Friday, 21 July 2017

The Great State (1912)



This volume was co-edited by Wells, G R Stirling Taylor (a prominent London barrister and socialist) and the remarkable Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, who, having spent much of the later nineteenth-century as mistress to a string of prominent figures, including the Prince of Wales, Lord Charles Beresford (during which relationship she was shocked to discover that her husband, the Earl of Warwick, had impregnated Lady Beresford), American millionaire Joseph Laycock and various others, settled down somewhat in middle-age to socialist good works. I mean, I say, settled down. She did blackmail George V on his accession in 1910 by threatening to publish the love letters his father, Edward VII, had written to her when he was Prince of Wales—an inarguably commendable enterprise which netted her £64,000, close to seven million in today's money. But broadly speaking by the time she became friendly with Wells she had settled, as I say, into a more respectable middle-age.

So for example she joined the Social Democratic Federation in 1904. She donated generously to socialist causes, opposed World War 1, supported the October Revolution and after the war joined the Labour Party. The song ‘Daisy Daisy’ was written about her. The link from SF's Guvnor H G Wells, through his friend the Countess of Warwick, to HAL singing that song with increasingly machinic ritardando in 2001: A Space Odyssey makes me greatly, and perhaps illogically, happy.

Anyway, not to get distracted: the Countess, Taylor and Wells agreed on the desirability of a book exploring how the evolution of a socialistic State might work, and commissioned various prominent socialists to contribute. ‘A collection of essays by contemporaries actively concerned with various special aspects of progress was proposed,’ is how the preface to the book passive-voices it. This is the result:



Pausing only to remark what a most excellent name ‘L G Chiozza Money’ is for a fiscal economist, let us move on to Wells's contribution to the volume.

He starts by distinguishing between ‘the Normal Social Life’ and ‘the Great State’. The former is what has ‘been the lot of the enormous majority of human beings as far back as history or tradition or the vestiges of material that supply our conceptions of the neolithic period can carry us’ (basically ‘a community in which the greater proportion of the individuals are engaged more or less directly in the cultivation of the land’ [4]). The latter is where Wells wants us all to go. Between the two, however, is a third thing which Wells calls ‘the surplus life’, where trade creates surplus value which a few exploit: ‘all recorded history is in a sense the history of these surplus and supplemental activities of mankind’.
The Normal Social Life flowed on in its immemorial fashion, using no letters, needing no records, leaving no history. Then a little minority, bulking disproportionately in the record, come the trade and sailor, the slave, the landlord and the tax-collector, the townsman and the kind. All written history is the story of a minority and their peculiar and abnormal affairs. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 7-8]
History then is fundamentally anomalous: ‘the Normal Social Life is essentially illiterate and traditional. The Normal Social Life is as mute as the standing crops; it is as seasonal and cyclic as nature herself and reaches towards the future only an intimation of continual repetitions.’

Wells's main thesis is that ‘conservative’ thinkers—he specifically names Chesterton, Belloc and William Morris—romanticise the Normal Social Life, and regard ‘the surplus forces’ as ‘in more or less destructive conflict with it’. But, Wells says, this life was ‘laborious, prolific, illiterate, limited’, and cherry picking moments from the historical record doesn’t change that. ‘It must recede and disappear before methods upon a much larger scale, employing wholesale machinery and involving great economies’ [34]. This is the Great State, founded upon collectivised farms (‘extensive tracts being cultivated on a wholesale scale’ [36]) that will free up collective wealth for collective improvement and enjoyment. Wells lays out his standard Fabian compromise between plutocracy and full Communism, ideas he had already touched on in his Modern Utopia and his various Fabian tracts:
I would like to underline in the most emphatic way that it is possible to have this Great State, essentially socialistic, owning and running the land and all the great public services, sustaining everybody in absolute freedom at a certain minimum of comfort and well-being, and still leaving most of the interests, amusements and adornments of the individual life and all sorts of collective concerns social and political discussion, religious worship, philosophy and the like to the free personal initiatives of entirely unofficial people. [Wells, ‘The Past and the Great State’, 42-43]
He ends with a little diagram tracing the path out of what, with a tidy piece of typographic delinquency, Wells now appears to call THE NORMAE SOCIAL LIFE.




I trust that's clear.

Floor Games (1911)



This slim volume, together with its 1913 companion piece Little Wars, grew from Wells's game-playing with his two sons, George Philip ‘Gip’ Wells (1901-1985) and Frank Richard Wells (1903-1982), who appear in the book under their initials. The book is illustrated with photographs and drawings, and sketches a number of games that can be played on what Wells calls ‘well lit and airy floors’. The needful? Toy soldiers wooden bricks, boards and planks, and electric railway rolling stock and rails. Off you go!

Floor Games and its companion have an important place in the history of gaming, a pastime which has become very culturally significant. I'm not sure this book in itself has much to say about what gaming was to become, although there is certainly something interesting in all this about the way Wells's imagination worked in a fundamentally modular fashion. I don't say do to denigrate it. On the contrary: he was able to develop hugely complex and intricate models in his writing, and the non-modular or impressionist mode of, say, Henry James or Proust wouldn't not have suited him, any more than they would have enjoyed something as gloriously silly and yet strangely resonant as constructing a Temple Whose Portals Are Guarded By Grotesque Plasticine Monsters.



I'm not much of a gamer, if I'm honest: although when I was a little kid I used to play a game with my two younger sisters that involved building townfuls of houses out of wooden bricks and lego and then moving playpeople in and out, interacting in (howsoever I ransack my memory) now incomprehensible ways. We called this game ‘People’ and it went on for hours. One thing I do remember: my Mum and Nan sitting at a table drinking tea and looking down upon the three of us as another interminable game of ‘People’ was underway. I remember Nan saying ‘why do they like this game so much, do you think?’ and I remember my Mum answering with one word: ‘power’. It wasn't the kind of answer that made any great sense to a ten-year-old, but hindsight tells me: she wasn't wrong.



Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)



‘The enterprise of Messrs. T. Nelson & Sons,’ says Wells in the introduction to this volume ‘and the friendly accommodation of Messrs. Macmillan render possible this collection in one cover of all the short stories by me that I care for any one to read again.’ A Best Of, then. ‘Except for the two series of linked incidents that make up the bulk of the book called Tales of Space and Time,’ Wells clarifies ‘no short story of mine of the slightest merit is excluded from this volume’. What, no ‘Pollock and the Porroh Man’? Bertie, are you mad? Anyway: here, for reference (my reference I mean: of course you don't care) are the stories making up the collection, together with their places and dates of original publication.
‘The Jilting of Jane’ (Pall Mall Budget, 12 July 1894)
‘The Cone’ (Unicorn, 18 September 1895)
‘The Stolen Bacillus’ (Pall Mall Budget, 21 June 1894)
‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (Pall Mall Budget, 2 August 1894)
‘In the Avu Observatory’ (Pall Mall Budget, 9 August 1894)
‘Æpyornis Island’ (Pall Mall Budget, 27 December 1894)
‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’ (Pall Mall Budget, 28 March 1895)
‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 6 September 1894)
‘The Moth’ (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 March 1895)
‘The Treasure in the Forest’ (Pall Mall Budget, 23 August 1894)
‘The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham’ (The Idler, May 1896)
‘Under the Knife’ (The New Review, January 1896)
‘The Sea Raiders’ (The Weekly Sun Literary Supplement, 6 December 1896)
‘The Obliterated Man’ (New Budget, 15 August 1895 as ‘The Sad Story of a Dramatic Critic’)
‘The Plattner Story’ (The New Review, April 1896)
‘The Red Room’ (The Idler, March 1896)
‘The Purple Pileus’ (Black and White, December 1896)
‘A Slip Under the Microscope’ (The Yellow Book, January 1896)
‘The Crystal Egg’ (The New Review, May 1897)
‘The Star’ (The Graphic, December 1897)
‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ (The Illustrated London News, July 1898)
‘A Vision of Judgment’ (Butterfly, September 1899)
‘Jimmy Goggles the God’ (The Graphic, December 1898)
‘Miss Winchelsea's Heart’ (The Queen, October 1898)
‘A Dream of Armageddon’ (Black and White, May/June 1901)
‘The Valley of Spiders’ (Pearson’s Magazine, March 1903)
‘The New Accelerator’ (The Strand, December 1901)
‘The Truth About Pyecraft’ (The Strand, April 1903)
‘The Magic Shop’ (The Strand, June 1903)
‘The Empire of the Ants’ (The Strand, December 1905)
‘The Door in the Wall’ (The Daily Chronicle, 14 July 1906)
‘The Country of the Blind’ (The Strand, April 1904)
‘The Beautiful Suit’ (Colliers, 10 April 1909)
Because I've already discussed most of these stories in the posts dedicated to the collections in which they first appeared (here, here and here) I shall limit myself to a few brief observations on the title story, which made its first collected-in-a-book appearance in this vol. Then I'll say something more general about Wells and the form.



The frontispiece, there, illustrates a scene from ‘The Country of the Blind’. I'm sure you know the tale. Nuñez, attempting the ascent of the hitherto unconquered (and fictional) Mount Parascotopetl in Ecuador, falls down the far side in to an inaccessible though fertile valley entirely populated by blind people. Wells provides back-story rationalisation as to how this blind community came to be, although he really doesn't need to. The fable runs beautifully along its lines without all that sort of scaffolding.

Anyway: Nuñez goes about reciting the old Erasmian proverb ‘In the Country of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King’ and assumes he will rule this place. But the locals not only refuse to acknowledge that he is sensorially superior to them, they have no concept of sight at all and assume he is mad. Nuñez,though frustrated, realises he has to make the best of his situation, since the surrounding mountains render escape impossible. So he tries to fit in, whilst continuing to insist to the people there that he can see.

He falls in love with a girl, Medina-Saroté, but the village elders disapprove of his marriage because they consider his obsession with sight idiotic and delusional. The village doctor proposes removing Nuñez's eyes, reasoning they are diseased in some way that is affecting his brain, and, because he loves Medina-Saroté, Nuñez agrees; but on the morning of the operation he sneaks off, hoping to find a way over the impassable mountains to the outside world.

