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

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating them with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time, and ever since, have acknowledged.

So in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul mate, and the model for some os his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks they had made to what should nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to dwarf his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was often the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interprtation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators of often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by several other overlapping ideas and explorations of the diverse meanings of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaboration’.

Thus alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

But other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

And other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’ but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. Almost all of the artists are given thumbnail biographies which focus on their love lives and their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as much as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

(Not to be left out, there is a special room off to one side for gay men, and an alcove devoted to transgender artists such as Claude Cahun, who also very much subverted and challenged and transgressed the usual blah-blah-blahs of bourgeois blah-blah.)

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multipole partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim. And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this key element – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. of the curators’ central premise. What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on, radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

So some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering. With some notable exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described and illustrated as being predominantly interested, in their lives and art and writing, in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences.

At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s.)

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic. But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or the site of transgressive desire or that their work was an epitome of queer citizenship, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time interpreted using the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve read about them – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

And that’s before you have to assimilate the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in the room dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes.

For when the curators had written out this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place, it turns out to be interesting, and fun, to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

The glossary suggests that you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Got enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’, groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading the wall texts but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point – obvious really – is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it was more a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be its sole designer. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did. The beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

But blink and you might miss an important artistic collaboration. The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (who he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp, really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These had something almost nothing else in the exhibition had – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This was a really calming, absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. It’s designed to.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth.

Also, as to one of its central premises – that ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is not that radical a thought – as is indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that this interpretation of necessity omits the stories of working people of both genders in those continents, let alone the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard). In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works.

But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ focus on Modernism being defined by couples, love and relationships and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth – derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, David and Victoria Beckham, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of modern artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910)

Wells was still in his early phase of creating genre-defining science fantasy stories when he wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which was serialised in the Graphic magazine from January to May 1899.

It is his version of the familiar trope of the man who falls asleep for an unnaturally long period of time and wakes up in a future where everything has changed, where a new civilisation is in place. (If you think about it, falling asleep and waking in the far future is a variation on the theme of time travel – only with no coming back!)

Invariably, the civilisation of the future is shown to have either solved or exacerbated what the author sees as the great social issues of his own day so that the genre offers an author free rein to make prophecies and predictions, as well as working in as much social and political satire, as he or she wants.

Later, Wells became dissatisfied with When The Sleeper Wakes at top speed – he had been under pressure from obligations to complete another novel and write a number of journalistic articles, and he was also ill during the writing of the second half. So, in 1910, for a new edition of his works, Wells rewrote the book and published it with a new title, The Sleeper Awakes. This is the version which is usually republished and which I’m reviewing here.

Wells had joined the left-wing Fabian Society in 1903 and had quickly become one of its most famous publicists and promoters. By 1910 his views on politics and society were well-known and the 1910 version of the book brings these out more clearly, as well as trying to sort out infelicities in the writing. But in the prefaces to the 1921 and 1924 reprintings of the book, Wells continued to express dissatisfaction with the book, and this review will show some of the reasons why.

The plot – part one

Run-up

An artist named Isbister is wandering along the cliffs in Cornwall when he comes across Graham, a man contemplating suicide because he hasn’t been able to sleep for a week and feels like he’s going mad. While Isbister tries to talk sense to him, we are given evidence of Graham’s delirious frame of mind – he complains that he feels his mind spinning in an endless eddy, down, down, down.

Isbister takes Graham up to the cottage he’s renting, where he goes to make a drink, turns, and finds Graham sunk into a profound stupor, a cataleptic trance. His Long Sleep has begun.

In chapter two it is twenty years later and Isbister, older and wiser, discusses Graham’s case with a new character, Warming, a solicitor and Graham’s next of kin. We learn that Graham fell asleep in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897). Twenty years later it must be 1917, and Graham has been removed to the special ward of a hospital where he is sleeping on in a trance ‘unprecedented in medical history’.

We learn that Isbister has become a successful designer of adverts and posters, hundreds of which, as Warming points out, are now plastered all across the south coast, and has emigrated to America to pursue his career in advertising.

Meanwhile, Warming has invested in a new kind of road-surfacing. Irrelevant though this small talk appears, it later turns out to be important.

The sleeper wakes

In chapter three (there are 23 chapters) Graham awakes to find himself lying on a strange kind of pressure bed inside a case of green glass. He stumbles out of the bed to discover he is in a large antiseptic room. Attendants come running and then several men of command, notably:

a short, fat, and thickset beardless man, with aquiline nose and heavy neck and chin. Very thick black and slightly sloping eyebrows that almost met over his nose and overhung deep grey eyes, gave his face an oddly formidable expression. (Chapter 4 – The Sound of Tumult)

This is Howard, who appears to be in charge.

The next few chapters are very confusing. Graham hears a roaring from a balcony overlooking a great concourse. When he goes out onto the balcony he sees an immense space dominated by modernist architecture, with some kind of covering over the sky, globes emanating uniform light, and the floor covered with ‘moving ways’, enormous ‘roads’ which are moving at speed carrying people along, and segmented so as to go round corners. There are what appear to be escalators coming up towards the level Graham finds himself on, and a great crowd surging towards him but held back by what look like policemen in red uniforms.

This impression of the immensity and complexity of the city of the future, conveyed in rather gaseous descriptions, will be the keynote of the novel.

Technology and design of the future

Howard tells Graham that he has slept for precisely 203 years. It is the year 2100 AD (Wells thus going a century better than the year 2000, which was the setting for Edward Bellamy’s famous fictional vision of the future, Looking Backward).

The sky is fenced off. Cities appear to exist under vast domes. Light is artificially created. Buildings are immense. The moving ways dominate what used to be called roads. Internally, rooms, halls and corridors are smooth and undecorated (except for occasional examples of an indecipherable script). Doorways open vertically and instantaneously.

Before Graham can do anything his guardians arrange for a ‘capillotomist’ to cut his hair and beard. Then a tailor takes quick measurements and, using a futuristic machine, prints out a perfectly-fitting contemporary outfit for Graham. He is given magic medicines which make him feel stronger, some small vials of liquid to drink and some in spray form.

In other words, it feels to me a lot like a set from the Star Trek series, smooth walls, endless corridors, bright different clothes, mystery medicines.

The Council

After Graham has blundered to the balcony and had a brief powerful glimpse of the scale of the city, the covered sky, the enormous buildings, and a huge crowd milling round the foot of his building, he is quickly hustled away, and down a series of corridors to a ‘safe room’. Along the way he glimpses a big hall with the ‘Council of Eight’ standing far away at a table beneath an immense statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulder.

Ah yes, the Council. There’s always a Council of spooky older men wearing elaborate futuristic cloaks in this kind of story.

Confusion

The keynote of Graham’s experiences, and of the novel as a whole, is confusion. The people around him are very obviously thrown into confusion and panic by the fact that the Sleeper Has Awoken, but we and Graham don’t understand why for some time.

He is hustled away from the balcony room into the so-called Silent Rooms where he is kept by Howard for three days incommunicado, Howard refusing to answer any of Graham’s questions, resulting in Graham -and the reader – persisting in not having a clue what’s going on. Very confusing.

Then, suddenly and with no warning, there is a heroic ‘rescue’. Some kind of ‘resistance’ warriors drop down the ventilation shaft into Graham’s room and, while some attack the futuristic door to try and block it, others carry Graham back up the shaft.

They emerge onto the surface of the vast dome which covers the city and turns out to be extremely complex and uneven, lined by rows of windmills – presumably generating power – with gullies between the domes, as well as walkways and grilles and abrupt abysses with ledges on them. And it is snowing. Snow flies in his face blinding him, and builds up into drifts, blocking the panic-stricken progress of Graham and his guide who is trying to get him away from the Silent Room to safety before Howard and the Council discover he is missing.

It’s a straightforward chase scene of the kind you find in a thousand Hollywood movies. Still, it’s impressive of Wells to conceive a chase scene across the top of the dome covering a city of the future, in the snow. Vivid and cinematic.

Despite the action nature of the scene, Graham’s liberators find the time to explain that his cousin, Warming, cornered the market in a new way of surfacing roads which eventually put the railways out of business. The artist, Isbister, having moved to America, made a decisive investment in the early forms of cinema and television. Both lacked heirs and left their money in trust to the sleeping Graham, with trustees to administer the fund for charity. Over the past 200 years these trustees have built on the founding investment to buy up everything – everything – and now this London-based Council owns the world!

The entire world is like London, empty countryside surrounding super-cities, all ruled by Councils subservient to the Council. The Council banked on him never waking up and so created a complex cult of the Sleeper, the Master, who watches over society. For over a century they have ruled this highly stratified civilisation in his name!

Now he has woken up, the Council, and Howard their representative, have, unsurprisingly, been thrown into panic and confusion. The awakening came at a time of growing dissatisfaction among ‘the People’. It was an unlucky accident that Graham blundered out onto a public balcony within minutes of waking, and a crowd below saw him. Word is spreading that the sleeper has woken and this could have who knows what cataclysmic consequences.

According to his liberators the Council were discussing whether to drug Graham back into sleep or murder him or to hire an imposter. So that’s why they have ‘liberated’ him, and are hurrying him along to where ‘the People’ await.

The revolution

But barely has all this been explained than a Council airplane (the book was written before airplanes existed, through there was intense speculation and discussion in the press about how to build one) spots the fleeing pair and flies down firing the strange green guns of the future.

The liberator puts Graham on a seat attached to a zip wire running from an opening in the dome down to ground level and pushes him off, just as the plane comes round for another salvo of shots. Graham comes swooping along the high-wire over the heads of a vast crowd. The line is shot down but he is caught by the crowd and then takes part in a heroically confusing scene in which he seems to be taken up by an enormous crowd chanting his name, which is marching through the city of huge buildings and moving ways, marching on the great Council Building to overthrow the Council.

Graham is barely getting any sense of where he is and what’s going on before the crowd is itself ambushed by a large number of red-dressed police, who open fire and there is pandemonium.

Confusing action instead of clear exposition

There’s no denying that the narrative of this book is very confusing. It’s obviously a deliberate, creative decision by Wells, and he makes this perfectly clear in an extended reference to Julian West, the hero of Edward Bellamy’s best-selling science fiction novel, Looking Backward, which had appeared a decade earlier.

In that book, the hero awakes a hundred years hence into the orderly household of a doctor of the future, who calmly and sedately takes him through a long, logical explanation of the economic, political and cultural arrangements of the society of the future. It is more like a political textbook than a novel.

In fact, in most books about people waking up in the far future, the heroes are presented with a nice, clean, logical explanation of how the Future Society works.

Well’s chief aim in When The Sleeper Wakes seems to have been to work on the exact opposite assumption. What happens if you sleep for two hundred years and wake up amid mayhem, with absolutely no idea what’s going on and no-one to explain it to you?

In fact, if you wake up to riots and ambushes and civil war, with all sides claiming your allegiance? How can you possibly know which ‘side’ is right, or why there even are sides, or what you’re supposed to do?

The perversity of his experience came to him vividly. In actual fact he had made such a leap in time as romancers have imagined again and again. And that fact realised, he had been prepared. His mind had, as it were, seated itself for a spectacle. And no spectacle unfolded itself, but a great vague danger, unsympathetic shadows and veils of darkness. Somewhere through the labyrinthine obscurity his death sought him. Would he, after all, be killed before he saw? It might be that even at the next corner his destruction ambushed. A great desire to see, a great longing to know, arose in him.

He became fearful of corners. It seemed to him that there was safety in concealment. Where could he hide to be inconspicuous when the lights returned? At last he sat down upon a seat in a recess on one of the higher ways, conceiving he was alone there.

He squeezed his knuckles into his weary eyes. Suppose when he looked again he found the dark trough of parallel ways and that intolerable altitude of edifice gone. Suppose he were to discover the whole story of these last few days, the awakening, the shouting multitudes, the darkness and the fighting, a phantasmagoria, a new and more vivid sort of dream. It must be a dream; it was so inconsecutive, so reasonless. Why were the people fighting for him? Why should this saner world regard him as Owner and Master? (Chapter 10 – The Battle of the Darkness)

So this sleeper awakes to find there is no polite doctor to talk him logically through the society of the future. Instead he is plunged into a social revolution which he doesn’t understand.

It’s an interesting idea, but it has one drawback. If the protagonist is confused, so too is the reader. Wells gets Howard, on the one hand, and the liberators, on the other, to throw out just enough hints to explain the situation to Graham (sort of, nearly). But the reader is left for three or four long, hectic chapters in a state of profound confusion.

Not only that but, in my opinion, Wells’s prose becomes confused. It sets out to mimic the panic of the unexpected rescue, the flight across the snowbound roof of the city, the panic-stricken glide down the high-wire down into the crowd, the confusion of a vast multitude marching chanting his name, the sudden ambush and red soldiers firing wildly into the crowd — but in doing so results in prose full of phrases describing vague forces, enormous spaces, shocks and detonations, huge crowds.

Now one of the appeals of The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man was the precision of their descriptions. You got a very accurate feel for what is happening. By contrast, Wells’s description of the vast spaces of this futuristic city, of its rearing architecture and machinery, is portentous but vague. It is hard to get a grasp of. Here is an excerpt describing the confused mob Graham has fallen among, as they march to overthrow the Council.

The hall was a vast and intricate space – galleries, balconies, broad spaces of amphitheatral steps, and great archways. Far away, high up, seemed the mouth of a huge passage full of struggling humanity. The whole multitude was swaying in congested masses. Individual figures sprang out of the tumult, impressed him momentarily, and lost definition again. Close to the platform swayed a beautiful fair woman, carried by three men, her hair across her face and brandishing a green staff. Next this group an old careworn man in blue canvas maintained his place in the crush with difficulty, and behind shouted a hairless face, a great cavity of toothless mouth. A voice called that enigmatical word ‘Ostrog’. All his impressions were vague save the massive emotion of that trampling song. The multitude were beating time with their feet – marking time, tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. The green weapons waved, flashed and slanted. Then he saw those nearest to him on a level space before the stage were marching in front of him, passing towards a great archway, shouting ‘To the Council!’ Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. He raised his arm, and the roaring was redoubled. He remembered he had to shout ‘March!’ His mouth shaped inaudible heroic words. He waved his arm again and pointed to the archway, shouting ‘Onward! They were no longer marking time, they were marching; tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. In that host were bearded men, old men, youths, fluttering robed bare-armed women, girls. Men and women of the new age! Rich robes, grey rags fluttered together in the whirl of their movement amidst the dominant blue. A monstrous black banner jerked its way to the right. He perceived a blue-clad negro, a shrivelled woman in yellow, then a group of tall fair-haired, white-faced, blue-clad men pushed theatrically past him. He noted two Chinamen. A tall, sallow, dark-haired, shining-eyed youth, white clad from top to toe, clambered up towards the platform shouting loyally, and sprang down again and receded, looking backward. Heads, shoulders, hands clutching weapons, all were swinging with those marching cadences. (Chapter 9 – The People March)

It’s a judgement call as to whether you think this is wonderfully vivid writing which accurately conveys the feeling of being caught up in a panic-stricken crowd – or whether it is a relentless stream of confused and shapeless prose.

If you’re not focusing very hard it’s easy to get lost in these enormous, long, wordy paragraphs and have to go back to the last place you remember, to reread entire passages and find, yet again, that no very clear picture of the action is conveyed.

Ostrog shows him the storming of the Council

The marching crowd Graham’s with is ambushed by red-uniformed police who open fire. In the mayhem, Graham escapes, running miles away from the scene of what seems to be a massacre. From early on his liberators and then members of the crowd have told him that the revolt is being led by ‘Ostrog’. From other scared citizens he learns that Ostrog is based at a control centre for the city’s weather vanes (a form of wind power). He asks his way there, goes into the lobby, asks to see Ostrog and is eventually is let up to the main room where Ostrog is monitoring the revolution.

Ostrog shows him a futuristic TV screen on which they watch the mob storming the Council Citadel, from which Graham had been liberated only a few hours earlier. They watch the Council fight a last-ditch battle, having detonated the buildings which surround their citadel in order to clear a space. Ostrog and Graham watch all this on a screen. The revolution is being televised.

Part two- a man of leisure

To cut a confusing story short, quite quickly the revolution is over and Ostrog takes control, settling the city back into law and order over the next few weeks. He is courteous and respectful to Graham and gets his number two, Lincoln, to fulfil the Sleeper’s every wish.

Now the revolution has been achieved and Ostrog is in control, Wells shows us that Graham is in fact a shallow dilettante. Having seen the airplane earlier, he tells Ostrog he wants to learn to fly. So he is taken up in a flying machine which circles London. From here he can see how the Wall of London rises sheer from the surrounding countryside like the wall of a medieval city. Beyond lie the ruins of suburbia and scattered empty houses.

It is important for Well’s vision that the entire population has been brought inside mega-cities where they can be completely controlled. Further south, Graham sees towns like Wareham and Eastbourne have been changed into single, vast skyscrapers. Here, as everywhere, all the scattered dwellings of individuals have been abandoned. Everyone lives in a regimented society.

The monoplane cruises across the south of England, then across the Channel and flies around Paris (where Graham sees the Eiffel Tower among the futuristic domes) before arriving back at one of the three vast landing platforms which dot south London.

The Flying Stages of London were collected together in an irregular crescent on the southern side of the river. They formed three groups of two each and retained the names of ancient suburban hills or villages. They were named in order, Roehampton, Wimbledon Park, Streatham, Norwood, Blackheath, and Shooter’s Hill. They were uniform structures rising high above the general roof surfaces. Each was about four thousand yards long and a thousand broad, and constructed of the compound of aluminum and iron that had replaced iron in architecture. Their higher tiers formed an openwork of girders through which lifts and staircases ascended. The upper surface was a uniform expanse, with portions – the starting carriers – that could be raised and were then able to run on very slightly inclined rails to the end of the fabric. (Chapter 16 – The Monoplane)

On the flight back, Graham insists on taking over the controls, and, upon landing, hassles Lincoln into getting him a flying license so he can spend the next few days having special flying lessons, happy as a kid.

In the evenings Graham attends social events and mixes with the upper class of this future world. Here Wells indulges in satire directed at the values of his own times. The upper classes of the future are spoilt and insouciant. Everyone dresses more freely and casually than Graham’s late-Victorian peers. He meets a bishop and the poet laureate. He asks about the art and literature of the day (oil painting has been abandoned). He meets the Master Aeronaut, the Surveyor-General of the Public Schools, the managing director of the Antibilious Pill Department, the Black Labour Master, the daughter of the Manager of the Piggeries, who makes eyes at him – all characters invented so Wells can make a little social comedy at the expense of the pretensions of his own time, 1910.

However, these social scenes also have the function of dropping hints about the true nature of the society Graham has found himself in.

For example, the surveyor of public education has made it his task to prevent the lower classes thinking too much. The black labour master is in charge of black workers and soldiers in the colonies. Graham listens to them lightly discussing the way black colonial soldiers have been brought to Paris to suppress the ongoing rebellion there, with great violence, and it all makes him… uneasy…

Future sex

In the London of 2100 women have been ‘liberated’ in the sense that they all work and don’t spend much time on childcare. The women Graham meets at these parties consistently make eyes at him. In fact, Wells makes it as clear as he could (writing in 1910) that sex is much more casual in the future. We are told there are entire cities known as Pleasure Cities where, well you can guess what happens there.

