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Boon, The Mind of the Race, The Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump;
Being a First Selection from the Literary Remains of George
Boon, Appropriate to the Times
H. G. Wells
It is quite probable that the reader does not know of the death of George Boon, and that “remains” before his name upon the title-page will be greeted with a certain astonishment. In the ordinary course of things, before the explosion of the war, the death of George Boon would have been an event—oh! a three-quarters of a column or more in the Times event, and articles in the monthlies and reminiscences. As it is, he is not so much dead as missing. Something happened at the eleventh hour—I think it was chiefly the Admiralty report of the fight off the Falkland Islands—that blew his obituary notices clean out of the papers. And yet he was one of our most popular writers, and in America I am told he was in the “hundred thousand class.” But now we think only of Lord Kitchener’s hundred thousands.
It is no good pretending about it. The war has ended all that. Boon died with his age. After the war there will be a new sort of book-trade and a crop of new writers and a fresh tone, and everything will be different. This is an obituary, of more than George Boon…. I regard the outlook with profound dismay. I try to keep my mind off it by drilling with the Shrewsbury last line of volunteers and training down the excrescences of my physical style. When the war is over will be time enough to consider the prospects of a superannuated man of letters. We National Volunteers are now no mere soldiers on paper; we have fairly washable badges by way of uniform; we have bought ourselves dummy rifles; we have persuaded the War Office to give us a reluctant recognition on the distinct understanding that we have neither officers nor authority. In the event of an invasion, I understand, we are to mobilize and … do quite a number of useful things. But until there is an invasion in actual progress, nothing is to be decided more precisely than what this whiff of printer’s shrapnel, these four full stops, conveys….
I must confess I was monstrously disappointed when at last I could get my hands into those barrels in the attic in which Boon had stored his secret writings. There was more perhaps than I had expected; I do not complain of the quantity, but of the disorder, the incompleteness, the want of discipline and forethought.
Boon had talked so often and so convincingly of these secret books he was writing, he had alluded so frequently to this or that great project, he would begin so airily with “In the seventeenth chapter of my ‘Wild Asses of the Devil,’” or “I have been recasting the third part of our ‘Mind of the Race,’” that it came as an enormous shock to me to find there was no seventeenth chapter; there was not even a completed first chapter to the former work, and as for the latter, there seems nothing really finished or settled at all beyond the fragments I am now issuing, except a series of sketches of Lord Rosebery, for the most part in a toga and a wreath, engaged in a lettered retirement at his villa at Epsom, and labelled “Patrician Dignity, the Last Phase”—sketches I suppress as of no present interest—and a complete gallery of imaginary portraits (with several duplicates) of the Academic Committee that has done so much for British literature (the Polignac prize, for example, and Sir Henry Newbolt’s professorship) in the last four or five years. So incredulous was I that this was all, that I pushed my inquiries from their original field in the attic into other parts of the house, pushed them, indeed, to the very verge of ransacking, and in that I greatly deepened the want of sympathy already separating me from Mrs. Boon. But I was stung by a thwarted sense of duty, and quite resolved that no ill-advised interference should stand between me and the publication of what Boon has always represented to me as the most intimate productions of his mind.
Yet now the first rush of executorial emotion is over I can begin to doubt about Boon’s intention in making me his “literary executor.” Did he, after all, intend these pencilled scraps, these marginal caricatures, and—what seems to me most objectionable—annotated letters from harmless prominent people for publication? Or was his selection of me his last effort to prolong what was, I think, if one of the slightest, one also of the most sustained interests of his life, and that was a prolonged faint jeering at my expense? Because always—it was never hidden from me—in his most earnest moments Boon jeered at me. I do not know why he jeered at me, it was always rather pointless jeering and far below his usual level, but jeer he did. Even while we talked most earnestly and brewed our most intoxicating draughts of project and conviction, there was always this scarce perceptible blossom and flavour of ridicule floating like a drowning sprig of blue borage in the cup. His was indeed essentially one of those suspended minds that float above the will and action; when at last reality could be evaded no longer it killed him; he never really believed nor felt the urgent need that goads my more accurate nature to believe and do. Always when I think of us together, I feel that I am on my legs and that he sits about. And yet he could tell me things I sought to know, prove what I sought to believe, shape beliefs to a conviction in me that I alone could never attain.
