Last Month's Author Spotlight > Introducing Christina Alberta’s Father
CHRISTINA ALBERTA’S FATHER
Introduction by Michael Sherborne
Asked to name a book by H.G. Wells, how many readers would reply Christina Alberta’s Father? No doubt the likeliest answers would be The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. The scientific romances with which Wells began his career, which also include The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau, are certainly his most original achievements. Wells’s more mainstream novels of the 1900s – Kipps, Tono-Bungay, The History of Mr Polly and Ann Veronica – are also substantial contributions to English fiction. Add the short stories, The First Men in the Moon, The War in the Air, Love and Mr Lewisham, The Wheels of Chance and The New Machiavelli, plus one or two other titles according to taste, and you have a formidable canon. Mr Britling Sees It Through, Wells’s Great War novel of 1916, is often taken to mark the last flourishing of his literary gifts. As usual he saw the future coming. He told his friend and fellow novelist Arnold Bennett in 1917, ‘I’ve had my boom. I’m yesterday.’ Determined to put his talents to a fresh new use after the war, Wells threw himself into the Outline of History, which established him as an international opinion-former. Wells would remain a compulsive writer of fiction, but from now on it would be as light relief from his efforts to save the world. An assumption grew up that later novels like Christina Alberta’s Father could safely be ignored.
Readers became used to opening the latest tale from Wells to find that the protagonist was a simplified version of the author, holding forth at length on the Open Conspiracy and the World State. Matters were not helped by Wells’s belief that the imagination was a primitive faculty and that the human race progressed by concentrating on dispassionate analysis. In a 1924 preface included in the Atlantic edition of his works, he noted of his younger self, ‘Temperamentally he is egotistic and romantic, intellectually he is clearly aware that the egotistic and romantic must go.’ Unfortunately it was the interaction between the two sides of his personality that animated Wells’s best fiction and his decision to suppress the ‘romantic’ (which was also the playful, comical, subversive) side was detrimental to his creativity.
However, even as he was working on the Atlantic prefaces, and evading the British winter at the Hotel Mirimar, near Estoril in Portugal in January 1924, Wells found himself being diverted by a new story which, as it turned out, would lead him into a rewarding exploration of the relationship between idealism and imagination. Its working title was Sargon: King of Kings, but by the time of its publication the following year it had become Christina Alberta’s Father. In Christina Alberta’s Father, and in Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island which appeared three years later (now republished by Peter Owen in a companion volume to the present one), the later Wells showed that when he found a good excuse to listen to his romantic tendencies he was still capable of producing stories that could stand beside his best earlier work.
Christina Alberta’s father is ‘a certain Mr Preemby’. These opening words of the novel are ironic, since if there is one thing Albert Preemby is not it is certain. He is an ineffectual daydreamer with a shaky grasp of reality, unpersuaded even of his own identity. He eventually succumbs to a fancy that he is the saviour of mankind, though he has doubts about that, too. As an embodiment of the egotistic and romantic Preemby should by rights be the butt of ridicule, like the protagonists of later, flawed tales like The Autocracy of Mr Parham and The Bulpington of Blup. Christina Alberta’s Father is a successful novel because Wells makes Preemby sympathetic. Preemby’s attempts to change the world may provoke our mirth, but they also appeal to our sense of justice, making him an ambiguous figure requiring some thoughtful assessment.
Like all Wells’s best books Christina Alberta’s Father is a seemingly straightforward narrative that signifies more than at first appears. At a basic level it offers a satirical sketch of the 1920s. The bright young things of Lonsdale Mews with their shrill devotion to Apache dances and Chianti, and the residents of the Petunia boarding-house with their card games and smug gossip, are citizens of a society going nowhere. Even so, no one wants to exchange this stagnant world for the prospect of ‘some horrible Utopia by Wells’. There seems little chance of such any such radical transformation. While a few businessmen may be haunted by the spectre of revolution, the only Communist we encounter is a naïve schoolboy from Eton. Nor does the existence of ‘the first Labour peers’ seem to have had much impact. The unemployed parade in the streets looking for work (so long as they don’t have to mix with ‘coloured labour’) or, failing the dignity of work, ‘a Free Feed’.
Like many other intellectuals of the period, Wells depicts the post-war world as a waste land, economically damaged, spiritually impoverished and desperately in need of some kind of revelation and rebirth, but he does so with humour and a sense of proportion.
‘Things can’t be what they seem,’ said Mr Preemby, waving his hand with a gesture of contemptuous dismissal towards Rusthall Village, public house, lamp-posts, a policeman, a dog, a grocer’s delivery-van and three passing automobiles. ‘That at any rate is obvious. It would be too absurd. Infinite space; stars and so forth. Just for running about in – between meals . . .’
