The Victorian Sage

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

Month: March, 2013

Wells and Cultural Prophecy: “The Shape of Things to Come” (1933)

H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), isn’t really a novel, whatever the blurb of the recent Penguin edition (2005) might say. Its closest predecessor thematically may be a work of cultural prophecy such as Carlyle’s Past and Present (1843), but within a frame structure similar to, for example, Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34). What Wells calls it is “a history of the future”.

The main body of the text is from the files of one Dr Philip Raven, recently deceased. He presents it as based on his own dreams or visions of the future. The dreams don’t constitute an action-based narrative, but a very long and detailed historico-sociological textbook. Later, the editor (identified as HGW – Wells himself, or a version of him) whose comments frame Dr Raven’s writings, suggests they should be read as a “general thesis […] about the condition of things to come” (447).

The framework, then, is very similar to that of the thesis on “things in general” by Prof Diogenes Teufelsdrockh, as presented in Sartor. Both books are offering a thesis on the grandest and most important of subjects, but within a slightly fictionalized framework, which allows the authors to play with ideas and put forward ideas they do not quite wish to take full responsibility for. For Wells, this means he can provide for the regeneration/ rebirth of society through the instrument of a totalitarian Modern State, whose aim is “to rule not only the planet but the human will” (346), and who thus impose themselves by martial law and precisely 47,066 executions! (see page 358) But while this may appear draconian, in Wells’ scenario the end is seen to justify the means, because crime is ultimately abolished, as well as “hunger, fear and other primary stresses” (439). This is achieved through Discipline, Education, and the jettisoning of Democracy, Monarchy, Capitalism, Nationalism and Religion, the five great bugbears of 20th century society, as Wells saw it. There isn’t even any need for medical eugenics, just selective breeding (along with its corollary, selective sterilization) and right education, et viola:

[I]t is particularly evident in Bengal and Central China. There we find the direct descendants of shrill, unhappy, swarming, degenerate, undernourished, undereducated, underbred, and short-lived populations among the finest, handsomest, longest-lived and ablest of contemporary humanity. (430)

Things to Come demonstrates in one sense a very optimistic view of the human condition, a limitless faith in the powers of good education to eradicate “abberant motives” (413) and unite all the world as one race. But to reach that state, a couple of things have to happen: there’s the whole totalitarian bit, but even before that, to create the conditions for Wells’ Aristocracy of Talent to create their World State, the majority of the world’s population had to be wiped out by a Great Pestilence. This questionable deus ex machina is characterized as “not the disease but the harvest of a weakness already prepared” (226). It is Wells’ equivalent to the Carlylean schema of the phoenix death-birth of society in Sartor. As the early 19th century for Carlyle, the 1930s was the period for Wells in which society had become exhausted: caught in a stranglehold of old, worn-out beliefs, customs and institutions, unable to extricate itself, unable to work up the will to extricate itself, unable to appreciate the need to work up such a will. What was needed was the descent into chaos, in which shams could finally be burned up, and men could realize their true standing with regard to the nature of things. This was to be achieved through a workers’ revolution for Carlyle, for Wells it was pestilence.

The pestilence, though, is a big stumbling block for Things to Come as a prescriptive – and, if we want to call it a work of cultural prophecy, it has to be prescriptive. It’s a deus ex machina, a fictional device. Either Wells is suggesting that something of this kind should be arranged, or all the detail of his plan for a new society is worthless, because the conditions under which it can be implemented are, more or less, impossible. Yet it’s only really as cultural prophecy the book makes sense – it certainly isn’t a novel.

Nevertheless, there’s  a lot to appreciate about The Shape of Things to Come: there’s breadth of knowledge and depth of commitment, and a basically disinterested attempt to ameliorate the lot of mankind. Despite the impression that this post might have given, Wells’ approach is still fundamentally humane – his description of the horrors of WWI is powerful, for example. Yet in his impatience with his society, he went rather over the top, and his cultural prophecy, like Carlyle’s (which he had read as a teen/ 20-something), is based on an idealistic view of leadership. If he had been writing a few years later, maybe he could have taken Orwell’s Animal Farm (1944) into account. That book now seems a much more realistic account of how power is obtained and maintained. But Wells was no Orwellian, or indeed Foucauldian, and believed that power would fade when its job was done – and, who knows, maybe it will.

