The Story of Harold Swansdown up to Date
Told under protest by Wilfred B. Betterave, at the uncalled-for insistence of H. G. Wells.
Mr. Harold Swansdown is a very superior person who has never approved of the way the world is going. He is the only rather belated son of Mrs. Felicity Swansdown, the heiress. She had married late after coming so unexpectedly into her vast fortune, and his father had been dead six months before Harold entered this difficult but unhappily not impossible world. Such enormous care was taken of his advent—he came into the world through the dreamland of twilight sleep —such nourishment and such attention, that he was expected to be twins.
But Harold appeared, one and indivisible, like the United States of America according to Daniel Webster, or the baby in the Judgment of Solomon, the last and only philoprogenitive achievement of a fond but forty-year-old mother, and the central interest of a large circle of aunts both on the paternal and maternal side.
Most of these aunts were good, lavish, and physically unattractive women older than his parents. They had never been so near to a baby in their lives, and consequently they concentrated upon him an enormous fund of long frustrated baby worship.
In no matter is the capriciousness of Fortune more glaring than in the distribution of aunts. Upon some of us she rains aunts and expectations. Others—I need not go far for one deserving case—have scarcely an aunt to their credit, Instead in the case (W. B. B.) I have in mind, his only aunt was to his discredit. His childish memories are of a noisy, cheerful, romping light of love. Then something happened, She went off; she went off with somebody; how, when, or whither he was never permitted to enquire, and her name was erased from the book of life. He was told never to listen to tales about her and never to answer questions about her.
Both courses were easy, because the world was more preoccupied with its own misbehaviour than the Betterave family, who held they were “a bit superior” to something or other and kept very much aloof, imagined. I (W. B. B.) wanted to know and I never found out. Never.
Such is the wantonness of Fortune! I had just one aunt and I lost her beyond all tracing. Swansdown was embedded in aunts. . . .
This is the story of Harold Swansdown and not of the writer (W. B. B.). It is against all the narrow canons of modern literary composition that the writer should, as they say, intrude his personality upon the reader, and these canons he is obliged to respect. Should the impulse to frank, plain, honest speech become intolerable, he will do his best, by way of initials, footnote, parenthesis, or suchlike device, to indicate it is a digression and no part of the essential story he has been so inexplicably compelled to write.
Harold Swansdown, then, who by request is our one and only subject, was born in the lap of good fortune, and I (W. B. B.) will admit it is enormously to his credit that he did not allow it to spoil his easy urbanity. I grant it that he was never arrogant nor contemptuous. He confessed, and for him it was extremely easy to do so, that he thought the way of the world was a silly way, because everybody did not take things as genially as he did. (He was like the aristocratic lady in the days of the first French Revolution who was told that the people could not get bread, and asked in perfect simplicity why then did they not eat cake? The only world, like Swansdown’s, she knew had cake galore.) He had glanced at the science of political economy and it seemed plain to his well-nourished and privileged mind that it was nothing but a mask for scrambling and snatching in a world, as he imagined it, of unlimited plenty. War, he said in so many words, was the quintessence of an idiot waste of energy. But since this was the way of the world and there seemed no immediate cure for it, the only thing for a rational being to do was to keep as far as possible aloof from the planetary dementia. He took the best of business advice, increased his possessions, and enlarged his blameless holdings. And as his aunts dropped out or fell in—either expression seems suitable—he just amplified.
He had hardly cut his first tooth before his universe of aunts fell into a great turmoil about his future career. Practically every preparatory and public school in Britain was, I understand, chosen for the educational incubation of this child of fortune, and in addition various eccentric establishments were invoked, and it was further insisted that a staff of private tutors should supplement and accelerate these controls. He was to follow a great military, a great naval, or a great political career. Nothing was said of those two antagonistic devotions, religion and science. To a being born in the lap of fortune, all the aunts were agreed, these offered nothing worth having. The odds were too heavy against an Englishman becoming Pope. Their arguments echoed about the cradle in which he lay cutting his first tooth upon the finest coral ring money could buy. And he smiled at them in perfect contentment with things as they were. He just smiled.
