An American comes to visit a prominent British author just as World War I breaks out. An examination of war, politics, and philosophy.
This story is essentially the history of the opening and of the realisation of the Great War as it happened to one small group of people in Essex, and more particularly as it happened to one human brain. It came at first to all these people in a spectacular manner, as a thing happening dramatically and internationally, as a show, as something in the newspapers, something in the character of an historical epoch rather than a personal experience; only by slow degrees did it and its consequences invade the common texture of English life. If this story could be represented by sketches or pictures the central figure would be Mr. Britling, now sitting at his desk by day or by night and writing first at his tract “And Now War Ends” and then at other things, now walking about his garden or in Claverings park or going to and fro in London, in his club reading the ticker or in his hall reading the newspaper, with ideas and impressions continually clustering, expanding, developing more and more abundantly in his mind, arranging themselves, reacting upon one another, building themselves into generalisations and conclusions….
That’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through in H.G. Wells’ own nutshell. It’s a muddled, slow moving, and eventually deep and moving examination of war. While the American, Mr. Direck, starts the book off, he vanishes for large portions of the book, and is transparently a prop to provide both a small sub-story and a source of alternate views. Wells’ larger interest is in how to understand war, in the context of World War I. His meandering route leads through suburbs, the classic Briton (“The British mind has never really tolerated electricity; at least, not that sort of electricity that runs through wires. Too slippery and glib for it.”), the British political class (“But all governments and rulers and ruling classes when you look at them closely are incredible….”), pragmatic insularity (“The world is round—like an orange. The thing is told us—like any old scandal—at school. For all practical purposes we forget it. Practically we all live in a world as flat as a pancake. Where time never ends and nothing changes. Who really believes in any world outside the circle of the horizon?”), pathos (“Why are children ever crushed?”), self-control (“It’s the tenth day, it’s the odd seductive moment, it’s the instant of confident pride—and there is your sanguine temperament in the ditch.”), and, most of all, religion (‘ “Life,” said Cecily, “has either got to be religious or else it goes to pieces…. Perhaps anyhow it goes to pieces….” ‘).
It’s this last point that’s really at the heart of the book. What’s presented as a novel is manifestly a genuine effort to work through arguments for and against war, and to give some meaning to the pain it causes. In Wells’ case, the answer is religion.
“Religion is the first thing and the last thing, and until a man has found God and been found by God, he begins at no beginning, he works to no end. He may have his friendships, his partial loyalties, his scraps of honour. But all these things fall into place and life falls into place only with God. Only with God. God, who fights through men against Blind Force and Night and Non-Existence; who is the end, who is the meaning. He is the only King…. Of course I must write about Him. I must tell all my world of Him. And before the coming of the true King, the inevitable King, the King who is present whenever just men foregather, this blood-stained rubbish of the ancient world, these puny kings and tawdry emperors, these wily politicians and artful lawyers, these men who claim and grab and trick and compel, these war makers and oppressors, will presently shrivel and pass—like paper thrust into a flame….”.
It’s a recurring theme, but handled with a relatively light touch. There’s a portion at the end where a “happy Atheist” sees the light of an imperfect god with remarkable swiftness. (“She had been a happy Atheist. She had played in the sunshine, a natural creature with the completest confidence in the essential goodness of the world in which she found herself.”) Otherwise, though, the book isn’t particularly preachy – it’s Wells finding or inventing comfort where he can.
Wells clearly had an eye to the future – “That will help posterity to the proper values of things in 1914.” – and it is in fact interesting to read the book 100 years after it was published. Some things haven’t changed much. (“She said that she was a Socialist, and there was still in Mr. Direck’s composition a streak of the old-fashioned American prejudice against the word. He associated Socialists with Anarchists and deported aliens.”)
The book takes a complex position on war – at one point patriotic and supportive, at another repulsed and wounded. While placing the blame for World War I squarely on the German Kaiser, Wells freely admits that British causes have been little better. (“It was small consolation for Mr. Britling to reflect that English homes and women and children were, after all, undergoing only the same kind of experience that our ships have inflicted scores of times in the past upon innocent people in the villages of Africa and Polynesia…”) In many ways, the book describes both the foundering of idealism. (‘ “When it began I did not believe that this war could be like other wars,” he said. “I did not dream it. I thought that we had grown wiser at last. It seemed to me like the dawn of a great clearing up. I thought the common sense of mankind would break out like a flame, an indignant flame, and consume all this obsolete foolery of empires and banners and militarism directly it made its attack upon human happiness. A score of things that I see now were preposterous, I thought must happen—naturally.’) In the final reckoning, he turns against war as an instrument. (“It is plain to me, surely it is plain to you and all the world, that war is now a mere putting of the torch to explosives that flare out to universal ruin. There is nothing for one sane man to write to another about in these days but the salvation of mankind from war.”) But Wells doesn’t give up on idealism – he’s hopeful. (“His purpose in the book he was beginning to write was to reason out the possible methods of government that would give a stabler, saner control to the world. He believed still in democracy, but he was realising more and more that democracy had yet to discover its method. It had to take hold of the consciences of men, it had to equip itself with still unformed organisations. Endless years of patient thinking, of experimenting, of discussion lay before mankind ere this great idea could become reality, and right, the proven right thing, could rule the earth.”)
It’s not an entirely dark book. In fact, much of it is modestly light-hearted. (“…in his zeal to tell it he did not at once discover that though Mr. Britling knew French quite well he did not know it very rapidly.”) But while it’s clothed as a novel, the book is primarily a treatise – one of the many pamphlets that Mr. Britling sits down to write but never finishes. It’s slow, sometimes dull and heavy-handed, but it’s enlivened with humor (Mr. Britling’s belief that he can somehow be helpful to the war effort, so long as the role includes a brassard.). Stick with it long enough, and Britling’s musings on the war take on a depth that build on the slower material early on.
Overall, not a great novel, but a very interesting and revealing look at how one thoughtful Briton saw the arrival and development of World War I, and war in general.