The World Set Free by H.G. Wells (1914)

The dream of The World Set Free [is] a dream of highly educated and highly favoured leading and ruling men, voluntarily setting themselves to the task of reshaping the world.

Wells and world government

Wells was terrifyingly prolific. He wrote more than 114 books, of which more than 50 were novels. From around 1901 onwards his books, both fictional and factual, increasingly testify to one central concern – the notion that the Scientific Age has, and will continue to, transform human society out of all recognition – and that all the old primitive traditions of nationalism, and national governments and imperial rivalry, egged on by warmongering newspapers and ambitious politicians, rivalries which used to be settled by ‘limited wars’, simply can not afford to continue – because they will inexorably lead to the destruction of all human civilisation.

The weapons of the Scientific Age are now so destructive, and can be spread so far and wide through vast artillery and the new medium of air flight, that modern war will wreak death and devastation on a completely unprecedented scale. The thesis that:

because of the development of scientific knowledge, separate sovereign states and separate sovereign empires are no longer possible in the world, that to attempt to keep on with the old system is to heap disaster upon disaster for mankind and perhaps to destroy our race altogether.

The only solution Wells could see from the mid-1900s until the end of his life in 1945, was the establishment of a World Government, which would supersede the old nationalisms of redundant nation states to ensure global peace – and then set about organising the human population, its needs and resources, its cities and transport, its food and education, in a centralised, rational and logical way.

A brief history of the world

Written in 1913, The World Set Free is a fictional variation on this, Wells’s abiding theme.

Readers of each new Wells book must, by this stage, have wondered what kind of book it would be: Would it be one of the taut, compelling science fiction yarns which he began his career with? Or one of the social comedies (Kipps, Love and Mr Lewisham) he began to write at the turn of the century? Or one of the entirely factual books of scientific analysis and prophecy, which began with 1901’s best-selling Anticipations?

In the event The World Set Free is, as so often with Wells, a hybrid or mongrel of all three.

It opens with a long account of human prehistory which could come from one of his numerable factual articles. Wells paints a convincing picture of Homo sapiens as a species which, in its animal ignorance, for millennia walked over the rocks which contained coal and iron ore, squelched through the rivers which contained the clay which could be made into porcelain. In other words, all around us have always been untapped resources which it took us a long, long time to recognise, and then a long, long time to develop the technology to harness for our use.

He gives an overview of the slow development of fire, agriculture, stratified societies, cities, writing – in Mesopotamia, in China, in Mesoamerica, and how, in all of these societies, there arose the ‘dreamers’, the seekers, the explorers of things, the wonderers-how… Archimedes, Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci.

Man had not been always thus; the instincts and desires of the little home, the little plot, was not all his nature; also he was an adventurer, an experimenter, an unresting curiosity, an insatiable desire.

If you were an average reader of 1914, who had left school at 14 or 16, all this must have been wonderfully mind-expanding stuff. Placing our present-day society, with its cafés and motor cars, in the context of the long history of the human species, was thrilling stuff.

These preliminaries lead in to up-to-the-minute speculation about how the latest discoveries about the structure of the atom and the radioactive decay of unstable elements could be yet another source of energy which has lain around us for millennia, but which humanity is now poised to use for its good.

At this point this fairly long history lesson turns sporadically into something more like a ‘novel’ with the introduction of specific characters. There is the inventor ‘Holsten’ who we follow for a few pages, as he ponders on the power of the atom, but we are only with his discoveries and thoughts for a few pages, before Wells scoops us up and leaps decades into his ‘history of the future’, describing how people yet to be born developed new motors and engines to harness nuclear power and transform the world, making car travel cheaper and quicker and really establishing air flight as affordable and safe.

The ‘historical’ text pauses a moment to set the scene in a courtroom where Holsten is a witness in a copyright dispute about the new technology, which is placed here solely to allow Wells to explain at length how ‘the law’ was a relic of primitive tribal conflicts, and in no way ready for the New Age of Scientific Knowledge.

Then we are back to the high-level view of the historian of the future, explaining how this sudden accession of cheap energy not only led to new inventions, air travel, fast land travel and the revolutionising of most industry, but also led to economic upheaval leading to depression, unemployment, suicide and social unrest.

For the governments of the day were constitutionally unprepared for any kind of technological change. Here is Wells’s jaded view of contemporary government:

The world in these days was not really governed at all, in the sense in which government came to be understood in subsequent years. Government was a treaty, not a design; it was forensic, conservative, disputatious, unseeing, unthinking, uncreative; throughout the world, except where the vestiges of absolutism still sheltered the court favourite and the trusted servant, it was in the hands of the predominant caste of lawyers, who had an enormous advantage in being the only trained caste. Their professional education and every circumstance in the manipulation of the fantastically naive electoral methods by which they clambered to power, conspired to keep them contemptuous of facts, conscientiously unimaginative, alert to claim and seize advantages and suspicious of every generosity. Government was an obstructive business of energetic fractions, progress went on outside of and in spite of public activities, and legislation was the last crippling recognition of needs so clamorous and imperative and facts so aggressively established as to invade even the dingy seclusions of the judges and threaten the very existence of the otherwise inattentive political machine.

Lawyers taking advantage of clunky electoral methods in order to seize advantage in the endless faction fighting which makes up real day-to-day politics, the last thing any of them being interested in is reluctantly conceding laws to feebly supervise changes which have mostly already swept through society and everyone else can see are blindingly obvious.

Ring any bells?

Wells timed the big change he describes to the mid-1950s. In his version of history Holsten devises a machine for liberating the energy of the atom in 1933, and then there’s some delay before it can be practically applied, setting the sweeping changes brought about by atomic energy, from 1953 onwards,

and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress all about the habitable globe.

The last war

Having established the long sweep of human history which leads up to the invention of nuclear power, Wells moves on to part two: The Atomic War. War comes (apparently) because of old nationalistic and geographical rivalries and Wells (with astonishing accuracy) predicts it will result from the Central European powers attacking a Slavic Alliance.

He describes the war via three vignettes: first of all describing the job of a woman secretary based at Allied War Control headquarters in Paris. She is looking up at tall stern unspeaking French military leader, Dubois, with womanly admiration (cue feminist outcry at this sexist stereotype) when a solo plane flying high over the city drops an atom bomb on it.

Wells’s bomb is made of Carolinum and its chief difference from normal explosives is that it keeps on exploding (Chapter 2: section 4)

What happened when the celluloid stud was opened was that the inducive oxidised and became active. Then the surface of the Carolinum began to degenerate. This degeneration passed only slowly into the substance of the bomb. A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground still mainly solid, and, melting soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam, and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of the bomb employed and the chances of its dispersal. Once launched, the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far.

Thus, in a moment, the nice tidy War Control becomes a vast crater, flooding with Seine water, full of continually radiating explosive power. The woman just has time to crawl to the body of Dubois, which has neatly been chopped in half, scream with horror, before the Seine flood comes and drowns her.

The second source is a book of memoirs published, the narrating historian tells us, in 1970 by Frederick Barnet who describes his young manhood, taking advantage of the new atomic flying machines to go on a grand aerial tour of Europe.

Back in London his father loses all his fortune and commits suicide with the result that Barnet is thrown out on the streets. More interestingly, Wells describes his odyssey through a London unrecognisably changed by future technology, with glass-sheeted streets used by super-fast atomic-powered ‘cars’, while at the first story is a network of pedestrian footpaths and bridges which make London look a bit like Venice. I love all descriptions of the London of the future, enriching and transforming the dirty gritty windy city I know so well.

Anyway, Barnet becomes aware of the poverty on the streets and witnesses a hunger march by the unemployed. It dawns on him that no-one is in charge. No-one is really directing the helter-skelter of technological and social change we are living though, and no-one has a plan how to manage the human victims of these changes, the huge numbers of workers in the old industries – coal-mining,railways – who are simply thrown on the scrap heap when they aren’t wanted.

They were a sample of that great mass of unskilled cheap labour which the now still cheaper mechanical powers had superseded for evermore. They were being ‘scrapped’—as horses had been ‘scrapped.’

For Wells Socialism wasn’t about justice for the working classes as such – it is always subsumed in a much vaster historical development in which he sees the old systems of law and ownership reaching a breaking point, because they are based on technological and scientific levels of knowledge which have been vastly superseded.

Those traditions come from the dark ages when there was really not enough for every one, when life was a fierce struggle that might be masked but could not be escaped. Of course this famine grabbing, this fierce dispossession of others, must follow from such a disharmony between material and training. Of course the rich were vulgar and the poor grew savage and every added power that came to men made the rich richer and the poor less necessary and less free. The men I met in the casual wards and the relief offices were all smouldering for revolt, talking of justice and injustice and revenge.

War breaks out giving Barnet a job and a purpose, along with a lot of other unemployed men and with the population as a whole which is swept up in a great communal moment of solidarity. He enlists in the British army, and is full of young-man enthusiasm to go off and fight. Via Barnet Wells gives us some startlingly prophetic descriptions of trench warfare, all sniping and boredom, on the front with Germany before Barnet is entrained up to Holland and is just supervising a platoon of men when German planes drop a dozen or so atom bombs on the dam and canal network of Holland. Cue descriptions of apocalyptic waves, national destruction, and an aftermath of muddy water in all directions littered with corpses.

In the third scene a tough-minded French aviator flies with just a co-pilot all the way to Berlin, where he drops three atom bombs which obliterate the city. At which point every power makes pre-emptive strikes on every other power, with the result that by the spring of 1959:

from nearly two hundred centres, and every week added to their number, roared the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs, the flimsy fabric of the world’s credit had vanished, industry was completely disorganised and every city, every thickly populated area was starving or trembled on the verge of starvation. Most of the capital cities of the world were burning; millions of people had already perished, and over great areas government was at an end.

The council

As is often the way in this kind of world-shaping science fiction, a Council is called. The idea suggested by the French ambassador to Washington, Leblanc, who chooses a remote village in the Italian Alps, Brissago. To it come representatives of most nations.

Wells descends to the individual, comic level to give us a portrait of ‘King Egbert’, young representative of the new age who is determined to abdicate his royal prerogatives in the name of the new collective government – much to the comic chagrin of his brainy adviser, Firmin.

There is a scene right out of the Prisoner of Zenda, when the King of the Balkans tries to bomb the assembly, thus seizing control of The World! But the plane he sends with atom bombs is shot down, and King Egbert and officials of the new state drop in on the king who pretends to know nothing about it but – in the middle of the night – sets off with his evil adviser to the secret hiding place of the remaining atom bombs – only to be caught and shot down. With that organised state resistance to the new World Government is discouraged.

Wells uses occasional vignettes like this to dip down into the realities of the period he’s describing: another sequence returns to Frederick Barnet who is, by now, in charge of troops guarding the perimeter of radioactive Paris, before finally being shipped back to England to discover a land without money, government or food. A land where food supplies are protected by armed guard and vigilante groups, strangers are hassled or shot, where thieves are hanged at the perimeters of armed settlements: the same post-apocalyptic scenes he depicted so well in The War In The Air.

But mostly Wells flies at a high level, a historian’s level, describing how the new world government comes about i.e. more or less by accident; how it doesn’t waste time writing a constitution but sets up committees to address pressing problems such as: the stabilisation of currency; the restoration of trade; the building of house for displaced populations, and so on. But how all of these things are now planned and organised at a high level and in a rational way. Cheap atomic energy allows cities to be built anywhere. Cheap atomic energy drives agricultural equipment and provides cheap fertiliser so, in this new world, food can be grown almost anywhere and quickly and cheaply distributed.

Wasn’t there resistance to this new order? Some. But most people had been shocked by the collapse of civilisation into acceptance of the new rules.

For a time the whole world had been shocked into frankness; nearly all the clever people who had hitherto sustained the ancient belligerent separations had now been brought to realise the need for simplicity of attitude and openness of mind; and in this atmosphere of moral renascence, there was little attempt to get negotiable advantages out of resistance to the new order

So a new World Government isn’t imposed; it grows organically out of the needs of a world brought to the edge of destruction; and is the result of intelligent people everywhere realising that they can’t go back to the old ways; to capitalism, unbridled competition, chaos and anarchy of industrial over-production. From now on everything is planned rationally and logically.

And, the narrator crows, once liberated from the restraint of physical or long-hour labour, it turns out that most people want to be artists and to beautify life.

The world broke out into making, and at first mainly into aesthetic making. This phase of history, which has been not inaptly termed the ‘Efflorescence,’ is still, to a large extent, with us. The majority of our population consists of artists, and the bulk of activity in the world lies no longer with necessities but with their elaboration, decoration, and refinement.

The entire population of the world turns into Radio 4 listeners.

Wells then gives us a chapter about the need for, and implementation in the New World, of universal education.

He then gives us an interesting short chapter suggesting that the central theme of the novel since its inception has been the conflict between the restrictions of society and the impulse to overthrow and escape them, an impulse which quickened and gained force among the protagonists of late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century fiction.

And just when you’d have thought Wells had written all he had to say on the subject, there is a last, long chapter devoted to ‘The Last Days of Marcus Karenin’. Who was Marcus Karenin? The bad-tempered hunchback who helped introduce universal education to the New Order. He goes to a sanatorium in the Himalayas for an operation he know will kill him. In his last days various young people are brought on stage so he can tell them about the stupidity of the pre-atomic age and they can ooh and ah at its greed and violence and narrow-mindedness.

It is the exact same tone of the narrator in In The Days of The Comet addressing the young generation living in the New World, who can barely believe how spendthrift of resources, selfish, competitive and destructive the old system was.

While this sort of talk creates an emotional thrill – the thrill of looking back on our present civilisation from an imagined future – it is prone to the same criticism as all the other future histories: that it takes a cataclysm to get from here to there. That the world has to be all but destroyed to bring about the Millennium.

To gas-and-water socialists like the Fabians, Well’s books were all very exciting for thrill-seekers – but absolutely useless as any kind of practical guide as to how to improve the lot of the poor, the uneducated, the unhoused and so on.

A poet is among the group talking to Karenin, trying to persuade him that a great awakening of love is taking place, sexual love. But Karenin corrects him and says sex is fine in its place, but we will all live longer and have minds to think about infinitely higher things. The book ends with pages of feminism, in which Well’s mouthpiece says the very notion of gender is stone age, out of date, both sexes must rise above it and become pure ungendered human intelligences.

‘Karenin?’ asked Rachel, ‘do you mean that women are to become men?’
‘Men and women have to become human beings…’ [said Karenin]
‘To think of yourselves as women is to think of yourselves in relation to men. You can’t escape that consequence. You have to learn to think of yourselves – for our sakes and your own sakes – in relation to the sun and stars. You have to cease to be our adventure, Rachel, and come with us upon our adventures.

Which is fine, but is yet another example of Wells’s compulsion to throw everything he’s thinking about into a book, along with the kitchen sink.

With some of his last words, Karenin predicts that this ungendered human intelligence will eventually break free of the planet and set off into space, exploring and becoming one with the great universe.

‘These old bodies, these old animal limitations, all this earthly inheritance of gross inevitabilities falls from the spirit of man like the shrivelled cocoon from an imago. And for my own part, when I hear of these things I feel like that – like a wet, crawling new moth that still fears to spread its wings. Because where do these things take us?’

‘Beyond humanity,’ said Kahn.

‘No,’ said Karenin. ‘We can still keep our feet upon the earth that made us. But the air no longer imprisons us, this round planet is no longer chained to us like the ball of a galley slave….

‘In a little while men who will know how to bear the strange gravitations, the altered pressures, the attenuated, unfamiliar gases and all the fearful strangenesses of space will be venturing out from this earth. This ball will be no longer enough for us; our spirit will reach out…. Cannot you see how that little argosy will go glittering up into the sky, twinkling and glittering smaller and smaller until the blue swallows it up. They may succeed out there; they may perish, but other men will follow them….’

These are extraordinary visions to be having in 1913. They must have dazzled his readers. But a hundred years later, we know that these fine fantasies, which fuelled a century of scientific endeavour… are not to be. We are very much locked up in our own planet. And we are very much destroying it through our utterly selfish, unWellsian selfishness.


Some science prophecies

Wells’s predictions of the future are hugely enjoyable if often completely wrong.

He thought airplanes would use flapping wings and a central helicopter set of rotors. In all his novels which feature air battles, the pilots or their mates fire rifles at each other, sometimes getting up or leaning out the plane to do so.

The splitting of the atom in 1933 is close, but of course atomic energy was liberated in 1945 not 1955 – and then to entirely destructive result. 73 years later (!) we do use nuclear power but it has turned out to be dangerous and have extremely toxic by-products which we don’t know how to safely store.

His guess at how an atom bomb works is wildly wrong – he thought it would continue churning out massive heat and explosive power indefinitely, a permanent explosiuon rendering areas where was one was dropped permanently uninhabitable. In the event, it turns out they produce just the kind of one-off explosion as dynamite just on an immensely bigger scale. And neither Wells nor anybody else guessed at the profound damage done to all living organisms by radioactivity.

It is also sweet that he thought the atom bombs would be big black round things (as in Tom and Jerry cartoons) although with two handles (a bit like 1970s spacehoppers). The co-pilot of the plane dropping them had to hold one over the edge – and then lean out and use his teeth to bite off the top of a celluloid strip – which allowed air into the mechanism and started the radioactive process. Charmingly amateurish. Like a Heath Robinson cartoon.

Critique

The need for a World Government to stop humanity blowing itself up became the over-riding obsessive concern of Wells in all his writings for the next thirty years.

There are three obvious ripostes.

1. Contained in a letter which Joseph Conrad wrote to him, is that all these ideas fail to take into account the depravity and evil of people. Wells just wishes it away. But the twentieth century showed us not just that politics was tribal and judges wore silly wigs and newspapers are often little more than propaganda sheets. It also showed us that people enjoyed rounding up the Jews and exterminating them. Or the Armenians. Or the kulaks. Or the traitors or the saboteurs or the spies or whatever other names they gave ‘the other’. It showed us that human nature is not waiting to be ‘set free’ to make baskets and flower arrangements. Or, if some human natures are, plenty of other are waiting to be set free to wear para-military uniforms and beat up foreigners.

2. His World Governments always come about after an event so seismic that it has more or less abolished old human nature or instaurated an entirely new type of human: as in the magic gas which changes human nature in In The Days of The Comet or the ‘moral shocks’ administered by the complete collapse of civilisation depicted in The War In The Air or here.

But we now know that you can have two world wars of almost inconceivable destruction and it doesn’t change human nature one whit. In other words, human nature with all its manifold shortcomings, is simply not as malleable as Wells hopes.

3. On a narrow political view, Wells foresees the intervention of the World Government ‘withering away’:

It became more and more an established security and less and less an active intervention.

because the committees devoted to specific aspects – money, language, building, agriculture – do their jobs so well, and are so responsive to local needs, and work so rationally that they can’t be improved.

What this view of humanity leaves out is the problem that people have irreconcilable views. This is why democratic politics was, is and always will be a messy business of irrational compromises. Because people disagree about things and the government has to somehow hold the ring and forge compromises.

In other words, government can never be rational because human beings will never be rational. Wells thinks something like a world war will shock people into becoming a new type of person.

The catastrophe of the atomic bombs which shook men out of cities and businesses and economic relations shook them also out of their old established habits of thought, and out of the lightly held beliefs and prejudices that came down to them from the past.

But two world wars came and went and nothing, in human nature, changed. I grew up in a world dominated by communist tyrannies (Russia. China) and military dictatorships (Chile, Spain, Portugal, Greece). As John Gray has made a living pointing out, when it comes to human nature, nothing changes.

The book’s structure

Prelude – The Sun Snarers
Chapter the First – The New Source of Energy
Chapter the Second – The Last War
Chapter the Third – The Ending of War
Chapter the Fourth – The New Phase
Chapter the Fifth – The Last Days of Marcus Karenin


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter ten, The War in the Air)

I’d always known that The War In The Air is famous because in it Wells anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare, dogfights, bombing raids, what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or was possible when he wrote it in 1907 and the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented. In other words, that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel book, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone. Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent.

In fact the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and then the new-fangled motor car.

Funny because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles—indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that the review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it. After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business, along with motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel and previously unheard-of speeds. I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold technological speculations.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers and even see a little of the displays living, as they do, quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines disport themselves. The rambunctuous inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem) Grubb and Smallways pack in the bicycle shop and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight, an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes and other stuff. Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, yelling for help, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers do, grabbing ropes and stuff to pull down and stabilise the balloon. Butteridge explains he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays, a fiddly, difficult business in the middle of which a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket into Bert so that he tumbles head-first inside and — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high into the sky.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert’s impressions having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert in the balloon drifts east over the Channel, across France and then across Germany. After a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German, he is eventually shot down when he drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of war with Britain (just as Wells in In the Days of the Comet had also predicted a war between Britain and Germany) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, finding food, but also finding a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design. And he had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. So the German high command is under the impression that Bert is Butteridge, the famous inventor.