He took life as it came, let his fancy play upon it, selected, elucidated, ignored, threw the result in jest or observation or elaborate mystification at us, and would have no more of it…. He would be earnest for a time and then break away. “The Last Trump” is quite typical of the way in which he would turn upon himself. It sets out so straight for magnificence; it breaks off so abominably. You will read it.
Yet he took things more seriously than he seemed to do.
This war, I repeat, killed him. He could not escape it. It bore him down. He did his best to disregard it. But its worst stresses caught him in the climax of a struggle with a fit of pneumonia brought on by a freak of bathing by moonlight—in an English October, a thing he did to distract his mind from the tension after the Marne—and it destroyed him. The last news they told him was that the Germans had made their “shoot and scuttle” raid upon Whitby and Scarborough. There was much circumstantial description in the morning’s paper. They had smashed up a number of houses and killed some hundreds of people, chiefly women and children. Ten little children had been killed or mutilated in a bunch on their way to school, two old ladies at a boarding-house had had their legs smashed, and so on.
“Take this newspaper,” he said, and held it out to his nurse. “Take it,” he repeated irritably, and shook it at her.
He stared at it as it receded. Then he seemed to be staring at distant things.
“Wild Asses of the Devil,” he said at last. “Oh! Wild Asses of the Devil! I thought somehow it was a joke. It wasn’t a joke. There they are, and the world is theirs.”
And he turned his face to the wall and never spoke again.
But before I go on it is necessary to explain that the George Boon I speak of is not exactly the same person as the George Boon, the Great Writer, whose fame has reached to every bookshop in the world. The same bodily presence perhaps they had, but that is all. Except when he chose to allude to them, those great works on which that great fame rests, those books and plays of his that have made him a household word in half a dozen continents, those books with their style as perfect and obvious as the gloss upon a new silk hat, with their flat narrative trajectory that nothing could turn aside, their unsubdued and apparently unsubduable healthy note, their unavoidable humour, and their robust pathos, never came between us. We talked perpetually of literature and creative projects, but never of that “output” of his. We talked as men must talk who talk at all, with an untrammelled freedom; now we were sublime and now curious, now we pursued subtleties and now we were utterly trivial, but always it was in an undisciplined, irregular style quite unsuitable for publication. That, indeed, was the whole effect of the George Boon I am now trying to convey, that he was indeed essentially not for publication. And this effect was in no degree diminished by the fact that the photograph of his beautiful castellated house, and of that extraordinarily irrelevant person Mrs. Boon—for I must speak my mind of her—and of her two dogs (Binkie and Chum), whom he detested, were, so to speak, the poulet and salade in the menu of every illustrated magazine.
The fact of it is he was one of those people who will not photograph; so much of him was movement, gesture, expression, atmosphere, and colour, and so little of him was form. His was the exact converse of that semi-mineral physical quality that men call handsome, and now that his career has come to its sad truncation I see no reason why I should further conceal the secret of the clear, emphatic, solid impression he made upon all who had not met him. It was, indeed, a very simple secret;—
He never wrote anything for his public with his own hand.
He did this of set intention. He distrusted a certain freakishness of his finger-tips that he thought might have injured him with his multitudinous master. He knew his holograph manuscript would certainly get him into trouble. He employed a lady, the lady who figures in his will, Miss Bathwick, as his amanuensis. In Miss Bathwick was all his security. She was a large, cool, fresh-coloured, permanently young lady, full of serious enthusiasms; she had been faultlessly educated in a girls’ high school of a not too modern type, and she regarded Boon with an invincible respect. She wrote down his sentences (spelling without blemish in all the European languages) as they came from his lips, with the aid of a bright, efficient, new-looking typewriter. If he used a rare word or a whimsical construction, she would say, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Boon,” and he would at once correct it; and if by any lapse of an always rather too nimble imagination he carried his thoughts into regions outside the tastes and interests of that enormous ante-bellum public it was his fortune to please, then, according to the nature of his divagation, she would either cough or sigh or—in certain eventualities—get up and leave the room.
By this ingenious device—if one may be permitted to use the expression for so pleasant and trustworthy an assistant—he did to a large extent free himself from the haunting dread of losing his public by some eccentricity of behaviour, some quirk of thought or fluctuation of “attitude” that has pursued him ever since the great success of “Captain Clayball,” a book he wrote to poke fun at the crude imaginings of a particularly stupid schoolboy he liked, had put him into the forefront of our literary world.
