Minterism: an English Vanity

The Perfect Englishman

A look at Minterism, by Gwydion M. Williams

H. G. Wells is often very foolish. His notion of Progress included the idea of world as England writ large, though with Victorian ideas of respectability and Christian families swept aside. And I’m not aware he ever showed any concern about the extermination of tribal peoples that had been happening and was continuing. Nor the loss of cultural identity for those who were not physically killed off.

This vision became much worse in Mr Britling Sees It Through, where he showed an enthusiasm for Britain’s decision to continue World War One to the bitter end, when it might easily have ended as a draw in 1915, a settlement Germany favoured at the time. This is particularly odd became his novel The World Set Free, published in 1914 before the war started, shows a remarkable insight into the horrors of such a war and the foolishness of the generals. It’s the best forecast I know about of what the war would be like and why it should not have happened. But when the actual war came, he chose to join in the fervour for war.

But Wells is also a much more complex figure than most people realise. Among other things, he was a friend of Henry James, who viewed Wells as a fellow-novelist of some standing. Not that Henry James had anything like his later standing at the time: there’s a wonderful letter by him to Wells complaining that James’s latest book had only sold four copies.[1]

Wells also tells you a lot about what Britain was in his time. (Rather more than Henry James would tell you about the USA, in my view.) His writing career lasted from the 1890s to the 1940s, decades of key change. His visions of the future – particularly his notion of a benevolent World State – was vastly influential on both Leninism and Moderate Socialism. Up until the 1960s, when Britain changed considerably more than Wells had ever imagined, he tended to be the reference-point for positive or negative visions of the future.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is very much a parody and criticism of the Wellsian vision, as is The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster. Forster’s notion of a self-enclosed system being served with increasing smoothness and diminished understanding was actually an excellent forecast of what happened to the Soviet Union, even though it was written in 1909.

To the best of my knowledge, no one criticised Wells for his evident belief that all existing cultures should be swallowed up by a single culture. Or that this culture would be a standardised version of Englishness, and with Basic English as its common tongue. It was assumed by all of the Imperial powers that benevolent empires had a right and a duty to absorb lesser peoples, though Austria-Hungary did have some notion of cultural diversity within a basic unity. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come has the World-State stamping out all differences, beginning with an invasion of Mecca and ending with the children of dissidents mostly absorbed into the culture. This was an imagining on a larger scale of what had already happened during Wells’s lifetime, and for many decades before that. But, as I said, all that went into reverse in the 1960s.

If Wells has in some ways been transcended, he remains an interesting starting-point. And has more untapped insights than have yet entered general consciousness. One of Well’s more interesting non-SF work has the misleading title of The New Machiavelli. Written in 1911, it is about a young man who goes from socialism to being a Tory MP – not seen as odd at the time, when the parties were re-aligning themselves. The man isn’t actually very Machiavellian: the comparison is based on his career suddenly ending at about the same stage as Machiavelli’s did, which I’d see as trivial. But some of the descriptions of English middle-class life are very good, including one of the man’s uncle Minter, a self-made industrialist:

“My uncle has been the clue to a great number of men for me. He was an illuminating extreme. I have learnt what not to expect from them through him, and to comprehend resentments and dangerous sudden antagonisms I should have found incomprehensible in their more complex forms, if I had not first seen them in him in their feral state….

“Essentially he was simple. Generally speaking, he hated and despised in equal measure whatever seemed to suggest that he personally was not the most perfect human being conceivable. He hated all education after fifteen because he had had no education after fifteen, he hated all people who did not have high tea until he himself under duress gave up high tea, he hated every game except football, which he had played and could judge, he hated all people who spoke foreign languages because he knew no language but Staffordshire, he hated all foreigners because he was English, and all foreign ways because they were not his ways…

“He was, in fact, a very naive, vigorous human being. He was about as much civilised, about as much tamed to the ideas of collective action and mutual consideration as a Central African negro.

“There are hordes of such men as he throughout all the modern industrial world. You will find the same type with the slightest modifications in the Pas de Calais or Rhenish Prussia or New Jersey or North Italy. No doubt you would find it in New Japan. These men have raised themselves up from the general mass of untrained, uncultured, poorish people in a hard industrious selfish struggle. To drive others they have had first to drive themselves. They have never yet had occasion nor leisure to think of the state or social life as a whole, and as for dreams or beauty, it was a condition of survival that they should ignore such cravings.”

