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H.G. WELLS: SCIENTIFIC ROMANCE AT THE FIN DE SIÈCLE (Part 1)

The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor

INTRODUCTION

The term Fin de Siècle is more immediately suggestive of writers and artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley than a figure such as H. G. Wells. The bulk of Wells’s prodigious oeuvre was produced in the early to middle twentieth century, which tends to make one think of him as “belonging” more to that period. However, some of his most famous and enduring works, produced and avidly consumed during what we call the Fin de Siècle period, reveal the young Wells to be an author who was very much addressing, and helping to inform, the concerns of this time. Of the polyphony of voices that contribute to our understanding of the period’s anxieties and preoccupations, his is revealed to be an audacious and invaluable one.  

Wells, as a writer and thinker, seems far removed from the movement which is almost synonymous with the “Fin de Siècle aesthetic”, that of the decadents. The influence of French symbolist writers such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Villiers d’Isle-Adam on Wilde, Beardsley and others, has come to define for us the essence of the period. More than this, however, the term Fin de Siècle itself, in its particular cultural moment and subsequently, has come to be used as, as Lyn Pykett puts it, “a kind of shorthand [used] to denote a set of values and a lifestyle that together virtually constitute a cultural formation” [1]. This “cultural formation” consisted of a certain self-conscious aestheticism, where art represented the very highest of values. Other considerations, such as utilitarianism, morality and basically any of the deeply ingrained Victorian sensibilities, were anathema to this cult of aestheticism.

Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, circa 1862

Bernard Bergonzi, in his classic study, The Early H.G. Wells (to which the present study is indebted), has said, “In its widest sense fin de siècle was simply the expression of a prevalent mood: the feeling that the nineteenth century – which had contained more events, more history than any other – had gone on too long, and that sensitive souls were growing weary of it”. [3]

Contiguous to the Fin de Siècle zeitgeist, was the myth of Fin du Globe: the feeling that history had run its course and western culture had no future. The nineteenth century had contained so many events, discoveries and innovations it seemed as though a decline and collapse of civilisation was now inevitable. As Bergonzi points out, a very early use of the phrase appears in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Fin de siècle,’ murmured Lord Henry.
Fin du globe,’ answered his hostess.
‘I wish it were fin du globe,’ said Dorian with a sigh.
‘Life is a great disappointment.’ [209]

The cover of the July, 1890 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, where “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was first published

However, this was not limited to the aesthetic movement. The nineteenth century had, amongst other things, witnessed major breakthroughs in the fields of biology and geology. In biology, the findings of Darwin and others had revealed that humankind was not as distinct from the animal kingdom as was hitherto believed; in fact the theory of evolution had all but obliterated the distinction. If humans had evolved from simians, then we are simply another species of animal. The implications for morality and, more crucially, for Christianity, were enormous.  Similarly, the discoveries within geology regarding the existence of “deep time” – that the earth was a great deal older than was previously suspected – had also belittled the human’s significance in “the scheme of things”. If all of human history was little more than the blink of an eye in the wider history of the planet, then what did this say about the central position that ‘man’ had accorded himself within it? This “world explosion of knowledge” [56], as Kelly Hurley puts it, had a devastating effect on the received notions that the Victorians and their forebears had counted on as being inarguable realities:

Not only did the new sciences demolish a comfortable anthropocentrism, but they also problematized the relation between external appearances and internal reality, most notably in the case of the human body. The human being was not the distinctive creature that it appeared to be on the surface: its lowly origins could be traced by the zoologist, who dissected to find internal structural similarities between human and animal bone, muscle and tissue; by the embryologist, who posited that ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny – that the human individual passed through its whole history of species evolution during gestation; by the microbiologist, who demonstrated that like all other organisms, humans were, in their most basic components, nothing more than globs of protoplasm. [Hurley, 56]

Le Chateau d’eau and plaza, Exposition Universal, 1900, Paris, France

Of course, there was much resistance to these radical new concepts. In addition to outright denial and disbelief in some quarters, there were (and still are) attempts to reconcile them with the previous body of “knowledge”. For example, many saw in Darwinism a narrative that corresponded with their Victorian notions of progress; humankind had evolved from the animal kingdom and was continuing on a journey towards ultimate perfection. However, these optimistic ideas, whilst comforting, were based on a flawed understanding of the process of evolution. As natural selection is basically a random process, such melioristic interpretations of the theory amount to little more than wishful thinking. Nature does not inherently favour one organism over another, the case is rather that humanity has gained the ascendancy through a random convergence of favourable conditions.

