The second chapter from H.G. Wells’ book The New Machiavelli published in 1911 seems very familiar.
I understand that this chapter led to publisher Frank Palmer asking Wells to write more about this area of boys’ games and celebrated uncles. This eventually became an illustrated article in the Strand Magazine and eventually a whole book of Floor Games in 1911. This book was followed in late 1912 by two magazine articles in Windsor Magazine that became Little Wars in mid 1913.
You can read The New Machiavelli in full here:
I have broken up the large blocks of text with my own paragraphs or sections.
Important to read the ‘I’ of the following as both a fictional character, the first person narrator Richard (‘ Master Dick’ or ‘Rich’) Remington but based on Wells’ own play with his two sons which led to Floor Games.
The childhood games room setting in the novel is not quite the comfortable cork tile carpet floored of the day nursery of Little Wars or Floor Games.
Floor Games (Dec 1911) can be read for free here with its illustrations:
Little Wars (1913) can be read for free here with its illustrations:
Compare them with this chapter –
H.G. Wells, The New Machiavelli (1911)
CHAPTER THE SECOND ~~ BROMSTEAD AND MY FATHER
I dreamt first of states and cities and political things when I was a little boy in knickerbockers.
When I think of how such things began in my mind, there comes back to me the memory of an enormous bleak room with its ceiling going up to heaven and its floor covered irregularly with patched and defective oilcloth and a dingy mat or so and a “surround” as they call it, of dark stained wood.
Here and there against the wall are trunks and boxes. There are cupboards on either side of the fireplace and bookshelves with books above them, and on the wall and rather tattered is a large yellow-varnished geological map of the South of England.
Over the mantel is a huge lump of white coral rock and several big fossil bones, and above that hangs the portrait of a brainy gentleman, sliced in half and displaying an interior of intricate detail and much vigour of coloring. It is the floor I think of chiefly; over the oilcloth of which, assumed to be land, spread towns and villages and forts of wooden bricks; there are steep square hills (geologically, volumes of Orr’s CYCLOPAEDIA OF THE SCIENCES) and the cracks and spaces of the floor and the bare brown surround were the water channels and open sea of that continent of mine.
I still remember with infinite gratitude the great-uncle to whom I owe my bricks. He must have been one of those rare adults who have not forgotten the chagrins and dreams of childhood.
Note: Wooden bricks, Celebrated Great Uncles or Uncles and out of work carpenters make it variously into Floor Games (1911) and Little Wars (1913).
He was a prosperous west of England builder; including my father he had three nephews, and for each of them he caused a box of bricks to be made by an out-of-work carpenter, not the insufficient supply of the toyshop, you understand, but a really adequate quantity of bricks made out of oak and shaped and smoothed, bricks about five inches by two and a half by one, and half-bricks and quarter-bricks to correspond.
There were hundreds of them, many hundreds. I could build six towers as high as myself with them, and there seemed quite enough for every engineering project I could undertake. I could build whole towns with streets and houses and churches and citadels; I could bridge every gap in the oilcloth and make causeways over crumpled spaces (which I feigned to be morasses), and on a keel of whole bricks it was possible to construct ships to push over the high seas to the remotest port in the room. And a disciplined population, that rose at last by sedulous begging on birthdays and all convenient occasions to well over two hundred, of lead sailors and soldiers, horse, foot and artillery, inhabited this world.
Justice has never been done to bricks and soldiers by those who write about toys. The praises of the toy theatre have been a common theme for essayists, the planning of the scenes, the painting and cutting out of the cast, penny plain twopence coloured, the stink and glory of the performance and the final conflagration.
See my blog post about RLS, his famous essay on Toy Theatre, Penny Plain and Tuppence Coloured, H.G. Wells and his circle …
I had such a theatre once, but I never loved it nor hoped for much from it; my bricks and soldiers were my perpetual drama. I recall an incessant variety of interests. There was the mystery and charm of the complicated buildings one could make, with long passages and steps and windows through which one peeped into their intricacies, and by means of slips of card one could make slanting ways in them, and send marbles rolling from top to base and thence out into the hold of a waiting ship.
Then there were the fortresses and gun emplacements and covered ways in which one’s soldiers went. And there was commerce; the shops and markets and store-rooms full of nasturtium seed, thrift seed, lupin beans and suchlike provender from the garden; such stuff one stored in match-boxes and pill-boxes, or packed in sacks of old glove fingers tied up with thread and sent off by waggons along the great military road to the beleaguered fortress on the Indian frontier beyond the worn places that were dismal swamps. And there were battles on the way.
That great road is still clear in my memory. I was given, I forget by what benefactor, certain particularly fierce red Indians of lead—I have never seen such soldiers since—and for these my father helped me to make tepees of brown paper, and I settled them in a hitherto desolate country under the frowning nail-studded cliffs of an ancient trunk. Then I conquered them and garrisoned their land. (Alas! they died, no doubt through contact with civilisation—one my mother trod on—and their land became a wilderness again and was ravaged for a time by a clockwork crocodile of vast proportions.) And out towards the coal-scuttle was a region near the impassable thickets of the ragged hearthrug where lived certain china Zulus brandishing spears, and a mountain country of rudely piled bricks concealing the most devious and enchanting caves and several mines of gold and silver paper.