Such a smile was all very well in his cradle days, but it became a very serious matter to everyone about him as the early years flew by and he smiled as contentedly as ever. He learnt to talk very rapidly, he learnt to read because it bored him to have his reading chosen for him, he learnt Latin in order to write grammatically, and French because it was brighter than English; and far from doing anything serious in the way of confessing to an ambition or choosing a career, he just smiled. His galaxy of aunts, according to their individual preconceptions, pressed the claims of this way of living or that, they watched his companionship in order to influence him through his friends, they brought all sorts of rousers and inspirers and uplifters and preachers to exhort him, and he smiled his wonted invincible smile and routed them all with his wonted invincible answer: “Why should I? Why should I do anything of the sort? Tell me why?”
That word “Why?” is, I admit, the most deadly of weapons against every form of mental commitment. “You think so—why?” It evokes an inadequate answer. You cross-examine it. “You assume this or that is true? But why?” Pursue that question to the bitter end, and the nakedness of the way of the world is exposed. That is the way of Science, the perpetual urgency of the shameless why. It is an essentially indecent process wearing the mask of reason. Only a biological or medical student knows the full obscenity of which science is capable. And this was the natural and instinctive defence of Harold Swansdown against every attempt to incorporate him in the headlong adventures of contemporary life. No properly brought up lower-class child would have been permitted the evasive indelicacies in which Harold Swansdown wrapped himself as in a garment. It would have been smacked.
Everyone is not so fortunate in his circumstances as Harold, and it takes some of us long years to learn the simplified equivalent of the so-called Swansdown philosophy. The present writer (W. B. B.) confesses he spent half his life truckling to smack-enforced imperatives before he uttered one day these rebellious and illuminating words: “That be damned and you be damned.” And suddenly a great light shone upon his hitherto cramped and restricted world, He was, he discovered, as good as any man, and from that day he has been.
A man or woman who is not a rebel, does not deserve to live (W. B. B.). Not for nothing is a crook the symbol of the shepherd who proposes to make us his sheep, and that saying, I find, goes down more and more effectively whenever I say it. At my own very humble level, I stand for essentially the same things as Swansdown—essentially. I am by nature a more normal and practical individual. I am a realist. It has not been my lot to float above reality. I must confess that sometimes a certain hesitation. . . .
But perhaps these personal details, in spite of their undeniable value as a clarifying simplification of the Swans-down attitude, will provoke the meretricious critic, and I will pursue them no further (W. B. B.).
In his manifest determination to play a detached and inconspicuous role in our world, Swansdown watched the course of events so that he would be able to take prompt evasive action amidst the accumulating dangers of our time. He was always well away from concentration camps and suchlike disagreeable experiences. He said he had no great objection to being killed, or even to being wounded in an honourable and treatable fashion, but he did not want to be maimed miserably. He reduced the risk of anything of that sort to a minimum by a choice of reduplicated homes in various places where he could have the same books, apparatus, and the like, according to the swaying dangers of the time. His tastes were simple; he was bored by being waited on, and his occasional congenial visitors shared his simplicity. He never entertained an uncongenial visitor. Why should he? Why?
So Swansdown lived his self-centred life of avoidance and to the great annoyance of numberless earnest people who considered that his very considerable resources should be put at their disposal in this or that urgent cause with which they had identified themselves. The aims put before him were extremely various; recently he has been asked to rebuild Warsaw, set up the Poles as a barrier between his properties in Europe and the horrors of Bolshevism, give all he had to the Pope to distribute in good works of an anti-socialist type throughout the world, finance the adventures of General de Gaulle, place himself at the disposal of the Communist Party, place himself at the disposal of the Conservative Party, endow the Liberal Party, run every sort of newspaper and publishing business that it has ever entered the heart of man, sane or insane, to conceive, join and finance the Mosleyites, and so forth and so on. To all of which Swansdown, like Tar Baby, “kept on saying nufmi” and disappointing all the hopeful schemes and projects that thrust themselves upon him.
