Alexander Korda, Arnold Bennett, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Hayek, Fritz Lang, George Bernard Shaw, George Griffiths, H.G. Wells, Jean-Pierre Vernier, Joseph Conrad, Leon Stover, Oswald Mosley, Paul Johnson, Saint-Simon, Thomas Carlyle, William Morris
A few years ago, McFarland republished, in a uniform edition, The Annotated H.G. Wells, nine of Wells’s novels with extensive annotations by Wells expert Leon Stover, books that had crept out piecemeal over the preceding several years. I was asked to review the set for Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. The review appeared in Volume 24, Issue 1, 2013. As you can see, I wasn’t overly impressed.
In his introduction to The First Men in the Moon (1901), Leon Stover writes about a 1972 meeting with the French critic Jean-Pierre Vernier at which he was persuaded to change his mind about H.G. Wells. He does not specify what he believed before this meeting or what argument brought about the transformation, but as a result he agrees with Vernier that ‘the sociological fables were continuous in thought with the later nonfiction’ (Moon 2). What he means by this is that Wells’s utopian notions were fully formed before he ever set pen to paper – ‘Wells had prophesied a coming age of social engineers … even before he began writing’ (Invisible 4) – and everything from The Time Machine (1895) to Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) was apparently written on exactly the same political model.
Stover’s approach to Wells is entirely political. There is next to nothing in these books about the role Wells played in the history and development of science fiction, nothing about the writers who were influenced by Wells, and, other than the occasional passing reference, nothing about the writers who might have influenced him. There is nothing about his interest in social issues, in peace movements, in women’s issues, nor indeed anything about his complex private life. There is no attempt to associate his scientific romances with his mainstream fiction, though the two were written in tandem and there must have been some measure of cross-fertilisation. Even within the political focus of this work, there is repeated reference to his meetings with Lenin and Stalin, but no consideration of his response to colonialism or his work on the League of Nations. There is simply one political argument that is presented over and over again with no more than minor variations, which is that everything Wells wrote, down to the most innocuous-seeming sentence, is built upon this one unchanging model. The fact that Wells did change, subtly and continuously throughout his career – that, for instance, the optimist who wrote of the war to end war in 1914 was not the same as the tired man who campaigned for a League of Nations only five years later; or that in his review of Metropolis (1927) he effectively repudiated When the Sleeper Awakes (1899) – appears nowhere in these volumes.
Given that reading of what Stover is doing, I would guess that part at least of what Vernier did was to introduce Stover to the ideas of the originator of that model, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (whom Stover refers to, throughout, as Henri Saint-Simon). Certainly Wells was familiar with, and quoted from, the work of the philosopher of science Auguste Comte, who was an early follower of Saint-Simon, and the Scottish satirist, Thomas Carlyle (though Carlyle was perhaps more influenced by the political philosophy of the German idealist Fichte than he was by Saint-Simon directly). And, of course, Wells had a curious on-again, off-again relationship with the Fabian Society whose gradualist approach to democratic socialism also owed something to Saint-Simon. Therefore, Stover’s contention that Wells was a Saint-Simonian socialist, in opposition to the then more dominant Marxist brand, makes sense.
Where it stops making sense is when Stover insists on interpreting Saint-Simonianism as an elitist, authoritarian and indeed totalitarian system, and further when he insists that Wells bought into this totally and unquestioningly. What Saint-Simon and his followers actually perceived was the importance of economics, and in particular of industry that generated wealth. Within this industrial machine, he wanted everyone to contribute according to their strengths and to be equally valued for that contribution, so that the industrial leaders, the ‘Captains of Industry’ in Carlyle’s resonant phrase, were simply those best suited to make the necessary decisions, but not in any way differentiated from those involved in other aspects of the work. Stover, however, thinks that these Captains of Industry should be dictators who increasingly control every aspect of life, while organised labour (trade unions seem to occupy a particularly demonic role in Stover’s view of things) should be destroyed because it might hamper the smooth running of the world by the elite: ‘Otherwise labor leaders will continue to agitate for the betterment of the impoverished working class in its own interests, to the destruction of societal order’ (Time 89, n114). When Wells addressed the Fabian Society on the notion of a Saint-Simonian revolution in which ‘Whole classes will vanish’ (Time 123, n175), Stover interprets this as Wells wanting to gun down the lazy aristocracy and troublesome organised labour, whereas in Saint-Simonian terms I would read this as looking forward to a time in which such class distinctions no longer applied. It is notable that the key Comtean concept of altruism is entirely absent from Stover’s reading of Wells.