Wells published two versions of this ending: in the original version (as printed in this volume) Wells leaves his protagonist high in the mountains at nightfall, his fate uncertain, but, as I read it, probably dying. A revised and augmented 1939 version of the story alters this: Nuñez sees an impending rock slide, cannot convince the villagers of the danger they are in, and flees the valley together with Medina-Saroté in tow just before the avalanche wipes the whole place out. They make it to the outside world, marry and have four children, all sighted, but Medina-Saroté refuses the medical attention that might restore her sight. She believes her husband's insistence that the world around her is wonderful, but insists that it would be terrible to see it.

It's one of Wells's best known, and best, stories, all spun out of a premise both simple to the point of obviousness and elegantly wonderful in its novelty: ‘in the Country of the Blind would the One-Eyed Man really be king? Wouldn't an entire country of blind people have adapted to their blindness, such that sight wouldn't be such a biggie? Maybe they wouldn't even believe there was such a thing as sight’ and so on.  Not that it's a flawless piece. The ending's ambiguity speaks to a degree of uncertainty about the dramatic conception (Patrick Parrinder's analysis of the MS reveals a buried third ending, where Nuñez simply returns to the valley, which points to a writer barely able to make up his mind) and the worldbuilding of the story has never struck me as watertight. So for instance: the inhabitants of the valley think the birds are angels, since they can hear them flying about but can't touch them—but surely they'd get their hands on dead and injured birds from time to time, trap them in their homes and apprehend them, and realise they were just another sort of animal, no? But it wouldn't do to be too nitpicky here. This isn't realism, after all. This is a fictional version of Plato's allegory of the cave. As such it works well, although I'd say which of the two endings Wells came up with for this story you prefer will tell us something about your attitude to Plato's famous myth.

What I mean is: the way Plato tells it, the prisoner who escapes the cave, sees real sunlight and returns to tell his other encaved captives, has seen something both real and manifestly superior to everybody else. And in real life it sometimes is true that the person who insists s/he has seen truth and is shunned by the mass consensus for his/her pains has indeed seen truth. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred that person is not a visionary who has pierced the veil of maya, but is rather a nutter, somebody the balance of whose mind is disturbed. A hallucinator, attention-seeker or major loon. It seems to me the population of Blind Country are right to shun Nuñez's tyrannical ambitions, and certainly are better suited to their niche living that he. The original version of the story implies as much. But the avalanche conclusion steps back to the original Platonic notion: in the later version of the story Nuñez does have something the Blind Countrypeople lack, a true vision, and Wells bends the story to prove his point. Me, I prefer the latter of my two readings of Plato's allegory, and therefore the earlier ending. Your mileage may vary.



In the preface to the 1911 Country of the Blind and Other Stories, Wells notes that ‘the task of selection and revision’ entailed by this volume brought home to him ‘with something of the effect of discovery’ that
I was once an industrious writer of short stories, and that I am no longer anything of the kind. I have not written one now for quite a long time, and in the past five or six years I have made scarcely one a year. The bulk of the fifty or sixty tales from which this present three-and-thirty have been chosen dates from the last century. This edition is more definitive than I supposed when first I arranged for it. In the presence of so conclusive an ebb and cessation an almost obituary manner seems justifiable.
He goes on to speculate as to why he has, in effect, stopped writing short stories. Such writing used to come to him as easily as leaves to the tree:
I find it a little difficult to disentangle the causes that have restricted the flow of these inventions. It has happened, I remark, to others as well as to myself, and in spite of the kindliest encouragement to continue from editors and readers. There was a time when life bubbled with short stories; they were always coming to the surface of my mind, and it is no deliberate change of will that has thus restricted my production. ... I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity.
he inserts a potted recent history of the form: the 1890s were ‘a good and stimulating period for a short-story writer’ with great work being produced almost continually by a whole tribe of short-story writers (‘Barrie, Stevenson, Frank-Harris; Max Beerbohm; Henry James; George Street, Morley Roberts, George Gissing, Ella d'Arcy, Murray Gilchrist, E. Nesbit, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Edwin Pugh, Jerome K. Jerome, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Morrison, Marriott Watson, George Moore, Grant Allen, George Egerton, Henry Harland, Pett Ridge, W. W. Jacobs and Joseph Conrad’), all led by Kipling: ‘Mr. Kipling had made his astonishing advent with a series of little blue-grey books, whose covers opened like window-shutters to reveal the dusty sun-glare and blazing colours of the East’. For my money, Kipling is the greatest writer of the short story form in English literary history, but I don't mean to get distracted. At any rate, Wells thinks that's all passed away now:
I do not think the present decade can produce any parallel to this list, or what is more remarkable, that the later achievements in this field of any of the survivors from that time, with the sole exception of Joseph Conrad, can compare with the work they did before 1900.
There's an interesting discussion to be had, I think, as to whether Wells is right in his larger literary-historical diagnosis; but it can't be denied that it describes his own career as a short story writer. Despite being one of the true masters of the form, the inspiration of Borges and generations of SF authors, and despite the fact that some of his most enduring literary achievements are to be found amongst his shorts, he wrote no more of them. Why not?

It's not a question that admits of straightforward answer, I fear. He himself blames the figure he calls ‘the à priori critic’:
Just as nowadays he goes about declaring that the work of such-and-such a dramatist is all very amusing and delightful, but “it isn't a Play,” so we' had a great deal of talk about the short story, and found ourselves measured by all kinds of arbitrary standards. There was a tendency to treat the short story as though it was as definable a form as the sonnet, instead of being just exactly what any one of courage and imagination can get told in twenty minutes' reading or so. It was either Mr. Edward Garnett or Mr. George Moore in a violently anti-Kipling mood who invented the distinction between the short story and the anecdote. The short story was Maupassant; the anecdote was damnable. It was a quite infernal comment in its way, because it permitted no defence. Fools caught it up and used it freely. Nothing is so destructive in a field of artistic effort as a stock term of abuse. Anyone could say of any short story, “A mere anecdote,” just as anyone can say “Incoherent!” of any novel or of any sonata that isn't studiously monotonous. The recession of enthusiasm for this compact, amusing form is closely associated in my mind with that discouraging imputation. One felt hopelessly open to a paralysing and unanswerable charge, and one's ease and happiness in the garden of one's fancies was more and more marred by the dread of it. It crept into one's mind, a distress as vague and inexpugnable as a sea fog on a spring morning.
In comes the fog, it seems.

Still: fog, though Wells deplores it, may be part of the unique strength of the short story as a distinct form. In saying so I'm drawing on Timothy Clark's rather brilliant essay ‘Not Seeing the Short Story: A Blind Phenomenology of Reading’, which appeared as part of the Oxford Literary Review's special issue on ‘The Blind Short Story’ in 2004. Clark makes the case for the short story as a specifically blind mode of art, arguing that ‘what I propose to call, non-pejoratively, the “blindness” of the short-story revisits the issue of the form's relation to realism’. A long quotation from Middlemarch demonstrates George Eliot's commitment to as whole a sight as possible. The short story, by contrast, is necessarily determined by its pseudo-poetic brevity:
[Eliot's] passage of character analysis lasts several pages. However, were such a series of paragraphs as that about Lydgate to appear in a short story, might the mechanics of its realism not be more likely to echo back on itself, revealing its tautological basis? This element of the literary, that it actually conjures up what it seems merely to re-present as already there, is something this forms mere brevity—its lack of concretizing context—makes less ignorable. The short story, as they say, is more ‘poetic’. Eliot's effect of subtlety seems to escape this merely self-validating quality through its integration into earlier and later passages of the text. Without that, the kinship between the general ‘human truths’ of such a realist text and the kind of effects of ‘truth’ at work in a horoscope would be clearer. This lack of the trompe-l'oeil effects of a lengthy context constitutes what may be called the relative blindness of the short story. [Clark, ‘Not Seeing the Short StoryOxford Literary Review 26 (2004), 8]
Clark goes on to develop a larger phenomenology of blindness and reading, and whilst there's not space to get into all that here, it is, I think, worth drawing out one other point he makes. Metaphors of seeing, according to Clark, pervade short story theory. He finds a remarkable ‘predominance of countervailing metaphors of sight, of the striving to “see” a text whole, the flash of revelation etc’ in the way critics write about the short story form, and quotes one such critic:
‘Visual metaphors’, writes Dominic Head, ‘abound in short story theory, a fact which underlies the “spatial” aspect of the genre, but which also obscures the illusory nature of this aspect.’ The illusion lies in the fact that the visual pattern is constructed from out of the necessarily temporal movement of reading, its working through both memory and anticipation to achieve a seeming ‘overview’ of the text as a whole. Visual metaphors, he argues, often focusing the whole text through some crucial epiphanic moment of ‘insight’—itself usually described as if it were an instance of the miracle of the restoration of sight—repress the heterogeneity and ‘openness’ of a story. [Clark, 9; he is quoting Head, The Modernist Short Story: A Study in Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 10]
This all seems to me interesting in several ways, and although Clark doesn't might have some bearing on Wells's own praxis. Blindness either as a total state, as in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (or cast by the individual out upon the community in the short novel The Invisible Man), or else as a partial restriction or limitation of vision is a recurring theme in Wells's short stories: ‘The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes’, ‘The Plattner Story’, ‘The Crystal Egg’ and many others. Conceivably Wells's increasing dissatisfaction with the short story mode correlated to that belief, which increasingly gripped him as the 1920s and 1920s went on, that he ought to be aiming at a kind of whole sight. His next novel, Marriage (1912), is a positively Eliotian exercise in comprehensive vision, in concretizing context and sheer length—getting on for 600 pages in the first edition (Joan and Peter from 1918 is nearly 800).

No question but it's a shame. Wells blindness was prodigiously more eloquent and resonant than his attempts as clear-sightedness. But he didn't think so, and drew a line under his short story writing. The short story form is the enclosed valley of ‘The Country of the Blind’; it is the sightless but blessed inhabitants of that valley. And the truth of Wells's later career is that he could not rest content in that place, but had to engineer a gigantic rock-fall and the opening of a new breach in the surrounding mountains to be able to scramble back to Realism.

Monday, 17 July 2017

The History of Mr Polly (1910)



:1: Dejected Angelosity

The History of Mr Polly is a comedy.