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius inventor, despite being a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And because they think he has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air. So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attackfleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean.

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airships come to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender. But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes attacking the airships, all lit by lightning and thunder to Bert’s terror. The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence the radio is got working and they discover that the whole world is at war: they have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world had secret fleets of airships which they now launch at each other. Half Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then covers the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The the resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and coveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the milling base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet. The battles is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the landing Asiatic forces storming the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery, then he runs to the edge of the falls to watch it be washed, half-submerged, down the river. There go Kurt, the only German who was his friend, the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

Now he is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. From behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons and so depart.

There follows a day described in some detail when Bert realises he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to America has been destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed on it. Bert discovers a locked up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk in order to feed. Then sits and watches the amazing falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters. Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned modern cities, ruined motorways, abandoned high rises and derelict amusement arcades. He finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and then is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had suffered a foretaste of his own death.

Bert’s eerie solitude is ended with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the great Prince Albert himself and a servant. Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island. The Germans immediately begin bossing Bert around, order him to repair the broken Asiatic plane, and hide all the food in the refreshment caff. Their imperious manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, claiming the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, he threatens the two men who promptly turn tale and run. Now follows one day of intense anxiety for Bert doesn’t know whether they have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference might by Lord of the Flies but it reminded me of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a world war two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, holding the gun out aggressively as the prince starts up from a doze. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German turns tail and runs, Bert later finding a rope the other tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge, to escape.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors not unlike motor bikes and the wings flap, a detail Wells got profoundly wrong). After comic mishaps Bert flies it off the island, and crash lands on the mainland, wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When he tells them his remarkable story they give him food for free, and then fill him on the collapse of civilisation all around the world which has been caused by the war which has quickly escalated into a global conflagration.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast), rumour has it some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector, an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, pretty pongy.

Accepting this all very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president. Where is the president? Well he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which have replaced the trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed) and it turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men string up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic prophetic tone. He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now distant enough to be a particular historical era: just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then the plague

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: four years of war nobody expected or could control or end, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

And then the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? Having found the president he hands over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are telegraphed to Britain. Being simple and cheap to make it can be knocked up by communities all over both countries, and is. But the result isn’t to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, shot at in Madeira, arrives in Wales to discover complete social collapse. The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war, finds there is no place for him and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships, hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time Bert has been transformed from an innocent abroad, changed out of all recognition from the man who was sick when he saw his first battle. He is now lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed. When local tough Bill comes a-visiting the next day, Bert simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off. Bert goes to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the community leader.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders, Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. And the quick overview of Bert and Edna, converted into tough farmers, who breed and then, in their time, pass away and are buried, really haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, these last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bentover old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay. They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live aid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who made the fabulous buildings. Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north know as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with a powerfully imagined vision of the complete, long-term collapse of Western civilisation back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a leak which catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in to trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh upper class chap who offers use of his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s brilliant. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is exactly what it looks like, a ‘bright red smile’. And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver, is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined, and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly described.

Political pamphleteering

As they also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals. Here he is, among the earliest in long long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’ starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost—that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it this is more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and marks, the British and German fleets fought the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’) and thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in their harbours.

Interpretations

Wells was as profuse in interpreting his own novels, as he was recklessly prolix in writing them. This novel had a number of prefaces tacked on the front as the years went by, in each of which he manages to give it a different spin.

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises this, as some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful.

This one is a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

Interestingly, Wells argues that aerial warfare will reduce the old-fashioned idea of war with defined fronts, locations where armies fought each other and either won or lost. Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start.

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one line in international affairs, which is to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

Anyway, regarding this novel, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

Regardless of its content, I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel is both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’. And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being a mess, scientific ideas jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against sentimental love stories, jaw-dropping science fiction visions morphing into daring espousals of Free Love. From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books.

You just have to abandon high-minded critical strictures and accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, while you are in them.

Futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I can’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort. Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing. Here is Lieutenant Kurt admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition—all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

Wells felt it all, felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and how the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he ranted and raved and warned in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time in 1941.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He wrote a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on contemporary technological developments – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible.

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

This is a massive theme, the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens, who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now 71. The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which let rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with the daughter of the gardener of the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall. Now at one stage of  his adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop. You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all channelled into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing was made into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is good, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that his real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie is embittered when he shares his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but in a scene out of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall,

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

When he goes once again to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters he is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver. He determines to track them down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk) to track them to the coast, and to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands, and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes, it reads like it.

Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was gray oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colors, of blues and purples, of somber and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Odd, though, that they are generally under-described in literature, predominantly a middle-class activity set in the sunny south-east of England.

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beerhouse with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could be an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth. It’s a bit like you’re fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out. You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up at the strange green light of the approaching comet, which day after day dominates the sky more and more, although all the ‘scientists’ have assured the public it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does, it has a transformative impact. the first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, watches them gallivanting from a hiding place, then steps out and advances towards them, firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily), and as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammeled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background Britain has stumbled into war against Germany – Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengedful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. Very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are all detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained h is ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person wakens with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says he learns that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t the usual civil servant secretaries, Willie himself acts as secretary and aide de camp. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t have a clue what to do with this enormous empire or with the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

They set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land, and starting again from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful, calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned the ‘commune’, as it has begun, plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In an effective passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents fine hopes that he’d become a politicians, and spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman.

Anyway, the all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… the two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall. Leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

The second phase is that, back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse, stocky young Annie, to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. they become a ménage à quatre. For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the mediocre inability of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own life, married as he was to the plain and devoted Jane Wells who had to put up with Wells’s affairs with an impressive strong of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West,  the daughter of veteran Fabian Sydney Olivier, and many more.)

Before and after

The story is a variation on the trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to an odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book. Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

But was Wells a socialist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the obvious social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land, had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But I ask the question whether Wells was a socialist in order to answer No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system, the implication that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, and the visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells can’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them. Wells’s fundamental vision is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as he argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which is meant to turn into a vision of socialist utopia actually leads up to a description of Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways. There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you.

In response to their criticisms, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph, albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno the Second World War, the final comment on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way they sank into the almost complete obscurity where – apart from a handful of the sleekest, shortest, punchiest sci-fi fantasies – they remain to this day. Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Food of the Gods, and How It Came To Earth by H.G. Wells (1904)

Bensington drank that delight of human fellowship that comes to happy armies, to sturdy expeditions—never to those who live the life of the sober citizen in cities.

Science fantasies

Wells explained the strategy of his ‘scientific fantasies’ in numerous interviews: take one big reasonably scientific idea, and develop it to extremes in a world which in all other respects remains perfectly ordinary and mundane.

Thus in The War of The Worlds the Martians travel across the solar system and arrive in… Dorking. In The Time Machine the traveller visits the ruins of a future civilisation in… Richmond-upon-Thames.

In the same way, almost all of this garish fantasy happens in rural Kent, described with loving humour and social satire which sometimes buries the actual narrative.

Wells’s development

There seems to have been a simple development in Wells’s output: right at the very beginning (1895) he was exploding with cracking science fiction ideas which he set down in a tearing hurry in short stories and novellas which use the minimum literary devices necessary.

After just a few years, by the turn of the century, he’d become interested in doing more than just tell a ripping yarn. He began writing novels about love and social comedy (KippsLove and Mr Lewisham) and became aware that a number of his contemporaries were experimenting with literary ideas. In particular Wells followed Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s experiments with different types of narrator, seeing what kind of light it sheds on a story to be told by a limited, obtuse or unreliable narrator, to use frame narratives, and so on.

By 1904 when he published The Food of the Gods and How It Came To Earth he was well into this later phase and the book suffers terribly because of it.

The plot

The executive summary is: a pair of doddery ‘scientists’, Mr Bensington and Professor Redwood, discover a form of alkaloid which stimulates growth in all organic life forms. They tentatively experiment with baby chicks on a farm they hire in Kent but the chemical – Herakleophorbia IV – quickly gets into the environment, producing giant ants, wasps and rats, which attack local rural types and interrupt the vicar’s croquet party, in scenes of broad social satire.

But they also give it to humans. Redwoood gives it to his baby son, a doctor friend slips it to the new baby of a foreign Royal Family which he’s treating, and a doughty, macho engineer, Cossar, who helps them put down the infestation of giant rats and wasps in Kent, also feeds it to his three baby boys.

The result is that a) around Britain, and then further afield around the world, leaking packs of Herakleophorbia IV transform the environment, creating giant flora and fauna, grass like trees, flowers like rainforests, insects the size of horses, and b) a cohort of giant young people come to maturity some 20 years after the discovery.

The climax of the novel comes when a political leader, Caterham, rises up to focus popular anger about the wrecking of the environment which he does by focusing on the handful of ‘giants’.

These ‘giants’ – the three Cossar brothers, Redwood’s son, the grandson of the old couple who the scientists set to manage their farm in Kent, and who they secretly fed Herakleophorbia IV (named Caddles), and the princess from the foreign royal family who comes to join them – have grown increasingly resentful as they are hemmed in to a smaller and smaller ‘reservation’ in Kent or – in the case of Redwood’s son and the princess – when the powers that be tell them they are not ‘allowed’ to fall in love (as they are doing) — these giants rebel.

In a colourful and weird scene the giant Caddles storms up to London where he finds himself straddling Piccadilly, beset by thousands of gawping onlookers and angrily addressed by Lilliputian policemen. After prolonged chase and frustration, he settles in a garden in Highgate where he refuses to move and is eventually attacked by the army, killing quite a few riflemen before himself dying.

This prompt all out war between giants and humans. Wells gets round the details by having it described at one remove by the old inventor Redwood, who is placed under house arrest by Caterham’s new government, but can hear the bangs of artillery and see the night sky lit by flares and explosions.

After a few days of captivity Redwood is released and taken to see Prime Minister Caterham who explains the initial attacks have resulted in stalemate: some giants have been killed (though not the five or so key ones I’ve listed above) and lots of troops. More devastatingly, the giants have been using artillery they have constructed to fire canisters of Herakleophorbia IV far and wide, trying to biologically engineer a new, giant, ecosystem to suit them.

Redwood is then sent by the Prime Minister to the giants’ fortress in Kent, to offer a truce and a deal. they will be sent to a ‘reservation’anywhere in the world to live out their lives as they see fit but must no reproduce and must stop showering Herakleophorbia IV everywhere.

The giants reject it. In the final scene, the leader, Cossar’s oldest son, says that growth is the law of nature, the death of the old, the birth of the new, and that giants will inherit the earth come what may, as part of the never-ending process which will carry the human race towards complete knowledge of the universe.

‘It is not that we would oust the little people from the world,” he said, “in order that we, who are no more than one step upwards from their littleness, may hold their world for ever. It is the step we fight for and not ourselves…. We are here, Brothers, to what end? To serve the spirit and the purpose that has been breathed into our lives. We fight not for ourselves—for we are but the momentary hands and eyes of the Life of the World. So you, Father Redwood, taught us. Through us and through the little folk the Spirit looks and learns. From us by word and birth and act it must pass—to still greater lives. This earth is no resting place; this earth is no playing place, else indeed we might put our throats to the little people’s knife, having no greater right to live than they. And they in their turn might yield to the ants and vermin. We fight not for ourselves but for growth—growth that goes on for ever. To-morrow, whether we live or die, growth will conquer through us. That is the law of the spirit for ever more. To grow according to the will of God! To grow out of these cracks and crannies, out of these shadows and darknesses, into greatness and the light! Greater,’ he said, speaking with slow deliberation, ‘greater, my Brothers! And then—still greater. To grow, and again—to grow. To grow at last into the fellowship and understanding of God. Growing…. Till the earth is no more than a footstool…. Till the spirit shall have driven fear into nothingness, and spread….’ He swung his arm heavenward: – ‘There!’ His voice ceased. The white glare of one of tho searchlights wheeled about, and for a moment fell upon him, standing out gigantic with hand upraised against the sky.

On which note, the novel ends.

Thoughts

Well it’s quite an enjoyable book if you don’t mind it being a complete mess of style and story. Wells has set himself the task of describing the next stage in human evolution around the planet, but chooses to do so through the antics of a couple of silly scientists, a gung-ho adventurer (Cossar) and a great deal of social comedy taking the mickey out of provincial vicars and rural workers.

The science

Doesn’t bear much thinking about. For some time we’ve known that the larger an animal’s size the heavier its bones or exoskeleton need to be, and that there is a natural limit to this. Having 50-foot Caddles clump around Piccadilly is good cinema, but not very persuasive science.

Another obvious fact is that ecosystems include vast amounts of organisms human beings don’t notice or even know about, vast numbers of bacteria, fungi and viruses. In order for giant plants to exist, you’d need a world of giant micro-organisms.

The rhetoric of the book says there are about 50 giants around the world by the time their rebellion breaks out. This isn’t a large enough number to create even a self-sustaining colony, let alone replace the swarming billions of madly reproducing normal humans.

Anybody who wrote about the leak of a life-changing chemical into the environment, now, today, in 2018, would have to describe a) ecological catastrophe b) the swift response of international health and scientific agencies. None of this existed in Wells’s day. In fact a striking aspect of the story is the complete absence of the police or army in any of the outbreaks of giant rats, ants, wasps and so on, which have to be dealt with by comic local villagers equipped with antique blunderbusses, or outraged vicars wielding croquet mallets.

Giants

There are two great literary predecessors, the French novels Gargantua and Pantagruel published in the 1530s, and Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput, published by Jonathan Swift in 1725.

On an obvious level, Wells namechecks both of these antecedents, having Redwood nickname his fast-growing baby Panty, after the giant Pantagruel.

Although Wells (fortunately) skips over most of the twenty years in which they grow up, he does have several scenes describing the giant playroom which is built for his son, the enormous nursery Cossar builds for his three, and the strain which baby Caddles imposes on the charity of the local lady of the manor, Lady Wondershoot, who finds herself trying to supply adequate food and clothing for the monster.

In each of these scenes I could hear reminiscences of Gargantua in particular, and they are told in a funny mix of awe and broad comedy.

The narrator

The narrator is what I think is categorised as an ‘omniscient first-person narrator’. That’s to say, a first-person narrating ‘I’ appears a few times during the story – once or twice mentioning that he was eye-witness to this or that event, once or twice mentioning that he ‘heard’ about this or that incident from people that were there. But overwhelmingly the rest of the story is told as if by a third-person narrator i.e. someone who gives a reliable and authoritative overview account of all the different scenes – whether the two scientists in their London apartments, the rural goings-on in Cheasing Eyebright, the streets of London during Caddles’ adventures, and so on. The combination – or the sudden appearance of a first-person I into an otherwise straight third-person story – is odd and disconcerting.

But whoever exactly is telling it, the story is dominated by a tone of facetiousness, irony and sarcasm which gets pretty wearing. Sometimes he delivers broad social comedy that would have been recognisable to Restoration wits or Sheridan, describing the jocose activities of characters with names like Sir Arthur Poodle Bootlick, the Bishop of Frumps and Judge Hangbrow.

The entire book is divided into just three parts, which makes it all the more notable that all of part two is devoted to the growth of baby Caddles in the little Kent village of Cheasing Eyebright. This section is devoted to all manner of rural comedy and social satire. The village is dominated by the patronage of Lady Wondershoot, supported by the old buffer obtuseness of the local vicar, both of whom have to deal with comically inarticulate and stumbling peasants, like the giant’s mother and grandmother.

At moments there are straight descriptions of rural life which read like Thomas Hardy.

She [the old woman] was engaged in pulling onions in the little garden before her daughter’s cottage when she saw him coming through the garden gate. She stood for a moment ‘consternated’, as the country folks say, and then folded her arms, and with the little bunch of onions held defensively under her left elbow, awaited his approach.

At other points there is acute social satire.

Lady Wondershoot liked bullying Caddles. Caddles was her ideal lower-class person, dishonest, faithful, abject, industrious, and inconceivably incapable of responsibility.

Sometimes we have a self-dramatising narrator, using the mock solemn tone which characterises so much 18th century comic fiction:

It was an anonymous letter, and an author should respect his character’s secrets.

Sometimes he is the intrusive narrator, forcing his opinions on us.

There are vicars and vicars, and of all sorts I love an innovating vicar – a piebald progressive professional reactionary – the least.

Sometimes there are prolonged passages which read like late Dickens.

[Lady Wondershoot’s] coachman was a very fine specimen, full and fruity, and he drove with a sort of sacramental dignity. Others might doubt their calling and position in the world, he at any rate was sure – he drove her ladyship. The footman sat beside him with folded arms and a face of inflexible certainties. Then the great lady herself became visible, in a hat and mantle disdainfully inelegant, peering through her glasses. Two young ladies protruded necks and peered also.

Looming over all this is the threat that Wells will resort to his grandest, most pompous, history-of-the-world manner.

To tell fully of its coming [the food of the gods] would be to write a great history, but everywhere there was a parallel chain of happenings. To tell therefore of the manner of its coming in one place is to tell something of the whole. It chanced one stray seed of Immensity fell into the pretty, petty village of Cheasing Eyebright in Kent, and from the story of its queer germination there and of the tragic futility that ensued, one may attempt – following one thread, as it were – to show the direction in which the whole great interwoven fabric of the thing rolled off the loom of Time.

The book is characterised throughout by the same tonal and attitudinal mish-mash.

Thus the rise of the nationwide anti-giant party led by Caterham is described in a tone half-satirical – as if the author and reader are both men of the world who know that all political parties are rackets – but which sometimes stumbles into a completely different register, where he is suddenly talking about the way the mob can be whipped up against ‘outsiders’, a mood that unnervingly reminds you of Hitler and all the other 20th century demagogues.

There is a kind of momentary flash of something you could take seriously, a real insight into Wells’s life and times and then… he crushes it with another slather of heavy-handed facetiousness.

The same thing happens at the end of the novel. When Redwood is taken from his house arrest to go and meet  the newly elected Prime Minister Caterham, who has just triggered the ‘war on the giants’, he is struck by how much smaller, older and tireder the man seems than his photos and caricatures in the press.

For a moment there is a gleam of what you could call adult insight into the wearing effects of power. But then it is gone and the narrative focuses in on Caterham’s ‘offer’ to the giants and Redwood’s defence of the giants and you realise that – you are in the middle of a preposterous load of tosh.

The influence of Henry James

Is Wells copying Henry James’s style, with its proliferation of would-be pregnant phraseology? It crossed my mind when a baby fed with Boomfood becomes too heavy for ‘maternal portage’. Hmm. That’s a late-Jamesian periphrasis.

The public mind, following its own mysterious laws of selection, had chosen him as the one and only responsible Inventor and Promoter of this new wonder; it would hear nothing of Redwood, and without a protest it allowed Cossar to follow his natural impulse into a terribly prolific obscurity.

What does that last phrase even mean?

Before he was aware of the drift of these things, Mr. Bensington was, so to speak, stark and dissected upon the hoardings. His baldness, his curious general pinkness, and his golden spectacles had become a national possession. Resolute young men with large expensive-looking cameras and a general air of complete authorisation took possession of the flat for brief but fruitful period

‘Complete authorisation’ is good, but unlike Wells’s usual style.

He was the sort of doctor that is in manners, in morals, in methods and appearance, most succinctly and finally expressed by the word ‘rising’.

This ornate positioning of the narrative voice to prepare us for exquisite phraseology is surely Jamesian.

Bensington, glancing from the window, would see the faultless equipage come spanking up Sloane Street and after an incredibly brief interval Winkles would enter the room with a light, strong motion, and pervade it, and protrude some newspaper and supply information and make remarks.

Fairy tale

There is yet another tonal intrusion or flavour in this mad mix, one he uses to describe the whole sub-plot about the baby of an (unnamed) foreign royal family, who a scheming doctor of Redwood and Bensington’s acquaintance (the absurdly named Dr Winkles) feeds the wonder food.

She will grow up to be a beautiful fifty-foot tall young woman and fall in love with Redwood’s giant son. In the mad, visionary, scene at the climax of the novel, when redwood is allowed into the giant’s stronghold, he discovers this 50 foot Amazon tenderly leaning over his own fifty-foot son who has sustained some injuries and the Lilliputian Redwood is forced to acknowledge the tenderness and romance of the scene.

But anyway, her entire existence, growth and the passages describing the couple’s love affair are told in an extraordinarily mimsical, sentimental, almost fairy tale style.