Stover reads his own particular take on Saint-Simonianism onto every little thing in these novels, from the Time Traveller’s relationship with Weena in The Time Machine to the daily life of the little shop assistant suddenly granted miraculous powers in Man Who Could Work Miracles. But alongside this fixed view that Saint-Simon offers the only possible avenue of approaching any aspect of Wells’s fiction, something else is going on. I suspect that Stover initially loved Wells’s work (you find odd ghosts of that infatuation cropping up in some of the annotations, particularly in the early volumes). There has to be some degree of affection to sustain a career that was built so much around the writer: the bibliography that accompanies Things to Come (1935) consists only of a selection of works by Stover about Wells and contains 10 different pieces besides these nine annotated volumes. Yet a point must have been reached at which Stover realised that his own political views (which evidence suggests were fairly conservative and pro-capitalist) simply could not conform with the socialist utopianism that Wells espoused in one form or another throughout his life. And this disjunction seems to have turned into an overwhelming contempt for those Wellsian politics.
That contempt informs, and indeed fuels, this entire and peculiar series of ‘The Annotated H.G. Wells’. Stover spells it out in one of the annotations in The Sea Lady (1902). The note starts out being about Mrs Humphrey Ward but, as happens all too often, he abandons the boring details for a rant:
[T]hat he [Wells] now is revived as a liberal democrat is hard to explain. One day, perhaps, Wells will be seen as a keen tracer of the illiberal ideas animating the totalitarian age. At present he is kept alive mainly by science fiction and fantasy fans for the wrong reason. My annotated series, at odds with those critics who impose today’s trendy political ideas upon him, attempt to restore the early H.G. Wells to revealing significance in the intellectual history of the last century. Did Wells help to influence its ravages, or was he, like Kafka, an anxious anticipator of the horrors to come? The Sea Lady raises these portentous questions as in no other of his imaginative works. (Lady 78, n38)
That sense that every other critic has got it wrong echoes throughout the series (it is particularly strong in the extended introduction to When the Sleeper Awakes), and at its core is Stover’s perception that ‘Wells is nothing if not rabidly antidemocratic’, as he says in the introduction to Man Who Could Work Miracles (Miracles 4). Stover sees nothing contradictory in the fact that Wells, who was ‘never prolabor despite his lower-class origin’ (Sleeper 20), twice stood as a Labour Party candidate in Parliamentary elections. He never thinks to ask himself why someone who was as anti-labour and as anti-democratic as Stover claims might have done something so against all his beliefs. It would seem, therefore, that Stover is convinced that Wells was influencing rather than anticipating totalitarianism.
To suppose that he was doing so in The Sea Lady, however, suggests a curiously blinkered if not downright distorted reading of that novel. Let us be clear: The Sea Lady is a gentle social comedy with satiric overtones and a splash of the fantastic for colour. It tells of a mermaid who comes ashore in Sandgate and is taken in by the Bunting family. Wells lived in Sandgate at the time, and ‘the popular author who lived next door, an irascible dark square-headed little man in spectacles’ (Lady 31) is clearly a self-portrait, while the Buntings are modelled on his neighbours, the Popham family. The mermaid is immortal and owes no allegiance to the social mores of the late-Victorian age, which she proceeds to undermine with gleeful amorality. In particular, she seduces Henry Chatteris, a rather vacuous young man with ambitions to be the Liberal candidate in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Chatteris, we are led to understand without being directly told, is a roué who has had to be bailed out by his family on several occasions. He has no real interest in politics, but is standing for election because of his fiancé, Adeline Glendower, a serious young woman who models herself on the character Marcella in the popular novels of Mrs Humphrey Ward, and who is intent on improving the lot of the Lower Classes not out of any genuine political sympathy but because it is her way of ‘doing good’. The whole novel is a series of illustrations of how much is covered up (literally, in the case of the mermaid’s tail) for the sake of social standing and public morality. The comedy is in how thin this veneer is, and how easily Chatteris is seduced away by the mermaid’s whisperings of ‘better dreams’.
