H.G. Wells' 'Tono-Bungay' Individualism and Difference

By Simpson, Anne B. | Essays in Literature, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

H.G. Wells' 'Tono-Bungay' Individualism and Difference


Simpson, Anne B., Essays in Literature


H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay (hereafter T-B) displays a preoccupation with the Other at every level of text: in its narrative commentary, characterization, plot development, and resolution. In a work that blurs boundaries between the genres of realist fiction, fantasy, and expository prose, strict divisions among classes, ethnicities, genders, and races are self-consciously erected and rigidly maintained; the formal experimentation of Wells's novel exists in tension with a covertly conservative agenda. An emphasis on difference and an attendant, hegemonic impulse are masked by an attractive ethos of individualism, an ethos that characterizes much literature of the Edwardian age. T-B thus presents to today's readership a site wherein literary norms and social imperatives of its time are inscribed.

Implying, misleadingly, a freeplay of conceptual possibilities, the structure of T-B offers a liberation from conventions. Wells is not usually credited with self-conscious novelistic method, largely because of the correspondence with Henry James in which he initially adopted a self-deprecating position in regard to his own art, describing it as an "abortion" in contrast to the "golden globe" of James's achievement (Edel and Ray 176, 177). When the writers ultimately engaged in their famous literary quarrel, Wells substituted for the disparagement of his own work a staunchly defensive posture, claiming his own sociological rather than aesthetic aims: "There is of course a real and very fundamental difference in our innate and developed attitudes towards life and literature," he wrote to James. "To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use.... I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it ..." (Edel and Ray 264).

But Wells's fiction often gives the lie to such proclamations, which may have functioned to distinguish his work from what he came to view as the ideological hollowness of James's aestheticism, rather than operating as clarifications of his own novelistic technique.(1) Looking back at T-B in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), Wells acknowledged his own artistic effort, although again, in distinguishing his work from James's, he felt compelled to insist that the novel was "extensive rather than intensive" (Edel and Ray 233). Like both James and Joseph Conrad, his fellow Edwardians, Wells was searching throughout his career for methods of rupturing the boundaries of fiction; and although the methods he discovered differed markedly from theirs, in T-B he was determined to compose as effective a novel as he could, one that achieved its ethical purpose through careful craftsmanship. This aim he accomplished, in part, through the juxtaposition of narrative strategies.(2)

Published in book form in 1909, T-B offers long expository passages on the essence of English life in its accounts of the puritanism of Mrs. Grundy, the function and impress of commerce as a substitute for idealism, the pretensions of the nouveau riche, and the diseased conditions of the modern city. It also moves into the quasi-scientific mode of Wells's earlier works of the 1890s, in its descriptions of navigable balloons and experiments in flight. In the manner of contemporary adventure tales, it details an exotic and violent episode involving a piratical trip to a West African island. And in affectionate imitation of nineteenth-century realist fiction, it offers comic renditions of preening mannerisms and self-serving dialogue, as a satire of social behavior.

Arguing for a relaxation of constraints upon the form of modern novels, which might readily accommodate "a woven tapestry of interests," Wells averred in his essay "The Contemporary Novel" (1911), "any comment that seems to admit that, after all, fiction is fiction, a change in manner between part and part, burlesque, parody, invective, all such things are not necessarily wrong in the novel" (Edel and Ray 136, 140). …

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