Now it chanced in the days when Caterham was campaigning against the Boom-children before the General Election that was – amidst the most tragic and terrible circumstances – to bring him into power, that the giant Princess, that Serene Highness whose early nutrition had played so great a part in the brilliant career of Doctor Winkles, had come from the kingdom of her father to England, on an occasion that was deemed important. She was affianced for reasons of state to a certain Prince – and the wedding was to be made an event of international significance.

All the rest of her story is told in the same style. ‘Now it chanced in the days…’ That’s Biblical phraseology, isn’t it?

What an extraordinary mess of voices and registers! If you could colour-code styles and tones of voice, this book would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. There are loads of local enjoyments (the social satire is, in fact, often very funny) but the net effect is a mess, and you can see why it is never included in the canon of Wells’s key works.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec by Mary Ellen Miller (1996)

Two things about this book:

  1. It is very academic and scholarly. I imagine its main audience is university students. It pays a lot of attention to the academic debates surrounding dates and discoveries and conflicting interpretations of the archaeological evidence.
  2. This makes you realise it is a fast moving field, with new discoveries being made all the time, and that these discoveries sometimes significantly alter our understanding of timeframes and influences. I picked up the second (1996) edition in a charity shop, but realise now I should have bought the fifth edition, from 2012, because knowledge about the subject is changing all the time.

Chronology

Thus the book opens with a daunting chronological table which has six columns, one each for Central Mexico, Oaxaca, Gulf Coast, Maya Highlands, and Lowland Maya – and 10 rows indicating time frames from 1,500 BC onwards.

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Chronology of Mesoamerica by Mary Ellen Miller

Apparently early archaeologists named artefacts from around 600 AD ‘classic’ and the name, or periodisation, stuck, despite not really fitting with later discoveries, so that successive archaeologists and historians have had to elaborate the schema, to create periods named ‘Proto Classic’, and then, going back before that, ‘Formative’ – which itself had to be broken up into Early, Middle and Late Formative. At the other end of the scale they suggested a ‘Post-classic phase’, but over time this also had to be fine-tuned to include Early Postclassic and Late Postclassic.

I found it a challenge to remember all the dates. Roughly speaking 600 AD seems to be the height of Classic and the period 300-900 includes Early, Mid and Late Classic.

Geography

When you look at a map of all the Americas, Central America appears as a tail linking down and across from the states to Latin America. But the shape of Mesoamerica, where all this happened, is different. It’s less a north south corridor, than a horseshoe shape, with the spread of influences, architecture, language and other artefacts moving along a west-east axis.

Map of Mesoamerica

Map of Mesoamerica

So the book takes you slowly and carefully through the art and archaeology of Mesoamerica in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. The Olmecs
  3. The Late Formative
  4. Teotihuacan
  5. Classic Monte Alban, Veracruz and Cotzumalhuapa
  6. The Early Classic Maya
  7. The Late Classic Maya
  8. Mesoamerica after the fall of the Classic cities
  9. The Aztecs

On the face of it the book is a history of the peoples and cultures which inhabited the region of central Mexico stretching across to the Yucatan Peninsula and down into modern-day Guatamala and Belize, with all the focus on the architecture, sculpture, friezes, pottery and (rare) painting which they produced – but in fact, alongside what you could call the main narrative, is the story of the history of the discoveries upon which all our knowledge is based – which very clearly shows that these discoveries are continuing right up to the present day, and that they have a disconcerting tendency to overthrow and revolutionise previous thinking on lots of key areas.

The Olmec people carved massive stone heads

The Olmec people, the first really definable culture in Mesoamerica, carved massive stone heads

What I learned

No point trying to recap the massive amount of information in the book. Key points I learned are:

Mesoamerica refers to the diverse civilizations that shared similar cultural characteristics in the geographic areas comprising the modern-day countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The area was in continual occupation from 1500 BC to 1519 when the conquistadors arrived, but with fluctuating peoples, tribes or nations in each region, with cities and cultures rising and falling.

The geography of Mesoamerica is diverse, including humid tropical areas, dry deserts, high mountainous terrain and low coastal plains.

Many traits were present in the earliest, archaic peoples, then continued right through all successive cultures, including:

  • a bewildering pantheon of deities, often with multiple identities – two which appear in almost every culture are the storm/rain god and a feathered serpent deity; the Mexica called the rain god Tlaloc, and the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl
  • similar architectural features, especially the importance of stepped pyramids, often with nine levels
  • a ballgame which had special ‘courts’ built for it in all the major cities of all the different cultures
  • a 260-day calendar
  • dress which was elaborate and featured huge head-dresses often of feathers, alongside body painting

Key peoples are the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Mixtec, and Mexica (or Aztec). But there is still a lot which is unknown. For example Miler devotes a chapter to the spectacular remains at the city of Teotihuacan – but we don’t know to this day the name of the people who built it!

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

The Aztecs didn’t call themselves Aztecs, they called themselves Mexica. They spoke a language called Nahuatl, which is still spoken to this day by some Indian groups. There were as many as 125 languages spoken in this region during this period. Some cultures developed rebus writing, i.e. writing which used images of the thing described, which then went on to have multiple meanings, also called pictographic, ideographic, or picture writing.

The ballgame

Peoples across Mesoamerica, beginning with the Olmecs, played a ritual sport known as the ballgame. Ballcourts were often located in a city’s sacred precinct, emphasizing the importance of the game. Solid rubber balls were passed between players with the goal of hitting them through markers.

But it wasn’t what we think of as a sport. The game had multiple meanings, including powerful religious and cult purposes. It appears, from a number of carved stone reliefs, that war captives were somehow made to play the game before being ritually beheaded or tortured.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin. A loser at the ballgame is being sacrificed by two victors while a third man looks on. A death god descends from the skyband above to accept the offering. Late Classic.

Two calendars

The calendar and numbering systems were complex and elaborate, although based around astronomical events and periods. Similarly, there’s much evidence that key buildings, including many pyramids, were built in line with astronomical events such as equinoxes. They developed two parallel calendars: a 260-day one and a 365-day one. The 260-day calendar was a ritual calendar, with 20 months of 13 days which is first recorded in the sixth century BC, and is still used in some parts of Guatemala for ritual divining.

Based on the sun, the 365-day calendar had 18 months of 20 days, with five nameless days at the end. It was the count of time used for agriculture. Every 52 years the two calendars completed a full cycle, and during this time special rituals commemorated the cycle.

Blood sacrifice

Blood seems to play a central role in numerous cultures and cities. We know that the Aztecs prized prisoners taken during battle, because they could then tear out their beating hearts from their bodies to sacrifice to the gods. But there are also plentiful wall art, carvings and frescos showing people who aren’t captives drawing their own blood using a panoply of utensils: sometimes, apparently, in order to have religious visions.

Another theme is piercing the tongue, or even penis, with a needle, thread or rope, apparently for cult or religious reasons.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K'ab'al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

A carved lintel from a building at Yaxchilan depicts a bloodletting ritual. The king of Yaxchilan, Shield Jaguar II, is holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth. (British Museum)

Visual complexity

But the single biggest thing I took from the book is the extraordinary visual complexity of many of the images from these varied cultures. The big stone Olmec heads, and many examples of pottery, are simple and easy enough to grasp visually.

But there are also thousands of frieze carvings, free-standing stelae, even a few painted frescos have survived, and just a handful of manuscrupts written in pictogram style, and almost all of these are of a dazzling visual complexity. This is a drawing of the carved decoration found on a stela (i.e. an upright freestanding carved stone) stela number 10, found at the city of Seibal.

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

Drawing of Seibal stela 10

It is a very busy image. Most of the friezes and stela and many of the manuscripts show a similar concern to cover every inch of the space with very characteristic style that’s hard to put into words, apart from clutter. The figures are so highly embellished and space so packed with ornate curvilinear decorations (as well as rows of rectangular glyphs, a form of pictogram) that I had to read Miller’s descriptions of what was going on quite a few times and work really hard to decipher the imagery.

Also see the Carved panel, South Ballcourt, El Tajin (above). It takes quite a bit of referring back and forth between text and illustration to decipher what Miller describes, and I would only know there is a death god descending because Miller tells me so.  In many of these Mesoamerican carvings, it is impossible to distinguish human figures from the jungles of intertwining decoration which obscures them. 

I was just struck that it was common throughout the various peoples of the region, for the public art of their cultures to be complex and difficult to read.

By contrast, pottery by its nature generally has to be simpler, and I found myself very drawn to the monumental quality of early Olmec pottery.

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BCE)

Olmec fish vessel (12th–9th century BC)

Many fully carved sculptures from later eras manage to combine the decorative complexity of the friezes with a stunningly powerful, monumental presence. There is a class of objects known as hachas, named after the Spanish term for ‘axe’. Hachas are representations of gear worn in the ballgame and are a distinctive form associated with art from the Classic Veracruz culture, which flourished along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between 300 and 900 AD.

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

A Hacha in the Classic Veracruz style. It would have had inlays of precious materials, such as jade, turquoise, obsidian or shell. Middle to Late Classic (500-900 AD)

In sculptured 3-D it works. In almost flat carvings or reliefs it can be impenetrable. Can you make out a human figure in this complex concatenation of interlocking shapes? (Clue: His right hand is gripping a circle about two-thirds up on the far left of the stone. Even with clues, it’s not easy, is it?)

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Stela 31 from Tikal depicting the ruler Stormy Sky, Mayan, AD 445

Places

  • Bonampak – Late Classic period (AD 580 to 800) Maya archaeological site with Mayan murals
  • Cacaxtla – small city of the Olmeca-Xicalanca people 650-900 AD, colourful murals
  • Cerros – small Eastern Lowland Maya archaeological site in northern Belize, Late Preclassic to Postclassic period
  • Cópan – capital city of a major Classic period Mayan kingdom from 5th to 9th centuries AD
  • Chichen Itzá – city of the Toltecs tenth century, site of the biggest ball park in Mesoamerica
  • Cotzumalhuapa – Late Classic major city that extended more than 10 square kilometres which produced hundreds of sculptures in a notably realistic style
  • *El Tajín – one of the largest and most important cities of the Classic era of Mesoamerica, part of the Classic Veracruz culture, flourished 600 to 1200 CE. World Heritage site.
  • Iximché – capital of the Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524, located in present-day Guatemala
  • Izapa – large archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas, occupied from 1500 BCE to 1200 AD
  • Kaminaljuyú – big Mayan site now mostly buried under modern Guatemala City
  • Mitla – the most important site of the Zapotec culture, reaching apex 750-1500 AD
  • *Monte Alban – one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica, the pre-eminent Zapotec socio-political and economic centre for a thousand years, 250 BC – . Founded toward the end of the Middle Formative period at around 500 BC to Late Classic (ca. AD 500-750)
  • Oxtotitlan – a rock shelter housing rock paintings, the ‘earliest sophisticated painted art known in Mesoamerica’
  • *Palenque – Maya city state in southern Mexico, date from c. 226 BC to c. AD 799, contains some of the finest Mayan architecture, sculpture, roof comb and bas-relief carvings
  • Piedras Negras – largest of the Usumacinta ancient Maya urban centers, known for its large sculptural output
  • Seibal – Classic Period archaeological site in Guatemala, fl., 400 BC – 200 AD
  • Tenochtitlan – capital city of the Aztecs, founded 1325, destroyed by the conquistadors 1520, now buried beneath Mexico City
  • *Teotihuacan – vast city site in the Valley of Mexico 25 miles north-east of Mexico City, at its height 0-500 AD, the largest city in Mesoamerica population 125,000. A World Heritage Site, and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.
  • Tikal – one of the largest archaeological sites and urban centers of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in northern Guatemala. World Heritage Site.
  • Tlatilco – one of the first chiefdom centres to arise in the Valley of Mexico during the Middle Pre-Classic period, 1200 BCE and 200 BCE, gives its name to distinctive ‘Tlatilco culture’.
  • Tula – capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. Though conquered in 1150, Tula had significant influence on the Aztec Empire. Associated with the cult of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Tulum – Mayan walled city built on tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries.
  • Uaxactún – an ancient sacred place of the Maya civilization, flourished up till its sack in 378 AD
  • *Uxmal – ne of the most important archaeological sites of Maya culture, founded 500 AD, capital of a Late Classic Maya state around 850-925, taken over by Toltecs around 1000 AD. World Heritage Site.
  • Yaxchilán – Mayan city, important throughout the Classic era, known for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels and stelae bearing hieroglyphic texts describing the dynastic history of the city.

Another map

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

Map of Mesoamerica showing the most important cities and historical sites. Red shading shows area of Aztec influence, green shading for the Maya region

PBS Documentary

The sense of a double narrative – the way we not only learn the history of the Mesoamericans, but also the history of how we found out about the Mesoamericans – is captured in this American documentary.


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Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals by Linda Bank Downs

[Rivera] has built up a powerful narrative style of painting, which makes him, it is safe to say, the only man now working, who adequately represents the world we live in – wars, tumult, struggling peoples, hope, discontent, humour and speeding existence.’
(Edgar P. Richardson, one of the directors of the Art Institute of Detroit)

Diego Rivera’s Detroit murals

In April 1932 the Mexican mural painter, Diego Rivera, arrived in Detroit to fulfil a commission from the city’s Art Institute. Rivera had already painted two sets of murals in San Francisco and was coming fresh from being the subject of an immensely successful one-man retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Chief patron of the Art Institute and sponsor of the murals was Edsel Ford, son of Henry Ford, founder of the famous automobile company. In fact Ford, by this stage, was no longer just running a successful car company, he had created the largest and most technically advanced industrial complex in the world. This industrial city within a city not only contained all the manufacturing elements required for the production of cars, it included factories turning out steel, cement, glass and electricity. The site had its own canals and railways, and had developed ship, tractor and airplane manufacture, so it could control the delivery of all the raw materials necessary to car production.

Like many visitors, Rivera was awe-struck at what he saw. He spent three months visiting every part of the works, having the engineering and machines explained to him, and developing his designs. He made hundreds of sketches and studies as well as commissioning photographs by the company photographer.

The murals were to be painted on the two long, tall, facing walls of what was, at that point, the garden courtyard of the Art Institute. There were to be two main murals, giant paintings in which Rivera captured the thrilling complexity of factory production – construction of the interior of an automobile on the North Wall, manufacture of the exterior of the car on the South wall.

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, North Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Above these giant paintings ran two horizontal bands in which Rivera painted less cluttered, more monumental figures depicting the races of the world and the raw materials lying under Detroit’s soil (on the North Wall, above, the Indian and African races; on the South Wall, below, the white and Chinese races.) And running along beneath the main panels were a set of smaller rectangular spaces into which Rivera painted different aspects of the worker’s day, arriving at work, lunch break, and different perspectives on the works.

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

Detroit, Man and Machine, South Wall in the Detroit Institute of Art by Diego Rivera (1932)

At the ends of the hall i.e. on the East and West walls – given that they had doors and windows Rivera had less space to play with and so, again, painted symbolical rather than naturalistic subjects – on the East wall a long thin band with a foetus lying in the soil, on the West wall two depictions of machines flank the main door while above them is a wonderful painting depicting the latest Ford airplanes.

The West wall murals

The West wall murals

In all there were 27 separate panels.

Rivera began painting on 25 July 1932 and finished work in March 1933. Despite vocal criticism from right-wing journalists, politicians and preachers attacking him for being foreign, an atheist and a communist – and a similar counterblast from communist writers and officials accusing him of selling out to the Yankee dollar – the murals were opened to tremendous acclaim, and became an instant hit with visitors.

The images were reproduced in papers and magazines and art books around the world and consolidated Rivera’s reputation as Mexico’s greatest artist with one of the most recognisable visual styles in the world. It is telling that when the Rockefeller Foundation was looking for bang up-to-date artists to decorate the lobby of their new skyscraper in New York, they approached Matisse, Picasso and Rivera. He was in that league.

This book

This book is a joy to behold and handle. It’s a large-size and hefty hardback (31.5 cm tall by 20.5 cm wide), the paper is beautiful, the print is lovely and crisp and the photo and painting reproductions are first class.

The thrust or USP of the book is that, during the 1990s, a whole world of cartoons, sketches and photographs involved in the making of the murals came to light. Linda Bank Downs helped to direct investigations into the archives of not only the Art Institute but the Ford Company Museum, Detroit’s other archives so that researchers were able to slowly assemble a massive collection of preparatory works, sketches, cartoons, notebooks, plans, designs, as well as official and private photos which record and document every stage of Rivera’s researches, preparations and painting.

The result is fabulously presented and absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on the commission itself and then an absolutely riveting description of exactly how the murals were prepared, with a precise recipe for each of the five layers of plaster required, and detail on the painstaking preparation of each of the colours to just the right fineness and density.

We learn the biographies of the half dozen assistants who were required for the project (including the unlikely figure of Lord Hastings, an English aristocrat who wanted to help the working classes), and a portrait of life in broader Detroit – in reality, a grimly rundown city with mass unemployment, hunger, riots and racism.

A big chapter describes ‘the Cosmology of Technology’ i.e. explaining the multitude of actual manufacturing process Rivera depicted, and the next one presents the surprising variety of art scholarly interpretations the murals have been subjected to. The book ends with an entertaining account of the ‘controversy’ surrounding the paintings which Downs, after extensive research, now thinks was actually kick-started by the Ford Company’s own press and PR people – and was a spectacular success.

All the way through there are excellent, top quality photos – of Detroit, of the factory, of Diego at work, of his assistants hard at work and his hosts in embarrassed group shots, even of the great man sneaking a secret snog with his wife, Frida Kahlo, who dutifully brought him a cooked meal of vegetarian Mexican food, just the way he liked it every day at lunchtime – as well as extensive reproductions of his preparatory sketches and drafts and plans – and then onto wonderfully panoramic views of each panel alongside extensive close-ups of details, explaining the function of each piece of equipment and also the cameo appearances Rivera painted in to the murals of his patron, the Institute’s director and a cheeky self-portrait, among many more.

Diego Rivera having a cheeky snog with Frida Kahlo on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1933)

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo having a snog on the scaffold inside the Detroit Institute of Arts (1932)

This is a wonderfully intelligent and beautifully produced book about a major twentieth century work of art.


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The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of murals
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of the murals of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to 3. – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress, so the workers must hand out weapons and man the barricades – I take it none of that comes as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in the twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany. But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world, that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World West wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? Which is the right way to go?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: this reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately, powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried, and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more. Just not on walls.

The noble poor

Compare and contrast the filthy rich with these guys. The noble poor. The liberated peasants. Who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Saint Zapata said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof. Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

Unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause. Fighting in the imperialist was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to war across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera was famous as a biting anti-capitalist communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans, who invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933), at the same time as he was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco, adorns the stairs leading up from the exchange itself to the exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

Rivera himself considered the murals he made in Detroit his best. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow. Crucially, for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. they show men at work in modern factories much as many other American muralists of the time did.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who cancelled his commission, a reluctant return to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism. He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI ruled Mexico continually until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises 1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford) 2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at the densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 50s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 20s and 30s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history, and above all on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history. As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

On one level there’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters, figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as replacing Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panorama of Mexican history (excerpt above) just looks like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors. Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled. I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. The exact opposite of the spirit of Mexico.

And – I speculate – the reason is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammeled by negative thoughts or anxieties.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation, which they could never forget because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty. The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, which afflicted mostly Indians.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with evocative b&w photos
  • one is a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Leaving 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. 1987 is a long time ago and people, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism back then. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography so very enjoyable.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small. The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and especially the vitriolic attack he launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter, as well as a lot of small detail, about minor murals, missed by Marnham’s biography, and sidebars contain what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture and matters going off on a tangent from the main narrative, which are diverting and often very interesting.


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Dreaming With His Eyes Open: A Life of Diego Rivera by Patrick Marnham (1998)

My father was a storyteller and he invented new episodes of his past every day. (Diego Rivera’s daughter, Guadalupe)

This is a hugely enjoyable romp through the life of Mexico’s most famous artist, the massive, myth-making Marxist muralist Diego Rivera. In his own autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera made up all sorts of tall stories and whopping fibs about his ancestors, childhood and young manhood. He then collaborated with his first biography, written by friend and fan Bertram David Wolfe in, published in 1963, in which he also perpetrated all sorts of fantastical stories.

Instead of boringly trying to tell fact from fiction, Marnham enters into the spirit of Rivera and, maybe, of Mexico generally, and prints the whoppers alongside the – generally more mundane – truth. Thus where Rivera insists that by age 11 he had devised a war machine so impressive that the Mexican Army wanted to make him a general, or that he spent the years 1910 and 1911 fighting with Zapata’s rebels, or that he began to study medicine, and after anatomy lessons he and fellow students used to cook and eat the body parts – Marnham gently points out that, aged 11, Rivera appears to have been a precocious but altogether dutiful schoolboy, while in 1910/11 he spent the winter organising a successful exhibition of his work and the spring in a small town south of Mexico City worrying about his career and longing for his Russian girlfriend back in Paris.

