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John S. Partington, ed. H. G. Wells's Fin-de-Siecle: Twenty-first Century Reflections on the Early H. G. Wells.

John S. Partington, ed. H. G. Wells's Fin-de-Siecle: Twenty-first Century Reflections on the Early H. G. Wells.

Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2007. 150 pp. Paperback, $49.95, ISBN: 978-3-631-57111-8.

Reviewed by Genie Babb, University of Alaska, Anchorage

Apropos of the recent turn of the twenty-first century, John S. Partington has brought together a collection of essays that deal with H. G. Wells's writings at the turn of the previous century Intended as a critical reassessment of Wells, the essays provide a thoughtful and wide-ranging consideration of his major literary output and associations during the final decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. All of the essays were originally published in The Wellsian, and all but one of them during Partington's 1999-2009 tenure as editor. (The exception, Sylvia Hardy's "H. G. Wells the Poststructuralist" was first published in 1994.) In his introduction, Partington characterizes the collection as the "cream" of recent Wells scholarship, and he expresses the additional hope that the "interpretations of the anxieties represented in the early-twentieth century literature and literary friendships of H. G. Wells" will provide food for thought as we consider "our own new century" (3). Partington's introduction gives a succinct overview of Wells's entire literary career, lamenting the neglect of the vast majority of Wells's imaginative works, particularly those published after the early 1900s. However, this particular volume is not intended to redress that neglect.

The book is divided into four sections. The first section, "The Scientific Romancer Emergeth," deals with Wells's early scientific romances. Katrina Harack's essay "Limning the Impossible: Time Travel, the Uncanny, and Destructive Futurity in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine" situates the eponymous novel within a discussion of Freud's notion of the uncanny, proposing that the Traveller encounters the future as uncanny, both unfamiliar and familiar. "Having confronted the simultaneous alterity and recognisability of this other time," Harack writes, "the Time Traveller has experienced such a psychological disruption that he cannot expect to be believed" (15). This psychological trauma unfits him for a seamless transition back to his own age, and he once again escapes through his time machine. Nick Redfern continues the psychoanalytic approach in "Abjection and Evolution in The Island of Doctor Moreau," in which he argues that Moreau personifies the perversity of the abject as defined by Julia Kristeva. Prendick's time on Moreau's island compels him to face the implications of evolution, "[forcing him] time and again to return to a place prior to signification"--not "prior to the mirror stage" but "prior to Homo Sapiens Sapiens" (24). Prendick is traumatized by his realization of the fine line separating human from nonhuman, and like the Time Traveller, he returns to Victorian England a traumatized man; unlike the Traveller, however, he has no means of escape. Kimberly Jackson also focuses on The Island of Doctor Moreau. In her essay "Vivisected Language in H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau," Jackson proposes that the novel is "a story of the interrelation of literary and scientific vivisection, the two 'operations' violently intertwined" (28). For Jackson, the novel's patchwork of genres and literary tropes (many of which have to do with body parts) mirrors Moreau's experimental hack jobs and reveals the extent to which the category of the human is itself a hack job, a fiction rough-hewn through language. In the final article in this section, "The War of the Worlds Considered as a Modern Myth," Brett Davidson analyzes the mythic elements in The War of the Worlds (1898). While he acknowledges that in some ways myth and science fiction are diametrically opposed, he argues that there are "vital intersections of the two, particularly in the work of H. G. WeNs" (41). Davidson demonstrates the ways in which Wells remakes myth and in so doing "preserves" its "essence."