The Birth of the Extrovert Ideal and Susan Cain’s Quiet

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Penguin, 2012) has created waves and provoked much discussion on the benefits and difficulties of the “extrovert ideal” that Cain sees as central to western society. In the first chapter of the book, Cain offers a history of the rise of the Cult of Personality, which she sees as successor to the Cult of Character which was prevalent until about the 1920s (the terms are taken by Cain from Warren Susman).  The big difference between the two is that the Cult of Personality is externally focussed: the important thing is how others feel about you – it’s social power for men, “fascination” for women (that was the term in the 20s, now pretty much obsolete). With the earlier cult of character, deeds were central, rather than appearance. For Cain, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) is a key text in this change, both exemplifying the move towards Personality as it had already begun, and helping to expedite and finally entrench it. Aside from Carnegie’s and other influential books, Cain also notes the constitutive effect of economic systems on the individual: she attends a self-empowerment seminar with Tony Robbins and notes that the principle underlying all of Robbins’ activities and mantras is that “salesmanship governs even the most neutral interactions” (38). This is again seen to have roots in the 1920s rise of the “go-getter” – a business principle expanded to embrace all social interaction.

Cain’s history is interesting, but I wondered why she had chosen to pinpoint the 1920s as the historical point of extraversion’s triumph. The reason is not made wholly clear in Quiet, and I think that it has less to do with socio-economic specifics of that decade than with the fact that that was when the terms extraversion and introversion came into common currency – originating with Jung, then through Adler and so on. In fact, the extrovert ideal was apparent much earlier, if not under that name. My own study interest, Thomas Carlyle, was very aware of this. Carlyle was something of a contradiction because, as D.H. Lawrence observed, he wrote 30 volumes in praise of silence. In other words, he didn’t necessarily practice what he preached. Yet what preoccupied him in his writings was the emphasis on speech in his society of the mid-19th century. His great object of aversion was parliament: “Parliament will train you to talk; and, above all things to hear, with patience, unlimited quantities of foolish talk” (“Stump Orator”, Latter-Day Pamphlets [1850] (Dodo Press, 2012), p. 153). The effect of this on the human individual was quite unpleasant:

“A poor human creature and learned friend, once possessed of many fine gifts, possessed of intellect, veracity, and manful convictions on a variety of objects, has he now lost all that; – converted all that into a glistening phosphorescence, which can show itself on the outside; while within, all is dead, chaotic, dark; a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones. (Ibid.)

Carlyle ultimately connects speech with insincerity and action with sincerity, and diagnoses his society as insincere to the point of disfunctionality, but for him the locus of the insincerity is not so much in the market economy as it is in the democratic system of government. The member of parliament, incumbent or aspirant, does not speak truly; he does not even try to speak truly; he cannot even try to speak truly. For him, the goal is to speak his “plausiblest, [his] showiest for parliamentary purposes” (156). Once this becomes a habit of mind, even thinking truth becomes impossible. For Carlyle, one can never speak untruthfully with impunity, because the seed of insincerity enters the mind, and makes of it “a painted sepulchre full of dead-men’s bones”, as it were. And if this form of thought and speech is enshrined in the highest establishments of the nation, the lower must follow suit.

