Writer, researcher, translator, critic

The History of Mr Polly


H. G. Wells, The History of Mr Polly [London; 1910]

In 1934, the London publisher Hutchinson & Co. engaged P. G. Wodehouse to edit a doorstop of an omnibus volume called A Century of Humour, part of a series of such anthologies: G. K. Chesterton, for instance, edited A Century of Detective Stories, and forgotten swashbuckling bestseller Rafael Sabatini's name distinguishes both A Century of Sea Stories and A Century of Historical Stories. (Yes, this will lead back to Wells eventually.) Wodehouse was delighted, and picked out quite a few of his favorite stories, leaning heavily both on the lesser-known British comic writers who had influenced him as a young man in the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, and on the bosom pals he wanted to do a good turn to. (Conrad disciple W. Townend, for example, was never noted for his humorous fiction outside of his entry there.) But when the volume was published, Wodehouse was rather crestfallen: Hutchinson, whether to fill out a gargantuan page count or just to make sure they could scatter more famous names on the dust jacket, had shoved in a bunch more stories (including several by writers currently being published by Hutchinson), few of which were up to par with Wodehouse's selections — he was particularly horrified by the inclusion of a moth-eaten Conan Doyle sketch drawn from the pre-Holmes apocrypha. But whether on the strength of Wodehouse's name or thanks to Hutchinson's policy of miscellany, the volume sold well enough to earn a sequel.

The Second Century of Humour (1936) bears no "edited by" credit, and as an anthology it's much sloppier and more miscellaneous than the first, with a great many more obvious choices, particularly from the American canon. Where Wodehouse, with an aesthete's preference for unity of form, had limited his selection almost entirely to short stories, the second volume is full of chapters plucked out of novels and slapped down higgledy-piggledy, with no care for whether they function as a stand-alone for readers unfamiliar with the source texts. This includes the last two chapters of The History of Mr. Polly, which — to be fair to Hutchinson's anonymous editor — is quite possibly the funniest thing its author ever wrote.

H. G. Wells would perhaps be disappointed to know that today he is almost exclusively remembered for the "scientific romances" he wrote in the 1890s, rather than for the more conventional fiction which put him at the forefront of English letters in the nineteen-oughts, when Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps, Tono-Bungay, and as a capstone The History of Mr Polly won him a public of "serious" readers and acclaim as a successor to the tradition of Dickens. They are largely realistic (in the sense that nothing impossible happens in them) novels set among the lower middle classes in the south of England, where Wells himself originated, and are full of sharp social observation and very delicately-balanced satire. If his matter is Dickensian (each novel is in some sense a parade of eccentrics), his manner is thoroughly Edwardian, with more urbanity than hilarity, and in these books his tendency to pontificate on proposed cures for the social ills he diagnoses is kept in abeyance; as the 1910s drew on, he would give into it more and more, until by the 1920s his fiction was largely little more than a fig-leaf for increasingly ambitious tracts on various world problems.

That Wells, the quote-unquote father of science fiction, and later and more sensationally the crusading reformer whose Outline of History set the pattern for twentieth-century liberalism, should have applied his self-consciously weighty intellect to the comparative frippery of comic fiction seems unlikely and almost a little unworthy at this remove, in days when if someone goes through the effort of writing a book instead of a screenplay they either want to make sure it Means Something, or they are participating in a genre tradition (or, not infrequently, both). Wells, in The History of Mr Polly, doesn't quite avoid his compulsion to Mean Something, but as a son of the nineteenth century he was necessarily less precious about genre traditions. The line of Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope was still alive for him, and if the late-nineteenth-century passion for taxonomy and subclassification meant that it came more naturally for him to divide his novels between the serious, the comic, and the adventurous rather than having them all jumbled together as in the capacious three-volume novels of High Victorianism, comedy was still at that time considered an essential element of the (English) novelist's art.

Wells was hardly alone in this: his generational cohort of Serious (Male) Novelists, including such lights as Arnold Bennett, Rudyard Kipling, John Galsworthy, and W. Somerset Maugham, not infrequently dipped into somewhat ponderous comedy as an antidote to the more serious-minded work that made them probably the most feted English writers of the twentieth century's first twenty years. Galsworthy's and Maugham's efforts in comedy were primarily directed toward the stage, but Bennett, though lauded for his tedious realism, generally worked in a lighter vein in his shorter fiction of the prewar period, while Kipling's sentimental or spooky adventure stories were more occasionally interrupted by the self-satisfied humor of the colonial administrator. Meanwhile, on a less critically exalted level, the late-Victorian and Edwardian magazine-fiction writers whose popular characters and settings sold so sensationally that their books were unignorable by the upmarket reviewers — Arthur Conan Doyle, E. W. Hornung, Baroness Orczy, Anthony Hope, William J. Locke, Eden Phillpotts — used the technique if not always the manner of comedy to provide their essentially frivolous stories with surprise reversals, ingenious solutions and happy endings.

It's that unreal, even perhaps stage-managed sense of everything coming right in the end which marks The History of Mr Polly as one of Wells' few thoroughgoing comedies. The early chapters, flashing back over prematurely middle-aged shopkeeper Albert Polly's life, might be mistaken for an attempt at a bildungsroman along the lines of Maugham's bitter Of Human Bondage if it wasn't for the breeziness of Wells' authorial tone, but once the narrative catches back up to the present becomes nearly as action-packed as any of Wells' sci-fi adventures — but all the action is burlesque thanks to Wells' treatment of it. The chapter on Polly's attempt at suicide could have been written (by, say, a Russian novelist) to be harrowing; but because Wells shrewdly cuts away nearly all interior emotion and presents everything with the detached objectivity of a camera (meaning his selection, focus, and editing is as unobtrusive but effective as a filmmaker's) the whole scene is thoroughly slapstick from beginning to end.

It's the kind of book, perhaps, that only H. G. Wells, with the experience of writing rousing adventure stories under his belt and a keen interest in sympathetically analyzing the inner lives of lower-class Britons (because he never forgot his origins; the thoroughly middle-class Wodehouse was, when he met him, ungraciously appalled by Wells' naked insecurity about it), could have written. The final confrontation with the antagonist of the third act is so audaciously handled — almost the entire event takes place "offscreen," less because Wells couldn't have written it than because it would have had to not be very funny — that despite the woolly philosophizing and tempered happinesses it actually ends on, the impression that the book leaves is of a singularly effective screwball comedy shaped out of the unprepossessing materials of melodrama.

Wodehouse (or perhaps Hutchinson) did include one Wells contribution in the first Century of Humour: the heavily-anthologized 1903 short story "The Truth about Pyecraft," which splits the difference between his early fantastic fiction and the later personality-driven material. You can even make out the seeds of certain Drones or Ukridge approaches in it, although Wells' humor is rather darker than Wodehouse's would ever be. The elephantine generation of Serious (Male) Novelists, so exquisitely punctured by Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," even at their lightest, couldn't help being heavy.

September 17, 2018