World War I Reading: H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through

An Excellent Book for Those Honoring the Anniversary of World War I.

An excellent anti-war book for the 100th Anniversary of World War I.

Last month a tree fell and smashed our garage in a storm that roared through with 70-mph winds.

This is the third time in 12 years a tree or a neighbor’s tree has fallen in our yard.

It is climate change.  No question.

In the past, if the tornado siren went off, maybe I’d go to the basement, maybe not.  Now when the sky turns dark green and the wind roars, I cower.

I have turned, if not exactly to “light” reading, to favorite authors for solace this summer.  I have especially enjoyed and been taken out of myself by some early 20th-century novels by H. G. Wells and Elizabeth von Arnim (once Wells’ mistress: I have written about her here and here.)

Sexy H. G. Wells had affairs with Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Amber Reeves.

H. G. Wells had affairs with Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Amber Reeves.  (N.B. He looks kind of sexy.)

If you haven’t read Wells’s almost-great, if neglected (at least in the U.S.), realistic comedies, Ann Veronica, Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Tono-Bungay, you are missing out on some of my most beloved books. (By the way, D. J. Taylor’s Trespass is a contemporary retelling of  Tono-Bungay.)

A few weeks ago I read Mr. Britling Sees It Through.  It has historical value, though it is far from his best.  Published in 1916, this is the quintessential anti-war book exploring the outbreak of World War I.  It is a jumble of narrative about life in Mr. Britling’s village, his dialogues and musings on nationality, letters from the front, and long anti-war essays. Though it is a bit of a mess, it will interest those who are honoring (or mourning) the 100th anniversary of World War I this year.

It starts with the visit of Mr. Direck, an American, to Mr. Britling, a famous writer, in Matching’s Easy, a village in Essex.

Mr. Britling invites Mr. Direck to spend the weekend:  there is an international cast of guests.  Mr.Britling, his wife, Edith, and their three sons enjoy the company of  Herr Heinrich, the German tutor; an Indian gentleman; the English secretary, Teddy;  and Teddy’s wife and sister-in-law.  The Britlings play hockey every Sunday.  Nationalities don’t matter in their teams.

But Mr. Britling also stands for Britain.

He criticized England himself unmercifully, but he hated tho think that in any respect she fell short of perfection; even her defects he liked to imagine were just a subtler kind of power and wisdom.

In the summer of 1914, everybody is thinking about war, but Mr. Britling doesn’t take it very seriously.

I used to be an alarmist about Germany…but I have come to feel more and more confidence in the sound common sense of the mass of the German population, and in the Emperor too if it comes to that.”

When war breaks out, he is shocked that Herr Heinrich is called home to fight; and that his secretary, Teddy, and his beloved son, Hugh, go to war.  The women are at first very much pro-war. Teddy’s wife steps into his secretary job, and Cissie, her sister, who is in love with Mr. Direck, cannot commit to a relationship with him because Americans are not yet in the war.

But then the men begin to die.  Attitudes change.

Hugh’s letters from the front appall and sadden Mr. Britling.

It came with a shock to him, too, that Hugh should see so little else than madness in the war, and have so pitiless a realisation of its essential futility.  the boy forced his father to see–what indeed he had been seeing more and more clearly.  The war, even by the standards of adventure and conquest, had long since become a monstrous absurdity.

Mr. Britling has much in common with Wells.  He is a Socialist, radically anti-war, and feminist.  His relationships with women are warm and sexy.

It is an important, but not a particularly good, novel.  Sometimes the plot is contrived and clumsy, and the long essay-like musings and writings of Mr. Britling slow the narrative down.

But Wells’s prescient, thoughtful novel can be paired with Vera Brittain’s World War I memoir, Testament of Youth, and her novel, Honourable Estate, about the impact of World War I on two generations of men and women.

And, of course, other war novels, poetry, diaries, and histories.

3 thoughts on “World War I Reading: H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through

  1. I am happy to hear from another appreciator of H. G. Wells. Tono Bungay is just as good today as it ever was. The book most people read is The War of the Worlds, but The Island of Dr. Moreau is much better, a true morality tale.

    Somewhere (where? When?) I read a biography of Wells. He had a busy life and lots of affairs.

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  2. Karen, yup, with Proust, it’s all “in search of lost time.” 🙂

    Nancy, Wells is such a skillful writer, and I don’t think much is read by him except his SF anymore. David Lodge wrote a very good novel about Wells a few years ago, A Man of Parts. I haven’t read a bio, but that was close.

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