible Man, Moreau and the like), achieve things, and therefore endure in ways that, his ‘realist’ fiction simply cannot. But then that’s exactly what you’d expect me to say.
The New Machiavelli is divided, perhaps a little over neatly, into four balanced sections of (except for the last one) four chapters each. The very final section leaves the reader with a sense of deliberate aesthetic incompletion by ending its third chapter en l'air, as Remington consoles the weeping Isabel on the train in which they are fleeing respectable life for an uncertain future together. Up to that point, though, Wells builds squarely, with a sense of structural parity. ‘Book the First: The Making of a Man’ relates Remington's childhood and adolescence in Bromstead; ‘Book the Second: Margaret’ his courtship and marriage and the beginnings of his political career as a Liberal; ‘Book the Third: The Heart of Politics’ his developing career, his shift of allegiance to the Conservatives and the reasons for it together with the estrangement that grows between him and his wife; and finally ‘Book the Fourth: Isabel’ his affair with Rivers, their vacillating attempts to put an end to it and Remington's final sacrifice of his political career and respectability.
This rise and fall narrative puts a particular version of the (brilliant and charismatic) Remington before the reader. And, although I have already quoted David Smith description of this as ‘Wells’s most autobiographical novel’, it is the difference rather than the similarity of the parallel political lives of Remington and Wells that is most striking. Unlike Wells, Remington is the only child of a respectable upper-middle-class family, with a good education, married to a beautiful and wealthy heiress who adores him and has dedicated her life to helping him achieve his political ambitions. Like Wells, Dick's early political awakening is driven by a sense of the preponderance of muddle and mess in the way the world is disposed, and the lack of any effective collective action to impose social order, efficiency and fairness. Remington first finds his political feet in the London circle of Altiora and Oscar Bailey—cruel but vivid caricatures of Beatrice and Sidney Webb—which is another parallel. But the Baileys are Liberals not Fabians, and where Wells's Fabian episode was dominated by his (doomed) attempt to reform and expand the group Remington does not quarrel with the Baileys until the very end of the story, when they take the high moral ground over his affair with Isabel Rivers and spread the scandal. More, the novel contains no equivalent to Shaw, Wells's key Fabian frenemy and an absolutely central figure in his political life of the early 1900s. Remington stands as Liberal candidate for ‘Kinghamstead’ and so enters Parliament, which Wells never did. Remington’s comes to despise the ineffectual posturing of his fellow Liberals, and rethinks his political principles—he comes, in fact, to believe that society must be organised not only with systemic efficiency but with a guiding ethos of ‘the best’, an ideology of aristos. This in turn swings him in the direction of the actual aristocracy, amongst the duffers and dead-wood of which he discerns some figures of genuine value. He joins the Conservative party, resigns his seat and sets up a weekly magazine called The Blue Weekly. All of this, of course, is very far from anything that Wells did or thought.
Beyond his ‘Love and Fine Thinking’ slogan, Remington's ‘big idea’ is an endowment for motherhood: state aid to help women with pregnancy and the early years of childcare, to free mothers from economic dependency on men. That looks commendably progressive, even by 21st-century standards, although Remington's rationale is rather more eugenicist and race-alarmist than a contemporary progressive would be comfortable endorsing.
The birth rate falls and falls most among just the most efficient and active and best adapted classes in the community. The species is recruited from among its failures and from among less civilised aliens … Contemporary civilisations are in effect burning the best of their possible babies in the furnaces that run the machinery. In the United States the native Anglo-American strain has scarcely increased at all since 1830, and in most Western European countries the same is probably true of the ablest and most energetic elements in the community [New Machiavelli, 3.4.5]Still: it goes over with the electorate. He stands as Conservative candidate for Handitch (‘Liberal majority of 3642 at the last election’) and surprises everyone by winning it.
I don't want, here and now, to re-open that can of Wellsian worms marked ‘Eugenics’ (though it's a topic that can't be separated out from this novel, I'm afraid). But it is clearly not coincidental that Remington's fall is all tied-in with this question of sexual propagation. He and Margaret have no children, although (as Wells did with Amber Reeves) Remington fathers a child on Isabel Rivers, but he is adamant that this is separate to his eugenicist political programme:
We have already a child, and Margaret was childless, and I find myself prone to insist upon that, as if it was a justification. But, indeed, when we became lovers there was small thought of Eugenics between us. Ours was a mutual and not a philoprogenitive passion. Old Nature behind us may have had such purposes with us, but it is not for us to annex her intentions by a moralising afterthought. There isn’t, in fact, any decent justification for us whatever—at that the story must stand. [New Machiavelli, 4.1.1]The final quarter of the book is very good on the messiness and scrappiness of a life in which strong desire is at odds with both public morality and private resolution: Remington and Rivers talking through the hopelessness of their love, trying to be just friends, failing, resolving on a complete breach, failing there too.
