The Puddelbee Company

H.G. Wells' The History of Mr Polly

Rev. Huw Caerphilly

Herbert George Wells (1866 – 1946) is well known as a futurist who first made his name in the Science Fiction genre before becoming famous for his social commentary. Nevertheless, much of his work is smaller in scale, investigating how ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) individuals come to terms with personal, social and scientific developments in their life. One such person was Mr. Alfred Polly, the owner of a draper’s shop in a rural town at the turn of the 20th century. Like Wells’ other shopkeeping protagonist, Arthur Kipps, Mr. Polly is also a simple soul, but unlike Kipps does not think of himself as such. Whereas Kipps is broadly optimistic, Alfred Polly is already browbeaten and disenchanted from an early age. The reader first meets him in an idyllic English landscape — suffering from a failing business, a frustrated marriage, and dyspepsia.

The History of Mr. Polly then relates, in more or less chronological order, how Mr. Polly came to be, how he found himself in this situation, and how he escaped. Despite his being a broadly ignorant and initially a mildly unpleasant character, Wells presents him in a generally sympathetic light, slowly developing understanding of his feelings and reactions to the “Beastly Silly Wheeze of a Hole” which Mr. Polly finds himself in. By the time he abandons his wife and responsibilities, it seems a forgivable, if not reasonable, course of action. With the further development of his character in his second life, his refusal to intrude on his former life at the end of the book can almost be seen as a noble sacrifice.

This is, of course, the intention of the author who was drawing on, but not relating directly, his own feelings and reaction to his early experiences as an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea — and his short-lived first marriage to his cousin Isabel. Other aspects of his early life, such as his introduction to socialism, are attributed to other characters and are unfathomable to Alfred Polly. All three of these themes, as well as Wells’ time at the future Royal College of Science, recur throughout his romantic and social commentary novels. In his 1934 “An Experiment in Autobiography” Wells admitted that the 1916 novel “Mr Britling Sees It Through” was an account of his “mental phases, elaborated in a novel”, but that “Mr. Britling is not so much a representation of myself as of my type and class”. It is this elaboration of his own mental phases, combined with his personal experience, which allowed Wells to fully develop the character of Mr. Polly and convey it with sympathy. The opinions of Mr. Polly and his reactions to his “hole” may not necessarily have been those of Wells at that age, but would have certainly have been comprehensible to the mature author a decade later.

H.G. Wells

Wells was born on 21st September 1866 in Bromley, Kent. His parents Joseph and Sarah were formerly in service at Uppark in Sussex. Joseph was head gardener, and Sarah a housemaid. After receiving a small inheritance, they purchased a shop selling chinaware and — because Joseph was also a professional cricketer — sporting goods. In 1880, when H.G. Wells was thirteen, Sarah returned to Uppark as housekeeper and held the position for 13 years. In the same year Wells was removed from school, the Bromley Academy where he had excelled in bookkeeping, and apprenticed unsuccessfully to a draper in Windsor. Shortly afterwards he was appointed as a pupil-teacher at a National School in Somerset. This was again unsuccessful, and after a short stay with his mother at Uppark, Wells was once again apprenticed to a pharmacist in Midhurst. Needing to learn Latin, he eventually found his way to Midhurst Grammar School, under the tutelage of Horace Byatt who steered him in the direction of more modern subjects. Financially unable to continue his training as a pharmacist, in 1881 Wells again became an apprentice draper at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea, where he stayed two years living in the dormitory with the other apprentices. In 1883, he returned to Midhurst as a pupil-teacher.

In 1884, under a government financed scheme for trainee teachers, Wells was admitted to study at the Normal School of Science, whose Dean was T.H. Huxley. This institution became the Royal College of Science in 1890, the year Wells finally graduated, and was merged into Imperial College when it was founded in 1907. In 1887, Wells founded the monthly Science Schools Journal, which later became the annual literary and arts magazine The Phoenix which survived into the next millennium. His notable works published in the Journal include the time travel novella “The Chronic Argonauts” and the macabre poem “The Lay of the Sausage Machine”.

Failing his final examination, Wells again became a teacher, first in North Wales before returning, after an injury and convalescence at Uppark, to London. He obtained a post at Henley House School in Kilburn where, one of his pupils was A.A. Milne, and then finally graduated with a first class degree in Zoology and a second in Geology. After graduation he joined the University Correspondence College, married his cousin, and found the need to supplement his income. He edited The University Correspondent, contributed to the Educational Times and the Fortnightly Review, and wrote his “Textbook of Biology”, which remained in print for over three decades. By 1893 ill health had forced him give up teaching, and he became reliant on the power of his pen. He started with relatively light-hearted short stories and reviews for The Pall Mall Gazette and the Saturday Review, eventually recasting the morbid “The Chronic Argonauts” as an ultimately optimistic adventure story, and sold it for £100. “The Time Machine” was serialised in The New Review in 1895, published as a novel later the same year, and the future became history.

Author Illustation: George Charles Beresford, Photograph of Herbert George Wells, 1920

Cover Illustation: John Constable, Salisbury Cathedral Wiltshire from the Meadows, 1831 (detail).