The multitude of worthy people who had “thought better of him,” thrust themselves upon him, undertaken to tell him just what he meant and just what he stood for, was very great. He accepted none of their interpretations and neglected even to enter into correspondence with them, see them for a good long talk, or acknowledge their communications, even when they ran to considerable length and were sent by registered post with stamps for return. Stamps or no stamps, they were just sent back, without a word, in every case manifestly unread. Many people, who had talked freely of what they proposed to do with and for Swansdown, found this treatment unendurable. They had brought an insult, a public outrage, upon themselves.
There arose a fantastic storm of abuse and lying about him, threats to his life, denunciations from every quarter, gross caricatures, nicknames, all of which he evaded by having a trustworthy assistant secretary to examine his press cuttings, report upon anything of material significance, and burn the rest.
Silence has the same effect upon men as upon other animals. They stop growling or yapping and begin to feel foolish and go away. After a period of public unpopularity, Swansdown ceased to be “news” and a target for silly allusions. Editors cut out his name whenever it cropped up, and he vanished from the eyes of the mob, Then, as the tide of warfare turned more decisively against Germany and Japan, people began to recall the “business as usual” attitude which had been made his essential offence. From being a traitor, he was now proclaimed the champion of that individual freedom of action for which every sort of grabber declares that we and our allies fought the second world war. To which he kept on saying nothing and behaving as though he lived in a world of assured plenty in which there was enough for everyone and everything, if only men came to their senses. In that last condition lies the key to his escape. If —.
You may say he prefers example to precept. I (W.B.B.) once drafted and sent him an admirable clarification of his ideas for him, for which he did not even deign to thank me. Possibly some jealous secretary intercepted my very carefully thought-out expose.
He lives today impartially contemptuous, it seems, of the incoherence and violence of mankind. He is, and he goes on, and that suffices him. Why does he not step down into the arena? He would not lack sound advice and devoted help and support (W. B. B.). Is the world to go to men who have despised the dust and heat of that conflict which hardens and exalts our souls?
He cares not a rap for exaltation and conflict. My soul revolts against his cold materialistic inhumanity.
To that I suppose his exasperatingly effective answer would be, “Why? Why should I of all people harden and exalt my soul by doing these harsh and violent things? My soul, as you call it, is, I think, better as it is. Why should I be other than I am?”
So the story ends up to date with a note of interrogation. I tell it with a mixture of disgust and aversion, but I have to tell it because of the uninvited insistence of this Mr. H. G. Wells, who, no longer recognised by competent critics as the outstanding writer he was once supposed to be, so that it is no longer necessary even to read his books before condemning them, will, I suppose, claim credit for the authorship he has imposed upon me (W. B. B.).
All’s Well That Ends Wells
A Complete Exposé of This Notorious Literary Humbug
By Wilfred B. Betterave
Written at the suggestion of H. G. Wells himself, who has given the Author (i. e., W. B. B.) carte blanche to relieve his mind in the matter without either interference or comment from (one has to admit it) his creator.
Some little while since, the present writer, yielding to a pressure from Mr. Wells for which he is unable to account, wrote the story of that shameless faineant Harold Swansdown, who lived elaborately aloof from all the stresses of these vehement days. It was a story far outside the actual experiences of Mr. Wells, and consequently of mine, and it was fraught with a quality of unreality which even my parenthetical comments, protests, and footnotes were unable to exorcise. But in this book I escape from all that, and from first to last I and the reader are in the palace of truth.
Then first we have to realise that this Mr. H. G. Wells, in spite of the inexplicable prestige he has contrived for himself, is an individual of the lowest extraction and the most haphazard education. His origins are too well known fcr him to conceal, so that he has the impudence to make a merit of them, and his earlier tales and sketches were concerned chiefly with the vulgarest social types. They were something after the manner of Dickens, but Dickens was by far the better educated man. Wells was the son of a bankrupt father, a gardener and professional bowler who had taken to business and failed, and of a mother who consequently had to return to the domestic service in which she had begun her career after the bankruptcy of her father—a post-master who had not kept up with the times when the railways put post-horses out of business.
He (Wells) spent most of his childhood in an underground kitchen and got his schooling at a small private school which boarded unwanted and ambiguous boys from London and specialised in training day boys as clerks for the local gas-works. From this quite suitable employment he escaped because of an undetected astigmatism which prevented his doing long-tots with either speed or certitude. Before the present days of grandmotherly legislation, which does its utmost to compensate for the natural disadvantages of the unfit, there was no such examination of the eyes as we tolerate today. Everyone stood upon his own feet, and saw what God intended him to see.
