Working the Room: The Cases of Mary H. Kingsley and H.G. Wells
Early, Julie English, Nineteenth-Century Prose
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 of her arrival time from West Africa to ensure interviews of the intrepid lady traveller; she sent a brief description of the nature of her work to the Royal Geographical Society as a news note for the next issue of its journal; and she supplied photographs to the Illustrated London News for a lengthy interview that would shortly appear. Although biographers have judged her by temperament an extremely private person, she also supplied M.A.P with an autobiographical sketch. Kingsley, in fact, engineered her public presence to create a receptive audience for her books, Travels in West Africa (1897) and West African Studies (1900), and in the process worked diligently to parlay this intellectual presence to influence Colonial Office policy. Wells, on the other hand, had been something of a presence with his own journalism throughout the 1890s. However, it was with the success of his scientific romances in the latter half of the decade (4) that he became a celebrity author, meriting, for example, a Strand profile. (5) Wells' fictional imaginings of the future course of civilization then led to his nonfiction predictions for the twentieth century, running first serially in the Fortnightly Review, then as Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901). Wells capitalized on the interest shown for Anticipations to deliver lectures subsequently reprinted as part of Mankind in the Making (1903), A Modern Utopia (1905), and New Worlds for Old (1908), constituting his most sustained period of prophetic and prescriptive sociological writing. In his autobiography, Wells termed Anticipations "not only a new start for me, but, it presently became clear, a new thing in general thought." (6) Thus, just as Kingsley wished to influence foreign policy to accord with her insights into West African cultures, Wells wished to bring his conceptions, this "new thing in general thought," to bear on domestic policy, particularly by pushing for leadership in the Fabian Society to shape it for an aggressive social and political role.
Both Wells and Kingsley sought public notice with the long view of contributing significantly to the practical applications of intellectual work, yet they came to developing the demeanor of authoritative presence with decided disadvantages. Despite her uncle, Charles Kingsley (1819-75)--well known to mid-Victorians--the Kingsley name had far less currency at the end of the century. Further, Mary Kingsley had had little experience of her famous relatives. Her father had married a pregnant cook days before Mary's birth, then embarked on world travels for much of the remainder of his life. She grew up caring for her invalid mother largely ignored by the Kingsleys, and helped instead by her mother's working-class family. One lecture reviewer would later complain of her habit of dropping g's, a criticism that amused her "when I am trying so hard to hang onto the h's." (7) Unlike her brother, she received no formal education, but availed herself of her father's extensive (and idiosyncratic) library. After the deaths of both parents, and discovering the "irregularity" of her birth, she became seriously depressed; as she later wrote confidentially, she "went to West Africa to die." (8) When she didn't, she discovered that she had a great deal to say about West Africa. Wells, too, came from modest beginnings, but his were more readily class codified. The son of a (sometimes) professional cricketer and a Great House housekeeper, he was destined for an apprenticeship that would move him out of the servant class into the lower middle class behind a counter in retail trade. Unlike Kingsley, Wells received an education--a sign of the times, he profited from the Education Act to attend the Normal School of Science at South Kensington as a "scholarship boy." However, even after success considerable enough to commission leading architect C.F.A. Voysey to design his home, Spade House, Wells would assure a correspondent referring to a critic's comment on a lecture appearance, that "the dress-suit was not hired--oddly enough that wounds me most." (9)
Well aware of their status as outsiders, both Kingsley and Wells nonetheless understood the paradoxical advantage that their disadvantages conferred: they would necessarily bring to intellectual disciplines a different angle of vision. Kingsley wrote to her friend Lady Macdonald: "I am really beginning to think that [...] the person who writes a book and gets his FRGS [Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society] etc, is a peculiar sort of animal only capable of seeing a certain set of things and always seeing them the same way, and you and me are not of this species somehow." Reflecting a sense of "newness," she asked, "[w]hat are we to call ourselves?" (10) In a remarkable echo of Kingsley's perspective, Wells later explained, "[s]ocialism is to me no clear-cut system of theories and dogmas; it is one of those solid and extensive and synthetic ideas that are better indicated by a number of different formulae than by one, just as one only realizes a statue by walking round it and seeing it from a number of points of view." (11) Both Kingsley and Wells knew they would promote a new way of seeing, and in their visible marginal selves--being seen--they represented it. Their task, however, would be to transcend the interest in novelty by breaking down traditional markers of authority to remake them so as not to fall victim to easy dismissal as a conventionally-knowable quality--whether the adventurous lady traveller or the counter-jumper. Only Kingsley, however, would take the step to construct herself as an object, "denaturalized" to be seen with new eyes as she called attention to herself, even multiplying and exaggerating the marginalities she could represent to elude a too-swift classification in any of them. (12)
