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 also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – 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 of this tendency.

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. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

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…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system 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 aged 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.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman 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 lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many 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 than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own 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 in Sussex.

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 strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels 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 would have been turned 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 a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy 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.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie 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.

Willie determines to track the couple 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), tracking them to the coast, and then 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 – Lawrence’s home turf – 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 grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre 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. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

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 beer house 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 have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting 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 once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – 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, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly 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, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are 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 his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking 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 that he later learned 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 any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. 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, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about 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

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society 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 and 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 by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which 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 a rather moving 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, that she was bewitched. 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 politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they 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… still wants to remain with Verrall. 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.

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. Oops.

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 incompetence 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 situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate 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, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian 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 the 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, the 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.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

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 glaring 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 if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be 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 and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his 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 paid lip service to all this but couldn’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 worldview 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 the protagonist Redwood 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 then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

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 was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the 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, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, 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 of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

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
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
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…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

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
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Puck of Pook’s Hill by Rudyard Kipling (1906)

‘Ah, Sussex! Silly Sussex for everlastin’,’ murmured Hal…

In 1902 Kipling moved to Bateman’s, an impressive Jacobean mansion in the depths of the Sussex countryside. As Charles Carrington’s biography makes clear, the move, and even more so the publication of many of his Boer War stories in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904, marked a kind of ending of his intense involvement with Imperial politics. From the poems Recessional (1897) and The White Man’s Burden (1899) through to the stories and poems he wrote about the Boer War (1899 to 1902), the years at the turn of the century had marked the high tide of jingoistic feeling in Britain, and of Kipling’s involvement with and embodiment of it. The end of the war was followed almost immediately by the death of Kipling’s close friend, Cecil Rhodes – who had lent the Kiplings a guest house in South Africa where they had become used to spending every winter. Rhodes was the most unashamed exponent of the Imperialist vision and his death marked the end of an era.

Although Kipling continued to write patriotic and pro-Imperial poems and stories, the move to Bateman’s marked new beginnings. He threw himself into exploring the geography and history of the area and, by extension, of England itself, reading local histories and the Domesday Book. He delighted in the new technology of the motor car, buying a number of early models, hiring a chauffeur-cum-engineer, and working car travel into a number of his Edwardian stories. He continued his love affair with the Navy, accepting offers to watch manoeuvres and writing poems and stories accordingly.

But it was to English history that he really turned his focus, devoting his phenomenal ability to absorb a wealth of technical and factual information onto English history and specifically local Sussex history, researches which found their outlet in the form of a historical fantasia for children.

The resulting book of short stories starts with two very white, very middle-class children, Dan and Una, rehearsing a child’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a meadow near their parent’s house in rural Sussex, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and in a fairy ring. The conjunction of these elements unwittingly conjures up Puck, the elfin fairy figure from Shakespeare’s play. He introduces himself to the startled children as the last of ‘the Old Things’ which used to inhabit England, the last of ‘the Hill Peoples’.

In the chapters that follow Puck introduces a procession of typical figures from English history – a Roman centurion, a Saxon monk, a Norman knight, a Viking sea captain, a medieval artist, and so on.

1. Weland’s Sword

Having conjured up Puck the children quite quickly accept him and listen as he explains how ‘the Peoples of the Hills’ came and went over thousands of years of English history; and of one particular god, Weland the Smith, who arrived with the Vikings and vaunted his pride and strength, before slowly (over a thousand years!) dwindling into an old man, a peripatetic blacksmith, who wants to be dismissed from his trade, and from England, but requires a mortal man to give him genuine thanks before he can depart. Puck tells how a mortal monk, Hugh, forced a rude peasant who got his horse shoed by Weland for free and walked away cursing, to come back and thank the smith properly. How these thanks magically freed Weyland who, out of gratitude, made Hugh a marvellously strong sword over which magic runes were chanted. Before Weyland disappeared into the dark woods never to be seen again.

