Henry James and H.G. Wells

Everybody knows the famous remark by Wells: “It [any novel by James] is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string. . . .” It has been quoted by every high-toned critic in three languages. If it doesn’t appear at least once in four numbers in any of our literary quarterlies, I am sure they would penitently refund your subscription. It is supposed to show what an awful boor Wells was, what a dreadful Socialist. It does nothing of the sort. In the context of Wells’s satire Boon, it is pretty good literary criticism.

My mother used to say, “A snob is a person who imitates the manners of the class above him.” Characteristic of the snob is social ignorance and insecurity. Perhaps the editors of this collection, by publishing all the James-Wells correspondence and all their critical mentions of each other, intend to show how high-class James was and how low-class Wells. I am afraid they demonstrate quite the opposite. Wells was pretty much a man of the world, at home in the world at all social levels, with a keen eye for the follies and pretenses of foolish and pretentious people of all classes. He wrote about his own work with misleading modesty and with a craftsman’s natural instinct to keep his trade secrets from the public. He wrote about other writers with insight and humor. Eventually, in his correspondence with James, he was forced, by James’s hauteur and lengthy elementary lectures on the craft of fiction, from humor to badinage, and finally, to just plain pulling the pompous old man’s leg. He has the insouciance and arrogance of what used to be called a natural-born gentleman. James is always pretentious, literary and high-toned. It never occurs to him that this is the way literary people talk to the customers and that it is bad manners to hand such stuff out to one’s colleagues. In other words, he believes implicitly in the mask of literary society, as well as what the newspapers call Society with a capital letter, and he acts accordingly, in private, with a presumed peer. In other words, he is a snob.

A lot of tosh has been written about Wells as a “social” novelist, always trying to reform the world via preachy fiction. You would think he was a sort of Upton Sinclair at his worst or a bad “proletarian” novelist. It must be quite a shock for an innocent person, with an honestly empirical approach, to sit down and read his fiction from The Time Machine to The Research Magnificent, admittedly his best period. His novels are not social novels at all. True, they reflect the society of their time; Ann Veronica, for instance, is a feminist. But Tono-Bungay is no more “about” the evils of patent medicines than Crime and Punishment is “about” Russian detective methods. All the major Wells novels have exactly the same subject as those of a writer no one would dream of connecting with him — D.H. Lawrence; they are about matrimony, about the mysteries and difficulties and agonies and tragedies and — rarely — the joys of the search for a true “life of dialogue.” Wells’s characters seek constantly and painfully to realize each other as total persons, and they usually pitifully fail. It is only too true that the Social Lie is precisely the conspiracy of organized society to prevent precisely this, and so there is always implicit a running criticism and sometimes a specific criticism of the frauds by which men live. Wells says depreciatingly that his people are seldom realized. This is false modesty. They are not constructed as artistic artifacts. They struggle to realize each other, and so, in their success or failure, realize themselves poignantly for the reader.

There is a sort of Reform Club myth about the sort of man and writer H.G. Wells was. Read him and see. He wasn’t like that at all. I will let you in on a secret. This myth was constructed to teach him his place, to put him down. He was guilty of two unforgivable British sins. He was not just a Socialist, but a shameless republican. He several times printed very insulting comments, not about Royalty in the abstract, but about specific members of The Family in person. Almost as bad, he openly cohabited with members of the opposite sex without benefit of clerk or clergy. Furthermore, they were women one might, at any moment, meet socially. It is quite correct to keep a housemaid in Herts or retire one’s favorite tart to Twickenham. It is almost de rigueur, like the tightly rolled umbrella and the bowler, in precisely the circles that snubbed Wells and made up the myth of the propaganda novelist and upstart son of a servant girl. It must have been excruciatingly embarrassing to his very British colleagues when he took seriously the preachments of two centuries of advanced thought and lived openly out of wedlock in a flat in Hampstead with, of all things, another writer, who was also a lady. And after that scandal he went right on doing the same thing until he was an aged man, over and over again. In other words, he behaved much like some arrogant aristocrat whose pedigree went back before the War of the Roses and who had nothing but contempt for the frauds with which the hoi polloi hide their naked shames. Parenthetically, this is exactly the same reason why Ford Madox Ford was practically driven out of England — and one of the leading persecutors of Ford was Henry James. James, always the perfect gentleman, concentrated his venom on Ford’s mistress; he was physically afraid of Ford himself.

All the nonsense which Wells viewed with the amused contempt which comes from assured social and artistic position and integrity, James took utterly seriously. In fact, it is this nonsense which he made the major subject of his novels, and which, to “the well-brought-up person” who knows his way around, gives them their pathos. The people in his novels behave the way the Upper Classes tell the Lower Classes they behave. But nobody has ever behaved this way, which is why there are no real people in James’s novels. There can be no realization of each other, no life of dialogue, no realization of the individual character, if characters are nothing but cutouts from the Society Page of a third-rate newspaper. It is for this reason that James, in these letters and articles, describes the craft of fiction somewhat as Ben Jonson, in his theory of “humors,” described his plays. Fortunately, he did not write them that way. People are not moral types, they are people, and novels, at least the best ones, are about people. But for James, the Boston Brahmin, the American Millionaire and the British Aristocracy were not just types, they were archetypes. Because, alas, poor James was a provincial snob.

The best thing in the book is a hilarious tale in the introduction about how William James, on a visit to his brother, tried to peek over the garden wall and catch a glimpse of the next-door neighbor, G.K. Chesterton. Poor Henry was prostrated with terror at his very aristocratic brother’s nonchalance. He behaved exactly like an overrefined hypersensitive Edwardian housemaid. Wells and William James belong to the literary world of Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote; Henry James, it must be admitted, was only a Ouida in a frock coat.



This review of Henry James and H.G. Wells (ed. Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray, University of Illinois Press, 1958) originally appeared in The Nation (16 August 1958) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1958. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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