Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922)

Wells sailed to the USA to write-up the Washington Naval Conference on disarmament (12 November 1921 to 6 February 1922) as weekly reports for the New York World newspaper. The London Daily Mail also carried his pieces, or at least the first fourteen—they took exception to his criticism of the French Prime Minister, Aristide Briand, whom Wells judged a backslider on the question of international disarmament, and discontinued running the articles. I quote some of the things Wells wrote about Briand below. You'll be able to see why the Mail pulled their plug.

Eventually all twenty-nine of his reports were collected in one volume, called Washington and the Hope of Peace in its British edition and Washington and the Riddle of Peace in its American. Interesting distinction, don't you think? War-shattered Europe hopes, but for the more distantly engaged America peace is a riddle. But perhaps the two titles aren't so far apart. Hope is a riddle, after all; and riddles, by virtue of not containing their own answers, look to the future, and so are, even if only in some small way, hopeful.

The book, though, is a strange and rather unsatisfactory thing. Wells doesn't pretend fair or balanced reportage: he is using these essays as platforms to agitate for global disarmament and a World State, and has no interest in even trying to understand any contrary view. So, for instance: his repeated attacks on Briand. The French premier's disinclination to disband his nation's army and navy are, for Wells, evidence of sheer wickedness. France (a nation only a few short years earlier subjected to an unprovoked and four-year-long attempted invasion that killed five percent of its total, and ten percent of its adult male, population, 1.4 million men, leaving many more maimed and invalid) might be forgiven for wanting to retain some degree of defensive military capacity. But for Wells anything short of total disarmament is betrayal. Briand's fears of future aggression are  ‘alarmist’ [13] and ‘humbug’ [15]. Or, worse, they are deliberate distractions. If France be allowed to keep ‘her submarines and Senegalese’, Wells says, she would be in a position to ‘do as she pleased in Europe’ [17].  He accuses France of wanting ‘an awful army to over-awe Europe’ [12] and calls Briand ‘a warlike orator, empty and mischievous, leading France and all Europe to destruction’ [16].

It goes on. Wells refers several times to his frankly paranoid (and wholly evidence-free) theory that France is gearing up specifically to attack Britain: ‘France is maintaining a vast army in the face of a disarmed world and she is preparing energetically for fresh warlike operations in Europe and for war under sea against Great Britain’ [11]. You start to see why the Daily Mail asked him to tone it down and, when he refused, why they stopped publishing his reports. It can't have done any favours for Anglo-French diplomatic relations.

Otherwise the pieces themselves suffer from not being revised out of their chatty progress-report contingency (chapter 12 begins: ‘How are we getting on in Washington? The general mood is hopefulness tempered by congestion, mental and physical’) into something more formed and structured. There's a lot of day-to-day, and a fair amount of repetition between sections, although from time to time Wells does dilate upon ideas. After Wells attends the ceremony dedicating the Tomb to the Unknown American Soldier, he ponders the generic human unknown soldier:
A time will come when these vast personifications of conflict, the Unknown British Soldier, the Unknown American Soldier, the Unknown French Soldier, etc., will merge into the thought of a still greater personality, the embodiment of 20,000,000 separate bodies and of many million broken lives, the Unknown Soldier of the great war ... We could average figures and estimates that would fix such matters within a very narrow range of uncertainty. In race and complexion, I suppose he would be mainly North European; North Russian, German, Frankish, North Italian, British and American elements would all have the same trend toward a tallish, fairish, possibly blue-eyed type; but also there would be a strong Mediterranean streak in him, Indian and Turkish elements, a fraction of Mongolian and an infusion of African blood—brought in not only through the American colored troops but by the free use by the French of their Senegalese.

None of these factors would be strong enough to prevent his being mainly Northern and much the same mixture altogether as the American citizen of 1950 is likely to be. He would be a white man with a touch of Asia and a touch of color. [4]
This, I think, blurs the line between simple fact (that the large majority of military casualties in WWI were White Europeans) and something far more dubious, an unemphatic racism that sees non-White races as barbaric and to-be-controlled, and tacitly places the levers of the World State in white hands. In another of his many francophobic outbursts, Wells insists that France ‘is training great masses of barbaric Senegalese for war, with the view of using them to police white populations and sustain their millennium in Europe. They can have no other use now’ [10]. Indeed, he is not sure whether France itself might not come under control of ‘a black Pretorian Guard ... French-speaking and ultra-patriotic, keeping French Socialists and pacifists and Bolsheviks in their proper place’. [15].

I'm not suggesting that Wells is straightforwardly or crudely racist. He is proud of his friendship with Booker T Washington and insists that ‘educated, highly intelligent colored people’ win his ‘interest and sympathy’ (‘I cannot get up any race feeling about them’). But at the same time he insists ‘Negro Africa is mainly still in a state of tribal barbarism’ [15] and must be governed by Whites, for the benefit of everyone, for the foreseeable future.

Where the Pacific rim is concerned he's a little more nuanced. He concedes that Japan is now a world power, adding ‘our Western world, I am convinced, can work with the Japanese and understand and trust them’ [18] (‘the idea of them as of a people insanely patriotic, patriotically subtle and treacherous, mysterious and mentally inaccessible has been largely dispelled. I myself have tried that view over in my mind and dismissed it’). Japan, he says, should join Britain, America and some other major countries as ‘participating’ members of what he here calls ‘the Association of Nations’, with all other countries being granted ‘non-participating’ status, a kind of observer partnership. But he is optimistic: ‘I think first of a recovered Russia and then of a unified and educated China and a freed and reconstructed India and of many other states which can claim to be of a civilized quality, such as Egypt, gradually winning their way from a non-participating to a participating level’ [18].

He's prescient about the way advances in aerial warfare will bring destruction raining down upon civilian populations as well as the military, and even manages an ahead-of-its-time jab in at the idiocy of Mutually Assured Destruction (‘the citizen of Los Angeles, as he blew to pieces, or coughed up his lungs and choked to death or was crushed under the falling, burning buildings, could at least console himself by the thought that America was so thoroughly prepared that his fellow man in Tokio was certainly getting it worse’ [21]). But there's something flimsily unrealistic, in the end, about his dreaming. His hopefulness cracks its head against the granite impediment of human nature.
Think of a morning when the newspaper has mainly good news, of things discovered, of fine things done; think of the common day of a common citizen in a world where debt is no longer a universal burthen, where there is constant progress and no retrogression, where it is the normal thing to walk out of a beautiful house into a clean and splendid street, to pass and meet happy and interesting adults instead of aged children obsessed by neglected spites and jealousies and mean anxieties, to go to some honorable occupation that helps the world forward to a still greater and finer life. You may say that a world may be prosperous and men and women healthy and free and yet there will still be spites and jealousies and all the bitterness of disputation, but that is no more true than that there will still be toothache. A mind educated and cared for, quite as well as a body, can be healed and kept clean and sweet and free from these maddening humiliations and suppressions that now fester in so many souls. There is no real necessity about either physical or mental miserableness in human life. Given, that is, a sufficient release of human energy to bring a proper care within the reach of all.

This is not idle prophecy, this is no dream. Such a world is ours today if we could but turn the minds of men to realize that it is here for the having. [29]
‘... if we could but turn the minds of men ...’ Yeah. Good luck with that.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)

From the hindsight of 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells judged that the prodigious success of The Outline of History (1920) completely eclipsed him as a novelist so far as the reading public was concerned. I think he overstates things, although there's probably a germ of truth in his self-assessment. And here is The Secret Places of the Heart: the first work of fiction he published after the enormous commercial and reputational success of his History, and it's fair to say a novel wholly forgotten today. I, for one, had not so much as heard the title, let alone read it, before cracking the covers for this read-through.

It is, in essence, a road-trip novel. Sir Richmond Hardy, a government bigwig and head of The Fuel Commission, is close to a nervous breakdown, partly because of the strain of his job and the pressures of reconstruction, partly a delayed reaction to the horrors of the war, but mostly because of the stresses of his love life. Hardy is married to the watery Lady Hardy, but has not been faithful to her. He comes, with some reluctance, to the offices of a Harley Street doctor, the dapper little Dr. Martineau. ‘Face the accepted facts,’ admonishes the doctor:
‘Here is a creature not ten thousand generations from the ape, his ancestor. Not ten thousand. And that ape again, not a score of thousands from the monkey, his forebear. A man’s body, his bodily powers, are just the body and powers of an ape, a little improved, a little adapted to novel needs. That brings me to my point. Can his mind and will be anything better? For a few generations, a few hundreds at most, knowledge and wide thought have flared out on the darknesses of life.... But the substance of man is ape still. He may carry a light in his brain, but his instincts move in the darkness. Out of that darkness he draws his motives.’ [Secret Places, 1.4; ellipsis in original]
Dr Martineau dilates upon this idea, a version of the subconscious closer to the Jungian species-memory than the Freudian personal cellar (though in the novel neither figure is name-checked):
‘You are like someone who awakens out of an immemorial sleep to find himself in a vast chamber, in a great and ancient house, a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe. You are not alone in it. You are not lord of all you survey. Your leadership is disputed. The darkness even of the room you are in is full of ancient and discarded but quite unsubjugated powers and purposes. They thrust ambiguous limbs and claws suddenly out of the darkness into the light of your attention. They snatch things out of your hand, they trip your feet and jog your elbow. They crowd and cluster behind you. Wherever your shadow falls, they creep right up to you, creep upon you and struggle to take possession of you. The souls of apes, monkeys, reptiles and creeping things haunt the passages and attics and cellars of this living house in which your consciousness has awakened’ [1.4]
At the doctor's suggestion, the two men agree to take a three-week holiday together to get to the bottom of Sir Richmond's problems. They drive first to Maidenhead in Hardy's car. It breaks down at Taplow and, unable to restart it, Hardy resorts to beating the dumb machine with a Basil Fawlty-esque fury. Whilst they wait for the R.A.C man to tow them the rest of the way Hardy expatiates to Martineau on the closeness of anger to the human essence: ‘“Isn’t that after all what we really are?” he asked the doctor. “Essentially—Rage. A rage in dead matter, making it alive.”’ [3.2] He's presumably excusing his behaviour in smashing the car's bonnet with a hammer; but that doesn't mean we have to find his exculpation convincing.