The novel was not a success (though I don’t think that Stover can be right to claim that the only other reprint was in the Atlantic Edition, since I have at least one other copy of the book on my shelves), and it is easy to see why. Despite the mermaid it is not really a full-blooded work of the fantastic, and as a social novel it is thin compared to the other mainstream novels Wells was writing at this time. Nevertheless, it is fairly clear that what the book is doing is excoriating the shallowness of Victorian society, rather than extolling the virtues of elitism, which is what Stover seems to imagine. He argues consistently that this novel is ‘Kafkaesque avant la letter, a parable of dark foreboding that unveils the nothingness of utopian dreams’ (Lady 2), which only makes one wonder if Stover has actually read the book he is annotating. The only ‘dark foreboding’ in the novel comes at the very end when Chatteris walks into the sea with his mermaid, which seems to me to be far more about finding a way out of the emptiness of the social world than it is about the nihilism of utopia.
But this perverse, dare one say monomaniacal, reading may help to explain the peculiarity of Stover’s selection. Of the nine volumes in this series, first published between 1996 and 2007 and now brought out in a uniform paperback edition, five of the first six must have been pretty much automatic choices: if you are doing an edition of Wells aimed at an sf readership, you really cannot miss out The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) or The First Men in the Moon. Other than these, however, questions start to arise. Why pick When the Sleeper Awakes, whose date of publication puts it among the early scientific romances, yet whose contents look forward to the utopian fictions such as A Modern Utopia (1905) or In the Days of the Comet (1906), both of which Stover has excluded from his list? In fact, given that he devotes so many of his annotations to attacking Wells’s utopianism, it seems slightly odd that he does not address any of the utopian fiction directly. Why, after The Sea Lady (another unexpected choice), complete his series by jumping forward more than 30 years to Man Who Could Work Miracles and Things to Come? These were both published as novels, but were in effect shooting scripts for the two films Wells made with Alexander Korda. One was based on a fantasy short story of 1898, the other on an unwieldy novel of 1933. Why not, one wonders, produce an annotated edition of The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which would presumably give much more space for Stover’s antiutopian attacks? Why miss out on the numerous scientific romances that Wells wrote in the interim, from The Food of the Gods (1904) and The War in the Air (1908) to Men Like Gods (1923) and Star Begotten (1938)? Could it be that the selection is guided mostly by Stover’s didactic intent to expose Wells as an antidemocrat?
Certainly, Stover’s insistence on a single and all-encompassing political interpretation of Wells can lead to him ignoring or, worse, misrepresenting whatever else is going on in the novels. The sweeping one-sentence descriptions of the books that he essays in other titles are revealing. In an irrelevant note in The Sea Lady, for instance, he declares that the Martians in The War of the Worlds are ‘bringing their higher socialist intelligence to bear on recreating on earth, for backward humans divided by national rivalries, their own advanced world state on Mars’ (Lady 34 n11). In The Island of Doctor Moreau the Grand Lunar of The First Men in the Moon is declared to be ‘a brain lord anticipating the president of the World Council of Direction in Things to Come’ (Moreau 87 n35). In his introduction to The Invisible Man he declares that The Island of Doctor Moreau is ‘a parable in which the title island is a microcosm of the world’s normal condition against which the good doctor struggles to remedy, only to fail in yet another warning of what will happen if Wellsism not prevail’ (Invisible 11, the contorted syntax is entirely his). While in Things to Come, The Time Machine becomes a warning of ‘effete aestheticism prevail[ing] over tougher-minded science’ (Things 167 n109). Familiar books become almost unrecognisable.
That said, there is value in examining these works in a Saint-Simonian light. If we take the case of The Time Machine, for instance, such a political analysis sheds light on details both great and small. Stover makes a revealing point about the gas light in the Time Traveller’s home and the presence of the provincial mayor at his dinner party: the mayor would have been responsible for the political decisions that prevented the spread of electric lighting to the town of Richmond, an example of local politics getting in the way of scientific advance. And given that we can identify George Bernard Shaw among the dinner party guests, Stover makes a convincing case for identifying the silent man as William Morris, particularly as the realm of the Eloi is first seen as a bucolic utopia on the model of Morris’s Marxist ideal in News from Nowhere (1890), to which The Time Machine is a response. Though Stover’s take on other small details is less convincing. He is so keen to attack Morris’s version of Marxism that he attempts to present all Marxists as aesthetes, and to make Wells out as being opposed to art. So much so that when Filby starts to tell an anecdote about ‘a conjurer he had seen at Burslem’ (Time 37), Stover somehow manages to gloss it: ‘Reference to the conjuring act seems to be a wisecrack directed at the nature poets’ (Time 37 n27), though how that might be is never entirely clear to me.
