"When the Lamps Went Out": H. G. Wells and His World on the Eve of the War location:Durham (GB) date:27 September 2014
In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells’ incredibly successful 1916 book, one of the Wellsian alter egos that are so characteristic for his oeuvre is “passing along the road towards the Dower House.” The scene comes at the end – although it is not the end – of a book that forms the conscious intervention of the public intellectual seeking to provide interpretation and guidance for an audience that was forced to react to the crisis of war. What is important in Mr. Britling however is that it is shaped by another crisis (although it is largely the same crisis according to the book) that is most strikingly evoked when Mr. Britling is passing along the road towards Dower House, “receding up the hill, atlas and papers in his hands behind his back”; or to put it better, it is most strikingly evoked by the fact that Mr. Britling walking with his atlas is a display for the other characters who are engaged in conversation on account of Teddy’s homecoming. As they look at “the knickerbockered figure” through the window, Letty stops her husband when he is about to go and tell Mr. Britling the good news, having “a vision of Mr. Britling suddenly called out of his dreams of God ruling the United States of the World, to rejoice at Teddy’s restoration...” and telling her husband to “‘[l]eave him to dream over his atlas... He isn’t so desolate – if you knew... [...] Let him go... He has God and his atlas there... They’re more than you think.’” My paper will attempt to read scenes such as these as moments that highlight the crisis of the public intellectual itself. Right when he or she is formulating political, social and personal redemption from the problems that are the origin of the need of the public intellectual in the first place, the mode itself that allows for the judgment call is exposed to an irony it itself has invited. The role of the public intellectual himself (in this case) as the purveyor of judgment is threatened not by the collapse, as Mr. Britling seems to suggest at times, that is caused by the message and its content, but by the ironic mode that is demanded from a scene where a grey old man is rummaging through atlases in an attempt to redraw the borders of nation states.