Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Wonderful Visit (1895)



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Where The Time Machine remains widely read and loved, having birthed an entire sub-genre, the second novel Wells published in 1895 has dropped so completely off the radar that, until I undertook this present exercise, I'd never read it at all. The Wonderful Visit appears, wonderfully enough, to have popped in for its visit, and then gone off again, leaving no trace on the world.

I have read it now, of course, and whilst I enjoyed the experience I think I can see why it's not part of the canon of Wellsian classics. In a sense it inverts the premise of The Time Machine. So: instead of an ordinary traveller from the 1890s exploring the exotic and strange communities of the far future, The Wonderful Visit describes a traveller from an exotic and strange world—an angel, from the ‘Angelic Dimension’—exploring an ordinary 1890s English community. The Angel, like the Time Traveller, has no name (although the residents of Siddermorton, the Home Counties village he visits, end up calling him ‘Thomas Angel’); and like the Time Traveller he is forced to interrupt his travels because his machine is damaged, the ‘machine’ in this case being his wings. The Vicar of Siddermorton, Mr Hilyer, hears reports of a ‘strange bird’ flying about; he goes out to see for himself, taking his rifle with him, since one of his hobbies is collecting, stuffing and displaying rare birds. He doesn't mean to shoot the angel, and yet somehow he does:
Then suddenly rose something full of wavering colours, twenty yards or less in front of his face, and beating the air. In another moment it had fluttered above the bracken and spread its pinions wide. [Hilyer] saw what it was, his heart was in his mouth, and he fired out of pure surprise and habit.

There was a scream of superhuman agony, the wings beat the air twice, and the victim came slanting swiftly downward and struck the ground—a struggling heap of writhing body, broken wing and flying bloodstained plumes—upon the turfy slope behind.

The Vicar stood aghast, with his smoking gun in his hand. It was no bird at all, but a youth with an extremely beautiful face, clad in a robe of saffron and with iridescent wings, across whose pinions great waves of colour, flushes of purple and crimson, golden green and intense blue, pursued one another as he writhed in his agony.



The story then develops exactly as you might expect it to: the angel turns out to be an ingenuous, courteous individual who speaks good English (he doesn't know how he's able to do this; nor does he know how he passed from the Angelic Dimension to ours) and he encounters all the quotidiana of our ordinary existence with astonished delight and bafflement. In one sense the whole novel is extrapolated from that bit in Through the Looking Glass where the unicorn is amazed to see a little girl, a creature he had previously thought merely mythical. Our realm is a sort of dream dimension to the Angels, just as theirs is to us, populated as it is with ‘Griffins and Dragons—and Jabberwocks—and Cherubim—and Sphinxes—and the Hippogriff—and Mermaids—and Satyrs’. The Angel regards the Vicar, and all his fellows, as creatures out of myth (‘“Dear me!” said the Angel; “There's deer and a stag! Just as they draw them on the coats of arms. How grotesque it all seems!”’).

At any rate, the Vicar takes the Angel home, binds up his wound and dresses him in conventional clothes, hiding his wings under an overcoat so that he looks like a hunchback. Doctor Crump, who calls to check on the Angel's wound, disbelieves his account of his own provenance, and considers his wings merely a strange deformity of the bones. Hilyer's curate and others think at first that Hilyer has installed a mistress in the vicarage, (‘“This comes,” he heard the Curate's wife say, “of having an unmarried vicar—”.’). When they realise the Angel is male the rumour goes about that he is the Vicar's own illegitimate son, which gossip causes the pious, celibate old fellow much distress. The Angel himself, never having experienced pain of any kind before, and being wholly innocent of death, is horrified at the existence we mortals endure. He thinks fire a kind of flower and burns his fingers. He doesn't understand why some of us have to work at unpleasant jobs and others don't. He wanders the village. He gets mocked and pelted by urchins, is shunned by the elderly matrons of the village, meets a tramp who regales him with stories of the wickedness of the local aristocrat, Sir John Gotch, and then another who threatens to knock him down. All this time he is losing his natural iridescence and colour as he becomes increasingly corrupted: his wings atrophy, he becomes prey to human foibles and emotions, coming closer and closer to turning into a mere man.

