This intensely autobiographical novel may be read in three ways: as the portrait of an eccentric, upper-class English family coping with war; as a record of the shifts in English public opinion during the years 1914-1916; and as a plea for world government and theistic faith.
With astonishing honesty, H. G. Wells detailed his own confused psyche, marital infidelities, family tensions, and the ways of his community. The hockey games, costume parties, and easy conversations give way to endless anxiety over food supplies, mobilization, quartering, and the safety of Hugh and Teddy. Only with the departure of Heinrich do the Britlings realize the extent of their affection for him. Hugh’s remarkable letters from the trenches and the description of Mr. Britling’s mourning constitute some of Wells’s best writing. The novel was immensely popular and provoked many expressions of sympathy. Ironically, the account of Hugh’s death was one of the few departures from autobiography in the book.
Wells’s views, like those of his contemporaries, changed frequently and radically during this period. Mr. Britling complacently trusts in civilizing reason to forestall war; he then is aggressively anti-German; despondency and a “plague on both houses” attitude follows; and this mood is ultimately superseded by the vision of a League of Nations. Through Direck and Heinrich, Wells articulates American and German viewpoints, and Lady Frensham speaks for the aristocracy, preoccupied with Irish Home Rule and women’s suffrage. The touching “Ortheris” presents working class attitudes.
Britling ultimately sees his suffering through by means of faith. His political hope—that a world federation of democratic republics will soon emerge—is sustained by his experience of “a Presence so close that it was behind his eyes and in his brain and hands.” His God is not omnipotent; He is the suffering at the heart of all human sorrows. He is a being who is with and for men, subject to all the terrors that assail them. Wells conceived of his theology as non-Christian, but he was actually preaching a central message of the New Testament.