The doctor will see you now.

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, H. G. Wells’ Tono Bungay, published in 1909.

After a luncheon party at the Carlton Hotel in 1918, Hugh Walpole noted a remark made by Joseph Conrad to H.G.Wells:

The difference between us Wells, is fundamental. You don’t care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not!

Having read Tono-Bungay I know what he means. However, you do not have to read it to know what he means. It would help if you had read Conrad’s Lord Jim, however. We are, we learn from it, condemned to make the same mistakes, time and time again. But that does not mean we are bad people. The best we can get from Tono-Bungay is that one is born every minute and the future seems to lie in the building of fast ships. I’m afraid you will have to read it to know what that means. Be that as it may, and it is quite a lot of being and maying, the point I wish to make is that using the tried and tested Which-Early-Twentieth-Century-Author-Would-I-Want-At-My-Deathbed technique, it is Conrad whom I would wish to see (Disraeli on his deathbed declined a visit from Queen Victoria, saying that she would merely ask him to take a message to Albert).

Tono Bungay - first edition published 1909.

Tono Bungay – first edition published 1909.

Ward Clark, writing in The Bookman, noted of the author of Tono-Bungay:

As a socialist, Mr. Wells knows the centralising tendency of of modern industry; is he trying to crush the small dealer by establishing a mammoth department store novel in which everyone can find everything he needs? Victorian romance, near the entrance, tragedy – take the elevator, top floor; comedy, in the basement, science and sociology, on the bargain counter; a tempting display of realism in the drug department.

The North American Review added:

This is not merely something written to exploit theories or politics; it is not even a mere transcript of life; it is a Book.

All of which begs the question, at least it does for me, as to why no one writes reviews like this anymore? If they did, I might read more of them.

At the centre of the book, if indeed, as the above review suggests, it can be said to have a centre, is the invention by the narrator’s uncle of the patent medicine Tono-Bungay. The 1868 Pharmaceutical Act had extended the legal controls that had been developing since the 1850s to prohibit the over-the-counter sale of cyanide, arsenic and strychnine. Prudent social legislation or political correctness gone made, depending on your point of view. The 1868 Act extended those controls to opium and morphine. Doctors supported such a ban. Pharmacists, while glad to stop the public drinking arsenic willy-nilly, demurred when thinking of the loss in sales. The Poor panicked, wondering how they would get through each day without their opium and morphine (panicking also were middle-class women trapped in loveless, unfulfilling marriages).

You can see their point of view. If you could afford to go to the doctor, the best he could do for you would be to amputate a limb, strap up a broken limb or stitch a wound (probably on a limb). When it came to limbs you were, if you’ll pardon the phrase, in good hands. Anything else was in the lap of the gods. Doctors didn’t even wash their hands between examinations until Louis Pasteur told them to. Opium and morphine at least masked symptoms and dulled pain, hence their place in any recipe for patent medicines. But years do follow years, stealing something every day until at last they steal us from ourselves. At the turn of the century more than likely from a bad chest, as the graph shows:

Graph showing most common causes of death in England and Wales - 1908, 1949, 2010. Source: 'Olympic Britain' House of Commons Library.

Graph showing most common causes of death in England and Wales – 1908, 1949, 2010. Source: ‘Olympic Britain’ House of Commons Library.

Pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis were the killers then, followed closely by measles and whooping cough. We, on the other hand, with Progress firing on all cylinders, will die of cancer and heart disease.

However, literary taste there was and a surprising amount of it in the novel. Wells, like Conrad, could write. He does not bore even though he cannot help but preach. A healthy (5,4) is prescribed along with a bracing tonic wine.

Health and beauty.

Next, the essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who when scalded with hot coffee as a young boy answered the anxious hostess’ question as to the pain answered “Thank you madam, the agony is abated.”

Leave a comment


  1. Delightful post, thank you.

  2. I love the continued use of graphs and charts, Colin! I would agree with your deathbed choice. Conrad is a firm and long-time favourite of mine, not just for his writing but I also admire him as a man. I haven’t read much HG Wells – but I don’t like being preached at with fiction…

    • The two were great friends despite being so different. Conrad eclipsed Wells a long time ago. He can be read fresh by every generation but Wells increasingly has little more than curiosity value. Odd, how his faith in progress or the importance of rationalism have probably led to his decline in popularity. We’re not a very optimistic bunch, are we?


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