Kingsley fit a number of ready categories, all of which she refused. Accepting the labels neither of globe-trotting adventuress, nor New Woman ("shrieking androgyns" (13) she ungenerously remarked), she styled herself only a student of West Africa, but to her audience, a distinctly unusual one, subverting any easy readability of Mary Kingsley. She cheerfully presented herself as a seeming mass of contradictions: an agile voice that easily slipped in and out of multiple narrative modes; an unavoidable and commanding presence that was oddly decentered; a persona curiously elusive and overloaded, the material for multiple constructions. A rather slight figure, Kingsley appeared on the lecture platform in stiff black silk dresses several decades out of fashion. Introducing herself at one lecture, she suggested, "I expect I remind you of your maiden aunt--long since deceased." (14) The archaic chapter headings to Travels in West Africa, too, speak in the voice of another age: Chapter IV, "Which the general reader may omit as the voyager gives herein no details of Old Calabar or of other things of general interest, but discourses diffusely on the local geography and the story of the man who wasted coal." Parodic, pointedly anachronistic, even dandyish, the device recalls a time when the dandy was the natural province of the leisured aristocrat, but is now one of many modes that the woman and her text may, at will, dress up in. Any presuppositions suggested by her "quaint but modest appearance" (15) and archaic respectability were confounded by her unladylike views. Kingsley, for example, supported the West African liquor traffic, deplored the activities of missionaries, preferred the company of the "palm-oil ruffians" (West Coast traders), and named as her favorite West African tribe, the cannibal Fan. With grim flippancy, Kingsley portrayed herself as an anachronism. She was a survivor of West Africa, the White Man's Grave, a woman with thrilling experiences in pursuit of scientific study, and a woman seeming oddly out of time and place, with the riveting drama, wit, and timing of a masterful (and generally masculine) raconteur.
On the one hand, Kingsley appeared to practice a variety of self-erasure in the invisibility of the maiden aunt now long since deceased, or self-deprecation in her witty tales often told at her own expense. At the same time, she consistently created or capitalized on opportunities to provoke controversial exchanges not only in her lectures and articles, but through letters-to-the-editor columns debating and correcting false notions of African culture and demeaning constructions generalizing the capabilities of "The African." In print and in person she developed an effective and disarming style that allowed her to pursue issues aggressively while modulating confrontational rhetoric with her off-centering, anecdotal rhythms and anachronistic self-fashioning. One member of a lecture audience assessed her self-constructed oddity, a seeming relic of another age, as "a bit of stagecraft designed to heighten her achievements." (16) A writer for M.A.P. recalled in an obituary memoir the power of Kingsley's presence even in a crowd: at a reception for Sarah Bernhardt, Kingsley as a guest remained as memorable as the Divine Sarah. The writer repeats one guest's description of Kingsley looking as if she were a novelistic maiden aunt created by Charlotte Yonge, but comments as well on the net effect:
It was an exhilarating occasion, everyone seemed in the highest spirits except Miss Kingsley. Holding aloof from the animated groups around, grave as a judge, for an hour or more she paced up and down, her antiquated dress and coiffure rendering her all the more conspicuous.
When the actress swept through, the writer notes not Bernhardt, but Kingsley "gazing at Sarah Bernhardt from behind a hedge of eagerly craned heads." (17) If Kingsley appeared to be an uncomfortable anomaly, she was also a particularly compelling one.
Her unconventional style in public, in the press, and more particularly on the platform would prepare readers for the unusual nature of her publications--discursive, colloquial, seemingly flippant, but always making the case for understanding the coherence of West African cultures. The style that reviewers frequently termed "racy" brought thousands to her dramatic lantern slide lectures, both in professional societies and public venues--audiences of 1800 to 2000 were not unusual. The necessary performance supporting this "racy" style becomes clear when one imagines, as biographer Katherine Frank does, the effect of a Kingsley lecture when delivered with the soberness of a staid professional society member--as was the case on occasion. The bylaws of the Liverpool Geographical Society, for example, prohibited women from membership or presenting papers; thus Kingsley sat on the stage while a member read her account of an enormous hippo who "yawned a yawn a yard wide, and grunted the news of our arrival to his companions, who also rose up, and strolled through the grass with the flowing grace of Pantechnicon vans." (18) Kingsley's colloquial style in the periodicals and lectures led her editorial advisor at Macmillan, Henry Guillemard, to fear audiences would tire of her. She wrote Macmillan, he has "gone at me like a tiger," but she insisted "my commercial instinct tells me that had I not done so I should now be forgotten by the fickle public." (19) In her manuscript as well, Guillemard consistently attempted to "professionalize" her language and cut her stories short--"an undammable logorrhea of Kingsleyese," he later called her discursive tales; (20) she resisted--and won--terming his unacceptable Latinate flourishes Guillamardese. (21) In the preface to Travels in West Africa, she parodies the style she has refused, demonstrates her own agility in moving among styles, and takes full responsibility for her choice: "It is I who have declined to ascend to a higher level of lucidity and correctness of diction than I am fitted for." (22)
A masterful storyteller, she paced the stage, punctuating her narratives with her physicality and demonstrating a comic's timing to her off-centering commentary. She routinely incorporated question and answer periods not only as a guide for anticipating later readers' queries or issues, but to further mark her image and views in direct exchanges, just as she did in interviews. One interviewer, for example, was no doubt startled by Kingsley's response when asked whether she found the African woman a very degraded specimen of humanity. "I believe, on the whole," she answered, "that the African married woman is happier than the majority of English wives, because if the husband gets too bad, she can poison him off and get someone else killed for it." She also named as her favorite tribe the Fan whom she found "full of fire, temper, intelligence, and 'go'." She explained: [The Fan] is a cannibal, not from superstitious motives; he just kills and eats people in a common-sense way." (23) Behind what careless listeners took as flippancy, however, was a sustained effort to argue for the coherence of practices within a culture, and to bring her audience to a new way of seeing. "At first," she cautioned them, "you see nothing but a confused stupidity and crime; but when you get to see--well! ... you see things worth seeing." (24) At the beginning of her relations with Macmillan, she told him "I am afraid you have taken up with a complicated criminal." (25) The West African, thought to embody "stupidity and crime," and the writer and lecturer, "a complicated criminal," are indeed not what they seem, "but when you get to see--well!" Quite literally using the material at hand, Kingsley made herself into an occurrence, an event to be seen with new eyes, just as the cultures of West Africa should be seen without preconception.