In Maidenhead the two book into a hotel and begin the business of attempting to excvate the subterranean spaces of the Hardy's neuroses. As we might expect, sex proves to be the nub of the matter. Hardy talks the doctor through his vie sexuelle: his first erotic attachment as a boy to ‘Britannia as depicted by Tenniel in the cartoons in Punch’ [4.2]; then a young girl in a bathing costume seen on the beach at Dymchurch one day and never seen since (‘my first human love. And I love that girl still. I doubt sometimes whether I have ever loved anyone else’). Hardy married ‘a wonderfully intelligent and understanding woman’ who ‘has made a home for me—a delightful home ... I owe my home and all the comfort and dignity of my life to her ability’. They had three children and Hardy built a glittering career. But he has not known sexual satisfaction: ‘all the time, I’ve been—about women—like a thirsty beast looking for water ... I was unfaithful to my wife within four years of my marriage.’ Since then he has been a philanderer: ‘all the time, hidden away from the public eye, my life has been laced by the thread of these—what can one call them?—love adventures’ [4.3.] The rest of the novel is, really, Hardy trying to work out why he is like this.

It's Wells, of course: wife Jane the expert homemaker, Wells himself off philandering like a thirsty beast looking for water. Hardy's specific troubles are connected to the fact that a breach has occurred between him and his current mistress, the novel's Rebecca West, with whom he has a son. This individual is a cartoonist for the newspapers, her art ‘a peculiar sort of humorous illustrations’ of ‘considerable genius’ [5.2], who works under the name Martin Leeds (the novel doesn't disclose her actual name). As with Wells and West, Hardy and this Miss Martin Leeds are in the grip of mutual sexual fascination despite the fact that ‘they jarred upon and annoyed each other extremely’ [5.3].

Once Hardy's car is repaired the two men motor west, staying first at Avebury and then visiting Stonehenge where they discuss the vanished civilisation that raised the monumental circle. In case we miss the point of the digression Wells knocks it home (‘“Archaeology is very like remembering,” said Sir Richmond’ [5.4]). At Stonehenge they pick-up two young American tourists, ‘V.V.’ Grammont and Belinda Seyffert—Grammont is based on the birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, with whom, in real life, Wells had an affair—and the four of them drive on to Salisbury together. When it becomes unmistakable that Hardy is planning a relationship with the free-spirited Miss Grammont, Dr Martineau (a more sexually conventional man) bails on their road-trip, and takes the train to Bournemouth to stay with friends. Pretty soon Hardy is smitten with V.V.: ‘I am head over heels in love with her. I have never been so much in love or so truly in love with anyone before’ [7:10]. It is a passion Grammont reciprocates. They have sex on a hill overlooking the moonlit ruins of Tintern Abbey (of all places). Meanwhile, Grammont's father and her fiancé are travelling to England, from different directions, to put an end to her gallivanting.

After the flush of consummation, Hardy changes his mind. He decides that, after all, he loves Martin Leeds and wants to return to her. By way of breaking things off, he urges Grammont to ‘sublimate’ their affair: ‘put this relationship upon a Higher Plane’ [8.2.]. She's not happy about this, but there's nothing she can do, so he takes her to Falmouth, where her father is disembarking, and they part forever.

Back in London Hardy discovers a new vigour. He dominates the Fuel Commission by sheer force of personality. And then, abruptly, Wells kills him off, of pneumonia. His widow thanks Doctor Martineau for the trip the two men had taken (‘“That holiday did him a world of good,” she said. “He came back to his work like a giant. I feel very grateful to you”’ [9.1]). Dead, though, as a door-nail.

The novel's final scene involves Miss Martin Leeds outing herself to Hardy's widow as her late husband's mistress, and asking permission to see his body one last time. Lady Hardy allows this: and Leeds, accompanied by Dr Martineau, is let into the drawing room where the coffin is.
“But all my days now I shall mourn for him and long for him....”

She turned back to the coffin. Suddenly she lost every vestige of self-control. She sank down on her knees beside the trestle. “Why have you left me!” she cried.

“Oh! Speak to me, my darling! Speak to me, I tell you! Speak to me!”

It was a storm of passion, monstrously childish and dreadful. She beat her hands upon the coffin. She wept loudly and fiercely as a child does....

Dr. Martineau drifted feebly to the window. [Secret Places, 9.8; ellipses in original]
Martineau is mostly worried that ‘the servants might hear and wonder what it was all about’. The last line of the novel is: ‘Always he had feared love for the cruel thing it was, but now it seemed to him for the first time that he realized its monstrous cruelty’ [9.8]

Contemporaries weren't quite sure what to make of all this. The characters ‘conceal nothing either very sacred, very subtle, or even very interesting’ complained the English Journal. ‘Who cares about the secret places of the heart of Sir Richmond Hardy, the chairman of the fuel commission, the egotistical husband, the libertine?’ [English Journal, 11:8 (Oct 1922), 522]. This review calls the story ‘cold’, and thinks Wells ‘a cold writer’, which touches on something true of this novel, I think. From its moonlight lovemaking to its relentless intellectualising of erotic desire, even unto the psychiatrist's rather Lovecraftian vision of modern humanity waking from its animal heritage to find itself in ‘a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe’ [1.4] (quoted above), this is a novel about illicit sexual passion that tropes it as, in some core sense, chilly.

It's a counter-intuitive move, but an aesthetically interesting one. Counter-intuitive not only because actual sex, what with its shared body-heat, frottage and so on, tends to be actually warm (as of course it does); but because the new-for-the-1920s sexual frankness of writers like D H Lawrence tended to talk about sex as heat, a ‘hot’ liberating escape from intellectual life: ‘I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart,’ is how Mellors puts it in 1928, as he and Lady Chatterley make love before a roaring fire. ‘I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come all right. It's all the cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy.’ But there is something strangely cold-hearted about the various sexual infidelities of The Secret Places of the Heart. Hardy seduces V.V. with his coolly intellectual conversation, makes love to her outside by moonlight, and immediately afterwards freezes her out: even his rages, as when he smashes up his own car, are a mode of cold fury. It's not coincidental I think that it is a cold that kills him in the end: ‘he had worked to the pitch of exhaustion. He neglected a cold that settled on his chest’ [9.1]

Wells in this novel marks the distance between the warm bestial sex-past and the cooler, more intellectual sex-present. He, or his avatar Hardy, can't just let himself go, sexually speaking. His kink (as it were) is not just the excitement of extramarital sex, it is extramarital sex with an intellectual equal. Secret Places reads like Wells trying to work through, to his own satisfaction, why he is so drawn to this particular sort of interaction. Now, some of this veers a little clumsily towards self-exculpatory mendacity of the we-artists-just-need-to-shag-a-lot-alright sort (‘was it really true that the companionship of women was necessary to these energetic creative types? Was it the fact that the drive of life towards action, as distinguished from contemplation, arose out of sex and needed to be refreshed by the reiteration of that motive?’ [4.6] and so on). But I think the, if you'll excuse the phrase, main thrust of the novel isn't actually persuaded by that. This cold rebellion of his own will against his ageing libido puzzles the mature Wells, and he's trying to get of the bottom of it.

David Y. Hughes notes that ‘the paradigmatic act of Wells's personal life is sexual revolt’ and then quotes Robert P. Weeks to the effect that ‘Wells's fiction presents us with a unified world that limits its inhabitants, provokes their rebellion, and then frustrates their flight’, adding shrewdly: ‘illicit sex makes entanglement; the escape becomes the trap; each affair fuels the next ... even the ever-patient Amy Catherine [Jane Wells] had complicity not just by tolerating the affairs but by the act of having eloped with Wells from his first wife’ [Hughes, ‘Desperately Mortal’, Science Fiction Studies 14:3 (1987), 393-94]. Wells's fantasy is a short-circuit, sex as escape from entanglement that is itself entanglement. In Secret Places Hardy begins to cool on his ardour for V.V. the very next morning after their moonlit tryst. Wells's previous novels about extramarital sex had largely concerned themselves with practical consequences and with human jealousy. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells summarises The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) as a work in which ‘I was thinking not so much of the problem of jealousy, as of love-making considered as a source of waste of energy’, so perhaps the way to think of all this is as a realisation of the entropic nature of sexual energy. H G wasn't getting any younger, after all.

In the final analysis Secret Places isn't a very satisfying novel. Wells worries away at his problem, but the images that most stand out in this text are of all human passions and vital drives as, in effect, black boxes, malfunctioning or stopping altogether but for wholly mysterious reasons. The novel gives the impression of having been made out of a series of loosely assembled conversations on various topics stitched together with some travel-writerish observations on the English southlands; but actually I see fingerprints of Wells the Conscious Artist in the way the whole is disposed. In particular I'm struck by what I take to be the deliberate parallel between the scene at the beginning, where Hardy (Wells) beats his unresponsive automobile, denting the bonnet and cracking the windshield—and the scene at the end where Miss Martin Leeds (Rebecca West) beats her fists on the coffin containing the unresponsive body of her lover. Mysterious containers, hiding the death of drive. Hearts that hold their secrets to the end. And in between, the deadlands of the past, marked only by the huge pagan ruins of Avebury and Stonehenge, or the newer Catholic ruins of Tintern Abbey. Death is the mystery inside this novel's secret places, I fear.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Salvaging of Civilization: the Probable Future of Mankind (1921)

Probable. You keep using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, yes: yet another collection of previously published Wellsian journalism (apart from chapter 2, which was written originally as a lecture to be delivered in America, and the Envoy, which is new), all on the topic of the future World State, how it is definitely coming, and how it will make everything in the garden rosy.

