HG Wells is often catalogued as a pioneer of science fiction (which he was) with bestselling books like The Invisible Man and The First Men in the Moon. But he was also a great Edwardian writer of immense fame and influence who deserves to be remembered as a major literary figure, now somewhat eclipsed in the posterity stakes.
But which of his 50 novels to choose? The Sleeper Awakes (a far-sighted portrait of a world enslaved by money and machines)?Love and Mr Lewisham (the tale of a schoolteacher who becomes a socialist but subordinates politics to family life)? Tono-Bungay (a brilliant satire on advertising and the popular press)? Kipps (a Dickensian comedy about one ordinary man's struggle for self-improvement)?
Wells's fans will have their favourites. But I have chosen The History of Mr Polly, a novel from Wells's early middle age (he wrote it when he was 44), a delightful comedy of everyday Edwardian England that draws inspiration from its author's own life. Moreover, as Wells put it in the preface to "the Atlantic Edition" of 1924, "a small but influential group of critics maintain that The History of Mr Polly is the writer's best book". If he could not quite accept that, he said, he would still concede that "certainly it is his happiest book, and the one he cares for most".
I've always liked it (I've never been much of a sci-fi enthusiast) because it is, in many ways, so un-Wellsian. The story – still strikingly modern – is a comedy about a midlife crisis. Alfred Polly has a routine job as a gentlemen's outfitter in the small, provincial town of Fishbourne, a location widely agreed to be modelled on Sandgate in Kent, where Wells himself lived for several years. The tone is established at the outset: "He hated Fishbourne, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours. But most of all Mr Polly "hated himself".
When he becomes threatened with bankruptcy, Mr Polly decides that the only way to liberate himself from his hateful predicament is to burn down his shop and commit suicide. But he makes a hash of his "bit of arson" and cannot find the courage to cut his throat with a razor. So then, acknowledging that "Fishbourne wasn't the world", Mr Polly takes off "on the tramp" and walks himself into a better future through what he calls his "exploratious menanderings".
For me, there are three elements to The History of Mr Polly that unite to give the book an enduring appeal, and to place it at the top of Wells's extraordinary output. First, Wells's picture of Mr Polly – an ironic self-portrait – is deliciously appealing. In the literary tradition of Mrs Malaprop, and many minor Dickens characters, Mr Polly has an "innate sense of epithet" that inspires a teeming vocabulary: "intrudacious", "jawbacious" and "retrospectatiousness".
Second, Mr Polly (who could have stepped from the pages of Dickens) is a "little man" of a kind typical of late Victorian and Edwardian England, a man painfully, even doggedly, liberating himself from an oppressive class-ridden society. The debt to Dickens is unequivocal. Alfred Polly is descended from Joe Gargery, Bob Cratchit and Mr Wemmick. He's also related, as it were, to Mr Pooter, is contemporary with EM Forster's Leonard Bast, and will subsequently inspire many Kingsley Amis protagonists, as well as Billy Liar.
Finally, The History of Mr Polly is a comedy of ordinary, provincial life, rooted in the everyday, with countless brilliantly observed details. In part of the long flashback that composes the middle part of Mr Polly's "history", there's a hilarious wedding which commits him to Miriam, an event that inspires one of Wells's best lines: "He had a curious feeling that it would be very satisfying to marry and have a wife – only somehow he wished it wasn't Miriam."
In later life, Wells became one of Britain's most famous writers, courted by US presidents, and rarely out of one political scrape or another. His meeting with Lenin (1920) and his interview with Stalin (1934) made world news. By the end of his long life, Wells had published 150 books and pamphlets, including 50 works of fiction. In this bibliography The History of Mr Polly has a special charm as a novel in which, for once, Wells became carefree and relaxed, and described the thing he could never find for himself – peace of mind.
A note on the text
HG Wells wrote The History of Mr Polly in 1909, simultaneously with the completion and publication of his novel Ann Veronica, and published it, with Thomas Nelson, in 1910, while an American edition was published by Duffield & Co. In both these first editions there were some small, but significant, errors which were subsequently corrected. Mr Polly's age, on first mention, is given as 35 but later as 37. In the US edition chapter 5, "Mr Polly takes a Vacation", replaces the original "Romance". And so on. Today, the MS for The History of Mr Polly is held in the HG Wells archive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Three more from HG Wells
The Time Machine (1895); The Invisible Man (1897); The War of the Worlds (1898).
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