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H.G. Wells

lunes, 19 de noviembre de 2012

H. G. Wells

From The Short Oxford Companion to English Literature:

H(erbert) George Wells (1866-1946), the son of an unsuccessful small tradesman, was appreniced to a draper in early life, a period reflected in several of his novels. For some years, in poor health, he struggled as a teacher, studying and writing articles in his spare time. In 1903 he joined the Fabian Society, but was soon at odds with it, his sponsor G. B. Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. His literary output was vast and extremely varied. As a novelist he is perhaps best remembered for his scientific romances, among the earliest products of the new genre of science fiction. The first, The Time Machine (1895), is a social allegory set in the year 802701, describing a society divided into two classes, the subterranean workers, called Morlocks, and the decadent Eloi. This was followed by The Wonderful Visit (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898, a powerful and apocalyptic vision of the world invaded by Martians), When the Sleeper Wakes
(1899), The First Men in the Moon (1901), Men Like Gods (1923) and others. Another group of novels evokes in comic and realistic style the lower-middle class world of his youth. Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) tells the story of a struggling teacher; Kipps (1905) that of an aspiring draper's assistant; The History of Mr Polly (1920) recounts the adventures of an inefficient shopkeeper who liberates himself by burning down his own shop and bolting for freedom, which he discovers as man-of-all-work at the Potwell Inn.

Among his other novels, Ann Veronica (1909) is a feminist tract about a girl who defies her father and conventional morality by running away with the man she loves. Tono-Bungay (1909) is a picture of English society in dissolution, and of the advent of a new class of rich, embodied in Uncle Ponderevo, an entrepreneur intent on peddling a worthless patent medicine. The Country of the Blind, and other Stories (1911), his fifth collection of short stories, contains the memorable 'The Door in the Wall'. The New Machiavelli (1911), about a politician involved in a sexual scandal, was seen to mark a decline in his creative power, evident in later novels, which include Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916) and The World of William Clissold (1926). He continued to reach a huge audience, with his massive The Outline of History (1920) and its shorter offspring A Short History of the World (1922), and with many works of scientific and political speculation (including The Shape of Things to Come, 1933); the dark pessimism of his last prediction, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) may be seen in the context of his own ill health and the course of the Second World War.

His Experiment in Autobiography (1934) is a striking portrait of himself, his contemporaries (including Arnold Bennett, Gissing, and the Fabians) and their times.

From The Edwardian Novel, by Andrew Sanders (The Short Oxford History of English Literature): 

In the mainstream English fiction of the early 1900s the religious doubts of the preceding twenty years, and the reaction against Victorian repression and social or famillial oppression, are gradually marginalized. There remained a pervasive desire to articulate the unsaid and to give voice to formerly silent social groups—to women above all—and also to the often conventional, generally ignored petty bourgeoisie. The common man (and woman) briefly moved to centre stage before being ushered off again according to the élitist tastes of the Modernists. Although 'Modernist' writing, which has its roots in the early 1900s, looked to formal experiment, to verbal pyrotechnics, to synchronic play, and to the extraordinary in character and expression, more traditional writers, most notably Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, developed existing lines of story-telling and diachronic movememnt in order to delineate the 'ordinary'. To Arnold Bennett, writing in his disappointingly unadventurous study The Author's Craft (1914), the mind of the ideal novelist should be 'permeated and controlled by common sense'. This 'common sense' precluded a break with a received view of character and with the supposed stability of the narrative form. For both Bennett and Wells the acceptance of literary convention brought considerable popular and financial success (Bennet's The Card of 1911, for example, sold fifteen thousand copies within three years of publication). It also later entailed the overshadowing of their reputations by the canonical acceptance of the work of those of their younger contemporaries whose self-propagandizing had established 'Modernist' principles as the leading ideas of the new age.

As H. G. Wells generously acknowledged through the narrator of his The New Machiavelli (1911), there were hordes of men in 'the modern industrial world' who had 'raised themselves up from the general mass of untrained, uncultured poorish people in a hard industrious selfish struggle', but it was only in Arnold Bennett's novels that he had ever found a picture of them. These self-made, self-admiring small capitalists were now of a different breed from Dickens's Rouncewells and Gaskell's Thorntons, but they were generally despised by writers who rejected their enterprise, their vulgarity, and their belief in the virtue of work and reward. Bennett (1867-1931) is not habitually a fictional delineator of financial success, but he can be a meticulous analyst of the motives behind thrift, solidity, hard work, and public virtue. In this his models were, ironically enough, the great French anti-bourgeois writers Flaubert, Maupassant, and Zola rather than Dickens or Gaskell. His own affection for France and the French tradition gave him, as the Parisian episodes in The Old Wives' Tale suggest, a usefully detached perspective on his own birthplace, and the real focuso of his fiction, the five drab towns of the Staffordshire Potteries.

