H.G. Wells's Tono-Bungay was serialized in The English Review (under the editorship of Ford Madox Ford) in four installments from December 1908 to March 1909. In the serialization, Tono-Bungay was subtitled "A Romance of Commerce." According to Bernard Bergonzi, it was H.G. Wells's attempt at a "large-scale novel, of Victorian capaciousness, that could incorporate the various strands of his literary and intellectual interests: science fiction, realism, comedy, sociological analysis." Indeed, Wells, already famed for his prolific writings ranging from scientific romance to sociological essays, wished to write what the public would consider a more "serious" novel. As his 1914 essay, "The Contemporary Novel" bears out, Wells saw the novel as a serious form which ought to be discursively rich and which brought forth discussion of contemporary problems.
Both Ford and D.H. Lawrence would recognize Wells's grand endeavor, though the preface to the 1925 Atlantic edition gives that though "the writer is disposed to regard it as the finest and most finished novel upon the accepted lines that he has written or is ever likely to write," "[i]t's reception disappointed him." Wells felt that his magnum opus had only received "moderate success on both sides of the Atlantic."
Tono-Bungay is told through a first-person narrator, George Penderevo, who tells the story of his uncle's and his own rise and fall from commercial success. From the start, George confesses that he is no trained novelist, and that his account is to be irregular -- simply, he says that he has "an unusual series of impressions that I want very urgently to tell." Indeed the work contains temporal disjunctions (non-chronological, retrospective jumps in narration), and the narrative threads (as promised), seem to be taken up in fits and starts,as it occurs to the narrator. The work is divided into four books centering on the product, Tono-Bungay, which first led to Uncle Penderevo's rise in economic fortunes: "The Days Before Tono-Bungay Was Invented," "The Rise of Tono-Bungay," "The Great Days of Tono-Bungay," and "The Aftermath of Tono-Bungay."
The narrative begins with George's panorama of Bladeshover, the countryside place where he grew up. Bladesover is tightly ordered socially, with clear hierarchies. As the son of a housekeeper, one of the foremost episodes of his childhood was an incident with one of a higher class, Beatrice, with whom he falls in love as a child. Beatrice's snooty half brother Archie fights with George after taunting him for his lower class, and the result is that George's mother sends him away to live with his Uncle Frapp, a poor baker in Chatham. The squalid conditions at Chatham leads George to run away, and return to Bladesover. His mom then sends him to Wimblehurst to be apprenticed to Uncle Penderovo, a chemist who has many half-baked schemes for money-making and greatness. George's placement with his uncle and aunt becomes permanent when his mother dies soon afterwards. Uncle Penderovo's speculations in the stock market lead to his momentary downfall, and he and his wife, George's aunt, must leave for London, leaving George behind with the chemist's shop and its new owner. Eventually, George visits the in London, planning to matriculate in a university. His first impressions of London, however, are of its dinginess and seeming chaos. It is during this visit that he first hears his uncle remark something about "Tono-Bungay."
George's later impressions of London indicate his sense that the traditions of Bladesover in fact existed there, though in more hidden ways. Once he lives there, George catches up with childhood fellow Ewart (an artist) who teaches him, among other things, about how not to think in conventional or commonplace ways, and of movements like socialism. Under such an expansion of his mind, he becomes idealistic and feels that he must make an impact on the world. In London, George also falls in love with Marion, with whom he eventually has a failed marriage. Meanwhile, George gets restless with his studies, and despite his reservations about his uncle's work, decides to accept an offer of 300 pounds a year to work with him on his new product, Tono-Bungay. His moral qualms about the product and selling a quack item for higher than it is worth are cast aside when Marion agrees to marry him if he gets 500 pounds a year. George and his uncle work together to make the product "hum," and their clever advertising leads to some real commercial successes. Ewart analogizes modern commerce to poetry in its creation of values by means of words--in advertising, saying that something is valuable makes it so. After George marries Marion, and soon they are miserable; George claims that they differ in their aesthetic sensibilities, George imagining himself a person with much greater depth than Marion. Eventually, George cheats on Marion with a typist named Effie, precipitating their separation and finally, divorce. In the midst of this failure in marriage, George feels increasingly restless about the business and takes up aeronautics on the side.
