‘I think I’m having a mid-life crisis,’ I told my wife the other night at dinner.
Instead of sympathizing, she started laughing, and then immediately apologized. ‘I’m sorry, dear. You know I love you, but you’re always having a mid-life crisis. You’ve been having a mid-life crisis since the moment I met you, twenty-seven years ago.’
Now this is more or less true, but I prefer not to hear it. And I think ‘always’ is a bit of an exaggeration. The fact that my friends call me ‘Eeyore’ is neither here nor there. But I suppose that’s why I’ve always loved H. G. Wells’s novel The History of Mr Polly. Polly and I have so much in common.
When we first meet Alfred Polly, he is sitting on a stile between ‘two threadbare-looking fields’ contemplating suicide:
Mr Polly sat on the stile and hated the whole scheme of life – which was at once excessive and inadequate of him. He hated Fishbourne, he hated Fishbourne High Street, he hated his shop and his wife and his neighbours – every blessed neighbour – and with indescribable bitterness he hated himself.
Seeing no way out, he resolves to kill himself. This seems a rather unpromising start to a comic novel, but that’s exactly what The History of Mr Polly is: a comic masterpiece – the sunniest, warmest novel H. G. Wells ever wrote. Certainly, it was his least polemical. Later in life, Wells would admit that, if he didn’t rank Polly as his best book, it was certainly his happiest and the one he cared for most.
Part of the attraction lies in its hero, Alfred Polly. He is a small, inconsequential man, the sort who drifts through life as if in a dream. ‘I’ve never really planned my life, or set out to live,’ Polly admits. ‘I happened; things happened to me. It’s so with everyone.’ But Polly is graced with a warm heart and a real need for affection. He has a romantic streak fuelled by a voracious and
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