When Graham had been left alone in the Silent Rooms at the start of the story, he had picked up some cylindrical devices which proceeded to play ‘films’. Some appear to have been dramas, but it is as clear as Wells could make it that others were pornographic. He is shocked. the reader is impressed, as so often, by Wells’s prescience. Similarly, in those early scenes, Howard had appeared to offer him the services of prostitutes which, once he realised what was on offer, Graham quickly refused.

This must have been sailing close to the bounds of what was permissible in 1899.

A slender woman, less gaudily dressed than the others, a certain Helen Wotton, a niece of Ostrog’s, gets through to him at one of these parties and briefly manages to convey that ‘the People’ are still not happy, before Lincoln whisks him off to meet another notable.

Part three – reality hits home

Graham runs into Helen Wotton again, ‘in a little gallery that ran from the Wind-Vane Offices toward his state apartments’. She explains, with the passionate idealism of youth, that all her life she, and millions like her, have prayed for the sleeper to waken and liberate them from the repressive lives they live.

She surprises Graham by referring to the Victorian era as a golden age of liberty and freedom. He begins to put her right but she insists that back then the tyranny of the cities and the grip of Mammon was in its infancy. Now it has been perfected in a string of mega-cities covering the planet and entirely run by the rich, with up to a third of the population living underground, dressed in blue fatigues, and worked till they drop. As Helen explains:

‘This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham, slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’ (Chapter 18 – Graham Remembers)

Graham’s conscience is pricked. Who are ‘his people’? What do they expect of him? What is Ostrog actually doing? Now he thinks about it, in between flying planes and partying, whenever he meets Ostrog, the latter tells him the revolution has mostly achieved its goals and peace has been restored around the world (the world that the Council ruled in Graham’s name). But has it? Why does fighting rumble on in Paris?

So Graham goes to confront Ostrog. This is a big scene in which Ostrog delivers his Philosophy of the Overman. He tells Graham that his 19th century sentimentality about equality is out of date. This is the era of the Over-Man. The weak go to the wall. The race is purified.

‘The day of democracy is past,’ he said. ‘Past for ever. That day began with the bowmen of Creçy, it ended when marching infantry, when common men in masses ceased to win the battles of the world, when costly cannon, great ironclads, and strategic railways became the means of power. Today is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before – it commands earth and sea and sky. All power is for those who can handle wealth.’ (Chapter 19 – Ostrog’s point of view)

As to the practical situation, in order to overthrow the Council, Ostrog had to make the people all kinds of promises about restructuring society. He reveals that it was he and his minions who created and taught the People the ‘Song of Revolt’ which they took up so enthusiastically. Now he is in power – now his coup d’etat has succeeded – Ostrog needs to put the people back in their place – hence the ongoing fighting in some cities, general strikes, workers on the street. ‘But don’t worry your pretty little head,’ he tells Graham. ‘I will soon have everything under control.’

They disagree. Ostrog is respectful but firm. Graham is frustrated and angry. They both go away harbouring their doubts. No good will come of this…

Part four – down among the proles

Determined to find out whether Helen is right, Graham dresses ‘in the costume of an inferior wind-vane official keeping holiday’, and, accompanied by the Japanese man-servant, Asano, who Ostrog has assigned to him, goes down among the proles.

This is a peculiar sequence. A combination of the visionary and the very familiar. It will come as no surprise that there are vast underground chambers beneath the city where the poor slave away. More surprising is the sequence about babies, where babies are separated at birth from their mothers and fed by machines which have the torsos and lactating breasts of women but screens for faces and metal pylons for legs.

Graham is appalled to witness a whole part of the underground covered in enormous and blatantly commercial hoardings advertising various Christian sects in unashamedly secular terms.

“Salvation on the First Floor and turn to the Right.” “Put your Money on your Maker.” “The Sharpest Conversion in London, Expert Operators! Look Slippy!” “What Christ would say to the Sleeper;—Join the Up-to-date Saints!” “Be a Christian—without hindrance to your present Occupation.” “All the Brightest Bishops on the Bench to-night and Prices as Usual.” “Brisk Blessings for Busy Business Men.”

He learns how individual living in individual houses has been swept away and the people live in huge dormitories and feed in vast canteens.

He also witnesses the oppressive ubiquity of trumpet-shaped loudspeakers of all sizes, some yards across, which broadcast an unremitting mixture of pro-government, morale-boosting propaganda, all prefaced by weird sound effects. They are called Babble Machines.

Another of these mechanisms screamed deafeningly and gave tongue in a shrill voice. ‘Yahaha, Yahah, Yap! Hear a live paper yelp! Live paper. Yaha! Shocking outrage in Paris. Yahahah! The Parisians exasperated by the black police to the pitch of assassination. Dreadful reprisals. Savage times come again. Blood! Blood! Yaha!’ The nearer Babble Machine hooted stupendously, ‘Galloop, Galloop,’ drowned the end of the sentence, and proceeded in a rather flatter note than before with novel comments on the horrors of disorder. ‘Law and order must be maintained,’ said the nearer Babble Machine. (Chapter 20 – In the City Ways)

There is much more in the same style. Asano guides him through the profoundly confusing and disorientating maze of tunnels, corridors, over bridges, onto balconies overlooking vast halls, up lifts, down escalators, all designed – I suppose – to give the exhausted reader a sense of the sheer stupefying scale of the city-state.

At last they come to the financial sector which is plastered, like the Christian sector, with huge billboards promoting all kinds of phoney get-rich-quick schemes and in whose halls overt, unashamed gambling and betting goes on.

Part five – the second revolution

It is while he is in a sector devoted to jewel working that Graham and Asano hear the Babble Machines announcing that the Black Police are coming from South Africa to put down the remaining protesters in London. There is instant consternation and cries of protest from all around him. Graham had explicitly told Ostrog that, as Master, he did not want black troops brought to London.

The announcement that they are coming prompts another uprising, which Graham gets caught up in much as in the confusing early chapters. Amid proles yelling ‘Ostrog has betrayed us’ Graham and Asano struggle through the throng back to the half-ruined Council House. Here complicated repairs are underway with scaffolding and workmen everywhere fixing up the damage done by the first assault. Despite this, Ostrog has made it his base to run his world empire.

Graham gets admittance, takes lifts and escalators and the usual complicated paraphernalia up to the room with the huge statue of Atlas in it, where he confronts Ostrog, and they reprise their political and philosophical disagreement:

‘I believe in the people.’
‘Because you are an anachronism. You are a man out of the Past – an accident. You are Owner perhaps of the world. Nominally – legally. But you are not Master. You do not know enough to be Master.’ He glanced at Lincoln again. ‘I know now what you think – I can guess something of what you mean to do. Even now it is not too late to warn you. You dream of human equality – of some sort of socialistic order – you have all those worn-out dreams of the nineteenth century fresh and vivid in your mind, and you would rule this age that you do not understand.’ (Chapter 22 – The Struggle in the Council House)

The argument becomes physical and Graham finds himself wrestled to the floor by Lincoln and Ostrog’s other strongmen. Already Ostrog has a small bodyguard of yellow and black suited Africans at his side. However, some of the workmen repairing the Council chamber witness the fight and run to the rescue. Cue a general melée, in which Graham and Ostrog are knocked to the ground, roll around with their hands on each others’ throats and so on.

Finally, they are separated, Graham is hauled up and away by members of ‘the People’, who form a protective bodyguard around him and carry him out of the building, up stairs, down lifts and round the houses in the spatially disorientating way which characterises the whole book.

Then, in a scene which brilliantly anticipates the movies, Graham and the crowd watch from down at ground level a monoplane come swooping out of the sky and land on the half-ruined roof of the Council House. They see tiny figures moving in the half-exposed rooms, and then the monoplane pushes off from the roof and plummets vertically down, down, down in an apparently ruinous dive straight towards the ground – in a scene I’ve witnessed in countless adventure movies – before at the last minute catching enough wind to rise up and fly just over Graham’s head. Ostrog has escaped!

Part six – Graham assumes control

Graham is taken by some of the crowd to a room where there are the gaping voicepieces of the phonograms and Babble Machines (an eerily prescient vision of the countless press conferences given by revolutionary leaders in front of banks of cameras and microphones) and Wells gives a good description of his utter confusion. He knows nothing about this world, nothing about politics, and has no idea what to say.

Then the slip of a girl – Helen Wotton – the one who leaked the news about the black troops being brought to London, comes into the room. She holds his hand. Graham is suffused with confidence and makes his big speech. He is on their side, he tells the microphones and ‘his people’ around the world. He will lay down his life for the People.

‘Charity and mercy,’ he floundered; ‘beauty and the love of beautiful things – effort and devotion! Give yourselves as I would give myself – as Christ gave Himself upon the Cross. It does not matter if you understand. It does not matter if you seem to fail. You know – in the core of your hearts you know. There is no promise, there is no security – nothing to go upon but Faith. There is no faith but faith – faith which is courage….

Things that he had long wished to believe, he found that he believed. He spoke gustily, in broken incomplete sentences, but with all his heart and strength, of this new faith within him. He spoke of the greatness of self-abnegation, of his belief in an immortal life of Humanity in which we live and move and have our being. His voice rose and fell, and the recording appliances hummed as he spoke, dim attendants watched him out of the shadow….

His sense of that silent spectator beside him sustained his sincerity. For a few glorious moments he was carried away; he felt no doubt of his heroic quality, no doubt of his heroic words, he had it all straight and plain. His eloquence limped no longer. And at last he made an end to speaking. ‘Here and now,’ he cried, ‘I make my will. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. To all of you. I give it to you, and myself I give to you. And as God wills to-night, I will live for you, or I will die.’ (Chapter 23 – Graham Speaks His Word)

He, and we the reader, then have to wait, locked up in that little room confronted by banks of microphones, with only Helen to hold his hand, while reports trickle through of the fighting around the landing platforms, which is where the fleet of airplanes carrying the Africans is planning to land. They hear of – victory!

‘Victory?’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Graham. ‘Tell me! What?’
‘We have driven them out of the under galleries at Norwood, Streatham is afire and burning wildly, and Roehampton is ours. Ours!‘ (Chapter 24 – While the Aeroplanes Were Coming)

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry. The description of the fighting between Ostrog’s forces and the untrained, badly-equipped militias raised from the poor wards is fierce and intense. And yet the way it is reported back to the confused Graham in his room, holding onto Helen’s hand, seems absurd.

But although the people take one of the landing stages, his advisers explain that there are still too many planes in the enemy fleet, up to 100 of them, and that the other three landing bases are uncaptured, so they’ll be able to land.

It is then that Graham sees his destiny. All those days spent fooling around in an airplane will now bear fruit. He tells the small group of advisers he will go up in the monoplane and attack the enemy fleet, not expecting to defeat it, but to delay the planes long enough for the other landing pads to be taken by the people.

The advisers all point out this has never been done before, planes fighting in the air. Graham insists. Helen runs to him. He clutches her to his heaving breast. He must do it. It will save London. It is his destiny. She bows her head to the inevitable. He kisses the top of her head chastely.

And so the last five pages of the novel are an intensely imagined description of a fight in the air between the monoplane Graham is flying and a fleet of troop planes, a description of a technology which did not exist when Wells wrote about it.

Given this fact, he is amazingly prescient about the joy of flying, the sheer exhilaration of speeding through the high blue air, even if the combat technique Graham adopts – of ramming the enemy planes – wouldn’t have worked with the flimsy wood-and-cloth early planes which flew in the Great War.

Graham takes out two of the big troop carriers by ramming them and several others crash in trying to avoid him. He sees a monoplane taking off from the last platform, at Blackheath, and guesses it must be Ostrog. He sets off in fierce pursuit, dives and misses twice. Ostrog’s pilot is good. Then he sees the landing platforms of Shooter’s Hill and Norwood explode up into the air. They have been taken by the People and disabled for the landing flotilla. The People have won!

And then the shockwaves from the blasts hit his light monoplane, tipping it on its side so that it plummets out of the sky straight for the earth, and his last thought is of Helen. Bang. The end.


Thoughts

Quite a pell-mell farrago, isn’t it? A heady, fast-paced, confusing mish-mash of adventure story, sci-fi tropes, technological predictions, social prophecy, and ham-fisted psychology.

On the technology, Wells makes stunningly accurate predictions about hand-held moving picture devices, about phonograms, about propaganda blaring from loudspeakers, about wheeled vehicles, and, most strikingly, about the airplanes whose battle climaxes the novel.

The political idea of a liberal revolution which overthrows an autocracy but doesn’t change the exploitation of the working classes, and so needs to be supplemented by a second, proletarian, revolution, is straight out of revolutionary history.

The adventure trope describing the man who pitches up in an unknown society and ends up helping the poor and exploited overthrow their wicked rulers has all the power of myth and archetype.

The psychology of the sleeper is conveyed well enough, on the same general level as the rest of the book. It’s only with the sentimental relationship with young Helen, and especially the ‘it’s a far, far better thing I do’ climax where they cling passionately together before he turns and walks unflinchingly towards his certain doom – that you are forced to admit the whole thing is tripe.

These are all impressive, sometimes dazzling elements. But the main conclusion I took from the book was Wells’s ignorance of economics.

I’m really glad I recently read Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and made the effort to complete it, despite it being at some points oppressively boring. Because, despite this, it is a really thorough and penetrating analysis of how you would arrive at a feasible, enduring, classless and equal society.

Central is the idea of banning private enterprise, and having all production and distribution handled by the state. The two hundred pages it takes for Bellamy to work through all the logical consequences of banning capitalism, private enterprise and money, are long enough to make you really think about the basis of our current society – to force you to admit what capitalism means right down to the trivialest social interactions of human behaviour – and to make you really think through what changing it would actually mean, in practice.

Bellamy’s book has almost no plot but hugely impresses by its logic and thoroughness. I can see why it was a great success and even inspired a short-lived political party.

On the face of it Wells’s novel uses the same plot device – man falls asleep, wakes up in society of the distant future – but Wells couldn’t be more dissimilar in approach, content and impact. The comparison makes clear that Wells is diverted by science and technology from really thinking about the economic base of society. All the technological predictions are so much shiny flim-flam which hide the underlying lack of ideas.

It is all too easy to be bamboozled by Wells’s envisioning of kinematographs and phonograms and Babble Boxes, and hand-held film devices, and airplanes, and multi-wheeled vehicles, and ‘moving ways’ – to write long essays about his uncanny ability to predict technologies of the future — and to neglect the basic fact that his economic understanding is primitive to non-existent.

The People are oppressed, so our hero helps them rise up and overthrow their dictator. And what then? Who knows? Certainly not Wells. He is against oppression of the poor, and in favor of … what? ‘Equality’? ‘The People’? It isn’t enough.

Where Bellamy had acute economic analysis, Wells has men rushing across the domes of future cities being strafed by fighter planes. Where Bellamy worked through the logic of abolishing private enterprise, Wells has ambushes, fist fights, Pleasure Cities and babies brought up by robots. Where Bellamy calculated that abolishing competition between companies and the advertising such competition requires would result in net savings to society which could be redistributed to increase overall prosperity, Wells has rowdy satire about house-high billboards advertising Christianity-on-the-go or finance capitalism as literal casinos.

The thrill of the fast-paced adventure and the vivid action scenes, the steady stream of clever technological predictions, the primal archetypes of innocent good man confronting cynical manipulator, and of betrayed populace rising up against spoilt aristocrats – the combined result of all this garish phantasmagoria can easily overwhelm the reader and persuade her that something important and insightful is being said.

But it isn’t. Comparison with the logical economic and social analysis in Bellamy’s novel makes you realise what a showy huckster Wells was, and why, once the hysteria of the Great European Crisis of the 1930s ended in the ruinous grind of the Second World War, and when the world finally emerged into the cold light of day — the imaginative hold he’d exerted over generations of intellectuals and writers vanished like smoke because it turned out that he had nothing – of any permanent intellectual value – to offer.


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

Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

‘If I were to give you, in one sentence, a key to what may seem the mysteries of our civilization as compared with that of your age, I should say that it is the fact that the solidarity of the race and the brotherhood of man, which to you were but fine phrases, are, to our thinking and feeling, ties as real and as vital as physical fraternity.’ (Dr Leete. Chapter 12)

It is 1887. The narrator, Julius West, is full of plans to get a new house built in a stylish part of Boston – a project which is delayed because of almost daily strikes by the workmen – and worrying about his impending marriage to his fiancée.

All this stress exacerbates his insomnia so that, at the end of another trying day, when he retires to the sound-proof, purpose-built, cement-lined cellar he’s had built in his current house to insulate him from all distractions, he sends for the local mesmerist (Dr Pillsbury) who he’s been relying on for some time to help him get off to sleep.

When he wakes up it is to find himself in a strange room. The kindly people around him tell him it is the year 2000 and he has slept in that underground bunker for 113 years, three months and eleven days.

Bellamy spends a little effort conveying West’s disbelief, and then a page or so on his sense of horror and disorientation, but these are mostly gestures. The effort and bulk of the text goes towards the political theory, for the book quickly becomes an immensely thorough vision of The Perfect Society of the Future..

In the few pages devoted to describing life in 1887 the narrator had spent most of his time lamenting ‘the labour problem’. By that he meant that since (what turned out to be) a prolonged economic depression had begun in 1873, the working classes had woken up to their plight, organised unions across all industries, and been striking for better pay, better conditions, shorter working hours and so on, creating a permanent sense of crisis.

Society as giant coach

In an extended metaphor West compares the society of his time to an enormous coach which is being pulled along by thousands of wretched workers, whipped on by those who’ve managed to clamber up into the driving seat at the head of its thousands of companies and corporations.

Right on top of the coach, not doing any work and enjoying the sunshine, are those who’ve acquired or inherited the money to live off the labour of everyone beneath them. As the coach blunders along its muddy track some people fall lower down the coach, ending up pulling on the reins or fall right into the mud and are crushed, while others manage to escape the slavery of pulling, and clamber up the coachwork a bit. But even those at the top live in anxiety lest they fall off. No-one is secure or happy.

Society 2000

As you might expect, society in 2000 appears to have solved these and all the other problems facing society in 1887. The people who’ve revived him – Dr Leete, his wife and daughter – have done so in a private capacity. They were building an extension to their house when they came across the buried concrete bunker, all the rest of West’s property having, apparently, burned down decades earlier. On breaking a hole into it, they discovered West’s perfectly preserved, barely breathing body.

They speculate that Dr Pillsbury must have put West into a trance, but then later that night the house burned down. Everyone assumed West had perished in the fire.

Waking him gently, the father, mother and (inevitably) beautiful daughter, carefully and sympathetically help West to cope with the loss of everything he once knew, and induct him into the secrets of Boston 2000.

Dr Leete explains that the society he has arrived in is one of perfect peace and equality. He then begins the immense lecture about society 2000, an enormous, encyclopedic description of the Perfect Society of the future, which makes up most of the text.

Capitalism has been abolished. The ‘market’ has been abolished. Private enterprise has been abolished. Everything is controlled and managed by the state which represents ‘the nation’. All industry has been nationalised and all production is planned and administered by civil servants. Everyone is supplied with whatever they need by the state.

