Herbert George Wells was, in reputational terms, his own worst enemy. He was prolific: 51 novels, dozens of works of non-fiction, scores of short stories and countless newspaper articles. However, much of his output, especially in the second half of his career, was of questionable merit. His science fiction won him an international reputation as England’s answer to Jules Verne. His other fiction specialised in satires of lower-middle-class life, laced with elements of autobiography. If, for example, one wants to understand Wells’s appalling view of the purpose of women – to provide pleasure for HG Wells – one need only read his 1909 novel Ann Veronica, which draws on his seduction of Amber Reeves, more than 20 years his junior.
He could, though, be thoughtful as well as self-indulgent: three of his wartime novels, Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), The Soul of a Bishop (1917) and Joan and Peter (1918) explore, respectively, adjusting to war and to bereavement; the problems of religion; and the nature of a proper education. Yet flushed with a sense of his own genius, because of the acclaim a poorly educated reading public gave his early work, Wells poured out philosophical and political tracts of increasingly low quality that, with one or two exceptions, do not bear reading today. The later novels are mediocre; the fires of originality had burned out.
Some critics never felt their warmth in the first place. Once Virginia Woolf had (as she thought) polished off Arnold Bennett in her snobbery-larded 1924 lecture, published as “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, her acolytes dragged in Wells (and, for good measure, his and Bennett’s contemporary John Galsworthy), and a whole school of English literary criticism wrote these pre-modernists off. This was harsh, because much of Wells gives pleasure; some, notably his science fiction, is stunningly innovative. But the critical sneers have long implied that he was an unsophisticated hack who got above himself and who, above all, could not write. His very success with the newly-expanded reading public, they say, was based on the “fact” that he could not write, because the public was not capable of telling the difference between an author who could and one who couldn’t.
But Wells could write: he knew how to use the English language and had three other skills indispensable to a popular novelist. He was good at developing characters and making them credible, by making them like his readers, or like people they would know; he was good at structure and plot; and his imagination seemed limitless. As a writer of fiction and non-fiction he had immense range; he could draw light and shade and deploy humour. All these skills are manifest in what has a claim to be his best novel, but is surprisingly little-known: Tono-Bungay. Unlike so much of the science fiction, or charming satires such as Kipps (1905) or The History of Mr Polly (1910), it has never – yet – been filmed or made into a television series, the way most people imbibe classic novels these days. Yet it is a masterpiece.
Written in 1908, serialised that year and published in hardback in 1909, Tono-Bungay takes its bizarre title from the name of a quack medicine developed by the uncle of the novel’s hero, George Ponderevo. The medicine is developed as a desperate measure after Uncle Ponderevo, who owned a chemist’s shop, goes bankrupt. It sets him on a career of fraud – so common in Victorian times – that scales the greatest heights before taking him to the ultimate depths. The humiliation of Uncle Ponderevo’s fall down the social ladder in the small Kentish town where has his shop drives him not merely to regain his status, but to acquire a new one that makes those who looked down on him look up to him instead. George himself has noted “the reasonableness, the necessity, of that snobbishness which is the distinctive quality of English thought”. It reminds the reader how important the cult of respectability was in Wells’s era.
The book is also a satire on capitalism, about which Wells, the socialist, is deeply sceptical. Yet Uncle Ponderevo understands how markets work: in the summer his cough linctus is “twopence cheaper than in winter”, saving money for the buyer and maintaining cash flow for the seller. George makes it clear he is an atheist: the Ponderevos reject conventional religion for a new creed. Invited to feel deference for his betters, Uncle Ponderevo and his nephew separately reject the notion: one instinctively, the other intellectually.
Tono-Bungay examines too the hypocrisy-filled circus that was late Victorian and Edwardian society: a time of spivvery and chancers, but of inquiry and invention, and desire to break through scientific and technological barriers into an unbridled future. It is an age of social mobility, of the beginning of the end of deference. Those climbing the ladder are not revolutionaries but conformists; they are determined to ape their betters by acquiring the complete veneer of respectability. Uncle Ponderevo embodies this.
Wells knew what he was writing about. He was born in Bromley, in Kent, in 1866 and his mother and father – by the time of his birth a shopkeeper – had been domestic servants. He had an inadequate education in a small private school of the sort he would satirise in some of his novels and left at 14 to be apprenticed as a draper and, later, as a chemist. In 1883, thanks to the under-regulated nature of the schools system and to his grasp of Latin, interest in science and a childhood of voracious reading, he was able to secure work as a pupil-teacher at a Sussex grammar school. From there he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington – which would evolve into a part of Imperial College – where TH Huxley taught him.
He eventually took a London University degree and his first published work was a biology textbook. He had also started to earn money writing for periodicals and in 1895 published his first novel, The Time Machine.
