Written from Machen’s point of view, this discussion with H. G. Wells is fascinating in it what is reveals to us about these two writers and the issues which concerned both of them. Despite the gentle and conversational tone, Machen and Wells disagreed on many important issues, since both men approached spirituality, politics and literature from different starting places. Depending on the time period, Wells’s religious beliefs ranged from agnostic to Deist, but he was a confirmed socialist for much of his life. Therefore, his fiction often contains a modernist and rationalist approach to the physical world. On the other hand, Machen, though mostly apolitical, held more conservative views. (Some would say reactionary.) Spiritually, the Welshman can be best described as a High Anglican with mystical tendencies. Accordingly, nearly all of his stories reflect belief in an immaterial world. However, in the course of this “quiet conversation,” where both men disagree politely over technology, and even democracy, the two thinkers meet together on a number of rather significant points including the paramount importance of the creative life for man and his happiness. The end result is a glimpse into two brilliant minds, one optimistic and the other more cautiously skeptical, against the backdrop of Britain on the eve of the Great War.
A Quiet Talk with Mr. H. G. Wells
by Arthur Machen
June 4, 1912
We settled one matter at once. There was to be no formal interviewing.
This arranged, we settled down to a good talk, “as between old colleagues.” as Mr. Wells put it.1
“We are agreed, aren’t we,” said Mr. Wells, “that things at present are very bad indeed?
“Yes.” I said, “and before long they will be much worse?”
“I don’t know about that. No, I don’t think so. Of course, one has to stir up people, and point out the danger that lied before them if they don’t mend their ways; but in my heart I have profound conviction of the goodness of humanity, so I think that the issue of things will be good on the whole.”
As to machinery, you don’t like it; I do. And I believe that means will be found to minimise the dust and nastiness and dirt that help make a good many of us miserable.
I was talking to a prominent man of science the other day, and he said that before long coal would be burnt in the pit, or near the pit, and that from these central fires electric power would be generated to serve us all. There would be no smoky factory chimneys and no tiresome kitchen fires.”
“Look here,” I interjected, “don’t you think that a good deal of the joy of life comes from difficulty encountered and overcome? The cook grumbles at the coal range, but isn’t it a great part of her fun to grapple with its difficulties and overcome?”
“No, I don’t think so. I can’t believe that one gains anything by working with clumsy tools.”
“You want to change cooking from an art to a science?”
“Not at all. The electric heater cannot abolish individuality: every cook will have her own ideas as to the temperature at which the joint is to be put in the oven. It only gets rid of the dirt.”
I talked of the great Pascal in the Old Port of Marseilles, who roasts birds before a fire of vine-boughs; but Wells was not convinced.
He would be cheerful: he spoke of the increasing pleasantness of people’s lives, of facilities for getting out of London, for “week-ending” pleasantly and easily.
“Yes; but aren’t the very facilities you speak of urbanising the country places and depriving them of their charm?
“Look here”—I made a rough sketch of a house that I saw the other day, perched unhandsomely and pretentious on the borders of a Buckinghamshire beechwood—“you say that this Church-row you live in is eighteenth century jerry-building, that all of its charm is due to the mellowing influence of age; do you think that age will do anything for that nonsense in bricks and plaster?”
Machen’s sketch from the Evening News
Mr. Wells regarded the outline seriously and advised that creepers should be planted at once.
We closed in to particulars, to the great matter of the labour unrest. I advocated co-partnership, and Mr. Wells thought I meant Syndicalism. He had no hopes of Syndicalism.2
“It seems to me,” he said, “that we should have the whole trades organised against the rest of the community. That would be reactionary in the bad sense of the word.”
I explained that I did not mean Syndicalism; I meant that each factory should be a community of wage-earners and profit-sharers, a kind of brotherhood with the sense of common endeavour, and the pride of a common achievement.
“Yes, that is very well and I like it; but what about the competition of the factories managed on the old, hard lines?”
I admitted the difficulty here.
“It is true.” Mr. Wells went on. “The firm of Zeiss in Germany, which is run on these lines is a brilliant success; but then, on the other hand, the products of this house are in the very first rank.”
