H.G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay is another modernist title from my reading list, in the spirit of exam preparation. That said, I enjoyed this book on its own merits. Wells presents us with a “novel of ideas” — a novel where the plot is not really central, but the way the characters (especially the narrator) interpret and handle the events. The book chronicles the rise and fall of Tono-Bungay, a fictional tonic that can easily be read as a stand-in for any number of products from Wells’ as well as more recent times:
Tono-Bungay is told by George Ponderevo, nephew of Edward Ponderevo, former pharmacist, inventor of the cure-all Tono-Bungay. George starts out by telling the reader why he’s writing this (in large part to gain clarity himself) and why he includes details and experiences that have little or no bearing on the actual rise and fall of Tono-Bungay. And he is right: this is a complex narrative, in its own way. There’s his falling in love, as a child, with the then socially superior Beatrice, as well as his later infatuations with (few) other women, culminating in his marriage, affair, divorce, and re-encounter with Beatrice. There’s his repeated displacement from the country to, finally, the City (yes, with a capital “C” — meaning London). There’s his acute observation of social rules and hierarchies, and his uneasiness with “playing the game”. His academic development and his love for science in conflict with his social and occupational aspirations. And always, always, the conflict between doing what is expected (what is proper in the eyes of society) and doing what is, in his mind, honorable.
The narrative is written in a conversational tone, though it makes for a fairly educated, intellectual conversation. Looking back, George is honest with himself and the reader about his past decisions, ideas and actions. He makes no excuses and admits to being, at times, a complete poseur. Some of his descriptions (of London, of people around him, of his impressions) are wonderful, as are some turns of phrase. I was going to just read through this without a pen, but couldn’t resist marking a bunch of passages.
The plot itself, set in England around the late 1800s and early 1900s, is simple: After George’s uncle loses much of George’s trust money in stock speculation, George goes to London to study on a scholarship. He gets bored / distracted and when he is at risk of losing his financial support, his uncle finally comes through to make things right: He offers George generous pay if he’ll help run his business. The uncle is all ideas but has no talent for managing or organizing things. Knowing full well that Tono-Bungay, the uncle’s successful product that has made him fairly rich, is a really just tainted water (and potentially harmful to some), George has to wrestle with his idealism. It would be dishonorable to join his uncle in this enterprise. On the other hand, the girl he has fallen for (Marion) will not marry him unless he has a good, steady income. His desire for Marion wins.
Thanks to the uncle’s ideas and George’s managerial skills, the company becomes wildly successful (it certainly has nothing to do with the actual product). The uncle churns out advertising copy that looks much like news items and makes big promises, and the people of first London, then all of England and Wales, seem to eat this up. The company expands to buy up other companies and venture into the American market. They sell stocks in their companies, promising high returns, and rake in the investing public’s money (sound familiar yet?). The uncle becomes more and more careless with his spending as well as his business decisions as his fortune grows. George and Marion are not happy together, he finds her without depth, less and less attractive, and finally has an affair, which — on his part — fixes things. However, Marion finds out almost immediately and they decide to divorce.
With his one reason to be with the company gone, George wants less to do with the business. He goes back to science, his old love, science: “Scientific truth is the remotest of mistresses, she hides in strange places, she is attained by tortuous and laborious roads, but she is always there! Win her and she will not fail you; she is yours and mankind’s forever. She is reality, the one reality I have found in this strange disorder of existence” (277) (all page numbers refer to the Penguin Classics Edition). George wants to get man into the air, he wants flight. With the support of his uncle he returns to the country to experiment with gliders and balloons. He also runs into Beatrice, the love of his youth. Now that he’s rich, he feels they are social equals and could marry. She refuses but professes to love him.
The uncle’s economic megalomania has gotten out of hand by the time George finally check in on the company again. It’s nearly too late: only an illegal venture in Africa could save the tycoon from bankruptcy. George volunteers, heroically as he thinks at at the time, to undertake the trip. The plan is to steal some unclaimed radioactive material (quap) from a beach in the forbidden part of Africa (i.e. no trade is allowed there — they argue that since it’s stealing, it’s not a trade, so not forbidden).
Lots of things go wrong. The men who bring the quap onto the ship develop sores on their hands, and everyone gets sick. Finally, the radioactive material eats through the hull of the ship and, well, while the men survive, the cargo is lost. In the meantime, the uncle has lost everything. In one last, actual act of heroism, George uses his flying machine (a steerable, contractable balloon) to secretly get his uncle out of the country, only for the uncle to die shortly thereafter. The flying machine is lost, the uncle dead, the company bankrupt, and Beatrice unattainable. Talk about a happy end!
Wells’s narrator tells us about the dangers he sees in radioactivity. This (in combination with his description of the illness caused by the quap) is interesting because the book was written just over ten years or so after the discovery of radioactivity, and people were still figuring out the potential hazards. The whole of page 329 / Book III, chapter 4, section 5 is very interesting, but here’s an excerpt:
[There] is something — the only word that comes near it is cancerous — and that is not very near, about the whole of quap, something that creeps and lives as a disease lives by destroying; an elemental stirring and disarrangement, incalculably maleficent and strange. This is no imaginative comparison of mine. To my mind, radioactivity is a real disease of matter. […] I am haunted by a grotesque fancy of the ultimate eating away and dry-rotting and dispersal of all our world. (329)
Over all, Wells’s narrator makes a good number of observations that seem rather timely for today’s readers, not just readers in 1909 or so, and not just in England. The dependence of research on money from businesses / sponsors. The lack of appreciation of the sciences outside of the interests of business. The dubious morals and pseudo-science used in advertising. And while the uncle uses the following as a twisted sort of logic to justify his business strategies and his aggressive advertising, George no doubt realizes the greater social problem: “See what the world pays teachers and discoverers and what it pays businessmen! That shows the ones it really wants” (136).
This novel traces a social change triggered by industrialization and the beginning of consumerism. Its narrator shares with Wells an interest in socialist ideas and ideals, and it would be interesting to read for anyone who’s into social politics, social commentary, etc. You might get a kick out of the mispronunciations of French words and phrases, especially as the uncle uses them, since George transcribes them as he hears them rather than as they should be. (And don’t worry, there are footnotes, so you can go look those bits up if you can’t figure it out.) Lastly, the roles and descriptions of women in this book would be interesting to look at more closely. I need to move on with my reading, — the exams are looming, — but it’s something I noticed as I was reading.
Let me leave you with one last image, to show that, well, things are not much different now than what Wells describes. This is an ad for shampoo. It claims to contain real diamond material. Supposedly, that will make your hair shiny as diamonds. It’s complete BS if you pardon my French: even if you put diamond material on your hair, it won’t make a difference because your hair does not absorb that sort of stuff. It (temporarily) absorbs water and oil, but not stone. And wouldn’t little particles of diamond — just like sand — be abrasive on your hair? Just one of many examples of harebrained pseudo-science used to sell the same old thing.