At the end of each story Puck gives Una and Dan a leaf of ash, oak and thorn, and it makes them forget the whole episode – so they don’t reveal things to the grown-ups!

Illustration to Puck of Pook's Hill by Arthur Rackham

Illustration to Puck of Pook’s Hill by Arthur Rackham

2. Young Men at the Manor

The children are fishing in the stream when they are surprised to find Sir Richard Dalyngridge, a knight in armour, on his war horse. He reminds the children of John Everett Millais’s painting, Sir Isumbras at the Ford (1857).

Dalyngridge tells his story. He was young and only newly knighted when he came over with William the Conqueror, fought at Hastings in the retinue of  Engerrard of the Eagle who was killed and replaced by his son, Gilbert. Wandering away from the fight, he was attacked by a Saxon who he should have recognised, because it was no other than Hugh (with Weyland’s sword) – but Dalyngridge knows him because they both lived for a while in a monastery in Normandy. They fight till Hugh’s sword flies out of  his hand but makes a kind of singing, groaning noise that scares both men. Dalyngridge gives Hugh his life. Hugh brings him to the nearby manor house where a) Hugh collapses of his wounds b) Dalyngridge is rudely seized by Saxons who threaten to hang him if Hugh doesn’t recover. Dalyngridge’s master, Gilbert de Aquila, rides up with his men and laughs at Dalyngridge’s predicament. They free him and say he can keep this manor if he manages to survive and master the Saxons and manage it for one calendar month.

Well – he does manage, and the characters are contorted to demonstrate a whistle-stop tour of medieval chivalry. Turns out that Hugh sleeps every night in Dalyngridge’s company, knowing that if any Saxon kills Dalyngridge, he (Hugh) would be immediately killed: in effect, he gives himself as a hostage for Dalyngridge’s wellbeing – without letting the latter know. And Dalyngridge chivalrously refuses to sleep in the main hall to respect the sensitivities of the beautiful Lady Ælueva, the Saxon lady of the manor who is distraught that they have been conquered. Only after months of demonstrating his chivalry and only after he has managed to unite his own Norman followers with the Saxon men of the manor in joint defence against thieves and cattle rustlers, does Dalyngridge prove himself, and does the Lady meekly ask him to come and sleep in ‘his’ hall. Gilbert de Aquila returns, laughing and mocking, reveals the truth about Hugh’s giving himself as a hostage, gives the manor definitively to Dalyngridge, and knights Hugh for his loyalty.

The point of these complex events is to show that conquered and conquerors quickly bond and unite through the gentilesse of chivalry. They also show – as almost all the stories do – the importance of loyalty, of pledging loyalty to a friend, to a comrade in arms – and then sticking to them through thick and thin.

3. The Knights of the Joyous Venture

The children are pretending to be explorers in a little dinghy on the stream when Sir Richard Dalyngridge appears again. He tells them what happened a generation later, after he married Lady Ælueva, had several sons, and grew old. When she died he decided to go on pilgrimage and Hugh came along. They go on board a merchant ship going to collect wine from Boulogne but it loses its way in the mist in the Channel and is attacked by a Viking ship. Hugh and Dalyngridge are taken prisoner and carried off on a long sea voyage south, past Madeira and Spain – where the king is fighting the Moors – and on down the coast of Africa to a place where the Africans have a custom of leaving gold on the shore if the Vikings will do battle with the aggressive gorillas which terrorise them. Both Dalyngridge and Hugh are injured rescuing the gold from the gorillas, but their bravery makes the bandy-legged Viking captain, Witta, love them and honour them.

After loading all the gold aboard they make their way back north, using the magical pointing iron (compass) of the Yellow Man (Chinaman) who Witta had on board, until Witta lets them ashore at Pevensey, kissing them and lading them with gold. They all love each other. The message is that, though conflict, fighting and suffering together, men forge bonds deeper than words.