Mr Angel reveals a transcendent musical talent when he picks up a violin, but when Lady Hammergallow organises a recital for him the audience are disturbed by the otherworldly beauty of his improvisations, and then haughtily dismissive when he reveals he can't read music. The vicar tries to stay true to his original vision of the Angel, but the normative pressures of society intrude upon even his mind. Only the vicar's pretty servant girl, Delia Hardy, keeps the faith where Mr Angel is concerned. He in turn develops tender feelings for Delia, which outrages the stiff sense of class-probity that obtains in the village.

Eventually the Vicar is prevailed upon to send the visiting angel away, and begins to make plans to lodge him in London. Before that eventuality, though, the novel hurries to its denouement. Two things happen hard upon one another: first the Angel comes upon barbed wire that Sir John Gotch has set around some woodland he owns, and, thinking it a horrible kind of plant, tears it to pieces with his bare hands, angered that anybody would seek to deprive others of access to the wood's beauty. Gotch threatens to take him to law, and in a subsequent encounter the Angel loses his temper and thrashes Gotch badly. Then, in a rather arbitrary plot-move, the Vicar accidentally sets fire to his own vicarage; Delia rushes into the burning building to rescue the Angel's violin, the Angel goes in after her and both are burned to death. Or more precisely:
Suddenly the flames spurted out in a blinding glare that shot upward to an immense height, a blinding brilliance broken by a thousand flickering gleams like the waving of swords. And a gust of sparks, flashing in a thousand colours, whirled up and vanished. Just then, and for a moment by some strange accident, a rush of music, like the swell of an organ, wove into the roaring of the flames.

The whole village standing in black knots heard the sound, except Gaffer Siddons who is deaf—strange and beautiful it was, and then gone again. Lumpy Durgan, the idiot boy from Sidderford, said it began and ended like the opening and shutting of a door.

But little Hetty Penzance had a pretty fancy of two figures with wings, that flashed up and vanished among the flames.
An epilogue tells us that the vicar ‘died within a twelvemonth of the fire’.

There is charm in this novel, and some of the humorous touches work—though it has to be said that many of them don't, really. The comedy of manners, which does the bulk of the humour work, here, feels often dated and plodding. And the satire is sadly diffuse. Some of it is targeted at the restrictive idiocies of social convention, which generates one kind of affect; and some at broader exigencies of day-to-day living (‘The chair,’ said the Vicar, ‘to tell you the truth, has always puzzled me. It dates, I think, from the days when the floors were cold and very dirty. I suppose we have kept up the habit. Anyhow, if I went to see one of my parishioners, and suddenly spread myself out on the floor, which is the more natural way ... it would be all over the parish in no time.’) which generates another. Then again a third kind of satire is aimed at existential universals like pain, dying and so on, which is yet another thing. The three targets don't coalesce terribly well, which blurs the book's focus. The Angel is designedly a mild and pleasant character, but Wells doesn't manage to lift him out of blandness, and his tender passion for Delia strikes a false note. We can of course imagine Wells himself wanting to have sex with a pretty serving maid, but the Angel comes from a realm where there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, and for him to become besotted with a human woman would be like you or I falling for a jabberwocky. But Wells can't let go of the notion. Having previously only encountered a selection of the village's grande dames, the Angel is struck when Delia waits on table for him.
‘Was that a lady, too?’

‘Well,’ said the Vicar. "No—she is not a lady. She is a servant.’

‘Yes,’ said the Angel; ‘she had rather a nicer shape.’

‘You mustn't tell Mrs Mendham that,’ said the Vicar, covertly satisfied.
Nicer shape indeed. Wells, I think, needed to go the full Nephilim here, or else give up the ‘sexual desire recognizes no barriers of class or status!’ narrative, however dear it was to his heart. As it stands, The Wonderful Visit falls between the two stools, stools that date from the days when the floors were cold and dirty but which we moderns have kept up as a kind of habit.