Perhaps the most valuable part of Stover’s analysis is in his explanation of the significance of the Sphinx, whose symbolic importance is underlined by its appearance on the cover and frontispiece of the early editions. He points out that Wells’s original readers would have instantly recognised the reference to Carlyle’s argument, in Chapter 2 of Past and Present (1843), a work that was widely read in late Victorian Britain (and that is included as an appendix in The Invisible Man), that the question of labour relations was the key question for the age, and that failure to find an answer would spell death as inexorably as the sphinx had killed those who failed to answer its question in the original myth. The appearance of the sphinx as the first thing we encounter in the novel’s distant future is, therefore, clearly emblematic that the question has not been answered and the consequences are what we see before us. This is important for the novel, so it is worth bearing this in mind as we read the book. But it does not mean that this interpretation must be applied and amplified in every word of the novel.
Thus Stover provides an excellent account of how the Time Traveller’s notions of time as a fourth dimension tied in with scientific theories of the time and did not prefigure Einsteinian relativity, but then ends the account: ‘it limns a picture of socialist purpose’ (Time 27, n11), which really makes no sense. When we first glimpse the Morlocks and the Time Traveller describes one as ape-like, Stover insists that contemporary reader’s would not have failed to spot a reference to Carlyle; ignoring the fact that they would even more readily spot a reference to Darwin, whose theories were popularly discussed and lampooned in terms of man’s relationship to apes. (There is a similar reference to Darwin in The Island of Doctor Moreau, when Moreau explains that his first success was with a gorilla; this reference is also passed over in silence by Stover.) The figure who suffers most from this determination to see the book in only one light is Weena. Stover’s vision of the Captains of Industry as a new scientific dictatorship shorn of any human feeling requires that any Wellsian hero must be austere and above the concerns of common humanity, which means that he must determinedly deny any romance between the Time Traveller and Weena. Thus, in a note looking forward to the loss of Weena during the Time Traveller’s fight with the Morlocks in the dark wood, Stover concludes: ‘but that surely is no great loss to him’ (Time 127 n180). When the Time Traveller declares: ‘Weena I had resolved to bring with me to our own time’ (Time 131), Stover concludes ‘[s]he is considered as an ethnographic specimen’ (Time 132 n187). As they venture into the woods, the Time Traveller carrying ‘my little one’ (Time 146), which I would interpret as a term of endearment, Stover declares: ‘What could be more indicative of the Time Traveller’s patronizing contempt for her’ (Time 146 n209). When Weena actually is lost, and the Time Traveller clearly mourns for her, Stover makes no comment at all.
This is far from being the only occasion on which it is hard to reconcile Stover’s commentary with what is in the text. Sometimes it is just a matter of small details, but enough to suggest a carelessness in his reading. Wicksteed, who is murdered by the Invisible Man, is described by Stover as ‘[t]he elderly steward of Lord Burdock’ (Invisible 183 n273), but less than a page later Wells himself tells us that ‘Mr. Wicksteed was a man of forty-five or forty-six’ (Invisible 184). The most egregious example, however, occurs in the last of these volumes. Right at the climax of Things to Come when the artist Theotocopulos leads his protestors against the Space Gun, Stover declares that the concussion from the firing of the gun ‘wipes out the rebel movement, killing some of the dissidents … Indeed, Theotocopulos himself is the first to go’ (Things 200, n135). This is a claim Stover repeats elsewhere, indeed it is mentioned at least once in practically every other volume in this series, but when we come to the scene in the actual text we find:
Theotocopulos, standing out against the sky on a great metal girder, is caught in the whirlwind, and his cloak is blown over his head. He is left struggling ridiculously in his own cloak, and that is the last that is seen of him.
Clouds of dust obscure the screen and clear to show the crowd after the shock. Some press their ears as if they were painful, others stare under their hands up into the sky.
Then the crowd begins to stream back towards the city. (Things 200)
There is, in short, no death at this point in Wells’s text.