The second section, "Portraying the Petit-Bourgeoisie," focuses on Wells's explorations of class and other social problems. Hiroshi So situates Wells's lighthearted novel about cycling, The Wheels of Chance (1896), within the larger context of discourses of disease and degeneration caused by urban-Nation and their positive counterpart, the discourses of health and exercise. The author demonstrates how these discourses pervade the novel and give insight into the change in the lower-middle-class protagonist Hoopdriver, who gains confidence in himself over the course of the novel. Though his confidence certainly results from his "rescue" of Jessie, a young woman and fellow cyclist, it also stems from his getting lots of fresh air and exercise while cycling through wholesome pastoral landscapes. In "H. G. Wells's Tono-Bungay as a Reflection of Its Time," Barbara Bond explores how Wells uses architecture, namely, the country estate Bladesover, to address the "condition of England." The novel depicts Britain as "a country of Bladesovers" and critiques the country estate as an outdated organizing principle "altogether in decay" yet still powerful enough to hinder progress (64, quoting Wells). For Bond, the 1909 novel captures the particular mind-set of the Edwardian period, "balanced uneasily between two eras" (62). The vicissitudes of the novel's hero, George Ponderevo, mirror those of the country as a whole: neither can find the right balance between tradition and innovation. Kevin Swafford shifts the focus to Wells's indictment of soulless capitalism in The History of Mr Polly (1910). Swafford's essay, "Aesthetics, Narrative, and the Critique of Respectability in The History of Mr Polly," posits that the novel sets up an opposition between the instrumental nature of capitalism and the intrinsic value of the aesthetic. Mr. Polly finds refuge from the drab utilitarian draper's shop in the carnivalesque writings of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and particularly Rabelais. Though Swafford characterizes the novel's conclusion as a "utopian wish fulfillment of sorts for Mr. Polly," he nonetheless demonstrates the many ways in which the novel hints at aesthetic pleasure as an antidote or alternative to the utilitarian capitalist outlook (80).

The third section of the book, "A Writer Among Writers," concentrates on two of Wells's famous literary friendships. In "'The Truth About Gissing': Reassessing the Literary Friendship of George Gissing and H. G. Wells," Simon J. James reassesses the friendship between Wells and George Gissing in light of the recent publication of their correspondence. The picture James paints is a complex one of devoted friends who hold contrary worldviews. Wells was particularly frustrated by Gissing's gloomy outlook, which led him to see "human nature as too rigid to be altered effectively by the kind of social and political utopias explored in Wells's writing" (89-90). After Gissing's death in 1903, Wells behaved with "both generosity and mean-spiritedness" (93) toward his friend, working to get a pension for Gissing's sons while at the same time commenting to Edmund Gosse that though "a most amiable decent man," Gissing was "an absolute fool, outside the covers of a book, in all arrangements and affairs" (94, quoting Wells). James concludes that over the ensuing decades, Gissing came to represent for Wells the inability of Victorian values and practices to meet the challenges of the new century. Linda Dryden focuses on the relationship between Wells and Joseph Conrad in "H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad: A Literary Friendship." She contends that the subtle allusions to each other's writing in works such as When the Sleeper Awakes and Heart of Darkness are clues to the divergent aesthetic assumptions that tore their friendship apart. She ends by stressing the commonalities that provided "so much to fascinate them in each other's work" (110). Both writers were experimental, though in very different ways that resulted in "a very different form of fiction" (110).

The final section of the book, "Wells in Theory," contains a single article, "H. G. Wells the Poststructuralist" by Sylvia Hardy. As mentioned above, this essay was published considerably earlier than its companions. Hardy makes the case that Wells's reputation as a writer was greatly disadvantaged by the fact that he was writing during the heyday of modernism, an aesthetic antithetical to Wells's own. Hardy argues that Wells is more properly considered a poststructuralist writer and does a careful analysis of Tono-Bungay to demonstrate the experimental nature of his writing. She argues that the hero "functions ... as the means by which Wells expresses his incredulity towards what was-and perhaps still is--one of our culture's most important 'metanarratives' ... the grand narrative of science itself" (124). Hardy concludes that Wells is much better served by postmodernism, which is "not far removed from his ideas about texts as 'experiments in statement'" (125).

Partington explains the inclusion of Hardy's essay on the grounds that "little else of value has been published on Wells and literary theory" (3). Partington somewhat overstates the omission: many of the authors included here reference contemporary theorists such as Bakhtin, Kristeva, Lacan, and Levinas. In fact, I would argue that one commonality shared by most of the essays is the application of contemporary theories utilized in the broader field of literary studies. In particular, the emergence of cultural studies in the past few decades has made it much more acceptable to study "extracanonical" authors such as Wells. It would thus be more accurate to say that Hardy's essay adds a welcome poststructuralist view to the other theoretical perspectives employed throughout the collection.

The volume contains an extensive bibliography and a helpful index (which, however, does not include utopia). All in all, the collection provides an excellent overview of recent trends in scholarship dealing with Wells's early works.
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Author:Babb, Genie
Publication:Utopian Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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