When poor in the early 1890s an aunt had taken pity on him and allowed him to live with her, and he married her daughter, his first cousin Isabel. The marriage ended after three years because he had an affair with a student, Amy Robbins, and in 1895 he married her. Throughout the marriage he had numerous affairs, some of which produced children; thanks to the success of his early science fiction, which was deemed highly original and quickly built up an enormous following, Wells soon made enough money to finance his irregular lifestyle.
Wells’s upbringing left him cynical about the way wealth was distributed, and he joined the Fabian Society early in its lifetime. As his fame grew so did his prominence in the Society. However, not by nature a team player, he fell out with Bernard Shaw over the direction the Fabians should take; and there was a significant breach with the two leading lights of the movement, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, over his priapic conduct with women. When, at around the time of the publication of Tono-Bungay, he fathered a child with Amber Reeves, half his age and the daughter of two friends of the Webbs, they sent him to outer darkness. From that point onwards all his political theorising was done in a freelance capacity. In Wells’s case biographical detail is important, because he and his experiences are thinly disguised in many of his novels.
Real-life antecedents also lay behind the Ponderevos’s scheme in Tono-Bungay to make their fortune from quack medicine: Thomas Holloway had done just that in the mid-19th century and used much of the proceeds from Holloway’s Pills to found a grand university college for ladies. Uncle Ponderevo, to illustrate Wells’s point about the inevitable corrupting influence of capitalism, is no such philanthropist: he is determined to make money by whatever means, including swindling. He cheats his nephew out of his inheritance. Surveying a procession of the unemployed, Uncle’s reaction is, effectively, that the devil takes the hindmost.
George is determined to move upwards, a determination inherited from his mother, and for that he needs money – not just because having money is a means of commanding respect from other Edwardians, for whom money is a god, but also so he can afford to pursue scientific experiments, notably in aeronautics. When, shocked at the confidence trick of Tono-Bungay, George cries “it’s a damned swindle!” his uncle replies: “It’s the sort of thing everybody does… The point is, George – it makes trade.” George’s aunt Susan adds that “there’s no law against selling quack medicine that I know of… It’s our only chance, George.” Like Susan, Uncle Ponderevo knows he can become rich only by fraud, for he lacks birth or genius, and it is the only thing for which he has talent.
Yet because of his naivety George falls for his uncle’s schemes, and he may also have been infected by his greed. He tells an old girlfriend when they meet after many years: “I’ve adventured… We’re promoters now, amalgamators, big people on the new model.” George admits that he “created nothing, he invented nothing, he economised nothing. I cannot claim that a single one of the great businesses we organised added any real value to human life at all.” His entire enterprise is an “unmitigated fraud”.
Wells, like Dickens, relies on quirks of fate to propel his plot. George explains away his falling under his uncle’s influence by saying “it was the Accident of Birth”. The Ponderevos seek to escape their station by joining the elite rather than having everyone level down. When someone asks of George “Is he a servant boy?” his mother – like Wells’s, a servant in a grand house – sharply replies: “He’s a schoolboy.” Nevertheless, she reminds the son that “you mustn’t set yourself up against those who are above you and better than you… Or envy them”. Yet George, as an adult, joins the Fabians (like Wells) and admits: “The broad, constructive ideas of socialism took hold of me.” But, as with Wells, so too does “the ferment of sex”. George’s first marriage is a disaster, and he enters it by persuading his in-laws of his respectability by buying that badge of middle-class conformity, a silk hat.
When the business starts to collapse George tries to recoup their fortune by bringing back from a distant island a huge pile of a rare radioactive mineral, which Wells, appropriately, calls “quap”. So radioactive is it that the boat carrying it sinks, and Uncle is ruined. George, as an apparent moral corrective, has already begun to devote his life to the pursuit of scientific truth by developing aeronautics; and at the end of the novel he has built a destroyer, which he sails down the Thames at night and into the open sea. Something of his uncle has rubbed off, for he is prepared to sell it to the highest bidder rather than develop it for Britain.
Yet his journey down the river, which is the climax of the book, shows Wells at his most poetic. Having passed Westminster and the City, George surveys the docklands, which he called “the last great movement in the London Symphony”. (This passage inspired Vaughan Williams’s final movement of A London Symphony.) The final message of the novel is that everything is transient, whether material possessions or life itself: “Light after light goes down. England and the Kingdom, Britain and the Empire, the old prides and the old devotions, glide abeam, astern, sink down on the horizon, pass – pass. The river passes – London passes, England passes…” It is an appropriately meditative note on which to end a novel of striking profundity, which holds a mirror up to its society more effectively than anything else of its time.
Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Telegraph. His books include “The Age of Decadence: Britain 1880 to 1914” (Random House)