This section is an account of how he and his uncle became "big people" through buying shares of other companies and fully taking over others. A product mined from West Africa called "quap" becomes particularly interesting to them because unbeknownst to their business partner, quap contains a chemical needed for making a recently patented product known as the "ideal filament." There is a sense, all the while, that the bubble of his uncle's astronomic rise will burst. Here, the narrative breaks and retrospectively tells of the social ascendancy of George's uncle and aunt: they go from a house in Beckenham to buying up an old mansion known as Lady Grove, and then finally settling on building a new, modern place at Crest Hill. Their social progression from Lady Grove to Crest Hill is the story of their embrace and imitation of old money style, to their rejection of old money style and attempt to discover something more modern for themselves. Filled with a new confidence, George's uncle imagines himself as a kind of Napoleon, and influenced by this image, has an affair with a journalist. George's aunt refuses to play the victim and puts him in his place. As all of this is happening, George treats his aeronautical experiments more and more seriously, as something scientific and more "real" than business and advertising. He fortuitously reconnects with Beatrice, who has come to Lady Grove. When George is injured in a crash, Beatrice nurses him back to health and he asks her to marry him. She refuses but doesn't say why, although she admits that she loves him. George's budding romance with Beatrice is interrupted when he must go off to West Africa to fetch quap in order to save his uncle's plummeting finances: apparently, he is close to bankruptcy. In a short episode of commercial imperialism, George murders a man, fetches the quap, and then on his way back, his ship sinks because the radioactivity of quap has rotted away the ship. George and his men are rescued by a liner, and upon George's return, he discovers through reading the newspapers that his uncle has met financial ruin and may be arrested for forgery charges.
In order to get his uncle away from England, George flies his uncle to France, where he dies pathetically. The press is after him, meanwhile. George has a brief period of making love to Beatrice when he returns, but she tells him she's with a Lord Carnaby and that they should just enjoy the moment, and that she has been "spoiled" by wealth and that they could never make the everyday work, with him a "ruined man" and herself "spoiled." Tono-Bungay ends with a rather poetic chapter in which George describes how he floats down the Thames with a destroyer known as X2 which he has built.
David Lodge has influentially labeled Tono-Bungay a "Condition of England" novel, a term coined to describe later Victorian novels concerned with social issues and reform in their scope. According to Lodge, Tono-Bungay draws more unity than might be revealed from a first reading from a number of patterns and metaphors (rather than the more "usual" unity of plot or narrative chronology). Lodge picks up on the notion of "panorama" which begins and ends the novel to suggest that the novel as a whole is meant as a kind of panoramic social landscape of England.
Bergonzi acknowledges this same sense of purpose in Wells's novels, but critiques the story for concentrating too much on the public, social, historic landscape at the expense of developing individual characters. The rather flat individuals seem not to really fit into the rich social landscape which Wells has sought to paint. It seems that contemporary Henry James had a similar reaction, crediting Wells with rich inventiveness but at the expense of aesthetic discipline.
I think that the first-person narrator poses an interesting problem to reading Tono-Bungay as arising from the "Condition of England" tradition. What happens when the social landscape is self-consciously painted by a self-proclaimed, limited first-person narrator rather than the more familiarly omniscient narrator of the Victorian realist novel? One of the first considerations ought to be, it seems, to what extent irony might be detected in the gap between Wells and the narrator, George. Many critics don't credit Wells with irony, citing autobiographical features as evidence of reading George as collapsed into Wells. While I tend to agree that there is not enough irony for George to not be sympathetic to the reader, there is necessarily some ironic distance created by George's incredibly self-conscious attempt to write a "Condition of England" panorama, claiming a sort of specialized status, having inhabited various different levels of social status.
This inevitable ironic distance created by Wells styling such an obviously unreliable first-person narrator gives the impression of Tono-Bungay as some kind of experimental genre, which seems deeply tentative about its own success. The original subtitle attached to the serial, "A Romance of Commerce," seems to substantiate the reading of Tono-Bungay as an attempt to adapt an older form to new, modern conditions as Lodge suggests; ironic distance, however, would seem to signal that Wells's attempt is an self-consciously tentative and experimental one, a much more open and hence intentionally "undisciplined" one.