|Trade paperback, 229 pages|
Published 2005 (originally 1899-1900)
Acquired June 2018
Read July 2018
'Natural Selection – it follows . . . this way is happiness . . . must be. There can be no other.'This is the earliest (I think) of Wells's umpteen novels about scientists and marriage; it would be followed by Ann Veronica (1909) and Marriage [duh] (1911-12). Like a lot of Wells's literary novels, it tracks Wells's own life fairly well in some regards: George Edgar Lewisham is a science student trying to rise through the social classes and also maintain a marriage and also advance the cause of socialism. He also teaches, and he falls in love with a student's cousin, Ethel, and has to figure out how to balance the needs of a spouse with those of career. Also he's got a classmate who might be more his intellectual match than Ethel, and is clearly in love with him. So, similar ground to both Ann Veronica and Marriage (like the Traffords in Marriage, the Lewishams struggle even more because of the artificial requirements society places on them, like the need to by certain kinds of nice things and so on).
He sighed 'To last a lifetime, that is.
'And yet – it is almost as if Life had played me a trick – promised so much – given so little! . . .
'No! One must not look at it in that way! That will not do! That will not do.' (207)
Wells will never be the world's most moving writer. He's good at depicting the interiority of aspiration in conflict with the exteriority of the social world, but it's always more of an intellectual feeling, as opposed to how Thomas Hardy or George Eliot can hit you in the gut with similar subject matter. But it is a pleasant read, and there's some black humour, and some familiar problems to anyone who's ever gone on the job market, and some real-feeling awkwardness of early married life. Lewisham is a scientist (or he would be one, anyway), and there's this weird subplot about Ethel's involvement in faking séances, though Wells kind of sews this all together with pointing out that there are different kinds of cheating, and different kinds of belief.
An interesting book, I thought it was less good and polished than Wells's later literary fiction, but it's still heart-rending in its own way. My quotation above comes from the final chapter, where Lewisham realizes that he and Ethel are having a baby, and thus his scientific and political career aspirations will probably go unfulfilled. I don't know what to make of it, and I like that I don't know. Lewisham is desperately trying to convince himself that it's a good thing to have a child, even though it appears nowhere in his "Schema," but even as he keeps repeating to himself that the coming child means "the end of empty dreams" (208), you can tell he doesn't believe it, and that he will miss those dreams. He tears up his Schema and thus his past self-- and something dies in him in that moment, and that's where the book ends. Lewisham has reproductive success, but nothing else. Evolution is the thing he studies, but its methods (i.e., reproduction) will foreclose his ability to study it, and destroy the other kinds of success he had valued. But at the same time, you (probably) want him to have a child because it's what so many of us value! So Lewisham's values conflict with yours even as you empathize with him, and they conflict with the world he seeks to change, but he never can. It's a quietly tragic end to a genial book.