Mexico appears throughout the book in three respects: its turbulent and violent politics; its exotic landscape, brilliant sky, cacti and parrots; its racial heritage, the hated Spanish at the top of the hate list, and everyone sentimentalising the white-pyjama-ed peasant – though not necessarily doing very much to help him.

First half – Apprenticeships 1886-1921

The most interesting aspect of the first half of his career is the long time it took Rivera to find his voice. Born in 1886 to a minor official in the provincial city of Guanajuato, young Diego’s proficiency at drawing was noticed at school. The family moved to Mexico City and his parents got him into the prestigious San Carlos Academy of Fine Arts, when he was just 11 years old. In 1906 i.e. aged 19, he won a scholarship to study abroad and took a ship to Spain, settling in Madrid, where he met the city’s bohemian artists and studied the classics, Velasque and El Greco, who he particularly revered.

But the real intellectual and artistic action in Spain was taking place in Barcelona (where young Picasso had been studying), the only Spanish city in touch with the fast-moving art trends in northern Europe.

It was only when Rivera went to Paris in 1909 that he was first exposed to Cézanne and the Impressionists and even then, they didn’t at first have much impact. After a trip to London where he saw Turner, his painting becomes more misty and dreamy, but it was only in 1913 that he began to ‘catch up’, seeing the importance of the Cubism which had become notorious about 1911. For the next four years he painted in nothing but the Cubist idiom, becoming a well-known face in the artist’s quarter of Montparnasse, and a friend of Picasso, a paid-up member of the avant-garde – all drinking, mistresses, models and arguments late into the night.

Marnham’s account of these years is interesting for a number of reasons. It sheds light on how a gifted provincial could happily plough a traditional academic furrow right up to 1910, blithely ignorant of what we now take to be all the important trends of Modern Art. And for its compellingly gossipy account of the artistic world of the time.

I liked the fact that whenever a ‘friend’ visited, all the artists turned their works to the wall before opening the door: the artistic community – which included not only Picasso, but Gris, Mondrian, Chagall, Derain, Vlaminck, Duchamp – was intensely competitive and intensely plagiaristic. Picasso, in particular, was notorious for copying everything he saw, and doing it better.

Food was so cheap in the new little cafés which sprang up to cater to the bohemians that the Fauvists Derain and Vlaminck invented a game which was to eat everything on the cafe menu – at once – in one sitting. Whoever gave up had to pay the bill. On one occasion Vlaminck ate his way through every dish on a café menu, twice!

Rivera’s transition from traditional academic style to cubism can be seen in the Wikipedia gallery.

Rivera did indeed return to Mexico in October 1910 and stayed for 6 months, though he did not, as he later claimed, help Zapata hold up trains. He wanted to see his family and friends again.

Upon arrival he discovered that he was relatively famous. His study in Madrid and Paris had all been paid for by a state scholarship awarded by the government of corrupt old dictator, Porfirio Diaz and, to justify it, Diego had had to send back regular samples of his work. These confirmed his talent and the Ministry of Culture organised an exhibition devoted to Rivera’s work which opened on 20 November 1910 to quite a lot of fanfare, with positive press coverage.

It is ironic that this was exactly the same day that the Liberal politician Francisco Madero crossed the Rio Grande from America into northern Mexico and called for an uprising to overthrow the Diaz government, thus beginning the ‘Mexican Revolution’.

In his autobiography Rivera would later claim that he was a rebel against the government and came back to Mexico to help Emiliano Zapata’s uprising. The truth was pretty much the opposite. His ongoing stay in Madrid and then Paris was sponsored by Diaz’s government. He never met or went anywhere near Zapata, instead efficiently supervising the hang of his art exhibition in Mexico City, spending time with his family, before going to a quiet city south of the capital to paint. He was, in Marnham’s cutting phrase, ‘a pampered favourite’ of the regime (p.77)

In the spring of 1911 Rivera returned to Paris with its cubism, its artistic squabbles, and his Russian mistress. Not being a European, Rivera was able to sit out the First World War, rather like his fellow Hispanic, Picasso, while almost all their European friends were dragged into the mincing machine, many of them getting killed.

Of minor interest to most Europeans, the so-called Mexican Revolution staggered on, a combination of complicated political machinations at the centre, floodlit by raids, skirmishes, battles and massacres in scattered areas round the country.

Earlier in the book, Marnham gives a very good description of Mexico in the last days of Diaz’ rule, ‘a system of social injustice and tyranny’. He gives a particularly harrowing summary of the out-and-out slavery practiced in the southern states, and the scale of the rural poverty, as exposed by the journalist John Kenneth Turner in his 1913 book Barbarous Mexico (pp. 36-40).

Now, as the Revolution turned into a bloody civil war between rival factions, in 1915 and 1916, Rivera began to develop an interest in it, even as his sophisticated European friends dismissed it. Marnham himself gives a jokey summary of the apparently endless sequence of coups and putsches:

Diaz was exiled by Modera who was murdered by Huerta who was exiled by Carranza who murdered Zapata before being himself murdered by Obregón. (p.122)

Obregón himself being murdered a few years later. Rivera’s Russian communist friend, Ilya Ehrenburg, dismissed the whole thing as ‘the childish anarchism of Mexican shepherds’ – but to the Mexicans it mattered immensely and resonates to this day.

Rivera spent a long time in Europe, 1907 to 1921, 14 years, progressing from talented traditionalist and into the heart of the modern movement with his particular brand of cubism. Partly because of personal fallings out, partly because it was ceasing to sell so well, Rivera dropped cubism abruptly in 1918, reverting to a smudgy realist style derived from Cézanne.

Then he met the intellectual art critic and historian Elie Faure who insisted that the era of the individual artist was over, and that a new era of public art was beginning. An argument reinforced by the Mexican Revolution and then the Bolshevik revolution which had just taken place. Art for the people. It was with this in mind that Diego finally got round to completing his Grand Tour of Europe with 9 months spent in Italy, slowly crawling from one hilltop town to the next, painstakingly copying and studying the frescos of the Quattrocento masters.

Second half – Murals 1921-33

The Mexican Revolution was declared over in 1920, with the flight and murder of President Carranza and the inauguration of his successor President Obregón. A new Minister of Culture, José Vasconcelos, was convinced that Mexico needed to be rebuilt and modernised, starting with new schools, colleges and universities. These buildings needed to be decorated with inspiring and uplifting murals. As Mexico’s most famous living artist, he had been in touch with Diego since 1919, and his talk of murals came at just the time Elie Faure was talking to Diego about public art and just as Diego concluded his painstaking studies in Italy.

He was straightaway given two of the most important mural commissions he was ever to receive, at the National Preparatory School (la Escuela Prepatorio), and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education.

At the same time Diego evinced a new-found political consciousness. He not only joined the Mexican Communist Party but set up a Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors. From now on there are three main strands in his life:

  1. the murals
  2. the Communist Party
  3. his many women

Diego’s women

He was a Mexican man. The patriarchal spirit of machismo was like the air he breathed. Frank McLynn, in his book about the Revolution, gives lengthy descriptions of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata’s complex love lives – basically they both kept extraordinary strings of women, lovers, mistresses and multiple wives.

Diego was a man in the same mould, albeit without the horses and guns. More or less every model that came near him seems to have been propositioned, with the result that he left a trail of mistresses, ‘wives’ and children in his turbulent wake.

EUROPE
1911 ‘married’ to Angelina Beloff, mother of a son, Diego (1916–1918)
1918 Maria Vorobieff-Stebelska, ‘Marevna’, mother of daughter named Marika in 1919, who he never saw or supported

MEXICO
1922-26 married to Guadalupe Marin, mother of his two daughters, Ruth and Guadalupe, she modelled for some of the nudes in his murals
– affair with a Cuban woman
– affair with Lupe’s sister?
– affair with Tina Modotti, who modelled for five nudes in the Chapingo murals, Earth enslaved, Germination, Virgin earth 1926-7
1928 – seduced ‘a stream of young women’
1929 marries Frida Kahlo, who goes on to have a string of miscarriages and abortions
– three-year affair with Frida’s sister, Cristina, 1934-7
1940 divorces Frida – starts affair with Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Paulette Goddard
– affair with painter Irene Bohus
December 1940 remarries Frida in San Francisco
1954 marries Emma Hurtado
– affair with Dolores Olmedo

Diego’s murals

Making frescos is a tricky business, as Marnham explains in some detail – and Rivera’s early work was marred by technical and compositional shortcomings. But he had always worked hard and dedicatedly and now he set out to practice, study and learn.

Vasconcelos was convinced that post-revolutionary Mexico required ‘modernisation’, which meant big new infrastructure projects – railways with big stations, factories, schools, universities – and that all these needed to be filled with inspiring, uplifting, patriotic art for the people.

The National Preparatory School, and then a huge series at the new Ministry of Education, took several years to complete from 1922 to 1926 and beyond. He was convinced – as Marnham reductively puts it – that he could change the world by painting walls.

There was a hiatus while he went to Moscow 1927-8.

And then it was an unavoidable paradox, much commented on at the time and ever since, that some of Diego’s greatest murals were painted in America, land of the capitalists. In 1929 he received a commission to decorate the walls of a hacienda at Cuernevaca from the U.S. Ambassador, Dwight Morrow. Following this he went to San Francisco to paint murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (!) and the SF School of Arts. His argument was always that he was bringing the Communist message to the capitalist masses, but there’s no doubt that it also meant money money money. Fame and money.

In 1931 he helped organise a one-man retrospective at New York’s new Museum of Modern Art (founded in 1929) which was a great popular success. Marnham is amusingly sarcastic, listing the names of the umpteen super-rich multi-millionaires who flocked to the show and wanted to be photographed with the ‘notorious Communist’. Twas ever thus. Radical chic. Champagne socialism.

As a result of all this fame he was invited by Edsel Ford, son of the famous Henry, to do some murals at the company’s massive car factory in Michigan. Diego put in a vast amount of time studying the plant and all its processes with the result that the two massive murals painted on opposite sides of a big, skylit hall are arguably among the greatest murals ever. Stunningly dynamic and exciting and beautifully composed.

North wall of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals (1933)

North wall of Diego Rivera’s Detroit Murals (1933)

Everything was going swimmingly until the next commission – to do a mural in the foyer of the enormous new Rockefeller Building in New York – went badly wrong. Diego changed the design several times, to the annoyance of the strict and demanding architects, but when he painted the face of Lenin, not in the original sketches, the architects reacted promptly and ejected him from the building. A great furore was stirred up by the press with pro and anti Rivera factions interviewed at length, but it marked the abrupt end of commissions (and money) in America. What was to have been his next commission, to paint murals for General Motors at the Chicago World Fair was cancelled.

Diego was forced, very reluctantly, to go back to Mexico in 1943, back to ‘the landscape of nightmares’. Marnham makes clear that he loved America, its size, inventiveness, openness, freedom and wealth – and was angry at having to go back to the land of peasants and murderous politicians.

He was ill for much of 1934, and started his affair with Frida’s sister for all kinds of possible motives. Towards the end of the year he felt well enough to do a mural for the Palacio de Bellas Artes. In 1935 he resumed work on new rooms of the National Palace, a project he abandoned when he went to America. He made the decision to depict current Mexican politicians and portray the current mood of corruption. Bad idea. Once the murals were finished, the Mexican government didn’t give him another commission for six years and he was replaced as official government muralist by Jose Clemente Orosco.

He did a set of four panels for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City, but the owner was offended by their blatant anti-Americanism (given that most of his guests were rich Americans) so he took them down and they were never again displayed in Diego’s lifetime.

Forced out of art – more accurately forced back into painting oil canvases which, paradoxically, were always far more profitable than his murals – for the next five years Diego concentrated on politics.

Diego’s politics

Diego’s politics seem to be strangely intangible and were certainly changeable. He lived in a fantasy world, was a great storyteller, and Lenin and Marx seem to have entered his huge imaginarium as another set of characters alongside Montezuma, Cortes and Zapata.

Having joined the Mexican Communist Party in 1922 he left it in 1925, went on an ill-fated trip to Moscow in 1927-8, arriving just as Stalin was beginning to exert his power and the campaign against Trotsky was getting into full swing and, for his tactless criticism, was asked by the Soviet authorities to leave.

Enter Trotsky

A decade later, stymied in his artistic career, Diego joined the International Communist League, affiliated to Trotsky’s Fourth International. He wanted to be a Communist, but not a Stalinist. In January 1937, he gave his support to the exiled Trotsky and persuaded the reluctant Mexican government to give him safe haven at his home in Mexico City.

Trotsky lived with Diego and Frida for two years, Diego providing him with every help and resource, taking him on long tours of the country (for a spell along with the godfather of Surrealism, André Breton, who also stayed at the Casa Azula).

Diego wasn’t a political thinker. In Russia in 1927 he had begun to realise what was happening to Soviet communism and the point was rammed home, for even the most simple-minded by the simultaneous collapse of the Communist Left in the Spanish Civil War (where Stalin’s commissars, secret police and assassins spent more time torturing and killing the other left-wing forces instead of combating the common enemy, Franco) and then the outrageous Moscow Show Trials, 1936-38. Marnham’s account of all this is very interesting; he writes in a wonderfully clear, sensible, entertaining style, with a persistent dry humour.

Anyway, the idyll with Trotsky came to a grinding halt when Diego discovered that Frida had been having an affair with him. She was 30, Trotsky was 58. (One of the revelations of this book is the number of affairs Frida had, with both men and women. She had affairs with at least 11 men between summer 1935 and autumn 1940.)

In fact Diego had put himself in some danger with Stalin commissioning no fewer than three NKVD hit squads to track Trotsky down and kill him. After Diego kicked Trotsky out of the Blue House, the ailing Communist, along with wife and bodyguards, did up a house only a few hundred yards away. Here he was subject to a horrifying attack by an armed gang led by – bizarrely – one of Mexico’s other leading mural painters – David Alfaro Siqueiros – who burst into the villa and fired 173 shots into the bedroom – again amazingly, missing Trotsky who took shelter under the bed with his wife. Siqueiros went on the run. Having read 400 pages of Frank McLynn’s biography of the Mexican Revolution, I am now completely used to thinking that this was how political disagreements were routinely handled in Mexico.

A second assassination attempt was made in August, when Ramón Mercader, hired by the NKVD, inveigled his way past Trotsky’s security men and, as the great man leant down to read a letter, embedded a small icepick he had smuggled into the house. Amazingly, this failed to kill Trotsky, who fought back and his guards burst in to find the two men rolling round on the floor. The guards nearly killed Mercader but Trotsky told them to spare him. Then the great man was taken off to hospital where he died a day later.

After Trotsky

Deeply wounded by Frida’s affair with the old Bolshevik, Trotsky’s murder led Diego a) to forgive her b) to flee to America, specifically San Francisco where he’d received a commission to do a big mural on the theme of Pan America.

With a new president of Mexico the unofficial ban on Rivera was lifted and in 1940 he began a series of murals at the National Palace. There were eleven panels in all, around the first floor gallery of the central courtyard. They took Rivera, off and on, nine years to complete, not finished till 1951. They bring to the fore his lifelong engagement with a central issue of Mexican identity? Are Mexicans Aztec Indians? Or Spanish? Or half-breeds?

Diego and Frida

Surprisingly, Marnham deals with the last 15 or so years of his life (he died in 1957) very scantily. Rivera painted numerous more murals but Marnham barely mentions them.  Instead Marnham develops a theory about the psycho-sexual relationship between Frida and Diego, trying to tease sense out of their complicated mutual mythomania.

He suggests that Frida’s illness limited her mobility, and made her a world class invalid. This she dramatised in a wide range of paintings depicting her miscarriages, abortions, corsets, operations and other physical ailments. But overlaid on them was her unhappiness about Diego’s infidelity, especially with her own sister… In reality she seems to have had scads of affairs with lots of men and quite a few women but this doesn’t come over from her art, which tends to present her as a victim.

And yet she is an empowered victim. Biographical accounts and some paintings strongly suggest that, although he boasted and bragged of his own countless affairs and ‘conquests’, in the privacy of their relationship he became the reverse of the macho Mexican male – he became her ‘baby’. She often gave him baths, and maybe powdered and diapered him. Many women like to see men as carrying on being big babies: it can be a consolation for their powerlessness. But it can also be true.

Then again Marnham quotes a startling occasion when Diego said he loved women so much sometimes he thought he was a lesbian. And Frida poked fun at his massive, woman-sized breasts. Marnham shows how they shared much about their early childhood – both had close siblings who died and haunted their imaginations; both fantasised about belonging to peasant Indian parents, not their boring European ones. And so both egged each other on to mythologise their feel for their vexing country.

I was particularly struck to discover that, during their various separations, Frida completely abandoned her ornate ‘look’, the carefully constructed colourful native dresses, and earrings and head-dresses she copied from the native women of the Tehuana peninsula. According to Marnham, when they divorced in 1940, she cut her hair, wore Western clothes and flew to New York to stay with friends, looking like a crop-haired, European lesbian. So the conclusion seems to be that her self-fashioning into a kind of mythological creature incorporating native dress – and his murals which obsess about the native inheritance – were both central ingredients to the psychological-sexual-artistic nexus/vortex/chamber of wonders that they created.

No wonder their mutual infidelities upset the other but — they just found they couldn’t live apart. The sex may have stopped but the intensity of the psychological and artistic world they created together couldn’t be even faintly recreated with other partners.

It was obviously very complicated, and in its complexity, prompted the core of the artworks, the endless reworking of her own image which have made her more and more famous, probably better known these days than her obese husband. Looking for one narrative through all this – especially a white, western, feminist narrative – strikes me as striving for clarity where the whole point was the creativity of a non-judgmental Mexican myth-making.

Same with the politics. In her last years Frida became a zealous Stalinist. This after the Moscow Show Trials, his alliance with Hitler and everything Trotsky told them from his unparalleled first hand experience. None of that mattered.

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin were part of her personal mythology, as much as Diego – more objective, more interested in the external world than her – experimented endlessly with the theme of the Spanish conquest, fascinated by his Aztec forebears,and endlessly tormented by the meaning of being Mexican – is it to value the European heritage, or despise it? Should you side with the defeated Indians, or leap forwards to a future of factories and communist state ownership? Even when – as Diego knew only too well – most of the Indian peasants he claimed to be speaking for, and ‘liberating’ in his murals, in fact clung to village traditions and above all to their Roman Catholic faith.

Two deaths

On 13 July 1954 Frida died, probably from an overdose of painkillers. A few months his repeated attempts to rejoin the Mexican Communist Party was granted. He embarked on his last set of murals. In 1954 he married his art dealer, Emma Hurtado. Everyone says he aged suddenly and dramatically. Before the year was out he was having an affair with Dolores Olmedo who had been friends with Frida, was her executrix, and was also the principal collector of Diego’s easel paintings.

So, as Marnham summarises the situation in his customarily intelligent, amused and dry style – he was married to his art dealer while having an affair with her principal customer. In September 1957 he had a stroke and in December of the same year died of heart failure. He left an autobiography, My Life, My Art full of scandalous lies and tall tales, and a world of wonder in his intoxicating, myth-making, story-telling murals.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park by Diego Rivera (1947)


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A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn (2016)

My thinking about the concept of borderlands has been influenced by a growing body of literature interested in exploring the liminal spaces in which social relations, cultures and claims to sovereign authority make contact, struggle, and reshape one another. (p.525)

Executive summary

This is a long, turgid and demanding book. Plenty of times I nearly gave up reading it in disgust. If you want to find out what happened in America between about 1820 and 1865, read James McPherson’s outstanding volume, Battle Cry of Freedom. For the period from 1965 to 1910 I currently can’t recommend an alternative, but they must be out there in their hundreds.

Two types of history

There are probably countless ‘types’ of history book but, for the purposes of this review, they can be narrowed down to two types. One type provides a more or less detailed chronology of events laid out in sequence, with portraits of key players and plenty of backup information such as quotes from relevant documents – government paperwork, constitutions, manifestos, speeches, news paper articles, diaries, letters – alongside photos, maps, graphics and diagrams explaining social or economic trends, and so on.

The other type is what you could call meta-history, a type of history book which assumes that the reader is already familiar with the period under discussion – the people, dates and events – and proceeds to ask questions, propose new theories and put forward new interpretations of it. Since this kind of book assumes that you are already familiar with the key events, people and places of the era, it won’t bother with biographical sketches, maps or photos – you know all that already – but will focus solely on laying out new ideas and interpretations.

A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910 by Steven Hahn is very much the second type of history. If you want to find out what happened in America between 1830 and 1910, with maps, pictures, diagrams etc – this is not the book for you. There are no maps. there are no pictures. There are no diagrams. Sure there’s still a lot of information but what there mostly is, is lots of ‘reinterpretations’.

