A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells (1899)

‘Life was life then! How great the world must have seemed then! How marvellous! They were still parts of the world absolutely unexplored. Nowadays we have almost abolished wonder, we lead lives so trim and orderly that courage, endurance, faith, all the noble virtues seem fading from mankind.’

This is a novella by H. G. Wells consisting of five chapters, first published in the June to October 1899 issues of The Pall Mall Magazine. It was later included in an 1899 collection of Wells’s short stories, Tales of Space and Time.

The story appears to be set in the same London of the future as the long novel, The Sleeper Wakes, also published in 1899. The text can be said to have two components: 1. the plot, and 2. lengthy descriptions of what the society of the future, and all its attendant technology, will look like.

The plot

Part one – The cure for love

Young Denton lives and works on one of the landing platforms of London. Arriving off a plane from Paris, a young women, Elizabeth Morris, stumbles and trips into his arms. From then on she takes trips out to the landing platform specially to visit him and they sit on one of the many benches, while he reads her poetry.

Elizabeth’s father gets wind of their romance and hires a hypnotist to talk Elizabeth out of it. This works and Elizabeth forgets about Denton. She is hypnotised into preferring Binton, the man her father thinks is a better choice for her, ‘a little man in foolish raiment knobbed and spiked like some odd reptile with pneumatic horns’.

When Elizabeth doesn’t show up for their next rendezvous Denton is upset. He vows to find her and sets off across the vast complicated city of 30 million souls. Eventually, he tracks Elizabeth down to a public festival and follows her, her chaperone (!) and father and the suitor her father approves (the hapless Binton) to a café where Denton confronts her. But although her unconscious stirs a bit, her conscious mind doesn’t recognise him. Denton gives up and goes off, distraught.

Denton resolves to forget. He seeks out the best hypnotist in town. A casual remark by the hypnotist reveals that this is the man who hypnotised his beloved into forgetting him. Angered, Denton attacks him, they wrestle to the ground, the hypnotist bangs his head and blacks out. When he comes to, Denton is standing over him with a poker. Unless he promises to hypnotise Elizabeth back into love with him, Denton will smash his head in.

The hypnotist of the future is appalled: ‘Ugh, how frightfully savage you are, Sir. This is all very unprofessional etc etc’. But he promises to do it, having no choice.

Part two – The vacant country

Wells pauses the narrative to explain how society evolved between 1900 and 2100 when the story is set. Much of this explication overlaps with the long novel, The Sleeper Wakes, which he was working on at the same time. Both rest on the same fundamental assumption, that the fast development of technology, especially modes of transport, will depopulate the countryside and lead to the creation of monster mega-cities like London, until eventually there are only four huge towns left in all England.

The overlap extends to characters. In The Sleeper Wakes a man named Warming is credited with suggesting that the invention of Eadhamite be used to surface enormous roads. In this story the same Warming is mentioned again and credited with the detail of creating a central reservation in roadways set aside for vehicles travelling at over 100 miles per hour, on wheels of twenty or thirty foot in diameter.

So the world of this story is obviously the same as the world of The Sleeper – with the rather enormous difference that the figure of the Sleeper doesn’t figure in it at all.

Instead we are back with Denton, Elizabeth and their serio-comic love affair, told in a rather facetious style. Aware that his little story is an apology for a romance, Wells drops into a heavy-handed cod medieval style, using archaisms in long sentences which sound like William Morris. For example, when the couple decide to go and live outside the city, Drenton quits his job at the landing pad, and:

One morning near Midsummer-day, there was a new minor official upon the flying stage, and Denton’s place was to know him no more.

‘To know him no more’. In fact Well’s style is an odd combination of the visionary and scientific, when it comes to technology, buildings and machines – with the rather childish psychology of late-Victorian efforts to revive the medieval.

Imagine that going forth! In their days the sprawling suburbs of Victorian times with their vile roads, petty houses, foolish little gardens of shrub and geranium, and all their futile, pretentious privacies, had disappeared: the towering buildings of the new age, the mechanical ways, the electric and water mains, all came to an end together, like a wall, like a cliff, near four hundred feet in height, abrupt and sheer.

All about the city spread the carrot, swede, and turnip fields of the Food Company, vegetables that were the basis of a thousand varied foods, and weeds and hedgerow tangles had been utterly extirpated. The incessant expense of weeding that went on year after year in the petty, wasteful and barbaric farming of the ancient days, the Food Company had economised for ever more by a campaign of extermination. Here and there, however, neat rows of bramble standards and apple trees with whitewashed stems, intersected the fields, and at places groups of gigantic teazles reared their favoured spikes. Here and there huge agricultural machines hunched under waterproof covers. The mingled waters of the Wey and Mole and Wandle ran in rectangular channels; and wherever a gentle elevation of the ground permitted a fountain of deodorised sewage distributed its benefits athwart the land and made a rainbow of the sunlight.

