Review: Mr. Britling Sees It Through (Wells)

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Mr. Britling Sees It Through.

Those who are familiar with only the fantasy and science fiction works of H. G. Wells may be puzzled by this book. The title is a little misleading. “Sees it through” implies an enduring-to-the-end, but having been originally published in 1916, it cannot be referring to the end of the Great War. “Sees through it” might have been a plainer rendering, as the main character apparently achieves new insight into the reasons the war began. Perhaps the author was attempting a literary-poetic reversal of wording?

Although not presented as a quasi-memoir, this is a work of faintly fictionalized social commentary. “Britling,” as a name, seems to be related to such diminutives as “gosling,” and may represent a condensation of early 20th-century British attitudes in the person of the eponymous character. The bulk of Wells’s social commentary is directed against the shortsightedness of the British regarding the reason for the war, but there’s no real way to know whether or not the author’s criticism reflects the evolution of his own enlightenment. Mr. Britling’s ebullience does bear a strong resemblance to the way H. G. Wells is described by Cornelia Otis Skinner in her hilarious memoir Our Hearts were Young and Gay; indeed, she refers to “Mr. Britling” in her description of the man.

The fictionalization is uneven. Attempts are made to give the characters realistic problems, but the narrator tells about those troubles instead of showing character development happening through them, and their story arcs seem to be simply dropped into the gaps in a monologue. A deus ex machina solution provided for one minor character gives the impression that it was manufactured just to prevent the story’s descent into unmitigated gloom. The play-by-play narration of the field hockey game is written with all the immediacy of hearing a sportscaster’s voice-over, but the frequent and lengthy passages of socio-political soliloquy are carried to an extreme that becomes difficult to follow, and erodes the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

When Wells employs the literary device of quoting from letters, the text is inconsistently treated: sometimes it’s in italics, sometimes in quotation marks; and what should have been a relatively brief note succumbs to excess verbosity and becomes a social commentary treatise. The epistolary approach is supplemented once with a purported reproduction of handwriting, but it fails to enhance the reading experience.

The tale doesn’t work well as a novel, except as an example of how not to try to blend fact with fiction; but as an account of contemporaneous British thought in the midst of the Great War, it can provide some insights.

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