H.G. Wells and the ‘shot at dawn’ theme

H.G. Wells’s The Bulpington of Blup (1932) is one of those novels that creates an unsatisfactory human being as its protagonist, and then uses the war to prove his unsatisfactoriness beyond any doubt. In this case the hero’s faults come close to getting him shot at dawn.

Theodore Bulpington (the cumbersome polysyllables of the name are a crude way of signalling that he is an absurd character, not one to be identified with) is a young man brought up in a literary household. His father writes for the magazines, and has ambitious book projects that are never realised. This family is contrasted with the Broxteds , who are all scientists (and therefor hard-headed, realistic, an definitely the future). The early chapters have quite a lot of (fairly tedious because unconvincing) arts versus science debate, in which the scales are very heavily loaded towards science.

Theodore Bulpington is a fantasist. We see the effects of this clearly when he is a young man, in his relations with two women. Sophisticated Rachel takes him to bed, but he makes up a story about the purity of his love for Margaret. Wells gives him political and religious views tainted by fantasy; he is a romantic conservative and an Anglo-Catholic. When 1914 comes, he has a vision of himself as a hero, though he does not actually enlist. He cannot square his view of himself as an ideal soldier with the drab realities of recruitment. But he makes up a story about himself, that the doctors have declared him unfit – and tells it so often that he comes genuinely to believe it.

Eventually, though, he can not resist the war.

This war, Theodore realised phase by phase, was not something that was happening; it was becoming everything that was happening.

Being given a white feather by a young woman on the Hampstead Tube makes him decide that he must go. (“And he did nothing about it for another three months.”) Wells gets a lengthy chapter of brutal humour out of the contrast between Theodore’s high heroic dreams and his actual inaction, but eventually he goes.

In the trenches, he has little in common with the ‘foul-mouthed louts’ and old sweats in his platoon. He talks newspaper nonsense – even saying “Wonderful to think we’re in the last war of all,” echoing Wells’s own famous wartime slogan. The other soldiers put him right:

“After this war there’ll be the next war and after that the next after and so on world without end, Amen.”

On sentry-duty Theodore has visions of a black dog out in No-Man’s-Land, and his panic begins to infect the others, so he is transferred to a draughtsman’s job behind the lines. His capitalist uncle helps him get a particularly cushy job, but he is able to rationalise this with his heroic visions by deciding:

Wherever I’m most useful, there I feel I ought to be.

Events (including his uncle’s involvement in a scandal) move him from the draughting office, and so he applies for a commission. Back in the trenches, his uncontrollable imagination affects him during an attack, and he runs until he falls unconscious.

A doctor examines him for shell-shock and listens to his vainglorious imagining with amused scepticism.

The diagnosis of such cases as Theodore’s varied with the M.O. concerned. Sometimes the diagnosis led straight to the bleak and sorrowful firing party at dawn. But there were understanding and merciful men among those M.O.s, there were some who never passed a man on to such a fate, and it was Theodore’s luck to encounter a doctor of that new school and not a martinet of the old.

But the M.O. cannot help speculating;

“I wonder if it would be better if all chaps like you were shot,” he considered. “Would it improve the race? Are you obliged to be what you are? Or did you miss something or get something wrong as you grew up?”

The novel has, of course, told us very firmly that it was indeed Theodore’s upbringing that went wrong. Being brought up in a woozily artistic rather than a scientific atmosphere has brought him to the state he is in now. His inability to face actual facts has brought him to the state he is in now.

After the war, his fantasy tells him that Margaret, the pure girl, still ought to love him, despite his having behaved badly to her. When he hears that she has become engaged to another man he writes her furious, disturbed and insulting letters. Her fiancé comes round to confront him – and it is Laverock, the M.O. who had connived to keep him from the firing squad, and did not let on that his was a case of “voluntary shell-shock”. Laverock has com with the intention of making him eat the nasty letters he sent to Margaret, and the two men fight. Laverock wins, of course, and is torn between feeling that Theodore should have been shot after all, and feeling scorn and pity for him.

I’ve told this at some length, because it’s different from the usual shot-at-dawn narratives.

It was standard in the twenties to represent the deserter or coward as a failed man as well as a failed soldier. (The heroic, Christ-like deserter doesn’t enter our national mythology till the 1960s, in King and country, for instance.)

Generally, though, as in Herbert’s The Secret Battle or Montague’s Rough Justice, there is a great deal of compassion for this failure. Wells shows no such sympathy. Theodore is a case history demonstrating the failure of one kind of English culture, and he is offered no sympathy. Wells makes a rather condescending reference to the 1922 Southborough Report on shell-shock, as “the official mind still struggling to deal with these cases” and acknowledges that all who were in the worst of the war will have come out of it damaged, but his novel insists that it is Theodore’s “weak disposition” and his “endless insufficiencies” that have caused his failure.

I compare this text with a couple of others. First I think of Kipling (often caricatured a hard man); in his deeply-imagined late stories, the man who has gone to pieces under the strain of war is always to be helped, not condemned.

Then I think of A.D. Gristwood, whose work Wells helped to find a publisher. Gristwood’s novella The Coward is the story told by an ex-soldier, about the strain and suffering he underwent in the war. The man finally shoots himself in the hand, but manages to convince the medics that he was honourably wounded in battle. The story is told in such convincing detail that one comes to feel this must be Gristwood’s own story, exactly as it happened. Probably not, but it is certainly a story (like Herbert’s The Secret Battle) written with a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

There is nothing of that in Wells’s book, which remains mockingly superior to its hero throughout. He is a human failure, and one who probably deserved to be shot. This is a book conspicuously lacking in charity.

After the war, Theodore Bulpington goes on to fresh adventures. I’ll write about some of them, and about Wells’s animus against T.S. Eliot within the next day or two.

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