While H.G. Wells (1866- 1946) remains best known today for what he called his “scientific romances,” he was far more than just the author of “The Time Machine,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “The War of the Worlds.” The founder of modern science fiction was also a major social novelist of the Edwardian period. Henry James and Arnold Bennett praised his books, and he was widely regarded as their peer. All too often, though, today’s readers only vaguely recognize such titles as “Kipps,” “Love and Mr. Lewisham,” “Tono-Bungay,” “Ann Veronica” and “The History of Mr Polly.”
So Weidenfeld & Nicolson should be congratulated for making these deeply interesting novels available again. Rather than try to discuss them all, however, it seems more sensible to pick one to illustrate Wells’s distinctive merits as a novelist.
“The History of Mr Polly” (1910) is a disturbing comic masterpiece that might have gotten its start from Thoreau’s remark that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It could also be seen — at least in its first two-thirds — as a more gently satirical and masculine counterpart to Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” Like Emma Bovary, the lower-middle-class Alfred Polly, a subordinate window dresser in a department store, reads novels and dreams of a life of wild freedom and romance:
“Deep in the being of Mr. Polly, deep in that darkness, like a creature which has been beaten about the head and left for dead but still lives, crawled a persuasion that over and above the things that are jolly and ‘bits of all right,’ there was beauty, there was delight; that somewhere — magically inaccessible perhaps, but still somewhere — were pure and easy and joyous states of body and mind.”
Alas, Mr. Polly soon grows convinced that he has fallen into the wrong trade, even the wrong life. Caught in his unsatisfying existence, he views the human condition as one in which we merely struggle, and struggle in vain. We waste our energies trying, quite uselessly, “to get obdurate things round impossible corners.” As his friend Parsons complains about life in the modern world, there’s “no Joy in it, no blooming Joy!” But then Mr. Polly’s father dies, leaving him a tidy sum from insurance, and the little clerk realizes that he might do something more, something different. But what? “I think,” writes the omniscient Wells, that “his distinctive craving is best expressed as fun — fun in companionship.” Almost immediately, Mr. Polly meets the three Larkins sisters at the lavish and hilarious funeral supper for his father, where hitherto unknown relatives have come to drink and chow down. Our poor hero sips a little too much sherry and ends up flirting with all three sisters. Worse still, because of his habit of “drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature,” as Wells puts it, bumbling Mr. Polly attempts rakish compliments, believing that “it becomes a man of gaiety and spirit to make love, gallantly and rather carelessly.”
In due course, “Elfrid” — as the girls call him — finds himself sucked into the Larkinses’ orbit and, almost in spite of himself, eventually proposes to one of the sisters, though not the one he’d been intending to ask. In short order, the newlyweds have set up a small shop in the village of Fishbourne. “One did ought to be happy in a shop,” Mr. Polly tells himself. “Folly not to banish dreams that made one ache of townless woods and bracken tangles and red-haired linen-clad figures sitting in dappled sunshine upon grey and crumbling walls and looking queenly down on one with clear blue eyes. Cruel and foolish dreams they were.”
Are they now? The seventh chapter of this unjustly neglected novel opens with one of the most lugubrious sentences in English fiction: “For fifteen years Mr. Polly was a respectable shopkeeper in Fishbourne.” However, his dreams haven’t wholly died within him. They live on as “an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences, for the gracious aspects of things, for beauty.” While his marriage isn’t altogether disastrous, neither does it feed his soul. His wife had immediately “ceased to listen to her husband’s talk from the day she married him.” Their shop is tawdry, its cheap goods seldom wanted. Mr. Polly’s only escape is, again, through reading, often the travel accounts of intrepid explorers to the distant corners of the earth.
“Meanwhile he got little exercise, indigestion grew with him until it ruled all his moods, he fattened and deteriorated physically, moods of distress invaded and darkened his skies, little things irritated him more and more, and casual laughter ceased in him. His hair began to come out until he had a large bald space at the back of his head. Suddenly one day it came to him . . . that he would soon be forty, and that his life during that time had not been worth living, that it had been in apathetic and feebly hostile and critical company, ugly in detail and mean in scope — and that it had brought him at last to an outlook utterly hopeless and grey.”
What is left for Mr. Polly? Nothing, he decides, but to kill himself. And from that moment on, Wells’s protagonist discovers in himself a new energy, a new courage. And that ultimately leads him to quite a different end from the one he plans for himself.
If you want to enjoy some excellent lower-class English humor, there’s plenty of it in Mr. Polly’s relations with his fellow clerks, with his wife and her family, and with the various shopkeepers of Fishbourne. But this humor doesn’t hide the fundamental angst at the heart of this novel, the despondent cry that all of us utter at one time or another: Is this my life? Is this all there is? In the end, Wells — that great social visionary — proclaims that with enough boldness and determination even the least of us may live, to borrow another phrase from Thoreau, “the life which he has imagined.” As Wells boldly proclaims:
“But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstances, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether.”
Let me close by saying that, despite its perfectly innocuous title, “The History of Mr Polly” is — long before Camus and Sartre ever wrote — a classic of radical existentialism, and, after 100 years, still amusing, unsettling and powerfully contemporary.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.
THE HISTORY OF MR POLLY
By H.G. Wells
Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Trafalgar Square. 188 pp. $14.95