And so I decided that, since I will have been reading The History of Mr Polly this time 60 years ago, when I ‘did O Levels’, it was time to read it again to find out how, as I suspected, it had had an influence on the whole of my life; indeed, as I said in the previous Glob, Mr Polly – c’est moi...
There are all kinds of things: attitudes, beliefs, enthusiasms, ways of thinking, disappointments, dreams, reading, feeling of not quite being part of this world; most of them, no doubt, deriving from at least something of Wells’ own characteristics, as here where he steps into the text to provide a gloss on Polly’s early peregrinations with Parsons & Platt, partners (allittrition’s artful aid...) in escaping from the bondage of Work:-
There is no countryside like the English countryside for those who have learned to love it; its firm yet gentle lines of hill and dale, its ordered confusion of features, its deer parks and downland, its castles and stately houses, its hamlets and old churches, its farms and ricks and great barns and ancient trees, its pools and ponds and shining threads of rivers, its flower-starred hedgerows, its orchards and woodland patches, its village greens and kindly inns. Other countrysides have their pleasant aspects, but none such variety, none that shine so steadfastly throughout the year…
It was good for the three P’s to walk through such a land and forget for a time and forget for a time that indeed that they had no footing in it at all, that they were doomed to toil behind counters in such places as Port Burdock for the better part of their lives. They would forget the customers & shopwalkers and department buyers and everything and become just happy wanderers in a world of pleasant breezes and song-birds and shady trees.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond (as set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams – www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCXxNd_xc44 ) applies both to Polly & me:-
Give to me the life I love,
Let the lave go by me,
Give the jolly heaven above
And the byway nigh me.
Bed in the bush with stars to see.
Bread I dip in the river—
There’s the life for a man like me.
There’s the life for ever.
Let the blow fall soon or late,
Let what will be o’er me;
Give the face of earth around
And the road before me.
Wealth I seek not, hope nor love,
Nor a friend to know me;
All I seek, the heaven above
And the road below me.
Or let autumn fall on me
Where afield I linger,
Silencing the bird on tree,
Biting the blue finger.
The infinite shining heavens
Rose and I saw in the night
Uncountable angel stars
Showering sorrow and light.
I saw them distant as heaven,
Dumb and shining and dead,
And the idle stars of the night
Were dearer to me than bread.
Night after night in my sorrow
The stars stood over the sea,
Till lo ! I looked in the dusk
And a star had come down to me.
I have travelled round the English countryside in exploratious menanderings on foot, on bicycle (and now motorbike) all these years and relished the ‘ordered confusion of features’. Just eating up the roads is enough for me, noting the pattern of towns & counties and I pass by them, occasionally stopping for a cathedral, a place full of memories from the past, or to do a watercolour that must not take more than about twenty minutes… And beginning in earlier years the Hills and the Sea [Hilaire Belloc] represented escape from the Wage Slavery that was the utterly unpremeditated collapse into pointless quill-driving & file-grubbing & figure-shunting that marked the first ten years or so of my ‘working’ life; from then on I laboured in the outrageous belief that life was for living not at all for working; like Polly I swam consistently against the tide; to do this was a belief reinforced by two years obeying the state-command to do something called National Service. This was an experience that paradoxically released me from all ties into a zany free-wheeling kind of existence in which I proved to be quite useful as a teacher of military subjects which I scorned but enjoyed because of the need for disciplined breakdown in order to dispose them into manageable teachable chunks. And it turned me into a life-long pacifist!
Later on, helping streams of students subject texts to close linguistic analysis, Teaching-I frequently kept itself in check by not referring to the linking of sense & meaning brought about by alliteration as allittrition’s artful aid, one of Polly’s magnificent manglings of the English language which Wells puts down to a poverty-stricken education but which, in live conversation, I have taken up as a way out of thinking of bothering to find the correct word to express meaning: Polly was highly manglacious in his use of English; I invent words for my own amusement, implodic joydom. “Is that a real word?” asks my younger daughter in her lovely innocence.