There is crude racism here – a ‘Central African negro’ is seen as the lowest possible type. Also maybe the distaste of a man who had risen through education and literary skills for those who had had different sorts of gifts. And it’s not clear how far he meant to extend it. My own view is that I’ve seen examples of the ‘Wonderful Me’ viewpoint all over, better camouflaged in the well-educated or high-born, but maybe even stronger among them. Still, since the thing exists and lacks a decent name, Minterism might serve.[2]

The New Machiavelli also has a clear vision of the sudden change that had come over Britain, beginning in the big cities but soon spreading everywhere. He uses the example Bromstead, an imaginary small town in Kent:

“A Bromstead Rip van Winkle from 1550 returning in 1750 would have found most of the old houses still as he had known them, the same trades a little improved and differentiated one from the other, the same roads rather more carefully tended… A Rip van Winkle from 1350, again, would have noticed scarcely greater changes; fewer clergy, more people, and particularly more people of the middling sort; the glass in the windows of many of the houses…

“But after 1750 something got hold of the world, something that was destined to alter the scale of every human affair.

“That something was machinery and a vague energetic disposition to improve material things. In another part of England ingenious people were beginning to use coal in smelting iron, and were producing metal in abundance and metal castings in sizes that had hitherto been unattainable. Without warning or preparation, increment involving countless possibilities of further increment was coming to the strength of horses and men. ‘Power,’ all unsuspected, was flowing like a drug into the veins of the social body.

“Nobody seems to have perceived this coming of power, and nobody had calculated its probable consequences. Suddenly, almost inadvertently, people found themselves doing things that would have amazed their ancestors. They began to construct wheeled vehicles much more easily and cheaply than they had ever done before, to make up roads and move things about that had formerly been esteemed too heavy for locomotion, to join woodwork with iron nails instead of wooden pegs, to achieve all sorts of mechanical possibilities, to trade more freely and manufacture on a larger scale, to send goods abroad in a wholesale and systematic way, to bring back commodities from overseas, not simply spices and fine commodities, but goods in bulk.

“But this was only the beginning of the growth period, the first trickle of the coming flood of mechanical power. Away in the north they were casting iron in bigger and bigger forms, working their way to the production of steel on a large scale, applying power in factories….

“I suppose one might have persuaded oneself that all this was but the replacement of an ancient tranquillity, or at least an ancient balance, by a new order. Only to my eyes, quickened by my father’s intimations, it was manifestly no order at all. It was a multitude of incoordinated fresh starts, each more sweeping and destructive than the last, and none of them ever really worked out to a ripe and satisfactory completion. Each left a legacy of products, houses, humanity, or what not, in its wake. It was a sort of progress that had bolted; it was change out of hand, and going at an unprecedented pace nowhere in particular.

“No, the Victorian epoch was not the dawn of a new era; it was a hasty, trial experiment, a gigantic experiment of the most slovenly and wasteful kind. I suppose it was necessary; I suppose all things are necessary. I suppose that before men will discipline themselves to learn and plan, they must first see in a hundred convincing forms the folly and muddle that come from headlong, aimless and haphazard methods. The nineteenth century was an age of demonstrations, some of them very impressive demonstrations, of the powers that have come to mankind, but of permanent achievement, what will our descendants cherish? It is hard to estimate what grains of precious metal may not be found in a mud torrent of human production on so large a scale, but will any one, a hundred years from now, consent to live in the houses the Victorians built, travel by their roads or railways, value the furnishings they made to live among or esteem, except for curious or historical reasons, their prevalent art and the clipped and limited literature that satisfied their souls?

“That age which bore me was indeed a world full of restricted and undisciplined people, overtaken by power, by possessions and great new freedoms, and unable to make any civilised use of them whatever; stricken now by this idea and now by that, tempted first by one possession and then another to ill-considered attempts… The whole of Bromstead as I remember it, and as I saw it last–it is a year ago now–is a dull useless boiling-up of human activities, an immense clustering of futilities.”

That was the world which smashed itself up in the 1914-18 war, thinking that the war would be liberating, or at least decisive. And of course it was neither, with Wells rather losing his bearings. His novel The World Set Free, published a little before the war in 1914, actually has a sound approach. It moves the war many years into the future and supposes that it will include small-scale atomic bombs, but does correctly see foresee what a tragic mess it would be. But when the actual war turned up, Wells got swept up with all the rest.[3]

This doesn’t exhaust the points of interest in A New Machiavelli. It satirized Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and it also has its protagonist make a political journey from undergraduate socialism to Toryism. The worth of Wells remains unexhausted.

[1] Henry James & H.G. Wells. A Record Of Their Friendship, Their Debate On The Art Of Fiction & Their Quarrel. Edited With An Introduction By Leon Edel & Gordon N. Ray.

[2] The Wikipedia lists 14 individuals called Minter, including boxer Alan Minter. But I’d still see the name as undefined. It also has the right overtones, probably intended by Wells, since his Minter has “made a mint”, become rich from small beginnings.

[3] Most of Well’s works, including The New Machiavelli, can be downloaded free at Project Guttenberg, [http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/]

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