Writing a bestselling novel has long been a dream for many writers who are starting their careers. Bestselling novels provide a stable source of income for years to come, while giving the writer a far-reaching and national platform. Despite the masses following a bestselling author or book, most of these books are not highly regarded by scholars to have literary merit. One of the more perplexing authors of bestsellers was H.G. Wells. Wells, an important writer from the nineteenth century, was able jump into the mainstream with his twentieth-century bestselling novel, Mr. Britling Sees it Through. Interestingly, Mr. Britling Sees it Through shows that bestsellers can have various attributes such as social commentary on contemporary events, an autobiographical theme, and a comparative theme between England and America.
H.G. Wells was able to write a novel that was based on one of the most important historical events in modern times, World War One (WWI). By including WWI into his novel, Wells also set the novel up for a quick loss in popularity of the novel after WWI concluded and the event dropped from the news. Brian Hill and Dee Power, in their book, The Making of a Bestseller, list many attributes that make a bestseller a bestseller. One of the attributes listed is the “timeliness of topic”, which is how relevant the issue is to the time period. However, there is a varying opinion between editors and agents on how much weight this characteristic carries for bestselling novels. Agents tended to think that contemporary events affect bestsellers less than their editorial counterparts (25-26). This proves two points for bestsellers. One is that is it difficult to predict a bestseller, even with experienced authors, agents, and editors. It also shows one reason why Mr. Britling Sees it Through was a bestseller in 1916 and 1917, because editors and agents both agree that contemporary events are important, even though they disagree on the importance of contemporary events in bestsellers. With H.G. Wells including WWI and his perspective on WWI, he was able to prove how important contemporary events are for bestselling novels.
With Wells including his perspective on WWI, he was able to capture the emotions of the war, rather than merely restating the facts that were known up to the time the book was published. These emotions and thoughts attracted many readers to Wells’ novel as he observed the social interactions during WWI. One very important invention that facilitated many social interactions was the automobile. It plays an important role for Mr. Britling throughout Wells’ novel. Interestingly, Mr. Britling has only driven his car a few times when he picks up Mr. Direck from the train station. Mr. Britling then proceeds to drive off of the road and avoids a few accidents in a short trip to Mr Britling’s house (13-18). Later the automobile focuses more on the social interactions of Mr. Britling. These social interactions include the affair Mr. Britling has with Mrs. Harrowdean, who lived farther away than his previous affairs (110). The car ultimately symbolized freedom for Wells and his characters. The freedom the characters experienced was new for the early twentieth century.
Another interesting view that Wells’ was able to capture was the English perspective on WWI throughout the war. When the war first starts many people in the country treat it as a joke. Aunt Wilshire even jokes that “They’ll [Germany] declare war against the moon next” (207). Interestingly, there are many such jokes throughout the text and Wells even goes on to describe “the English attitude towards the war…as a monstrous joke” (208). These jokes show that the English people did not think the war was a serious matter to consider. Most of England probably did not fear for their lives when Germany began declaring war on the countries of Europe. Wells even states, “war had not been a reality of the daily life of England for more than a thousand years.” Wells later states that England had not been “wholly at war for three hundred years, and for over eight hundred years they had not fought for life against a foreign power” (212).
As speculation of England joined the war grew, Mr. Britling and the people of England began to wonder increasingly about the war and the future shape of Europe. This is evident when Hugh states, “I wonder what will happen to Albania” (201). It is understandable how a war that is close to home would be worrisome. The beginning of the novel is focused largely on the possibilities of global change. Impressively, the English people knew that WWI would be world-changing and include all of the world powers. However, once England joined the war, many people were worried about the food supply and the banks of England. The closing of banks initially threw the public into a frenzy, along with a scarcity of food (196). However, very quickly the banks reopened, and the public stopped worrying about food scarcity. Wells points out that “after the first impression that a universal catastrophe had happened there was an effect as if nothing had happened” (213). Again, Wells is pointing out how the English public could not come to terms with an approaching war. There is a disconnect between what the English know is happening and what they are inferring will occur. This disconnect shows how shocked the English were.