His mother devoted her slender resources to binding him in servitude as an apprentice to a succession of employments, from which his innate recalcitrance impelled him to break away. A fight with a porter, with whom he seems to have been on undignified terms, in which there was a considerable smashing of bottles, led to the abandonment of pharmacy, and, as the poor woman had no other immediate prospect of handing over the burthen of controlling his vagaries to some other pseudo-parent, she sent him as boarder to the new reconstituted Midhurst Grammar School until she could find some hitherto untried trade to which he might be bound down. She wept over him copiously and implored him to do two very wholesome things: to try his utmost to do whatever those in authority ordered him to do, and to pray for her sake. He made little effort to do either.
He was the first boarder in the new headmaster’s household. He had the feverish intelligence that is characteristic of the tuberculous type; the local level of intelligence was extremely low; he could read swiftly and intelligently and remember what he read, and the headmaster discovered m him the makings of a “grant earner” of considerable value. A broken leg when he was seven, just when he was learning to read, had kept him in bed for some weeks, and his father got him books duly from the Bromley Literary Institute, which was as much an alma mater as our adventurer has ever had.
So our “great little H. G. Wells,” as his friend Edwin Pugh called him after some exhibition of meanness on his part, was launched upon a long-suffering world. He let down his worthy headmaster by sending in an application form (behind that good man’s back) for admission to the Normal College of Science, South Kensington, now known under the grandiose title of the Royal College of Science, so depriving the man who had discovered him of the legitimate profits of his encouragement. He shook the dust of Midhurst off his feet and became the adoring student of that prominent infidel, T. H. Huxley, who invented the word “agnostic” and who was then in his last year of active teaching. It is a heartrending thing which Mr. Wells seems to consider funny, that his poor mother was greatly distressed by this association until she learnt that Huxley was the “Dean” of the School. “Dean” meant a man of religion to her, and he grinned and did nothing to undeceive her about his professor’s true character. He seems to have undermined the faith of both his parents in their declining years in their sustaining confidence in heaven and hell. That was easy in the case of his easy-going father, who had never been a sincere Churchman. In his mother’s work-box he found she had copied out the following lines in her tremulous Italianate hand:
And if there be no meeting past the grave, If all is darkness, silence, yet ‘tis rest; Be not afraid ye waiting hearts that weep, For God still giveth his beloved sleep And if an endless sleep He wills, so best.
These he actually proposed to have put upon her headstone. But this blatant atheism in a Christian resting place was very properly vetoed by the incumbent, and it is to be hoped that the good woman will ultimately return to the communion of souls, which God has promised to his elect, in spite of this senile lapse from the wholesome and redeeming faith that had sustained her middle years and provoked all the innate evil of this cuckoo in her nest, for that we must call him—a Satanic changeling. He played the role of murderous cuckoo, rather than that of a natural member of a humble but inaggressive family.
His conflict with his mother was further embittered by a positive hatred for his own deceased sister, whose death preceded his birth by a couple of years. This horrible avowal I have from him direct. This sister was a very quick-witted and teachable child, and her mother had trained her carefully and prayerfully upon the extensive literature of examples of early piety which played so large a part in the upbringing of children in the more earnest homes of that more serious time. She was called “Possy,” and after her death and attainment of everlasting bliss, she was called “Poor Possy,” for reasons I have never been able to master. Possibly it is dull waiting about for the judgment day, but from our earthly minds these details are wisely hid, and children who ask questions about it are reproved, sent sup-perless to bed, or otherwise persuaded to wait and see. For all questions initiate scepticism and are to be discouraged.