Our happy couple walk out of the city, to the accompaniment of rude shouts from passing cars, and head off away from the road into the green manicured fields. They come across a shepherd who wonders at their decision to leave the city and advises them to walk towards the pile of ruins once known as ‘Epsom’, and on to another ruined settlement known as ‘Leatherhead’. Here, hot and footsore, they rummage about old ruined houses, gathering rotted furniture and some of the shepherd’s footstuffs.

At night they watch the stars and Denton recites poetry. For the first few days they are happy. They have brought food and so are not hungry, but become bored. Denton tries to dig the soil with a spade but doesn’t have the muscles and gives up after half an hour. That night it rains and then hails. They get soaking wet. Then they hear the howling of dogs and are attacked by a pack of six or seven shepherd dogs. Denton fights them off with the sword (!) he’s brought from the city but is going down when Elizabeth leaps in with the spade. The whipped dogs make off.

Our hero and heroine decide that maybe their destiny lies, after all, in the city. All this is, on one level, a satire against the ‘back to nature’ movements of Wells’s own time.

Part three – The ways of the city

More social prophecy elaborating on the inevitable advent of the Great Cities. Technologically it was inevitable, but nobody foresaw the concentration of greed and vices, luxury and tyranny it would bring with it.

(The trouble with Well’s prophecies is that they are more based on rhetoric rather than on facts. The concentration of the population into supercities, the creation of superhighways, the invention of supervehicles – all this sounds very futuristic. And yet Wells lived long enough to see it all completely disproven. In fact, the exact opposite took place – which was the creation of suburbia, sprawling along ‘ribbon developments’ spreading out from conurbations. Sure, cities got bigger, but by spreading out not up.)

Anyway, now back in the city, Denton and Elizabeth have a baby, a step which often places fragile family finances under strain. He can’t get a job. They have to sell all their carefully acquired Victorian antiques, and move into a smaller place. For six weeks Denton gets a job as a hat salesman in a women’s hat boutique. Cue satire about women then and now.

But he’s sacked and they have to consign the baby to a state-run crèche (as everyone else does). Finally, having completely run out of money and been evicted from their hotel, they are forced to fall into the clutches of ‘the Labour Company’.

As explained in The Sleeper Awakes, this Labour Company grew out of the olden-time Salvation Army. It offers work and food and lodging to the absolutely destitute. In return you give it your thumb prints, wear its uniform of shapeless blue (denim?) and do what work it tells you. You sell your soul. By now the Labour Company has a worldwide monopoly of managing poverty. Nobody starves to death in the streets or sleeps rough as they did in Wells’s day: but a third of the whole world’s population is on the books of the Company, making it the biggest single organiser of labour.

And so our unlucky lovers find themselves press-ganged into doing menial labour. Elizabeth is inducted into tapping out patterns in metal sheets which are used as templates for decorating tiles. She sits with other bitchy women in an all-women’s workshop. Denton tends a pump which is part of the vast system for using seawater to flush out the city’s enormous sewage system. They become hardened and degraded by their work. Their baby sickens and dies in the crèche. Their hair turns grey. Life sours.

One night Elizabeth asks Denton to take her back up to the seat on the landing platform where they first met. He apologises for ruining her life; she should have married the promising young chap her father had chosen for her. She demurs. They look up at the stars and feel part of something larger than themselves.

Part four – Underneath

Denton is moved to a new job down among the really hard-core, lifelong serfs, a race which has its own dialect. These lowlifes correctly diagnose Denton as snooty and disdainful or, in the cant, ‘topside’. He rejects a couple of overtures of friendship and when he turns down an offer of bread during a break, the offerer tries to force it on him, and the resulting scuffle turns into a fight in which Denton is knocked to the ground. Other proles bait him but the swart man who hit him calls them off. The shift resumes and Denton worries about what’ll happen at the end – sure enough the albino and the ferret-faced man start baiting him again, but the prole who hit him tells them to lay off.

Denton goes through the circuitous route typical of these narratives of the future city up to a moving way and is surprised when the swart man follows, sheepishly apologises and asks to shake his hand. Blunt as he’s named, offers to teach Denton how to fight, but Denton manages to insult the man by again refusing. That night Denton and Elizabeth lie silently next to each other till Denton sits up and wonders out loud: civilisation has nothing to do with them anymore. He sees their lives in their full inconsequentiality. He wonders about committing suicide. But realises neither of them have it in them top end their lives. They sleep.

Next day Denton is knocked to the floor again, until Blunt intervenes. This time Denton sheepishly asks Blunt if he can take him up on his offer of lessons in fighting, fighting dirty and effective. Blunt trains him. Denton is tall and apt. A few days later Whitey picks on him and Denton surprises everyone by grabbing the kicking foot, heeling Whitey over into the ashes, following up with a knee on his chest and a hand round his throat. Immediately, all the others become his pal. He has won respect.

He returns to the Labour Company apartment he shares with Elizabeth, elated. Life is good. He is a man. She listens then bursts into sobs. It’s alright for men, they can fight and express their masculinity. Whereas she is dying by degrees. And she has been asked to leave him.

