“If I offend, it is their fault!” said Boon hotly. “Criticism can have no friendships. If they like to take it ill .… My criticism is absolutely honest .… Some of them are my dearest friends.”
“They won’t be,” said Wilkins, “when all this comes out …”
Boon is probably the most referenced and the least discussed novel that H.G. Wells wrote.
Just about every book about Wells that I have read, and I have read quite a lot in recent years, includes some mention of Boon. But when they do mention the novel it is always and only with reference to the infamous Chapter Four.
Okay, Chapter Four is where Wells dramatically and publicly burned his bridges with Henry James. It is one of the more spectacular attacks on a fellow writer and supposed friend that you are likely to read. And the long term consequences were severe: you can trace back to this chapter the fact that Wells was effectively discounted as a serious novelist by the modernist critics who dominated most of the twentieth century.
But it is worth putting that attack into some sort of context, which is what the rest of the novel provides.
What exactly is Boon? I think it is worth citing in full the title page as it is presented in this volume:
Boon, The Mind of the
Race, The Wild Asses of the
Devil, and The Last Trump
Being a First Selection from the
Literary Remains of George Boon,
Appropriate to the Times
PREPARED FOR PUBLICATION
BY REGINALD BLISS
AUTHOR OF “THE COUSINS OF CHARLOTTE
BRONTË,” “A CHILD’S HISTORY OF THE
CRYSTAL PALACE,” “FIRELIGHT RAMBLES,”
“EDIBLE FUNGI,” “WHALES IN CAPTIVITY,”
AND OTHER WORKS
An Ambiguous Introduction by
(Who is in Truth the
Author of the entire Book)
And if we are being strictly correct in this, I think all of that counts as the full and proper title of the work, though it is mostly referred to simply as Boon, or for those who want to be a little more correct, Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump. The parenthetical remark at the end is, I presume, a failure of nerve on the part of the original publisher. If it was not, if Wells himself actually intended that admission, then it is another indication of the doubt and self-questioning that haunt the whole book; but I will come back to that later.
It is, as the list of other works by Reginald Bliss might suggest, a literary satire. It is meant, I am sure, to be a comedy. This is backed up by the fact that the book is illustrated throughout by Wells’s simple and amusing cartoons, that he called “picshuas”. But Wells didn’t really do comedy, He was superbly good at light works with a serious intent (The History of Mr Polly), but the more broadly comic he tried to be, the more hamfisted he became. Boon is a very hamfisted book.
Its premise, which you might vaguely be able to disentangle from that over-long title, is that famous novelist George Boon has died. His acolyte, a minor if self-important writer called Reginald Bliss, has been appointed as the literary executor. Bliss has gone through the various bits and pieces that Boon left behind, and has chosen to publish three incomplete works. The longest of these, “The Mind of the Race”, is a philosophical novel that exists only in odd scraps. This is accompanied by a longish fable, “The Wild Asses of the Devil”, which comes to an inconvenient stop half way through. Finally there is a short story, “The Last Trump”, which Boon wrote in pencil shortly before his death; this piece is complete, but Bliss finds the conclusion unsatisfactory. Bliss expands all of these pieces by drawing on his memories of what Boon was talking about while writing them, and he also intersperses memories of their friendship and of their long conversations with a third man, the contrarian, Wilkins.
This is an odd structure, though not entirely unfamiliar. Alasdair Gray, for instance, did something rather similar in Old Men in Love. But Gray’s fragments were more complete and more coherent.
H.G. Wells and Henry James first encountered each other during Wells’s brief tenure as a theatre critic. He was one of the few reviewers who spoke well of James’s disastrous theatrical enterprise, Guy Domville. Not long after, when Wells moved to Sandgate, a convenient bicycle ride from Rye where James lived, the two became friends. In fact, Wells became an integral member of the group of writers around Romney Marsh, including Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Hueffer, Stephen Crane and others. They met regularly, wrote letters, gave each other copies of their books. They were friends, which is far from saying that they shared the same views on literature.
Wells and James in particular were opposites, and grew steadily further apart in their opinions. It probably didn’t help that Wells was far more commercially successful than James. To put it briefly, James believed that literature was an art and had no higher function; Wells saw literature as a means to a political, utopian end. James aspired to an eternal role in a canon of great literature; Wells did not believe in canons, on the contrary he argued that the new should constantly replace the old. There was an almost religious permanence in the Jamesian view of great literature; for Wells, literature was one more evolutionary process.
In their letters, James came to criticise Wells’s books, which he saw as mere journalism; Wells started to pastiche James’s increasingly convoluted prose style. It was all done in a friendly tone, but it was obvious that each saw the other as antithetical to their view of literature. A clash was coming, and it was precipitated by the Times Literary Supplement.
In March and April of 1914, the TLS published a lengthy two-part survey by Henry James called “The Younger Generation”, most of which consisted of telling younger writers not to follow the examples of Arnold Bennett and H.G. Wells. It was a vicious attack, particularly coming from James, suggesting that their works were superficial, pointless, driven by plot but without literary merit. Wells’s ill-judged counter-attack was Boon.
