Those who are only familiar with H.G. Wells’ science fiction or militant socialism will be surprised by this gentle, humorous little book, and for those who have never read Wells at all, it is a good introduction to an author who can be a little inaccessible on occasion. Largely autobiographical, it follows the trials and tribulations of Alfred Polly, a lower middle-class shopkeeper with an untutored fascination for literature and an overly creative approach to the English language. This is Wells in relatively mellow middle age, and it is a revelation.
The book relates the story of Mr Polly’s apprenticeship, marriage, stint as a shopkeeper and eventual liberation from the stifling petit-bourgeois constraints of his life with warmth, humour and perception. It is very hard to create a humorous character with the fullness and reality of Mr Polly, but Wells shows himself to be more than equal to the task. Wells, who worked himself as an apprentice draper, knows whereof he writes, and invests it with detail and characters, such as Mr Polly’s friend Parsons with his belief in “Joy de Vive”, that are worthy of Dickens. Mr. Polly’s childlike joy in books, capacity for surviving a large number of disappointments, and irascibility, along with a fundamentally well-meaning disposition, make him a brilliant literary creation. Comic highlights are dispersed throughout the book, as well as charmingly bucolic descriptions of the natural environment. The book provides an interesting insight into a usually hidden aspect of its author’s character, and it radiates a gentle optimism and belief in the solace of companionship. It is a delightful novel for the long winter evenings. --Isabel Taylor