This simple observation about the novel unpacks in some quite complicated ways, actually. But to begin with it's worth reiterating it simply: this is a very funny novel indeed, arguably the funniest Wells ever wrote, a beautiful blend of comic character, comic incident and comic appositeness of phrase. The History of Mr Polly concerns the life of Alfred Polly, a lower-middle-class only-son with an imaginative if not high-powered mind. He is a rather feckless individual prone to passivity and gloom, but inventive and, in the final analysis, brave. The novel starts with him as a miserable middle-aged man, keeping a shop in a small Kentish village, based on Sandgate (where Wells himself lived), called Fishbourne: ‘Mr. Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of life—which was at once excessive and inadequate as a solution. He hated Foxbourne, he hated Foxbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours—every blessed neighbour—and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself. “Why did I ever get in this silly Hole?” he said. “Why did I ever?”’ [1:1]. Now: I know I said ‘Fishbourne’ and then quoted text that called the village ‘Foxbourne’. There's a reason for that, and I'll return to it at the end of this post.

Try to keep up.

The novel recapitulates Polly's life so far: the inadequacy of his schooling, the paucity of opportunities, his time working as assistant in a draper's shop. Polly daydreams, does his job poorly, muddles along, gets fired, picks up new jobs here and there, gets fired from them. Then his father dies and he inherits £395, a small but reasonably tidy sum in those days. This enables him to do nothing for a while except bicycle about Kent, which suits him. He falls in love with a schoolgirl whom he happens to meet sitting on the wall of her school, and for ten days he comes every day at the same time to the same place to declare his love in florid terms derived from the conceit that he is a chivalric knight, his bike his steed and she a damsel imprisoned by a dragon. The girl is more amused than flattered, and when Polly realises that she has invited her schoolfriends to eavesdrop from behind the wall at his ridiculousness he is genuinely heart-broken. It is on this peculiar sort of rebound that Polly marries his cousin Miriam, though he doesn't love her, nor she him; and he ends up sinking his inheritance in a provincial shop that makes him neither money nor happy.

Then the novel jumps forward fifteen years: Polly is now middle-aged, short, chubby and balding, and so miserable that he resolves to commit suicide. We're back at the starting point.

Polly is a man ‘whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto’ [3.2.]. In the early portions of the novel Polly's Joycean, or Mrs-Gampian, or Mrs-Malapropian linguistic inventiveness, his way with what Wells call ‘epithets’, rather gets in the way of his advancement. People don't understand or trust such a speaker: employers fire him, or won't hire him. But for the reader Polly's Pollyisms are sheer delight. Polly calls his fellow young men ‘Stertoraneous Shovers’ or ‘Smart Juniors’, both phrases expressive of disapprobation. In between jobs, he
went to Canterbury and came under the influence of Gothic architecture. There was a blood affinity between Mr. Polly and the Gothic; in the middle ages he would no doubt have sat upon a scaffolding and carved out penetrating and none too flattering portraits of church dignitaries upon the capitals, and when he strolled, with his hands behind his back, along the cloisters behind the cathedral, and looked at the rich grass plot in the centre, he had the strangest sense of being at home—far more than he had ever been at home before. “Portly capóns,” he used to murmur to himself, under the impression that he was naming a characteristic type of medieval churchman. [History of Mr Polly, 3:2]
‘Monuments in the aisles,’ Wells tells us, ‘got a wreath of epithets: “Metrorious urnfuls,” “funererial claims,” “dejected angelosity,” for example’ [3:2]. As his relatives get drunk and chatty at Polly's father's funeral, he mutters to himself about the ‘gowlish gusto’ of these ‘hen-witted gigglers’ [4:5]. Learning to ride his bicycle involves him in what he calls ‘little accidentulous misadventures’ [5:2]. Kissing is ‘oscoolatory exercise’ [5:3]. Polly says ‘anti-separated’ instead of ‘anticipated’ [5:1] and ‘convivial vocificerations’ [6:6] instead of ‘congratulations’. He contradicts the general belief that Kaiser Wilhelm is about to order a German invasion of Britain by insisting that ‘William’s not the Zerxiacious sort.’ [7:6]. He attempts to make the best of his shopkeeper life (‘zealacious commerciality!’ [7:1]), but trade is slow and he quarrels with all but one of his fellow shopkeepers. The exception is Rusper, who keeps an outfitter's shop, and with whom Polly has often heated discussion:
Rusper’s head was the most egg-shaped head he had ever seen; the similarity weighed upon him; and when he found an argument growing warm with Rusper he would say: “Boil it some more, O’ Man; boil it harder!” or “Six minutes at least,” allusions Rusper could never make head or tail of, and got at last to disregard as a part of Mr. Polly’s general eccentricity. For a long time that little tendency threw no shadow over their intercourse, but it contained within it the seeds of an ultimate disruption. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]
Rusper's wife recognises the allusion to Rusper's bald head, tells her husband and provokes a coolness between the two of them. Eventually they fall out, and indeed fall to blows, after Polly accidentally rides his bike through Rusper's stock. A lovely bit of comic writing, this:
Mr. Rusper, with a loud impassioned cry, resembling “Woo kik” more than any other combination of letters, released the bicycle handle, seized Mr. Polly by the cap and hair and bore his head and shoulders downward. Thereat Mr. Polly, emitting such words as everyone knows and nobody prints, butted his utmost into the concavity of Mr. Rusper, entwined a leg about him and after terrific moments of swaying instability, fell headlong beneath him amidst the bicycles and pails. There on the pavement these inexpert children of a pacific age, untrained in arms and uninured to violence, abandoned themselves to amateurish and absurd efforts to hurt and injure one another—of which the most palpable consequences were dusty backs, ruffled hair and torn and twisted collars. Mr. Polly, by accident, got his finger into Mr. Rusper’s mouth, and strove earnestly for some time to prolong that aperture in the direction of Mr. Rusper’s ear before it occurred to Mr. Rusper to bite him (and even then he didn’t bite very hard), while Mr. Rusper concentrated his mind almost entirely on an effort to rub Mr. Polly’s face on the pavement. (And their positions bristled with chances of the deadliest sort!) They didn’t from first to last draw blood. [History of Mr Polly, 7:6]
After this Polly is perfectly friendless for years.

The crisis of the novel is Polly's attempted suicide. After years of solitary misery and depression he decides to set fire to his shop one Sunday when his wife is at church and afterwards cut his own throat in the cellar. He would thereby put an end to his life and enable Miriam to collect on the insurance. The fire gets started easily enough, but then Polly accidentally drops his shaving razor and, rather than burn to death, runs outside. His burning shop sets fire to his neighbours and, in a sudden access of heroism, Polly rescues Mr Rumbold's deaf old mother, who lives in the upper storeys of Rumbold's shop. He emerges from the whole episode an unlikely hero: his neighbours are openly glad to have got shot of their unprofitable establishments, and able to retrieve their capital via their insurance.

At this the novel shifts gear into its third and final phase: Polly, freed from his suicidal misery by this near-miss, realises he doesn't have merely to endure his life. He can just go off, like Reginald Perrin (indeed, until reading this novel I hadn't grasped how deeply derivative of it David Nobbs's great sequence of TV shows and comic novels from the 1970s were. In some aspects it's almost a straight rewriting).

So: Polly takes a small fraction of his insurance pay-out, leaving his wife the lion's share, and tramps off through the Kentish and Sussex countryside, enjoying a new sense of existential freedom and happiness. He chances upon a country pub by the river called the Potwell Inn, where he decides to have a bit of food and a pint—or as Wells has him put it: ‘“Provinder,” he whispered, drawing near to the Inn. “Cold sirloin for choice. And nut-brown brew and wheaten bread.”’ [9:3]. Inside is
the plumpest woman Mr. Polly had ever seen, seated in an armchair in the midst of all these bottles and glasses and glittering things, peacefully and tranquilly, and without the slightest loss of dignity, asleep. Many people would have called her a fat woman, but Mr. Polly’s innate sense of epithet told him from the outset that plump was the word. She had shapely brows and a straight, well-shaped nose, kind lines and contentment about her mouth, and beneath it the jolly chins clustered like chubby little cherubim about the feet of an Assumptioning-Madonna. Her plumpness was firm and pink and wholesome, and her hands, dimpled at every joint, were clasped in front of her; she seemed as it were to embrace herself with infinite confidence and kindliness as one who knew herself good in substance, good in essence, and would show her gratitude to God by that ready acceptance of all that he had given her. Her head was a little on one side, not much, but just enough to speak of trustfulness, and rob her of the stiff effect of self-reliance. And she slept.

My sort,” said Mr. Polly, and opened the door very softly, divided between the desire to enter and come nearer and an instinctive indisposition to break slumbers so manifestly sweet and satisfying.

She awoke with a start, and it amazed Mr. Polly to see swift terror flash into her eyes. Instantly it had gone again.

“Law!” she said, her face softening with relief, “I thought you were Jim.”

“I’m never Jim,” said Mr. Polly.

“You’ve got his sort of hat.”

“Ah!” said Mr. Polly, and leant over the bar. [History of Mr Polly, 9:3]
Polly takes work at the Potwell, doing odd jobs and manning the ferry, a simple barge-and-punt operation. He settles into what proves an idyllic life, with the only cloud on his horizon Jim, who turns out to be the plump lady's nephew. Jim is a violent bully who extorts money from the Inn and warns Polly away from what he considers his territory. Polly considers going, too; but in the end elects, heroically, to stay. The climax to the novel is Polly's serio-comical battle with Jim: first in the Inn and garden, when the two men fight using sticks and broken bottles, which ends when Polly is able to dunk the (stronger and more aggressive) Jim in the river, where we discover that for all his bluster Jim is very aquaphobic. They fight twice more, but Jim is chased away at last (having stolen a quantity of Polly's personal possessions, including his clothes). Polly settles into the arcadian pleasures of life at the Potwell, the plump lady cooking delicious food for him, he useful and busy and delighted by his surroundings.

The novel's final chapter is a coda: Polly has no regrets about his prior arson, but his conscience bothers him about having abandoned his wife, so he returns to Fishbourne where he discovers her happily running a teashop with her sister, believing herself a widow. It transpires that Jim had drowned in the Medway wearing Polly's clothes, on the evidence of which the authorities had declared the corpse to be Polly. Miriam recognises Polly of course, but he tells her not to:
“It’s you” she said.

“No,” said Mr. Polly very earnestly. “It isn’t. It just looks like me. That’s all.”

“I knew that [drowned] man wasn’t you—all along. I tried to think it was. I tried to think perhaps the water had altered your wrists and feet and the colour of your hair.”

