Tono-Bungay (1909), the bridge between H.G. Wells 's comic novels and his novels of ideas, was regarded by Wells himself as perhaps his most ambitious work of fiction. It was, he said, "the novel as I imagined it, on Dickens-Thackeray lines." The hero-narrator, George Ponderevo, begins life in the servants' hall of a great house, Bladesover, earns ...
Tono-Bungay (1909), the bridge between H.G. Wells 's comic novels and his novels of ideas, was regarded by Wells himself as perhaps his most ambitious work of fiction. It was, he said, "the novel as I imagined it, on Dickens-Thackeray lines." The hero-narrator, George Ponderevo, begins life in the servants' hall of a great house, Bladesover, earns a pharmaceutical society scholarship, and is apprenticed to his uncle Edward Ponderevo, a druggist in a small country town. Uncle Teddy concocts a patent medicine, Tono-Bungay ("The Secret of Vigour"), and together they build the colossal Tono-Bungay property "out of human hope and a credit for bottles and printing." The meteoric career of Uncle Teddy, Napoleon of commerce and precursor of twentieth-century hucksters, is narrated against the background of his nephew's life.
As a fan of H. G. Wells' fiction, I was delighted to find this previously unknown work. Who knew he could write a novel this bad?
This book could be titled 'What I Hate About Everything,' as it spends a great deal of time despising the gentry, Christianity, businessmen, advertising, wealth, and England in general. Of course, Wells was a socialist and all his protagonists are socialists, and socialists are known for whining about many things; as this novel is semi-autobiographical, it is even more whiny than most.
If there had only been one compelling character to grab onto, it could've rendered the whole thing infinitely more bearable, but no such luck.
The main character George derides his uncle for dishonesty, then goes into business with him, all the while whining about the worthlessness of their product, Tono-Bungay. How can the reader sympathize with such a character? He isn't a fool, like Dickens' Pip, who continually digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole that only the audience can see. George conducts his life with eyes wide open so he can tell us how wicked capitalism is. Well, George, it's people like you who make it so. And you have the audacity to propose that only great thinkers and scientists like yourself should run that utopian socialist government you keep promoting.
George also falls in lust with three different women over the course of the novel. But he never learns to look past her beauty and his desires to seek or give actual love, so there is never any real romantic interest for the reader. George just comes across as shallow and self-serving, never learning from his mistakes.
The one really sympathetic character in the story, George's aunt, is betrayed by her husband while self-righteous George stands by because "gentlemen don't tell on one another." You mean, because your counterpart, Herbert George Wells similarly deceived his wife in real life numerous times, and you want to justify yourself.
There is also too much space devoted to the intricacies of the advertising business in Wells' day depicted in insider jargon which this reader couldn't begin to understand. It made for some pretty dull chapters.
The climactic use of a flying machine comes far too late to save this book with a hint of science-fiction gadgetry. And all the atheist characters end by hoping that there is some kind of afterlife after all. The reader is left with an empty feeling, that everything George reveres, socialism, atheism, the deification of science, amorality, is as worthless as these characters lives.
So maybe there is something to be gained from Tono-Bungay after all.
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