Three Novels: Wells, Chesterton and Baring

Personally I only like pleasurable easy books which tickle my interest, or those which console me and counsel me how to control my life and death.—Montaigne

I often discuss the latter kind of book; now I will look at the former. After a year of largely avoiding fiction I’ve gone back to it with a vengeance. The first item on my list was H. G. Wells The Time Machine (1895). I’ve read it countless times and it never ceases to entertain. The opening passage is delightful:

The fire burned brightly, and the soft radiance of the incandescent lights in the lilies of silver caught the bubbles that flashed and passed in our glasses. Our chairs… embraced and caressed us rather than submitted to be sat upon, and there was that luxurious after-dinner atmosphere when thought roams gracefully free of the trammels of precision.

As one reviewer of Wells put it: “though the pseudo-scientific novels may have been intended to convey a thesis, they remain about the best of their exciting kind, sometimes strangely prophetic in their guesses, highly readable, and… marred only by their strange and sometimes silly social conclusions.”

Next on the list was Chesterton’s collection of stories, The Club of Queer Trades (1905). His tales are humorous and whimsical, much like Wodehouse, but they invariably have a deeper moral. At times the moral may be forced, the whimsy too strained, and the knack for paradox agonizingly overdone. In this respect Chesterton was stylistically (if not philosophically) akin to the arch contrarian Oscar Wilde. For that reason, I can seldom read more than one of his books a year.

The final item in the pile was Maurice Baring’s historical novel Robert Peckham (1930). I’ve discussed his life and writings in an earlier post. His novels are effortlessly readable without sacrificing either beauty or intelligence. Just to give one example, a character is describing the charms of Mary Stuart, wife of Francis II of France, and later ill-fated queen of Scotland:

And as to her converse, it is so witty and so rare, so well attuned in sense and sound, that she muffles with it the tramping of time’s footsteps and she turns to gold the hours, howsoever leaden, and sweetens and tames the roughness of the seasons however furious and inclement.

Baring’s stories are suffused with religion, though not always explicitly so. In Robert Peckham this theme comes to the fore in his depiction of the English Reformation and the violence done (both physical and psychological) to individual men and women.

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