Monday, July 12, 2010

A Weekend with Wells

The weekend 9th to 11th July saw a fascinating conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the H. G. Wells Society, ‘H. G. Wells: From Kent to Cosmopolis’, held in the appropriate setting of the Darwin College Conference Suite at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

While the conference dealt predominantly with Wells as writer and social visionary, there were a number of papers and elements of interest to the medical historian. The planned opening speaker, the distinguished author Brian Aldiss, was unable to attend, but sent a brief note to be read to the conference referencing a group of novels written by Wells in the 1920s dealing with the topic of mental disturbance, and raising the question of how far these were rooted in personal experience.

A paper by Marc Arnold on ‘H. G. Wells: Tuberculosis, Class and the Fear of Racial Degeneration’ revealed contrasting attitudes - strongly based on social class - to sufferers from TB in the nineteenth century, either ethereally delicate and frail or brutish and animalistic. Although Wells had himself been diagnosed as tubercular as a young man (but had recovered), he lent his weight to the campaign in Sandgate mounted by respectable residents objecting to the presence of numerous pauper consumptives in the town brought there by a local sanatorium entrepreneur. Arnold also made the intriguing suggestion that the depiction of the Eloi and the Morlocks in The Time Machine (1895) owes something to these contrasting images of consumption.

Themes of notions of racial degeneration and Wells’ interest in eugenics cropped up in a number of other papers. John Partington, for example, explored Wells’ relationship to the developing birth control movement, indicating that his interests lay in the wider issues of racial improvement that he saw birth control as enabling. Although most of Wells’ correspondence with Marie Stopes is in the British Library Department of Manuscripts, there is one furious note to her among the Stopes correspondence here in the Wellcome, concerning his resignation from the Society for Constructive Birth Control in 1922, and carbon copies of her letters to him some years later trying to woo him back as a supporter (PP/MCS/A.242). Her endeavours failed, although he later became a Vice President of the rival National Birth Control Association, renamed the Family Planning Association in 1938, from its inception in 1930 until shortly before his death in 1945 (SA/FPA/A14/173)

There was a fascinating plenary lecture by the science fiction novelist and children’s author Gwyneth Jones (Ann Halam) about The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and writing her own novel Dr Franklin’s Island (2001) influenced by it, deploying modern techniques of stem cells and genetic engineering rather than surgery as the means by which the sinister scientist creates human-animal hybrids. The discussion raised issues of the context for Wells’ depiction of vivisection. The Brown Dog furore about animal experimentation at University College took place from 1903 to 1910 (on which there is some documentation in Archives and Manuscripts) and had vivisection much in the news took place after the publication of the novel, but the topic had been a cause for concern and agitation throughout the later decades of the nineteenth century. The archives of the Lister Institute, formerly British Institute for Preventive Medicine, include material on the protests by local residents against its establishment on the Chelsea Embankment on the grounds of resistance to experimentation on animals.

This was an excellent conference, and I may also add that my own paper, ‘An Ambiguous Idol: H. G. Wells inspiring and infuriating women’, based on research in the Wells papers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was well-received.

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