Science Fiction Studies

#67 = Volume 22, Part 3 = November 1995


David Y. Hughes

Surfing the Intertext

William J. Scheick, ed. The Critical Response to H.G. Wells. Critical Responses in Arts and Letters, Number 17. Greenwood Press (800-225-5800), 1995. xvi+194. $55.00.

This year's centennial of The Time Machine will be followed in 1996 by the half-centennial of Wells's death. A Wells retrospective is timely. Scheick is a programmatic editor, as I shall show, but it would be difficult to find another with his combination of general publishing experience and special familiarity with the several stages of Wells's literary career. Scheick's overall knowledge of Wells was won by co-editing H.G. Wells: A Reference Guide (1987), the standard directory of all manner of Wellsiana year by year from 1895 through 1984. Specifically on the early Wells, Scheick has portions of two of his recent studies, Fictional Structure and Ethics: The Turn-of-the-Century English Novel (1990) and The Ethos of Romance at the Turn of the Century (1994). At the other end of Wells's career comes the book that made Scheick's name among Wells scholars in the first place, The Splintering Frame: The Later Fiction of H.G. Wells (1984), which articulates the audacious thesis (still unorthodox) that Wells in his late years was "a remarkable artist and a truly transitional figure in the development from Victorian to contemporary fiction."1 Scheick introduces the present volume with a concise 17-page history of the critical response to Wells. This efficient plan, by presenting the critical reactions, necessarily outlines the writing career. Also, since Scheick deals with a full century by and about Wells, he stretches Wells's early and middle periods beyond their usual critical delimitations, bringing the early period past the scientific romances and up to 1905 and the middle period far past the generally recognized major novels and up to 1919, just prior to The Outline of History, while still leaving over 25 years for the last period, plus another 50 years for the posthumous period, "Wells Redivivus." More about the "Introduction" below. The body of the book is not arranged in strict accord with these four periods. Wells is treated in chronological order, title by title, but the commentary is subjoined irrespective of date. For example, the only commentary on The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) is "redivivus" commentary excerpted from Bernard Bergonzi's The Early H.G. Wells (1960). There are altogether 23 pieces of criticism of from 1 to 20 pages each, and an excerpt from Experiment in Autobiography fore and aft--a nice touch, giving Wells the first and last word. The selected Wells titles get one or two essays or reviews apiece, beginning with The Wonderful Visit--unaccountably, The Time Machine gets no exclusive commentary--and concluding with the relations of Brynhild (1937) and Dolores (1938) to Schopenhauer and Spengler, as excerpted from The Splintering Frame. In the interval, the commentary involves more or less all of the major and a good deal of the minor fiction, though regrettable exceptions are numerous (among others, The War in the Air, Mr. Britling Sees It Through, The Shape of Things to Come, and above all any of Wells's numerous volumes of short stories). A list of supplementary criticism published between 1956 and 1994 and the index round out the book. The supple mentary list reinforces a suspicion that Scheick can be simply arbitrary. It includes borderline entries like Stephen Gill's exercise in tertiary criticism,2 The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells: A Critical Study (1975), and ignores some standard references such as Suvin and Philmus's H.G. Wells and Modern Science Fiction (1977) and several more recent critiques and collections by the likes of Peter Kemp, Robert Crossley, and Patrick Parrinder and Christopher Rolfe. As to the index, it is indispensable because a number of works--e.g., The Time Machine, Love and Mr. Lewisham, The First Men in the Moon, Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island--are handled under scattered heads other than their own titles.

