First Published: 1905 (Penguin Classics ed. 2005)
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “His soul looked out upon life in general as a very small nestling might peep out of its nest. ”
H.G. Wells is best known for the wonderful imagination of his science-fiction, or “scientific romances” as they were called at the time, but his lesser known social fiction is also well worth a look. Kipps is a work of fairly biting class satire wrapped in the more charming exterior of a fish-out-of-water comedy. Young Arthur Kipps is gradually numbing himself to the rigour and routine of life as a draper’s apprentice when an unexpected inheritance changes everything, propelling him into the sphere of the upper middle-classes. Initially this rise is a source of joy. There are some wonderful scenes immediately after his good fortune is confirmed where Kipps and his apprentice friends celebrate and speculate on what he should buy first. His new-found wealth also allows Kipps to begin courting the educated Miss Walsingham. But Wells’ protagonist quickly discovers that although money can unlock the door to a gentlemanly life, the path to taking possession of that life is fraught with embarrassment and uncertainty.
Kipps’ social unease is the source of most of the humour in the book: his malapropisms, his struggles to dress appropriately, to sound knowledgeable when appreciating the sorts of artistic and musical entertainments from which he had previously always been excluded by the long demanding hours of shop work, and his terror at the unknown horrors of the “Anagram Tea.” But while these scenarios are funny, the social criticisms are only thinly veiled. While at times this rags to riches story reminded me of Great Expectations, unlike Dickens’ Pip, Kipps does not really develop or learn to adapt to his new environment. Like many of Wells’ protagonists, Arthur Kipps is a confused man in a confusing world, buffeted by forces he never fully comprehends. There is more than a strain of autobiography in Kipps. Wells too began his career as a humble linen drapers’ assistant – as a result the early scenes of Kipps’ apprenticeship are some of the most memorable and vividly realised in the novel – but despite their similar roots, Kipps does not possess the intellect or thirst for knowledge of his creator and as such is consistently overwhelmed and taken advantage of by the bourgeois class he aspires to join. Yet Wells’ satire is all-encompassing: while Kipps’s dropped ‘aitches (the accent is deliberately overdone) and ignorance of basic etiquette do provide many laughs, the novel also makes clear the utter ridiculousness of many of the upper/middle class social conventions themselves and the authorial interjections occasionally sheer off their sweet veneer to become asides of straight up bitterness.
And so this tale of one simple man’s good fortune is also a darker parable about class division and social fixity. Kipps has risen but he has not integrated. The novel has an ending that is both happy and rather charming but the path to happiness is not the simple equation of wealth and freedom that Kipps imagines during his hard-working years as an apprentice. Indeed, he comes to appreciate later the lack of social complication he enjoyed in his former life, yet at the same time as he clings to his former, working class acquaintances he can’t help but judge them and begin to perpetuate the sorts of damning social commentary “for their own good” that he himself has already suffered at the hands of his new so-called friends.
Kipps was first published in 1905, and while its tea parties, boat excursions and rapidly modernising retail outlets do provide a richly textured glimpse of a lifestyle that was peculiarly Edwardian, its social commentary feels depressingly contemporary. I’ve read a number of news reports in the last week about class division in the UK and how the gap between rich and poor is widening. Wells spent much time sharing his predictions for the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond, explicitly in works such as his “Anticipations” (1901) and more obliquely in his fiction. Wells’ predictions for future change were uncannily accurate in some ways and way off in others. For instance, his ideas about the power of aerial warfare anticipated much of the decisive action of World War Two, though he dismissed the feasibility of aeroplanes and imagined airship flight instead. For all the frenetic pace of progress in the last century, Kipps is a gently sobering reminder that some things really haven’t changed all that much.