The History of Mr Polly (1910) by H G Wells

John Mills as Mr Polly in the 1949 film of the book.

Book Review by Sylvia D: The last time the Reading Group considered books by H G Wells, I read Ann Veronica which, with the exception of the frustrating dénouement, I enjoyed. I was hoping Mr Polly would be equally entertaining, but was disappointed.

We first meet Mr Polly when he is 37 and a half years old and is sitting on a stile near his home in the seaside town of Fishbourne. He has been running a draper’s shop for 15 years – not very successfully – and is on the verge of bankruptcy. He is dyspeptic, unfit, and has fallen out with all the neighbouring shopkeepers. He is in a loveless marriage and is completely disillusioned with life.

The next 117 pages relate how Mr P has arrived at this stage of affairs – the death of his mother when he was seven, his sketchy education, his resorting to adventure novels as a means of escape, his apprenticeship in the outfitters section of a department store where he enjoyed the friendship of two other apprentices, his sacking when he asked for a rise, his useless attempts to find another job, his move to London, his failure to hold down any work he does secure, his lonely wanderings at the weekends, the death of his father and his meeting at the funeral with his mother’s sister and her three daughters, his infatuation with a school girl only to be humiliated by her and her friends, his marriage on the rebound to Miriam, the youngest of his cousins, his acquiring his own shop and the drudgery and boredom of the ensuing years. He

‘hated the whole scheme of life – which was at once excessive and inadequate of him. He hated Fishbourne, he hated Fishbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours – every blessed neighbour – and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself.’

Sitting on the stile, he decides to end it all and set light to the house and hated shop in such a way that the fire would seem accidental and his wife would be able to benefit from the insurance money. However, when he has set fire to the place and is about to cut his throat with a broken bottle, he has a change of heart and remembering the deaf old lady on her own in the adjoining building, he dashes out to summon help. He rescues the old lady and is feted as a hero.

Polly suddenly realises that he has the power to change things,

‘But when a man has once broken through the paper walls of everyday circumstance, those unsubstantial walls that hold so many of us securely prisoned from the cradle to the grave, he has made a discovery. If the world does not please you, you can change it. Determine to alter it at any price, and you can change it altogether. You may change it to something sinister and angry, to something appalling, but it may be you will change it to something brighter, something more agreeable, and at the worst something much more interesting.’

Whereupon, he just walks out and wanders the countryside sleeping rough until he chances up at the Potwell Inn with its friendly landlady. He becomes the inn’s handyman, sees off her grasping and aggressive nephew and then, after five blissful years – his ‘something brighter, something more agreeable’ – is suddenly conscience-stricken about his wife and returns to Fishbourne only to discover she and her sister are running a teashop and doing very well. He slips quietly away and returns to the inn.

The novel can be read as a comedy. There are some vaguely amusing set pieces such as the occasion when his apprentice friend is dressing one of the department store’s windows in an outrageous way and gets into an altercation with the horrified owner. The wake after his father’s funeral is depicted by a confusing series of snatches of conversation and his own and Miriam’s wedding is enlivened by the introduction of the flamboyant Uncle Voules. Wells also introduces a device intended to make the reader smile: he makes Polly misuse words in a jokey way in an attempt to better portray what he is really thinking, thus the ‘Zealacious commerciality’ of an earnest china dealer or the ‘Cultured Rapacacity’ of American tourists in Canterbury who come for a ‘Voracious Return to the Heritage’.

However, the novel is equally a satire on the English educational system, on social inequality and on the class system all of which Wells sees as condemning large swathes of the population to dreary and unfulfilling lives. The effect is weakened though by the way he pokes fun at the shop-keeping and lower middle classes. It’s as if, having achieved success himself, he can express little sympathy for those whom circumstance has fated to live a life of drudgery.

I found Wells’ treatment of his women characters dreadful. There isn’t one that is treated in a sympathetic way – his aunt is silly, his eldest cousin is loud, the second cousin we hardly learn anything about at all and Miriam is portrayed as an untidy housekeeper and a bad cook who makes his life a misery. We never even learning the name of the inn-keeper who is purely depicted as plump or fat depending on who is describing her. The deaf old lady just makes inane comments whilst she is being rescued which I suppose the reader is meant to find funny. The other women characters are silent.

There is the occasional interesting social detail such as the description of the sleeping arrangements for the department stores’ apprentices in a bleak dormitory but on the whole I found the story, with Polly’s lack of purpose and the way he is constantly bemoaning his lot, rather tedious, his neologisms unamusing and his self-obsession dispiriting.

My husband tells me he had to read The History of Mr Polly for O-Level and never managed to finish it! The novel was made into a film with John Mills in 1949 and there was a TV movie in 2007.

3 thoughts on “The History of Mr Polly (1910) by H G Wells

  1. I feel I must take issue with the criticism that Wells treated the female characters as “dreadful”. Further consideration of the novel would lead one to the conclusion that he treated the males in the same way. None of the characters, except perhaps the nameless landlady of the Potwell Inn, covers themselves in glory. But isn’t this the point – even now the average human being, well-educated or not, can descend to the most banal behaviour. It is rather difficult in a different age to place oneself accurately in the mood of the time. We must not ascribe to people living in a different era the beliefs and attitudes of the present time. They did their best, or worst according to the prevailing trends. Wells was considered to be an advanced thinker in the feminist movement. Polly was a comic character, and so were the others in the book. Can you seriously believe in Jim, the landlady’s nephew? Would he really make your blood run cold? We have to take into consideration that the Education Act came into force at the time of Polly’s birth, very few people of his parents’ generation had much in the way of education, and those parents would have had a considerable effect on the way their children thought and acted. Many of them were, literally ignorant, and cowed by circumstance. The average person was the product of centuries of feudalism, from which their more immediate ancestors had escaped into the drudgery of the Industrial Revolution. No, I contend that, although Wells may have exaggerated certain aspects of his characters, with the object of emphasising their humour, there were, and still are, many people who were very much like those characters in real life.

  2. The History of Mr Polly is the book by H. G. Wells that I have most enjoyed, partly because of its portrayal of domestic life in 1910, partly for its comedy, and partly for its optimistic ending. It just shows how differently people react to books!

  3. “Polly” is one of my favorite books. Read it as a teenager. re-read it about ten years ago, Have to go do a third reading see if I can still enjoy it. Well was a terrible sexist but someone Mr.Polly is an everyperson kind of character. The everyperson who needs to escape and re-invent themselves.

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