Revisiting H.G. Wells' literary masterpiece

In his highly autobiographical novel "Tono-Bungay," the famed sci-fi writer shows the extent of his talents

Published June 16, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Tono-Bungay! Sometimes it sounds like the name of a Polynesian Shangri-La, at other times like the magical abracadabra shouted by the carnival illusionist just before his lovely assistant suddenly disappears. Tono ... Bungay! But what does the word really stand for? H.G. Wells (1866-1946) keeps the secret from his readers, providing only hints, until the second quarter of this astonishing book.

Barnes & Noble ReviewIn recent years, there's been increasing talk that the boundaries between literary genres have been breaking down or "evaporating." Yet this novel -- generally viewed as Wells' greatest literary achievement -- manages to segue, quite smoothly and methodically, from Dickensian comedy to naturalist love story to sociological commentary to Victorian aeronautical adventure to erotic tragedy and, finally, to a kind of humanist threnody about the past, present and future of England.

Today, of course, we think of Wells chiefly as the father of modern science fiction, the author of "scientific romances" such as "The Time Machine" and "The War of the Worlds." But during the first dozen or so years of the 20th century, Herbert George Wells was generally regarded, to use a modern locution, as England's best novelist under 40. Even such an eminence as Henry James thought him so, and Joseph Conrad, as a sign of his esteem, in 1907 dedicated "The Secret Agent" to him.

Wells himself never viewed his science fiction classics as true novels; they were "fantasias of possibility," allegories exploring certain aspects of contemporary technology, Swiftian parables of mankind's hubris. His serious literary fiction directly addressed the "condition of England" or "the way we live now," and included "Love and Mr Lewisham" (1900), "Kipps" (1905), "Ann Veronica" (1909), the serio-comic "History of Mr. Polly" (1910) and "Tono-Bungay" (1909). In an 1897 essay on the work of his friend George Gissing -- today best known for the merciless "New Grub Street" -- Wells wrote that certain novelists, like Gissing and himself, "have set themselves to write novels which are neither studies of character essentially, nor essentially series of incidents, but deliberate attempts to present in typical groupings distinct phases of our social order." Beneath this sociological umbrella, Wells' own books zero in on his favorite theme, that of personal emancipation, of how people -- especially women and the lower middle classes -- might escape the trammels of injurious moralities and outmoded conventions. Notoriously, in "Ann Veronica" the young heroine forthrightly tells her married biology teacher: "'I want you. I want you to be my lover. I want to give myself to you. I want to be whatever I can to you.' She paused for a moment. 'Is that plain?'"

Wells himself famously disagreed with Henry James about the nature of fiction. While the Master argued that exacting control, a consistent point of view, and close attention to form were essential to true literary artistry, Wells was convinced that we shouldn't allow the novel to be so straitjacketed or constrained. "Tristram Shandy" -- a loose and baggy masterpiece in which almost anything goes -- was, significantly, Wells' choice for the greatest English novel. Authorial voice matters, he believed; it gives charm and humanity to a narrative. As George Ponderevo, the narrator of the highly autobiographical "Tono-Bungay," announces early on:

I suppose what I'm really trying to render is nothing more nor less than Life -- as one man has found it. I want to tell -- myself,... to say things I have come to feel intensely of the laws, traditions, usages, and ideas we call society, and how we poor individuals get driven and lured and stranded among these windy, perplexing shoals and channels.

He adds: "Do what I will I fail to see how I can be other than a lax, undisciplined story-teller. I must sprawl and flounder, comment and theorize, if I am to get the thing out I have in mind." Modern readers should, in consequence, slow down a bit to fully enjoy this bountiful novel's variety and richness.

George Ponderevo is born the son of the housekeeper at a great, but decaying estate called Bladesover. He grows up in a world where a person knows his or her place and is frequently reminded of it. When the snooty Mrs. Mackeridge "told you it was a fine morning, she seemed also to be telling you you were a fool and a low fool to boot; when she was spoken to, she had a way of acknowledging your poor tinkle of utterance with a voluminous, scornful 'Haw' that made you want to burn her alive. She also had a way of saying 'Indade!' with a droop of the eyelids."

