H.G. Wells, In Search of Hot Water (1939)

by Mark Wallace

I came across a copy of this book for a few euro in the second-hand section of Chapters bookshop in Dublin. A nice find: a seemingly first edition (paperback) from 1939 of a book I had never heard of by an author I like. Looking the book up on WorldCat, it seems that it has only been republished once since 1939, and that was back in 1949. It made Hot Water more interesting to me to know this: that I was holding the first and almost only edition; and it surprised me that such a famous name as Wells could have a book – a collection of essays – that has been so long out of print. A good deal of the explanation is in the fact that Wells published a lot, and so much of his lesser work has been weeded out from the “selective tradition” (as Raymond Williams would say). And further, these essays are occasional, specifically about affairs of the times, and not for the ages.

H.g. Wells' "New Book", In Search of Hot Water (1939)

Wells’ In Search of Hot Water (1939), in the classic Penguin sleeve, scuffed edges and all.

The full title on the flyleaf is Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water, but the front has only In Search of Hot Water. Note the clever double meaning in the title: Wells, as a noted polemicist, is forever finding himself in metaphorical “Hot Water”, and each essay is written in expectation that he will find find himself there again; and, secondly, the traveller to out-of-the-way places Wells visits in the course of these essays (e.g. Burma) is often, presumably without the conveniences of Western living, such as physical “Hot Water”. The full title also sees Wells define himself politically, “A Republican Radical”, of which more anon.

These essays were written in 1938-39, when Wells was over seventy, and had been a prominent intellectual for almost 40 years. The time itself is significant, as it was just before the outbreak of World War II. This was a war which Wells, along with many others, saw coming, and it haunts the pages of Hot Water. There’s an essay in the book called “Prophecy of 1939”. Cultural prophecy was of course one of Wells’ long-standing specialities (witness Anticipations, A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come). However, he opens “Prophecy” with a characteristically blunt warning:

Let me be perfectly frank about what this Forecast amounts to. I know no more than you about what is coming. I have no magic crystal. All this sort of thing is guessing; an estimate of trends and possibilities. (17)

Disclaimer issued, he gets down to business. He predicts, accurately, that the greatest threat to the world order is coming from Germany. He postulates that “The German people are an orderly, vain, deeply sentimental and rather insensitive people.” Wells was rather fond of making huge generalizations about national character; which is odd, because he wanted nothing more than a single World State and constantly and effectively ridiculed provincialism and insularity among his compatriots. But his problem is not with the German people, but their leaders, “a triumvirate of lunatics”. He is loudly against Chamberlain’s appeasement policy:

[Hitler] and his chief friends ought to now be rendered harmless and put away as soon as possible. I appeal to his open record, his published speeches, his role in the present pogrom, to establish the fact that he and his two friends are suffering from delusions of grandeur and a contagious form of homicidal mania. (19)

The fence on which Chamberlain wishes to sit, in Wells’ metaphor, is becoming more and more a knife-edge. What is needed is…

 [A] Radical-minded union of the English-speaking states. Such a consolidation could say effectively “Stop the fighting”. It has to be said, arms in hand. Peace is not a foolish, faceless thing; it is not the retreating aspect of humanity. It is something more difficult than war, more exacting of human energy. (27)

It’s typical of Wells to frame peace in such warlike terms, though perhaps in this case justified. But it was a passing swipe at royalty in the essay which earned the author a rebuke in the pages of the Sunday Dispatch. Hot Water reprints said rebuke appended to “Prophecy”, further appending Wells’ own response – a response which, he wrote, “I have found impossible to reprint in any British or American periodical” (32). In this response he reiterates yet again his rejection of monarchism, preferring “the high republican and intensely English tradition of Cromwell, Milton, George Washington and so forth” (35). The invocation of Cromwell is interesting to the writer of this blog – undoubtedly the Carlylean construction of Cromwell was somewhere in the mix. “Prophecy” starts with a critique of Great Man politics in general and Hitler in particular, but the appeal to Cromwell shows Wells’ loyalties were never really to the democratic tradition, but to the tradition of rule of the best, the class identified as the Samurai in A Modern Utopia. His writings mix a scrupulous rationalism with a contempt for mediocrity and a love of conquest and good old Hero-worship, though not in the unequivocal Carlylean manner. Equivocality is part of Wells’ manner at all times, expressed in his humour, often at his own expense. In the descriptions of himself and his literary avatars (see, for example, “the whitish plump man” at the beginning of A Modern Utopia), it is always clear that Wells finds himself a little ridiculous, both in his person and in the strength of his opinions – but still, he can’t help but have very strong opinions.

Taken in isolation, some of Wells’ formulations of his opinions may be objectionable to modern sensibilities. Taken together, they show a writer who never stopped going over the problems of his society, who was never happy with formulae or with the received opinions of his time, and who always maintained a measure of open-mindedness, even if prone to excesses. Reading Wells remains bracing; there is an everyman quality to his indignant reactions to the stupidity and self-servingness of those in power, his deeply ingrained hatred of cant and hypocrisy; but it is allied to an intelligence and breadth of knowledge beyond most and an unerring dedication to ameliorating the muddle of worldly affairs, with the final end of bringing all of humanity together in one harmonious World State. His prose style is brisk and lively in this late book, he ‘s still hopeful and still spoiling for a fight. But now, almost seventy years after  his death, the Wellsian Utopia is as far away as ever, so perhaps he was an imperfect prophet, or perhaps the world hasn’t caught up with him yet.