All citizens are born and raised the same. Everyone pursues education until aged 21 and is educated to the highest level they can attain, and then everyone undertakes three years working as a labourer. During this period people find out what their skills and abilities are, and then opt, at age 24, for the career which best suits their skills, whether it be coal mining or teaching Greek. At that point they join one of the dozen or so ‘armies’ of workers, organised and co-ordinated like one of the armies of 1887, and inspired by the same martial sense of patriotism and duty – but an army devoted to maintaining peace and creating wealth for everyone.

Equality is maintained by making those in unpleasant jobs work relatively short hours for the same rewards as those who work longer hours under more pleasant conditions.

And there is no money. Everyone has a ‘credit card’ and the state pays everyone the same amount every month, regardless of their job. How you ‘spend’ that credit is up to you, but it is all you get every month and there is no way to increase it, because individuals are not allowed to buy or sell or barter anything.

This Perfect Society is, then, a sustained attempt to put into practice the 19th century socialist adage of ‘from everyone according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’ (popularised by Karl Marx in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program).

And how did all this come about? Was there a violent revolution to transform the values of Bellamy’s day and to overthrow the vested interests of capitalists and bankers? The opposite, explains Dr Leete.

Friedrich Engels

Now I just happen to have recently read Friedrich Engels’s pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.

In it Engels explains that historical materialism uses the philosophical notion of the dialectic to explain how new social systems arise out of the old. Thus, in Marx and Engels’s view, the late nineteenth century was seeing, out of the anarchy of super-competitive capitalism, thronged with competing companies, the emergence of larger companies, which bought each other up to create cartels of a handful of giant companies, eventually creating monopolies. This, they claimed, appears to be the natural development of capitalism, if left unchecked.

Engels shows how out of this natural development of capitalism, quite naturally and logically emerges state socialism. For already in various Western countries the state had decided to take into state ownership ‘natural monopolies’ such as telegraphy and the Post Office.

Engels explains that, as the other industries (coal, mining, steel, ship-building, railways) also become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands it will become obvious that the state should step in and run these industries as well. In other words, out of the anarchy of capitalism will emerge the order of state socialism – naturally, inevitably.

And that’s exactly what has happened in Bellamy’s version of history. One by one the state took over ownership of every industry until it had taken over all production. And the state, representing all the population, proceeded to reform them in the interests of the whole population, along the lines which Dr Leete is now explaining to West in pedantic detail.

Was there a violent revolution? No, because people had by that stage grasped the trend and seen how efficiently the government managed the other big concerns already in its control. People realised that it made sense. It was all quite painless.

Bellamy loses no opportunity to ram home the contrast between the squalor of his own day and the wonder of the Perfect Society. Not only do Dr Leete and Edith Leete explain things – at great length – but towards the end of the book West is invited to listen to a sermon delivered by one Dr Barton, who has heard about the discovery of the sleeper, and takes it as a peg on which to hang a disquisition about the changes between West’s day and the present.

The revolution

Here is Dr Barton long-windedly describing the glorious revolution which, about a century earlier, overthrew the old order and instituted the Perfect Society.

‘Doubtless it ill beseems one to whom the boon of life in our resplendent age has been vouchsafed to wish his destiny other, and yet I have often thought that I would fain exchange my share in this serene and golden day for a place in that stormy epoch of transition, when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race, in place of the blank wall that had closed its path, a vista of progress whose end, for very excess of light, still dazzles us. Ah, my friends! who will say that to have lived then, when the weakest influence was a lever to whose touch the centuries trembled, was not worth a share even in this era of fruition?

‘You know the story of that last, greatest, and most bloodless of revolutions. In the time of one generation men laid aside the social traditions and practices of barbarians, and assumed a social order worthy of rational and human beings. Ceasing to be predatory in their habits, they became co-workers, and found in fraternity, at once, the science of wealth and happiness. ‘What shall I eat and drink, and wherewithal shall I be clothed?’ stated as a problem beginning and ending in self, had been an anxious and an endless one. But when once it was conceived, not from the individual, but the fraternal standpoint, ‘What shall we eat and drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?’—its difficulties vanished.

‘Poverty with servitude had been the result, for the mass of humanity, of attempting to solve the problem of maintenance from the individual standpoint, but no sooner had the nation become the sole capitalist and employer than not alone did plenty replace poverty, but the last vestige of the serfdom of man to man disappeared from earth. Human slavery, so often vainly scotched, at last was killed. The means of subsistence no longer doled out by men to women, by employer to employed, by rich to poor, was distributed from a common stock as among children at the father’s table. It was impossible for a man any longer to use his fellow-men as tools for his own profit. His esteem was the only sort of gain he could thenceforth make out of him. There was no more either arrogance or servility in the relations of human beings to one another. For the first time since the creation every man stood up straight before God. The fear of want and the lust of gain became extinct motives when abundance was assured to all and immoderate possessions made impossible of attainment. There were no more beggars nor almoners. Equity left charity without an occupation. The ten commandments became well nigh obsolete in a world where there was no temptation to theft, no occasion to lie either for fear or favor, no room for envy where all were equal, and little provocation to violence where men were disarmed of power to injure one another. Humanity’s ancient dream of liberty, equality, fraternity, mocked by so many ages, at last was realized.’ (Chapter 26)

You don’t need me to point out the way that, the nearer an author gets to a difficult subject, the more flowery and evasive his language becomes, and that the precise nature of the ‘revolution’ is the touchiest subject of all – and so becomes obscured by the most gasous verbiage – ‘when heroes burst the barred gate of the future and revealed to the kindling gaze of a hopeless race’ etc.

Here is Dr Leete’s version of the Great Event:

‘It was not till a rearrangement of the industrial and social system on a higher ethical basis, and for the more efficient production of wealth, was recognized as the interest, not of one class, but equally of all classes, of rich and poor, cultured and ignorant, old and young, weak and strong, men and women, that there was any prospect that it would be achieved. Then the national party arose to carry it out by political methods. It probably took that name because its aim was to nationalize the functions of production and distribution. Indeed, it could not well have had any other name, for its purpose was to realize the idea of the nation with a grandeur and completeness never before conceived, not as an association of men for certain merely political functions affecting their happiness only remotely and superficially, but as a family, a vital union, a common life, a mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn. The most patriotic of all possible parties, it sought to justify patriotism and raise it from an instinct to a rational devotion, by making the native land truly a father land, a father who kept the people alive and was not merely an idol for which they were expected to die.’ (Chapter 24)

‘A mighty heaven-touching tree whose leaves are its people, fed from its veins, and feeding it in turn’. Hmmm.

Instead of specifics, Bellamy gives us windy rhetoric. Instead of practical human steps, Bellamy gives us poetic visions.

Anyway, by virtue of this bloodless revolution in human society, politicians and political parties have been abolished because the committees which make up ‘the nation’ adjust and control things in the interests of the people, and everyone agrees what those are.

Thus laws and lawyers have been abolished because nine-tenths of 1887 law was about gaining, protecting and disputing property. Now there is no way to gain private property except by spending the monthly credit which everyone receives, now there is no money and no buying or selling or any other way whatsoever of acquiring valuables – there is no need for almost all of the old law.

Even the criminal law has fallen into disuse since nine-tenths of violent crime was robbery or burglary or mugging designed to get money or property. In a society without money, there is no motive for crime.

A platonic dialogue

And so on and so on, for 200 rather wearing pages, Mr West and Dr Leete sit in a room while the former asks dumb questions and the latter wisely and benevolently explains how the Perfect Society works. It often feels like one of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, in the sense that West is simply the straight man who asks the questions – what about the law? what about crime? what about education? – which prompt Dr Leete to roll out another highly detailed and well-thought-out explanation of the Perfect Society.

Hardly anything happens. West accompanies young Edith Leete on a shopping expedition but this is solely so she can explain to him the huge advantages of a planned economy where the state provides everything its citizens require through central production and distribution, thus eliminating competition with the enormous waste of resources spent on advertising, on the artificial creation of different brands and makes, on the  countless different shops all offering complicated deals and 0% finance and all the rest of it.

All that has gone.Now you go to the one and only local megastore and buy goods which are available everywhere in the country, at the one fixed price. And it’s all cheap precisely because there are no middlemen and advertisers and so on to raise costs.

Similarly, one evening he goes out for dinner with the Leetes but this is solely a pretext to explain food production and distribution, and the way public food cooked in public restaurants is now cheaper and infinitely better than it was in 1887, while the waiters and so on are simply performing their three-year labouring apprenticeship and are not looked down on as a different class. Dr Leete himself was a waiter for a spell. Everyone is equal and is treated as an equal.

Critique

Painting visions of the future is relatively easy – although Bellamy’s vision becomes more and more compelling due to the obsessive thoroughness with which he describes every conceivable aspect of the Perfect Society – the difficulty with this kind of thing is always explaining how it came into being. This is often the weak spot in the writing of utopias. For example many utopian authors have invoked a catastrophic war to explain how the old world was swept away and the survivors vowed never to make the same mistakes again.

Because it’s the most important, and often the weakest part of a utopian narrative, it’s often the most telling to examine in detail. Andthis, I think, is the crux of the problem with Engels and Bellamy – the notion they both use that the state somehow, magically, becomes the people.

Notoriously, Engels speculated that the post-revolutionary state would simply ‘wither away’. Once the people had seized the means of production and distribution, once they had overthrown the exploiting bourgeois class, then ‘the state’ – defined as the entity through which the bourgeoisie organised its repression of the people – would simply become unnecessary.

Bellamy and Engels conceive of the state as solely a function of capitalism. Abolish the inequalities of capitalism – abolish ‘the market’, indeed all markets – and the state disappears in a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, the entire history of the twentieth century has taught us that the state does just the opposite: given half a chance, it doesn’t weaken and fade, it seizes dictatorial power. More accurately, a cabal of cunning, calculating people – Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler – will take advantage of a weakened state to seize absolute power – it happened in Tsarist Russia, in post-war Italy, in Weimar Germany -and then institute absolute control, using all the tools of modern technology and propaganda at their command.

The last hundred years have revealed ‘the state’ to be something more like an arena in which a host of competing interests can just about be brought into alignment, held, contained, managed, with frequent political and economic crises and collapses. We now know that when ‘revolutions’ occur, they do not overthrow the state, but simply entrench a new and generally more oppressive state than the one that preceded it – Russia 1917, China 1949, Iran 1979.

But even more important than the question of how the old regime was overthrown, at the heart of the description of all utopias is a debate over ‘human nature’.

In Looking Backward West asks the obvious question: in order to bring all this about there must have been some kind of revolution in human nature: how did you bring that about?

To which Dr Leete, in his calm, wise, man-of-the-future way, explains that there has been no change in human nature: changing the system people are born into and live under allows real human nature to blossom. People, says Dr Leete, are naturally co-operative and reasonable, if you let them be. The Perfect Society is not a distortion of human nature – it is its final, inevitable, true blossoming.

This is the crux: we in 2018 find this difficult to credit because we have the history of the twentieth century to look back on – an unmitigated catastrophe in which, time after time, in Europe, Asia, Africa, China, South America, people have been shown to be irreducibly committed to pursuing their own personal interests, and then the interests of their family, tribe or kinship group, their community, or region, or class, or ethnic or racial groupings – well before any vague concept of ‘society’.

In my view the real problem with utopias like Bellamy’s or William Morris’s News From Nowhere (published just two years later) is that – although they deny it – they both posit a profound, and impossible change in human nature, albeit not quite the one they often identify and refute.

My central critique of books like this is not economic or political it is psychological, it is to do with the extremely narrow grasp of human psychology which books like this always depict.

My point is that in their books, everyone in society is like them – gentle and well-meaning, middle-class, bookish and detached. It is symptomatic that West wakes up in the house of a doctor, a nice, educated middle class man like himself not, say, in the house of a coal miner or factory worker or street cleaner or sewage engineer.

So many of these utopias are like that. One well-educated, middle-class white man from the present meets another well-educated, middle-class white man from the future and discovers – that they both magically agree about everything!

In a way, what these fantasies do is magic away all the social problems of their day, hide, conceal, gloss over and abolish them. It turns out that two chaps in a book-lined study can solve everything. Which is, of course, what most writers like to think even to this day.

In my opinion most writers have this problem – an inability to really grasp the profound otherness of other people – beginning with the most basic fact that a huge number of people don’t even read books, ever, let alone fairy tales like this – and so never hear about these writers and their fancy plans.

It is symptomatic that when the daughter of the house, fair Edith, wants to cheer West up, she takes him to a library, which contains leather-bound volumes of Dickens, Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, Shelley and all the rest of the classics. He is instantly reassured and at home. In a fantasy world of books. Exactly.

The central problem with propertyless socialism

There is no money and so no greed in this future society. Dr Leete says people don’t pass on inheritances because they cannot now convert goods into money, so heirlooms are just so much clutter.

As I read that I thought, but people will still barter and exchange. Why? Because people enjoy it, as my mum used to enjoy going to car boot fairs. And as soon as you have fairs and markets and people bartering and exchanging, you give goods a value, a higher value to some than to others – and people will start collecting, hoarding, exchanging, building up reservoirs of valuable goods, selling them on to the right person at the right time, at a profit – and it all starts over again.

Somehow all these utopias ignore the basic human urges to value things, and to swap and exchange them. My kids are collecting the Lego cards from Sainsburys and are swapping them with friends in the playground. My mum loved going to car boot fairs. My wife likes watching Antiques Road Show which is all about money and value. Maybe these are all ‘tools of the capitalist bourgeois system to keep us enslaved to a money view of the world’. Or maybe they reflect something fundamental in human nature.

This may sound trivial, but whether people had the right to sell goods was the core of the problem Lenin faced in 1921, after the civil wars with the white Russians were more or less finished, and he faced a nation in ruins. Farmers had stopped growing crops because the Red soldiers just commandeered them without paying. Where was their motivation to get up before dawn and slave all day long if the produce was just stolen?

And so Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy, which allowed peasants and farmers to keep some of their produce i.e. not turn it all over to the state, and allowed them to use it or sell it as they saw fit. I.e. Lenin had to buckle to the human need to buy and sell. It was Stalin’s insistence, ten years later, that all agricultural produce was to be taken from the farmers by the state authorities that led to the great famine in the Ukraine which led to some three million people starving to death.

Which all reminds me of the terrifying stories in Anne Applebaum’s book, Iron Curtain, about the lengths communist authorities had to go to in post-war Eastern Europe to ban freelance buying and selling. As soon as a farmer sells eggs from a chicken or milk from a cow which are surplus to the state’s quota, he is laying the basis for capitalismAny display of independent buying and selling had to be banned and severely punished. Applebaum’s accounts of farmers and workers and even schoolchildren, being arrested for what seem to us trivial amounts of marketeering, really ram this point home.

Each and every incident was, to the communist authorities, a crack in the facade which threatened to let capitalism come flooding back, and so destroy the entire socialist society and economy they were building.

In Bellamy’s Perfect Society prices are set by the state, everything is supplied by the state, and you ‘buy’ things based on your fixed monthly income from the state. There is no competition and so no bargains or special offers. We now know that, when something very like this was put into effect in Soviet Russia, the result was the creation of a vast black market where normal human behaviour i.e. bartering, buying and selling for profit, returned and triumphed.

In fact, the several accounts of the last decades of the communist experiment which I’ve read claim that it was only the black market i.e. an unofficial market of bartering and trading everything, raw material, industrial and agricultural produce, which allowed the Soviet Union’s economy to stagger on for as long as it did.

What the Russian experiment, and then its extension into China and Eastern Europe, showed is that the socialist concept of society proposed by Marx, Engels, Bellamy or Morris, can only exist by virtue of an unrelenting war on human nature as it actually is – selfish, stupid, criminal, lazy, greedy, sharp and calculating human nature.

Only by permanent state surveillance, by the complete abolition of free speech and freedom of assembly, by the creation of vast prison camps and gulags, and severe punishments for even voicing anti-socialist sentiments, let alone tiny acts of rebellion such as bartering or selling goods, could ‘socialist societies’ be made to artificially survive, despite all the intrinsic ‘human’ longings of their inhabitants.

And even then it turned out that state planning was inefficient and wasteful, completely failing to produce any of the consumer goods which people cried out for – cars, fridges, TVs, jeans.

Bellamy’s encyclopedic approach

Then again, it’s not necessarily the function of utopias like this to portray a realistic society of the future. Bellamy tries, far more than most authors of utopias, to paint a really persuasive picture of what a Perfect Society would look like. But ‘utopias’ need not be as pedantically systematic as the one he has written; they can also perform the less arduous function of highlighting the absurdities and injustices of our present day society. And here Bellamy, in his slow, steady, thoughtful manner, is very thorough and very effective. His targets include:

  • competition over wages
  • the anarchy of a myriad competing companies
  • the inevitability of regular crises of over-production leading to crashes, banks failing, mass unemployment, starvation and rioting
  • state encouragement for everybody to rip everybody else off
  • the system whereby a lengthy number of middle-men all cream off a percentage before passing products on to the public thereby ensuring most people can’t afford them
  • advertising and hucksterism, which he ridicules – now abolished
  • political parties representing special interests – all gone
  • demagogic lying politicians – rendered redundant by universal altruism
  • rival shops stuffed with salesman motivated by commissions to sell your tat – replaced by one shop selling state-produced goods
  • how greed, luck and accident forced most people into a job or career – rather than his system of allowing people to choose, after long education in the options, the vocation which suits them best
  • having to travel miles to concert halls and sit through tedious stuff before they get to anything you like – in the future ‘telephones’ offer a selection of music piped straight to your home
  • international trade is managed in the same way, by a committee which assigns fixed values to all goods
  • travel is easy, since American ‘credit cards’ are good in South America or Europe
  • when the Leete family take West for a meal, they point out that communal canopies unroll in front of all buildings in case of rain, to protect pedestrians
  • at the meal there is a lengthy diatribe on how the waiter serving them comes from their own class and education and is happy to servile, unlike 1887 when the poor and uneducated were forced into ‘menial’ positions
  • state education is a) extensive, up to age 21, b) designed to draw out a person’s potential
  • sports is compulsory at school in order to create a healthy mind in a healthy body (Chapter 25)
  • women are the equals of men, and all work, apart from short breaks for childbirth and early rearing
  • all the false modesty of courtship has been abolished, replaced by frank and open relationships between the sexes
  • and – with a hint of eugenics – Dr Leete claims that now men and women are free to marry for love instead of for money, as was mostly the case in 1887, this allows the Darwinian process of natural selection to operate unobstructed and it is this which accounts for the fact that the Bostonians of 2000 are so much taller, fitter and healthier than the Bostonians West knew in 1887

All these aspects of contemporary capitalist society come under Bellamy’s persistent, thorough and quietly merciless satire.

Style

A comparison with the science fantasies which H.G. Wells started writing a few years after Looking Backward was published, sheds light on both types of book.

The key thing about Wells’s stories is their speed. One astonishing incident follows another in a mad helter-skelter of dazzling revelations. Wells is heir to the concentrated, punchy adventures – and the pithy, active prose style – of Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle and Rider Haggard. He takes their fast-moving adventure style and applies it – instead of hunts for treasure in colourful settings or detective sleuthing – to the scientific ideas which he found being discussed by all around him as he studied for his science degree in South Kensington in the late 1880s.

