In 1926, it had been the writer HG Wells who stood up to the London critics in defence of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. He was passionate about music, and frequently alluded to composers in his fiction, in his Tono Bungay , he noted that he used:
‘Beethoven, when I want to clear up my head while I’m working.’
Wells is alluding to a benefit available to his generation, and not to earlier ones; the gramophone. Beethoven, when he comforted the grieving mother, von Ertmann, by ‘speaking’ to her ‘in tones’, of course, played to her. Wells was not ‘clearing his head’ by playing the piano, but by listening to a gramophone record.
He is, of course, also just a step away from Forster’s ‘Leonard Bast’ who listens to Beethoven in the hope that it will ‘do him some good’, and maybe lift him from his straitened situation. Later John Osborne would opine of a new exclusion from this ‘virtual salon’ of recordings, through the artificial inflation of the price of classical music, which he saw as a class war. The growth of music broadcasting, the achievements of the ‘Third Programme’ blew ever more fresh egalitarian through these exclusive chambers. This was perhaps an aspect of the changes which Wells had forecast in 1920:
‘As the earth spins from darkness into the light, the millions wake again to a new day in their life of toil, anxiety, little satisfactions, little chagrins, rivalries, spites, generosities. From tropic to the bleakest north, the cocks crow before the advancing margin of dawn. The early toiler hurries to his work, the fox and the thief slink home, the tramp stretches his stiff limbs under the haystack, and springs up alert before the farmer’s man discovers him, the ploughman is already in the field with his horses, the fires are lit in the cottage and the kettle sings. The hours warm as the day advances; the crowded trains converge upon the city centres, the traffic thickens in the streets, the breakfast table of the prosperous home is spread, the professor begins his lecture, the shop assistants greet their first customers… outwardly it is very like the world before the war. And yet it is profoundly different. The sense of inevitable routines that held all the world in thrall six years ago has gone. And the habitual assurance of security has gone too. The world has been roused-for a time at least- to great dangers and great desires. These minds, this innumerable multitude of minds, are open to fresh ideas of association and duty and relationship as they were never open before. The old confused and divided world is condemned; it is going on provisionally under a sentence of great and as yet incalculable change. [This graver world of 1920]
Wells was very conscious that the barriers which kept the unprivileged out of government, out of influence, and out of the drawing rooms, the galleries, the salons and concert halls had been forever torn down in the aftermath of the ‘Great War’. Roy Strong noted that:
‘Like Elgar, he was an outside, a shopkeeper’s son, an ambience he captured in The History of Mr Polly…….seeing that the ahead for society was going to reside in coming to terms with the full implications of technology.’
A quarter of a century after the publication of Wells’ Outline of History, Osbert Sitwell poured scorn on Wells’s evidently misplaced optimisms about the potential advances in culture and technology.
‘Looking back, truth compels me to admit that, with one exception, the prophets of my young days seem from this distance to be an uninspiring band. There was Well, a man of genius, with his naïf social paradise, served up many times, but unvaried in its ingredients: the scientific hero, who had discovered how to blow up old worlds in a new way, and his emancipated mistress, togged up in essential tweeds. Their appearance in the divorce court assume in these novels the place of honour accorded, let us say, in the books of Charles Dickens, by a wedding in a church: his earlier romances, such as The Island of Doctor Moreau or The Time Machine were drenched in nightmare, and contained, as do dreams, many twinges of future truth…..Only Shaw, with his genius and huniros, as he still does today, a lifetime later, a Prince and Cardinal of literature, the greatest European figure and writer since Voltaire.
Wells’s beginnings in London were a story of exclusion. As a young man, he found himself locked out of the drawing rooms, theatres, and concert halls where everything that interested him was happening. Perhaps the engine of Wells’ desire for access was his memory of how London was closed to a poor young scholar, with no money and no connections, and the aching horror of empty Sundays::
‘1888: My week-days during that period of stress were fully occupied by small activities. The British Museum Reading Room and the Education Library at South Kensington were good places for light, shelter and comfort. You could sit in them indefinitely so long as they were open. And the streets and shops were endlessly interesting. I loitered and watched the crowds … I found the Sundays terrible. There were vast, lonely days. The shuttered streets were endless, and they led nowhere but to chapels and churches which took you in and turned you out at inconvenient hours. Except in St Paul’s Cathedral there was nowhere to sit and think. In the smaller places of worship one had to be sitting down or standing up or kneeling and pretending to participate. Loneliness weighed upon me more and more.’
Virginia Woolf met Rebecca West for the first time in 1928; she gossiped that her fierceness was the result of her complicated relationship with Wells:
[Virginia Woolf] To Rosamond Lehmann, Monks House, Rodmell, Sussex, July 2nd 1928: ‘In ten minutes we shall be driving back to London, and I don’t expect to feel wise when I’m talking to, shall we say, Sibyl Colefax or Rebecca West – who’s a very nice woman, though I met her the other day at a party that Nessa and Duncan gave, and was amused to find how awed one still is by celebrities, and then they turn out to be much like other people. She is rather fierce, and I expect has some bone she gnaws at in secret, perhaps about having a child [Anthony West] by Wells. But I couldn’t ask her. Perhaps you know her.’
Inscribed in Cohen’s copy of The Time Machine, September 1928.
‘To Harriet Cohen/In eager anticipation of her birth/HG Wells May 1895’
An Open Letter, H.G. Wells, 1926
H G Wells, Tono Bungay, P.381
The Outline of History, HG Wells, Waverley, London, 1920, P59
The Spirit of Britain, Roy Strong, Hutchinson6,P600
Great Morning, Osbert Sitwell, Macmillan, London, 1948, P.134
The Chronicles of London, Andrew Saint and Gillian Darley, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1994, Pp.227-8
The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 6 1936-1941, Ed. Nicholson and Trautman, HBJ, NYC, 1980, 521
Music and Men, The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen, Helen Fry, The History Press, Gloucester, 2009, P167