Last year I wrote a literary biography of HG Wells, a task that, of course, entailed reading all his novels. I already knew his science fiction and some of his other novels, but I’d never read his first world war masterpiece Mr Britling Sees It Through, which was published in 1916. To this day I don’t know anyone who has. Yet in its day this was one of Wells’s most successful books (it was the bestselling novel in the world in 1917) and attracted hyperbolic praise. Maxim Gorky called it “the finest, most courageous, truthful and humane book written in Europe in the course of this accursed war”. Strange to think a book so fêted and successful could drop so comprehensively off the radar.
What makes it stranger is that the novel is exactly as good as Wells’s contemporaries thought: a wonderfully detailed, evocative and moving portrait of England at war. Britling himself is a Wellsian self-portrait: a successful writer, living comfortably in his Essex home of Matching’s Easy; married to his second wife, raising a son, Hugh, and two stepchildren, and conducting a discreet affair with an attractive neighbour. Part one, Matching’s Easy at Ease, compiles a leisurely but compelling portrait of the long Edwardian summer of 1914. The second part, Matching’s Easy at War, describes the impact of the war on the home front. Hugh lies about his age and signs up, and his letters to his father are full of vivid detail about life in the trenches. When he is killed – a freak shot catches him through a “loop” in the trench’s defences – the novel pivots to a heartbreaking account of his father’s grief. As the novel ends, Britling is reaching a fragile but hopeful epiphany, his atheism dissolving into a belief in God. This ending could easily have struck a merely sentimental, or an awkwardly pious, note, but in fact it does neither. It is testament to Wells’s skill as a writer how moving the conclusion is.