Since in its last few pages this novel extends itself ten years past its publication date (the novel's subtitle is ‘A Sample of Life—1901-1951’), we might argue that it is science fiction. I suppose it is, in some quasi-homeopathic sense of the term. Most of it, though, is backward-looking, both in terms of content and, I'm sorry to say, aesthetic ambition. This is a novel that harks back to Kipps and Polly, although it doesn't manage the eloquence, gliding comedy and structural complexity of those books. It is, in point of fact, a rather dreary read, the grim counterpart to the optimistic visions of utopian possibility that are so prominent a feature of Wells's bibliography. It's 1924's The Dream reworked, but with only the pinched and horrible early twentieth century part, the hopeful bright future having been entirely excised. The thing is, such a novel might function as a bracing but effective counterweight to the standard Wellsian schtick. But somehow You Can't Be Too Careful is just a grind, a book that simply tries too hard to make its point that sexual repression and undereducation have dire consequences. It's a repetitive, wearying read and the longer it goes on the more unbalanced, one-note and hectoring it becomes. Since it is the very last piece of fiction Wells published, that's more of a shame than it might otherwise have been.
It's the story of lower-middle-class Edward Albert Tewler, unlikely recipient of the GC, and of his son, although this latter figure remains too shadowy a character to ever come alive. It opens in 1951 with the father rebuking his son over the latter's reading books and filling his head with ‘ideers’. Tewler senior never needed ideers when he was growing up.
The narrator then announces he will tell the man's life just so: ‘you shall have him unadorned; you shall have his plain unvarnished record .... No dissertations, no arguments, above all no projects nor incitements nor propaganda, shall break the flow of our narrative; no more of these damned “ideers” shall there be’ [‘Introduction’].
The story rewinds to 1901, and Tewler as a baby in Camden Town. His father Richard works as a repair man at Messrs Colebrook and Mahogany, a glass and porcelain emporium (Tewler's father came ‘up in a green baize apron from somewhere below and considered the case carefully and gave his advice with discretion, and cemented invisibly and filled up gaps and, when necessary, riveted with the utmost skill’) and Wells strikes his titular keynote often and early. Tewler's parents wonder about having more children, but worry about the cost and the chances of them dying, and since ‘you can't be too careful’ Edward Albert remains an only child. When he is four his father is killed:
Mr Richard Tewler was crossing the road from Camden Town Tube Station and had just passed behind an omnibus, when he discovered another bearing down upon him from the opposite direction and close upon him. He might have dashed across in front of that, but suddenly he stopped dead. It would have been wiser to recoil. You cannot be too careful, and in that instant while he stood uncertain as to the best course to pursue, the big vehicle, which was swerving to pass behind him, skidded and killed him. [Careful, 1.1]This level of existential timidity is such an easy target that Wells never really has to stretch himself, and the result is a novel of unusual flatness and uninterest.
Edward Albert's widowed mother raises her son Baptist, with an almost pathological solicitude and caution, especially in the matter of his sexual education. Then (in 1914) she too dies, of newspaper adverts. Which is to say, Mrs Tewler is persuaded to buy patent medicines for myriad non-existent illnesses until, her system weakened by these poisons, she dies of pleurisy. Fourteen-year-old Edward Albert passes into the care of a guardian, one of his mother's fellow Baptists, Mr Myame, who runs Myame's Commercial Academy, which Edward Albert now attends. Here he is an indifferent student, but thanks to a lucky couple of balls at a school cricket match, he acquires an undeserved reputation as a wizard sportsman, a reputation he is canny enough not to endanger by ever actually playing any subsequent sport of any kind.
Wells moves, in no hurry, into Edward's adolescence, which period is dominated (we are told) by two issues: ‘that he had to do certain things called earning a living’ and ‘simultaneously that complex of impulses, taboos, terrors and repressions, that onset of sex and sex education, which his mother had apprehended so anxiously, gathered about him and closed in upon him’ [2.3].
