101 years after publication, this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up is H G Wells’s novel Mr Britling Sees It Through. It was sold to a public who really did not know which way this war would go, in a strange category of literature, the in-war novel: neither pre-war, nor post-war. The author does not know the outcome of a war endured and won (or, much less commonly, a war lost. Apart from Jünger’s Storm of Steel I don’t know German, Italian or indeed Austro-Hungarian literature at all, but there must be novels from those literary traditions dating from 1919 onwards about the war that was lost.) Britain has been fortunate – which is a whopping understatement but the best I can do – in not having been on the losing side in war or invasion since 1066, unless you count Dutch William coming over in the late 17th century but that was by invitation. So British literature of war has always been from the winning side’s perspective, which will nuance how we understand Mr Britling‘s first readers’ responses.
The First World War was the first war to really involve the British civilian population directly, in that they could read about the fighting fairly soon after it had happened, they could hear the guns from France in Kent, they knew their fishing fleet and merchant shipping were in greater danger off-shore than ever before, and they could see the wounded and returning soldiers getting off the trains and boats all round the south and east coasts of England. British cities and towns were bombed from the air for the first time in this war. Wells puts this into this novel, but also notes that this destruction and terror and violence was no different from what the British had inflicted on the peoples of Polynesia and Africa.
Mr Britling is the main character in the novel, and becomes the focalising character – the one through whose perspective we see what happens – about two thirds of the way through. His name is a giveaway for his Everyman symbolic role. He represents the British man sending his son and friend to war, and struggling to understand the changes that have overcome his life. Mr Britling is also H G Wells himself, a famous writer and popular commentator, writing books and articles for the newspapers to explain things to the ordinary man, to make his living. And, as the title of the novel suggests, Mr Britling sees it through. He endures the war, as far as it goes, and suffers terrible changes in his life. He also goes through large changes in his understanding of what the war was for and about. The war breaks through Mr Britling’s sense of being in control and well satisfied with the world as he has arranged it, because a very loud and violent thing is breaking through these paper defences.
Mr Britling has a mistress who has been playing him off against a younger man, but once war begins Mr Britling has no patience with her petulant games, and simply forgets all about her. War is more absorbing to him and his family than her demands, and his self-esteem somehow now doesn’t need the propping up and cossetting that she performed. His secretary Teddy goes to war, so Teddy’s young wife Letty takes over his job, perfectly competently. Mr Britling thus has Letty and her child and her sister Cissie on his hands, as well as his own wife, his three sons and a houseful of servants. His eldest son Hugh joins up secretly, a year under age. His long letters to his father about life in camp and, later, at the Front are extraordinary letters for a wartime novel, because they criticise bitterly the conduct of the officers and the incompetence of the army’s grasp of supplies, catering, training, and tactics. Hugh’s superior officer doesn’t believe in maps or measurements. I don’t know if Wells was using the letters sent him by friends, or whether he was inventing them, but Hugh’s letters sound very similar to those in Siegfried Sassoon’s novel Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published long after the war in full possession of the facts about army incompetence. Yet Wells was able to pass these views to the public tucked neatly inside his story, and evaded the Defence of the Realm Act (which prevented newspapers and other public disseminators from printing information prejudicial to the morale of His Majesty’s forces), for which we should all be thankful.
One fascinating aspect of life in wartime rarely covered in fiction of this period is how household finances were affected. Mr and Mrs Britling were of the leisured classes whose income comes mainly from investments placed carefully in banks all over Europe. The war stops payment on many of these. His profession as a pundit suffers when the wartime newspapers and magazines change their editorial policies, so he publishes a great deal less, and makes less from his books than before. His gardener has long gone to a better-paying job, so he is not replaced, the garden is neglected, which affects the impression of prosperity and sufficiency that the Britling world has always had. Not that Mr Britling just sits in his study doing nothing: he is as busy in wartime as he was in the days of peace, but not for pay. He patrols the lanes at night as a special constable, which gives him a lot of time for thinking, and then writing long drafts of a new way to explain the war and to prevent war in the future. Wells’s also wrote long letters to the newspapers complaining about the things that the novel complains about, so there is an obvious connection between his concerns, and how he filled the plot of this novel. Both men are very anxious to work out why this war had happened, since it seemed to have arrived on the doorstep without any warning.