After George fights with a young aristocrat over a little girl named Beatrice, he is sent away to become an apprentice to his pharmacist Uncle Edward Ponderevo. Uncle Edward is what Americans of that era would have called a genuine go-getter. He's all "jump," and crackling with ideas for making it big. However, when he invests his savings, and George's little inheritance too, everything goes bust and the would-be tycoon is forced to sell his small-town chemist's shop and move, ignominiously, to London. Eventually George, having won a science scholarship, also travels to the great metropolis to finish his education.

Back in those early days, he tells us, "I was serious ... I was capable then of efforts -- of nobilities ... I thought I was presently to go out into a larger and quite important world and do significant things there. I thought I was destined to do something definite to a world that had a definite purpose. I did not understand then, as I do now, that life was to consist largely in the world's doing things to me."

This note of regret, especially that life hasn't lived up to youthful dreams, recurs throughout "Tono-Bungay," and at one point the now middle-aged George alludes to some kind of breakdown. At first this tragic tone may seem a little hyperbolic, but George really does earn his bitterness. His story unreels a series of lost illusions, about love, marriage, business, success in life, everything. If his reminiscences occasionally seem somewhat detached and affectless, that's mainly because George is emotionally exhausted, broken by his experiences.

The young provincial's initial impression of London is, significantly, one of congestion, grayness and slums, "a boundless world of dingy people." However, he soon reconnects with his Uncle Edward, who on the surface appears more than ever an updated version of Mister Micawber, sure that something will turn up. "I make my plans," Uncle Edward tells his nephew. "I rally my attack."

What, asks George, are you talking about? The older man grows quiet, almost conspiratorial.

'Listen!' he said.

I listened.

'Tono-Bungay,' said my uncle very slowly and distinctly.

And so ends Book One of the novel.

As the second of the four sections opens, George has settled in London, where he is supposed to be studying science. But like many a young man before him, he is quickly seduced by the more profane pleasures of city life. "If I went eastward towards Picadilly, women who seemed then to my boyish inexperience softly splendid and alluring, murmured to me as they passed." In fact, George is drawn to nearly every woman he meets. But "it is odd that I can't remember when first I saw Marion, who became my wife -- whom I was to make wretched, who was to make me wretched."

Despite prim Marion's general lack of ardor, George nonetheless grows hopelessly infatuated and absolutely desperate to marry her. It is at this point that one day, while strolling down a busy London street, he suddenly sees an advertising poster that reads, quite simply: "The Secret of Vigour, Tono-Bungay."

In short order, George discovers that Uncle Edward is bottling a sham tonic, utterly devoid of any actual medicinal benefit, and advertising it with a flair that the Mad Men of the 1960s would envy.

In fact, Uncle Edward turns out to be a genius at marketing and promotion:"Advertisement," he tells George, "has revolutionized trade and industry; it is going to revolutionize the world. The old merchant used to tote about commodities; the new one creates values. Doesn't need to tote. He takes something that isn't worth anything -- or something that isn't particularly worth anything, and he makes it worth something. He takes mustard that is just like anybody else's mustard, and he goes about saying, shouting, singing, chalking on walls, writing inside people's books, putting it everywhere, 'Smith's Mustard is the Best.' And behold it "is" the Best.'"

George, knowing that Tono-Bungay is a quack elixir, is at first shocked and morally offended. But, then, Marion makes clear that she will only consent to marry him if he's earning a solid 500 pounds a year. Desire quickly defeats ideals. So George sulkily agrees to sell out, to sacrifice "the springtime of my life, to ... bottling rubbish for the consumption of foolish, credulous and depressed people."

