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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

Sunday, 15 September 2019

"Tono-Bungay" by H G Wells

H G Wells made his name with science fiction classics such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine but he also wrote a number of 'normal' novels such as Kipps (on which the musical Half a Sixpence is based), Love and Mr Lewishman, and The History of Mr Polly. Tono-Bungay attempts to straddle these genres. The title refers to a patent medicine which the narrator's uncle invents and which makes his fortune, but it is made clear that the scientific justification for this medicine is nil, it has no curative powers. However, the narrator spends some considerable time developing flying machines (the book was written in 1909 just six years after the Wright Brothers and in the same year as Louis Bleriot crossed the channel so flight was very much in the scientific headlines of the day) and he also makes an expedition to Africa to collect a radioactive material (radioactivity was discovered in 1896 and the first intimations of its dangers date to about 1906). However, despite these scientific overlayings which may have been included for the sake of selling the book, the main thrust of the novel is an autobiographical account of Wells's early days, fictionalised and adapted, and the great success of Tono-Bungay may be seen to equate with the great success of Wells's fiction.

There is a structure:

  • The fist part of the first chapter contains a classic hook: "And once (though it is the most incidental thing in my life) I murdered a man …"The first section describes a number of things which are to come. 
  • The first mention of the patent medicine Tono-Bungay occurs almost exactly at the 25% mark.
  • There is foreshadowing: "‘He's always wanting something to happen,’ said my aunt Susan. ‘Some day he'll get a shower of things and they'll be too much for him.’" (1.2.4) 
However, to a large extent, the autobiographical details distort the plot. Wells as the first-person narrator states: "I suppose what I'm really trying to render is nothing more nor less than Life – as one man has found it. I want to tell – myself, and my impressions of the thing as a whole, to say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels." (1.2). He also makes much of the fact that his desk is strewn with untidy notes an one might agree; there are times when the book seems to ramble.

It moves from his childhood as the son of the housekeeper living in a big house to his apprenticeship with his uncle, a village chemist. He then travels to London to study science but gets distracted by wanting to marry. He is enabled to marry by taking a job with his uncle managing the distribution of the patent medicine; his marriage is a loveless and more or less sexless disaster. These follow, more or less closely, the facts of H G Wells's life as recounted in his biography for example that written by Lovat Dickson.

The last part of the book contains a dreadfully overwritten melodramatic love scene and some passages of purple description.

His early life also provide ammunition for Wells to rail against:

  • The class system of his time:
    • "The great house, the church, the village and the labourers and the servants in their stations and degrees, seemed to me, I say, to be a closed and complete social system." (1.1.2)
    • "In that English countryside of my boyhood every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes, it was inextricably your destiny." (1.1.3)
    • "The public schools that had come into existence in the brief glow of the Renascence had been taken possession of by the ruling class; the lower classes were not supposed to stand in need of schools, and our middle stratum got the schools it deserved, private schools, schools any unqualified pretender was free to establish." (1.1.6)
    • I wandered up through Rochester once, and had a glimpse of the Stour valley above the town, all horrible with cement works and foully smoking chimneys and rows of workmen's cottages, minute, ugly, uncomfortable and grimy. So I had my first intimation of how industrialism must live in a landlord's land. (1.2.1)
  • Capitalism:
    • "The whole trend of modern money-making is to foresee something that will presently be needed and put it out of reach, and then to haggle yourself wealthy. You buy up land upon which people will presently want to build houses, you secure rights that will bar vitally important developments, and so on, and so on." (1.3.1)
    • "See what the world pays teachers and discoverers and what it pays businessmen! That shows the ones it really wants." (2.2.2)
    • "the quickest way to get wealth is to sell the cheapest thing possible in the dearest bottle." (2.2.3)
    • "Advertisement has revolutionized trade and industry; it is going to revolutionize the world. The old merchant used to tote about commodities; the new one creates values. Doesn't need to tote. He takes something that isn't worth anything – or something that isn't particularly worth anything, and he makes it worth something." (2.3.2)
    • "The whole of this modern mercantile investing civilization is indeed such stuff as dreams are made of. A mass of people swelters and toils, great railway systems grow, cities arise to the skies and spread wide and far, mines are opened, factories hum, foundries roar, ships plough the seas, countries are settled; about this busy striving world the rich owners go, controlling all, enjoying all, confident and creating the confidence that draws us all together into a reluctant, nearly unconscious brotherhood." (3.1.3)
    • "for this the millions toiled and perished in suffering, in order that a few of us should build palaces"(4.1.2)
  • Church goers:
    • "He made no fight against the world at all, he was floundering in small debts that were not so small but that finally they overwhelmed him; whenever there was occasion for any exertion his wife fell back upon pains and her ‘condition’, and God sent them many children, most of whom died, and so, by their coming and going, gave a double exercise in the virtues of submission. Resignation to God's will was the common device of these people in the face of every duty and every emergency." (1.2.1)
    • "They were the self-appointed confidants of God's mockery of His own creation."(1.2.1)
  • Mrs Grundy:
    • "For all that is cardinal in this essential business of life she had one inseparable epithet – ‘horrid’." (2.4.1)
    • "She had an idea of love as a state of worship and service on the part of the man and of condescension on the part of the woman." (2.4.1)
    • "The man gave presents, did services, sought to be in every way delightful. The woman ‘went out' with him, smiled at him, was kissed by him in decorous secrecy, and if he chanced to offend, denied her countenance and presence. Usually she did something ‘for his good' to him, made him go to church, made him give up smoking or gambling, smartened him up. Quite at the end of the story came a marriage, and after that the interest ceased." (2.4.1)
    • "One side of the road for men, and the other for women, and a hoarding without posters between them. Every boy and girl to be sewn up in a sack and sealed, just the head and hands and feet out until twenty-one. Music abolished, calico garments for the lower animals!" (2.4.2)
    • "Anyone who knows about these things, knows there's just as much mystery and deliciousness about Grundy's forbidden things as there is about eating ham. Jolly nice if it's a bright morning and you're well and hungry and having breakfast in the open air. Jolly unattractive if you're off colour." (2.4.3)
    • "It's easy to make allowances now; but to be young and ardent and to make allowances, to see one's married life open before one, the life that seemed in its dawn a glory, a garden of roses, a place of deep sweet mysteries and heart throbs and wonderful silences, and to see it a vista of tolerations and baby-talk! A compromise. The least effectual thing in all one's life. "(2.4.5)
    • "Desire which fills the universe before its satisfaction, vanishes utterly – like the going of daylight – with achievement." (2.4.10)