Preemby may have drifted out of touch with reality, but we sympathize with his longing to rise above the ‘absurd’ dispiriting world that hems him in.
His desire for a deeper meaning is shared to some degree by Christina Alberta. The previous generation of women had won the vote, but now what? She signs up for further education but is distracted by the Jazz Age diversions of partying and free love. Wells intended Christina Alberta as a successor to Ann Veronica, his controversial Edwardian heroine who defied the conventions of her day by leaving home, becoming a feminist and falling in love with a divorcee, but as he noted in his Experiment in Autobiography, society had changed a great deal between the eras of the suffragette and the flapper. Sexual openness no longer shocked: ‘not a voice was raised against her’. For all Ann Veronica’s rebelliousness, she had assumed that her destiny must involve supporting a husband and raising children. Christina Alberta proves harder to please. Determined to be a ‘free and independent woman’ and resist all evasions of experience, she refuses to commit to marriage or, more remarkably, to the kind of politics that Wells would like her to espouse, which she trenchantly dismisses as ‘an intellectual game that men have played to comfort themselves. Men rather than women.’
In contrast, her admirer Bobby Roothing seems perfectly prepared to take on the role of Wellsian hero, making the world a better place by helping anyone who needs his assistance. Bobby works appropriately enough as an advice columnist, ‘Aunt Suzannah’, while trying to break into novel-writing. Yet his efforts to help are rarely effectual and his novel remains unwritten. When Preemby runs into trouble Bobby denies him as swiftly as Peter denied Jesus. Look closely and we see that beneath his ‘engaging subaltern manner’ Bobby is actually a traumatized war veteran, a survivor of the Siege of Kut al Amara, a notorious episode of the First World War in which seventy per cent of the British troops who surrendered went on to die horribly. It is because Bobby blames himself for not helping an ill-used comrade then that he has become a compulsive Aunt Suzannah now. His determination to help others is not part of a reasoned programme of reform but an irrational attempt to assuage guilt.
If the liberated woman and the activist are both damaged goods, what are we to make of the novel’s central character, Albert Preemby? As Bobby points out to us, Preemby’s thinking is ‘on the lines of the Labour programme. Only simpler and more thorough. The Distinction of Rich and Poor is to be Abolished Altogether. Women are to be Freed from all Disadvantages. There is to be No More War. He gets at the roots of things every time.’ With his measured, single-minded speech and his heroic determination to put the world to rights battling against his innate timidity and self-doubt, Preemby is a wonderfully comic creation. Like Mr Polly, he is an eccentric, refusing the petty identity society has given him and defying normality through mispronunciations and unorthodox behaviour. However ridiculous his actions may be, they show up the world around him as far more ridiculous.
This is especially true in the chapter called ‘The Journey of Sargon Underneath the World’, where Wells tones down the humour to offer us a grim picture of the treatment that was sometimes meted out to the mentally ill. This was an especially newsworthy topic in the 1920s because thousands of ‘shell-shocked’ ex-servicemen had been committed to asylums, their numbers increasing as soldiers returning to civilian life struggled with unemployment, poor health and changing family circumstances. One of the most prominent campaigners for reform of the care system was Dr Montagu Lomax, and it was to him that Wells turned for information on the subject while writing the novel. As well as supplying humour and social satire therefore, Christina Alberta’s Father makes an informed intervention in the contemporary debate about the treatment of those with mental illness.
There is indeed a strong case for classifying the whole book as a kind of psychological novel. That was the view of the great psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, who wrote to Wells on 11 September 1926, in an ‘outburst of enthusiasm’, calling Christina Alberta’s Father ‘surely one of the best books you have ever written’. In his view, Wells had realized that the sense of the spiritual was a permanent feature of humanity, ‘a superior will in each of us, that contradicts our rationalism’, but which the age of science had made difficult to access in a constructive form, to the point where ‘God has become a nervous disease’. As for Preemby, Jung commented, ‘one almost imagines you had seen such a good fellow . . . from very close quarters’.
Wells had a long-standing interest in the workings of the mind, being an early admirer of William James’s Principles of Psychology. He had incorporated a Freudian analyst into his 1922 novel The Secret Places of the Heart, though, as with some real-life consultations, the results were a ghastly self-indulgence rather than meaningful therapy. The most Wellsian figure in Christina Alberta’s Father – the one whose views are qualified with the least irony – is another psychologist, Dr Wilfred Devizes. (Wells probably took the name from the Devizes Mental Hospital, which was in the news in 1924 as it was being upgraded and rebranded.) Dr Devizes diagnoses Preemby as the victim of an inferiority complex and interprets his messianic delusions as a misconceived aspiration to a higher sanity.
