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  • “The Difference between Us”:Conrad, Wells, and the English Novel
  • Linda Dryden

In 1904, H. G. Wells wrote to Morley Roberts: “What do you think of Conrad? I began the chorus of praise ten years ago, but I’m cooling off considerable. Short stories is his game. Nostromo is desiccated (sic) conglomerate” (Correspondence 58). Wells had initiated this “chorus of praise” in 1896 when he described An Outcast of the Islands (1896) as perhaps “the finest piece of fiction that has been published this year” (Sherry 75). The intervening years saw a proliferation of work by both authors and also witnessed Wells’s brief friendships with Conrad, Ford, and Henry James, friendships that were to end in resentment, estrangement, and much disagreement over the future role and form of the novel.

In the midst of all of this, Conrad wrote what was to become one of the great works of English fiction, Heart of Darkness (1899), a novella that perhaps more than any other heralded the advent of literary modernism. Wells’s close involvement with Conrad and his circle during this period is well documented, but much less attention has been paid to the way his presence in this circle of literary men helped to crystallize his own literary agenda and highlight the new direction that Conrad and others were forging. Modernism was about to emerge as a literary force, and Conrad and Ford were anticipating this new direction for the novel. Wells was not a modernist, but his involvement in its emergence and his influence on its themes need to be recognized. After all, as Simon James says, “Wells admired Joyce’s genius, and campaigned for modernist writers to be able to write free from censorship” (191), but he never saw modernism as a suitable form for his own utopian agenda. Despite this, his tentative friendship with Conrad had an impact on the latter’s work and helped to convince Wells of his own alternative direction. [End Page 214]

Miranda Seymour’s Ring of Conspirators, David C. Smith’s H. G. Wells Desperately Mortal, and Nicholas Delbanco’s Group Portrait all pay attention to the Conrad/Wells friendship, but only cursorily discuss literary influence. Laurence Davies touches on some of these issues, as does Mario Currelli, but the discussions are not extensive. John E. Saveson argues that his study of Conrad as a “moralist” is predicated upon Wells’s influence, but the ensuing analysis barely mentions Wells, and Michael Sherborne’s otherwise excellent biography of Wells does little to extend our understanding of the Conrad/Wells relationship. This essay thus teases out and explores the broader literary consequences of Wells’s discussions with Conrad. What emerges is a fuller picture of what became a rather fraught literary friendship and an examination of how that friendship highlights the emergence of Conrad as a modernist and Wells’s move in another direction.

Conrad, Wells, and the Kentish Fraternity

Wells’s involvement with what, according to Ford, he called “a ring of foreign conspirators” reveals the intellectual and artistic struggles that took place as literary modernism was emerging. Variously settled around the coast of Kent and Sussex for a few years beginning 1898, Wells, Conrad, Ford, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and others engaged in literary and social interactions that had a formative impact on the future of the novel. It is no surprise that Wells later became associated with the Bloomsbury Group, but before that influential group of authors, artists, and critics made their impact on literature, Wells was debating the art and purpose of fiction with a Kentish literary fraternity. His rather uncomfortable relationship with Conrad is of interest because of what it reveals about both authors’ approach to the art of fiction and the form and purpose of the novel. Upon meeting Conrad, Wells was by no means leaning towards modernism; he admired the older writer’s fresh approach to the novel and short story, but he was still formulating his own techniques. Further acquaintance with Conrad, and with Ford and James, actually only served to convince Wells that his own literary career lay in other directions. The Conrad/Wells friendship spanned approximately eight years, beginning with Wells’s review...


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pp. 214-233
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