Working the Room: The Cases of Mary H. Kingsley and H.G. Wells

By Early, Julie English | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

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.

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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. …

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