The chapter-titles on the contents page gives the drift of the argument:
Chapter I. The Probable Future of Mankind
Chapter II. The Project of a World State
Chapter III. The Enlargement of Patriotism to a World State
Chapter IV. The Bible of Civilization, Part I
Chapter V. The Bible of Civilization, Part II
Chapter VI. The Schooling of the World
Chapter VII. College, Newspaper and Book
Chapter VIII. The Envoy
The main thesis is one Wells has advanced many times: war has become so destructive that we must either put an end to war, or face species death.
The next well-organized war, we are assured, will be far more swift and extensive in its destruction—more particularly of the civilian population. Armies will advance no longer along roads but extended in line, with heavy tank transport which will plough up the entire surface of the land they traverse; aerial bombing, with bombs each capable of destroying a small town, will be practicable a thousand miles beyond the military front, and the seas will be swept clear of shipping by mines and submarine activities. There will be no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, because every able-bodied citizen, male or female, is a potential producer of food and munitions; and probably the safest, and certainly the best supplied shelters in the universal cataclysm, will be the carefully buried, sandbagged, and camouflaged general-headquarters of the contending armies. There military gentlemen of limited outlook and high professional training will, in comparative security, achieve destruction beyond their understanding. The hard logic of war which gives victory always to the most energetic and destructive combatant, will turn warfare more and more from mere operations for loot or conquest or predominance into operations for the conclusive destruction of the antagonists. A relentless thrust towards strenuousness is a characteristic of belligerent conditions. War is war, and vehemence is in its nature. You must hit always as hard as you can. Offensive and counter-offensive methods continue to prevail over merely defensive ones. The victor in the next great war will be bombed from the air, starved, and depleted almost as much as the loser. His victory will be no easy one; it will be a triumph of the exhausted and dying over the dead. [Salvaging, 8-9]
You can see why Wells thought this, and he wasn't alone in thinking it. But he wasn't right, either. We as a species did survive 1939-1945, after all. Still, believing this, Wells urges radical global changes upon us all. It must be a world state, collective ownership of wealth and resources, and a comprehensive drive to educate the whole population of the planet. Wells's disillusionment with the League of Nations has now bedded-in:
Because a world-wide political organ is needed, it does not follow that a so-called League of Nations without representative sanctions, military forces, or authority of any kind, a League from which large sections of the world are excluded altogether, is any contribution to that need. People have a way of saying it is better than nothing. But it may be worse than nothing. It may create a feeling of disillusionment about world-unifying efforts. If a mad elephant were loose in one's garden, it would be an excellent thing to give one's gardener a gun. But it would have to be an adequate gun, an elephant gun. To give him a small rook-rifle and tell him it was better than nothing, and encourage him to face the elephant with that in his hand, would be the directest way of getting rid not of the elephant but of the gardener. [Salvaging, 13]
Poor old Percy Thrower!

The logic here is a Wellsian ‘wars happen between nations; do away with nations and there will be no war’ syllogism (he repeatedly insists on ‘the plain necessity for a political reorganization of the world as a unity to save our race from the social disintegration and complete physical destruction which war, under modern conditions, must ultimately entail’ [21]). It seems to me that what the creation of a World State would actually do is convert all wars into civil wars; but Wells won't entertain that notion.

The task, he thinks, is to change human nature. ‘The spread of Christianity in the first four centuries A.D. or of the spread of Islam in the seventh century will, we believe, support a reasonable hope that such a change in the minds of men, whatever else it may be, is a practicable change’ [23].
So far it is only the trader who has made any effectual use of the vast facilities the modern world has produced for conveying a statement simultaneously to great numbers of people at a distance. The world of thought still hesitates to use the means of power that now exist for it. History and political philosophy in the modern world are like bashful dons at a dinner party; they crumble their bread and talk in undertones and clever allusions to their nearest neighbour, abashed at the thought of addressing the whole table. But in a world where Mars can reach out in a single night and smite a city a thousand miles away, we cannot suffer wisdom to hesitate in an inaudible gentility. The knowledge and vision that is good enough for the best of us is good enough for all. [Salvaging, 24]
If I look at what our present web-based global intwitterconnectedness has brought us I do not think our problem is that we're suffering from an excess of gentility.
I want to say that this civilization in which we are living is tumbling down, and I think tumbling down very fast; that I think rapid enormous efforts will be needed to save it; and that I see no such efforts being made at the present time. I do not know if these words convey any concrete ideas to the reader's mind. [Salvaging, 43-44]
To me they convey that you're comprehensively underestimating human civilisation's resilience, Bertie. But OK.
If we had the resources of the cinema it would be interesting to show a map of North America year by year from 1600 onward, with little dots to represent hundreds of people, each dot a hundred, and stars to represent cities of a hundred thousand people. For two hundred years you would see that stippling creeping slowly along the coastal districts and navigable waters, spreading still more gradually into Indiana, Kentucky, and so forth. Then somewhere about 1810 would come a change. Things would get more lively along the river courses. The dots would be multiplying and spreading. That would be the steamboat. The pioneer dots would be spreading soon from a number of jumping-off places along the great rivers over Kansas and Nebraska. Then from about 1830 onward would come the black lines of the railways, and after that the little black dots would not simply creep but run. [49-50]
I can go one better and show you dots animated globally (from 0.58 in the video). What it shows is that it's resources and access to food that count, long-term; not networks of travel. But that's probably a question of the timescales we are interested in.

Wells thinks patriotism is a necessary human thing (‘ do not think we want to get rid of patriotism, and I do not think we could, even if we wanted to do so. It seems to be necessary to his moral life, that a man should feel himself part of a community, belonging to it, and it belonging to him’). He also believes that patriotic attachment to the larger unit always trumps patriotic attachment to the smaller. As evidence for this curious belief he instances America, where, he says, Kentuckians are always Americans first and Kentuckians only second.
Suppose, for instance, there was a serious outbreak of local patriotism in Kentucky. Suppose you found the people of Kentucky starting a flag of their own and objecting to what they would probably call the ‘vague internationalism’ of the stars and stripes. Suppose you found them wanting to set up tariff barriers to the trade of the states round about them. Suppose you found they were preparing to annex considerable parts of the state of Virginia by force, in order to secure a proper strategic frontier among the mountains to the east, and that they were also talking darkly of their need for an outlet to the sea of their very own.

What would an American citizen think of such an outbreak? He would probably think that Kentucky had gone mad. But this, which seems such fantastic behaviour when we imagine it occurring in Kentucky, is exactly what is happening in Europe in the case of little states that are hardly any larger than Kentucky. They have always been so. They have not gone mad; if this sort of thing is madness then they were born mad. And they have never been cured. A state of affairs that is regarded in Europe as normal would be regarded in the United States as a grave case of local mental trouble. [70-71]
Yes indeed: there never has been and never could be such a thing as a civil war in America.
For the idea of Man, for human unity, for our common blood, for the one order of the world, I can imagine men living and dying, but not for a miscellaneous assembly that will not mix... The idea of the World State stands to the idea of the League of Nations much as the idea of the one God of Earth and Heaven stands to a Divine Committee composed of Wodin and Baal and Jupiter and Amon Ra and Mumbo Jumbo and all the other national and tribal gods. [76-77]
Yes indeed: there's no chance believers in One God (let's call them ‘Catholics’) would ever go to war with or perpetrate violence upon other believers in One God (let's call them ‘Protestants’, 'Muslims', ‘Jews’ ...)—or ... you know what? Maybe sarcasm isn't the best way of reacting to this book. So let's look instead at Wells's practical proposals:
And what will be the chief organs and organizations and works and methods with which this Council of the World State will be concerned?

There will be a Supreme Court determining not International Law, but World Law. There will be a growing Code of World Law.

There will be a world currency.

There will be a ministry of posts, transport and communications generally.

There will be a ministry of trade in staple products and for the conservation and development of the natural resources of the earth.

There will be a ministry of social and labour conditions.

There will be a ministry of world health.

There will be a ministry, the most important ministry of all, watching and supplementing national educational work and taking up the care and stimulation of backward communities.

And instead of a War Office and Naval and Military departments, there will be a Peace Ministry studying the belligerent possibilities of every new invention, watching for armed disturbances everywhere, and having complete control of every armed force that remains in the world. All these world ministries will be working in co-operation with local authorities who will apply world-wide general principles to local conditions.

These items probably comprehend everything that the government of a World State would have to do. [86-87]
So: the removal of all borders and the enforcement of a single currency would advantage those portions of the globe already wealthy against those that are poor, which would bed-in inequalities of opportunity and ownership. But perhaps a couple of generations of proper education, and the careful intervention of those various itemised ministries, would even things out eventually. The economic upheaval worries me less, actually, than the bald fact that whoever has control of this ‘Peace Ministry’ would aggregate into their hands more power than anybody else in the entire history of the globe. Wells is a Canute in the face of the tidal encroachment that power always corrupts. Checks? Balances? No need for them, it seems; or perhaps H.G. considers such items pettifogging details to be ironed out at a later stage. They're not, though: checks and balances, and copper-bottomed means by which people with power can be gotten rid of if (when) the need arises, should be central features of a project such as this.

I am sniping, I know. Wells's heart is in the right place, I suppose. But he seems wilful in the persistence with which he simply refuses to notice the most obvious possible flaws in his programme, a Nelson deliberately and repeatedly putting the telescope to his blank eye. Salvaging concludes with a lengthy discussion of Comenius's ideas for universal education and a universal ‘book’ of knowledge that everyone may consult and which will therefore put an end to dissension over what to do or what to believe. ‘You may say,’ Wells interjects, ‘that no such book exists—which is perfectly true—and that no such book could be written. But there I think you underrate the capacity of our English-speaking people’ [107]. But I don't say that no such book could be written. I say that having such a book will not put an end to human disagreement and dissension, yea verily, even unto the electing-idiots-to-the-White-House and making-war-upon-one-another thereof. Presenting people with facts does not stop them interpreting facts in ideologically overdetermined and belligerent ways.

