Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332
In his incisive critique of British society, H. G. Wells focuses on the tenacity of the hierarchical class-based system, with its obsession with birth and breeding, and shows how it serves as an obstacle to personal achievement. The protagonist, George Ponderevo, has limited opportunities in life because of the circumstances of his birth and early upbringing. His family are servants on a great estate, but as a child he is allowed to mingle with the owners because of the whims of one of their children, Beatrice, who wants a playmate. His glimpses into their lives give him a taste for more. Although George casts a critical eye on the inequalities of the system, he understands that he must align himself with elites if he wishes to prosper.
By entering into business with his uncle, George expects to achieve commercial success, but he is disillusioned by his uncle's unethical behavior. Instead, pursuing a thoroughly modern trajectory, George studies science and applies it commercially, forgiving his uncle and helping him make a go of the business. His intelligence and hard work pay off, and he racks up numerous achievements. After he becomes financially successful, he can marry Marion and enjoy a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. Once he does so, however, he realizes this life is unfulfilling and empty.
In allowing George to tell his own story by narrating a novel, Wells limits his analysis to the changing self-perceptions of the protagonist. This allows him both to sharply criticize English social conventions, as George increasingly does, and to show how limited George’s world view is. Because he was raised within the system, he is not able to stand outside it and analyze the real shortcomings. George continues to expect that he will take the next step, find the next gimmick, love the right woman, or discover the correct way to achieve fulfillment. Wells suggests that in his promoting the toxic Tono-Bungay, George has likewise poisoned himself and is complicit in poisoning society as a whole.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
Bladesover House. Fictional seventeenth century estate nine miles southeast of London. It is modeled on Up Park, a great house near Peterfield, Kent, where H. G. Wells’s mother was chief housekeeper, that still stands as a government-owned historic landmark. Bladesover House signifies for George, looking back, the “Gentry, the Quality, by and through whom the rest of the world, the farming folk and the laboring folk, the tradespeople, and the upper servants and the servants of the estate, breathed and lived and were permitted.”
Teatime in his mother’s room is the below-stairs setting for class-conscious George’s earliest fears and hatreds. There he hears the gossipy small talk of pensioned former servants who visit daily. The great house theoretically commands a view of the English Channel southward and the River Thames northeastward, but in the hero’s retrospective lens, Bladesover House is London in microcosm.
The estate contains numerous walled gardens, one of which is the setting for young George’s first breakthrough of the Victorian class structure. He encounters Beatrice Normandy, a niece of the lady of the house, and his adolescent “crush” leads to several scenes in which Wells uses place to symbolize the hero’s place in society. Invariably Beatrice sits prettily astride an arbored wall above George, lest he “profane” her. Behind the puppy lovers, “dim and stately, the cornice of the great facade of Bladesover [rose] against the dappled sky.”
Chatham. Municipal borough southeast of London. This “squalid” village, seen by George as in complete contrast to Bladesover, is the first of his several stops before he is “rescued” to London. Whereas what he calls the gentrified “Bladesover effect”—that of being England in miniature—strikes him as fatally outmoded, that of Chatham is of a “wilderness of crowded dinginess,” a well-packed dustbin.
Wimblehurst. Town in Sussex that is George’s second stop. A cut above Chatham, Wimblehurst is significant as the place where he meets a bubbling sprite of an uncle, Teddy Ponderevo and his wife, George’s unforgettable Aunt Susan. Uncle Teddy is a pill dispenser in still another dead country town. In Wimblehurst George is introduced to Teddy’s do-all pill, Tono-Bungay.
*London. Great Britain’s capital and leading city, where George goes after Wimblehurst. From being an unpromising small-town pharmacist’s apprentice, George moves upward to London on a science scholarship. From his Bladesover experience, he evolves a “theory of London,” in which—like his creator—he combines urban sociology, wit and metaphor, polemics, and prophecy. Having seen Bladesover House as the clue to England’s class structure, George also finds in Bladesover the clue to the structure of London. Both are under siege, he believes, “by the presence of great new forces, blind forces of invasion, of [cancerous] growth.”
