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…