... “Look here, Miriam,” said Mr. Polly. “I haven’t come back and I’m not coming back. I’m—I’m a Visitant from Another World. You shut up about me and I’ll shut up about myself. I came back because I thought you might be hard up or in trouble or some silly thing like that. Now I see you again—I’m satisfied. I’m satisfied completely. See? I’m going to absquatulate, see? Hey Presto right away.” [History of Mr Polly, 10:2]
The novel ends with Polly, technically dead, perfectly happy in the Potwell, which becomes widely known for the quality of the plump woman's cooking, particularly her omelettes. Indeed so much so that ‘a year or so the inn was known both up and down the river by its new name of “Omlets”.’ In other words, one part of the comedy of this novel is the uncomplicated joy it takes in good food and life's simple, somatic pleasures. Peter Kemp, in his H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape: Biological Imperatives and Imaginative Obsessions (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996), sums up the novel pretty well: ‘basically, it is the story of a man leaving a boney woman who is a bad cook for a plump woman who is a good cook, and settling down with his new partner to a life of gastronomic bliss in an inn once called “Potwell”, now rechristened “Omlets”’ [Kemp, 52]. Back, as the phrase goes, to the egg.


:2: Ur-Wisty

The History of Mr Polly is a novel that treats tragic matter in a comic mode. After all, there is (we can surely agree) nothing intrinsically funny about social deprivation, isolation, depression, arson and attempted suicide. Wells knows this, and invents a side-character, ‘a certain high-browed, spectacled gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a gold pince-nez, and writing for the most part in the beautiful library of the Reform Club’, in order to provide the tragic perspective on Polly's life:
This gentleman did not know Mr. Polly personally, but he had dealt with him generally as “one of those ill-adjusted units that abound in a society that has failed to develop a collective intelligence and a collective will for order, commensurate with its complexities.”

“Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dulness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous intellectual renewal than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class ... Essentially their lives are failures, not the sharp and tragic failure of the labourer who gets out of work and starves, but a slow, chronic process of consecutive small losses which may end if the individual is exceptionally fortunate in an impoverished death bed before actual bankruptcy or destitution supervenes. Their chances of ascendant means are less in their shops than in any lottery that was ever planned ... every year sees the melancholy procession towards petty bankruptcy and imprisonment for debt go on, and there is no statesmanship in us to avert it.” [History of Mr Polly, 3:3, 7:3]
The purpose of these interjections, basically, is to remind the reader that tragedy is a matter or form rather than content. Everything the gold pince-nez writer says is true, and yet Wells contrives to handle this too-sad-even-for-tragedy stuff as a richly comic resource.

This is a matter, I think, more of character than of incident or style. Stylistically, Mr Polly, though often droll and sometimes laugh-aloud, is not notably original, because Wells very obviously inhabits a fundamentally Dickensian manner in his prose, which gives the novel a slightly second-hand vibe. Occasionally he even stoops to reusing specific Dickensian gags. So for example this, from Chuzzlewit:
Mrs Spottletoe ... had no refuge but in tears. These she shed so plentifully, and so much to the agitation and grief of Mr Spottletoe, that that gentleman, after holding his clenched fist close to Mr Pecksniff’s eyes, as if it were some natural curiosity from the near inspection whereof he was likely to derive high gratification and improvement, and after offering (for no particular reason that anybody could discover) to kick Mr George Chuzzlewit for, and in consideration of, the trifling sum of sixpence, took his wife under his arm and indignantly withdrew. [Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), ch 4]
becomes
Mr. Hinks, having displayed a freckled fist of extraordinary size and pugginess in an ostentatiously familiar manner to Mr. Polly’s close inspection by sight and smell, turned it about this way and that and, shaking it gently for a moment or so, replaced it carefully in his pocket as if for future use, receded slowly and watchfully for a pace, and then turned away as if to other matters, and ceased to be even in outward seeming a friend. [History of Mr Polly, 7:5]
But that's all fine. I mean, if you're going to steal, steal from the best: right? And what really makes Mr Polly stand out, I think, and what makes it quite startlingly original in a manner traceable through a main current of 20th-century British comedy, is the characterisation of Polly himself.

So far as I can see, Polly is the first iteration of what went on to become a major English comic ‘type’ or character: the figure of a lower-middle class man, respectable, in many ways dull (certainly living a dull, unexceptional life) but with an incongruously imaginative and inventive idiom indicative of a left-field imagination for which his mundane life simply does not cater. I'm not really talking about ‘the nerd’, here; although that particular stereotype is relevant. In its more common US iteration ‘the nerd’ is less specifically tied to a class identity than is the case with the archetype I'm discussing. A much better analogue would be Peter Cook's comic-sublime E L Wisty.



The crucial things here are the way the (in real-life patrician, public-school-educated) Cook would adopt a nasal, lower-middle-class accent, dress in the habiliments of a kind of slightly-shabby respectability, and deadpan a monologue about a life that mixed the quotidian and the surreal.



It has to do with class in a way peculiarly English, and may therefore be a kind of comedy that doesn't cross borders very well. Cook's influence on the next couple of generations of English comedians means that this ‘type’ occurs and reoccurs. Michael Palin's ‘Mr Pewty’ is a variant, although in this sketch we're being invited to laugh at his inadequacy, which, I think, isn't true of Wisty, or for that matter of Polly:



The problem here is that ‘we’ are more like Pewty than we are like the lecherous upper-middle-class marriage counsellor, and certainly than we are like John Cleese's slightly shadowy cowboy ‘man's man’ character. The balance of laughing at and laughing with isn't quite right in this sketch, I think. It is a little better balanced in Rowan Atkinson's most famous comic creation, although still skewed too far in the former direction.



But you can see that it matters that Mr Bean dresses smartly: not proper posh (Mr Bean in black tie wouldn't work), but a nice-enough jacket and a modest tie. That's part of his persona, as is his strangulated lower-middle-class voice and his various absurd and holy-fool shenanigans.

It has resonance because, I suppose, many people know people like this: I mean, people who, like Polly, would say not ‘I'd like some roast beef and a pint of beer please’ but instead ‘Provinder, cold sirloin for choice, and nut-brown brew and wheaten bread’. Wikipedia has a whole entry under the phrase ‘hail fellow well met’. This old Fast Show sketch is relevant, perhaps.



What's going on here? What was it that Wells—as I say, I think for the first time—was putting his finger on with this character? I wonder if part of the comedy with E L Wisty has to do with the incongruities of class. When Cook's other great comic creation Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling witters on about teaching ravens to fly underwater it chimes with our sense that the British aristocracy are all eccentric inbred loons; but when Wisty drones on about bees and world-domination and tadpoles and the 25-shilling meaning of life it hits a note of, ... well, what? A strange kind of social aspiration, perhaps? Is the larger joke here the notion that a lower-middle-class individual aspires to the sort of unhinged eccentricity we associate with the upper classes?

The broader point here, I think, is that this particular pitiful-comical, mildly-pompous hail-fellow-well-met lower-middle-class ornate-diction person is a distinctly English archetype. I'm not sure there's anything like it, even in Scots, Irish or Welsh culture. It indexes the profoundly uneasy immanence of class in the root and fabric of English identity, the way a person from one social class is shaped by unacted-on hypergradiant forces. This is not the parvenu, a figure with a rather different comic valence. It is that character in which the structures of class as such bend social and therefore personal subjectivity into queer, comical and sometimes oddly dignified shapes.

It finds its formal correlative in the particular school of comic prose that Wells has adapted from Dickens: I mean, the way highfalutin vocabulary and Johnsonian elegance of construction are used, with comic incongruity, to describe lowfalutin (as it were), bumptious, ridiculous or daft things. It's the gap between those two qualities, that space, that The History of Mr Polly so expertly inhabits.

The trajectory Wells takes Polly on, though, ends with him in a paradisical idyll. In the very last chapter of the novel, Polly and the plump woman (who is ultimately promoted by the novel to the status of the fat woman) discuss life and death with an unforced dignity that, here, makes its first appearance in the novel.
Mr. Polly sat beside the fat woman at one of the little green tables at the back of the Potwell Inn, and struggled with the mystery of life. It was one of those evenings, serenely luminous, amply and atmospherically still, when the river bend was at its best. A swan floated against the dark green masses of the further bank, the stream flowed broad and shining to its destiny, with scarce a ripple—except where the reeds came out from the headland—the three poplars rose clear and harmonious against a sky of green and yellow. And it was as if it was all securely within a great warm friendly globe of crystal sky. It was as safe and enclosed and fearless as a child that has still to be born. It was an evening full of the quality of tranquil, unqualified assurance. [History of Mr Polly, 10:3]
Polly confesses his arson to the fat woman, adds that he has abandoned his wife, and tells her that the feared Jim is dead. Then he tries to explain to her the intimations of sublimity aroused in him by the sunset. She struggles to understand:
“You can’t help being fat,” said the fat woman after a pause, trying to get up to his thoughts.

You can’t,” said Mr. Polly.

“It helps and it hinders.”

“Like my upside down way of talking.”
This leads to the novel's final conversational exchange, which is about death:
A deeper strain had come to the fat woman. “You got to die some day,” she said.

“Some things I can’t believe,” said Mr. Polly suddenly, “and one is your being a skeleton....” He pointed his hand towards the neighbour’s hedge. “Look at ’em—against the yellow—and they’re just stingin’ nettles. Nasty weeds—if you count things by their uses. And no help in the life hereafter. But just look at the look of them!”

“It isn’t only looks,” said the fat woman.

“Whenever there’s signs of a good sunset and I’m not too busy,” said Mr. Polly, “I’ll come and sit out here.”

The fat woman looked at him with eyes in which contentment struggled with some obscure reluctant protest, and at last turned them slowly to the black nettle pagodas against the golden sky.

“I wish we could,” she said.

“I will.”

The fat woman’s voice sank nearly to the inaudible.

“Not always,” she said.

Mr. Polly was some time before he replied. “Come here always when I’m a ghost,” he replied.

“Spoil the place for others,” said the fat woman, abandoning her moral solicitudes for a more congenial point of view.

“Not my sort of ghost wouldn’t,” said Mr. Polly, emerging from another long pause. “I’d be a sort of diaphalous feeling—just mellowish and warmish like....”

They said no more, but sat on in the warm twilight until at last they could scarcely distinguish each other’s faces. They were not so much thinking as lost in a smooth, still quiet of the mind. A bat flitted by.
It's surprisingly touching (perhaps I only mean: I surprised myself by how much it moved me). It picks up on the novel's actual deaths (in particular, the long, mournfully comical account of the funeral of Polly's father that takes up most of Chapter 4), the prospective death of Polly's planned suicide and the larger theme of spiritual death and waste, the deathly experience of low-grade depression, and with a lyric turn manages somehow to repudiate death as such. It's wonderfully done.



