A Long Way from Surrey

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Like so many other, reasonably busy individuals I used to think of Christmas as a great opportunity to read a big classic novel. I wrecked the holiday for years with the same repeated, idiotic misunderstanding, struggling to finish The Golden Bowl or The Way We Live Now or Daniel Deronda, until I began to hate the very idea of Christmas reading. But a decade ago I took a decision which has made me happy ever since. At Christmas I would read only short books.

This switch was first achieved when I decided to limit my holiday reading to the four extraordinary little fantasies that H. G. Wells wrote in quick succession, starting in 1894 at a desk in a Sevenoaks boarding-house: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. When he had finished he had gone from total obscurity to being one of the most famous authors in the world.

The four books are all strikingly brief, but they launched in a seemingly effortless way all the major strands of science fiction and their endless progeny which still choke every bookshop and television screen in ways that Wells would have found both gratifying and alarming.

Three of them are set in various parts of the ancient but sometimes gimcrack country south-west of London with which Wells was very familiar. His attitude to its inhabitants in these novels is somewhat cold: scaring them with the antics of Griffin, the invisible man; killing them with poison gas and death rays produced by invading Martians; turning their descendants in the Richmond of 8,000 centuries ahead into lurking, troglodyte Morlocks.

The fourth novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), is the odd one out and is often overlooked. It is very different in tone and is set a long way from Surrey. While the others are more like brief sketches which have been filled in and elaborated on by countless films, sequels and spin-offs over the ye

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Like so many other, reasonably busy individuals I used to think of Christmas as a great opportunity to read a big classic novel. I wrecked the holiday for years with the same repeated, idiotic misunderstanding, struggling to finish The Golden Bowl or The Way We Live Now or Daniel Deronda, until I began to hate the very idea of Christmas reading. But a decade ago I took a decision which has made me happy ever since. At Christmas I would read only short books.

This switch was first achieved when I decided to limit my holiday reading to the four extraordinary little fantasies that H. G. Wells wrote in quick succession, starting in 1894 at a desk in a Sevenoaks boarding-house: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds. When he had finished he had gone from total obscurity to being one of the most famous authors in the world.

The four books are all strikingly brief, but they launched in a seemingly effortless way all the major strands of science fiction and their endless progeny which still choke every bookshop and television screen in ways that Wells would have found both gratifying and alarming.

Three of them are set in various parts of the ancient but sometimes gimcrack country south-west of London with which Wells was very familiar. His attitude to its inhabitants in these novels is somewhat cold: scaring them with the antics of Griffin, the invisible man; killing them with poison gas and death rays produced by invading Martians; turning their descendants in the Richmond of 8,000 centuries ahead into lurking, troglodyte Morlocks.

The fourth novel, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), is the odd one out and is often overlooked. It is very different in tone and is set a long way from Surrey. While the others are more like brief sketches which have been filled in and elaborated on by countless films, sequels and spin-offs over the years, The Island of Doctor Moreau is an idea which is fully realized and which only works on the page. It is effectively the transcript of a nightmare, a terrible series of glimpses of depravity, and these cannot really be elaborated on, let alone physically shown in a film, without their fevered, asphyxiating quality being replaced by mere silliness.

The story is told by a highly unfortunate Englishman, Edward Prendick, the sole survivor of a wreck, who has been picked up by a broken-down and seedy trading ship filled with wild animals, ranging in size from rabbits to a puma roaring in its cage. Within a couple of pages his Victorian readers would have been lulled into thinking they knew what they were in for. It was a well-established literary tradition that the Pacific islands tended to create moral weakness and depravity among ‘white men’ who washed up there. So it is no surprise that the narrator should find on his rescue ship a violent, drunk captain and a weak-willed young man with ‘watery grey expressionless eyes’ who turns out to have done something furtive and shameful (the implication is gay) back in London, forcing him to wander in eternal exile.

The Pacific was not just the home of reprobates but also one of the great laboratories for biological ideas, attracting to its different regions T. H. Huxley, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, the Holy Trinity of evolutionary theory. Wells was obsessed by evolutionary ideas and had been taught biology by the elderly Huxley, who died the year before Doctor Moreau was published. Much of Wells’s science fiction plays with ideas of evolution and The Time Machine is both frightening and satirical about the idea, with its final glimpse of the furthest future when the earth will be inherited by gigantic crabs and then by ‘some black object flopping about’. Only a few pages in, the original reader of Doctor Moreau would have settled back at this point (the Pacific setting, human seediness, the presence of animals), fairly confident that something grotesque and morally opaque was about to happen.