The conversation drifted back to general topics. Dr. Johnson,3 I remarked, had said that it was wonderful how the great mass of people had been content to serve for so many ages, how they had not insisted on being masters instead of men.
“Dr. Johnson was prophetic; the men are now trying to be masters.”
“But they can’t be masters.”
“No: you can’t replace a man of genius by a committee.”
“You mean you can’t replace autocracy with democracy.”
“A committee is not democracy; it is an oligarchy. I believe in democracy—of the right kind.”
“How about America? Here you have a nation saying that all men are born free and equal, and that government should be by the people, for the people, through the people; and the result is utter corruption. In my view, this is the necessary deduction from the democratic premises.” 4
“I don’t think so. I think it is the result of the party system: and a method of proportional representation would destroy the party system, which, of course, is absurd. You say you are not a party man, but that you could not vote for a candidate who proposed to disestablish the Welsh Church.5 Very good; then you have to vote for somebody in favour of Tariff Reform, to which you may strongly be opposed. It is as if you went into a shop, and on declaring that you did not want a hat, were informed that in that case you must buy a pair of boots.”
I put in my point of view which has annoyed so many excellent people.
“Don’t you think that man is essentially a creative animal, that in a greater or lesser degree, if he is to be happy, he must be a poet—a maker?”
Mr. Wells thought I was right, and fundamentally, he seemed to agree that material comforts is not essential to [be] content.
“I am astonished,” he said, “to note that on the whole the agricultural labourer has a very fair time of it. I have been a good deal in Essex lately, and many of the families there hardly make a pound a week when all earnings are added together. But rent is cheap, and they have big gardens, and they keep a pig, and they seem well enough off.”
Naturally, we fell on the present manifestation of labour unrest—the strike in dockland.6 I said I was told that the men would sometimes work for twenty-four hours on end, then take it easy and enjoy themselves for a day or a couple of days.
“Is that so?” said Mr. Wells. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard for a long time. The one deadly thing is monotony; six hours’ work a day, day after day.”
“There is no beauty without strangeness in the proportion?”
“Exactly; and that spell of hard work followed by a period of loafing—or leisure—is just right, it seems to me. Life begins when leisure begins. Let the men have leisure: they will find out a good use for it in time. I daresay many of them do spend their holiday in four-ale bar, but that is no reason for not giving them the opportunity for better employment and amusement.”
I suggested that the Trades Union cause would be much strengthened if efficiency and good workmanship were made a condition of membership.
“Certainly; but don’t you think that their should be a masters’ union to insist on the decent behaviour of the employers? And don’t you think that it’s the business of the masters to set an example to the men in this matter?”
I agreed cordially with both of these propositions.
1 Both Machen and Wells gained public attention for their fiction in the mid-1890s, though Wells certainly held a more prominent and central position. In addition, both men were contributors to London newspapers at the time of this interview. They were colleagues in this general sense, but it is unlikely the men were anything more than personal acquaintances. Decades later, Wells was among a group literary figures who conducted a 80th birthday celebration for Machen and presented him with a generous monetary gift. Other attendees included George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot and Algernon Blackwood.
2 The definition of an ideology is always controversial, yet is should suffice to describe syndicalism as a radical and anarchist component to the labor movement in the first half of the twentieth-century.
3 Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) is often considered among the most distinguished writers in English literature. Throughout his work, Machen demonstrates a respect and affection for Johnson. As an actor, Machen performed as Dr. Johnson in an unreleased silent film, of which little is known and which is probably lost.
4 Machen was quite critical of America and its politics. In 1907, Academy published his essay, “The United States of Gehenna” which, well… the title says it all.
5 In 1920, eight years after this conversation, the Church in Wales was indeed disestablished—no doubt to Machen’s displeasure. In the United Kingdom, only England has an established, or official church today.
6 Though not his area of interest or expertise, Machen had been assigned to write articles on the the recent labor strikes under titles such as “The Great Problem of the Hour” and “The Man With the Soulless Job.” In some ways, his work on this topic may be seen as answer to the views of Wells who had written on the subject for the Daily Mail. This interview is the result.