Possy died of what was then called inflammation of the bowels and is now known, according to our modern medical claptrap, as “appendicitis.” Quietly and persistently nature has been eliminating defective individuals, and if modern surgery would let well alone this superfluous defect would ultimately disappear. (A medical friend informs me that X-ray examinations of Wells suggests that he had an appendix just too narrow for a fatal perforation, that a bout of ill health in the summer of 1887 was appendicitis, that he ought properly to have died at that time instead of relieving his pain by going for headlong walks and inventing novel blasphemies. But God’s ways are not our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts.) Wells’s unfortunate mother was convinced that Possy had been “given something” at a tea party, and made an implacable feud with the hosts of that party, convinced that nothing Poor Possy had had at home could possibly have done her this injury.
Now when this good woman became pregnant again, she persuaded herself that Almighty Providence had been so charmed by the upbringing of Possy that He decided to satisfy her mourning heart by launching another little angel upon the world while there was yet time—for Mrs. Wells was now middle-aged.
But instead of another Possy she bore the harsh and unattractive personality of H. G. Wells. His early daguerreotypes show him always as a scowling little boy with a long upper lip and clenched fists; there may have been trouble in getting him to sit still, for snapshots had still to come, and, by some freak of fate or carelessness on the part of the impresario, in the earliest he sits dangerously close to an inkpot and quill pen.
His poor mother had been praying for another Possy, and this was what she got. She then tried to rouse a spirit of emulation in him by endless repetitions of the virtues and charm of Poor Possy and unfavourable comparisons of his behaviour with the exemplary goodness of that lamented child. A more normal nature than Wells’s would certainly have responded to these pathetic appeals to be a little Possy en pantalon, but the diabolical strain in his nature roused him to an unconcealed hatred of this rival, who had, he felt, ousted him from his mother’s heart. Possy had been a paragon of piety; therefore he blasphemed, and persuaded his elder brothers to blaspheme and revolt against the Possy legend. The revolt was so plain and outrageous that it drove his poor mother into silence. She had no one to talk to about her darling. So she began to talk and think about other things. This, as people say, “took her mind off” Possy more and more. She cherished her grave in Bromley churchyard, now bombed out of recognition, and kept her birthday as a saint’s day—but alas! alone. She found her three boys interesting as they became individuals in their own right, and she set herself very earnestly to frustrating any initiatives of Wells’s father to give his sons a favourable entry into life.
She was, I must admit, a woman of inflexible ideas. She had early conceived an admiration for the flattering civilities of some attractive shop-keeper who had grown prosperous and independent in the days before Co-operative stores, chain stores, orders by telephone from price lists, prompt deliveries all over the country three or four times a week, and so on, had put the independent pre-Victorian shopkeeper out of existence. Wells’s father, deeply in debt, in the London suburb of Bromley, Kent, had a better grasp of the trend of things and was for emigrating to the United States, which at that time was in great need of European, and particularly English-speaking, workers—English-speaking in particular because they were more immediately assimilable—and was all for going—steerage of course as a sort of free human ballast to the ship. Everything was packed and ready in specially built cases, when the advent of a second heaven-sent Possy, was announced.
Mrs. Wells had waited to be perfectly sure, and now she refused firmly to go. Nothing would induce her. For once Joseph Wells raged and stormed, but short of dragging her aboard there seemed to him no way of dealing with the situation. No one, Wells has remarked with characteristic brutality, seems to have thought of leaving her behind and emigrating without her. Since she had nowhere on earth to go, she would probably have succumbed to that prospect and turned up before the gangway was lifted. But Joseph was ever infirm of purpose, easily persuaded, born as it were for bankruptcy, and so Wells is an Englishman and not an American.
Wells makes a great brag of this missed possibility. He says that it was the custom for all the passengers of an outward-bound liner to make a subscription to give a start to every child born aboard and to every expectant mother. And he continues: “We should have landed in America and I should have been born with a satisfactory endowment as an American citizen, qualified to become President”—note that gleam of egregious conceit—”and I could have cocked snoots at our royalties and nobility as the fancy took me.” Such is the modesty and patriotism of this vaunted “English” author. He turns gleefully on the country that he has since contrived to put to the expense of educating him far above his merits, and squirts his inky ingratitude at its most venerated institutions. We could well dispense with him.
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said This is my own, my native land?