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Another way of framing my griping here is to note how radically unangelic Wells's angel is. He is, we might say, no ἄγγελος ‎(ángelos, “messenger”), since he has no message to convey to us. He visits, but he has nothing to communicate. Indeed, early in the tale Wells declares himself: ‘Let us be plain. The Angel of this story is the Angel of Art, not the Angel that one must be irreverent to touch—neither the Angel of religious feeling nor the Angel of popular belief.’
He comes from the land of beautiful dreams and not from any holier place. At best he is a popish creature. Bear patiently, therefore, with his scattered remiges, and be not hasty with your charge of irreverence before the story is read.
One of the pleasures of The Wonderful Visit is the glimpses it gives of the Angelic dimension, its full kitsch splendour merely gestured at:
Now in the land of the Angels, so the Vicar learnt in the course of many conversations, there is neither pain nor trouble nor death, marrying nor giving in marriage, birth nor forgetting. Only at times new things begin. It is a land without hill or dale, a wonderfully level land, glittering with strange buildings, with incessant sunlight or full moon, and with incessant breezes blowing through the Aeolian traceries of the trees. It is Wonderland, with glittering seas hanging in the sky, across which strange fleets go sailing, none know whither. There the flowers glow in Heaven and the stars shine about one's feet and the breath of life is a delight. The land goes on for ever—there is no solar system nor interstellar space such as there is in our universe—and the air goes upward past the sun into the uttermost abyss of their sky. And there is nothing but Beauty there—all the beauty in our art is but feeble rendering of faint glimpses of that wonderful world, and our composers, our original composers, are those who hear, however faintly, the dust of melody that drives before its winds. And the Angels, and wonderful monsters of bronze and marble and living fire, go to and fro therein. ... Their geometry is different because their space has a curve in it so that all their planes are cylinders; and their law of Gravitation is not according to the law of inverse squares, and there are four-and-twenty primary colours instead of only three. Most of the fantastic things of our science are commonplaces there, and all our earthly science would seem to them the maddest dreaming. There are no flowers upon their plants, for instance, but jets of coloured fire.
But what is needed is more textual friction between this world and ours. Too often the novel prefers whimsy to estrangement. The success of SF/Fantasy is indeed sometimes the function of a compelling worldbuilding, but, despite the fact that Wells in his later writing very often tap-dances with that particular clomping foot, his greatest achievements do something more cannily oblique. The Time Machine builds not a detailed world so much as a compelling timescape, touching on the actual chill of sublimity in its grasp of cosmic decay. But The Wonderful Visit needs to build what it builds on a fully realised foundation of estrangement, and it doesn't quite manage this. Satirising pomposity, disliking pain or lusting after pretty serving girls, are none of them strange activities, and do not estrange here; and the glimpses of the Angelic Dimension, though rather lovely, are too strenuously (to use an anachronistic term) psychedelic to work on that score. There are flashes, though. Here, for example, the Vicar attempts to describe to the Angel what a Vicar is:
“The other people here—how and why is too long a story—have made me a kind of chorus to their lives. They bring their little pink babies to me and I have to say a name and some other things over each new pink baby. And when the children have grown to be youths and maidens, they come again and are confirmed. You will understand that better later. Then before they may join in couples and have pink babies of their own, they must come again and hear me read out of a book. They would be outcast, and no other maiden would speak to the maiden who had a little pink baby without I had read over her for twenty minutes out of my book. It's a necessary thing, as you will see. Odd as it may seem to you. And afterwards when they are falling to pieces, I try and persuade them of a strange world in which I scarcely believe myself, where life is altogether different from what they have had—or desire. And in the end, I bury them, and read out of my book to those who will presently follow into the unknown land. I stand at the beginning, and at the zenith, and at the setting of their lives. And on every seventh day, I who am a man myself, I who see no further than they do, talk to them of the Life to Come—the life of which we know nothing. If such a life there be. And slowly I drop to pieces amidst my prophesying.”

“What a strange life!” said the Angel.