Kingsley's carefully constructed presence in the press and on the lecture platform (she had quickly hired an agent and was lecturing about three times each week) made her a popular, quirky, and formidably intelligent expert on West Africa whom policy makers found impossible to ignore. Cultivating such relations was fundamental to the strategy of influence that she communicated to a friend: "Set yourself to gain personal power," she advised. "[T]he reins of power [...] are lying on the horse's neck; quietly get them into your hands and drive." (26) As the "sea-monster of the season" she became a dinner-party catch (27) with opportunities for private lobbying of the politically influential. Although she proclaimed herself a poor "drawing-roomer," Kingsley's social schedule was less reluctant than biographers would have it. Whether or not she was temperamentally averse to the social round, she also found it necessary, objecting more to practical limitations than to social discomforts she may have felt. She expressed her frustration to a political ally, John Holt: "in a great crowded dinner party one cannot quietly talk over facts calmly." (28) Nonetheless, entree to the important political salons gave Kingsley opportunities to set up discussions over private lunches or meetings. (29)
Kingsley clearly understood the interrelationship of public performance, professional debate, commercial publishing success, and private influence on public policy. She actively engineered her status as "the sea-monster of the season," and heeded her "commercial instincts" that assessed a "fickle public" enamoured of the latest novelty, but that nonetheless demanded performance value from a celebrity who wished to achieve staying power in the public eye. In a changed end-of-century climate, Kingsley shrewdly understood the relationships among an expanded audience, new opportunity, and the idiosyncratic staging of self that would reconfigure the image of the professional. Kingsley created a public self that would educate a general and professional public to a new embodiment of authority to become a popular intellectual presence that government policy makers must heed. Simply, she marshaled public regard as the critical component to grabbing, as she had said, the reins of power that were "lying on the horse's neck."
Even had Wells had Kingsley's performance skills, and he did not, his conception of public address was quite different. As one measure, Wells, for example, encumbered his first address to the Fabians with the title, "The Question of Scientific Administrative Areas in Relation to Municipal Undertakings." (Far more arresting, "The Development of Dodos" was Kingsley's title for her attack on missionary activity in West Africa). Further, Wells, having first succeeded in periodicals and with books, saw his lectures as amplifications of ideas, particularly in Anticipations, that had in many quarters been warmly received. To an extent, he already had an audience. Beatrice Webb termed Anticipations "the most remarkable book of the year; a powerful imagination furnished with the data and methods of physical science working on social problems." (30) On the other hand, Henry James expressed something of a minority view that would have relevance to Wells' presentation of ideas at the rostrum: of Anticipations, he asked, "Where is life in all this, life as I feel it and know it? Subject of your speculations as it is, it is nevertheless too much left out." (31) Nonetheless, Wells' first major lecture at the Royal Institution (21 January 1902) elaborated ideas of Anticipations, making him a celebrity, "a mind and force to be reckoned with." (32) In a letter, Wells had announced his intention to create controversy: "I shall talk treason at the R.I. I'm going to write, talk, preach revolution for the next five years." (33) Reading audiences that had responded to the seeming optimism of his published predictions were understandably expecting some buoyancy in the presentation of these ideas from the platform. Yet few registered having heard an impassioned firebrand. Wells was rather small, an unprepossessing figure at the podium, and even slighter in build following recurring chest problems in the late '90s. (34) One friend praised the content of the lecture, but also advised, "I [...] heard all [...] except some words --But I suppose you know secundum artum you read quite 25% too fast." (35) Joseph Conrad offered warm congratulations on the lecture's content, while remaining circumspect on delivery. Its "eloquence," he wrote, was "eloquence not appealing to the passions like the eloquence of the orator." Delicately, he termed it "scientific eloquence." (36) Biographer Michael Coren refers to Wells' "high-pitched voice, lacking inflection and passion," advocating controversial positions "infelicitously in a suburban accent." (37) On one lackluster performance, Anthony West comments, "It cannot be said that he lost his audience, because he never took it by the collar." (38) David C. Smith flatly assesses Wells as "a very poor public speaker." (39)
Given that Wells relished his opportunities as a public prophet, and that others were quite willing to point out his presentation deficiencies, it is all the more remarkable that throughout an active lecture schedule in these years he failed to improve. (40) Naively and optimistically, Wells appears simply not to have believed it mattered; that his ideas alone would inspire an audience to "reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes." (41) Unlike Kingsley, Wells remained oblivious to the meta-performance of seeing and being seen folded into the lecturer's call to see anew. In early correspondence, he appears untroubled by criticisms of style, yet hurt by "[disagreements] with the end results." (42) In short, Wells believed ideas and their debate defined a new intellectual climate in which the visionary scholarship boy, freed from a lower-middle-class clerk's future but unshackled by traditional thought or demeanor, gained authority by the force of his ideas. George Bernard Shaw would soon show Wells how very wrong he was.