The genius of the novel lies in the way that, as in his other major books, Wells ruthlessly follows the logic of his story and does not really bother to fill in any needless details. Everything is infused with the same feeling of disgust. Already, simply as a man rescued from shipwreck, something is more than wrong with the narrator, who records that after his ordeal ‘my eye caught my hand, so thin that it looked like a dirty skin purse full of loose bones’. In any other context this would just reflect a lack of food and water, but all his companions also seem to have terrible things wrong with them, which prove as nothing compared to what will be on the island. The brief description of his time in an open boat with his two (then) surviving companions also effortlessly raises one of the book’s key themes: as they lie starving they realize that it is only through killing and eating one of their number that the other two can survive.

The battle to establish who will be eaten leaves Prendick both on his own and, through luck, at least temporarily released from some highly unattractive dining options. Once on Moreau’s island it becomes clear that the dreadful things that lurk everywhere can only be kept in check through a system of religious prohibition that prevents their ever tasting blood. He meets Doctor Moreau, a vivisectionist who fled London after a scandal and has spent years on the island experimenting on animals to try to make them like humans. The island is littered with his experiments, some docile, some much less so, all of whom are under the control of The Law, a religion which is meant to direct their behaviour and keep them from reverting to the status of beasts.

I hesitate to wander too much further on to the island as it would be a pity to give away much more of its ghost-train atmosphere. Like a fairground, the island itself is pure pasteboard, bought cheap from Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and Stevenson’s The Beach of Falesá. But its shoddiness is part of its joy – a barely sketched-in backdrop of bits of swamp, forest, a rocky cleft and volcanic vents, into which can be introduced an exquisite variety of spooky, half-glimpsed elements.

As to Moreau’s base, it is unclear how the huge amounts of food, gear and laboratory equipment could possibly have reached it. It has some slight echo of Captain Nemo’s submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, which also roams the Pacific and seems to have similar supply and fuel headaches.

Moreau’s antics and Prendick’s gradual discovery of the emetic eco-system he has landed in form the core of the book. As Moreau’s assistant tells him: ‘This is a biological station – of a sort.’ Like Wells’s other early novels, Doctor Moreau is wonderfully replete with the love-hate relationships which characterized Victorian attitudes towards science. While we might ourselves be amazed at the Internet, it is in many ways simply a heightening, speeding up and improving of other technologies, whereas Wells was writing in an era where Christianity was under assault, Britain was invading huge chunks of the world, and in areas as various as electricity, surgery and astronomy amazing things were happening. Wells was as destabilized as anyone else by all this. Was there any limit to what science could do? Powered flight was just round the corner – but so were poison gas and artillery of a power and scale previously unimagined. Doctor Moreau is a game, but it is also a speculation about how we treat the natural world – or could treat it after yet another scientific breakthrough.

It is probably fair to say that all the films of Doctor Moreau have failed for the obvious reason that they are necessarily back-to-front. The doctor’s experiments are to do with turning animals into approximations of human beings. These techniques not being in practical terms available to film directors, they are obliged to come from the other direction, by turning human beings into animals, through slightly more elaborate versions of putting on a pig mask held on by elastic. Wells’s vision is of hyenas or leopards dreadfully fiddled with to make them talk and lurch about on spindly, spatchcocked back legs; no actor could be paid enough to reduce himself or herself to such irreversible ghastliness.

The 1996 film starring Marlon Brando as Moreau completes the appalling tradition. Brando, having brilliantly followed his own instincts to create the character of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, felt that he could pull off the same thing in The Island of Doctor Moreau, reimagining the doctor as a figure inexplicably covered in white paint, white robes, dark glasses and a straw hat. He is accompanied by Nelson de la Rosa, one of the shortest men who has ever lived (two feet, four inches high). This grotesque movie was wonderfully made up for in 2014 by the derisive documentary about its making, Lost Soul.

Wells himself called The Island of Doctor Moreau ‘an exercise in youthful blasphemy’ and all the books in this great quartet of novels have a similar flavour. There is a glee in their inventiveness. Doctor Moreau, however, has a special intimate, literary quality – and who could resist a book where the seemingly sensible Victorian narrator is unnerved when ‘something cold touched my hand. I started violently and saw close to me a dim pinkish thing’?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 66 © Simon Winder 2020


About the contributor

Simon Winder is the author of The Man Who Saved Britain, a book about James Bond’s peculiar place in the British imagination, and a trilogy on the history of German-speakers and their neighbours: Germania, Danubia and Lotharingia.

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