The supposed death of Theotocopulos is a key moment in what is clearly a touchstone text for Stover: ‘it telescopes everything Wells ever had to say’ (Invisible 3). He makes more reference to this work than to anything else by Wells, including The Time Machine, and he refers to it repeatedly in the annotations to every other volume in this series. Wells’s scientists and heroes are forever being compared to Oswald Cabal (and it is curious that Stover never attempts to unpack this name. A British reader in the mid-1930s might readily associate Oswald with Oswald Mosley, the Labour MP turned fascist demagogue, and so a fitting example for Stover’s views of Wellsian dictatorship. And Cabal, of course, raises the idea of a conspiracy. This, however, might also be read as a warning not to trust Oswald Cabal too readily). And Stover always talks in terms of Things to Come; the longer, more complex original text, The Shape of Things to Come, is barely mentioned. It makes sense, therefore, to look at how Stover deals with this work, since it so clearly colours his reading of everything else in this series.
The Shape of Things to Come was one of the longest novels that Wells wrote, and also, to be honest, one of the most tedious. It begins with a detailed account of the political situation in the early years of the twentieth century, predicting a World War in 1940 that leaves the world devastated and prey to petty warlords until an international community of Airmen arrives on the scene to establish order, restore technology and lead humanity towards a utopian world government whose aspirations are symbolised by humankind’s first venture into space. It is a congeries of Wellsian obsessions: an end to war, effective world government, the coming utopia; so it is easy to understand why Stover sees its abbreviation, in the form of the film treatment Things to Come, as the hook upon which he can hang all his ideas about the political purpose of these books. The tenor of these ideas is best summed up by an annotation in Man Who Could Work Miracles when he editorialises: ‘In Things to Come John Cabal says, “If we don’t end war, war will end us.” This is to say, If we don’t end democracy, democracy will end us.’ (Miracles 85 n42). Everything he tells us in his annotations on Things to Come seems designed to amplify, if never actually to justify, this curious supposition that Wells equates war and democracy.
What we actually get in the book is the story of an archetypal English town. It begins prosperous and peaceful, but then a long and devastating war comes. (The Second World War, Stover tells us, ‘in fact ended four years after it began’ (Things 52 n29). In Britain it didn’t, it lasted almost exactly six years, and in other parts of the world the war was longer. But then, Stover’s grasp of history isn’t very reliable. He thinks the Black Death ‘plagued only Europe during the Dark Age’ (Things 55 n30), which doesn’t come close to the reality in either geography or chronology; and in The Time Machine he tells us the Battle of Hastings ‘is known only from the Bayeux Tapistry (sic) spun by weavers beholden to the Norman conquerors’ (Time 35 n21) which is wrong on at least three counts: the battle was extensively chronicled, the tapestry was stitched not woven, and the women who made it were English not Norman.) We return to the English town some time after the war has run its course, with a local warlord setting himself up to rule over a place in ruins and a people in rags. When, in the midst of this, one character exclaims: ‘There is nothing to make anyone comfortable any more’ (Things 60), Stover can’t resist commenting: ‘This line might well describe the permanent condition of the utopian future’ (Things 60 n33). Well, it might, though I doubt it, and it context it clearly refers only to the local postwar devastation.
Like all utopians, Wells valued order above chaos, peace above war. So we are supposed to applaud the arrival of the Airmen with their miraculously advanced flying machines and their slick uniforms somewhere between Nazi storm troopers and Star Wars storm troopers. We are not, however, intended to applaud the imposition of military dictatorship as anything other than a temporary response to a thoroughgoing breakdown of society. It is notable, in the film, that all signs of militarisation very quickly disappear. Instead we get a comprehensive and communal building programme, and at the end we have a world in which everyone is spaciously and comfortably housed, everyone is well fed and well educated, everyone has access to sports, and everyone has equal access to the media, even dissidents like Theotocopulos (and it is notable that dissidents are given their place, it shows that this is a work in progress, not a finished and perfect state). There is, indeed, enough to make anyone comfortable. It is an ordered society, but not the harsh, uncompromising and all-controlling society that Stover constantly presents. It is also not utopia. When Cabal says: ‘this is not heaven’ (Things 145), Stover interprets this as a rebuke to Passworthy’s desire for contentment. In Stover’s version of a Wellsian utopia no-one should be content. But I think the statement is meant literally: this is not utopia because, for Wells, utopia was a process not a destination. Despite Stover’s narrow and disapproving take on Wells’s utopianism, Wells would not have claimed this coldly scientific state as anything more than a stop on the way to utopia.