Another side effect of the advent of evolutionary theory was the emergence of the psuedo-scientific discourse of “degeneration”. Degeneration theory posited, reasonably enough, that if a species is capable of “upward” evolution, then a “downward” trend is equally possible. If a species evolves through its conquering of adverse conditions and environments, then a downward spiral is perhaps inevitable when all such obstacles are overcome. However, the theory itself was informed by racist attitudes; the assumption was that while the white European represented the apex of evolution, “primitive” non-westerners were existing in an earlier, less evolved state. But it did not stop there: accusations of degeneration were also levelled at, for example, the urban under-classes, homosexuals, and the Irish. The thinking was that such people were on a backward slide; that they were somehow reverting back to their bestial origins. As Lyn Pykett has noted: “Degeneration was one of the great organising ideas of the late nineteenth century – a heuristic fiction which had a profound impact on literary fiction.” [13]

Dr. Max Nordau

Hugely influential in the promulgation of this fiction was one Max Nordau, whose book, entitled Degeneration, was published in an English translation in 1895. In it, he makes the case that almost all contemporary exponents of the arts, from Wagner to the French symbolists, were displaying signs of degeneration in their work. Much of this he describes as the product of “fin de siècle exhaustion” [Hurley 74]; a collective sense of fatigue at the accelerated pace of life, of scientific discoveries and technological innovation. Nordau’s analysis is single-minded in its objective, and as a result it could be said that he finds exactly want he wants to find. However, Bergonzi notes that:

If we discount the excesses of Nordau’s rhetoric, we see in his analysis some of the essential elements of the fin de siècle: the disappearance of old and familiar forms – whether in art or behaviour or intellectual attitudes – and their replacement by forms which are new and strange and even bizarre. [7]

It is highly unlikely that Wells, a man of science who studied biology under T.H. Huxley, had any sympathy with such unscientific and hysterical notions of what constituted ‘degeneration’, although it is known that he was rather disdainful of the aesthetic movement in general, considering himself to be a less an artist and more a journalist. However, through close readings of his early “scientific romances”, it can be seen that they present new intellectual attitudes, and in forms that are “new and strange and even bizarre.” Furthermore, the discourses of evolution, degeneration and Fin du Globe are explored in great depth within his work, making him, perhaps, a quintessential Fin de Siècle artist. Due to space constraints, the focus of this study has been narrowed to three of his early romances: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The Invisible Man (1897).

H.G. Wells

Part 1
THE TIME MACHINE

With The Time Machine it could be said that Wells produced the ultimate Fin de Siècle novel. Through the Time Traveler’s sojourn in the year A.D. 802,701, and his subsequent journey far beyond it, we are given a exploration of the possibilities suggested by the contemporaneous obsessions with evolution, degeneration, “deep time” and the cult of decadence and aestheticism, in addition to addressing the cultural phenomenon of the “two-tier” society brought about by burgeoning industrialisation. That the tale has subsequently attained the status of a modern myth or fable, is perhaps due to its ruminations upon these concerns, overlapping as they do with those of our own, not too far removed, era. In addition to showing us what he considered to be the logical end results of his society’s faults, Wells goes one step beyond this to give us a glimpse of the literal Fin du Globe.

One of the reasons why Wells’s narrative is so effective is in its framing device, which grounds the fantastical elements in some semblance of reality. Taking place in a recognisably late Victorian milieu, the device is, as John Batchelor and others have pointed out “identical with that of Heart of Darkness” [11]. We enter the tale where “the Time Traveler” (as he is referred to throughout the book) is having an after-dinner discussion with some friends, various representatives of recognisable professions; in fact most of these characters remain unnamed, being instead referred to as, for example,  “The Psychologist” [3], “The Medical Man” [5] and “The Provincial Mayor” [4]. As the tale is narrated by the Time Traveler’s friend, present at the dinner party, and purports to be a story related to him by the Traveler, the reader is given enough distance to provide them with a “get-out clause”; if they find the story impossible to relate to imaginatively, they are free to dismiss the tale as “some hoax” [89] or “a gaudy lie”. [89] In other words, this aids the reader’s suspension of disbelief. As Bergonzi has put it, “Wells demands assent by apparently discouraging it, a device he was frequently to use in his fantastic short stories” [43].

The characters are at the outset of what appears to be a scientific discussion led by our Time Traveller. Wells is both vague and precise enough about the scientific details to allow the reader to go along with what is to come. For example, the Traveller states that:

any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness and – Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook that fact. There are really four dimensions, three of which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. [4]

Such statements, sounding scientific enough to the layman, work to give the impression that the tale has some sort of scientific basis, and hence some basis in reality and not merely “out-and-out” fantasy.