It is less good, I think, on the sheer vehemence of Remington's love rhetoric: the car-alarm insistency and volume of his repeated assertions of the intensity of love he feels for Isabel (‘I love Isabel beyond measure … I’m not in love with her now; I’m raw with love for her. I feel like a man that’s been flayed. I have been flayed’ and so on), not to mention the speeches he puts into Isabel's mouth: ‘our love is the best thing I could ever have had from life. Nothing can ever equal it; nothing could ever equal the beauty and delight you and I have had together. No one could ever know how to love you as I have loved you; no one could ever love me as you have loved me, my king’. King, no less!—when they were lovers, Amber Reeves used to call Wells ‘master’, but in his fictionalisation of the relationship he gives himself this promotion.
All this gives an impression of special pleading, of trying too hard to justify the magnitude of the wreck Remington makes of his life by an equal and opposite magnitude of love and sex. And that strikes me as a false step, really, dramatically speaking. One final divergence between the life-stories of Wells and Remington is that the latter runs off to Italy make a new life with his young lover where the former, after a brief and unsuccessful sojourn in a cottage near Calais, stepped aside, let his young lover marry her Shoesmith and moved on to a string of other young and desirable women. I suspect that The New Machiavelli might have been a stronger novel if the ruin of Remington's political career had not had to occupy a proportionate situation in the book's implicit moral schema to the grandeur of his love. Disproportion here would have been much more dyamic and interesting.
There is what Freud would call a manifest and a latent aspect to Remington's desire to impose order on what he sees as the chaos of society: a superego reaction to a political situation that perpetuates solvable miseries on vast numbers of people, and an Id reaction to do with power and self-aggrandisement. To be clear: Wells doesn't use the Freudian jargon in this novel, although he is centrally interested in the way desire cuts across rational self-interest: ‘I will confess,’ Remington tells us, ‘that deep in my mind there is a belief in a sort of wild rightness about any love that is fraught with beauty, but that eludes me and vanishes again, and is not, I feel, to be put with the real veracities and righteousnesses and virtues in the paddocks and menageries of human reason’ [4.1.1.] Because that's the other salient in the dinner party scene mentioned at the head of this post: our house is on fire. It is on fire as a trope for the clubbish complacency of the ruling elite amongst the dangers of the real world, but it is also on fire with unacknowledged and repressed libidinal drives. St Paul, of course, said it is better to marry than to burn, but Remington's dilemma is that he does both.
I'm certainly not suggesting that The New Machiavelli fails in terms of setting out its political world. On the contrary: the scenes of party organisation, of the campaign trail, a few backstage episodes at the House of Commons and so on, are all engaging and persuasively written. But it is a novel that simply doesn't conceive of politics as a mass phenomenon. So the dramatis personae is a dozen or so influential people in Parliament and journalism, and their influence is reported not shown. Indeed, for all that Remington leaves the on-fire dinner party disgusted that his colleagues regard politics as a game, the novel he narrates never goes further than a modular sense of how power actualises itself in society. The book's second chapter is a splendid account of how the young Remington's interest in politics were kindled by playing with toy people: ‘I dreamt first of states and cities and political things when I was a little boy in knickerbockers’ he says, adding: ‘justice has never been done to bricks and soldiers by those who write about toys … my bricks and soldiers were my perpetual drama’ [1.1.2]. And maybe this is even true. Maybe politics can only ever be a model version of the actual (massive, shifting, rhizomatic, chaotic in the strict sense) protocols of the interpersonal on the largest scale. But the novel doesn't want that to be true: it keeps going, restlessly, after something more authentic than ‘it's all a game’. And the problem with that is that Wells can't square the personal-political circle. That 1960s slogan about the personal being the political is beyond the remit of The New Machiavelli. In its place is a diremption between Remington's vividly rendered personal passions and his more schematic political ideas and praxis. It leaves the novel feeling, somehow, under-realised.
