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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 23 August 2019

"Kipps" by H G Wells

The story of Arthur Kipps, draper's apprentice, was the book behind the musical Half A Sixpence, starring Tommy Steele. It was written by H G Wells, best known for his science fiction such as The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine but also the author of The History of Mr Polly, Tono-Bungay and Love and Mr Lewisham. A decent biography of this remarkable man is H G Wells by Lovat Dickson.

Arthur Kipps is a "norphan" living with his aunt and uncle; he goes to school and is then sent away to be a draper's assistance in Folkestone. The misery of his servitude is chronicled until he is knocked down by a bicycle ridden by an actor with whom he gets drunk, stays out all night and is sacked from his job. It is at the depths of his misery that he is suddenly made rich and required to join posh society: his struggles to fit in and his social clangers form a great deal of the humour of this book. He becomes engaged to a posh lady but his heart still remains with the sister of his best friend when he was a boy. Veering between savage social commentary and farcical humour this delightful book chronicles the ups and downs of Kipps' life.

Kipps is explicitly a  three act drama:
The First Book (about 35% of the text) is entitled “The Making of Kipps” and charts his childhood, his education, and his apprenticeship in The Emporium. This is written quite angrily and there is some cutting social comment.

The Second Book (the next 47% of the text) shows how the Innocent (and possibly Holy) Fool Kipps is inducted into society. Other people clearly want to take advantage of his wealth. Kipps spends all his time making mistakes; he tries to fit in but every time it goes wrong. This section climaxes in an escape to London where there are scenes of farce as he tips everyone in the hotel and manages to cause an uproar with his food in the posh restaurant.

The Third Book (crammed into the last 18% of the text are some very swift turning points) follows Kipps after he and Anne have got married and how they adjust to a humbler life.

But the turning points (spoiler alert for this section) don't necessarily match these book boundaries.
  • The ‘half a sixpence’ lover’s token with Anne; this incidence ends his childhood and K goes to become an apprentice: 6%
  • Kipps starts the wood-carving class with Miss Walsingham: 14%
  • Chitterlow the actor runs into Kipps: 19%
  • Kipps gets the sack: 25%
  • Kipps comes into money: 29%
  • Kipps becomes engaged: 47%
  • Kipps meets Anne again ... and doesn’t tell her that he is engaged: 59%
  • Kipps runs away to London: 65%; he meets the socialist
  • The farcical scene in the restaurant of The Grand Hotel: 71%
  • Kipps encounters Ann at the Anagram Tea ... and runs away again: 74%; This follows almost immediately on from the farce.
  • Kipps is reconciled with Anne and proposes: 79%
  • Kipps and Anne row about the Callers: 92%
  • Kipps loses all his money: 93%
  • Their child is born: 97%
  • Their fortunes are restored by Chitterlow: 98%
The key character is Kipps. He is the only one who is rounded, the only one to develop, the only one to have anything like a character arc. The others are mostly Dickensian-style caricatures:
  • The Aunt and Uncle with their limited horizons and their stereotypical concerns: “His aunt and uncle were already high on the hill of life when first he came to them. They had married for comfort in the evening or, at any rate, in the late afternoon of their days.”
  • The evil boss Mr Shalford
  • The flamboyant actor Mr Chitterlow
  • The cool love interest Helen Walsingham
  • The childhood sweetheart Anne
  • The best mate Sid

There is some lovely foreshadowing:
  • ‘There's lots of young noblemen'll be glad to 'eng on to you,’ said old Kipps. ‘You mark my words. And borry your money. And then good-day to ye.’ ‘I got to be precious careful,’ said Kipps. ‘Mr Bean said that.’ ‘And you got to be precious careful of this old Bean,’ said old Kipps. ‘We may be out of the world in Noo Romney, but I've ’eard a bit about solicitors for all that. You keep your eye on old Bean me b'y. ‘’Ow do we know what 'e's up to, with your money, even now?’ said old Kipps, pursuing this uncomfortable topic. ‘’ E looked very respectable,’ said Kipps.
One of the techniques is to describe settings by listing details as here, for example:
  • The memories Kipps carried from that school into after-life were set in an atmosphere of stuffiness and mental muddle, and included countless pictures of sitting on creaking forms bored and idle; of blot licking and the taste of ink; of torn books with covers that set one's teeth on edge; of the slimy surface of the laboured slates; of furtive marble-playing, whispered storytelling, and of pinches, blows, and a thousand such petty annoyances being perpetually ‘passed on’ according to the custom of the place; of standing up in class and being hit suddenly and unreasonably for imaginary misbehaviour; of Mr Woodrow's raving days, when a scarcely sane injustice prevailed; of the cold vacuity of the hour of preparation before the bread-and-butter breakfast; and of horrible headaches and queer, unprecedented internal feelings, resulting from Mrs Woodrow's motherly rather than intelligent cookery.
Wells also understands about word order in sentences: “Once, just once, there was a chemistry lesson – a lesson of indescribable excitement – glass things of the strangest shape, a smell like bad eggs, something bubbling in something, a smash and stench, and Mr Woodrow saying quite distinctly – they threshed it out in the dormitory afterwards – ‘Damn!’” This last sentence is an authorial masterpiece drawing attention not just to the word order with the key word being placed at the very end of the sentence but also using that interrupt to delay the single word climax.

