Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Centenary of 'The Dream' by H.G. Wells: A Guest Post by John Howard

The Sunray Estate in Camberwell, South London, was built just over one hundred years ago and noted at the time for the employment of direct labour and building guild principles. With its tree-lined roads and open spaces, the estate was intended to provide housing for the returned heroes of the Great War and their families. It is tempting to speculate that some memory of this still attractive district might have been in H.G. Wells’ mind when he chose the amusingly fashionable names of the characters who inhabit the future as depicted in his novel The Dream, which was published as a book in April 1924 following magazine serialisation the previous year.

In its opening pages The Dream seems yet another of Wells’ sunshine-filled Utopias, an unexciting world-state not very distinguishable from a garden housing estate. Sunray is the companion and lover of Sarnac, who after a prolonged period of hard work plans a leisurely boating and walking holiday for them both. They meet four others: brother and sister Radiant and Starlight, and their friends, the ‘fair girls’ Willow and Firefly, who work as electricians. They all decide to travel together.

But this pleasant vision is quickly left behind as the tourists make a detour to explore the newly excavated ruins of a town destroyed by bombing and gas warfare some two thousand years before. The shrivelled remains of many of the victims, with their belongings, are preserved in a museum. While exploring a railway tunnel, complete with a train that had been caught and entombed, Sarnac stumbles and cuts his hand, drawing blood. Later his sleep is disturbed by dreams of war. In the morning the group continues on its way, but Sarnac’s troubled night catches up with him. As they pause in a flower-filled meadow he goes to sleep, watched over by Sunray.

When the sleeper wakes again he is briefly disorientated and for a moment does not remember who he is or recognise Sunray. During the short time Sarnac lay asleep in the sunshine, he had lived another life. Sarnac proceeds to relate his dream: the story of Harry Smith, born in 1896 and who had lived, loved, and died during the ancient ‘Age of Confusion’ that came before the ‘Social Collapse’.

In The Dream Wells treads old ground – as he would again – but there is a difference. Wells often created a future to use in a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with the contemporary world. Here he reverses that: the future dreams the past. Sarnac not only unfolds the life he had led during his dream; he comments on times through the questions asked by Sunray and the others, who luckily remember their history lessons.

Through Sarnac and Smith, Wells presents a widescreen prospect of society from his usual autobiographical viewpoint as a member of the lower middle-class, mired in respectability and genteel poverty, who yearns to escape it all. He vividly describes the grime and muddle, the shoddy clothing, adulterated food, and chronic illnesses. Harry Smith is the youngest child of caring but ineffectual parents. His father runs a small greengrocer’s shop but is unable to stem the inexorable decline of the business, while his mother is immured in the basement kitchen endlessly cooking and cleaning. Smith lives for the Sundays when he and his father walk the several miles through the Kent countryside to visit his uncle, the head gardener at Chessing Hanger. Encouraged by an older sister, Smith wishes to get an education and become a writer – but it is decided that he must go to work as a gardener. Smith’s constant reading and burning desire for education was Wells’ own.

After his father’s death Smith accompanies his mother and sister to Pimlico when they are given the opportunity to help run a lodging-house. He discovers London, revelling in its vastness and magic, its fogs and filth, its crowded streets of unplanned growth. With his other sister’s help and his own efforts, he gradually eases himself out of the hopeless situation that he had seemed predestined to by his birth.

Smith and Sarnac are representatives despite themselves. Through the accumulation of description and remembered experience, Wells rages at the constant insecurity and waste of human potential and natural resources that he saw as taken for granted. Through the sane and calm questions and reflection of our descendants, who have learned the misery and futility of war and competition and the distortions imposed by education and religion, Wells expects it to be obvious which of the two societies is to be preferred.

It was Wells’ misfortune that those with the power to effect change and transformation saw no reason to take the logical, radical steps to improvement. To that extent The Dream failed: yet again those he preached to would not listen, while the converted were given a well-written tale that merely confirmed their enlightened outlook. H.G. Wells never ceased to agitate for a ‘profound reconstruction of the methods of human living […]; a real, effective federation of mankind, a genuine attempt to realise that age of world-wide plenty and safety that we have every reason to suppose attainable…’ (The Rights of Man, 1940). The Sunray Estate and a future world: perhaps there was more than one reason for Wells entitling his novel The Dream. As Sarnac comments, at the time he was Harry Smith people were ‘only beginning to learn the art of being human.’

(John Howard)

1 comment:

  1. "Smith wishes to get an education and become a writer – but it is decided that he must go to work as a gardener." Is that an irony on Wells's part, perhaps? Gardeners weren't quite servants (see Wodehouse's McAllister for an extreme example) and were expected and encouraged to educate themselves professionally. They had opportunities for social mobility - a few years earlier Joseph Paxton began as an under-gardener and rose to build Crystal Palace and become an MP and knight.