He had a peculiar, and, I think, a groundless terror of the public of the United States of America, from which country he derived the larger moiety of his income. In spite of our remonstrances, he subscribed to the New York Nation to the very end, and he insisted, in spite of fact, reason, and my earnest entreaties (having regard to the future unification of the English-speaking race), in figuring that continental empire as a vain, garrulous, and prosperous female of uncertain age, and still more uncertain temper, with unfounded pretensions to intellectuality and an ideal of refinement of the most negative description, entirely on the strength of that one sample. One might as well judge England by the Spectator. My protests seemed only to intensify his zest in his personification of Columbia as the Aunt Errant of Christendom, as a wild, sentimental, and advanced maiden lady of inconceivable courage and enterprise, whom everything might offend and nothing cow. “I know,” he used to say, “something will be said or done and she’ll have hysterics; the temptation to smuggle something through Miss Bathwick’s back is getting almost too much for me. I could, you know. Or some one will come along with something a little harder and purer and emptier and more emphatically handsome than I can hope to do. I shall lose her one of these days…. How can I hope to keep for ever that proud and fickle heart?”
And then I remember he suddenly went off at a tangent to sketch out a great novel he was to call “Aunt Columbia.” “No,” he said, “they would suspect that—‘Aunt Dove.’” She was to be a lady of great, unpremeditated wealth, living on a vast estate near a rather crowded and troublesome village. Everything she did and said affected the village enormously. She took the people’s children into her employment; they lived on her surplus vegetables. She was to have a particularly troublesome and dishonest household of servants and a spoiled nephew called Teddy. And whenever she felt dull or energetic she drove down into the village and lectured and blamed the villagers—for being overcrowded, for being quarrelsome, for being poor and numerous, for not, in fact, being spinster ladies of enormous good fortune…. That was only the beginning of one of those vast schemes of his that have left no trace now in all the collection.
His fear of shocking America was, I think, unfounded; at any rate, he succeeded in the necessary suppressions every time, and until the day of his death it was rare for the American press-cuttings that were removed in basketfuls almost daily with the other debris of his breakfast-table to speak of him in anything but quasi-amorous tones. He died for them the most spiritual as well as the most intellectual of men; “not simply intellectual, but lovable.” They spoke of his pensive eyes, though, indeed, when he was not glaring at a camera they were as pensive as champagne, and when the robust pathos bumped against the unavoidable humour as they were swept along the narrow torrent of his story they said with all the pleasure of an apt quotation that indeed in his wonderful heart laughter mingled with tears.
I think George Boon did on the whole enjoy the remarkable setting of his philosophical detachment very keenly; the monstrous fame of him that rolled about the world, that set out east and came back circumferentially from the west and beat again upon his doors. He laughed irresponsibly, spent the resulting money with an intelligent generosity, and talked of other things. “It is the quality of life,” he said, and “The people love to have it so.”
I seem to see him still, hurrying but not dismayed, in flight from the camera of an intrusive admirer—an admirer not so much of him as of his popularity—up one of his garden walks towards his agreeable study. I recall his round, enigmatical face, an affair of rosy rotundities, his very bright, active eyes, his queer, wiry, black hair that went out to every point in the heavens, his ankles and neck and wrists all protruding from his garments in their own peculiar way, protruding a little more in the stress of flight. I recall, too, his general effect of careless and, on the whole, commendable dirtiness, accentuated rather than corrected by the vivid tie of soft orange-coloured silk he invariably wore, and how his light paces danced along the turf. (He affected in his private dominions trousers of faint drab corduroy that were always too short, braced up with vehement tightness, and displaying claret-coloured socks above his easy, square-toed shoes.) And I know that even that lumbering camera coming clumsily to its tripod ambush neither disgusted nor vulgarized him. He liked his game; he liked his success and the opulent stateliness it gave to the absurdities of Mrs. Boon and all the circumstances of his profoundly philosophical existence; and he liked it all none the worse because it was indeed nothing of himself at all, because he in his essence was to dull intelligences and commonplace minds a man invisible, a man who left no impression upon the camera-plate or moved by a hair’s breadth the scale of a materialist balance.
But I will confess the state of the remains did surprise and disappoint me.