Part five – Bindon intervenes

This final section is Wells at his best and worst. It is a prolonged satire on self-satisfied, self-dramatising Bindon, the ideal match Elizabeth’s father had found for her. We are told the origin of his wealth (three lucky speculations, after which he stopped gambling for good) followed by a lifetime devoted to what he thought of as particularly wicked and corrupt sins, but were in fact very ordinary and commonplace.

Wells enjoys satirising the religion of the year 2100, which has, apparently, splintered into any number of commercially-minded sects. Thus Bindon goes to meet a priest of the Huysmanite sect (a jokey reference to Joris-Karl Huysmans, author of the defining text of the fin-de-siecle Decadence, Against Nature), who recommends a ‘spiritual retreat’ in a beautifully-located green area high in the city with sunlight and open air and reassuringly posh company.

Bindon had been so put out by Denton winning Elizabeth off him that he determined to ruin their lives, and to a large extent succeeded. It turns out that Bindon is behind much of their misfortune, has gotten Denton sacked from various jobs and so on.

But then Bindon visits some doctors about a growing pain in his sides and is told (in frustratingly vague terms – so much in Wells is vague and imprecise) that all his sins, well, rotten lifestyle (I think we are meant to deduce that this just means eating and drinking to excess) have caught up with him. Turns out he has only days to live.

Bindon goes back to his luxury apartment, surveys his luxury possessions, wonders how the world will manage to carry on without his rare and precious personality in it, considers writing a sonnet for posterity, but instead goes to see Elizabeth’s father. If he must leave this earth, if he cannot have the obstinate Elizabeth back, well, at least he can impress her with his largesse.

So this broadly comic figure dies and leaves Elizabeth all his money, and the story ends with Denton and Elizabeth restored to middle class life, admiring the sun set over the Surrey Hills from their penthouse apartment high on the city’s walls, miles and miles from the underground hellholes they had been inhabiting.

The satire on Bindon is quite funny, because he is such a recognisable type of the self-dramatising drunk. His encounters with the doctors who show absolutely no sympathy are funny. As is his deluded self-pity.

But it is a terrible end to the story, a real cop-out. It is like the fairy tale ending of Oliver Twist when, after hundreds of pages of misery among the proles, Oliver turns out to be the heir to a fortune.

Denton is given some spuriously high-falutin’ thoughts about how many generations mankind has lived through and how many are still to come and will we ever, Elizabeth, O will Mankind ever Understand the World He Lives In?

Reading these lesser texts by Wells suggests two things:

1. Like Kipling he was more than an author, he created an entire climate of thought – partly because he was so damn prolific, and partly because he banged on and on about the same things. As Kipling had the Empire, so Wells in numerous ways tackled the same central idea, that the fast-changing technology of the 1890s would change everything, transforming society, culture and people out of all recognition.

2. The price of his productiveness was the extreme unevenness of his texts. In this one I liked:

  • The way it reinforces, amplifies and expands on ideas put forward in The Sleeper Wakes, but handled much more soberly and clearly than that novel, so the reader actually knows what’s going on. The overlap between the two texts makes the world they describe that much more real and believable.
  • The difficulty Denton has fitting in with the proles in the Underworld. Having done lots of manual labour, factory and warehouse jobs myself, while being bookish, I know how hard it is to fit in with illiterate or uneducated workmen. This passage feels like it derives from Wells’s own experiences of coming down in the world and being forced – like Dickens – to go out and earn a living at a tender age. The feeling of embarrassed self-consciousness, bitterness and chagrin is conveyed very well.

But this latter is just one element in a text which feels, again, all over the place in terms of focus, character, plot and style. The medievalisms which accompany his depiction of the couple’s early lovey-dovey phase, the facetiousness with which he describes Bindon’s would-be ‘decadence’, both contrast wildly with the brutality of the fight scenes, and all of these run up against his sci-fi prophecy mode, in which he explains the working of the future city in an antiseptically logical style.

A Story of Days To Come is full of interesting ideas, sometimes exciting scenes, sometimes genuinely felt emotion and yet, in total, it feels like an incredible mish-mash, a gallivanting gallimaufrey of a story.


The technology of the future

Each home has a phonographic machine which reads out the news (there are no print newspapers any more), which also includes an electric clock, calendar and engagements reminder. Much like a modern ipad or smart phone.

Men don’t have to shave because every scrap of hair has been removed from their bodies.

All power is generated by windmills and waterfalls i.e. is renewable.

Households, family life, domestic servants have all disappeared. People live in small apartments and commute to communal halls to eat.

As for food – animal bodies, animal fat, animal eggs have all been replaced by nutritious pastes and liquids. Food circulates on plates on conveyor belts, as in a Japanese sushi restaurant.

Nobody attends school. Young people take their lessons by ‘telephone’ from the best teachers, lecturers, instructors in the world.

London has a population of 30 million. The countryside has been completely depopulated. There are only four mega-cities in Britain. Vast roads hundreds of feet wide on which vehicles with wheels thirty feet across snake across the empty landscape. The cities have built upwards, so that the rich inhabit buildings like palaces towards the top, while down below level after level, descending to ground level and below, live millions of workers.