With his celebrity, society hostesses courted Wells; Lady Mary Elcho took him in hand to advise on dress and etiquette. The Fabians made distinct overtures to bring him into the fold--Sidney and Beatrice Webb cycled down to drop in uninvited at Spade House. Wells was flattered by the Fabians' pursuit of him as an energetic thinker who could attract young members to the aging group of armchair theorists. He was even more gratified by joining a spin-off, the Co-Efficients, a dining club with the patina of privilege whose well-placed members debated issues over port and cigars. (43) In ascending to the Fabian Executive, he saw the opportunity for energetic reform that would require wresting power from the "Old Guard" in private maneuvering, but more important, in public meetings. (44) His differences with the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw, and the spectacular defeat of his bid for leadership in 1906 have been recounted with attention to the complicated private relations in the claustrophobic echelons of the Fabian leadership. (45) His affairs with Fabian daughters Rosamund Bland, and later, Amber Reeves (among other young women during the period), caused significant strains, yet the most coruscating analysis of Wells' failure came from Shaw on quite different grounds.
A member of the Old Guard, Shaw also installed himself as Wells' mentor, without regard for whether Wells wished to have one. Shaw's letters to Wells are consistently overbearing and condescending, setting as their task the education of a backward child. Shaw told him, "you are a man who [...] always wants a school. Well the Fabian is a school for the exercise & development of certain personal powers--committee power, public speaking & debating, etc." (46) In Shaw's view, Wells was regrettably unwilling "to do exactly as I tell you"; thus he took great pleasure in repeatedly listing Wells' failings: he lacked "the etiquette of public routine"; his "reckless" disregard of procedure was "simple madness from the point of view of an experienced parliamentarian." (47) Later, Shaw termed Wells' ignorance of "respect for The Chair [...] the lowest form of misdemeanor to which the public man can fall," a transgression committed only by "worms who know no more about 'order' than you do." (48) As his signal move to gain leadership, Wells wrote a new Basis (the Fabian charter) to present to the membership for a vote. Shaw, moving beyond criticism of Wells' public skills, suggested his weaknesses as thinker and writer: he insisted Wells "should have offered, with a noble air, to allow me to edit it exactly as I pleased." (49)
In debate before the vote, Shaw's commanding performance only underscored Wells' awkward public presence, resulting for Wells in an embarrassing rout. Indeed, as Anthony West describes the debacle from contemporary
accounts, Shaw did not debate Wells on his controversial proposals, but "reduced [the issues] to triviality [...] as a clash of personalities--between the hard-working, consistent, and conscientious members of the Executive and the puckish, volatile, and whimsical intruder into their domain." (50) The irony of characterizing Wells as puckish or whimsical (terms more aptly fitting Kingsley's self-presentation) would only underscore Wells' pale, earnest, and ineffectual demeanor. Shaw's dazzling and unsavory performance prompted Graham Wallas to resign from the Executive over what he saw as travesties of meeting procedures. He wrote Wells of his disgust at the "gerrymandering, bluffing, browbeating, quibbling, baiting, and playing to the gallery." (51) Even more unsavory than Wallas knew, of course, was the greater irony of Shaw's insistent advice to Wells about marking one's competence by observing meeting rules of order when his own more effective strategy was to subvert them to perform his own powerful personality, pitting it against what he would later term Wells' clerkly self.