Around 1905, Wells had first started writing a literary satire called “The Mind of the Race”, but he soon put it aside unfinished. Now, after James’s piece appeared in the TLS, Wells went back to “The Mind of the Race”. He expanded the earlier work to include a new chapter on Henry James, but he still didn’t complete it. Instead he pulled in what I suspect were two other incomplete and unsatisfactory drafts which somehow fit with the general tenor of the earlier work, then cobbled around them the invention of Reginald Bliss, and produced Boon.
Wells’s wife, Jane, served as his amanuensis, typing up his manuscripts and offering advice and suggestions, most of which he followed. She strongly advised that he should not publish Boon, but for once, and unwisely, he did not follow her advice.
Jane, incidentally, appears as two characters in Boon, just as Boon himself and “The Author” in “The Wild Asses of the Devil” are both clearly Wells himself. Boon’s forbidding and unnamed wife, who clearly has little time for Bliss, is Jane, as is Boon’s secretary, Miss Bathwick, who types up his manuscripts and knows infallibly which words will upset popular morality and which will not.
Regardless, Wells went ahead with Boon. Chapter Four, “Of Art, Of Literature, Of Mr. Henry James”, is what did all the damage. Here James first appears in conversation with George Moore, the two men both determined to ignore whatever the other said while making their own long-winded point. As he had done in his letters, Wells parodied James’s otiose style: “And so, my dear Moore, and so – to put it shortly – without any sort of positive engagement or entanglement or pledge or pressure – I came. And at the proper time and again with an entirely individual detachment and as little implication as possible I shall go” (87-88). To this point, the prodding of James is almost affectionate, indeed there is overt recognition of James’s importance.
“You see,” Boon said, “you can’t now talk of literature without going through James. James is unavoidable. James is to criticism what Immanuel Kant is to philosophy – a partially comprehensible essential, an inevitable introduction. (92)
Gradually, however, the attacks become more pointed, mostly built around the idea that James sees literature like a painting, something immobile that can be taken in whole at one glance: “And then as the antagonist comes this artist, this man who seems to regard the whole seething brew of life as a vat from which you skim, with slow, dignified gestures, works of art” (94) This sense of superficiality is a repeated theme: “He has, I am convinced, one of the strongest, most abundant minds alive in the whole world, and he has the smallest penetration. Indeed he has no penetration. He is the culmination of the Superficial type” (96). Novels, Wells insists through the voice of Boon, concern life which is various and discursive, discordant, in constant motion. James, however, “sets himself to pick the straws out of the hair of Life before he paints her. But without the straws she is no longer the mad woman we love” (98). His characters, therefore, are denatured, so that “The only living human motives left in the novels of Henry James are a certain avidity and an entirely superficial curiosity” (99-100). We are left with work that contains nothing of human life:
And the elaborate, copious emptiness of the whole Henry James exploit is only redeemed and made endurable by the elaborate, copious wit. Upon the desert his selection has made Henry James erects palatial metaphors … The chief fun, the only exercise, in reading Henry James is this clambering over vast metaphors … (100)
It is a devastating, and very knowing, attack, because it proclaims as meaningless the very things that James believed gave meaning to his art.
There is, of course, a pleasure to be had in reading such a ruthless attack, and from the perspective of 100 years later it seems little harsher than James’s own original attack. But you do not write, or read, a novel for some ten or a dozen pages of personal attack. If this was the only reason that Wells wrote this slapdash novel, then it is a very poor reason, and it should not have been published. But there is something else going on here, something we may get at by considering how this attack is positioned within the rest of the novel.
The chapter on James comes roughly at the mid point of that portion of the book devoted to “The Mind of the Race”, and is probably intended as the hinge about which it turns. It does, however, feel like it stands separate from the rest, a later incursion which does not really belong within the broader clumsy shape of the story.
“The Mind of the Race” was, as I have noted, the title of something that Wells began but did not finish in 1905. It is, of course, impossible to say how much of that earlier aborted work was retained within the 1915 novel. I suspect, however, that all of it was, that in 1905 he began something for which he wrote a couple of over-long and laboured scenes, plus some very rough notes, before he recognised that the thing had no life and put it aside. In 1914, when he picked it up again, I don’t imagine that he suddenly decided that the old text worked, but rather that he simply recognised that he could use it as a convenient platform for the response to Henry James. It was, I suspect, only when he began to add supporting material to hold the whole thing together, that he recognised that it also reflected doubts and uncertainties of his own, which is why it is only long after the Henry James chapter, and rather more than half way through the book, that the whole thing starts to cohere and take a sort of hesitant flight.
We begin with philosophical ruminations about the way that literature represents a developing, evolving racial mind. This is poorly thought out, and we get no real explanation of what is meant by a racial mind. It is possible that ideas such as this were commonplace in late-Edwardian England and didn’t need further detail, but I suspect not. I think, on the contrary, that Wells is being deliberately woolly here, because the notion of an evolving human-wide consciousness fits neatly with his evolutionary and utopian ideals, but at this stage he hasn’t actually worked out what it might entail. (I am, by the way, making an assumption that the book was conceived hurriedly as a response to James rather than being something that Wells had seriously worked out over time, and that consequently it is in effect first draft – large parts of the book certainly read that way – so that ideas developed later in the novel actually did come later in the writing process.)