Much of the novel consists of guided tours of London—of “remote” railway termini, of the great port’s “dingy immensity,” of East End industrial sprawl, and everywhere signs of “some tumourous growth-process.”
Tono-Bungay is the earliest English novel to capture the spirit of modern advertising. As George walks along London’s Embankment, his eye catches food and drink advertisements. They blend in with London’s “new world of vulgar commerce jauntily confront[ing] the old order across the Thames [at Bladesover House] with ads for Tono-Bungay.”
Each stage in Tono-Bungay’s rise and fall is marked by the progress and retrogress of Teddy Ponderevo’s changing domestic environment, conducted in such a way as to provide an ironic comment on the swindle of the fake elixir. These moves from house-to-house are mostly made to emulate Bladesover House. The novel ends in a montage of London maritime landmarks as George, builder of a warship called X2, navigates his destroyer down the Thames. He can now see London “from the outside without illusions. We make and pass . . . striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea.”
Hardingham Hotel. Residence of George’s uncle, Teddy. The hotel’s rooms are a string of apartments along a handsome thick-carpeted corridor. Although a bedroom and private sanctum are in view, Teddy maintains what is now called a “suite”—a place, to use his favorite phrase, with lots of “room for enterprise.” The burgeoning tycoon has a waiting room, where the thick carpeting has been replaced by gray-green cork linoleum; a workroom with two secretaries but no typewriters—the clacking noise distracts him; and two little rooms where Teddy talks up Tono-Bungay and listens for offers.
After profits from Tono-Bungay begin to roll in, the Ponderevos move to a flat on Gower Street in Wimblehurst. On his first visit, George is taken aback by the chintzy chairs, sofa, and a “remote flavour of Bladesover.” Soon Ponderevo buys a villa in Beckenham, with a conservatory, tennis lawn, vegetable garden, and coach house. No sooner does Aunt Susan settle in than she is uprooted to Chislehurst where Teddy acquires a Bladesover of his own, Lady Grove.
Crest Hill. Great house that Teddy has built. Ill at ease among certain ghosts of his past in Lady Grove, Teddy builds himself a twentieth century house. Crest Hill, the new Bladesover House, is to stand as his career’s climax—both the epitome and the insolvent end of Uncle Teddy’s delusions of grandeur, but it is never completed.
Mordet’s Island. Fictional island off the West African coast that is the repository of a rare radioactive substance called quap. This time it is the scientifically minded hero who is taken in by one of the many hucksters who approach his uncle for financial backing. An expedition to the island for the highly valued quap—a bid to pay off Teddy’s debts—ends in failure.
Luzon. Fictional village in the south of France where Teddy, a fugitive after his commercial empire collapses, abjectly dies of pneumonia.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222
Costa, Richard Hauer. H. G. Wells. New York: Twayne, 1967. Includes a critical summary of the novel, seen as “heralding . . . the new [twentieth] century amidst the debris of the old.” Says that Tono-Bungay shows H. G. Wells as both “mystic visionary” and “storyteller.”
Hammond, J. R. An H. G. Wells Companion. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. Describes the work as “a picture of a radically unstable society and an indictment of irresponsible capitalism.” Hammond’s critical examination of the novel calls it Wells’s “finest single achievement.”
Huntington, John, ed. Critical Essays on H. G. Wells. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991. Huntington’s collection updates critical work on Wells, including the novel Tono-Bungay, and provides a useful index and a recent bibliography.
Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne Mackenzie. H. G. Wells. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1973. Discusses the autobiographical aspects of the narrator of Tono-Bungay, George Ponderevo, the circumstances of the writing of the novel, and its critical reception. Argues that “with Tono-Bungay Wells reached the peak of his career as a novelist.”
West, Geoffrey. H. G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait. New York: Norton, 1930. Partly because West (pseudonym of Geoffrey H. Wells) knew Wells well, this biography is considered by some critics to be the definitive one, despite its age. West calls Tono-Bungay a “thought-adventure” and discusses autobiographical elements of the novel.
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