Employed uselessly in Canterbury, Polly
…liked to sit in the nave during the service, and look through the great gates at the candles and choristers, and listen to the organ-sustained voices, but the transepts he never penetrated because of the charge for admission. The music and the long vista of the fretted roof filled him with a vague and mystical happiness that he had no words, even mispronounceable words, to express. But some of the smug monuments in the aisles got a wreath of epithets; ‘metrorious urnfuls,’ ‘funererial claims,’ ‘dejected angelosity,’ for example. He wandered about the precincts, and speculated about the people who lived in the ripe and cosy houses of gray stone that cluster there so comfortably. Through green doors in high stone walls he caught glimpses of level lawns and blazing flower-beds; mullioned windows revealed shaded reading-lamps and disciplined shelves of brown bound books.
I had something like this experience during my first solo holiday in 1955. Sitting on the grass in Salisbury Cathedral Close in the August sunlight, I had the idea that behind the ancient clustering houses there were people with an attitude to learning, a way of storing ideas that then I could only dream about; ‘shaded reading lamps’ and shelves of books, dusty interiors – they still represent the appropriate conditions of learning for me; not for me the sterile banks of computers, more the gloominess of the original library upstairs in the old building at Kingston Grammar School. But, of course, the fact that I could dream about ‘an attitude to learning, a way of storing ideas’ that others might already possess meant that I already had the notion itself embedded in me: what you have in your mind determines how you will be.
Holidays & Books
After his father’s funeral, he found out that he’d been left £350 in the will. At today’s prices (http://www.measuringworth.com) that would be very roughly £30,000. All the conventional forces around him suggested that he find a sound job of work, but Polly had far more sensible ideas.
‘A little holiday’; that was the form his sense of wealth took first – it made a little holiday possible. Holidays were his life, and the rest merely adulterated living. And now he might take a little holiday and have money for railway fares and money for meals, and money for inns. But He wanted some one to take the holiday with. For a time he cherished a design of hunting up Parsons, getting him to throw up his situation, and going with him to Stratford-on-Avon and Shrewsbury, and the Welsh mountains and the Wye, and a lot of places like that, for a really gorgeous, careless, illimitable old holiday of a month. But, alas! Parsons had gone from the St Paul’s Churchyard outfitter’s long ago and left no address.
Holidays were his life, and the rest merely adulterated living… Oh yes! In these grimy days of the ghastly conspiracy to lengthen the Work-life – all noses to the grim grindstone of capitalism, how infinitely sensible that seems! When I got the chance I quit quill-driving (as Conrad calls office work) and took to the relative uplands of teaching, and (though for many years I had nightmares about being reduced again to a slave in an office), I never looked back except to figure out what those years had taught me. And for twenty years now my life has been one long holiday; like Polly, I got there in the end!
The names of places and the loss of friends… I have always delighted in making the names of places come to life by visiting them: Salisbury, Bristol, Gloucester, Edinburgh, Oban, Canterbury – I tick them off in my almanac… Magic Cities. But there was always a disappointment at the urban sprawl through which one had to go to get to the centre and starting point of the city. And the awful disappointment at the loss of friends: where are you now, Arthur? Peter? Mike? People you imagined you’d spend the rest of your life with but never saw again after forty, fifty, sixty years of some regret…
And also [blowing something of his small fortune] Mr Polly bought a number of books; Rabelais for his own, and The Arabian Nights, the works of Sterne, a pile of Tales from Blackwood, cheap in a second-hand bookshop, the plays of William Shakespeare, a second-hand copy of Belloc’s Path to Rome…
“Better get yourself a good book on book keeping,” said [the voice of convention] Johnson, turning over perplexing pages…
This extract probably reinforced my recurrent sudden desire to make a journey to a second-hand bookshop. The contrast between what the voice of convention had to say on the subject and my proclivity for dusty shelves was a stark one but I knew which side I was on. When I was sixteen there were some shops around Charing Cross Road in London that I didn’t dare enter because they looked as though their owners were so learned and might ask me what I was after when I really had no idea then. I have found them all quite harmless now I’ve penetrated their sacred interiors and can converse with the most thick-lensed eyes about obscure books & authors.
And Mr Polly, well aware of his priorities, bought a bicycle.
A belated spring, to make up for lost time, was now advancing with great strides. Sunshine and a stirring wind were poured out over the land, fleets of towering clouds sailed upon urgent tremendous missions across the blue sea of heaven, and presently Mr Polly was riding a little unstably along unfamiliar Surrey roads, wondering always what was round the next corner, and marking the blackthorn and looking out for the first white flowerbuds of the may. He was perplexed and distressed, as indeed are all right-thinking souls, that there is no may in early May.