Among these rocks a number of survivors from a Noah’s Ark made a various, dangerous, albeit frequently invalid and crippled fauna, and I was wont to increase the uncultivated wildness of this region further by trees of privet-twigs from the garden hedge and box from the garden borders. By these territories went my Imperial Road carrying produce to and fro, bridging gaps in the oilcloth, tunnelling through Encyclopaedic hills—one tunnel was three volumes long—defended as occasion required by camps of paper tents or brick blockhouses, and ending at last in a magnificently engineered ascent to a fortress on the cliffs commanding the Indian reservation.
With such an enthusiastic and detailed description, it is easy to here to remember J.R. Sinclair’s marvellous marginal line drawings and also the photographs in Floor Games and Little Wars. Note Celebrated Uncles bridge!
My games upon the floor must have spread over several years and developed from small beginnings, incorporating now this suggestion and now that. They stretch, I suppose, from seven to eleven or twelve. I played them intermittently, and they bulk now in the retrospect far more significantly than they did at the time. I played them in bursts, and then forgot them for long periods; through the spring and summer I was mostly out of doors, and school and classes caught me early. And in the retrospect I see them all not only magnified and transfigured, but fore-shortened and confused together.
A clockwork railway, I seem to remember, came and went; one or two clockwork boats, toy sailing ships that, being keeled, would do nothing but lie on their beam ends on the floor; a detestable lot of cavalrymen, undersized and gilt all over, given me by a maiden aunt, and very much what one might expect from an aunt, that I used as Nero used his Christians to ornament my public buildings; and I finally melted some into fratricidal bullets, and therewith blew the rest to flat splashes of lead by means of a brass cannon in the garden.
I find this empire of the floor much more vivid and detailed in my memory now than many of the owners of the skirts and legs and boots that went gingerly across its territories. Occasionally, alas! they stooped to scrub, abolishing in one universal destruction the slow growth of whole days of civilised development. I still remember the hatred and disgust of these catastrophes. Like Noah I was given warnings. Did I disregard them, coarse red hands would descend, plucking garrisons from fortresses and sailors from ships, jumbling them up in their wrong boxes, clumsily so that their rifles and swords were broken, sweeping the splendid curves of the Imperial Road into heaps of ruins, casting the jungle growth of Zululand into the fire.
“Well, Master Dick,” the voice of this cosmic calamity would say, “you ought to have put them away last night. No! I can’t wait until you’ve sailed them all away in ships. I got my work to do, and do it I will.”
And in no time all my continents and lands were swirling water and swiping strokes of house-flannel.
That was the worst of my giant visitants, but my mother too, dear lady, was something of a terror to this microcosm. She wore spring-sided boots, a kind of boot now vanished, I believe, from the world, with dull bodies and shiny toes, and a silk dress with flounces that were very destructive to the more hazardous viaducts of the Imperial Road. She was always, I seem to remember, fetching me; fetching me for a meal, fetching me for a walk or, detestable absurdity! fetching me for a wash and brush up, and she never seemed to understand anything whatever of the political Systems across which she came to me.
Also she forbade all toys on Sundays except the bricks for church-building and the soldiers for church parade, or a Scriptural use of the remains of the Noah’s Ark mixed up with a wooden Swiss dairy farm. But she really did not know whether a thing was a church or not unless it positively bristled with cannon, and many a Sunday afternoon have I played Chicago (with the fear of God in my heart) under an infidel pretence that it was a new sort of ark rather elaborately done.
Chicago, I must explain, was based upon my father’s description of the pig slaughterings in that city and certain pictures I had seen. You made your beasts—which were all the ark lot really, provisionally conceived as pigs—go up elaborate approaches to a central pen, from which they went down a cardboard slide four at a time, and dropped most satisfyingly down a brick shaft, and pitter-litter over some steep steps to where a head slaughterman (Mr. Noah) strung a cotton loop round their legs and sent them by pin hooks along a wire to a second slaughterman with a chipped foot (formerly Mrs. Noah) who, if I remember rightly, converted them into Army sausage by means of a portion of the inside of an old alarum clock.
My mother did not understand my games, but my father did. He wore bright-coloured socks and carpet slippers when he was indoors—my mother disliked boots in the house—and he would sit down on my little chair and survey the microcosm on the floor with admirable understanding and sympathy.
It was he who gave me most of my toys and, I more than suspect, most of my ideas. “Here’s some corrugated iron,” he would say, “suitable for roofs and fencing,” and hand me a lump of that stiff crinkled paper that is used for packing medicine bottles. Or, “Dick, do you see the tiger loose near the Imperial Road?—won’t do for your cattle ranch.” And I would find a bright new lead tiger like a special creation at large in the world, and demanding a hunting expedition and much elaborate effort to get him safely housed in the city menagerie beside the captured dragon crocodile, tamed now, and his key lost and the heart and spring gone out of him.