After a woman has a baby it is sent to a crèche where it is reared by robots with pink fake boobs which supply milk.

Kinematographs project moving images on huge screens. Phonographs blare out advertising slogans.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

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

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

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

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

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

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

The Narrow Corner by W. Somerset Maugham (1932)

If Dr Saunders was somewhat lacking in sympathy, he made up for it by being uncommonly tolerant. He thought it no business of his to praise or condemn. He was able to recognize that one was a saint and another a villain, but his consideration of both was fraught with the same cool detachment. (Chapter 11)

I started reading this 200-page novel because I saw it in the charity shop for £1. But it turns out, by accident, to be closely linked to the last Maugham novel I read, The Moon and Sixpence. In his typically breezy preface Maugham explains that he created the character of Captain Nichols in that book, a disreputable sea captain, based on someone he’d met in the South Seas, because he needed three or four ‘witnesses’ to help the narrator piece together the latter stages of the life of Charles Strickland, the ‘primitivist’ painter who is the subject of The Moon and Sixpence.

But the character stuck in his mind, along with another minor character, Dr Saunders, who he had created to make a cameo appearance in his first travel book, On a Chinese Screen. Both haunted and niggled at his imagination until here, 13 years after The Moon, they finally appear in their own story.

The plot

Dr Saunders is the short, ugly but immensely competent doctor based in Fu-Chou, China. He is persuaded by a well-known Chinese rogue and mastermind of all kinds of dubious businesses, Kim Ching, who lives on the distant island of Takana, to come and treat Kim’s cataracts.

Kim Ching’s two dutiful sons, who bring the invitation, offer to pay Dr Saunders a lot of money and so he overcomes his reluctance and goes. He arrives on the island, is put up at the best (in fact the only) hotel and performs the operation successfully. Kim is happy, pays up and offers him any little luxuries he needs but Dr Saunders is a man of modest needs. Now the doctor has to pass the time until the monthly ship arrives, to take him off the island and back north to his home in China.

So Dr Saunders eats on the balcony of the hotel, reads the out of date newspapers and smokes opium, prepared for him by his sleek young Chinese help, Ah Kay. The text gives several very evocative descriptions of the technical preparations and then the state of mind created by smoking opium. Saunders floats serenely and watches the world go by.

Ah Kay now made himself a couple of pipes, and having smoked them put out the lamp. He lay down on a mat with a wooden rest under his neck and presently fell asleep. But the doctor, exquisitely at peace, considered the riddle of existence. His body rested in the long chair so comfortably that he was not conscious of it except in so far as an obscure sense of well-being in it added to his spiritual relief. In this condition of freedom his soul could look down upon his flesh with the affectionate tolerance with which you might regard a friend who bored you but whose love was grateful to you. His mind was extraordinarily alert, but in its activity there was no restlessness and no anxiety; it moved with an assurance of power, as you might imagine a great physicist would move among his symbols, and his lucidity had the absolute delight of pure beauty. It was an end in itself. He was lord of space and time. There was no problem that he could not solve if he chose; everything was clear, everything was exquisitely simple; but it seemed foolish to resolve the difficulties of being when there was so delicate a pleasure in knowing that you could completely do so whensoever you chose. (Chapter eight)

Then one day two white men walk into the bar and they all get to chatting. One is the tremendously shifty, cockney, middle-aged, stubbly, nervy Captain Nichols. The other is a handsome young Australian man introduced as Fred Blake, who is also oddly nervous.

After some conversation Blake makes his excuses and leaves, whereupon Captain Nichols confides to Saunders that he was ‘on the beach’ without a job in Sydney, and desperate to get away from his nagging wife when he was approached by a powerful underworld figure who offered him money and the lugger he has just arrived in, to take a young man off for a cruise. Anywhere special, asks Nichols. ‘Just away from here,’ comes the threatening reply. All very suspicious.

Nichols continues to describe to Saunders the way he was given a cab ride to an out-of-the-way bay, rowed out to the boat – the Fenton, a relatively small vessel which can fish for pearls or do smuggling, as required – and had barely got his bearings before young Blake was put aboard from another dinghy. Nichols was handed £200 to go cruising and keep a low profile, and then the dodgy but obviously well-connected fixer who’d arranged all this disappeared back to shore.

And so it is that Nichols has spent the last month captaining the lugger as they cruise aimlessly round the south seas, all the time trying to puzzle out what Blake’s mystery is…

Later that day Saunders asks Kim Ching about the newcomers. Kim knows Nichols and says he is a no good man, and warns Saunders to have nothing to do with him.

Nonetheless, Saunders is impatient to go home and decides to ask Nichols if he can hitch a lift on the lugger, if it’s heading north. Nichols says sure, but Blake is dead against it and they have a fierce argument about it right in front of Saunders. Obviously Blake is hiding something pretty big.

But Nichols insists that he is captain and the captain’s decision is final. He also admits that he partly wants the doc to come along because he – Nichols – has bad dyspepsia which he (rather comically) complains about all the time and so he hopes the doc can cure him.

So Ah Kay packs Saunders’ bags, they say goodbye to the grateful and influential Kim Ching, and go aboard.