On the former score, Edward Albert gets it into his head that he wants to be a Clerk, and aspires to the Imperial College of Commercial Science's Course of Training in Business Methods. But that requires him to be proficient in French and Myame's schooling has not provided him with this. There follows a mildly amusing scene plagiarised, I think, from Dickens: as when Podsnap interrogates the French gentleman in Our Mutual Friend, or old Lillyvick, a collector of the water-rate, asks Nicholas Nickleby what the French for water is (‘What’s the water in French, sir?’ ‘L’eau,’ replied Nicholas. ‘Ah!’ said Mr. Lillyvick, shaking his head mournfully, ‘I thought as much. Lo, eh? I don’t think anything of that language—nothing at all.’). In You Can't Be Too Careful we get creaky comedy of this sort:
"What is the French, Tewler, for “the”?’Ho ho. Without French it looks like Edward Albert is going nowhere, but then members of his father's old firm discover that Myame, having received Edward Albert's inheritance in trust, fraudulently kept his ward from all knowledge of the cash and instead invested it in his own school. They pressure him, and Edward Albert is permitted to leave Myame's school and enlist in the Imperial College of Commercial Science in Kentish Town (they act less out of altruism, and more because ‘the Firm had always rather underpaid old Tewler and it had to do its duty by his son, whether it liked him or not’ [2.10]).
That was easy. ‘Ler Lar Lay,’ sang Edward Albert.
‘Elementary French,’ said Mr Myame, ‘that is all he will ever have to study. Advanced French has an amount of innuendo in it.... I don't admire it. There is something un-English about it ...’
‘Masculine, Ler; feminine, Lar.’
‘And neuter, dear?’ said Mrs Tewler encouragingly.
Mr Myame smiled gravely. ‘I am afraid there is no neuter in French. None whatever. “Lay”, the third word you heard, is simply the plural. The French language brings sex into everything ... Nothing is neuter in French—nothing.’
‘Extraordinary!’ said Mrs Tewler.
‘A table, oone table, is feminine, believe it or not. Oone shays, feminine also, is a chair. But a knife, oon canif, is masculine. Oon, you observe, not Oone.’
‘A male knife! A female chair! It makes me feel—quite uncomfortable,’ said Mrs Tewler. [Careful, 2.6]
Edward Albert moves into lodgings, and is perfectly gullible concerning the stories told by other lodgers (‘nor did our hero ever realise that the quiet genteel widow who was constantly referring to “my friend Lady Tweedman”—that Lady Tweedman who “used to say” so many authoritative and quenching things about social behaviour—disappeared so suddenly from Doober's because, after repeated warnings, she had been caught red-handed shoplifting’ [2.15]—another Dickens steal, that: Sairey Gamp's Mrs Harris. You can even see the chain of association in Wells's brain, harris, tweed ...) Wells digresses upon Homo Tewler (not so far removed from ‘the ancestral Tewler (Pithecanthropus Tewler)’ who ‘found himself coming down from his nice safe tree nests to the agoraphobia of the ground level’.
Edward Albert drifts along, unable to obtain a clerkship because he never actually does learn French. It doesn't matter, though, because he happens to inherit £10,000 from a distant relative who was involved in Edinburgh slum properties. This Kipps development is a mere plot-point, and is not utilized by Wells as a fully psychodramatic opportunity, as he did in Kipps.
Rich now, Tewler wanders London. He lurks unpleasantly, observing the house opposite (‘a young woman who, with a certain disregard of her possible visibility, undressed completely in front of a small mirror. By putting out his own light and standing in the dark, he could see her bright pink illuminated body gradually emerging from her clothes’ [3.3]). When he registers that he is sexually attracted to an old friend from his lodging days, Miss Pooley, his reaction is: ‘he wanted to kill Miss Pooley, he wanted to leap upon her and beat her about and kill her’. Wells's point is
even if the breed of Homo Tewler rises presently to a point where it may indeed merit this name it has usurped so prematurely, Homo sapiens, this conflict, the moral conflict, the need for education, for being trimmed to fit into social life which is the cause of all religion, will still be in it. [Careful, 3.4]The seedy consequences of a society that represses the sex instinct is spun-out for a while, as with Blond Bert Bloxham, who offers Tewker pornographic photos and who boasts: ‘“ever 'ad a woman yet, Tewler? Yes, I 'ave.” (Description.) “And I don't care 'ow many more I 'ave. But them street walkers. You can't be too careful. You know they don't wash themselves. They smell. Puts you off it.”’ [3.7]. Tewler eventually marries respectable Evangeline Birkenhead, but, through mutual ignorance, their first sexual experience does not go well:
He hardly waited to kiss her. There was a rapid struggle. She felt herself gripped and assailed with insane energy.They couple try, and fail, to make the best of things. Through the new bride's mind runs ‘a pageant of beautiful women down the ages who had had to give their bodies to dwarfed kings and ugly feudal lords’ [3.15]. ‘Was this after all what wifehood amounted to? For most women perhaps—yes.’ After the birth of their only child, Henry Tewler, she refuses all further sexual activity. At first her husband is disbelieving (‘you got to do your juty by me ... you're flying in the face of the laws of Gord and man’ [3.18]) but when she insists that ‘my body belongs to me and I do what I like with it’ he grows wrathful, and blames the suffragettes. Soon enough Tewler is kicking at his wife's locked bedroom door (‘“Let me in, you bitch,” he was shouting. “I want my rights.”’ [3.19]) and she moves out.
