The Weekly Machen

The relationship between H. G. Wells and Arthur Machen is a complex matter. The two men were not friends, nor did they run in similar circles. Additionally, the writers were not in sympathy with one another on many subjects, including religion and politics. Their fortunes and standings as men of letters varied greatly. Yet, each man was deeply imaginative and idealistic and bore a measure of respect for the other. Publicly, Machen may have criticized Wells’s fiction and worldview, but this did not seem to adversely affect their one recorded discussion. In the following review, Machen, always consistent in his point-of-view, sincerely welcomes a change in perspective from the ever-evolving Wells. Next week, we’ll explore another chapter of this story.


Concerning Mr. Wells:
A Plea for a Jolly England
by
Arthur Machen
March 2, 1914

md14431375568

Bertram Lota, Ltd.

Half the money that goes out of England to Switzerland and the Riviera ought to go to the extremely amusing business of clearing up ugly corners and building jolly and convenient workmen’s cottages–even if we do it at a loss … If not on high grounds, then on low grounds our class has to set to work and make those other classes more interested and comfortable and contented. It is what we are for … We have all to think, to think hard and think generously.”

These sentences are quotations from Mr. Wells’s latest book, “An Englishman Looks at the World.” (Cassell.) It is a collection of papers upon many subjects: Flying, Labour Unrest, the Novel, Education, Proportional Representation, the present state of affairs in America. On every one of these topics the author has something to say that is vivid, significant, and sincere. It seems to me that Mr. Wells has drawn perceptibly nearer to the root of the matter during recent years. I do not think he is quite so firmly persuaded as he was that all would be well if everybody were taught science; he now rather says: schoolmasters as a class are the dullest of dogs, and dull dogs cannot make live boys.

FABIANISM NO GOOD.

So in every field of thought and criticism there has been, as it were, a clearance of ill weeds, a rejection of formulas which have been proved unworkable. Mr. Wells was a Socialist and a firm Fabian. He might still describe himself as a Socialist–after carefully defining the term–but he declares that Socialism in England would end by developing an official who would be “a maddening combination of the district visitor and the boy clerk.” As for that specific brand of Socialism known as Fabianism, he sees in it a careful scheme for organising our present chaos into the servile state.

And as for America, which was once the great pride and example of liberal and democratic thinkers: read Mr. Wells on the American Population, on child labour in the States. Johnson wondered how it was that we heard the loudest  yelps for liberty from the drivers of slaves; we may wonder why we fear the loudest and the tallest and the soppiest humanitarian talk from a nation which suffers little children of six to work twelve hours a day in factories, which sets children of ten and eleven to the coal chutes.

“The air is black with coal dust, and the roar of the crushers, screens, and rushing mill-race of coal is deafening. Sometimes one of the children falls into the machinery and is terribly mangled, or slips into the chute and is smothered to death. Many are killed in this way.”

NPG x13208; Herbert George Wells by George Charles Beresford
by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

So Mr. Wells has in all sorts of ways tested the old liberal and democratic and socialistic formulas and dogmas and assertions and found that they don’t work, that they represent not heavenly truths, but rather lies from the pit of Gehenna. He has, of course, his remedies and his hopes; he thinks that proportional representation–Scrutin de Liste, I think the French call it–would do a great deal of good; he hopes that the American millionaires may grow up into an enlightened ruling caste. But I believe the wisest part of his message is contained in the words which I have quoted at the beginning of this article.

I found this belief chiefly in the words “jolly” and “generously.” For jollity and generosity are the two qualities most remote from the worlds both of Manchester Liberalism and its opposed heresy, Socialism–the gospel of the servile, inspected, insured, ticketed, bureaucratic, “educated” State.

GOD’S TRUE KNIGHT.”

In the past the landowning aristocracy in England has an idea–dim enough at times, I am afraid–that it was their business to be generous, that generosity to those dependent on them was what they were for. In the old song, “God’s true knight” is instructed that his business is “to strengthen his commons in their right.” He is one of God’s viceroys; he is to feel that he has no right to enjoy his dinner if any of the folk committed to his charge go hungry.

The new lords of industry had no faintest glimmering that this was their business also; they enslaved children in their horrible mills and factories as the Americans do still; they trafficked in men as they trafficked in cotton and iron; they opposed the Tory Factory Acts which set the children free; and their chief prophet, John Bright, declared that adulteration was a legitimate form of competition. So, on the whole, that phenomenon which we call Labour Unrest is not by any means difficult to account for.

And here the change must come, if we if we would avoid Niagara. Those who have money must give a great deal of it away, in the manner which Mr. Wells suggests’ and if there is a choice between making their people jolly, and going sliding and skating and ski-ing and tumbling in the Swiss snow–well, the trembling must be forgone.