Bellamy couldn’t be more different from Wells. He is slow – very slow. His book is really a slow-paced, thoughtful political treatise, with a few romantic knobs on.

And his prose, also, is slow and stately and ornate, pointing back to the Victorian age as much as Wells’s prose points forward to the twentieth century. Here is Dr Leete giving another version of the crucial moment when the capitalist world of monopolies gave way to one, state monopoly.

‘Early in the last century the evolution was completed by the final consolidation of the entire capital of the nation. The industry and commerce of the country, ceasing to be conducted by a set of irresponsible corporations and syndicates of private persons at their caprice and for their profit, were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit. The nation, that is to say, organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly in which all previous and lesser monopolies were swallowed up, a monopoly in the profits and economies of which all citizens shared. The epoch of trusts had ended in The Great Trust.

‘In a word, the people of the United States concluded to assume the conduct of their own business, just as one hundred odd years before they had assumed the conduct of their own government, organizing now for industrial purposes on precisely the same grounds that they had then organized for political purposes. At last, strangely late in the world’s history, the obvious fact was perceived that no business is so essentially the public business as the industry and commerce on which the people’s livelihood depends, and that to entrust it to private persons to be managed for private profit is a folly similar in kind, though vastly greater in magnitude, to that of surrendering the functions of political government to kings and nobles to be conducted for their personal glorification.’ (Chapter 5)

Wordy, isn’t it? You have to slow yourself right down to his speed to really take on board the power of his arguments.

But it’s worth making the effort in order to savour and mull them. It is, for example, a clever rhetorical move on Bellamy’s part to make the American rejection of capitalism around 1900 seem a natural extension of the American rejection of monarchy a century earlier (in the 1775 War of Independence).

And here is Dr Leete explaining why, in the new system, money isn’t needed.

‘When innumerable different and independent persons produced the various things needful to life and comfort, endless exchanges between individuals were requisite in order that they might supply themselves with what they desired. These exchanges constituted trade, and money was essential as their medium. But as soon as the nation became the sole producer of all sorts of commodities, there was no need of exchanges between individuals that they might get what they required. Everything was procurable from one source, and nothing could be procured anywhere else. A system of direct distribution from the national storehouses took the place of trade, and for this money was unnecessary.’

Clever, isn’t it? Clear, rational, sensible… And totally unrelated to the real world.

Epilogue

And then West wakes up and it was all – a dream!

I kid you not. Like the corniest children’s school composition, that is how the book ends. West finds himself being stirred and woken by his (black) manservant to find himself back in bed, in  his underground bunker, back in 1887 – and experiences a crushing sense of loss as he realises that the future world he was just getting used to… was all a fantasy.

There then follows by far the most imaginatively powerful passage in the book. West dresses and goes out into the Boston of 1887, walking past the confusion of shops, the bombardment of advertising hoardings, down into the industrial district where noisy, smoky factories are employing children and old women, screwing out of them their life’s blood, all that human effort wasted in violent and unplanned competition to produce useless tat (‘the mad wasting of human labour’), then wandering up to the banking district where he is accosted by his own banker who preens himself on the magnificence of ‘the system’, before walking on into the slums where filthy unemployed men hover on street corners and raddled women offer him their bodies for money.

All the time, in his mind, West is comparing every detail of this squalid, chaotic, miserably unhappy and insecure society with the rational, ordered life in the Perfect Society which he (and the reader) have been so thoroughly soaked in for the preceding 200 pages.

The contrast, for the reader who has followed him this far, between the beauty of what might be, and the disgusting squalor of what is, is genuinely upsetting. It was a clever move to append this section. It is the only part of the book which has any real imaginative power, and that power is fully focused on provoking in the reader the strongest sensations of disgust and revulsion at the wretchedness and misery produced by unfettered capitalism.

From the black doorways and windows of the rookeries on every side came gusts of fetid air. The streets and alleys reeked with the effluvia of a slave ship’s between-decks. As I passed I had glimpses within of pale babies gasping out their lives amid sultry stenches, of hopeless-faced women deformed by hardship, retaining of womanhood no trait save weakness, while from the windows leered girls with brows of brass. Like the starving bands of mongrel curs that infest the streets of Moslem towns, swarms of half-clad brutalized children filled the air with shrieks and curses as they fought and tumbled among the garbage that littered the court-yards.

There was nothing in all this that was new to me. Often had I passed through this part of the city and witnessed its sights with feelings of disgust mingled with a certain philosophical wonder at the extremities mortals will endure and still cling to life. But not alone as regarded the economical follies of this age, but equally as touched its moral abominations, scales had fallen from my eyes since that vision of another century. No more did I look upon the woeful dwellers in this Inferno with a callous curiosity as creatures scarcely human. I saw in them my brothers and sisters, my parents, my children, flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. The festering mass of human wretchedness about me offended not now my senses merely, but pierced my heart like a knife!

And then – on the last page – there is another, final twist. West wakes again… and is back in the Perfect Society of the future.

His vision of waking and wandering through the Golgotha of Boston in 1887 was itself a dream. He rouses himself hot and sweating. He looks back in horror at the life he led back and the values he unthinkingly accepted. And he is filled with shame, bitter recriminating shame and overwhelming guilt that he did nothing, nothing at all to change and reform the society of his day but acquiesced in his privileged position, enjoyed the wine and the fine women of his class, ignored the poor and brutalised, and didn’t lift a finger to change or improve the world.

The fair Edith appears picking flowers in Dr Leete’s garden and West falls at her feet, puts his face to the earth and weeps bitter tears of regret that he stood by and let so many people suffer so bitterly.

And I confess that, despite all the rational objections to his Perfect Society, and to the rather boring 200 pages which preceded it, these final pages are such an effective accusation of all us middle-class people who stand by and let people endure appalling poverty and suffering, that it brought a tear to my eye, as well.


Related links

Reviews of other early science fiction

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy

1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris
1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
1898 The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
1899 When the Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells

1901 The First Men in the Moon  by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1929)

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

 

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


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The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham (1925)

After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication. When death stood round the corner, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to care what this person or that did with their body. (Chapter 57)

Love, marriage, infidelity and jealousy are frequently the topics of Maugham’s novels, plays and stories.

This is the story of a frivolous middle-class girl, Kitty Garstin the daughter of a particularly pushy mother (‘Mrs Garstin was a hard, cruel, managing, ambitious, parsimonious and stupid woman’) who, four seasons after ‘coming out’ into society is still not married and beginning to panic about it. When her younger sister announces that she is to marry a baronet, Kitty accepts the next half-decent proposal that comes along, from a short, shy, unprepossessing man, a certain Walter Fane, who is a bacteriologist in Hong Kong and back in England for a long summer break.

He was not her type at all. He was short, but not thick-set, slight rather and thin; dark and clean-shaven, with very regular, clear-cut features. His eyes were almost black, but not large, they were not very mobile and they rested on objects with a singular persistence; they were curious, but not very pleasant eyes. With his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not. When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features when you took them one by one. His expression was slightly sarcastic and now that Kitty knew him better she realized that she was not quite at ease with him. He had no gaiety.

Kitty marries in haste, ships off to Hong Kong and within months realises it has all been a ghastly mistake. Walter is punctiliously polite and considerate but has no style, dash or adventure. Worse, as a scientist his social standing in the colony is very low.

Which goes to explain why she is easy meat for the tall, handsome Charlie Townsend to pick up and seduce. Charlie is the opposite of Walter in every way, breezy, confident in all social situations, graceful, an excellent dancer, a stylish lover and, above all, Assistant Colonial Secretary with every possibility of one day ending up Governor of the colony. True, he is married with three children, but he keeps telling Kitty he has never loved his wife: it is only Kitty that he loves.

He was tall, six foot two at least, she thought, and he had a beautiful figure; he was evidently in very good condition and he had not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was well-dressed, the best-dressed man in the room, and he wore his clothes well. She liked a man to be smart…  Though he had not said anything very amusing, he had made her laugh; it must have been the way he said it: there was a caressing sound in his deep, rich voice, a delightful expression in his kind, shining blue eyes, which made you feel very much at home with him. Of course he had charm. That was what made him so pleasant.

The book opens dramatically with the adulterous couple caught red-handed in Kitty’s bedroom as they are both surprised to see the bedroom door handle turn. Luckily it is locked, but then the handles of the french windows are tried too, before they hear footsteps going away, and then hurriedly get dressed. Who was it? And do they suspect?

The following pages give us Kitty’s backstory, her pushy mother, her father a not very successful KC, the social environment in which Kitty ‘comes out’, the balls and parties, the ‘Season’, Ascot, Cowes. I felt all this was done with tremendous knowledge of this social milieu and with great psychological insight into the character of Kitty, her mother, her father and sister. It was like stepping into a lost world.

We follow Kitty’s hurried and embarrassed marriage to Walter, then whistle through her seduction by Townsend in order to get back up to date, to the ‘Present’ in which the novel is set. Now the book spends several pages describing Kitty’s psychological agonising as she wonders whether it was a servant sneaking up and trying the door or – was it Walter, her husband, trying the door to her room? Does he know?

To cut a long story short, it was and he does. For the next few days Walter treats Kitty with frigid correctness  (and what is marvellous is the way Maugham describes her changing moods, from panic, to regret, to shame – and then to resentment at the way Walter is being so cold to her, and then to anger that he doesn’t raise the subject directly – until Kitty comes right round to believing that it is she who is being persecuted and Walter who is in the wrong: this is quite marvellously believable).

Finally Walter sits her down for a chat and comes straight to the point. He knows all about her adultery. He has evidence and proof. Now, there is a cholera epidemic going on in mainland China. He has volunteered to go and help. She must come with him.

Kitty hyper-ventilates with terror, and gaspingly asks for a divorce. He laughs coldly, looking at her and talking with clinical logic. He’ll give her a divorce alright, if she can persuade Charlie Townsend to divorce his wife and marry her (Kitty) within a week! He sweeps out leaving Kitty bewildered.

Her head full of Mills and Boon fantasies about how Charlie will hold her to his manly bosom and say, ‘Of course, my dear – at last you can be mine’ etc, Kitty hastens to Charlie’s office to put to him Walter’s ultimatum. Of course Charlie is appalled, blusters and there follows a classic bounder-tries-to-drop-his-inconvenient-mistress scene.

Realising he’s got a hysterical mistress on his hands, Charlie is careful to emphasise his ongoing love for Kitty but also comes up with all kinds of excuses why he can’t leave his loyal wife and children.

Again this is not exactly an original scene, but I thought Maugham does it really persuasively, portraying all too well the interplay of Kitty’s increasingly bitter accusations with Charlie’s red-faced attempts at damage limitation. In a nutshell, No, he will not divorce his wife: she’s been so good to him, it would upset her too much, and then what about the children… etc.

Thoroughly disillusioned, Kitty returns to the family home only to find that Walter had already instructed the Chinese servants to pack her bags. With a new insight, she realises that Walter concocted his deadline purely to get her to see what a snake Charlie Townsend really is. With a heavy heart she agrees to accompany him on his medical expedition into mainland China; she has no real choice.

Part two

The book isn’t actually divided into parts, but it might as well be. Part two more or less jumps to the cholera-infected town of Mei-Tan-Fu. Kitty and Walter are brought to a bungalow on a hill outside and overlooking the actual city. It’s the bungalow of the Christian missionary to the city, who died early in the epidemic.

They immediately meet the short, jolly, clever if permanently tipsy Deputy Commissioner, Waddington. they quickly settle in (with the help of numerous servants) and Waddington becomes a kind of chorus to the action – explaining to Kitty (stuck at home all day in the bungalow) what marvels Walter is working putting into place public health care plans, arranging care of the sick, the burial of the dead and liaising with Colonel Yü of the Chinese military to maintain order.

On another notable occasion, over dinner, when Waddington is tipsily gossiping about the colony back in Hong Kong, Kitty asks a casual question about Charlie Townsend and Waddington needs no further prompting to describe him as a good-looking cad who gets his underlings to do all his work, has the full support of a loving and forgiving wife, and amuses himself by seducing a string of second-rate, silly young colonial wives. Kitty flinches as she realises she was just the latest in a long line of conquests for this heartless beast. Slowly she realises there is a wider world around her and her silly fantasies, and how she fits into it, and how she appears to others.

One day Waddington takes her down into the stricken city to visit the French nuns who are doing sterling work looking after the orphans of parents who’ve died from the epidemic. In the presence of their authority and quiet devotion, Kitty feels like an awkward schoolgirl. They praise Walter to the skies and hope she is taking good care of him. She blushes. The reality is that Walter only comes home late at night and they barely talk. Kitty is ashamed of herself.

By this stage, about half way through this 240-page novel, the reader realises that whatever else is going to happen, the book is describing Kitty’s psychological awakening and maturity. For the first time, here in this disease-ridden town, she is grasping that there are other people in the world, who matter, who have lives and loves of their own, and she begins to learn the nature of work, working for others, devoting your life to others.

She volunteers to work with the nuns, overcomes Charlie’s objections and gets up every morning to be carried down to the ferry over the river, taken by a guide to the convent and there looks after the orphans and little children. She slowly grows to like the Chinese. She gets to know the different nuns with their stories and characters. She is taken out of herself. Small incidents highlight their selfless devotion. Kitty watches and learns.

Waddington, a little unexpectedly, also plays a part in the process. She realises that despite being fat and tipsy, he is in clever and sensitive. Before she started with the nuns they had got into the habit of going on soulful walks, especially up to the ancient monument to a rich man’s dead wife, up on the hilltop overlooking the city. These continue and mark Kitty’s growing understanding of the world as a big, big place and herself as just a tiny atom in it.

They sat on the steps of a little building (four lacquered columns and a high, tiled roof under which stood a great bronze bell) and watched the river flow sluggish and with many a bend towards the stricken city. They could see its crenellated walls. The heat hung over it like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy. (Chapter 54)

The nuns tell Kitty that Waddington is an immoral man, for he lives with a Chinese wife, and not just any old Chinese: she comes from a super-aristocratic family, from Manchu blood. He tried to escape her several times but she has followed him everywhere. Next time he sees her Kitty hesitantly asks Waddington if he may meet his wife and he says yes. In a vivid and memorable scene Kitty meets this slender, elegant, motionless, painted lady, with her thing fingers and long painted fingernails. East meets West.

But on another morning of working at the convent, Kitty suddenly faints and comes to, being tended by the nuns and feeling hot and flushed. She is terrified that she has finally caught the cholera, but they burst out laughing. No, silly – she’s pregnant! Back at the bungalow she anxiously waits for Walter to come home. We have, by now, spent many pages alone with Kitty and her anxious thoughts – while she was given the cold shoulder by Walter at the start, when she was waiting to see Charlie at his office, when she spent days alone in the bungalow. We have spent a lot of time alone with this woman and come to know here pretty well.

Walter, finally arrived home at the end of another long exhausting day, pours himself a whiskey and Kitty tells him she’s pregnant. He asks the obvious question – Is it mine? – and there is a brilliant page where Kitty realises that all she has to say is Yes. Say yes and it will begin the process of healing their marriage, say Yes and it will make Walter so happy, say Yes and she will go some way to making amends for ruining his life. She thinks this all through carefully and clearly and then says… I don’t know. It is a classic Maugham moment, not exactly brutal but… in the context of these posh, scrupulously polite pukka chaps… unexpectedly hard. It has the helpless clumsiness of real life.

Once she’s said it it’s too late to retract. She regrets but carries on, visiting the convent each day, getting to know the nuns more deeply, and listening to a long explanation from the Mother Superior of the immensely liberating effect of giving yourself to God, of giving away your self, of living entirely for others.

One night she is woken by banging on the door. It is Waddington come to fetch her. Walter hadn’t come home. He is in the army barracks, very ill. Kitty dresses and rushes down the hill, across the river, through the deserted streets of the city (accompanied by Waddington and a few soldiers). Walter is in a rough bed, facing the wall, his face empty and wasted.

‘Walter, I beseech you to forgive me,’ she said, leaning over him. For fear that he could not bear the pressure she took care not to touch him. “I’m so desperately sorry for the wrong I did you. I so bitterly regret it.’ He said nothing. He did not seem to hear. She was obliged to insist. It seemed to her strangely that his soul was a fluttering moth and its wings were heavy with hatred.

He dies. Kitty is numb. The Chinese Colonel Yü is present and weeps more than Kitty. He and Walter had become very close. Waddington helps Kitty back to the bungalow. Next day Walter is buried, Colonel Yü in attendance.

Part three

Kitty continues going to the convent but the Mother Superior gently breaks it to her that she must leave. the epidemic is waning. New sisters are on their way to replace those who have died. They will have no more need for her services. But above all she must think of the baby. She must go back to Hong Kong or even back to her family in London to make sure the baby is safe. With many words of wisdom and tears, Kitty acquiesces. On a human note, the Mother Superior gives Kitty a package of handkerchiefs to post from Marseilles to her family in France.

Waddington arranges for her to be taken back across country to Hong Kong, accompanied by guards and servants. the journey passes in a daze, like one of those long Chinese scrolls showing an unfolding landscape of quiet peasants and lumbering buffalo. It dawns on Kitty that for the first time in her life she is free.

The city of the pestilence was a prison from which she was escaped, and she had never known before how exquisite was the blueness of the sky and what a joy there was in the bamboo copses that leaned with such an adorable grace across the causeway. Freedom! That was the thought that sung in her heart so that even though the future was so dim, it was iridescent like the mist over the river where the morning sun fell upon it. Freedom! Not only freedom from a bond that irked, and a companionship which depressed her; freedom, not only from the death which had threatened, but freedom from the love that had degraded her; freedom from all spiritual ties, the freedom of a disembodied spirit; and with freedom, courage and a valiant unconcern for whatever was to come.

And this is where the Hollywood version would end, with a strong empowered woman facing the future bravely as the credits rolled. But Maugham isn’t like that. When Kitty’s ship across the bay docks in Hong Kong she is greeted by Charlie Townsend’s wife. The whole colony has heard about the tragedy. She has volunteered to look after the martyred wife. Kitty simply must come and stay with her while she recovers. She is more or less forced into it.

At the Townsends’ posh house high on the fashionable Peak Kitty meets Townsend. In deepest China Kitty had slowly persuaded herself he was greying, ageing, fattening and repellent. Unfortunately, seeing him again in the flesh she realises with dismay that he really is tall, dark and handsome, unfailingly polite and considerate. Anyone who’s read much Maugham knows that a good deal of his fiction is about couples who practice adultery with suave smoothness, and Kitty is disconcerted by the way Townsend strikes exactly the right note of polite concern for her in front of his wife, despite having had a passionate affair with her and got her pregnant. He is all concern and, puffing away on a cheroot, assures her that he’ll try his damnedest to get her a good pension. Walter was a splendid fellow, heroic of him to go and help the Chinese like that etc etc.

Only after a week or so do they finally find themselves alone in the house without his wife present. And then he pounces. He listens to her recriminations, he agrees, he laments, he condoles, he holds her hand, she gets up and strides into her bedroom, he follows, puts his arm around her and… she feels herself melting and swooning. they make love. The text cuts to afterwards. he dresses and exists with a jaunty air – and why not?

