Last Month's Author Spotlight > Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island
MR BLETTSWORTHY ON RAMPOLE ISLAND
Introduction by Michael Sherborne
The sea voyage that carries the traveller to a strange and challenging world is a time-honoured literary genre. Think of Shakespeare’s The Tempest or Homer’s Odyssey. On rare occasions it may lead the seafarer to a world that has claims to be better than his own – as is the case with Raphael Hythloday in Thomas More’s Utopia – but if the current is running in the wrong direction, as it almost always is, then a monstrous reception is likely to imperil the voyager’s life and, along with it, his assumptions about human existence.
Such is the fate of Edward Prendick in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). The shipwrecked Prendick is given a reluctant refuge on Moreau’s island, but his host proves to be an obsessive vivisectionist whose idea of scientific progress involves taking a surgical knife to animals and reshaping them into people. The Ape Man, Swine Woman, Leopard Man and other products of his cruelty are a freakish parody of the human race, professing morality while succumbing to their animal cravings. In a vain attempt to preserve their humanity, the creatures equip themselves with some commandments and a religion, worshipping Moreau as their creator and fearing his laboratory as their Hell. When Moreau is killed by his latest ill-conceived experiment, the Puma Woman, the pieties prove ineffective and the creatures regress into bestiality. Prendick escapes to England, but he has been so traumatized by his experiences that his fellow citizens now seem to him little better than the Beast People, and, like Swift’s Gulliver before him, he has little choice but to become a virtual recluse.
Three decades after this tour de force of Gothic horror, Wells decided to take his readers on another such voyage, but this time in a more comical spirit. Despite his complaint in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) that Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928) got a ‘tepid reception’, the novel seems to have been widely praised on its first appearance. The influential critic Middleton Murray, writing in the New Adelphi, judged that the story blended farce and tragedy magnificently. The Observer hailed it as an astonishingly rich and varied tale. The New Statesman thought the best of the satire was brilliant, while the Times Literary Supplement compared it favourably to Gulliver’s Travels. The reviewers were all the more enthusiastic because the novel marked a return to entertaining storytelling from an author who in recent years had tended to dilute his tales with excessive social comment and philosophizing. Wells’s previous effort, The World of William Clissold (1926), released in three volumes at two-monthly intervals to mark his sixtieth birthday, had been a particularly wearing example.
As Blettsworthy proved, Wells had not lost his talent, only changed his aim. When in 1915 he told fellow novelist Henry James, ‘I had rather be called a journalist than an artist,’ he was the author of a score of outstanding books of fiction but was aware that a new generation of writers was beginning to make his work look dated. At the same time the state of the world after the Great War was so precarious that he believed it was his duty to speak out for the public good. Rather than enter into futile competition with the likes of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce, Wells decided that he would prioritize what would later be called ‘consciousness raising’.
His talent for lively, subversive narration could still be deployed, however, when the occasion required. It was wonderfully present in his 1925 novel Christina Alberta’s Father (reprinted by Peter Owen in a companion volume to this title) and was again on display in Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, which is dedicated to ‘the Immortal Memory of Candide’. In a letter to Julian Huxley of 12 February 1928 Wells enthuses that Blettsworthy will be my Candide, my Peer Gynt, my Gulliver’. Of the three references, Peer Gynt (1867) seems to be the least significant. Peer Gynt travels into strange lands and undergoes fantastical adventures, but the metrical language of Ibsen’s play and its sources in Scandinavian folklore make it a very different proposition to Wells’s novel.
Far more of an influence was Voltaire’s Candide (1759), which had first came to Wells’s attention in his late teens or early twenties in the library of Uppark, the country house in Sussex where his mother was working as a housekeeper. Candide is a young man who leads a sheltered life under protection of his uncle and is brought up to look at the world in a spirit of facile optimism. However, a series of misadventures, full of cynical reference to contemporary events, leaves him thoroughly disabused of that naïvety.