Wells concludes with a series of chapters on how education will be conducted in the new regime, and here he is, I have to say, bizarrely overconfident about the possibilities of film. Education, he says, will be ‘revolutionized by the cinematograph’ [161]. Teachers will be made redundant at a stroke: simply get the ‘best and most dexterous teacher in the world’ to teach the lesson in front of a camera! Every subject and all education needs are thereby satisfied, ‘performed once for all—before a cinematograph. They can be done finally; they need never be done again’ [162]. This is such a bonkers idea it makes me wonder what Wells was doing all those years he was reading and researching on pedagogic and androgogic theory and practice. Not for the first time, Wells's prophesies are not so much falsified by subsequent events (although, you know: they are) as stymied by their own strange blindspots and limitations. Wells had one of the great speculative imaginations of his age: why did it fail him in this big matter?

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Russia in the Shadows (1921)


Wells went thrice to Russia: visiting for twelve days in 1914, two weeks in 1920 and eleven days in 1934. Russia in the Shadows is the book he wrote about that second trip. His son George, ‘Gip’ as he was known, travelled with him. The lad had just turned 19, and had studied Russian at Oundle School (this, it seems, was the first British school ever to teach the language, and Gip's year the first to be given the opportunity). He was fluent enough to act as interpreter.

They went to Petrograd (not yet named Leningrad) and then on to Moscow, and Wells writes about everything he sees. The highlight of the visit was, and the climax of this little book is, an interview with Lenin himself. The official invitation for Wells to visit had come from Lev Kamenev, Chair of the ruling Politburo, but the original idea had likely been Lenin's. Presumably Vladimir Ilyich appreciated the propaganda value of having one of the world's most popular and widely-read authors write-up the new country. Not that Lenin was a particular fan of Wells. Despite being fluent in English (he had taught himself the language in order to be able to translate English socialist writers into Russian), he told Claire Sheridan that he'd only read one Wells novels: Joan and Peter, oddly enough. Wells was no Marxist, and certainly no Leninist (after their conversation Lenin told Trotsky he was ‘an unreconstructed bourgeois’, which is spot on, I'd say) but given Wells's socialist/collectivist views, and considering the enormous popularity of his war journalism, Britling and the Outline of History, it was as much a coup for Lenin to get Wells as it was for Wells to meet Lenin. Gip took pictures, eight pages of which were included in the volume.

Before going, Wells had contracted to write his travels up for the Sunday Express (the fee was £1000, and he agreed not to write any other articles or give any interviews until the Express pieces had appeared.) In the event wrote five articles, and these were fixed-up, with an all-new final chapter, into Russia in the Shadows—the first edition says 1920 on the title page, but was in fact published January 1921. Here's the verso of the American edition's dust jacket:

The book caused quite a fuss. Though it portrays a country desolated by war and on the brink of collapsing into anarchy, Wells says sympathetic things about the aims of the Bolsheviks, and is genuinely impressed by Lenin. That outraged some in Britain and America. Winston Churchill published an attack-dog article in the Express under the toothsome title ‘This Frightful Catastrophe: Mr Wells and Bolshevism’ (5th Dec 1920) mocking Wells's account as superficial and asking him whether he thought ‘cancer could repent?’ Wells's reply (‘Mr Wells Hits Back—Rejoinder to Mr Churchill's Criticism’ 12 and 19 Dec 1920) is worth quoting at length:
Although I am an older man than Mr Churchill and have spent most of my time watching and thinking about a world in which he has been rushing about vehemently from one superficial excitement to another, he has the impudence to twit me with superficiality. ... He believes quite naively that he belongs to a peculiarly gifted and privileged class of beings to whom the lives and affairs of common men are given over, the raw material for brilliant careers. It seems to him an act of insolence that a common man like myself should form judgments upon matters of statescraft. He is the running sore of waste in our Government ... He has smeared his vision with human blood, and we are implicated in the things he abets. He does not stand alone. This vision of his, grotesque and distorted though it may be, is no more and no less contemptible than some misshapen idol esteemed by the tribe, to which we may presently see our children sacrificed.
That's the stuff!


Russia in the Shadows launches straight into its main theme:
Our dominant impression of things Russian is an impression of a vast irreparable breakdown. The great monarchy that was here in 1914, the administrative, social, financial, and commercial systems connected with it have, under the strains of six years of incessant war, fallen down and smashed utterly. Never in all history has there been so great a débâcle before. The fact of the Revolution is, to our minds, altogether dwarfed by the fact of this downfall. By its own inherent rottenness and by the thrusts and strains of aggressive imperialism the Russian part of the old civilised world that existed before 1914 fell, and is now gone. The peasant, who was the base of the old pyramid, remains upon the land, living very much as he has always lived. Everything else is broken down, or is breaking down. Amid this vast disorganisation an emergency Government, supported by a disciplined party of perhaps 150,000 adherents—the Communist Party—has taken control. It has—at the price of much shooting—suppressed brigandage, established a sort of order and security in the exhausted towns, and set up a crude rationing system.

It is, I would say at once, the only possible Government in Russia at the present time. It is the only idea, it supplies the only solidarity, left in Russia. But it is a secondary fact. The dominant fact for the Western reader, the threatening and disconcerting fact, is that a social and economic system very like our own and intimately connected with our own has crashed. [Russia, 1]
The book is a fascinating historical document, certainly: but for me it's in this ‘poetics of ruin’ that the writing really hits home, partly for its moments of desolate beauty, and partly because Wells several times seems to be speaking with uncanny prescience to 21st-century realities. What price the internet-only shopping world? ‘One realises that a modern city is really nothing but long alleys of shops and restaurants and the like. Shut them up, and the meaning of a street has disappeared.’ Too right.

The rationing, the broken infrastructure, dysfunctional hospitals, people bootless and ragged, the looting of public buildings and art galleries (though not, Wells says, of theatres: Russians respect the theatre too profoundly to loot it) is all vividly described. ‘Ruin; that is the primary Russian fact at the present time,’ Wells insists. ‘The revolution, the Communist rule is quite secondary to that. It is something that has happened in the ruin and because of the ruin.’

It's good that the physical descriptions of Russia are so well done, because on the level of ideas Russia in the Shadows is a depressing congeries of intellectual and political philistinism:
It will be best if I write about Marx without any hypocritical deference. I have always regarded him as a Bore of the extremest sort. His vast unfinished work, Das Kapital, a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, a book for ever maundering away into tedious secondary discussions, impresses me as a monument of pretentious pedantry. ... When I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constituted the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows. [Russia, 3]
The humour is leaden, a kind of Peter Hitchens avant la lettre:
Wherever we went we encountered busts, portraits, and statues of Marx. About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn woolly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind. I found the omnipresent images of that beard more and more irritating. A gnawing desire grew upon me to see Karl Marx shaved. Some day, if I am spared, I will take up shears and a razor against Das Kapital; I will write The Shaving of Karl Marx. [Russia, 3]
This jovially-chuckling refusal to grant that there even is such a thing as ‘Marxism’ of course blinds Wells to what is happening around him. He believes Russia is about to tumble into the abyss; his refusal to take Marxism seriously means he simply can't see that it will go on to build a superpower out of these ruins. The most he will concede is that the Bolsheviks he meets seem determined: ‘albeit numbering less than five per cent, of the population, [they] have been able to seize and retain power in Russia because they were and are the only body of people in this vast spectacle of Russian ruin with a common faith and a common spirit. I disbelieve in their faith, I ridicule Marx, their prophet, but I understand and respect their spirit.’ [4]

Wells is shown round a very well equipped school and waxes wrothful that his hosts are trying to deceive him by taking him to a pedagogic Potemkin village; but then he is shown other schools and decides that Russian schools just are very well-provisioned. At the second school he asks the schoolchildren what they think of the famous novelist H G Wells. None of the kids have ever heard of him. ‘This did much to convince me that I was seeing a quite normal school’.

He addresses a Soviet (his speech, translated into Russia, is printed in Pravda), and hangs out with his old friend Maxim Gorky. Finally he goes to the Kremlin, and labours past the many layers of bureaucrats and guards, to meet Lenin.
We got to Lenin at last and found him, a little figure at a great desk in a well-lit room that looked out upon palatial spaces. I thought his desk was rather in a litter. I sat down on a chair at a corner of the desk, and the little man—his feet scarcely touch the ground as he sits on the edge of his chair—twisted round to talk to me, putting his arms round and over a pile of papers. He spoke excellent English. [Russia, 6]
This whole section is interesting, actually, partly for what the two men said, but also for the word-portrait Wells makes of Lenin: ‘not very like the photographs you see of him because he is one of those people whose change of expression is more important than their features’. Wells is struck by Lenin's ‘domed, slightly one-sided cranium’ (as who wouldn't be?) and says: ‘Lenin has a pleasant, quick-changing, brownish face, with a lively smile and a habit (due perhaps to some defect in focussing) of screwing up one eye as he pauses in his talk.’ The two men, though, talk rather at cross purposes:
Our talk was threaded throughout and held together by two—what shall I call them?—motifs. One was from me to him: ‘What do you think you are making of Russia? What is the state you are trying to create?’ The other was from him to me: ‘Why does not the social revolution begin in England? Why do you not work for the social revolution? Why are you not destroying Capitalism and establishing the Communist State?’ These motifs interwove, reacted on each other, illuminated each other. The second brought back the first: ‘But what are you making of the social revolution? Are you making a success of it?’ And from that we got back to two again with: ‘To make it a success the Western world must join in. Why doesn't it?’ [Russia, 6]
The Lenin Wells meets is the Lenin of his ‘Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country’ phase (that famous slogan is from 1920, of course), and Wells ribs him mildly about the way he bangs on and on about electrifying everything: ‘Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all “Utopians,” has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians’. But it also kindles something in Wells's science-fictional imagination:
Can one imagine a more courageous project in a vast flat land of forests and illiterate peasants, with no water power, with no technical skill available, and with trade and industry at the last gasp? Projects for such an electrification are in process of development in Holland and they have been discussed in England, and in those densely-populated and industrially highly-developed centres one can imagine them as successful, economical, and altogether beneficial. But their application to Russia is an altogether greater strain upon the constructive imagination. I cannot see anything of the sort happening in this dark crystal of Russia, but this little man at the Kremlin can; he sees the decaying railways replaced by a new electric transport, sees new roadways spreading throughout the land, sees a new and happier Communist industrialism arising again. While I talked to him he almost persuaded me to share his vision. [Russia, 6]
Electrification became the first of the USSR's five-year plans, and was completed by 1931. Dark crystal, indeed.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Outline of History (1920)