‘Oh! oh! oh!’ she groaned in crescendo. ‘Stop! Ow-woo-woohoo. Oooh!’ The climax of the unendurable passed. Her body went limp.
Then Edward Albert was sitting up with an expression of horror on his face. ‘Gaw!’ he was saying. ‘You got some disease? It's blood!’
He dashed for the bathroom.
He came back to discover Evangeline sitting up in a storm of pain, disappointment and fear.
‘You pig,’ she said. ‘You fool. You selfish young fool. You ignoramus! ... Get out of my way.’ ... She dressed swiftly, going to and fro and flinging insults at him. He sat on the soiled and devastated bed considering the situation. [Careful, 3.11]
Tewler consults a solicitor concerning divorce proceedings, and vents his rage and despair. In reply the lawyer tells him ‘“the-e-e”—he prolonged the word into a neigh—“prostitute is the safety-valve of the respectable Christian life. That is all I can tell you”’ [3.20]. Instead of this, though, Tewler finds carnal comfort with his housekeeper, a widow called Mrs Butter, whom he afterwards marries.
As young Henry grows to adulthood, Tewler senior becomes increasingly right wing: expatiating about the Soviet menace and telling his neighbours ‘these here Jews seem to be doing a lot of mischief in the world, one way and another’ [5.1]. He approves the rise of Hitler, as do his golfing partners, and he listens to these latter as they warn him that the French army, by recruiting Black soldiers, is risking the mass rape of white women. As he tees off he fantasizes about ‘himself as Sir Galahad clearing Soudanese niggers off the links and comforting their victims by a kind word or so before starting his round’ [5.2].
World War 2 breaks out, and Germany comes close to winning in 1940, before ‘striking hysterically at Russia’, and for the first time encountering a people unencumbered by the sheet-anchor of respectability: a people ‘united in their dislike to the German Herrenvolk’ who ‘fought with an undivided mind. They had discovered that in warfare you cannot be too careless. “Safety last!” said the Russians’ [5.2]. Just in case we hadn't grasped Wells's thesis.
Tewler senior is initially shocked into complete inaction by the advent of war, but eventually he joins the Brighthampton Home Guard.
The novel is in its last stretches now, and moves into a speculative near-future. The Germans raid the southern English coast, and Tewler, who happens to be on duty, and in an access of startled recklessness, bayonet-charges a patrol, killing four men, until Polish volunteers come up and complete the rout. For this he is given the G.C. Then his wife is fatally injured in a Luftwaffe raid; on her deathbed she urges him to do the right thing by his son, but he can only talk about Buckingham Palace, still starry-eyed at having met the Queen when he received his medal.
‘That,’ says Wells, in the novel's coda, ‘completes all that is essential in the life of Edward Albert Tewler, his Deeds and Significant Sayings’ The novel ends on a lengthy Wellsian lecture, in which, among sideswipes at Communism and Catholicism (‘to-day the most evil thing in the whole world is the Roman Catholic Church. The Communist Party is the identical twin of Catholicism’ [6.1]) he concedes that his hero is horrible: ‘my loyal but anxious publishers,’ Wells confides protest that Tewler is ‘detestable’, and ‘there is not really a nice human being in the book Couldn't you put in some flash of real nobility in him?’ [6.3] But Wells insists he feels only pity.