There were laugh out loud moments. The scene in which Kipps, alone in London, causes havoc in the restaurant of the Grand Hotel is a scene of classic farce.

Wells is scornful of the school to which Kipps goes:
  • In a glass cupboard in the passage were several shillingsworth of test-tubes and chemicals, a tripod, a glass retort, and a damaged Bunsen burner, manifesting that the ‘Scientific laboratory’ mentioned in the prospectus was no idle boast.
  • there was much furtive foul language
  • ‘Sundays are our happiest days,’ was one of Woodrow's formulae with the inquiring parent, but Kipps was not called in evidence. They were to him terrible gaps of inanity, no work, no play – a drear expanse of time with the mystery of church twice and plum-duff 18 once in the middle. The afternoon was given up to furtive relaxations, among which ‘Torture Chamber’ games with the less agreeable weaker boys figured. ... It was from the difference between this day and common days that Kipps derived his first definite conceptions of the nature of God and heaven. His instinct was to evade any closer acquaintance as long as he could.

There is some very anti-capitalist rhetoric. This is placed into the mouths of two characters, one a fellow apprentice with Kipps and one a consumptive old man living with Sid. This second, which is extensive, is immediately followed by the farcical scene in the Grand Hotel which itself is immediately followed by the crisis in Kipps' love life. So although Wells allows himself some pages to rant he is aware that he must return pretty swiftly to his story.
  • ‘When you get too old to work they chuck you away ... we're in a blessed drain-pipe, and we've got to crawl along it till we die.’
  • This was to be his life until his days should end. No adventures, no glory, no change, no freedom. Neither – though force of that came home to him later–might he dream of effectual love and marriage.
  • Night after night he would resolve to enlist, to run away to sea, to set fire to the warehouse or drown himself, and morning after morning he rose up and hurried downstairs in fear of a sixpenny fine.
  • money, like everything else – is a deception and a disappointment.
  • people think there is a class or order somewhere just above them or just below them, or a country or place somewhere that is really safe and happy… . The fact is, Society is one body, and it is either well or ill.
  • we're going to have a pretty acute attack of universal confusion. Universal confusion. Like one of those crushes when men are killed and maimed for no reason at all, going into a meeting or crowding for a train. Commercial and Industrial Stresses. Political Exploitation. Tariff Wars. Revolutions. All the bloodshed that will come of some fools calling half the white world yellow. These things alter the attitude of everybody to everybody. Everybody's going to feel 'em. Every fool in the world panting and shoving. We're all going to be as happy and comfortable as a household during a removal.
  • To-day ... the world is ruled by rich men; they may do almost anything they like with the world. And what are they doing? Laying it waste!
  • They grudge us our schools, they grudge us a gleam of light and air, they cheat us, and then seek to forget us.”
  • Our multitudes of poverty increase, and this crew of rulers makes no provision, foresees nothing, anticipates nothing!
  • I found myself at thirteen being forced into a factory like a rabbit into a chloroformed box. Thirteen! – when their children are babies. But even a child of that age could see what it meant, that Hell of a factory! Monotony and toil and contempt and dishonour! And then death.