Wells should spend a little time, if they would tolerate him, with a few heroic Poles, with such a fine imported Englishman as T. S. Eliot, monarchist and Christian, with the patriotic de Gaulle whom he denounces continually, or with any of those Central European and Balkan peoples who will stand by their brave little patriotisms though the heavens fall. But no! II. G. Wells must pose and has always posed as a cosmopolitan republican. And he cites a multitude of unsavoury names from Plato—have we not all blushed at the unnatural realities of “Platonic love”?—to that Catholic renegade, Joseph McCabe, who, I still fear, may evade the just wrath of God by a deathbed repentance. Wells cites a string of names from the chequered history of old England, to justify his republican pose. Milton, he says, was a republican, Shelley, Oliver Cromwell, that brutal reconqueror of Catholic Ireland, Godwin, Byron, the English Chartists, George Washington—whom he believes to have been an Englishman (!)—and what was good enough for these heroes of disloyalty is good enough for him. Perhaps it is. For my own part I had as soon have no God as no king to salute and obey, and this though no honour as yet has fallen to me from either God or king to reward my steadfastness.
Wells claims, I know not with what truth, to have met a number of kings and felt nothing of the awe which comes upon all rightly constituted persons in the presence of God’s anointed. Possibly he cringed and then lied about his upright bearing afterwards. I like to think he did, but I can produce no witnesses on that point. So he gets the benefit of the doubt. He has written what may be a bogus interview with the King of Italy, whose manner with him was so simple and easy that for a while he did not know it was the king who talked; he foregathered with the ill-advised Edward VIII, so unhappily unfastidious about his intimates; he met and talked with insufferable familiarity with the all too democratic King Haakon, but these are all the royal encounters I have been able to trace and verify. Since the downfall of Edward VIII, he has very properly been kept at arm’s length by our royal family, and he has never presumed to associate himself with anything supported by their patronage. He knows nothing of the infinite charm and condescension of our reigning family, but even that, if he had the unmerited good fortune to encounter it, might fail to subjugate him. A scoundrel who can call the sweet invincible smile of the greatest lady in the land. . . .! But no! I will not descend to his gross phrases. The cup of his iniquity is full enough without that.
Such is the squalour of this man’s circumstances and character, and I had little reason for supposing, now that he has lived down so much, that he would consent to see it all dragged into the light of day. I put it to him as gently as possible. To which he responded: “Why!—you were made for the job,” he said, “Let yourself rip. You have carte blanche. See that the mud flies, my boy. You will have quite a market for it and some of it will stick. Some of it ought to stick. I’m not all that proud of myself.”
“There will be no mud throwing,” I said quietly.
He had the effrontery to laugh at me. “Not what you call mud,” he said, and left me to make what I could of this quite unmeaning retort.
Mr. W. B. Betterave Concludes
Let me now take this fading reputation bit by bit and weigh its value.
But first let me note a paradoxical aspect of his present position. He is, it is generally agreed in all reputable quarters, a quite exploded humbug. Yet in spite of his Socialist creed, he sells out at enormous prices, large editions of his lucubrations and refuses on the most specious excuses to make any concession in price to his proletarian associates. If anything, he says, the price will be raised. He launches a virulent attack upon the Roman Catholic Church, abounding in errors too numerous to specify, so that no one has even attempted to draw up the vast catalogue of them, and he spreads this poison broadcast for ninepence. Yet, thanks to the energy and vigilance of right-minded people, who have convinced many booksellers that it does not pay to exhibit this stuff for sale, it is almost as difficult to procure as its preposterously expensive fellow. The public spirit and devotion of his admirable neighbour, Sir Thomas Moore, whose stern realism is shown by his attempts to restore the much needed discipline of flogging to the penal code, has done much to expose the subterfuges by which Mr. Wells has sought to make the Crown Lands administration responsible for his snobbish wish to be restrained from painting his house red and exhibiting anti-Christian inscriptions.