1: Contexts

The Outline of History was Wells's single most successful book. It sold a staggering two million copies by the end of the 1920s alone, and, periodically updated, it continued to sell strongly through the century. Translated into every major language (including Braille) it had an immense impact on mid-century culture and education. William Ross's H G Wells’s World Reborn: the Outline of History and Its Companions (Susquehanna University Press 2002) traces the path from Wells's original idea, through two years of research and writing, to the initial 24-part serialisation in its own dedicated magazine (1919-20) and its first two-volume book edition in 1920. There were many subsequent redactions and versions: editions designed for elementary students, large format deluxe editions with many illustrations, some in colour—it was, as it happens, in one of these versions that I read the work:

A cheaper, one-volume condensation, A Short History, was followed in 1925 by an edition further condensed and ‘adapted for school use’, and then another redaction aimed at even younger readers: The Junior Version of the Outline (1932). Wells oversaw all the editions: he went so far as to entertain the Japanese translator in his home to discuss the book and ensure the best rendering. Coolest of all, in 1926 the book was publicly burned in Harlan County, Kentucky, an event at which participants all swore ‘never again to read a book criticizing the Book of Genesis’. Quite the feather in Wells's cap, that. The last revision was published 1971. I'd say it's time for a new new-edition, and recommend, um, me to edit it. Go on publishing! What have you got to lose?

As well as  these many editions and versions, Wells also published ancillary volumes: a Teachers Handbook and A Supplement for Practical History, including ideas for art and crafts, plays and other methods pedagogically to integrate the thesis of the work into school-level work. He really wanted the book to go into schools and colleges. Education, the major theme in both Joan and Peter (1918) and The Undying Fire (1919), was Wells's chief motivation for writing the Outline in the first place. David Smith summarises the situation out of which the book emerged:
He and his friends on the League of Nations committee had discussed textbooks and methods of education, as a way of preventing future wars, but time did not permit them to produce their own. Wells apparently asked members of the committee, especially Alfred Zimmern, Gilbert Murray and Ernest Barker, to work on a new world history to replace the older nationalistic and narrow treatments. They refused on the grounds of lack of time, lack of formal preparation and unwillingness to give the effort. Wells decided he must do it himself. [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale University Press 1986), 249]
The idea predated the League, in fact: Wells first signed a contract to work on a non-partisan, properly international World History all the way back in 1907, but the project had fallen through. The difficulty was the sheer scale of the task, and the fact that compiling it and writing it would take years of dedicated work which would, in turn, prevent Wells from earning money in his usual way. In the Experiment in Autobiography he recalls discussing the project with his wife.
It did not occur to me that this Note-Book or Outline of History would be a particularly saleable production. I wanted to sketch out how the job might be done rather than to do it. Before I began it I had a very serious talk with my wife about our financial position. The little parcel of securities we had accumulated before 1914 had been badly damaged by the war. Its value had fallen from about £20,000 to less than half that amount. But the success of Mr. Britling had more than repaired that damage and my position as a journalist had improved. We decided that I could afford a year's hard work on this précis of history, although it might bring in very little and even though I risked dropping for a time below the habitual novel reader's horizon. As a matter of fact I dropped below that horizon for good. I lost touch with the reviewers and the libraries, I never regained it, and if I wrote a novel now it would be dealt with by itself by some special critic, as a singular book, and not go into the ‘fiction’ class. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography (1934), 613-14]
I'm not sure this one project was responsible for eclipsing Wells the Novelist quite so comprehensively as he suggests here, or even that he was so eclipsed (most of his earlier novels remained in print and sold strongly right through to his death; and some of his new fiction did pretty well). But there's no denying that the Outline was, in Smith's phrase, ‘a remarkable gamble’. ‘I set to work,’ Wells says, ‘undeterred by my burning boats.’

His process, he later said, involved ‘“mugging up” the material and writing or rewriting practically all of it myself, and then getting the various parts vetted and revised and, in one part, rewritten by specialists’ [Experiment, 618]. Those experts were legion, but he mostly relied on a team of six: Sir Ray Lankester (director of the Natural History Museum), Sir Harry Johnston (an Africa and Asia expert), Gilbert Murray (the famous classicist—some of Murray's celebrated translations of Aristophanes first appear here), Ernest Barker (political scientist and historian), Sir Denison Ross (Orientalist and sinophile) and the graphic artist Frank Horrabin, who produced for the work hundreds of beautifully-designed maps and charts, models of clarity.

Over and above its extraordinary popular success, the Outline was widely, positively and sometimes dithyrambically reviewed. Not everybody was won over, though. Several people even took the trouble to write book-length rebuttals. Playwright Henry Jones published a string of hostile articles in the London Evening Standard and the New York Sunday Times, attacking Wells as ‘a Hater of England’ and a ‘Bolshevik’, someone ‘seeking to break in pieces the British Empire and to shake the foundations of civil order throughout the world’. He collected these pieces as My Dear Wells in 1921. Given how much Jones relied on misquotation, misrepresentation and active falsehood, it's perhaps surprising that Wells didn't sue (he did write in protest to the New York Times, rebuking them for publishing the work of ‘this poor muddled, and I fear, afflicted mind’, and in a letter to the Morning Post he said: ‘his stuff is too silly for serious attention’. Jones gleefully quoted both letters as blurbs for the second edition of My Dear Wells).*

[*The fact that the book went to a second edition, though, suggests Jones's animadversion to Wells was shared by some. Kipling, replying to a gift of the volume, wrote on 30th November 1920: ‘Ever so many thanks for “My Dear Wells”. It’s very funny and to my mind exceedingly just, for he has done as much harm as he could … Where there was a reasonable possibility of the Hun invading England I remember that he wrote to the Times demanding that he should be allowed a gun (a shot-gun I think) so as to have a shot at the enemy when they came to attack his womenfolk. He wasn’t a bit international then.’ Thomas Pinney (ed), The Letters of Rudyard Kipling: vol 5 1920-30 (University of Iowa Press 2004), 98]

There were more substantive and important critiques, too. Chesterton wrote his own account of human history in explicit rebuttal to Wells's book: The Everlasting Man (1925), a work which attempted to reaffirm the divinity of Christ, something Wells's history denied (no less a person than C S Lewis was very taken with this work, calling it ‘the best popular defence of the full Christian position I know’). Then there was Hilaire Belloc, who published a great many articles in the Catholic journals Universe, Southern Cross and Catholic Bulletin through 1925 and 1926, all attacking Wells in very personal terms: calling him ignorant, childish, biased against Catholics, provincialism, guilty of ‘the very grievous fault of being ignorant that he is ignorant’, and possessing ‘the strange cocksuredness of the man who knows only the old conventional textbook of his schooldays and mistakes it for universal knowledge’. Belloc collected these into the book A Companion to Mr. Wells's “Outline of History” (1926). This wasn't a provocation Wells could ignore. He responded to Belloc in a small book entitled Mr. Belloc Objects to “The Outline of History” (1926).

Belloc couldn't let it lie. He responded with Mr. Belloc Still Objects in 1927. ‘At the end of the six-year struggle Belloc claimed to have written over 100,000 words in refutation of the central argument of Wells’s book’ [Joseph Pearce, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc (HarperCollins 2002), 300]. Ben Lockerd gives a flavour of Belloc's approach:
Belloc attacks many of Wells's specific points—catching him out on a fairly large number of errors such as stating that ... the Immaculate Conception refers to the conception of Jesus. Belloc accuses Wells of ‘entertaining unreasoning reactions,’ and says that ‘These reactions have a common root. They are all provoked by anything traditional’ [Belloc, Companion 17]. Belloc notes that the aim of establishing the mechanistic theory of natural selection as the sole cause of speciation is to remove any notion of design from the equation, and thus ‘to get rid of the necessity for a Creator’ [Belloc, 31]. He attacks with particular vehemence Wells's treatment of priests, his contention that the Priest came first when man was inferior and was at last ousted, as man advanced, by the King—the innuendo being that the power of the Priest essentially belongs to an earlier time, and therefore to a more degraded period in human History; for to the man who believes in a childishly simple theory of "Progress" (as Mr. Wells believes in it, and as do the great majority of his readers), whatever is earlier must be worse than what comes later’. [Belloc, 114] ... Near the end, Belloc returns with insulting language to what he terms Wells's ‘provincialism’: ‘We are reading in this Outline of History the work of a mind closely confined to a particular place and moment—the late Victorian London suburbs. Such a mind has an apparatus quite inferior to the task of historical writing’ (227). [Ben Lockerd, ‘“Superficial Notions of Evolution”: Eliot's Critique of Evolutionary Historiography’, Religion & Literature, 44:1 (2012), 177-78]
‘This,’ Lockerd notes, ‘is ad hominem mud-slinging indeed’.
In his relatively short rebuttal, Wells begins by saying he is ‘the least controversial of men’ and is therefore unskilled in the kind of no-holds-barred debate Belloc loved. He does proceed, however, to point out sharply a few mistakes in Belloc's articles, and he gets around to making some personal attacks of his own, stating that Belloc ‘is rather exceptionally ignorant of modern scientific literature,’ for instance, and calling one of his antagonist's arguments ‘beautifully absurd’ [Wells, Belloc Objects 1, 22]. Having been baited by Belloc, Wells explicitly acknowledges the dogma that guided his writing of history: he accepts a ‘modern conception of life, as a process of progressive change’ and asserts that ‘We can realise now, as no one in the past was ever able to realise it, that man is a creature changing very rapidly from the life of a rare and solitary great ape to the life of a social and economic animal’ (53). Where Belloc insists on a fixed human nature, Wells denies any such fixity. In the process of biological and social evolution, religion has, he acknowledges, played an important role in helping human beings to exercise self-control, but at this point ‘It may be better to admit frankly that if man is not fixed Christianity is, and that mankind is now growing out of Christianity; that indeed mankind is growing out of the idea of Deity’ [54]. [Lockerd, 178].
T S Eliot weighed-in, too: another indication of how big a cultural impact Wells's Outline had in the 1920s. His swingeing review appeared in the May 1927 number of The Criterion:
Mr Wells has not an historical mind; he has a prodigious gift of historical imagination, which is comparable to Carlyle’s, but this is quite a different gift from the understanding of history. That requires a degree of culture, civilization and maturity which Mr Wells does not possess.
To which we are, I feel, entitled to reply: ‘the fuck?’ Carlyle and Wells share a lack of ‘culture, civilization and maturity’ looks very like code for ‘Carlyle and Wells are both lower-class individuals.’ But let's not get distracted.

