12 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The History of Mr Polly

Corks! Over at Unreality SF, Jago and Litefoot meet the Master, in my review of Series 11 of Jago & Litefoot, Investigators of Infernal Incidents.

Trade paperback, 227 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1910)
Acquired June 2016
Read July 2016
The History of Mr Polly by H. G. Wells
Mr Polly had been drinking at the poisoned fountains of English literature, fountains so unsuited to the needs of a decent clerk or shopman, fountains charged with the dangerous suggestion that it becomes a man of gaiety and spirit to make love gallantly and rather carelessly. (75-6)
This late H. G. Wells novel, like all his literary fictions, bears traces of Wells's own life. Mr Polly, like a young Mr Wells, is a draper's assistant and poorly suited to it. Unlike Mr Wells, Mr Polly never moves beyond this profession to which he is unsuited, eventually marrying one of his cousins because of his tendency to be a little too liberal in his lovemaking (all three of his female cousins are convinced that he loves and is going to marry them), and setting up a shop of his own. The narrator tells us that all Mr Polly gets out of fifteen years' work at the shop is £60-70 of debt because he is entirely unsuited to being a shopkeeper, and indeed, there probably shouldn't be so many shopkeepers to begin with. Like many members of the lower middle class, they do nothing for the functioning of society.

Wells being Wells, the solution to this all is social planning. There's a brief aside where we get to hear the thoughts of "a certain high-browed gentleman living at Highbury, wearing a golden pince-nez" (121), whose views are based on H. G. Wells's. This gentleman argues that when a society advances rapidly without conscious design, it's like "a man who takes no thought of dietary or regimen [...]. It accumulates useless and aimless lives, as a man accumulates fat and morbid products in his blood" (122). But this is, thankfully, a very small component of the book, which is much more interested in the particular than the general. The solution to the general problem might be the World State, but the solution to the particular problem is that Mr Polly tries to take his own life and burn down his house so his wife will get the insurance money. But in the excitement of it all, he forgets to slit his throat, and, well, his life can only get better from there.

John Sutherland's introduction calls The History of Mr Polly "a superbly funny novel" (xxvii), and I wouldn't go that far, but it does have a decent number of comic situations, and it elicited the occasional laugh for sure. Along with the opening chapters of The War in the Air, this is one of Wells's more humorous works. It's not deep, and I don't think Wells holds up as well as a writer of this sort of thing as some of his contemporaries, but it's diverting enough.

There's apparently a couple screen versions; I'll have to seek them out, as I feel like there's some good potential for visual comedy here, especially in the last quarter or so of the book.

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