I came across a peculiar piece of schlock science today. An evolutionary theorist has uttered the prediction that, within about 100,000 years from now, the human race may develop into two separate and unequal breeds, a scenario akin to the one H. G. Wells created in his sci-fi thriller The Time Machine over a century ago. Our descendants will either be nasty, brutish and short, or else graceful, fragile and overcultivated, enslaved by technology and a fear of Hobbsian life in the state of nature. In other words, a world of Morlock and Eloi.
Wells’s fictions strike me as rather more urgent and compelling than such a pseudo-scientific hypothesizing about the shape of things to come. As Orson Welles and his collaborators drove home when they brought The War of the Worlds to radio (as discussed here), they invite us to translate the grim visions of the future into a commentary on the none-too-bright world of today. If the time machine had not returned home, the ride would be pretty much wasted.
In some of his smartest if lesser-known novels, Wells dispensed with the creation of seemingly distant worlds as stand-ins for close and contemporary ones. Instead, he documented what was separate and unequal in his own society, examining the clash of classes and the battle of the sexes. One such Wellsian commentaries, which I am currently reading, is Ann Veronica (1909), an incisive comedy about women’s struggle for equality.
I owe this discovery, and quite a few others besides, to my daily excursions into the realm of old-time radio—another trip not worth taking if you are not prepared to transport something back with you into your here and now. It was a remark made by Lost Horizon author James Hilton on the NBC University Theater that brought Ann Veronica to my attention.
On 3 April 1949, Hilton shared his thoughts on Jane Eyre with the listeners of the NBC University Theater, which presented a dramatization of the novel (as discussed here) with Deborah Kerr in the title role.
Considering how frothy the conclusion of the new four-part BBC television adaptation of Jane Eyre turned out to be last Sunday, Hilton’s lecture may serve as a reminder of the original’s “shocking” and groundbreaking qualities as the “first great novel that emancipated woman emotionally by portraying her not merely as the passive recipient of man’s favor, but as the possessor of rightful and independent passion of which she need not be ashamed.” This “battle” of Jane Eyre and her heirs, so Hilton, continued into the twentieth century, until Wells “fired the last shot” with Ann Veronica.
I just had to find out how that shot was going off, even though I could hardly agree that it was to be the last. I am grateful to Hilton for having brought Ann Veronica to my attention, happy to be following its rebellious heroine in her quest to grow up an equal to the men around her. “She wanted to live,” Wells’s narrator sums it up; but
all the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these grey swathings hid.
Ann Veronica “wanted to know,” but was little helped by a father who held that women were creatures “either too bad for a modern vocabulary, and then frequently most undesirably desirable, or too pure and good for life.” Anxious to mingle with socialists and suffragettes, she very much resented being cast as an Eloi in a sheltered upper-middle class world apart from if beleaguered by the hoi polloi many of her class regarded as terrifyingly Morlockian.
To be sure, that feeling of being segregated, set aside or typecast, can hit you at any time in your life; nor are societal conventions oppressive to women only, as Wells demonstrated in another one of his remarkable comedies, The History of Mr. Polly. Like young Ann Veronica, the middle-aged Mr. Polly is eager to escape the strictures of a narrowly defined existence, a life of many divisions and few diversions.
On this day, 17 October, in 1948, the NBC University Theater presented Mr. Polly starring Boris Karloff, an actor whose career in film was similarly circumscribed by the (di)visions of men who profit from such classifications (as I remarked here exactly one year ago). It feels right to return to Wells now, whose gleefully staged domestic battles are often overlooked in favor of his more somber epic ones. I, for one, don’t require the thrills and frills of an elaborate Halloween party to appreciate an attempt to unmask human nature.