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The contemporary assault on the prejudices of formalist aesthetics has led to some unexpected and paradoxical consequences. During the last decade a new generation of critics has routinely charged various formalisms such as the New Criticism with having helped to institutionalize a restrictive literary canon that excluded or marginalized the work of women, ethnic minorities, and Third World writers. But if the ostensible aim of these critics in questioning the supposed objectivity of high modernist taste has been to champion the "new literatures," their telling critique of modernist aesthetics has also made possible the recuperation of many literary careers that do not fall under the new rubric. A case in point is the renewed interest in writers such as H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennett. Along with the literary reputations of other DWEMS (Dead White European Males) such as H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and Evelyn Waugh, those of Wells and Bennett are quietly undergoing a critical rehabilitation. Given that Wells and Bennett provided prominent members of the modernist avant garde such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf with convenient targets for their literary polemics, it is to be expected that the work of the former group should once again enjoy serious scholarly attention now that the aesthetic standards deployed to trivialize their accomplishments have themselves fallen into disfavor.
Two recent examples of this revivified concern for the losing side in the debate over the merits of modernist literature are Michael Draper's H. G. Wells and Linda Anderson's Bennett, Wells and Conrad: Narrative in Transition. Draper's book is part of St. Martin's Modern Novelists series and is consequently intended to provide an introduction to Wells's fiction for the general reader. Given the restrictive format within which Draper must operate, his book is quite successful. Providing a brief but helpful biographical sketch, a general overview of the formative intellectual and political influences on Wells s fiction, and a generous discussion of a great many of the most important novels in an extremely prolific career, Draper manages to convey much useful information about Wells in an economic and lucid manner. Draper's account merits praise for its attention to the ideological complexities, contradictions, and reversals in Wells's long and complicated literary life. Thus, whereas Draper attends to Wells's commitment to many liberal causes—his vehement opposition to British imperialism or his hostility to the rigid class structure of English society—he nevertheless demonstrates the ways in which such positions were sometimes infused with an insidious strain of racism rooted in contemporary theories of evolutionary biology. Draper is also sensitive to the ways in which Wells's often radical critique of the prevailing social structures of modern Britain issued in a series of utopian fantasies exhibiting strongly totalitarian features. Perhaps Draper's most noteworthy achievement is to have placed Wells's work within a generic context that best illuminates peculiar strengths. Rather than examining Wells's fiction through the distorting lens of modernist aesthetics, Draper steps back and views the author's most significant work in vital and fruitful historical relation to that of Plato, Swift, Defoe, Voltaire, and Blake. Arguing that Well's science fiction is best understood as the modern offspring of the wide-ranging [End Page 602] social and political satires of the classical and neoclassical periods, Draper provides a convincing and much needed critical defense of those wildly imaginative, frequently humorous, formally heterogeneous, and typically nonrealistic works such as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The War of the Worlds that first established Wells's literary fame during the 1890s.
Linda Anderson's book on Bennett, Wells, and Conrad provides a much needed and welcome comparative study of these three novelists which subtly reshapes our received notion of modern British fiction. Although the prevailing image of Conrad remains that of a preeminent high modernist, one closely allied with technical innovators such as Henry...