And to the various irregular reading of my father I owe the inestimable blessing of never having a boy’s book in my boyhood except those of Jules Verne. But my father used to get books for himself and me from the Bromstead Institute, Fenimore Cooper and Mayne Reid and illustrated histories; one of the Russo-Turkish war and one of Napier’s expedition to Abyssinia I read from end to end; Stanley and Livingstone, lives of Wellington, Napoleon and Garibaldi, and back volumes of PUNCH, from which I derived conceptions of foreign and domestic politics it has taken years of adult reflection to correct.
And at home permanently we had Wood’s NATURAL HISTORY, a brand-new illustrated Green’s HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH PEOPLE, Irving’s COMPANIONS OF COLUMBUS, a great number of unbound parts of some geographical work, a VOYAGE ROUND THE WORLD I think it was called, with pictures of foreign places, and Clarke’s NEW TESTAMENT with a map of Palestine, and a variety of other informing books bought at sales.
There was a Sowerby’s BOTANY also, with thousands of carefully tinted pictures of British plants, and one or two other important works in the sitting-room. I was allowed to turn these over and even lie on the floor with them on Sundays and other occasions of exceptional cleanliness.
And in the attic I found one day a very old forgotten map after the fashion of a bird’s-eye view, representing the Crimea, that fascinated me and kept me for hours navigating its waters with a pin.
End of chapter two of The New Machiavelli H.G. Wells (1911)
I have not read the whole 400+ pages but I think that is the end of the Toy Soldier (i.e. interesting) bit. I put a few interesting phrases in italics.
My Thoughts on this chapter of The New Machiavelli
I wonder how autobiographical this detailed chapter is? The rest of the book is heavily based on the events of his adult life at the time. According to Wikipedia:
The novel’s themes are politics and sex, both abiding preoccupations of the author. Biographer David Smith called The New Machiavelli “Wells’s most autobiographical novel”. (Wikipedia plot summary)
I wonder also whether the choice of named books means something for us to interpret about the character or the character’s father? The main character or first person Narrator, the ‘I’ of the book, Richard Remington is supposed to be an adult looking back accounting for his life and loves so far, a man:
“who has a lifelong passion for “statecraft” and who dreams of recasting the social and political form of the English nation.” (Wikipedia plot summary)
I find echoes of the diverse reading matter and intense Toy Soldier inspired games and juvenilia in the isolated but story and book rich household three Bronte sisters and brother Branwell.
The Wikipedia introduction / summary of the book mentions:
The New Machiavelli is a 1911 novel by Wells that was serialised in The English Review in 1910. Because its plot notoriously derived from Wells’s affair with Amber Reeves and satirised Beatrice and Sidney Webb, it was “the literary scandal of its day.”
The earliest first four editions of the Edwardian literary magazine The English Review in 1908-09 featured his novel Tono Bungay in four monthly parts before it was published as a book. Wells was obliviously used to serialising a book idea like Little Wars or Floor Games as articles in monthly journals before publishing them as a book.
I find a level of irony based on where it was probably written or completed, 1910/11 at Church Row, Hampstead not at his previous seaside home of Spade House in Sandgate, Folkestone in Kent. Wells is portraying an ideal of fathers and avuncular Celebrated Uncles in this chapter, as well as making public the games with his two young sons in Floor Games and Little Wars (either in magazine or book form).
However this guided walk around London entry outlines Wells’ “other family” and affairs that was developing at this time with young Fabian and feminist Amber Reeves (1887-1981), daughter of a New Zealand diplomat or politician , including the birth of an illegitimate daughter Anna Jane in late 1909.
The narrator of Wells’ The New Machiavelli also has echoes of the cheery and jocular tone of so many of the Edwardian satirical writers at the same time as Wells. Maybe with a hint of Dickens at his cheeriest too?
There is an echo of the cheeky sarcasm and patronising attitude especially to well-meaning uncomprehending women underlying Saki’s short story about toy figures, the Toys of Peace.
G. K. Chesterton the Edwardian writer apparently used to game with Wells. Bob Cordery wrote an interesting blog entry on GKC, Father Brown and ImagiNations http://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.com/2013/02/father-brown-and-german-imagi-nation.html
Chesterton even wrote a scene in his satirical comic novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) featuring an early Wargamer Mr Turnbull – one to come back to for another forthcoming blog post:
Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!
The Fabian Society Socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb pair are also gently mocked in Wells’ Toy Theatre plays with his literary friend G.K. Chesterton – https://manoftinblog.wordpress.com/2020/12/12/penny-plain-and-tuppence-coloured-rls-the-toy-theatre-of-war-and-early-wargaming
A glimpse into the Edwardian literary origins of Little Wars with Mr. H. G. Wells and friends.
In future weeks I will be exploring a bit more about some of the interesting men and women around in Wells’ life during the development of Floor Games and Little Wars.
Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, 15 January 2021