Every year in spring I think of writing a haiku that has as its first five syllable line ‘now the blackthorn’s out’… Sometimes I even write it!
He did not ride at the even pace sensible people use, who have marked out a journey from one place to another, and settled what time it will take them. He rode at variable speeds, and always as though he was looking for something [whose absence] left life attractive still, but a little wanting in significance.
Ambling, sometimes at speed, sometimes menandering down miscellaneous by-ways, ‘wondering always what was round the next corner’, has always been my wont, joining one place to another, even now on a motorbike. In my day, except for the Mickleham & Box Hill bypass on the A24 down to Worthing, done before the War, Surrey roads were still untouched by the oh-so-sad race of Improvers and the concrete masterpiece called ‘Gatwick’ did not exist; it was just a small village. Why on earth do we have to keep up with ‘the way of the world’? The way of the world is complete tosh.
On one of his expeditions, Polly fell into a series of assignations with the red-haired Christobel sitting on her school wall; modelling on happenings in the books he’d read, he played the romantic part of Knight dallying with fair maid but after ten days he realised that he was being made a fool of. On the rebound, as though he had stepped out of his real skin, he suggested marriage to cousin Miriam. All the signs are that she was likely to turn out to be the harridan (possibly from French haridelle, gaunt woman, old horse, nag – naggish bipedess, as I say for him) that all Wells’ subtle linguistic hints suggest she is underneath the oh-so-pleasant exterior which she put on to trap our Mr Polly.
After the nuptials Uncle Pentstemon has words of wisdom that come too late to save Polly. You rather sense that he gives us something of what’s on Polly’s mind after the relative romance of his assignations with the red-haired Christobel:-
“You got to get married,” said Uncle Pentstemon, resuming his discourse. “That’s the way of it. Some has. Some hain’t. I done it long before I was your age. It hain’t for me to blame you. You can’t ‘elp being the marrying sort any more than me. It’s nat’ral—like poaching, or drinking, or wind on the stummik. You can’t ‘elp it, and there you are! As for the good of it, there ain’t no particular good in it as I can see. It’s a toss up. The hotter come, the sooner cold; but they all gets tired of it sooner or later… I hain’t no grounds to complain. Two I’ve ‘ad and buried, and might ‘ave ‘ad a third, and never no worrit with kids – never… “You done well not to ‘ave the big gal. I will say that for ye. She’s a gad-about grinny, she is, if ever was. A gad-about grinny. Mucked up my mushroom bed to rights, she did, and I ‘aven’t forgot it. Got the feet of a centipede, she ‘as – all over everything, and neither with your leave nor by your leave. Like a stray ‘en in a pea patch. Cluck ! cluck ! Trying to laugh it off. I laughed ‘er off, I did. Dratted lumpin’ baggage!”… For a while he mused malevolently upon Annie, and routed out a reluctant crumb from some coy sitting-out place in his tooth.
“Wimmin’s a toss up,” said Uncle Pentstemon. “Prize packets they are, and you can’t tell what’s in ‘em till you took ‘em ‘ome and undone ‘em. Never was a bachelor married yet that didn’t buy a pig in a poke. Never !…”
We know how things turn out for Polly fifteen years after this because when we first meet him at the beginning of the novel he is ‘…sitting on a stile between two threadbare looking fields…’ objective correlative for his state of being, chanting out, “Oh, Röööötten Bëëëëastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole!” This is the way Wells frames things for the reader – we anticipate the horror of things in spite of which…
…Fifteen years ago, and it might have seemed to you that the queer little flower of Mr Polly’s imagination might be altogether withered and dead, and with no living seed left in any part of him. But, indeed, it still lived as an insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences, for the gracious aspect of things, for beauty. He still read books when he had a chance – books that told of glorious places abroad and glorious times, that wrung a rich humour from life and contained the delight of words freshly and expressively grouped…
He reminds me of a person (like myself, when young) besotted by the kind of adolescent dream expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s idealism. Set to music by Vaughan Williams (op cit), the poem can still easily excite something which doesn’t bear examination deep inside me:-
Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams
Beauty awake from rest!