2: An Outline of the Outline

The main thing about the Outline of History is how sheerly readable it is. Wells does an extraordinary job synthesising his material into a compelling narrative. Later he described the prose he employs as ‘humdrum’ but it seems to me to work very well (I wonder if he says so because he's conscious of the contrast with Gibbon; but a Decline-and-Fall-y idiom would have been quite wrong here). The reading-experience is always engaging and despite the enormous amounts of data involved it's remarkable how easy the whole thing is to apprehend: you never lose your way, or sink into marshland.

The whole is in forty chapters, of varying length (though all long), disposed into eight books; with an extra chapter as coda, bracketed solus as ‘Book IX’: ‘Chapter 41. the Next Stage in History’. The eight books divide, broadly, into three sections. Pre-human, pre-historical and historical. The first two books—165 pages, a tidy volume in its own right—address ‘The Making of our World’ (chapter 1) and ‘the Making of Man’ (chapter 2). The first opens, grandly, with ‘the Earth in Space and Time’, proceeds through geological long-time and the process of evolution by means of natural selection across the first eons of single-celled and simple organisms, through ‘the Age of Reptiles’ and into ‘the Age of Mammals’. The second speculates about the descent of humankind: Wells is upfront about the gappiness of the fossil record, less gullible than one might think—Piltdown Man wasn't exposed as a forgery until 1953, but Wells nonetheless spends two whole pages on how fishy that particular skull-and-jaw is—and consistently interesting. We move through early hominids, Neanderthal Man and through to homo sapiens, and thence through possibilities as to the origin of language, farming, larger-scale social organisation, war and the beginnings of social and cultural civilisation.

The next three books take us into human history as such: Book 3 covers what Wells estimates are ‘the first five thousand years’ of coherent human historical narrative: from ‘Primitive Aryan life’,  Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Egyptians, the early civilisation of India and China, the invention of writing and the coalescence of religious feeling into fixed systems of ‘gods and stars, priests and kings’ [1:232]. Book 4 concerns ‘Judea, Greece and India’ from Saul, David and Solomon through to Alexander the Great; and Book 5 ‘the Rise and Collapse of the Roman Empire’.

Then we're into the Book 6, which covers ‘the beginnings, the rise and the divisions’ of Christianity and Islam. Since he is trying, Wells says, ‘to write as if this book was to be read as much by Hindus or Moslems or Buddhists as by Americans and Western Europeans’ he declares he will ‘hold closely to the apparent facts, and avoid, without any disputation or denial, the theological interpretations that have been imposed upon them’ [1:569]. Book 7 is divided equally between the ‘Great Empire of Jengis Khan’ and the European Renaissance: taken together they rather suggest that nothing else was going on in the world between ADs 400 and 1600 unless it was happening in central Asia or Europe.

And in Book 8, ‘Princes, Parliaments and Powers’ Wells rounds-off his narrative by suggesting that the age of monarchic absolutism began to give way, sometime around 1700, to the modern political logic of ‘new and shapeless forces of freedom in the community’ [2.216], manifesting as an upsurge, or strictly a resurgence, in democratic structures and more integrated polities.

He moves briskly through the rise of ‘the new Democratic Republics of America and France’, is sweepingly dismissive of Napoleon, and brings his narrative up to 1920 with a dash through the nineteenth-century and the First World War. Here, again, there is a palpable thumb-in-the-balance element to his analysis. The whole of the 19th-century (chapter 39) is summarised as ‘the Increase of Knowledge and Clear Thinking: the Nationalist Phase’ which leads directly into chapter 40 ‘the Close of the Great Power Period’. In other words: Wells is arguing that the upsurge in nationalism that, unmistakably, marked this epoch—from German and Italian unification to the myriad nationalist movements in British and French imperialist holdings—was a last gasp of the concept, and that the World State was about to bring this Great Power age to a close. This was the wishfullest of wishful thinking, of course, and posterity has not been kind to him where this prediction is concerned.

It is a remarkably broad-textured narrative, although it does have its blind-spots. So, although Wells goes out of his way to create a more global history, the focus is still overwhelmingly European, Asian and Chinese: Africa is hardly mentioned until it becomes a site for European colonial expansion, and the Americas don't appear at all until white settlement. It's not that these continents are wholly omitted from the earlier sections, but the emphasis is heavily on the Europe-Asia-China axis.

Then again, although I read expecting to come across myriad errors and many ‘facts’ that subsequent scholarship has debunked, a surprisingly high quotient of the Outline still holds up today, I'd say. It depends, of course, on what one counts as error: in The Classical Journal (March 1923) G A Harrer took Wells to task for what he considered multiple errors in his Roman sections, but aside from one obvious typo (‘Pontius’ for ‘Pontus’, 1:504) all of these ‘errors’ are places where Harrer disagrees with Wells's interpretation. So Harrer believes Roman military tactics evolved more thoroughly over the first centuries of the new millennium than does Wells, or he thinks Wells exaggerates when he says that science, literature, and education were entrusted by the Romans ‘to the care of slaves, who were bred and trained and sold like dogs or horses’ [1:541] I'd say that latter is pretty much true, actually; though I might insert a ‘mostly’ between the ‘were’ and the ‘entrusted’. But, see, that's why I wouldn't be so good at writing this particular book as Wells; constant havering and qualification, endless hmm-ing, hah-ing and in-a-certain-sense-ing would be death to a work on this scale and scope. (Also Harrer misses that Justinian is called ‘Justianian’ on 1:618, so boo sucks to him).

In part this is because Wells's approach is so undogmatic. He presents possibilities as possibilities, not probabilities; where scholarly experts disagree he picks a line and mentions alternatives in a footnote. I'm not trying to pretend the work is wholly non-tendentious. On the contrary, indeed, its tendenz is freely acknowledged and on display throughout: that human evolution has been a process of dissemination and diversification that is, through many advances and retreats, working its way towards a global identity and political unity. It is from this thesis that the work's most dubious subjectivities derive. Wells is not shy of judging this or that historical phenomenon ‘a failure’, and when he does so it's because it falls short of this particular aim. So, despite achieving much the Roman Empire ultimately failed, says Wells, in that it did not expand to create the World State (‘Rome kept the peace of the world for a time and failed altogether to secure it ... The clue to all its failure lies in the absence of any free mental activity and any organization for the increase, development, and application of knowledge’ [1:529]). Similarly, Christendom is analysed with a fair degree of historical nuance, but is ultimately brought to this same severe judicial bar: ‘the history of Europe from the fifth century onward to the fifteenth is very largely the history of the failure of this great idea of a divine world government to realize itself in practice’ [1:605].

That strikes me as fair enough, actually. The advantage with a front-and-centre acknowledged bias is that it's easier to discount it, if we want to. And although the vogue today is to dismiss some of the pre-historical assumptions baked into the first quarter of Wells's Outline, the current revisionary logic seems to me precisely as speculative as Wells's own attitudes. Take the status of the Neanderthals. Nowadays the vogue is to see Neanderthals as possessing much of the same sophistication of culture (burial of the dead, tools, flutes) as homo sapiens, and even, as per Golding's Inheritors, to style them as gentle and natural compared to our violent craftiness. For a while it was argued that homo neanderthalis and homo sapiens interbred, and that a good proportion of ‘our’ DNA was Neanderthal. Now, it seems, the scientific consensus runs the other way; we probably didn't interbreed, and speculations as to Neanderthal gentleness etc are exactly as hypothetical as speculations about their brutishness. Wells's position, though it probably strikes a twenty-first century as retrogressive, is as viable as speculation as any other, and has the virtue of imaginative vividness that is the savour of plausibility:
The appearance of these truly human postglacial Palæolithic peoples [ie homo sapiens] was certainly an enormous leap forward in the history of mankind ... They dispossessed homo neanderthalensis from his caverns and his stone quarries. And they agreed with modern ethnologists, it would seem, in regarding him as a different species. Unlike most savage conquerors, who take the women of the defeated side for their own and interbreed with them, it would seem that the true men would have nothing to do with the Neanderthal race, women or men. There is no trace of any intermixture between the races, in spite of the fact that the newcomers, being also flint users, were establishing themselves in the very same spots that their predecessors had occupied. We know nothing of the appearance of the Neanderthal man, but this absence of intermixture seems to suggest an extreme hairiness, an ugliness, or a repulsive strangeness in his appearance over and above his low forehead, his beetle brows, his ape neck, and his inferior stature. Or he—and she—may have been too fierce to tame. Says Sir Harry Johnston, in a survey of the rise of modern man in his Views and Reviews: “The dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore” [Outline of History, 1:91]

I mean: who knows? But Wells's version makes for a better story.