4. Old Men At Pevensey

Dalyngridge and Hugh go back to their respective manors but find they are now old men and their sons have inherited and taken over in their absence. So they stay with de Aquila in his castle at Pevensey. This is a long complicated story in which the old men realise that de Aquila’s clerk, Gilbert, has been taking down quotes of de Aquila’s, designed to make him seem treacherous. At the time King Henry (who became king in 1100 – hence our heroes are old men) is fighting off a rebellion of  his barons, and also worried about a possible invasion from Normandy by his brother Duke Robert. Pevensey is the gateway to England. They discover de Aquila’s clerk Gilbert has been working for a cowardly knight called Fulke to take down evidence against de Aquila which Fulke can use to poison the king’s mind. But when Fulke arrives with the king’s command that de Aquila report to the fighting in the west, de Aquila refuses to go and, with Hugh and Dalyngridge’s help, they trip and stun Fulke, strip him of his armour, tie him and dangle him down a well which hangs over the sea. As the tide rises they force him to tell the full story of his rotten cowardly life to be taken down by Gilbert who – his treachery revealed – is in terror of his life. When Fulke’s young son runs in Fulke begs and pleads he’ll do anything as long as they let his son live.

So de Aquila eventually decides a) they’ll get copies of Fulke’s treachery made and distribute them widely if any harm comes b) they will kill Fulke’s son if any harm comes; therefore c) Fulke must put things right with the king and redeem de Aquila’s reputation. Fulke agrees, they let him go and never hear anything more. Some time later, King Henry crosses the sea to Normandy and thrashes his brother Robert. And with that Puck throws at Dan and Una leaves of Oak, Ash and Thorn, they forget the encounter, and so we leave the company of Sir Richard Dalyngridge.

5. A Centurion of the Thirtieth*

Introducing Parnesius, an officer of the Seventh Cohort of the Thirtieth Legion — the Ulpia Victrix – in his bronze armour and great bronze helmet with its red horse tail. Here Una is showing him a child’s toy catapult.

Like so many Kipling ‘stories’, this is really a potted biography, going into great detail about his upbringing on Vectis (the Isle of Wight), his father, mother, nurse and brother; the trip they took to Aquae Sulis (Bath), his decision to become a soldier and his father pulling strings to send him to training school at Anderida (Pevensey). A fire breaks out and he gets his cohort up to fight it, and turns out to be witnessed by Maximus, Theodosius’s right hand man in the ‘Pict Wars’. He takes his cohort for its first march from Pevensey to just under Pook’s Hill where – even in Roman times – there was a good forge kept by a one-eyed Greek smith they nicknamed Cyclops (Kipling’s stories are always stuffed with lots and lots of circumstantial detail, in an effort to compensate for the lack of actual story). Here a legionary cheeks him and Parnesius knocks him over and is about to chastise him when Maximus appears again, saying, ‘Kill him’. Parnesius refuses and Maximus says Parnesius will never rise in his army. We now find Maximus creepy – [this same Magnus Maximus (though it isn’t explained in the story) will lead a rebellion against the Emperor Gratian and rule as Western Emperor from 383 to 388].

No, Parnesius’s destiny will be to march his cohort north and spend his career guarding Hadrian’s Wall against the painted people (the Picts).

6. On the Great Wall*

Parnesius takes up his story where he left off, giving a brisk account of marching his cohort north through England, the landscape becoming bleaker and more rugged, until they reach the Wall. This is described wonderfully.