It is clear from reading Carlyle that the debate on introversion-extraversion was of considerable moment in the mid-19th century. You can see in Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) for example, how the demagogue (Slackbridge) was an object of distrust, and how his power over the people was feared. Dickens, too, was for silence and inarticulate doing rather than orating (in theory). So Cain’s history, though interesting, wrongly (I would suggest) assumes a temporal link between the birth of the extrovert ideal and the coining of the term. In contemporary society, there are political and economic situations which would appear to favour the extrovert, but this situation is not new: many people are more discomfited by silence than they are by the talking of rubbish, and phatic communication is for many a reassurance and a social glue. The extrovert ideal may go deeper than any politico-economic framework,  because even talking rubbish can bring people together, so long as they both talk the same kind of rubbish, whilst also necessarily excluding  non-rubbish-talking introverts, who may not “get on” quite so fast, but still remain what Jung called them, “educators and promoters of  culture” (qtd. Cain, 26); and thus retain, perhaps, a certain feeling of superiority and a not wholly unpleasing disdain for their more loquacious but less discerning brethren.

Spectacle of Privilege in The Way We Live Now (2001)

Andrew Higson wrote in the 1980s of the centrality of the “spectacle of privilege” (125) to the English period drama of that time. Through the 90s, this was increasingly evident in BBC serials, heavily foregrounded in Pride and Prejudice (1996) and the like. In P&P what is introduced first is not the set of characters, but the setting: one of opulence, wide open country spaces and a country house of massive proportions. The spectacle of this domain of privilege is the focus of the opening scene of P&P.

P&P opening2-bmp

Somewhat similar is the opening of The Way We Live Now, the 2001 Trollope adaptation, also scripted by Andrew Davies. It is not the people of the story who are introduced, but their stuff. The viewer is invited to gorge him or herself on the sights of privilege, before he/she is initiated into the narrative. In this scene, a very large house is being furnished, and we watch as various movables are brought together to create a domain of privilege.

melmotte-bmp globe-bmp Way we Live-bmp

This is quite standard for the genre at this time. The twist comes when all of this privilege is seen in connection with its owner. This is Augustus Melmotte, and he is introduced at the end of the scene. Before he is seen, he is heard: a voice coming from a carriage gruffly shouts, “Get out!” at two females who come scurrying from said carriage; left inside, we see only a thick cloud of cigar smoke (through the serial, Melmotte is rarely seen without a fat cigar). The camera tracks him from behind as he enters the domain of privilege (i.e. his house, which he has evidently just bought), and on the soundtrack is heard a heavy, bestial breathing, but still we don’t see his face. Finally, having reached the inner parts of the residence, he turns to the camera, briefly disengages his cigar from his mouth, and says in an accent markedly foreign, if unplaceable (it eventually appears he’s either German or Austrian): “Well, let us see what we can do here.”


A closer look at the serial and Trollope’s source text would be necessary to reach any definite conclusions here, but certainly an important focus for the serial, alongside the obligatory romance between Hetta and Paul, is Melmotte’s attempted journey to the centre of English society, and the importance of the expulsion of this contaminative source. That the rejection of foreign degradation is assumed to be a theme of dramatic urgency for the audience by the makers of TWWLN is I think strongly suggested in the opening and throughout the serial and appears to support Higson’s reading of period adaptations, which can often seem to posit an idealized national identity, a real England belonging to the past but recoverable, at least temporarily in the medium of the period adaptation, in which Melmottian machinations may threaten to penetrate the surface and infect the heart of Englishness, but they are localized threats, and may be adequately counteracted from within the community.

  • Higson, Andrew, “Re-presenting the National Past: Nostalgia and Pastiche in the Heritage Film”, in Fires were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism (London: Wallflower, 2006), pp. 109-129

Earnestness and Nationalism: Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903)

The Riddle of the Sands (1903), the only novel by Erskine Childers, is a once immensely popular and still highly readable spy yarn distinguished by the wealth and accuracy of detail with which Childers describes the Dutch coast around which his heroes, Davies and Carruthers, are sailing. The geoliterary setting is murky and foggy, and beneath the murk are all sorts of strange and underhanded goings-on, which gain their urgency by their relation to the underlying threat of invasion that Childers felt England faced from a strong and rapacious German nation. The basis of Childers’ thought, as revealed in the novel, is almost wholly nationalistic: love of country is the way out of dilettantism and mammonism and into earnestness and manliness.