Otherwise: Wells has an unerring sense of when to leaven the drier factual elaboration with an interesting personal anecdote about a historical figure, or an intriguing speculation. After a fairly detailed itinerary of the life and campaigns of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, his expansion of Spanish-speaking dominion to the New World and his opposition to the rise of Protestantism, Wells notes that the monarch eventually retired from rule to a monastery, adding:
Much has been written in a sentimental vein of this retirement, this renunciation of the world by this tired majestic Titan, world-weary, seeking in an austere solitude his peace with God. But his retreat was neither solitary nor austere; he had with him nearly a hundred and fifty attendants; his establishment had all the indulgences without the fatigues of a court, and Philip II was a dutiful son to whom his father’s advice was a command. As for his austerities, let Prescott witness: “In the almost daily correspondence between Quixada, or Gaztelu, and the Secretary of State at Valladolid, there is scarcely a letter that does not turn more or less on the Emperor’s eating or his illness. The one seems naturally to follow, like a running commentary, on the other. It is rare that such topics have formed the burden of communications with the department of state. It must have been no easy matter for the secretary to preserve his gravity in the perusal of despatches in which politics and gastronomy were so strangely mixed together. The courier from Valladolid to Lisbon was ordered to make a detour, so as to take Jarandilla in his route, and bring supplies for the royal table. On Thursdays he was to bring fish to serve for the jour maigre that was to follow. The trout in the neighbourhood Charles thought too small; so others, of a larger size, were to be sent from Valladolid. Fish of every kind was to his taste, as, indeed, was anything that in its nature or habits at all approached to fish. Eels, frogs, oysters, occupied an important place in the royal bill of fare. Potted fish, especially anchovies, found great favour with him; and he regretted that he had not brought a better supply of these from the Low Countries. On an eel-pasty he particularly doted.” [Outline of History, 2:207-08]
That eel-pasty is a wonderful touch, and mentioning it is the kind of thing from which other narrative historians could learn a good deal. Another strategy is the disavowal of detail that slyly manages to cram a great deal of tasty detail in, as (for example):
In an outline such as this it is impossible to crowd in the clustering events of history that do not clearly show the main process of human development, however bright and picturesque they may be. We have to record the steady growth of towns and cities, the reviving power of trade and money, the gradual re-establishment of law and custom, the extension of security, the supersession of private warfare that went on in Western Europe in the period between the First Crusade and the sixteenth century. Of much that looms large in our national histories we cannot tell anything. We have no space for the story of the repeated attempts of the English kings to conquer Scotland and set themselves up as kings of France, nor of how the Norman English established themselves insecurely in Ireland (twelfth century), and how Wales was linked to the English crown (1282). All through the Middle Ages the struggle of England with Scotland and France was in progress; there were times when it seemed that Scotland was finally subjugated and when the English king held far more land in France than its titular sovereign. In the English histories this struggle with France is too often represented as a single-handed and almost successful attempt to conquer France. In reality it was a joint enterprise undertaken in concert with the powerful French vassal state of Burgundy to conquer and divide the patrimony of Hugh Capet. Of the English rout by the Scotch at Bannockburn (1314), and of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, the Scottish national heroes, of the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) in France, which shine like stars in the English imagination, little battles in which sturdy bowmen through some sunny hours made a great havoc among French knights in armour, of the Black Prince and Henry V of England, and of how a peasant girl, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, drove the English out of her country again (1429-1430), this history relates nothing. For every country has such cherished national events. They are the ornamental tapestry of history, and no part of the building. [Outline of History, 2:178-79]
There are also what it's tempting to think of as personal touches. Of Philip of Macedon we're told that ‘like many energetic and imaginative men, he was prone to impatient love impulses’ [1:373], which sounds like something we can declare with more certainty of Herbert of Wells than Philip of Macedon. Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens are not mentioned, but Plato, Thomas More and Campanella are given respectful mentions, for obvious reasons.

Mostly Wells avoids goodies-and-baddies history, but when he slips into that idiom it's generally because the individual involved falls short of Wells's personal and utopian vision of a unified world state. So it is that he attacks Machiavelli (‘this morally blind man was living in a little world of morally blind men’) because he ‘manifestly had no belief in any ... Utopian visions of world-wide human order, or attempts to realize the City of God’ [2:197]. There's a long account of Napoleon's career, but Wells ends up apologising for its length: ‘Napoleon I bulks disproportionately,’ he concedes, but adds: ‘he was of little significance to the broad onward movement of human affairs; he was an interruption, a reminder of latent evils, a thing like the bacterium of some pestilence’ [2:384]. Ow! The Outline ends with Wells, in 1920, tabulating what he hopes, and to some extent trusts, will be the characteristics of the coming World State:
(i) It will be based upon a common world religion, very much simplified and universalized and better understood. This will not be Christianity nor Islam nor Buddhism nor any such specialized form of religion, but religion itself pure and undefiled; the Eightfold Way, the Kingdom of Heaven, brotherhood, creative service, and self-forgetfulness. Throughout the world men’s thoughts and motives will be turned by education, example, and the circle of ideas about them, from the obsession of self to the cheerful service of human knowledge, human power, and human unity.

(ii) And this world state will be sustained by a universal education, organized upon a scale and of a penetration and quality beyond all present experience. The whole race, and not simply classes and peoples, will be educated. Most parents will have a technical knowledge of teaching. Quite apart from the duties of parentage, perhaps ten per cent. or more of the adult population will, at some time or other in their lives, be workers in the world’s educational organization. And education, as the new age will conceive it, will go on throughout life; it will not cease at any particular age. Men and women will simply become self-educators and individual students and student teachers as they grow older.

(iii) There will be no armies, no navies, and no classes of unemployed people, wealthy or poor.

(iv) The world-state’s organization of scientific research and record compared with that of to-day will be like an ocean liner beside the dug-out canoe of some early heliolithic wanderer.

(v) There will be a vast free literature of criticism and discussion.

(vi) The world’s political organization will be democratic, that is to say, the government and direction of affairs will be in immediate touch with and responsive to the general thought of the educated whole population.

(vii) Its economic organization will be an exploitation of all natural wealth and every fresh possibility science reveals, by the agents and servants of the common government for the common good. Private enterprise will be the servant—a useful, valued, and well-rewarded servant—and no longer the robber master of the commonweal.

(viii) And this implies two achievements that seem very difficult to us to-day. They are matters of mechanism, but they are as essential to the world’s well-being as it is to a soldier’s, no matter how brave he may be, that his machine gun should not jam, and to an aeronaut’s that his steering-gear should not fail him in mid-air. Political well-being demands that electoral methods shall be used, and economic well-being requires that a currency shall be used, safeguarded or proof against the contrivances and manipulations of clever, dishonest men. [Outline of History, 2:586-87]
We can score that: no; no; as if!; pretty much; yes (the internet, Google, Wikipedia et al); to a greater extent than a century ago; no; and absolutely not. Three out of eight, give or take. Not enough of a strike rate to bring Wells's future utopia into being, evidently.

3: A Brief Assessment of the Outline

There are various ways in which we might approach the task of writing a total history of the world. I mean: we might approach it biologically, and write a history of the human animal. Or we might approach it anthropologically, or with a focus on emerging structures of social class (like Marx). Or we could focus on the increasing complexity of our use of tools, or on race, or religion or a Hegelian Geist. Conceivably we could even write a strictly chronological world history—let's say, a 1000-page book in which each page covers 200 years, chapter 1 opens on the emergence of homo sapiens, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages cover the round of birth, growth, looking for food, loving or refusing to love, having children, growing old or failing to do so, and dying: extremely repetitively tracing the slow evolution of our species being until, finally, the whole of recorded human history is related in pp 985-1000 at the end. I'm actually quite drawn to the thought of writing such a book, I must say. Ah, but who would publish it?

Anyway, not to get distracted: my point is that Wells's Outline, though it presents itself as a synthetic history of everything, is in fact a political history of humankind. I don't mean that it is a history that limits itself in a narrow way to the political institutions of human beings; but I do mean that the whole, massive book threads a single thesis all the way through. As Wells himself put it in the Experiment in Autobiography (1934), the Outline is ‘an essay on the growth of association since the dawn of animal communities’ [Experiment, 614]; Association, the ways in which and codes by which human beings associate with other human beings, is as good a thumbnail definition of politics as any I can think of.

The whole thing ‘planned itself naturally enough,’ says Wells, ‘as a story of communications and increasing interdependence’. As history goes on, and tracing the general trend rather than attending to every single up-and-down data point, what we see is: better and better communication between wider dispersed populations of humans that in turn creates greater and greater collective identity. Such, at any rate, is Wells's thesis.

It's a perfectly defensible thesis. It may even be true, in the broader sense. But Wells was committed to it before he began assembling the specific data that make up the Outline, and it means that a degree of distortion, and even outright bias, was inevitable. There are various things to be said about this, actually, but for now I want to concentrate on only one: Wells's concept of nationhood, or rather, his refusal clearly to define what he means by nation. The Outline's major argument is that the motion of History As Such is from small tribes to bigger nations and from nations to a World State. That makes this lack of definition a significant hole in the fabric of the case Wells wants to make.