Scheick's selections are preponderantly recent and reflect a specific critical bias. The last comparable collection was Patrick Parrinder's survey, H.G. Wells: The Critical Heritage (1973), a chronological selection of reviews and criticism by Wells's contemporaries. Scheick's collection, according to the "Series Foreword" by Cameron Northouse, seems to promise much the same general plan enlarged to accommodate some proportion of later criticism. "The focus [of each volume] is basically historical," Northouse writes, entailing "a strong representation of the major reviews and articles that have collectively produced the author's...critical reputation." But then comes an escape clause that permits "new essays on areas that may not have been adequately dealt with" (xiii). This is Scheick's bolt-hole. The collection is short compared to Parrinder's, having just 153 pages of body commentary. Of these 153 pages, 63 are printed for the first time, and another 42 postdate 1980; that is, 41% of the collective assemblage is hot off the press and another 28% is not much older. Scheick's judgment in front-loading so blatantly is further suspect (in my opinion it misses the mark) when 3 essays--38 pages--are given to a former graduate student of his, Catherine Rainwater, who is not otherwise widely published, thus handing over to her 25% of the showing of what has "collectively produced" (or presumptively will produce) Wells's critical reputation. On the other hand, certainly newness is a factor in (market) value, and I shall come back to two or three of the new essays which by themselves would be worth the price of the book.

The disproportionate length of Rainwater's contributions is consistent with the bias of Scheick's "Introduction," which is already succinctly conveyed by its subtitle, "H.G. Wells and the Literate Subconscious." Scheick remarks: "this book presents the reflections of various Sniffers" (sniffers of influence); or, more formally, "this commentary collectively traces the history of Wells's reputation from 1895 to 1994 by featuring the theme of influence in the criticism of his work," and, "the historical review of commentary on Wells's writings in this volume celebrates authors in communion with each other" (3). Rainwater concurs, having stated elsewhere that "[modern] writers and critics are not concerned with old-fashioned questions about `sources,' but with how the `encapsulated' or subsumed material and the text within which it appears together comprise an intertextual event."3 Accordingly, she seeks single-mindedly in all three of her essays--to the exclusion even of other purely literary forces--to uncover an early Wells dominated by Poe, a middle-late Wells engaged in re-visioning Poe, and this mature Wells passing Poe along seemingly via The Outline--into two or three short stories by Ellen Glasgow (who gets the last essay of the trio mostly to herself). For Rainwater, no outside force seriously rivals literary intertextuality. For example, she mentions Wells's "Darwin-influenced notions" for the sole apparent purpose of referring them to Poe by remarking without amplification that Poe and Darwin "coexist most sympathetically" in the early Wells's devolutionary thought (see p. 82 and note 14). Viewing Wells purely as Poe's repository and re-former and conduit, Rainwater practices the theory Scheick intentionally or unintentionally conveys, namely, that literary history is nothing but the history of "authors in communion"--no matter Wells's manifold extraliterary sources and intentions.

Scheick is not a meticulous editor. I leave aside many instances of slips like "strangest" for "strongest" (25), "urbanity" for "inurbanity" (53), "strangely" for "strongly" (62), or "cultural" for "centurial" (73). What is remarkable in view of Scheick's "communion of authors," is his penchant for muddling dates, often by conflating them. For example, in the "Introduction," he conflates two reviews only three years apart but, in the case of Rebecca West, tantamount to a lifetime. Scheick writes:

In an essay reprinted in this collection, Rebecca West (Cicely Fairfield) in effect suggests why Marriage [1912] was so tepidly received. This review, which approvingly situates Wells among continental realists and naturalists, occasioned the first meeting between West and Wells. Their subsequent liaison (1913-23) influenced...The Research Magnificent [1915]. (8)

The review Scheick reprints is the Research review. Somehow he has it mixed up with the Marriage review, which led to the famous liaison. Somehow, further, he forgets that the realists and naturalists are in the Research--not the Marriage--review, and he gets West's drift all wrong. Far from approving, she despises the realists and naturalists, Tolstoy and Zola ("not clean about love") and instead aligns Wells with Cervantes and Dostoevsky, writers who know that "the magic force of an idea depends upon its nakedness" (112). This in 1915, when the liaison had full sway and Rebecca was basking in the glow of her portrait in Research as "the wild-haired Amanda of infinite delights" (113), in no way resembles her view of Wells in 1912, when they had yet to meet and she called him "the Old Maid among novelists."4

