How much is society prepared to invest in the quality of the education it offers and to make it easily accessible to its entire population? What can and should art and literature do for the societies in which they are produced? What is the meaning and function of literature and the arts in moments of political and economic crisis? The stuff of today's debates in the press and in political discourse is also at the heart of H.G. Wells' oeuvre, as Simon James convincingly argues in Maps of Utopia.
The volume is a sustained investigation of the eclectic and extensive production of an author who enjoyed worldwide popularity and participated in some of the most important political and literary debates in the UK in the 20th century, while increasingly occupying a somewhat problematic position within the literary canon. Wells' quarrels with Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and the didactic bent in his fictional work have hardly helped to make him a sympathetic figure to scholars and readers of Modernism, while his radical political views constituted a problem for many of his contemporaries.
Here, James focuses on a rather neglected topic within the study of the Wellsian corpus, namely that of Wells' aesthetics, arguing that throughout the six decades of his highly prolific writing career, he never stopped asking questions about the essence of literature and its relationship to literacy, education, economics and social progress. At the basis of James' main argument is the assumption that, for Wells, literature must always be an instrument for improving its readership and society at large and, as such, it should never lose connection to "life" by becoming canonised. James' analysis never loses sight of this project, proposing itself as a study "more in Wells's own terms" than along the lines of any strictly canonical criteria.
Suitably, the first, very informative, chapter focuses on the late 19th-century debates about literacy after the Education Act 1870, and the ensuing anxieties about the effect of reading (specifically fiction) on the increasingly vast public, as well as on the young Wells' reactions to those debates. According to James, "Wells straddled 'cultures' both in terms of social class, the 'popular' and the 'polite', and...also as disciplines of knowledge, art, and science"; he also, as James very interestingly argues, moved easily between the two antagonistic genres of romance and the realist novel, managing to rethink both of them along the lines of his lifelong concern for the intellectual improvement of his readers, and therefore creating for himself an original position in the contemporary literary debates.
The problematic tension between these somewhat ossified polarities - realism versus romance, art versus science (but also freedom versus authority, the individual versus the collective) - is shown to inform all Wells' texts. Whereas it may seem easy to guess which term in each case carried positive values for Wells, the analysis takes the readers through the intricacies of his relentless engagement with these questions, showing us how complex and nuanced was the writer's awareness of the problems generated by any too simplistic and ideological an adherence to one single pole (although it seems quite clear that Wells' own positions tended to become much more rigid after the First World War).
At the end of the book, the discussion of Wells' increasingly worried appeals to the world of politics to make education a priority as a weapon against the approaching catastrophe sounds a disquieting and familiar bell. Although this study suffers at times from the presence of numerous perfunctory references to theoretical and canonical texts, it is a very informative read, offering not only an original study of Wells, but also an overview of the late 19th- and 20th-century debates on culture to which we should do well to return.
Maps of Utopia: H.G. Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture
By Simon J. James. Oxford University Press. 248pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780199606597. Published 2 February 2012