In his autobiography Wells calls Christina Alberta’s Father a study of ‘the floating persona, the dramatized self’ and notes that it is a theme which runs through a good many of his novels. A list of these would include The Wheels of Chance, Kipps, Tono-Bungay, The History of Mr Polly and, less successfully, When the Sleeper Wakes. Each features a central character who has an identity crisis and whose struggle to be born anew reflects wider changes in society. As Jung’s remark about seeing such a fellow from close quarters is probably meant to imply, the model for all of these figures is Wells himself, whose rise from apprentice shop assistant to world-famous author required many psychological adjustments. Wells explains in his autobiography that his long-term coping mechanism has been to develop what he calls an ‘inflated’ persona. Having set out on a youthful quest for individual fulfilment, he has in maturity achieved an identification with human history, which has allowed him to rise above his petty everyday life and find satisfaction as a spokesman for progress.
Wells cites Jung as a source for his ideas. Yet Jung himself regarded persona inflation as a dangerous expedient, generating at best shallow self-importance and at worst a messianic conviction that one is a figure comparable to Napoleon or Jesus. Curiously, this view would later be expressed by Wells, too, in The Science of Life (1930), a guide to biology he co-wrote with his eldest son G.P. Wells and Julian Huxley. It follows that, along with his other functions in the novel, Preemby is a projection of Wells as he secretly feared he might be: an earnest little man trying to save the world but deluding himself about his own importance. Devizes, the cool scientific thinker, by contrast, is Wells as he wished to be and as he wished others to see him.
This brings us to a final, covertly autobiographical aspect of the novel. From the moment of Christina Alberta’s birth Wells emphasizes how little she resembles her father. A few dozen hints later it becomes clear that she is actually another man’s child. This is a situation uncomfortably close to home, for Wells himself had a daughter who had been raised as another man’s child. Anna Jane had been born at the end of 1909 as a result of Wells’s affair with Amber Reeves, a student almost twenty years his junior. By the time he wrote the book, Anna Jane was fourteen years old and aware that he was a special friend of her mother’s. It is quite possible that by this stage Wells had already begun meeting his daughter and taking her out to restaurants and shows. At some point she would have to learn the truth about her parentage. But how would she respond? Would she be disgusted or delighted to find out that she was the love child of a famous author? The novel suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that this obvious question was not the one that was uppermost in Wells’s mind. Instead, in Christina Alberta’s two fathers he dramatizes a dilemma that lay at the heart of his own identity. Was his daughter going to see him as a Preemby or as a Devizes? As an eccentric to be humoured, perhaps even pitied? Or as a forward-looking man of science, to be admired and looked up to?
It is because Wells respects his own uncertainty and leaves the question open that the book is not, like so many of his later efforts, a reassuring self-portrait but a genuinely creative and exploratory work where the narrator is released to move at will between empathy and detachment, leading us through the story with a good-humoured cynicism that counterbalances the idealism and naïvety of the characters.
Wells was disappointed with the novel’s reception. Many reviewers saw what they expected to see, another clumsy vehicle for his ideas, and dismissed it in those routine terms. There were exceptions, however. Leonard Woolf judged that for once Wells had successfully managed to integrate his thinking into the story. To the Spectator, Wells had proved he was still the best writer of imaginative fiction in the country. The New Statesman agreed that Wells was at the height of his powers, while the more sceptical G.K.’s Weekly thought the book at least a return to his second-best period. The Boston Evening Transcript was particularly positive, calling the novel a tremendous piece of work, deftly constructed and informed by emotional awareness and charity. It was unfortunate that Wells’s next novel was The World of William Clissold, a relentless three-volume exposition of his opinions concocted to mark his sixtieth birthday, which was marketed as an important work but received as proof that its author was not a proper novelist and never had been. Christina Alberta’s Father was soon eclipsed and forgotten.
But not entirely. In 1985 the book was reprinted with an introduction by Christopher Priest. Himself a highly accomplished novelist, he had no hesitation in praising the narrative structure of Christina Alberta’s Father, its assured use of comedy, skilful assimilation of didactic elements and the characterization in particular of Preemby and Christina Alberta. He concluded that the book had been ‘undeservedly neglected and was ‘a pleasure to rediscover’. I am happy to echo those words, and I hope you will agree that Christina Alberta’s Father deserves not only revival, but an honourable place in the Wells canon.
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