Reinterpretations

In the first paragraph of the introduction Hahn declares his intention to tell ‘a familiar story in an unfamiliar way’, and the front and back of his book are plastered with quotes from high-end journalists and fellow academics confirming that this is indeed what he has achieved – praising his achievement in ‘reconceptualising’ and ‘rethinking’ this crucial period in American history.

  • ‘a forthright challenge to old stereotypes’
  • ‘subtle and original conceptualisation’
  • ‘not a typical chronological survey of American history’
  • ‘conceptually challenging’
  • ‘breathtakingly original’
  • ‘a bold reinterpretation of the American nineteenth century’
  • ‘an ambitious rethinking of our history’

What this means in practice is spelled out in the introduction, where Hahn announces that:

  • Traditional history teaches that the United States started as a nation and turned into an empire. Hahn seeks to prove the reverse: to show that the United States inherited an imperial mindset from imperial Britain, with a weak centre only loosely ruling a farflung collection of autonomous states, and was only slowly struggling to become ‘a nation’, until the War of the Rebellion. The war gave the ruling Republican Party unprecedented power to pass a welter of centralising legislation which for the first time made America a ‘nation’. In this respect it was comparable to Italy and Germany which only became unified nations at much the same time (the 1860s) and also as a result of war(s).
  • Traditional history teaches that America was divided into a slave-free North and a slave-based South. Hahn insists that slavery was ubiquitous across the nation, with some of the fiercest anti-black violence taking place in New York, and that the principle struggle wasn’t between North and South but between North-East and the Mississippi Valley for control of the new country and, possibly, of the entire hemisphere. A recurring thread of the first half is the way that southern slavers seriously envisaged conquering all of Mexico and Central America and the available Caribbean islands to create a vast slave-owning empire in which the ‘slave-free’ north-east would be reduced to a geographic stump.
  • Traditional history teaches that America is an exception to the rest of world history, a shining light on a hill. Recent decades have overthrown that view to show just how deeply involved America was with trade, exploration and slavery back and forth across the Atlantic (this is the thrust of Alan Taylor’s brilliant account of early America, American Colonies). However, Hahn wants to overthrow not only American exceptionalism but even this newer, Atlantic, theory – he wants to shift the focus towards the Pacific, claiming that many key decisions of the period don’t make sense unless you realise that politicians of both free and slave states were looking for decisive control of the vast Californian coast in order to push on into Pacific trade with Asia.
  • Traditional history teaches that there was a civil war in American from 1861 to 1865. Hahn prefers to call this epic conflict ‘the War of the Rebellion’ – partly because the war was indeed prompted by the rebellion of the slave states, but also in order to place it among a whole host of other ‘rebellions’ of the period e.g. the Seminole War of the 1840s, the refusal of the Mormons to accept federal power in their state of Utah, the wish of some Texans to remain an independent state, the attempts by southern filibusters (adventurers) to invade Cuba and Nicaragua in defiance of federal law, numerous native American uprisings, and countless small rebellions by black slaves against their masters. Instead of being the era of One Big War, Hahn is trying to rethink the mid-nineteenth century as the era of almost constant ‘rebellions’ , large and small, by southerners, by native Americans, by newly organising workers everywhere, by the Mormons, by women – against the federal government.
  • Traditional history teaches that capitalism spread across America from its East coast, which was deeply interconnected with the global capitalist economy pioneered by Britain. Hahn seeks to show that there were all kinds of regional resistances to this transformation – the South was committed to a slave economy which limited the growth of markets and industrialisation; the whole centre of the country was occupied by native Americans who had completely different values and means of production and exchange; much of newly settled West preferred small local market economies. Probably the biggest single idea in the book is that the Republican triumph in the War of the Rebellion went hand in hand with the triumph of a centralised capitalist nation-state. But the latter part of the book goes on to insist that, even after its apparent triumph, capitalism continued to face a welter of opposition from numerous sources, from the disobedience of the defeated South, from western cowboy economies, through to resistance from highly urbanised Socialist and trade union movements – ‘the United States had the most violent labour history of any society in the industrialising world’ in the 1880s and 1890s.

Put this succinctly, these are certainly interesting and stimulating ideas. If only they had been developed in an interesting and stimulating way in interesting and stimulating prose which included interesting and stimulating facts.

But too often the ‘ideas’ dominate at the expense of the evidence and the basic information. Too often Hahn argues the points in prose which is so muddy, and with snippets of information or quotes handled so unpersuasively, or in such an obviously selective, cherry-picking way, that the reader has the permanent sense of missing out on the history, while ploughing through the interpretation. Take the new terms he coins:

New Terms

Most people in the world refer to the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy between 1861 and 1865 as the American Civil War. Hahn’s attempt to ‘reconceptualise’ it and refer to it throughout as ‘the War of the Rebellion’ has a sort of appeal, especially if you can keep in mind the cohort of other rebellions he sees as surrounding it and feeding into it. But put the book down and start talking or writing to anyone else in the world and…they will be deeply puzzled. It will require quite a lot of explanation to convey why you’re using a different name from the rest of the world… and all the while you have the strong sense that it will never catch on…

To given another example: America saw rapid economic change in the 1830s and 1840s, as scattered farmsteads and distant agricultural regions began to be connected, first by canals and, in the 1840s, by railways. Raw materials and goods could be traded further than just the local market. Eastern investors became interested in money-making possibilities. Traditionally, this period has been referred to as ‘the market revolution’. Characteristically, Hahn prefers to give it a different name, referring throughout to ‘market intensification’.

He does this partly because – at this late date – there is, apparently, still widespread disagreement among historians about when the American industrial revolution began: was it the 1830s or 40s or 50s? Something was definitely changing about the scale of agricultural and semi-industrial production from the 1830s onwards – Hahn is suggesting a new term designed to more accurately convey the way existing structures of production and distribution didn’t fundamentally change, but became larger in scale and more linked up. More intensified.

It’s an interesting idea but it’s quite subtle and I felt a) it requires more evidence and information to really back it up and b) I don’t, in the end, really care that much what it’s called: I’d just like to understand it better.

Show or Tell

You could also think of think of the two types of history book I referred to earlier as ones which show, and ones which tell. James M. McPherson’s brilliant account of the civil war shows. He gives you all the facts, and the people, and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources. There are numerous maps, especially of all the key civil war battles, there are photographs which give you a strong feel for the time, there are diagrams and above all there are really extensive quotations from letters, speeches, articles and so on, so that you can read about the issues in the words of the people who were debating and arguing them. As a result, McPherson’s account is rich and varied and highly memorable. You remember the people and what they did and said and achieved. As you follow his intricate account of the war, complete with maps and detailed descriptions of each battle, you get a real sense of what was at stake and how contingent human affairs are.

Hahn tells

By contrast, Hahn tells you what happened, with no reference to maps, no graphs or photographs, with minimum quotations. For example, he doesn’t give a single account of a civil war battle, and certainly no maps of them. All the evidence is subsumed to the need to make his case and put forward his theories.

But the risk of writing history in such a theory-heavy way is that your account might end up being more about yourself and your theories, than about the ‘history’; that you spend ages asking academic type questions…

What was the character of American governance? On what axes did American politics turn?How far did slavery’s reach extend, and what was its relation to American economic and political growth? How did the intensifying conflict over slavery turn into civil warfare, and in what ways did civil warfare transform the country? How integral was political violence and conquest to American development? How were relations of class, race and gender constructed, and what did they contribute to the dynamics of change?When did American industrialisation commence, and how rapidly did it unfold? How should we view popular radicalism of the late nineteenth century and its relationship to Progressivism? At what point could the United States be regarded as an empire, and how was empire constituted? (p.2)

… and then a lot of time answering them in a similarly abstract, academic kind of way.

To give an example of the triumph of theory over detail, Hahn is heavily into modern identity politics and goes out of his way to discuss the history of women and of people of colour using the latest up-to-date sociological jargon.

Thus Hahn tells us that the nineteenth century family was a ‘patriarchal institution’ ruled by the ‘patriarchal father’ or the ‘patriarchal husband’. He explains that 19th century American society was profoundly ‘gendered’ (a favourite word of his), a society in which people have defined themselves by ‘gender stereotypes’, where people carried out ‘gendered divisions of labour’, according to ‘gendered norms’ and ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’. The more aggressive leaders of the era, such as presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodor Roosevelt, are both accused of ‘masculinism’.

Similarly, Hahn loses no opportunity to tell us the big news that Southern slaveowners and their newspapers and politicians often expressed ‘racist ideas’ and ‘racist conventions’ and ‘racist stereotypes’ in ‘racist’ language.

The thing is – this is not really news. It is not that useful to be told that 19th century American society was sexist and racist. The use of the latest terminology can’t hide the fact that this is pretty obvious stuff. Not only that, but it is deeply uninformative. Instead of giving specific, useful and memorable examples of the kind of behaviour he is deploring, there tend to be pages of the same, generalising, identity politics jargon.

Part of his attempt to overturn ‘received opinion’ is to attack the notion that slaves were the passive recipients of aid and help from well-meaning white abolitionists. Wherever he can, Hahn goes out of his way to show that it was the blacks themselves who organised resistance to slave-hunters, set up communications networks, who were aware of the political implications of the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, who organised themselves into groups to flee their southern masters and make for the Union front line then, later, after the war, continued the struggle for equality, organised themselves into networks and groups at local and regional level, won significant political and administrative posts across the South before a backlash set in during the 1870s.

In a similar spirit (that marginalised people weren’t passive victims but strong independent people with their own agency who have all-too-often been written out of the story but whose voices he is now boldly going to present) Hahn refers a number of times to women organising as much political activity as they were then allowed to do, taking on domestic and cultural responsibilities, organising a Women’s Convention in 1848, campaigning for women’s suffrage throughout the later pat of the century, fighting for admission to teaching and the professions, and so on.

Well and good, and interesting, in outline – but the way Hahn tells these stories is highly generalised, draped in politically correct phraseology, rather than illuminated by specific stories or incidents which really bring them to life.

McPherson shows

By contrast, McPherson shows us these forces in action. He devotes pages to giving the names and stories of specific women who helped transform the perception of women’s abilities. These include the passages he devotes to the role of nurses during the war, and as workers in key industries depleted of men because of the draft.

I was fascinated by his description of the way that, in the pre-war period, the movement of women from being cottage industry producers to the heads of nuclear households in which the male now went out to earn a wage, represented a as a big step up in power and autonomy for women.

McPherson shows the importance of women in the 1840s creating a new market for consumer goods, which made America a pioneer in all sorts of household conveniences for the next century or more.

McPherson devotes a passage to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the bestselling novel of the 19th century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

I was struck by McPherson’s account of how women, in the 1830s and 40s began their dominance of the teaching profession, which has never gone away (in 2017 77% of teachers in the USA were female). The conference to launch the women’s rights movement which Hahn gives one brief mention, McPherson devotes three pages to, with accounts of the women who organised it, and the debates it held (pp. 33-36).

Later on, McPherson has a section about medicine and nursing during the war where, in a nutshell, certain strong-willed women followed the example of Florence Nightingale and set up nursing homes and went into the field as nurses. These women nurses and organisers impressed the male medical establishment, the army and the politicians, and made many men revise their opinion of women’s toughness. Notable pioneers included Clara Barton and Mary-Anne Bickerdyke (p.483) and Elizabeth Blackwell who, in 1849, became the first American woman to earn an MD.

The same went for factories and agriculture, especially in the North, where women were called in to replace men drafted into the army, and permanently expanded cultural norms about what women were capable of. (pp.477-489)

You see how all of this is immediately more interesting, more enlightening, and more useful knowledge than any number of references to ‘gender stereotypes’, ‘gendered divisions of labour’, ‘gendered norms’, ‘gender conventions’ and ‘gender exclusions’.

And if you are a feminist or interested in what women did during this period, it is far more useful and empowering to be given specific names and events and stories, which you can then go and research further yourself. Being given the name and career of Mary-Anne Bickerdyke is more useful than being given another paragraph about ‘gender conventions’.

Other problems with the book

1. Poor style

Hahn’s prose style is awful. Pages go by full of anthropological and sociological jargon, and utterly bereft of a single fact or name. Take this excerpt:

Although patrons expected favours and services from their office-holding clients, they had their own needs as well. Their power and prestige were enhanced by – often required – collections of followers who could offer loyalty, votes, skills, and readiness to intimidate foes, but all this came at the price of the rewards patrons had to make available: protection, work, credit, loans, assistance in times of trouble. (p.63)

Of what organised society is this not true? It could be describing power relations in ancient Rome, or Shogun Japan, or among the Aztecs.

Orotund His core style is orotund American academese which combines:

  • preferring pompous to simple words
  • clichés
  • identity politics jargon

Pompous locutions Favourite words include ‘deem’ instead of ‘think’, and ‘avail’ instead of ‘take advantage’. He is particularly fond of ‘contested spaces’: America in the 19th century was thronged with ‘contested spaces’ and ‘contested narratives’ and ‘contested meanings’. All sorts of social forces ‘roil’ or are ‘roiled’. When he quotes speeches the speakers are always said to ‘intone’ the words. People never do something as a result of an event or development; it is always ‘thereby’.

He has a habit of starting a sentence, then having second thoughts and inserting a long parenthesis, then finishing the sentence – combining two thoughts or ideas in one sentence, which forces you to stop and mentally disentangle them.

Cliché Hahn has a surprising fondness for really crass clichés. For example, early on tells us that General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna initially supported the setting up of a monarchy in Mexico, then:

in a veritable flash, he sided with the liberals and constitutionalists

‘In a veritable flash’. a) That’s not very impressive English and b) it’s rather poor historical ‘explanation’: instead of serious analysis of Santa Anna’s motives for this (apparently sudden) change of mind, he is treated like a character in a fairy story. Hahn’s sense of human psychology is often disappointingly shallow. On the same page we are told that:

Santa Anna was haughty, temperamental, and guided chiefly by personal ambitions for power and adulation.

A political leader guided by a personal ambition for power. Fancy that. On page 24:

Napoleon, in his audacity, planned to reverse the wheels of history.

On page 29, President Andrew Jackson (who served for two terms, 1829 to 1837, and I think is seen as a bogeyman by liberals because he aggressively opened up the West to expansion by the slave states and capitalists, though it’s difficult to tell from Hahn’s book) is quoted in order to demonstrate the amorality of his expansionist vision:

‘I assure you,’ he boasted to the secretary of war, his imperial hunger not yet satisfied, ‘Cuba will be ours in a day.’

‘His imperial hunger not yet satisfied’. He sounds like a character in a fairy tale. Instead of stopping to convincingly explain to the reader why Jackson was such a Bad Thing, Hahn writes sentences like this about him:

In 1828, in an election that empowered white settlers west of the Appalachians and especially in the South, Andrew Jackson won the presidency, and the bell of doom began to toll.

Ah, ‘the bell of doom’. That well-known tool of historical analysis.

The spread of the abolitionist movement in the 1830s prompted did pro-slavery counter-attacks on black churches or schools:

as the fires of hatred were fanned to a searing heat. (p.61)

Half a dozen times ‘the writing is on the wall’ for this or that person or movement. Indians, or blacks, or women, or strikers ‘throw themselves into the fight against’ the army or Southern racism or the patriarchy or capitalism. Oppositions ‘dig in their heels’ against governments.

Wrong usage Not only does he use surprisingly banal clichés, but Hahn is continually verging in the edge of ‘malapropism’, defined as: ‘the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one, often with an amusing effect’. Here is a paragraph of Hahn which seems to me to combine cliché with phrases where he’s using words with slightly the wrong meaning.

Nearly one quarter of Santa Anna’s troops fell at the Alamo… and the slaughters he authorised there and at Goliad touched a raw nerve of vengeance among those left to keep the Texas rebellion alive. Believing that he verged on total victory, Santa Anna planned a multi-pronged attack on Houston and divided his army to carry it out. But the winds of fortune (in this case a captured courier) enabled Houston to learn of Santa Anna’s moves… (p.41)

‘He verged on total victory’ – can a person verge on anything? I thought only nouns could ‘verge on’ something, like the example given in an online dictionary: ‘a country on the verge of destruction’. Maybe this is correct American usage, but it sounds to me like an example of malapropism, something which sounds almost correct but is somehow, subtly, comically, wrong.

Elsewhere I was brought up short when I read that:

The militant posture on the Oregon question helped the democrats and their candidate, James P. Polk from Tennessee… eke out a tight election. (p.122)

The dictionary definition of ‘eke out’ is ‘to make (a living) or support (existence) laboriously’. Can it be applied to narrowly winning an election?

As for ‘the winds of fortune’ in that paragraph, that is just an awful cliché, isn’t it? Surely any historian – any writer – who uses phrases like ‘the winds of fortune’ or ‘the wheels of history’ or ‘the bell of doom’ or ‘the fires of hatred’ to explain anything, can’t be taken completely seriously.

2. Glossing over key events

Whereas McPherson dedicates a section of his book to a particular event, explains what led up to it, explains who the people were, gives extensive quotes explaining what they thought or planned to do, and then gives thorough descriptions of what happened – Hahn more often than not asks a sociological or anthropological question and then answers his own question at great length, only incorporating the subset of facts, events, people or quotes which suit his argument.

With the result that the book gives a very strong feeling that is it skipping over and omitting whole chunks of history because they don’t suit his agenda.

To give an example, early on in the book there are a couple of fleeting references to ‘the Alamo’. They come in the context of his discussion of the independence of Texas. Texas was initially a vast state or department of Mexico: the Mexicans invited or allowed American settlers to settle bits of it. Eventually these settlers decided they wanted to declare it a white American state. They were strongly encouraged by slave plantation owners in the Deep South who hoped they could export slavery to Texas.

Now this aim was itself only part of the wider ‘imperial’ aims of Southern slave owners who, in the 1830s and 1840s, envisioned creating a vast slave empire which stretched through Texas to the whole of California in the West, which would reach out to conquer Cuba for America, and which also would take control of some, or all, of Central America.

In this context, some notable American cowboys and adventurers took control of the Alamo and, when a Mexican army surrounded it, insisted on holding out till it was finally taken and everyone killed. From a macro perspective it was just one of the numerous clashes between American rebels and Mexican army from the period.

The point of explaining all this is that I know that The Alamo is part of American frontier legend. I know there’s an expression: ‘Remember the Alamo!’ I know a big Hollywood movie was made about it starring John Wayne. I hoped that, by reading this book, I would discover just why it’s so important in American folk mythology, what happened, who Jim Boone and the other ‘heroes’ of the Alamo were, and so on. I’m perfectly prepared to have the whole Hollywood ‘myth’ of the Alamo debunked, and to learn all kinds of squalid or disillusioning things about it, but I wanted to know more.

Not in this book I didn’t. I didn’t even get the debunking option. Instead Hahn more or less ignores ‘the Alamo’ because his focus in that particular chapter is on ‘reconceptualising’ that part of American history in terms of his broad meta-theme – the imperial fantasies of the southern slave-owners.

To find out more about the Alamo, I looked it up online. Just like I ended up googling ‘the Comancheria’, ‘the Indian Wars’, the ‘robber barons’ and ‘Reconstruction’. The entire era from the 1870s to about 1900 is often referred to as ‘the Gilded Age’ (because really rich Americans began to ape the houses and lifestyles of aristocratic Europe) but Hahn uses this phrase only once, in passing, only at the very end of the book, and doesn’t explain it. So I had to go off to the internet again, to really learn about the period.

His interest in theory, in proposing new interpretations and even new names (the War of the Rebellion) for the central events of the period means that he jumps over huge areas, omits all kinds of detail and gives us only the scantiest references to people I know are famous and important, or names I know are widely used for the era, wanted to learn about, and then found deliberately omitted in this book.

It is an intensely frustrating experience.

3. No maps

The history of the United States in the 19th century is the story of its relentless geographical expansion – westwards across the continent, taking whatever territory it could by force, seizing Florida from Spain, seizing Texas and California from Mexico (in the 1846 Mexico War), doing its damnedest to conquer Canada but being held at bay by the British (in the war of 1812) – attempting to conquer islands in the Caribbean such as Cuba (in the 1850s), and stretching the long arm of its empire across the Pacific to seize little Hawaii in the 1870s, even creating a short-lived American regime in Nicaragua (in 1856-7).

To understand any of this at all – to see what was at stake, where places were, the route of invasions, the site of battles and so on – you need maps, lots of maps, but – THIS BOOK HAS NO MAPS.

Whoever took the decision not to commission clear, relevant, modern maps deeply damaged the usefulness of this book. In just the first fifty pages, Hahn describes the extent of Commanche land, the shape of 1830s Mexico, discusses the status of East and West Florida, describes the debates about the precise territory included in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, follows the march of Mexican General Santa Anna to locations in East Texas. WITH NO MAPS.

