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H. G. Wells's Critique of Aestheticism in "Through a Window": The Picture and the Splintering Frame Nils Clausson University of Regina The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature, and human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations, each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind. —Walter Pater A novel is in its broadest sense a personal, a direct impression of life: that, to begin with, constitutes its value, which is greater or less according to the intensity of the impression. —Henry James No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. —Oscar Wilde ... the people have acquired the habit of looking, as who should say, not at a picture , but through it, at some human fact, that shall, or shall not, from a social point of view, better their mental or moral state. —James McNeill Whistler I suppose for a time I was the outstanding instance among writers of fiction in English of the frame getting into the picture. —H. G. Wells IN A LETTER to Henry James near the end of their celebrated quarrel, H. G. Wells defined the aesthetic difference between himself and James through the contrasting metaphors of painting and architecture : "There is of course a real and a very fundamental difference in our innate and developed attitudes towards life and literature. To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is a means, it has a use" (8 July 1915).1 Two decades later, in his Experiment in Autobiography, in an effort to define what he had been trying to do as a writer of fiction, Wells returned to the metaphor of painting, or, more precisely, the contrast between what is inside and outside the frame of the painting: Throughout the broad smooth flow of nineteenth century life in Great Britain, the art of fiction floated on this same assumption of social fixity. The Novel in English was produced in an atmosphere of security for the entertainment of secure people who like to feel established and safe for 371 ELT 49 : 4 2006 good. Its standards were established within that apparently permanent frame and the criticism of it began to be irritated and perplexed when, through a new instability, the splintering frame began to get into the picture. I suppose for a time I was the outstanding instance among writers of fiction in English of the frame getting into the picture.2 For Wells, painting is a pure form of art—art for art's sake—whereas literature must be judged, at least in part, in terms of its utility. Wells's early career, however, coincided with the rise of the art for art's sake movement in England, represented in literature by Oscar Wilde and in painting by James McNeill Whistler, whose provocative "Ten O'Clock Lecture," delivered in February 1885, anticipates many of Wilde's ideas. Although Wells favourably reviewed Wilde's last two plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest, in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1895, his artistic taste, both innate and acquired, was the antithesis of Wilde's infamous aphorism that concluded the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: "All art is quite useless." Wells's difference from Wilde and James in his attitude to the relation between literature and life—literature as an "end" in itself versus literature as a "means" to achieve a social end—is clearly adumbrated two decades before the famous letter to James in his short story "Through a Window." Published in 1894 at the height of the Aesthetic movement in England in the mid-nineties, Wells's story questions aestheticism's separation of art from life and morality in a way that clearly anticipates the terms of the later debate with James. In the story, Wells artfully blends two staples of popular fiction, violence and suspense, with the narrative techniques associated with literary fiction to create a sophisticated critique of the art for art's sake movement, and, in keeping with his belief that literature should evince a...


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