When the Time Traveler initially arrives in the year 802,701, he is concerned that he will appear primitive to the people he finds there; “I might seem some old-world savage animal, only the more dreadful and disgusting for our common likeness.” [22] Here he reveals his deeply ingrained late-Victorian attitudes, not only in his assumption that an advanced civilisation of the future would pertain to something akin to nineteenth century western imperialist ideology, but also in his foreboding that “the race” may have “lost its manliness” [22].  

What he finds, however, is that, whilst the denizens of this future age, the Eloi and the Morlocks, are indeed virtually androgynous, his other fear at least is ungrounded. As Anthony West puts it: “Both are hopelessly degenerate, and neither considers the Time Traveler an old-world savage, because neither group is capable of sufficient sustained thought to frame so elaborate a concept”. [13]

His first sight of an Eloi brings to the reader’s mind the ideal of physical beauty shared by some members of the aesthetic movement: “He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive – that hectic beauty of the kind we used to hear so much”. [23]

The Eloi, who, as Brian Aldiss has said, “are echoed in those pale lost lilies of people who haunt Beardsley’s and Walter Crane’s drawings” [Billion 115-116], at first appear to be the only species of humanity inhabiting the space where London once existed. The Time Traveler, noting their frail frames and lack of intellect, quickly begins to realise that he “has happened upon humanity on the wane” [31] and starts to build up a picture of what has occurred in the intervening millennia. Here, he realises, is degeneration in action. In earlier times humans have achieved mastery over their environment through scientific and technological advances, eliminating everything from disease, war and famine, to weeds and common pests, and as a result have nothing left to strive for or against. With all struggle behind them, it seems the human race has inevitably degraded. As Kelly Hurley has noted:

The Eloi are in many ways an embodiment of the worst fears of the degenerationists […]. One strand of evolutionist theory identified ‘savages’, women and children as three types of inferior humanity, evincing in common certain moral and mental inadequacies that signalled their incomplete state of evolution; and the Eloi have simultaneously ‘fallen’ or devolved into primitiveness, effeminacy and childishness. [83]

However, while the Time Traveler’s guess that the Eloi are a degenerate strand of the human species is correct, he still labours under at least two major misconceptions at this point. For one thing, he perceives their seeming lack of familial structures and private property to be indicative of the eventual triumph of communism over capitalism as an ideology. He initially finds their relaxed, pastoral way of life rather charming, despite their lack of mental ability. His other major misconception lies in his assumption that they are the only form of humanity inhabiting this future age.

His subsequent discovery of the existence of the Morlocks completely strips him of both of these false premises. Far from representing a triumph of communism, the existence of these two distinct strands of humanity rather points to the successful continuation of the capitalist system of the Traveler’s own era. It transpires that the Eloi are in fact the distant descendants of the decadent ruling elite and that the Morlocks are those of the “lower” or working classes. What Disraeli called the “two nations” have diverged to the point where they have become different species; one has claimed the earth’s surface and driven the other underground to live in perpetual darkness. The descendants of the ruling classes have hence over time become ever more comfortable and indolent thanks to the labours of the proletariat, and this is what has brought about their degeneration into the essentially useless Eloi.

But it doesn’t end there: Marx metaphorically spoke of the relationship between the two spheres in terms of vampirism, with the ruling classes and bourgeoisie living off the life-blood of the proletariat. Now that the dominant class, freed of all struggle, have devolved into the ineffectual Eloi, the tables have been dramatically turned; now it is the descendants of the formerly oppressed classes who – quite literally – cannibalise them. As Peter Kemp has observed:

Treated as a separate species by the Eloi-section of humanity, the Morlock class has gradually evolved into one; the taboo on eating the flesh of one’s own species no longer holds; and biological retribution enables a class which was economically preyed upon to get its revenge by carnivorous preying. [13]

The Morlocks are described as being “ape-like” [44] as opposed to the “beautiful” [23] Eloi, which suggests their particular form of degeneration is of a kind which represents a reversion to humankind’s bestial origins rather than ‘languor and decay’ [33]: one obvious parallel is in the similarly simian “Mr Hyde” of Stevenson’s novel. However, certain aspects of the Morlocks appear to have much more in common with the nineteenth century westerner than the Eloi. The Morlocks are industrious, “white” [44], and have the ability to construct, maintain and operate complicated machinery and factories. Most of their labours are, are far as the reader is made aware, directed to the purpose of maintaining their supply of “livestock”. Another similarity between the Morlocks and the Traveler, that the Eloi do not share, is that they both consume meat. Wells emphasizes this particular similarity when the Traveler returns to his own time and, despite all the horrors he has witnessed, one of the first things that he does is “[sniff] good wholesome meat” [87].