So, in order to understand any of these discussions, and any of the hundreds of discussions of geographical issues, places, conflicts packed throughout the book – you need to have an Atlas handy or, better still, read the book with a laptop or tablet next to you, so you can Google the maps of where he’s talking about.

In fact, on page 33 I discovered that the does contain maps, but that they are poor-quality reproductions of contemporary nineteenth-century maps which are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to read. Take this example, ‘A Map of North America by Palairet’, which doesn’t even give you a date. The print is so tiny you can’t make out a single placename except ATLANTIC OCEAN.

Map of North America by J. Palairet

Map of North America by J. Palairet

I’m not often moved to get on a high horse about anything, but this is disgraceful. This volume is part of Penguin’s multi-volume history of the United States. It was published in 2016. It’s meant at some level to be a definitive history of the period, The decision not to commission a single clear modern map, and not to use any photographs, or diagrams or graphs, is inexcusable.

Here’s another example, Bacon’s Military Map of America from 1862, showing America’s ports and fortifications. Can you read any of the place names? No. Can you see any of the ports and fortifications? No. Is this map of any use whatsoever? No.

Bacon's Military Map of America, 1862

Bacon’s Military Map of America, 1862

Part two 1865-1910

I’ve read several accounts of the civil war but know next to nothing about the period which followed it. That’s why I bought this book and I certainly learned a lot, though all the time having to struggle through a) Hahn’s unfriendly prose style b) with the constant feeling that I wasn’t being told the full story of events but only what Hahn wanted to tell me in order to make his points with and c) without any maps, diagrams of photographs to refer to. The key points of the period which I took away are:

  • The administrative centralisation begun during the war of the Rebellion continued at accelerating pace for the rest of the century and into the 20th century, though not without all kinds of oppositions.
  • ‘Reconstruction’ is the name given to the period immediately following the War of the Rebellion, when the North tried to rebuild the South in its own image. Abraham Lincoln was shot on 15 April 1865. He was succeeded by vice-president Andrew Johnson who, unlike Lincoln and the Republican party which dominated the Congress and Senate, was a Democrat. For a year Johnson was fantastically lenient to Southern soldiers and leaders, letting them return home with their weapons, and return to their former positions of power. Congress, however, saw that the Southerners were simply reinstituting their racist rule over the blacks and so superseded Johnson, implementing a new, more military phase of Reconstruction, by sending the chief Northern generals to administer the South under what amounted to martial law. Thus there are two periods: Presidential Reconstruction 1865-67, and Congressional Reconstruction 1867 to 77.
  • Some of the colonels and generals who had risen to prominence in the War of the Rebellion were sent West to quell risings by native Indians, for example the Sioux Rebellion of 1862. There then followed about 20 years in which the U.S. government and army broke every agreement with the Indians, harried and pursued them, bribed and bullied them onto ever-shrinking ‘reservations. Some administrators and military men openly stating that they aimed to ‘exterminate’ the Indians. (General Sheridan called for a ‘campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction’, p.379). It is ironic that Americans in the 20th century were so quick to criticise the British Empire and its colonial grip over native peoples, given that America did its damnedest to exterminate its own native peoples.
  • Describing what happened in the South from 1865 to 1910 is long and complex. But basically, there was ten years or so of Reconstruction, when the Republican government freed the slaves, gave them the vote, and tried to encourage their integration into economic life. This period ended around 1876 as the Republican Party lost its radical edge and became increasingly associated with northern capitalism. More to the point, the U.S. Army was withdrawn and the southern, racist Democrat party took over. They quickly began passing a whole raft of laws which brought about institutionalised ‘Segregation’. For example, during Reconstruction the number of black voters was huge, 80% or more of all adult black men, with the result that an astonishing number of local officials, judges and even governors was black. With the revival of the Democrats into the 1880s, all the southern states, starting with Mississippi in 1890, passed voter registration laws requiring voters to demonstrate specified levels of literacy, live in fixed abodes or even pay a small fee ($2) – with the result that voter levels fell to something like 5%! (pp.470-473).

This was one of the biggest things I learned from the book. Realising that it wasn’t slavery, or the Reconstruction period – it was this backlash during the 1870s and 1880s which instituted the Jim Crow legislation, the official segregation, the systemic impoverishment of black people, which was to last until the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s.

This is quite mind-boggling, a massive stain right the way through American history. It made me rethink my attitude towards slavery: I’ve read numerous books about slavery, seen movies and TV series about slavery, stood in front of statues against slavery, visited exhibitions about slavery.

But reading these pages made me realise that slavery isn’t at all the problem; that slavery is now so distant in time as to be almost irrelevant. It was this institutional racial Segregation, instituted across the Deep South of America, and whose ideology – if not its laws – spread to the North and west, infected all of American life – which is the real issue. It was the deliberate trapping of black people in the lowliest, poorest-paid jobs, and their systematic exclusion from voting and public life, the division of parks and public places, theatres and toilets and buses into black areas and white areas – this is the thing to understand better because, as far as I can see, it continues to this day. #BlackLivesMatter.

In a way, then, the emphasis which is still given by schools and exhibitions to slavery is misleading. Slavery was abolished 180 years ago in the British Empire and 155 years ago in America. This book made me realise that understanding the philosophy and practice of Racial Segregation is much more important and much more relevant to our ongoing problems today.

What feels like the lion’s share of the last 100 pages of the book is devoted to the consolidation of capitalism, and its enemies. There are detailed passages describing the rise of the ‘corporation’, as a new legal and commercial entity, quite different from the companies and partnerships which preceded it (pp.454-464) I didn’t understand the legal and commercial details and will need to study them elsewhere.

Hahn is at pains to describe the way successive federal administrations, although equivocal about the massive cartels and monopolies which came to prominence in the 1890s, nonetheless took them as almost natural agencies which the government could use and work through – as potential extensions of state power. BY the 1890s everyone on left and right thought that these huge monopolies (of railways, gold, silver, copper, iron, steel) a) were here for good b) that the reach and effectiveness of huge transcontinental corporations or agencies could be a model for modern government.

Behind all this is the Rise of the Nation-State, the grand theme Hahn has been tracing since the 1830s. But although the various aspects of its rise is the central development, Hahn’s focus is much more about the multitude of forces which resisted the rise of the state, criticised, questioned, critiqued it, from both left and right.

So these last hundred pages devote a lot of time to the confusing multitude of opposition parties which rose up against the, by now, time-honoured duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. We learn about greenbackism, antimonopolism, the Populist party, the Progressive Party, the rise of mass trade unions, the Knights of Labour and the first socialist parties – and then descend into the jungle of disagreements and bickering among working class parties – socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, gradualist, evolutionary, revolutionary. There is a lot about the strikes – kicked off by the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 – which really blighted American industry in the 1880s and 1890s.

A softer, liberal version of resistance to monopoly capitalism came to be termed the Progressive movement, the idea that progressive politicians should use the levers of the state to combat alcoholism, illiteracy, corruption, infectious disease, prostitution, greed and labour exploitation (p.454). This movement lay the basis of what would later become the American welfare state (such as it is).

Some tried to bring the opposing blocs together. Liberal capitalists formed the National Civic Federation (NCF) in 1900, which brought together chosen representatives of big business and organized labour, as well as consumer advocates in an attempt to resolve labour disputes and champion moderate reform.

The final pages describe how the whole American imperial mindset was then exported, just at the turn of the century, to Cuba and the Philippines, which America won off Spain as a result of victory in the following Spain’s defeat in the 1898 Spanish–American War, along with Guam and Puerto Rico, and also to Hawaii which, after decades of slowly taking over, America annexed in 1898.

Hahn shows how the same military leaders who had crushed the Indians were now sent to impose ‘civilisation’ on the Cubans and Filipinos, and with much the same mindset. By now we are very familiar with American racist and segregationist thinking and so are not surprised when Hahn quotes racist comments by soldiers and administrators, or the speeches of politicians back in Washington, who thought people from inferior races i.e. the multicultural populations of Cuba, the Philippines and so on – simply weren’t capable of governing themselves, and needed the steady hand and civilising influence of the white man.

By the end of this book, I really hated America.


Old for us, new to the Yanks

I can’t get over the fact that so much of this seems to be new to the book’s reviewers. Back when I was a kid in school in the 1970s, I’m sure we all knew about American slavery. I remember the stir caused by the TV series Roots when it came out in 1977, over 40 years ago. All of us knew about the American Civil War, and maybe even had confederate flags or union caps among the various cowboy and Indian and army costumes we wore when we were ten. When I was a student, a friend of mine bought me Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, the classic 1970 account of how America betrayed, bullied, and massacred its native peoples.

I’m sure all educated people knew about this history and these issues decades ago. The people around me in the Labour Party of the 1970s, the party of Tony Benn and Michael Foot, were very well aware of America’s history of imperialism, its origins in brutal slavery which it didn’t overthrow until the 1860s, how it exterminated its native peoples, reached out to seize islands in the Pacific, in the Caribbean, and to dominate the nations to Central America, before going on to its long history of supporting military dictators, torture and assassination (in my youth these included the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, General Franco in Spain, the military Junta in Greece, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and so on.)

In the 1980s I hung around the communist bookshop in Brixton which was absolutely plastered with posters about American racism and the legacy of slavery, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, protests against American imperialism and American multinational corporations and the CIA. Entrenched anti-Americanism was all absolutely basic, entry-level, left-wing political awareness.

Yet somehow, in these books by Hahn and Taylor, a lot of these things – the brutality of southern slavery, the genocide of the Indians – are presented as if they are new and seismic discoveries.

think what is happening here is that American academic history writing has finally caught up with how the rest of the world has seen America for generations – a hypocritical bully bragging about ‘liberty’ while keeping the descendants of the slaves locked up in drug-riddled ghettos, the last native Americans stuck in alcohol-soaked reservations, and propping up dictatorships around the world.

I think part of what’s going on in books like Taylor’s and Hahn’s is that, since the end of the Cold War, American academia is finally free to portray the brutal realities of American history for what they were – and that, for American readers and students, a lot of this comes as a massive, horrifying shock. To educated people throughout the rest of the world – yawn.

So if so much of the content has been so well known for so long, what was it that impressed the reviewers? I think it’s the unrelenting consistency with which he does two things:

One is the thorough-going application of a politically correct, identity-politics attitude which says right from the start that he is going to ignore a number of ‘famous’ events or movements or names (goodbye civil war, hello war of rebellion), in order to give more prominence to the role of native Americans, women and, especially, to blacks, than they have received in ‘previous’ histories.

But as I’ve commented above, in fact his widespread use of politically correct terminology like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘racism’ and ‘masculinism’ in the passages where he does this, on the whole tends to obscure a lot of these voices, to bury them beneath a shiny sociological jargon which removes specificity – names, places, events and even words – from many of the groups he’s supposedly championing. In this simple respect, I’ve found much older accounts more enlightening.

In fact, it is possible to argue that Hahn and all the other politically correct historians who nowadays use terms like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘gender’ and ‘people of colour’ do so because these terms in fact fend off real acceptance of the blood and horror of those times. These sterile, clinical and detached terms in a way help to drain accounts of the period of their emotion and outrage. You could argue that the language of identity politics, the jargon of sociology and anthropology which recurs throughout the book, despite his explicit intention to bring uncomfortable facts and ignored voices into the light – in fact, through its sheer repetitiveness and its unspecific generalisation – works to neutralise and blunt the impact of a lot of what he’s describing.

For example, Hahn gives facts and figures and sociological explanations for the rise of slave fugitives following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. But McPherson, writing thirty one years ago, and without using any jargon, tells the specific story of the slave woman who escaped with her children to the North, but was tracked down. As the slavehunters, with their dogs and guns, beat on the door of the cabin where she was hiding, this woman cut the throats of her small children so they wouldn’t be taken back into slavery, and then tried to cut her own. You see which approach leaves you most stunned, horrified and angry at the unspeakable horror of slavery, and it isn’t the Hahn.

This is because the second thing going on in the book is what really garnered the praise, and that is Hahn’s high-level, intellectual and often bloodless ‘rethinking’ and ‘reconceptualising’ of the era in the terms I outlined at the start of the review.

He is interested in suggesting to highly educated readers already familiar with most elements of the period some new ways of thinking about it. Throughout, he downplays the voices of the white politicians who (I’m guessing) dominated earlier narratives, he really downplays the War of the Rebellion (maybe because there are already tens of thousands of other accounts of it), and instead plays up the notion that the increasingly centralised American state faced a whole slew of rebellions from multiples sources, devoting his time to describing and theorising this riot of rebellions.

And so he ignores what I’m assuming is the old-fashioned type of history which celebrated the rise of American freedom and capitalism and wealth and included lots of dazzling images from the ‘Gilded Age’, and he focuses instead on the wide range of oppositions which the state (and rich monopolists) faced from women, Indians, blacks, alternative political parties, the trade unions, socialists and so on.

But I find it difficult to believe that previous accounts failed to mention the movement for women’s suffrage, that there aren’t hundreds of books about the Indians, and thousands about Segregation, that nobody noticed the epidemic of strikes in the 1890s, or that numerous commentators at the time and ever since haven’t criticised America’s interventions in Cuba and Hawaii and the Philippines as being as blatantly imperialist as the European Empires her politicians liked to pompously denounce.

Maybe some of Hahn’s high-level reconceptualising is new and interesting, but to the average educated reader the actual events of this era remain unchanged and the main feature of Hahn’s book is that he doesn’t tell them as fully or as imaginatively as other versions do.

In a word

Don’t read this book unless you are already master enough of the period to appreciate Hahn’s reconceptualising of it. If you want vivid detail, maps, extensive quotes and a deep understanding of the period from 1820 to 1865, read Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson: so gripping, so packed with information and ideas, that I had to write five separate blog posts about it.

For the period after the Civil War – I have still to find a satisfactory history. Reading this book suggests I may have to track down separate books devoted to specific areas such as the Indian Wars, the Gilded Age with its labour militancy underside, Segregation and its long-term consequences, and the imperial conquests at the end of the century.


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Trilby by George du Maurier (1895)

‘Y a pas d’quoi!’ said Trilby, divesting herself of her basket and putting it, with the pick and lantern, in a corner. ‘Et maintenant, le temps d’absorber une fine de fin sec et je m’la brise. On m’attend à l’Ambassade d’Autriche. Et puis zut! Allez toujours, mes enfants. En avant la boxe!’

Trilby was a publishing and cultural phenomenon. It was the best-selling book of 1894, selling 300,000 copies by the end of the year. Soap, songs, dances, toothpaste, and even the city of Trilby in Florida were all named for the heroine. Trilby boots, shoes, silver scarf pins, parodies, and even sausages flooded the market, and the type of soft felt hat with an indented crown that was worn in the London stage dramatization of the novel, is known to this day as a trilby. The plot inspired Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel Phantom of the Opera and innumerable other works derived from it.

The plot in brief

In outline the plot is simple. We are in the bohemian artistic circles of Paris a generation or so before the book’s publication, sometime in the late 1850s. An uneducated but strikingly beautiful young woman who works as an artists’ model and also does sewing, charring and other odd jobs, is ‘discovered’, by the tall, creepy Jewish musician, Svengali. He discovers that a consequence of her sweet innocent nature is she is very easy to hypnotise. So he does, and turns her into a concert-level singer and performer. In the right clothes, tall and statuesque and under his control, she is transformed into a singer of classical music who electrifies audiences all across Europe, making Svengali rich and famous.

The Paris background

Du Maurier was himself an art student in the 1850s in Paris. He attended the atelier of painter Charles Gleyre where he met talented young artists such as the American James Whistler, Thomas Armstrong (later Director of Art at the South Kensington Museum) and Edward Poynter (later, President of the Royal Academy). In fact Whistler recognised a blatant portrait of himself in the character named Jim Silbey when the story was published in magazine instalments, and threatened to sue, forcing Du Maurier and his publishers to remove the character and an illustration of him from the published book.

There were obviously lots of hi-jinks in this high-spirited setting and a big part of the book’s appeal for 1890s readers was its nostalgia for what, by then, was a bygone era of simpler times.

The fin de siècle reader, disgusted at the thought of such an orgy [of drunkenness] as I have been trying to describe, must remember that it happened in the fifties, when men calling themselves gentlemen, and being called so, still wrenched off door-knockers and came back drunk from the Derby, and even drank too much after dinner before joining the ladies, as is all duly chronicled and set down in John Leech’s immortal pictures of life and character out of Punch.

It seems, from the text, that people (well, men) could get away with a lot more back then.

And it’s arguably the most surprising and unexpected thing about the book that this bohemian setting is the dominant theme of the book. It comes as a great surprise to discover that Trilby and Svengali are only really – in terms of time on screen – relatively minor characters in the story.

The first 200 pages (of the 300-page edition I read) is overwhelmingly about, and told from the point of view of, three happy-go-lucky British art students having the time of their lives in Paris.

The setting is the studio rented by these three, nicknamed Taffy, the Laird and Little Billee. They paint away during the week, and have Sunday ‘afternoons’ where all sorts of other artists and musicians come round, as well as owning a variety of exercise equipment, notably several sets of fencing equipment, so the Sunday involve someone playing the piano, someone singing, a couple of chaps fencing, and a host of others milling among the half-finished paintings, chatting, smoking pipes and cigarettes.

Svengali and his sidekick, Gecko, are just two of a gallery of characters who appear at these parties, Trilby is to start with the girl who brings the milk up to the studio every morning. They invite her to take a break and smoke a cigarette while she watches them work, and then she offers to do a bit of cleaning, and then they ask her to model for them and, before you know it, she’s one of the gang, spending many day with the chaps, cooking and cleaning or smoking and relaxing with them.

There’s a wonderful passage in part one which describes a typical day in the life of a bohemian artist in Paris in the 1850s, which involves basically strolling round Paris enjoying the sights and stopping at cafes to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, going to a cabaret, drinking, smoking and generally having a wonderful time. It is all described with high-spirited humour and conviction. Du Maurier lived this life. Lots of it is simple autobiography and memoir, which is what gives it such verisimilitude.

There’s no sex in the book. In terms of release and escapism, I think it was the happy, uplifting portrayal of youthful high spirits in Paris which contributed greatly to its popularity. Some of it is like a holiday brochure.

England versus France

On the face of it the most obvious opposition or thematic polarity in the book is between the pure, virginal, white Trilby and dark, swarthy, Jewish Svengali – white Western virgin women threatened by dark, Eastern, wicked man, a theme expanded in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published the following year, and in hundreds of thousands of pulp novels and sensational movies, from then right up to the present day (the movie Taken was on TV last night in which hard-man Liam Neeson rescues his white virginal daughter from Albanian sex traffickers who are planning to sell her to a rich Arab. Nothing changes.)

Except that for the first 200 pages or so of the book you really don’t see the Svengali and Trilby together that much. The polarity which dominates the majority of the text is between Britain and France, specifically Paris. Between good, solid, Anglo-Saxon purity and the magic, mystery and ‘immorality’ of legendary, mythical Paris.

Paris! Paris!! Paris!!!
The very name had always been one to conjure with, whether he thought of it as a mere sound on the lips and in the ear, or as a magical written or printed word for the eye.

Innocent Little Billee can’t believe he is here, in Paris, city of poets and artists. Poetic Paris is contrasted throughout with businesslike London, as the humorous, dainty, witty Parisian artists are contrasted with ‘Taffy’, who is in fact a six foot former British Army officer, taller and stronger (of course) than any mere Continental and who, in the course of numerous anecdotes, knocks them down, breaks up fights, picks up puny Frenchmen and swings them round his head.

Paris is poetry and art and exquisite cuisine. Britain is roast beef, business and the finest army in the world.

The Frenchness of the story – and du Maurier’s tremendous confidence in this milieu which he knew so well – extends to the language, because a good deal of the books is actually in French.

Lots of the book is in French

Large chunks of the dialogue, and numerous throwaway words and phrases throughout the narrative prose are in French. Du Maurier not only spent his formative student days in Paris, but he had been born and raised there and was perfectly bilingual, and it shows.

‘Tiens! c’est la grande Trilby!’ exclaimed Jules Guinot through his fencing-mask. ‘Comment! t’es déjà debout après hier soir? Avons-nous assez rigolé chez Mathieu, hein? Crénom d’un nom, quelle noce! V’là une crémaillère qui peut se vanter d’être diantrement bien pendue, j’espère! Et la petite santé, c’matin?’
‘Hé, hé! mon vieux,’ answered Trilby. ‘Ça boulotte, apparemment! Et toi? et Victorine? Comment qu’a s’porte à c’t’heure? Elle avait un fier coup d’chasselas! c’est-y jobard, hein? de s’fich ‘paf comme ça d’vant l’monde! Tiens, v’là, Gontran! ça marche-t-y, Gontran, Zouzou d’mon cœur?’
‘Comme sur des roulettes, ma biche!” said Gontran, alias l’Zouzou—a corporal in the Zouaves. “Mais tu t’es donc mise chiffonnière, à présent? T’as fait banqueroute?’
‘Mais-z-oui, mon bon!” she said. “Dame! pas d’veine hier soir! t’as bien vu! Dans la dêche jusqu’aux omoplates, mon pauv’ caporal-sous-off! nom d’un canon – faut bien vivre, s’pas?’