Kitty stares at herself in the mirror with tear-filled red eyes.

Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible. She hated him and she hated herself. It had been ecstasy. Oh, hateful! She could never look him in the face again. He was so justified. He had been right not to marry her, for she was worthless; she was no better than a harlot. Oh, worse, for those poor women gave themselves for bread. And in this house too into which Dorothy had taken her in her sorrow and cruel desolation! Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Everything was gone now. She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future; freedom like a spirit of light had beckoned her on, and the world was like a spacious plain through which she could walk light of foot and with head erect. She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit; she had likened herself to the white egrets that fly with leisurely flight across the rice-fields at dusk and they are like the soaring thoughts of a mind at rest with itself; and she was a slave. Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try, she was a slut.

Next morning she goes to the P&O office and books a ticket home on the next liner. The clerk says the ship is full but when she gives his name, says he’s heard about her sad story. Everyone in the colony has. And so he fixes her up a berth of her own. Back at the Townsends’ house she finds Charlie alone again. In their final scene he wants to be reassured that it isn’t he who is driving her away. In other words, he not only wants to seduce her in the family home, but he doesn’t want to feel bad about it. He wants her to leave on good terms. He wants his ego to be completely untouched and spotless. But Kitty, although she ‘fell’, has developed a sense of her higher self.

‘I don’t feel human. I feel like an animal. A pig or a rabbit or a dog. Oh, I don’t blame you, I was just as bad. I yielded to you because I wanted you. But it wasn’t the real me. I’m not that hateful, beastly, lustful woman. I disown her. It wasn’t me that lay on that bed panting for you when my husband was hardly cold in his grave and your wife had been so kind to me, so indescribably kind. It was only the animal in me, dark and fearful like an evil spirit, and I disown, and hate, and despise it. And ever since, when I’ve thought of it, my gorge rises and I feel that I must vomit.’

On the ship home she gets a series of cables announcing that her mother is ill and then, at Marseilles, telling her that she’s died. She arrives back to the pawky flat in London to find her father in mourning. There then follows another psychologically persuasive final scene. Right at the start we’d been told that Mr Garstin was much put upon by his domineering wife. She it was who persuaded him to try for silk (to become a King’s Council or senior barrister) because she wanted the social kudos even though it actually resulted in him getting less work and being poorer. She it was who relentlessly pressurised her daughters into the ‘best society’ and to marry well. And the wife and daughters never paid much attention to Mr Garstin, regarding him simply as a work horse and source of money and position.

Now, as she sits with him in the living room of their flat, Mr Garstin announces to Kitty that he has been offered the job of Chief Justice of the Bahamas and has said yes. To his horror Kitty asks if she can come too. She watches his face crumple and – using her newfound wisdom – she realises why.

For the past thirty years he has sacrificed his life for others, for his wife and girls. Now, finally, he is free, and this move to a distant colony offers him the first breath of freedom in a generation, the opportunity to start again. His pregnant daughter coming with him would mean the same old straitjacket all over again. Kitty realises this in a flash and bursts out crying, saying she understands how he has sacrificed his life to them, how she will not be a burden, how she will let him be free – she just can’t stay in London on her own.

Feminism

And on the final page of the novel she gives a heartfelt expression that the new life she’s bringing into the world will be of a liberated woman who can learn from all her mother’s mistakes:

‘Have you already made up your mind about the sex?’ Mr Garstin murmured, with his thin, dry smile.

‘I want a girl because I want to bring her up so that she shan’t make the mistakes I’ve made. When I look back upon the girl I was I hate myself. But I never had a chance. I’m going to bring up my daughter so that she’s free and can stand on her own feet. I’m not going to bring a child into the world, and love her, and bring her up, just so that some man may want to sleep with her so much that he’s willing to provide her with board and lodging for the rest of her life.’

She felt her father stiffen. He had never spoken of such things and it shocked him to hear these words in his daughter’s mouth.

‘Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person, independent of others because she is possessed to herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.’


China and the Chinese

In Hong Kong there are various servants and ‘boys’ catering to their every whim. Only in Mei-Tan-Fu do you get more of a sense of the real China although even here it’s the French nuns that Kitty gets to know. I don’t think a single one of the Chinese servants even there, is named. In fact the only Chinese person we are introduced to is Waddington’s wife.

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries.

It would be easy to say that Maugham is remiss for not naming or introducing a single Chinese character (apart from the princess). But then again, even in England, in his plays and novels, only a handful of characters are ever named, set against the teeming multitudes of London or the anonymous fishermen and farmers of the kentish town where Cakes and Ale is set. Even in England Maugham is mostly concerned only with the posh and upper-class characters, with a range of servants, butlers, nurses and maides who only barely have identities.

Similarly, in the Chinese city, the strongest character is the French Mother Superior who, characteristically, isn’t just a good woman but comes from an unbelievably smart aristocratic family – as she tells Kitty in a beguiling chapter.

Though the Mother Superior talked with Kitty not more than three or four times and once or twice for but ten minutes the impression she made upon Kitty was profound. Her character was like a country which on first acquaintance seems grand, but inhospitable; but in which presently you discover smiling little villages among fruit trees in the folds of the majestic mountains and pleasant ambling rivers that flow kindly through lush meadows. But these comfortable scenes, though they surprise and even reassure you, are not enough to make you feel at home in the land of tawny heights and windswept spaces. It would have been impossible to become intimate with the Mother Superior; she had that something impersonal about her which Kitty had felt with the other nuns, even with the good-humoured chatty Sister St Joseph, but with her it was a barrier which was almost palpable. It gave you quite a curious sensation, chilling but awe-inspiring, that she could walk on the same earth as you, attend to mundane affairs, and yet live so obviously upon a plane you could not reach.

In fact, given that Kitty can’t speak a word of Chinese, it’s hard to see how she could have got to know and talked to a Chinese character, even if Maugham had needed one for the kind of morality tale he was aiming to write.

Chinese landscapes

This is a gentle and evocative text. There are quite a few descriptions of landscape, designed to echo and amplify the feelings of the characters, mainly Kitty.

Her eyes travelled over the landscape at their feet. The wide expanse on that gay and sunny morning filled the heart with exultation. The trim little rice-fields stretched as far as the eye could see and in many of them the blue-clad peasants with their buffaloes were working industriously. It was a peaceful and a happy scene.

I wonder if Maugham consciously set out to echo the calm misty feel of traditional Chinese scroll paintings with their idyllically peaceful landscapes and cityscapes. His word pictures certainly achieve a sense of serenity and give the novel a wonderfully dreamy, evocative atmosphere.

Dawn was breaking now, and here and there a Chinese was taking down the shutters of his shop. In its dark recesses, by the light of a taper, a woman was washing her hands and face. In a tea-house at a corner a group of men were eating an early meal. The grey, cold light of the rising day sidled along the narrow lanes like a thief. There was a pale mist on the river and the masts of the crowded junks loomed through it like the lances of a phantom army. It was chilly as they crossed and Kitty huddled herself up in her gay and coloured shawl.

The gaining of wisdom

Whereas the tight little colony of Hong Kong encouraged the characters to magnify their petty affairs and jealousies, the sheer size and scale of China makes them feel small and insignificant

For a moment she thought of the future. She did not know what plans Walter had in mind. He told her nothing. He was cool, polite, silent, and inscrutable. They were two little drops in that river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an undistinguishable part of the water.

Not only its scale, but the sense that its culture is ancient, far older than bumptious Western pretensions. When the ancient Britons lived in mud huts, the Chinese had emperors and palaces. This is the purpose of the Manchu princess figure. In real life Waddington’s mistress would probably have been an anonymous local girl, but Maugham needed an emblematic figure who would epitomise the antiquity and nobility of Chinese culture which he himself responded to so powerfully, and which is another element in Kitty’s education.

Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark, and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane. Kitty felt strangely that the sight of this idol, with her painted face and slanting, wary eyes, made the efforts and the pains of the everyday world she knew slightly absurd. That coloured mask seemed to hide the secret of an abundant, profound, and significant experience; those long, delicate hands with their tapering fingers held the key of riddles undivined.

At the conclusion of her meeting with the Manchu princess, Kitty asks Waddington what these riddles are.

‘I’m looking for something and I don’t quite know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me. I don’t know why it came into my head that if I saw this Manchu woman I should have an inkling of what I am looking for. Perhaps she would tell me if she could.’
‘What makes you think she knows it?’
Kitty gave him a sidelong glance, but did not answer. Instead she asked him a question.
‘Do you know it?’
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
‘Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.’

And of course, the epidemic raging all around them, the daily burials, the teeming orphans of dead parents who fill the convent – death is all around them. Kitty comes to feel powerfully not the futility of life so much as its insignificance.

The size of China; the ancient nobility of Chinese culture; the epidemic of death sweeping all round her; the selfless dedication of the nuns – these are the factors which educate her, which show her her own insignificance, which show Kitty that pity and charity are the real values – which allow her the insight into her father’s plight – and which fuel her determination to give her daughter a better life.

The movies

It is a powerful book – with a strong central female role, with the power of a fable or morality tale, and with very atmospheric scenery of rural China and the urgency of the plague-filled city. No surprise, then, that it has been adapted for the screen three times:

  • The Painted Veil (1934)
  • The Seventh Sin (1957)
  • The Painted Veil (2006)

The BBC made a radio adaptation in 2012.


Related links

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Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham (1927)

CONSTANCE: I’m tired of being the modern wife.
MARTHA: What do you mean by the modern wife?
CONSTANCE: A prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.

Another spiffing comedy of manners in three acts. As usual it is a cynical-amoral-witty take on modern marriage making comic capital from the way the professional upper-middle classes talk lightly about fidelity and infidelity and make sweeping comic generalisations about husbands and wives; but The Constant Wife is distinguished from the other two Maugham plays I’ve read by the surprisingly blunt and unillusioned viewpoint of the central character.

Act One

Constance is married to the successful surgeon John Middleton. After 15 years of marriage he is as attentive and loving as ever but often absent at work. Constance’s mother (Mrs Culver) and sister (Martha), come to visit her, both of them bursting with the news that Constance’s husband is having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise.

Also visiting is Constance’s friend Barbara, a successful businesswoman, head of an interior design consultancy, who is offering to take Constance into partnership.

Both Mrs Culver and Martha ask Constance probing questions about her relationship with John, with Barbara chipping in. This adds up to a quartet of women all making sweeping and witty generalisations about men, women and marriage designed to prompt knowing chuckles from the audience. Maugham is never as sparkling as Wilde but his ‘sophisticated’ drawing room banter, and the jaded air with which the women discuss men, men’s nature, men’s simplicity, men’s guilelessness and so on, is often quite funny.

‘Do you really think that men are mysterious? They’re like children.’

‘They’re like little boys, men. Sometimes of course they’re rather naughty and you have to pretend to be angry with them. They attach importance to such entirely unimportant things that it’s really touching… I think they’re sweet but it’s absurd to take them seriously.’

‘Men go off so dreadfully, don’t they? He may be bald and fat by now.’

And much more in the same vein.

More striking to me was the moment when Constance dismisses one of her mother’s generalisations about women with, ‘You are not what they call a feminist, mother, are you?’

I knew we had the New Woman in the 1880s and 90s, that the Edwardian era was the Age of the Suffragettes, the 20s the decade of the Flapper – in other words women have been in process of rising up and speaking out in more or less every decade since the 1880s – but I was surprised to learn that our contemporary word ‘feminist’ was in sufficiently widespread use that Maugham could deploy it in what is designed to be an accessible, middle-brow comedy to raise a laugh.

Similarly, I was very struck by the way Barbara is portrayed quite simply as a no-nonsense businesswoman who approaches her friend to join the firm (seeing as Constance has a good sense of interior decoration and design). Struck that here on the popular stage in 1927 – 91 years ago – women are presented as perfectly capable businesswomen with no irony or humour:

CONSTANCE: I don’t think John would like it. After all, it would look as though he couldn’t afford to support me.
BARBARA: Oh, not nowadays, surely. There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t have a career as much as a man.

Modern feminism gives the impression that pioneering women only broke into the world of business in the last few decades and are still struggling for equal pay and senior positions. (On the same theme, it’s notable that the wife of Charles Strickland, the painter who runs off to Paris then the South Seas in Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, in order to support herself sets up her own typing agency which becomes a great financial success – all this sometime in the Edwardian decade.)

Anyway, the four women discussing how awful men are, and husbands in particular, with lots of hints about the state of John and Constance’s marriage, are interrupted by the arrival of the very same John and – by a coincidence – of pretty little Marie-Louise. There’s polite chat for a bit, then Marie-Louise complains of a knee injury and John invites her into his consulting room to ‘examine’ it. The other women all look at each other. I think we are pretty much meant to realise that John is having a fling with Constance’s best friend. The other women depart.

Having established the framework of Constance’s friends, and the main issue – John’s adultery – the second part of Act One introduces an old flame of Constance’s, Bernard Kersal, who has just arrived back from Japan, where he runs a business.

There is some preliminary comedy – Constance had kept her mother with her in case Bernard turned out to be fat and awful, so she could quickly dispense with him; but since he turns out to be tall with a good figure, Constance bustles her mother out of the room so she can recline graciously on the divan and listen to his charming compliments.

Bernard says he has always loved her and that is why he never married. ‘Really, darling, how frightfully sweet of you,’ Constance drawls. After she’s enjoyed Bernard’s adulation for a while, John re-enters the room to say he’s just off to his club. Constance introduces him to Bernard and John suggests Bernard come round that evening to keep his wife company for dinner, while he’s out, unintentionally setting them up for further romantic dalliance…

Act Two

Two weeks later in the same setting, in the same room at Constance’s house.

Martha is alone with Bernard and takes the opportunity to tell him that Constance’s husband, John, is having an affair with Marie-Louise. Bernard can’t believe it, they seem like the perfect couple, John is such a gentleman etc.

Martha leaves as Constance comes in and Bernard tells her he loves her with all his heart while Constance puts him off with amused witticisms.

Bernard and Constance exit as Marie-Louise arrives in a tizzy to see John. She is in a panic because she thinks her husband, Mortimer, suspects their affair, John tells her to calm down.

Martha and Bernard return, then Constance and Mrs Culver (Martha and Constance’s mother) so that the cast is pretty much all there when Marie-Louise’s husband – and John’s best friend – Mortimer Durham bursts into the room red in the face with anger. In front of everyone he accuses Marie-Louise of having an affair with John, on the basis of finding his cigarette case under her pillow.

At which point Constance, gripping Marie-Louise’s hand and looking meaningfully at John to stop him saying anything, performs an absolute tour de force of creative lying, swearing to Mortimer that it is her cigarette case, that it is there because Marie-Louise came round for dinner with her and John last night, then she (Constance) accompanied her on the walk back to her (Marie-Louise’s) house, went up to her rooms to chat while Marie-Louise got ready for bed, then sat chatting to her for a while: she’d been wondering where the dratted cigarette case had got to. Her explanation is a lot longer than this, but this is the gist, along with offering to call in her servants to confirm the whole story.

Very slowly Mortimer is talked out of his fury until he ends up puffing and gasping and eventually meekly apologises to Constance and to Marie-Louise for making this baseless assertion. Marie-Louise now speaks for the first time and finds herself having to act the Aggrieved Wife, dissolving in floods of tears and saying what a beast Mortimer has been, humiliating her in front of all her friends etc. Eventually Mortimer begs to make it all up to her, and goes off with Constance’s strong recommendation that he buys his wronged wife the fine pearl necklace at Cartier’s which she’s been pining for.

So Mortimer leaves and the assembled cast breathe a great sigh of relief. Then all the follow-ups take place, most notably both John and Marie-Louise are forced to confess that they have in fact been having an affair. Constance calmly and adroitly deals with John and Marie-Louise in turn, then with her sister and her mother.

Constance puzzles all of them by being so matter of fact about it. In fact she shocks husband and mother by bluntly stating her rather cynical position: being a modern wife in the upper classes means being a kept woman, supported in a life of luxury in return for sex and running a disciplined and respectable household.

She stuns John by telling him what a great relief it was to her when, ten years ago, at the same time that she realised she had stopped loving him, she realised that he had stopped loving her too. Since then she has kept up all appearances but has no illusions about men; if John wants to have his little dalliances, well, why not?

‘But he’s having an affair with your best friend!!’ squeals her mother. All the better replies Constance. She knows Marie-Louise is a woman of good character who won’t corrupt her husband; comes from a good home, so won’t want to steal him; and has lots of money, so won’t bankrupt him – she is the Perfect Mistress.

Many of the ways Constance phrases her rather breath-taking cynicism are very funny and have something like the real Wildean bite.

CONSTANCE: I think most married couples tell each other far too much.

I particularly liked the way Constance complains about how she’s had to spend six months fighting off the hints her mother, sister and other friends have been dropping like crazy about John’s affair in order to give the appearance that she didn’t know. ‘It really is so tiring trying to keep oneself in the dark, you know!’

One by one the others leave, until she is alone with her old boyfriend, Bernard. He too is stunned by the stark cynicism of her beliefs:

CONSTANCE: When the average woman who has been married for fifteen years discovers her husband’s infidelity it is not her heart that is wounded but her vanity. If she had any sense, she would regard it merely as one of the necessary inconveniences of an otherwise pleasant profession.

And:

CONSTANCE: Even if I did [love you], so long as John provides me with all the necessities of existence I wouldn’t be unfaithful. it all comes down to the economic situation. He has bought my fidelity and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods.

The Act ends with everyone having left the stage except Constance, who phones her friend Barbara to say that, Yes, she would like to go into business with her.

Act Three

Exactly the same setting, one year later. Martha and Barbara bring us up to date, explaining that immediately after the scene we just saw in Act Two, Marie-Louise persuaded Mortimer to take her on a year-long holiday round the world. Now Constance announces to them that she is taking a six-week holiday in Italy. She’s been working hard for her friend Barbara’s company, and is now taking a well-earned break.

There is then a sequence of broad comedy: John learns that Marie-Louise is on her way round to see her oldest bestest friend (Constance) and so hesitantly asks Constance if she could tell Marie-Louise that their affair is absolutely positively over. Alright says Constance. He exits. Then Marie-Louise arrives, all smiles and gifts from round the world and stories about how she quite made it all up with Mortimer (‘For a man, he’s really quite clever’) before hesitantly asking Constance if she thinks she could possibly tell John that their affair is positively definitely over. Constance promises to break it to him gently, while the audience chortles at the way both lovers are saying the same thing to Constance.

But knowing her best friend pretty well, Constance knows this can only mean one thing: sure enough, Marie-Louise confesses that she and her husband met a simply charming colonial officer on the ship back and she’s now madly in love with him. Which is where Constance gives another demonstration of her point-blank unsentimental honesty, which upsets Marie-Louise and still has the power to unnerve a modern audience. She calls Marie-Louis a tramp to her face.

CONSTANCE: You take everything from your husband and give him nothing that he pays for. You are no better than a vulgar cheat… I think you a liar, a humbug and a parasite… but I like you.