Secondly, Mr. Britling Sees it Through has a distinct autobiographical theme. Since Wells was one of the most popular authors of his time, he was seen as a celebrity, and his life was extensively covered. Kenneth Young states that Wells’ “novels were about what happened to him personally and to people he knew” (235). One of the most notable parallels between Wells’ life and Mr. Britling is the affair in the novel with Mrs. Harrowdean. As mentioned in the novel, Mr. Britling had eight affairs, including Mrs. Harrowdean (109). Mr. Britling’s affair was mostly through letters, however the lovers did make time to see each other (113). Similarly, Kevin Dettmar states that Wells was notorious for his extramarital love affairs throughout his life (“H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells”). As mentioned in Assignment 3, Wells’ love life was riddled with fragmented marriages that ranged from Isabel Wells, to Amy Robbins. This list would grow to include women Wells fathered children with outside the realm of marriage such as Rosamund Bland and Rebecca West. Similarly, Mr. Britling had a child with another woman named Mary, however it is not clear whether Mr. Britling was married to Edith Britling (140-141). This parallel into Well’s own bestseller adds another layer to the story and Mr. Britling. By making Mr. Britling an autobiographical character, it adds to the assumption that this novel is Wells’ first-hand take on the war. Another reason Wells’ could have included this parallel was to make the novel heartfelt. In a way, Wells’ is confronting the affairs by writing about them. Including the affairs in the novel could be Wells’ way of reconciling his numerous affairs with himself and his romantic partners. Another parallel that can be drawn between Wells and Mr. Britling is how both viewed themselves as academics. Throughout the novel, Mr. Britling is seen as one of the most intelligent and well-informed individuals during his time. This is actually the reason Mr. Direck comes to visit Mr. Britling, because Mr. Britling was a highly regarded intellectual (7). Wells’ also viewed himself as a relatively scholarly individual. When Wells was younger he enjoyed subjects such as science and strived for an education. Even at a young age, Wells wrote in journals such as the Science Schools Journal. Including this second parallel between Wells and Mr. Britling shows a great deal about Wells. This novel could be Wells’ reminding his readers and the media who he was as an academic. After all, according to Darren Harris-Fain, some of Wells’ greatest writing and contributions to literature came in the form of Wells’ science fiction writing (“H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells”). Also, making Mr. Britling a burgeoning thinker adds credence to Mr. Britling as a protagonist. Using this gained credibility, Wells is able to paint Mr. Britling as an impartial character to tell the story of WWI.
Lastly, Mr. Britling Sees it Through draws many comparisons between America and England at the start of WWI. These comparisons come from a British author, which is surprising and noteworthy because most American bestselling novels were written by an American or from the American perspective of events. This comparison is the most notable subject throughout the beginning of the novel. Wells writes, “Mr. Direck was a type of man not uncommon in America” (4). This is beginning of Wells painting many Americans to be similar, despite America priding itself on diversity and standing out from other countries. Wells also describes Mr. Direck as “that agreeable person who smiles and says, … ‘Yes, it’s a Wilkins, and that’s the best,’ or ‘My shirtfront never rucks; it’s a Chesson’” (4).
Evidently, Wells is using these idioms as class markers of Americans and subtly he is contrasting the British from Americans. Later in the novel, Wells’ makes another subtle comparison of Americans and British. He does this when Mr. Direck states, “I tell you I never knew there was such a thing as war until this happened to me, In America we don’t know there is such a thing” (216). Mr. Direck later goes on to compare war to “something in the story books” (217). Through these quotations, a similarity can be drawn between the feelings of British and Americans towards war. As mentioned in the above paragraph, the British were also coming to terms with WWI starting, and involving themselves in the war.
Additionally, Wells connects all three of the aforementioned themes in the novel when he seems to critique the class system of America and England. Firstly, Wells was criticizing a current social construct of the time, which was done in a satirical manner. This satire is evident when “Britling” is used as an adjective, such as when the goal of the hockey games is described as the “Britling goal” (85). Using the family name as an adjective is satirical because Wells overstates the family name, and it is used to describe something as small as the objective of a hockey game. It is also related to Wells in an autobiographical sense because of Wells’ rise through social classes during his life. Wells notoriously rose from the lower classes to becoming a world-famous author. As stated by Contemporary Authors Online, a scholarship Wells earned to attend boarding school saved him from a life serving the gentry (“H(erbert G(eorge) Wells”). Without this scholarship, it is very possible that Wells would not have ascended classes and become a bestselling author. Lastly, parts of the novel are a comparison between the England and America Wells knew. This is the most obvious of the points. It includes when Wells states that “if Matching’s Easy [where Mr. Britling lived] were in America, commuters would live there” (6). Here Wells is pointing out that Americans live outside of their means, while the British need fewer resources to live a comfortable life. Matching’s Easy is a large house, that in England is occupied by a rich British man. In America, normal, everyday people would want to live in such a large house, even if it was a great financial burden for them.
Mr. Britling Sees it Through shows that many bestsellers are similar in numerous facets, but each includes slightly different themes and topics. A notable dissimilarity for this novel is that Wells was a British author, but became a bestselling author in the United States. In his novel, Wells’ included the social aspects of a current event, an autobiographical character in Mr. Britling, and comparisons between Americans and the British people. By including these themes, Wells was able to write a heartfelt novel and somewhat autobiographical novel. With this genuine message, Wells was able to write a memorable novel that was a bestseller in both 1916 and 1917.
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