If you didn’t guess from my last blog post where I went on far too long about The War of the Worlds, I am a huge fan of H.G. Wells. Right now, I’m trying to collect and read his entire works and, helpfully, Penguin Classics has near enough all of them – not just his famous early science fiction, but his later social realist stuff too and even some of his non-fiction – and they aren’t just the cheapo public domain copy-and-pastes that some publishers pump out. The Penguin Classics have introductions, biographies, even detailed notes on the editing. And, of course, they have footnotes.
For an author like Wells, footnotes are normally a good thing. His most famous works were written well over a century ago, and borrow heavily from now obscure or discredited scientific theories, reference Victorian and Edwardian popular culture and make heavy use of the precise geography of central London and the home counties. Footnotes sometimes mean the difference between understanding a whole chapter, and becoming utterly lost.
But along the way, when they were putting together these footnotes, something went… weird. Just look at this, from The Sleeper Awakes:
But he perceived the Eiffel Tower6 still standing, and beside it a huge dome surmounted by a pinpoint Colossus.
6. Eiffel Tower: Built by Gustav Eiffel (1832 – 1923) for the International Exhibition in Paris in 1889, the Eiffel Tower is one of Paris’s most distinctive buildings and icon of the city.
Yes, if you’ve somehow lived on this planet long enough to learn to read English fluently, and still don’t know what the Eiffel Tower is, this is the book for you! This isn’t an isolated case, either. Here’s another footnote from the same book:
“Practically, I know no history. The Sleeper and Julius Caesar5 are all the same to me.”
5. Julius Caesar: Roman general (c. 101 – 44 BC) who became dictator and was murdered to prevent him re-establishing the monarchy.
What’s really odd is that this reference doesn’t even require this level of detail. Even if you don’t know who Julius Caesar was, literally the only reason he gets mentioned is an example of a famous historical figure. The Sleeper is not an analogy for Julius Caesar, he is not a dictator who gets murdered trying to re-establish the monarchy.
When the main character hears a telephone, the footnotist once again stops the action, now to tell us:
2. a telephone bell: The telephone was patented by Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) in 1876. By 1880 there were 30,000 telephones operating around the world including an exchange in London.
The Sleeper Awakes is not an isolated case. The War of the Worlds decides to use a footnote to tell us:
5. Mars: Named after the Roman god of war, it is the fourth planet from the sun.
and even The Time Machine, footnoted by someone else entirely, explains that, when the Time Traveller wishes he’d brought a Kodak with him, explains:
2. Kodak: The first Kodak portable camera was marketed in 1890.
When the footnotes aren’t defining what the Eiffel Tower is or that pnuematic means “inflated with air”, they’re explaining elements of the plot in laborious detail. For example, here is an excerpt from The Invisible Man, when Griffin invisibly enters a shop, setting off the bell.
Apparently I had interrupted a meal. [The shopkeeper] stared about the shop with an expression of expectation. This gave way to surprise, and then to anger, as he saw the shop empty. “Damn the boys!”3 he said.
Have you worked out what the shopkeeper means? Almost certainly, since you’ve read at least one book in your life. If you haven’t, here’s the footnote:
3. “Damn the boys!“: As in Chapter 17, Griffin makes someone assume that children have rung the bell and run away.
I hope you didn’t struggle for too long over that cryptic line.
Or how about this description of a futuristic meal, from The Sleeper Awakes:
Soup and the chemical wine10 that was the common drink were delivered by similar taps, and the remaining covers travelled automatically in tastefully arranged dishes down the table along silver rails.
What could chemical wine possibly mean?
10. chemical wine: A suggestion that either the wine is artificial or that it has been treated with chemicals.
I’ve read out excerpts of these footnotes to friends, who’ve suggested variously that they sound like they’re aimed at people who don’t speak English, at aliens, or that the editor was being paid by the footnote. I think only the last of those could explain the next footnote, from The Invisible Man once more:
His hands were clenched6, his eyes wide open, and his expression was one of anger and dismay.
6. His hands were clenched: With fury or to make fists.
It’s not all terrible though. Some of the footnotes are sheer genius. I’ll leave you with this one:
There seems no reason why Griffin should return to visibility after death, but his doing so is intensely dramatic.