Monday, 22 September 2014

Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham
by H.G. Wells

Lewisham had a strong persuasion, an instinct it may be, that human beings should not be happy while others near them are wretched, and this gay glitter of prosperity had touched him with a sense of crime. He still believed people were responsible for their own lives; in those days he had still to gauge the possibilities of moral stupidity in himself and his fellow-men. He happened upon 'Progress and Poverty' just then, and some casual numbers of the 'Commonweal,' and it was only too easy to accept the theory of cunning plotting capitalists and landowners, and faultless, righteous, martyr workers. He became a Socialist forthwith. The necessity to do something at once to manifest the new faith that was in him was naturally urgent. So he went out and (historical moment) bought that red tie!

It may be that Mr. Lewisham holds fairly romantic notions about the brightness of his future prospects; the narrator certainly thinks he does. He mocks poor young Mr. Lewisham all the way through this story on account of what he judges to be an evident naïveté, but I was never sure that the narrator was really as worldly-wise as he supposed himself to be. It seemed to me a case of the very-green mocking the slightly greener.

Mr. Lewisham is an industrious eighteen year old pupil-teacher employed at Whortley Proprietary School, and his first problem with love comes from his having failed to make any allowance for it in his grand scheme. Mr. Lewisham intends great things, but they are all conditioned on his achieving his B.A. degree—with honours in all subjects—at the London University a few years hence, and to this end he has mapped out a schedule of study which involves almost every waking hour of every day for the next few years. He has pledged himself to rising each morning at 5am in order to study French before breakfast, to reading literature through every meal, and to devoting his afternoons to maths and science before heading out to his 'preparation duty'. As the narrator wryly notes, with so much set to be achieved at such a young age, '[w]here Mr Lewisham will be at thirty stirs the imagination'.

But Mr. Lewisham's plan begins to go awry the moment he looks out from the window of his cramped attic room and spies a daintily-trimmed hat, and the tips of the nose and chin of its wearer. The emotional turmoil which ensues has him neglect his studies at first, but the prospect of an afternoon in the young lady's company has him neglect his duties at the school as well, and this ends up having dire consequences for the planned matriculation and university studies. Mr. Lewisham finds himself discharged from his position and forced to search for other employment.

But Mr. Lewisham fortunately moves on to bigger and better things after this setback, and, as alluded to in the chapter title, his career prevails. He is offered a scholarship which will pay him a guinea each week to attend lectures at the Normal School of Science in London if he will bind himself to teaching science once the qualification has been completed. And, as the young lady of his affections turns out to be an unreliable correspondent, his ardour soon dims. Three years into his scholarship, his future seems assured; Mr. Lewisham is a star student, or as others describe him an 'awful swat', with a reputation for earning first-classes.

It was at this point that I wondered how much of Mr. Lewisham's story must have been Wells's own. The narrator notes in particular Mr. Lewisham's joy at the prospect of attending lectures given by Huxley, an enthusiasm which seemed to mirror one by Edward Prendick in The Island of Dr. Moreau. H.G. Wells did study at the Normal School of Science as a teacher-in-training and attend lectures given by Huxley, and, like the protagonist, he failed to take his degree.

Mr Lewisham's romantic relationship with Ethel, the young woman he had known in Whortley, is rekindled when he meets her again in London, with that meeting marking the end of those first-classes. The negative correlation between Mr. Lewisham's successes in his studies and the amount of time spent in Ethel's company has him concluding that the two are mutually exclusive, and that he must choose between love and his career. He chooses Ethel, only to find that his thinking was not only romantic with respect to his prospects, but also in his ideas about love and marriage.

I actually found it a fairly tedious novel to read, but I suspect I am a little too old for its message. It seemed to be the story of a man getting an education, just not the one he had planned to get. Mr. Lewisham begins as a romantic and ends as a realist, being forced to relinquish everything he believes as cruel experience reveals to him the naïveté of his views. But I couldn't help but feel that I was reading the story of a young man finding his way without anyone to guide him, and throwing away one opportunity after another because of his inexperience, and because of his tendency to make decisions with thinking addled by emotional responses.

Towards the end of the story one character offers a recipe for happiness - but the idea that there is one answer for such a complex problem seemed to me no less romantic than any of Mr. Lewisham's notions; if H.G. Wells believed in it, I note that he didn't put it into practice in his own life. This seemed to me a young man's book which concludes with Mr. Lewisham finding a justification for all of his choices which is no less romantic than the all the ones he had previously held, and subsequently discarded.

First published in 'The Weekly Times' 1899-1900. First published in volume form (Harper) 1900. First published as a Penguin 1946. 

Love and Mr Lewisham available online.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 151: The Invisible Man
Penguin no. 335: Kipps


  1. What a shame that this was a bore to read. I've been meaning to try more Wells for a while, and indeed bought The Sleeper Awakes as part of my holiday book haul last week, but I might give this one a miss.

    1. I'll be interested to read what you think of The Sleeper Awakes, Simon. I wonder if Wells's science fiction novels are more engaging than his romances. I enjoyed The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau, despite its appalling subject, but I found both Kipps and Love and Mr Lewisham a little dull.

  2. I once read The New Machiavelli and it was an ordeal. 20 years on, I'd say it was still the dullest novel I've ever read - partly because the characters were little more than mouthpieces for Wells's political views. I'll add Love and Mr Lewisham to my list of books not to read.

  3. Now I'm going to look over all the penguin books I have-very small amount compared to you.



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