:3: Divinely Comedic

In his Structure in Four Novels by H. G. Wells (The Hague: Mouton, 1968) Kenneth B. Newell argues the case, fairly convincingly, that the whole novel is organised around a series of metaphors of digestion and indigestion, persona and social. But I have a different thesis about the ‘structure’ of this novel. I think Wells is playing a game with Dante.

Bear with me. The novel starts with Polly nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita (‘Mr. Polly’s age was exactly thirty-five years and a half’ [1:2]) and contemplating the gigantic hole that lies before him: ‘“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “’Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms. “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!”’. Dante opens the Inferno also aged 35, also peering into a gigantic hole:



The most obvious difference between Dante's progress through Hell and Polly's through The History of Mr Polly is that Polly ends up as the ferryman, where Dante encounters Charon, ferryman over the Styx, early on (in canto 3 in fact). We might say that Dante, guided by Virgil, passes deeper and deeper into hell before passing through the other side, where Polly, guided by nobody, slowly emerges out of the misery and ends up in a liminal state of blithe death (as he insists to his estranged wife, or celebrates with the grandmaternal fat woman) ferrying people good and evil across the water.

But I would, I think, go further. I'll stick my neck out to insist that Wells's novel has nine substantive chapters (and one coda) because Dante's hell has nine circles (plus a tenth passage from the centre of the world to the mountain of Purgatory). So Wells's first chapter details Polly's youth, neglected in a useless school, more or less friendless, and then a draper's apprentice (sleeping in ‘a long bleak room with six beds’ [1:3]). It's all waiting for something to happen, and very much a limbo state of affairs—Limbo, of course, being Dante's first circle.




Wells's second chapter tells the story of the dismissal of young Polly's best friend, Parsons, from his position as draper's assistant: not on account of lust, but certainly because that young man is blown-about by the winds of his passion (‘he was blowing excitedly and running his fingers through his hair, and then moving with all the swift eagerness of a man inspired’ [2:2]) under the influence of which he dresses the draper's shop window according to his own ‘artistic’ ideas of red and black, and then resists when the management try to remove him: ‘for a splendid instant Parsons towered up over the active backs that clustered about the shop window door, an active whirl of gesture, tearing things down and throwing them, and then he went under.’ Like a divine wind, as the kamikaze phrase has it; and career-suicidal, a gesture that anticipates Polly's own actual-suicidal plan later in the book.

In Chapter 3 Polly himself loses his position, and the universe rains and storms upon him: ‘the universe became really disagreeable to Mr. Polly. It was brought home to him, not so much vividly as with a harsh and ungainly insistence, that he was a failure in his trade’ [3:3]. Chapter 4 is ‘Mr Polly an Orphan’, and Polly himself torn between the impulse to hoard his small inheritance as a shopkeeper or spend it thriftlessly as a bicyclist. Chapter 5 which includes Polly's brief love affair with the schoolgirl, starts with Polly wrathfully quarrelling with people on his bicycle (‘had a bit of an argument. I told him he oughtn’t to come out wearing such a dangerous hat—flying at things .... High old jawbacious argument we had, I tell you. ’I tell you, sir—’ ‘I tell you, sir.’ Waw-waw-waw. Infuriacious. But that’s the sort of thing that’s constantly happening you know—on a bicycle’ [5:2]) and ends with him sullenly miserable after he understands the frivolous way in which the schoolgirl considers him: ‘the bottom dropped out of Mr. Polly’s world’ [5:7].

The sixth chapter introduces a step-change in Polly's misery, as he immures himself in the coffin of his marriage to Miriam, and of his shop, and settles in the City of Dis-, or Fis-, hbourne. This brings us to circles seven and eight, and the novel's seventh and eighth chapters, where Polly is at his most tormented, and Dante's ‘Plain of Fire’, ‘Wood of Suicides’ and varieties of Fraud in ‘Maleboge’ find fictional equivalent in Polly's planned arson, suicide and insurance fraud.

This leads to what is perhaps the most interesting of Wells's games with Dante: the ninth circle, home to those who have betrayed their family, their country, their guests and benefactors and worst of all those who have betrayed their lord, culminating in Satan, trapped in a huge block of ice in the very middle of the Earth.

In Wells's Chapter 9, Polly actualises his own happy ending by, in effect, betraying his marriage vows and abdicating all his responsibilities. Now: this is a redemptive rather than damnable strategy, Wells says, provided only Polly is prepared to encounter his diabolic alter-ego, Jim. There's no question as to Jim's nature. The Plump Woman (his aunt, or great-aunt, I'm not sure) relates what Jim said to her, after he returned from his first stint in the Reformatory for theft and truancy: ‘him like a viper a-looking at me—more like a viper than a human boy. ... “All right, Aunt Flo,” he says, “They’ve Reformed me,” he says, “and made me a devil, and devil I mean to be to you.”’ [9:5]. Jim hurts the Plump Woman, steals her money, and tries his best to scare Polly away:
Jim was certainly not a handsome person. He was short, shorter than Mr. Polly, with long arms and lean big hands, a thin and wiry neck stuck out of his grey flannel shirt and supported a big head that had something of the snake in the convergent lines of its broad knotty brow, meanly proportioned face and pointed chin. His almost toothless mouth seemed a cavern in the twilight. Some accident had left him with one small and active and one large and expressionless reddish eye. He spat between his teeth and wiped his mouth untidily with the soft side of his fist ...

“If you don’t clear out?”

“Yes.”

“Gaw!” said Uncle Jim. “You’d better. ’Ere!”

He gripped Mr. Polly’s wrist with a grip of steel, and in an instant Mr. Polly understood the relative quality of their muscles. He breathed, an uninspiring breath, into Mr. Polly’s face.

“What won’t I do?” he said. “Once I start in on you.”

He paused, and the night about them seemed to be listening. “I’ll make a mess of you,” he said in his hoarse whisper. “I’ll do you—injuries. I’ll ’urt you. I’ll kick you ugly, see? I’ll ’urt you in ’orrible ways—’orrible, ugly ways....” [History of Mr Polly, 9:6]
The serpentine quality, the cavernous mouth (Dante's Satan's is big enough to stuff the whole of Judas's body in), the red eye, even the slobber running down his chin (‘... and down each chin/both tears and bloody slobber slowly ran.’ Inferno 34:53-4): all very reminiscent of Dante's Satan.

The Inferno not only puts Satan at the very middle of the world, in the lowest circle of hell, it ensures that Dante and Virgil's path runs right past him. It's the text's way of saying that sin cannot be avoided in this life of ours; we cannot just keep our heads down and hope Satan won't notice us. On the contrary, we have to be brave and confront Satan, push on through, go right past him, for only by doing this can we make our way to Purgatory and so to Paradise. Likewise Mr Polly, though he contemplates running away, conscious as he is of Jim's superior strength and pugilistic experience, resolves to face up to the challenge. He defeats the adversary, who then dies—as Satan dies forever in the middle of the way between earth and heaven, so Jim drowns in the mid-way, or Medway, river. Having faced down and won, Polly emerges in the tenth chapter to contemplate the beauties of the sky, in the passage quoted above, just as Dante emerges at the end of the Inferno, ‘e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.’

I'm not saying Polly is a one-to-one mapping of Dante's Inferno onto the novel mode, although I appreciate it may appear I have been arguing exactly that case. So let me put it another, indeed in a more upside-down, way. In the first edition (and some later editions too) Wells's chapter starts with Polly miserable in ‘Foxbourne’. Then we get the backstory to his life, before returning to the town, which Wells now calls ‘Fishbourne’. You remember, of course: I mentioned this at the head of the post. It was, presumably, a simple slip, but I think it an expressive one. The fox, predatory and sly, appearing like a flame in a field, speaks to Polly the arsonist and fraud. The fish, on the other hand, speaks to the river, to water and the baptismal renewal as well as the styxian transition into death which Polly comes to oversee. This is the larger thematic trajectory of The History of Mr Polly: from the frozen, prospectless chill of his youth (‘he meditated gloomily upon his future and a colder chill invaded Polly’s mind’ [2:3]), through the blazing fire of his arson attempt that burns down the whole village, finally to the river where he becomes ferryman and finds happiness. This, of course, exactly reverses the passage through Dante's Hell, which goes from Styx to mid-journey fire to deepest circles of frozen gloom. And the other thing about Dante's Inferno?

It's a comedy.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Ann Veronica (1909)


Two of the most famous features of Ann Veronica's reputation turn out, on actually reading the novel, not to be true. Or so I would be prepared to argue. One is that the scandal it occasioned on its publication—in the preface to the later ‘Atlantic Edition’ Wells recalls ruefully that ‘the book was not so much criticized as attacked with hysterical animosity’—looks, in retrospect, overstated or even baffling. True (the argument goes) Wells did write a novel about a beautiful, spirited 22-year-old who leaves her overbearing father's suburban house to make a go of living on her own terms in London, and who as part of that new life has sex with a handsome, older, married man, intercourse she initiates. But (the argument goes on) it was very far from being the first ‘New Woman’ novel, plenty of earlier examples of which genre had been just as shocking. And actually (the argument concludes) Well's novel is rather restrained than otherwise in its sexual representation. There's nothing in it, really, to bring a blush to the cheek of the most virginal of maiden aunts. Now I hadn't read the novel before, and reading it struck me as a rather more sexually shocking experience than its modern-day reputation suggests. I expand on what I mean by saying that below.

The second donné of Ann Veronica criticism is that the novel's ending, where the heroine marries her lover and settles down to happy domesticity and motherhood, is a terrible let-down. I don't think it is, or at least, I think the situation is a little more complicated than that.