There is a lot of stuff about behaving in polite society ... and the perils of failure:
  • “It was clear his only chance of concealing his bottomless baseness was to hold his tongue
  • “It had not yet come to Kipps to acknowledge any man as his better in his heart of hearts. When one does that the game is played, and one grows old indeed.
  • The rug, the fender, the mantel and mirror, conspired with great success to make him look a trivial and intrusive little creature amidst their commonplace hauteur, and his own shadow on the opposite wall seemed to think everything a great lark, and mocked and made tremendous fun of him…
  • Kipps was unprepared for the unpleasant truth – that the path of social advancement is, and must be, strewn with broken friendships.
  • Outwardly calm, or at most a little flushed and ruffled, inwardly Kipps was a horrible, tormented battleground of scruples, doubts, shames, and self-assertions
  • “At his departure Kipps, with a hot face, convulsive gestures, and an embittered heart, tipped everyone who did not promptly and actively resist, including an absent-minded South African diamond merchant who was waiting in the hall for his wife.
  • ‘You ain't comfortable, my gel, in this world, not if you don't live up to your position,’
Some great lines:
  • At meals ... one had to say one's ‘grace,’ hold one's spoon and fork in mad, unnatural ways called ‘properly,’ and refrain from eating even nice sweet things ‘too fast.’
  • Once his aunt gave him a trumpet if he would promise faithfully not to blow it, and afterwards took it away again.
  • “Rye and Winchelsea perched like dream-cities on their little hills.
  • They had not kissed, but all the guilt of kissing was between them.
  • By the nature of his training he was indistinct in his speech, confused in his mind, and retreating in his manners.”
  • His conception of a satisfactory municipal life was to ‘keep down the rates.’”
  • He had developed a sort of idea that going to church had a tendency to alleviate life.
  • Certain things remained quite clearly, and as it is a matter of common knowledge that intoxicated people forget what happens to them, it follows that he was not intoxicated.
  • He felt that telling was the thing to make this business real.
  • Everybody walked about backward at court he knew, when not actually on their knees.
  • Turning over the pages of the Physiology again, he came upon a striking plate, in which a youth of agreeable profile displayed his interior in an unstinted manner to the startled eye. It was a new view of humanity altogether for Kipps, and it arrested his mind. ‘Chubes,’ he whispered. ‘Chubes!’
  • Whenever he thought of any extensive change in a play he was writing, he always took a day off. In the end it saved time to do so. It prevented his starting rashly upon work that might have to be re-written. There was no good in doing work when you might have to do it over again, none whatever.
  • No doubt this was seeing life, but had he particularly wanted to see life that day?
  • ‘You'd hardly believe,’ Coote said, ‘how much you can get out of books. Provided you avoid trashy reading, that is. You ought to make a rule, Kipps, and read one Serious Book a week. Of course we can Learn even from Novels, Nace Novels that is, but it isn't the same thing as serious reading. I made a rule, One Serious Book and One Novel – no more.
  • Kipps descended to tea in that state of nervous apprehension at the difficulties of eating and drinking that his Aunt's knuckle rappings had implanted in him for ever.”
  • Room to swing a cat, it seemed, was absolutely essential. It was an infrequent but indispensable operation.
  • He loved Helen, he revered Helen. He was also beginning to hate her with some intensity.
  • He knew that wherever you were, so soon as you were thoroughly lost, you said ‘Hi!’ to a cab, and then ‘Royal Grend Hotel.’ Day and night these trusty conveyances are returning the strayed Londoner back to his point of departure, and were it not for their activity, in a little while the whole population, so vast and incomprehensible is the intricate complexity of this great city, would be hopelessly lost for ever.
  • His soul looked out upon life in general as a very small nestling might peep out of its nest. What an extraordinary thing life was to be sure, and what a remarkable variety of people there were in it!
  • He found that a fork in his inexperienced hand was an instrument of chase rather than capture.
  • They meditated upon replicas of classical statuary without excessive comment. Kipps said, at large, it must have been a queer world then; but Ann very properly doubted if they really went about like that.
  • ‘I wonder 'ow all these old antediluvium animals got extinct,’ he asked. ‘No one couldn't possibly 'ave killed 'em.’ ‘Why, I know that!’ said Ann. ‘They was overtook by the Flood… .’ Kipps meditated for a while. ‘But I thought they had to take two of everything there was—’ ‘Within reason they 'ad,'
  • ‘Why do I never get anything right?’ Kipps asked of a bright implacable universe.

This is a story with some moments of anger, some very funny sections, and some parts where you feel so sorry for poor old Arthur Kipps, the Holy Fool. It is also a story with a lot of ups and downs and full of incident.

August 2019

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