However, despite apparently having more in common with the ape-like Morlocks, his sympathies remain squarely with the Eloi: “However great their intellectual degradation, the Eloi had kept too much of their human form not to claim my sympathy, and to make me perforce a sharer in their degradation and their fear.” [62]

Not only this, but the Morlocks summon up an almost bestial bloodlust within him, causing him to state at one point that he “longed very much to kill a Morlock or so.” [67] It is his very similarity to the ape-like, darkness-dwelling Morlocks that fuels his hatred and disgust of them. “Civilised humanity” can perhaps only be defined in terms of what it is not, and this hatred is, as Hurley has put it, “an assertion of his own separateness from the Thing-ness they represent.” [87]

A telling episode takes place in the scene where the Traveler investigates what he has dubbed the “Palace of Green Porcelain”. Compared by the Traveler to the South Kensington Museum of his and the young Wells’s time, the Palace can be seen to represent the sum total of the Victorians’ conquests and achievements. The South Kensington Museum was built on the proceeds from the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was as Robin Gilmour puts it, “a witness to the international dominance of British manufactures” [13] as well as being a celebration of Britain’s colonial dominance. Now, however, in the fullness of time, the machines are “greatly corroded” [66], the flags are “tattered” [67] and the books have “long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print [has] left them.” [67] Here is found the sum total of western civilisation’s “greatness”, illustrating the futility of such human attempts at “immortality”, in the face the implications of deep time. All the Traveler finds of any real use to him are an ancient mace and a box of matches with which to combat the Morlocks. Aside from the two hopelessly degenerate races that have evolved from it, this is the sole legacy of our great civilisation.

In the penultimate chapter, when the Traveler has regained his machine and travels far beyond 802, 701, we see dramatised the transitory nature, not only of humankind and ‘civilisation’, but of the very earth itself. If an object, as stated in the first chapter, exists in four dimensions, the fourth being “Duration” [4], then the planet itself is obviously not exempt from this. The Traveler moves millions of years further into the future, and sees the sky grow increasingly darker and “the sun, red and very large, [halting] motionless upon the horizon.” [81-2] All traces of humanoid life have long since disappeared and he sees only “a thing like a huge white butterfly” that emits a “harsh scream” [82] and dozens of slow moving “monstrous crab-like creature[s]” [83]. Finally, more than thirty million years in the future, the world is darker still and the only life he sees is “a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about”. [85]    In this undeniably disturbing chapter, we see Wells offering us a dramatisation of what a contemporary reviewer called “that last fin de siècle, when earth is moribund and man has ceased to be” [cited in Bergonzi, 60]. Furthermore, the scene embodies contemporary unease surrounding the Fin du Globe in a more powerful and certainly in a more literal sense than perhaps anything else produced in the period. Through the Time Traveler’s eyes we see not only the end of civilisation but of the planet itself; there are no grounds for hope and optimism here, only nihilism and despair. The era in which we live is simply the blink of an eye, and the planet merely a speck of dust in an infinite, cold, and uncaring universe.

To be continued in parts 2 and 3…


Works Cited

Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1973.

Aldiss, Brian. Introduction. The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells. London: Everyman, 1993.

Batchelor, John. H.G. Wells. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Early H. G. Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961.

Borello, Alfred. H. G. Wells: Author in Agony. Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1972.

Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. Chicago: Chicago Academy Publishers, 1992.

Gilmour, Robin. The Victorian Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1830-1890. Harlow: Longman, 1993.

Hammond, John. An H. G. Wells Companion. London: Macmillan, 1979.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siécle. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kemp, Peter. H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Parrinder, Patrick. H. G. Wells. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1970.

Philmus, Robert M. ‘The Logic of “Prophecy” in The Time MachineH. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 56-68.

Priest, Christopher. Introduction. The Invisible Man (1897) by H.G. Wells. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Pritchett, V. S. ‘The Scientific Romances’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 32-38.

Pykett, Lyn. Introduction. Reading Fin de Siécle Fictions. Ed. Lyn Pykett. Harlow: Longman, 1996. 1-21.

Weeks, Robert P. ‘Disentanglement as a theme in H. G. Wells’s fiction’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 25-31.

Wells, H. G. The Invisible Man (1897). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

–. The Time Machine (1895). London: Penguin Classics, 2005.

West, Anthony. ‘H. G. Wells.’ H. G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Bernard Bergonzi. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976. 8-24.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Toronto: Broadview, 1998.

About Rob Talbot

Returning from early days of Diabolique, Rob Talbot is a compulsive writer and cult cinema obsessive. He also writes for UK horror magazine Scream, including the popular 'Eurohorror of the Week' column for their website, and has also been published extensively in Starburst and Bedabbled!: British Horror & Cult Cinema, amongst others. Other obsessions include Italian soundtracks, Krautrock, and hard SF novels.

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