First Published: 1910 (Penguin Classics ed. 2005)
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “A weakly wilful being struggling to get obdurate things round impossible corners – in that symbol Mr. Polly could recognise himself and all the trouble of humanity.”
Many of Wells’ works feature quite ordinary narrators grappling to make sense of the events around them. It’s a formula that applies neatly to the science fiction plots – or scientific romances as he called them – for which he is most renowned. Yet this struggle to make sense of a changed or changing world need not always involve Martian tripods or trips to other planets. Wells’ social fiction turns the spotlight on his own society, offering a glimpse of lower middle-class Edwardian life – in equal parts charming and cutting – and of the quiet desperation of those who try to navigate through its social, financial and education minefields in the name of “getting on.”
Like Wells’ Kipps, The History of Mr Polly focuses on the drudgery of an apprenticeship in the drapery trade, a profession Wells had experienced first hand and which could very well have been his life if he had not succeeded as a writer. The novel begins in media res with the eponymous Alfred Polly in his thirties barely treading water in a sea of debt and regret saddled with a wife he does not love and a failing business he lacks the passion or acumen to save. Wells then tracks back to his protagonist’s childhood, detailing the circumstances that propelled Mr Polly into his current mire, before chronicling the extreme measures he finally – if haphazardly – takes to escape it. As this brief synopsis suggests, Polly is far from being a a conventional hero. His is a stunted existence, as Wells writes:
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.
Yet, if hardly admirable, Polly is far from unsympathetic – painted as he is with affectionately bitter-sweet brush-strokes. Partly, this is because regret is universal: I’m sure that most adults can relate to his “where did it all go wrong” malaise even if (hopefully) only fleetingly. But Polly is also an enjoyable protagonist because of his engaging combination of naivety and bluster. Failed by the education system (a prime target for Wells’ needling in this and other works) Polly nonetheless has a passion for language and a way with words that is uniquely his own. His frequent neologisms are a true delight and a key ingredient of this novel’s charm: “Sorry,” said Mr. Polly, “if I am intrudaceous. I didn’t know you didn’t want me to be here.” In a work that deals with dark themes: regret, hopelessness, even suicide, it is surprising how the overall tone remains comic. This is likely a reflection of Polly himself. As suggested by his linguistic quirks, which he retains to the end, Polly does not really develop as a character: he muddles through, enduring rather than adapting. This could make for depressing reading but in the skilful hands of a Wells the tone remains comic throughout, blackly comic, but comic all the same.
While, not my favourite of Well’s novels by any means (that accolade belongs to the sublime Tono Bungay) The History of Mr Polly is still an enjoyable read that transitions pleasingly from social realism to timeless pastoral. With its focus on cycles of change and regret, and how a new start and happiness is achievable for even the most entrenched and clueless mortal – albeit through some desperate, surprising and unlikely methods – this is also a fitting choice for a new year novel.
And on that note, I’d like to wish a very Happy New Year to all my blog followers here. Thanks for sticking with me through what has been a quiet month post-wise. I’ve got a backlog of reviews to write and hope to catch up soon….