Let Beauty awake
For Beauty’s sake
In the hour when the birds awake in the brake
And the stars are bright in the west!
Let Beauty awake in the eve from the slumber of day,
Awake in the crimson eve!
In the day’s dusk end
When the shades ascend,
Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend
To render again and receive!
An ‘…insatiable hunger for bright and delightful experiences…’ I can understand very well but – Beauty! Oh, the unutterable curse of abstractions!
The insatiable hunger for books, too… Polly contrived to conceal the books he bought from the decidedly unbeautiful Miriam.
The books he read during those fifteen years! He read everything he got except theology, and, as he read, his little unsuccessful circumstances vanished and the wonder of life returned to him; the routine of reluctant getting up, opening shop, pretending to dust it with zest, breakfasting with a shop egg underdone or overdone, or a herring raw or charred, and coffee made Miriam’s way, and full of little particles, the return to the shop, the morning paper, the standing, standing at the door saying “How do!” to passers-by, or getting a bit of gossip, or watching unusual visitors, all these things vanished as the auditorium of a theatre vanishes when the stage is lit. He acquired hundreds of books at last – old, dusty books, books with torn covers and broken covers, fat books whose backs were naked string and glue – an inimical litter to Miriam.
Since it does not necessarily chime with other writings that Mr Polly seems to appreciate, Wells perhaps expresses his own view here that ‘…Conrad’s prose had a pleasure for him that he was never able to define, a peculiar deep-coloured effect… Precisely! ‘Great land of sublimated things, thou World of Books, happy asylum, refreshment and refuge from the world of everyday!…’
As noted, Wells quite often steps outside his narrative to make us remember that there is an author at work producing what can be construed as a socio-economic-political text in delightful fictional form. A nice distancing! He quotes from a presumably imaginary ‘dome-headed monster of intellect’ (one of his own ‘I’s maybe) writing on ‘social problems’ who says that ‘… ‘Nothing can better demonstrate the collective dullness of our community, the crying need for a strenuous, intellectual renewal, than the consideration of that vast mass of useless, uncomfortable, under-educated, under-trained, and altogether pitiable people we contemplate when we use that inaccurate and misleading term, the Lower Middle Class…’ Says the objective Wells, going some way towards describing his authorial process :-
I feel this has to come in here as the broad aspect of this History. I come back to Mr Polly, sitting upon his gate and swearing in the east wind, and so returning I have a sense of floating across unbridged abysses between the general and the particular. There, on the one hand, is the man of understanding seeing clearly – I suppose he sees clearly – the big process that dooms millions of lives to thwarting and discomfort and unhappy circumstances, and giving us no help, no hint, by which we may get that better ‘collective will and intelligence’ which would dam the stream of human failure; and on the other hand, Mr Polly, sitting on his gate, untrained, unwarned, confused, distressed, angry, seeing nothing except that he is, as it were, netted in grayness and discomfort – with life dancing all about him; Mr Polly with a capacity for joy and beauty at least as keen and subtle as yours or mine.
How clearly here Wells demonstrates awareness of something which our current bunch of fascist dictators, thin end of the wedge of the Global Capitalist Conspiracy, will totally avoid in discussion: the destructive effect of their multi-millionaire policies on the lives of ordinary individuals; there is an unbridged conceptual abyss between the general and the particular, between abstraction and concrete reality. The politicians are always content to live in abstractions – individual ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ – and hide away from the actual scrap heap of humanity that they throw their crusts & rinds to.
Sitting on the stile, Mr Polly decided that the only way out of the Rotten Beastly Hole was to commit suicide. One Sunday evening while Miriam was at church he doused the shop in paraffin and determined to cut his throat at the height of the conflagration.