Saunders likes to think of himself as a connoisseur of character. Like many a Maugham narrator, like the narrator of the travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour, he is cool and non-judgmental. He observes men with all their foibles and is amused. Nichols knows that Saunders knows that he is a crook. They amuse each other with their canniness. (‘Nichols took an artist’s delight in his own rascality’.) Blake on the other hand is young and earnest and nervous, his temper constantly ready to snap.

Another perennial theme of Maugham’s – that people often have unexpected aspect to their character – is demonstrated when a big storm blows up. It quickly becomes too rough for Saunders and he retreats below decks. The point is that Nichols, although without doubt a shifty crook, is able to show his true colours as a supremely confident master of sailing. He is in complete control of the little lugger, making all the right decisions, and absolutely fearless while enormous waves crash over it and threaten to capsize it for hours on end. Nichols may be a dodgy geezer, but Saunders has to admire his stamina, courage and competency.

This is the central Maugham theme – that people aren’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but complex mixtures of contradictory characteristics, which is why ‘judging’ them is so futile. On the contrary, the doctor not only doesn’t judge, he savours, like a fine wine, the complicated blend of aromas and scents, qualities and characteristics, which each human presents for his delectation.

For the first 160 pages or so, the novel is slow-paced, lazily describing sea voyages, green islands, warm seas, blue skies, slow natives, smiling Chinese, opium nights, and Dr Saunders leisurely contemplating the odd people fate throws in his way.

After a while it reminded me of the Symbolist classic, Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans from 1884 in which the élite protagonist, a moneyed aristocrat, retires from the world altogether to a secluded chateau and devotes himself to the world of the senses, cultivating collections of fine paintings, rare wines, exclusive scents, erotic books and so on. Although in a different setting, Dr Saunders has much the same approach to life, a decadent almost symbolist approach.

After surviving the storm our crew of Saunders, Ah Kay, Nicholas, Blake and the two ‘blackfellows’ who man the ship, are relieved to put in at the nearest sheltered haven, Kanda-Meira, twin islands belonging to the Dutch East Indies.

Here they encounter the characters who will trigger the main action. The island is a decent size, is administered by Dutch officials, has a main town which is bustling with all ethnic groups (Chinese, natives, Indians, Arabs).

Our team bump into a pleasant, big, strong Danish man named Erik Christesson. He volunteers to show them round the island and, while Saunders and Nichols are content to drink and play cards, Erik and young Blake soon form a strong friendship, going on some long hikes together up the side of the local volcano and around the ruins of the original Portuguese forts. They become close friends, Blake more or less hero-worshiping the strong young Dane who is so confident and bluff, while the Australian remains so nervous and unhappy.

A gay novel?

The suspicion had been growing on me that this was a sort of gay novel. Obviously nothing overt or obvious, homosexuality was illegal in Maugham’s day, but:

1. Dr Saunders has a very close relationship with his servant Ah Kay, who he describes a couple of times as beautiful, slender, slim, well-dressed, obedient, smooth-skinned and generally lovely.

2. On a growing number of occasions Saunders notices just how devastatingly handsome young Fred Blake is, with a Grecian profile, sensual lips, and a handsome body when he strips off to wash in the sea.

As he sat there, in the mellow light, in his singlet and khaki trousers, with his hat off so that you saw his dark curling hair, he was astonishingly handsome. There was something appealing in his beauty so that Dr Saunders, who had thought him a rather dull young man, felt on a sudden kindly disposed to him. (Chapter 17)

3. The Dane Christessen (aged about 30) is described as a bit thick and slow, but is nonetheless physically impressive and Saunders, once again, on a number of occasions notices the puppy-like devotion he inspires in handsome young Blake.

So nothing especially overt but, in the lazy sensual atmosphere of tropical climate, opium nights, stripping off and swimming in the sea, and of repeated descriptions of trim native boys and strapping white men, I began to enjoy the rather homoerotic atmosphere.

Femme fatale

And couldn’t help thinking that Maugham himself enjoyed himself writing this first three-quarters of the novel, with its lazy inconsequential sensuality. Unfortunately, all this evaporates in the final quarter which descends a bit into melodrama and also involves a lot of backstory and explication i.e. becomes a lot more harassed and gnotty.

Christessen introduces our characters to a household which lives on a nutmeg plantation. The place is owned by old Swan, a man so decrepit and wizened that he gives the impression of being only half there, off in his own dream world of memories a lot of the time. His daughter, Catherine, married an Englishman named Frith, a former teacher from Britain – a particularly odoriferous Maugham creation, a fat lazy man gone to seed who has spent twenty years translating the Portuguese epic poem, The Lusiads, into rhyming English verse, and also, given half a chance, starts sounding off about Hindu philosophy.

Fat old Frith and his wife had a daughter, Louise, before his wife, Catherine, died suddenly of heart failure. So now Frith lives with his batty father-in-law and his beautiful daughter.