Like all these Fabian Socialists he is, I suppose, ashamed of the infidel rag tag and bobtail he might have to acknowledge. He denies that he has ever asked for what the Crown considers an objectionable board to be removed, but admits that, when consulted, he said that its exhibition was a dishonourable breach of agreement on Moore’s part, because of the probable consequences of a relaxation of control. He confessed that he could not account for the motives of his neighbour unless he contemplated a speculative purchase of the terrace and wanted to cheapen the property. Later on he retracted this disgusting suggestion and professed himself unable to understand the hostility of his exemplary antagonist. Obviously, that is merely his excuse for keeping his undesirable associates at a distance from his snobbish dignity. He says a private house should be a private house and not a bawling provocation to the passers-by—and this from a pretended exponent of socialism which would deny us the slightest right to private property! Privacy, yes, but private property—no! The old humbug!
He has threatened to put up a board of leftish information to counterbalance the Salvation Army Board at Number One, but he seems to be in no hurry to do so. Yet there is an evil deliberation in his way of doing things that justifies his menaces.
Let us now take the various aspects of his “genius” one after another and see how they stand up to critical scrutiny.
He seems to have first got himself into print as the unblushing plagiarist of Jules Verne, mingling his imitations of that writer with “relativity,” the pretentious metaphysical nonsense, long since exploded, of the German Jew Einstein. He succeeded in passing this stuff off on Henley, the crippled atheist who boasted that though his head was bloody under the bludgeoning of fate, that is to say the chastening hands of Almighty Providence, it remained “unbowed.” Henley took Wells’s novel-looking scribbling at Wells’s own valuation, and when he became editor of the New Review, he enabled him to serialise and publish “The Time Machine,” a tissue of absurdities in which people are supposed to rush to and fro along the “Time Dimension.”
By a few common tricks of the story-teller’s trade, Wells gets rid of his machine before it can be subjected to a proper examination. He cheats like any common spook raiser. Otherwise, it is plain common sense that a man might multiply himself indefinitely, pop a little way into the future and then come back. There would then be two of him. Repeat da capo and you have four, and so on, until the whole world would be full of this Time Travelling Individual’s vain repetitions of himself. The plain-thinking mind apprehends this in spite of all the Wellsian mumbo-jumbo and is naturally as revolted as I am by the insult to its intelligence.
He is credited by many people with the most remarkable anticipations and warnings of contemporary events. For example, his description of the structure and use of the tank in “The Land Ironclads” in 1903, is an impudent plagiarism of Sir Ernest Swinton’s inspiration in 1914. But anyone who will read Sir Ernest’s account of how the idea came to him in all its brilliance will realise who was the true begetter of the tank. Wells merely plagiarised the idea beforehand instead of afterwards.
And in his bitterness he has since declared, quoting chapter and verse from Swinton’s book, that even if that gentleman invented the tank, he did not know how to use it. This is absurd, because if our military leaders left Wells’s “warnings” unheeded, it was because they had excellent reasons for finding them inconvenient. Lord Kitchener, for instance, described the tank as a “mechanical toy.” He saAv the tank as an outrage on all established military usage. Similarly, Wells wrote a long description of the behaviour of people in New York State under an aerial bombardment from Germany which a superficial reader might imagine drawn from the war experiences of the past five years. But the description was written in “The War in the Air,” which was published in 1908. And any reader with a sound military training will note at once that the bombing air-ships were “navigables” and not heavier than air machines, and throw the pretentious “anticipation” aside with contempt and relief, pleased to give it no further thought.
We need not enter into other cases of Wells’s undesirable anachronisms. They have either been quietly assimilated by the proper authorities or remain neglected until the time for their fulfilment arrives and we can adopt them without claiming an unfair advantage over our undeniably gallant opponents. They have fought well and they merit that much consideration.
Through a long middle period, Wells has been continually making variations on this idea of the increasing urgency of time. He is among the last of us to get sick of it. For a while his “forecasts,” save the mark, were continually flying off at a tangent from sober reality. But all the while he was trying to work a different vein in his complex of conceits, and that was the story of vulgar character. For a time the.se pseudo-scientific concoctions earnt his living and these other stories went unheeded; in America, which likes to tick off a man as this or that and is perplexed and irritated when he insists on being this, that, and the other thing, they were unsalable. He tried to mix in a certain proportion of scientific fantasia with what he considered to be humorous observation; the “quap” nonsense for instance in what was really a three-decker novel in “Tono-Bungay.” But such hooks as “Kipps. The Story of a Simple Soul” (1905)—a simple soul indeed much helped out by lucky accidents, including a good word to the American public from his friend Henry James, for which, in a dispute about Arnold Bennett’s meticulous realism, he made an ungracious return in the form of a caricature parody of the Master’s style—”The Wheels of Chance” (1896), “Love and Mr. Lewisham” (1900), “Ann Veronica” (1909), “The History of Mr. Polly” (1910), “Marriage” (1912), “The Passionate Friends” (1913), and “The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman” (1914), are all examples of this craving to figure as a novelist pure and simple.