To take the latter point first. There is something approaching a critical consensus that this is fundamentally a ‘political’ novel: that is to say, a novel about women's rights, politically conceived. It is often, for instance, taken to be a novel about the suffragettes, whose number Ann Veronica temporarily joins (chapter 10 dramatises the celebrated ‘Rush on the House of Commons’ of 13th October 1908, situating Wells's fictional heroine in amongst the actual protesters). Socialists and Fabians also appear, as does Wells himself under a ‘Wils’ + ‘nicely deflating suffix’ pseudonym:
One evening Ann Veronica went with Miss Miniver into the back seats of the gallery at Essex Hall, and heard and saw the giant leaders of the Fabian Society who are re-making the world: Bernard Shaw and Toomer and Doctor Tumpany and Wilkins the author, all displayed upon a platform ... In the discussion there was the oddest mixture of things that were personal and petty with an idealist devotion that was fine beyond dispute. In nearly every speech she heard was the same implication of great and necessary changes in the world—changes to be won by effort and sacrifice indeed, but surely to be won ... Ann Veronica was carried off her intellectual and critical feet by it altogether, and applauded and uttered cries that subsequent reflection failed to endorse. “I knew you would feel it,” said Miss Miniver, as they came away flushed and heated. “I knew you would begin to see how it all falls into place together.” [Ann Veronica, 7:4]
That deflating tone is key. Wells in this work is consistently underwhelmed by both political action and political activists who undertake it. Criticism, generally speaking, is not content to follow him in this.

This is, surely, because hindsight encourages us to see the political and social emancipation of women as one of the great events of the twentieth-century in the West. I certainly think so. And judged by that criterion the book enacts a kind of truancy from history. Anne Simpson argues fiercely that Wells's concluding ‘presentation of Ann’ offered his readers ‘a gesture of appeasement’ to offset his novel's transgressions against conventional morality, and that this reduction of Ann's femininity to ‘utter materiality’ amounts to a betrayal of the character, ‘robbing the heroine of the individuality she had set out to achieve, turning her instead into a Freudian metaphor of woman's function and place as all-giving mother’ [Anne B. Simpson, ‘Architects of the erotic: H.G. Wells's “New Women”’, in Cora M. Kaplan and Anne B. Simpson (eds.), Seeing Double: Revisioning Edwardian and Modernist Literature (New York: St Martin's Press, 1996), 43]. Esther Godfrey says, more drily, that ‘Ann Veronica's credentials as a feminist text are hampered by the ending of the novel’.

I'd certainly agree that, as a feminist text, Wells's novel leaves much to be desired. I would, though, suggest that our contemporary sense of the nature of feminism risks overwriting what Wells is actually doing in this book. By ‘our’ sense I mean something like: a drive towards women's legal, social and cultural equality with men actualised through legislation, education and the public discursive challenging of sexism and misogyny. The way Ann Veronica frames its heroine's awakening, though, styles the public articulation of female liberation as a phase through which she passes, part of her extended adolescence, in order to emerge on the far-side. That far-side is not public, although it is in a sense ‘out’, a word with some splendid modern resonances where sexual liberation is concerned.

One of the problems modern criticism has with a novel like this is that, for all its many strengths (and remembering that I am myself a salaried member of the present-day, er, criticoriate) it remains oddly poorly constituted to talk about fictional character.

‘Criticoriate’ is a word, right?

What I mean is: Wells's own, and his contemporaries', chief praise for the novel was as a portrait of a specific individual, the title character. To them, Ann Veronica's success as a novel was a function of the fact that its main character ‘lives’. That was the Edwardian idiom, and I'm not sure there's anything quite like it in 21st-century literary discourse. ‘The author,’ Wells noted in 1922, after recollecting the scandal and pother the book has occasioned in 1909, ‘has at least the consolation of knowing that Ann Veronica was alive to a very high degree.’ And so she is. It was an open secret, and is now a critical commonplace, that Ann Veronica herself was a close prose-portrait of Amber Reeves, whose affair with Wells I talked about a little in this post.



Anthony West notes that ‘there couldn't be any doubt about Ann Veronica herself; she was only too clearly drawn from life. She used turns of phrases familiar to everyone who knew Amber Reeves, spoke in her voice, and behaved as she behaved’ [West, 15]. This is quite intentional, clearly: the name Ann Veronica is not only a clear play on ‘Amber Reeves’, with the same Christian name first initial and ‘Ver’ reversing ‘Re[e]v’ in the surname, but also references Saint Veronica—she whose handkerchief mopped Christ's brow and came away with the image miraculously printed upon it—whose name was assumed to have been so called because of her vera icon, the truth of her image. It seems scholars no longer believe this, but it was the standard etymology of her name in Wells's day. In other words, the heroine is called what she is because Wells has set out to produce as true an icon of Amber Reeves as he could.

And it is a great strength of the novel that its protagonist does indeed feel real: a compelling combination of attractive self-confidence, wilfulness, idealism and selfishness, combined with a perfectly believable naiveté, almost an active purblindness, about the way the world actually is. Having moved to London Ann Veronica gladly accepts the ‘friendship’ of one of her father's neighbours from Morningside Park, the randily-tuppish-named Ramage, a man who works in the city and who notoriously cheats on his invalid wife. This bug-eyed old lecher lends her £40, to help with her day-to-day expenses and also to cover her fees at Imperial College where she is studying biology. In fact she has fallen into love, or lust, with her tutor: Godwin Capes, tall, blond and handsome, though inconveniently married. Ramage doesn't know that, at first.

Anyway, Ann Veronica accepts Ramage's ‘loan’ unthinkingly, and is equally and blithely unthinking when he starts taking her out for expensive lunches and to the opera (to see Tristan und Isolde of all things) assuming that he just wants to be her friend. When he tries to kiss her at the opera she is amazed, and rebukes him. He apologises, and offers to explain himself over dinner; but dinner turns out to be in a ‘cabinet particuliar’, a special closed supper room in a high-class brothel. Ramage locks the door and, in a scene that reads as genuinely unsettling even today, tries to rape Ann Veronica. She resists: ‘Ann Veronica had been an ardent hockey player and had had a course of jiu-jitsu in the High School. Her defence ceased rapidly to be in any sense ladylike, and became vigorous and effective ... the knuckles of a small but very hardly clinched fist had thrust itself with extreme effectiveness and painfulness under his jawbone and ear’ [9:2]. He is forced to break off. But though she begs for him to unlock the door, he refuses and instead continues the assault verbally:
“And what on earth,” he said, “do you think the world is made of? Why do you think I have been doing things for you? The abstract pleasure of goodness? Are you one of the members of that great white sisterhood that takes and does not give? The good accepting woman! Do you really suppose a girl is entitled to live at free quarters on any man she meets without giving any return?” ...

Ann Veronica was stung to helpless anger.

“Mr. Ramage,” she cried, “you are outrageous! You understand nothing. You are—horrible. Will you let me go out of this room?”

“No,” cried Ramage; “hear me out! I’ll have that satisfaction, anyhow. You women, with your tricks of evasion, you’re a sex of swindlers.” [Ann Veronica, 9:4]
Eventually she gets away, and bounces straight into the arms of the suffragettes. The whole of this subsequent, the novel's tenth, chapter in fact feels a little supernumerary. Quite apart from straining credulity (would the Women's Social and Political Union really fast-track a brand new member right to the front of the pantechnicon raid on Parliament?), it works structurally really only to deliver Ann Veronica into prison where she has her Long Hard Think and changes her mind. The strong implication of the plot juxtaposition here is that A-V embraces public, political action because she has survived an attempted rape, and that when her anger and distress over that assault has cooled she finds herself disinclined to pursue a public form of feminism. Certainly, after porridge she returns to her father's house full of apology. She continues her studies at Imperial and ends the novel by eloping with her tutor, Capes.

The point I'm making is: the fact that the novel is so tightly focused on Ann Veronica herself, with much of its text given over to the energy and allure of her personality, doesn't mean that the book is thereby a shapeless or formless work. On the contrary Ann Veronica strikes me as remarkably closely-structured, although not structured according to a pattern that speaks to an external discourse of political engagement like feminism. It is a novel about a fundamentally selfish, if attractive, young woman who finds her life constricted in a sequence of ways but who ultimately frees herself through sexual ecstasy. That's really the whole of it.

It's worth noting that other critics have not found much aesthetic patterning or merit in the novel. Margaret Drabble, for instance, does not hold back: ‘the novel's weaknesses,’ she says, ‘are evident at a first glance.’
It is carelessly and quickly written, and some of its sentences are atrocious. Wells clearly does not know the difference between ‘euphuistic’ and ‘euphemistic’. The text is spattered with contemporary journalistic references. The structure is weak, there are too many monologues and the ending is a classic Wellsian exercise in escapism. [Drabble, xxvi]
But this is over-harsh. None of the sentences struck me, on my reading, as ‘atrocious’ (of course, that might merely indicate a deficiency in my sense of what constitutes prose atrocity). The ‘euphuistic’/ ‘euphemistic’ confusion occurs in bumptious Ramage's dialogue, not the narrator's portion of the text, and is clearly designed to characterise him as knowing less than he pretends. And it hardly seems to fair to accuse Wells's novels of being ‘spattered with contemporary journalistic references’ unless you are also going to accuse, let's say, Dickens, Gissing and Zola of the same crime. But it's Drabble's broader point about the novel's alleged shapelessnes that is most telling. Because the novel has a very distinct shape.

To take only one example: Wells takes some pains to externalise Ann Veronica's journey in terms of building, treating built space both literally and metaphorically. In part he does this to draw out the way architecture structures humanity's sense of what is ‘inside’ and what ‘outside’. More, Wells plays the two meanings of ‘inside’/‘outside’ against one another—I mean, inside or outside a building and inside or outside one's person. For Wells growing into a properly authentic existence means ‘coming out’, in both allowing inner desires out into the world, and in literally leaving the stifling domestic spaces of Edwardian bourgeois life. Ann Veronica's early life in Morningside Park (Wells's version of Worcester Park, where he and Jane lived for a while) is set amongst ‘estate of little red-and-white rough-cast villas, with meretricious gables and very brassy window-blinds’ [1.1]. Life in such houses is more than physically constraining (since A-V is prevented from going out, for example to the Fadden dance, the prohibition with which the novel opens): it is existentially constraining.
All the world about [Ann Veronica] seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colors these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know. And there was no intimation whatever that the blinds would ever go up or the windows or doors be opened, or the chandeliers, that seemed to promise such a blaze of fire, unveiled and furnished and lit. [Ann Veronica, 1.2]
The first five chapters of this seventeen-chapter novel are set in various domestic spaces, each tweaked to stress its capacity for confinement. In Chapter 2 (‘Ann Veronica Gathers Points of View’) she discusses her father's prohibition on attending the dance to which her friends are going ‘in the elder Widgett girl’s bedroom’ where ‘Hetty was laid up with a sprained ankle’ [2:1]; and in case we don't take the point we're later reminded, apropos of the whole family, that ‘they seemed the most wrapped things in all Ann Veronica’s wrappered world.’ [2:3]. In chapter 3 (‘The Morning of the Crisis’), A-V's aunt Miss Stanley uncovers her niece's illicit plan to attend the dance by penetrating not only A-V's bedroom (‘it was a neat, efficient-looking room, with a writing-table placed with a business-like regard to the window, and a bookcase surmounted by a pig’s skull, a dissected frog in a sealed bottle, and a pile of shiny, black-covered note-books. In the corner of the room were two hockey-sticks and a tennis-racket’) but within that, opening up a second enclosed space and discovering the costume she was hoping to wear:
She walked straight across to the wardrobe and opened it. There, hanging among Ann Veronica’s more normal clothing, was a skimpy dress of red canvas, trimmed with cheap and tawdry braid, and short—it could hardly reach below the knee. On the same peg and evidently belonging to it was a black velvet Zouave jacket. And then! a garment that was conceivably a secondary skirt.

