Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1515
First published: 1905
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Domestic romance
Time of work: Early twentieth century
Arthur Kipps, a simple soul
Ann Pornick, a neighbor girl
Helen Walsingham, a “lady”
Mr. Chitterlow, Kipps’s friend
Young Arthur Kipps knew there was something mysterious about his birth, but his memories of his mother were so vague that they were all but meaningless. He knew only that she had gone away, leaving him in the care of his aunt and uncle and providing a small sum for his education. He spent his bleak childhood in a wretched school in which he learned nothing. His vacations were dominated by his aunt’s notions of what was proper. His unhappy childhood was lightened somewhat, however, by his friendship with a boy of “low” class and the boy’s sister, Ann Pornick. One day, he and Ann tore a sixpence note in two, each keeping a half. This was Kipps’s first venture in love, but it was short-lived. When he finished school, he was apprenticed to a draper. Soon afterward, the Pornicks moved away, and Ann went into domestic service.
His life as an apprentice was as dull as his childhood. After seven years, he was given a position in the firm at twenty pounds a year. He was engaged several times, as was the custom among his friends. His next real infatuation, after Ann, however, was for Miss Helen Walsingham, a lady in the true sense. She taught wood carving in a class he attended for self-improvement. Kipps keenly felt his ignorance about the ways of the world. Helen was so far above him in station that he could only stare at her in awe, for he could neither talk nor act in any way other than clumsily.
Kipps’s fortunes, however, were soon to change. Through an accident, he made the acquaintance of Mr. Chitterlow, a would-be playwright and actor. Because Chitterlow poured whiskey into Kipps at an alarming rate, the young man got drunk and stayed away from his residence, which was also his business address, all night, and he found himself the next morning with a month’s notice. As he cursed himself for a fool, Chitterlow burst upon him again with news that a person answering Kipps’s description was being advertised for by a solicitor. When Kipps investigated, he found that he had inherited a fortune, twelve hundred pounds a year and a handsome house, to be exact. He learned then that he had been the illegitimate son of a gentleman whose father would not let him marry Kipps’s mother. Both his parents were dead, as was his grandfather. The old gentleman had relented before his death and left his fortune to his unknown grandson.
Bewildered by his new wealth, Kipps could do nothing constructive for some time. He felt a great need for knowledge of things of which he was dismally ignorant. He was besieged by requests for charity and by salesmen of all descriptions. Chitterlow persuaded him to buy a quarter interest in a play which he was writing, and his uncle invested money for him in all sorts of bargains in antiques that might one day be valuable.
Soon after he became wealthy, Kipps met Helen Walsingham again. He felt as unsure of himself as ever, but there was a definite change in her attitude. Formerly she had been aloof; now she was warm and friendly. Before long, she had maneuvered him into a proposal and agreed to teach him the things he needed to know in his new position. Kipps found himself scrutinized and instructed on every move he made, for Helen attempted to change his speech, his habits of dress, his social manners, and his attitudes. At first he was grateful, but although he was not aware of it, his infatuation was changing to gloom. Helen even persuaded him to change solicitors and to give his business to her brother, who had opened an office a short time before.
While visiting his aunt and uncle, Kipps met Ann Pornick again. She was not aware of his new fortune, even though he had recently seen her brother and told him the news. Pornick had turned Socialist, and his contempt for Kipps’s new wealth, coupled with jealousy, had prevented his telling Ann of his old friend’s good luck. Ann, acting naturally with Kipps, made him yearn for the simple life he had once known. The fact that she was in service bothered his new feeling of class superiority, however, and he tried to put her out of his mind. When he met her again, as a servant in the house in which he was a guest, he could control himself no longer. He threw caution and caste to the winds and asked her to marry him. Having now learned of his position, she protested feebly at the difference in their stations but soon succumbed to his pleas and married him.
Their married life settled into the humdrum made necessary by idleness. He had let his fine house, and they prepared to build a home. Ann wanted a small house in which she could do her own work, but Kipps planned a larger one of about six rooms. By the time the architect and Kipps’s uncle finished with him, however, he found himself committed to an eleven-bedroom house. Ann felt so inferior to him and longed so much for a simpler life that she often wept. Kipps felt the same longings but, convinced that he ought to live well and in society, did not identify them as such.
An abrupt change took place in their lives when he learned from Helen Walsingham that her brother had used Kipps’s money for speculation and had lost everything before fleeing the country. Expecting to be penniless again, Kipps and Ann were satisfied when they learned that they still had about four thousand pounds, perhaps more. He fulfilled an ambition of some duration by opening a little bookshop. He knew nothing about books but prospered enough to meet their now simple wants. The unfinished mansion was sold, and the happy couple settled down to a simple life that pleased them both. Then Chitterlow hit a stroke of luck and sold his play in which Kipps had bought a quarter interest. The play was a huge success, and Kipps collected many times his original investment of one hundred pounds.
When Ann presented him with a son, Kipps’s joy was overflowing. Although he was almost as rich as he had been when he had his twelve hundred a year, he longed no more for self-improvement. He thought himself the happiest man alive. Who knows? Perhaps he was.
When H. G. Wells gave KIPPS the subtitle THE STORY OF A SIMPLE SOUL, he summarized the novel briefly and concisely. Kipps was certainly simple, but he was also delightful. His rise in the world brought little change in his character, although he tried valiantly to make the change. Therefore, his downfall caused him little heartache and in one sense brought him happiness, for he could be himself at last. Writing about his first comic novel, Wells stated, “KIPPS is designed to present a typical member of the English lower middle-class in all its pitiful limitation and feebleness, and beneath a treatment deliberately kind and general provides a fairly sustained criticism of the ideals and ways of the great mass of middle-class English people.” Wells was in an excellent position to comment on both these social types. His father had kept a shop much like that of Kipps’s uncle. Wells too was forced to study at a commercial academy and apprentice himself in a drapery shop. Marriage brought him squarely into the middle-class milieu, and the agony that Ann and Arthur experience in building their house is reminiscent of Wells’s ordeal in getting Spade House erected near Folkestone.
It is precisely that quality of feebleness that makes Arthur Kipps such a superb comic figure. Impressionable, undereducated, always a bit bewildered, this unself-conscious “simple soul” is incapable of mastering the “social graces,” and his attempts only highlight the silliness of polite society. Led by the omniscient and sympathetic narrator, readers see Kipps struggling with “The Art of Conversation,” French sauces, the “social call,” the Anagram Tea, and tipping in London’s Royal Grand Hotel.
Wells treats the Walsinghams very harshly. Not wealthy, their sense of class is nevertheless boundless. Noblesse oblige draws them into charitable activities through which they express their utter contempt for working people. Barely deigning to speak to Kipps in the drapery shop, when they learn of his inheritance, they organize a cynical conspiracy to capture his wealth. To Helen, Kipps means “money and opportunity, freedom and London.” She introduces him to grammar, idleness, gardening, and afternoon tea. Not really hopeful that he can be reformed, she takes comfort in the anticipation that he will at least change the spelling of his name to Cuyps and “cut dead” his old friends.