Like his friend Wallas, Wells resigned from the Executive; however, two years later, Webb and Shaw rewrote the Basis and, perhaps to pick Wells' brain, sent him a copy for comments. After eleven months he returned a complete rewrite, a gesture that elicited from Shaw's long memory a renewed recital of Wells' inadequacies in the meeting two years earlier. In this version Shaw made even more explicit the source of Wells' failings: Wells embodies the "natural disadvantages" of his class that he would have "to cancel [...] by a strenuous effort." (52) Biographers who characterize the six-page letter as Shavian wit tend to quote very little of it. (53) Indeed, Wells saw it differently: Shaw, he later wrote, "had an element of cruelty in his nature." Shaw, while again reminding him of his "brash egotism" and ignorance of proper public meeting procedures, particularly focused on his poor presentation skills that in Shaw's view faithfully represented a deferential lower-middle-class clerk. (54) Despite Shaw's instructions, Wells "made the commonest blunder of the tyro" at that meeting:
You insisted on having a table; leaning over it on your knuckles; and addressing the contents of your contracted chest to the tablecloth [...]. Where did you get that attitude? In the shop. IN THE SHOP. [...] [W]hen your knuckles touched the cloth, you said unconsciously, by reflex action, "Anything else today, madam," and later on, "What's the next article?" Fortunately you were inaudible thanks to the attitude. Now I swear that the next time you take that attitude in my presence I will ask you for a farthing paper of pins.
Shaw continues, "thank heaven, I am an ORATOR, not a mulish draper's assistant"; and if Wells will work at it, he too could "become a platform athlete in propaganda" with practice and "a little daily exercise over the alphabet." Further, becoming a rhetorician would, Shaw tells him, make him a better writer; a writer, for example, who writes plays as Shaw does, rather than "your wretched texts for sensational illustrations in sixpenny magazines." The balance of the letter is a peculiar flight of whimsy in which Shaw asserts that his own natural superiority is sure to win away Wells' wife Jane: "She will not long be content with a Second Best," he warns. Among Shaw's advantages: "I am three feet taller than you"; and there is "no professional cricketer in my family, thank heaven." Further, "I can make the back row of 4000 people hear every word I say whilst you dare not look your customer straight in the eye--only look up at him (her) with a propitiatory smile." (55)
In his autobiography, Wells diminishes the Fabian Society discord as "that petty, dusty conflict," but a letter to Vernon Lee at the height of the 1906 episode makes clear what it signified to him at the time. "All this month," he wrote, "I have been fighting Shaw for the Fabian Society as if it mattered. Well it does matter for a little chap like me." (56) And the subsequent lessons of Shaw's strategies cut deep. In his autobiography Wells includes his own retrospective assessment, seemingly prompted by and internalizing Shaw's unrestrained critique. He describes "speaking haltingly on the verge of the inaudible, addressing my tie through a cascade moustache that was no help at all, correcting myself as though I were a manuscript under treatment, making ill-judged departures into parenthesis." (57) The entire experience continued to rankle more than he suggests from the long view on a "petty, dusty conflict" from the 1930s. Wells pilloried the major players in fiction with The New Machiavelli (1911); in 1913, he savaged the leftist New Statesman as a receptacle for the Webbs' outworn creed. "Duller than Indigestion. Duller than a privet hedge in Leeds," he wrote. (58)
Clearly Shaw's letters unerringly capitalize on Wells' own sensitivities, but more significantly, I would argue, Shaw's critique is particularly germane as a reflection of the potential public response to a brash newcomer--definitely not our kind--who distastefully believes his own celebrity without giving back performative value. Not coincidentally, Wells, writing on America after a trip during the middle of the Fabian episode, admired "the habit of initiative in its people." (59) Americans were, in this sense, the striving portion writ large of Wells' own lower middle class--those who thought opportunity was theirs to seize. However, unlike Kingsley, Wells failed to understand that in England the new invitation was entailed. Without modulating either to Shaw's classed demeanor or to Kingsley's eccentricity, Wells' vision of future leadership gave stature and power to the man of vision and intellect even if, or especially if, he were "a little chap like me." In A Modern Utopia he formulated the grounds for leadership in postulating the Order of the Samurai. Admission to this and any of the lesser functional classes of the future (the poietic, the kinetic, the base, and the dull) was to be "regulated by the filtering processes of education and of the tests of social life, and was never hereditary." (60) Essentially, Wells thought that he could transform the Fabian Society into a nascent Order of the Samurai, taking the role himself, of course, of first Samurai. Not surprisingly, the Old Guard would have none of it, and, in fact, theirs was an easy victory. As Shaw acutely understood, "it was like boxing with a novice who knocked himself out in every exchange." (61)
The campaign to defeat Wells was easy, but it was easy, as Shaw well knew, because it had little to do with issues or Wells' persuasive or nonpersuasive arguments. It was easy because Wells naively and unknowingly acquiesced to the terms for dismissal that Shaw set. Having succeeded first in (disembodied) print, he refused to acknowledge that the body as a locus of class construction mattered, and submitted to (even as he wished to refute) Shaw's line of classed vision that made a particular demeanor and technical skills the issue. Thus, while Wells wished to be, in Kingsley's phrase, "a complicated criminal," he succeeded only in becoming a bad boy; that is, a deficient boy. Lacking her shrewd recognition of class and gender performatively constructed on the body, and her agility to move among modes to confound ready categorization, Wells could not, as she did, transcend the easiest category to come to hand. Kingsley understood the new climate that offered opportunity to the outsider, but she also understood that in a culture of celebrity, one would succeed only as an "original," transcending conventional constructions of class and gender. Kingsley's "criminality" was to force her audience to see her as an indefinable phenomenon, not as a predictable climbing outsider riding the newest hobbyhorse to gain brief celebrity.