The appearance of a knighted person in the last-named title marks the steady ascent of Wells’s social ambitions. “The Passionate Friends,” if you please, are the son of a rector and “Lady” (save the mark) Mary Christian. “The Research Magnificent” (1915) is an artless confession of Wells’s gnawing urge to be something better socially than he was or could possibly be. It is a search for the admirable and for celebrity. And he tries to square this with his own wretched realities. He wallows in self-exculpation. Ben-ham, his impersonation, earns the contempt of his animated and attractive wife by his shiftlessness, and drives the poor lady to adultery by conducting the great “research” abroad. He gets himself shot in Johannesburg in 1913, when the violence of a crowd of strikers forced the authorities to fire upon them.
For some years his books continued to sell to the undis-criminating. “The Soul of a Bishop” is plainly the outcome of strenuous eavesdropping at ecclesiastical back doors; Christina Alberta, in “Christina Alberta’s Father,” is an Ann Veronica grown older and none the wiser or more decent; “The World of William Clissold” is a vast three-decker, issued in three successive volumes of rigmarole, which broke down the endurance of readers and booksellers alike.
It marks the collapse of an inflated reputation. After that Mr. Wells might write what he liked and do his utmost. It was no longer the thing to read him. Reviewers might praise him and a dwindling band of dupes might get his books. They vanished from the shop windows and from the tables of cultured people. Neither such would-be “bright” short stories as “Star Begotten,” “The Croquet Player,” “The Brothers,” “The Camford Visitation,” nor such longer efforts as “Meanwhile” (1927), “The Autocracy of Mr. Parham” (1930), “The Bulpington of Blup” (1933), “Apropos of Dolores” (1938), “Babes in the Darkling Wood” (1940), and “You Can’t Be Too Careful” (1941), did more than make his decline and fall unmistakable. People whom once he had duped would perhaps mention him as a figure of some significance in English literature, but the established reply of the people who no longer read him and had nothing to say about him, was simply the grimace of those who scent decay. “Oh, Wells!” they would say, and leave it at that. So that Wells decays alive and will be buried a man already forgotten, and yet, in some way I still cannot understand, he has been able to thrust upon me the task of making all this crystal clear.
“As clear as mud,” he says, sitting down suddenly in front of me and laughing in my face. “You throw it like— like my honourable and gallant neighbour. You might be a member of the Right Club. You might be a Roman Catholic Tory. You couldn’t do it better. You have done everything you were made to do.”
We had not spoken since that last encounter when he had given me carte blanche.
“One thing, alas 1 is impossible for either of us and that is to chuckle over our obituary notices, because alas! you will have to die when I do. If not before?”
He smiled at me pensively. “If not before,” he repeated thoughtfully, as though the idea had just come to him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said, “get on with it. And then perhaps I will release you to seek the eternal reward you deserve so richly—while I will turn my face tp the wall and bid existence Good Night.”
“Perchance to dream,” I quoted.
“I shall be a dreamless sleeper,” he said. “I have warmed both hands at the fire of life and now I am ready to depart. And if I don’t dream, you won’t.”
“But you have written a story, ‘The Happy Turning,’ all about your (Jreams. You have had it put into French.” I said.
“Fantasies. Such stuff as dreams are made of. We make them up out of the drifting desires in our hearts and they vanish if we do not lay hold upon them. The heart is there always, beating with desire, the waking mind snatches at them as they fade. Maybe it may have tempted the storyteller in me to elaborate.”
“Yes,” I said, rather at a loss, “but—”
“No,” he overbore me. “You have no existence apart from mine and so I shall make an end to you now.”