I have told his poor sordid story and that of the people whose lives he helped to spoil; I have mocked at his absurdities and misfortunes and invincible conceit; but all the way along as I wrote it something has protested, ‘This is not fair. Given a broader education, given air, light and opportunity, would he have been anything like this?’ He is what our civilisation made of him, and this is all it made of him. I have told the complete truth about a contemporary specimen man. [Careful, 6.3]Tewler senior is still alive in 1951, Wells tells us: remarried for comfort and as set in his ways as ever. His son, after being discharged from the army, has ignored his father's advice about avoiding ‘ideers’ and reads as widely as he can before going off to agitate for revolution. Tewler senior puts this down to jealousy at his George Cross. Wells concludes: ‘we are not yet Homo sapiens,’ but looks to the future, ‘when at last our intermingled and selected offspring, carrying on the life that is now in us ... have established their claim to that title—can we doubt that they will be facing things at present unimaginable, weighing pros and cons altogether beyond our scope? They will see far and wide in an ever-growing light while we see as in a glass darkly.’ [6.5]
This last touch, I have to say, is too little, too late. When Wells wrote Kipps and Mr Polly he was close enough to having been Kipps and Mr Polly to infuse his comedy with a kind of tenderness. That's all gone, by this late stage. It's not the unlikeability of Tewler than sinks this novel (I'm all in favour of unlikeable protagonists); its the sense that the novel is repeatedly sneering at him. This kind of fundamentally class-based condescension makes its first, and last, appearance in Wells's output.
It is, certainly, a bracing novel, and often startlingly explicit in its portrayal of sex. In fact one of the most interesting things about this novel is the way it shifts tonally from the earlier Dickensian comedy of Mrs Tewler's well-bred shock at discovering that the French gender forks as masculine and chairs as feminine, through to a sort of Lawrentian passionate fury of sexual blockage, Edward Albert screaming bitch at his wife, fantasising about sexual violence and ultimately achieving a grisly kind of ecstatic-erotic consummation when his phallic bayonet penetrates and kills four Germans on the beach. Society being so constituted, Wells is saying, he of course receives the George Cross for this action. You Can't Be Too Careful traces the sea-change in literature as such, from Dickensian sexual politeness and discretion to Modernist explicitness and melancholy, a Prussian Officer-style thesis that all this sexual repression will have catastrophic social consequences. But as a catch-all analysis of all the world's ills, from personal frustration, to grubby men selling dirty postcards on street corners, to unhappy marriages, to the rise of fascism and world war, this is so facile as to be, almost, ridiculous. It's a shame: there are sparks here and there of the old Wellsian genius, occasional flare-ups of autumnal fire, but as a whole this novel is a misfire.
It's a novel critics have almost entirely neglected. David C Smith seems to have read a different novel to the one I did, describing it as ‘a comic arraignment of the lives of ordinary London people’, praising its ‘magnificent depiction’ of life in lodgings, and singling out its ‘marvellous picture of cricket as well’ [Smith, H G Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 351, 588]. Smith thinks the name Tewler is ‘evocative of a worker without brains or energy, the tool of anyone who wishes’. I have to say that seems to me quite wrong. Tewler isn't especially passive, and he is never put to any social use at all. I think Wells is being more ribald: Tewler is tooler in the penile sense of ‘tool’; his evolutionary primitiveness manifest in his domination by a regressive, violent phallic sexuality, which is sublimated into his life's single notable action, when he bayonet-charges the invading Germans. It's not clear to me why he gets the George Cross for this (that medal is specifically awarded for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger, not in the presence of the enemy’: Tewler a member of the Home Guard, is indeed engaging the enemy when he stabs those Germans. A Military Cross would be more likely), except that George is the more fitting rebus for Tewler's actions. There he is, that old Turkish knight, stabbing his phallic lance into the plump body of that dragon, whilst a toothsome maiden languishes nearby. Maybe the hidden truth of the St George legend is that he'd rather be lance-stabbing his enemies than actually engaging, emotionally.