“Yes,’ said the Vicar. “What a strange life! But the thing that makes it strange to me is new. I had taken it as a matter of course until you came into my life.”
Some traction is achieved by the more systematic attempts to rationalise the Angel's being. Doctor Crump develops a theory of psychopathological delusion, based on the newest theories of mind, arguing that Mr Angel has hallucinated his entire backstory. ‘You are a strange man,’ the Angel tells him, a little fearful of his unshakeable materialism: ‘Your beliefs are like—a steel trap.’ ‘They are,’ Crump replies, ‘—flattered’, which is a nice touch. The Vicar expands upon a theory of alternate dimensions, with portals between them, which almost elevates the whole into the realm of science fiction proper. But Wells's heart is in neither of these, and the story sputters out into an under-estranged strangeness.

Really, The Wonderful Visit is a fable about grace, which term Wells takes in its root, pagan sense rather than a conventionally Christian one: χάρις, which Mary Lefkowitz calls, ‘one of the ancient Greeks' most attractive concepts’:
Charis, the grace or pleasure that results from mutual exchange ... can be applied to almost all aspects of life. The standard farewell, chaire, means (in effect) ‘charis to you.’ An honorarium or tip is a form of charis; charis quite literally resides in an attractive young man, or in a grove of apple trees frequented by young women in love. It is the gift that praise poetry can bestow on human achievement, or that a cure can bring to someone suffering from disease. In and before the age of tragedy the goddesses who dispensed charis were worshipped and invoked by separate names: Brilliance (Aglaia), Joy (Euphrosyne) and Conviviality (Thalia). Only later were they lumped together in the anonymous and largely ornamental collectivity of the Three Graces. Although nowadays manners are usually considered separate from morals, the Greeks rightly regarded the reciprocity of charis as a moral force, because it served as a glue that held society together.
One of Wells's recurring focuses in his writing is his profound sense that contemporary life is too graceless to achieve all of which society and culture was capable. Often, as in this novel, χάρις elides with a specifically sexual freedom; but that's not a million miles away from what the Greeks meant, either. Brilliance, Joy and Conviviality preside over the Wellsian aesthetic, as he endeavoured to make them do in his life. Which is, in its way, rather wonderful.


Plagiary Postscript
It's going to be hard to avoid the question of plagiary as this blog goes on. Wells was often accused of it, and critics have either defended him, or tut-tuttted (he's not unlike another of my favourite writers, Coleridge, in this regard). In their biography, Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie note, rather breezily:
Wells was not merely careless of the degree to which he allowed his own life to slide into his writing. He was equally free in his use of other sources. This does not mean that Wells plagiarised the work of others out of laziness or cupidity. It was simply that he thought no more about using a plot from Poe or Flammarion than he did about cannibalizing his own newspaper articles, [or] basing Love and Mr Lewisham on his own life. [Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: The Life of H G Wells (Weidenfeld 1973), 119]
That's not a very reassuring, or indeed persuasive, line, I'd say. At any rate, the question of plagiary can't be avoided here. The Time Machine concerns a man from the 1890s who travels into the far future; The Wonderful Visit concerns a being from a paradisical alternate dimension visiting 1890s England and finding its social conventions and rules quirky, baffling and, especially where sexual mores are concerned, oppressively arbitrary. And so let us turn to the prolific Canadian writer Grant Allen, whom Wells knew personally, with whom he corresponded, sometimes visited (Allen was living in Haslemere, in Surrey, in the 1890s), whose books Wells reviewed and who in turn reviewed Wells.