And this was the end of life for him! The end! And it seemed to him now that life had never begun for him, never! It was as if his soul had been cramped and his eyes bandaged from the hour of his birth. Why had he lived such a life? Why had he submitted to things, blundered into things? Why had he never insisted on the things he thought beautiful and the things he desired, never sought them, fought for them, taken any risk for them, died rather than abandon them? They were the things that mattered. Safety did not matter. A living did not matter unless there were things to live for…
He had been a fool, a coward and a fool; he had been fooled, too, for no one had ever warned him to take a firm hold upon life, no one had ever told him of the littleness of fear or pain or death. But what was the good of going through it now again. It was over and done with. The clock in the back parlour pinged the half-hour. “Time!” said Mr Polly, and stood up…
But everything went too fast: his trouser leg caught fire before he had a chance to slit his throat; it was the wrong order of events; he dashed into the street shouting, “Fire!” And suddenly realised that the neighbour’s old mum was upstairs in the well-alight adjacent building. Everybody in Fishbourne had for years dismissed him as a misfit, but now, when he rescued her by climbing on the roof, he was regarded as the hero of the piece. Miriam suggested a fresh start but, again, Mr Polly had quite other ideas:-
…when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether… There is only one sort of man who is absolutely to blame for his own misery, and that is the man who finds life dull and dreary…
So he takes £20 (well over £1000 in today’s money), leaving the rest for Miriam, and sets off on a long tramp. What delight Wells sows in the mind of the reader in such simple terms after all the misery! A lesson for us all!
After a lapse of fifteen years he rediscovered this interesting world, about which so many people go incredibly blind and bored. He went along country roads while all the birds were piping and chirruping and cheeping and singing, and looked at fresh new things, and felt as happy and irresponsible as a boy with an unexpected half-holiday. And if ever the thought of Miriam returned to him, he controlled his mind. He came to country inns and sat for unmeasured hours talking of this and that to those sage carters who rest for ever in the taps of country inns, while the big, sleek, brass-jingling horses wait patiently outside with their wagons. He got a job with some van people who were wandering about the country with swings and a steam roundabout, and remained with them three days, until one of their dogs took a violent dislike to him, and made his duties unpleasant. He talked to tramps and wayside labourers. He snoozed under hedges by day, and in outhouses and hayricks at night…
This feels like the result of deliberate decision-making: just doing whatever comes up without romanticising or indulging in false imagination. Wells points this up beautifully by reminding us of how Polly used to make fantasy.
One day he found himself going along a road, with a wide space of sprouting bracken and occasional trees on either side, and suddenly this road became strangely and perplexingly familiar. “Lord!” he said, and turned about and stood. “It can’t be.”
He was incredulous, then left the road and walked along a scarcely perceptible track to the left, and came in half a minute to an old lichenous stone wall. It seemed exactly the bit of wall he had known so well. It might have been but yesterday he was in that place; there remained even a little pile of wood. It became absurdly the same wood. The bracken, perhaps, was not so high, and most of its fronds were still coiled up, that was all. Here he had stood, it seemed, and there she had sat and looked down upon him. Where was she now, and what had become of her? He counted the years back, and marvelled that beauty should have called to him with so imperious a voice – and signified nothing. He hoisted himself with some little difficulty to the top of the wall, and saw far off under the beech trees two schoolgirls – small, insignificant, pigtailed creatures, with heads of blond and black, with their arms twined about each other’s necks, no doubt telling each other the silliest secrets.
But that girl with the red hair – was she a countess? was she a queen? Children, perhaps? Had sorrow dared to touch her? Had she forgotten altogether?
What about all those people we’ve known? What’s happened to them? What have their lives been like?
of my life I’ve left
littered about in
the relationships I’ve had –
some unfinished some abandoned
each dear friend lost
each love cut off
every relationship relinquished
hauls off a part of me
they all carry off some part
of my I-mystery some I-tag
to their own secret destination
to do with it as they choose
the parts of me that are left
are without the strength of will
to advertise for the return now
of all the various chunks of life
I’ve allowed to be dispersed
around the country threading gaps
in people’s thoughts as their own
abandoned chunks thread mine
(CB: Looking Closely 2000)
The Potwell Inn – Coming Home
And then Mr Polly came to the Potwell Inn; he came home to himself. The ‘plump woman’ who ran the place asked him if was looking for work. He felt that she was ‘My sort…’ When she asked him what kind of work he was after he sums up the whole of the novel so far: “I’ve never properly thought that out… I’ve been looking round – for ideas…”
If the naggish bipedess Miriam had listed what he would have to do he would have felt the complaint about a Rotten Beastly Hole appearing but something has changed. The person we have heard described as bone idle is miraculously transformed.