After the "Introduction," the problems with dating multiply because, to begin with, they inhere in the book's physical format. Not only may the commentary on a given work be of any date, contemporary or "redivivus," but (in accord with the usual but not invariable practice of the "Critical Responses" series), whatever the date may be, none is supplied, except the date of the work criticized. The commentary is printed without annotation of any sort. Critics separated by up to a hundred years may be yoked together, with only the acknowledgments at the front of the book to show it. At the same time, any name or date absent in the commentary itself is invariably supplied, e.g., "[William Shakespeare's] Hamlet [1601]" (112). Who can be the intended reader? Whoever it is, the information is not necessarily reliable. For example, in the first sentence of the first selection, from Experiment in Autobiography, brackets (compensating for Wells's context) misplace the master of Uppark, a Regency rake of the 1820s, as a late Victorian: "Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, like many of his class and time [the 1880s], had been a free-thinker." Other time-slips, more or less trivial, include acknowledging but never printing an 1895 commentary; printing an unacknowledged 1908 commentary, which consequently remains undated; and misprinting "1892" for "1902" twice (61) in an essay by John Reed which argues that Wells's The Sea Lady is a piracy of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea, in part because the latter was enjoying a London production in 1902, the year Wells published.

But now Scheick's combined inattention to dating and preference for Sniffers positively compels me to consider a pair of good "old-fashioned questions about 'sources.'" The first work treated, The Wonderful Visit (1895), gets two short paragraphs from a contemporary review pointing out that the plots of Wells's novel and Grant Allen's The British Barbarians are strangely similar. That is all; the next entry passes on to The Invisible Man. The inference is wide open that Wells lifted the plot of The Wonderful Visit. But the facts are 1) that Wells published in October, Allen in November, and 2) that when Wells sent Allen a copy of The Wonderful Visit upon publication, Allen replied lamenting that The British Barbarians, soon to be published, has "a very similar idea, and some scenes so absurdly similar that I am sure to be accused of plagiarism." But, he assured Wells, he had written the book six years earlier. All this was noted almost 30 years ago in an article of mine that Scheick has misconstrued.5

What chance of such distortion twice? Incredibly, the treatment of Kipps (1905) is a virtual replication. A brief excerpt from a contemporary review stands alone. It reveals that plot entanglements, character delineation, and displacement of conventional class obstacles that one might think peculiar to Kipps are all to be found in remarkably similar form in a comedy by R.C. Carton (pen name of Richard Claude Critchett), entitled Mr. Hopkinson, which was then enjoying a successful run. Here again are the conditions for piracy and here again no word to the contrary. But the facts turn out to be 1) that the first- night review of Hopkinson appeared in the Times of February 22, 1905, whereas Kipps had begun serialization in the Pall Mall Magazine with the January number, and 2) that the plot similarities that Kipps shares with Hopkinson already existed in the manuscript of The Wealth of Mr. Waddy, the massive ur-Kipps that Wells composed between 1898 and 1903 and withheld from publication during his lifetime.6

Neither of these reviews charges anyone with theft, really, and that implication is due to Scheick's forgetting that similarities between two simultaneous literary works may be coincidental--or may reflect the same currents in the same social matrix--until proven otherwise. However, most of the reprinted essays are more substantial than these two and aim at something more than a startle reflex. Among the best of those that are not already reprinted in Parrinder are the anonymous "The Ideas of H.G. Wells" (1908), a conservative's trenchant criticism of Wells's science and politics; a contemporary review signed "F.C.F.S." of A Modern Utopia, sympathetic but doubtful of Wells's efforts to safeguard the integrity of the individual in utopia; an excerpt from William Bellamy's The Novels of Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy: 1890-1910 (1971) strenuously defending the usually downrated In the Days of the Comet; H.L. Mencken's review of The History of Mr. Polly; Arnold Bennett's review of The New Machiavelli; and, at the end, an excerpt from Wells's "The Contemporary Novel" (1911). (The later fiction is treated mostly in Rainwater's and Scheick's selections and in the previously unpublished contributions.) Unfortunately, limitation of space or editorial bias seriously truncates several even of these rather few essays. For example, Bellamy favorably compares the portrayal of the apocalyptic pastoralization wrought by the green gas in Comet to the often praised portrayal of the emergent pastures of sunrise in The First Men in the Moon. This comparison is cut out, leaving the generalizations it supports--of a therapeutic trend in the Edwardian novel--to fend for themselves. Scheick's own excerpt from The Splintering Frame, condensed and cut, is hard to follow, especially since his critical grounds are set out at the beginning of the book, whereas the excerpt is from the end.