Late in 1895, a couple of months after the appearance of Wells's The Time Machine and The Wonderful Visit Allen published The British Barbarians: a Hill-Top Novel, in which a time-traveller arrives in the Home Counties from an enlightened 25th-century, assumes the name ‘Bertram Ingledew’ and studies the locals as an anthropologist would. He is struck by the arbitrary oppressiveness of 1890s taboos and customs, and—Allen being as much an advocate of ‘free love’ as was Wells—tests those restrictions by seducing a woman called Frida Monteith, the wife of a local businessman. Ingledew and Monteith run away together, but Frida’s husband Robert goes after them with a rifle and shoots Bertram dead. The similarities between this premise and Wells's two novels are a little hard to ignore. And though Allen's title was published later in 1895 than Wells's two, it was written much earlier: Peter Morton notes that Allen, whose health was failing in this decade (he died of liver cancer in 1899), ‘dusted off this manuscript, which he had written six years previously’ before adding a ‘defiant’ preface (the Wilde trial had dominated the news cycle of April-May 1895) and sending it to his publishers [Morton, The Busiest Man in England: Grant Allen and the Writing Trade, 1875-1900 (Palgrave 2005), 174]. It's possible Allen discussed the manuscript with Wells before publication; it's even possible, though unlikely, that Wells actually read the book in MS. So is this plagiary?

Actually, I don't think so. For one thing, after Allen's novel came out Wells gave it a swingeing review in the Saturday Review, calling it ‘redolent of bad taste and bad English, destitute alike of dramatic incident and character analysis.’ (He's right about this, incidentally: it's a terrible novel). Time Machine was a big hit, and even though Wonderful Visit wasn't such a smash, it's hard to imagine Allen not complaining if he had considered himself plagiarised. Of the two elements, one (a visit to our world by a supermundial being that provides the pretext for a satirical estrangement of our familiar and conventional ways) is an old chestnut, at least as old as Voltaire's Micromégas (1753) and surely much older; and if Allen was writing about the other—a time-traveller—in 1889, Wells had already published the first version of his chronic argonaut in 1888.

And actually, to read Allen's novel is to be struck by how unlike it is to Wells's lively, curious and imaginative texts. Wells lets us know that his tale is about a time traveller in its first three words; Allen holds back this datum as a notional big reveal at the climax of the story. He drops heavy hints that the stranger is no ordinary stranger until, finally, Robert Montieth shoots Ingeldew down, when he inflicts this creaky scene on his readers:
No spot nor trace of blood marred the body anywhere. And, even as they looked, a strange perfume, as of violets or of burning incense, began by degrees to flood the moor around them. Then slowly, while they watched, a faint blue flame seemed to issue from the wound in Bertram’s right side and rise lambent into the air above the murdered body. Frida drew back and gazed at it, a weird thrill of mystery and unconscious hope beguiling for one moment her profound pang of bereavement. Monteith, too, stood away a pace or two, in doubt and surprise, the deep consciousness of some strange and unearthly power overawing for a while even his vulgar and commonplace Scotch bourgeois nature. Gradually, as they gazed, the pale blue flame, rising higher and higher, gathered force and volume, and the perfume as of violets became distinct on the air, like the savour of a purer life than this century wots of. Bit by bit, the wan blue light, flickering thicker and thicker, shaped itself into the form and features of a man, even the outward semblance of Bertram Ingledew. Shadowy, but transfigured with an ineffable glory, it hovered for a minute or two above the spot on the moor where the corpse had lain; for now they were aware that as the flame-shape formed, the body that lay dead upon the ground beneath dissolved by degrees and melted into it. Not a trace was left on the heath of Robert Monteith’s crime: not a dapple of blood, not a clot of gore: only a pale blue flame and a persistent image represented the body ... As it slowly dissolved, Frida stretched out her hands to it with a wild cry, like the cry of a mother for her first-born. “O Bertram,” she moaned, “where are you going? Do you mean to leave me? Won’t you save me from this man? Won’t you take me home with you?”

Dim and hollow, as from the womb of time unborn, a calm voice came back to her across the gulf of ages: “Your husband willed it, Frida, and the customs of your nation. You can come to me, but I can never return to you. In three days longer your probation would have been finished. But I forgot with what manner of savage I had still to deal. And now I must go back once more to the place whence I came—to THE TWENTY-FIFTH CENTURY.”

