Thoughts: Kipps, by H. G. Wells

This is the part of the holiday when I’d run out of books. I downloaded the sample of Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky because I wasn’t sure about reading in French on the Kindle and I didn’t know whether the version would be readable because it was by some random tiny publishing company (just for the e-version I think?). So I started reading the books Spuggy had brought and finished.

True confession: I’d never heard of Kipps before reading this book.

OK, that’s sort of a lie. I had vaguely heard of Half a Sixpence, which I didn’t connect with Kipps for ages. Still.

I’d never read any of Wells’s non-sci-fi until Kipps either.

First impression: so many footnotes! The Penguin Classics series seems to like doing footnotes, and for the weirdest things. I mean, Wells liked to make references that would be considered obscure now, to things like stereotypes of other countries’ education systems, obsolete slang, weird insects, specific paintings (without naming them), so some of the footnotes really do add to the reader’s understanding of the text. But then there’s a footnote for “racket” (which is “Noise, especially that caused by an argument; or the argument itself”, in case you were wondering) and I have to wonder who the footnotes are really aimed at. I mean, they define “Intercalary” as simply “interpolated”.

Are these intended for normal layreaders? People without large vocabularies? Non-Brits? Non-English-speakers? Are they intending these footnotes to last them far into the future when “racket” has become antiquated slang from another time? I just don’t know.

Anyway, onto the book. One thing I’ve noticed about H. G. Wells is that he gets away with things that seem to ordinarily be a hard no for other writers. Consider the amount of Wells stories which consist almost wholly of a man telling the reader a story about interesting things that happened to other people. Here he takes a huge amount of time setting up Kipps’s life, and yet, like the “man telling a story” thing, it works. Purely on the force of the goodness of his writing, he carries it off and makes it pleasant to read, even though it’s all just background.

Even Kipps as a character seems to break the rules, because for most of the book he doesn’t want anything in particular. He just sort of drifts along, buffeted by other people’s wants (his uncle and aunt’s, his employer’s, Chitterlow’s, his fiancée’s, high society’s…) Even his earliest romantic overtures (the half a sixpence that gives the musical inspired by the book its name) are taken from something he read.

I read all the introductory notes and essays (before or after the story as the helpful warning of spoilers dictated) and I must say I agree with the assessment of those writers on the flaws of the book. It does make a bit more sense to know it was originally part of a larger work. But for all the deus ex machinas and characters who should probably have been more important and weren’t, I still really enjoyed it. He likes a good phonetic accent, but he doesn’t reserve it for the working class – he uses it (sparingly) for the very posh and pretentious as well to good effect, which I appreciated. Wells is a great humorist (the sheep cough description is fantastic and I wished there was more of that throughout) and long after I’d finished the book I was seeing the themes everywhere, which is always a good sign for me. Practically for the rest of my holiday everything seemed about crossing boundaries and playing with class.

If Kipps has a lesson it seems to be that comfortable social mobility is (was?) limited, at least for Kipps, a man who is utterly without ambition. Having been educated by a charlatan, he lacks the wits to avoid the society he hates or to learn how to navigate it or be strong enough not to care what they think. Having never experienced love, he lacks the ability to get out of his increasingly unpleasant situation. He tries to enjoy himself with his money, buying fancy clothes and eating enormous breakfasts, but he finds himself unable to deal with the judgement he gets for his vulgar tastes. And don’t get me started on Chitterlow, the friendly neighbourhood parasite made good.

I found it profoundly weird that the only thing that could save him from his own terrible choices was to lose his money, but at the same time I was happy for him. Maybe that’s the other lesson – money can’t buy happiness?

For all it was different to what I’ve been reading recently, and the world has moved on, I really enjoyed this. I should read more H. G. Wells social fiction.

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