The World of William Clissold

by H. G. Wells. New York: George H. Doran Co. 1926. xxii +340 +435 pp. 2vols. $5.00.
IN a somewhat petulant preface to The World of William Clissold, a preface directed at reviewers, Mr. Wells makes it clear that he wants his new magnum opus to stand or fall as a novel — a ‘full-dress novel.’ Why not, he says in effect, introduce into a novel the history of the hero’s opinions, the history of his full awareness — social, religious, economic, political — of the complicated environment in which he finds himself? This sort of awareness undoubtedly plays an enormous part in the life of any educated or reasonably intelligent being. Why, then, leave it out? Or, if it is introduced, why must the critic be in such haste to assume that it is merely the author’s awareness, not the hero’s? It appears that Mr. Wells has been annoyed by the persistence with which his critics have identified him with his Britlings and Clissolds; he draws up a list of his ‘characters,’ a little angrily, as if to say that in such diversity it would be absurd to see uniformity. And nevertheless the critics have been right. For as one looks back over Mr. Wells’s long and honorable record as a novelist one fails to recall a single vivid or credible character. They are all alike — and all alike in being rather colorless automata, mere puppets by which their manipulator has sought to demonstrate his successive attitudes toward a changing world.
The truth is that Mr. Wells is not in one sense, and that perhaps the finest sense, a novelist at all. In The World of William Clissold, an enormous book enormously documented, he entirely fails, in spite of the masses of information he gives us as to the nature and views of Clissold, to bring him alive. It is no use arguing, as Mr. Wells argues, that in any character-creation there must
be elements of self-projection. True enough. But there is something more — there must be an extremely subtle selection and synthesis of those elements, an æsthetic and psychological envisagement of them as a unit, without which they will never take recognizable shape as the thing we call a character. Mr. Wells has always failed at this, and he fails again. He lacks insight, he lacks psychological subtlety, he never once gives us one of those little scenes which are the very pulse of the novel — those scenes in which the hero’s action flowers visibly out of his thought, or his thought Sowers visibly out of his action. For the most part, Mr. Wells is content with the explanatory method. When he does, now and then, give us a ‘scene,’ it is as often as not unreal and unconvincing. One does not believe in a single one cf Clissold’s various mistresses; and the dialogue, in which Mr. Wells tries to make us hear them, is not infrequently ridiculous.
One is compelled once again, therefore, to accept Mr. Wells as a skillful tractarian, one of the most skillful alive, who knows admirably how to make ideas interesting. As a survey of the modern world from a ‘liberal’ point of view, and as propaganda for a World State to be evolved (and already evolving) on an economic rather than on a political basis, a World State in which the individual will to a fuller extent than at present surrender himself to the service of mankind, The World of William Clissold is impressive. The range of Mr. Wells’s mind is encyclopædic. He covers everything, he leaves nothing out — his novel is a ‘liberal’ education in itself. If one struggles through these eight hundred pages of biology, sociology, economics, and disquisitions on sex, it is because Mr. Wells is himself interesting on these subjects, and not because he has succeeded in his ‘full-dress novel. ’
CONRAD AIKEN