Marie-Louise departs understandably miffed. John re-enters and asks whether Constance told her what he asked her to. Oh yes, she told her alright.

Feminism

Now commences the most surprising part of the play, for it turns into a bit of a feminist tract. Constance explains to John why she has been working really very hard in her friend’s business. It’s not because she was bored, it was to earn money. Why? Because only money can make women really free.

CONSTANCE: There is only one freedom that is really important and that is economic freedom.

And now she drops the bombshell: she is going away on holiday, yes, but she is going with Bernard. Why? Because she wants to feel loved again, one last time before she becomes middle-aged. She forces John to concede that she and he don’t really love each other any more, they just live in companionable partnership. Why shouldn’t she enjoy her prime while it lasts?

John is understandably miffed but Constance keeps wryly pointing out how understanding, indulgent and forgiving she was of his affair with Marie-Louise, so why can’t he be as tolerant of her little peccadillo. And this is where her financial independence comes in:

JOHN: What makes you think that I am going to allow you to go?
CONSTANCE [good-humouredly]: Chiefly the fact that you can’t prevent me.

At this point Mrs Culver (Constance’s mother) enters, is apprised of the situation, and delivers the social wisdom of the older generation, namely that men are biologically made to be unfaithful and women just have to put up with it:

MRS CULVER: Men are naturally polygamous and sensible women have always made allowances for their occasional lapse from a condition which modern civilisation has forced on them. Women are monogamous. They do not naturally desire more than one man and that is why the common sense of the world has heaped obloquy upon them when they have overstepped the natural limitations of their sex.

And much more in the same vein. Constance is equally cynical but in a new, improved, liberated way. She replies that modern wifedom is a form of parasitism and prostitution. A wife exchanges her freedom for room and board. Well, she has just paid John for her estimated room and board for the previous year and so is morally in the clear.

CONSTANCE: [Women in the past] were dishonest [if unfaithful] because they were giving away something that wasn’t theirs to give. They had sold themselves for board, lodging and protection. They were chattel. They were dependent on their husbands and when they were unfaithful to them they were liars and thieves. I’m not dependent on John. I am economically independent and therefore I claim my sexual independence.

I dare say the West End audience was meant to exit the theatre and discuss and argue about these ideas all the way home. I don’t really understand the Daily Telegraph critic when he called Maugham a misogynist: for the third play in a row it is a woman who comes out on top as the cleverest, shrewdest, free-est agent in the play, while the men appear – and are explicitly described as – vain, narcissistic, emotionally shallow and easy to manipulate.

Constance [to John]: A man thinks it is quite natural that he should fall out of love with a woman, but it never strikes him for a moment that a woman could do anything so unnatural as to fall out of love with him. Don’t be upset at that, darling, it is one of the charming limitations of your sex.

Comic climax

The final scene reverts from this rather serious debate to a more obvious comedy of manners: John becomes more outraged the more Constance calmly describes her intention to spend six weeks with her old flame touring Italy, but Constance has a clever riposte to each of his protestations and underlying all of them the threat that she will reveal to ‘society’ everything about his fling with Marie-Louise. This would ruin his reputation and jeopardise his career (demonstrating that it wasn’t only women who were oppressed by the social mores of the times).

Instead, Constance forces John to grit his teeth and greet Bernard who now arrives to collect her. At this point Maugham squeezes more comic potential out of the scene, because Constance hasn’t told Bernard that she’s told John everything. Bernard thinks that he and Constance going away together is a great big secret and so he makes a big thing of saying an elaborate and fake Goodbye to Constance, purely for John’s consumption, even though we – the audience – know that John knows everything.

Why? Constance had explained to John that it would hurt Bernard’s sense of ‘honour’ if he felt John knew he was spending six adulterous weeks with his wife: therefore, to salve his ‘manly’ sense of ‘honour’ both Constance and John must pretend to Bernard that she hasn’t told John anything.

Thus Constance plays a final game on her lover, making him appear foolish, and on her husband, making him appear and feel even more foolish. Men are so silly, aren’t they?

And so it is that when he is shown into the room by the butler, Bernard makes a big show of asking whether Constance is definitely travelling alone (she says yes) and then casually remarks that he, too, has planned a little trip abroad – maybe they’ll bump into each other in Naples, which is where he’ll have to catch his ship back to Japan? ‘Yes, perhaps,’ Constance says, pretending to be surprised.

Throughout which John, her husband, is forced to nod and smile and say ‘Yes dear’ to this gruesome charade, all the time knowing she has him wrapped round her little finger!

The Constant Wife has the last laugh.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (1869)

This is Flaubert’s third novel, and in fact it’s the last one he finished, if we categorise his fourth book, the temptation of Saint Anthony, as a theological fantasia rather than a novel.

With the previous two novels, Flaubert had established a reputation as a highly literary writer, becoming famous for his meticulously detailed realism. He had also gained a reputation for ‘immorality’: Emma Bovary, the heroine of his first book is shown progressing – or declining – from shy convent schoolgirl, through dissatisfied wife, to reluctant seducee and then seasoned and cynical adulterer. But Emma’s small-town tragedy was eclipsed by the astonishing violence and exotically sensual atmosphere of his second book, Salammbô, a historical novel describing in loving detail the stupefying cruelties of 3rd century BC Carthage.

A consequence of Flaubert’s meticulous craftsmanship was that he took a very long time writing each of his books, sometimes spending a whole day crafting a sentence, searching, as he put it, for le mot juste – for just the right word to create the effect he wanted. There was a seven-year gap between Salammbô and this third work – plenty of time for critics and readers alike to wonder which course he would follow – another realistic tale of contemporary French life, or another oriental phantasmagoria.

In the event it was the former. Sentimental Education is sub-titled ‘The history of a young man’ and that is exactly what it is, the story of a young Frenchman’s emotional, intellectual and social development in the years 1840 to 1851.

Among Flaubert’s entertaining and very readable correspondence, are a number of places where he explains his aim in the book. To one one correspondent he wrote that:

I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation – or, more accurately, the history of their feelings. It’s a book about love, about passion; but passion such as can exist nowadays – that is to say, inactive.

The guiding idea is that the young hero is a romantic, who wants to have a pure and romantic love – but he lives in a ‘fallen’, ‘bourgeois’, business-minded age, an age which cannot sustain him or his dreamy ideals, in which his ‘ideals’ seem to be hopelessly frustrated and compromised and he himself eventually becomes – as we shall see – cynical and manipulative.

Now whether this is the fault of the age, with its ‘bourgeois’ values, or of the protagonist for being such a naive fool, is left for the reader to decide.

The plot

Sentimental Education is divided into three parts, is very long (420 pages in the Penguin paperback version which I read) and exceedingly complicated. My summary is consciously as rambling as the plot itself i.e. I haven’t tried to simplify and regularise it; as a reader I found the book often baffling and sometimes incomprehensible.

Part one

We meet the hero, young Frédéric Moreau, in 1840 when he is an eighteen-year-old student, come from his home in Normandy to study law in Paris. The core of the plot is his enduring love for an older married woman, the wife of the art dealer Jacques Arnoux, who he sees on the Paris-to-Normandy river boat (along the river Seine) and spends the rest of the novel pursuing.

All this is completely autobiographical – Flaubert himself hailed from Normandy (his father was a surgeon), he studied law in Paris and he fell in love with an older married woman, like his hero. Looking back at his romantic younger self, Flaubert gives Frédéric numerous flights of romantic reverie, indulging what was obviously his own early lyrical sensibility. But the older Flaubert is much more world-weary, cynical and pessimistic, a tone which is prevalent in the third person narrative, and above all in the course of events, and the cynical outcomes of almost all the characters.

More interesting than the character of Moreau himself is the network of acquaintances Flaubert creates around him to convey the Parisian artistic and intellectual life of his generation. The art dealer Arnoux is depicted as a crook, inciting artists to paint meretricious works for money and ripping them off in all kinds of dodgy deals. He runs a magazine, L’Art Industriel, and every Wednesday he holds open house for painters, critics, writers, composers and so on to come round and chat. Moreau bumps into the young joker Hussonet and via him worms his way into becoming a regular at these open days, with the sole view of talking to Madame Arnoux who, however, rarely appears.

Meanwhile, his old schoolfriend from back in Nogent, Charles Deslauriers, turns up in Paris to study law and the pair share rooms, drinks, jokes. Frédéric organises a Saturday soirée for his friends. In one or other of these settings, we meet the following characters and follow their endless arguments about art and politics. It turns out to be necessary to really get to know them since they all reappear over the course of the next 12 years or so, playing key roles in the complex personal story, and background political developments, of the age.

  • Baptiste Martinon, law student
  • Marquis de Cisy, nobleman and law student
  • Sénécal, math tutor and uncompromising Republican
  • Hussonet, journalist, drama critic and joker
  • Dussardier, a simple shopworker who Moreau and Hussonet help after he’s wrongfully arrested for assaulting a policeman
  • Regimbart, ‘The Citizen’, a fiercely doctrinaire revolutionary
  • Pellerin, a painter with more theories than talent
  • Madamoiselle Vatnaz, actress, courtesan, frustrated feminist

The ‘plot’ i.e. the tangled sequence of events over the next 11 years (1840 to 1851) involves the appearance, disappearance and reappearance of all these characters, shedding light on their changes and developments, generally in a pessimistic downwards direction. For example, Frédéric’s childhood friend Deslaurier fails as a lawyer and would-be politician, turning to journalism where he writes scurrilous pieces for other papers and nags Frédéric to loan him the money to set up his own.

Whenever there is political turbulence, we can be sure of hearing about Sénécal and Regimbart, who, in different ways, rage against the ruling classes and the king. Over the eleven years they follow drastically different courses, Regimbart becoming a monosyllabic drunk, Sénécal  undergoing a complete volte-face to become a violent reactionary.

Pellerin is a broadly comic character, reminiscent of Homais in Bovary, in that he is mechanically predictable: whenever we meet him he is in thrall to yet another theory of art, changing his allegiance from Michelangelo to Titian to Velasquez and so on, never achieving anything, always complaining.

The plot is complex and multi-layered, but two key elements are Frédéric’s love life and his career (both ill-fated).

Love life (1)

Frédéric sees Madame Arnoux on the boat to Nogent and it is love at first sight. He inveigles his way into Monsieur Arnoux’s confidences with the sole purpose of seeing more of Madame. However, he finds himself being taken up by the cheery, good-natured Arnoux himself and initiated into the fact that Arnoux keeps a mistress in a set of rooms. Arnoux takes him there, and Frédéric meets the rather bony, dry, sharp Madamoiselle Vatnaz.

This adulterous relationship of Arnoux’s is one of the revelations of a Big Night out, when almost all the Parisian characters go to the opening of a new cabaret, the Alhambra. In a scene which is very filmic, they encounter each other in different rooms, drink, gamble, bump into each other later in the evening, are introduced to girlfriends, mistresses and courtesans and so on.

Career

As she sends him off to Paris, his loving mother hopes that Frédéric will work hard at his law studies, become a lawyer, stand as a deputy to the National Assembly and become a minister. Needless to say, none of this happens. Frédéric fritters away his money and his time on pointless love affairs, and looks every possibly gift horse in the mouth. After getting into the arty set around Arnoux’s magazine, he decides to become a painter (cue comic advice from the inept painter Pellerin). Later, Frédéric thinks he might become a journalist. In actual fact he ends up becoming a well-heeled wastrel. This becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader, and by about page 300 I really wanted to give Frédéric a good slap and tell him to sort his life out.

Right from the start Frédéric is advised by Frédéric’s mother’s friend Roque to go and contact a high society banker, Monsieur Dambreuse, to whom he is given a letter of introduction. Over the next 300 pages Frédéric only occasionally goes to see Dambreuse who: offers him the low-down on buying share in a new company which is bound to succeed – distracted by yet another love visit somewhere, Frédéric fails to do this. Then Dambreuse offers to make Frédéric secretary in the new company, in exchange for him purchasing shares: again Frédéric misses this opportunity because he just has to go and visit Madame Arnoux (yet again).

The most unaccountable stupidity is when, after being rejected by Madame Arnoux, Frédéric returns to his mother’s house in rural Nogent, and discovers that the little girl next door who he used to play with, the daughter of his mother’s neighbour, old Roque, has blossomed into the lovely young woman, Louise. They immediately get on well and it becomes clear that Louise is infatuated with him. The parents, of course, are totally informed and approve the match, Frédéric’s mother because old Roque is loaded and, if he marries Louise, Frédéric will inherit all his money – old Roque because he wants his daughter to gain a title and buried deep in Madame Moreau’s past is, in fact, a landed title, which Frédéric could revive.

Louise and Frédéric become so close that they are allowed to walk out together, the Nogent community is informed that they are engaged, and they themselves expect to marry. This goes on for some time, maybe a year, until Frédéric wakes up one fine day to find that a distant uncle – uncle Barthelemy – has died and left him a substantial fortune in property, from which he will be able to extract a very comfortable annual income.

This goes straight to his head and he tells his mother and Louise that he must go back to Paris to make his Great Career. Off he goes, hires himself an enormous apartment, decorates it in the finest fashion, hires a showy carriage and servant, and generally behave like a shallow idiot. What does he do with his position? Does he make careful plans to further his career by, for example, re-contacting the rich Dambreuse? No. He plunges back into the pointless vortex of love affairs and mistresses.

What is incomprehensible to me is that, after Frédéric returns to Paris, he promptly forgets all about Louise who is not mentioned for the next two hundred pages while Frédéric falls back into the same mind-numbingly boring routine of carrying a torch for Madame Arnoux, visiting the Arnoux household, getting caught up with Arnoux’s mistress, and so on.

Love life 2

Back in Paris Frédéric discovers that Arnoux has moved. It takes him some trouble to track him down, whereupon he discovers that Arnoux has completely changed career, selling his art magazine and investing in a pottery factory outside Paris. Moreover, he has dumped Mlle Vatnaz and his new lover is one Rosanette, a courtesan.

There is another Big Party scene, a fabulous masked ball. At this point I realised that Flaubert likes Big Set-Piece Scenes. Madame Bovary features a Rural Wedding, the Agricultural Show and a Rural Funeral, all reminiscent of big mid-Victorian panoramic paintings. As befits a novel set in the Big City, Sentimental Education includes similar Set Pieces but with an urban setting – The Cabaret Party in part one and The Masked Ball in part two, both described in loving detail, at length, and opportunities for Flaubert to display his ability with complex scenes featuring numerous characters, all displaying new and unexpected aspects of their personalities and unexpected relationships between each other.

A feature of these scenes, as with the several Big Dinner Parties given by M. Dambreuse, is that the reader is often as confused as Frédéric by the gossip, mutterings, sniggers behind fans, people looking at him with raised eyebrows, and so on. Whatever Frédéric does, social gossip is always one step ahead, and it’s a feature of the book that he’s not only the last one to find out various important facts about other characters, but that Flaubert makes the reader share in Frédéric’s imperceptiveness, his dimness.

Frédéric likes Arnoux’s mistress, Rosanette, and has Pellerin paint him a portrait of her (giving rise to many comic moments highlighting Pellerin’s ineptitude as an artist). His old schoolfriend Deslauriers is resentful of Frédéric’s new wealth and asks 15,000 francs of him to set up a new newspaper. Frédéric listens to the unrealistic proposal for it, but promises the money anyway.

However, just as he receives the money from his own solicitor, Arnoux comes bustling round to his apartment to tell him that he desperately needs about 12,000 francs as he is about to be declared bankrupt: just for a week, two at the most. Still obsessed with his ‘love’ for M. Arnoux, in the vague hope that by helping the husband he will get ‘closer’ to the wife, Frédéric gives Arnoux the money, and then has to make up some excuse for letting down Deslaurier who, not surprisingly, is bitterly disappointed. Frédéric himself is then let down when cheery Arnoux is unable to repay him next week, or the week after and, as the months go by, Frédéric realises that the money is lost.

Frédéric begins pursuing Rosanette in earnest and takes her to the races, but she goes home with a man named Cisy. At dinner one night at Cisy’s opulent home, Cisy reveals that he had gone home with Rosanette to win a bet. The guests talk about Arnoux and lewdly suggest that Madame Arnoux has been a mistress to many men. Frédéric throws a plate at Cisy, and the argument escalates. The men agree to a duel and Flaubert depicts the formalities of such an event in painstaking detail – but on the appointed day, Cisy faints and the whole thing – symbolic of all the romantic dreams which fizzle out in sordid disappointment – is a damp squib.

Thinking of money has raised the spectre of working with or for Dambreuse, who Frédéric goes to meet and who offers him job but – Frédéric fails to keep the appointment they make to discuss it in detail, because he hears that Arnoux’s fortunes have taken a turn for the worse and he makes a wild goose chase visit out to the factory in the country outside Paris to see Madame Arnoux – again. The journey, the countryside and the factory are all interestingly described, but I really want to shake Moreau and tell him to grow up.

Frédéric hesitatingly makes his feelings clear to Madame Arnoux who brushes him off with very sensible nostrums about how duty comes first and brief affairs never lead to happiness. Rebuffed, Frédéric goes straight back into Paris and to the apartment of Rosanette, who he has fancied since he met her. Only after he’s left, does Madame Arnoux have an epiphany and realise that she does love Frédéric.

The Rosanette connection becomes more and more complex in the final third of the novel, because Frédéric discovers that, as well as Arnoux as a lover, Rosanette has for some time had an elderly ‘sponsor’, M. Oudry. Later, in part three, we discover that she is seeing a rich Russian aristocrat. And then in another twist, Frédéric discovers that she seems to be in love with a pretentious Paris actor, Delmas.

None of this prevents Frédéric pursuing her and eventually having sex with her so that (presumably) she becomes ‘his’ mistress. At some point I had to give up and confess I didn’t understand the ‘love’ story in the novel at all. I don’t understand how Frédéric can be passionately in love with Madame Arnoux and yet dedicate so much time to seducing Rosanette, all the time knowing that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved’s husband and continues to see other men, and then in the rural scenes back at Nogent, go walking out with Louise and declare to her that he has never been happier.

It’s not a question of him being a cad or a ‘sexual predator’ as modern usage has it – it is much weirder than that. Throughout the novel I had the sense that Flaubert was describing a set of values and a mindset which I just simply don’t understand.

In the concluding scenes of Part Two Frédéric finally gets Madame Arnoux on her own, without her maid or small children, and there tells her he loves her and – for the very first time – she admits that she loves him too. For some reason there is no kissing or sexual contact at this moment, instead – as in so many of these 19th century fictions – they are left on tenterhooks of love and sensuality but…. make an appointment to meet the next day. The reader can’t help thinking this is a convention created purely and solely to create problems and misunderstandings, as in a bedroom farce.

And sure enough, the next day, Mme Arnoux’s son is seriously ill with croup and so, of course, she doesn’t keep the rendezvous. So Frédéric – thinking he has been jilted – promptly goes round to Rosanette’s place and for the first time really oversteps the bounds of 19th century caution, kissing her, putting his arm round her waist and – we are led to believe – finally having sex with her (the first time he’s done it with anyone, as far as we can tell).