It was important to Wells, however, though clearly not to Stover, that this way station on the road to utopia should make the normal everyday life of normal people as pleasant as possible. One of the triggers for the film of Things to Come was Fritz Lang’s, Metropolis (1927), which Wells did not like. According to Stover, the disagreement comes down to:
a bitter ideological disagreement. At the conclusion of Metropolis, Lang proposes a reconciliation between Capital and Labor: sentimental Marxist double-talk according to Wells, who prefers the cruel rationality of honest socialism: open mastery over fake fellowship. Labor is to be directed, not celebrated. (Things 20 n5)
It is probably symbolic of Stover’s own sympathies that throughout this series the word ‘Marxist’ practically never appears without the accompanying qualifications, ‘sentimental’ and ‘double-talk’. What we gather from this remark is that Stover believes that Wells wanted the cruel oppression of the workers in the early part of the film to continue beyond the end. However, in one of the appendices to this volume, Stover reprints Wells’s 1927 review of the film, so we can see what Wells actually objected to. And it is most certainly not that Lang is too soft on the workers.
A vast, penniless slave population may be necessary for wealth where there are no mass production machines, but it is preposterous with mass production machines… It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organised mine that kills men. The hopeless drudge stage of human labour lies behind us. With a sort of malignant stupidity this film contradicts these facts. (Things 210)
Wells wants the workers to be freed, wants their well-being to be seen to, before the film starts, not as a sentimental conclusion but as a necessary part of the economic efficiency of the future.
That concern for the freedom and wellbeing of the ordinary man and woman is something that would have been obvious to anyone from a cursory reading of the mainstream novels Wells wrote early in his career. Books like Love and Mr Lewisham (1900), Kipps (1905), Ann Veronica (1909) and The History of Mr Polly (1910) are full of concerns about the circumstances of ordinary people. It is very hard to imagine that Wells might express such concerns so forcibly in these novels, and yet express exactly the opposite ideology in other books he was writing at exactly the same time. There must have been a continuity of thought between his examinations of the lot of a draper’s assistant in Edwardian England and his hopes for a peaceful World Government on the way to utopia. But Stover simply ignores his mainstream fictions, most of them are not even mentioned in passing, so he can similarly ignore any such continuity.
Thus his whole commentary on Man Who Could Work Miracles is based upon the idea that Wells is saying: ‘What more can be expected of the common man, ludicrous when empowered’ (Miracles 79 n40). The 1898 story, filmed in 1936 but barely updated, clearly belongs with those novels of the common man, and is not concerned to make the hapless Fotheringay out to be ludicrous, or to decry him in any way. In fact, Fotheringay is shown to have common sense when he muses: ‘I wonder did anyone ever want to be anyone but himself?’ (Miracles 78). On the contrary, the main focus is on the self-serving advice he receives from the petty authority figures he turns to. Suddenly empowered by the whim of some cosmic god, his instinct is actually to do good, but when he asks the shop owner, banker, vicar and magistrate how best to put his powers to use, they tell him only of ways that would enrich themselves. Indeed, they think only grudgingly of rewarding Fotheringay, whose miracle-working powers would be the source of their own wealth. The implicit socialist message in the story, therefore, is very far from the totalitarianism that Stover adduces to Wells. When, in the middle of this charming but lightweight work, Stover suddenly talks of the ‘marriage of big business and government’, which he expressly links to Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, before adding ‘Wells approved’ (Miracles 45 n19), you wonder what on earth Stover thinks he is doing. The marriage of big business and government is so vague a term that it could apply equally to the policies of (democratically elected) Labour and Conservative governments in Britain, Republican and Democrat governments in the USA, which hardly suggests that Wells’s approval is worthy of note, let alone criticism. So maybe we are supposed to think that Wells approved of Mussolini and Hitler, which was far from being the case. But in any case, this issue, and the implications that Stover chooses to draw from it, bear absolutely no relationship to what is actually going on in Man Who Could Work Miracles at this point.
