Saturday, May 08, 2010

Wells's William Clissold, or the dusty penumbra of pen wielders (not to mention Benn's T'ang Horse)

I found this publisher's advertising ephemera resting between the leaves of a 1923 Doubleday Page & Company book of one of Wells's contemporary writers. I've had the book for thirty years but have never read the edition, having read Penguin and Pan paperback copies of the title. This advert which mimics the leaf of a book in size and paper type, and possibly made to be tipped into other books, had been sitting there undisturbed for perhaps over 70 years. When I was younger I actively sought out books by Wells but I never got as far as his later works. The World of William Clissold seems a world away. When this three decker novel--an anachronism by the 1920s surely--came out in 1926 on three successive months, September through November, it was the book of the season, much discussed and commented on. (Makes me wonder how the British Lending Libraries dealt with this three-decker; could a patron take all three at the same time, all 885 pages of it, or only one volume?) The critical views by the likes of J. M. Keynes and Conrad Aiken among others were not good, though H. L. Mencken's critical opinion was not unfavourable. Considering the supposed autobiographical nature of much of the book, it didn't keep this protean force from later writing his autobiography proper, Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866) in two volumes (414 pages) and published by Victor Gollancz and The Cresset Press in 1934.

Time, it seems, has swept much of Mr. Wells's work into the dusty penumbra of pen wielders, for it is unlikely that many people read this or most of his later works these days. I can't say I have. (Although I have to admit the advert does create a small frisson of interest--who could resist that puff of "Great" by the Daily Chronicle.) Not a novel that immediately comes to mind when asked to name a few of his works. It is his early books, the scientific romances and short stories and some of the novels like Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica and The History of Mr. Polly and perhaps through Colin Wilson's influence, that late work The Mind at the End of Its Tether, which still hold some interest.

The publisher of this work, Ernest Benn Ltd., had its roots in trade journal publishing. Ernest Benn's father's J. W. Benn and Brothers publishing company was later registered in 1897 as Benn Brothers Limited, and in the 1920s, they decided to develop a separate book department which eventually became Ernest Benn Limited. Their publisher's device, was a stylised T'ang Horse, supposedly influenced by their publishing of The Catalogue of the George Eumorfopoulos Collection (there is the limited edition 11 volume set presently listed on ABE at more than $27,000 US) which had many illustrations of art from the Far East. Ernest Benn Ltd, with managing director Victor Gollancz, purchased T. Fisher Unwin in 1926 which brought a wonderful assortment of authors and their backlists, including H. G. Wells. His new novel, The World of William Clissold was the first original Wells they issued. A hefty debut that was heavily promoted. If they lost money on Clissold, they no doubt recovered it from the sales of their edition of his short stories and their small 24 volume edition of his works.

Victor Gollancz left the company in 1927 to start his own publishing business. Sir Ernest Benn was an individualist capitalist of the right, while Gollancz was decidedly more to the left. With H. G. Wells and his views on world society and the future, an after dinner conversation between the three of them would have been an occasion to eavesdrop. Might make a good play by the likes of Tom Stoppard. Then again, it does seem like so much water under the bridge what with our modern world a swirl with a superabundance of fresh-minted words.

The World of William Clissold having been published in 1926, seems to be on the cusp of copyright freedom so it may not be too long before we can peruse it digitally--all 885 pages of it.

Ernest Benn Ltd. was acquired by the old British firm, A. & C. Black Publishers in 1984, which was in turn acquired by the Bloomsbury group in 2000. But another big fish little fish story of the modern publishing world.


post modern bertie said...

Thanks for this Wellsian wonder. Clissold has to be the last three decker...

ralph mackay said...

Yes, I think it must be. It does seem ironic that Wells came out with a three decker late in his career while back in the 1890s he was the herald of the future with his scientific romances.