After Erik has introduced them all, Frith hosts a dinner party, old Swan tells disreputable stories, Saunders is entranced by the eccentric Frith, Captain Nichols just tucks into the grub and Blake… Blake is stunned when the lissom young Louise walks through the door. She is stunning, breath-takingly, staggeringly attractive.

She was wearing a sarong of green silk in which was woven an elaborate pattern in gold thread. It had a sleek and glowing splendour. It was Javanese, and such as the ladies of the Sultan’s harem at Djokjakarta wore on occasions of state. It fitted her slim body like a sheath, tight over her young nipples and tight over her narrow hips. Her bosom and her legs were bare. She wore high-heeled green shoes, and they added to her graceful stature. That ashy blond hair of hers was done high on her head, but very simply, and the sober brilliance of the green-and-golden sarong enhanced its astonishing fairness. Her beauty took the breath away.

Later the others drink and play cards but Louise takes Blake for a stroll round the tropical garden and he kisses her, then touches her breasts. After more kisses they go back in.

But it is enough. Blake knows he can have her. He knows she wants him.

Later that night, Christessen drops in for a drink at Dr Saunders’ hotel and tells the doctor that he and Louise are engaged. As a young man he had a great respect and devotion to Catherine, Mrs Frith, the girl’s mother and she asked him to marry her daughter and look after her. From the way he tells it, Saunders suspects that Christessen was actually in love with the mother, who gave him the kind of love and security he had lacked since coming out to the East as a vulnerable young man. Anyway, when Catherine passed away, Christessen promised to keep his vow.

That night big simple Christessen goes back up to the nutmeg plantation where he spent so many happy days as a young man. He sits in the rocking chair outside the darkened building while everyone is asleep and reveries about the old days.

Which is why he is startled when an upstairs French window – which he knows is Louise’s  – opens, Louise comes out onto the verandah, beckons someone else, and a man’s figure tiptoes out, climbs over the balustrade and drops to the garden beneath.

Louise goes back into her room and silently closes the window, but in those few moments Christessen has walked over to the figure on the ground, which is still fastening his shoes. Christessen hauls him to his feet and starts strangling him, without thought or remorse. Someone has been with his beloved Louise. He will kill him.

Until a stifled squeak makes him look again and – he realises that the man is none other than Fred Blake – the young man he’d come to look on as a new best friend, as a younger brother to mentor and look after.

Horrified Christessen lets Blake drop to the floor choking, and staggers off into the night.

To cut a long story short, Blake recovers, puts his boots on, goes very cautiously down the road back into town, and heads for Christessen’s house, determined to find out what on earth the big Dane was doing outside the Frith house, and why on earth he attacked him like that.

Remember: Blake doesn’t know that Christessen considers himself engaged to Louise. Only we know this because Maugham created the scene where Christessen explains it all to Dr Saunders.

Blake arrives at the hotel room where Christessen lives, opens the door, tiptoes in, lights a match – and sees the big man lying on the floor with half his head shot away. He has committed suicide.

Terror-stricken, Blake stumbles out and blunders across town to Saunders’s hotel, where he wakes the good doctor from a pleasant opium haze.

Saunders listens impassively to Blake’s confused story – and then tells him that the Dane was engaged to Louise. Blake is horror stricken and collapses in tears. He is devastated at causing the death of his big strong friend. And hates Louise for not telling him about the engagement.

For him, Blake, she was just another bit of skirt who threw herself at him because he is so damn handsome – if he’d had any idea they were engaged he’d never have slept with her. Why oh why didn’t she tell him? Saunders gives Blake a knockout shot of morphine and they both go back to sleep.

In the morning the Dutch police call as a formality. They have found Christessen’s body and can see that it was obviously suicide, they just want to double check his last movements. So Saunders gives an accurate description of Erik’s coming to have a drink with him the night before, then leaving, at which point everything had seemed alright.

The police attribute Christessen’s suicide it to the intense loneliness of the East which undermines so many good men. Blake is in the clear.

Blake’s story

So far so suddenly and abruptly, melodramatic. But as if this wasn’t enough, the book now lets us in on the reason Fred Blake is on the run. This is the result of another tragic love affair.

Blake’s father is a successful and influential lawyer in Sydney. Among his many contacts is an important politician, Pat Hudson. Blake’s dad has him and Mrs Hudson round for dinner. Unfortunately, Mrs Hudson – thin, old, a bit leathery – falls head over heels in love with handsome young Blake. (Blake tells this long convoluted story to Saunders in by far the longest chapter in the book, which lasts 25 pages.)

Blake and Mrs Hudson have sex everywhere. She is voracious. She is imaginative and teaches him all sorts of new tricks (I thought this must be a bit racy for a novel published in 1932). She takes insane risks of being caught or seen. She wants to live dangerously.

Eventually Blake gets sick and tired of it all, and tries to end the affair. She refuses to take no for an answer, bombards his home and office with phone calls, sends letters, waits outside his office morning, noon and night. She becomes a stalker.

Finally, Mrs Hudson sends Blake an unusually sober and sensible letter saying she sees his point, maybe he is right, maybe they should call it a day, but she has to tell him that her husband has been told some gossip  about them and now suspects. Can she see him just one last time so they can straighten their stories out about the few times they’ve been seen (at the cinema together, things like that)?

