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.