Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman’
By H. G. Wells (1866–1946)
Chapter the Ninth
Mr. Brumley is Troubled by Difficult Ideas

THEN as that picture of a post office pane, smashed and with a large hole knocked clean through it, fades at last upon the reader’s consciousness, let another and a kindred spectacle replace it. It is the carefully cleaned and cherished window of Mr. Brumley’s mind, square and tidy and as it were “frosted” against an excess of light, and in that also we have now to record the most jagged all and devastating fractures.  1
  Little did Mr. Brumley reckon, when first he looked up from his laces at Black Strand, how completely that pretty young woman in the dark furs was destined to shatter all the assumptions that had served his life.  2
  But you have already had occasion to remark a change in Mr. Brumley’s bearing and attitude that carries him far from the kindly and humorous conservatism of his earlier work. You have shared Lady Harman’s astonishment at the ardor of his few stolen words in the garden, an astonishment that not only grew but flowered in the silences of her captivity, and you know something of the romantic impulses, more at least than she did, that gave his appearance at the little local railway station so belated and so disreputable a flavor. In the chilly ill-flavored solitude of her prison cell and with a mind quickened by meagre and distasteful fare, Lady Harman had ample leisure to reflect upon many things: she had already fully acquainted herself with the greater proportion of Mr. Brumley’s published works, and she found the utmost difficulty in reconciling the flushed impassioned quality of his few words of appeal, with the moral assumptions of his published opinions. On the whole she was inclined to think that her memory had a little distorted what he had said. In this however she was mistaken; Mr. Brumley had really been proposing an elopement and he was now entirely preoccupied with the idea of rescuing, obtaining, and possessing Lady Harman for himself as soon as the law released her.  3
  One may doubt whether this extensive change from a humorous conservatism to a primitive and dangerous romanticism is to be ascribed entirely to the personal charm, great as it no doubt was, of Lady Harman; rather did her tall soft dark presence come to release a long accumulating store of discontent and unrest beneath the polished surfaces of Mr. Brumley’s mind. Things had been stirring in him for some time; the later Euphemia books had lacked much of the freshness of their precursors and he had found it increasingly hard, he knew not why, to keep up the lightness, the geniality, the friendly badinage of successful and accepted things, the sunny disregard of the grim and unamiable aspects of existence, that were the essential merits of that Optimistic Period of our literature in which Mr. Brumley had begun his career. With every justification in the world Mr. Brumley had set out to be an optimist, even in the Granta his work had been distinguished by its gay yet steadfast superficiality, and his early success, his rapid popularity, had done much to turn this early disposition into a professional attitude. He had determined that for all his life he would write for comfortable untroubled people in the character of a light-spirited, comfortable, untroubled person, and that each year should have its book of connubial humor, its travel in picturesque places, its fun and its sunshine, like roses budding in succession on a stem. He did his utmost to conceal from himself the melancholy realization that the third and the fourth roses were far less wonderful than the first and the second, and that by continuing the descending series a rose might be attained at last that was almost unattractive, but he was already beginning to suspect that he was getting less animated and a little irritable when Euphemia very gently and gracefully but very firmly and rather enigmatically died, and after an interval of tender and tenderly expressed regrets he found himself, in spite of the most strenuous efforts to keep bright and kindly and optimistic in the best style, dull and getting duller—he could disguise the thing no longer. And he weighed more. Six—eight—eleven pounds more. He took a flat in London, dined and lunched out lightly but frequently, sought the sympathetic friendship of several charming ladies, and involved himself deeply in the affairs of the Academic Committee. Indeed he made a quite valiant struggle to feel that optimism was just where it always had been and everything all right and very bright with him and with the world about him. He did not go under without a struggle. But as Max Beerbohm’s caricature—the 1908 one I mean—brought out all too plainly, there was in his very animation something of the alert liveliness of the hunted man. Do what he would he had a terrible irrational feeling that things, as yet scarce imagined things, were after him and would have him. Even as he makes his point, even as he gesticulates airily, with his rather distinctively North European nose Beerbohmically enlarged and his sensitive nostril in the air, he seems to be looking at something he does not want to look at, something conceivably pursuing, out of the corner of his eye.  4
  The thing that was assailing Mr. Brumley and making his old established humor and tenderness seem dull and opaque and giving this new uneasy quality to his expression was of course precisely the thing that Sir Isaac meant when he talked about “idees” and their disturbing influence upon all the once assured tranquillities and predominances of Putney life. It was criticism breaking bounds.  5