Other quotes

  • "Most people in this world seem to live ‘in character’; they have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the three are congruous one with another and true to the rules of their type." (1.1.1)
  • "When she told you it was a fine morning, she seemed also to be telling you you were a fool." (1.1.4)
  • "She was that strange product of the old time, a devoted, trusted servant; she had, as it were, banked all her pride and will with the greater, more powerful people who employed her, in return for a lifelong security of servitude – the bargain was none the less binding for being implicit. Finally they were to pension her, and she would die the hated treasure of a boardinghouse. She had built up in herself an enormous habit of reference to these upstairs people, she had curbed down all discordant murmurings of her soul, her very instincts were perverted or surrendered. She was sexless, her personal pride was all transferred, she mothered another woman's child with a hard, joyless devotion that was at last entirely compatible with a stoical separation." (1.1.7)
  • "the son of a servant counts as a servant." (1.1.9)
  • "The body betrayed an equatorial laxity, an incipient ‘bow window'." (1.2)
  • "They seemed to be adrift in a limitless crowd of dingy people, wearing shabby clothes, living uncomfortably in shabby secondhand houses, going to and fro on pavements that had always a thin veneer of greasy, slippery mud, under grey skies that showed no gleam of hope of anything for them but dinginess until they died." (1.3.7)
  • "I had thought of London as a large, free, welcoming, adventurous place, and I saw it slovenly and harsh and irresponsive." (1.3.7)
  • "I did not want simply to live or simply to live happily or well, I wanted to serve and do and make – with some nobility. It was in me. It is in half the youth of the world." (2.1.1)
  • "It was a relationship so alien to my orderly conceptions of honour, to what I could imagine any friend of mine doing, that I really hardly saw it with it there under my nose." (2.1.3)
  • "I have no advice to give anyone, none, – except to avoid regrets. Be yourself, – seek after such beautiful things as your own sense determines to be beautiful. And don't mind the headache in the morning…. "(2.2.4)
  • "The real trouble of life, Ponderevo, isn't that we exist – that's a vulgar error; the real trouble is that we don't really exist and we want to. That's what this – in the highest sense – muck stands for! The hunger to be – for once – really alive – to the fingertips!…" (2.3.2)
  • "None of us want to be what we are, or to do what we do. Except as a sort of basis. What do we want? You know. I know. Nobody confesses. What we all want to be is something perpetually young and beautiful – young Joves, young Joves, Ponderevo' – his voice became loud, harsh and declamatory – ‘pursuing coy half-willing nymphs through everlasting forests…’" (2.3.2)
  • "There's all these patent grain foods, – what Americans call cereals. I believe I'm right, sir, in saying they're sawdust.’" (2.3.2)
  • "the way in which the young people of this generation pair off determines the fate of the nation; all the other affairs of the state are subsidiary to that. And we leave it to flushed and blundering youth to stumble on its own significance," (2.4.1)
  • "Though Marion ‘liked' music, she didn't like ‘too much of it‘," (2.4.2)
  • "I became an inordinate cigar smoker; it gave me moods of profound depression, but I treated these usually by the homoeopathic method, by lighting another cigar." (3.3.1)
  • "the intellectual level of palmistry and genteel fiction, pink" (3.3.2)
  • "‘You want to make a flying-machine,’ she pursued. ‘And when you fly? What then? Would it be for fighting?’…" (3.3.3)
  • "This way in which men and women make audiences for one another is a curiously influential force in their lives. For some it seems an audience is a vital necessity, they seek audiences as creatures seek food; others again, my uncle among them, can play to an imaginary audience. I, I think, have lived and can live without one. " (3.3.5)
  • "Radioactivity is a real disease of matter. Moreover it is a contagious disease. It spreads. You bring those debased and crumbling atoms near others and those too presently catch the trick of swinging themselves out of coherent existence." (3.4.5)

Reflecting on the story, Wells as narrator says it is "The immense inconsequence of my experiences. It is, I see now that I have it all before me, a story of activity and urgency and sterility." (4.3.1) Not the best blurb.

On the other hand novelist Arnold Bennett hailed Tono-Bungay as “Wells’s most distinguished and powerful book”.

September 2019

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