From the first, Tono-Bungay is promoted through an "alluring, button-holeing, let-me-just-tell-quite-soberly-something-you-ought-to-know style of newspaper advertisement." One quarter-column ad blazes forth the headline: "HILARITY -- TONO-BUNGAY. Like Mountain Air in the Veins." This is then followed by "the penetrating trio of questions: 'Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner? Are you bored with your Wife?' "

As it turns out, Tono-Bungay is good for almost anything that ails you. It even works marvels as a "Hair Stimulant" when mixed with "an emollient and nutritious oil derived from crude Neat's Foot Oil." Of course, it will be "manifest to any one of scientific attainments that in Neat's Foot Oil derived from the hoofs and horns of beasts, we must necessarily have a 'natural' skin and hair lubricant." Eventually, one can even buy Tono-Bungay mouthwash: "You are Young Yet, but are you Sure Nothing has Aged your Gums?"

As the Ponderevo business empire continues to expand, George simultaneously grows increasingly unhappy with Marion. He feels half dead. His bohemian friend, the sculptor Ewart, tells him that all our trouble in life derives from the fact "that we don't 'really' exist and we want to." Tono-Bungay itself symbolizes our "hunger to be -- for once -- really alive -- to the finger tips!" And, admit it or not, what most men yearn to be is "'something perpetually young and beautiful -- young Joves -- young Joves, Ponderevo' -- his voice became loud, harsh and declamatory -- 'pursuing coy half-willing nymphs through everlasting forests.'"

Meanwhile, Uncle Edward himself pursues wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. "It's a great world, George, nowadays, with a fair chance for everyone who lays hold of things. The career "ouvert" to the Talons -- eh?" Before long, Edward Ponderevo oversees a vast conglomerate called Domestic Utilities, abbreviated as Do Ut. He has risen to become "the Napoleon of domestic conveniences."

And yet, as George repeatedly reminds us, most of what Uncle Edward sells and owns and promises is pure sham. In essence, this corporate mogul is paid vast sums by the irrational world "for sitting in a room and scheming and telling it lies. For he created nothing, he invented nothing, he economized nothing. I cannot claim that a single one of the great businesses we organized added any real value to human life at all."

Uncle Edward, however, remains wholly unfazed. "We mint Faith, George... . That's what we do. And by Jove we got to keep minting!" Think back over the past decade of financial news: What has changed?

As a nouveau riche plutocrat, bumptious Uncle Edward naturally expects that he and his immensely likable wife Susan can now enter high society; he even dreams of a knighthood. Yet the couple make one egregious gaffe after another. Using a technique later perfected by Ronald Firbank in his campily comic novels, Wells evokes a crowded lawn party by simply setting down snatches of overheard conversation:

"The daughter had a disappointment and went to China as a missionary and got mixed up in a massacre... .

"Married a Papist and was quite lost to them."

"He failed some dreadful examination and had to go into the militia."

"So she bit his leg as hard as ever she could and he let go ..."

"Preserved them both in spirits very luckily, and there they are in his study, though of course he doesn't show them to everybody."

To cement his new cultural identity as a connoisseur and patron of the arts, Uncle Edward acquires "The Sacred Grove: A Weekly Magazine of Art, Philosophy, Science and Belles Lettres." Wells reproduces a facsimile of the contents page of a typical issue. Articles include "A hitherto unpublished letter from Walter Pater" and a note on "Charlotte Bronte's maternal great aunt." But above, below and on the sides of this list of prissy academic essays appear vulgarly ostentatious claims for the enigmatic "Twenty-Three Pill," which is, as everyone knows, "the best pill in the world for an irregular liver."

By this point, the reader might be starting to wonder, "What next?" and so Wells again changes key. One day the explorer Gordon-Nasmyth appears in the Tono-Bungay offices with a strange story about a substance called quap, "the most radio-active stuff in the world." Uncle Edward has long dreamed of cornering the market on some essential consumer item, and quap, which is desperately needed for Capern's Patent Filament, looks to be just the ticket. But quap is hardly as innocuous as Tono-Bungay. Gordon Nasmyth relates how he discovered two luminescent hillocks -- "like the backs of hogs" -- on a mysterious island near the coast of West Africa. A little way off from "bone-white dead trees" stood an "abandoned station -- abandoned because every man who stayed two months at that station stayed to die, eaten up mysteriously like a leper."

