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The De-Forming In-Struction of Wells's The Wonderful Visit and The Sea Lady By William J. Scheick University of Texas at Austin Wells's The Wonderful Visit (1895) and The Sea Lady (1902) are even less popular now than they were when they first appeared. When they were published, both received mixed reviews, although their Swiftian satiric elements were generally appreciated; and today critics barely mention these works in passing. The subjects of these romances—the arrival of an angel from another dimension, the appearance of a mermaid from beneath the sea—seem implausible and slight in spite of their allegorical nature. This impression of triviality, however, might be the result of authorial sleight of hand, for these novels are more artistically accomplished than readers have generally suspected. In fact, if these works are considered in terms of their similar structural technique, we can begin to appreciate better what Wells invested in them as aesthetic expression . In both romances structure, rather than characterization, is privileged, as is so often the case in Wells's fiction, early and late.1 When fictional structure prevails over characterization in works by writers as self-aware as Wells, usually ethical concerns inform these narratives fundamentally, even sometimes are their primary raison d'être.2 In The Wonderful Visit and The Sea Lady not only is structure privileged and ethical in its implication, but the one difference in authorial management of these otherwise similar structures signals a fluctuation in Wells's thought that finally highlights a difference in the philosophical ground of the the two novels. Generated by Wells's ambivalence concerning the ability of mankind to save itself from a more-than-likely hopeless tendency toward self-destruction, this divergence in philosophical ground can be measured in terms of a difference between Christian-humanist empathy and Schopenhauerian compassion. Since this variance in ethos is embodied in fictional structure, which is an aesthetic feature of the novels, careful attention to it will reveal something of the sophisticated artistry that can inform Wells's early writings even when they appear to be insubstantial. In The Wonderful Visit there are two references to Max Nordau, whose Degeneration , in English translation, saw seven impressions in 1895. Nordau focuses on the turn of the nineteenth century as a time of degenerating transition from the established order of tradition to the dehumanizing chaos of passionate egotism. Although this view is not endorsed in The Wonderful Visit, Nordau is 397 Scheick: The Wonderful Visit and The Sea Lady mentioned because the allusion to his views suggests that the fin de siècle period is indeed a time of transition, a time, however, when humanity faces an opportunity to choose between a decline of the kind described by Nordau or an evolution of sensibility of the sort represented by the angel from another dimension of earthly possibility. That humanity faces this critical choice is the message of The Wonderful Visit, but it is not a message readily apparent in the plot-structure of the romance. This plot-structure culminates in the near-death of Sir John Gotch, who is mean-spirited; the passing away of Delia Hardy, who evinced a capacity for sympathy absent in her elite employers; the demise of the angel, who was increasingly succumbing to the poison of human passion; and the decease of Vicar Hillyer, who "never seemed happy" again during the few months he lived after the fire that destroyed the vicarage and killed both Delia and the angel (275). Indeed, the plot-structure of The Wonderful Visit expresses a pessimism similar to the dark view of life depicted in Wells's early science-fiction.4 But The Wonderful Visit possesses a narrative-structure, one distinct from its plot-structure, that intimates the possibility of human development and sensibility . This structure is not optimistic; rather, it vexes the pessimistic thrust of the plot-structure by implicitly positing a human potentiality for positive change.5 More subtle than the plot-structure, this narrative-structure is at first difficult to notice. It is the structure provided by the narrative voice, who consistently draws attention to himself and to the reader. The development of this structure implies the...


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pp. 397-409
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