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The History of Mr Polly (1910) by H G Wells

By Erica
The History of Mr Polly (1910) by H G WellsJohn Mills as Mr Polly in the 1949 film of the book.

Book Review by Sylvia D: The last time the Reading Group considered books by H G Wells, I read Ann Veronica which, with the exception of the frustrating dénouement, I enjoyed. I was hoping Mr Polly would be equally entertaining, but was disappointed.

We first meet Mr Polly when he is 37 and a half years old and is sitting on a stile near his home in the seaside town of Fishbourne. He has been running a draper’s shop for 15 years – not very successfully – and is on the verge of bankruptcy. He is dyspeptic, unfit, and has fallen out with all the neighbouring shopkeepers. He is in a loveless marriage and is completely disillusioned with life.

The next 117 pages relate how Mr P has arrived at this stage of affairs – the death of his mother when he was seven, his sketchy education, his resorting to adventure novels as a means of escape, his apprenticeship in the outfitters section of a department store where he enjoyed the friendship of two other apprentices, his sacking when he asked for a rise, his useless attempts to find another job, his move to London, his failure to hold down any work he does secure, his lonely wanderings at the weekends, the death of his father and his meeting at the funeral with his mother’s sister and her three daughters, his infatuation with a school girl only to be humiliated by her and her friends, his marriage on the rebound to Miriam, the youngest of his cousins, his acquiring his own shop and the drudgery and boredom of the ensuing years. He

‘hated the whole scheme of life – which was at once excessive and inadequate of him. He hated Fishbourne, he hated Fishbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours – every blessed neighbor – and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself.’

Sitting on the stile, he decides to end it all and set light to the house and hated shop in such a way that the fire would seem accidental and his wife would be able to benefit from the insurance money. However, when he has set fire to the place and is about to cut his throat with a broken bottle, he has a change of heart and remembering the deaf old lady on her own in the adjoining building, he dashes out to summon help. He rescues the old lady and is feted as a hero.

Polly suddenly realises that he has the power to change things,

‘But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting.’

Whereupon, he just walks out and wanders the countryside sleeping rough until he chances up at the Potwell Inn with its friendly landlady. He becomes the inn’s handyman, sees off her grasping and aggressive nephew and then, after five blissful years – his ‘something brighter, something more agreeable’ – is suddenly conscience-stricken about his wife and returns to Fishbourne only to discover she and her sister are running a teashop and doing very well. He slips quietly away and returns to the inn.

The novel can be read as a comedy. There are some vaguely amusing set pieces such as the occasion when his apprentice friend is dressing one of the department store’s windows in an outrageous way and gets into an altercation with the horrified owner. The wake after his father’s funeral is depicted by a confusing series of snatches of conversation and his own and Miriam’s wedding is enlivened by the introduction of the flamboyant Uncle Voules. Wells also introduces a device intended to make the reader smile: he makes Polly misuse words in a jokey way in an attempt to better portray what he is really thinking, thus the ‘Zealacious commerciality’ of an earnest china dealer or the ‘Cultured Rapacacity’ of American tourists in Canterbury who come for a ‘Voracious Return to the Heritage’.

However, the novel is equally a satire on the English educational system, on social inequality and on the class system all of which Wells sees as condemning large swathes of the population to dreary and unfulfilling lives. The effect is weakened though by the way he pokes fun at the shop-keeping and lower middle classes. It’s as if, having achieved success himself, he can express little sympathy for those whom circumstance has fated to live a life of drudgery.

I found Wells’ treatment of his women characters dreadful. There isn’t one that is treated in a sympathetic way – his aunt is silly, his eldest cousin is loud, the second cousin we hardly learn anything about at all and Miriam is portrayed as an untidy housekeeper and a bad cook who makes his life a misery. We never even learning the name of the inn-keeper who is purely depicted as plump or fat depending on who is describing her. The deaf old lady just makes inane comments whilst she is being rescued which I suppose the reader is meant to find funny. The other women characters are silent.

There is the occasional interesting social detail such as the description of the sleeping arrangements for the department stores’ apprentices in a bleak dormitory but on the whole I found the story, with Polly’s lack of purpose and the way he is constantly bemoaning his lot, rather tedious, his neologisms unamusing and his self-obsession dispiriting.

My husband tells me he had to read The History of Mr Polly for O-Level and never managed to finish it! The novel was made into a film with John Mills in 1949 and there was a TV movie in 2007.

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