‘Just when you think you are at the world’s end, you see a smoke from East to West as far as the eye can turn, and then, under it, also as far as the eye can stretch, houses and temples, shops and theatres, barracks, and granaries, trickling along like dice behind — always behind — one long, low, rising and falling, and hiding and showing line of towers. And that is the Wall!’
‘Ah!’ said the children, taking breath.
‘You may well,’ said Parnesius. ‘Old men who have followed the Eagles since boyhood say nothing in the Empire is more wonderful than first sight of the Wall!’
‘Is it just a Wall? Like the one round the kitchen-garden?’ said Dan.
‘No, no! It is the Wall. Along the top are towers with guard-houses, small towers, between. Even on the narrowest part of it three men with shields can walk abreast from guard-house to guard-house. A little curtain wall, no higher than a man’s neck, runs along the top of the thick wall, so that from a distance you see the helmets of the sentries sliding back and forth like beads. Thirty feet high is the Wall, and on the Picts’ side, the North, is a ditch, strewn with blades of old swords and spear-heads set in wood, and tyres of wheels joined by chains. The Little People come there to steal iron for their arrow-heads.
‘But the Wall itself is not more wonderful than the town behind it. Long ago there were great ramparts and ditches on the South side, and no one was allowed to build there. Now the ramparts are partly pulled down and built over, from end to end of the Wall; making a thin town eighty miles long. Think of it! One roaring, rioting, cockfighting, wolf-baiting, horse-racing town, from Ituna on the West to Segedunum on the cold eastern beach! On one side heather, woods and ruins where Picts hide, and on the other, a vast town — long like a snake, and wicked like a snake. Yes, a snake basking beside a warm wall!

As usual with Kipling, there is a lot more local colour and circumstantial detail than plot. Parnesius gets friendly with Pertinax, another officer about his age, and they both go hunting north of The Wall, with a one-eyed Pict named Allo.

Allo was painted blue, green, and red from his forehead to his ankles.

The tribesmen decorated their bodies with tattoos. Hence the Roman name for them – Picts, or ‘painted ones’. On one hunting trip they come across a fleet of ships drawn into a bay; they are the Winged Hats, the pagans from the Continent. Retreating, they are astonished to run into the General Maximus. He explains that he needs to extract a lot of soldiers from The Wall for his campaign to conquer Gaul. He offers Parnesius and Pertinax control of The Wall, in return for troops. Our boys say they want permission to conciliate the Picts, not antagonise them e.g. stopping systematically burning their heather (they harvest bees and honey, apparently). Maximus says they can do whatever they like, as long as they give him three years of peace.

7. The Winged Hats*

Parnesius and Pertinax spend two days at the lavish gladiatorial games Maximus throws for his official visit to Segedunum at the East end of The Wall. There they meet bloated Rutilianus, the General of The Wall, who happily gives our lads control if that’s what Maximus wants. Then our boys watch as Maximus strips the Wall of all its best men and equipment and sails away. Parnesius describes his policy of befriending the Picts, even sending them corn. The ships of the Winged Hats are the real worry. Even when Maximus wins Gaul to become the Western Emperor, he still won’t send back the troops Parnesius says he needs. Allo is their emissary into the courts of the Picts but the Picts are themselves harried by the Winged Hats. Then news comes that Maximus is dead, defeated and executed by young Theodosius. No help will come. Knowing this the Winged Hats attack The Wall from both ends and there is an almost science fiction-feeling sequence as Parnesius and Pertinax fight on although the towers along the Wall fall one by one, getting closer and closer. At the last, as they are expecting to die in the final assault and massacre, they are surprised that two Legions from Theodosius have arrived and saved the day. The cavalry have arrived.

The emperor’s secretary, Ambrosius, tells Parnesius and Pertinax that they are welcome to stay on to serve their new ruler – but they both take the offer to retire with honour to their families, having saved the Wall and saved Britain. Duty. Loyalty. Solidarity.

A Soldier’s View

In his biography of Kipling, Charles Harrington, who served in the Great War, emphasises what a powerful effect these three Roman stories had on those, especially the boys, who read them.