For different reasons, both Kingsley and Wells have become only interesting footnotes to narratives of the human and social sciences. Yet at the moment we could term a "cusp" preceding the professionalization of disciplines that would soon sequester specialists to speak only among themselves, both Kingsley and Wells understood that disciplinary structures of thought authorize social and political activism. However, tracing management of their relatively brief moments as celebrated outsiders also suggests a complicated and diffuse matrix of professional, public, and practical values. Both sought to reconfigure disciplinary authority: Kingsley, in ethnographic and anthropological study; Wells, in domestic social organization and management. Both had practical goals of reshaping imperialist or domestic policy, but only Kingsley understood the importance of the public venue for remaking a previously understood ground and demeanor of authority. To gain the ear of policy makers, she became a force to reckon with who understood that expertise for the outsider could only count when it was "sold" through performance skills. One must not only work the room, but understand the levels of rooms and their interdependence.
It is, of course, impossible to say how Kingsley would have continued to fare with the public, both as she termed it, the G.P. (the general public) and professionals. Her career was brief; she died in South Africa in 1900. Guillamard may well have been right in the long term when he predicted the public would tire of her; or in his retrospective assessment, Jonathan Schneer may also be right to speculate that because "[a]bout her there always hung a whiff of bohemianism and eccentricity," Kingsley may well have failed to gain anything more from policy makers than a polite hearing. (62) Politically, her lobbying efforts to develop her self-named "Third Party"--designed to wrest power from the bureaucracy of the Colonial Office and place it in the hands of the Liverpool traders with considerable autonomy for West African tribal chiefs--swam against the tide of British imperialist policy. After her death, without her public presence or private leadership to build coalitions, a nascent Third Party no longer had the potential public and private support that would force the Colonial Office to consider its views--regardless of whether her quirky style would have had the effect that Schneer surmises. Despite her best efforts, Kingsley was not able in the time available to her to force an alternative imperialist policy that, naively or not, she felt would benefit both West Africa and Britain. (63)
Kingsley's impact on anthropological methodology remained for some time equally hypothetical. While her contemporaries termed her style "racy" or colloquial, her insistence on her own presence, implicating herself in interactions with West Africans and thus her interpretations, had larger methodological implications. Indeed, Kingsley made substantial demands for self-consciousness in the discipline by forcing attention to the narrativity of science, and challenging Olympian pronouncements of disembodied observation. However, the self consciousness in anthropology that she insisted upon would largely be tabled until the latter part of the twentieth century. (64) In this, Kingsley as an outsider with a different angle of vision was particularly prescient in challenging fundamental conceptions of ethnography, yet her work today largely receives attention from literary critics interested in travel narratives or cultural critics concerned with imperialism, rather than from anthropologists. Her contributions to anthropology have not been so much denigrated as erased.
Wells considerably outlived his years as the Edwardian enfant terrible, publishing energetically until his death in 1946, with the majority of his twentieth-century output, fiction and social thought, now relegated to the second, or in some cases, even lesser rank. There is something poignant about Wells' 1939 autobiographical overview that perhaps erases portions of the past, and imagines how literary and social history will place him. "England in my time," he asserts, "has been very liable to outsiders: Bottomley and Birkenhead, Ramsay MacDonald and Lowenstein, Shaw and Zaharoff, Maundy Gregory and me--a host of others; all men with no legitimate and pre-determined roles, men who have behaved at all levels of behaviours but whose common characteristic it has been to fly across the social confusion quite unaccountably, scattering a train of interrogations in their wake." (65) Wells' statement is the pride of the respectable gadfly, desirous of the transcendence of intellectual troublemaking, but finally he could not control the terms of his legacy. As late as 1986, a reviewer of a new biography offered his own view: Wells he said, "was an undersized boy from the working class who [...] heightened the imaginations of readers [...] and in the process became rich, famous, self-indulgent, and sloppier as a writer." (66) In short, Wells failed to cancel what Shaw had termed his "natural disadvantages." The reviewer remained comfortable, just as comfortable as Shaw in 1906, "explaining" Wells as fundamentally and permanently the little counter-jumper.
University of Huntsville in Alabama
I would like to thank the librarians of the Rare Books Room at the University of Illinois for their expert guidance to materials relevant to Wells' lecturing, and the Humanities Center of the University of Alabama in Huntsville for funds for travel to conferences that supported the development of this essay.
(1) Peter Keating, The Haunted Study: A Social History of the English Novel, 1875-1914 (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1989), 113.
(2) Barbara T. Gates, Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World (U of Chicago P, 1998).