The new selections (ruling out Rainwater on Glasgow as peripheral) are all three of fresh interest, and among them they examine aspects of the early, the middle, and the later Wells. The authors of course are Sniffers. John Reed in "H.G. Wells and Mrs Humphry Ward" investigates a literary connection, in itself somewhat faded, which goes far towards clarifying the coincidence of the didactic and the romantic in Wells's early to middle years; Janet Gabler-Hover in "H.G. Wells's and Henry James's Two Ladies" grounds her comparison of Meanwhile and The Portrait of a Lady in feminist psychosexual portraits of the two men; and Allan Chavkin in "Mr. Sammler's War of the Planets" brings remembered aspects of Wells as elderly world planner and Wells as young romantic into the postwar and Vietnam eras by means of the fragmented vision of Saul Bellow.

Reed has two modest contributions. Both involve The Sea Lady, more or less. One, excerpted from The Natural History of H.G. Wells (1982), links The Sea Lady to Ibsen; the other, the new essay, links this romance and several of Wells's succeeding novels to Mrs. Humphry Ward. The evidence of Ward's influence in The Sea Lady is airtight, and the case for Ibsen's presence is strong though circumstantial; but for Reed the point is that comparison shows Wells is "responsive" to his sources rather than primarily "assimilative" of them.7 Thus, to give the barest gist of the Ibsen-Sea Lady correspondence, Ellida in The Lady from the Sea forgoes the love of a romantic mariner and chooses a marriage of order, duty, and service, but Wells's Chatteris "responds" by choosing to swim to his death for the love of a mermaid; or, putting it symbolically, Ellida asks that a mermaid be painted into a seascape, beached and dying, meanwhile thinking her unromantic marriage sufficient because she chose it freely, but Chatteris "responds" by renouncing worldly things for the passionate sea.

In his second and newly printed essay, Reed makes two claims: that Wells frequently engaged Mrs Humphry Ward's fiction of political and social stasis as "opposite idea,"8 (often as embodied in Marcella, 1894), and that, sadly, "the trajectory of Wells's career resembles Mrs Ward's" (108). The first claim is secured by quotations from Experiment in Autobiography and from several of Wells's novels of the first 15 years after 1900, notably The Sea Lady and The New Machiavelli (1910). The theme of these novels, said Wells, is "the harsh incompatibility of wide public interests with the high, swift rush of imaginative passion--with considerable sympathy for the passion"; and he added that in The New Machiavelli "the Marcella-like heroine of The Sea Lady is repeated, but the mermaid has become a...credible young woman" (103). Reed's other claim may be incontrovertible, too, but not the implications he draws. No doubt "a younger generation" saw Wells and Ward similarly: as "preachers" toiling on "the lower slopes of Olympus," their "practical imaginations" unable to survive the heights (109). Reed here adopts the view of Henry James, a friend of both Wells and Ward, who "never really admitted either into the elite circle of true art" (108); and Reed's satisfaction in James's judgment is intensified, backhandedly, when he gives Ward the last word on Wells (from A Writer's Recollections, 1918), which, as Reed notes, sounds "familiar," as if (a greatly less circumspect) James had penned it himself: "[Wells is] a journalist of very great powers, of unequal education, and much crudity of mind, who has inadvertently strayed into the literature of the imagination" (108). In 1995, this is less and less one's view of Wells as a whole the fifteen or so years up to and after The Sea Lady loom larger though all but the charge of crudity may do for Mrs. Humphry Ward.

Janet Gabler-Hover's contribution initiates a discussion of Wells's Meanwhile (The Picture of a Lady) (1927) by asserting that Wells was responding against the aestheticism of James's Portrait of a Lady (1881), but "the more or less literal" conjunctions between the two books in themselves interest her little. It is more than half way through her essay when she gets around to mentioning the presence in Picture of the American aesthete Mr. Plantagenet-Buchan, "who seems meant as a portrait of Henry James [and]...is pit[ted by Wells] against the larger social awareness and consciousness of his own stand-in, [the philosopher] Sempack" (155). Thus, she initially offers no evidence of James's presence except the surmise of a contemporary reviewer (in the selection preceding hers) and the concurrence of Scheick. Instead, she plunges immediately into an absorbing psychosexual analysis of the public and private interaction of the two men in their criticism and correspondence, which, she states, "once analyzed, provides a context for the discussion of the novels" (147).