Wells/Boon then starts to think in terms of dramatizing these ideas. First there is a curious gathering of various literary figures in the garden of a house on the south coast. At the beginning it seems like a random happenstance that a small group of writers decide to visit the house together, but then other writers start turning up until the company feels like a virtual who’s who of Edwardian English literature. Many of these are familiar names, generally those who are singled out for praise. Wells is generous about the work of Conrad and Crane, and positively effusive about the poetry of Hueffer, whom he several times singles out as the finest contemporary poet. Those he attacks are given false names (Doctor Tomlinson Keyhole), which stands in stark contrast to the attention given to James in the very next chapter.
After the interlude of the chapter on James, Boon begins to imagine the next stage of the novel, a major conference of all major English Language writers. Again this all gives the impression of not being thought out. At times it is suggested that the conference takes place in England, at other times a special train is chartered for all the writers which seems to take several days to reach its destination. Then considerable space is given over to the workings of one of the conference working parties, and even more space to the drafting of the welcome speech by the conference president. All of this is incoherent in structure, and it is impossible to imagine how these various events might ever have been crafted into a coherent or a dramatically engaging novel.
Then, suddenly, the whole thing starts to fall into place with a chapter in which Wilkins demolishes the whole idea of the Mind of the Race. All at once the work is both coherent and intellectually exciting. There are ideas at work here, they are deftly handled, arguments are vigorously deployed, and we get a sense that here, far more than in the chapter on James, we have reached what the novel is all about.
And it is all wrong, because Boon is Wells and the evolutionary stance behind the idea of the racial mind is a central plank in everything Wells believed, and yet this novel only comes to life when Wells succeeds in demolishing his own most treasured ideas.
Here, for the first time, I understood the novel, and I understood its true importance in the evolution of Wells’s fiction. I would hazard a guess, if we go with the first draft idea, that this was the point where Wells himself first understood what he was really saying.
Let me try and provide some context for this claim. I have seen some critics argue that Wells’s thought remained unchanged from The Time Machine right through to Mind at the End of its Tether, that his political and utopian ideas arrived fully-formed and remained constant in everything he wrote. I do not believe this. I believe that Wells had the same utopian aim and the same evolutionary machinery in mind, but he saw utopia as a process, and there was no one settled way of arriving at utopia, and no one settled idea of what that utopia might be. His whole career was made up of experiments in the process of utopia. His was an active and unsettled mind that was constantly trying to find ways that might lead to what he saw as a better future for humankind. But just as he fell in and out of love with political ideas such as Fabianism, just as he fell in and out of love with an incredible array of young women, so he fell in and out of love with forms of the utopian process. And events could always interfere.
Boon was published in 1915, the second year of the Great War. By the time he came to approach the book in the summer of 1914 the war was starting, and sounds like thunder throughout Bliss’s narration. He had already written his optimistic essay, The War That Will End War, incidentally coining one of the more evocative descriptions for the First World War. But the war had quickly ground into a stalemate, and I think that produced a sort of intellectual quagmire for Wells from which, for a while at least, he could see no way out. The fact of the war itself provided the most telling argument against his utopianism, and in particular against the idea of the racial mind.
That sense of stultification, that there is no way out, is reflected in the two other stories that are also shoehorned into this baggy novel. “The Wild Asses of the Devil” tells of a comfortable, successful author who encounters a demon cast out from Hell because he lost the devil’s wild asses. The two set out to recapture the beasts, but find that they have transformed themselves into indistinguishable members of society. One has even become a prominent MP, whose terrible ideas are accepted without demur by the rest of Parliament. “The Last Trump” tells of the trumpet with which God will sound the last trump. It is lost and turns up in a London secondhand shop, where an ingenious character finds it and manages to coax a note from it. In that instant, everyone around the world is given a brief glimpse of God, of heaven and of the dead starting to rise from the grave. But nobody believes it, and nothing changes as a result. They are stories of stasis, of the impossibility of change, and for a writer like Wells for whom change is everything, they are stories of despair.
And that is the key to this extraordinary and unfortunate novel: it is a novel of despair. For a moment, and perhaps only for a moment, Wells has lost faith in himself as a writer, he has lost faith in the possibility of the future, he has lost faith in the possibility of change. And if that is so, it perhaps explains why Henry James’s attack was so shattering to Wells that he launched such an over-reaction.
And perhaps this loss of self-confidence had a more far reaching effect. By this time, Wells had written all of his best novels. The following year, 1916, he would publish Mr Britling Sees It Through, which would be the most commercially successful novel of his career to date. But it was also something of a one-off. His fiction would never again have the life or the invention of his earlier work. His great successes to come, and they would be very great successes, would be in non-fiction, most notably with An Outline of History. But it is possible that he no longer had the faith in his fiction that he once had, and if so, then Boon is the harbinger of decline.