To establish the truth of his story, Gordon-Nasmyth hands George a small sample of quap for testing. It's all he was able to bring back with him. "Don't carry it about on you," he adds in parting. "It makes a sore."

Before the end of the novel, George himself will sail to this blasted West African landscape to retrieve the hideously valuable quap. On the journey southward, Wells' descriptive powers attain a lushness reminiscent of Conrad:

Here and there strange blossoms woke the dank intensities of green with a trumpet call of colour. Things crept among the jungle and peeped and dashed back rustling into stillness. Always in the sluggishly drifting, opaque water were eddyings and stirrings; little rushes of bubbles came chuckling up lightheartedly from this or that submerged conflict and tragedy; now and again were crocodiles like a stranded fleet of logs, basking in the sun. Still it was by day, a dreary stillness broken only by insect sounds and the creaking and flapping of our progress, by the calling of the soundings and the captain's confused shouts; but in the night as we lay moored to a clump of trees the darkness brought a thousand swampy things to life and out of the forest came screamings and howlings, screamings and yells that made us glad to be afloat. And once we saw between the tree stems long blazing fires.

Given all this plenty, new readers should know that I haven't mentioned even half of what's in "Tono-Bungay." Little Beatrice reappears as a seductive young woman, troublingly beautiful but with a dark secret. Wells' depiction of the high-spirited Aunt Susan makes her the most winning and three-dimensional female character in the novel. Several sections cover George's aeronautical experiments with gliders and balloons, culminating in a frantic night-flight, during a gale, over the English channel. There's even an almost wholly gratuitous murder. Not least, the novel closes with a long prose aria, reviewing England's history and future, as a sleek destroyer ominously sails down the Thames at night toward the open sea.

Is the new age depicted in "Tono-Bungay" any improvement on the old? Throughout, Wells repeatedly underscores George's ambivalent feelings about the vanishing traditions represented by Bladesover. While both author and character properly reject its entrenched class prejudices, something in them still admires the ancient nobility. "It is nonsense to pretend that finance makes any better aristocrats than rent. Nothing can make an aristocrat but pride, knowledge, training, and the sword." In one novel or tract after another, Wells would go on to imagine a new aristocracy of technocratic wise men installed as the proper governors of the earth. This is the positive vision of a chrome-bright future we associate with the Wells-based film "Things to Come."

"Tono-Bungay" itself, however, takes its place with Thomas Mann's "Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man" and William Gaddis' "The Recognitions" in depicting a world of humbuggery and falsification, of a society that has lost all its authenticity, where everything has grown fake, counterfeit, just smoke and mirrors. More than once, Uncle Edward recalls both Mr. Merdle, the supreme master-financier of Dickens' "Little Dorrit" and our own Ponzi-scamming Bernie Madoff. George ultimately sums up the Ponderevo empire "as the compactest image and sample of all that passes for Progress, of all the advertisement-inflated spending, the aimless building up and pulling down, the enterprise and promise of my age ... One vast dismal spectacle of witless waste!"

Still, there's outward waste and there's inner wasting. In quap's cancerous, insidious power to accelerate actual atomic decay, Wells points to "the ultimate eating away and dry-rotting and dispersal of all our world. So that while man still struggles and dreams his very substance will change and crumble from beneath him." And leave not a wrack behind.

In this tableau of a world in transition -- moving from the serene afternoon of high Victorian certainties to the modern age's rabid commercialism -- Wells is scathing, poetic, funny, heartbreaking, and powerfully contemporary. What he proclaimed at the end of his 1911 essay "The Contemporary Novel," he actually did:

We are going to write about business and finance and politics and precedence and pretentiousness and decorum and indecorum ... We are going to write about wasted opportunities and latent beauties ... We are going to appeal to the young and the hopeful and the curious, against the established, the dignified and defensive. Before we have done, we will have all life within the scope of the novel.

For Wells that novel was "Tono-Bungay."

By Michael Dirda

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