It’s expecting a lot from your average reader to be able to read extended passages of dialogue in pure French. But it’s worse than that. A great deal of this dialogue is in the French slang from the bohemian circles of mid-Victorian Paris, French which is – as the narrator describes it – ‘droll, slangy, piquant, quaint, picturesque’ – in a phrase, ‘French French’.

For example, Trilby’s French is highly colloquial. Where the French students speak student slang (‘studio French’), Trilby speaks a more working class dialect of the street. And Svengali murders French with his heavy Germanic accent. And the three British characters all have different French accents which are phonetically transcribed.  So there are quite a few different types of French on display. Here’s Trilby:

‘Maïe, aïe! c’est rudement bien tapé, c’te musique-là! Seulement, c’est pas gai, vous savez! Comment q’ça s’appelle?’

Here’s the Laird struggling to speaka da lingo:

‘Voilà l’espayce de hom ker jer swee!’ said the Laird,

Here’s Little Billee, trying to keep up with native Frenchman, the sculptor Durien:

Durien came in and looked over his shoulder, and exclaimed: ‘Tiens! le pied de Trilby! vous avez fait ça d’après nature?’
‘Nong!’
‘De mémoire, alors?’
‘Wee!’
‘Je vous en fais mon compliment! Vous avez eu la main heureuse. Je voudrais bien avoir fait ça, moi! C’est un petit chef-d’œuvre que vous avez fait là—tout bonnement, mon cher! Mais vous élaborez trop. De grâce, n’y touchez plus!’

And:

‘Demang mattang, à votre sairveece!’ said Little Billee, with a courteous bow.

And:

‘Dites donc, l’Anglais?’
‘Kwaw'” said Little Billee.
‘Avez-vous une sœur?”
‘Wee.’
‘Est-ce qu’elle vous ressemble?’
‘Nong.’

Here’s Svengali speaking ungrammatical French with a heavy German accent:

“Sacrepleu! il choue pien, le Checko, hein?’ said Svengali, when they had brought this wonderful double improvisation to a climax and a close. ‘C’est mon élèfe! che le fais chanter sur son fiolon, c’est comme si c’était moi qui chantais! ach! si ch’afais pour teux sous de voix, che serais le bremier chanteur du monte!’

The Oxford University Press paperback edition I read has footnotes translating all this and it’s just as well. Every page of the novel has at least some French on it – raw, colloquial slangy French – and some pages have huge great chunks. How did the original readers manage when the dialogue just switches into a foreign language?

At last she asked Durien if he knew him.
‘Parbleu! Si je connais Svengali!’
‘Quest-ce que t’en penses?’
‘Quand il sera mort, ça fera une fameuse crapule de moins!’

Possibly an ‘educated’ British would have understood the occasional Latin tag du Maurier scatters through his text:

  • ‘Quia multum amavit!’
  • et vera incessu patuit dea!
  • Omne ignotum pro magnifico!
  • Par nobile fratrum
  • ex pede Herculem!

And there are patches of German and Italian, too. But the experience of reading the book is not only to be soaked in the lives and jokes and high spirits of 1850s Bohemian Paris, but to be dropped into extended passages of raw French. This is the melodramatic climax of the entire book, when the impresario tells Trilby to sing and, without Svengali, she discovers that she can’t:

The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Ben Bolt’, with which she was announced to make her début.
She still stared – but she didn’t sing – and they played the little symphony three times.
One could hear Monsieur J—— in a hoarse, anxious whisper saying,
‘Mais chantez donc, madame – pour l’amour de Dieu, commencez donc – commencez!’
She turned round with an extraordinary expression of face, and said, ‘Chanter? pourquoi donc voulez-vous que je chante, moi? chanter quoi, alors?’
‘Mais ‘Ben Bolt,’ parbleu – chantez!’
‘Ah – ‘Ben Bolt!’ oui – je connais ça!’
Then the band began again.
And she tried, but failed to begin herself. She turned round and said,
‘Comment diable voulez-vous que je chante avec tout ce train qu’ils font, ces diables de musiciens!’
‘Mais, mon Dieu, madame—qu’est-ce que vous avez donc?’ cried Monsieur J——.
‘J’ai que j’aime mieux chanter sans toute cette satanée musique, parbleu! J’aime mieux chanter toute seule!’
‘Sans musique, alors – mais chantez – chantez!’

At key moments throughout the book you need to be really fluent in French, and several other languages – or to be reading an edition which translates these passages – to have a clue what’s going on.

‘Got sei dank! Ich habe geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! geliebt und gelebet! Cristo di Dio…. Sweet sister in heaven…. Ô Dieu de Misère, ayez pitié de nous….’

This brings us to another really dominating aspect of the experience of the text – the pictures.

120 illustrations

Du Maurier was a writer only by accident and at the very end of his life. For most of his career he was a highly successful illustrator for magazines and books.

Born in 1834, du Maurier studied art in Paris, then got a job with Britain’s leading satirical magazine, Punch, in 1865, drawing two cartoons a week. He also did illustrations for popular periodicals such as Harper’s, The Graphic, The Illustrated Times, The Cornhill Magazine and Good Words. He illustrated a number of ‘classic’ novels from the time, including several by Thackeray. It was only after 25 or more years of producing a steady stream of humorous illustrations with comic captions that his failing eyesight drew an end to his artistic career and forced him to consider other options.

In 1891 he reduced his involvement with Punch and, at the suggestion of his good friend Henry James, wrote his first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was a modest success. Trilby was his second novel, published in 1894 and a runaway success beyond anyone’s imagining. He had two years of getting progressively more fed up with the demands from commercial interests and thousands of fans, before he died in 1896, leaving a long autobiographical novel to be published posthumously.

The obvious result of all this is that the book is stuffed with du Maurier’s own illustrations, some 120 of them, by my count. These illustrations, like the ones he’d been doing all his life, portray rather stiff and starchy Victorian people but in situations which convey a sense of warmth and humour.

Here is young ‘Little Billee’ with the taller Taffy and the Laird, distracted from studying Old Masters in the Louvre by the sight of a pretty woman art student. It contains humour at the expense both of the easily distracted young man, as well as something satirical in the ‘saintly’ gaze of the fetching student. The entire setting is sent-up.

Among the Old Masters

Among the Old Masters

The presence of illustrations on around half the pages makes it feel like a children’s book, half-reminds you of reading Winnie The Pooh or Professor Branestawm. For the first 50 or 60 pages it doesn’t feel at all serious, which means that when you get to the more ghoulish and creepy scenes with Svengali, it has more the sense of pantomime (‘He’s behind you!’) than full-blooded horror.

Combined with the general student hi-jinks of the early scenes, the good-humoured illustrations also contribute to the book’s entertainment value.

Comedy

Indeed the book drips with comedy, it is almost a comic novel. The opening entire setup of three British artists in their studios is hugely funny. Their inability to understand the French spoken around them is gently mocked. In fact throughout the book there is a continual stereotyping of British and French stereotypes which is comparable to the outrageous humour of Allo Allo.

The British are characterised by bluntness, philistinism, bad food, bad weather. In particular there is no end to the gentle raillery of the biggest of the three, big Beefy British warrior (he had served in the army for a while) Taffy the Yorkshireman.

A Yorkshireman, by-the-way, called Taffy (and also the Man of Blood, because he was supposed to be distantly related to a baronet) – was more energetically engaged. Bare-armed, and in his shirt and trousers, he was twirling a pair of Indian clubs round his head. His face was flushed, and he was perspiring freely and looked fierce. He was a very big young man, fair, with kind but choleric blue eyes, and the muscles of his brawny arm were strong as iron bands.

For three years he had borne her Majesty’s commission, and had been through the Crimean campaign without a scratch. He would have been one of the famous six hundred in the famous charge at Balaklava but for a sprained ankle (caught playing leapfrog in the trenches), which kept him in hospital on that momentous day. So that he lost his chance of glory or the grave, and this humiliating misadventure had sickened him of soldiering for life, and he never quite got over it. Then, feeling within himself an irresistible vocation for art, he had sold out; and here he was in Paris, hard at work, as we see.

He was good-looking, with straight features; but I regret to say that, besides his heavy plunger’s mustache, he wore an immense pair of drooping auburn whiskers, of the kind that used to be called Piccadilly weepers, and were afterwards affected by Mr. Sothern in Lord Dundreary. It was a fashion to do so then for such of our gilded youth as could afford the time (and the hair); the bigger and fairer the whiskers, the more beautiful was thought the youth! It seems incredible in these days, when even her Majesty’s household brigade go about with smooth cheeks and lips, like priests or play-actors.

He is the Roast Beef of Old England made flesh.

Taffy jumped out of his bath, such a towering figure of righteous Herculean wrath that Svengali was appalled, and fled.

And when the art students at Carrel’s studio attempt to carry out the traditional initiation ceremony on Taffy:

He took up the first rapin that came to hand, and, using him as a kind of club, he swung him about so freely and knocked down so many students and easels and drawing-boards with him, and made such a terrific rumpus, that the whole studio had to cry for ‘pax!’ Then he performed feats of strength of such a surprising kind that the memory of him remained in Carrel’s studio for years, and he became a legend, a tradition, a myth! It is now said (in what still remains of the quartier latin) that he was seven feet high, and used to juggle with the massier and model as with a pair of billiard balls, using only his left hand!

But then the entire bohemian world comes in for sustained ribbing. Du Maurier finds it all wonderfully entertaining and he invites you to, as well. Even when Svengali is at his most sinister he never loses the heavy German accent which made him such a figure of fun in the first half of the book and which is, quite simply, funny.

Du Maurier as intrusive narrator

Du Maurier intrudes a lot as the first person narrator, or in the mock figure of ‘the scribe’ of this modes story:

That is the best society, isn’t it? At all events, we are assured it used to be; but that must have been before the present scribe (a meek and somewhat innocent outsider) had been privileged to see it with his own little eye.

The present scribe is no snob. He is a respectably brought-up old Briton of the higher middle-class—at least, he flatters himself so.

And that is the question the present scribe is doing his little best to answer.

The present scribe was not present on that memorable occasion, and has written this inadequate and most incomplete description partly from hearsay and private information, partly from the reports in the contemporary newspapers.

And he invokes the equal and opposite figure of ‘the reader’, partly as a figure of fun, much in the tradition of Tristram Shandy and of the Thackeray so many of whose books du Maurier illustrated.

Of course the sympathetic reader will foresee

Let the reader have no fear. I will not attempt to describe it.

And that, as the reader has guessed long ago, was big Taffy’s “history.”

Fundamentally this is a comic strategy, making the reader a colaborator in the essentially light-hearted and frivolous occupation of telling a story. It is a paradox that du Maurier was friends with Henry James. James was an avowed opponent of the ‘baggy monster’ novels of the great Victorians, stories told in monthly instalments which wandered all over the place and in which the author kept interrupting, introducing himself, making apologies and generally carrying on. James spent his career developing infinitely more sophisticated narratives in which he explored the implications of different types of narrator. Trilby is a late-flowering example of everything James hated, more like an episode of the Chris Evans radio show than a work of art, with the effervescent presenter continually popping up and commenting on his own story, and taking the mickey out of his readers, of Victorian society, of churchmen, of the French, of novels and of his own ability to tell a story.

Prose constructed from humorous episodes

There’s another consequence of du Maurier’s origins as a creator of humorous cartoons, which is not so obvious but, I think, quietly ubiquitous. This is to do with the structure of the humorous cartoons which du Maurier spent the majority of his working life devising. First there is the incredibly realistic scene and setting. there is the wonderfully limned background and then the vividly depicted characters. And then, as the eye progresses to the bottom of the picture, there is the humorous captions. These are almost always in dialogue form, in which someone says something and then someone else replies with something ironic or revealing.

Take du Maurier’s most famous cartoon (below). It is breakfast time in the household of a pompous vicar. He has invited a curate (a person who undertakes lowly duties in a parish) to attend. But in his epic condescension, the vicar has given the curate only one egg for breakfast, and a rather old one at that. The pompous vicar says:’ I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mrs Jones.’ To which the curate, unctuously keen not to offend his boss, replies: ‘Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!’

The effort expended in creating this illustration is phenomenal. The attention to detail! The characterisation of the balding vicar, with his rigid backbone and hook nose and pompous demeanour, wonderfully contrasted with the young curate’s sloping shoulders and eager-to-please expression. But just as important to the overall effect are the faces of the two women sitting aloofly at table, let alone the wealth of visual detail, all the cutlery on the table, the pictures on the wall, and the presence of both a butler and a maid.

What I’m suggesting is that du Maurier took a technique he had perfected in his cartoons – a wealth of realistic detail treated solely in order to lead up to a boom-boom punchline – and wrote his prose novels the same way. Realistic, if gently mocking depiction, leading up to a boom-boom punchline.

Take the long passage in Part Two (the novel is in eight parts) describing Svengali’s background, and which includes this paragraph. It is long and thorough and detailed and realistic – and it leads up to quite a good joke. Just like one of du Maurier’s cartoons.

He was poor; for in spite of his talent he had not yet made his mark in Paris. His manners may have been accountable for this. He would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humor, which was more offensive than amusing, and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice. And his egotism and conceit were not to be borne; and then he was both tawdry and dirty in his person; more greasily, mattedly unkempt than even a really successful pianist has any right to be, even in the best society.

All these jokes lead in the same direction. Du Maurier mocks the pomposity and pieties of the mid-Victorian middle class. The example above mocks the fashionable idea that a Great Pianist should be dishevelled in appearance in order to stress his ‘Romantic’ sensibility, and in also mocks the way this idea – that being greasy and dirty equates to sublime artistic talent – is most piously held among the most refined and precious parts of society.

Same goes for the excerpt below. The Victorians, or Victorian journalist, developed a bit of proverbial wisdom that said that contemporary art or literature should  be chaste and pure enough so as not to risk ‘bringing a blush to the cheek’ of a young person.

In part of his lengthy description of Trilby, du Maurier goes into an extended riff which gently mocks this whole idea, invoking the non-existent ‘young person’ and the piety of her supposed parents (specifically, the mother).

Trilby had all the virtues but one; but the virtue she lacked (the very one of all that plays the title-role, and gives its generic name to all the rest of that goodly company) was of such a kind that I have found it impossible so to tell her history as to make it quite fit and proper reading for the ubiquitous young person so dear to us all.

Most deeply to my regret. For I had fondly hoped it might one day be said of me that whatever my other literary shortcomings might be, I at least had never penned a line which a pure-minded young British mother might not read aloud to her little blue-eyed babe as it lies sucking its little bottle in its little bassinet.

Fate has willed it otherwise.

Would indeed that I could duly express poor Trilby’s one shortcoming in some not too familiar medium – in Latin or Greek, let us say – lest the young person (in this ubiquitousness of hers, for which Heaven be praised) should happen to pry into these pages when her mother is looking another way.

Latin and Greek are languages the young person should not be taught to understand – seeing that they are highly improper languages, deservedly dead – in which pagan bards who should have known better have sung the filthy loves of their gods and goddesses.

First of all du Maurier laments that his tale is not pure enough to avoid a blush rising to the cheeks of any virginal young person who looked at it. Then he mockingly laments his fate as the author of such a shameful story. Then he moves on to make a joke about how, on this strict criteria, we ought to ban Greek and Latin since they are crammed full of obscenity.

You could sum it up by saying that the spirit of Punch saturates the entire book.

Anglo-Saxon morality

Anyway, this mention of Anglo-Saxon morality brings us back to the plot of the book, which is not at all what I expected.

For the narrative follows neither Trilby nor Svengali. It turns out all to be about Little Billee, the naive and innocent youngest of the trio of British painters in Paris. He is arguably the most gifted and certainly the most sentimental, always ready – as du Maurier mockingly points out – with a tear poised at the edge of his eye, to burst into tears at the slightest provocation.

Long story short, Little Billee falls in love with Trilby. When she is posing (dressed) for Taffy, the Laird and Little Billy, she keeps looking up and seeing  his eye really firmly focused on her face while he neglects his drawing. Once or twice he goes into studios of other artists, especially the training studio of Carrel and, finding Trilby posing nude in front of thirty or so male students, rushes back out, red-faced with shame and mortification.

Slowly Trilby realises that he has ‘fallen in love’ with her. And at the end of a Christmas Day when the other two Brits have staged an epic party for all their Bohemian friends (described with a Dickensian love of the food and with much mocking and ribbing of the hosts and guests) Little Billee takes Trilby to the top of the garret stairs and proposes to her. In fact this turns out to be the nineteenth time he has proposed (comedy!) and she, exhausted and worn down, says yes and then runs off in floods of tears.

Without realising it, Little Billee’s naive obsession proves the catastrophe or turning point of the action. For he writes a letter to his mother and sweet virginal sister back in provincial Devon announcing that he is to be married but instead of joy, this prompts horror in Mrs Bagot (his real name) who promptly turns up in Paris with her teenage daughter accompanied by her brother-in-law who is, rather inevitably, a man of the cloth, the Rev. Thomas Bagot.

They represent, in other words, a full frontal massed assault of Victorian Values at their most strict and narrow, proceed to interrogate Taffy about this ‘Trilby’. At which he is forced to concede that she is an uneducated model and cleaner. Can you imagine the response of the respectable Mrs Bagot and the reverend. It is not favourable.

Then, at just the right moment, Trilby walks in (‘just as in a play’) and has a Grand Confrontation with her fiance’s mother. Long story short, she a) presents herself with dignity and honour but b) agrees that she must not come between sweet Billee and his family. So she immediately decides break off the engagement and to leave Paris.

Little Billee discovers this, later in the day, from a letter she sends him and has a nervous breakdown. He has a complete collapse. He is confined to his bed, doctors tend him, it takes weeks to recover, during which Trilby packs her bags and, taking the younger brother she cares for, flees Paris to an unknown destination. When Billee is better, he is helped to a train and back to England, all the way back to the family home in Devon where he is cared for by his sweet sister and loving mother.

Taffy and the Laird are left devastated that their happy-go-lucky little household has been broken up, and upset about Billee and worried about Trilby.

As a reader who had been very happily amused and entertained up to this point, I was absolutely furious with Mrs Bagot. She is concerned for her son’s future, for his career, for his place in society, and that he should marry a ‘respectable’ woman who will help him climb the ladder. Nonetheless, Billee’s selfish obsession and his mother’s narrow-mindedness bring the happy-go-lucky first half of the novel to a crashing end, and I couldn’t help hating her.

The odd thing is that du Maurier, having spent 150 pages being amusingly indulgent of the student milieu, having reported their drunkenness, their laziness, their slovenliness, the cheap clothes, their outrageous jokes and the easy way they hang round with models who are ‘no better than they should be’ (it is very broadly hinted that Trilby has had a number of lovers) all of a sudden sits up and becomes pious and sentimental on us. He takes Mrs Bagot’s concerns seriously. When Trilby leaves the studio she glimpses virginal Miss Bagot in the cab waiting outside and is stricken with guilt a besmirching the name of such a family. Later that day, when Billee arrives having read the letter from Trilby he collapses in the arms of his mother and sister i.e. he is won over to their side, and du Maurier gives us some nauseating paragraphs about family honour and so on.

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

Billee in the arms of his sister and mother

When push comes to shove, du Maurier abandons his youthful free spiritedness and tolerance – and sides with the enemy. It is almost unbelievable that this one event has such seismic consequences for all concerned, and strips the book of its innocence. From now on du Maurier struggles to recover the high spirited humour of the first half. The reader, rather like Taffy and the Laird, feels a strong ‘sense of desolation and dull bereavement’.

The passage of time

Instead, five years pass. Billee, now William Bagot, continues painting and becomes a success, a name, is an artistic ‘lion’ who is invited to salons by rich society ladies, who mixes with the highest society, is mentioned among the great up and coming artists and so on. But inside he is cold and empty. He is as polite as is required, but his heart is dead.

It was as though some part of his brain where his affections were seated had been paralyzed, while all the rest of it was as keen and as active as ever. He felt like some poor live bird or beast or reptile, a part of whose cerebrum (or cerebellum, or whatever it is) had been dug out by the vivisector for experimental purposes; and the strongest emotional feeling he seemed capable of was his anxiety and alarm about this curious symptom, and his concern as to whether he ought to mention it or not.