In the whole range of Rudyard Kipling’s work, no pieces have been more effective in moulding the thought of a generation than the three stories of the centurions defending Hadrian’s Wall during the decline of the Roman Empire. ‘There is no hope for Rome,’ said the wise old father of the centurion. ‘She has forsaken her Gods, but if the Gods forgive us here, we may save Britain.’ The story of the centurion’s task is told as a panegyric of duty and service, which press their claims all the more urgently when leaders fail to lead and statesmen study only their own careers. It strengthened the nerve of many a young soldier in the dark days of 1915 and 1941…
(Rudyard Kipling: His Life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin paperback edition, p.446)

This aspect of Kipling’s work, its embodiment of ideas of duty, service and endurance, which influenced a whole generation at the turn of the century and beyond, is what is so difficult for us to capture and be aware of nowadays; and why Carrington’s biography – and personal testimony – is so valuable.

8. Hal o’ the Draft

Sir Harry Dawe was known as Hal o’ the draft as a boy because he was always drawing. He is a medieval architect, responsible for designing some of the classic churches and colleges in Oxford, as well as Dan and Una’s local church, St Bartholomew’s. Dan and Una come across him and Puck in the Little Mill, and he tells them he was born at Little Lindens farm, which you can see from the Mill. This feels a particularly local story, exploring or evoking the landscape and buildings right next to Dan and Una’s house, the mill, the stream, the willows on the way to Little Linden.

The old farm-house, weather-tiled to the ground, took almost the colour of a blood-ruby in the afternoon light. The pigeons pecked at the mortar in the chimney-stacks; the bees that had lived under the tiles since it was built filled the hot August air with their booming; and the smell of the box-tree by the dairy-window mixed with the smell of earth after rain, bread after baking, and a tickle of wood-smoke. The farmer’s wife came to the door, baby on arm, shaded her brows against the sun, stooped to pluck a sprig of rosemary, and turned down the orchard. The old spaniel in his barrel barked once or twice to show he was in charge of the empty house. Puck clicked back the garden-gate… They perched themselves arow on the old hacked oak bench in Lindens’ garden, looking across the valley of the brook at the fern-covered dimples and hollows of the Forge behind Hobden’s cottage.

Only half way through the text does Hal begin his actual ‘story’. His master at Oxford tells him to return to his home village and repair the church. He comes down full of pride and boasting and finds all the local families reluctant to help, especially John Collins the forge-master. He is joined by a man on the King’s Commission to get cannon and ‘serpentines’ for the Navy, Sebastian Cabot, who also finds the villages incompetent and recalcitrant. Troubles pile up: the boat bringing stone from France is forced to dump it overboard when attacked by a pirate; then all the peasants working on the church swear they were chased out by the devil and refuse to return to work.

Sebastian conceives a plan which is to tell everyone he and Hal are travelling to London, make a big deal of saying farewell to everyone, setting off, then… hiding the horses and doubling back to the village that night. Here the sneak into the church and stumble over 20 good serpentines and two cannon. So: the church was the useful warehouse for John Collins arms smuggling racket; no wonder the whole village tried to sabotage Hal’s efforts to renovate it. Upstairs in the tower they find a crude Devil costume made from a cow’s ski, and are just pondering it all when Collins himself and half the village men arrive to arrange transport of the guns to Rye here they’ll be sold to the Channel pirate, Andrew Barton.

Goaded by their boldness, Sebastian runs down the tower stairs wearing the Devil costume, roaring and scaring all the village men off into the night. Then he and Hal ride to the house of the local squire, Sir John Pelham. When he stops laughing, Pelham points out that he is good friends with the lead smuggler John Collins, and comes to a happy compromise: he will ride with Hal and Sebastian back to the village and help Sebastian claim his lawful guns – but won’t indict half the village for ‘a little gun-running’.

When Hal, Sebastian, Sir John and his men and their wool carts lumber into the village, Hal is astonished at the conspirators’ brazenness: not one bats an eyelid as the guns are loaded and taken away, and John Collins has the cheek to offer the use of his own stronger carts to transport them – for a fee, of course!