The impression that Voltaire’s writings made on Wells lasted a lifetime. In his Outline of History (1920) he praises Voltaire’s ‘enormous industry’ and the ‘hatred of injustice’ that led him to intervene on behalf of the oppressed. Since Wells himself generally wrote two or three books per year and spoke up for those he considered to be victims of injustice, the Frenchman seems to have been something of a role model. Wells describes himself in his autobiography as having behaved in his youth like ‘a Cockney Voltaire’, and in the writings of his old age, posthumously published as H.G. Wells in Love, he expresses the hope that the closing years of his life will resemble ‘Voltaire’s contentment at Ferney’, a period of well-deserved rest, commenting acidly on the world from the sidelines.
Much like Candide, Wells’s protagonist, Arnold Blettsworthy, is raised by his uncle and brought up in a firmly positive spirit. The Reverend Rupert Blettsworthy espouses an Anglicanism that can apparently shrug off all intellectual challenges, Darwinian evolution included, and forgive any evil, even murder. After his uncle’s death, however, Blettsworthy struggles to come to terms not only with the dishonesty and selfishness of others but with his own rage and lust. Having experienced a nervous breakdown, he decides to try a therapeutic sea voyage, only to find himself trapped in a demoralizing series of adventures that reaches its extraordinary nadir on Rampole Island.
In Candide Voltaire had written about the Seven Years War between France and Britain, making particular reference to the controversial execution of Admiral Byng, dispatched by a Royal Navy firing squad for lack of determination in carrying out his duties. Wells’s equivalent topics are the Great War of 1914–18 and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who went to the electric chair in Boston, Massachusetts, on a charge of robbery and murder, despite obvious flaws in their trial. Wells had been one of several prominent authors to oppose their execution. (His comments on the case can be found in a collection of his articles, published in 1928, entitled The Way the World Is Going.)
Alongside Candide in the Uppark library, the young Wells encountered another outlandish satire from the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Wells tells us in his autobiography that the book was an ‘unexpurgated’ edition. That is to say, it did not confine itself to Gulliver’s voyages to the lands of little and big people which, with a few cuts, has provided suitable reading material for generations of children but also included the more adult Books III and IV. The latter features the bestial Yahoos, creatures that live in their own filth and are driven by their basest instincts.
The Yahoos doubtless influenced Wells’s conception of the Beast People in The Island of Doctor Moreau and must again have been in his mind when he conceived the Rampole Islanders. These cannibal savages are extravagantly repulsive in their appearance and actions, yet at times their bloodthirsty and hypocritical behaviour has a disconcerting familiarity. Since you may be reading this introduction in advance of first reading the book, it would be unfair to reveal the islanders’ secrets here. Suffice it to say that this is a tale where things are not always what they seem.
Typically, Wells’s handling of his material is more realistic than that of Swift and Voltaire. In the intervening century and a half, novelists had built up ways to create a fuller sense of everyday life. This gave Wells the opportunity to present the fantastic more convincingly than his forebears had done, an achievement for which he has often been praised. Joseph Conrad, for example (in a letter to Wells of 6 January 1900), called him a ‘Realist of the Fantastic’ and admired his ‘capacity to give shape, colour, aspect to the invisible’ as well as to convey ‘the depth of things common and visible’, suggesting the curious mixture of plausible detail and almost hallucinatory symbolism to be found in books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds.
Perhaps the best example in Blettsworthy is the account of the giant sloths or Megatheria in Chapter 3, vividly realized monsters that also come to stand for oppressive institutions and the dangers of ecological destruction. Throughout the book Wells ensures that Blettsworthy’s adventures retain a sense of authenticity to experience. Consider this passing description of life aboard the Golden Lion, taken from Chapter 2:
Everything is engaged in mysteriously pivoted motions and slowly changing its level towards you. The sky outside and the horizon have joined in that slow unending dance. You get up and dress staggeringly, and blunder up the gangway to the deck and clutch the rail. Water. An immeasurable quantity and extent of water about you and below, and wet and windy air above; these are the enormous and invisible walls of your still unrealized incarceration.