Du Maurier takes us on Billee’s journeys into upper class society and, more interestingly, for a page or two out to the East End where he becomes well known and takes part in evening sing-songs in squalid taverns… an echo of Dorian Gray’s adventures out East. Du Maurier says it was the breadth of Billee’s human sympathies which underpin the warmth and humanity of his art. Which is fine, but there was no such painter as William Bagot. And also, throughout the extensive and detailed sections on art, I can’t help thinking that British art of this period grew steadily more isolated from all the trends on the Continent, almost completely oblivious to Impressionism and the myriad types of post-Impressionism, continuing with ever-more stately depictions of sad-eyed women by Edward Burne-Jones or stately ladies of ancient Rome by Frederick Leighton, Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore. Wonderful in their way but eventually destined to his the brick wall of European Modern Art and evaporate overnight.

The book contains very long passages about art, about types and theories of mid-Victorian art, about the difference between superficial and profound art, much humour at the expense of the Laird’s endless attempts to paint toreadors accurately (and a joke about the fact that, once he actually visits Spain and paints toreadors from life, his paintings immediately stop selling). But to a post-modern reader it all seems pre-historic. We are told that one of Billee’s most successful paintings is of a pig in a sty being suckled by lots of little pink piglets, handled with

An ineffable charm of poetry and refinement, of pathos and sympathy and delicate humor combined, an incomparable ease and grace and felicity of workmanship.

It’s like the depiction of the artist Basil Hallward and his work in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) or Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of the artist Dick Heldar in The Light That Failed (1891). In none of these three books is there a glimmer of the tsunami of modernism which is about to completely revolutionise the very idea of what art is.

Anyway, du Maurier describes himself as being present in the story – says that he was introduced to the Laird and Taffy when Little Billee brought them to a grand party at the house of millionaire Sir Louis Cornely. And it is here that they hear, from the lips of a great classical singer, of the spreading reputation of La Svengali, the most beautiful woman singer in the world. This gives rise to discussion among the posh chaps present who have seen the famed singer at various venues around Europe, while Billee, Taffy and the laid listen in wonder.

Darwinism

The novel takes us up to page 200 with a lengthy passage describing Billee’s return from London back to his family in Devon. His mother has ambitions to marry him to Alice, daughter of the local vicar. She is, indeed, a noble, virtuous, shy, well-mannered and devout young lady, and deeply in love with Billee. Billee goes and sits by the sea, with Alice’s own dog, Trey sitting at his feet, in order to give the whole scene a sentimental resonance.

Billee would like to please Alice, his mother and his sister, and is sure he could make the lady a good and faithful husband except for one tiny detail… He is an atheist. He is reading On the Origin of Species for the third time and it has demolished his belief in a Christian God. If there is a God, how could he be so cruel and vengeful, flooding the earth, punishing unbelievers, conceiving of Hell?

To round out this scene, Billee walks back towards the village and bumps into Alice’s father, the vicar. Quite quickly the vicar starts questioning Billee about his faith, which church in London he attends and so on, to which Billee has to stumblingly admit that he has no faith and attends no church. By the end of the walk the pair are no longer on speaking terms, and Billee’s engagement to Alice never takes place.

Du Maurier being the satirist that he is, then gives a page-long passage describing the way that this redoubtable pillar of the church in later life comes into a small fortune due to acquiring shares in a rising company, and finds the financial independence this gives him allows him to read widely and, like Billee, to lose his faith, becoming a Positivist (i.e. believer in science not religion as the source of truth).

He argues with his bishop, loses his post and moves to London where he becomes an atheist lecturer. So far, so satirical. His daughter on the other hand, remains sweet and virginal and a devout Anglican. This little homily seems to me to epitomise the split-mind of Victorian men – happy to mock and satirise his fellow man till the cow comes home; but coming over all pious and sentimental at the sight of a young English lady.

Du Maurier was quite relaxed and open about the ‘affairs’ of the models he described in the French scenes, of Svengali’s one-time girlfriend, ‘Mimi la Salope’, and of Trilby herself. But as soon as an English lady – Mrs Bagot – and even more, an English virgin – saintly young Miss Bagot – enter the narrative, all open-minded, relaxed, tolerance of permissive living vanishes, and the narrative hits a cold hard wall. As far as I can tell, for the second half of the 19th century and into the 20th, this was a common phenomenon. Young, and not so young, men went over to Paris to have ‘adventures’ i.e. casual sex, and then came back to England to act as stern, upright defenders of British morality.

Fake context

You know the movie Forrest Gump where Gump is made to appear at various key moments of history, for example receiving a war medal from President Johnson, the inclusion of real historical events and personages designed to give verisimilitude to the story.

Same here. Du Maurier invokes a number of figures from the worlds of art and music and literature to lend reality to his tale. Regarding Billee’s success as an artist, du Maurier intrudes a lot to ask us whether we remember the first great success of Billee’s painting – ‘The Moon-Dial’ – or the great sale at Sotheby’s where his painting fetched a record price. He makes this effort to persuade us that Billee is one of the great contemporary British painters (although we all know that he doesn’t exist).

Similarly, after Trilby’s great appearance singing in Paris, du Maurier claims his fictitious character was reviewed by the entirely real figures of Berlioz (who, he says,wriote no fewer than twelve articles about La Svengali) and Théophile Gautier, who is made to write her a poem.

Back to Trilby

After all these digressions have taken up about 50 pages of this 300-page book, we touch back down five years after the previous events (the vicar and so on). Little Billee, Taffy and the Laird are reunited to go to Paris to see a performance of Trilby under the management of Svengali. First they take a stroll around all their haunts – which gives du Maurier chance to describe how Paris changed in the 1860s due to Baron Haussmann’s famous boulevard-building programme. They also bump into a raft of former acquaintances from their student days, most of whom have abandoned art. One of the liveliest of them, Dodor, is now working as shop supervisor in a haberdasher’s store and engaged to the owner’s daughter. Another, l’Zouzou, a soldier who was, to their surprise, related to a grand ducal family, they meet on an outing to the Bois de Boulogne, where he is entertaining his bride to be, a very ugly American lady named Miss Lavinia Hunks, and her incredibly wealthy mother. Opportunity for much knowing satire and mockery.  Such is life. Sic transit gloria mundi, and other truisms.

Our trio attend the Paris premiere of Trilby’s singing which du Maurier describes in pages of detail. The humble milk girl they’d known back in the day who could barely hold a note is now the possessor of the greatest voice the world has ever heard. (In a stroke of creative inspiration du Maurier has her sing mostly cheap trite street songs and nursery rhyme, but with such thrilling passion and expression that there is 15 minutes of standing ovation at the end of her brief concert.

They go away stunned at the impact it has on them. Above all, for the central protagonist of the novel, Little Billee, it seems to unblock the cold channels of his heart. Once again he feels the thrill of passion and is swept up with genuine love for his friends and burning jealousy for the man Trilby has married, no other than her mentor, the tall, swarthy, oleaginous Svengali.

Next day Little Billee pops down to the post office to write and send a letter to his dear mama. Who should be there by Svengali with a clutch of letters. Svengali notices our hero:

looking small and weak and flurried, and apparently alone; and being an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew, he had not been able to resist the temptation of spitting in his face, since he must not throttle him to death.

That ‘Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew’ is easy to take as grotesque anti-Semitism until you remember that a) plenty of other characters are given the same kind of excessive description based on national stereotypes, especially big strong Anglo-Saxon Roast Beef Taffy – and b) that du Maurier’s style delights in hyperbole and exaggeration and creates humour by concatenated repetition.

As for Trilby, G—, to whom she sat for his Phryne, once told me that the sight of her thus was a thing to melt Sir Galahad, and sober Silenus, and chasten Jove himself – a thing to Quixotize a modern French masher!

Galahad, Silenus, Jove and Don Quixote are all dragged into a short sentence, which also has a throwaway generlisation about the French, in a classic example of his technique of comic hyperbole. Or sentimental hyperbole, as when gecko describes his devotion to sweet Trilby:

‘Well, that was Trilby, your Trilby! That was my Trilby too – and I loved her as one loves an only love, an only sister, an only child – a gentle martyr on earth, a blessed saint in heaven!’

That’s five descriptive phrases in a row, a glut of descriptors. All the characters, in their dialogue, and the narrator, are given to overemphasis and reptition. It’s part of what makes the whole thing feel like a Victorian play, crammed with moments of comedy, sentiment, horror and shock by turns.

And believe it or not, I think the purpose of that ‘Hebrew’ sentence is comic rather than insulting – as the last clause indicates: ‘since he couldn’t throttle him to death’, is typical of the mocking exaggeration du Maurier applies to all his characters.

Little Billee fights back but is as nothing to Taffy, who has seen it all, and steps up to Svengali who, recognising him, cowers in terror. Tall, strong, manly, Anglo-Saxon Taffy takes him by the nose and wags his head from side to side before delivering a stinging open-handed slap. While the manager of the hotel calls for the police, Svengali runs off, and doesn’t bring any charges.

Taffy gives Svengali what for

Taffy gives Svengali what for

This all happens in Paris. Then our trio return to England and to their separate pursuits, Little Billee down to Devon again, this time accompanied by Taffy, who turns out to be have connections with the vicar and with the local gentry, and gets taken up by them, and the two artists generally make a very favourable impression on the local society and peasants.

Once they have all celebrated a quiet Christmas, Billee and Taffy return to London in order to see Trilby’s London debut. They don’t know that that very afternoon Svengali had been in a brawl with his loyal and devoted lieutenant, Gecko. Gecko had played violin for Svengali in those bohemian Sunday afternoon sessions and, as Trilby’s singing career took off, had continued to be lead violin in the orchestra, whose arrangements Svengali wrote himself.

But all through those years he had grown more and more devoted to Trilby. The encounter with Billee and Taffy had put Svengali on edge and tetchy. Several times he criticised Trilby’s singing and finally rapped her over the knuckles with his baton. At which gecko snapped and leaped at him, stabbing Svengali with a shallow cut on the neck. Gecko was manhandled away, doctors are called and patch up Svengali’s throat but tell him on no account must he conduct this evening in case the wound burst again.

So that evening, at the grand theatre in London, where are assembled the cream of hi society and stretching up away into the gods, everyone who is anyone, Trilby goes to sing with Svengali, for the first time, not conducting, but in a box, placed so he can see her.

But when the band strikes up, and the conductor turns to Trilby, the statuesque woman in the expensive ballgown appears dazed and confused. ‘What am I doing here?’ she asks. ‘What do you mean sing?’ And when she finally gives in to the impresario’s imploring to sing, it is in the tuneless cracked voice the bohemians remember from those years earlier.

The shocked audience start booing. Trilby bursts into tears and is hustled off the stage. It is discovered that Svengali is dead. He died of heart failure in his box and had been siting there with a rictus grin on his face and black demonic eyes empty of life.

Our heroes – the Laird, Taffy and Billee – swarm backstage and, when Trilby obviously recognises them, the impresario allows them to take her home with them.

They put her up in Billee’s Fitzroy Square rooms. And here the truth comes out. She remembers nothing about the previous five years. Her memory is that she came back to Paris after his kid brother died, suicidally depressed and unable to sleep, and came across Svengali somewhere. And he helped her to sleep. And he adored and worshipped her. And they seemed to travel around a lot and she was often tired.

But when they explain that she is one of the most famous women in Europe, that she is the most famous singer in the world, she laughs and puts them off and says, ‘Get away, nonsense, who are you trying to kid?’ She has no memory at all of her world-conquering career. For the entire time she has been the puppet of Svengali the master musician and hypnotist.

And now Trilby is drained and broken. Only 23 she looks 30, her skin white and translucent. For the last thirty pages of the book she wastes away and dies. She is surrounded by the three chaps and her maid, and regularly called on by the best doctors money can buy, but they can do nothing.

Du Maurier wrings every last drop of emotion from the situation, making Dickens’s description of the death of Little Nell look like a news report. First he gets Mrs Bagot to come all the way from Devon and, upon seeing how nobly Trilby is dying, to realise what a foolish woman she has been and she begs Trilby to forgive her and Trilby begs Mrs B to forgive her and both women collapse in tears – as does the gentle reader.

Mrs B and Trilby have a long conversation about God, death and forgiveness, in which Trilby reveals that the worst thing she ever did in her life was go off for a carriage ride with some admirers and leave her five year old brother crying at home. Mrs Bagot cries. Trilby cries. The reader cries.

Then, right at the end, from out of nowhere a packing case is delivered and Trilby unwraps it to discover a fine photographic portrait of Svengali in his Hungarian musicians outfit, staring straight out of the photo. Trilby is lying on a couch, places it on her feet, holding it at full length and then… a strange change comes over her. His intense black eyes hypnotise her one last time, from beyond the grave, and she sings the Chopin Impromptu in A flat which was her signature piece, sounds of supernatural beauty which bestill the room and move the listeners to tears.

Then she is gone. Doctors called. Death confirmed. Not a dry eye in the house.

The death of Trilby

The death of Trilby

Postscript

Cut to: twenty years later at the Grand Hotel on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris where Svengali had spat at Billee and Taffy pulled his nose and slapped him. Taffy is married to Little Billee’s sister, but alas Little Billee is dead. Trilby’s dying words were ‘Svengali, Svengali, Svengali’ and this prompts the sensitive Billee to have a recurrence of the brain fever which had brought him low for five long years. He sickens, wastes and dies, an ‘early death, his manly, calm, and most beautiful surrender.’

Well, anyway, Taffy and wife have come back to Paris sometime in the 1880s. Once again du Maurier shows off his knowledge of the city as he has the happy couple tour round all his old haunts. But the purpose of this final section is that he takes Mrs T to the theatre and notices, down in the orchestra pit, a grey-haired violinist who looks like Gecko, Svengali’s old assistant.

It is and Taffy invites him out for a meal. And now we hear the whole story and Gecko clarifies, if we had any doubt, that there were two Trilbies: the sweet innocent natural girl – and then the robotic hypnotised singing machine which Svengali and he spent three long years hypnotising and training to sing note by note. Not only notes but inflections, volume, stress, every element of singing. Once again Gecko emphasises that Svengali was a musical genius, and had a crystal clear idea of what perfect singing should be, but which most humans fell short of. But because he exercised complete control over Trilby, he was able to programme her like a robot; and, eventually, after the long years training, control her with the slightest movement of his eyes or his baton.

So these final pages make explicit the theme of the double, the doppelgänger, and suddenly I’m thinking of Jeckyll and Hyde, and the Picture of Dorian Gray and all those Sherlock Holmes stories which are based on people living double lives, the whole late-Victorian fascination with two-sidedness.

Gecko says it was horrible to see her turned into an automaton; only on a few occasions in all that time was she truly herself. He leans his head on his arms and weeps. Truly this is not a happy book. Taffy orders Gecko a cab and pours him into it. Then Mr and Mrs Taffy stroll home through the deserted streets of Paris, looking forward to going back to England, back to their quiet little country home and their happy family.

For all its jaunty humour and carefully calibrated irreverence, Trilby ends with a hymn to the pieties of home and family every bit as whole hearted as Tennyson’s great mid-Victorian poem, In Memoriam.

Où peut-on être mieux qu’au sein de ta famille?’

Anti-Semitism

Quite obviously the novel brings together two blatant, popular and enduring stereotypes or topoi: the pure, upstanding, virginal white English woman in jeopardy from a dark, swarthy, threatening foreigner from the East.

These are so obvious, and have been written about and criticised so often, that I can’t think of much to add except for a few thoughts about Svengali.

The most striking thing about the Jewish characterisation of Svengali is how breath-takingly in-your-face it is.

Trilby went to see him in his garret, and he played to her, and leered and ogled, and flashed his bold, black, beady Jew’s eyes into hers, and she straightway mentally prostrated herself in reverence and adoration before this dazzling specimen of her race. So that her sordid, mercenary little gutter-draggled soul was filled with the sight and the sound of him, as of a lordly, godlike, shawm-playing, cymbal-banging hero and prophet of the Lord God of Israel – David and Saul in one!

Not only of Svengali. His first attempt to hypnotise someone is on:

Mimi la Salope… a dirty, drabby little dolly-mop of a Jewess, a model for the figure.

He notes that one of the contemporary music scenes greatest singers is of Spanish or Sephardi Jewish ancestry:

For Glorioli – the biggest, handsomest, and most distinguished-looking Jew that ever was – one of the Sephardim (one of the Seraphim!) – hailed from Spain, where he was junior partner in the great firm of Moralés, Peralés, Gonzalés & Glorioli, wine-merchants, Malaga. He travelled for his own firm; his wine was good, and he sold much of it in England. But his voice would bring him far more gold in the month he spent here; for his wines have been equalled – even surpassed – but there was no voice like his anywhere in the world, and no more finished singer.

And, surprisingly, the protagonist of the story, Little Billee, is described as having a tincture of Jewish blood in him,

In his [Little Billee’s] winning and handsome face there was just a faint suggestion of some possible very remote Jewish ancestor – just a tinge of that strong, sturdy, irrepressible, indomitable, indelible blood which is of such priceless value in diluted homœopathic doses, like the dry white Spanish wine called montijo, which is not meant to be taken pure; but without a judicious admixture of which no sherry can go round the world and keep its flavor intact; or like the famous bull-dog strain, which is not beautiful in itself; and yet just for lacking a little of the same no greyhound can ever hope to be a champion.

As usual, when you read these kinds of comment in context you realise that they are more complex and multiform than the term ‘anti-Semitic’ (or ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’) allow. They are just examples from a spectrum of comments based on ideas of racial characteristics which we have, by and large, abandoned.

In fact these four examples cover a range of the spectrum: Svengali has all the threatening stereotypes du Maurier can muster heaped on him; Mimi is, by contrast, a hapless victim. Glorioli is characterised as not an Eastern  but a Spanish Jew, and therefore is described in different terms. And this last paragraph, where he says a drop of Jewish ‘blood’ enhances character doesn’t appear to be an insult but a roundabout form of praise, albeit based on ideas of ‘race; or ‘blood’ which we now find abhorrent.

Also, anyone prompted by the cruder descriptions of Svengali must also bear in mind that du Maurier makes him tall and powerful, and credit is repeatedly given to his unquestioning musical genius. He plays the piano to concert level and he is credited with arranging the music for Trilby to sing with great taste and precision. And we should remember that Svengali is invited to the heroes’ Sunday afternoon parties. Invited, not banned. Du Maurier is interested in creating a rounded, if objectionable, character. He is a novelist, not a Nazi.

Anyway, this spectrum of opinion about Jews is part of a macro-spectrum which includes comments about all manner of races – the French ‘race’ and character is pored over at length, the Americans come in for some ripe satire, at least half the characterisation of Svengali is not just that he’s Jewish but that he’s German.

He could be very funny, Svengali, though he was German, poor dear!

Let alone the countless mocking descriptions of all aspects of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ character, some fond, some satirical, some surprisingly patriotic, some openly scathing (about the narrow philistinism of the English bourgeoisie).

In fact the book comes from an entirely different way of looking at human nature – in terms of intrinsic values of identifiable categories called ‘races’ – which tried to make sense of the diversity of human beings by grouping them into categories.

All ages do this. Our own age – as I’m reminded every time I open a newspaper or turn on the radio – enthusiastically groups humans into categories according to present-day concerns, namely ‘women’ (who all and everywhere need our help), ‘people of colour’ (who need to be more represented in culture and organisations) and Muslims (who are the victims of Islamophobia). Against them are lined up racists, sexists and Islamophobes. Just the same kind of sweeping generalisations.

Reading du Maurier’s racial generalisations doesn’t offend me. It feels as remote from real life as reading the medieval Catholic literature which went to such lengths to define the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’ (and which damned Jews and Muslims; there is some hair-raisingly anti-Semitic content in Dante, who also condemned the Prophet Mohammed to a special place in Hell.)

None of that offends me. It is of anthropological and historical interest. I am interested in the cultural system these old categories embodied and elaborated, and the light it sheds on how previous societies have created and structured their values. It’s no different from reading contemporary journalism which blames ‘gammons’ for Brexit and ‘angry white men’ for Trump.

I’m not trying to let du Maurier off the hook. There is a virulence and vehemence about the characterisation of Svengali which I can easily imagine being very offensive to any Jew and indeed any progressive liberal reading it these days. But on the other hand, he is the baddy. Baddies, in boy adventure stories like this, always are laden with all the negative qualities the writer can muster, and generally are cruel, sadistic bullies, often from the East (reflect on the villains in the James Bond books; plenty of eastern stereotypes, not least about Russia).

Every age tries to make sense of the world by creating stereotyped categories of human beings to populate it with, those on our side and those who are against us, and then proceeds to vilify and insult those who are against us. To imagine that our own society doesn’t do just the same is naive.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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