For the aim of man is not mere life–on however well paid, minimum wage, sanitated lines–but rather a joyous life. And jollity is nothing but joy, in a homely, workaday dress.


The Weekly

Previous: My Wandering Week, Part IV

Next: Mr. Wells’s Radium Bomb


Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2022 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

5 thoughts on “Concerning Mr. Wells

  1. This piece by Machen reminds me that both writers contributed to what I am convinced was the 25-year Golden Age of modern fantasy.

    This period begins in 1887 with the publication of Rider Haggard’s SHE and ends in 1912 with publication of Conan Doyle’s dinosaur adventure THE LOST WORLD.

    In this 25-year period appeared such notable works as William Morris’s THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, George MacDonald’s LILITH and another vampire tale, Stoker’s DRACULA; all of Wells’s most outstanding science fiction works, including THE WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE TIME MACHINE; William Hope Hodgson’s THE HOUSE ON THE BORDERLAND and THE NIGHT LAND; M. R. James’s GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY (“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” etc.); various dream-world fantasies of Lord Dunsany, of which I don’t necessarily have a very high opinion, but they have been influential; Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”; and a number of Machen’s most famous horror stories, although my favorite work by him appeared after this period. In this period comes that masterpiece of Chesterton, THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY. We have also faerie poems of William Butler Yeats, poems by Walter de la Mare including “The Listeners,” various classic short stories such as “The Mark of the Beast” by Kipling and “Sredni Vashtar” by “Saki,” and so on.

    That’s not an exhaustive list, but perhaps those are sufficient titles to make the point. At that time “fantasy” was used more comprehensively than it usually is now; at the time, it included imaginary world or high fantasy; much that we would class as science fiction; and much that people today might classify as horror or dark fantasy.

    A remarkable feature of work from this period is its persisting readability.

    Some folks might like to expand the Gold Age period by 5 years, enabling capture of Stevenson’s memorable STRANGE CASE OF DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE from 1886, etc.

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    1. Admirable list. I personally would include Jekyll and Hyde. I find Hodgson a unique and under-appreciated voice. In particular, The Night Land strikes me as highly original, yet confounding. Also, I am very much pleased you’ve included Saki.

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  2. I’d gladly have included RLS’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, except that, to make the 1887-1912 Golden Age come out at 25 years rather than 26, I had to leave out that one, from 1886, or else The Lost World (1912) if I’d considered the Golden Age as ending in 1911.

    Offhand I’m not aware of any outstanding work of science fiction, fantasy, or so-called horror that was published in 911. Sticking with 1912 as the terminal date for the Golden Age not only gets in The Lost World but the serialization of the first (or nearly first, anyway) sword-and-planet romance, namely Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Under the Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars. For what that’s worth.

    But don’t misunderstand me — I have a very high regard for the Stevenson; I like it even more than the other books mentioned here.

    I just thought it was interesting, how many of the seminal works of fantastic literature appeared in one 25-year period — a lot of works that are both still enjoyable to read as well as having been very influential.

    I have never managed to read all of The Night Land, I admit!

    The 1887-1912 Golden Age was the basis for a one-shot elective college literature course that I taught back in 1996. That was lots of fun, including making study guides for The Man Who Was Thursday, “The Black Seal,” She, and Lilith. The Lilith study notes are accessible online, posted by the George MacDonald Society.

    http://www.george-macdonald.com/resources1/lilith_study_guide.html

    Incidentally, while I’m not aware that Machen read Lilith, I’m sure that H. G. Wells did, and liked it!

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    1. Well, I wouldn’t describe it as “outstanding,” but I find some value In Lair of the White Worm (1911).

      Have you read The Dream of X, Hodgson’s own abridgment of The Night Land? It is certainly easier to digest than the full-length version. I find Hodgson’s novel an epic of the imagination, yet a seriously flawed one. (I believe C. S. Lewis expressed mixed feelings about it.) I would file it in the fascinating category of failed masterpiece. (Alongside it, I’d place Machen’s The Secret Glory.)

      I agree with you that this 25 year span is phenomenal. In fact, it is my favorite quarter-centtury of fiction!

      I wish I had known about your Lilith study guide sooner. I just read MacDonald’s novel for the first time last autumn.

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  3. I must get hold of a copy of The Dream of X — thanks for the tip.

    That Golden Age period includes some of the greatest “children’s books” — Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and one after another of Beatrix Potter’s books, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and two explorations of the sinister, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck and The Tale of Samuel Whiskers aka The Roly-Poly Pudding.

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