This was a brave book to have published in the midst of war, when the typical British attitude was belligerent, itching to fight back and take revenge of the dastardly enemy who were killing our boys. Wells populates the community of Matchings Easy – the Essex village where Mr Britling lives – with types who represent England and the English. The most noxious and repellently loud of these is Lady Frensham, a great lady of the district,. She is titled, rich, and quite accustomed in the Victorian manner to saying what she thinks and expecting everyone to agree with her. She is intensely, patriotically jingoistic in a bellowing right-is-might sort of way. Her rants about what is really happening in the war, and about the conduct of those around her who do not agree with her views, are stunningly appalling. She is rude, inaccurate, ignorant, demanding, poisonous and violently abusive. She may be the first example of The Jingo Woman in First World War literature – the character who hands out white feathers to any man not in khaki, taking it on herself to apply public humiliation from the safety of her own self-righteous opinions, and knowing that she will never be called on to die for her country in uniform.
Lady Frensham’s views about the Germans are objected to violently by Mr Britling, because he has a different relationship with ‘the Germans’. He had had a lovely summer holiday with German families before the war. He has employed Heinrich, a young German tutor for his younger sons, as a long-term guest in the Britling household. Heinrich is a bit of a joke when the novel begins – so earnest, so organised, so obsessive, and yet so anxious about the prospect of war because it will interrupt his planned trip to an Esperanto conference in Boulogne. Heinrich is obedient and dutiful, and knows that he must study philology because it is what he is expected to do by his professors and parents. He returns to Germany at the beginning of the war in great distress: he does not want to fight, he sees no reason why Germany should want a war, but it is his duty to return. Poor Heinrich is always asking for explanations, but no-one gives him any.
Heinrich is not the only foreigner caught up by the war. The bemused American visitor Mr Direck, who arrives at Matchings Easy in early August to visit Mr Britling, gets thrown out of Germany when he attempts to conduct a private fact-finding mission, and ends up joining the Canadian army because the American army is not planning to fight at the present. His sub-plot is the most conventional part of the novel, with an arrival, a falling in love, a development in character, and a resolution, but that way lie spoilers so I won’t go any further in that direction. Let’s talk about Winston Churchill instead.
You’ll probably know Churchill’s name as Britain’s Prime Minister in the Second World War, but possibly not that he was First Lord of the Admiralty in the First World War, which meant that in the first years of the war he was the politician in charge of the most senior military command. Lady Frensham criticises him roundly for his apparent failings, as did many people in real life, which Wells considered to be simply personal spite. It’s true that Churchill was sacked from his post during the war, though his modernising suggestions for sea and land equipment were later adopted. At one point in the novel Mr Britling whispers to himself, trying to give himself hope that Britain will win this terrible war: ‘We shall fight them in the air … We shall beat them on the seas’. Does that ring a faint bell? In H G Wells’ published letters there is a letter from Winston Churchill congratulating Wells on Mr Britling, which he had just finished reading. In the Second World War one of Churchill’s most famous speeches, on becoming Prime Minister, contains the famous line ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, and also ‘we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air’. It may be that both authors were drawing their declamatory style from earlier sources, possibly the Bible, maybe Shakespeare, but not Latin literature, since Wells did not have that kind of upper-class education. But I contend that Churchill borrowed from H G Wells.
Mr Bitling Sees It Through ends with a powerful essay by Wells, or Britling, that begins as a letter to Heinrich’s parents in Pomerania. But there is simply too much to say, and the letter grows into what Mr Britling calls with exasperation, a dissertation: academic, sweeping, impersonal. He keeps trying again, trying to find the words to write to these German parents whom he has never met when he sends back Heinrich’s violin, to express what he feels about the war. It’s a powerful ending because the casualty figures were rising rapidly in 1916, and thousands of British soldiers were coming back from the war with permanent physical damage, visible war-damage on the streets and in neighbouring houses all around. How can a message of mutual understanding and reconciliation have had any effect at that time? This is not a war book: it’s an anti-war book. Mr Britling’s desperate search for war work, and for a way to explain the war to himself, turns into a personal mission to stop war ever happening again. Teddy’s wife Letty devises a terrible punitive campaign by the world’s women to kill all the generals.
I love this novel because it is so human. There are many wonderful conversations between characters who need things explaining to each other, thus allowing us, one hundred years later, to eavesdrop on what people might have been thinking at the time. I would so much rather read Mr Britling than any modern novel about the war which has been written with the inescapable knowledge of hindsight, as well as modern preoccupations that the Edwardians would never have thought about.