The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: December, 2012

Carlyle in H.G. Wells’ The History of Mr Polly (1910)

This blog, as the careful reader will notice, takes a special interest in the reception of Thomas Carlyle, the man and his work, through the ages. An interesting index of his reception in the early 20th century was recently stumbled upon by me in The History of Mr Polly (1910) by H.G. Wells. This comedy – social satire – bildungsroman is a very worthy read in itself (so far, I’m only half-way through), but also has a nice aside on Carlyle.

Parsons is Mr. Polly’s friend and co-worker in the department store. He’s dissatisfied with life in that establishment, as it “keeps down [his] simmering, seething ideas” (350). For Parsons the one great personal virtue is the possession of “Joy de vive” (346, 347), and the great object to be allowed express this quality. As a window-dresser, his opportunities are limited, but he takes it upon himself to institute “a new school of window dressing” (350). Sadly, his innovation of window-dressing as an expression of Joy de vive doesn’t go down well and he has to be dragged kicking and screaming from the window and fired. That’s the end of Parsons. Parsons, then, is impressionable, idealistic and enthusiastic, but crushed by the machinery of the commercial-industrial world.

Parsons is also a great reader. His favoured reading is Carlyle. The following is a passage in which another co-worker reports to Polly on Parsons:

“[He’s] [i]n the warehouse, O’ Man. All among the tablecloths and blankets. Carlyle. He’s reading aloud. Doing the High Froth. Spuming! Windmilling! Waw, waw! It’s a sight worth seeing. He’ll bark his blessed knuckles one of these days on the fixtures, O’ Man.”

He held an imaginary book in one hand and waved an eloquent gesture. “So too shall every Hero inasmuch as notwithstanding for evermore come back to reality.” He parodied the enthusiastic Parsons, “so that in fashion and thereby, upon things and under things articulariously He stands.” (350)

Yeats wrote in the 1890s that Carlyle was the chief inspirer of self-educated men, and Wells’ use supports this. Earlier, in the 1860s, Carlyle’s readership had been judged to be “litterateurs, the more intelligent of our working men, and young thoughtful people generally” (Seigel 431), and still, as late as 1910, Carlyle is associated with youthfulness, and with radicalism, if a particularly impractical form. This short passage from Wells seems to me a good example of how Carlyle was read, when he was widely read. It is easy to read him now and see only the herald of imperialism and fascism, yet that was not how his contemporaries and more immediate successors read him. That is not to argue that the Parsonian reading is actually more in tune with Carlyle’s basic principles and intentions than the standard later reading, but it is only by understanding it can it be understood how Carlyle came to possess such great influence, and not among the imperialists and fascists, but among the writers, the intelligentsia, and, in the political realm, the socialists.

Seigel, Thomas Carlyle: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971)

Wells, The History of Mr Polly, The H.G. Wells Reader (Taylor Trade, 2003) 337-477

A Publication in Between

An essay of mine, entitled “Towards a Wise Despotism: Traces of Thomas Carlyle in the BBC North & South (2004)” appears in the latest issue of the peer-review journal Between, the magazine of the Italian Association for the Theory and Comparative History of Literature. The issue is available here. My essay looks at how the social and political theories of Thomas Carlyle, generally discredited in themselves, are received when presented, unannounced, within the framework of a classic social novel of the 1850s, ie. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, taking the adaptation of North and South to be a “reading” of Carlyle at second hand. This essay is a considerably shortened version of a chapter-draft for my PhD.


See! There I am!

Lionel Asbo (2012) – Martin Amis

Martin Amis’s newest novel is subtitled “State of England”, placing it squarely in the tradition of the mid-19th century condition of England novels, Dickens’s Bleak House, Gaskell’s North and South, etc. These novels were concerned witth humanizing the working-classes for their middle-class readers, and instructing these readers in how to manage the working-classes. I have been reading North and South recently. The message of this book is (it seems to me): The poor are well-meaning and docile if treated with the right mixture of kindness and firmness, and here, embodied in Margaret Hale and the post-strike John Thornton, is how to do it. It’s not just a book to entertain; rather it purports to provide a model of dominant-class behaviour to control and placate the working-classes. It’s eminently socially engaged and consciously practical (which is not to commend the actual politics of the novel).

Martin Amis

Martin Amis

Amis’s addition to this genre is different. The upper-classes are almost invisible, or at least only appear as secondary characters. Lionel Asbo is focalized entirely on the titular character and Desmond Pepperdine, his mixed-race nephew. The former is a demonized depiction of lower-class masculinity, and the latter idealized. Lionel Asbo is addicted to porn and prison: “Porn is like prison. You know where you are” (148). Later, upon coming into a fortune in the National Lottery, he becomes a tabloid celebrity, and is lusted after by DILFs (the d is for divorcee), with several of whom he conducts affairs in which his sexual sadism is given free rein, in a post-50 Shades depiction of sexual relations. Lionel’s sadism is merely a component of the miasma of hate which surrounds him. When he tries to write a letter:

[T]he letter had an atmosphere. Lionel had hated writing it, and the words themselves had hated being written. Even the paper had hated the pen. (87)

But, then again, in Lionel’s home town of Diston, “everything hated everything else” (165). For some reason, Des Pepperdine is immune to this, and he provides a positive focus for the novel. He rises up through the social ranks, gets an education, gets a job, gets a baby with his girlfriend. The manichaean morality of the two main characters sometimes adds humour to their interaction with each other, but doesn’t make this an acute study of class psychology, or an insight into the state of England.

The least successful part of Lionel Asbo is towards the ending. Amis has added a Chekhov’s gun to the plot in the early stages, and it is clear that this is about to go off, with grave consequences for Lionel’s mood, and his attitude towards Des. In line with this, the latter part of the novel is edited like a thriller, with quick intercutting between the characters as the moment of truth approaches. Maybe Amis was already seeing the film version as he wrote. I’m not that familiar with Amis’s work, so I don’t know how much this tactic is characteristic of him, but tension-building kineticism does not seem to me to be his forte, and Asbo‘s tone has not got the reader into the zone of tension creation, so it falls rather flat. The novel works better as a comedy and as a satire dripping with scorn for a shallow, vacant, actively intelligence-hating (“What you doin there with that pen?” (6)) society – not because it provides an accurate picture of any section of that society, but because scorn has a power of its own, when well expressed, and Lionel Asbo has that power, intermittently at least.

In summation, in so far as this is directed at a middle-class audience, it is not saying, like Gaskell, “Here are the working-class and here is how we must engage with them”; rather it is saying, “Here is the working-class, the filthy oiks! Look at them! From a distance!” Yet, there is also Des, as good and kind as one of Dickens’s cardboard heroes. Perhaps he is a symbol of something, and this is the key to the novel, a prophecy of the victory of the Desses over the Lionels. But who or what Des is supposed to be, beyond a cipher and placeholder, is hard to say.

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