The Time Traveller

The title essay from the book

ISBN 973-557-471-3

published by Porto Franco in 1998

also published by the H.G. Wells Society

in February, 2003.

My memory of that day is forever bound up with two images: the sunlight bouncing off the brilliant white of the coalshed wall, and the fleur-de-lis pattern on the cover of the book that I held in my hands.

It had been the appearance of the book that had first drawn me towards it on the public library shelves. I had vaguely heard of H.G. Wells, and of course the title, The Time Machine, was inviting enough, but it had been something about the volume itself that had made me pass over reading material judged more suitable for a nine-year-old.

At all events, I now proudly held Wells' novel, its cover subtly glossed by many hands before mine, and was pleased at the prospect of an hour or so for undisturbed reading.

Already I had read the greater part of the book. Already I felt that I knew all about the golden people, the Eloi, and their shadowy counterparts, the Morlocks. And, although I shuddered with the Time Traveller when the troglodytes brought nightly terror to the fairer race, already I was beginning to see that their relationship was not quite the playground one of 'goodies' and 'baddies'.

The coalshed belonged to the home of my friend. I had brought the book to his house, intending to convey some of its magic to him - a task, incidentally, to which I felt far more equal at that young age than I do now. As it turned out, he had been despatched on some parental errand. So I finished the book, leaning against the whitewashed wall. There it was that I discovered what was for me the real heart of Wells' masterpiece, though I am sure that the author himself intended it to be no more than a pendant.

The Time Traveller had left behind the divided society of 802,701 and voyaged onward to a time when a desolate Earth, under a bloated and dying red sun, was home only to sinister crustacea. Wells' description of this scene - the thin chill air, the indigo sky, the sombre beach lapped by an oily sea - is nothing less than brilliant.

As I read I willed the Time Traveller not to go further into this dire future. But I could not put the book down; I simply had to see him through his terrible, wonderful adventure. Although somewhere at the fringe of my consciousness I was aware of the reassuring solidity of the coalshed wall and the sunlight that bathed me, the real world for me on that summer's day was the one created within the fleur-de-lis covers of the book.

Just four years later I had the occasion to meet this man who broke all the boring laws of physics again. This time it was in a classroom. The Time Traveller had been chosen as one of our set books for the year.

I looked forward to the prospect. The story was still vivid in my mind, and I hoped to coast through the inevitable homework on the strength of this. And of course I was glad to renew my acquaintance with the marvellous worlds that Wells had opened to my imagination.

We had a good English Literature teacher. He had a deep, resonant voice that echoed pleasingly through the passages he chose to read - he may have been a frustrated Shakespearean actor, or maybe even a successful one because he left at the end of that year. He took great pains to explore with us meanings and nuances which may otherwise have remained hidden from our young minds. He explained to us that no modern author would dare to begin a novel with the dinner-party device used by Wells to frame his story. He made us see that Wells' turn of phrase, charming though it remained, was already starting to sound archaic; that the extended descriptions that the writer delighted to employ belonged to the late nineteenth rather than mid twentieth century.

We, his dutiful class, wrote essays on the character of the Time Traveller, the Medical Man, and the other minor personages at the dinner party. We were pointed towards some incompleteness or unbelievability in Weena and the other members of the Eloi and the suggestion was made that this was inevitable, given the nature of the story. We were asked to consider whether Wells was trying to convey any social message in writing as he did.

We were introduced to the techniques that we would need a year or two later in the examination hall. We learned to present our answers to questions in just the right way. By the end of term there was no doubt that our critical faculties had been markedly improved.

In short, our conscientious, efficient, and very likeable teacher had slowly and clinically removed the magic from Wells' story and painstakingly started to replace it with an appreciation of Literature, with a capital 'L'.

I have never quite forgiven him for that.


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