Saturday, July 3, 2010

Kipps - H G Wells

I’ve had a wonderful week of reading. I read Annette Carson’s Richard III: the Maligned King. You can tell instantly by the subtitle that the author is pro rather than anti-Ricardian. I’ll review it tomorrow. I’ve started reading another volume of Daphne Du Maurier’s short stories. This is the lovely New York Review edition, Don’t look now & other stories. I read the title story just last year so I began with The Birds, a truly horrifying vision of an ecological catastrophe. It’s all the more frightening because it happens in a rural part of Cornwall as ordinary life goes on & gradually the sense of unease begins to dominate. Dani from A Work in Progress reviewed the whole collection enthusiastically on her blog last year. Here’s one of her reviews.

My lunchtime book at the moment is Emile Zola’s Pot Luck, which is a prequel of sorts to The Ladies Paradise which I loved earlier this year. You’ll find my review here. My copies of two of the new Bloomsbury Group books arrived yesterday, Mrs Harris goes to Paris & Henrietta sees it through. I loved the first Henrietta book last year & I can’t wait to read the sequel. I also finished reading Kipps by H G Wells for my 19th century book group which is reading 19th century books which became the basis for operas or musicals.

Kipps is the basis for the Tommy Steele musical, Half a Sixpence. Artie Kipps is a draper’s apprentice who feels vague longings for a better life. His education at a boarding school was a farce, his working life is drudgery & his aspirations to higher education lead him to a woodworking class where he encounters Helen Walshingham, a middle-class young woman who inspires his most romantic fantasies. Then Kipps inherits a house & a fortune from the grandfather he never knew. He was brought up by an aunt & uncle who were always very mysterious about his parents. His parents were disowned by his grandfather who then repented at the end of his life & left everything to his unknown grandson.

Kipps leaves the drapery Emporium in a wonderful scene of tipsy excess as his fellow workers toast his good fortune with a lavish afternoon tea. He now has a position to keep up & enters society with some dubious help from his friend, Mr Coote & a couple of outdated etiquette manuals. He meets Helen again in her sphere & they become engaged. But is this right for Kipps? Kipps is such a sympathetic character. Naive, innocent, loyal to his friends, trying to do what’s expected of him. He’s taken advantage of by unscrupulous people but he’s no fool. Wells based the character of Kipps partly on himself.

The details of Kipps’ early life, his education & work as a draper are very close to the reality of Wells’ life. Wells educated himself & gradually turned to journalism & then fiction to advance himself. He always looked on society to some extent as an outsider & Kipps is a wonderful satire on the pretensions of society. Seen from Kipps’ bewildered viewpoint, the rituals of afternoon tea are absurd. Kipps experiences the terror of being invited to an Anagram Tea where everyone is given an anagram to decipher, or being invited to dinner when you don’t understand the conversation or what fork to use for the fish course.

Some of the funniest scenes take place in London where Kipps finds himself walking around hungry, with his pockets full of money, but he can’t decide where to eat because he’s overdressed for the places he used to frequent & he feels the waiters are sneering at him in the posh restaurants. He goes to stay in a hotel for a few days & does everything wrong, from overtipping to making a mess of a vol-au-vent while the other diners laugh at him.

Nice lot of people these were to laugh at anyone! Women half undressed – It was that made him so beastly uncomfortable. How could one eat one’s dinner with people about him like that? Nice lot they were. He was glad he wasn’t one of them anyhow. Yes, they might look. He resolved, if they looked at him again, he would ask one of the men who he was staring at. His perturbed & angry face would have disturbed anyone... The mental change Kipps underwent was, in its way, what psychologists call a conversion. In a few moments, all Kipps’ ideals were changed. He who had been ‘practically a gentleman’, the sedulous pupil of Coote, the punctilious raiser of hats, was instantly a rebel, an outcast, the hater of everything ‘stuck up,’ the foe of Society & the social order of today.

Kipps meets up with Sid Pornick, a childhood friend & Sid’s sister Ann, his first love. Can he find a way to enjoy his wealth while finding a way to be happy? This is a wonderful book. I enjoyed it very much. There are some great characters like Chitterlow the optimistic but unsuccessful playwright & scenes like the one I quoted above that made me laugh out loud. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I love that collection of stories by DdM! Nearly every story in the collection was a winner--a few were a little weak, but she's so good at atmosphere and horror. I didn't realize The Birds doesn't actually follow (or rather vice versa) the Hithcock film--the story was much better. I think what I like about her stories is they are just plausible enough and that makes some of them really frightening. I have a couple more of her story collections which I am looking forward to!