But such irrelevant or misleading remarks are all too common throughout these books. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, when the Fox Woman is described as ‘vulpine’ (hardly surprising in a fox) and ‘speculative’ (or curious, another unsurprising trait in a fox) (Moreau 154), Stover seems to think ‘speculative’ relates to financial speculation, and therefore announces that the Fox Woman is Jewish. He then treats us to a long commentary upon Wells’s anti-semitism. Now, despite his protestations to the contrary, Wells does seem to have held the same unconsidered thoughts about Jewishness that were common in his day (see his treatment of the Jewish landlord in The Invisible Man). Nevertheless, this is a gratuitous attack on Wells that has no real justification at this point in this novel. It is as if Stover has constructed in his mind a man whose views are so antipathetic to his own that not only can he not say a good word about him, but he must in fact say bad words about him at every opportunity.
It is a perverse approach to Wells that finds expression in his take on every one of these novels. The Martians are liberators, Moreau is a saviour of humankind, Griffin, the Invisible Man, is a terrorist agent of the greater good. Actually, there is a grain of sense in this. It is worth placing The Invisible Man in the line of terrorist novels that stretched from George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1893) to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), just as it is worth considering The War of the Worlds in the context of the invasion stories that followed the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Where the comparison falls down is when you imagine Griffin has a fully-formed political purpose right from the start, but do not take into account his declining mental state. One of the more curious aspects of reading this edition of The Invisible Man is watching Stover failing to deal with the fact that the narrative voice (characterised as the expression of Wells’s views) consistently criticises Griffin’s actions and behaviour. This is perfectly logical if we take the accepted reading of this novel, but if you expect Griffin to be a forceful representation of Wellsism then it is a real problem.
Of course, there are problems all the way through. Because of the political interpretation he has placed upon every one of these novels, then the narrator (Prendick, Graham) can never be the voice of Wells’s ideas. Instead, Wellsism is always invested in the character from whom the narrator recoils in horror (Moreau, Ostrog). I confess, I find it difficult to imagine that any writer would so consistently embody his most cherished beliefs in the character of the villain, and, moreover, a villain who is surely doomed to defeat. But that is the inevitable consequence of how Stover chooses to interpret these novels.
There are good and valuable things about these volumes. I find it useful to have books based on the first editions, particularly given how much Wells changed the early novels for the Atlantic Edition. Though Stover isn’t even consistent in this, since he bases The Invisible Man on the first New York edition, effectively the second edition of the book, but the one in which Wells introduced his Epilogue. Since this changes the ending from the first London edition, I think Stover would have been far better advised to use the first London edition, but include the Epilogue as an appendix. Of course the later volumes in this series were not subsequently amended, so the first edition makes little difference one way or another.
What is especially valuable about the books, however, is that each comes with a host of appendices. These include short stories that are tangential to the main work (‘The Man of the Year Million’ in The War of the Worlds, ‘The Land Ironclads’ in Things to Come), contemporary reviews of the book (Arnold Bennett on The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon), related essays by Wells and others, and more. It is, for instance, incredibly useful to have in one volume not only The Time Machine but also ‘The Chronic Argonauts’ (1888), the other iteration of the tale that has survived, ‘The Time Traveller’s Story (1894), plus those passages from the original serialisation of ‘The Time Machine’ (1895) that varied from the first edition.
And yet, for all that is worthwhile in these volumes, they feel perverse, misleading, and often verging on the mad. The introduction to When the Sleeper Awakes, by some distance the longest volume in the series, could stand as the introduction to the whole series. A long discussion of politics (during which Stover tends to call on right-wing commentators from Friedrich Hayek to Paul Johnson) is combined with oddball ideas about an ‘Indo-European color code’ (Sleeper 33-40) which allows him to draw a complex political significance from the fact that there are, for instance, blue electric lights in the caverns of the Moon. This code places great weight on the use of red, white and blue, but when Wells’s texts don’t precisely conform to this schema, Stover blithely claims that black is really blue (except when it is red), and green is also blue, while gold is obviously white. It’s a nonsense, but then so is the repeated tripartite schema that he keeps drawing up, which is supposed to illustrate how precisely Wells’s utopia maps onto the various political ideas of Saint Simon, Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. It would be slightly more impressive if Stover didn’t keep fudging the make up of these schema. It’s very easy to get a pattern of three if you arbitrarily decide, for example, that you only need to consider three of the four classes laid out in A Modern Utopia.
All in all, I can only conclude that neither Wells nor scholarship is well served by this series. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who wasn’t already very familiar with those aspects of Wells’s work that Stover carefully ignores.