H.G. Wells: The Wonderful Visit
Well’s second publication after The Time Machine was this little known gem.
Dealing with the story of an Angel who has inexplicably travelled between his dimension, a place assumed to be heaven but never directly described as being so, and this, he lands in a small English village called Siddermorton.
The Angel is mistakenly identified as a rare bird and the Vicar of Siddermorton, a keen ornithologist, manages to shoot it down in the interests of taxonomy. The vicar soon realises his error and takes the Angel home whilst he heals, and so ‘Mr Angel’, as the astral entity becomes known, starts learning about humanity and English society.
From a science fiction standpoint, this short book could be viewed as a classic example of the ‘first contact’ novel. The angel himself really being a device to allow Wells to analyse English society through the eyes of an outsider, a basic form of cognitive estrangement. This becomes apparent rather early on when, in describing the hunting activities of the Vicar, Wells rails against the activities of the collector; those men who, purportedly in the name of science and a love for the natural world, hunt down and kill specimens of outstanding and beauty and place them under glass, rendering the rare and wonderful even rarer and largely extinct. In fact, the beauty of the countryside is one of the major themes of this piece. Taking more from the English pastoral than previous fantasy literature, Wells paints an idyllic picture of late 19th century village life, dwelling here far more than he ever would again on small details of flora and fauna, and conjuring a Constable-esque setting for his tale.
However, by showing the truly beautiful and innocent form of the angel against such an arcadian backdrop, Wells shows the human characters as brute, physical, and graceless. Pain in all its guises is their motivating force, whether the avoidance of or the wish to inflict said pain upon others. This is cannily shown to underly a class system in which the have-not’s seek to dole out pain in revenge for that visited upon them, and the have’s seek to inflict it for the purposes of avoiding it being visited upon themselves.
The fact that Wells utilises an Angel for the purpose of estranging the reader pushes the story into an analyses not only of society, but of religion and the nature of religious thought as well. The appearance of the Angel throws the decidedly agnostic Vicar into doubt, of both human society and the divine order. When he says that he cannot decide whether the Angel, by this point starting to understand and experience the human condition, is Terrestrial Angelic or Angelic Terrestrial, he is really drawing attention to his own place in the world. It is the angel who is the Angelic Terrestrial, struggling to cope with the ways of men as compared to his previous existence, and the vicar who is the Terrestrial Angelic, a man of earth similarly struggling with the rough nature of humanity in light of the existence he assumes will come after.
This book is, compared to some of Wells’ later works, incredibly subtle and beautifully wrought. Whilst setting up a piece about class and human nature which is ultimately resolved by the existence of selflessness and love in the ‘lowest’ of characters, Wells manages to criticize the nature of Pastoral literature and the assumptions of the educated classes as well by having the young female servant of the vicar be the Angel’s salvation. Prior to this, he apologises for not conforming to stereotype and not having the girl speak in dialect and for giving her tender feelings and beauty, things normally only found in representations of middle and upper class females.
More than any of Wells’ other early pieces, this story is pure craft from begining to end. From an amusing and entertaining start, the story morphs into a sophisticated and nuanced critique of what it means to be English in the dying quarter of the Victorian era, rising to heights of beauty and tenderness that are genuinely affecting, and ending on a sadly poignant note. Both Wells’ anger and humour bubble through this work, and it seems that the former has the firmer hold of his mind, considering the depredation visited on the pastoral English scene in The War of the Worlds.
The Wonderful Visit represents a vital piece of the Wells canon, which produces echoes and influences in science fiction for well over a century. Why it is not better known or more widely studied baffles me.