HG Wells and Me
I recently attended a balloon debate in which I had to promote a favourite short story in order to stay in an imagined rapidly deflating balloon, and just came across the notes I made for the case of HG Wells’ story ‘The Door In The Wall’ being voted to remain in. I won the debate, which was pleasing, and thought you might like to see the notes.
The Door In The Wall (1911)
My first instinct was to pick something a bit naughty, a bit modern and cheeky. But then I thought about touchstones, those things in your life that remain forever. And I came to this story, which I first read as a child. It’s a small story about a big thing – life.
The start of the 20th century was a glorious time to be writing short stories. There were lots of publishing outlets, and they weren’t divided into neat demographic groups as they are today. You could write a futuristic romance or a nostalgic ghost story, a fantasy thriller or a surrealist comedy from a male or female viewpoint and still find an audience.
My chosen author is HG Wells. It was one of his last short stories because he was starting to see that the market was controlling what he wrote, and he no longer felt comfortable producing short fiction. So it’s a valedictory story, and all the more profound for being so.
The tale is called ‘The Door In The Wall’. Its sixteen pages hold within them an entire life, from innocence to experience, love and loss, hope and regret, closure and a hint of paradise. Let’s deal with one cavil; it’s that maligned beast, on the surface it’s a white middle-class middle-aged male story – and yet it’s not at all. It’s a story that could and should be appreciated by everyone in the world.
Albert Camus once said that the whole of our adult life is an attempt to recover the first images that gained access to our souls. And that’s Wells’ theme here.
The hero is a man called Lionel Wallace, a successful Edwardian gentleman living in Kensington. He tells his old friend Redmond of the inexplicable events which have dogged him all his life, starting when he was five years old. Lionel is on his way home from school when he discovers a scruffy street, and a green door in a white wall surrounded by vines.
He doesn’t know why, but he goes through the door and finds two spotted panthers, parrots, an exotic garden, a pretty girl, a capuchin money. An older lady takes him into the house and shows him a book where each page has moving images from his life. When he tries to see the future he ends up back on the street.
And so he goes home to the grey reality of English life.
Then, one day on the way to school he sees the door again. But he’s late, so he doesn’t stop. He’ll get into trouble. But he tells his friends, and they demand to see this incredible place, but when he takes them there he can’t remember the name of the street. And he can’t find the door anywhere.
Time passes. He’s now seventeen, on his way to Oxford and a scholarship. In the cab, smoking a cigarette, and there it is – the door – but it’s his first day, so he sends the cabman onwards. He has a more important door to deal with, the door to his career is opening.
Lionel falls in and out of love, advances his career in politics, becomes successful, and throughout his life he sees the door every now and again – it seems to move about, from Campden Hill to Earl’s Court – but every time he sees it, he is not in a position to stop and go through it. One night he’s heading to the reading of a parliamentary bill and there it is again, before his car headlights. But if he stops the bill will be lost, so on he goes into parliament.
And again, the door offers itself up again!
Heartbroken, empty, having told his friend his story, Lionel goes home. A few days later his body is found at the bottom of a deep excavation – they’re building a railway extension through London – behind a white hoarding with a small door cut in it. And his friend Redmond wonders. Was Lionel on his way home late from parliament, did he think he’d found the door? Did it ever even exist?
And did he somehow discover paradise once and for all time?