That's not to say it's a failure. Indeed I think it is to the book's credit that it makes no attempt to be a Trollopian exercise à la Pallisers. Instead it wrestles boldly with the need to constellate the rational and the irrational as political realities in a way that almost amounts to genuine self-criticism. Wells himself, from Food of the Gods onwards, is prone to a kind of exasperated insistence that his socialist alternative is so gigantically obviously better than the status quo. Remington deploys exactly that image with regard to the gigantic obviousness of his eugenicism:
Every improvement is provisional except the improvement of the race, and it became more and more doubtful to me if we were improving the race at all! Splendid and beautiful and courageous people must come together and have children, women with their fine senses and glorious devotion must be freed from the net that compels them to be celibate, compels them to be childless and useless, or to bear children ignobly to men whom need and ignorance and the treacherous pressure of circumstances have forced upon them. We all know that, and so few dare even to whisper it for fear that they should seem, in seeking to save the family, to threaten its existence. It is as if a party of pigmies in a not too capacious room had been joined by a carnivorous giant—and decided to go on living happily by cutting him dead. [New Machiavelli, 3.4.5.]But the real giant in the room is the inevitability that Remington's illicit love-affair would destroy him. And the book does some interesting things with its metaphors of giganticism, as with this splendid description of the Empire itself:
“The British Empire,” I said, “is like some of those early vertebrated monsters, the Brontosaurus and the Atlantosaurus and such-like; it sacrifices intellect to character; its backbone, that is to say,—especially in the visceral region—is bigger than its cranium. It’s no accident that things are so. We’ve worked for backbone. We brag about backbone, and if the joints are anchylosed so much the better.” [New Machiavelli, 3.2.1]The unnamed Cambridge don is right. Love and fine thinking serve a politician less effectively than hate and no thinking at all: than instinct and just spinal reaction. That sub-rational level is the one the novel is most effective at realising. When Remington tries to argue that the sexual hypocrisy of Britain in 1911 is a practically disadvantageous to the nation and the Empire he really starts to flail. Sp he rants at his friend Britten at the end: ‘“we have got to be public to the uttermost now—I mean it—until every corner of our world knows this story, knows it fully, adds it to the Parnell story and the Ashton Dean story and the Carmel story and the Witterslea story, and all the other stories that have picked man after man out of English public life, the men with active imaginations, the men of strong initiative. To think this tottering old-woman ridden Empire should dare to waste a man on such a score!”’ [4.3.1] A man who is offered either great political power or fantastic sex with a beautiful young mistress and mounts into a towering rage that he can't have both is unlikely to come across as especially endearing; nor does the attempt to rationalise this doubled appetite of Id by suggesting that it is the rest of us who are really losing out convince. It doesn't help that, having cited the most famous nineteenth-century example of an able politician brought low by a love-affair in Parnell, the best Wells can do by way of adducing additional examples is three made-up names.
Not that you blame him for having a go. The novel knows. Remington is living in a burning house, but he is himself the fire: ‘You know that physical passion that burns like a fire—ends clean,’ he tells Britten. ‘I’m going for love, Britten—if I sinned for passion. I’m going, Britten’ [4.3.1.] and ‘a letter Margaret wrote me within a week of our flight’ cuts the chase. His wife knows him, even as he has abandoned her:
There’s this difference that has always been between us, that you like nakedness and wildness, and I, clothing and restraint. It goes through everything. You are always talking of order and system, and the splendid dream of the order that might replace the muddled system you hate, but by a sort of instinct you seem to want to break the law. I’ve watched you so closely. Now I want to obey laws, to make sacrifices, to follow rules. I don’t want to make, but I do want to keep. You are at once makers and rebels, you and Isabel too. You’re bad people—criminal people, I feel, and yet full of something the world must have. You’re so much better than me, and so much viler. It may be there is no making without destruction, but it seems to me sometimes that it is nothing but an instinct for lawlessness that drives you. You remind me—do you remember?—of that time we went from Naples to Vesuvius, and walked over the hot new lava there. Do you remember how tired I was? I know it disappointed you that I was tired. One walked there in spite of the heat because there was a crust; like custom, like law. But directly a crust forms on things, you are restless to break down to the fire again. You talk of beauty, both of you, as something terrible, mysterious, imperative. Your beauty is something altogether different from anything I know or feel. It has pain in it. Yet you always speak as though it was something I ought to feel and am dishonest not to feel. My beauty is a quiet thing. You have always laughed at my feeling for old-fashioned chintz and blue china and Sheraton. But I like all these familiar used things. My beauty is still beauty, and yours, is excitement. I know nothing of the fascination of the fire, or why one should go deliberately out of all the decent fine things of life to run dangers and be singed and tormented and destroyed. [New Machiavelli, 4.3.5]It's this that, ultimately, makes The New Machiavelli a novel less about politics than about the psychological obstacles to the individual engagement in politics.