Naively, Blake agrees and goes along to her house. Mrs Hudson starts off the conversation by continuing with the line about getting their stories straight. But then she asks for just one last goodbye kiss, then a goodbye grope and then — then she begs him to make love to her one last time.

Weak as only a young man can be, Blake agrees, and they are in mid-coitus when the door opens and the husband walks in. Seeing his wife being penetrated by young buck, no-nonsense Pat Hudson strides over to Blake without a word and attacks him. They have one hell of a fight, punching, wrestling, pushing, throwing, smashing up all the furniture.

Eventually Pat Hudson has Blake in a death grip on the floor, kneeling on his neck and intending to snap it when Blake, scrabbling around with his hands, feels a gun being placed into one of them. He grabs it and fires. Hudson falls off him. Blake fires again. Hudson is dead. There is blood everywhere.

He realises that Mrs Hudson planned it all. She lured Blake into her honey trap and made sure her husband would come home to find them, all the time having a loaded gun to hand. Now she wants to run away with him to America and get married and make love to him all day long.

Appalled by what has happened, Blake staggers home, tries to eat an ordinary dinner with his mother and father, but breaks down and tells them everything. His father is a hard case. A general election is due and Hudson was a vital supporter of Blake Senior’s Labour Party. This adds a power political element to an already messy situation. His dad decides Fred will have to ‘disappear’. He contacts one of his best fixers to find a boat and a skipper who won’t ask any questions. For the time being, to avoid the police investigation, Fred is admitted to hospital on suspicion of having scarlet fever – this will put the cops off the trail and also stall Mrs Hudson.

A few days later, his dad gets Blake spirited out of the hospital and onto the same lugger Captain Nichols had been deposited on only half an hour before. At this point the backstory and the main narrative join up. Now Dr Saunders understands why Blake was so nervy right from the start, and this also fills in all the background to Captain Nichols’ story of being hired by a mystery man.

It also explains the couple of occasions on their cruise together, when Nichols or Saunders have had the opportunity to read fresh newspapers from Australia (always at a premium in the East) and Fred has hidden or thrown them away.

Then, in one of them, he had read that Mrs Hudson, widow of the leading politician Pat Hudson, had been found hanged, obviously being distraught at the still unsolved murder of her husband and having committed suicide.

Blake is even more horror-stricken. His father obviously arranged the ‘suicide’. She was mad and obsessive, but… they had slept together, he knew her, he feels awfully to blame for her ‘death’.

And now, as the story arrives back at ‘the present, Blake tells Saunders how he feels like a doomed man, a fated man. Everywhere he turns his handsome good looks attract women and instead of innocent fun and games, somehow it always seems to lead to death and disaster.

All this time Saunders has listened, the great collector of human stories, the connoisseur of human weakness and foll, with a grim detached expression on his face.

It’s at this moment, with a distraught Blake sitting in Saunders’ hotel room, that the door opens and Louise walks in. They stare intently at each other, neither talking, Blake with genuine hatred in his eyes. Louise leaves without a word. Later that day, the Fenton sails, carrying off Blake and Captain Nichols (never, alas, to be met again in Maugham’s fiction. I would pay good money for another novel featuring the shifty rascal Nichols – a very enjoyable character).

Dr Saunders pays a final visit to the house of Frith, encountering mad old Swan and Louise, who he is surprised to find completely calm and self-possessed.

Coda

In the last chapter, a month later, Doctor Saunders is sitting on the terrace of the van Dyke Hotel in Singapore when Nichols approaches him, looking down at heel and seedy.

Know what happened? That kid Blake disappeared overboard, fell or jumped. The sea was dead calm. It was night time, they’d been drinking, Blake had been low, Nichols went to bed, Blake wasn’t there in the morning.

What’s worse the boy had won almost all the money Nichols was paid for doing the job of spiriting him away, the £200, off him at cribbage.

After he’d disappeared, Nichols broke into Blake’s strong box but there was no money in it. The kid must have put all the money in a belt and been wearing it when he jumped. The doctor is dismayed and just about to ask some questions when Nichols goes pale and – his wife comes up to him, the legendary wife who he is always trying to avoid. Without further ado she commands the rough old sea captain to get up and follow her immediately, which he does like a scolded child. Comedy.

Leaving the doctor never to know the complete story, leaving him remembering the slow, calm, self-possessed movements of beautiful young Louise, the still centre of this perfect emotional storm.

Conclusion

This bald summary of the rather complicated plot doesn’t convey the real experience of the book, which is one of civilised and leisurely observation of some wonderful characters.

the fat old philosopher is a corker, particularly the scene where he arrives in great deliberation at Dr Saunders’ hotel room to read to the good doctor an excerpt from his ongoing translation of The Lusiads and Saunders, despite his best efforts to the contrary, falls asleep.

It contains hundreds of moments of acute perception and insight. I particularly liked the character of the rather mad old Swan, owner of the plantation where Frith and the fragrant Louise live. In our own day, everyone is so earnest about mental health and social care and Alzheimer’s. In an old-world author like Maugham, old people are more free to be weird and strange, as I remember them from my own boyhood.

