Thursday, April 02, 2009

H. G. Wells's The History of Mr. Polly

There are H. G. Wells lovers and H. G. Wells detractors. Some read The War of the Worlds again and again and argue endlessly over the effectiveness of the Tom Cruise movie. Then there are The Time Machine fans: that book has really been beyond me. But Wells also wrote realistic fiction with a socialist bent, and The History of Mr. Polly is for those who guiltily dislike the science fiction classics. if you're not an SF fan and want to understand Wells, you might want to venture into the realm of The History of Mr. Polly, a touching comedy of a working-class hero who, “exactly 37 and a half years old,” begins to feel suicidal, goaded by - and here’s Wells’s comic understanding of the real world - an enormous lunch. As he looks back over his life, we understand his hopes and dreams. (There are many sad events in Mr. Polly's life, but Wells's wry, comical 3rd person omnisicent point of view keeps it light.)

Mrs. Polly, upset by her husband's post-prandial grouchiness, muses:

The repast she had prepared for him did not seem to justify his ingratitude. There had been the cold pork from Sunday, and some nice cold potatoes, and Rashdall’s Mixed Pickles, of which he was inordinately fond. He had eaten three gherkins, two onions, and a small cauliflower head, and several capers with every appearance of appetite, and indeed with avidity; and then there had been cold suet pudding to follow, with treacle, and then a nice bit of cheese.

Mr. Polly, who started his career as a draper’s assistant, has been hampered by a slapdash education, but, in spite of this, has developed an endearing love of words; unfortunately, he can't spell or pronounce them as a result of the poverty of his education. Wells points out: “...the indigestions of mind and body that were to play so large a part in his subsequent career were only just beginning.” Mr Polly coins some charming malapropisms: "intrudacious," "meditatious," and "chivalresque."

As a young man, stimulated by the company of two fellow fellow apprentices, he happily acquires an informal liberal arts education. One of his friends, Parsons, an autodidact, reads widely, and introduces him to Shakespeare, Milton, and writers Mr. Polly calls “Bocashieu” and “Raboolosse.” Literature inspires self-respect: the working-class men become uppity and Mr. Polly by turns leaves and is dismissed from jobs. He is clever and witty, but his lack of education prevents his longed-for transcendence of class.

After his father dies, he opens his own shop, not really wanting to. And marries, not really wanting to. There is no job he wants: he's a dreamer.

And I’m afraid that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

But it’s a good, plain book, oddly modern, short and breezy, very class-conscious, and one can easily imagine waiting for the latest Wells and pouncing on it in a bookstore. I’m interested in reading some more of his realistic novels: Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Love and Mr. Lewisham, etc.


Ellen said...

I've read very little Wells, put off by his mockery of Henry James.


P.S. Go see _Sunshine Cleaning_, very good, Kathy.

Mad Housewife said...

Thanks for the movie recommendation!

The History of Polly is worth reading, very enjoyable and well-written, except for one very weird, awkward chapter, which is a commentary on the "collective" mind. I loved it.

As for his mockery of Henry James, well...Wells is both brilliant and middlebrow. It doesn't surprise me. Those two are on different plains.