The narrator, Carruthers, is at the opening of the story a man about town in London, eagerly seeking social outlets, but bored and conscious that he is a non-entity in social terms, and even in existential terms, being reduced to “the dismal but dignified routine of office, club and chambers” (2). The picture of London society that is painted by Childers is the familiar one of an inescapable labyrinth of superficiality and false consciousness. There is no respite from this mode of being in London, except solitude, and that is dreary and morbid. When he agrees to join the barely-known Davies in a cruise around the Frisian Islands, then, the stage is set for a casting off of the London-self, and a becoming, a baptism in the cold, refreshing North Sea: “As I plied the towel, I knew that I had left in those limpid depths yet another crust of discontent and self-conceit” (18).

The contradiction of The Riddle of the Sands is that life as lived in England, in so far as it is presented, is viewed entirely negatively, but the only mode of serious living offered is the dedication to the defence and the greater glory of this same England: for England, but not in England. What is striking is that, far from engaging in anti-German propaganda, Davies, Childers’ model of English manhood, shows an obvious respect for the German national character, as he sees it, praising the Kaiser warmly and seeming to see them as no less worthy than the English, but still opposed to any German expansion or imperialism along English lines: “I don’t blame them […] We can’t talk about conquest and grabbing. We’ve collared a fine share of the world, and they’ve every right to be jealous. Let them hate us, and say so; it’ll teach us to buck up; and that’s what really matters” (81). This is the closest the novel comes to adopting a reflective attitude towards imperialism, notably in Davies’ use of the word “grabbing”. Yet any moral difficulties that may arise from the practice of “grabbing” are left unexamined, indeed quickly forgotten in Davies’ focus on the need for a national “bucking up”, and the potential energizing benefits of  German hostilities.

Concurrent with his espionage investigations along the Dutch coast, Davies falls in love, with Clara Dollman, presented as a German but who, through “the racial instinct” (156), Carruthers quickly divines to be English. She barely appears in the book, though she is apparently much on Davies mind, an eternal English feminine drawing him to higher spheres. At Carruthers first meeting with her, it is hard to tell where Englishness ends and Clara begins: she has “[t]wo honest English eyes” and “an honest English hand” (156), and is ultimately suitable because she is ideal Englishness embodied in a female form. In the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands, Clara (Jenny Agutter) appears much more often, indeed the first piece of dialogue after the initial voiceover is Clara’s; the film tones down the nationalism and turns up the romance angle, unsurprisingly.

In Childers’ book, Davies remains an endearing character: honest and sincere, brave and competent in his sphere, not intellectual or academic (his spelling is notably poor, as shown in Chapter 25), but full of the classic English virtue, pluck, a word occuring several times in Riddle.

Pluck, n., 4. a. colloq. Courage, originally viewed as residing in the heart; boldness, spirit; tenacity in adversity. (OED)

All of these virtues are seen to be not only absent but impossible in the London society of the book’s opening, and Childers was evidently of the opinion that only in the nationalist sphere was this model of manliness expressible. His nationalism is unreflective, and its appeal is less theoretical than practical: it is a way of growing up and of earnest being in the world. Carruthers watches Davies at work and reflects with awe: “I had just a glimpse of still another Davies – a Davies five years older throbbing with deep emotions, scorn, passion and stubborn purpose; a being above my plane, made of sterner stuff, wider scope” (54). This yearning for earnest being seems to me to be an important component in Childers’ nationalism, and is also another manifestation of that great Victorian obsession with earnestness, traceable to a large extent to Carlyle. Childers’ career took an unexpected path when he became converted to the cause of Irish nationalism (he was born in Ireland, a member of the protestant ascendancy), and eventually ended his life executed in the Irish Civil War. Riddle, then, provides a snapshot of an ideology at a vulnerable and volatile stage, and shows how the imperialist mindset was so attractive to the minds in formation of the young men of the time.

Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands (London: Adlard Coles Nautical, 2010)


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