Part three (1)

I am hopelessly confused by the love life aspect of the story. Frédéric knows that Rosanette has been the mistress of his beloved Madame Arnoux’s husband, has been attached to a rich old geezer, Oudry, as well as the rich Russian prince, and discovers that she holds a torch for the Parisian actor and yet still thinks he loves her.

The political scenes come as a relief from the love life because at least I understand their logic. The February 1848 revolution breaks out right at the end of part two, and Frédéric associates the sense of liberation and freedom in the air of Paris with his ‘love’ for Rosanette, who he is now regularly sleeping with.

Part three follows straight o from this, with Frédéric getting caught up in the February street fighting, which is described vividly.

French politics – an interlude

In 1830 France had one of its many revolutions and, in the ‘Three Glorious Days’ of July, overthrew King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, and replaced him with his cousin Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The reign of Louis-Philippe was characterised by a wide range of political factions, who jostled and bickered for the next eighteen years: on the right some dreamed of restoring the legitimate line of Charles X (hence ‘the legitimists’) – the ‘Orleanists’ supported Louis-Philippe himself – some ‘imperialists’ wanted a return to the glory years of Napoleon. In the ‘centre’ were all sorts of middle-class republicans, who thought France would thrive best without a monarchy, although they all disagreed about who ought to lead the government of this hoped-for republic. On the left was a florid assortment of socialists who wanted to see society reorganised for the benefit of the working class, and even the newly-coined term ‘communists’, who wanted the abolition of private property and the inauguration of a completely utopian, propertyless, and so completely equal, society.

There were insurrections and attempted coups against Louis-Philippe in 1832, 1834 and 1839. These disgruntlements are the backdrop to the occasional political arguments among the characters mentioned above. But it was a bad harvest and industrial depression in 1847 which threw both peasants and urban workers out of work, many of them making their way to Paris in search of employment. These men provided the mobs which rose up in February 1848 and marched on the royal palace carrying torches and muskets. Louis-Philippe fled out the back door and made his way to exile in England (as so many continentals did during the 19th century, monarchs and revolutionaries alike). A republic was declared, a Provisional Government cobbled together, and three years of instability and uncertainty followed.

Flaubert captures the confusion, and the violently opposing political opinions, very well, as Frédéric a) sees for himself the fighting on the streets in February b) hears how the cross-section of pals from his soirees back in part one have fared in the disturbances (shot, arrested, imprisoned, hero of the revolution etc).

In a farcical scene Frédéric is encouraged to go along to one of the countless political clubs which have flourished after the revolution, and stand for election as a deputy. Initially greeted as a hero because he had (more or less accidentally) spoken up against Louis-Philippe at a society dinner given by the banker Dambreuse, when he protests about a Spanish ‘comrade’ giving a long speech in Spanish, the fickle crowd turn against him and just as vehemently attack him for being a member of the hated ‘bourgeoisie’. He is forced to make a speedy exit, the whole scene embodying Flaubert’s contempt for ‘the mob’ and for politics in general. ‘Stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ are words which recur in Flaubert’s descriptions both of crowds and mobs, but also of high society with its reactionary clichés and stereotypes.

Months of political uncertainty follow, against which Frédéric finds out that Arnoux is still Rosanette’s lover. He tries to get Rosanette to choose between them, but she refuses and so – sick of politics and her vacillation – Frédéric takes Rosanette on a prolonged holiday in the beautiful countryside surrounding the royal palace at Fontainebleu. This four or five-day trip is described in minute detail, the precise itinerary of each day’s outings, with exactly what part of the forest and landscape they saw, what the light was like, and what they ate that night for dinner.

This is odd, because they are on this holiday precisely during the notorious ‘June Days’, the decisive event of 1848. Under Louis-Philippe, National Workshops had been set up to provide a dole for the large number of unemployed in Paris. After the February revolution the Provisional Government commissioned a report into the future of the Workshops, and the right-wing leader of the committee recommended closing them down to save money.

As soon as these findings leaked out, socialist leaders roused the working classes and barricades went up all over Paris (again). The government asked the newly appointed Minister of War, General Cavaignac, to put down the insurrection, which he did with great bloodshed. As many as 3,000 people were killed in the resulting street fighting and all the socialist leaders were arrested and put in prison. Cavaignac was appointed President of the Council of Ministers, becoming effective dictator, until the presidential elections which were held in December 1848.

Part three (2)

Anyway, Flaubert must get his hero back into the thick of things and so he invents the pretext that Frédéric reads that his long-standing working class friend, Dussardier, has been wounded. Despite Rosanette’s bitter protestations, Frédéric travels back into Paris (itself difficult because the coaches have stopped running) only to be arrested by various members of the suspicious and angry National Guard.

Flaubert vividly conveys the atmosphere of completely random violence and terror created by insurrection and street fighting. Frédéric is locked up in various ad hoc barracks and prisons, before finally convincing someone in authority to let him proceed to Dussardier’s house, where he finds the working class hero being tended by none other than wiry Mlle Vatnaz. Being a good chap – if also, as we know by now, hopelessly indecisive and weak-willed – Frédéric goes back every day for a fortnight to offer help and moral support.

Things move on. Frédéric attends a dinner chez Dambreuse which is fraught with currents and counter-currents, since Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are there and so is Louise, Monsieur Roque’s daughter, the one Frédéric is meant to be engaged to. Maliciously, the other male guests bring up the subject of the portrait Frédéric persuaded Pellerin to do of Rosanette. In a cameo moment earlier in the story, when Frédéric refused to pay for it, Pellerin had displayed it prominently in his window, with a caption proclaiming that Rosanette was Frédéric’s mistress. As the guests remember and discuss this incident, both Mme Arnoux and Louise realise that Frédéric is her lover. Nonetheless, as they all leave the dinner, Louise walks arm in arm with Frédéric, reminding him that they had pledged to get married. Frédéric makes a fool of himself trying to wriggle out of it.

Meanwhile, life with Rosanette is serene and pleasant. He has moved in with her. They tend the window boxes and watch passersby, neither of them needing to work for a living.

But that doesn’t stop Frédéric – upon hearing gossip that Monsieur and Madame Arnoux are becoming estranged – from going straight round to see Madame Arnoux and – finding her alone – blames her for not coming to see him the morning of their rendezvous. She explains that she had stayed at home to tend her ill son. All is forgiven and they declare their undying love for each other, and indulge in a long, lingering kiss. Then they hear a creak of floorboards and look up. Rosanette is standing there. She had followed Frédéric, and got past the front door, any servants, up the stairs and into the room unimpeded. For me this felt like almost any moment from Eastenders or a Whitehall farce. Somehow everyone involved takes it calmly, Rosanette asks Frédéric to come home with her, Madame Arnoux waves goodbye from the top of the stairs.

Back in their apartment, Frédéric has a furious row with Rosanette, accusing her of following him, in the middle of which she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. Eastenders. This argument makes him realise he despises Rosanette. From that point onwards, Frédéric continues to live with her but is increasingly repelled by her commonness and vulgarity. The happy honeymoon in Fontainebleu, the lazy days staring from the sunny balcony, are completely gone.

Whereupon – and this is the kind of turn of events which genuinely mystifies me – Frédéric decides to seduce Mme Dambreuse in order to gain social standing. The Seduction Scene is described in some detail and Frédéric, who is becoming expert at this, is astonished that Madame Dambreuse gives in so quickly, lying back on her sofa with her eyes closed, which is the signal for him to kiss her.

Once this intimacy is established, Frédéric is astonished to discover just how much Madame Dambreuse hates her husband. It turns out (rather inevitably) that he has also had many mistresses, and that the ‘niece’ they have brought up in their household – Cécile, who we’ve met at their parties and dinners – is in fact his love child by one of his mistresses, who Madame D agreed to raise, but loathes. To his astonishment, she asks if he will marry her.

In quick succession, two key events follow: the previously hale and hearty Monsieur Dambreuse falls ill and dies, and Rosanette’s new-born baby dies. (In one of the many aspects of the novel which seem incomprehensible to the modern reader, as soon as the baby was born she had farmed it out to a wet nurse who lived out in the country – why? – and on the one time Frédéric goes to visit he is appalled by the squalor of the hut the baby’s being kept in, the goats wandering round, the animal manure around the building: why?).

During M. Dambreuse’s illness his wife reveals to Frédéric that, what with her own dowry, all her husband’s business interests, she will be worth some three million francs! Given that Frédéric is living very comfortably on about 15,000 francs a year, this obviously represents an absolute fortune and – being the impractical dreamer that he is – Frédéric starts planning extensions to the house, the creation of his own personal library, a bigger, grander carriage, more servants etc.

Monsieur Dambreuse’s funeral is another typically Flaubertian Set-Piece, with great detail about all the practical arrangements, leading into satire on the starchy behaviour of the high society invitees, and then their unbuttoned conversations at the post-funeral reception.

But Frédéric comes round a day or two later to find Madame Dambreuse sitting on the floor surrounded by a sea of documents, safes, folders and papers, crying. Turns out her husband had destroyed the will in which he left everything to her and instead – has left everything to the love child, Cécile. Frédéric’s dreams go up in smoke, but he still pledges his loyalty to her.

From this point onwards, Frédéric secretly splits his time between the two women, spending the afternoon with Rosanette, going to see Madame Dambreuse every evening. He congratulates himself on his cleverness, on using the same phrases, reading the same poetry, with each of the women. He enjoys his own ‘wickedness’.

Money

As in Madame Bovary it is money troubles which trigger the multiple crises and bring the long rambling plot to a climax.

  1. Rosanette is unable to pay off some debts she owes, and when she tries to cash in some shares which Arnoux gave her, discovers that they are worthless. She takes him to court and her suit is a contributory cause of the final collapse of all Arnoux’s financial scams.
  2. We learn from multiple sources that M. Arnoux has finally been overtaken by his financial difficulties and is preparing to flee the country, along with Madame A.

Initially Frédéric hears gossip that M. Arnoux only needs 12,000 or so francs to remain solvent. In fact he hears it from the painter Pellerin, who he and Rosanette (bizarrely) commissioned to paints a portrait of their dead child. Petrified at the thought of losing Madame Arnoux (if she flees Paris), Frédéric asks for money from Mme Dambreuse, making up a cock and bull story about a friend being threatened with prison.

But M. Arnoux’s debts are much bigger than a measly 12,000 francs and by the time Frédéric goes round with the money he discovers they have fled to Le Havre, presumably to flee the country and his debtors.

Madame Dambreuse discovers his motive for borrowing the money and confronts him in a big shouting match. She accuses him of having multiple lovers, which is close enough. Now earlier in the story we had been told how Frédéric’s oldest friend, Deslaurier, had himself made a pass at Madame Arnoux (is seducing each other’s wives and mistresses all these people do?). When she rejected him, he conceived an obdurate hatred for her. As part of his ongoing attempts to ‘get on’ he had then made himself a sort of legal adviser to Monsieur Dambreuse, and then to his widow.

Now, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, Deslauriers spitefully suggests to Madame Dambreuse that she sell some of the debts which Arnoux racked up with her husband on to a debt collector.

She does so, the debt collector acts with typical aggressiveness, and this results in the bailiffs declaring a public auction of all the Arnouxs’ furniture and possessions.

A few days later, on one of her Frédéric’s lazy afternoon coach rides, Madame Dambreuse deliberately makes the driver ride by the auction house and – as if on a whim – insists to Frédéric that they go in.

Frédéric is horrified to realise what is going on – the auction of all Arnoux’s possessions – but is forced to watch as all the intimate belongings of (despite everything) his one true love, are auctioned off – the carpet she tiptoed across, the bed linen she slept in etc.

Madame Dambreuse watches Frédéric’s discomfiture with real upper-class scorn. When a trivial object of Madame Arnoux’s, a silver keepsake, comes up, Madame Dambreuse insists on outbidding everyone else in order to own it. Frédéric begs her not to, to have pity on his heart – but she insists. It is a very powerful scene.

When they finally exit the auction house, Frédéric sees Madame Dambreuse into her grand carriage, shuts the door, bids her adieu and walks away.

It is over. It is all over. His love is dead. His heart is crushed. He hates Madame Dambreuse; there will be no reconciliation. He knows Rosanette has other lovers; their child is dead; he hates her too. And the only woman he ever loved has gone away, he knows not where.

Sick of Paris and its ‘high life’, he retreats like a broken animal to his home territory, catching a train and stage coach back to Nogent. But as he comes closer he hears church bells and – as a in a fairy tale – he arrives at the church just in time to see Louise in a wedding dress exiting the church on the arm of her new husband, none other than his oldest dearest friend, Deslauriers.

Here and there, in the previous hectic fifty pages or so, had been carefully inserted references to Deslaurier’s absence in Nogent. Now we realise (as does Frédéric) that his best friend had been a) badmouthing him to his own mother, Old Roque and Louise, telling everyone about his married mistresses b) working his way into the affections of both Old Roque and Louise c) using Old Roque’s influence to stand as deputy for the whole region – in all of which he succeeded.

Frédéric is crushed. All his hopes lie in tatters. There remains one last, brutal disillusionment. Frédéric returns to Paris and Flaubert engineers a scene whereby Frédéric witnesses a bit more street fighting (the timeline has moved on to 1851 now) and he sees the good simply working class man Dussardier mount a final barricade and be brutally hacked down with a sword by a policeman of the new order, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. And this enemy of the working class is none other than – Frédéric’s old friend, the violent republican Sénécal, who has completed an intellectual volte-face from fire-breathing socialist to murderous imperialist, a flaring symbol of the utter stupid futility of politics.

Coda

The last few pages of the novel are genuinely emotional. Burnt out, abandoned, Frédéric leaves France and goes travelling to lose himself and when he returns, is a broken man.

He travelled.
He knew the melancholy associated with packet-boats, the chill one feels on waking up under tents, the dizzy effect of landscapes and ruins, and the bitterness of ruptured sympathies.
He returned home.
He mingled in society, and he conceived attachments to other women. But the constant recollection of his first love made these appear insipid; and besides the vehemence of desire, the bloom of the sensation had vanished. In like manner, his intellectual ambitions had grown weaker. Years passed; and he was forced to support the burden of a life in which his mind was unoccupied and his heart devoid of energy.

‘Towards the end of March, 1867, just as it was getting dark, one evening, he was sitting all alone in his study, when a woman suddenly came in.’

It is Madame Arnoux. She and her husband are living in obscurity in rural Brittany. She and Frédéric swear their undying love to each other. Maybe their love has survived and meant so much because they were never together. She takes her cap off to cut a lock of her hair for him, and he is stricken to see that her hair has gone completely white. She is an old lady. She leaves. It is the last time they will meet.

In the final final scene, years later, Frédéric encounters Deslauriers again and the novel ends the way it began, with the pair swapping stories of the past. On the final page they decide that their best memory is of being about 16 and trying to sneak into the town brothel in Nogent. Like simpletones they picked nosegays for the girls but, once inside, all the girls laughed at their sweet innocence and, overcome by embarrassment, first Frédéric and then Deslauriers had fled.

Now they sit by the fire, too old men reminiscing and agreeing that, yes, that was probably the happiest moment in their lives.


Paris

Rosy clouds, scarf-like in form, stretched beyond the roofs; the shop-tents were beginning to be taken away; water-carts were letting a shower of spray fall over the dusty pavement; and an unexpected coolness was mingled with emanations from cafés, as one got a glimpse through their open doors, between some silver plate and gilt ware, of flowers in sheaves, which were reflected in the large sheets of glass. The crowd moved on at a leisurely pace. Groups of men were chatting in the middle of the footpath; and women passed along with an indolent expression in their eyes and that camelia tint in their complexions which intense heat imparts to feminine flesh. Something immeasurable in its vastness seemed to pour itself out and enclose the houses. Never had Paris looked so beautiful. He saw nothing before him in the future but an interminable series of years all full of love. (Part one, chapter five)

If Madame Bovary was a portrait of rural France, Sentimental Education, although it includes a few other settings (Frédéric’s home town of Nogent, the Fontainebleu excursion), feels like a portrait of Paris, its streets, its geography, the wide river Seine, its colourful nightlife, and then as a setting for street fighting and revolution.

The two big parties I mentioned are complemented by smaller but still grand affairs – a formal dinner at Monsieur Dambreuse’s, where Frédéric is surprised at how boring and staid the banking-class guests are – a day at the races in the Champs de Mars (where Madame Arnoux sees Frédéric accompanying Rosanette, one of the many small incidents which add complication to the endless bedroom farce of his love life). Here is Frédéric mingling his dopey romantic feelings with the street life of the city.

The dinners were now renewed; and the more visits he paid at Madame Arnoux’s, the more his love-sickness increased. The contemplation of this woman had an enervating effect upon him, like the use of a perfume that is too strong. It penetrated into the very depths of his nature, and became almost a kind of habitual sensation, a new mode of existence.

The prostitutes whom he brushed past under the gaslight, the female ballad-singers breaking into bursts of melody, the ladies rising on horseback at full gallop, the shopkeepers’ wives on foot, the grisettes at their windows, all women brought her before his mental vision, either from the effect of their resemblance to her or the violent contrast to her which they presented. As he walked along by the shops, he gazed at the cashmeres, the laces, and the jewelled eardrops, imagining how they would look draped around her figure, sewn in her corsage, or lighting up her dark hair. In the flower-girls’ baskets the bouquets blossomed for her to choose one as she passed. In the shoemakers’ show-windows the little satin slippers with swan’s-down edges seemed to be waiting for her foot. Every street led towards her house; the hackney-coaches stood in their places to carry her home the more quickly; Paris was associated with her person, and the great city, with all its noises, roared around her like an immense orchestra. (Part one, chapter five)

There are plenty of descriptions of sunrise over Paris, of Paris at twilight, of the fires burning over revolutionary Paris, of the excitement in the air of spring in Paris, and so on. Paris is intellectual ferment, the hustle and bustle of the streets, money and glamour but above all, the sensual promise of women.

The Seine, which was of a yellowish colour, almost reached the platforms of the bridges. A cool breath of air issued from it. Frederick inhaled it with his utmost energy, drinking in this good air of Paris, which seems to contain the effluvia of love and the emanations of the intellect. He was touched with emotion at the first glimpse of a hackney-coach. He gazed with delight on the thresholds of the wine-merchants’ shops garnished with straw, on the shoe-blacks with their boxes, on the lads who sold groceries as they shook their coffee-burners. Women hurried along at a jog-trot with umbrellas over their heads. He bent forward to try whether he could distinguish their faces—chance might have led Madame Arnoux to come out.

The shops displayed their wares. The crowd grew denser; the noise in the streets grew louder. After passing the Quai Saint-Bernard, the Quai de la Tournelle, and the Quai Montebello, they drove along the Quai Napoléon. He was anxious to see the windows there; but they were too far away from him. Then they once more crossed the Seine over the Pont-Neuf, and descended in the direction of the Louvre; and, having traversed the Rues Saint-Honoré, Croix des Petits-Champs, and Du Bouloi, he reached the Rue Coq-Héron, and entered the courtyard of the hotel. (Part one, chapter seven)

The role of women

Obviously, the main line of the plot is Frédéric’s extraordinarily tangled love life – which I found incomprehensible from start to finish. Saying he carries a torch for a beautiful, sensitive, married woman but ends up going out with a courtesan makes it sound too simple and comprehensible; in fact his love affairs proceed through a sequence of scenes with Madame Arnoux, Rosanette, Mlle Vatnaz and others, every single one of which is difficult to understand – their dialogue, their expectations, their attitudes – all seemed completely alien and unreal to me.