‘That was all! That was Sussex — seely Sussex for everlastin’!’

9. ‘Dymchurch Flit’

It is September (the stories follow the progress of the year from Midsummer’s Eve). Una and Dan are with Old Hobden at the oast house, watching him roast potatoes when an old friend, Tom Shoesmith, appears at the door. The two old Sussex men swap memories and anecdotes, establishing local colour and context for half the length of the text before anything like a ‘story’ appears.

During the Reformation, while the humans were burning each other at the stake and smashing images in churches, what Shoesmith calls ‘the Pharisees’ and seems to mean the ‘fairies’, revolted by human behaviour, gather on Romney Marsh wanting to escape Old England. A representative comes to talk to old Widow Whitgift who lives by Dymchurch under the Wall, a Seeker who answered dreams and riddles, with two sons, one blind, one dumb. The Pharisees work magic to persuade her sons to take them over the seas in their old boat, and she gives her permission.

So the Pharisees / fairies / People of the Hills all crowd into the boat and are ferried out of England, with only Robin / Puck to console the old Widow till her blind son and dumb son return three days later. Old Tom says he and Hobden must yarn some more but first he must take the children back to their house and on the way, Una guesses that Tom is Puck in magic form.

10. The Treasure and The Law

The children meet Kadmiel, a giant of a man with a strong voice and big beard. He is a Jew, born in Moorish Spain at the time of King John (died 1216). He depicts the life of Jews at the time, forced to walk the streets in rags and often subject to brutal attacks by ‘the people’ – but at home able to light the ceremonial candles and dream of being Princes and Kings. In fact, they are often money-lenders to kings and Kadmiel sheds light on the origins of Magna Carta. He is invited by one of the many Jewish merchants he meets at his father’s house, Elias, to return to the latter’s home in Bury, in the north of England. Much satire on the complete absence of learning and wisdom among the English, all too quick to anti-Jewish violence. But the weak King John is forced to conciliate the Jews because he needs their money. Elias of Bury tells Kadmiel his secret, that once he was taken prisoner while trading along the Channel and thrown into a safe room at the castle of Pevensey. In it was a well going down into the tidal sea, and the Gentiles laughingly threw him in for a while and it was here that Elias discovered the gold which featured in the earlier story The Knights of the Joyous Venture.

Elias smuggles some of the gold out and makes big promises to King John to lend him all of it – giving John hope that he can buy an army to crush his rebellious nobles – for Elias gets into the habit of going trading to Pevensey once a year, putting up in the well room and sneaking small amounts of gold out. Elias has a wife, Adah, who wants to be one of the women of the court and so is pressuring Elias to make a deal with the king. But Kadmiel is also in contact with one Langton, a cleric, who represents the barons, and Kadmiel gives him a lot of money to change the last, fortieth, clause of the Magna Carta which the barons are putting to John, changing it from the original ‘To no free man will we sell, refuse, or deny right or justice’ to ‘To none will we sell, refuse, or deny right or justice’ i.e. making it a universal declaration of justice for all.

This is the point of the story and the reason it is placed last, and any accusation of anti-Semitism in the passing details of the tale are rebutted by the overall point of it. It was a Jew who ensured the foundation of England’s freedoms. Kadmiel then compounds his achievement by going to Pevensey, dropping magic potions in the wells which give the inhabitants the temporary symptoms of the plague so they all run out screaming and uses the time to empty all the gold from the tidal well into a little rowboat, which he rows out to sea and drops it all over the side. Why? To prevent Elias getting hold of it and loaning it to King John who would use it to raise an army, defeat the nobles and overthrow Magna Carta, the foundation of English freedom.

Now, at the very end, we realise the stories (well, some of the stories) are part of an over-arching narrative: the Norse god Weland made the sword which Hugh used to defeat the gorillas in Africa and get hold of the gold which was transported by Vikings back to Pevensey where a Jew found it and used it to found England’s freedom.