Bennet's work oscillates interestingly between the poles of an insistent provinciality and domesticity and a taste for the exotic and the peregrinatory. Many of his novels either describe, or merely contain, a hotel, that temporary centre of a wanderer's life, that home-from-home that is never home. An overwritten early work, Grand Babylon Hotel (1902), and a late documentary novel, Imperial Palace (1930), indicate something of the continuing force of his fascination, but the sections of The Old Wives' Tale dealing with Sophia Scales's Paris Pension and wihth the two sisters' sojourn at Buxtion serve to ramify the idea of the hotel as a no man's land of comfort, tidiness, and impersonality. Bennett's finest fiction works through the establishment of contrasts, between situation and aspiration, between enclosure and flight, between endurance and escape, between security and insecurity. The sequence of three novels set in the Five Towns, Clayhanger (1910), Hilda Lessways (1911), and These Twain (1916), are haunted by Darius Clayhanger's memories of the humiliation of the workhouse and by his son Edwin's attempts to escape from the cloying world of his father's respectable business. Bennett's masterpiece, The Old Wives' Tale (1908), traces the divergent fortunes of two sisters from the mid- to the late nineteenth century against the backgrounds of a slowly and unwillingly changing English industrial town and the turbulent Paris of the 1860s and 1870s. The small and provincial are counterbalanced by the metropolitan and the sophisticated, and generations conflict, converge, divide, and die. Bennett intricately relates his characters to the shaping topography, geography, class, and culture that surrounds them, but he always brings them back to acquired habit, the parochiality, and to plod. Similar qualities, exposed in a drab London setting, distinguish Riceyman Steps (1923). This post-First World War novel recalls physical and spiritual loss and wounding, but it centres on the limited ambitions and perceptions of a suburban bookseller, his wife, and his barely literate servant. The narrowness of the world Bennett describes is silently contrasted with that of the dusty and unopened books on the shelves of a shop whose contents are finally dispersed. Throughout the book the arbitrariness of commercial value is suggested (even down to a possessive attachment to the shop's dust) but its final pages allow for a questioning of literary value, of words on the page and the act of reading them. Without being a classic 'Modernist' text Riceyman Steps unobtrusively suggests many of the central experimental ideas of contemporary Modernism.

The work of H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells (1866-1946) has many parallels with that of the shop-keeping world of Bennett, but it has a far more evident political edge and a sometimes perversely 'scientific' programme. Wells is one of the few English writers to be well read in modern science and in the scientific method; he was also ambiguously persuaded both of the advantages of a socialistically and scientifically planned future and of the inherently anti-humanist bent of certain aspects of scientific progress. His science-fiction novels, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898), still function as alarmist prophecies a century after their first publication. The Island of Dr Moreau is a chilling, almost Swiftian, fable of vivisection and genetic engineering. Moreau, a tyrannical exile on a pacific island, is also a post-Darwnist Frankenstein, torturing and metamorphizing animals in his 'House of Pain' only to be destroyed as his horrid creations rever to their brutal types.

Wells's English social fiction contrasts starkly with such fantasies though even here science and men of science have leading roles. In Tono Bungay (1909) that role is divided between two Ponderevos: the small-town apothecary uncle who makes a fortune out of spurious water-tonic, and the expermintal nephew ho re-establishes the lost family fortune by building battleships. Wells's socialismm, a wayward, belligerent, and questioning socialism, also runs through his most demanding stories. In Tono Bungay the narrator moves between three Englands: the defunct, privileged world of the country house, the narrow perspectives of the draper's shop, and the heady exhilaration of market capitalism and invention. All three are found wanting, but he remains unpersuaded by an English brand of socialism which 'has always been a little bit too human, too set about with personalities and foolishness'. There is an individualism about Wells's arguments and the characters who mouth them whch matches that of his sometime firend and Fabian socialist colleague, Shaw. In Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905) the critique of capital is more emphatic, and the socialist characters more sympathetic and influential, but the nation and the society observed in the book are seen as ruled by Stupidity 'like the leaden goddess of the Dunciad, like some fat, proud flunkey, like pride, like indoence, like all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life'. It is a stupidity which, it seems, no ideals can pierce. Even in the generally optimistic The History of Mr Polly (1910) the muddling nature of English society can be avoided only when the narrative endorses a fantasy of escape into a rural idyll. Wells's last major novel, before he retreated into writing the popular histories and digests of science with which he entertained his readers for thirty years, is The New Machiavelli of 1911. It is in part a personal testament, written from the point of view of a pragmatic Member of Parliament, as well as a perceptive account of parliamentary life in the early years of the twentieth century.  Like Ann Veronica (1909) the book is forthright in its discussion of marriage and of women's rights, describing, very much from a male perspective, a 'gradual discovery of sex as a thing collectively portentous that I have to mingle with my statecraft if my picture is to be true'. It also contains sops for the supporters of women's suffrage, forcibly stating a case for the ceasing of 'this coddling and browbeating of women' and for the 'free and fearless' participation of women in the collective purpose of mankind'.  (...)


Things to Come

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