The History of Mr. Polly by H.G. Wells

Monday, Jun 20, 2011

H.G. Wells is best known for his works of science fiction but he also wrote domestic comic novels, one being The History of Mr. Polly. Like his author, Alfred Polly is born into the suburban lower-middle-class of early 20th century England , a class known for its conservatism, restrictiveness, and respectability. As a boy, Alfred attends a National School where he receives a poor education but at age thirteen, he discovers reading and its joys. Adventure stories and comics are his favorites. Then at fourteen, Alfred's father decides that his son needs to start earning a living so he is apprenticed to a gentlemen's outfitter (men's clothing store). Alfred drifts from job to job, bored and lonely. When his father dies, he inherits 355 pounds and gets a chance to start life anew. But all Alfred knows is shopkeeping so he marries his cousin, Miriam and buys a shop. Running a shop turns out to a disheartening occupation for Alfred and after fifteen years of a contentious marriage and a failing career, he decides to burn down his store and kill himself by cutting his throat with a razor. Disguising these two crimes as a single accident will ease Alfred's conscience because Miriam will receive the insurance money. But the "accident" does not go as planned. Alfred's fire spreads to the surrounding buildings, he finds that a razor cut is amazingly painful and his trousers catch fire. Alfred ends up rescuing his neighbor's ancient mother and becoming a hero. Alfred leaves Miriam with the fire insurance money while he slips away, going "on the tramp". He comes to rest at Potwell Inn where he does odd jobs for the landlady and defends her from her bullying nephew. In the end, Mr. Polly has found the courage to escape from a deadening domestic life. "If the world does not please you," he declares, "you can change it" -- a philosophy that H.G. Wells shared.

Written by Leslie L.