His 1916 novel "Mr Britling" is a must-read—but reminds us that contemplation has its limitsby Francine Stock / April 6, 2016 / Leave a comment
The bathtub of HG Wells is not large. It sits even today in a private house in Essex, a sympathetic 18th-century residence where Wells and family spent much of the First World War. The tub is significant because it was a place for contemplation, off a room where Wells regularly worked at night. At his desk, wearing what biographer Michael Sherborne describes as a “Wellesian onesie,” he pondered how to address the great questions of the conflicted day.
Wells’s fictional counterpart Mr Britling, the central character of his acclaimed novel about the war Mr Britling Sees It Through—100 years old this year—is regularly found at his night desk, warmly wrapped in pyjamas of llama wool “working ever and again at an essay, an essay of preposterous ambitions, for the title of it was ‘The Better Government of the World.’”
Mr Britling pours forth opinions—columns, pamphlets, letters, arguments—with apparent facility from the Dower House in the fictional Essex village of Matching’s Easy. An American visitor even remarks on the repurposing of the outbuildings from agriculture to pleasure or the intellectual husbandry of a man of ideas. It’s a charming and comfortable place (as its inspiration is still) in which to sit out a global conflict.
The author’s sense of guilt infects the portrait of Mr Britling, not just for his persistent infidelities but for his armchair war. He harvests profitable verbiage from the misery of others, just as Wells would progress from the establishment of Charles Masterman’s War Propaganda Bureau in 1914 to the commercial success of Mr Britling via such attempts at post-conflict soothsaying as What Is Coming? Yet, a century on, the novel hits home for the impotence of the commentator in the face of terrible events, the struggle to wrap rational arguments around horrifying facts, much as the 21st-century commentariat does now across multiple media.
While Wells is often celebrated for his prescient vision, he failed singularly to identify the imminent threat of war with Germany. For Mr Britling and his well-heeled Essex neighbours and London circle, the focus in 1914 is primarily the Irish Question. The threat of Germany, he opines, would always be there. “The Powers wrangle and threaten. They’re far too cautious and civilised to let the guns go off.” Even in the early stages of the war, Mr Britling writes a pamphlet entitled “And Now War Ends.”
The only direct description of the battlefield comes in the letters from Mr Britling’s son at the front and even then, it is a mitigated view, tinged by the grand design of the intellectual.
Wells was recognised internationally for Mr Britling as an account of a nation at war. Maxim Gorky praised the novel; Andre Gide records in his memoirs reading it aloud. But by contrast, across the Channel, another great literary success of 1916 would point the way towards the development of 20th-century fiction. This was Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (Le Feu), a novel mired deep in the horror of the soldier’s experience that won the Prix Goncourt in 1917.
Barbusse had enlisted, aged 41, at the outbreak of war, although he was invalided out at the end of 1915. What he learnt in the trenches, the phrases and sensations he recorded, produced a work of shocking, intimate immediacy. Under Fire is anecdotal, with dialogue in the argot of the poilu, the ordinary French soldier: unshaven (the term means literally “hairy” or “bristly”), sweary, missing teeth, crusted in grime and contending with rats (“the worse you smell, the more you have of ‘em”) obsessing over food. These men considered themselves waiting machines, attending their own imminent slaughter among the contorted corpses of their comrades.
First serialised from the summer of 1916, as France suffered Verdun, Under Fire became a crucial document in the public recognition of conditions in the field, but is also representative of wider artistic attempts to depict the reality. The poet Siegfried Sassoon read it at Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital; the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis admired it. Authorities on both sides of the Channel found its graphic language and imagery disturbing.
As it happens, in the spring of 1917, Andre Gide’s nocturnal reading moved on from Wells to Barbusse, whom he found convincing in the mud, but less so when he tried to be “intelligent” in a lyrical postscript that hinted at a better way beyond conflict. Mr Britling for his part learns that abstractions date quickly and the final pages of Wells’s novel, with their vague notion of a divine solution (from an even vaguer notion of a deity), are at best confusing.
Yet for the 21st-century reader, both novels are fascinating glimpses of the war as it happened, both on and off the battlefield, without the benefit of hindsight. Amid the military and political histories, make time to read them.