Lengthy dialogue which seems to completely miss the point, alternates with abrupt scenes which skate over what would – for a modern person – be profound emotional or moral issues. And they recur again and again. As an example, as the June Days approach, Frédéric bumps into the banker Dambreuse (who has shifted with the times to become a devout republican), who unexpectedly praises Arnoux for saving his life the last time the mob invaded the Chamber of Deputies and surprises Frédéric by announcing that he has been elected a deputy. In response to this news:

Frédéric, after he had quitted M. Dambreuse, went back to Rosanette, and, in a very gloomy fashion, said that she should choose between him and Arnoux. She replied that she did not understand ‘that sort of talk’, that she did not care about Arnoux, and had no desire to cling to him. Frédéric felt an urge to leave Paris. She did not offer any opposition to this whim; and next morning they set out for Fontainebleau.

So their ‘honeymoon’ trip to Fontainebleu is Frédéric’s response to the fact that his mistress refuses to stop seeing (and presumably having sex with) the husband of the woman he really loves??

I found the endless indecisiveness of the central ‘love story’ more remote from my understanding of human nature  than something out of Chaucer or an Icelandic saga. Why does Frédéric ping pong between just these two women – are they the only two women in Paris? Why is he proud at making Rosannette his mistress when he knows that she continues to see Arnoux, as well as old M. Oudry, the Russian aristocrat and who knows how many others?

Putting that to one side, I think even if you aren’t particularly feminist in outlook, it’s also hard not to get upset at the way women are discussed and treated in the book. Whenever the men get together (which is a lot – Frédéric’s one-on-ones with friends, Frédéric’s house parties, Arnoux’s regular ‘at homes’, in nightclubs, in restaurants, at formal dinners) the conversation among men left to themselves quickly turns to ‘women’, with the men discussing the merits of this or that mistress, or type of woman, or women in general, usually dismissed as fickle or shallow.

When the young lads go for a night out at a new nightclub, the Alcazar, in part one, the aim is to pair off with one of the women there, who are categorised as ‘courtesans, working girls or prostitutes’.

The conversation turned on women. Pellerin would not admit that there were beautiful women (he preferred tigers); besides the human female was an inferior creature in the æsthetic hierarchy.

‘What fascinates you is just the very thing that degrades her as an idea; I mean her breasts, her hair…’

‘Nevertheless,’ urged Frederick, ‘long black hair and large dark eyes…’

‘Oh! we know all about that,’ cried Hussonnet. ‘Enough of Andalusian beauties on the lawn. Those things are out of date; no thank you! For the fact is, honour bright! a fast woman is more amusing than the Venus of Milo. Let us be Gallic, in Heaven’s name, and after the Regency style, if we can!’

Entry-level feminism will be outraged at the relentlessly secondary role given to women, often nameless, judged only on their appearance and seen as appendages to the named and ‘interesting’ men.

Sénécal placed his glass of beer on the mantelpiece, and declared dogmatically that, as prostitution was tyrannical and marriage immoral, it was better to practice abstinence. Deslauriers regarded women as a source of amusement – nothing more. M. de Cisy looked upon them with the utmost dread.

A little to the side of this obvious perspective, I was interested in the way that the objectification and denigration of woman helped the men to bond: Discussing women is a ‘safe’ activity – as opposed to discussions of either art of politics, which lead immediately to bitter arguments. Discussing sex may have its own disputes, but is essentially a unifying exercise at which older men nod and boast about their conquests, while younger men brag and lie.

Flaubert’s overall artistic intention – as stated in a series of famous letters – was to eliminate the intrusive narrator’s voice from his fiction. Narrators had cheerily interrupted their novels to point a moral and make suave generalisations for a hundred years or more. Flaubert very self-consciously set out to reject this entire tradition. The author’s tone was to be everywhere felt but nowhere explicitly visible.

Another aspect of this approach is that Flaubert claimed to be just presenting reality as it is.

If Charles Bovary is weak, if Emma Bovary is a bad mother, if Rodolphe is a sexual predator – it is not Flaubert’s fault. He is presenting humanity in all its weakness.

Ditto, in Sentimental Education, if Frédéric is weak-willed, a prey to feeble sensuality, in thrall to stupid ideals of romance, utterly unable to make the most of the opportunities life presents him with, it is not Flaubert’s fault. If a group of men at a dinner party or a nightclub end up talking about women, Flaubert is showing what the life of his time was like (and the life of men has been right up to the present day).

He would claims that men are like that and he is simply showing it, warts and all.

On the plus side, Flaubert presents the character of Mademoiselle Vatnaz, an avowed feminist and a reminder that, like the arguments of socialists, the arguments of feminists have existed, been published, promoted and discussed, since at least the time of the French Revolution.

The ill-temper of Rosanette only increased. Mademoiselle Vatnaz irritated him with her enthusiasm. Believing that she had a mission, she felt a furious desire to make speeches, to carry on disputes, and – sharper than Rosanette in matters of this sort – overwhelmed her with arguments.

One day she made her appearance burning with indignation against Hussonnet, who had just indulged in some blackguard remarks at the Woman’s Club. Rosanette approved of this conduct, declaring even that she would take men’s clothes to go and ‘give them a bit of her mind, the entire lot of them, and to whip them.’

Frédéric entered at the same moment.

‘You’ll accompany me – won’t you?’

And, in spite of his presence, a bickering match took place between them, one of them playing the part of a citizen’s wife and the other of a female philosopher.

According to Rosanette, women were born exclusively for love, or in order to bring up children, to be housekeepers.

According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, women ought to have a position in the Government. In former times, the Gaulish women, and also the Anglo-Saxon women, took part in the legislation; the squaws of the Hurons formed a portion of the Council. The work of civilisation was common to both. It was necessary that all should contribute towards it, and that fraternity should be substituted for egoism, association for individualism, and cultivation on a large scale for minute subdivision of land.

The Woman’s Club? This is the only mention made of it in the text. It is fascinating to learn that such a thing existed in 1848, and that all the characters take it and the various arguments for women’s liberation entirely for granted, much as they take the arguments of the legitimists or the socialists, or any other political point of view.

Like Flaubert I am pessimistic about political change. The socialists in this book argue passionately for a change to the system which will abolish poverty and inequality. The feminists argue for a transformation of relationships between the sexes to make men and women truly equal.

170 years later, the arguments are exactly the same and being put with exactly the same vehemence, as if the Great Day of Freedom and Equality is just around the corner, just within reach, only requires a handful more newspaper articles, a couple more stirring speeches and… human nature will be transformed forever. Always mañana.

Summary

Early on I stumbled across the criticism made by Henry James – who adored Madame Bovary – that Sentimental Education lacks charm. He is right. The first hundred pages or so seemed qualitatively superior to the remaining 300. The boat trip to Nogent, Frédéric’s reunion with his old school friend, his poor student days rooming with Deslaurier, his mother’s fussing concern, old Roque the neighbour and his little daughter – all this have a charm and novelty.

But once he has inherited his fortune and goes off to Paris, Frédéric and the novel settle into a boring and repetitive pattern of him repeatedly visiting a) the Arnoux household to be ignored by Madame b) the apartment of Rosanette, where there are hundreds of pages of incomprehensible 19th century etiquette, before he does the simplest thing in the world and puts his arm round her waist and kisses her – at which point she ‘succumbs’ and becomes his mistress. Which is complicated in the final hundred or so pages with the addition of Madame Dambreuse. I freely admit I just didn’t understand the behaviour, motivation or psychology of any of the characters in Frédéric’s three-cornered love life, and so I failed to really understand the core of the book.

That said, as with Bovary the pleasure of the text is in the precise description of almost any individual scene – you can open the book at random and soon come across one of Flaubert’s wonderful descriptions of scenes and settings, large or small. Take this excerpt from the big dinner party chez Dambreuse.

Under the green leaves of a pineapple, in the middle of the table-cloth, a dolphin stood, with its snout reaching towards a quarter of roebuck and its tail just grazing a bushy dish of crayfish. Figs, huge cherries, pears, and grapes (the first fruits of Parisian cultivation) rose like pyramids in baskets of old Saxe. Here and there a bunch of flowers mingled with the shining silver plate. The white silk blinds, drawn down in front of the windows, filled the apartment with a mellow light. It was cooled by two fountains, in which there were pieces of ice; and tall men-servants, in short breeches, waited on them.

There are many moments of lucid clarity like this.

But that said, where Madame Bovary seems to me superior is that its narrative is carried forward in a much more dynamic and straightforward way, with a kind of tragic inevitability – the book is the record of her decline and fall which unfolds with the unstoppability of a Greek tragedy. Whereas Frédéric in Sentimental Education is more like a hamster who just goes round and round in his wheel for hundreds of pages, shilly shallying between one women or another, his personality and his situation never really changing or developing, not till towards the end anyway.

You could be clever and argue that this quality of stasis, of the hero being stuck in a rut, is itself a critique of the limitations, the paralysis, of ‘bourgeois’ society.

But plenty of people in 19th century France lived wildly exciting and achieveful lives, went abroad to run its growing empires, or developed new technologies, industries, made scientific discoveries, even rebuilt Paris – during this period. Fortunes were made, political careers forged, and new arts and designs created – the ‘Second Empire’ style in furniture was created and, as Flaubert was writing this novel (1862-69), the young generation of painters who would be dubbed ‘the Impressionists’ were developing entirely new ways of thinking about art and reality.

Flaubert’s era was one of staggering change and innovation. In other words, the choice of a bumbling ne’er-do-well as protagonist, like the earlier choice of a small-town adulteress, reflect Flaubert’s personality, temperament and aesthetic, rather than the reality of his era.

To make a really sweeping generalisation – insofar as Flaubert is often seen as a patron saint of modern novelists, you could say that he helped to create the stereotype of the author as outsider, as ineffectual bystander – despite living in one of the most dynamic and exciting eras of European history.

Flaubert helped create the reputation of literature as carping and critical of contemporary society – and as deliberately getting its own back on the society which increasingly rejected it, by dwelling on the one area where it could hurt and sting bourgeois culture – by deliberately and provocatively defying conventional sexual morality, by focusing on increasingly degraded or deviant ideas of sexuality.

The political timeframe

Anyway, back with Sentimental Education, I haven’t really brought out the very artful way Flaubert sets the entire story against the fraught political events of 1840 to 1851; how he creates different political points of view for the gang of characters we meet early on and then shows how their initial political beliefs develop, triumph, fail, mutate or are disappointed.

Not only does the final third take place against the revolutionary turmoil of 1848, but the final scene of the auction, when all his hopes and illusions are utterly crushed, is made to coincide with the coup mounted by the President Louis Napoleon, who will go on to have himself crowned the Emperor Napoleon III.

This is a deep and fruitful aspect of the novel but it would require a separate review to do justice to it.

Conclusion

Sentimental Education is a complex, rich, deep, carefully organised and in many places beautifully written novel, but which I really struggled to understand or sympathise with.

The final pages – Madame Arnoux’s appearance as an old lady, and the final scene of two wistful old men reminiscing about their schooldays – are immediately understandable and moving: but too much of the preceding 400 pages was psychologically and morally incomprehensible, so completely alien to modern behaviour and values, that I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it.


Related links

Flaubert’s books

From Weimar to Wall Street 1918-1929 (1993)

This book is volume three in Hamlyn’s History of the Twentieth Century. It’s a fun, Sunday afternoon coffee-table book, nice and big – 28 cm tall by 22 cm wide – with plenty of space for full-page reproductions of photos, posters, film stills, art works and so on. It also includes timelines for each sector or topic, useful maps and ‘datafiles’, giving facts and figures about populations, industrial production, election results and so on.

One of its appeals is that it doesn’t restrict itself just to Europe and America, but ranges right around the world, describing social and political history in Turkey, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, Asia, China. It’s divided into four big topic areas – Politics, Economics, Society and Culture – and these main chapter headings are interspersed with special features about, for example, Bolshevism, Hollywood, modern medicine, jazz, air travel and so on.

It looks rather like one of my daughter’s school textbooks, with its busy layout of pages, text, Fact Boxes, maps, graphs and graphics – all designed to retain the interest of the hyperactive teenager.

A Peace Conference at the Quai d'Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay by William Orpen (1919)

It includes this striking painting by William Orpen, an Anglo-Irish painter who fought during the Great War and did some paintings of the Front, before moving on to portraits of key political players of the day. Here you can seee the leaders of the victorious allies – thin Woodrow Wilson at centre front, sitting in the red chair; to his right, with the big white moustache, Clemenceau, Premier of France; and to his right David Lloyd-George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, with the mane of white hair.

In the full-page reproduction of this painting what really stands out is the way Orpen handles the immense amount of gold decoration, shaping and moulding it in thick impastos of gold paint, alive with catchlights.

A flavour of the 1920s

  • 11 November 1918 end of World War One. Collapse of the Wilhelmine Empire and creation of the Weimar Republic. Germany’s colonies in Africa handed over to Britain (Tanganyika), France (Cameroon) and Belgium (Rwanda). Britain maintains its blockade on German seaports leading to thousands of civilian deaths from starvation over winter 1918, until Germany signs the Versailles Treaty in June 1919.
  • The Versailles Treaty imposes punishing reparations on Germany. Successive treaties see the creation of new countries from the collapsed European empires e.g. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Establishment of the League of Nations which, however, the U.S. Senate refuses to ratify in 1919.
  • The Ottoman Empire is dismembered by the Treaty of Sèvres (August 1920). Mustafa Kemal, who has led the Turkish nationalist revolution, becomes Turkish president in 1920. the Allies encourage Greece to invade mainland Turkey which leads to the bitter Greco-Turkish War (1919-22). France and Britain take over ‘mandates’, controlling newly created countries across the Middle East in what had been the Ottoman Empire.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1918)

  • Economic boom in America. Political confrontations between Left and Right in Italy climax with Mussolini’s seizure of power for the Fascist Party in 1922. In 1923 Germany experiences hyper-inflation, economic collapse and the occupation of the Ruhr by France for failing to keep up with war reparations.
  • By 1920 Japan’s population has doubled since 1868 and it seeks new markets for its economy. This quest will lead to the creation of the Far East Economic Sphere i.e. the Japanese Empire, in the 1930s, to the invasion of Manchuria in 1937 and, eventually, war with America.
  • The Bolsheviks win their civil war against the Whites (1922) but catastrophic economic collapse forces Lenin to introduce the New Economic Policy, reintroducing limited business and trade. Lenin dies in 1924 giving way to a joint leadership which includes Josef Stalin. Only in 1928, with the exile of Leon Trotsky, does Joseph Stalin take full control of the USSR and impose the first Five Year Plan for full industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture.
  • In 1921 the Chinese communist party is created, in 1925 the Vietnamese Nationalist Party is established by Ho Chi Minh (among others). Both of which will have massive long term repercussions in the 1940s and 50s.
Young Ho Chi Minh

Young Ho Chi Minh at the Communist Congress in Marseilles, 1921

  • A succession of British government reports fail to satisfy calls for independence from Indian politicians and the 1920s see the rise to prominence of Mahatma Gandhi with his strategy of peaceful non-cooperation.
  • Cinema evolves in leaps and bounds with Hollywood stars led by Charlie Chaplin becoming world famous. 1927 sees the first part-talking movie (the Jazz Singer). Jazz evolves rapidly with Louis Armstrong emerging as one among many star performers. Jazz becomes more sophisticated in the hands of arrangers like Duke Ellington and gives its name to the entire era in America. It spawns dance crazes not only across America but in Europe too (the Charleston, the Black Bottom etc).
  • America imposes Prohibition in 1919. This swiftly leads to the creation of organised crime across the country, running bootleg booze production and a network of illegal nightclubs. Gangsters like Al Capone become notorious and a world-wide symbol of American’s ‘criminal capitalism’.
  • Radio becomes global. In 1920, in a radio first, Nelly Melba broadcasts from London to listeners all across Europe. In the US radio explodes into commercial chaos; in the USSR radio is strictly controlled, like all the arts, by the Communist Party. Britain invents the BBC in 1922, funded by a compulsory licence fee paid by every owner of a radio.
  • The spread of affordable birth control (not least via the educational books of Marie Stopes) liberates women, many of whom had for the first time worked during the Great War. Many take jobs in the new light industries which are springing up around major cities – the spread of the phenomenon called ‘suburbia’, all facilitated by the enormous growth in car ownership. Women around the world get the right to vote: in the UK women over 30 got the vote in 1918, over 21 in 1928 – with some countries (the Nordics) ahead of this, some (France) lagging behind.
Constructing the Empire State Building

Constructing the Empire State Building

Some thoughts

I liked the way the book restricts itself to the period 1918 to 1929. It scrupulously avoids the Wall Street Crash because that economic catastrophe in fact rumbled on into 1930 and, of course, its economic consequences were chiefly felt in the following decade.

By limiting itself to just the 1920s, the book conveys the chaos and excitement of the Jazz Decade in itself, of itself, without the shadow of the Depression looming over it, let alone the Nazis. All too often histories of the period skip through the 1920s to get to the Crash and then to Hitler, who then completely overshadows everything that came before, whereas the 20s are quite fascinating in their own right.

Stepping back, the two Big Political Themes which resonate through the decade are:

  1. The Repercussions of the First World War, namely:
    • The collapse of the four empires, Germany, Russia, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, which gave rise to a host of new independent countries, generally with very fragile new political systems and unhappy ethnic minorities,
    • The economic consequences of the peace – the tough reparations on Germany lead to hyper-inflation, but Britain ended the war deeply in debt and never regained the worldwide power she enjoyed in the 1900s. By contrast, America clearly emerged as the world’s most advanced industrial, technological and financial centre.
  2. The Repercussions of the Russian Revolution. New communist parties were set up in virtually every country in the world, promising freedom, justice, equality and so on, especially appealing to developing countries and colonies seeking their freedom.

Consumer culture

All these political changes were obviously important but the bigger message is that the 1920s were also a major step down the path towards a consumer capitalist society, as the practical notions of convenience and home comforts took precedence over older ideas of nationhood, morality and so on.

The populations of Western societies wanted to benefit from the invention and widespread distribution of gas, electricity, lamps and lights, hoovers, sewing machines, telephones, radio and gramophones, and so on, not to mention the huge growth in car use.

And accompanying all this were the posters, adverts, hoardings, design and branding, huge developments in the layout of magazines and ads, of fonts and styles. All these had existed in the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s and each of these decades had seen the steady growth in number and sophistication of all the media of consumer culture. But the 1920s saw the arrival of major new technologies – led by gramophones and sound movies, which promoted whole new forms of music (jazz) and new types of personality (the movie star) as never before.

Even if they didn’t all personally enjoy it, more people than ever before in the industrialised nations could see what a good standard of living – with a car, a home of your own and foreign holidays – looked like, bombarded through newspapers, magazine and billboard hoardings with compelling images of astonishing luxury.

Just flicking through the book shows that the imagery of consumer capitalism was more vivid, stylish, ‘liberated’ and ubiquitous than ever before. It’s lots of fun!


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