His story of great literary enterprises, holograph and conducted in the profoundest secrecy, tallied so completely with, for example, certain reservations, withdrawals that took him out of one’s company and gave him his evident best companionship, as it were, when he was alone. It was so entirely like him to concoct lengthy books away from his neatly ordered study, from the wise limitations of Miss Bathwick’s significant cough and her still more significant back, that we all, I think, believed in these unseen volumes unquestioningly. While those fine romances, those large, bright plays, were being conceived in a publicity about as scandalous as a royal gestation, publicly planned and announced, developed, written, boomed, applauded, there was, we knew, this undercurrent of imaginative activity going on, concealed from Miss Bathwick’s guardian knowledge, withdrawn from the stately rhythm of her keys. What more natural than to believe he was also writing it down?
Alas! I found nothing but fragments. The work upon which his present fame is founded was methodical, punctual and careful, and it progressed with a sort of inevitable precision from beginning to end, and so on to another beginning. Not only in tone and spirit but in length (that most important consideration) he was absolutely trustworthy; his hundred thousand words of good, healthy, straightforward story came out in five months with a precision almost astronomical. In that sense he took his public very seriously. To have missed his morning’s exercises behind Miss Bathwick’s back would have seemed to him the most immoral—nay, worse, the most uncivil of proceedings.
“She wouldn’t understand it,” he would say, and sigh and go.
But these scraps and fragments are of an irregularity diametrically contrasting with this. They seem to have been begun upon impulse at any time, and abandoned with an equal impulsiveness, and they are written upon stationery of a variety and nature that alone would condemn them in the eyes of an alienist. The handwriting is always atrocious and frequently illegible, the spelling is strange, and sometimes indecently bad, the punctuation is sporadic, and many of the fragments would be at once put out of court as modern literature by the fact that they are written in pencil on both sides of the paper! Such of the beginnings as achieve a qualified completeness are of impossible lengths; the longest is a piece—allowing for gaps—of fourteen thousand words, and another a fragment shaping at about eleven. These are, of course, quite impossible sizes, neither essay nor short story nor novel, and no editor or publisher would venture to annoy the public with writings of so bizarre a dimension. In addition there are fragments of verse. But I look in vain for anything beyond the first chapter of that tremendous serial, “The Wild Asses of the Devil,” that kept on day by day through June and July to the very outbreak of the war, and only a first chapter and a few illustrations and memoranda and fragments for our “Mind of the Race,” that went on intermittently for several years. Whole volumes of that great hotchpotch of criticism are lost in the sandbanks of my treacherous memory for ever.
Much of the matter, including a small MS. volume of those brief verses called Limericks (personal always, generally actionable, and frequently lacking in refinement), I set aside at an early date. Much else also I rejected as too disjointed and unfinished, or too eccentric. Two bizarre fragments called respectively “Jane in Heaven” and “An Account of a Play,” I may perhaps find occasion to issue at a later date, and there were also several brief imitations of Villiers de l’Isle Adam quite alien to contemporary Anglo-Saxon taste, which also I hold over. Sometimes upon separate sheets, sometimes in the margins of other compositions, and frequently at the end of letters received by him I found a curious abundance of queer little drawings, caricatures of his correspondents, burlesque renderings of occurrences, disrespectful sidenotes to grave and pregnant utterances, and the like. If ever the correspondence of George Boon is published, it will have to be done in fac-simile. There is a considerable number of impressions of the back of Miss Bathwick’s head, with and without the thread of velvet she sometimes wore about her neck, and quite a number of curiously idealized studies of that American reading public he would always so grotesquely and annoyingly insist on calling “Her.” And among other things I found a rendering of myself as a short, flattened little object that has a touch of malignity in it I had no reason to expect. Few or none of these quaint comments are drawn with Indian ink upon millboard in a manner suitable for reproduction, and even were they so, I doubt whether the public would care for very many of them. (I give my own portrait—it is singularly unlike me—to show the style of thing he did.)
Of the “Mind of the Race” I may perhaps tell first. I find he had written out and greatly embellished the singularly vivid and detailed and happily quite imaginary account of the murder of that eminent litterateur, Dr. Tomlinson Keyhole, with which the “Mind of the Race” was to have concluded; and there are an extraordinarily offensive interview with Mr. Raymond Blathwayt (which, since it now “dates” so markedly, I have decided to suppress altogether) and an unfinished study of “the Literary Statesmen of the Transition Years from the Nineteenth to the Twentieth Centuries” (including a lengthy comparison of the greatness of Lords Bryce and Morley, a eulogy of Lord Morley and a discussion whether he has wit or humour) that were new to me. And perhaps I may note at this point the twenty sixpenny washing books in which Boon had commenced what I am firmly convinced is a general index of the works of Plato and Aristotle. It is conceivable he did this merely as an aid to his private reading, though the idea of a popular romancer reading anything will come to the general reader with a little shock of surprise.