  As a basis and substance for the tissue of whimsically expressed happiness and confident appreciation of the good things of life, which Mr. Brumley had set before himself as his agreeable—and it was to be hoped popular and profitable—life-task, certain assumptions had been necessary. They were assumptions he had been very willing to make and which were being made in the most exemplary way by the writers who were succeeding all about him at the commencement of his career. And these assumptions had had such an air then of being quite trustworthy, as being certain to wash and wear! Already nowadays it is difficult to get them stated; they have become incredible while still too near to justify the incredibility that attaches to history. It was assumed, for example, that in the institutions, customs, and culture of the middle Victorian period, humanity had, so far as the broad lines of things are concerned, achieved its goal. There were of course still bad men and women—individually—and classes one had to recognize as “lower,” but all the main things were right, general ideas were right; the law was right, institutions were right, Consols and British Railway Debentures were right and were going to keep right for ever. The Abolition of Slavery in America had been the last great act which had inaugurated this millennium. Except for individual instances the tragic intensities of life were over now and done with; there was no more need for heroes and martyrs; for the generality of humanity the phase of genial comedy had begun. There might be improvements and refinements ahead, but social, political, and economic arrangement were now in their main outlines settled for good and all; nothing better was possible and it was the agreeable task of the artist and the man of letters to assist and celebrate this establishment. There was to be much editing of Shakespeare and Charles Lamb, much delightful humor and costume romance, and an Academy of refined Fine Writers would presently establish belles-lettres on the reputable official basis, write finis to creative force, and undertake the task of stereotyping the language. Literature was to have its once terrible ferments reduced to the quality of a helpful pepsin. Ideas were dead—or domesticated. The last wild idea, in an impoverished and pitiful condition, had been hunted down and killed in the mobbing of ‘The Woman Who Did.’ For a little time the world did actually watch a phase of English writing that dared nothing, penetrated nothing, suppressed everything, and aspired at most to Charm, creep like a transitory patch of sunlight across a storm-rent universe. And vanish….  6
  At no time was it a perfectly easy task to pretend that the crazy makeshifts of our legal and political systems, the staggering accidents of economic relationship, the festering disorder of contemporary philosophy and religious teaching, the cruel and stupid bed of King Og that is our last word in sexual adjustment, really constituted a noble and enduring sanity, and it became less and less so with the acute disillusionments that arose out of the Boer War. The first decade of the twentieth century was for the English a decade of badly sprained optimism. Our Empire was nearly beaten by a handful of farmers amidst the jeering contempt of the whole world—and we felt it acutely for several years. We began to question ourselves. Mr. Brumley found his gay but entirely respectable irresponsibility harder and harder to keep up as that decade wore on. And close upon the South African trouble came that extraordinary new discontent of women with a woman’s lot which we have been observing as it reached and troubled the life of Lady Harman. Women who had hitherto so passively made the bulk of that reading public which sustained Mr. Brumley and his kind—they wanted something else!  7
  And behind and beneath these immediately disconcerting things still more sinister hintings and questioning were beginning to pluck at contentment. In 1899 nobody would have dreamt of asking and in 1909 even Mr. Brumley was asking, “Are things going on much longer?” A hundred little incidents conspired to suggest that a Christianity that had, to put it mildly, shirked the Darwinian challenge, had no longer the palliating influence demanded of a national religion, and that down there in the deep levels of labor where they built railways to carry Mr. Brumley’s food and earn him dividends, where they made engines and instruments and textiles and drains for his little needs, there was a new, less bounded discontent, a grimmer spirit, something that one tried in vain to believe was only the work of “agitators,” something that was to be pacified no longer by the thin pretences of liberalism, something that might lead ultimately—optimism scarcely dared to ask whither….  8
  Mr. Brumley did his best to resist the influence of these darkening ideas. He tried to keep it up that everything was going well and that most of these shadows and complaints were the mischief of a few incurably restless personalities. He tried to keep it up that to belong to the working class was a thoroughly jolly thing—for those who were used to it. He declared that all who wanted to alter our laws or our ideas about property or our methods of production were envious and base and all who wanted any change between the sexes, foolish or vicious. He tried to go on disposing of socialists, agitators, feminists, women’s suffragists, educationists, and every sort of reformer with a good-humored contempt. And he found an increasing difficulty in keeping his contempt sufficiently good-humored. Instead of laughing down at folly and failure, he had moments when he felt that he was rather laughing up—a little wryly—at monstrous things impending. And since ideas are things of atmosphere and the spirit, insidious wolves of the soul, they crept up to him and gnawed the insides out of him even as he posed as their manful antagonist.  9