He spent the afternoon exploring the premises of the Potwell Inn and learning the duties that might be expected of him, such as Stockholm tarring fences, digging potatoes, swabbing out boats, helping people land, embarking, landing, and time-keeping for the hirers of two rowing boats and one Canadian canoe, bailing out the said vessels and concealing their leaks and defects from prospective hirers, persuading inexperienced hirers to start down-stream rather than up, repairing rowlocks and taking inventories of returning boats with a view to supplementary charges, cleaning boots, sweeping chimneys, house painting, cleaning windows, sweeping out and sanding the Tap and Bar, cleaning pewter, washing glasses, turpentining woodwork, whitewashing generally, plumbing and engineering, repairing locks and clocks, waiting and tapster’s work generally, beating carpets and mats, cleaning bottles and saving corks, taking into the cellar, moving, tapping, and connecting beercasks with their engines, blocking and destroying wasps’ nests, doing forestry with several trees, drowning superfluous kittens, dog-fancying as required, assisting in the rearing of ducklings and the care of various poultry, bee-keeping, stabling, baiting and grooming horses and asses, cleaning and ‘garing’ motor-cars and bicycles, inflating tyres and repairing punctures, recovering the bodies of drowned persons from the river as required, and assisting people in trouble in the water, first-aid and sympathy, improvising and superintending a bathing station for visitors, attending inquests and funerals in the interests of the establishment, scrubbing floors and all the ordinary duties of a scullion, the Ferry, chasing hens and goats from the adjacent cottages out of the garden, making up paths and superintending drainage, gardening generally, delivering bottled beer and soda-water siphons in the neighbourhood, running miscellaneous errands, removing drunken and offensive persons from the premises by tact or muscle, as occasion required, keeping in with the local policeman, defending the premises in general and the orchard in particular from nocturnal depredators. . . .
“Can but try it,” said Mr Polly towards tea-time. “When there’s nothing else on hand I suppose I might do a bit of fishing…”
The only snag in the new surroundings is Uncle Jim, a vicious hooligan who subjects the plump woman (we never know her name) to all kinds of indignities & violence, examples of which we discover in due course.. Meanwhile, the plump woman’s young niece who initially took great pleasure from anticipating Polly being ‘scooted like the others’ by Uncle Jim came to appreciate Mr Polly greatly because he ‘could nickname ducklings very amusingly, create boats out of wooden splinters and stalk and fly from imaginary tigers in the orchard with a convincing earnestness that was surely beyond the power of any other human being…’ So Polly’s manglacious use of language and his fantasy world serves him well at last.
But Uncle Jim is ‘a big sort of bloke’ and Mr Polly explains that he’s ‘not the Herculacious sort…’ After the first brush with Uncle Jim he quits the scene but not without finding ‘I’s squabbling inside him: fight or perish…
Life had never been so clear to him before. It had always been a confused, entertaining spectacle. He had responded to this impulse and that, seeking agreeable and entertaining things, evading difficult and painful things. Such is the way of those who grow up to a life that has neither danger nor honour in its texture. He had been muddled and wrapped about and entangled, like a creature born in the jungle who has never seen sea or sky. Now he had come out of it suddenly into a great exposed place. It was as if God and Heaven waited over him, and all the earth was expectation.
“ Not my business,” said Mr Polly, speaking aloud. “Where the devil do I come in?”
And again, with something between a whine and a snarl in his voice, ‘Not my blasted business !
His mind seemed to have divided itself into several compartments, each with its own particular discussion busily in progress, and quite regardless of the others. One was busy with the detailed interpretation of [Uncle Jim’s] phrase, ‘Kick you ugly’… When he thought of Uncle Jim the inside feeling of his body faded away rapidly to a blank discomfort…
The return to the Potwell Inn with a determination to ‘scoot’ Uncle Jim marks the climax of the novel – Mr Polly has come home to himself. After he has accomplished the ‘scooting’ in a hilarious fashion, he demonstrates his humanity by thinking of Miriam – whether she’s OK; deserting her had been mean – and once more Wells steps outside the fiction.