Boon’s idea of Aristotle (in modern dress), from the washing books.
(When asked, “Why in modern dress?” Boon replied simply that he would be.)
For my own part and having in memory his subtle and elusive talk, I am rather inclined to think that at one time he did go so far as to contemplate a familiar and humorous commentary upon these two pillars of the world’s thought. An edition of them edited and copiously illustrated by him would, I feel sure, have been a remarkable addition to any gentleman’s library. If he did turn his mind to anything of the sort he speedily abandoned the idea again, and with this mention and the note that he detested Aristotle, those six and twenty washing books may very well follow the bulk of the drawings and most of the verse back into their original oblivion….
Boon’s idea of Plato, from the washing books.
(Boon absolutely rejected the Indian Bacchus bust as a portrait of Plato. When asked why, he remarked merely that it wasn’t like him.)
But now you will begin to understand the nature of the task that lies before me. If I am to do any justice to the cryptic George Boon, if indeed I am to publish anything at all about him, I must set myself to edit and convey these books whose only publication was in fact by word of mouth in his garden arbours, using these few fragments as the merest accessories to that. I have hesitated, I have collected unfavourable advice, but at last I have resolved to make at least one experimental volume of Boon’s remains. After all, whatever we have of Aristotle and Socrates and all that we most value of Johnson comes through the testimony of hearers. And though I cannot venture to compare myself with Boswell….
I know the dangers I shall run in this attempt to save my friend from the devastating expurgations of his written ostensible career. I confess I cannot conceal from myself that, for example, I must needs show Boon, by the standards of every day, a little treacherous.
When I thrust an arm into one or other of the scores of densely packed bins of press cuttings that cumber the attics of his castellated mansion and extract a sample clutch, I find almost invariably praise, not judicious or intelligent praise perhaps, but slab and generous praise, paragraphs, advice, photographs, notices, notes, allusions and comparisons, praise of the unparalleled gloss on his style by Doctor Tomlinson Keyhole under the pseudonym of “Simon up to Snuff,” praise of the healthiness of the tone by Doctor Tomlinson Keyhole under the pseudonym of “The Silver Fish,” inspired announcements of some forthcoming venture made by Doctor Tomlinson Keyhole under the pseudonym of “The True-Born Englishman,” and interesting and exalting speculations as to the precise figure of Boon’s income over Dr. Tomlinson Keyhole’s own signature; I find chatty, if a little incoherent, notices by Braybourne of the most friendly and helpful sort, and interviews of the most flattering description by this well-known litterateur and that. And I reflect that while all this was going on, there was Boon on the other side of Miss Bathwick’s rampart mind, not only not taking them and himself seriously, not only not controlling his disrespectful internal commentary on these excellent men, but positively writing it down, regaling himself with the imagined murder of this leader of thought and the forcible abduction to sinister and melancholy surroundings of that!
And yet I find it hard to do even this measure of justice to my friend. He was treacherous, it must be written, and yet he was, one must confess, a singularly attractive man. There was a certain quality in his life—it was pleasant. When I think of doing him justice I am at once dashed and consoled by the thought of how little he cared how I judged him. And I recall him very vividly as I came upon him on one occasion.
He is seated on a garden roller—an implement which makes a faultless outdoor seat when the handle is adjusted at a suitable angle against a tree, and one has taken the precaution to skid the apparatus with a piece of rockery or other convenient object. His back is against the handle, his legs lie in a boneless curve over the roller, and an inch or so of native buff shows between the corduroy trousers and the claret-coloured socks. He appears to be engaged partly in the degustation of an unappetizing lead pencil, and partly in the contemplation of a half-quire of notepaper. The expression of his rubicund face is distinctly a happy one. At the sound of my approach he looks up. “I’ve been drawing old Keyhole again!” he says like a schoolboy.
Nevertheless, if critics of standing are to be drawn like this by authors of position, then it seems to me that there is nothing before us but to say Good-bye for ever to the Dignity of Letters.