Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1534
First published: 1916
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of work: World War I
Mr. Direck, an American
Mr. Britling, an English writer
Hugh, Mr. Britling’s oldest son
Teddy, Mr. Britling’s secretary
Letty, Teddy’s wife
Cissie, Letty’s sister and Mr. Direck’s sweetheart
Heinrich, the Britling children’s tutor
Mr. Direck, secretary of a Boston cultural society, was in England for the purpose of persuading Mr. Britling, a famous writer, to deliver a series of lectures in the United States. Direck found England all that he had expected, as he traveled from London to Matching’s Easy in Essex to meet Mr. Britling. Mr. Britling, however, did not support the illusion. He neither dressed like an Englishman nor acted like an intellectual, and Direck was disappointed, but Mr. Britling’s family and friends aroused his interest. Mr. and Mrs. Britling had three boys. The oldest, Hugh, was the son of Mr. Britling’s first wife. In addition to the immediate family, an old aunt and a young German tutor, Heinrich, lived in the house. Mr. Britling’s secretary Teddy, his wife Letty, and her sister Cissie lived in a cottage nearby. Direck fell in love with Cissie, a vivacious and intelligent girl.
Largely because of Cissie, Direck zestfully entered into the entertainments of the Britling household; at times, he almost forgot the real reason for his visit. Several times, however, he and his host had serious discussions. Once they spoke about possible war with Germany. Mr. Britling said the idea was nonsense; it had been expected for a long time and had never happened. Unknown to Direck and Mr. Britling, however, an attempt was at that moment being made to kill Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria. The fatal march of events had begun.
One morning, Mr. Britling took Direck on a ride around the countryside. Mr. Britling, a poor driver, was involved in an accident with a motorcycle. He was not hurt, but Direck broke his wrist. The accident provided an opportunity for Direck to prolong his stay at Matching’s Easy. Meanwhile, war brewed behind the scenes. France was unsettled. The British were troubled with civil war in Ireland. Heinrich anxiously questioned Mr. Britling about the war. Mr. Britling was still confident that Germany could not be so foolish as to fight the rest of the world.
When the time finally came for Direck to leave Matching’s Easy, he decided he could not go without confessing his love to Cissie. Because she had not yet made up her mind about her love for him, Direck left for a tour of Europe. He felt hopeful because Cissie had not definitely rejected him.
Mr. Britling was also involved in a love affair. He and his wife had ceased to love each other years before, but they cooperated admirably to run their pleasant household. Life ran smoothly at home. Away from home, there was Mrs. Harrowdean, a widow. The love affair between her and Mr. Britling did not run smoothly. At the time, they had ceased to see each other and were quarreling by mail.
The threat of war crept forward. Heinrich was called home for mobilization, and he left sadly. He did not believe in war. The Britlings urged him to stay, but he said that he must serve his country.
Germany invaded France, and Russia invaded Germany. Although forced to readjust his thinking, Mr. Britling firmly believed that Germany could never win. With a troubled mind, he drove into the country and was half-determined to call on Mrs. Harrowdean; on the way, however, he began to think of what the war would mean to the world. Instead of going to see Mrs. Harrowdean, he returned home to his writing desk. The war had arrived to fill the mind of Mr. Britling to the exclusion of everything else.
When the Germans attacked Belgium, England declared war. Direck, who had been in Germany when war was declared, returned immediately to England, where he found Cissie thinking only of England and the war. As an American, Direck remained only an interested spectator.
Gradually it dawned on Mr. Britling that Germany could not easily be beaten. The Britling household slowly became involved in the war. First Teddy and then Hugh volunteered. At last, Mr. Britling got a job as a constable guarding bridges and public works. Mrs. Britling worked for the Red Cross. A Belgian refugee and his family came to live with them for a time. Later, two squads of soldiers were billeted in their barn.
Mr. Britling did a lot of thinking in his attempt to adjust his mind to Germany’s attitude in the war. To most Englishmen, the war was a game to be played and won against an honorable enemy; to many Germans, the war was a campaign of hate. Mr. Britling often thought of Heinrich. There had to be other Germans as good as Heinrich, for not all of them could be evil. Then he realized that the British were growing as cruel and hardened as the enemy. This war, after all, was no different from the ones that had gone before, and men on both sides were victims of their own foolishness and stupidity.
Hugh lied about his age and managed to be sent to the front in Flanders. Teddy was also there, and one day, Letty received a telegram that said that he was missing. Mr. Britling was so disturbed that writing was now impossible. Direck, still a civilian, left for the Continent to learn news of Teddy. Then a telegram announced that Hugh had been killed. The war was leaving its mark upon Mr. Britling of Matching’s Easy.
Although Direck had found almost certain evidence that Teddy had been killed, Letty still believed him to be alive. Cissie tried to make her sister face the truth. Letty, however, was finally convinced and went alone out into the fields with her grief. There she met Mr. Britling. He had become reconciled to Hugh’s death because he had convinced himself that the boy had not died in vain. A better world was in the making; after the war, things would be different.
Letty returned home, strangely quieted by what Mr. Britling had told her; she, too, had become reconciled to the idea of death. Suddenly, she saw a familiar figure in front of the cottage. It was Teddy. He was alive, with one hand gone. Now it was Cissie who must begin to worry. Direck had volunteered in the Canadian Army.
Some weeks later, Mr. Britling learned that Heinrich had died. He tried to compose a letter to Heinrich’s parents, but the effort was useless. He wrote all night without being able to express what he felt. Hugh and Heinrich had both died for a reason. With the promise of a better world to come, now was not the time for despair. Mr. Britling rose from his desk and watched the morning begin. His mind was calm. It seemed as if the whole world was bathed in sunrise.
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.