This is a history, and not a glorification of Mr Polly, and I tell of things as they were with him. Apart from the disagreeable twinge arising from the thought of what might happen if he was found out, he had not the slightest remorse about that fire. Arson, after all, is an artificial crime. Some crimes are crimes in themselves, would be crimes without any law, the cruelties, mockery, the breaches of faith that astonish and wound, but the burning of things is in itself neither good nor bad. A large number of houses deserve to be burnt, most modern furniture, an overwhelming majority of pictures and books – one might go on for some time with the list. If our community was collectively anything more than a feeble idiot, it would burn most of London and Chicago, for example, and build sane and beautiful cities in the place of these pestilential heaps of rotten private property. I have failed in presenting Mr Polly altogether if I have not made you see that he was in many respects an artless child of Nature, far more untrained, undisciplined, and spontaneous than an ordinary savage. And he was really glad, for all that little drawback of fear, that he had had the courage to set fire to his house, and fly, and come to the Potwell Inn. But he was not glad he had left Miriam.
Sowing Things Up
So he takes a bit of a holiday and returns to Fishbourne to satisfy his curiosity; he enters the rebuilt shop with a sign over the front ‘Polly & Larkins’, a teashop run by Miriam and her sister, Annie. In the novel Miriam is shocked by the return of her husband whom she had certified dead and collected the insurance on, Uncle Jim having been found drowned wearing a pair of trousers with Polly’s name sown in them! He reassures her by saying that he’s just a ghost whom she’ll never see again. In the film version (1949 – the only one worth watching – such a faithful rendering of the novel) it seems to me that her recognition of him is conveyed far more subtly: they simply pass on the stairs and Miriam recoils in horror as though she’s seen a ghost from the past – as she has!
On his return to the Potwell Inn, he reflects with the plump woman who does not know his background.
“I set fire to a house – once… I don’t feel sorry for it. I don’t believe it was a bad thing to do – any more than burning a toy, like I did once when I was a baby. I nearly – killed myself with a razor. Who hasn’t ? – anyhow gone as far as thinking of it? Most of my time almost. I’ve never really planned my life, or set out to live. I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with every one. Jim couldn’t help himself. I shot at him, and tried to kill him. I dropped the gun and he got it. He very nearly had me. I wasn’t a second too soon – ducking. . . . Awkward – that night was… Ma’am. . . . But I don’t blame him – come to that. Only I don’t see what it’s all up to… Like children playing about in a nursery. Hurt themselves at times…”
He lost himself in his revery.
“What have we done to… get an evening like this? Look at it…” He sent his arm round the great curve of the sky… I whistle sometimes, but, bless you, it’s singing I’ve got in my mind. Sometimes I think I live for sunsets…”
In his splendid biography HG – the History of Mr Wells, Michael Foot (another Real Human-being with Real Beliefs) quotes Wells’ intentions in writing a novel:-
…to write about business and finance and politics and precedence and pretentions and decorum and indecorum, until a thousand pretences and ten thousand impostures shrivel in the cold, clean air of our elucidations. We are going to write of wasted opportunities and latent beauties until a thousand new ways of living open to man and woman. We are going to appeal to the young and the hopeful and the curious against the established, the dignified and defensive. Before we have done, we will have all life within the novel…
Michael Foot continues
…At one glance, The History of Mr Polly may seem a lop-sided affair, quite inadequate for the purpose. For, most monstrously, and contrary to his normal method… the women are given no place at all or swiftly despatched to the back seats or the kitchen sinks. No real woman in his own life proved as pitifully incapable or hateful in the habits she developed as Miriam…; in no other of HG’s novels, before or after, are the women reduced to such a subordinate role. That might be a hopeless, incurable defect. And yet who does not love Mr Polly? If there are such specimens, they merely acknowledge their own inhumanity. All his tastes and idiosyncrasies, his waywardness, his dreaming, his true love of the language he mangles, the way he piles up his books and knowledge, his refusal to conceal his hatreds from himself, the whole character being not, by any reckoning, a replica of HG himself, but rather an original creation of his own comic genius…: the incarnation of the Wellsian assurance that, if you don’t like the way the world is ordered, you can change it. All you have to do is, having studied the matter properly, to show the same courage as Mr Polly, the same contempt for the way other people try to tell you how to behave when their methods have been exposed as being useless or dangerous… Once he has made up his mind, our Mr Polly never loses his poise; and we, too, should share his confidence. It is HG’s masterpiece. Here he said more simply than ever before what he wanted to say.
What the current bunch of millionaire fascist dictators called a ‘government’ would make of Mr Polly?