Miss Stanley hesitated, and took first one and then another of the constituents of this costume off its peg and surveyed it.

...“Trousers!” she whispered.

Her eyes travelled about the room as if in appeal to the very chairs. [Ann Veronica, 3.1]
Chapter 4 (‘The Crisis’) sees A-V locked in her bedroom, by way of preventing her from attending the dance. Leaving this room becomes tantamount to breaking out of prison, and Chapter 5 (‘The Flight to London’) shifts to a different set of interior spaces as A-V tries to arrange a place to live. First she takes a hotel room, whose anonymous spatiality becomes internalised into a new and sudden blankness of subjectivity: ‘tidy, rather vacant, and dehumanized apartment, with its empty wardrobe and desert toilet-table and pictureless walls and stereotyped furnishings, a sudden blankness came upon her as though she didn’t matter, and had been thrust away into this impersonal corner’ [5:4]. Then A-V tries to find lodgings, which process drags out (since landladies are disinclined to let to single girls without references) until it actualises an existential dreariness: wandering the London streets, she ‘had never imagined life was half so sinister’ [5.6] as it now appears to her.

These interiors define their tenants: the lower-end of the market, ‘the women who negotiated the rooms looked out through a friendly manner as though it was a mask, with hard, defiant eyes’ [5:6]. The room she finally obtains is a transitional space: green, like spring, and white as suits the still virginal A-V, but with an intimation of much more dangerously cavernous and ominous spaces too, where ‘blacks’ (presumably the well-inked portions of the image that show it to be a superior etching) also hint at the taint to come, the writing on A-V's metaphorical wall:
The room was papered with green, large-patterned paper that was at worst a trifle dingy, and the arm-chair and the seats of the other chairs were covered with the unusual brightness of a large-patterned chintz, which also supplied the window-curtain. There was a round table covered, not with the usual “tapestry” cover, but with a plain green cloth that went passably with the wall-paper. In the recess beside the fireplace were some open bookshelves. The carpet was a quiet drugget and not excessively worn, and the bed in the corner was covered by a white quilt. There were neither texts nor rubbish on the walls, but only a stirring version of Belshazzar’s feast, a steel engraving in the early Victorian manner that had some satisfactory blacks. [Ann Veronica, 5.6]
This engraving referred to might be of Rembrandt's celebrated canvas, in which the interiors space is hardly defined, although the ‘Victorian’ references makes me wonder if it isn't John Martin's more austerely pillared and vasty interior:



Chapter 7, ‘Ideals and a Reality’, introduces A-V to the world of socialists, vegetarians and suffragettes, and consists first of earnest conversations inside the flat of the Groopes, an elderly couple ‘following a fruitarian career [i.e, diet] upon an upper floor in Theobald’s Road’, and then various meetings of Fabians and socialists in bare rented rooms. These spare spaces are then contrasted with two very different modes of interior in the two following chapters. First, in chapter 8 ‘Biology’, A-V spends time in the well-ordered scientific space of ‘the biological laboratory of the Central Imperial College’ [8.1]:
It was long and narrow, a well-lit, well-ventilated, quiet gallery of small tables and sinks, pervaded by a thin smell of methylated spirit and of a mitigated and sterilized organic decay. Along the inner side was a wonderfully arranged series of displayed specimens that Russell himself had prepared. The supreme effect for Ann Veronica was its surpassing relevance; it made every other atmosphere she knew seem discursive and confused. The whole place and everything in it aimed at one thing—to illustrate, to elaborate, to criticise and illuminate, and make ever plainer and plainer the significance of animal and vegetable structure. It dealt from floor to ceiling and end to end with the Theory of the Forms of Life; the very duster by the blackboard was there to do its share in that work, the very washers in the taps; the room was more simply concentrated in aim even than a church. To that, perhaps, a large part of its satisfyingness was due. Contrasted with the confused movement and presences of a Fabian meeting, or the inexplicable enthusiasm behind the suffrage demand, with the speeches that were partly egotistical displays, partly artful manoeuvres, and partly incoherent cries for unsoundly formulated ends, compared with the comings and goings of audiences and supporters that were like the eddy-driven drift of paper in the street, this long, quiet, methodical chamber shone like a star seen through clouds. [Ann Veronica, 8.1]
From this collective, cool and rational space the novel moves in the next chapter, ‘Discords’, into the claustrophobic, locked space of potential sexual violence, Ramage's ‘cabinet particular’ [9.4], mentioned above. Ann Veronica eventually escapes this carceral space, and the following two chapters again juxtapose a large communal space, the House of Commons itself (in chapter 10, ‘The Suffragettes’) with the small carceral space of A-V's cell, ‘at once cold and stuffy’ in chapter 11, ‘Thoughts in Prison’:
This leads to her resolution to return to the paternal-patriarchal interior of Morningside Park in chapter 12, and the novel has made its fort-da return to its starting point. The path there, though, has been carefully structured by Wells as a series of contrasting pairs. The readily accessible hotel space and the private rented room; the public meetings of the Fabians and the private space of Ramage's cabinet particular; the collective spaces of knowledge and power represented by Imperial and Parliament and the private space of A-V's cell. The novel as such advances via this pulse-like logic, almost as a dialectic, public/private: and appropriately so, since balancing A-V's need for a public life and her need for a private (erotic) authenticity of her own is the larger trajectory of the book as a whole. I don't want to over-read the John Martin but that same diremption is right there in his image: food, on a table laid out as it might be for a family meal, speaks to the domestic interior; and yet Martin situates that little tableau in an interior space so incongruously huge it has clouds forming under its ceiling.

At any rate, the chain of actual-and-also-symbolic interiors that structures the novel caps off with a climactic pairing of large and small, paying out the novel's games with ‘being out’ (sexually speaking) and the double-meaning of ‘confinement’. First there is chapter 16, ‘In the Mountains’, where Wells self-consciously ratchets-up his prose as a correlative of Ann Veronica's new-discovered sexual bliss. So it is that ‘breezes ruffle the sea to glittering scales of silver’ [16.1] and ‘the petrifying branches of trees lie in the blue deeps of an icy lake, and pine-trees clamber among gigantic boulders’ and all the domestic/collective spaces of the novel's early sections are very deliberately swept aside:
Instead of English villas and cottages there were chalets and Italian-built houses shining white; there were lakes of emerald and sapphire and clustering castles, and such sweeps of hill and mountain, such shining uplands of snow, as she had never seen before. Everything was fresh and bright ... It was too good to be true. She would not sleep for fear of losing a moment of that sense of [Capes's] proximity. To walk beside him, dressed akin to him, rucksacked and companionable, was bliss in itself; each step she took was like stepping once more across the threshold of heaven. [Ann Veronica, 16.1]
Wells makes the sexual nature of this exterior space as clear as he can within the broader constraints of mainstream 1909 publishing (‘they loitered along a winding path above the inn, and made love to one another’ [16.3.]; ‘they lay side by side in a shallow nest of turf and mosses among boulders and stunted bushes on a high rock, and watched the day sky deepen to evening between the vast precipices overhead and looked over the tree-tops down the widening gorge’ [16.4]). It's big, and public, and erotic.

After the sexual sublime of this chapter the last chapter, ‘In Perspective’, reads as a kind of coda: small, private and parturitive. We're back inside a bourgeois interior space, in the dining room of Mr and Mrs Capes's flat, ‘a shining dinner-table set for four people, lit by skilfully-shaded electric lights, brightened by frequent gleams of silver, and carefully and simply adorned with sweet-pea blossom’ [17.1]. The green of A-V's first autonomous space has blossomed into actual flowers, and Balshazzar's feast has become a meal of familial reconciliation with her father and aunt, at which the ‘writing on the wall’ looks forward hopefully, rather than direfully, to Ann Veronica's first child. Capes has, we assume, managed to obtain a divorce from his wife, and has married Ann Veronica; and although the scandal of their elopement lost him his job as a teacher, he has found both fame and fortune writing popular plays. Improbably enough. Their flat also has ‘a pretty little hall’ [17.2]; but this is now a space of confinement only in the pregnancy sense of that word, and the novel's last passage is Ann Veronica's peroration to the exterior erotic sublimity from which she cannot, now, ever be separated: ‘do you remember the mountains? Do you remember how we loved one another? How intensely we loved one another! Do you remember the light on things and the glory of things? I’m greedy, I’m greedy! I want children like the mountains and life like the sky. Oh! and love—love! We’ve had so splendid a time, and fought our fight and won.’ [17.3]

I've been a little plodding in spelling all this out, I know. I wanted to take my time, partly to challenge the widespread notion that this novel is formlessly or carelessly made, and partly because it stands in an important relation to the novel's sexual theme. I daresay a 21st-century Wells would simply write the sex explicitly, but working in 1909 he had to explore Ann Veronica's body through the metaphoricity of all these inner and outer spaces. Because, obviously that's what's going on here. Ann Veronica is not a novel about how a clever, spirited Edwardian girl joins the suffragettes. Ann Veronica is a novel about a girl who wakes up to the sublime jouissance of her own sexuality, in which the suffragettes are a side-plot—not, I think we're entitled to believe, because Wells thinks women shouldn't have the vote, but because he sees the suffragettes as a de-sexed and even anti-sex movement. Miss Miniver, under whose spell Ann Veronica briefly falls, is a frustrated spinster whose erotic energy has been so sublimated by the struggle as to turn her quite against sex (‘“Maternity,” she said, “has been our undoing”’ [2.1]), and who persuades A-V, if only temporarily, that her duty is to sacrifice herself as a martyr to the cause of suffrage. ‘There must be a generation of martyrs,’ Ann Veronica tells herself, trying to talk herself round. ‘Why shouldn’t we be martyrs? There’s nothing else for most of us, anyhow. It’s a sort of blacklegging to want to have a life of one’s own’.