‘Well,’ said Puck, calmly, ‘what did you think of it? Weland gave the Sword. The Sword gave the Treasure, and the Treasure gave the Law. It’s as natural as an oak growing.’

It’s actually – like most of Kipling’s tales – quite a contorted set of events – but one which, unexpectedly, confirms our very modern sense of England being a bastard, mongrel, multicultural and multi-religious society.


Poems

As was his firm practice by now, Kipling prefaced all of the stories with poems specially written for the volume. They are in his usual ballad format, but understandably not so booming or Biblical as during his High Imperial phase. Of the sixteen or so poems in this volume, my favourite is Harp Song of the Dane Women, lamenting that every spring their menfolk are stirred to leave them behind and go a-viking.

What is a woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

She has no house to lay a guest in –
But one chill bed for all to rest in,
That the pale suns and the stray bergs nest in.

She has no strong white arms to fold you,
But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you
Bound on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.

Yet, when the signs of summer thicken,
And the ice breaks, and the birch-buds quicken,
Yearly you turn from our side, and sicken —

Sicken again for the shouts and the slaughters,
You steal away to the lapping waters,
And look at your ship in her winter quarters.

You forget our mirth, and talk at the tables,
The kine in the shed and the horse in the stables —
To pitch her sides and go over her cables!

Then you drive out where the storm-clouds swallow:
And the sound of your oar-blades falling hollow,
Is all we have left through the months to follow!

Ah, what is Woman that you forsake her,
And the hearth-fire and the home-acre,
To go with the old grey Widow-maker?

a) This strikes me as capturing the bleak, hardy spirit of the Viking world very well (see my review of Robert Ferguson’s history of the Vikings and of the Icelandic Sagas).

b) The form – three line stanzas using the same rhyme – is notably different from his four-line stanzas, subtly conveying the sense of an alien, non-Saxon culture.

Nature

Kipling paints the small English landscape well.

They were fishing, a few days later, in the bed of the brook that for centuries had cut deep into the soft valley soil. The trees closing overhead made long tunnels through which the sunshine worked in blobs and patches. Down in the tunnels were bars of sand and gravel, old roots and trunks covered with moss or painted red by the irony water; foxgloves growing lean and pale towards the light; clumps of fern and thirsty shy flowers who could not live away from moisture and shade. In the pools you could see the wave thrown up by the trouts as they charged hither and yon, and the pools were joined to each other — except in flood time, when all was one brown rush — by sheets of thin broken water that poured themselves chuckling round the darkness of the next bend.

The stories deliberately follow the progress of the year from Midsummer Eve to the end of November, allowing Kipling plenty of opportunity to describe sun and shower, tree and leaf, rain and shine.

Parochialism

The word ‘parochial’ comes from the Latin parochia, the word for the smallest administrative unit of the Christian church – in England, translated as ‘parish’. A parochial point of view, taken metaphorically, means a blinkered or limited view of an issue; literally, it means interested only in the parish, and Kipling applies this literally. Though the yarns range from the north of England to the Gold Coast of Africa, the setting, the frame of each story and the book, is extremely parochial – just a few buildings, fields and streams of Sussex. Kipling has his peasant Tom Shoesmith say:

‘I’ve heard say the world’s divided like into Europe, Ashy, Afriky, Ameriky, Australy, an’ Romney Marsh.’

And he makes a point of having several characters (Hal and Hobden) use the expression ‘go into England’, meaning to leave the parish, as if the rest of England is a foreign country.

‘I’ve been into England fur as Wiltsheer once.’

Nobody could accuse Kipling of not taking the broader view: his writings of the previous five years had ranged over America, South Africa, India and the Far East and addressed the fate of global empires. This massive shift of attention to explore his own country, county and parish seem strangely fitting and appropriate.


Related links

A big thank you to the University of Adelaide for making most of Kipling’s works available online in such a stylish design.

Other Kipling reviews

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