Gabler-Hover contends that questions of the role, form, and ideology of the novel as a literary vehicle--the questions that fuel the familiar critical discourse concerning Wells's avowed journalism and James's avowed art--are comparatively superficial; a deeper level is at work. The nub is that James is homosexual, covert, and restrained, and Wells is heterosexual, overt, and impulsive. Each seemed to the other uncanny. Gabler-Hover notes also the curious similarity that each had an over-solicitous mother and an ineffectual or absent father, but she lets the etiologies go, for the most part, because her primary concern is the record of their mutual discomfiture in their letters. From these she quotes at length, and, short of doing the same here, I can only say that I am almost convinced that "it is virtually impossible not to read their sexual selves imprinted experientially onto their theoretical disagreements" (153). Gabler-Hover never saw a technical catchword she could resist, but I confess I am delighted that she no more calls James cher matre than Wells did. In words of one syllable, what makes the high ground of art is "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," and it is the heart which determines what she calls the "two rightnesses" of the ways Wells and James plot their fictions (146).

Even if one were to doubt that Picture is directed as such at Portrait, Gabler-Hover offers a rewarding comparison of the opposingly concatenated ways that Wells and James "emplot" the novels, i.e, "strategize their narratives defensively to mitigate against sexual anxiety" (147). Her view of the ethical thrusts of the plots has a familiar ring while the grounds she proposes are fresh. She sees the plots as driven by the fact that the heroine of each gains an impression of a sexual dalliance involving her husband. In Picture, Cynthia discovers the indiscretion immediately, then the plot coerces her decision to let the memory go and to concentrate on the importance of her husband's mission in the larger world. In Portrait, Isabel gains an impression of a premarital affair, then the plot coerces her discovery that the impression is correct. That is, Wells's plot first avows sexuality, then forgets it, as irrelevant, by producing an eclipsing social responsibility that marginalizes and desexualizes Cynthia as mere nurturer of her husband's mission. James's plot first conceals, then exposes a sexuality that brings home to Isabel the sense of difference that people feel in intimacy, a sense of estrangement that checks "the identity of one partner [being] annihilated by the ego of the other" and "promises the possibility of psychological exploration and growth" (159). This is an even-handed analysis; the belief is that the author is implicit in his plot, which he cannot help constructing "to correspond with his own ethical vision, his psychological needs, thus his very way of being in the world" (157).

In my opinion, Allan Chavkin's "Mr. Sammler's War of the Planets" is by far the most rewarding of the new contributions. In it Wells is wonderfully "redivivus." Chavkin assembles and unites the pieces of the significant portrait of Wells in today's world that lie scattered, distorted, and fragmented in the historical consciousness of the protagonist of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1969). Mr. Sammler, now aged 70, is a Polish Jew who was proud to belong to Wells's circle in the London of the 1930s, subsequently crawled out of a mass grave in the Holocaust, and is now afloat in socially and sexually liberated Manhattan in the year of the technological triumph of the first moon landing. Sammler is poised to compose a major study of Wells, as he has been for years, which he never brings himself to begin. With Wells always near Sammler's thoughts, the reader is privy to an ambivalent view of him that reflects the ironies of history.

We learn or surmise in the course of Sammler's meditation--"the associative process of Sammler's mind struggling to find what will end its crisis" (42)-- that in pre-War London he was an assimilated Jew, a believer in the idea of one world, a believer in enlightened social and technological progress, a believer in the liberation of the masses. Now he professes to remember Wells, the source of these teachings, "always with respect," but his feelings run counter. It bothers him that at his age Wells was "a horny man," who in pursuit of world projects and a universal order "appeared to need a great amount of copulation" (36)--an observation that gains by the light of Gabler-Hover's analysis of the Wellsian "plot" that flaunts sexuality, then produces some eclipsing social responsibility. In the same vein, to Sammler it seems unjust that the Wells he knew had won fame and fortune by flouting limitations which in his youth he had acknowledged the limitations imposed by attempting to be an artist, not a preacher, and by accepting man's finite place in nature. Thus, Sammler is less than enthusiastic about "The Country of the Blind," because it grew from a thesis, and, seemingly, about The First Men in the Moon, because space travel panders to the false dream of the illimitable.