The painstaking subjectivity of this description, constantly shifting the point of view and the surrounding objects in relation to each other, leaves us disorientated and beginning to feel almost as seasick as poor Blettsworthy. Reinforced by the unequal sentence structures and the pronoun ‘you’, the effect is to create a sense of being trapped inside an alarming world, an entirely different position from the one of detached observer generated by the brisk narration of Candide or Gulliver. We get to know Blettsworthy from the inside, drawing us into the story and leading us to sympathize with his views. Yet our reliance on him for the facts cuts the ground from under our feet when trying to distinguish the real from the delusional and the literal from the symbolic.
In other words, we are placed inside the story to such an extent that, like Blettsworthy himself, we have to engage in some serious thinking to find a rational perspective on it. The above passage is in the present tense, but most of the narration is retrospective, allowing Wells to use one of Dickens’s favourite devices: an older, wiser version of the main character telling us about his adventures as a naïve young man. The mature Blettsworthy’s cynical tone and point of view offset the tale of an innocent abroad, allowing plenty of scope for the ironic humour that is one of the book’s chief attractions.
As a trained scientist, Wells had brought to his early work the perspective of an evolutionary biologist. Stories like The Time Machine, Dr Moreau and The War of the Worlds are set in a godless universe where human nature and morality are exposed as insecure constructs. The Martians who invade the Earth may be monsters, but, in view of the way humans treat other species and so-called inferior races, what does that make us? Later in his career Wells offered a more encouraging doctrine of human evolution, holding out the prospect of reform and progress towards an ideal world if only people would work together for the common good.
In Blettsworthy, however, the earlier vision returns with a vengeance to challenge such idealism. Caught in delusion, Blettsworthy enters into debate with a shark who scorns reformism. “What price hope and fear, the desire of the human heart, its dreams of sacrifice and glory after two minutes in the gullet of Reality?’ The Great War suggests that the ‘land of man’s supreme effort’ is not the future Utopia advocated by idealists like Wells, but the No Man’s Land of war, where the science and industry of the world’s leading nations, and the courage and determination of their citizens, have been concentrated to bring about a ‘desolation’ of craters, trenches, barbed wire and corpses. By introducing a heroine called Rowena, Wells even recalls Weena in The Time Machine, linking Blettsworthy to that earlier book which presented human existence as futile then concluded with a desperate resolve to live as though it was not so.
In the final pages of Blettsworthy a similar resolve – affirming that ‘a collective purpose grows’ – is placed in the mouth of a character of proven unreliability. This has been seen as a flaw in the book, a clumsy self-contradiction, but only because Wells is assumed to be writing simple propaganda and any element which detracts from that ‘message’ must therefore be the result of incompetence. Acquaintance with Wells’s works will show, however, that he is a more open, dialogic novelist than his reputation suggests. In 1940’s The Common Sense of War and Peace he tells his readers, ‘please, please do not imagine you are being invited to line up behind me. You have a backbone and a brain; your brain is as important as mine and probably better at most jobs.’ Wells certainly likes to show readers his preferred views, but he usually tries to build in alternatives, dissensions and ironies which require them to think for themselves.
Ultimately, Blettsworthy is one of many Wells stories about a man haunted – or even trapped – by a mind-bending vision, trying to distance himself from it in order to put its disturbing content into perspective and integrate it with received views of the world. Is his experience a delusion, an anomaly or perhaps a revelation? To answer such questions, the Time Traveller returns from the far distant future – Bedford from the Moon, George Ponderevo from the rise and fall of his uncle’s business project (the pernicious tonic Tono-Bungay) – and set down their experiences so we can share and interpret them. Blettsworthy has a similar tale to tell, surely deserving of a place alongside the others.
Fifty years ago the Russian scholar Julius Kagarlitski singled out Blettsworthy among Wells’s later works as ‘an integral, forceful, deep book’. Reflecting on Kagarlitski’s judgement in The Novelist at the Crossroads (1971), the novelist and critic David Lodge agreed that Wells’s novel displays ‘the startling imaginative concreteness of his best early work’, deployed with ‘tremendous verve’, and, while not endorsing all of Kagarlitski’s views, he none the less proclaimed Blettsworthy to be ‘worth resurrecting’. Now, thanks to Peter Owen Publishers, this remarkable book has at long last been relaunched. Enjoy the voyage. But keep your wits about you; there are some deceptive waters ahead.
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