10 January 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Edwardian Literature: George Ponderevo, Chemist and Engineer (Tono-Bungay, 1909)

Trade paperback, 414 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1908-09)
Acquired December 2018

Read January 2019
Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells
'I believe the time has come for flying to be possible. Real flying!'
     'Up in the air. Aeronautics! Machine heavier than air. It can be done. And I want to do it.'
     'Is there money in it, George?'
     'I don't know nor care! But that's what I'm going to to do.' (203)
One could write a whole book just on H. G. Wells novels featuring scientists who are married, I suspect. Though Tono-Bungay is probably a good book, it has little to offer the dedicated H. G. Wells reader. I saw elements of many of Wells's domestic novels in it: Love and Mr Lewisham (1899-1900), Ann Veronica (1909), The History of Mr Polly (1910), The New Machiavelli (1910), and Marriage (1911-12). Not to mention aspects of Wells's own life, as well as resonances with The Time Machine (1895), The First Men in the Moon (1900-01), and The War in the Air (1908). Like so many of Wells's other domestic novels, a man from a lower-class background seeks a scientific career, has an affair during a disintegrating marriage, and has his career aspirations derailed by the social exigencies of modern England. To be fair to Wells, though, all of the domestic novels I listed above (except for Mr Lewisham) were written later; I just happened to have read them first. The angle of Tono-Bungay itself does yield something new, and the scenes between George Pondervo and his uncle were usually the best parts.

George Ponderevo ends up apprenticed to his uncle, who is a chemist (in the sense of being a pharmacist). Edward Ponderevo is always trying to sell people things they don't need, because the difficulty of being a chemist is that people only need stuff when they're sick. He comes up with the quack tonic Tono-Bungay (Edward Mendelson's introduction says it's basically Coca-Cola), which soon becomes a huge success. George doesn't contribute to the drink, but he runs his uncle's manufacturing concerns, keeping the production line efficient with his analytical mind. As the Ponderevos expand the commercial empire more and more, becoming more and more successful, George gets married, has a marriage disintegrate, throws himself into his work, takes up inventing heavier-than-air flight, and goes on an expedition to an African island seeking radioactive minerals. It is, perhaps, more capacious than most of Wells's domestic novels, with the effect that it doesn't quite cohere. I like many of the parts, but the whole left me cold.

George has a scientific mind, as the novel reminds us on several occasions, but like a lot of Wells's protagonists, he struggles to apply it. He has a (supposedly) scientific theory of society but I'm not sure what good it does; he never gets the science degree he wanted because he gets demoralizes and basically flunks out before he goes to work for his uncle; his flying machine is of limited success; he ends his career helping design battleships that the British government doesn't want to buy. And, of course, the world is too complicated to apply science to it in any real useful way, something I think Wells eventually forgot: "The perplexing thing about life is the irresoluble complexity of reality, of things and relations alike" (195).

George occasionally glimpses truths, though; I found a section where George compares the radioactive decay of "quap" to the potential end of the world really effective: "I am haunted by a grotesque fancy of the ultimate eating away and dry rotting and dispersal of all our world. [...] I do not believe this can be the end; no human soul can believe in such an end and go on living, but to it science points as a possible thing, science and reason alike" (329-30).

The scene where George, without any emotion at all, kills a native on the quap island to keep his expedition's presence a secret, is also really interesting. George himself doesn't understand the importance of the moment, but he clearly knows it is important, because he included it in his account of his life. To me it points toward a fundamental theme throughout Tono-Bungay (and Wells's other fiction, domestic and sf alike): the alienating nature of modernity. We meet these people so different to us from fantastic places, and all we can think to do is kill them to make ourselves richer. We have this wonderful chemical sciences, and what we invent with them is a "medicine" that no one actually needs. We can almost build flying machines, but no government will fund their development. We know so much about sex, but we teach none of it to our men and women.

Uncle Edward is a great character, too, and the ever-increasing accounts of his ridiculous ambitions (he tries to buy the British Medical Journal at one point, so that it will run articles favorable to Tono-Bungay) are just good fun to read about even as they appall. I loved that his never-finished mansion included a billiards room with a glass ceiling placed beneath the ornamental lake. Some, like Adam Roberts, say he is a Dickensian character, and I agree.

Adam Roberts calls Tono-Bungay a "rich and brilliant novel" and I don't know if I can quite bring myself to agree-- maybe I would have thought so if I'd read it where it belonged in Wells's own development as a writer, as he did-- but like the best Wells, it speaks to both its own moment and to our moment. But it's ambitious and interesting and I think helps make the case (as my colleague Cari Hovanec sometimes does) for H. G. Wells as a modernist writer.

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