(3) The entrenchment of Darwinian biology, Keating argues, however "adjusted," is as critical to conceptualization at the end of the century as its structuring replacement, physics, is to late twentieth- and early twenty-first century thought. Keating notes that "the adjective 'scientific' was liable to be attached to almost any reasonably coherent creed, discipline, or body of knowledge, and employed with equal confidence whether the speaker was for or against science" (120).
(4) The best known from these years include The Time Machine (1894); The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896); The Invisible Man (1897); The Sleeper Awakes (1898); The War of the Worlds (1898).
(5) "H.G. Wells: Portraits at Different Ages," Strand Magazine (December 1898).
(6) HGW, Experiment in Autobiography, vol. II (London: Gollancz, 1934), 645.
(7) Unidentified MHK letter quoted in Katherine Frank, A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 24.
(8) MHK to Matthew Nathan, 12 March 1899, Matthew Nathan Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford.
(9) HGW to L.V. Lucas, 22 February 1906, The Correspondence of H.G. Wells, vol. I (London: Picketing & Chatto, 1998).
(10) MHK to Lady MacDonald, undated letter quoted in Stephen Gwynn, The Life of Mary Kingsley (London: Macmillan, 1932), 131.
(11) HGW, First and Last Things , (London: Watts, 1929), 80.
(12) For a more thorough discussion of Kingsley's self-fashioning, see my "The Spectacle of Science and Self: Mary Kingsley," Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, ed. Barbara T. Gates and Ann B. Shteir, Science and Literature Series, ed. George Levine (U of Wisconsin P, 1997), 215-236.
(13) MHK to John Holt, n.d., Holt Papers, Rhodes House Library, Oxford.
(14) MHK, "A Lecture on West Africa," Cheltenham Ladies' College Magazine 38 (Autumn 1898), 264-80.
(15) Advertiser and Exchange Gazette (Hull), 13 November 1897, quoted in Frank, 246.
(16) E. Muriel Joy to Dorothy Middleton, 22 June 1966, quoted in Frank, 258. Joy was in the audience at Kingsley's Cheltenham Ladies' College lecture.
(17) M.A.P., 23 June 1900.
(18) Lecture in Liverpool, March 1896, quoted in Frank, 220-21.
(19) MHK to George Macmillan, 6 July 1896, Macmillan Papers, British Library.
(20) Henry Guillemard to Stephen Gwynn, 21 November 1932, quoted in Frank, 91. Guillamard is appropriating Kingsley's earlier coined phrase. See note 22.
(21) MHK to George Macmillan, 30 October 1896, Macmillan Papers, British Library.
(22) MHK, Travels in West Africa (London: Macmillan, 1897), viii.
(23) Sarah A. Tooley, "Adventures of a Lady Explorer: an Interview with Miss Mary Kingsley," Young Woman, no. 45 (1896), 293.
(24) MHK, Travels, 103.
(25) MHK to George Macmillan, 16 February 1896, Macmillan Papers, British Library.
(26) MHK to Alice Green, 14 March 1900, quoted in Dee Birkett, Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers (Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 233.
(27) Even her associates found their social cachet enhanced. Guillamard wrote, "I am quite a distinguished person here because I am a friend of Miss Kingsley. I enliven the dinner table with anecdotes about you," 20 December 1895, Macmillan Papers, British Library.
(28) MHK to John Holt, 13 December 1897, Holt Papers, Rhodes House Library.
(29) In London 1900: Imperial Metropolis (Yale UP, 1999), Jonathan Schneer refers to several of her letters to Holt mentioning engagements where she could gain the ear of important figures; for example, country weekends with "the Salisbury-Balfour set", lunches with Sir George Goldie, meetings with Joseph Chamberlain, and invitations from MPs (151-55).
(30) Quoted in Michael Coren, The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (NY: Athenaeum, 1993), 37.
(31) Henry James to HGW, 20 January 1902, Henry James and H.G. Wells, ed. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958), 76.
(32) Wells biographer David C. Smith dates the salon quality of Wells' Spade House at Sandgate from this new prominence: "Everyone wanted to meet him, to talk with him, have him read their manuscripts and listen to their ideas." H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale UP, 1986), 97.
(33) Quoted in Norman Mackenzie and Jeanne Mackenzie, The Time Traveller: The Life of H.G. Wells (London, 1973), 162.
(34) Anthony West, in H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (New York: New American Library, 1984) paraphrases Fabian member Maude Reeves' 1905 advice to Wells: "She told him that no politician could hope to succeed who had a horror of the platform, and that he was overrating the importance of his physical deficiencies. Having a big voice and a presence wasn't everything--if he kept cool, spoke slowly, and didn't start gabbling and swallowing his words, he would be heard and listened to, she had no doubt of that," 295. West does not cite a source for his interpolation of Reeves' remarks.
(35) Graham Wallas to HGW, 28 February 1902, H.G. Wells Papers, Rare Books Room, University of Illinois.
(36) Joseph Conrad to HGW, [c. February, 1902], Wells Papers, Illinois. The Royal Institution lecture that both Wallas and Conrad comment on was quickly published as Discovery of the Future.