But of course the novel as a whole doesn't believe that. Capes's final deus-ex-machina, or rather pecunia-ex-machina, as a successful playwright, however implausible it is in terms of the built world of the novel, works more effectively on this level of spaces. A theatre is an interior space in which many people publicly and openly come to watch, inverting a repeated sense in the earlier portion of the novel when Ann Veronica's private spaces are being furtively and creepily surveilled (as when Miss Stanley goes through A-V's bedroom, or A-V's time in the panoptic prison-cell: ‘she became aware that at regular intervals a light flashed upon her face and a bodiless eye regarded her, and this, as the night wore on, became a torment’ [11.1]). It reflects back upon the novel, a sort of interior space that has, as per Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (1709), had its roof removed so that we, the public, can peer inside.

Related to this is the amount of scopophilic (as the jargon used to go) attention the novel lavishes on Ann Veronica herself as a sexual body, with an attractive exterior and a secret interior only Capes is permitted to penetrate. The protagonist of Howard Jacobson's first novel Coming From Behind (2003) argues that male academics are so obsessed with Flaubert's fiction only because secretly they want to fuck Madame Bovary. I'm not sure that's true, in general; but I would have to concede that there is something a little queasy about a middle-aged man writing a novel so tightly focused on Ann Veronica as a becoming-sexual entity. Her father calls her ‘Little Vee’ and cannot bear the thought of her incipient sexual maturity: the ‘little’ V is her inviolate vagina as well as an abbreviation of her name; and Manning, an older man who proposes marriage (and whom A-V briefly accepts, although she changes her mind) can only think of her with a stultifying chasteness of imagination: ‘I am your servitor. I am ready to wait for you, to wait your pleasure, to give all my life to winning it. Diana—Pallas Athene! (Pallas Athene is better.) You are all the slender goddesses’ [13.4]. All the virgin goddesses, of course (‘at Christmas he gave her a set of a small edition of Meredith’s novels, very prettily bound in flexible leather’ [8.2]; books by the author of Diana of the Crossways, then?) There are several references to Spenser's epic hymn to a virgin monarch The Faerie Queene, and the suffragettes all praise Platonic love as the only true love. Against all this Ann Veronica chafes, waiting only for the right man to open her ‘V’ and leave all the freezing celibacy behind.

Whilst Wells does, I'd say (with the caveat that I'm speaking as a straight middle-aged guy) capture the sense of Ann Veronica as a person in her own right, the novel exists in a queasy relationship with its own lubricious surveillance of her pulchritude. It dwells on‘the gracious balance of her limbs and body, the fine lines of her chin and neck, her grave fine face, her warm clear complexion’ [1.7], ‘the fine, long lines of her limbs’ [16:8] and so on. But Wells is also aware that he is doing this, I think, and also builds in a kind of autocritique. For one thing, he several times tries to return ownership, as it were, of her body to A-V, in terms of the logic of the text in which she appears. There are several passages like this: ‘she was feeling extraordinarily well that night, so that the sense of her body was a deep delight, a realization of a gentle warmth and strength and elastic firmness’ [15.3]. For another, Wells is canny enough to be conscious of how icky, and often how actively oppressive and distressing, the male gaze can be. It's why he gives the nasty Ramage protuberant eyes, all the better lewdly to watch Ann Veronica with, my dear.

Plus Wells includes one genuinely disturbing, scene upon A-V's first arrival in London. As she walks about the strange city looking for lodgings she is stalked by a man: ‘he must have followed her all the way from beyond Grosvenor Square. He was a tall man and fair, with bluish eyes that were rather protuberant, and long white hands of which he made a display ... he moved, after quiet intervals, with a quick little movement, and ever and again stroked his small mustache and coughed a self-conscious cough’ [5.4]. His persistence is dogged, and it alters the whole city for her:
Heaven knows what dim and tawdry conceptions of passion and desire were in that blond cranium, what romance-begotten dreams of intrigue and adventure! but they sufficed, when presently Ann Veronica went out into the darkling street again, to inspire a flitting, dogged pursuit, idiotic, exasperating, indecent. She had no idea what she should do. ...She stopped abruptly, and looked in a flower-shop window. He passed, and came loitering back and stood beside her, silently looking into her face.

The afternoon had passed now into twilight. The shops were lighting up into gigantic lanterns of color, the street lamps were glowing into existence, and she had lost her way. She had lost her sense of direction, and was among unfamiliar streets. She went on from street to street, and all the glory of London had departed. Against the sinister, the threatening, monstrous inhumanity of the limitless city, there was nothing now but this supreme, ugly fact of a pursuit—the pursuit of the undesired, persistent male. [Ann Veronica, 5.4]
She thinks of confronting him, but ‘there was something in his face at once stupid and invincible that told her he would go on forcing himself upon her, that he would esteem speech with her a great point gained’. Wells extrapolates from this incident into a general statement of the relentless of male sexually predatory logic:
In the twilight he had ceased to be a person one could tackle and shame; he had become something more general, a something that crawled and sneaked toward her and would not let her alone. [Ann Veronica, 5.4]
Then, abruptly, he disappears. ‘For a time she could scarcely believe he was gone. He had. The night had swallowed him up, but his work on her was done.’ She goes home, shaken and upset, and never feels at ease in the city again.

What makes this little scene so powerful, quite apart from its (as many women will confirm) ghastly verisimilitude, is the way it reverts tacitly back upon the novel itself. After all, the real figure who doggedly pursues Ann Veronica through every alley and byway of her life, into prison and meeting place and her very bedroom, is us: the novel's narration, the protuberant-eyed reader. According to the venerable patriarchal logic this stalking only ends when A-V is ‘claimed’ by another man, the virile Capes. That's the point Wells's narrative steps away.

What's interesting here is that Wells originally planned to write a much longer novel, something with the dimensions of a Victorian triple-decker that would follow-through Ann Veronica's life as she settles into motherhood, but he found there was too much ‘monologing’ in the later sections and cut them. Had the novel followed the original plan it would, obviously, have had a very different flavour, and a different centre of gravity, to the relatively short novel that was published. Some sense of how things would have gone is given by Ann Veronica's cameo in Wells's later Marriage (1912) where she appears, in passing, as:
Mrs. Godwin Capes, the dark-eyed, quiet-mannered wife of the dramatist, a woman of impulsive speech and long silences, who had subsided from an early romance (Capes had been divorced for her while she was still a mere girl) into a markedly correct and exclusive mother of daughters. [Marriage, 3.2.7]
Arguably the lack of any post-marriage Ann Veronice unbalances the novel as it was published. As it stands it builds to an erotic climax and ends there, without dwelling on any post-coital tristitia. The advantage in this is how sex positive it makes the novel, not only how much agency it gives its female protagonist (since she chooses and takes Capes rather than waiting to be asked) but also in how much rapture the novel permits her without feeling the need to work in any admixture of guilt, regret or indeed consequence. Kirsten Hertel compares Ann Veronica to Bennett's Man from the North (1898) as studies in a shared ‘Versöhnung mit der Desillusion’ [Hertel, London zwischen Naturalismus und Moderne: Literarische Perspektiven einer Metropole (Heidelberg, Winter 1997), 380], a reconciliation with disillusionment. But I think such a reading is only possible if we assume the novel is supposed to be a story of a woman's political and social emancipation. If, as I'm suggesting we do here, we read it as a D H Lawrence novel avant la Lawrentian lettre, a fantasia on female erotic transcendence, then there's no disillusionment with which Ann Veronica needs to reconcile.

I'm saying here stands, I daresay, in only puny opposition to Ann Heilmann's withering assessment of the novel:
Ultimately Ann Veronica is a male fantasy of sexual taming, a self- reflecting mirror that allowed Wells to blank out his gynophobia by overwriting the female consciousness of his heroine with the masculine desire that so neatly frames the text. The novel's circular structure encloses the heroine in two male-dominated homes, those of father and husband, with university - a site of erotic, not academic education - marking the transition from frigid feminism (embodied by man- hating suffragettes) to personal fulfilment through sexual submission. [Heilmann, ‘Revolting Men? Sexual Fears and Fantasies in Writings by Old Men, 1880-1910’ Critical Survey 15:3 (2003), 60]
I do take the force of this reading, although I also wonder if it might be possible to turn the critique around. To repeat myself: say Wells's problem is not with votes for women as such, but with what he saw as the sex-negativity of the suffragettes, or more specifically of Pankhurst’s well-known Women’s Social and Political Union. We would at least have to concede that he had a point on that score.

To read (say) Les Garner's Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Movement 1900-1918 (Gower, 1984) is to be struck by narrowly autocratic and in many ways hidebound by ideas of middle-class respectability Pankhurst's celebrated organisation was, especially when compared with some of the other, lesser-known branches of the movement (periodicals like the short-lived weekly Freewoman, which advocated quite radical free love ideas, and more democratic suffragist bodies like the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). Pankhurst, though she certainly played a vital role in winning women the vote, was also an imperialist, a passionate supporter of the British war effort post-1914 and a dedicated anti-Bolshevik campaigner, socially and sexually conservative and (after 1926 when she joined the party) politically Conservative too. Her daughter Christine, co-founder of the WSPU and co-campaigner with her mother, was even more anti-sex. To quote Alison Light: ‘male power was increasingly denounced by [WSPU] militants in terms of sexual power, the violence said to be inherent in masculinity itself. There is a direct lineage from Christabel Pankhurst’s warnings against the injurious nature of sexual intercourse for women to those radical feminists of the 1970s who saw little to choose between heterosexual penetration and rape’. A 1913 Christabel Pankhurst pamphlet coined the campaign slogan: votes for women and chastity for men. If we read Ann Veronica as an attack on nascent feminism then it will strike us as more or less noisome; but maybe it's possible to read it as a more focused fictional disagreement with the sexual puritanism of one strand of the suffrage movement. Indeed we could say: this is a novel that accedes with the Christabel Pankhurst view that men are by nature violently sexually predatory, but nonetheless manages to affirm its female protagonist's sexual agency and rapture. That's not nothing, I think, from a feminist point of view.