Swan talked in a high cracked voice with a strong Swedish accent, so that you had to listen intently to understand what he said. He spoke very quickly, almost as though he were reciting a lesson, and he finished with a little cackle of senile laughter. It seemed to say that he had been through everything and it was all stuff and nonsense. He surveyed human kind and its activities from a great distance, but from no Olympian height – from behind a tree, slyly, and hopping from one foot to another with amusement. (Chapter 20)

Later, Louise comments on her grandfather:

‘Old age is very strange. It has a kind of aloofness. It’s lost so much that you can hardly look upon the old as quite human any more. But sometimes you have a feeling that they’ve acquired a sort of new sense that tells them things that we can never know.’

Having lived through the old age, illness and dementia of both my parents, I know what she means. The really old are uncanny, no longer relating to our world of deadlines and urgency, living by their own pace, and party to incommunicable truths.

Three traits

Maugham’s books have three characteristics: every page displays examples of his odd, rather clumsy non-English way with the English language; there are repeated meditations on the pointlessness and absurdity of existence; almost all his characters seem to have blue eyes.

Maughamese

Just a few examples of his odd clunky way with the English language.

  • There were few Chinese, for they do not settle where no trade is.
  • The grand houses of the old perkeniers, in which dwelt now the riff-raff of the East.
  • There was a wide space in front of it, facing the sea, where grew huge old trees, planted it was said
    by the Portuguese.
  • Often it is the same with men, with Anglo-Saxons at all events, to whom words come difficultly.
  • He was surprised and a trifle touched by the emotion that with this shy clumsiness fought for expression.
  • She gave them both a cool survey in which was inquiry and then swift appraisement.

Blue eyes

Fred Blake was a tall young man, slight but wiry, with curly, dark brown hair and large blue eyes. He did not look more than twenty. In his dirty singlet and dungarees he looked loutish, an unlicked cub, thought the doctor, and there was a surliness in his expression that was somewhat disagreeable; but he had a straight nose and a well-formed mouth.

Captain Nichols looked at him with his little shifty blue eyes and his grinning face was quick with malice.

The little old man had very pale blue eyes with red-rimmed, hairless lids, but they were full of cunning, and his glance was darting and mischievous like a monkey’s.

She wore nothing but a sarong of Javanese batik, with a little white pattern on a brown ground; it was attached tightly just over her breasts and came down to her knees. She was barefoot… Dr Saunders noticed that her brown hands were long and slender. Her eyes were blue. Her features were fine and very regular. She was an extremely pretty young woman.

The meaning of life

Maugham was an atheist. There is no meaning of life. It is all a dream. On this Dr Saunders with his opium trances, and Frith with his lengthy expositions of Eastern philosophy, agree.

But Saunders expresses another recurrent Maugham trope, which is the sheer oddity, the surreality, of pondering the way that all organic life has crawled out of the protozoic slime, struggled into multi-cellular life, fought and died and triumphed for billions of years – and all to arrive at the peculiar and random moments of life and death which Saunders, as a doctor, has witnessed first hand again and again.

There’s no ‘why’ to any of this – just wonder that it should be, and a connoisseur’s savouring of the infinite absurdity of existence. Here is Saunders attending a Japanese pearl diver who is dying of dysentery.

But in the hold where the pearl shell was piled, on one of the wooden bunks along the side, lay the dying diver. The doctor attached small value to human life. Who, that had lived so long amid those teeming Chinese where it was held so cheap, could have much feeling about it? He was a Japanese, the diver, and probably a Buddhist. Transmigration? Look at the sea: wave follows wave, it is not the same wave, yet one causes another and transmits its form and movement. So the beings travelling through the world are not the same today and tomorrow, nor in one life the same as in another; and yet it is the urge and the form of the previous lives that determine the character of those that follow. A reasonable belief but an incredible. But was it any more incredible than that so much striving, such a variety of accidents, so many miraculous hazards should have combined, through the long aeons of time, to produce from the primeval slime at long last this man who, by means of Flexner’s bacillus, was aimlessly snuffed out? Dr Saunders thought it odd, but natural, senseless certainly, but he had long made himself at home in the futility of things. (Chapter 11)

‘At home in the futility of things’. Very comfortably at home. That is the Maugham mood.

He awoke in the morning with a clean tongue and in a happy frame of mind. He seldom stretched himself in bed, drinking his cup of fragrant China tea and smoking the first delicious cigarette, without looking forward with pleasure to the coming day… and Ah Kay brought him his breakfast out on the veranda. He enjoyed his papaya, he enjoyed his eggs, that moment out of the frying-pan, and he enjoyed his scented tea. He reflected that to live was a very enjoyable affair. He wanted nothing.
He envied no man. He had no regrets. The morning was still fresh and in the clean, pale light the outline of things was sharp-edged. (Chapter 19)

Maugham isn’t a great novelist, and often struggles with the English language, but he is just such damn fine company!


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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

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