Whoosh. Smash. This is the trajectory of H. G. Wells’ marvellous Tono Bungay, and, for that matter, the zeitgeist of Modernism. To my shame I must admit that, while at university, I left it, along with Ann Veronica, firmly on the shelf, for no better reason than I didn’t fancy its rather incomprehensible title.
Never judge a book by its … *sigh*.
Title aside, the lecture on H. G. Wells stands out in my memory as a succulent oasis in what was, regrettably often, a rather dry Modernist desert. Our lecturer, who also happened to be head of department, was in paroxysms of adoration for both novels, but it is Tono Bungay which received the bulk of his praises.
As we all know, doubts are traitors making us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt, so when I recently stumbled across Tono Bungay in a trunk of my old uni books, I decided I had to give it a go. Having now read it, I wish I had polished it off early in that year. I would have understood Modernism a great deal better than I ended up doing.
To the novel! With the early episodes at Bladesover House, H. G. Wells establishes the institutional paraphernalia of the Victorian period, so important to both the context of Modernism and the rest of the novel. One cannot understand the crisis of confidence which pervaded fin de siecle culture and led to the ‘smash’, the heap of broken images, of the earlier 20th century without knowing there was such a confidence to smash. George Ponderevo, our retrospective narrator, is the son of one of the servants of the house and suffers an injustice at the hands of the social hierarchy which precipitates his (laughably un-picaresque) travels in the rest of the novel.
Wells proceeds to show the effects of the magic and mirage of ‘the modern method’ on this established structure; its tentacles spread everywhere, to commerce, into society, through romance. Moreover the presentation of magnificence and disaster is commendably ambivalent, largely because George is so jaded and world-weary by the time he comes to write his memoir. George and his uncle’s early success is built on the miracle tonic ‘Tono Bungay’, an ineffectual cough syrup stridently described by Uncle Ponderevo’s technicolour advertisements as ‘the essence of vigour’. Spouting hot air such as this is absolutely key to their financial and social rise; ironically George eventually becomes a specialist in the construction of thermal airships (that-is-to-say, hot-air balloons).
This sense that the characters are living in a house of playing cards pervades the novel. Though I won’t spoil the ending by saying more, the world of Tono Bungay seems to hang together by its edges, straining and twisting to come to terms with the powerful influences of modernity.
Contiguous with this struggle, a sense of hope for the future is interwoven into the fabric of George’s narrative; even if ‘beneath it all there was nothing but fictitious values as evanescent as rainbow gold’, as he says at one point, why should the rainbow not be valuable in and of itself? A notable aspect of this hope is the importance Wells accords scientific knowledge in the novel. It is peppered with the new language of ‘filaments’ and ‘ferite’ and only George, a scientific man, can really make Tono Bungay go ‘Whoosh’. If the world is to be built on a new model, George, and Wells, seems to suggest it will do so under the steam of an incessant advancement of human knowledge.
Lest you miss out on Wells’ astute observations of his contemporary society, on his wit and delicate characterisation, don’t make my mistake of letting Tono Bungay’s title get in the way of turning its first page!