Book Review – Mr. Britling Sees it Through by H.G. Wells
This is a surprisingly powerful novel, but not one with aliens or fantastic machines or representations of utopian futures, which are the things for which H.G. Wells is most noted. This is not that kind of book. There isn’t a driving plot that requires resolution. It falls firmly into the ‘literary’ genre, exploring how people react to events that threaten to change their view of the world. The event, of course, is World War I, and the story is a personal and very human account of the war’s first years, not from one of the combatants, but from a father who provides a broader yet still intimate perspective. When it was published in 1916, it would be considered contemporary fiction. Now, it might be seen as historical fiction.
The first quarter of the book sets a scene of tranquil Essex in 1914, relatively untainted by the hustle and bustle of nearby London or by the changes going on throughout the rest of the world. The main character, Mr. Britling, is a fairly well known writer of essays and articles. He is an optimist. He believes in reason and in humanity’s ability to exercise good judgment. His worldview is about to be challenged. (I got the distinct impression that much of Mr. Britling was an autobiographical representation of Mr. Wells.)
As fiction, this book humanizes the experience of WWI in a way that history cannot. It shows the initial disbelief, denial, outrage, grief, and attempts at rationalization that Mr. Britling experiences. It comments on politics, ideology, religion, and the stupidity and waste of war from the perspective of a person detached enough to observe it rationally while involved enough to experience it emotionally. It’s a powerful combination. It stimulates the readers’ minds as well as their feelings.
I won’t summarize the story. Others have done that. If you wish, you can view the Wikipedia entry. One overriding theme of the book is how the characters perform mental gymnastics to adjust the reality of the war with their understanding of the world. Mr. Britling observes that the war is incompatible with the idea of God promoted by the Church, so he imagines a different one, which still allows him to retain his optimism about humanity. In this way, he carries on. He sees it through.
I can’t honestly recommend this book for everyone, but I would suggest it to fans of H.G. Wells and those with an interest in WWI. I enjoyed it immensely. (I got a copy as a free Kindle download.)
Free e-book on Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14060/14060-h/14060-h.htm
Wikipedia Entry on this book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Britling_Sees_It_Through