It’s unlikely that many of today’s authors are sitting down to write a 500-page novel about Brexit, fictionalising the causes, the bungling, the whole range of opinion at home and abroad, speculating on how it has and will change all our lives.
H G Wells had no hesitation in doing just that about the First World War, while he was right in the middle of it.
Mr Britling Sees It Through appeared in September 1916, while the battle of the Somme was raging and the armies of Europe were slowly bleeding to death. Zeppelin raids had begun, the German collapse was two years away, but Wells confidently put down his vision of the new England which would follow, albeit one he was largely going to create himself with the help of a few right-thinking people.
He spends the first 190 pages telling us about the England of Mr Britling, who lives in the kind of house most English people would like to own, in a place they’d like to live – the village of Matching’s Easy in Essex. He’s visited by a kindly American, Mr Direck, who’s looking for England and finds ‘more of a contrast with things American than he had ever dared to hope’.
For example: ‘The Thames was the smallest thing in rivers he’d ever seen. Could this “little wet ditch” be the historical river?’
Matching’s is unsullied before what the book calls ‘the irruption’ of the motor-car. It still has the baker’s cart, village policemen, flourishing apples, roses, strawberries and oaks. The flower show has an elaborate carousel – bringing to mind the sinister painting by Mark Gertler, also created in 1916.
Direck is charmed by the Britling family – Hugh the cherished elder son, two younger boys by Edith the second wife and Herr Heinrich, the German tutor. He falls in love with Edith’s sister Cissie.
Wells aimed to write a modernist novel; there are real tensions in the family. Britling is forty, ‘the still energetic end of old age’, and lascivious, as was Wells. He writes of ‘the joy of dropping into a conversational undertone beside a pretty ear with a pretty wave of hair above it’.
Britling is involved in ‘his eighth love affair’ with a Mrs Harrowdean. ‘What a mess he’d made of his emotional life!’ There is a clumsy, half-hearted attempt at a sex comedy as they quarrel pointlessly. He also feels ‘profoundly incompatible’ with Edith. She is not well drawn: we never get to know her.
Wells is really interested only in young women who are pretty and clever. ‘She impressed him at the outset as being still prettier . . . there was a large irrelevant middle-aged lady in black.’
This pretty country is also failing to compete. Wells blames the archaic education system: ‘Our manufacturing class once had enterprise and radicalism. As soon as it prospered it sent its boys to Oxford and it was lost.’
Direck finds England just as it’s about to disappear, not just from the impact of Prussian militarism, which the English stubbornly ignore – there is a wonderful image of the whole family hilariously goose-stepping around the garden – nor because of the war, which no one sees coming, but through a deep cultural obscurantism and stubbornness.
‘Machine haters, science haters. The British mind has never really tolerated electricity.’
The novel comes to life in the second half, as the war begins, and it turns into an energetic work of journalism. Prefiguring Churchill’s ‘Dark Ages’ speech in 1938, Wells sees starkly what England is up against: ‘Krupp and the Kaiser . . . all that is bad in Medievalism allied to all that is bad in modernity . . . the world will be unendurable for a decent human being unless we win this war.’
Through letters from Hugh the elder son, we gain a vivid, contemporary picture of life in the trenches, and the agony of people waiting for those letters. When they don’t come we know the terrible reason.
The novel ends with a rather puzzling exposition. Throughout the book Wells attacks the CofE as a regressive institution but he seems to find God. To the question a lot of people were asking for the first time, of why God permits suffering, he replied:
‘It’s the theologians who must answer that. They have been extravagant about God. They have had silly ideas that He is all-powerful. The God of the Christians is Christ, a poor mocked and wounded God nailed on a cross . . . Some day He will triumph . . . But it is not fair to say that He causes all things now. If I thought there was an omnipotent God who looked down on battles and deaths and all the waste and horror of this war – able to prevent these things – doing them to amuse Himself – I would spit in his empty face . . .
‘Religion is the first thing and the last and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God.’
Published mid-slaughter, this desperate bid for certainty is what sold the book. It became one of the most popular novels in the British Empire, including Australia, and the USA. Some believed it helped get America into the war, the way the film Mrs Miniver did 25 years later. An American publisher paid ₤20,000 for it, more than £1.5million in today’s money.
In Bolshevik Russia, Maxim Gorky called it ‘the finest, most courageous, truthful, and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war. At a time of universal barbarism and cruelty . . . an important and truly humane work.’
The book also received praise from Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the legendary Anglican chaplain known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because of the cigarettes he gave out. He saw the book ‘everywhere in the trenches’ but mainly read by officers.
Later Wells denied that he had become a Christian in the war. He said he’d been writing about ‘the spirit of history’. He gave us that spirit – this can be read entirely as an illuminating history book.
Another puzzle, at least to a modern reader, is its title, which seems whimsical and inappropriate for the long description of a personal and national existential crisis. That is part of Wells’s strange magic, a light tenor voice even when singing the gloomiest aria.