Within a ten-year period at the turn of the century, both Mary Kingsley and H.G. Wells placed themselves in the public eye as active lecturers and contributors to periodicals. However, as authoritative voices (and bodies) on the lecture platform, both had distinct disadvantages. Kingsley had no formal education and had grown up among her mother's servant-class relatives; Wells shared with many entering the lower middle class the status of "scholarship boy" whose education was focused on applied science and technology. Nonetheless, the time was right. Both saw openings--even if grudging or problematic for the outsider to enter professional discourse. As outsiders, however, the value of the nontraditional (and critical) eye would depend on a mode of self-performance, knowing about its marginal status. That Kingsley, who made oddity fundamental to her art, would succeed, and Wells, a striver who misunderstood his marginality, would suffer humiliating defeat in debates among the Fabians, suggest ways in which outsiders were admitted on sufferance, and point to gendered and class strategies for "working the room" that would make a difference in whether or not they were heard.
Detecting strains of modernity in the 1890s and the Edwardian decade often means simply identifying the beginnings of commonplaces in our own culture. At the turn of the century, then, we see not only an age of the "personality," but understand as well that publicity and celebrity are reciprocal functions of audience and technologies. Potential audiences that came of age at the end of the century had been vastly expanded by the National Education Acts of the preceding decades; reciprocally, new technologies for producing ephemeral illustrated newspapers and magazines created or fed appetites that were somewhat different from the old. With magazines such as the Strand, Pearson's, M.A.P (Mainly About People), and a host of others, the age of the "personality" had arrived, and along with it, a blurring of boundaries between professional discourse and entertainment. More precisely, should audiences demand intellectual stimulation, they demanded it cloaked in the entertainment of a captivating performance of personality. Just as significantly, a culture of celebrity, in concert with its expanded audience, made possible the entry of many hitherto excluded voices into a reshaped professional and public discourse.
However, whether new voices could successfully convey new perspectives might well depend upon how astutely the new breed of intellectual personality would manage self-presentation. To gauge such elements of success and failure, we might look at two turn-of-the-century careers at moments of intense public presence in the lecture halls and the periodicals: that of Mary H. Kingsley from 1895-1900 and H.G. Wells from 1901-1906. For those who think of Kingsley, or Wells, or both, this pairing may constitute a quintessential "odd couple." To most minds, Kingsley appears resolutely Victorian--an image she assiduously cultivated; Wells appears the Edwardian man of the future, author of visionary scientific romances--an image he assiduously cultivated. Yet there are instructive reasons for pairing them despite their differing images and political commitments. They were, in fact, of the same generation--Kingsley (1862-1900) was just four years older than Wells (1866-1946). Both became public sensations in their early thirties, their public emergence occurring within a ten-year span; in different spheres, both engaged in sustained cultural, political, and disciplinary critiques that were grounded in natural and biological science. Both understood that their visibility on the lecture platform and in the press was essential to their ambitions of becoming significant players effecting change. And both, alongside their contemporary notice and celebrity, were definitely the wrong sort for traditional cultural or disciplinary authority by virtue of gender, class, or both.
While public and press interest in the most recent figure of novelty or controversy brought each of them celebrity, both Kingsley and Wells drew for their political and cultural analyses on their foundations in science. Kingsley, a gifted autodidact, grounded her studies first in natural science, then anthropology, naming the most prominent Victorian ethnographic theorist, E.B. Tylor, her "great juju." She described herself as "a Darwinian to the core." Wells, too, began with natural science and evolution under T.H. Huxley at the South Kensington, became captivated by technology, and like Kingsley, extended his interests to study social and cultural organization, leading him to socialism. Kingsley, too, would discover that the study of comparative culture would lead inevitably to practical applications--in her case, to issues of imperialist political and economic policy. As Peter Keating has pointed out in his survey of intellectual currents at the turn of the century, "there is hardly an area of literature or social history in which [the] influence [of Darwinism or evolutionism] was not felt." Keating sees as particularly germane "the diffuse nature" of this influence, "the way it produced so quickly both a particular view of the world and a terminology to describe that view." (1) More recently, Barbara T. Gates has illuminated Keating's observation with a precise account of how women's close study of nature, especially at the turn of the century, authorized their engagement with varied social and political issues. (2) If readers dismiss the link between biological and social thought as limited to its expression in Social Darwinism, they also erase what Keating identifies as a structuring mode, capacious and often disputatious in its varied interpretations and applications. (3) Indeed, while both Kingsley and Wells constructed their platforms of social and political authority on commitments to scientific structures of thought, neither would be unduly under the sway of received opinion.
The public forum was important for both Kingsley and Wells, not because they wished admittance to respectable disciplinary discourse for its own sake or on its own terms, but because they were outsiders. To effect a significant challenge meant not the easily-dismissed critique from the outside, but the contrariness of a critique from as far inside as they could manage; in short, authorized by the aegis of the disciplinary forum. Perhaps surprisingly, Kingsley, today less-known than Wells, and doubly disadvantaged by class and gender, was far shrewder and far more successful than Wells as a lecturer both in reaching the general public and in establishing herself in targeted scientific and political circles as a significant voice to attend to. At the rostrum, Kingsley triumphed and Wells largely failed, I would argue, because Kingsley understood the re-made climate for the public lecture as a dramatic space of constructed self-performance. While it offered celebrity to the outsider, she understood that it granted authority only on sufferance; the outsider's performance self would require vigilant self-management to remake perceptions of the ground of authority. Kingsley knew, as Wells was only to learn, that intelligent insight did not automatically grant privilege. Perhaps reflecting a gendered difference, Wells--optimistically, naively, and with a sense of entitlement--appears to have believed that in the new era the simple force of vision would further endorse male privilege, erasing the disadvantages of class. However, the progress of these two careers on the public platform illuminates real barriers in place, only masked by their apparent opportunities as the newest sensation. As Kingsley knew and Wells did not, the barriers meant that one must work the room.
Both Kingsley and Wells knew the incremental steps to building an influential public presence. Sensational experience or publication that excited press curiosity led to interviews that would then garner audiences for lectures. Published work (with an audience made ready for it) would then develop a more fully-defined agenda with the cumulative weight of public presence and authority enabling private influence on policy makers. With a long view, both Kingsley and Wells saw their public presence as critical leverage for exerting such private influence. Kingsley notified the press …