Tono-Bungay is very possibly H. G. Wells' finest novel, bringing together so many strands of his work: that of the novelist, the scientific romancer, the humorist, the historian, and the prophet-like sociologist. It was published in 1909, and although Wells was disappointed by its poor sales, Arnold Bennett praised it thus: "When with the thrill of emotion that a great work communicates I finished reading Tono-Bungay, I was filled with a holy joy because Wells had stirred up the dregs again and more violently than ever.... Human nature - you get it pretty complete in Tono-Bungay."
George Ponderevo is the novel's first person narrator, his mother the housekeeper of Bladesover House, a great country house in Sussex, that Wells uses throughout the novel to embody the decline of England, its certainties and its values. Tono-Bungay is Dickensian in stature, broad in its social panorama, taking George from childhood in the 1860s, to Chatham in Kent, to teeming London, to Africa and France: His life unfolds warts and all, as he rubs shoulders with every class, goes to live with his aunt and uncle, a Wimblehurst chemist, who goes on to invent a patent medicine of dubious efficacy, that he names, for no obvious reason, Tono-Bungay.
George goes up to London to study, falls in love, goes to work for his increasingly wealthy uncle, abandons academia, marries, returns to the study of aeronautics (theory and practice), eventually attempting to dig the crumbling family business out of a very deep hole, by prospecting illegally for a nastily radioactive substance called quap on Mordet Island, and even attempting a moonlit flit in the Lord Roberts beta flying machine. George Ponderevo is a mass of contradictions, seeking truth in science, truth in romance, mourning the passing of old England, chasing the new and the novel.
Public Domain (P)2016 Greg Wagland
Tono Bungay is the odd name (picked out of a hat?) of a patent medicine developed by one of the characters in this "social novel" by HG Wells. It makes the inventor a tremendous fortune - for awhile. But in some ways it's more of a MacGuffin - a plot device - than anything else. The novel really isn't about Tono Bungay; mainly it's about the effect of sudden wealth on his main character (and narrator), George Ponderevo.
(If this were one of Wells's science fiction novels, Tono Bungay would turn out to have miraculous healing powers. But this one takes place in the real world.)
George was the son of a housekeeper on the Bladesover estate. As he grows up, he meets and falls in love with Beatrice, the laird's daughter. Only much later he learns that she'd fallen in love with him as well; but their class differences would have ruled out a marriage anyway.
George's life takes a different turn. He works for his uncle, a pharmacist, who invents a snake oil product that turns out to be surprisingly successful - the result, thinks the uncle, of combining a benign product with skillful advertising. George shares in his uncle's growing wealth. They move repeatedly, each time to a bigger estate. George marries Marion, a woman he doesn't love; has a passionate affair with a secretary; gets a divorce; makes another failed bid for Beatrice's hand, this time from a position of wealth - but not class - equal to her own.
He isn't an especially appealing character. He's nice enough in the beginning, and clever; he uses his wealth to finance his interest in balloons and gliders, his designs becoming more grandiose with each iteration. But he also uses people, and his efforts to save his uncle's business, once it begins failing, takes him into some dark moral territory indeed.
The first two-thirds of the novel is mostly all narration. Dialogue does break out from time to time, but usually only for a line or two. This sounds like a recipe for boredom, but George is a charming and delightful narrator (if not human being), and I found myself completely absorbed in the story. In the latter part of the novel, the scenes become longer, the conflicts more intense, the characters more sharply drawn. (It does, unfortunately, have a very preachy epilogue, but it's not a long one.)
Greg Wagland is a really good narrator of Wells. He's done other writers as well, including several volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, but Wells seems to be a special project of his. I enjoyed his performance and recommend the book. Some critics apparently compared it to Dickens: I wouldn't go that far; it doesn't have Dickens' brio. But it does have an array of highly individualized characters and a morally dubious narrator.
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