What draws Sammler is the earliest Wells, the Wells of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, especially the latter. Chavkin observes that the narrator of The War of the Worlds anticipates Sammler's situation. The narrator's intended paper on the probable development of Moral Ideas with the development of the civilizing process remains unwritten because the genocidal Martian attack has radically altered his formerly smug certainty of human progress. In the same way, Sammler's intended study of Wells remains unwritten because the Holocaust has chastened his formerly complacent vision, which, ironically, was Wells's vision in the decade Sammler knew him. Chavkin concludes: "when Sammler abandons the Utopian Wells and jettisons his naive assimilated Jewish Anglophile self, he is influenced by Wells's dark romanticism of The War of the Worlds period." By "dark romanticism" I believe Chavkin intends the fact that Wells brings about the death of the Martians by means of the natural bio-defenses of mother earth, and thus awakens a sardonic but romantic "faith" in natural processes, the very processes which had so brutally brought the Martians hunting for a warmer home; and Mr. Sammler, by the same token, in the end works away from the detachment he has tried to cultivate and accepts what he calls "this death-burdened, rotting, spoiled, sullied, exasperating, sinful earth" (40) and at the same time learns to celebrate "feeling, outgoingness, expressiveness, kindness, heart" (44)--as the people of London also do at the end of The War of the Worlds.

Scheick promises that "this volume aims to...glimpse the innovation of an author's production as a kind of Phoenix always emerging from and returning to some communal identity" (3). Chavkin more than any one other contributor succeeds in fulfilling this promise, because he shows, through Bellow's Sammler, that the communal identity of Wells is no merely literary possession. It belongs to the history of our times.

NOTES.

1. The Splintering Frame, ELS Monograph Series No. 31 (British Columbia: University of Victoria Press), 124; and in a passage from the same book somewhat altered for the Critical Response (175), Scheick states that Apropos of Dolores "may well be Wells's grandest literary achievement, especially in the application of his splintering-frame technique."

2. The phrase is R.D. Mullen's in his notice of Gill in SFS 3:215, #9, July 1976.

3. See original of Rainwater's second essay in Scheick, then entitled "H.G. Wells's Re-Vision of Poe: The Undying Fire and Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island" (English Literature in Transition, 30:423-36, Number 4, 1987), 423. And what of Rainwater's own "sources"? She omits mention of the quintessential Sniffer, Ing vald Raknem, whose H.G. Wells and his Critics (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1962) has about 100 pages on "Originality or Plagiarism" (including 14 pages on Poe in Wells's short stories) and several further pages on Poe in The Island of Doctor Moreau. Raknem simply states the claims of Wells's contemporary reviewers, describes them concretely, and considers whether the allegations are legitimate. See also note 5.

4. Quoted by Gordon Ray in H.G. Wells and Rebecca West (New Haven: Yale UP, 1974), 2.

5. My "H.G. Wells and the Charge of Plagiarism" (Nineteenth Century Fiction, 1966, 21:85-89) disproved that charge by Raknem (417-19; and see note 3 above), who excerpted the same review as Scheick and found that Wells plagiarized Allen. Scheick ignores all this but elsewhere cites my reply as supporting that Wells plagiarized Allen (!!). See Fictional Structure and Ethics (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1990), 165, note 8.

6. See Harris Wilson, introduction, The Wealth of Mr Waddy, by H.G. Wells (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1969), xi-xxiii.

7. The original on Ibsen in The Natural History of H.G. Wells (Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1982), 213-15, is framed by the defining terms "responsive" and "assimilative," respectively conveying Reed's view that the early Wells played off sources against each other or against an "opposite idea" whereas the later Wells practiced straight hortatory exposition. 8. See Robert M. Philmus and David Y. Hughes, Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction by H.G. Wells (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975), 105-09.


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