  Insensibly Mr. Brumley moved with his times. It is the necessary first phase in the break-up of any system of unsound assumptions that a number of its votaries should presently set about padding its cutting corners and relieving the harsh pressure of its injustices by exuberance of humor and sentimentality. Mr. Brumley became charitable and romantic,—orthodox still but charitable and romantic. He was all for smashing with the generalization, but now in the particular instance he was more and more for forgiveness. One finds creeping into the later Euphemia books a Bret-Harte-like doctrine that a great number of bad women are really good and a persuasion in the ‘Raffles’ key that a large proportion of criminals are really very picturesque and admirable fellows. One wonders how far Mr. Brumley’s less ostensible life was softening in harmony with this exterior change, this tender twilight of principle. He wouldn’t as yet face the sterner fact that most people who are condemned by society, whether they are condemned justly or not, are by the very gregariousness of man’s nature debased, and that a law or custom that stamps you as bad makes you bad. A great state should have high and humane and considerate laws nobly planned, nobly administered, and needing none of these shabby little qualifications sotto voce. To find goodness in the sinner and justification in the outcast is to condemn the law, but as yet Mr. Brumley’s heart failed where his intelligence pointed towards that conclusion. He hadn’t the courage to revise his assumptions about right and wrong to that extent; he just allowed them to get soft and sloppy. He waded, where there should be firm ground. He waded toward wallowing. This is a perilous way of living and the sad little end of Euphemia, flushed and coughing, left him no doubt in many ways still more exposed to the temptations of the sentimental byway and the emotional gloss. Happily this is a book about Lady Harman and not an exhaustive monograph upon Mr. Brumley. We will at least leave him the refuge of a few shadows.  10
  Occasionally he would write an important signed review for the Twentieth Century or the Hebdomadal Review, and on one such occasion he took in hand several studies of contemporary conditions by various ‘New Witnesses,’ ‘Young Liberals,’ New Age rebels, and associated insurgent authors. He intended to be rather kindly with them, rather disillusioned, quite sympathetic but essentially conventional and conservative and sane. He sat at a little desk near the drooping Venus, under the benediction of Euphemia’s posthumous rose, and turned over the pages of one of the least familiar of the group. The stuff was written with a crude force that at times became almost distinguished, but with a bitterness that he felt he must reprove. And suddenly he came upon a passionate tirade against the present period. It made him nibble softly with his lips at the top of his fountain pen as he read.  11
  “We live,” said the writer, “in a second Byzantine age, in one of those multitudinous accumulations of secondary interests, of secondary activities and conventions and colossal intricate insignificances, that lie like dust heaps in the path of the historian. The true history of such periods is written in bank books and check counterfoils and burnt to save individual reputations; it sneaks along under a thousand pretenses, it finds its molelike food and safety in the dirt; its outer forms remain for posterity, a huge débris of unfathomable riddles.”  12
  “Hm!” said Mr. Brumley. “He slings it out. And what’s this?”  13
  “A civilization arrested and decayed, waiting through long inglorious ages of unscheduled crime, unchallenged social injustice, senseless luxury, mercenary politics and universal vulgarity and weakness, for the long overdue scavenging of the Turk.”  14
  “I wonder where the children pick up such language,” whispered Mr. Brumley with a smile.  15
  But presently he had pushed the book away and was thinking over this novel and unpleasant idea that perhaps after all his age didn’t matter as some ages have mattered and as he had hitherto always supposed it did matter. Byzantine, with the gold of life stolen and the swans changed to geese? Of course always there had been a certain qualification upon heroes, even Cæsar had needed a wreath, but at any rate the age of Cæsar had mattered. Kings no doubt might be more kingly and the issues of life plainer and nobler, but this had been true of every age. He tried to weigh values against values, our past against our present, temperately and sanely. Our art might perhaps be keener for beauty than it seemed to be, but still—it flourished. And our science at least was wonderful—wonderful. There certainly this young detractor of existing things went astray. What was there in Byzantium to parallel with the electric light, the electric tram, wireless telegraphy, aseptic surgery? Of course this about “unchallenged social injustice” was nonsense. Rant. Why! we were challenging social injustice at every general election—plainly and openly. And crime! What could the man mean about unscheduled crime? Mere words! There was of course a good deal of luxury, but not wicked luxury, and to compare our high-minded and constructive politics with the mere conflict of unscrupulous adventurers about that semi-oriental throne! It was nonsense!  16
  “This young man must be spanked,” said Mr. Brumley, and, throwing aside an open illustrated paper in which a full-length portrait of Sir Edward Carson faced a picture of the King and Queen in their robes sitting side by side under a canopy at the Coronation Durbar, he prepared himself to write in an extremely salutary manner about the follies of the younger generation, and incidentally to justify his period and his professional contentment.  17

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