Wells nowhere makes clear whether he considers a nation primarily a familial, racial, linguistic, geographical, ideological unit, or a entity defined by historical contingency. Any of these cases could be argued, some with more credence than others, but Wells doesn't plump for any of them, preferring to bracket the term as a kind of freer-floating signifier. The first sentence of chapter 16 (‘The First Civilizations’) is: ‘when the Aryan way of speech and life was beginning to spread ... breaking up as it spread into a number of languages and nations, considerable communities of much more civilized men were already in existence in Egypt and in Mesopotamia’ [1:183], which leaves it wholly unclear whether we are to take ‘nation’ as equivalent to ‘a considerable community of civilized men’ (what might considerable mean in this context, though?), or as a primarily linguistic entity (‘languages and nations’), or as something else. Elsewhere Wells says ‘the tribe was a big family; the nation a group of tribal families’ [1:178] which suggests, without going into it, a familial or racial model of nationhood. Those are both prehistorical instances. By the time Wells gets into the full swing of his historical grand narrative ‘nationhood’ is being taken for granted, and always as something to be deplored as an obstacle to the kind of über-national agglomerations that will birth the World State. So: ‘China, under the last priest-emperors of the Chow Dynasty, was sinking into a state of great disorder. Each province clung to its separate nationality and traditions, and the Huns spread from province to province.’ [1:253]. Or again: ‘science knows no nationality’ [2:175]. Or:
In the sphere of race or nationality, for example, a “European” will often treat an “Asiatic” almost as if he were a different animal, while he will be disposed to regard another “European” as necessarily as virtuous and charming as himself. He will, as a matter of course, take sides with Europeans against Asiatics. But, as the reader of this history must realize, there is no such difference as the opposition of these names implies. It is a phantom difference created by two names. [Outline of History, 2:169]
Identifying with one's nation is ‘selfish’ [2:257]; nationality ‘is really no more than the romantic and emotional exaggeration of the stresses produced by the discord of the natural political map with unsuitable political arrangements’ [2:433]. ‘Gladstone, in pursuit of his idea of nationality, brought political disaster upon himself’ [2:245]. If Outline of History tells a story, then the villain is nationhood.

So, as Captain Fluellen might ask: what, according to the Outline, ish a nation? Ish it a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal? Turns out: pretty much. But none of this helps us understand what a nation actually is, or come even close to explaining why people have proved so invested in the notion.

In the coda, Wells states it unambiguously: Nationalism, he says ‘must follow the tribal gods to limbo’. ‘Our true nationality is mankind.’ [2:614]. His wish hurries this eventuality out the door of world history, and, as we have seen, the Outline ends by crying the coming of the Unified World and the withering away of the nation state.

The problem, here, is not just the judgement of hindsight; although hindsight is not forgiving of Wells's optimism. The problem is that, by refusing to think-through what nationhood is Wells was not in a position to see how tenacious the nation-state was going to be. The notion, developed in the Outline, that the upsurge in 19th-century nationalism was a mere blip was never going to be a very plausible one, and subsequent history has falsified it pretty heartily.

Of course, the temptation to pronounce the end of ‘the nation state’ is one to which plenty of historians have succumbed, and although Wells's 1920 cut-off looks foolish in retrospect, there have been other takers. Michael Howard thought, in 1978, that 1890-1970 was ‘the apotheosis of the nation state’ and that the future would be decreasingly nationalist [Howard, War and the Nation State (Oxford 1978)] The ‘end of history’ hot takes that swarmed around the end of the last century were not just ‘Capitalism has won, there's no other game in town’ arguments, they were also globalisation arguments: no-two-countries-that-both-have-a-McDonalds-have-ever-gone-to-war arguments. Arguments that global trade and neoliberalism, eventuating in ever-larger free-trade areas (the EU, NAFTA and the like) would create a Capitalist mirror-image reality of Wells's socialist prediction. Such pseudo-prophetic blathering proved just as premature as Wells's, a century earlier. What with the fragmentation of the USSR in myriad nation-states, resurgent Islamic-inflected nationhood in the middle and near east, Brexit, Trump—nationhood is suddenly back in the driving seat, alas. Perhaps these ideas will never go away. Historians continue to insist on the transitoriness of nations, despite being so often proved wrong. A couple of years ago David Cannadine quoted Benedict Anderson approvingly, that ‘nations should not be seen as eternal and precisely defined units of territorial sovereignty and collective solidarity’ but should rather be regarded as ‘transient, provisional, ephemeral’ [Cannadine, 87]. Cannadine's own book-length study looks past nationhood to a future human collectivity:
We need to see beyond our differences, our sectional interests, our identity politics, and our parochial concerns to embrace and to celebrate he common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future. [David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Penguin 2103), 264]
It shows that Wells's vision is still alive. I don't mean to come over as an apologist for nationalism, which has (of course) been the nursery of uncounted evils in human affairs. But I do mean to suggest that Wells under-thinks the concept, and is blind to the ways it mediates a whole nest of crucial human identities, passions and interests. He does so because he wants to brush it under the carpet of Deep Time. But I tell you what: once I start deploying rug metaphors to describe very long periods of time it's time to draw a discrete veil over the discussion, I think.

4: Plagiary

This post has already gone on far too long, I know; but I want to conclude with a brief notice of the (I'm going to crack open the scare-quotes I'm afraid) ‘scandal’ that Wells's Outline occasioned. Here's Wells's own account of it:
Here too I must mention, though I need not enter at length into the particulars of it, the Deeks Case which came to an end, after five years of legal proceedings, in 1933. Miss Deeks was a Canadian spinster who conceived the strange idea that she held the copyright in human history. She was permitted and encouraged to sue me, as the author of the Outline of History, for infringement of copyright and to produce a manuscript, which she alleged had existed in the form in which she produced it before the publication of my Outline, in support of her claim for £100,000 and the suppression of my book. No evidence of the prior existence of her manuscript, as produced, was ever exacted from her, and she was allowed to carry this silly case from court to court—each court dismissing it contemptuously with costs against her—up to the Privy Council. When finally that court disposed of her conclusively, with costs, she declared her inability to pay a penny of the £5,000-worth of fees and charges that these tedious and vexatious proceedings had entailed upon me. And there the matter ended. Life is too short and there is too much to do in it for me to spend time and attention in hunting out whatever poor little assets Miss Deeks may have preserved from her own lawyers and expert advisers. She has to go on living somehow and her mischief is done. I hope she is comfortable and that she is still persuaded she is a sort of intellectual heroine. I saw her once in court, when I had to give sworn evidence in my own defence, and I found her rather a sympathetic figure. She impressed me as quite honest but vain and foolish, with an imagination too inflamed with the idea of being a great litigant for her to realize what an unrighteous nuisance she was making of herself; there was something faintly pathetic, something reminiscent of Dickens' Miss Flyte, in the way in which she fussed about with her lawyers, with much whispering and rustling of papers, giving her profound and subtle instructions for the undoing of our dire conspiracy; and it is not against her, but against those who encouraged and egged her on, that I am disposed to be resentful. [Wells, Experiment in Autobiography, 619-20]
Now either this account isn't quite accurate, or alse it's a massive lie from start to finish. I incline to the view that it isn't quite accurate. So: Wells implies that Deeks's manuscript was concocted purely for the lawsuit. But the MS was quite real, and predated the publication of Wells's history. Deeks had decided in 1914 to write a history of the world that foregrounded the contribution of women, to be called The Web of the World's Romance. In August 1918 she submitted the complete MS to the Macmillan Company in Canada. They rejected it, returning it to her in April 1919, in a state later described in court ‘well-thumbed and dog-eared’.

Deeks, reading Wells's Outline, became convinced Wells had plagiarised her MS. In 1928 she sued both Wells and his publisher for CDN$500,000 in the Supreme Court of Ontario, claiming that Macmillan had secretly shipped her manuscript to Wells in England, where he had plagiarised it comprehensively in the writing of his Outline before, equally secretly, returning it. Despite the fact that Deeks's book was much shorter, and the differences of focus between the two texts (Wells was hardly writing a ‘history via great women’ after all) Deeks was able to recruit expert witnesses who testified to various similarities in content and phrasing and, more damningly, point to places where Wells made the same mistakes as Deek had done, a sort-of inadvertent Paper Towns defence.

The trial judge, though, dismissed the suit, calling Deek's argument ‘a fantastic hypothesis’, ‘solemn nonsense’ and ‘comparisons without significance.’ She appealed the judgement to the Appellate Division of the Ontario Supreme Court, and when those judges unanimously rejected her she went to what was then the supreme court for (still colonial) Canada: the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. Here she represented herself, since she could no longer afford a lawyer; hence the little pen-sketch of her by Wells quoted above in which he mocks her as Miss Flyte.

This hearing lasted a month. Finally, on the 3rd November 1932, the Judicial Committee dismissed Deek's appeal. The court declared that evidence presented on the basis of literary criticism was not admissible in a court of law, and, absent such testimony, there was no other evidence to support Deeks's claims—it had been sworn on oath at the trial that the MS remained in Toronto the whole time, in the safekeeping of Macmillan, and that Wells had never even been aware it existed. The court decided that ‘similarities were due to the fact that the books had similar nature and both writers had access to the same sources’. That was the end of Deeks's suit.

A recent book by Brian Mckillop, The Spinster and the Prophet: Florence Deeks, H.G. Wells, and the Mystery of the Purloined Past (Random House 2011) argues the case that Deeks was right: that Wells did indeed plagiarise her manuscript but that the structural sexism and misogyny of the 1920s legal system unjustly favoured the famous man over the obscure woman. It makes, to revert to what I said about the Neanderthals above, for a more compelling story that way, certainly; and McKillop's book is a good read. But the case he makes strikes me as very unlikely. It's not that I think Wells incapable of plagiary. Indeed he was perfectly frank that his composition of the Outline was a matter of synthesising the writing of other people. But the practical improbabilities of this particular case tell against it: why would Macmillan send the MS of an entirely unknown woman all the way across the Atlantic to one of their most successful, and busy, authors? To get a reader's report? Such a hypothesis is not compatible with Wells's status, or consistent with their previous or subsequent practice. To offer it to him specifically for plagiary? That seems an improbably presumptuous thing to do, and likely to backfire.

Besides which, even assuming Deeks's MS did end up in Wells study, and that he filleted it for useful things: in those cases where Wells drew on other people's writings, published or unpublished, he was financially very generous. West notes how people were amazed to find themselves paid £100, or more, because Wells was using (and properly citing) their work. It is more likely, and would be more in keeping with Wells's personality, for him to pay Deeks up front, and quite unlike him to reuse her material, secretly return the MS to Canada, and then, alone of all the sources he had drawn on for the project, pretend that he'd never seen it. I mean, why? I've only read those portions of Deeks's MS quoted in McKillops's book—The Web of the World's Romance itself has never been published—but it doesn't seem to me very good.

[Here's a link to the (quite lengthy) blogpost I wrote reviewing and discussing McKillops's book.]