(37) Coren, 71.
(38) West, 287.
(39) Smith, 95.
(40) In this period, in addition to the Royal Institute and Fabian Society addresses, and among other venues, Wells notably lectured at the Oxford Philosophical Society (8 November 1903), "Skepticism of the Instrument"; the London School of Economics (26 February. 1906), "The So-called Science of Sociology"; and London's City Temple Hall, (November 1907), "Everyday Life in the Socialist State." Wells' correspondence shows that he declined a number of invitations as a distraction from his writing, but perhaps also as a measure of his discomfort at public speaking. All of his major addresses later appeared reworked or reprinted in periodicals and books. In 1929, after regularly refusing the BBC, Wells agreed to a radio talk and gave several more throughout the 1930s. An Observer critic commented on his voice as "light, high-pitched, and uncompelling," but the ideas of his radio talks were judged successful for creating healthy public debate. Quoted in Smith, 317-18.
(41) HGW, Discovery of the Future , (NY: B.W. Huebsch, 1913), 60.
(42) Smith, 99.
(43) Smith details Wells' new prominence following Anticipations, and his bid for Fabian leadership in Chapter 4, "Falling Among the Fabians," 89-116.
(44) Between 1903 and 1907, Wells' major addresses to the Fabians drew audiences of 500 to 1000. In March 1903, one month after joining, he presented "The Question of Scientific Administrative Areas in Relation to Municipal Undertakings." West indicates "this first performance before a Fabian audience was not a success" (286). On 12 January 1905, he gave "This Misery of Boots"; on 9 February 1906, "The Faults of the Fabians," an explicit salvo against the Old Guard; and in October 1906, "Socialism and the Middle Classes" which was well received. His bid for leadership largely centered in first a six-page pamphlet, "Reconstruction of the Fabian Society," left on the seats prepatory to a meeting, and in the "Report of the Special Committee Appointed in February 1906 to Consider Measures for Increasing the Scope, Influence, and Activity of the Society to be presented to members at Essex Hall, 7th and 14th December 1906." Presenting it on the 7th, he debated Shaw on the 14th. After votes for Executive Committee membership in January and February, Wells withdrew from active Fabian affairs and officially resigned in 1908.
(45) See, for example, Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie, The First Fabians (London, 1977).
(46) GBS to HGW, 20 September 1906, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(47) GBS to HGW, 17 December 1906, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(48) GBS to HGW, 22 March 1908, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(49) GBS to HGW, 17 December 1906, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(50) West, 310.
(51) Graham Wallas to HGW, 10 December 1906, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(52) GBS to HGW, 22 March 1908, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(53) Smith views the letter as "written in a completely tongue-in-cheek way, but to one of Wells' sensibilities, especially as to class, it struck home with a bitter blow," 110.
(54) Shaw's blistering sketch of the servile shop-clerk carried further ironies. Himself an Anglo-Irish outsider, Shaw had experienced several marginal boardinghouse years after coming to London. A neglected child, he was largely self-educated, and while he was not a natural public speaker, he trained himself to become a notable lecturer. By the Edwardian decade, Shaw's intellectual presence and reputation in London were assured.
(55) GBS to HGW, 22 March 1908, Wells Papers, Illinois.
(56) HGW to Vernon Lee, [Violet Paget], December 1906, Correspondence, Vol. II, 126.
(57) HGW, Experiment in Autobiography, Vol. II, 661.
(58) HGW, "On Reading the First Number of the New Statesman", New Witness, 24 April 1913.
(59) HGW, The Future in America (London, 1906), 357.
(60) HGW, Experiment in Autobiography, vol. II, 659.
(61) Shaw, New Statesman, 1946, quoted in Coren, 75.
(62) Schneer, 157.
(63) Kingsley's politics trouble some feminist and cultural critics because, first, she did not decry Britain's imperialist interests in Africa, and second, because her faith in free trade may appear a dangerous gateway to the return of rapacious eighteenth-century policies. However, historian Kenneth Dike Nworah characterizes the Third Party as a "conscience of imperialism" founded on Kingsley's desire for a policy of the least governmental interference in the coherence of West African cultures, and her confidence in the abilities of West Africans ("The 'Liverpool Sect' and British West African Policy, 1895-1915," Journal of the Society of African Affairs 70 [July 1970]), 222-35. Throughout Travels in West Africa, Kingsley consistently makes the case for West Africans as skilled traders who can hold their own.
(64) See, for example, James Clifford and George Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (U of California P, 1986) and Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford UP, 1988).
(65) HGW, Experiment in Autobiography, vol. II, 522.
(66) Stanley Weintraub, review of David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, New York Times Book Review, 19 October 1986, 34.…
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Publication information: Article title: Working the Room: The Cases of Mary H. Kingsley and H.G. Wells. Contributors: Early, Julie English - Author. Journal title: Nineteenth-Century Prose. Volume: 29. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2002. Page number: 151+. © 2001 Nineteenth-Century Prose. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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