The voice died away in the dim recesses of the future. The pale blue flame flickered forward and vanished. The shadowy shape melted through an endless vista of to-morrows. Only the perfume as of violets or of a higher life still hung heavy upon the air, and a patch of daintier purple burned bright on the moor, like a pool of crimson blood, where the body had fallen. Only that, and a fierce ache in Frida’s tortured heart; only that, and a halo of invisible glory round the rich red lips, where his lips had touched them. [Allen, The British Barbarians, ch, 12]
The novel then ends with Frida brushing off her husband and marching off to ‘the trout-ponds at Broughton’, it seems to drown herself so as to follow him. Questions of plagiary aside, Wells is simply incapable of writing as badly as this.

7 comments:

  1. "[or] basing Love and Mr Lewisham"?

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    1. Thanks! Yes, lots of typos in this I'm afraid. I have no excuse, except that I had to get up especially early this morning (on a Sunday, too) to drive my daughter to a Thing, and have been stumbling around half-awake all day. I've had a go-through and caught various things, but I'm sure there are more.

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  2. I will now pronounce on this book with the confidence that comes from not having read it. And, being the Religious Guy, I’m going to comment on the Vicar.

    From the long passage you quote, it seems that the appearance of the Angel has caused the Vicar to see the purely conventional character of his role, the thinness of his belief, etc. But mightn’t it be psychologically more plausible for the appearance of the Angel to re-vivify the Vicar’s faith? “There more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your socially-conventional late-Victorian functionally-unbelieving philosophy.” After all, if this Angel can be real, and the “dimension” he comes from, why not the Risen Lord sitting at the right hand of the Father?

    It might have been more interesting to make the Vicar a passionately supernaturalist Anglo-Catholic. The angel would have disturbed that ordering of the universe in rather more subtle and provocative ways. (Though I know what Wells means when he calls the Angel “popish,” it’s really a very inapt description.)

    But I take it, from Wells’s announcement that this is the Angel of Art, that he wants to comment on the ways that those lovely graces you speak of disrupt convention, threaten established order, and for some happy few open doors of possibility. And in that sense a purely conventional religion such as the Vicar’s is the right target.

    Tangentially, perhaps: it seems to me that SF and especially fantasy are awkward agents for the materialist critique of supernatural religion. There is, as I. A. Richards might say, a mismatch of tenor and vehicle. You can't critique supernaturalism qua supernaturalism by invoking an alternative supernatural reality. I think Philip Pullman, for instance, realizes this, and consequently creates an elaborate universe bearing all the marks of supernaturalism but insists that all the phenomena are purely material, arising from the as-yet-not-understood character of a natural phenomenon (“Dust”). But this is a pretty obvious case of having your supernatural cake and materialistically eating it too. Wells is on safer ground by critiquing a religion that no one actually seems to believe in.

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    1. I'm with you: actually reading a book before critiquing it prejudices one so, I always find.

      There really is very little of the religious in this. Early on the Vicar responds to something in the Angel, especially when the latter plays the violin: the music awakens a long-lost sense of the numinous in him. But as things go on, and the village effectively gang-up on him, he retreats from his transcendental reaction and becomes more and more socially conventional. And actually the theology of this sort of tale is a puzzling thing: I mean, the It's A Wonderful Life, Heaven Can Wait kind of story. Maybe any angelic representation that falls short of the full Rilke sublimity is going to seem a bit, well, cosy.

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    2. A word dropped out there: 'is inevitably going to seem a bit, well, cosy'

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  3. One thing I wondered, on reading this, but which I didn't manage to get into the post, was the Queer angle. It was written through the spring of 1895, when the big news of the day was the Oscar Wilde trial; and when the (lifelong bachelor) Vicar is spotted with this fair-faced stranger in a sort-of dress everybody assumes he has taken a mistress. But when they realise the fair-faced youth is male they all switch to the theory that he must be the Vicar's bastard. Nobody thinks catamite (not a word a tale aimed at mainstream commercial success could use in 1895 of course, but there would be ways of intimating it). The Wonderful Visit could have been something like James's 'The Great Good Place', a story that cloaks Gay yearning in the fairly scanty lineaments of fantasy. But it isn't. Wells not being gay may have something to do with it, I suppose.

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  4. The plot outline sounds rather like Walter Tevis' The Man Who Fell to Earth. I wonder if Tevis ever read it?

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