This amazing novel could have been written today, except for the wonderful Edwardian style and language. The story of a rags-to-riches advertising fraud sounds quite the contemporary tone. Edward Ponderevo runs a chemist's shop in the Victorian equivalent of Vic and Sade's Dismal Seepage, Ohio. The idea strikes him to add coloring and flavor to a bottle of junk and market it as a miracle drug, Tono-Bungay. Before long, other quacks jump onto his bandwagon and he rises in society and prestige. Part of Wells' genius lay in foreseeing the future: he has the narrator, poor, "ruined" George, go out on a leaky sailing vessel to west Africa in search of radioactive "quap," some stuff that will turn the world on its head, as indeed uranium did, later. He even describes this "quap" as deriving from pitchblende, as uranium does! He also plays with aeronautical inventions such as gliders and balloons, and our anti-hero ends up designing destroyers for the Royal Navy. The love interest, Beatrice (pace, Dante), is unattainable, not because of the usual Victorian claptrap about class or modesty, but because she's addicted to "chloral," the hypnotic element of knockout drops, chloral hydrate. Some of the love interest may have arisen from Wells' romance with Rebecca West, quite a looker in her younger days; (their affair produced a son, Anthony West, who became an embittered old man hating both his parents).
Wells wrote some great stories: "The Shape of Things to Come," which predicted air warfare although it appeared in 1899, "The War of the Worlds," and my favorite, "The Man Who Could Work Miracles," filmed in 1935 with Roland Young ("Topper") as the innocent barfly who stops time. "Tono-Bungay" is among his finest.
Wells had no use for "the quality," that is, the idle rich who populated England's country houses in the 19th century. "The great houses stand in their parks still, the cottages cluster respectfully on their borders, touching their eaves with their creepers..." At tea, the great lady "acknowledged your poor tinkle of utterance with a voluminous, scornful 'Haw!' that made you want to burn her alive." She had "a small set of stereotyped remarks that constituted her entire mental range." The narrator sat uneasily on a hard chair "trying to exist, like a feeble seedling amidst great rocks." The house had a "great staircase that has never been properly descended since powder went out of fashion." When later he went to live at the home of young Beatrice and invited to play with her, he was "handed over as if I was some large variety of kitten."
George grew up in the 1880s, the era of "The Good Hard-Working Man." A point of honor "was to rise at or before dawn, and then laboriously muddle about." Religion was dispensed in a dingy chapel, "a little brick-built chapel equipped with a spavined roarer of a harmonium." The larger church, "the great pre-Reformation church, [was] a fine grey shell, like some empty skull from which the life has fled."
Uncle Edward is the finest character in the novel: a little fat, ("he'd look lovely with a stopper," chides his wife, who calls him "Old Sossidge"), breathing with audible "Zzzzzz" sounds, he could be found lying on a small wooden fold-up bed, wearing "an elderly but still cheerful pair of check pajamas." His contribution to the world was to be thinking up slogans and fancy adverts for his fake products. The "proper" shops of his day "had been but lightly touched by the American's profaning hand," and they did not cater to people "who in a once fashionable phrase, do not 'exist.'" He would change all that. He raised capital by going to each source in turn and saying the others had come in. Then he conquered England "province by province. Like sogers." "'You can GO for twenty-four hours,' we declared, 'on Tono-Bungay chocolate.' We didn't say whether you could return on the same commodity." His lovable, eccentric wife, Susan, is plain as salt. "She described the knights of the age of chivalry as 'kavorting about on the off-chance of a dragon.'" She offers her nephew a biscuit: "Have some squashed flies, George."
The narrator believes himself to be a "morally limited cad with a mind beyond his merits." He suffers through a long, horrible marriage and separation, and shares in the Tono-Bungay business. His uncle, meanwhile, discovers creative accounting 19th century style: "you wouldn't find the early figures so much wrong as strained." He also discovers what auditors call "y/e" items, year-end transactions. "Each of these companies ended its financial year solvent by selling great holdings of shares to one or other of its sisters, and paying a dividend out of the proceeds..." Nothing has changed in a century. Wells has his narrator comment, "I had some amazing perceptions of just how modern thought and the supply of fact to the general mind may be controlled by money." At the same time he notices the London unemployed, "a shambling, shameful stream they made, oozing along the street, the gutter waste of competitive civilisation." Unlike his uncle, they had not said "Snap" in the right place, or were too eager, or never said it at all. Uncle Edward develops a rich man's style of behavior, he would "Zzzzz" and fiddle with his glasses, and "rise slowly to his toes as a sentence unwound, jerkily like a clockwork snake, and drop back on his heels at the end." He was no longer a little man. He ends his career, like a Donald Trump, in real estate. "It is curious how many of these modern financiers of chance and bluff have ended their careers by building...try to make their fluid opulence coagulate out as bricks and mortar...Then the whole fabric of confidence and imagination totters--and down they come...."
And then comes the discovery of the great heap of quap in West Africa, "floating fragments of slum" available for the stealing. A nearby station is abandoned "because every man who stayed two months at the station stayed to die, eaten up mysteriously like a leper." "The only word that comes near it is cancerous." The sample produced for the narrator was "wrapped about with lead." What did H. G. Wells know? He studied science before becoming a writer, but the effects of radiation were still a mystery after his death, in the late 1940s, when soldiers were ordered into foxholes only 200 yards away from the site of the Nevada atomic test explosions.
Wells writes splendidly and succinctly. His aristocrats sit about in the summer house and in garden chairs, "very hatty and ruffley and sunshady." Croquet is played "with immense gravity." As the nouveau-riche begin to invade the upper levels of society, "with an immense, astonished zest they begin shopping,...a new life crowded and brilliant with things shopped...they talk, think, and dream possessions." They conceal their daughters (one is found wearing "a large gold cross and other aggressive ecclesiastical symbols.") Their chairs are covered with Union Jacks. The love interest in the novel plays the piano: "'Was that Wagner, Beatrice?' asked Lady Osprey, looking up from her cards. 'It sounded very confused.'" Uncle Edward's doctor is "a young man, plumply rococo, in bicycling dress, with fine waxen features, a little pointed beard, and the long black, frizzy hair and huge tie of a minor poet."
George concludes that the royal robes and ermine of English lords conceal the realities of "greedy trade, base profit-seeking, bold advertisement." Kingship and chivalry are dead and buried.
A spectacular find.